Category Archives: other people’s

kurdish folktales

Corduene folk tales are of the same root as Iranian lore. They contain motifs and settings common to tales told by Persian speakers and the peoples of Luristan, Azerbaijan, Gilan, and Mazanderan. The ones collected in Mohammed Hamasalih Tofiq’s Kurdish Folktales, are the result of ten long years of methodical collecting, done in the Sulaimani and Kerkuk regions of Iraqi Kurdistan. The plots unveil in surprising ways, and the values depicted weigh differently than in the tales of the West. They make for a rich and diverse reading.

The King of the East[1]

They say that a long time ago there was a merchant who had a daughter. The daughter was mad, and lest she harm anyone they locked her up in a room and gave her food and water through a window. Once the merchant packed up his goods and set out to trade in a distant country. He journeyed for a long time, and along the way he went and sat down by a stream to rest. He looked and saw something round floating down the stream. He pulled it out. It was a human head, of which only the bones remained. When he examined it closely, he saw that on the forehead it was written: “Although I am dead, I will have an offspring, and he is fated to kill forty men.” To himself the man said, “By God, I must hide this skull and not let the killing of those forty people come about.”

Then he got up, crushed it to smithereens with a rock, put the remains in a bag, and took them away. When he had completed his business, he went back home and put the bag on a shelf. One day one of the children picked up the bag from the shelf and took it to the mad daughter’s window. The girl grabbed it and ate some of the contents. Immediately she was cured and called out to her mother, saying “Why am I in chains in this room? I am not ill, and there is nothing wrong with me.”

They called a doctor, and he proclaimed her well. After a time the girl’s belly began to swell, and it was obvious that she was pregnant. She was examined, but it turned out that she had not done anything bad except to have eaten some of the pulverized fragments from the bag. The father knew in his heart that something extraordinary was going to happen, and after nine months and nine days the girl gave birth to a boy. The child grew in such an extraordinary fashion that when he was only five or six years old he had the intelligence and understanding of fully grown man.

The merchant also had a son who worked as a farmer. One day there was no one to take him his noon meal, and the child said, “I’ll take it.” Although they told him he was only a child and couldn’t do it, it was of no use. When he took the food to his uncle and they sat down together to rest, they saw a man carrying a burden on his back and headed toward them. “Uncle,” the boy said, “that man who is coming toward us is going to the judge in order to have a dream interpreted. He had a dream last night, and in his dream a ray of light from the sky fell onto their hearth. The judge will interpret it to mean that there is a jar of money under the hearth. When the judge is interpreting the dream he will try to play a trick and say, Was it our hearth? Meaning the judge’s. If the man says yes, by virtue of that word the jar of money will go under the hearth in the judge’s house, and they will get it for themselves. I’m going to call him because that’s not how it is supposed to be.”

“Uncle”, the boy cried out, “didn’t you have a dream last night?”

“Yes, I did”, the man said.

“In your dream did a ray of light come through the skylight in your house and fall on your hearth?” The boy asked.

The man was astonished and said, yes, that is how it was. How did you know? Uncle, said the boy, come, let me explain it to you. Your dream indicates that there is a treasure under your hearth. During the interpretation if the judge asks you if it was his hearth, say, No, it was our own hearth. Otherwise the jar of money will go under his hearth.

The man thanked him with skepticism and went to the judge.

When he got there he put down his sack of gifts and told the judge why he had come. Exactly as the boy had said, the judge asked him, was it our hearth? However, he said, No, your honor, it was our own hearth. The judge repeated his question again, but the man did not change his initial response.

“From whom did you learn this?” The judge asked, and the man told him about the boy.

“Go on your way, said the judge, for you have your treasure.”

Then the judge sent two men to the farmer. Before they went he said:

“He has a boy with him who is a seer and knows hidden things. Go, buy him from the farmer, and no matter how much he asks, give it to him. Then kill the boy. I’ll give you a sufficient reward.”

The men went to the farmer and explained to him what they wanted. He was confounded and said:

“He is my nephew. How can I do such a thing?”

The boy called to his uncle and said:

“Uncle, I am not your son, and I do not belong to you. Agree to sell me on condition that they give you my weight in money.”

