nikita kozhemyaka

Nikita Kozhemyaka, or Nikita the Tanner is a Russian folktale that takes place in Kiev. Before translating it from my edition of Russian folktales, I looked for the versions existing online and found out, not without a glimmer of surprise, that although the essence of the story stays the same, the version I have was smoothen to soothe perhaps differently.You can find another EN version of the folktale here , page 8. The version below is a translation from Poveşti fermecate ruseşti, Ed. Raduga Moscova & Ed. Ion Creangă Bucharest, 1990. I kept the original illustrations, made by

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Nikita Kozhemyaka

On the shores of the silver waters of the river Nipru, high on proud hills, stood tall the ancient Kiev – the fairest and the richest of all Russian cities.

For centuries upon centuries, Russian men lived in this city. And they all worked, they plowed the fields, weaved the cloth, danced the reel and prepared the millet beer. And the girls from Kiev, when they would start braiding, in keep with tradition, wreaths of wild flowers, and wearing them after, they would start singing, on a spring’s day, towards the silver waters of the Nipru, dazzling passersby along the way:  everyone from young to old, would stand in awe from all the beauty bestowed.   As for the Kiev boys, handsome and strong, their names and deeds of bravery were known: no evil foe would scare them, no evil beast, nor snakes or any other crawlers of the evil kind.  They had the fastest of arrows and sharpest of blades.

The people of Kiev lived quiet, sturdy lives and no gloom ever fell upon them. And yet, misfortune came floating by above their heads one day.

A fearsome dragon made a bad habit out of flying above their town. And this dragon had its body covered in green scales, and a tail that forked every which way, and from its neck three heads would rise instead of one. Its eyes shone flames, its mouths spat ember, and its claws had iron claws. And when it would start thrusting and spinning above the city, its black wings would cover all the sky and the light of day would perish, gone without a trace. In flight, the beast would hiss:

– I will destroy the city of Kiev on the river Nipru. I will burn alive its men, I’ll roast them, turn them to dust. If you take dearly to your lives, be bothered to greet me and feed me appropriately. I will fly above your city each month. I will land on the nearby hill and feast upon one of your beautiful daughters each time.

The people of Kiev were sad and cried bitter tears. Their souls torn by the sacrifice demanded for the feast. But they feared that if they were to cross the beast, the dragon would burn Kiev down to the ground, would turn it to cinders and with it, would burn its people too, down to the last one. And so they yielded to the dragon’s wish and would go each month uphill to sacrifice another of their daughters. They would chain the girl to the trunk of an old oak and let her there alone. And at night, the dragon would come down from the skies and eat her alive.

The dragon kept eating away at their children, until one was left: the fair princess, the daughter of the tsar.

The palace resounded of screams and cries. They gave the princess golden clothes and fine silk to wear, and took her by the old oak. There they tied her up in chains, took their last bows in bitter tears and returned to the city. No one was left, but a white dove, dear to the princess’s heart, that without fear remained by her side:  the girl pleaded but the dove refused to leave her side.

The tsar’s daughter then waited a long wait. Fear took hold of her – the winds hauled on the hilltop, and somewhere close an owl howled.  The daughter’s heart stood still. Suddenly she heard the rustling of wings.

– Oh, surely, this is death – she said and burst into tears. But the dragon, that indeed had landed nearby, stood there bewitched, gazing at the crying girl.

– Don’t be afraid child, he hissed, I will spare your life. I will take you to my cave and there, you can rule over it as long as I can feast my eyes on your beauty.

And having said that, the dragon placed the girl on his wings and took off, unaware that the white dove followed suit.

The dragon and the tsar’s daughter passed above the deepest of forests. He landed in the cave that was his lair, in the darkest of the forest’s corners.  Then he gathered a great pile of logs and stashed them at the entrance, blocking it.

– From now on, this will be your home – he said, then left the girl in his lair and flew away in search of other prey, unaware of the dove that crept inside.

As soon as the dragon went away, the dove came by his mistress side. He chirped and looked straight into her eyes.

And so the princess started living away her days in the dragon’s lair, alone, with nothing but the dove to keep her company; and in the evenings, the dragon would come flying in, bringing food, then he would lay in his lair and stare at the girl with fiery eyes. This went on until one day, when the girl told the dove, once the dragon was gone:

– You fly home to my dear Kiev and bring this letter to my parents so that they know that I am still alive. Perhaps knowing that, they will find a way to save me.

The princess then tied the letter under the dove’s wing and let it sneak by the logs that blocked the entrance. Once free, the bird flew straight to the city of Kiev.

Whether it flew a long time or only for a while, we can no longer tell – but we know it landed under a palace window. The tsar and tsarina almost went mad with joy, knowing their daughter is still alive. They fed the bird well, they praised it and then gathered about them their court and asked:

– Think well, what could be done to save our daughter from the dragon’s claws?

The footmen thought for a while, then answered:

– You will have to ask your daughter to find out what the dragon fears the most. Knowing that, we will use it to defeat him.

The tsar and tsarina made their letter in response and sent the dove back to the dark corner of the forest, where their daughter was waiting. And once the princess read the letter she anxiously waited for the evening to come and the dragon to return.

Late, the dragon returned as accustomed. He moved the logs and crawled inside his lair, sat down to rest. The princess then asked:

– Oh, sweet dragon, I know how strong you are and I know how your foes tremble before you. But tell me: is it really no one on this world stronger than you? Do you really fear nothing and no one?

