Telling Tales – Chapter 6
One Journey Home
“Is that so,” laughed the old traveler, “is that really so? A marvel! I knew of the great gray wolf, of course, but I’ve never before heard where she came from and how she came to be the way that she is. Wonderful! Well, if you don’t mind, I’ll pick up Prince Ivan’s story, since he’ll be meeting that wolf before too long.”
As there were no objections (at least, none to his suggestion – the contrary Dmitri was objecting to many things, not least of which was passing over the last bottle of vodka that he owed), the old man accepted a wide brimmed glass of beer, leaned against the wall, and began to talk.
* * *
You can imagine Vasilisa’s joy at being reunited with Prince Ivan. Captive at the top of a tall tower, alone, friendless, and terrorized by Yumni one moment, the next she’s running for her life with the Prince and his companion, Yumni fast upon their heels, then silence and she and the Prince are together at long, long last.
“I wasn’t actually terrorized,” she said. “I wouldn’t say terrorized.” The Prince was shorter than she remembered.
“Aren’t you happy to see me? Aren’t you happy to be free? Aren’t you looking forward to going home?”
Vasilisa considered the answers to these questions, but Ivan was rushing forward. It was one of the things she loved about him, his exuberant energy.
“Your father is desperate to see you. He is so desperate that he has threatened me with banishment should you not return.” He paused, waiting.
“What are you waiting for?” asked Vasilisa.
“Oh, my friend the soldier, he’s always chiming in. I say banishment, he says death, that sort of thing.” Ivan looked around and noticed for the first time that there were only two of them standing at the banks of the river where they had stopped. “How long have we been here?”
“Not much longer than it has taken to catch our breath.”
Ivan cocked his head. “I don’t hear that terrible Yumni any more.”
“He’s not that terrible,” said Vasilisa. “I mean, I don’t hear him either.”
Together, the two of them retraced their steps, back into the forest. Ivan held out his sword and forged forward, making sure that Vasilisa was safe close by. “He’s an excellent fellow,” he assured her. “I’m sure you’ll like him. As much as it pains me to say it, I couldn’t have made it this far without him. He is quite resourceful, although some of his stories are a little suspicious.”
“Suspicious how?” asked the princess.
Ivan considered the two gloves and the ring that the soldier had left with their hosts, the sovereigns of the Copper, Silver, and Gold kingdoms and his unfortunate experience playing cards as a dragon against the soldier all that time ago. “Oh, you know,” he answered. “Wait!”
They stopped at the edge of a clearing. It was not, Ivan explained to the princess, a clearing made by natural forces. “I don’t remember running through a clearing like this,” she said, looking at the wide path that led away from them in a straight line, heading inexorably back to the beach and Yumni’s castle.
“We didn’t,” considered Ivan. He pointed at two sets of four holes. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say this is where our friends No Eyes and No Legs were sitting. And here, this looks like where Yumni turned back. That means the soldier must have fought him off!”
They looked around. “But where is he?” asked Vasilisa.
“Honor demands nothing less,” said Ivan, “nor does friendship. I must return to Yumni’s castle, as there is no sign of the soldier anywhere, and yet, according to the tracks on the ground, he lay here, right here – grievously injured.”
“Could he not be dead?” suggested Vasilisa with as much gentleness as she could muster for her fiancé’s feelings.
“The tracks indicate that yes, he could have lain dead here, but there are no marks to indicate he walked away. Did he fly? The most likely event is that Yumni knocked him out with his flail billowing lightning and thunder, then took his unconscious body back to his castle.” The agony of a necessary decision wore hard upon his face.
Vasilisa read his dismay. “The problem is solved,” she said. “I will come with you. If you are in danger, I will be in danger with you. Your friend is my friend.” Her decision resigned the issue of his friendship with the soldier, but not of his duty to her. “Truly, you need not worry so much. I am not as helpless as you seem to think I am.”
Ivan sighed heavily, kissed her hand even while keeping an appropriate distance from her, and, drawing his sword, they turned back toward the castle of water like diamonds off the shore of the glittering, sandy beach. They found the gates closed, drawn fast, and the castle itself was drifting out to sea. Yumni’s giant footsteps lead them across the sand, straight back toward where the entrance had once been. “Look here,” Ivan explained. “On his way out, his footprints are spread far across because he is running, and on the way back they are closer together and shallower. He is not coming down so hard on to the sand – which means that he was not carrying the soldier. He was the same weight going out as he was returning.”