One way or another, the uncle had to agree on condition that they give him the boy’s weight in money. They went off to the judge and got a lot of money with which they satisfied the man’s demand. They got the boy, but first he filled a sack with the money paid for him, gave the remainder to his uncle, and said good-bye. Along the way, when the men were about to kill him, he said to them:

“I’ll give you this sack of money, which is several times your hire. If you go to the judge and say you’ve killed me [the blade] will fall on your necks! Let me go, and I promise you I’ll leave this country, and you can tell the judge you’ve killed me.”

The judge’s men liked what the child said to them, so they took the money and set him free.

The boy went his own way through several cities and several countries until he reached the edge of a body of water. He looked and saw an old man who was busy fishing. He went up to him, greeted him, and said:

“Uncle, this is not your job. Why don’t you go home and rest? Why do you bother with the headache of such a task?”

“What can I do, my son?” The old man said. “I have no child or anybody else to make a living for me. I have no choice but to work hard in order for us to live.”

“Uncle,” said the boy, “I am a child who has nobody and nothing – neither father nor mother. I’d like you make me your son.”

This was just what the old man had been wanting, so he was very happy. He took the child home with him, and his wife was also very happy with him. The boy began interpreting dreams, telling fortunes, and doing that sort of thing and he made so much money that they became rich, and the old man and woman flourished. However, the old man stuck to his old habits and went out fishing every day. The boy kept saying “Father, it is a shame with us being so rich. Give it up!” But it was of no use.

One day he threw out his hook, and when he drew it in, there was a beautiful white fish on it. “By God,” said the old man, “this fish would be good for the king’s daughter. It is so beautiful she could keep it.” Putting the white fish in a pot of water, he took it to the king’s daughter.

Instead of thanking him and expressing her gratitude, she said quite frankly:

“This fish is male, and it can’t stay near me because it would be against religion for me to look at it.”

With these words the fish began to guffaw.

The girl got angry with the old man and him arrested and put in prison. Night fell, and when the old man didn’t come home, the old woman said:

“There are a thousand dangers he could have fallen into.”

However, the boy told her that the king’s daughter had detained him.  Early the next morning the boy took himself to the king’s daughter and begged her to release his father, but the girl said:

“I won’t release him until you tell me why that fish laughed at me.”

“It would be better for me not to tell you,” the boy replied. And he had an exchange of strong words with the king’s daughter.

Then the servants came and took him before the king. When the king asked why he had come, the boy said angrily:

“Your daughter had my father arrested. Now you give an order for his release. If you don’t, I’ll do to you what was done to the king of the east.”

“Now, my small son,” said the king, “tell me that the king of the east was and what happened to him. Tell me the story.”

“Your Majesty,” said the small boy, “the king of the east was a king of great might and power. He had a wife who was without equal for her knowledge and cleverness, and she was called Long-Tress. The king loved his wife very much.

The king also had a parrot he kept in a cage.

Early one morning the king got up and saw another parrot sitting on the cage, and the two parrots were chirping together. After a while the second parrot flapped its wings and flew away. The king’s parrot curled up and burst into tears.

“Parrot,” asked the king of the east, “who was that who came to you?”

“That was my brother, the parrot said. “He invited me to his wedding, but I, as you can see, am a prisoner in this cage. I began crying out of sadness.”

The king was quite moved and said:

“Parrot, if I let you go to your people, will you promise you’ll return to me? “‘

Swearing he would return, the parrot flapped his wings and flew away to his own country, where he attended his brother’s wedding. Then he asked his father for permission to leave. His father gave him an apple sapling and said:

“Anyone who plants this apple sapling in a pure state and waters it while in a pure state will get an apple, and anyone who eats it, no matter if he is eighty or ninety years old, will turn into a fourteen-year-old boy. “

Early one morning the king woke up, looked, and saw that the parrot had returned to his cage. The king rejoiced and welcomed the parrot back. The parrot in turn gave him the apple sapling, saying:

“My king, this is a gift from my father to you. Plant it thus and so in order for it to bear fruit. “

A few years passed, and the tree bore fruit. One night a violent wind storm knocked an apple from the tree, and just then a poisonous snake found it and bit into it.

The next morning that very apple was taken to the king, who said:

“Now, Long-Tress, divide it into two, and each of us will eat a piece to see whether the parrot is telling the truth that we’ll be young again.”

The king had a very wise and clever vizier who said:

“Long live the king. First let’s give a bit of it to an animal lest parrot has plotted against us.”

