There was once a fair young maiden, with hair like a river of gold. Her beauty was a gift passed down from mother to daughter. Plagued by illness, her mother had grown sicker, and sicker, until finally, only her deathbed await. With her father gone to seek a cure for her mother, Vassilissa, as the maiden was called, saw over her mother’s last words.
“Vassilissa, my sweet daughter, I am so sorry. I will not be here to aide you in your troubles. But do not fear.” Her mother breathed, and Vassilissa, sweet girl that she was, shook her head, begging her mother silent. But her mother continued to speak with the last of her strength. “Go to the cupboard. Inside, there is a doll. This doll will be your companion when I cannot. If you ever find yourself for loss of what to do, feed her a bit of food, and give her just a sip of water, and tell her your troubles.”
Vassilissa swore that she would, and held the doll close to her breast as her mother slipped from this world. And as all things must, her story continued. Her father returned, not with a cure, but with a new bride. Vassilissa tried not to let her heart harden against the man, but it was impossible not to when he left not three days after, leaving her alone with her new step mother and the woman’s daughter.
Her step-sister was not a dutiful girl, spending her time instead in town, flirting with the boys and pushing off the chores of the farm upon Vassilissa. Vassilissa’s step-mother grew angrier and angrier, but instead of punishing the step-sister, she blamed it on the golden haired girl. Vassilissa learned true cruelty at her step-mother’s hands.
The step-mother grew colder and more hateful each day, as she watched Vassilissa grow even more beautiful and dutiful and intelligent, while her own daughter grew lazy and spiteful and ignorant. One day, she just couldn’t take it any longer. Her husband had not sent enough money for all three of them to live comfortably, and she was not going to let her daughter starve for this wretch.
So she sent Vassilissa on an errand. In the dead of winter, with the wind howling and the snow falling, she sent the girl out into the woods surrounding their farm, to gather flowers. Fresh ones. Dutiful and sweet, Vassilissa could find no way to say no, to beg pardon from the awful cold outside. However, she was unable, and was sent into the cold. Her tears froze on her cheeks, and her hands trembled around the basket and the little doll she always carried.
At least she had a bit of bread and some cheese to have for a snack. Finding a small hollow beneath a great huge tree, she lifted the bread and the crumbs to her mouth. And then, as suddenly as a lightning bolt, she remembered her mother’s words. With shaking fingers, she fed the little doll instead. And then, she told it of her troubles.
To her surprise, she heard the doll speak. In a voice as cold as the ice around them, the doll told her to continue walking into the wind, and not to stop until she smelt a fire. This seemed a cruel thing, but she was used to cruelty now, and so, after chewing slowly her own respite meal, she did as she was bid.
Cold ate at her, and soon, she felt hope, for she smelt a fire. The light and warmth of it were desperately desired by Vassilissa, and it was only when she heard voices that she cautioned herself to stop. In the clearing there was no snow, there was no wind. There was a fire, and around it, twelve man sat. Three were boys, three were young men, three were men grown, and three were old men. She listened to them speak and tell stories for just a moment, before the cold drove her closer, and she stepped into the Field.
“Forgive me, good sirs, please pardon the intrusion, but might I share your fire, if only until the snow passes? I will be happy to share what little food I carry?” She offered, and waited while the men conferred. Eventually, one of the old men bid her sit, and they all asked her to tell her story, to explain why a girl so fair and young was out in such horrid weather.
“My step-mother sent me for flowers to weave into my step-sister’s hair.” She did not complain, did not whine, but explained truthfully. The men respected this, and when she was done, one of the young men stood, and went to the eldest man.
“January, my friend, might I borrow thy crown for but an hour, to lend this poor girl aid?” And the old man passed his crown to the young, and once it sat upon the young man’s head, the snow stopped, and melted away, trees turned leafy and grass turned green. Soon, flowers were blooming everywhere, and Vassilissa was beside herself with joy. She gathered up snowdrops and tulips, daffodils and wild daisies, and then thanked the two profusely. “Your thanks are not needed, but hurry, for I must return the crown to January in an hour. Run home, and stay where it is warm, sweet girl.”
Vassilissa did as she was bid, running home through the bright warm woods, and only minutes after she was inside, did January sweep April away like a tempest, the blizzard all the colder now for having been warm. Her step-mother and step-sister stared in awe at the basket of flowers, fresh and impossible in Vassilissa’s hand. The step-sister snatched an empty basket, and ran off, following Vassilissa’s story. When she returned she was an old woman, cursed by the twelve men in the little clearing for having demanded where Vassilissa had been given.
Again, the step-mother grew resentful and hateful towards the young and beautiful Vassilissa, this time for making an old maid of her daughter. This time, she demanded that Vassilissa seek out the help of the old witch who lives in the woods, that she go to her and get a cure for the curse that her step-sister was under. Being a good, sweet girl, Vassilissa did as she was bid and took a basket full of cheese and bread for the journey.
