In a Tzardom far away, a young mother lay dying. Beside her bed there knelt her husband and her daughter Vasilisa. Vasilisa was wearing a black smock and a white blouse embroidered by her mother in all the colours of the rainbow and all the colours in between.
The mother leant towards Vasilisa. She took a wooden doll from under her sheets. It wore a black smock and a white blouse embroidered in all the colours of the rainbow and all the colours in between. The mother handed the doll to Vasilisa.
“This is my parting gift to you, my dear daughter, given to me by my own mother,” she said in a faint voice, “My blessing! Whenever you are in trouble, the doll will help you. Feed her when she hungers and give her water when she thirsts. Keep her with you always. But, do not tell a soul about her.” Vasilisa put the doll deep into the pocket of her smock.
With that, the mother breathed her last breath. Her soul flew from her like a white bird, soared out of the window, and was gone.
Vasilisa grieved for her mother for many lonely nights. Her father grieved also, but like land lying fallow for a spell, new shoots began to spring up. He married a handsome widow with two lovely daughters. He saw only that these three were well mannered, elegant and refined. But if you were to gaze at them, then close your eyes, on the back of your eyelids you would see the image of rats.
Vasilisa’s step-mother and step-sisters plagued and bullied her. They made her fetch and chop wood, rake out and make the fire in the stove, wash the clothes, sweep the yard, cook the food and wait upon them. They hoped Vasilisa would grow thin and rough skinned from her toil, for they were jealous of her beauty and hated her for her gentle nature. All the while they spent their time in idleness, preening and pampering themselves.
Vasilisa did all she was made to do without complaining, even though she was often hungry and tired. She was always helpful and kind towards her step-mother and step-sisters. And all the time Vasilisa grew more lovely, with full breasts and rounded hips and a face as bright as a ripe apple, whilst her step-sisters were narrow chested and their lovely faced were marred by spite. This only made them hate Vasilisa all the more and they plotted to be rid of her.
“I know,” said the step-mother one day, “We shall let the fire in the lanterns go out. Then we shall send Vasilisa to Baba Yaga to beg for fire. Baba Yaga will surely kill her and eat her.” And they squealed with delight like rats in offal.
When Vasilisa came home from gathering wood in the forest she found the house in darkness. “Step-mother,” she said, “We have no fire to light the house and cook the food. What shall we do?”
“You know the forest from gathering wood. You must go and fetch fire. You must beg for fire from Baba Yaga. Go!”
With that, the step-mother gave Vasilisa a stale loaf and a flask of water and turned her out into the dark forest to seek fire from Baba Yaga.
Vasilisa felt very frightened. In the distance, wolves howled and bears growled and even the dry sticks snapping beneath her feet made her tremble with shock. She was alone at night in the deep, dark forest and did not know the way to go to find Baba Yaga. Then she remembered the wooden doll which her mother had given to her, her mother’s blessing. She put her hand into the deep pocket of her smock and there she was. She took out the doll and gave her some water and dry bread. She told the doll of her plight and asked for her help. As Vasilisa made her way through the dark forest, the doll guided her path.
Vasilisa walked all night, guided by her doll. Suddenly, a man dressed in white on a white horse came trotting by. Not long after it was dawn. A short time later, a man dressed in red on a red horse came cantering by. Soon after the sun rose. Vasilisa walked for many hours. Then, a man dressed in black on a black horse came galloping by. Swiftly, it was night.
Vasilisa journeyed many days and nights, and many times the horsemen in white and red and black came trotting and cantering and galloping by. One day Vasilisa came to a compound in the heart of the forest. Its fence was made of dead men’s bones. The latches on the gate were bony fingers. On every stake a human skull gazed out into the forest. Vasilisa wondered if this were Baba Yaga’s dwelling. The doll told her it was. At that moment, the horseman dressed in black on his black horse galloped by. Black horse and rider leapt the fence and were lost to sight, for swiftly it was night. A moment later and all the skulls blazed with an inner fire, lighting the compound like day.
