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Russian fairy tale
Translated by Dorian Rottenberg
Illustrated by N.Guz
Once upon a time there was an old man and his wife. The old man hunted game and wild fowl, and that was all they had to live on. Many a year did they live, but were as poor as ever. The old woman sorrowed and grieved.
"What a wretched life we've had," she said time and again. "Never a good thing to eat or drink, never a fine dress to put on. And we've no children, either, no one to take care of us in our old age."
"Don't grieve, old woman," the old man soothed her. "While I've my two hands to work with and my two feet to carry me, we'll have enough to eat. And let tomorrow take care of itself."
So he said and went off to hunt.
All that day from morning till night the old man tramped about in the woods, but not a bird or a beast could he catch or kill. He did not like to go home empty-handed, but what could he do? The sun was setting, and it was time to turn homewards!
He had just started back, when there came a flapping of wings, and out of the bushes close by flew a bird of wondrous beauty.
But by the time he took aim, it was gone.
"It's a sorry hunter I am," sighed the old man. He peered under the bush where the bird had been, and lo! there in a nest lay thirty- three eggs.
"Better that than nothing," said he.
He tightened his belt and, slipping all of the thirty-three eggs inside his caftan, went home.
On and on he walked, and his belt came loose and one by one the eggs began falling out.
Down fell an egg, and a lad hopped out of it, down fell another egg, and out hopped another lad. Thirty-two eggs fell out, and thirty-two lads hopped out of them.
But just then the old man pulled his belt tight, and one egg—the thirty-third—stayed where it was. The old man looked back, and he could not believe his eyes: thirty-two bonny lads followed in his steps, all of them of the same height and as alike as peas in a pod. And they all spoke out with one voice:
"Since you've found us you can take us home. You're our father now and we are yours sons."
"What a lucky day for me and my old wife!" thought the old man. "Not a child in all these years, and now—thirty-two sons at one stroke."
They came home, and the old man said.
"Haven't you sighed and cried for children all these years, old woman? Well, here I've brought you thirty-two sons, all bonny lads, too. Now lay the table and feed them."
And he told her how he had found them.
The old woman stood there, and she could not say a word. Thus she stayed for a while, and then, drawing a deep breath, rushed to lay the table. Just then the old man undid his belt and was about to take off his caftan when down fell the thirty-third egg, and a thirty-third lad hopped out of it.
"Why, where do you come from?"
"I'm Ivan, your youngest son."
And the old man recalled that he had indeed found thirty-three eggs in the nest.
"All right, then, Ivan, sit down to supper."
No sooner had the thirty-three lads sat down to eat than they cleaned up all of the old woman's stores. But they got up from the table neither hungry nor full.
They slept the night through, and on the following morning Ivan said:
"You've found yourself sons. Father, now give us some work to do."
"What kind of work can I give you, lads? My old woman and I, we've never ploughed nor sowed in our life, for we've never had a horse or a plough."
"Well, if you haven't you haven't, and it can't be helped," said Ivan. "We'll have to go to other folk to find work. Now go to the blacksmith, Father, and have him make us thirty-three scythes."
Now while the old man was away at the smithy having the scythes forged, Ivan and his brothers made thirty-three scythe-handles and thirty-three rakes.
When the father came back from the smithy, Ivan dealt out the tools and said:
"Come, brothers, let's find us some work to do and earn enough money to start life on our own and take care of our old mother and father."
The brothers said good-bye to their mother and father and set off.
Whether they were on their way for a long or a little time nobody knows, but at last they saw a big town.
And out of that town the Tsar's Steward came riding. He rode up to them and asked:
"Ho, my lads, where are you going—to or from work? If it's to work, follow me, for I have something for you to do."
"And what is that?"
"Nothing very hard," replied the Steward. "You will have to mow the grass in the Tsar's own meadows, and then dry the hay, gather it in cocks and stack it. Who is the leader among you?"
Nobody answered, so Ivan stepped forward and said:
"Take us there and show us around."
The Steward led them to the Tsar's own meadows.
"Will three weeks be enough for you?" he asked.
"If the weather keeps up, three days will be enough," Ivan replied.
The Tsar's Steward was greatly pleased.
"Then fall to, my lads," he said, "and don't worry about food and pay: all that you need you will get."
"Roast us thirty-three bulls and stand us thirty-three pails of wine and give us a kalach apiece. That's all we'll need."
Off rode the Tsar's Steward. The brothers sharpened their scythes and plied them so heartily that they whistled as they cut the air.
