Wassilissa the Beautiful

So Wassilissa rested all day and was refreshed; and when it grew toward evening she laid the table for the old witch’s supper, and sat looking out of the window, waiting for her coming. After awhile she heard the sound of horse’s hoofs and the man in black, on the coal-black horse, galloped up to the wall-gate and disappeared like a great dark shadow, and instantly it became quite dark and the eyes of all the skulls began to glitter and shine.

Illustration for Wassilissa the Beautiful, by Ivan Bilibin

Then all at once the trees of the forest began to creak and groan and the leaves and the bushes to moan and sigh, and the Baba-Yaga came riding out of the dark wood in the huge iron mortar, driving with the pestle and sweeping out the trail behind her with the kitchen-broom. Wassilissa let her in; and the witch, smelling all around her, asked: “Well, hast thou done perfectly all the tasks I gave thee to do, or am I to eat thee for my supper?”

“Be so good as to look for thyself, grandmother,” answered Wassilissa.

The Baba-Yaga went all about the place, tapping with her iron pestle, and carefully examining everything. But so well had the little doll done its work that, try as hard as she might, she could not find anything to complain of. There was not a weed left in the yard, nor a speck of dust on the floors, nor a single black grain or wild-pea in the wheat.

The old witch was greatly angered but was obliged to pretend to be pleased. “Well,” she said, “thou hast done all well.” Then, clapping her hands, she shouted: “Ho! my faithful servants! Friends of my heart! Haste and grind my wheat!” Immediately three pair of hands appeared, seized the measure of wheat and carried it away.

The Baba-Yaga sat down to supper, and Wassilissa put before her all the food from the oven, with kwas, honey, beer and wine. The old witch ate it, bones and all, almost to the last morsel, enough for four strong men, and then, growing drowsy, stretched her bony legs on the stove and said: “To-morrow do as thou hast done to-day, and besides these tasks take from my storehouse a half-measure of poppy-seeds and clean them one by one. Someone has mixed earth with them to do me a mischief and to anger me, and I will have them made perfectly clean.” So saying she turned to the wall and soon began to snore.

When she was fast asleep Wassilissa went into the corner, took the little doll from her pocket, set before it a part of the food that was left and asked its advice. And the doll, when it had become alive, and eaten a little food and sipped a little drink, said: “Don’t worry, beautiful Wassilissa! Be comforted. Do as thou didst last night: say thy prayers and go to sleep.” So Wassilissa was comforted. She said her prayers and went to sleep and did not wake till next morning when she heard the old witch in the yard whistling. She ran to the window just in time to see her take her place in the big iron mortar, and as she did so the man dressed all in red, riding on the blood-red horse, leaped over the wall and was gone, just as the sun rose over the wild forest.

As it had happened on the first morning, so it happened now. When Wassilissa looked she found that the little doll had finished all the tasks except the cooking of the supper. The yard was swept and in order, the floors were as clean as new wood, and there was not a grain of earth left in the half-measure of poppy-seeds. She rested and refreshed herself till the afternoon, when she cooked the supper, and when evening came she laid the table and sat down to wait for the old witch’s coming.

Soon the man in black, on the coal-black horse, galloped up to the gate, and the dark fell and the eyes of the skulls began to shine like day; then the ground began to quake, and the trees of the forest began to creak and the dry leaves to rustle, and the Baba-Yaga came riding in her iron mortar, driving with her pestle and sweeping away her path with her broom.

When she came in she smelled around her and went all about the hut, tapping with the pestle; but pry and examine as she might, again she could see no reason to find fault and was angrier than ever. She clapped her hands and shouted: “Ho! my trusty servants! Friends of my soul! Haste and press the oil out of my poppy-seeds!” And instantly the three pair of hands appeared, seized the measure of poppy-seeds and carried it away.

Presently the old witch sat down to supper and Wassilissa brought all she had cooked, enough for five grown men, and set it before her, and brought beer and honey, and then she herself stood silently waiting. The Baba-Yaga ate and drank it all, every morsel, leaving not so much as a crumb of bread; then she said snappishly: “Well, why dost thou say nothing, but stand there as if thou wast dumb?”

“I spoke not,” Wassilissa answered, “because I dared not. But if thou wilt allow me, grand-mother, I wish to ask thee some questions.”

“Well,” said the old witch, “only remember that every question does not lead to good. If thou knowest over much, thou wilt grow old too soon. What wilt thou ask?”

“I would ask thee,” said Wassilissa, “of the men on horseback. When I came to thy hut, a rider passed me. He was dressed all in white and he rode a milk-white horse. Who was he?”