The vizier’s opinion suited the king, and a little of the apple was given to a sheep, which immediately dropped dead. The king ordered the parrot’s head cut off. Then his suspicions landed on his wife Long-Tress’s head as he said to himself, ‘One way or another, she has had a hand in this plot.’ And he gave an order for her to be killed too.

Now, there was an old man in the king’s city. He had young women to serve him, but he always found fault with them and in the end sent them away. Finally the old man got sick of living and decided to go eat some of the apple in the king’s house and rid himself of his headache.

When he ate the apple he immediately gave a shiver and became a fourteen-year-old boy. This became the talk of the town at the news spread far and wide. When the king heard about it, he realized that the first apple had been bitten by a snake, and in his grief and regret he turned into a wild boar, upon which the dogs were set and tore it to pieces.

“Now, king,” said the boy, “I swear by God that if you don’t release my father, I’ll do to you as was done to the king of the east.”

The king laughed and said:

“Small boy, your stories are nice. Come tell us another.

“King,” he said, “I am not a story teller. For the last time I’m telling you that if you don’t let my father go, by God I’ll do to you as was done to the hunter.”

“Tell me what happened to the hunter,” said the king.

“Your majesty,” he said, “Once there was a hunter. He had a very clever hawk with which he hunted. This hawk would grab any prey upon which it was set and not let go. On account of this hawk the hunter never returned empty-handed and for this reason he loved his hawk more than anything. One day in a parched and waterless desert, the water in his water bag spilled, and he got so thirty he almost went blind. After much searching for water, he chanced upon a waterfall and a pool. He looked and saw that yellowish water was dripping drop by drop. As he was about to go blind from thirst, it was hard for him to cup his hand, and it took him a long time to get a handful of water. He was just about to take it to his mouth when the falcon flapped its wings against him and made him spill the water.

“The man was very angry with the falcon, and when he filled his hand with water again, the falcon made him spill it just as it had done before. This time the man had had enough, so he grabbed the falcon and wrung its neck. Then he stepped back not far from the pool and looked. What he saw was a dragon lying there and-wouldn’t you know it? – The water wasn’t water; it was the dragon’s poison dripping into the pool. In a fit of regret the man sprouted two great horns and turned into a mountain ram. A hunter set his dogs on him, and they killed him.

“Yes, your majesty, by God I’ll do to you just as that hunter did if you don’t let my father go. The king sent for his daughter and asked her, “Daughter, why did you have this man arrested?”

“Father dear,” she replied, “this man brought me a fish that laughed at me. That’s why I had him arrested. And I told him that unless he told me why the fish was laughing I wouldn’t let him go.” The young boy said:

“Your majesty, I’ll tell her, but on condition that she must do whatever I say and not refuse me.”

The boy went through all the rooms in the palace, and in the daughter’s room he discovered a secret door leading underground. He asked the girl for the key.

The girl turned pale and said:

“I’ve lost it.”

However, her father forced her to produce it, and they opened the door and looked in. There were thirty-nine huge men inside. The small boy said:

“Your majesty, your daughter enjoys herself every night with these men but she tells my father that if the fish is male she can’t look at it!”

On the spot the king put a sword into the boy’s hand and said:

“Cut all thirty-nine of them into ribbons.”

He cut off all their heads and then, at the king’s command, he killed the girl. In this way the forty murders that were foretold on the forehead of the skull came true. The boy was well rewarded by the king, and he returned to his old grand mother, they lived happily ever after.

[1] from Kurdish folktales, collected by Mohammed Hamasalih Tofiq, translated by professor Wheeler Thackston, department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations, Harvard University.


a Romanian translation of this story can be found here.

on the secret life of bugs, with brood x

Now that I write about bugs, I remembered a fragment I read a while ago on the hatching and coming of age of a locust. After doing some digging, I found it again, the fragment belongs to Brood X, written by Dan Stockman who is, according to the Pithead Chapela veteran Journalist in Fort Wayne, Indiana (…) working on an MFA in Creative Writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University. The extract is from chapter 8 and is written with a firm hand and a clear gift for storytelling.

I’ll only give a bit of a gentle nudge in its direction, with a first paragraph or so, but don’t take my word for it, go see the author’s piece on Pithead Chapel, it really is a think of beauty:

It is high summer, when the trees soar and the breeze is slow, the grass deep, and the world is exploding with life. Every square inch seems to be crawling with something, and even the inches themselves are alive—tree bark and plant root and soil. Even the inanimate feels the flow of energy, as vinyl siding expands with the heat of the day and contracts in the cool, asphalt fills its own cracks, and ice cream seems bent on escape from the confines of a cone. Children explode across the landscape, and even adults find new life, discovering both vast reserves of energy and a deeper lust for rest.

