Telling Tales 57
“You’re not very good at that,” said the squirrel as it watched Ivan struggle to cut down a tree with his sword.
“No, I’m not,” he agreed, wiping the sweat from his forehead. “And I’m not dressed for it, either.” No matter that his princely raiments were worn and shredded with all of the traveling, not to mention from giant snakes, flying frogs, and zombies, they were still heavier clothing than was warranted for the season and the climate alike.
The squirrel nodded wisely. “I’m sure you have your reasons.” In the distance, Vasilisa caught fish at the shore. “Is there a reason that you’re chopping down my house’s brothers?”
“We’re not from here,” began Ivan.
“No, really?” asked the squirrel.
Ivan peered at the animal, but it seemed sincere enough. “No. Really. We need to get to the other side of the ocean. That’s not even our home, but it’s much closer than where we are now.”
The squirrel nodded again. “So it’s a boat that you’re building, then.”
Ivan peered at it again. For an animal, it seemed remarkably sardonic and knowledgeable. “You know about boats?”
It busied itself with a nut for a moment. “A little. I might be able to help you out.”
“I would be most grateful,” said Ivan. “Is there anything you would like in return? If it is in my power to give it, it will be yours to have.”
“Your companion is a most effective hunter and gatherer. She is much better at that than you are a boat builder.”
Ivan did his best to arch one eyebrow. It wasn’t very good, but apparently it had a similar effect on the squirrel that Vasilisa’s had upon him.
“No? Well, if at least she could help me gather food for winter, I would be glad to tell you how to build a boat.”
* * *
“You’re sure you don’t mind?” asked Ivan.
“It’s flattering,” said Vasilisa, “and you said the right thing.” Then she kissed him on the cheek and went into the forest with the squirrel to gather food.
The sound of flirtatious giggling and chittering echoed through the woods as Ivan worked. “I don’t understand women,” said Ivan. He was sure that if he joked with the princess the way that the squirrel did, she would be very displeased, but she said that because they were betrothed there were different rules, and because the squirrel understood their boundaries, there was neither harm nor insult to be taken. And so Ivan put them out of his mind and set out to cutting only the highest branches from the trees, leaving all of the trunks in peace and all of the trees fundamentally healthy.
“You’ll want the longest, greenest branches possible,” said the squirrel. “I’ll come back to check on your progress before long.”
So first Ivan had cut the branches. The squirrel complimented him and told him how to lay the branches out. Then he had to tie them together. Then he had to create a small trap at the rear of the hold that wound into a labyrinth under the deck, which opened behind the mast. Then he had to make the sail. Then he had to weave a rope and find an anchor and carve oars and all in all it took him a great deal of time.
He was filled with pride at the final product. “The soldier would have been proud,” he said to himself.
“What was his name again?” asked the squirrel.
Ivan kept looking at his boat. “Shut up,” he said.