Russian Folk-Tales/Vasilísa the Fair
VASILÍSA THE FAIR
Once upon a time there was a merchant who had been married for twelve years and had only one daughter, Vasilísa the Fair. When her mother died the girl was eight years old. On her death-bed the mother called the maiden to her, took a doll out of her counterpane, said: "Vasilísushka, hear my last words. I am dying, and I will leave you my mother's blessing and this doll. Keep this doll always by you, but show it to nobody, and no misfortune can befall you. Give it food and ask it for advice. After it has eaten, it will tell you how to avoid your evil." Then the wife kissed her daughter and died.
After the wife's death the merchant mourned as it behoved, and then he thought of a second wife. He was a handsome man and found many brides, but he liked one widow more than any one. She was no longer young, and had two daughters of about the same age as Vasilísa. So she was an experienced housewife and mother. The merchant married her, but he had made a mistake, for she was no good mother to his own daughter.
Vasilísa was the fairest damsel in the entire village, and the stepmother and the sisters envied her therefore. And they used to torture her by piling all the work they could on her, that she might grow thin and ugly, and might be tanned by the wind and the sun. And the child lived a hard life. Vasilísa, however, did all her work without complaining, and always grew more beautiful and plumper, while the stepmother and her daughters, out of sheer spite, grew thinner and uglier. Yet there they sat all day long with their hands folded, just like fine ladies. How could this be?
It was the doll that had helped Vasilísa. Without her the maiden could never have done her task. Vasilísa often ate nothing herself, and kept the tastiest morsels for the doll; and when at night they had all gone to bed, she used to lock herself up in her cellaret below, give the doll food to eat, and say, "Dollet, eat and listen to my misery. I am living in my father's house, and my lot is hard. My evil stepmother is torturing me out of the white world. Teach me what I must do in order to bear this life."
Then the doll gave her good advice, consoled her, and did all her morning's work for her. Vasilísa was told to go walking, plucking flowers; and all her flower-beds were done in time, all the coal was brought in, and the water-jugs carried in, and the hearthstone was hot. Further, the doll taught her herb-lore; so, thanks to her doll, she had a merry life; and the years went by.
Vasilísa grew up, and all the lads in the village sought her. But the stepmother's daughters nobody would look at; and the stepmother grew more evil than ever and answered all her suitors: "I will not give my eldest daughter before I give the elders." So she sent all the bargainers away, and to show how pleased she was, rained blows on Vasilísa.
One day the merchant had to go away on business for a long time; so the stepmother in the meantime went over to a new house near a dense, slumbrous forest. In the forest there was a meadow, and on the meadow there was a hut, and in the hut Bába Yagá lived, who would not let anybody in, and ate up men as though they were poultry. Whilst she was moving, the stepmother sent her hated stepdaughter into the wood, but she always came back perfectly safe, for the doll showed her the way by which she could avoid Bába Yagá's hut.
So one day the harvest season came and the stepmother gave all three maidens their task for the evening: one was to make lace and the other to sew a stocking, and Vasilísa was to spin. Each was to do a certain amount. The mother put all the fires out in the entire house, and left only one candle burning where the maidens were at work, and herself went to sleep. The maidens worked on. The candle burned down, and one of the stepmother's daughters took the snuffers in order to cut down the wick. But the stepmother had told her to put the light out as though by accident.
"What is to be done now?" they said. "There is no fire in the house and our work is not finished. We must get a light from the Bába Yagá."
"I can see by the needles," said the one who was making lace.
"I also am not going," said the second, "for my knitting needles give me light enough. You must go and get some fire. Go to the Bába Yagá! " And they turned Vasilísa out of the room.
And Vasilísa went to her room, put meat and drink before her doll, and said: "Dolly dear, eat it and listen to my complaint. They are sending me to Bába Yagá for fire, and the Bába Yagá will eat me up."
Then the Dollet ate, and her eyes glittered like two lamps, and she said: "Fear nothing, Vasilísushka. Do what they say, only take me with you. As long as I am with you Bába Yagá can do you no harm." Vasilísa put the doll into her pocket, crossed herself, and went tremblingly into the darksome forest.
Suddenly a knight on horseback galloped past her all in white. His cloak was white, and his horse and the reins: and it became light. She went further, and suddenly another horseman passed by, who was all in red, and his horse was red, and his clothes: and the sun rose, Vasilísa went on through the night and the next day. Next evening she came to the mead where Bába Yagá's hut stood. The fence round the hut consisted of human bones, and on the stakes skeletons glared out of their empty eyes. And, instead of the doorways and the gate, there were feet, and in the stead of bolts there were hands, and instead of the lock there was a mouth with sharp teeth. And Vasilísa was stone-cold with fright.
