Thursday, March 12, 2015


There once was a young man just grown, who was neither ugly nor handsome but just so, neither thin nor fat but just so, neither weak nor strong but just so, and neither meek nor bold but just so. His father, a merchant-man, died and left him a small fortune. Now, he and his father had lived shrewdly to build up that inheritance, and the young man said to himself, "Why should I go on and suffer now that I am alone in the world?"

So he set about to spending his money on fancy clothes in which to strut about town, lavish things by which to live comfortably, beautiful horses on which to ride about the country side, and warm drinks under which to revel and carouse. Soon he found himself friend of all in the town and welcome wheresoever he traveled in the kingdom. He bought fine jewelry and dresses for beautiful girls who strolled about town on his arm, laughed and lounged with him in his comfortable house, shrieked and whooped upon horseback in the country, and blushed and leaned in close to him in the cool evenings. He even kept company with the Princess herself on occasion, and gave to her a cottage in the woods.

And so he enjoyed himself for quite some time, for his father had been as shrewd and prudent a steward as the son was not. After many years, however, the man -- who was no longer young -- had spent all to the last copper coin. Without his purchase of flowing beer and wine, his friends no longer came round to make merry with him. Without his purchase of sparkling jewels and gifts, the lovely maidens no longer paid any mind to him. And without his patronage of their wares, the merchants and artisans no longer tipped their hat when they passed him on the street.

So the man knew that it had come time to make something of himself in the world. He sold his comfortable house, used the money to pay part of his debt for the cottage he had gifted to the Princess (who had been married to a Prince in another country), and bought himself a single-room shack which did little to keep out the winter's cold. Then he rattled the doors of all the shops he had once patroned, looking for work. Yet he had learned no useful skills in his years of merrymaking, and time had made him more ugly than handsome enough for barking, more weak than strong enough for hard labor, more fat than thin enough for royal service, and more meek than bold enough to press on in his search.

In the same town there lived a woman the same age, who was also neither ugly nor beautiful but just so, neither thin nor fat but just so, neither flat nor buxom but just so, and neither shrewish nor pleasant but just so. Her parents had been poor and left her no dowry. She set about to find herself a husband in the town, but none could be interested in the prospect. "Wait some more and some man will come along," said the townspeople. And though she waited for a man to make her his wife, year after year they passed over her for others. In the meantime, the woman, whose name was Skazka, dedicated herself to acquiring skill in cooking, cleaning, spinning, and weaving, through which she made a living and built up a dowry on her own.

Now the man cast his eye about town and it fell on Skazka for the first time. "Ah," he said to himself, "Here is a fine lass with which to be serious, and grow old pleasantly." And so he set about wooing the woman, in hopes that she would marry him. But he bought her no fine jewelry or wedding gown, because he had already spent his money during his youth. "And a good thing, too, for a good wife should not be so concerned with such material things."

Poor Skazka had longed for a suitor to come knocking at her door, and at first felt that her perseverance had finally fruited. But then she remembered the years and years in which the man had never invited her to stroll about town on his arm, nor lounge within his comfortable home, nor fly about the countryside on horseback, nor warm at his side in the cool evenings. "Oh, whatever will I do?" Skazka asked herself, and others in the town, who all agreed that it was good and just that she should settle down with the man. "After all, isn't that what you wanted?" they said. "And aren't you a perfect match for him?"

But Skazka could not console herself with this, and she wept bitterly all the night. Then she got up early and set out on the road to beseech the King for advice. The palace being some ways off, she was still traveling as the day wore on. She came upon where the great Snake had lain himself down across the road to warm himself in the afternoon sun, and could not make her way around him.

"Please, sir Snake," she said, "Move out of my way so that I can go to see the King."

"And why do you want to see the King?" asked the Snake.

"A man who did not want me now has little choice than to marry me, and I go to seek the King's advice on my dowry."

"Would you make a good wife?" asked the Snake. "Can you cook, clean, and sew?"

"I can host a party with nought more than hock and stale bread, laid out to eat off a dirt path, with a tablecloth made from the grass of the field," Skazka replied.

