Year of the Witch: The Witch in the Stone Boat

This Icelandic story comes from Fairy Tales from Around the World by Andrew Lang. It begins by introducing us to handsome Prince Sigurd, who is being sent out into the world to get married to his father’s pick of a princess. Unusually for a prince in a fairy tale, he is entirely amenable to the plan. He travels to the kingdom in question to make his proposal, and unusually for a wedding in a fairy tale, the whole business goes off without a hitch, at least from Sigurd’s perspective. The princess’s father consents to the match; she is completely silent. Sigurd is asked to stay and help govern his elderly father-in-law’s kingdom, and agrees to do so until his own father’s death, whereupon he’ll have to return to the kingdom of his birth and rule there instead.

Years pass and he continues to live the silver spoon life, with a happy marriage and an adorable baby son. When word comes that Sigurd’s father has died, he and his wife and their toddler all set off to claim Sigurd’s new throne and that is when their first problem occurs: they lose the wind and instead of reaching Sigurd’s kingdom within a day, as expected, their ship is stuck on calm seas. Sigurd retires to sleep. The sailors sleep too. The queen remains alone on deck, playing with her little boy.

She notices a shape approaching the ship. As it grows closer, she sees it is a boat made of stone, rowed by a very ugly witch. Who’s willing to lay odds that physical appearance will be an indicator of moral virtue in this story?

The queen is frozen in terror with her son in her arms, watching as the witch climbs aboard. The witch pulls the child away and sets to undressing the queen, taking the clothes as her own and in so doing stealing the queen’s appearance. Then she places the queen in the boat. “This spell I lay upon you,” the witch says, “that you slacken not your course until you come to my brother in the underworld.” Always here for large witch families, not so into the intense creepiness of this entire situation. Having assumed the queen’s identity, the witch picks up the crying baby that comes part and parcel with the crown, but the queen’s son is not fooled by her. She is not his mother and he continues to cry.

Sigurd is fooled, though very surprised to be woken by an angry wife who scolds him for the carelessness of leaving her alone on deck. The woman he married does not talk like that; still, he accepts her point and wakes the sailors. A wind springs up and soon enough the ship is sailing into harbour. Sigurd is crowned king and everyone seems very pleased to see him, but he is not at ease at all. His son is distraught, only calming when taken from the false queen and given into the care of a lady of the court. Sigurd’s marriage is also on the rocks, and he cannot understand why.

A pair of young courtiers share a room close to the queen’s. They are sitting together playing chess one day when they hear her talking to herself. “When I yawn a little,” she says, “then I am a nice little maiden; when I yawn half-way, then I am half a troll; and when I yawn fully, then I am a troll altogether.” She proceeds to yawn widely and transforms into a literal troll, because this story is wearing its misogyny on its sleeve. The floor opens and a three-headed giant emerges, this being the witch’s brother. He offers the witch a huge trough of meat and she devours the lot. The shocked courtiers listen in as the giant retreats and the witch transforms back into a human woman.

They do literally nothing with this revelation.

Meanwhile, the little prince’s nurse is having her own unsettling encounters. One evening while she’s holding the little boy, the floor of the room opens up and a woman in white rises from it, wearing an iron belt with a long chain that vanishes into the dark behind her. She takes the child from the stunned nurse, holds him close, then hands him back and disappears underground again. The same thing happens the next night. The nurse is not alarmed by this mystery woman so much as by her melancholy; she fears that there is a danger looming over the little boy in her care. She decides to take the problem to Sigurd. He comes into the room that night and stands watch with his sword drawn, ready for action, only to realise as the woman emerges from the floor that she is in fact his wife. He hacks the chain apart and there is a terrible crash, as if an earthquake is shaking the palace apart.

As the shock of sound fades away, the queen tells her husband the full story of her capture. As instructed, the ship took her to the three-headed giant, who hoped to marry her. It would appear bigamy is okay in witch and/or giant culture? Or maybe kidnapping and identity theft counts as a divorce? Informed and enthusiastic consent is definitely not a thing for them – when the queen flatly refused to consider remarriage, the giant locked her up.

