Vasilissa the Fair

In a certain realm there once lived a merchant. Although he had been married for twelve years, he had only one daughter, Vasilissa the Fair. When the maid was eight years old, her mother died. And as she lay dying, the merchant's wife called her little daughter to her, took a doll from under the coverlet and said, "Listen, dear Vasilissa. Remember and heed my last words. As I die I leave you this little doll with my blessing. Keep it with you always and do not show it to a soul. If you are ever in trouble, give the doll something to eat and ask its advice. It will take your food and tell you what to do." With that the mother kissed the child and died.

After his wife's death, the merchant grieved for a time, as is right and proper, then thought to take another wife. He was a good man and there were many who would gladly have consented, but he was particularly fond of a certain widow. She was no longer young and had two daughters of her own, about the same age as Vasilissa, so he thought she would be an experienced housewife and mother. He married her, but he was wrong, for she did not turn out to be a good mother to Vasilissa. Vasilissa was the fairest maid in the village; her stepmother and stepsisters were jealous of her beauty and were forever tormenting her, giving her all kinds of heavy work to do in the hope that she would grow thin from her toil and rough-skinned from the wind and sun: she had a very hard time.

But she bore it all without complaint and grew lovelier each day, while the stepmother and her daughters grew thin and ugly from spite, even though they were forever sitting idle, like fine ladies. How could this be? Vasilissa was helped by her little doll. She could never have done all her work without it. In return, she sometimes went hungry, keeping the choicest morsels for her doll. And at night, when everyone was asleep, she would lock herself in her little garret and rock her doll, saying, "Come, little doll, eat up, my dear, as I pour all my troubles into your ear." And she told it how unhappy she was in her father's house, how her wicked stepmother was plaguing her to death. The doll would first eat, then give advice and comfort her in her misery. In the morning, the doll would perform all the chores for Vasilissa. As the girl rested in the shade and picked flowers, the vegetable patch was weeded, the cabbages watered, the water fetched, and the stove lit. The doll even showed Vasilissa a herb to protect her from the sun. So she lived happily, thanks to her doll.

Several years went by. Vasilissa grew up and reached the age of marriage. She was wooed by all the young men in the village, yet none would as much as look at the stepmother's daughters. That made the stepmother more spiteful than ever; and her answer to all the suitors was: "I will not allow the youngest girl to wed before the older ones." Every time she despatched a suitor, she vented her rage on Vasilissa in harsh blows.

One day the merchant had to go and trade in distant lands. While he was gone, the stepmother moved with the family to another house. By that house was a dense forest, and in a forest glade stood the hut where Baba Yaga lived. She allowed no one in and gobbled people up like chickens. Once in the new house, the merchant's wife kept sending Vasilissa into the forest on some errand or other. Yet every time the maid came back home safe and sound: her little doll always showed her the way and kept her out of Baba Yaga's clutches.

Autumn came. The stepmother gave jobs to all three girls: the first was to make lace; the second was to knit stockings; and Vasilissa was to sit and spin. Each had to complete her task by nightfall. The stepmother put out all the lights in the house, save one candle in the room where the girls worked, and went to bed. The girls toiled on. The candle began to smoke, and one of the elder girls took up her scissors to trim the wick, but instead, following her mother's instructions, put it out, as if by accident. "What shall we do now!" said the girls. "There's no light in the house and our work is not done. Someone must run to Baba Yaga's for a light." "I can see from my lace pins," said the one making lace, "so I won't go." "Nor will I," said the one knitting stockings, "I can see from my needles." "So you will have to go," they both shouted to their stepsister. "Off you go to Baba Yaga!" And they pushed Vasilissa out of the room.

The poor girl went to her little garret, set the supper she had ready in front of her doll and said, "Come, little doll, eat up, my dear, as I pour all my troubles into your ear." Then she told the doll that they were sending her to Baba Yaga's for a light and the witch would surely gobble her up. The little doll ate the food, and her eyes began to gleam like two candles. "Never fear, Vasilissa," it said, "do as they say, but keep me with you all the time. As long as I am with you Baba Yaga can do you no harm." Vasilissa got ready, put the doll in her pocket and, crossing herself, went off into the dense forest.

On she went, trembling with fear. All of a sudden a horseman galloped past: his face was white, his cloak was white, his steed was white, and his steed's harness was white too. And a new day dawned.

She went on. A second horseman galloped past: his face was red, his cloak was red, and his steed was red too. And the sun rose.

Vasilissa walked through the night and day, and only the next evening did she come to the glade where Baba Yaga's hut stood. The fence around the hut was of human bones, and on each stake was a human skull with glaring eyes; the lock on the hut door was a mouth with sharp teeth. Vasilissa stood rooted to the spot with horror. Suddenly another horseman rode by: his face was black, Ms dress was black, and Ms steed was black too. He galloped up to Baba Yaga's gate, then vanished as if swallowed up by the earth. Night fell. But it was not dark for long. The eyes in all the skulls on the fence began to gleam, and the clearing grew as light as day. Vasilissa trembled with fear: but not knowing where to run, she stayed where she was.