"So you say," Snake said, "but I shall see for myself, and if true I shall bring a husband worthy of such a prize. First, make me a slicker of leaves to keep off the rain." And he thrashed his tail to knock over a tree.

Skazka sat down by the roadside and used the tree to spin its leaves into thread, from which she made a splendid jacket. It was woven tighter than the Snake's scales; not a seam could be seen on it. After putting it on, Snake was well-pleased, and said, "Next, clean out my home. You shall find it not far yonder in a cave in the woods. I shall come along at sunset to sup."

Skazka went to Snake's cave and swept it clean until not a speck of dust remained. Then she polished and shined all the rocks until they sparkled like fine jewelry. But there was not even a rind to cook for the Snake's supper! So she looked about in the woods for something to make into a meal. "If I don't find something for him to eat, he will like as not gobble me up myself!"

Spying a nest up in a tree, she climbed up to see if there were any eggs. The mama woodthrush, seeing that her clutch would be lost, begged Skazka not to take her eggs. "Please spare my children, and I will do you a good turn."

"But what good will it do me if I am eaten up by the Snake?" asked Skazka, and she considered taking the eggs anyway. Again, the mama woodthrush said, "Please spare my children, and I will do you a good turn." So Skazka relented.

She walked on in the woods and came upon a boar who had become trapped under a fallen tree. "Ah ha," she said, "Now I have found supper." So she began to sharpen a stick with which to kill the boar. But as she was doing so, the boar begged for his life. "Please spare me, and I will do you a good turn." He kept on and on, and Skazka used her stick to free him from the tree trunk instead.

She walked on and met a mountain goat with a kid. Skazka sat down to milk the mountain goat, but she implored Skazka, "I need my milk for my young. Please, spare him, and I will do you a good turn."

"But what good can you do me if I am eaten up by the Snake?" asked Skazka. But the mountain goat begged her again, and her kid bounced around with vigor, and Skazka relented.

"Now I am in for it," Skazka said, "for it is almost sunset. Oh well, there is nothing for it." Fetching water from a nearby stream, she went back to Snake's hole and stirred the ashes of the stove into a roaring fire. Then she put a cauldron on the fire.

Out of the fire popped a little man! He asked Skazka what she was doing in Snake's house.

"I am making supper for him," Skazka said. "But I do not have anything to cook!"

"Ah, simple," said the man. "Make button soup!" And then he hopped back into the fire.

So Skazka cut the buttons off her dress and plopped them into the cauldron. About that time the mountain goat came clopping by the door. "Here are some carrots for the soup." And the kid was carrying onions. So Skazka put them in the cauldron. The mountain goat and her kid left and about that time the boar came grunting by the door. "Here are some mushrooms for the soup." So Skazka put them in the cauldron. The boar left and about that time the woodthrush came chirping by the door. "Here are some fine herbs to flavor the soup." So Skazka put them in the cauldron. The woodthrush left and about that time the Snake came slithering through the door.

"My my," the Snake said, flicking his tongue out to smell the soup. "But you have cleaned up this place and made a supper that does better than a Russian smell." The Snake ate up the soup. "Well, you did not lie. So I shall keep my promise, and I shall keep you as my wife!"

Now Skazka set to trembling, but she smoothed her skirt and said only, "Supper has surely made you feel warm. Let me make your bed for you." And she put hot stones from the stove all around the bed. The Snake slithered in and went fast asleep. Then Skazka took the stick she had sharpened for the boar and drove it into the Snake's head. And so the Snake was defeated. But as he died his body thrashed and Skazka had to flee from the cave.

Now it was dark, but the road was clear of the Snake so Skazka walked on. Suddenly, behind her, there came a clip-clip-clop of a horse. Skazka stood to one side and turned to look. There, in the moonlight, came a man riding on a fine horse, much finer than any that her potential husband had ever ridden. He came a-galloping down the road, but when he saw Skazka standing there he stopped.

"What are you doing on the road at this hour, all alone and with your buttons missing?" the man asked. So Skazka told him. "I am going to visit the King, but I was delayed by the Snake."