“How can you tell?” Vasilisa was mystified by his reasoning.
“I can’t show you here,” he said, “but the next time we have a gold crown and a bathtub full of water, I will explain it to you.” Then they both blushed and abandoned the topic.
Vasilisa pointed to the castle. “He is upset. Yumni only retreats from land when he is distressed.”
“Then we have time. Let us not lose a moment!” declared Ivan.
They looked and they looked. They explored the trees, in case the soldier managed to climb away. They listened at the earth, in case there were tunnels beneath. In the end, because there was no other likely or even unlikely possibility, they decided that it must have, in fact, been No Eyes and No Legs who had spirited him away in the nick of time. With a heavy heart, for hoping is not knowing, after days upon days of searching, they finally set out, back into the jungle and on their way home.
“Do you know where we’re going?” Vasilisa asked.
“Toward the rising sun,” Ivan said. To ease his mind, Vasilisa asked him about his journeys with the soldier. “We thought it was Koschey the Deathless who had stolen you away. We followed him across half the world, east of the sun and west of the moon, practically, north of the north wind, and it wasn’t until we met the monarchs of the Gold Kingdom that we learned it was not Koschey but Yumni. I’ve never heard of him before. Who is he?”
She sighed. “He is a lost soul.”
* * *
His real name is not Yumni, and if anyone besides the Whirlwind knows what it is, they have yet to say – not even the rulers of the Gold Kingdom know what he used to be called, for he was old when they were still young. In those days, when he himself was young, he did not fly on the air spinning at his feet and he did not harvest the grain and the life of those around him with his flail. He flew on red wings and brought the loves of the lonely together. He was a beloved secret, known by many and shared by few, so that hardly any stories grew up around him and about what he used to be.
Well, long before Koschey himself was even a dream, no one ever died at all, that’s the story that I heard. People fell in love and they fought and they had children and they grew old. Perhaps they even grew sick, but no one died. Eventually, this became a problem. There is only so much space, after all, and the more people there were the less space every person had. Because it was a problem, all of the people came together to discuss what they would do.
“We should die,” they decided, “but only for a little while. We will take turns.”
Coyote disagreed. He said that if people came back, there would really not be so much difference, even if they were taking turns. There would still be more people, always, more and more. No one took Coyote’s side, though, and they built a long house into which their spirits would return after their deaths, when it was their turn to come back. The first group of people lay down, and for a long time after that, everyone was very happy. “There is so much more room,” they said, “this is the perfect solution.” Except for Coyote, he did not say that.
The day came that the next group of people was going to lay down and the first group of people was going to rise, and the Red Bird flew along, leading all of the spirits with him, bringing them back to their bodies that they loved. Coyote shut the door to the long house and greeted Red Bird outside. “Hello, Brother,” he called, “and what are you doing here?”
“I have brought back the spirits of the dead so that they will live again,” Red Bird answered.
Coyote looked very concerned. “Brother, you are mistaken! This is not the place! Everyone has moved from here! You must hurry along to catch them at the river, and then head north!”
Red Bird was very worried, because spirits desiring their bodies are not strong, and there was one, the spirit of a small boy, that was already lagging behind. So Red Bird sang his song and led the spirits on toward the river, and then he turned north and took all the spirits away from him and they were never reunited with their bodies. It was that Coyote – he is the reason we all die now, all except for Koschey. And that tired spirit, the young boy, he was lame in one leg and couldn’t keep up with the music and turned into a blood clot right there on the ground, waiting for the rabbits to find him.
You can imagine Red Bird’s grief and anger. He circled and circled to try and save the spirits, but the best he could do was transport them from the ground to the sky. He is become wind and death and he is hunting Coyote.
* * *
“You sound as though you admire him,” said Ivan, who wasn’t sure what to make of that.
Vasilisa considered. “When he first stole me away, I didn’t know what to think. He warned me about my father, then there were guards on the steps, then we flew away.”
Ivan cleared his throat, uncertain how exactly he was supposed to say the next part. “Didn’t you tell him about me?”