Quiet in the middle of this teeming, swarming world lies the egg, small and white, nestled carefully into an incision made into a twig on a tree branch, high above the ground (…)

You can find the full chapter 8, here:

Pithead Chapel Vol 2, Issue 5

janko raven

A Hungarian folktale, Janko Raven (Holló Jankó), tells the story of a boy from a poor family that went on to earn his living at the king’s court. The story is one of charity and perseverance and can be summed up with the proverb One good turn deserves another. Similarly to Nikita the Tanner, this boy too, refuses the king’s offerings, with one exception: the gold he had bargained for in the begining.

For this particular story I’ve also found a video adaptation, that I’ve linked below.

Janko Raven

Once upon a time when the world was much younger, there lived an old couple whom had nothing in the world but an old son, whom they called Janko Raven.jr2

When the boy grew up, he said to his parents:

“Well mother and father, I think it’s time I went and earned some money.”

As his parents had no objections, Janko Raven set on. When he crossed the village border he saw a troop of ants crossing from one field to another. Reeling at the rear was a little ant who fell into a hole and couldn’t come out. Taking pitty, Janko bent down to help her.

“Thank you for your kindness” said the ant. “Here, take this whistle and whenever you’re in trouble just blow it and I’ll come to help you”.

Janko pocketed the whistle and continued on his way. By nightfall he arrived at a huge forest where he found a small house and a white-haired old man.

“Good evening, grandfather” said Janko.

“Good evening, son. What can I do for you?”

“I’m looking for a place where I could earn some money and bed for the night.”

The old man let Janko sleep in his place that night. Then in the morning he said:

“Well son, at the other end of the forest you’ll find a wide pasture and beyond that the sea and a huge mountain. On top of the mountain there lays a castle made of solid gold. That’s where the king lives. Go to him. He will give you work.”

Janko thanked the old man for his advice and the bed and went on his way. Just as he reached the edge of the forest, a flock of ravens flew up before him. Walking on he noticed one of the ravens flapping in the grass, unable to fly away. His feathers were wet by the morning dew that he was unable to fly away.

Taking pity on the bird, Janko gathered it up and stroke its feathers until they were completely dry.

“One good turn deserves another, Janko Raven. Here, take this whistle, and whenever you’re in trouble, just blow it and I’ll come to help you”.

Janko soon reached the sea at the foot of the mountain. As he stood there he saw a tiny fish struggling helplessly on the shore. Taking pity on the poor animal, Janko put the fish back into the sea. When the little fish recovered, he said:

“One good turn deserves another. I will give you a whistle to add to the other two I know you have. Whenever you’re in trouble, just blow it and I’ll help you.”

So Janko pocketed this whistle too, and began to climb the mountain.

When Janko reached the castle, the king asked;

“Well lad, what can I do for you?”

“I’ve come to enter into your service, your majesty”

The king said:

“Good. In my kingdom three days count as one full year and the pay is three hundred gold coins, but if you fail to carry out my orders, you will die a thousand deaths. Is it a deal?”

“Yes, it’s a deal.”

On the first day, at sunset, the king summoned Janko and said:

“Go into the farmyard where you’ll find three stacks of millet. By morning, pick out all the millet seeds and stack the millet and the straws separatedly. If you fail, you shall die.”

Janko was frightened almost out of his wits. Then he remembered the whistle given to him by the ants.

Suddenly, millions and millions of ants were swarming around his feet.

“What is the matter dear friend?”

“Oh, I’m in great trouble.” And Janko told the ants what the king had ordered him to do.

“Have no fear, said the ant king: we’ll get started and by morning, we’ll have the millet and the straw in two separate stacks.”

That was exactly what happened by the time the sun rose.

“I see you have carried out my orders” said the king. “You may have the day off, but come to me again, in the evening.”

That evening the king said:

“My three daughters are strolling in front of the castle. Go down and make sure no harm comes to them. If you fail, you shall die a thousand deaths.”

So Janko sat down to guard the three princesses, but he was so tired that he soon fell asleep.

The three princesses changed into ravens and flew away. When he woke up, he found that they were gone. Frightened almost out of his wits he remembered the whistle given to him by the ravens.