"What luck!" the man said. "I am going to the King, and I will give you a ride." He hopped down from his horse, but then he pushed Skazka into the ditch, tore her clothes, and left her there as he galloped on.

Skazka picked herself up, wrapped her torn and button-less clothes about her, and walked all night to the palace. When she arrived at the gate, the guards stopped her, thinking she was a beggar. But Skazka said, "I have come to report the condition of the King's roads," and they let her pass. At the palace door, the guards stopped her, thinking she was a beggar. But Skazka said, "I have come to report the condition of the King's roads," and they let her pass. At the King's court, the guards stopped her, thinking she was a beggar. But Skazka said, "I have come to report the condition of the King's roads," and they let her pass.

When she entered the King's court, all eyes turned to see her, for her clothes were torn and stained all over with mud, yet she entered the court with the bearing of a queen. She walked directly to the King's throne, the people parting on either side of her, and there she bowed deeply before the King, who spoke to her.

"How is it," he asked, "that you have come to the King dressed as a beggar?"

"I set out on the King's road to ask the King's advice on my dowry, but I was waylaid by the Snake. After I passed his tests, I set out again on the King's road, but I was waylaid in the night by a man on a fine horse, and he wronged me so that now I cannot even work as a scullery-maid, but must live by the road-side all my days. I have come to report on this to the King."

Upon hearing this, the King sent everyone out of the court. And he questioned Skazka as to the man on the fine horse, how he was dressed, and where he was going. After she answered all his questions, he sent her to work in the palace as a scullery-maid. "Take care that no one troubles you," he said, "because you have the King's favor."

Skazka devoted herself to her work in the kitchens; soon the head cook trusted her with all of the King's dishes. In time, she gave birth to a boy whom she named Ivan. Then the King moved her to nursery to work as a nursemaid for the princes, where Ivan grew up with the King's own sons (heirs to the throne after the old Prince died). Ivan kept so closely with the princes that many in the palace did not know that he was not a prince himself. Meanwhile, Skazka was well-regarded in the palace, and she came to oversee the royal weavers, seamstresses, maids, and kitchen staff. So she and Ivan lived for many years under the King's favor.

Then there came a time when the kingdom went to war with the Morskoi Tsar. All the princes and young men in the land left to fight, and Ivan went with them. All of the mothers in the kingdom waited for their boys to return home, but none did, for great and powerful was the Morskoi Tsar. And Skazka waited with them, until she turned old and broken with grief.

Then the King gave to her a cottage in the woods, one of the best in his kingdom, which had once been owned by the Princess (until she became Queen of another kingdom). She lived alone but for her servants, and the cold of winter hurt her.

One day, a messenger of the King brought word that many of the kingdoms' sons had returned home, freed from the dungeons of the Morskoi Tsar. Skazka heard the news as she lay on her bed, for she was dying. She begged the messenger to return at once and search for her son Ivan, that he might come and see her before she died. "If I can but see his face once more, my precious son, I can die happy."

But when the messenger returned, he said her son Ivan could not come, and that the King was coming instead. Skazka turned to the wall and wept bitterly, for she would end life the same as she had begun. She said to the King's messenger, "Send my thanks to the King, who has treated me better than the husband I waited for in my youth. But tell him to turn back and not worry over this old woman, unless to find my son and send Ivan to see me before I die."

The messenger left, but word came back that the King's procession was still on its way to Skazka's cottage. So Skazka had the cottage cleaned and swept and prepared to receive the King. But she could not rise.

Trumpets sounded, for the King had arrived. Skazka sat in her bed and faced the door. In came Ivan! He wore a crown upon his head, as did the beautiful woman at his side. Skazka received them both into her arms, weeping tears of joy. Ivan had defeated the Morskoi Tsar and become King, but he was still her son, and so had come to pay his respects. He introduced his Queen, one of the Morskoi Tsar's swan daughters. And the King and Queen stayed at the cottage with Skazka until her time. After, the whole kingdom mourned for the loss of its Mother. They brought her back with them to the King's chapel, where every citizen attended her funeral dressed in black. And never did they mourn so before or since, because Ivan and his Queen ruled the kingdom wisely and well.