Soon a terrible noise rushed through the forest: the trees creaked, the dry leaves crackled, and out of the forest came BabaYaga, riding in a mortar, driving herself along with a pestle, sweeping her traces away with a besom. She rode up to the gate, came to a halt and, sniffing the air about her, cried out, "Fie, Foh! I smell the blood of a Russian! Who's there?" Vasilissa went up to the witch in fear, bowed low, and said, "It is I, Grannie. Stepmother's daughters sent me for a light." "Very well," said Baba Yaga, "I know them. You must stay here and work for me, then I'll give you a light. If not, I'll eat you up!" Then she turned to the gate and screeched, "Hey, my strong bolts, unlock! Hey, my wide gates, open up!" The gates opened up and Baba Yaga rode in with a whistle. Vasilissa followed, and all was locked firmly as before. Entering the hut, Baba Yaga stretched herself out on a bench and called to Vasilissa, "Bring me what is in the oven; I'm hungry."

Vasilissa lit a splinter from the skulls on the fence and began to bring the witch food from the ovenenough for ten grown men. From the cellar she brought kvass, mead, beer and wine. And the old witch ate and drank everything, leaving Vasilissa only a spoonful of cabbage soup, a crust of bread and a scrap of pork. Then Baba Yaga got ready for bed, saying, "When I leave tomorrow, see that the yard is swept, the hut cleaned, dinner cooked, and the washing done; take a quarter of wheat from the cornbin and clean the husks off it. See that you do everything, or I'll gobble you up!" That said, Baba Yaga began to snore. Vasilissa put what was left of the old witch's supper before her little doll, wept bitter tears and said, "Come, little doll, eat up, my dear, as I pour all my troubles into your ear." And she told the doll of the hard work Baba Yaga had given her, how she had threatened to eat her if it was not done. "Please help me," she cried. "Never fear, Vasilissa the Fair," the doll replied, "eat your supper, say your prayers and go to bed; morning is wiser than evening."

Vasilissa awoke early, but Baba Yaga was already up. She looked out of the window and saw that the skulls' eyes were growing dim. At that moment the white horseman flashed by. And a new day dawned. Baba Yaga went out into the yard, gave a whistle, and the mortar, the pestle and the besom appeared. The red horseman flashed by. And the sun rose. Baba Yaga got into her mortar and off she went, driving herself along with the pestle and sweeping her traces away with the besom. Vasilissa was now alone. She looked round the witch's hut in amazement at such abundance, then she wondered which other chores she should start first. Butlo and behold!all the work was done. And there was the little doll separating the last husks from the wheat. "Oh, my rescuer," Vasilissa said to her little doll, "you have saved me from a cruel fate." "All you have to do now," said the doll, slipping back into Vasilissa's pocket, "is to cook the dinner. Cook it with God's help, then rest to your heart's content."

Towards evening Vasilissa laid the table and sat waiting for Baba Yaga. As it grew dark, the black horseman flashed by the gate. And night fell. Only the skulls's eyes were gleaming. The trees began to creak, the leaves to crackle, and Baba Yaga was on her way. As Vasilissa met her, she shouted, "Is it all done?" "Pray see for yourself, Grannie," said Vasilissa. Baba Yaga took a good look, annoyed that there was nothing to complain about, and said, "Very well." Then she cried, "My loyal servants, my faithful friends, grind my wheat." Three pairs of hands appeared, took the wheat and carried it out of sight. Then the witch ate her fill, lay down to sleep and gave orders once again to Vasilissa: "Do the same work tomorrow as today; but as well as that take poppy seed from the bin and dust each grain until it's clean: some spiteful soul threw dust into the bin." That said, the old witch turned her face to the wall and began to snore. At once Vasilissa set to feeding her little doll. The doll ate and repeated what it had said the day before, "Say your prayers and go to sleep; morning is wiser than evening."

Next morning Baba Yaga went off again in her mortar, and Vasilissa and the doll soon had the work done. When the old witch returned, she took a good look and cried, "My loyal servants, my faithful friends, press oil from the poppy seeds." Three pairs of hands appeared, took the poppy seed and carried it out of sight. Then Baba Yaga sat down to eat; as she did so, Vasilissa stood by in silence. "Why don't you say something?" asked Baba Yaga. "Haven't you got a tongue in your head?" "I do not dare," answered Vasilissa, "but, by your leave, I wish to ask you a question." "Go on," the old hag said, "but not every question brings good: those who know too much grow old too soon!" "I only want to ask you about what I have seen, Grannie: as I was coming here a horseman on a white steed rode by, all white himself and dressed in white; whoever can he be?" "He is my day so light," she said. "Then a second horseman overtook me riding a red horse, all red himself and dressed in red: who is he?" "He is my sun so bright," said Baba Yaga. "And the black horseman who overtook me right by your gate, Grannie?" "He is my darkest night: all of them are my loyal servants."