As he sat there curled into a ball, the dragon brought about his tail close to him and laughed:

– There would be one man… a tanner in Kiev, Nikita by his name. Nobody, no man nor any beast can take him down and he is indeed much stronger than me. I fear him and him alone, but rest assured as he will never know where to find me.

Having said that, the dragon went in a deep sleep and soon started snoring.  The princess carefully wrote down what she’d found: “the dragon fears Nikita, a tanner from Kiev. He and he alone can rescue me.”

She tied the letter under the dove’s wing and the dove flew home. Once the letter was read, footmen were sent in a hurry to the Tanners’ Slum with orders from the tsar:

– Find Nikita the tanner and bring him back to me.

And so the footmen found their man: Nikita, a giant of a man, with broad shoulders and a beard as thick as a broom sat by the stone floor, tanning the skins.

– Nikita, come with us to the palace – they said.

– I’ll come to no palace, the man replied – I’m busy – and having said that he threw a dozen bull skins at once on his back and headed for the river with them. The footmen rushed after, barely catching their breath:

– Nikitushka, please, come to the palace with us!

– I told you – I’m not going anywhere with you. There’s no time for that. Now be gone.

The footmen despaired. They returned to the castle empty handed and told the tsar of their misfortune. Hearing that, the tsar himself went down by the Tanners’ Slum.

– Nikitushka, my dear Nikitushka! Help me! Only you can slay the dragon! I beg of you, save my child.

Nikita looked at the tsar and asked:

– How am I to dare such a deed, my tsar? I am not one that can bring down a dragon from the sky.

No matter how much the tsar pleaded, no matter how much he begged or tried to convince him – Nikita did not yield. In the end, the tsar had to return to the palace empty handed as well. He gathered his footmen about him again and they thought and they thought of all the ways they could find, to convince Nikita to help.  And close to dawn they’ve decided: the tsar gathered around five thousand orphan girls and sent them to Nikita’s house down in the Tanners’ Slum, to plead for his daughter’s rescue.

The girls went to Nikita’s house and kneeled and cried:

– Nikita come out and see us! Have mercy, Nikita for soon we’ll be old enough to be sent uphill and the dragon will come for us too. He’ll come for each and every one of us until none will be left; unless you stop him, Nikita. Find him, Nikita, find him and behead the evil beast, rid us of him once and for all!

Nikita took pity on the girls.

– Alright, stop crying. I’ll go and try my luck with him.

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And so Nikita the Tanner readied himself for the fight. He took three hundred thousand heavy flaxes and dipped them into tar, then let them dry and wrapped them around himself. They turned into armor so strong, that neither sword, nor dragon teeth could pierce it. Prepared, the tanner left for the forest.

He reached the dragon’s lair at night, when the beast returned home.

– Hey, dragon – he said – show yourself! Nikita the Tanner is here to see you.  Come out, so I can measure my strength with you.

The dragon felt there was no escape and he started sharpening his teeth; but Nikita did not wait for him to finish, instead he tore down the logs that blocked the cave’s mouth with a thunder so loud, the whole forest shuddered. The logs scattered about the place and the dragon crawled outside.

The beast hissed from all three mouths and threw cinders and smoke in Nikita’s face. The tanner didn’t shy away; instead he started bludgeoning the dragon with his heavy mace. Overcame, the dragon hissed his anger and pain and soon understood there was no wining this battle. With his last strength he tried to bite through the tanner’s armor, but his sharp teeth sank in the tar and trapped him in place. Then he crumbled to the ground and cried:

– Eh Nikita, Nikita, a strong man you are! Much stronger than me! But I beg of you, don’t do away with me; let us divide the land instead. You’ll live in a half and I in the other.

– Alright, said Nikita, let us begin. But keep in mind we’ll have to dig a deep edge between these two lands.

And as he spoke, he busied himself making a wooden plough, as heavy as three hundred thousand logs. When he was done, he harnessed the dragon to it.

– Go on now, make the edge between our lands! He said.

The dragon struggled with the plough. He pulled it from Kiev to the Caspian Sea, and then back to Kiev and back to the sea again. He was tired and out of breath, but Nikita kept pushing him, saying:

– Go on now, pull, pull, otherwise there’ll be no telling where the edge might be.

And so the dragon pulled and dag the deepest of edges to ever separate two lands:

– Alright – said Nikita – we’ve divided the land. Now we still have to divide the sea.

The dragon started dragging the plough into the sea, but the sea was deep, a deep bottomless sea. So the dragon started drinking salty water and gasping for air, dragged down by the heavy plough. He kept on digging and dag for as much and as far as he could until he could pull no more and he drowned. Nikita brought him ashore:

– I don’t want to spoil the blue sea with you! He said and lit a mighty fire and burned the beast on it until nothing but ashes was left. Then the winds scattered that ashes in the four corners of the world and no trace of dragon was left.

Having finished, Nikita went on his way, back to Kiev. The people waited and rushed on his path – they were all happy, they sang and they danced. The tsar and tsarina, holding their daughter’s hand, came bearing gifts – gold, furs, tinsels, mighty big pearls that shone in the sun. But Nikita turned all of their gifts down.

– What am I to do with your reaches? He said. I didn’t fight the beast for gain, I fought it for I pitied you all. For me, my work is more precious than all of your gifts. Let me return to the Tanners’ Slum.

And so Nikita went home, in his slum, the Tanners’ Slum and he still lives there, tanning the skins and soaking them in the silvery waters of the river Nipru.

His fame traveled far and wide and the people told his story – so that he wouldn’t be forgotten and to this day people still are thinking of him.

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translated by milena © 2014.

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