Telling Tales 36
The Nature of the Problem
They named him Koschey, of course, an old family name. At first, he was not a kind child, and he was amazingly strong. Once he could crawl around on his own, he would go out of the house. “Mama,” he would say, “get me some food!”
“If you are strong enough to crawl out of the house,” she would answer, “you are strong enough to get your own food.” And he was. And he was a clever and cunning hunter. Snakes could not bite him, for his skin was too hard. Deer could not smell him, for he was made of wood. But he did not kill cleanly, and would cut out the meat of the dying animal and leave it alone in the wood. “You should kill things that you hunt before you butcher them,” said his mother.
The stump-boy was puzzled. “But why? That is a waste of movement.”
It grew worse when travelers came through, which they did, the mother and father being proprietors of an inn. They told young Koschey to keep silent and stay out of the way, and he did, for he was, at least, very mindful. He sat unmoving, where everyone thought he was a remarkable statue. One trader in particular thought the stump-boy was amazing. “Ha ha!” he laughed. “Look at this lanky figure. He’s the spitting image of my nephew, the little brat.”
“Leave that alone,” said the mother. It broke her heart to say “that” and not “him,” but she did not want to give Koschey’s secret away. The father took the stump-boy and moved him behind the bar.
The trader was not to be denied, and he made a game of throwing things at the statue. Small bits of food, bones from dinner, and any trash he could glean from the tables around him. “It’s only good fun, don’t get so worked up!” he told the innkeepers. “I’d never do this to my nephew, but a man can dream, can’t he?”
The trader did not dream that night, and in the morning everyone wondered at his early departure. He had drunk a great deal. No one expected that he would gone so quickly and before breakfast. But look – his room is empty, the bed made. His horse is gone from its stall. His cart and goods are gone from the barn. All this, and the innkeepers are only just now emerging to begin making breakfast themselves. And where is the statue of the stump-boy? The innkeepers do not know, and for some reason, they are nervous. Perhaps they themselves have had bad dreams.
Koschey grew quickly, as one will from eating a great deal of meat. When I said he was not kind, I was not being fair, although that is true. It makes it sound like the boy was cruel. He was not. Or if he was, it was out of neglect, ignorance, and disregard, not out of malice. He was too strong for his parents not to do anything about him. When they told him to stay out of the new neighbor’s cabbage patch, he did. When two officers appeared to investigate the disappearance of a trader, the innkeepers were surprised and had not a chance to give Koschey instruction.
The officers disappeared. Koschey grew.
In their desperation, they turned to old Baba Yaga, whose hut marched through the wood. She cackled with delight. A problem of this order came around but once a lifetime, and Baba Yaga is very old indeed. “He needs a heart, of course. What about my payment?”