Fiction. Written for course “Russian Fairy Tales,” CIEE St. Petersburg, December 2013. Please do not reproduce.
One autumn morning after two weeks of relentless rain, the village seamstress fell quite ill. Coughs rattled her frail frame day and night, night and day, until no tea could calm her throat and no herbs bring sleep. Finally her daughter, Vera, a strong and soft-hearted maiden, could stand it no longer. “My dear brother Ivan, we must save her,” she said. “I think it is possible, if we can only find the potion-maker our grandmother used to visit. Do you remember?”
“Yes,” said Ivan. “He lives in the thrice-ninth land in the thrice-tenth kingdom. He was a tiny man, a meter tall but very fat, with a beard that wrapped around both ankles to keep him warm just like wool boots. I will go to seek him, and will send word in four weeks time.” Then he kissed her, mounted the family’s horse, and departed.
For three weeks no word came from Ivan, but he was a little fool, so Vera worried. She busied herself with weaving a new cloak that could bear the still-pouring rain. She did not realize that, after waiting for many generations in their cellar, the thread of her grandmothers had become so thick and strong. But on the first day of the fifth week Vera took a walk, and her new cloak was so fine that she stayed dry and warm.
She walked without direction, for a long time or a short time, when she came upon a foal stuck dead in the mud. “Come here, little foal, and walk with me; I can keep you dry.” Immediately the mud fell from the foal’s feet and he joined Vera. “Give me a blanket, my fair maiden, and tell me your story.” So she laid her extra bolt of fabric on his back.
Vera did not finish telling her story, for her troubles were many, before they came upon a sparrow clutching her eggs in her wings after her nest had been swept away. “Come here, little sparrow, and walk with me; I can keep you dry.” The sparrow joined them, and Vera made a tiny bird-blanket and satchel for her eggs.
The trio walked further, for minutes or perhaps for days, because all the world was gray; the foal’s legs grew strong and stout and the sparrow’s eggs hatched. Then they came upon a little frog, straining its little frog-legs to stay afloat in a puddle. “Come here, little frog, and walk with me; I can keep you dry,” Vera promised. The frog joined them, and Vera fashioned him a tiny frog-cloak from her bolt.
Just then a snake curled around Vera’s ankle. “Are you Vera, Ivan’s sister?” he asked, gazing up at her with tiny snake-eyes. She nodded. “Ivan was captured on the way to the thrice-ninth land in the thrice-tenth kingdom. A dragon with greedy green eyes guards him day and night. To find him, walk due east from here, and in three days you will reach a valley of caves. Find the coldest one.” And it peeled its snake-tail from Vera’s ankle and slithered away.
Vera sat on a rock and began to cry, pulling her cloak tighter against the rain. When she opened her eyes, the hood glowed, circling her face in gold. “You must go, Vera,” the frog said. “You are clever and your hands are sure; Ivan needs you. I will go care for your mother.” And so the frog turned back. Vera went on, and the gold light repelled rain and even tears from her face.
In three days Vera, the colt and the sparrow-family reached the valley of the caves. Little signposts stood outside each cave, perhaps many thousands of them, but the never-ending storm had washed away their names. “How will we ever find him?” Vera moaned. “And then the potion-maker after? It’s hopeless.”
Just then threads in the littlest sparrow’s little sparrow-cloak began to shine like dim gold. As he fluttered here, they brightened, and there, they dulled. Enthralled, the sparrow traced a route that made her cloak brighter, brighter, brighter still – until finally she fluttered before a cave whose mouth was so cold that her feathers froze solid and she fell promptly to the ground.
Warm inside their cloaks, the group picked up the sparrow, crossed an icy lake, then shattered an icy door and found a warm hallway lit by torches and littered with plundered treasure – a dragon’s home indeed. Vera picked up a rusty shield and sword. Around the fourth corner they very suddenly found Ivan, who sat crying on a rock with hands and feet bound.
“Vera, my dear, you came!” he shouted, standing and hobbling toward her. She pushed him back down. “You fool, do you want the dragon to hear you? Shut up!”
But it was too late. The dragon stuck its ugly head around the corner beyond Ivan’s rock and speedily slithered toward Vera, greedy for a bite of her golden cloak. But the wool turned to steel in its mouth and snapped its longest fangs in two. The brave maiden spun around and thrust her sword through each of its green eyes in turn. It shuddered and slinked backward, exhaling puffs of smoke, until it lay still and dead. Vera kicked a pile of gold coins over its scaly claws.
Ivan whooped and, freed by the sparrows, applauded. “What happened to you, little sister? You just slayed a dragon without flinching, and the sparrows say you gave them magic golden cloaks that led you here. Have I been gone so long that you have grown so much?”
Vera smiled and embraced her brother. “I am just as I’ve always been, Ivan.”
Now sparrow-family flew off, promising news of their mother every day. Vera bound the sword and shield around her waist, stitched her last bolt of fabric into another cloak for Ivan, and with the foal (who was now a stout young colt) they trod northward through the forest and the rain. On their third day, when Vera’s mother was still coughing and they were beginning to feel quite lost indeed, Ivan spotted a hut in a clearing. “Little hut, little hut, turn around, travelers need directions!” And the little hut straightened its chicken legs and turned right around.