She came up with a strategy: in return for three nights visiting her son, she would marry the giant, who agreed to the terms but insisted upon actually physically chaining her to him first. By cutting the chain, Sigurd accidentally sent the giant falling down the stairs of his palace and the crashing was the sound of his death. That is called karma. As for the witch, well, Sigurd is not a very merciful king. He has her stoned to death and then torn apart. The nursemaid, on the other hand, is showered with all the rewards that grateful royalty can bestow: an advantageous marriage, all sorts of gifts, and lifelong friendship.

It should be pointed out that there is still a giant’s lair hidden underneath the palace. Hopefully someone gets a handle on that situation before another fairy tale villain moves in, because frankly that is the type of real estate situation that ends with princesses dancing underground and heads on spikes. No one say you weren’t warned.

Year of the Witch: Foundling

This German fairy tale is from Vintage Grimm: The Complete Fairy Tales and it begins very Grimmly with a small child being snatched from his sleeping mother’s lap by a hawk. The hawk then drops its prey into the branches of a tall tree and takes off out of the story, never looking back. Meanwhile the child’s crying draws the attention of a passing forester who adopts him on the spot, names him with Foundling in much the same way people name their dogs Rover, and raises the boy alongside his own little girl Lena. The children are inseparable.

Unfortunately, there is a fourth member of their little household: Sanna, the forester’s old cook, who is a witch of the cannibalistic type.

She’s not a very good witch. She’s not a very good murderer either. Observant little Lena notices that she is bringing a startling number of buckets back from the well and when she asks why Sanna needs so much water, the cook freely informs her that she places to cook Foundling as soon as the forester leaves the house the next day. What she expects Lena to make of such a statement is unclear. She swears her to secrecy, but Lena is not a girl to contort herself into keeping stupid promises. Instead she wakes Foundling very early in the morning to share the terrible scheme. “If you won’t forsake me,” Lena tells him, “I won’t forsake you.”

The children run away together. When Sanna realises they are gone, she sends three servants to bring them back. Are they servants of the forester’s household? Are they magic servants enslaved to Sanna’s will? Who knows. They are no better at tracking children than Sanna was at killing them. As soon as the servants approach, Foundling becomes a rosebush and Lena turns into a rose upon it. How they accomplish that is another very foggy aspect of this fairy tale. Not that it is an unprecedented solution – see ‘Kojata’ for a particularly good example – but usually magic is involved in some acknowledged way, as opposed to the ‘power of friendship’ connotations in this fairy tale, as if we could all shapeshift if we were doing our relationships properly.

Anyway, the servants are fooled and return empty-handed to Sanna, who is furious. “You blockheads!” she cries. “You should have cut the rosebush in two, plucked the rose, and brought it back with you. Now go quickly and do it!” They scurry off to do her bidding, but the children are ready for them with more completely unexplained shape-shifting. Foundling turns into a church; Lena becomes a chandelier. The servants once again fail to recognise their targets. Looks like if Sanna wants this job done, she’ll have to do it herself, so the third time she sends out the servants she comes along with them.

Foundling transforms into a pond. Lena becomes a duck. Sanna recognises them straight away and leans down to start drinking up the pond, only for Lena the murder-duck to swim over and push her face into the water until she drowns. When Sanna is definitely dead, Lena and Foundling become human again and return home, where they apparently live happily ever after. What happens to the servants is not recorded. They probably run away. That seems like the most advisable course of action.

Foundling’ fits in the same category of Grimm brothers’ fairy tale as ‘Hansel and Gretel’: that is, sibling combo with obedient, endangered brother and resourceful, moderately murderous sister. At least this one has well-intentioned, if completely ineffective, parental figures. Another point in its favour is that it actually names the witch, which is rarer than you might think. So other witches can tell the story of Sanna and not make her choices.