“That my betrothed was a dragon? Yes, I did. I even explained that you would not rest, but that you would seek and seek until you found me, never ceasing.” She didn’t want to tell him that, even with the knowledge of the dragon, the Whirlwind had not been especially concerned.
The smile from her compliment faded as he remembered the first part that she’d said. “What was that middle bit? The part about warning you about your father?”
“Honestly,” she said, “it would probably be better if you didn’t return me to him.”
The debate was back on his face, the same as when he was torn between her safety and the soldier’s wellbeing. “I gave my word,” he said. “So I must bring you back to his kingdom. But that doesn’t mean you have to stay there. Can you tell me what it is about him that is so bad?”
She looked at him in silence for some time. “I’m surprised you haven’t noticed before. Isn’t there anything in particular about us, my father or my sisters or me, that has struck you before?”
Ivan considered Vasilisa. This was a test of some sort, he knew, but he wasn’t sure what kind. It didn’t seem to be the kind of tests that his brother princes talked about with their princesses, tests that they failed, mystified, wondering why their princesses didn’t like the suits of armor they bought them for their birthdays, for example. No, it didn’t seem to be that kind of test at all. There were no gifts involved. And yet, it was clearly something that Ivan was supposed to have observed. It wasn’t a haircut or a new dress, because she mentioned her father as well as her sisters, so it was something in common with the whole family. He did note to himself, however, that he should be sure to compliment Vasilisa at the earliest appropriate opportunity on how nice she looked, even in pants. He hadn’t thought that princesses were supposed to wear anything but dresses. “Nnnooooo?” he answered slowly.
“My father is a sorcerer,” she said.
“Oh, THAT!” he said, relieved. “Everyone knows that!”
Now it was Vasilisa’s turn to be surprised. “Everyone?”
Ivan flushed lightly. “Princes talk, you know. Word gets around. But it doesn’t bother me,” he hastened to add. “As you know, I’ve loved you since before I became a dragon!”
“Didn’t you ever wonder how exactly you became a dragon?” she asked.
“Well, of course, I did, but… Wait – are you saying that your father was responsible for my transformation?”
* * *
They stood at the water’s edge, looking to the horizon where the sun burned the edge of the sky.
“If I were still a dragon, I could have carried you on my back and swum the whole way.”
“It’s farther than that,” she said. “Even Yumni had to rest.”
Ivan stared out at the waves crashing into the sand. The soldier had carried the reed pipe gift from No Legs and No Eyes, and again it was the soldier who had left tokens with the three Kingdoms they had encountered. It was the soldier who had collected the teeth from the flying, poisonous frogs, and it was the soldier who had accepted the thanks from the people in the swamp whom they had saved from zombies. He was beginning to suspect that there was less base avarice in the soldier’s nature and more planning. “My friend the soldier would have a story if he were with us. He would say that there was a fellow he’d known in his regiment, and that man would have told him something, or given him something, and that would have led him to the solution.” They stood in silence as the sliver of hot orange grew into a burning yellow ball. “I am afraid I am more dedicated than I am prepared,” he said at last.
Vasilisa took his hand in hers. “Then we will solve the problem together.” South was the way back to Yumni’s. West was the path through the Kingdoms, long beyond measure. East was the ocean. They turned back toward the north.
She explained that her father didn’t have anything against Ivan personally. “Well, not until you tricked me with that riddle and stole my robe in the middle of the night. He was rather upset with you personally after that.”
“But he would have killed me if I hadn’t succeeded with the riddle!” He was surprised that she brought up the robe again – he hadn’t thought that she was still bothered by that little detail. “And anyway, I wouldn’t have taken your robe if I hadn’t needed some kind of proof that I had been visited in the night. After all, you’d sent servants the previous two nights.”
She arched a single eyebrow, which was not only a trick that Ivan couldn’t do well, but it also made him nervous when Vasilisa looked at him like that. He was pretty sure that certain death (his) trumped modesty (her robe), especially when it was her who had come into his room. But the eyebrow made him think that perhaps he didn’t want to get into the particulars.
“Your father so protective of you?” he finally asked.
“Not me, but my youngest sister. We must marry in order, of course, and with me gone, there are now only ten marriages to go before the youngest is eligible.”
Clearly, Ivan thought, there were more cultural differences between his father’s tsardom and Vasilisa’s than he had previously appreciated. He felt that perhaps their conversations were somewhat more awkward than they had been in the past, when they had stared into one another’s eyes saying, “Ivan!” and “Vasilisa!” over and over.