Trembling with fear and clutching her doll deep in the pocket of her smock, Vasilisa lifted the bony latch and entered the compound. There she saw Baba Yaga’s hut. It stood on huge, yellow, scaly chicken legs. Sometimes it strolled about the compound. Sometimes it whirled around like a dervish. But always its doorway faced the deepest, darkest part of the forest.
There came a sound like wind roaring through the forest. The great trees shook and creaked and their branches cracked and Baba Yaga descended into the compound in her chariot, a massive mortar which she propelled with a great pestle. As she rode through the forest and across the sky she swept the tracks behind her with a besom made of dead men’s hair.
Baba Yaga was a fearsome sight. Her long black hair was wild, all knotted and greasy. Her face was a mass of warts, her eyes a piercing black. Her long nose hooked downwards like a scimitar and her chin hooked upwards towards it like an old crescent moon. All the time, at the end of her narrow nostrils, there lingered a bubble of snot. Over the centuries a stalagmite of snot had formed upon the end of her chin and a stalactite of snot upon the end of her nose, so that the two now almost met.
Baba Yaga’s nose twitched, “I smell Russian bones. Show yourself!” Vasilisa stepped forward.
“Have you come of your own free will, girl, or have you been sent?” croaked Baba Yaga. Her voice trembling, Vasilisa replied, “Largely of my own free will and twice as much because my step-mother and step-sisters sent me. I come to beg for fire.”
Baba Yaga sneered, “Yes, I know all about you and your step-mother and step-sisters. What makes you think I shall give you fire?”
Clutching her doll, deep in her smock’s pocket, Vasilisa replied, “Because I ask it, Babushka.”
“You answer wisely,” said Baba Yaga with a hiss, “Otherwise, I should have killed you and gobbled you up.” Baba Yaga gave a crooked grin. Vasilisa saw her iron teeth, each one filed sharp as a dagger.
“If I am to give you fire, you must work to pay for it,” said Baba Yaga, “Fetch and chop my wood, rake out and make my fire in the stove, wash my clothes, sweep my yard, cook my food and wait upon me. If you do everything I ask, I will give you fire. Otherwise …” As Baba Yaga’s lips curled in her crooked grin, her burnished teeth flashed in the light from the skulls and for a moment her eyes too burned with fire, “I shall kill you and gobble you up.”
“Now,” said Baba Yaga, “Fetch me what is cooking on the stove.” It was a hot, thick, dark stew, enough for a dozen full-grown working men. But with a mighty slurping and slopping she supped the lot, leaving only a small cupful for Vasilisa. Then Baba Yaga leapt into her mortar, grasped her pestle and took off into the night sky. And the strange thing was, wherever she appeared in the sky she was always framed against the moon, with her hooked nose and crooked chin, her wild, greasy hair streaming behind her.
She returned in the morning and gave Vasilisa her instructions, “Gather my wood, make my fire, wash my clothes, sweep my yard, cook my food and wait upon me. And one more thing. Take the wheat from my storehouse and separate the good grain from the mildewed grain. If all this work is not done by morning,” said Baba Yaga with a steely grimace, “I will kill you and gobble you up.” Then she went into her hut to sleep and later to eat.
When she had finished all the other tasks, Vasilisa began to separate the good grain from the mildewed grain, but the work was very slow and hardly anything had been done before night fell and the skulls burst into flame and Baba Yaga took to the skies.
Vasilisa took out her doll, gave her a little of Baba Yaga’s stew, and asked her, “How shall I ever finish this on time, before Baba Yaga kills me and gobbles me up?”
“Sleep now,” whispered the doll, “Morning is wiser than evening.” Vasilisa slept. After the white horseman had trotted by and the dawning forest began to stir, the doll gathered together all the birds of the forest and set them to work sifting the corn. When Vasilisa awoke, to her joy and relief there were two piles of wheat in the compound, one good grain and the other mildewed.
At that moment, Baba Yaga returned with a woosh. When she saw the separate piles of good and mildewed grain, she was secretly pleased, but she hissed, “You have done well.” Then she cried, “My loyal servants and bosom friends, come and grind my wheat.” Three pairs of hands appeared in the air and ground the good grains so quickly that the forest air blew white with chaff. When the flour was stored the hands disappeared.
