Many years ago, in a certain village lived an old couple, who had just one daughter, named Vassilisa. They lived in quite a small cottage, but they were comfortably off. Yet trouble came to them too, for the mother fell ill, and she realised that she was near to death. So she called her daughter to her, and gave her a small doll.
“Listen, my dear daughter,” she said. “Take great care of this little doll, and never let anyone else see it. If you ever get into trouble, give her something to eat and ask her advice. She will eat the food and will help you in your trouble.”
She gave Vassilisa a last kiss, and soon after she died. Although the old man mourned the loss of his wife, after some time he married again, thinking he would find his daughter a second mother. But all he gave her was an unkind stepmother. The new wife had two daughters of her own, who were stupid and fussy, and not at all good-natured. Their mother was very fond of them, but she made Vassilisa’s life a misery. She was always scolding her, treating her unkindly, working her hard. And her daughters were just as bad.
They did their best to make her look thin by overworking her, and to spoil her good looks by exposing her to the sun and the wind. All day the girl heard nothing but: “Get on with cooking the dinner, Vassilisa! It is time you swept out the home. Fetch some firewood, the fire is going out. Have you milked the cows yet? Do not stand there doing nothing, get a move on. You must work faster.”
Vassilisa was very willing, she did everything they asked, was always trying to please them, and managed the work very well. And with every day she grew more and more good-looking. She was too beautiful to be described. And she found the little doll of great help. Early every morning Vassilisa got some milk, shut herself away in the pantry, gave the doll the milk, and said to it:
“Drink up, Dollie, and listen to my troubles.” The doll drank the milk and comforted the girl, and did all the work for her. Vassilisa would sit quietly somewhere in the shade, before anyone else was up, while the doll weeded the flower beds, fetched water, lit the stove, watered the cabbages. The doll even showed Vassilisa certain herbs that would protect her from sunburn, and so the girl grew more beautiful than ever.
Then a day came when her father had to be away from home for some time. It was late autumn, and it was dark outside the cottage; rain was falling, and the wind was howling. So the stepmother and her daughters would not set foot outside the house. All around the village was a deep forest, and in the forest lived the witch Baba Yaga: she ate people as if they were chicks.
The stepmother gave all the girls work to do; one of her daughters was to make lace, the second to knit stockings, while Vassilisa was to spin. She put out all the lights except one small glimmer where the girls were working, and then lay down to have a sleep. But the birch splinter which the girls were using for light crackled and spluttered, and at last went out.
“Now what are we to do?” the stepmother’s daughters wondered. “There is not a light anywhere in the house, and we have our work to do. Someone must go to the witch Baba Yaga and get light.”
“But I shall not go,” the elder stepdaughter said. “I am knitting lace, and the crochet hook gives me all the light I need.”
“And I shall not go either,” the second stepdaughter said. “I am knitting stockings, and the needles give me all the light I need.” And they both cried at once:
“Then Vassilisa must go for the light. Go to the witch Baba Yaga, Vassilisa!” And they pushed the girl out of the house. All around her Vassilisa saw only the dark night and the deep forest, she heard only the angry wind. She burst into tears, and took the doll out of her pocket.
“My darling Dollie,” she said, “they are sending me to the witch Baba Yaga for light. And the witch eats people and crunches the bones.”
“Do not worry,” the doll told her. “While I am with you nothing will happen to you. So long as you have me no harm will touch you.”
“Thank you, Dollie, for your kind words,” Vassilisa said, and she set out to go to the witch’s hut.
All around her the forest stood like a wall; she could not see any stars shining, and the bright moon did not rise. She walked along trembling, pressing the doll to her breast. Suddenly a horseman galloped past her; he was dressed in white, he was riding a white horse, and the horse’s harness was bright. Dawn began to break. As Vassilisa went on she stumbled, and hurt herself against a stump. Dew clung to her pigtail, her hands were icy with cold.
Suddenly a second horseman galloped past; he was dressed in red, was riding a red horse, and the horse’s harness was red. The sun rose. It caressed Vassilisa, warmed her, and dried the dew on her pigtail.
All day she walked on. Towards evening she came to a glade. She looked into the glade and saw a hut; all round it was a fence made from human bones. On the fence were human skulls; human legbones served instead of a gate, there were hands instead of bolts, and sharp teeth acted as the lock. At this sight the girl was terrified: she stood rooted to the ground. Suddenly a horseman rode past; he was dressed entirely in black, was riding a black horse, and the horse’s harness, too, was black. He galloped up to the gate and vanished as if he had been swallowed into the earth. Night came on.
And as darkness fell all the eyesockets of the skulls on the fence began to glow, and it grew as light as day in the glade. Vassilisa trembled with fear. She could not move, her feet would not carry her away from the fearful spot.
Suddenly she heard and felt the earth quivering and shaking as though rocked by an earthquake. It was the witch on her way home; she was riding in a mortar, using a pestle to urge it on, and sweeping away her tracks with a besom. As she rode up to the gate she screamed:
“Pfooh! Pfooh! The place stinks of a Russian soul. Who is here?”
