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.