Year of the Witch: the Baba Yaga

Trigger warning: domestic abuse

When it comes to fairy tales, the Russians have an ace up their sleeve: Baba Yaga. She is one of those characters whose personality overpowers literally everyone else in whatever story she happens to occupy, even if it is technically about someone else. This fairy tale, taken from Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales, does not even pretend.

It begins with a man who is only relevant because he has a daughter by his first wife, and because once he’s a widower he makes the mistake of marrying BABA YAGA’S SISTER – who takes to the evil stepmother lifestyle as a natural. I am now seriously tempted to try and figure out Baba Yaga’s family tree, what with all these siblings coming out of the woodwork. Anyway, the poor girl stuck in this house is already having a terrible time of it when her stepmother decides it is time to get rid of her for good.”Go to your aunt, my sister,” the stepmother instructs, “and ask her for a needle and thread to make you a shift.” And she will probably eat you, is the unspoken codicil to that statement.

The girl does not trust her stepmother an inch. She goes to one of her own aunts first for advice, and the aunt is unexpectedly prepared for this situation, to the point of knowing literally every threat she is going to face in Baba Yaga’s house and advising the girl on how to deal with all of them. There is a prequel just waiting to be acknowledged there. Fortified, the girl starts off on her stepmother’s errand. She greets Baba Yaga politely and Baba Yaga responds by calling her ‘my dear’, which may or may not be ominous – you never know with Baba Yaga. There is a loom standing inside the house. Baba Yaga tells the girl to sit down and weave while she goes to fetch the needle and thread.

Only what Baba Yaga actually does is go straight outside and order her maid to prepare a bath to wash the girl so that she will be all nice and clean to cook for breakfast.

The girl appeals to the maid’s kindness, convincing her to dampen the firewood and fetch the bathwater in a sieve, and bribes her with a handkerchief. So preparing the bath takes a very long time. Baba Yaga does not appreciate waiting. She prowls around outside and goes to the window to check that the girl is still weaving away indoors.

However frightened she is, the girl is ready for action. She feeds Baba Yaga’s cat a piece of bacon and asks if there is a way to escape the house. The cat likes her. It gives her a towel that can transform into a wide river and a comb that will become a thick forest. With these things, she stands a chance.

Baba Yaga has other guards around her house. There are the dogs, but the girl throws bread to them and they allow her to pass. There are doors, but the girl oils their hinges and they do not make a sound as she opens them. There is a birch tree with vicious branches, ready to put out her eyes, but the girl ties a ribbon around it and the tree lets her go by in peace. Meanwhile, the cat has busied itself at the loom, answering Baba Yaga in its best ‘totally a human girl’ mimicry when Baba Yaga calls through the window again. Not that Baba Yaga is convinced – she runs into the house and sees that the girl is gone. “Long as I’ve served you,” the cat hisses, “you’ve never given me so much as a bone; but she gave me bacon.” Ditch this joint, kitty, you deserve better.

Similar accusations come thick and fast from the witch’s other servants. If you’re a crappy employer, you’d better be prepared for your henchcreatures to turn on you and let your prisoners escape. Baba Yaga spreads her anger around for a bit then hurries in pursuit of her prey, flying away in her mortar and pestle. The girl quickly throws the towel behind her. Baba Yaga is temporarily stymied by the sudden river that springs into being, but soon comes up with a solution; she goes home for her oxen and they drink up all the water. Before long Baba Yaga is hard on the girl’s heels again. The girl throws the comb and the forest that leaps into being is so thick and so tangled that even Baba Yaga cannot force her way through.

By now the girl’s father has noticed her absence. When she comes running home, full of the story of her terrifying adventures, he is roused to protect her at last and reacts by shooting his wife. After that, the girl and her father are safe. And I sincerely hope they end up adopting a witch’s cat.