“I have an idea,” he said at last. “It will not be simple, but we could walk for years before finding passage beyond the water. The only way forward is for me to build a boat. We will sail across the ocean and return closer to our own lands that way.”
Vasilisa smiled with encouragement.
He looked at the forest to their left and at the water to their right. “I’ve never sailed before, you know.”
* * *
“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 our home either, 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 eyebrow 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 later.
“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 she and he 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 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.
Afterwards, they rested on logs on the beach with the squirrel on a third opposite them and a giant mound of nuts in between them all. “Go ahead, help yourself,” said the squirrel. “I’ve already stored everything I need for winter.” It had been two days since their fish had run out, and since then they had had nothing to eat but nuts. Ivan’s stomach growled a deep baritone, contrasting charmingly to Vasilisa’s own soprano. “Seriously, dive in,” the squirrel urged.
They looked at one another, knowing the other’s loathing of the idea of a single nut more. Ivan gritted a smile at Vasilisa, and she nodded back at him, and together they reached into the pile.
They uttered equally feminine squeals as they fell back off of their logs when the pile transformed into a giant feast the likes of which they had never seen even in their fathers’ courts.
“Ha ha!” laughed the squirrel. “You should have seen your faces! That was a good one. But seriously, dive in.”
Ivan and Vasilisa wasted no time in stuffing their faces and bellies as full as they could. It was all they could do to eat at a reasonable pace, they were so hungry. When they were finished, the squirrel said, “You’ll have a long voyage back home, even with your boat, and you’ll undoubtedly run into your fair share of troubles.”
“What makes you say that?” asked Vasilisa.
The squirrel appraised them. “You have that look about you. Both of you. Besides, it’s not every day I find Russians on these shores.”
Vasilisa looked at Ivan and Ivan looked at Vasilisa and they shared a thought: this was an exceptionally well-traveled squirrel.
“Now. The steering is much like any boat, but since you haven’t traveled by one before, I must warn you that since you’ll be working from the rear of the craft, it will move in the opposite direction that you expect.”
“Like in England!” said Ivan.
“Not like in England,” said the squirrel. “Pay attention.”
“Also, and this is really just a suggestion, you should pick up anyone that you happen to see by along the way.”
Ivan leaned forward. “And by suggestion, you mean…”
“You’ll probably die if you don’t do it,” agreed the squirrel.
Vasilisa sighed. “My father used to suggest things that way.”
The squirrel picked up a leg of lamb much bigger than its own body and began to gnaw at it in a way that the prince and princess found rather alarming. “Except that he probably carried out the death threat. I won’t. Although,” he said, considering, “coincidentally, it will probably be your father that kills you if you don’t take my advice.”
“Ah,” said Ivan, and imagined that this was often how the soldier felt when he said, “Oh,” which he was prone to in situations such as these.
“All you need to do is remember to drop the anchors when you want to stop. I expect that the upper body strength that you’ve developed in the building of this fine craft will come in handy when you come in to land.”
Ivan massaged one bulging bicep and Vasilisa said, “Thank you so much for your help.”
“Not at all,” said the squirrel. “We had a bargain, did we not?” And he wished them goodbye and bounded into the woods.
In the silhouette against the setting sun, the branches of the trees almost made it seem as though their friendly helper had sprouted a set of wide antlers.
* * *
“Are you sure it’s supposed to be doing this?” Vasilisa’s scream barely carried over the sound of the wind that whipped at their sail. Below them, the sea was a blur. The very boat howled, the wind’s song echoing its own chorus in the maze-like bowels of the hull. Both of her hands were on the tiller and the muscles in her arms strained to keep the craft moving in a straight line.
Ivan pointed ahead and to their left at a sliver of land in the distance. “Can you head that way?”
Vasilisa didn’t hear a word he said either, but she recognized a pointed finger when she saw one and steered the ship toward the island. For his part, Ivan was tying himself off to the mast with the stout rope that the squirrel had taught him to weave. As the island grew, he made sure that the anchors, crooked pieces of green oak as big as he was, were ready standing by. He signaled to Vasilisa and unlashed the cords that bound the top of the mainsail. It plunged to the deck, a bird falling from the sky, and the boat slowed at once, but the chorus of wind was no less loud.