Suddenly another horseman pranced by on his way. He was all in black, on a jet-black horse, with a jet-black cloak. He sprang to the door and vanished as though the earth had swallowed him up: and it was night. But the darkness did not last long, for the eyes in all the skeletons on the fence glistened, and it became as light as day all over the green.
Vasilísa trembled with fear, but remained standing, for she did not know how she could escape. Suddenly a terrible noise was heard in the forest, and the tree-boughs creaked and the dry leaves crackled. And out of the wood Bába Yagá drove in inside the mortar with the pestle, and with the broom swept away every trace of her steps. At the door she stopped, sniffed all the way round, and cried out:
"Fee, Fo, Fi, Fum, I smell the blood of a Russian mum!'
Who is there?"
Vasilísa, shuddering with dread, stepped up to her, bowed low to the ground, and said: "Mother, I am here. My stepmother's daughters sent me to you to ask for fire."
"Very well," said Bába Yagá: "I know them. Stay with me, work for me, and I will give you fire. Otherwise I shall eat you up."
Then she went to the door, and she cried out: "Ho! my strong bolts, draw back, my strong door, spring open!" And the door sprang open, and Bába Yagá went in whistling and whirring, and Vasilísa followed her.
Then the door closed, and Bába Yagá stretched herself in the room and said to Vasilísa: "Give me whatever there is in the oven. I am hungry."
So Vasilísa lit a splinter from the skulls on the hedge and fetched Bába Yagá food out of the oven, and there was food enough there for ten men. Out of a cellar she fetched kvas, mead, and wine. Bába Yagá ate and drank it all up. But all there was left for Vasilísa was a little of some kind of soup, and a crust of bread, and a snippet of pork.
Bába Yagá lay down to sleep and said: "In the morning, to-morrow, when I go away you must clean the courtyard, brush out the room, get dinner ready, do the washing, go to the field, get a quarter of oats, sift it all out, and see that it is all done before I come home. Otherwise I will eat you up."
And, as soon as ever she had given all the orders, she began snoring.
Vasilísa put the rest of the dinner in front of the doll and said: "Dollet, eat it up and listen to my woe. Heavy are the tasks which the Bába Yagá has given me, and she threatens to eat me up if I don't carry them all out. Help me!"
"Have no fear, Vasilísa, thou fair maiden. Eat, pray, and lie down to sleep, for the morning is wiser than the evening."
Very early next day Vasilísa woke up. Bába Yagá was already up and was looking out of the window. The glimmer in the eyes of the skulls had dimmed; the white horseman raced by: and it dawned. Bába Yagá went into the courtyard, and whistled, and the mortar, the pestle, and the besom appeared at once, and the red horseman came by: and the sun rose. Bába Yagá sat in the mortar and went by, thrusting the mortar with the pestle, and with the besom she removed every trace of her steps.
Vasilísa, left all by herself, looked over the house of the Bába Yagá, wondered at all the wealth gathered in, and began to consider what she should start with. But all the work was already done, and the doll had sifted out the very last of the ears of oats.
"Oh, my saviour!" said Vasilísa. "You have helped me in my great need."
"You now have only to get dinner ready," the doll answered, and clambered back into Vasilísa's pocket. "With God's help get it ready, and stay here quietly waiting."
In the evening Vasilísa laid the cloth and waited for Bába Yagá. The gloaming came, and the black horseman reached by: and it at once became dark, but the eyes in the skulls glowed. The trees shuddered, the leaves crackled, Bába Yagá drove in, and Vasilísa met her.
"Is it all done?" Bába Yagá asked.
"Yes, grandmother: look!" said Vasilísa.
Bába Yagá looked round everywhere, and was rather angry that she had nothing to find fault with and said: "Very well." Then she cried out: "Ye my faithful servants, friends of my heart! Store up my oats." Then three pairs of hands appeared, seized the oats and carried them off.
Bába Yagá had her supper, and, before she went to sleep, once more commanded Vasilísa: "To-morrow do the same as you did to-day, but also take the hay which is lying on my field, clean it from every trace of soil, every single ear. Somebody has, out of spite, mixed earth with it."
And, as soon as she had said it, she turned round to the wall and was snoring.
Vasilísa at once fetched her doll, who ate, and said as the had the day before: "Pray and lie down to sleep, for the morning is wiser than the evening. Everything shall be done, Vasilísushka."
Next morning Bába Yagá got up and stood at the window, and then went into the courtyard and whistled; and the mortar, the besom, and the pestle appeared at once, and the red horseman came by: and the sun rose. Bába Yagá sat in the mortar and went off, sweeping away her traces as before.
Vasilísa got everything ready with the help of her doll. Then the old woman came back, looked over everything, and said: "Ho, my faithful servants, friends of my heart! Make me some poppy-oil." Then three pairs of hands came, laid hold of the poppies and carried them off.
Bába Yagá sat down to supper, and Vasilísa sat silently in front of her. "Why do you not speak; why do you stay there as if you were dumb?" Bába Yagá asked.