I love Baba Yaga stories. This one is full of interesting crunchy details, even if it cannot match up to the glory of Queen Glafyra in ‘Vanooshka’. I don’t know how I feel about Baba Yaga’s sister getting killed off – while yes, she was a horror story of a relative, I’m very uncomfortable with any character being murdered by their significant other in the name of ‘justice’. Especially when the father turned a blind eye to her abuse of his daughter for so long, only paying attention when the girl almost died. No wonder the girl managed to make an alliance with Baba Yaga’s servants. They all share the experience of being completely taken for granted.

Year of the Witch: The Beekeeper and the Bewitched Hare

This week’s story comes from Thistle & Thyme: Tales & Legends from Scotland by Sorche Nic Leodhas, published in 1962 by The Bodley Head Ltd. The fairy tale begins by introducing us to the beekeeper from the title, who lives alone in a cottage on the moor. He likes to talk to his bees and they like to buzz to him and even if neither party fully understands what the other is saying, they understand one another’s affection and it is adorable.

One evening the beekeeper hears the baying of hounds near his house. He barely has the time to register that there’s a hunt in progress on the moors when a hare bolts straight at him and launches itself into his arms, two dogs in hot pursuit. The beekeeper rolls with this, driving off the dogs and soothing the terrified hare before placing it on the ground. He expects the hare to be off in an instant now that the dogs are gone. Instead, the hare follows him into the house and hops onto the table to look expectantly at his plate until it is fed a share of his supper. Up this close, the beekeeper realises his new friend’s eyes are a startling brilliant blue unlike any other hare he has ever seen. He also realises that the hare has pretty much moved in with him and decides to roll with that too.

The next morning the beekeeper introduces the hare to his bees and both parties are very chill about the new living arrangements. The hare follows the beekeeper about his business and the bees go about their business and the whole thing is a little rural idyll until one day an old woman comes to the house to try and buy the hare. The beekeeper is instantly suspicious of her. He refuses to sell. The old woman tries to snatch up the hare by force but the bees are having absolutely none of that and swarm on her, chasing her away across the moor. “Look well to yourself and your hare, beekeeper!” she yells over her shoulder, which would be a more impressive threat if not for the apian army on her heels.

Soon after, the beekeeper heads into town for market day to sell his honey and sees the old woman again, though she does not see him. He asks a friend who she is and gets the anxiously whispered response that she is a witch. The beekeeper takes that with a pinch of salt. He is not the judgy type. But she did try to steal his pet, so he’s going to take her advice literally and look well to himself and his hare.

Months pass and all seems well. Summer gives way to autumn and the bees settle in their hives. Romani caravans are heading south but few venture across the rough tracks of the moor so when the beekeeper sees one close to his house, he comes to the door, waving to the young man behind the reins. It’s hours later before he spots a sack of grain on the track, which can only have fallen off the caravan. The beekeeper decides he’d better get out his own wagon and go return the sack, before the Romani get too far away.

The young man he waved to earlier is startled but pleased at the kind gesture. “We’re travellers,” he remarks. “Folks don’t have no use for travellers as a rule.” I am now wondering how often social injustice is directly referenced like that in fairy tales, without reinforcing negative stereotypes? I think not often but I’m not sure. Though this book shows its age in outdated terminology, using a slur for the Romani people, all the interactions with their characters are very positive. Anyway, the beekeeper is here to do the right thing and has no patience with people who are not. He’s about to head home when the Romani man notices the hare bundled up in his jacket. “There aren’t any blue-eyed hares!” the young man blurts, and since the hare continues to exist, he calls his grandmother for a second opinion.

The grandmother comes out to look and promptly pronounces that the hare is not, in fact, a hare. It is a girl under a curse. The beekeeper connects the dots and realises that the witch is, in fact, a witch. He explains how she came sniffing around for the hare and was sent running. “Are you friends with the bees?” the grandmother asks. “I love them well,” the beekeeper says. That they love him is not really a question and that’s lucky because they are pretty much all that is keeping the witch away. The grandmother believes that she will return on All Hallows’ Eve, when her powers will be at their strongest. The beekeeper is firmly told to go home, explain his problems to the bees (like he wouldn’t have done that anyway) and make sure he’s not around when the witch rocks up on All Hallows’. That is very solid advice. The grandmother has one further insight: the enchanted hare will be drawn by the witch’s magic, so the beekeeper will have to do a Fair Janet and keep hold of her no matter what.