The work went on briskly, and by evening all the grass was mowed. Meanwhile the Tsar's kitchen had sent up the fare: thirty-three roast bulls, thirty-three pails of wine and a kalach apiece. The brothers each ate half a bull and drank half a pail of wine and took half a kalach, and then they all tumbled down to sleep.
The next day, when the sun grew warm, the brothers made the hay and gathered it in cocks and by evening had it all stacked. And again they each ate half a bull with half a kalach and drank half a pail of wine. After that Ivan sent one of his brothers to the Tsar's courtyard.
"Tell them to come and see how we've done our work," said he.
The brothers came back with the Steward, and soon after the Tsar himself followed.
The Tsar counted all the haystacks and he walked all over his meadows—not a blade of grass could he find left standing.
"You've made the hay well and in good time, my lads," said he. "For this you have my praises and, over and above, here is a hundred rubles and a forty-pail barrel of wine. But now there is one more task I would have you do. The hay must be guarded. Somebody has been coming and eating it up every year, and we can't find even a trace of the thief."
And Ivan replied:
"Let my brothers go home. Your Majesty, I shall guard the hay alone."
To this the Tsar agreed, and so Ivan's thirty-two brothers went to the Tsar's palace and got their money as well as a sound supper and a good drink of wine. And after that they set off homewards.
And Ivan went back to the Tsar's meadows. At night he stayed awake and guarded the Tsar's hay, while by day he ate and drank and took his rest in the Tsar's kitchen.
Autumn came, and the nights grew long and dark. One evening Ivan climbed to the top of a haystack, burrowed into the hay and lay there, wide awake. At the stroke of midnight it suddenly grew light as day, as if the sun had risen. Ivan peered out and what should he see but a Mare with a Golden Mane. Out of the sea she sprang and dashed straight up to his haystack. The earth shook under her hoofs, her golden mane streamed in the wind, her nostrils spurted flame, and clouds of smoke poured from her ears.
Up she ran to the haystack and began eating the hay. And Ivan caught his chance and leaped on her back. The Mare left the stack and away she raced across the Tsar's own meadows. But Ivan held on to her mane with his left hand, and he gripped a leathern whip in his right. And he whipped the Mare with the Golden Mane and drove her straight into the moors and mosses.
The Mare galloped over the moors and mosses for a long time, till at last she sank to her belly in the mire. She stopped then and she spoke these words:
"You were quick enough to catch me, Ivan, and to keep your seat on me, and clever enough to tame me as well. Don't beat or hurt me any more, and I shall be your faithful servant."
So off he led her to the Tsar's courtyard and locked her up in a stable, and himself went to the Tsar's kitchen and tumbled down to sleep. In the morning he came to the Tsar and said:
"I have found out who stole the hay from your meadows. Your Majesty, and I've caught the thief too. Come, let's have a look at him."
When the Tsar saw the Mare with the Golden Mane he was greatly pleased.
"Well, Ivan," he said, "you may be young of years, but you are old of wisdom. For your faithful service I make you my Chief Groom."
And from that time Ivan was called Ivan—Young of Years, Old of Wisdom.
Ivan took up his duties at the Tsar's stables, and he didn't sleep nights looking after the Tsar's horses who daily grew more smooth and sleek. Their coats became glossy as silk and their manes and tails were always well combed and fluffy—a pleasant sight, indeed.
The Tsar was delighted and could not find enough words to praise Ivan.
"Well done, Ivan—Young of Years, Old of Wisdom! I've never yet had so fine a groom."
But the old stablemen envied him and said:
"To be ordered about by a village bumpkin! A fine Chief Groom for the Tsar's stables!"
And they started plotting mischief against him. But Ivan went about his work and had not an inkling of the danger that hung over him.
At that time an old drunkard, a tavern frequenter, came wandering into the Tsar's stable-yard.
"Give me a drop, lads, to cure that headache I caught last night," said he. "If you do. I'll set you on the right way to get rid of the Chief Groom."
The stablemen were overjoyed and gave him a glass of wine.
The old drunkard emptied the glass and said:
"The Tsar is dying to have the Self-Playing Psaltery, the Dancing Goose and the Glee-Maker Cat. Many fine lads set out on their own, and still more were sent after those wonders, but never a one came back. Now you go to the Tsar and say that Ivan-Young of Years, Old of Wisdom has boasted that he can get them, with no trouble at all. The Tsar will send him off, and he will never come back again."
The stablemen thanked the old drunkard, gave him a second glass of wine and went straight to the front porch of the Tsar's palace. They stood there gossiping under the Tsar's windows, and the Tsar caught sight of them, came out of his palace and asked:
"What are you talking about, my lads? What do you want?"