The birds appeared out of nowhere and asked:

“What can we do for you dear friend?”

“I’m in great trouble. The king told me to look after his three daughters, but I fell asleep and they’ve disappeared.”

“Have no fear” said the raven king. “Just sit on my back and take hold of this three halters, and off we go to find them!”

Janko climbed on to the ravens back and they flew up into the sky. When they flew behind the moon they found the three princesses sitting side by side in the shape of three ravens.

Jano threw a halter around each of their necks and took them back to the castle.

On the eve of the third day, the king summoned Janko once more:

“Find me the golden ring I lost in the sea or you’ll die a thousand deaths.”

Janko saw that the king meant what he said. So he went to the sea shore where he blew the whistle given to him by the tiny fish. Almost at once, the sea in front of him was teeming with fish.

“What can we do for you, dear friend?”

Janko told him what the king had said.

“Have no fear” said the fish king. “We’ll find the ring”. But as dawn began to break, they still hadn’t found it.

As a last resort, they looked for it in the stomach of a big fish. Sure enough, the ring was there.

“So, my lad, you have served your time well” said the king. “In return, I shall give you one of my daughters in marriage, half my kingdom and three carts, full of gold.”

But Janko didn’t want to marry any of the princesses. Nor did he want to have the kingdom. All he asked for were the three carts full of gold, which he took back to his parents. And together, they lived happily ever after on cheese pies and doughnuts.


The video is from the TV Series “Long Ago and Far Away,” hosted by James Earl Jones on PBS in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Narrated by Tammy Grimes.

the feather of finist the falcon

The feather of Finist the falcon is a Russian fairy tale collected by Alexander Afanasyev in Narodnye russkie skazki. It was translated to Romanian and appeared in an illustrated edition (in 1979) entitled Finist Şoimanul, (Ed. Ion Creangã, Bucharest & Ed. Malîș, Moscow).

The fairy tale contains folk characters such as Baba Yaga and breaks with Western tradition, by portraying an original vision of female courage. It was an inspiration for Josepha Sherman‘s The Shining Falcon.

In an attempt to preserve the “look & feel” of this tale, I kept the 1979 St. Kovaliov illustrations along with my translation.

the feather of Finist the falcon

3Once upon a time there lived a humble man, a widower and the father of three daughters. As his wife passed and the household needed keeping, the old man thought of hiring help. But his youngest, Mariushka, said to him:

– There isn’t much here that I cannot master, father, so there isn’t much need to hire help, as I can take care of the chores by myself.

                The old man thought about it for a while, until he approved and so Mariushka took upon herself the household chores. She was mighty talented and the chores went by just fine. Her father loved her a great deal and was pleased to see he has such an industrious and well-behaved daughter. For Mariushka was a wonderful child indeed! Her sisters, they were all envious and greedy, and ugly, but with great love for shinny things, fine clothing and jewelry.  They spent their days on nothing else but trying make-up and asking for new clothes, as the ones they had would quickly fall out of their graces.

                One day, their father had to go about town, with business at the market. Before he left, he asked the girls:

– What should your father bring you, fair daughters of mine? What would you like most?

– Buy us flowery kerchiefs, the most precious of their kind! Sewn with golden thread! The elder daughters demanded.

                Mariushka sat in her corner and uttered no word. Then, the old man turned and asked her, too:

– What about you? What would you like, youngest daughter of mine?

– Papa, for me you can buy a feather; a feather from a falcon’s wing – a falcon that goes by the name of Finist.

                And so the father went on his way. And when he returned, he had brought his elder daughters the gifts they demanded, but the falcon feather, that he could not find.

                After some time, the father went to the market again.

– Tel me, my daughters, what should I father bring you? What would you like most?

– Bring us boots! With silver soles! The eldest and the middle sisters replied.

As for Mariushka, she pleaded just like before:

– Papa, for me you can buy a feather; a feather from a falcon’s wing – a falcon that goes by the name of Finist.

                Puzzled, the humble man went about at the local market and wandered around for a whole day, bought his daughters boots, but the falcon feather he could not find.

                And it so happened that the man had to go to the market yet a third time.

Buy us dresses! The two daughters replied.

– Papa, for me just a father – the youngest insisted – a feather from Finist the falcon.

                And the man went on his way again for yet another whole day, but the falcon feather again he could not find. And as he trailed back home, barely leaving the market behind, an old man stopped in his path.