With that, a round of thank yous are exchanged and the beekeeper goes on his way as the Romani go on theirs. The beekeeper goes home and duly makes a tour of his hives, sharing the news with the bees, who buzz with what sounds an awful lot like rage.

On All Hallow’s Eve, the beekeeper follows the grandmother’s advice to the letter. He ties the hare to his arm and leaves his house, the door wide open, to drive his wagon across the moor. At midnight, the hare tries to bolt. The beekeeper snatches her back against him. It is very dark but he can feel the writhing, wild shape in his arms, a shape that is suddenly much bigger than a hare. When the clouds across the moon part and the beekeeper can see what is happening, he discovers that he’s holding a girl with bright blue eyes. The curse is broken.

They immediately drive off to get married and whoa, this relationship is moving a tad fast given that the girl has not had a single line of dialogue or even a description of her facial expressions at any point, but she has been living with the man for months and I have to agree he’s been demonstrating straight A husband material all this time. A week later – their honeymoon involved taking the scenic route home – they are passing through the market town and hear that the witch was found on the morning after All Hallow’s Eve, stung to death. The beekeeper and his wife make sure to thank the bees as soon as they get home, and if they can’t understand exactly what the bees say back, it’s close enough.

I have a soft spot for fairy tales that involve bees and the folklore that surrounds them. This fairy tale appears to be based on the European tradition of ‘telling the bees’, according to which a beekeeper would notify their bees of major life events. Those bees probably didn’t go murdering any witches, but hey, you never do know.

Year of the Witch: Vanooshka

This one’s from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ A Book of Kings and Queens. It was published in the UK by Methuen Children’s Books in 1977 and arrived on my bookshelf via a cull by the National Library of New Zealand, which is their loss but my gain. The fairy tale is Russian. The story opens when the titular Vanooshka’s father decides that his boy is old enough to go learn a trade and the pair of them set off to town. On the way they are caught in rain while passing a large house and the elderly owner of the place invites them inside to dry themselves by the fire.

Upon hearing of their business, the old man offers to teach Vanooshka. “Give him to me for three years,” he says to Vanooshka’s father. “I will teach him to know what is good and what is evil.” That is a concerning mission statement, if you ask me. But the old man is certainly a generous host, putting up father and son for the night, and Vanooshka wants to stay, and his father ends up leaving him there to learn…morals? Philosophy? Who knows.

Not Vanooshka, that’s for sure. Two years pass and he is literally doing nothing at all. At last, bored out of his mind, he asks the old man to actually teach something and is given a set of keys that will unlock six doors. Behind each is a different trade. Vanooshka just has to pick one.

Behind each is the master of a trade. Vanooshka just has to pick one. His options are as follows: sailor, gardener, soldier, musician, huntsman…and residency of a palace, possibly as royalty, complete with his own portrait in the picture gallery. Wildly enthusiastic as he is about each option in turn, the prospect of living in such wealth and splendour easily outshines all the other lives Vanooshka could lead. He is about to return to his mentor when he notices a seventh door.

He has no key to this door, which naturally makes him intensely curious about what’s on the other side. Putting his ear to the wood, he hears girls laughing on the other side. Vanooshka has not only been bored in the old man’s house, he’s been lonely, and knocks hopefully on the door. The voices go silent; the door stays shut. Vanooshka does not give up. Spotting a knothole, he works at it with a knife until there is a hole big enough to see through. Which is honestly a tad creepy, all things considered.