Then Baba Yaga gave Vasilisa her instructions, “Gather my wood, make my fire, wash my clothes, sweep my yard, cook my food and wait upon me. And one more thing. The poppy seeds in this pot have earth mixed in with them. Wash them one by one. If all this work is not done by the morning,” said Baba Yaga, “I will kill you and gobble you up.” Then she went into her hut to sleep and later to eat.
When she had finished all the other tasks, Vasilisa began to wash the poppy seeds, but the work was very slow and almost nothing had been done before Baba Yaga took to the skies.
Vasilisa took out her doll, gave her a little stew, and asked her, “How shall I ever finish this on time, before Baba Yaga kills me and gobbles me up?”
“Sleep now,” whispered the doll, “Morning is wiser than evening.” Vasilisa slept. After the white horseman had trotted by and the dawning forest began to stir, the doll gathered together all the mice in the forest and set them to work washing the poppy seeds. When Vasilisa awoke, to her joy and relief there was a pot of clean poppy seeds.
At that moment, Baba Yaga landed in the compound. When she saw the pot of clean poppy seeds, she was secretly pleased, but she hissed, “You have done well.” Then she cried, “My loyal servants and bosom friends, come and press my oil.” Three pairs of hands appeared in the air and pressed the oil out into jars so quickly the forest was filled with its fragrance. When the work was done the hands disappeared.
Baba Yaga went into her hut and slept. Later, when she sat down to eat, Vasilisa stood nearby with a thoughtful look. “Well, child,” asked Baba Yaga, “What do you have to say?”
“I should like to ask you some questions,” replied Vasilisa.
“Ask your questions,” said Baba Yaga, “But remember, not every question leads to good. If you know too much you will grow old too soon.”
“Thank you, Babushka. Who is the rider in white riding a white horse?”
“Ah! He is my dawning day, my bright dawn.”
“And, who is the rider in red riding a red horse?”
“Ah! He is my rising sun, my red sun.”
“And who is the rider in black riding a black horse?”
“Ah! He is my dark, black night.”
Vasilisa thought to ask about the three pairs of hands, but she saw the hungry look in Baba Yaga’s eyes and stayed silent.
“Well, child,” crooned Baba Yaga, “Surely you have more questions?”
“No, Babushka. As you said, not every question leads to good. If I know too much I shall grow old too soon.”
“You answer wisely,” hissed Baba Yaga, “More wisely than your years. How so? And how are you able to finish all your tasks?”
“By the blessing of my mother,” replied Vasilisa.
“Blessing!” screamed Baba Yaga. She grew to a towering height. Her massive body shook with rage. Her eyes burnt like the bellowing of hot coals. “Blessing!” she bellowed, “We need no blessings here. They hurt my bones.”
With that, she took from the fence a skull with eyes of fire, shoved it on a stick and thrust it into Vasilisa’s hand. “Here’s the fire you were sent for. Now, be gone!”
Vasilisa took the flaming skull, ran from the compound and fled into the forest. The skull lit her path, yet she feared this strange lantern. As she ran, the man dressed in white on a white horse came trotting by, and the glowing eyes began to flicker and fade with the dawn. A short time later, the man dressed in red on a red horse came cantering by, and the glowing eyes were extinguished with the rising sun. All day she ran, until the man dressed in black on a black horse came galloping by, and with the coming of night the skull’s flame rekindled. The skull’s glowing eyes, lighting her way, now reassured her.
With the dawn, Vasilisa continued her journey through the forest. The step-mother and step-sisters thought Baba Yaga had killed her and gobbled her up. They saw the eerie light and watched it bobbing through the forest. When they saw Vasilisa they rushed out to meet her. “We have not been able to have light all the time you have been away,” they moaned, “However hard we have tried.”
And so, Vasilisa returned home triumphant. She had survived. Her dangerous journey was completed. She had come home with fire. But the skull held the step-mother and step-sisters in its steady gaze and bored into them. They could not escape its white heat. The three were burnt to ashes.
This is my telling of a Russian traditional story.