– A good day to you, old man!

– And a good day to you too! Where are you heading to this time of the day?

– I’m heading home, old man, back to my village. But not without a heavy heart: my youngest of daughters, you see, she asked me for a feather from the wing of a falcon that goes by the name of Finist. Now, I found many things during my time, but this feather I simply cannot find.

– I happen to have such a feather – said the old man – and it is more precious to me than the light of my eyes, but for a kind hearted man, I’ll part with it!


And so the old man took to light the feather that he kept close to his heart and gave it to the other. The feather looked no different than any other ordinary feather the man had seen during his time. So he thanked the old man and took it while thinking “what in the world did my dear Mariushka think she could do with this feather, anyway?”

                As he arrived home, the man gifted his daughters with the gifts they demanded. And the older sisters, they hastened to wear their new clothes, while mocking their little sister for choosing such a worthless little thing:

– Stupid is as stupid does! Now put that feather in your hair, and you’ll see just how much prettier you’ll look!

               5 To their mockery, Mariushka said nothing and got out of their way looking for something to busy herself with. And at night, when everyone went to bed, she took out the feather and let it gently fall on the floor, saying:

– Finist the falcon, come to me my dear, my betrothed!

At once, a handsome man appeared at her feet. They stayed together until dawn, when the man laid down and touched the floor. He rose, no longer a man, but a falcon instead. Mariushka then opened the window and the falcon took to the clear blue sky.

For three days Mariushka received the man in her room; a falcon during the day, he would fly up in the sky, but at dusk he would come to see Mariushka and turn into a man.

And on the fourth day, the evil sisters caught a glimpse of what was going on with Mariushka and her falcon and rushed to their father, to spread the word:

– My dear daughters – their father replied – why won’t you mind your business instead of nosing around?

– Fine – they answered – we shall see what happens next.

                Then they sneaked in and closed the window to Mariushka’s room, and pinned it closed, bolted with knives they thrusted into the window’s frame and sill. Then they hid and waited.


                Outside the evening fell and the falcon came. But as he reached the window, he couldn’t come in. He struggled and hit the window with his chest, until the glass was reddened with blood. Meanwhile Mariushka was asleep and so she could not hear a thing.

                Then the falcon said:

– Who wants me is who shall find me! But it won’t be easy. The seeker will find what is sought after wearing out three pairs of iron shoes, three iron sticks and three iron helmets!

                His words woke the girl up, and she jumped out of her bed and rushed at the window, but could no longer see the falcon, only the blood stains left on the glass. Mariushka freed the window open and started crying, her tears washing away the bloody traces. And as she cried, her tears made her fair.

                When she was done she went looking for her father and this is what she said:

– Papa, don’t punish me, but let me go. If I’ll have days, we’ll see each other again, and if I’ll be gone, then it was not meant to be.

                The old man was heartbroken at the thought of letting his youngest out into the world, but in the end had no other choice but to let her go.


            8    As soon as the blacksmiths were done crafting the iron shoes, sticks and helmets, Mariushka went on her journey, in search of her betrothed Finist the falcon. And she walked; she walked a long way, through fields, through meadows, dark forests and tall mountains. Birds would charm her soul with joyful chirping, springs would cool her soft white face and deep forests would gladly receive her in their shades. And nobody and nothing ever harmed her: nor the wolves with their dark furs and sharp teeth, nor the bears or the foxes – instead, all the wild beasts she would encountered walked tamed by her side. Meanwhile, she broke a pair of iron shoes, and wore out an iron stick and an iron helmet.


                One day, Mariushka reached a meadow. And in the meadow there was a little spinning house, built on chicken legs.

– House, little house! Turn your back to the forest and face me! I would like to come in and rest! Mariushka said.

                The house turned – its back at the forest, facing the girl. Mariushka went inside, but what did she see? Baba Yaga stood inside with one leg propped in one corner of the room and the other propped in another corner, with her mouth up to the wooden beams and her nose scratching the ceiling.

                When Baba Yaga saw Mariushka, she leaned in, clacking and thundering:

– Ptiu, ptiu, it smells like human! What brings you around these parts, pretty girl?

– I’m looking for Finist the falcon, auntie.