Inside the room sit three beautiful girls, who do not seem at all surprised by Vanooshka’s presence. They ask why he does not visit them and when Vanooshka explains that he has no key to their room, the third and presumably youngest of the girls offers a solution: get the old man blind drunk and steal the key from under his moustache. Which is also creepy! This is a creepy house! But Vanooshka is happy to give the idea a go and it works out, he gets the key, he gets into the room. The girls are bright and laughing. They tells Vanooshka to unlock a second door inside their room and fetch out their dancing dresses.

Now they are glittering, whirling, spinning Vanooshka into their dance so fast he can barely keep up. And then he’s on the floor. And then the girls all turn into bees, and fly out the window.

In a panic, Vanooshka hurries to wake up the old man, who takes the news without particular surprise. “So my grand-daughters have flown away, have they?” he remarks. “I must go after them. It will take me three years to collect them. Bring me my clothes and my travelling cloak.” Vanooshka spends those three years mooching around the house, waiting. He still has the six keys and uses them now and again, but never settles to any of the trades. At the end of the three years, the old man returns with his granddaughters and announces that Vanooshka is to pick one as his wife.

“I will have the youngest,” Vanooshka says. “But see, Grandaddy, I don’t even know her name.” Oh my. The girl’s name is Nadya and no one asks her what she wants. Far from setting the newlyweds up in the palace of Vanooshka’s dreams, the old man gives them a small house neighbouring his own, the better to keep an eye on them. He gives Vanooshka something else as well: a dress, one of the glittering dancing dresses that allowed the girls to escape before. The old man instructs Vanooshka to never let Nadya have it. I see a plot point rising on the horizon.

Nadya does not say ‘screw this patriarchal domesticity, I want to dance and turn into a bee’, but she does put her best effort into getting that dress back. She wears her ugliest clothes to embarrass Vanooshka by association, and cries her heart out until Vanooshka crumples like wet paper. As soon as she has the dress, Nadya turns into a dove and is gone out the nearest window.

For lack of a better idea – the story of his life to date – Vanooshka chases after her. He runs and runs until he runs out of puff, stuck in the middle of a swamp. When he manages to get out of the swamp, it is near nightfall, he’s terribly hungry and there is nothing but moorland for miles. Eventually he comes to the edge of a forest and sees a light shining through the trees. He follows it and comes to a little hut. There is no answer to his knock,  but as we’ve already seen, that’s hardly going to stop him. He lets himself in and lies down by the fire to dry out his muddy clothes.

Unfortunately for him, this is Baba Yaga’s house. She arrives home shortly after Vanooshka has fallen asleep. “Ah ha!” she cries, at the sight of the young man in front of her fire. “My supper!”

Instead of fleeing screaming into the night, Vanooshka sits up. “You ought to say ‘Welcome, traveller!’,” he sulks at her. “You ought to heat the bath, wash me, comb the tangles from my hair, feed me, and ask ‘Where are you from, and how have you spent your life?’” High maintenance and a death wish. But Baba Yaga is oddly charmed. The boy has nerve and she likes that. She actually mothers him a bit and asks him about himself. Vanooshka explains about his non-apprenticeship and disastrous marriage and Baba Yaga in turn explains that Vanooshka is an idiot. The old man is her brother. Nadya is her grand-niece. I am floored. I have never heard of a story where Baba Yaga has a brother, let alone a grand-niece, how have I gone SO MANY YEARS without this knowledge?

Nadya passed through the forest but would not stop. Vanooshka is frantic to set out after her right away but Baba Yaga is still trying out this whole hostess thing and insists he sleeps first. And it isn’t even a trick. She cooks breakfast in the morning instead of Vanooshka and packs him a pancake for later on. After Vanooshka has eaten, she takes him to the top of a tall hill and points south to where the light of what appears to be a distant fire can be seen. It is not a fire; it is light playing across the golden palace of Queen Glafyra, who has kidnapped Nadya and is holding her prisoner. I cannot believe that Baba Yaga has had a nemesis ALL THIS TIME and NO ONE EVER TOLD ME. My life has been a lie.

