Telling Tales 37
The kindest thing that the young man Koschey ever did – and you won’t believe me because it doesn’t sound possible, but I’ll say it again for emphasis – the kindest thing that the young man Koschey ever did was kill his parents.
Old Baba Yaga told them what they needed to know, that young Koschey needed a heart. He wasn’t a kind boy. He wasn’t cruel. Trees and stumps and roots aren’t like the rest of us – people – you see. Well, the solution was not an easy one, but they both loved the stump-boy and they both wanted to be a part of him, so they each gave him half of their heart. Which left the other half for old Baba Yaga, who demanded a full heart as well.
So here we are, Koschey – no longer a stump but a boy, with a heart of his own, half from his mother and half from his father, the way you expect a child to be. And he’s got two parents, the way you’d expect, except that neither of them has a heart any more. They told him what to expect when they gave him their half-hearts. “We’ll be like you afterwards,” they said, but Koschey didn’t understand. He didn’t understand when he didn’t have a heart, and he barely understood when he did. People with and without hearts, they speak different languages. They don’t translate. Words are nothing more than noise.
They didn’t abandon their child and they didn’t abandon their business. They took care of the things that they owned, and as far as they were concerned, they owned their child. Not because he’d been a stump at one point, but because he was theirs. Koschey did what they said – they no longer asked, but commanded – and he did it well and fully. He was still as strong as several men. He was still conscientious.
He loved his parents. Their two half-hearts still loved one another, and that loved was reflected inside Koschey’s chest back to his parents. He loved them as a child loves a parent and as a person loves a couple who is in love. It grieved him deeply that they no longer loved one another. They were partners, tied together by the bonds of family and the bonds of business and they moved forward shrewdly and it was from them that Koschey learned his first lessons in how to make money. But where he was generous and might trade food for labor, his heartless parents were demanding. “Work first,” they would say to an old traveler who might show up at their door in a snowstorm, exhausted and weak. “Work first, food later.” Koschey knew that people work better when they’re not hungry and would give some food to an old man, have the work, and then finish with the last of the food.
Of course, his parents no longer loved him. They knew they had sacrificed a great deal for him and demanded that he repay them. Not love. “Can love put food on the table?” asked his father. Koschey could not debate the true answer, “No,” but it seemed to him a cheap argument coming from a man with a larder full of food.
One day he returned half of his heart to his mother. “You must take it back,” she wept. “You must have a full heart to live, and I, now, see what I have become.” With the heart, she was sick at what she had become without.