– The-hee, pretty girl, you can look for him around these parts for as much as you like! Your falcon is in the far away kingdom, nine seas and nine lands away. An evil empress gave him a magic potion to drink and ensnared him to marry her. But I can help, you see. Here, hold this silver platter and this golden egg. When you’ll reach the far away kingdom, look for the empress and ask to serve in her suite. As soon as you’ll be done with your chores, you take the silver platter and you place on it the golden egg. And the egg will start spinning on its own, this way and that. The empress will see it and will want to buy it, but don’t you listen and don’t you sell them, no matter the offer she makes. You demand to see Finist the falcon instead.

                Mariushka thanked Baba Yaga and went on her way. She walked and she walked as the wood grew deeper and darker. Fear overcame her and she couldn’t take another step. But suddenly, a cat appeared on her path. One leap and he arrived by her side and, purring gently, he told her:

– Don’t be afraid, Mariushka, walk on. The road will be treacherous and scary, but don’t mind it and walk on instead.

                Then the cat rubbed its back on an old tree trunk and it was gone and Mariushka found the courage to carry on. And the further she went, the deeper and darker the forest became.

               10 And she walked and she walked a long-long way until the second pair of iron shoes broke down, and the second iron stick and iron helmet became worn out as well. Eventually, she reached a house built on chicken legs. It was surrounded by a fence, and in every pole there was a human head, and every human head shone a bright light.

                Mariushka stopped and said:

– House, little house! Turn your back to the forest and face me! I would like to come in and rest!

                The house turned its back to the forest and faced Mariushka so that the girl could step in. Once inside, what did she see? Baba Yaga stood with her legs propped in the two corners of the room, her mouth up to the wooden beams and her nose scratching the ceiling.

                When Baba Yaga saw Mariushka, she leaned in, clacking and thundering:

– Ptiu, ptiu, it smells like human! What brings you around these parts, pretty girl?

– I’m looking for Finist the falcon, auntie.


– Did you pass by my sister, by any chance?

– I did pass by, auntie, I did.

– Very well, pretty girl, than I will help you as well. Here, half this silver thread and this golden needle. The needle will stitch on its own, with a gold and silver thread on purple velvet. If they will want to buy it, don’t sell it. Insist that they take you to Finist the falcon instead.


                Mariushka thanked Baba Yaga and went on her way. The forest shuddered with thundering sound and sinister cracking and the wind howled aimlessly. Every here and there, human heads on spikes would shine like tourches. Mariushka’s fear got the best of her once more and so she froze into place. But then, out of nowhere, a dog appeared by her side.

– Mariushka, sister, don’t be afraid. The road is treacherous and scary, but you need not mind, instead, stay on your path.

                And having said that, the dog suddenly disappeared and Mariushka followed her path. The woods were now pitch-black and thorns would cling on to her clothes, scratching her hands and legs… But the girl went on without quivering and did not think once about looking back.

                And she went a long-long way, until the third pair of iron shoes broke down and the third stick and the third iron helmet were all worn out as well. After a while she reached a meadow; in the meadow she saw a house built on chicken legs and surrounded by a wooden fence, and in every pole there was a horse’s head, and every horse’s head shone a fiery light.

                Mariushka stopped and said:

 – House, little house! Turn your back to the forest and face me! I would like to come in and rest!

                The house turned – its back at the forest, facing the girl. Mariushka went inside, but what did she see? Baba Yaga stood inside with one leg propped in one corner of the room and the other propped in another corner, with her mouth up to the wooden beams and her nose scratching the ceiling. Her face bruised and blackened, her mouth a toothless gap with only one, barely hanging, fang.

                When Baba Yaga saw Mariushka, she leaned in, clacking and thundering:

– Ptiu, ptiu, it smells like human! What brings you around these parts, pretty girl?

– I’m looking for Finist the falcon, auntie.


– Finding him won’t be easy, little girl, but I’ll help you. Hold this silver distaff and this golden spindle. As soon as you’ll hold the spindle, it will start spinning on its own, and it will not spin ordinary thread, but a golden thread instead.

– Thank you, auntie.

– You’ll thank me later. Now remember this: if they ask to buy the spindle from you, don’t you sell it. Ask to see Finist the falcon instead.


                Mariushka thanked Baba Yaga and went on her way. The forest started thundering and howling. There was hissing in the grass and yowling in the distance. Owls started circling above, mice and other creepy crawlers crept out of their hideouts, all mean looking and charging for the girl. But then out of the blue, a mighty black wolf appeared.

– Don’t be afraid, he said, hop on my back and look only ahead!