Vassilisa went up to her, bowed very low, and spoke very humbly:
“It is I, Grannie,” she said. “My stepmother’s daughters have sent me to you to get a light.”
“Ah, yes,” the witch said. “Your stepmother’s a relation of mine. Well, you can stay and work for me, and then we will see about the light.” Then she shouted: “Hey, my powerful bolts, unfasten yourselves! My broad gates, open for me!”
The gates opened, and the witch rode in. Vassilisa followed her. By the gate a birch tree was growing; it tried to lash Vassilisa with its branches.
“Do not whip the girl, birch tree,” the witch said. “I have brought her in.”
At the door a dog was lying; it tried to bite the girl.
“Do not touch her; I have brought her in,” said the witch.
In the porch a snarling cat tried to scratch the girl.
“Do not touch her, snarling cat, I have brought her in,” the witch said again.
She turned to Vassilisa: “As you see,” she said, “it is not easy to get away from me. The cat scratches, the dog bites, the birch will lash out your eyes, the gates will not open.” She went into the hut, stretched herself out on a bench, and called:
“Hey, swarthy child, get me some food.”
A swarthy young girl ran in and began to feed the witch; she brought a cauldron of beetroot soup, a bucket of milk, twenty young chicks, forty ducklings, and two pies, as well as endless quantities of kvass, mead, and beer. The witch ate and drank the lot. She gave Vassilisa only a crust of bread.
“Well, Vassilisa,” she said, “now take this sack of millet and sort it out seed by seed. Take out all the black seed. And if you do not get it all done I will eat you.”
Then she lay down, and soon started to snore. Vassilisa took the crust of bread, set it before the doll, and said:
“Dollie, Dollie, eat the bread and listen to my troubles. The witch has given me a difficult task, and she says she will eat me if I do not get it all done.”
But the doll replied:
“Do not cry. Better go and lie down to sleep. You will feel better after a good sleep.”
As soon as Vassilisa had dozed off the doll cried:
“Little birdies, tomtits, sparrows, and doves, fly here and save Vassilisa from harm.”
At once all sorts of birds came flying up in great numbers. Trilling and cooing, they set to work to sort the millet, putting the good grain into a sack, and the black grains into their crops. They sorted out all the grain seed by seed, and cleansed it of all the weed seeds. Just as the task was finished a white horseman on a white horse galloped past the gates. Dawn came.
The witch woke up, and at once asked Vassilisa:
“Well, have you done the work?”
“It is all done, Grannie,” she answered.
The witch flew into a rage, but there was nothing she could do.
“Well,” she grumbled, “I have to fly off now to fetch something. But take that sack over there; in it peas are mixed with poppy seed. Sort them all out, seed by seed, and put them into two heaps. And if you do not get it done I will eat you.”
She went out and whistled, and the mortar and pestle rolled up to her door.A red horseman galloped past. The sun rose. The witch seated herself in the mortar and rode out of the yard, using the pestle as a stick, and sweeping away her tracks with a besom. Vassilisa took a crust of bread, fed the doll, and said:
“Have pity on me, Dollie dear. Help me.”
The doll cried in a loud voice:
“Hurry to me, field mice, house mice, granary mice!”
The mice came running up in multitudes. And in an hour they had sorted all the peas from the poppy seed. Late in the afternoon the swarthy child laid the table, and waited for the witch to return. A black horseman galloped past the gate. Night fell. In the skulls the eye sockets began to burn, the trees creaked, the leaves rustled. Baba Yaga, the bony-legged witch, was on her way home.
“Well, how about it, Vassilisa?” she asked as soon as she came in. “Done all the work?”
“It is all done, Grannie,” the girl answered. The witch was furious, but she could do nothing.
“In that case,” she said, “go to bed, and I will lie down in a moment.”
Vassilisa went to lie down behind the stove. But before she could get to sleep she heard the witch say:
“Swarthy girl, make the stove really hot, get a blazing fire going. When I wake up I am going to cook Vassilisa.”
Then she stretched herself out on a bench, covered her feet, and started to snore so loudly that she could have been heard all through the forest.
Vassilisa lay in her corner, weeping. But then she took out her doll and set a crust of bread before it. “My darling Dollie,” she said. “Eat the bread and listen to my troubles.” The doll ate the bread, and then told Vassilisa all she had to do in order to escape from the witch. So the girl went to the swarthy child, and bowed to her.
“Help me, swarthy child,” she pleaded. “Do not burn the wood, but make it only smoulder by wetting it with water. Here, take my silk handkerchief as a present.”
“All right,” the girl said, “I will help you. I will take a long time over lighting the stove, and tickle Baba Yaga”s feet to make her sleep more soundly. And you run away home, darling Vassilisa.”
“But do you think one of the horsemen will catch me ?” Vassilisa asked anxiously. “Will they come back?”