“Ivan, you fool –” Vera hissed, but she was interrupted.
“Is that Russian blood I smell?” bellowed a voice from inside the hut. Ivan tugged Vera’s sleeve. “It’s Baba Yaga!” he whispered. “Let’s run! We must run!”
But Vera stood firm. “We’re looking for the potion-maker who lives in the thrice-ninth land in the thrice-tenth kingdom,” she called. “Our mother hasn’t stopped coughing for two months now. Please help us, Baba Yaga.”
“You’re children; surely you know that I cook and eat children. Why would I help?”
“Because we’re bright; we just escaped the dragon inside the coldest cave.”
“And what happened to the dragon?”
“I slayed it.”
“You slayed it?”
“Yes, Baba Yaga, I did. What’s more, the horse, frog and sparrow-family traveling with me have been dry all this time, because I made them magic cloaks.”
Baba Yaga paused. “Spend one night with me, and in the morning I will give you a fast colt for your journey.”
“But we already have a fast colt, Baba Yaga. We only need directions.”
This upset Baba Yaga; the earth shuddered and thunder clapped. “You’ll stay with me, children, and I will tie your colt up in my shed. In the morning I will consider giving you directions. Or, I will cook you and eat you.” Word of Vera’s magic cloaks and dragon-slaying had reached Baba Yaga through the snakes, and she was curious about the strange maiden.
That night they slept fitfully. Ivan rolled marbles across the dirt floor until he dozed. Vera browsed an atlas that lay beside her hay mattress. Once Vera awoke and found Baba Yaga crouched at her feet, holding her cloak up to her long nose. Finally, at dawn, she shook Ivan awake. “Let’s grab the colt and run before she wakes up.”
“Oh, no, fair maiden, I don’t think so,” Baba Yaga crowed from the next room. “Not before you’ve made me ten yards of that fabric you weave, and maybe not even then.”
“Surely you can make it yourself, Baba Yaga, with all your skill,” Vera called, dragging Ivan to his feet. “Let me set up my loom and I’ll show you.”
She busied herself with the loom while directing Ivan to gather their things, then pointed him toward the door. He stumbled out loudly. “Come in, Baba Yaga!” Vera called, and at the moment Baba Yaga entered the room, Vera left it. She hopped onto the colt behind Ivan.
“Go, go!” she urged. Baba Yaga chased them and nearly caught them, but their cloaks protected them from the rain, while after an hour Baba Yaga’s cloak was so wet and heavy that she had to turn back. The colt galloped so quickly that what might have been three days’ ride northward only took one. He stopped suddenly in front of a ramshackle brick house belching strongly scented smoke through its chimney. Vera shook Ivan as they dismounted. “This is the potion-maker’s house. I found it on Baba Yaga’s map last night. Please don’t talk, Ivan, dear.”
So it was Vera who knocked softly, then more boldly; Vera who thanked the potion-maker – who was indeed a meter tall but very fat, with a beard that wrapped around both ankles to keep him warm just like wool boots, and a squeaky little voice too – for their generous helpings of soup, and who explained their mother’s illness so sadly that mice flocked to the table to mourn with her; and it was Vera for whom the mice stitched a crown from the potion-maker’s flowers, and when they lay it around her head her hair gleamed just like the cloaks, which had made her famous, apparently, even in this faraway land.
“Anything you need is yours, my dear,” the little potion-maker squeaked. “You can sleep here tonight in safety, and in the morning I will prepare just the medicine your mother needs. We have a small carriage; my son and I will come to your village and show you how to care for her.”
Just then the potion-maker’s son, Alyosha, a traveling trader curious upon hearing a maiden’s voice, entered the kitchen and saw Vera, golden-haired and flower-crowned with a sword still hanging from her belt, and instantly fell passionately in love. They drank wine and talked of their many adventures all night while the potion-maker slept and Ivan rolled his marbles. In the morning, he asked for her hand in marriage. Vera happily agreed.
Together Ivan, Vera, the potion-maker, and Alyosha returned to the village. A week later Vera’s mother was well again, and when the women found a rare moment alone together, Vera told her of the fame of the golden cloaks. The rain stopped rather unremarkably while Vera’s mother laughed and laughed and laughed, and when she finished laughing she took her daughter’s hand. “Oh, my dear, my grandmother used to say that all the women in our family can weave those cloaks. The trouble is, they don’t glow on our husbands and sons, only on us and our sisters, and only when we most desperately need them. I had stopped believing it – but I guess none of us risked as much as you did, my brave daughter.”
And so on the morning of her wedding Vera folded up her cloak and lay it gently on the top shelf of a closet, beside the sword that slayed the dragon, for a rainy day. She taught her daughters to weave according to the family legend. The happy family traveled warm and dry to every corner of the thrice-ninth lands, where Vera’s dragon-slaying fame is still subsiding – unless, of course, she fights another one soon.