|A happy family of dolls from|
Russia and the Slovak Republic
Once upon a time, in Russia, lived a wealthy merchant. He and his wife had one child, a daughter, "the beautiful Vasilisa". One sad day, before the girl's ninth birthday, "her mother was seized with a fatal illness." She called Vasilisa to her and gave her a little doll. Then she said,"Listen, dear daughter. Remember my last words." She said that she was dying, and would leave for Vasilisa, "with a parent's blessing" the little wooden doll. She told her girl to always keep it beside her, yet covered from the eyes of others. And, "If at any time you are in trouble, give it some food and ask its advice." With that, the woman kissed her beloved child for the last time, and died. As soon as the mourning period was over, Vasilisa's father took another wife, an especially pleasing "certain little widow,no longer young, who possessed two daughters of about the same age as Vasilisa." But when these moved into his home, the life of Vasilisa quickly became miserable. The hardest tasks were piled upon her in impossible amounts, and she was constantly threatened with beatings. The only way that the girl endured this was by means of her little doll. "As a rule, she kept a dainty morsel of food" aside, and late at night, would feed her and talk over the day's troubles. She said, "Now dear, eat and listen to my grief! Even though I am living in my father's house, my life is joyless, a wicked stepmother makes me wretched; please direct my life and tell me what to do."The doll replied that she would do the tasks the next day. In this way, Vasilisa survived several years. And as Vasilisa grew older, though she spent many hours outdoors at heavy labor, her beauty only increased. Her stepsisters, however, became uglier with each passing day. Soon the young men of the village were calling as suitors for Vasilisa, which only enraged her stepmother. It happened that the merchant announced to his wife that he had to go on a journey of several years. In the meantime, he said, the family would have to move to a small house in the woods. No sooner had they done so than the woman began sending her stepdaughter, "on some pretext or other, into the forest". She knew that danger was close by. "In the forest was a glade in which stood a cottage, and in the cottage lived Baba Yaga, who admitted nobody to her cottage, and devoured people as if they were chickens." One evening, when the last candle had sputtered out, the stepmother announced that someone would have to go to borrow a light from Baba-Yaga, for the sewing remained undone. The first girl said, "I can see my pins. I shall not go." Her sister said, "Neither shall I, my needles are bright." So they made Vasilisa go. She first went to her doll, fed her, and begged her guidance. The doll replied,"Go on your errand, but take me with you. No harm will befall you while I am present." So the girl went into the woods, with the little doll in her pocket. Deep in the woods, the girl trembled with fear. "Suddenly, a horseman galloped past; he was white and dressed in white, his steed was white and he had a white saddle and bridle." Dawn was breaking. Vasilisa kept walking and much later, "another horseman rode past; he was red and dressed in red and his steed was red. The sun rose." On she went and finally she came to Baba Yaga's cottage. The fence around it was "made of human bones, and on the fence there were fixed human skulls with eyes." She was terrified, but just then "another horseman rode up; he was black and dressed in black and upon a black horse." Darkness had fallen. With a scream and a swoop, "Baba Yaga appeared, riding in a mortar which she drove with a pestle" and sweeping her tracks away with a broom. The old woman yelled, "Phoo! Phoo! I smell a Russian. Who is here?" And Vasilisa said,"It is I, Granny. My stepsisters have sent me to you for a light." So the old lady told her that in exchange for work, she could have light, but that if she refused, she would be devoured. Then she told the girl to bring her the food in the oven. Vasilisa did, and thought that it would "have fed 10 men". Then she fetched "kvass, and honey, and beer and wine" from the cellar, and the old lady drank all of that as well. Vasilisa ate the scraps. Then she told her that the following day she would have to "clean the yard, sweep out the cottage, cook the dinner, and get ready the linen. Then go to the cornbin, take a quarter of the wheat and cleanse it from impurities." If this wasn't done, the girl would be devoured. So she went and took her doll from her pocket,and begged its advice, while feeding it a nibble of bread. The doll told her to say her prayers and sleep, for "morning is wiser than evening". And when Vasilisa awoke next day, the chores were done. But Baba-Yaga ordered her to do the same list of tasks again, with the addition of sifting earth from the bin of poppy seeds. Once again Vasilisa turned to her doll for help, and once again, the tasks were done in an instant. So Baba-Yaga had to give the girl the fire. Then she gave her permission to ask a question. Vasilisa asked the meaning of the white horseman, and the witch told her, "He is my clear day." Then the girl asked about the red horseman, and the witch answered, "He was my little red sun." As for the black horseman, he had been "My dark night; all three are my faithful servants." said Baba-Yaga. Then she told the girl that it was fortunate her questions had been of matters outside her cottage, for she would otherwise have eaten her. She sent the child back home with a skullful of fire, and soon, the girl was home again. Yet when she brought in the skull, the fire shone through its eyes "and looked continually at the stepmother and her daughters". The strain of running from that gaze caused them to burn to cinders; Vasilisa was left alone. So she went into a nearby village, and found companionship with an old woman. She asked this one for some good flax to spin, and it was brought. In spring, she bleached the fine linen, and told the old one to sell it. But it was so fine that Granny could not bear to sell it, and so brought it as a gift to the tsar. So soft and supple was the fabric that he soon called for shirts to be sewn from it, but none could cut it. At last, Granny took it home for Vasilisa to sew. When she had done, and the tsar put on the shirt, he declared that he must meet the seamstress. And when Vasilisa came, he told her, "I cannot bear to separate from you; become my wife!' So she did, and she "took the old woman into the palace, and never separated from the little doll, which she kept in her pocket."
From The Young Oxford Book of Folk Tales, edited by Crossley-Holland, K. (1998) Oxford Press
Notes: Baba Yaga is an ancient character, found in eastern Europe; she can be benevolent as well as evil.
Montessori Connection: Extension for the Third Great Lesson, The Coming of Humans: Making Fire
1. Read this story and notice that without help from a neighbor, the family would have had to stay in the dark.
2. Think about what it was like before people learned how to make the nighttime as bright as day.