The wind was cold and the snow still falling as Vassilissa trailed through the woods. She knew stories of Baba Yaga, the old witch who lived in the wood, and she knew that she would not return alive. In her despair, she thought again of the little doll and fed it some cheese and some water melted from snow. The doll asked her her troubles, and she told it her errand.
“Be careful, fair Vassilissa. Drink nothing the old witch gives you. Eat nothing the old witch makes for you. And do not ever open your eyes after dark. She will eat them from your head, should you see her secrets.” The doll spoke in a voice black as the evening sky, which slowly filled with stars.
Vassilissa did as she was told, and when she found the old woman’s hut, her legs shook with the want to turn around. The hut stood upon chicken’s legs, surrounded by a fence made of bones and topped with skulls whose eyes burned with fire. She made her legs move forward, onto the green grass around the hut, and she lifted a hand to knock on the door.
An old woman answered, her eyes dark as night, and her teeth sharp as a cat’s. Vassilissa begged her to help her step-sister, and in the end Baba Yaga refused. Vassilissa pleaded with the old woman, and finally, Baba Yaga declared that if Vassilissa could serve her for three days, she would cure her sister. But if she failed even one chore, Vassilissa would be her meal.
She had no choice but to agree, for Vassilissa wouldn’t be welcome home without the cure.
The first day, her only test was to search out all of the mice in the old woman’s hut, and cook them into a stew. Vassilissa was terrified of this, as mice were biting little things and she did not wish to cook them. But after she fed the doll and gave it some water, the Doll told her to take the cheese from her basket and crumble it up. Scattering it like breadcrumbs, the mice came out of hiding in seconds starved as they were.
Then, Vassilissa caught them all up in a burlap sack, and it wriggled and it squeaked, and she dumped them all, fur and tail, into a pot. She covered it with a lid. Ignoring the terrified scratching, she lifted the pot and set it atop the fire. The shrieks of the mice haunted her dreams that night, and she had no trouble keeping her eyes closed while Baba Yaga bustled around her.
The second day was not nearly so easy. Baba Yaga set her to finding and feeding her chickens. The moment she saw one of these chickens, she knew she would be dinner tonight. Tears bubbled on her cheeks as she gazed upon the razor winged, lion-mawed creatures that had only the barest traces of feathers to call themselves chickens. She hid in a corner, near the hut’s chicken legs, and fed the doll some crumbs of bread, and the salty water of her tears. She begged it’s help and it told her to braid a rope of her long golden hair, and cut it off. Then she was to dip it into the mouse-soup she had made the night before. After this was done, the doll told her to tie it between two trees and to scatter the buckets of feed underneath it. She did as she was told and was startled to see the beasts racing for the rope, gnawing on it. And when her golden hair snapped and fell, the beasts began to eat their own breakfast as well.
When she returned to the hut, and laid down, the sounds of screaming kept her awake that night, and she flinched whenever she heard the drop of a metal cleaver. She only barely managed to keep her eyes closed through the night.
The next morning, Baba Yaga had an even harder task for her. “You must go into the depths of the underworld, and bring me three teeth of the ruler of that realm.”
The old witch took down a cloak of black feathers, and wrapped it around the girl’s shoulders. “This will let you pass unharmed through the gates of the underworld. Do not lose it girl, and bring it back to me.”
Once again, Vassilissa begged the little doll for help, after feeding it its fill.
“Walk towards the setting sun. As you walk, you will see three horsemen. Do not speak to the first or the second, do not even look at their faces. The third, you must ask him to take you home. He will take you to the bowels of hell. When you are there, you must find and pick the largest apple you can find. Give this to the king of the dead, and he will break his teeth upon it. Take the teeth, and run. Do not look back, do not fear, and do not stop running, even if the ground falls out from beneath your feet.”
The fair Vassilissa set foot to road, and walked. Dawn came, and with it, a rider upon a white horse. She didn’t dare look up to see his face, and past him without seeing more than the flick of his horse’s white tail, and the flying hem of his white cloak.
She walked, and walked, and walked. And then, when the sun was high in the sky and the world was warmer than she could remember it ever having been in winter before, a red rider came thundering down the pass, the hooves of his great beast running swiftly. She did not even see the flutter of his hem as he passed, and for that she was grateful. The goosepimples on her skin were tickled by the feathers of the cloak.
She walked, and walked, and walked again. Finally, as the sun set and the night sky filled with stars, she saw the black horse, as it stood, fidgeting, in the middle of her path. She swallowed, and looked up to his face. She was suddenly glad she did not look at the other two, for this creature had no true face, had only bones and burning red eyes that felt as if they pierced her heart.
She begged in a quiet voice that he take her home, and soon, found herself over the front of his saddle, and the horse careening like a creature possessed through the woods. The girl screamed, and squeezed her eyes closed, and then, as suddenly as her journey began, it was over. She was standing in a dark place, the ground beneath her glowing faintly blue. Twisted trees made of crystal and rock spiraled up around her.
Remembering the little doll’s words, she searched desperately for an apple. But all she found growing on the trees were rocks. Red rocks, blue rocks, green rocks...more