This week’s story is a Russian fairy tale from Ruth Manning Sanders’ A Book of Witches and begins when one day a single father of twins looks at all his mending and thinks, blow this, I’m getting married again. So he does. That turns out about as well as you might expect – his new wife doesn’t much like the children and takes the extreme approach to family planning by plotting their murder. She isn’t the dramatic ravens and swans kind of a stepmother, though; her approach is crafty.
“I don’t feel very well,” she tells her husband. “I need a rest from so much work. Couldn’t we send the twins to stay with my grandmother for a time? She is a woman of refinement, and can teach them many things. When I feel well again, they can come back to us.” That mending must be hell, because he agrees. The twins, in their turn, get it sold to them as a holiday with an apple-cheeked old lady in a ducky little cottage. The sister, however, is a Gretel kind of a girl. She thinks it’s a tad odd that they’ve been told not to pack anything. Almost like they won’t be needing a change of clothes in the forseeable future…
So before they follow their stepmother’s directions, the twins take a detour to their own grandmother, the mother of their father. “Your stepmother hasn’t got a granny!” she reveals. “The house she is sending you to is the house of the snarling witch. She doesn’t mean you to come back alive. But be civil and obedient to the witch, and perhaps some help may come.” So, basically, off you go to the witch, kiddies, good luck with that! She does at least provide the twins with supplies – bread, milk, a bag of nuts and a ham. Then she sends them on their way.
The children walk through the woods until they come to a cottage in the middle of a sloe thicket. The sight that meets them there definitively quashes any chance the stepmother intended them to ever come home: the witch is a giantess. She is so enormous that she has to lie on her side to fit into the cottage, with her knees jutting against the ceiling and her head poking through the doorway. And she really does snarl. The children are terrified, but the little girl remembers what her grandmother said about civility, and manages to speak up.”Good evening, granny. Our stepmother has sent us to stay with you.” “And we will do everything we can to serve you,” chimes in her brother. The witch is not averse to this idea, but makes it clear that if their service is not up to scratch she will cut her losses and make them into supper, and the same fate applies to any escape attempts. With those cheerful thoughts she dismisses the twins, who make a bed as best they can under some sloe bushes and cry themselves to sleep.
In the morning the witch somehow emerges from her house without knocking the whole thing down and sends the girl inside to get to work spinning. To the boy she gives a basket and orders him to pick sloes. Then she strides off into the woods, leaving them to get on with it. Only they can’t get on with it – the girl has never been taught how to spin. She’s sitting there staring at the witch’s menacingly huge frying pan when mice begin to pour out of every crack around her, squeaking soulfully. “Little girl, little girl, why cry your eyes red? If you want any help, then give us some bread.” The girl quickly crumbles up the bread from her grandmother’s supplies and scatters it for the mice.
If you have seen Disney’s Cinderella, you will know that mice have secret sartorial skills and a soft spot for harassed stepdaughters. I’m here to tell you that it is ALL TRUE. These mice spin the yarn neatly with their tails and clue her in on another potential ally, the witch’s cat. “If you give the cat your ham,” the leader of the mice explains, “she will tell you how to escape from the witch.” The girl promptly leaps up to go cat-hunting. Outside the cottage she finds her brother instead, standing under the sloe bushes. His job sounded pretty easy, but the branches have a maliciously contrary temperament – they belong to a witch after all – and keep whipping out of his reach, giving him nothing but scratches. The mice aren’t the only ones taking full advantage of the witch’s new employees, though. The children look up to find themselves surrounded by singing squirrels. “What a sad little boy! But surely he knows, if he gives us some nuts we’ll pick him the sloes.” Which begs the question, why does the witch not employ her local wildlife? Is this a payment dispute?
The children exchange the nuts for a basketful of sloes. When they return to the cottage the witch’s cat is there, curled up by the fire. The twins butter it up with petting and attention and all the ham they’ve got; the cat, in return, provides them with a comb and a handkerchief. And no, that isn’t a snide remark on what a night asleep in the woods can do to your hair. When the witch comes after them, the cat explains, they must drop each token behind them and they will be protected.
They have no chance at escape that night. The witch comes storming home, knocking off half the roof on her way inside and spooking the cat. Seeing the sloes and the spun yarn waiting for her, she keeps to her word and doesn’t make a fry up out of the children, but she’s not satisfied either. In the morning she orders the girl to weave two lengths of linen, and the boy to chop up a pile of logs. Instead of leaving them to it, though, she comes creeping back not long afterwards – insofar as a giantess is capable of creeping. “Are you weaving, my pretty little dear?” she snarls. “Yes, granny, I’m weaving,” answers a voice from inside. The witch is walking away when suddenly it clicks. That wasn’t the little girl’s voice! Flinging open the cottage door, she discovers her cat sitting at the loom, having a ball with the tangled mess of linen. The witch demands to know why she didn’t stop the twins escaping. The cat disgustedly spells it out. The witch didn’t give her so much as a fish scale; the children gave her all their ham. You do the math.
Livid, the witch snatches up her broom. Due to her most recent mistreatment of it, it cannot fly too far off the ground, but she bullies it along as fast as it can go. As it eats into the children’s headstart, they throw the comb behind them and it transforms into an enormous forest, forcing the witch to turn back for an axe. This only makes her mood more vicious. She takes it out on the broom, which perhaps is not wise…But still they gain on the children. The boy throws the handkerchief over his shoulder and it becomes a broad river. The broom does not want to fly across; it is exhausted. The witch keeps beating and abusing it as they fly over the water, until at last the broom has enough. “I won’t stand any more of this!” it announces, and tips her off into the river. The children return home to their father, who promptly kicks out his murderous wife; the broom, in turn, returns home to the cat, and they all live happily ever after.
There is not much that differentiates this story from numerous others. The evil stepmother, the witch in the woods, the items of personal hygiene that turn out to have magical properties, it’s all been done before. That ending, though, I love. It’s nice about the kids and everything, but knowing that the cat and the broom did just fine on their own without any witches or orphans at all is tremendously empowering. Watch out, sorcerer’s apprentice – magical brooms are getting their act together, and they have rights.