This story is taken from Alexander Afanasyev’s Russian Fairy Folk Tales. I am terribly excited about getting my hands on this book, which I have been promised contains a great deal of witchy goodness, and this specific story has a very intriguing title. It begins by introducing us to a royal family with a son named Iván Tsarévich, a boy who has never been able to speak. One of his favourite people in the world is a groom who tells him stories. Then comes a day when the groom tells him something else. “Your mother will soon have a daughter, and you will have a sister. She will be a dreadful witch and will eat up your father and your mother and all their subjects.”
Iván is so struck by this confronting revelation that he is driven to speak for the first time in his entire life, to ask his father for a horse, and his father is so struck by that revelation that he gives one without question. Probably he would have done better to ask a lot of questions. Iván rides away to look for a new family. I am not joking. He comes across an elderly pair of seamstresses and asks them to take him in. Unfortunately, as soon as they have finished breaking a box and sewing it back together – a somehow significant task? – Death will come for them, so they regretfully send Iván away.
Next he meets a man called Vertodúb and literally says to him, “Will you take me as your son?” Vertodúb, however, is turning oak trees around and when his task is done Death will come for him as well. Iván rides away in tears. Then he comes to Vertogór, who is turning mountains for his own cosmic purposes and will die when he is done. But in time Iván comes to the Sister of the Sun, who is happy to adopt him and has no pressing engagements with Death.
Though he is safe and beloved with his new mother, Iván is desperate to know what has happened in his kingdom – mostly because he has a very clear idea of what has happened in his kingdom. I mean, it was spelled out pretty explicitly. Still, he climbs to the very top of a mountain in order to glimpse the place he left behind and sees a wasteland where everything has been devoured. His weeping draws the concern of the Sister of the Sun, but he won’t tell her what’s wrong, insisting that the wind blew something into his eye. After he has climbed the mountain for a second time and excused his grief the same way, the Sun steps in, telling the wind to just stop blowing. So when Iván climbs the mountain for a third time, he is forced to explain himself to his adoptive mother. He is probably too late to do any earthly good, but he wants to go home and do something.
And lucky for him, his mum is amazing, with magic at her disposal. She gives him a brush, a comb and two apples, which are of course rather more than they appear. When Iván throws the brush, it becomes a vast range of mountains. Vertogór’s death is indefinitely postponed! When Iván throws the comb, it transforms into an enormous forest of oak trees. Vertodúb can’t die until every one is turned! When Iván comes to the seamstresses, he gives each an apple and they are restored to youth. What’s more, they have a gift to offer in return: a handkerchief that will turn into a lake.
So onward goes Iván, to the horror show of his old home, where his sister runs to greet him like they are long-lost relatives instead of mass murderer and soon-to-be latest victim. She sits Iván down in front of a harp and tells him to play for her while she goes to fetch dinner. This is obviously so that she knows exactly where he is at all times while she is getting ready for her dinner, but to really spell it out, a little mouse pokes its head out and hisses at Iván to run for his life. He follows that advice. The mouse runs up and down the harp, to trick the witch into believing Iván is still there, then scampers back into hiding when she returns. Realising that Iván has bolted, the witch sets off in unnaturally swift pursuit. He waves the handkerchief and produces a lake, which buys him a little time, but his sister is a very fast swimmer and she is soon close at his heels again.
Iván rides frantically past Vertogór, who throws oak trees in the witch’s path. She chews right through the obstacle. Next Vertodúb sticks a pile of mountains in her way. She scales them like a homicidal mountain goat, but it wins Iván enough time to flee to his adoptive mother’s house.
Not that that stops the witch for a minute. She demands that Iván be handed out to her. The Sun refuses. Then the witch proposes a test: she and her brother will lay upon scales and whoever is the heavier will be the victor. This, the Sun agrees to. Iván sits upon the scales first. When the witch goes to stand upon the other scale, her weight is such that Iván flies off the scale into the sky. He is safe with the Sun – and the witch remains on the earth, where no one is safe at all.
This is an unnerving story on a number of levels, beginning with the prophecy of the witch’s birth, which feels like it should have been a kingdom-wide public service announcement so that more than one person could survive the oncoming destruction. Then there is Iván’s speech disability which just vanishes away, never to be mentioned again, like all he needed to talk was to be terrified out of his wits.
And there is the fact that the witch is not defeated; she reaches a stalemate against forces that she cannot overpower, but there is nothing to stop her continuing to devour whatever she wishes, unless Iván returns with significantly more firepower. The individual who comes closest to defeating the witch is the mouse. The witch is more than a villain – she is a devourer, a destroyer. She is a one-woman apocalypse.