Vasilissa at once recalled the three pairs of hands and fell silent. "Why don't you ask me more questions?" said Baba Yaga. "Let that be all," the girl replied, "you said yourself that those who know too much grow old too soon, Grannie." "It is good that you ask only about what you saw outside, not inside. I don't like gossips in my house; I eat up folk who are too inquisitive," said Baba Yaga. "Now I've a question for you: how do you manage to do all the work I set you?" "My Mother's blessing helps me," answered Vasilissa. "So that's it! Then get you gone, blessed daughter! I want no blessed ones here." With that she quickly dragged Vasilissa out of the hut, pushed her through the gates, took a skull with burning eyes from the fence, stuck it on a stick and gave it to the maid, saying, "Here is a light for your stepsisters. Take it; that is what they sent you here for."

Vasilissa ran home by the light of the skull which did not go out until daybreak; finally, by nightfall next evening, she reached home. As she came near the gate, she was about to throw the skull away, thinking they had no need of a light in the house now. But suddenly a muffled voice came from it, saying: "Don't throw me away, take me to your stepmother!"

She looked up at her stepmother's house and, seeing no light in the windows, decided to enter with the skull. For the first time she was welcomed kindly and told that, ever since she had gone, there had been no light in the house: they had been unable to kindle a spark themselves, and any light brought from their neighbours had gone out as soon as it entered the house. "Perhaps your fire will last," the stepmother said. The skull was brought into the house; but it kept staring at the stepmother and her daughtersand how it burned them! No matter where they tried to hide, the eyes followed them everywhere. By morning they were all burned to cinders. Only Vasilissa remained unharmed.

In the morning Vasilissa buried the skull in the ground, locked and bolted the house, went off to town and asked a lonely old woman to take her in. And there she lived, waiting for her father's return. One day she said to the old woman, "I am tired of sitting here doing nothing, Grannie. Go and buy me some flax, please, the best there is; at least I can be spinning." The old woman bought the best flax, and Vasilissa set to work. She spun quickly and well, and the yarn came out as fine and smooth as the hair on her head. When she had spun a lot of yarn the time came to weave it: but no combs fine enough for her yarn could be found, and no one would undertake to make them. So Vasilissa asked her little doll for help, and the doll replied, "Bring me an old comb, an old shuttle and a horse's mane, and I'll fashion one for you."

Vasilissa gathered all that was required and went to bed; during the night the little doll made a splendid loom. By winter's end the linen was wovenand so fine was it that it could pass through the eye of a needle like thread. In spring the linen was bleached, and Vasilissa said to the old woman, "Grannie, go and sell this linen and keep the money for yourself." The old woman looked at the linen and ex-claimed: "No, dear child! Such linen may be worn by no one but the king. I'll take it to the palace." So the old woman went to the king's palace, and walked up and down beneath the king's windows until he saw her. "What do you want, old woman?" he called. "Your Majesty," the old woman said, "I have brought some wonderful merchandise; I wish to show it to no one but you." The king ordered her to be brought before him, and when he set eyes on the linen he marvelled greatly. "What do you want for it?" he asked. "It is priceless, Sire," she said, "I offer it to you as a gift." The king thanked her and sent her forth with much reward.

Then he ordered shirts to be made from the linen. But when the cloth was cut, they could not find a seamstress able to do the work. They searched and searched and in the end summoned the old woman. "Since you can spin and weave such cloth," said the king to her, "you must be able to sew shirts from it." "It is not I, Sire," she said, "who spun and wove this cloth. It is the work of a maid who lives with me." "Then let her sew the shirts," the king said.

The old woman returned home and told Vasilissa everything. "I knew all along that my hands would have to do the work," said Vasilissa. So she locked herself in her room and set to work; she sewed ceaselessly and soon had a dozen shirts ready.

The old woman took the shirts to the king. In the meantime, Vasilissa washed her face, combed her hair, dressed and sat by the window, waiting to see what would come to pass. Before long a servant of the king came into the yard. He entered the room and said: "The king wishes to see the seamstress who made his shirts. He wishes to reward her with his own royal hands." So off went Vasilissa to appear before the king. No sooner did the king set eyes upon Vasilissa the Fair than he fell in love with her. "I cannot part with you, my fair maiden. You will be my
wife." Taking Vasilissa by her lily-white hands, he sat her down beside him and the wedding was held without more ado. Shortly afterwards, Vasilissa's father returned and was overjoyed by her good fortune. Both he and the old woman went to live in the palace with Vasilissa. And, of course, she carried her little doll in her pocket always, till the end of her days.

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