Somewhere, I cannot tell you exactly where, but certainly in vast Russia, there lived a peasant with his wife and they had twins—a son and daughter. One day the wife died and the husband mourned over her very sincerely for a long time. One year passed, and two years, and even longer. But there is no order in a house without a woman, and a day came when the man thought, “If I marry again possibly it would turn out all right.” And so he did, and had children by his second wife.
The stepmother was envious of the stepson and daughter and began to use them hardly. She scolded them without any reason, sent them away from home as often as she wished, and gave them scarcely enough to eat. Finally she wanted to get rid of them altogether. Do you know what it means to allow a wicked thought to enter one’s heart? The wicked thought grows all the time like a poisonous plant and slowly kills the good thoughts. A wicked feeling was growing in the stepmother’s heart, and she determined to send the children to the witch, thinking sure enough that they would never return.
“Dear children,” she said to the orphans, “go to my grandmother who lives in the forest in a hut on hen’s feet. You will do everything she wants you to, and she will give you sweet things to eat and you will be happy.”
The orphans started out. But instead of going to the witch, the sister, a bright little girl, took her brother by the hand and ran to their own old, old grandmother and told her all about their going to the forest.
“Oh, my poor darlings!” said the good old grandmother, pitying the children, “my heart aches for you, but it is not in my power to help you. You have to go not to a loving grandmother, but to a wicked witch. Now listen to me, my darlings,” she continued; “I will give you a hint: Be kind and good to every one; do not speak ill words to any one; do not despise helping the weakest, and always hope that for you, too, there will be the needed help.”
The good old grandmother gave the children some delicious fresh milk to drink and to each a big slice of ham. She also gave them some cookies—there are cookies everywhere—and when the children departed she stood looking after them a long, long time.
The obedient children arrived at the forest and, oh, wonder! there stood a hut, and what a curious one! It stood on tiny hen’s feet, and at the top was a rooster’s head. With their shrill, childish voices they called out loud:
“Izboushka, Izboushka! turn thy back to the forest and thy front to us!”
The hut did as they commanded. The two orphans looked inside and saw the witch resting there, her head near the threshold, one foot in one corner, the other foot in another corner, and her knees quite close to the ridge pole.
“Fou, Fou, Fou!” exclaimed the witch; “I feel the Russian spirit.”
The children were afraid, and stood close, very close together, but in spite of their fear they said very politely:
“Ho, grandmother, our stepmother sent us to thee to serve thee.”
“All right; I am not opposed to keeping you, children. If you satisfy all my wishes I shall reward you; if not, I shall eat you up.”
Without any delay the witch ordered the girl to spin the thread, and the boy, her brother, to carry water in a sieve to fill a big tub. The poor orphan girl wept at her spinning-wheel and wiped away her bitter tears. At once all around her appeared small mice squeaking and saying:
“Sweet girl, do not cry. Give us cookies and we will help thee.”
The little girl willingly did so.
“Now,” gratefully squeaked the mice, “go and find the black cat. He is very hungry; give him a slice of ham and he will help thee.”
From Folk tales from the Russian, by Verra de Blumenthal.
Chicago, New York, London: Rand, McNally and Company, 1903.