                Mariushka jumped on the black wolf’s back and off they were! Before them there were endless fields of green, lands where springs would carry milk and honey and where the mountain tops would pierce the clouds. And they rushed by, faster than the speed of thought. Finally, Mariushka caught a glimpse of the crystal castle lying ahead. It had a verandah boarded by mighty pillars with beautiful sculptures. It had magnificent windows, a lace of skillful miniatures bordering them. And at one of the windows, the empress stood, piercing the distance with her gaze.

15– Now you go in, Mariushka, said the wolf. Go and seek to serve in the empress suite.

                Mariushka descended and took her little bag, then thanked the wolf and went for the crystal palace’s gates. She bowed before the empress and spoke:

– I know not of your name, nor your rank. But I beg of you to see if you couldn’t find use for a servant like me.

–  I seek for a skillful servant for a long time now. One that could spin and sew, the empress replied.

– Oh, I can do all that.

– Come in and get busy then!

So Mariushka started working. She worked all day and at dusk she took out the silver platter and the golden egg, and said:

– Spin, oh spin, golden egg, spin and show me my betrothed!

                And the egg started spinning on the silver platter and brought about the vision of Finist the falcon with it. As soon as Mariushka saw him she started crying:

– Finist, Finist, my falcon, why did you abandon me and left me all alone like this?

                But before uttering any other word, the girl heard the empress’s voice:

– Mariushka, sell me the silver platter and the golden egg!

– No, answered Mariushka, they aren’t for sale. I can give them to you instead, if you allow me to see Finist the falcon.

                The empress thought for a moment, then said:

– Very well, your will be done! Tonight, when he’ll be asleep, I’ll show him to you.

                Close to midnight, Mariushka entered his room. She looked and saw him in a deep sleep, as if he was gone of this world.

                Mariushka looked at him and kissed his lips, and held his hand but was unable to wake him. And so she stood by his side trying, until the break of dawn…

                16The whole day Mariushka worked incessantly, and as soon as dusk came, she took out the silver thread and golden needle. She started sewing and whispering:

– Sew needle, sew, make a flowery towel for Finist the falcon, so that he can use it to clear his soft face, in the morning!

                The empress heard her again and said:

– Mariushka, sell me the golden needle and silver thread!

– I won’t sell them, she said, but you can have them if you allow me to see Finist the Falcon.

                The empress thought for a moment and said:

– Fine! Come tonight and you can see him.

                Close to midnight, Mariushka entered his room and found him in a deep sleep.

– Finist, Finist, my falcon, wake up, wake up I say!

                But Finist was sound asleep. No matter how much she tried, she couldn’t wake him up. Then dawn came and Mariushka started working. And in the evening she took the silver distaff and golden spindle and the empress caught sight of her again and again she insisted:

– Sell them to me, sell them to me, girl!

– I won’t sell them, but I can give them to you, if you allow me to stay with Finist the falcon again.

– Very well! The empress accepted, thinking: “it won’t matter since she cannot wake him.”

                And when night came, Mariushka entered his room and found him in a deep sleep.

– Finist, my darling falcon, wake up, wake up I say!

                But Finist was fast asleep and there was no waking him.

                No matter how much Mariushka tried, there was no way to wake him and the dawn was creeping in.

                Mariushka started crying and pleading:

– Finist, my dear falcon, wake up, wake up so you can see me, wake up so you can hold me!

                One of her tears fell from her cheeks on his shoulder and he woke up. He looked around and saw Mariushka. He hugged her and kissed her.

– Mariushka! Is it really you? You broke three pairs of iron shoes, worn out three iron sticks and three iron helmets to try to find me? Let’s go then, quick, let us get out of here!


                And as they prepared to leave, the empress caught word of their escape and spread the word of her husband’s unfaithfulness.

                The emperors of all kingdoms and the merchants and the people along the way now sought to punish Finist the falcon.

                Then Finist spoke to them and said:

– Who, out of the two, is a wordy wife? She who loves her husband with all her heart, or she who tricks him and misleads him?

                And the people didn’t think twice before acknowledging Mariushka as the falcon’s wife. And so they stayed together, to live happily ever after.

                They left for their kingdom and gathered everyone for the feast and ordered the musicians to sing and the footmen to fire their canons in honor of their union. It was a glorious feast, one that we all remember to this day.


translated by milena © 2014

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


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.


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.


translated by milena © 2014.