“That was my white, bright day,” answered the Baba-Yaga angrily. “He is a servant of mine, but he cannot hurt thee. Ask me more.”

“Afterwards,” said Wassilissa, “a second rider overtook me. He was dressed in red and the horse he rode was blood-red. Who was he?”

“That was my servant, the round, red sun,” answered the Baba-Yaga, “and he too cannot injure thee,” and she ground her teeth. “Ask me more.”

“A third rider,” said Wassilissa, “came galloping up to the gate. He was black, his clothes were black and the horse was coal-black. Who was he ?”

“That was my servant, the black, dark night,” answered the old witch furiously; “but he also cannot harm thee. Ask me more.”

But Wassilissa, remembering what the Baba-Yaga had said, that not every question led to good, was silent.

“Ask me more!” cried the old witch. “Why dost thou not ask me more? Ask me of the three pair of hands that serve me!”

But Wassilissa saw how she snarled at her and she answered: “The three questions are enough for me. As thou hast said, grandmother, I would not, through knowing over much, become too soon old.”

“It is well for thee,” said the Baba-Yaga, “that thou didst not ask of them, but only of what thou didst see outside of this hut. Hadst thou asked of them, my servants, the three pair of hands would have seized thee also, as they did the wheat and poppy-seeds, to be my food. Now I would ask a question in my turn: How is it that thou hast been able, in a little time, to do perfectly all the tasks I gave thee? Tell me!”

Wassilissa was so frightened to see how the old witch ground her teeth that she almost told her of the little doll; but she bethought herself just in time, and answered: “The blessing of my dead mother helps me.”

Then the Baba-Yaga sprang up in a fury. “Get thee out of my house this moment!” she shrieked. “I want no one who bears a blessing to cross my threshold! Get thee gone!”

Wassilissa ran to the yard, and behind her she heard the old witch shouting to the locks and the gate. The locks opened, the gate swung wide, and she ran out on to the lawn. The Baba-Yaga seized from the wall one of the skulls with burning eyes and flung it after her: “There,” she howled, “is the fire for thy stepmother’s daughters. Take it. That is what they sent thee here for, and may they have joy of it!”

Wassilissa put the skull on the end of a stick and darted away through the forest, running as fast as she could, finding her path by the skull’s glowing eyes which went out only when morning came.

Illustration for Wassilissa the Beautiful, by Ivan Bilibin

Whether she ran a long way or a short way, and whether the road was smooth or rough, towards evening of the next day, when the eyes in the skull were beginning to glimmer, she came out of the dark, wild forest to her stepmother’s house.

When she came near to the gate, she thought, “Surely, by this time they will have found some fire,” and threw the skull into the hedge; but it spoke to her, and said: “Do not throw me away, beautiful Wassilissa; bring me to thy stepmother.” So, looking at the house and seeing no spark of light in any of the windows, she took up the skull again and carried it with her.

Now since Wassilissa had gone, the stepmother and her two daughters had had neither fire nor light in all the house. When they struck flint and steel the tinder would not catch, and the fire they brought from the neighbours would go out immediately as soon as they carried it over the threshold, so that they had been unable to light or warm themselves or to cook food to eat. Therefore now, for the first time in her life, Wassilissa found herself welcomed. They opened the door to her and the merchant’s wife was greatly rejoiced to find that the light in the skull did not go out as soon as it was brought in. “Maybe the witch’s fire will stay,” she said, and took the skull into the best room, set it on a candle-stick and called her two daughters to admire it.

But the eyes of the skull suddenly began to glimmer and to glow like red coals, and wherever the three turned or ran the eyes followed them, growing larger and brighter till they flamed like two furnaces, and hotter and hotter till the merchant’s wife and her two wicked daughters took fire and were burned to ashes. Only Wassilissa the Beautiful was not touched.

In the morning Wassilissa dug a deep hole in the ground and buried the skull. Then she locked the house and set out to the village, where she went to live with an old woman who was poor and childless, and so she remained for many days, waiting for her father’s return from the far-distant kingdom.

But, sitting lonely, time soon began to hang heavy on her hands. One day she said to the old woman: “It is dull for me, grandmother, to sit idly hour by hour. My hands want work to do. Go, therefore, and buy me some flax, the best and finest to be found anywhere, and at least I can spin.”

The old woman hastened and bought some flax of the best sort and Wassilissa sat down to work. So well did she spin that the thread came out as even and fine as a hair, and presently there was enough to begin to weave. But so fine was the thread that no frame could be found to weave it upon, nor would any weaver undertake to make one.

From Russian wonder tales.
London: Adam and Charles Black, 1912.

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Fairy tales

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