"I did not venture to say anything; but if I might, I should like to ask some questions."
"Ask, but not every question turns out well: too knowing is too old."
"Still, I should like to ask you of some things I saw. On my way to you I met a white horseman, in a white cloak, on a white horse: who was he?"
"The bright day."
"Then a red horseman, on a red horse, in a red cloak, overtook me: who was he?"
"The red sun."
"What is the meaning of the black horseman who overtook me as I reached your door, grandmother?"
"That was the dark night. Those are my faithful servants."
Vasilísa then thought of the three pairs of hands and said nothing.
"Why don't you ask any further?" Bába Yagá asked.
"I know enough, for you say yourself 'too knowing is too old.'"
"It is well you asked only about things you saw in the courtyard, and not about things without it, for I do not like people to tell tales out of school, and I eat up everybody who is too curious. But now I shall ask you, how did you manage to do all the work I gave you?"
"By my mother's blessing!"
"Ah, then, get off with you as fast as you can, blessed daughter; no one blessed may stay with me!"
So she turned Vasilísa out of the room and kicked her to the door, took a skull with the burning eyes from the fence, put it on a staff, gave it her and said, "Now you have fire for your stepmother's daughters, for that was why they sent you here."
Then Vasilísa ran home as fast as she could by the light of the skull; and the flash in it went out with the dawn.
By the evening of the next day she reached the house, and was going to throw the skull away, when she heard a hollow voice coming out of the skull and saying: "Do not throw me away. Bring me up to your stepmother's house." And she looked at her stepmother's house and saw that there was no light in any window, and decided to enter with the skull. She was friendlily received, and the sisters told her that ever since she had gone away they had had no fire; they were able to make none; and all they borrowed of their neighbours went out as soon as it came into the room.
"Possibly your fire may burn!" said the stepmother.
So they took the skull into the room, and the burning eyes looked into the stepmother's and the daughters' and singed their eyes out. Wherever they went, they could not escape it, for the eyes followed them everywhere, and in the morning they were all burned to cinders. Vasilísa alone was left alive.
Then Vasilísa buried the skull in the earth, locked the house up, and went into the town. And she asked a poor old woman to take her home and to give her food until her father came back; she said to the old woman, "Mother, sitting here idle makes me feel dull. Go and buy me some of the very best flax; I should like to spin."
So the old woman went and bought good flax. Vasilísa set herself to work, and the work went merrily along, and the skein was as smooth and as fine as hair, and when she had a great deal of yarn, no one would undertake the weaving, so she turned to her doll, who said: "Bring me some old comb from somewhere, some old spindle, some old shuttle, and some horse mane; and I will do it for you."
Vasilísa went to bed, and the doll in that night made a splendid spinning stool; and by the end of the winter all the linen had been woven, and it was so fine that it could be drawn like a thread through the eye of a needle. And in the spring they bleached the linen, and Vasilísa said to the old mistress: "Go and sell the cloth, and keep the money for yourself."
The old woman saw the cloth and admired it, and said: "Oh, my child! nobody except the Tsar could ever wear such fine linen; I will take it to Court."
The old woman went to the Tsar's palace, and kept walking up and down in front of it.
The Tsar saw her and said: "Oh, woman, what do you want?"
"Almighty Tsar, I am bringing you some wonderful goods, which I will show to nobody except you."
The Tsar ordered the old woman to be given audience, and as soon as ever he had seen the linen he admired it very much. "What do you want for it?" he asked her.
"It is priceless, Bátyushka," she said; "I will give it you as a present."
And the Tsar thought it over and sent her away with rich rewards.
Now the Tsar wanted to have shirts made out of this same linen, but he could not find any seamstress to undertake the work. And he thought for long, and at last he sent for the old woman again, and said: "If you can spin this linen and weave it, perhaps you can make a shirt out of it?"
"I cannot weave and spin the linen," said the old woman; "only a maiden can who is staying with me."
"Well, she may do the work."
So the woman went home and told Vasilísa everything.
"I knew that I should have to do the work!" said Vasilísa. And she locked herself up in her little room, set to work, and never put her hands again on her lap until she had sewn a dozen shirts.
The old woman brought the Tsar the shirts, and Vasilísa washed and combed herself, dressed herself, and sat down at the window, and waited. Then there came a henchman of the Tsar's, entered the room and said: "The Tsar would fain see the artist who has sewn him the shirts, and he wants to reward her with his own hands."
Vasilísa the Fair went to the Tsar. When he saw her, he fell deep in love with her. "No, fairest damsel; I will never part from you. You must be my wife."
So the Tsar took Vasilísa, with her white hands, put her next to him, and bade the bells ring for the wedding.
Vasilísa's father came back home, and was rejoiced at her good luck, and stayed with his daughter.
Vasilísa also took the old woman to live with her, and the doll ever remained in her pocket.
This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.