As they approached the edge of the island, Ivan picked up one anchor and heaved it over the port stern side. Then he danced to the starboard stern side and did the same thing. Two more anchors fell over aft sides, and the four mighty spools around central mast played out their rope as the anchors plummeted to the earth.
“Hold on!” Ivan called, and although Vasilisa still could not hear him, she recognized their agreed-upon gesture, a clutching hand pumped up and down above the head. She shifted against her own ropes without loosening her two hands from the tiller, and was satisfied by their strength. Well, as satisfied as she could be, but there was no way she was letting go. She’d made that mistake once before. She watched Ivan’s five fingers splayed out. He pulled in his pinky. His ring finger. His middle finger. Index.
Before he could make a fist, the stern jerked abruptly and dove down and to the left. When the starboard anchor caught, the whole craft dipped forward and Vasilisa found herself high, much higher than where Ivan stood. He skidded away from the mast with the small play of rope he’d left, his feet planted against the prow’s gunwales.
The ship moored, Vasilisa could afford to take one hand from the tiller. She banged her fist against a square of wood, the top and center of a grid of square, three by three, carved to show the front of the ship. She felt more than heard the attendant beams under her shift in response, and the rear of the craft responded by falling slightly so that she and Ivan were close to being on the same level. His arms flew from one side to the other, relentlessly pulling at the rope, steadily pulling them toward the beach, toward the anchors below. She slapped two more squares in quick succession, these with the carvings of the port and starboard sides. With each punch, the wind below decks grew less.
A man below them sat a fire waved. “Good evening! Join me once you’re down! A fine craft you’ve got. That’s the first time in my years I’ve ever seen a sailboat flying through the air and come to land on a beach.”
The man by the fire looked on in admiration as the man at the prow of the flying boat reeled the structure in, arm-length by arm-length, downward toward the beach. At the rear of the craft, his companion banged a series wooden squares, each of which lessened the ship’s riotous noise. As she struck the squares, he saw that wide, gaping square holes in the side and the bottom of the boat slammed shut with a WHOOSH and the boat would sink that much lower toward the waves.
The young man pulled on the rope, fastened at the beach-side to what looked like a large tree stump, complete with roots. Three more of the same things hung from the other corners of the boat. Eventually, all of the holes were shut and the surf SPLASHED around them as the boat struck the water. “Amazing!” said the man again. He had seen boats in his day, but never one that flew upon the air, drinking in the air and soaring across the sky. “Fantastic!”
Now that it was closer, he could see that the slats forming the sides were roughly hewn of green lumber. “I’m no carpenter,” he thought, “but even I can recognize a masterpiece when I see one. I bet there’s not a single nail to be had.”
The young man who leapt out of the front was handsome, in a pale sort of way. Even tanned as he was under the near sun at the heights they must be flying, the man by the fire recognized a faded northerner when he saw one. His dark hair was long and roughly cut. His hands were broad, calloused yellow and scarred white, and his clothing bore the hallmarks of having been fine and durable, once upon a time. The woman at the rear of the craft was his equal in worn dress and able deed, for she leapt into the water on the other side of the boat and each of them took one of the massive ropes attached to the tree stumps, and together they heaved the boat up the shore far enough where it was not likely to be pulled back out to sea.
They spared the man a polite greeting, then the young woman clambered back to the deck and the young man picked up one of the two anchors on the beach. He was quite strong, if the size of that whorled and polished wood was any gauge. He hefted it over his shoulder and strode toward a tree at the far edge of the shore, where he wrapped the anchor around the trunk once, two, three times. As he returned to the sand to do the same with the second anchor and another tree, the woman was winding some kind of winch, drawing in the two anchors that had fallen from the rear of the craft. Only when the boat was safely moored on the shore did they stop before him.
“Welcome, welcome!” he said. “I’m sure you must be hungry.”
“Well…” said the young woman, another northerner by the look of her, though equally dark from the sun, her long hair pulled back into a long, windswept braid.
“Well…” said the young man.
“Nonsense,” scoffed the man, sitting back down. “I can hear your stomachs from here. There is no standing on ceremony here on this island. It’s just you, me, my net, and the fish. Why don’t you tell me where you come from and where you’re going and where on earth you found that marvelous boat.”