It is Vanooshka’s task to go rescue his wife. Baba Yaga gives him a bone from a raven and a bone from a pike, just in case – always the bones with Baba Yaga – then finishes up with a good shove and off he goes. Vanooshka walks and walks, and runs, and walks again, until he comes to Glafyra’s palace.

The gate is guarded by three lions. Following Baba Yaga’s instructions, Vanooshka feeds them pieces of pancake and they allow him through to the courtyard. Two sentries stand guard on the stairs there, but Vanooshka follows Baba Yaga’s advice again, knocking one sentry off his feet with such a powerful punch that the other man hastily waves him through. Vanooshka searches the palace, room after room, seeking his wife. Instead he finds Queen Glafyra.

She is described as ‘black-haired, dark-eyed, majestic, wonderful to behold’ and completes the picture by lounging on a throne. She greets Vanooshka by name in a casual power move and asks what he’s going to do about it if she does not give back his wife. “I will scream the place down!” Vanooshka vows. “I will thrust my fist into your cruel eyes! I will tear the heart out of your evil body!”

Glafyra laughs at him. “Your little tantrums are very amusing, Vanooshka,” is her response. But she offers him a bargain: if he can successfully hide from her, then she will free the caged dove who is his wife. If he fails, he loses his head. He will have three tries. “Now don’t stand glaring at me,” Glafyra instructs. “Be off and hide yourself.”

I love her.

Vanooshka looks here and there for a good hiding place. In his frustration and distress, he flings the raven bone upon the ground and immediately a huge raven comes to scoop up and drop him in a swamp. The boy is spending a lot of time in swamps lately. This time he has a giant bird sitting on his head, which can’t be comfortable. Glafyra, meanwhile, does not even get up. She sends her servants to fetch her magic mirror and hunts from the comfort of her throne. She sees the swamp; she sees the raven; from beneath the raven’s wing, she glimpses a curl of Vanooshka’s hair. “Raven,” she commands, “pull Vanooshka out of the swamp, and bring him here.”

Raven obeys. Who wouldn’t? Glafyra is magnificent. Vanooshka is permitted his second attempt and uses the pike bone, whereupon he’s promptly gulped down by an enormous fish. For good measure, the pike hides underneath a stone on the seabed – but Vanooshka is just a little too big to fit in his mouth and in her mirror, Glafyra sees the tip of one boot sticking out. All her servants find this hilarious. When Glafyra orders the pike to spit up Vanooshka, he looks an absolute sight and knows it, and has an emotional breakdown. Glafyra is actually quite nice about it. She orders her servants to clean Vanooshka and supply him with fresh clothes, serve him a fine meal and put him to bed. The prospect of having his head cut off has a less than soporific effect, however, and he’s lying awake in a state of dread when he hears a voice calling his name very quietly.

It is Nadya. She has fought her way out of the cage, bleeding from the bars, because she has thought of the one hiding place that Glafyra will not be able to find: behind another mirror. It’s unclear to me whether Nadya was running away from Vanooshka of her own free will or if Glafyra was somehow involved, but either way, husband and wife are a team now.

Nadya’s idea works. Glafyra is so exasperated that she gets out of her chair and starts looking for herself, ransacking the palace but finding no trace of Vanooshka. She calls out to him that it is time to come out – he stays where he is and does not make a sound. She assures him that he is safe from her – still he doesn’t move. It is only when she frees Nadya and Nadya herself calls to Vanooshka that he emerges from behind the mirror. Glafyra snarls at the pair of them to get out her sight and they are very glad to go, hurrying home to the house of Nadya’s grandfather.

He asks if Vanooshka knows now what is good and what is evil. Vanooshka thinks he does and that’s enough, apparently, to win the key to the palace. Vanooshka’s father comes to live with them and Vanooshka shows him around proudly, including the picture gallery. There is a new portrait hanging there, showing Nadya flanked by two little boys and a baby girl sitting in her lap. These are the children that she does not yet have, but will in time. Because yes, Baba Yaga’s brother can see the future. AND NO ONE EVER TOLD ME.