“Oh no,” the girl answered. “The white horseman is the broad daylight, the red horseman is the golden sun, and the black horseman is the dark night. They will not hurt you.”
Vassilisa ran out into the porch. The snarling cat rushed at her and tried to scratch her. But she threw it a patty, and it did not touch her. She ran down the steps. The dog jumped up and tried to bite her. But she threw him some bread. And the dog let her pass. She ran through the yard. The birch tree tried to lash her eyes out. But she tied it with a ribbon, and the birch let her pass. The gates wanted to swing shut against her. But she greased their hinges with grease, and they opened for her. But now the black horseman galloped past; in the forest it grew darker than dark. How could she ever find her way home without a light? Her stepmother would beat the life out of her if she returned without it. But once more the doll instructed her what to do. She took a skull off the fence, and set it on a pole. Then she ran through the deep forest, and the eyesockets in the skull shone so brightly that the dark night was lit up like day. After a nap the old witch woke up and stretched herself. She went to catch Vassilisa to cook her, and ran into the porch.
“Snarling cat,” she said. “The girl ran past you. Why did you not scratch her?”
But the snarling cat answered:
“I have served you for ten years, Baba Yaga, and you have never even given me a crust. But she gave me a patty, so I let her pass.”
Then the witch rushed into the yard and cried:
“My faithful hound, why did you not bite the disobedient girl?”
But the dog answered:
“I have served you all these years, and you have never even thrown me a bone. But she gave me bread, so I let her pass.”
The witch screamed hoarsely:
“Birch tree, my birch tree, why did you not lash out her eyes ?”
But the birch tree answered:
“I have been growing in your yard for ten years, and you never tied up my branches even with string. But she bound me with ribbon, so I let her pass.”
The witch ran to the gates:
“My powerful gates, why did you not close and shut in the disobedient girl?”
But the gates answered her:
“We have served you so long, and you never even poured water on our hinges.
But she greased them with grease, so we let her pass.”
The witch was furious, and she started beating the dog, shaking the cat, chopping down the birch, breaking down the gate. But she did not try to go after Vassilisa to catch her.
Meanwhile Vassilisa ran all the way home. When she arrived she saw there was still no light in the house. Her stepsisters ran out and swore at her, reproaching her.
“Why have you been so long bringing the light?” they demanded. “We simply cannot keep any light going in the house. We have struck and struck the flint against the iron, but it never gave a spark to set the tinder alight. We hope the light you have brought will stay alight.”
They carried the skull into the best room, and there the skull’s eyesockets glared at the stepmother and her daughters so fiercely that they were burnt with fire. They tried to hide from the skull, but wherever they ran the glare of the eyesockets followed them and found them. By the morning they were burnt into cinders.
But the fire did not harm Vassilisa. In the morning she took the skull and buried it in the ground, and a crimson rose bush sprang up in the spot where she buried it. She did not feel that she wanted to remain in the house alone, so she went to the town and began to live with an old woman. One day she said to the old woman:
“Grannie, I am bored with sitting here doing nothing. Buy me some flax, the very finest you can get.”
The old woman bought the flax, and Vassilisa sat down to spin it. The work flew so fast in her hands that the spindle hummed. The thread came away even and fine, like a golden hair. Then she set to work to weave the thread, and she wove linen that could have been passed through a needle eye just like a thread. Then she bleached the linen whiter than snow.
“Now, Grannie,” she said, “go and sell the linen and keep whatever you get for it.”
The old woman gasped at the linen:
“No, I shall not sell it,” she said. “It is too good. Only a prince should wear such linen. I will take it to the prince.”
When the prince saw the linen he was astonished at its quality. “What do you want for it?” he asked.
“Such linen is without price,” the old woman answered. “So I have brought it to you as a gift.”
The prince thanked her and sent her home with presents. The servants wanted to make a shirt for him from the linen, but when they saw it no one would undertake the task: it was too fine for them to handle. So the prince sent for the old woman and said:
“As you have been clever enough to weave such fine linen, now make me a shirt from it.”
“It was not I who span and wove it, prince,” the old woman answered. “It was the girl Vassilisa.”
“Well then, let her make the shirt,” he told her.
The old woman went back home and told Vassilisa what the prince had said. The girl made the shirt, trimmed it with silks, and decorated it with seed pearls. Then the old woman carried it back to the palace.
Vassilisa sat down at the cottage window to do some embroidering on a tambour. Suddenly she saw one of the prince’s servants come running along the street. He hurried up to her window, and told her:
“The prince requires you to go to the palace.”
So she went to the palace. And when the prince saw how beautiful she was he stood rooted to the spot.
“I do not intend to let you go away,” he said. I want you to be my wife.”
He took her white hands, seated her at his side, and there and then they celebrated the wedding. Soon after they had got married Vassilisa’s father returned from his travels, and he went to live in the palace with his daughter. Vassilisa took the old woman who had helped her into her service. And she always carried the doll in her pocket. Vassilisa and the prince were very happy.