"Well, Your Majesty, it's just that Ivan—Young of Years, Old of Wisdom has boasted that he can get the Self-Playing Psaltery, the Dancing Goose and the Glee-Maker Cat. That is why we stand arguing here; some say he can fetch them, and others say he can't, that it's just empty words."
When the Tsar heard such speeches, his face changed and his hands shook.
"Ah," thought he, "if only I could get hold of those wonders! All the other tsars would envy me. I've sent so many men for them, and never a one came back!"
And he straightaway sent for his Chief Groom.
As soon as Ivan came in, the Tsar shouted:
"Waste no time, Ivan, but go at once and fetch me the Self-Playing Psaltery, the Dancing Goose and the Glee-Maker Cat."
And Ivan—Young of Years, Old of Wisdom replied:
"Goodness me. I've never even heard of them. Your Majesty! Where do you want me to go?"
But the Tsar flew into a rage and stamped his foot.
"What's all this talk about? Would you disobey your Tsar's orders? Off you go at once. If you fetch me what I ask, I shall reward you; if not. I'll out with my sword and off with your head!"
Ivan—Young of Years, Old of Wisdom left the Tsar with a heavy heart and a drooping head. He began saddling his Mare with the Golden Mane, and the Mare asked him:
"Why so unhappy, Master, is there anything amiss?"
"How can I be happy when the Tsar has ordered me to fetch him the Self-Playing Psaltery, the Dancing Goose and the Glee-Maker Cat, and I haven't even heard of them."
"Oh, well, that isn't anything to worry about," said the Mare with the Golden Mane. "Get on my back and let us go to the old witch Baba-Yaga and ask her where to find those marvels."
So Ivan—Young of Years, Old of Wisdom got ready for the journey and mounted Golden Mane. And that was the last people saw of him. No one saw him pass through the gates—he was too quick for that.
Whether he went far or near and whether he was long on his way or not nobody knows, but at last he rode into a dense forest. It was very dark there, not a ray of light filtering through. The Mare with the Golden Mane grew lean with weariness and Ivan—Young of Years, Old of Wisdom felt tired and worn. But at last they reached a glade in the woods and saw a little hut on a hen's foot with a spindle for a heel.
It kept turning round and round from west to east, and Ivan—Young of Years, Old of Wisdom rode up and said:
"Little hut, little hut, turn your back to the trees and your face to me, please. Not for years will I stay, but to sleep till day."
The hut turned its face to him, and Ivan tied his Mare to a pole, ran up on to the porch and pushed the door ajar.
And who should he see there but Baba-Yaga, the witch with the switch, a bony hag with a nose like a snag, her pestle and mortar beside her.
Baba-Yaga caught sight of her guest and croaked:
"Ugh, ugh, Russian blood, never met by me before, now I smell it at my door. Who comes here? Where from? Where to?"
"Is it so you treat a guest, Granny? Bothering him with talk when he's hungry and cold! At home in Rus they'd first let a wayfarer eat and drink and get warm, and give him a rest and a bath, and then start asking questions."
Baba-Yaga felt shamed and discomfited. "Don't be cross with an old woman, my fine lad," cried she. "We're not in Rus, you know. But I'll soon put things to rights."
And she flew about setting the table with food and drink. She made her guest welcome, and then she ran out to heat the stove in the bath¬ house. Ivan-Young of Years, Old of Wisdom steamed and bathed himself, and Baba-Yaga made up his bed and put him down to rest. Then she sat down at his bedside and asked:
"Tell me where lies your way, lad? Have you come here of your own free will, or has anyone's ill-will driven you?"
"The Tsar sent me to fetch him the Self-Playing Psaltery, the Dancing Goose and the Glee-Maker Cat," Ivan replied. "And I'd be ever so thankful, Granny, if you told me where to find them."
"I know where they are, my lad, but they're hard to get. Many a fine lad has gone after them, but never a one came back."
"Well, Granny, what is to be, will be, so you had better help me in my need and tell me where to go."
"Ah, well, my good lad, I pity you sore, but I see there is nothing to do but to help you. Leave your Mare with the Golden Mane here, she will be safe with me, and take this ball of yarn, and tomorrow, when you go out, drop it on the ground and follow wherever it rolls. It will bring you to my middle sister. Show her the ball and she will help you in all she can and tell you all she knows. And then she will send you on to our eldest sister."
Russian fairy tale; illustrated by Guz N.
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