Cronnie Wisdom

Crone is "a phase in which you can be more authentic, more capable of making a difference in your family and in the greater world. Life gives you experience, and when you draw from it, that's true wisdom. By the time a woman is in her crone years, she is in an amazing position to be an influence. To change things for the better, to bring what she knows into a situation, to be able to say, 'Enough is enough.' You don't have to just go along with things, which is often a part of the middle years. You're often something of a loose cannon."
Jean Shinoda Bolen

Sunday, October 29, 2023

"Go I Know Not Whither - Fetch I Know Not What" - A Russian Tale


Go I Know Not Where, Fetch I Know Not What 

llustrated by N.Kochergin (1897-1974)

This Russian tale features Baba Yaga, the Slavic witch crone. (She was discussed earlier in the story "Vasilisa the Beautiful.”)   Although Baba Yaga has only a small part to play, her suggestion shifts the tale’s entire trajectory.  And once again there are her enigmatic words “Go I know not whither and fetch I know not what” to ponder.

By the blue sea, in a certain empire, there dwelt once upon a time a king who was a bachelor and had a whole company of archers.  The archers used to hunt with him and shoot the birds that flew about and provided meat for their master’s table. In this company served a youthful archer named Fedot, a clever marksman was he, never missing his aim.  It was for this reason that the King loved him better than all his comrades.

One day he chanced to go a-hunting very early, before the break of day. He went into a dense, dreary forest, and saw a dove sitting on a tree. Fedot stretched his bow, took aim, fired, and broke one of the dove’s little wings. The bird fell from the tree down upon the damp earth. The marksman picked it up and was about to twist its neck and put it in his pouch when the dove spoke to him.

“Alas! young marksman! do not twist my poor little silly neck. Drive me not out of the bright world. It is better to take me alive. Carry me home, put me in your little window, and right when slumber comes over me, at that very moment, I say, stroke me the wrong side down with your right hand, and good fortune shall come to you!”

The marksman was amazed. “Why, what is this?” thought he. “My eyes tell me it is a bird, and nothing else, yet it speaks with a human voice! Such a thing has never happened to me before.” 

So, he took the bird home, placed it on the windowsill, and waited and waited. It was not very long before the bird laid its head beneath its wing and began to doze. Then the marksman raised his right hand and stroked it, quite lightly, the wrong side down. The dove instantly fell to the ground and became a maiden, and so beautiful that the like of it can only be told in tales but is neither to be imagined nor guessed at.

She spoke to the good youth who was the royal archer and said: “You are clever enough to win me and have wit enough to live with me. You are my predestined husband; I am your pre-ordained wife.”

They were immediately of one mind. Fedot married, lived at home, and rejoiced in his young wife. Yet he never forgot his service to the king. Every morning, before the break of the day, he took his weapon, went into the forest, shot various kinds of wild beasts, and took them to the royal kitchen.

But it was plain that his wife was much tormented by these hunting expeditions, and one day she said to him: “Listen, my friend! I am fearful for you! Every blessed day you go into the forest, wander through the marsh, and return home wet through and through. We are none the better for it. What sort of a trade do you call this? Look, I have a plan that you can benefit from. Get me now one or two hundred rubles, and I’ll manage all the rest.”

Then Fedot hurried to his comrades, and borrowed a ruble from one, and two rubles from another till he had collected about two hundred rubles. Then he brought it to his wife. “Now,” said she, “buy me various kinds of silk with all this money!”

The archer went and bought various kinds of silk for two hundred rubles. She took them and said: “Be not sorrowful! Pray God and lie down to sleep, the morning is wiser than the evening!”

 So the husband fell asleep, and the wife went out upon the balcony, opened her book of spells, and immediately two invisible youths appeared before her and said: “What is your command?”

To which she said, “Take this silk, and in a single hour weave me a carpet more wondrous than anything to be found in the whole wide world, and let the entire kingdom be embroidered on this carpet, with all its cities and villages and rivers and lakes.” 

Then they set to work and wove the carpet, and it was wondrous to behold, wondrous above everything. In the morning the wife handed the carpet to her husband. “There,” she said, “take it to the marketplace and sell it to the merchants. But look now! Don’t haggle about the price but take whatever they offer for it.”

Fedot took the carpet, turned it round, hung it over his arm, and went to the marketplace. A merchant saw him, ran up to him at once, and said to him: “Tell me, honored sir, will you sell me that carpet?”

 “Willingly!” he replied.

“And what then is the price?”

The archer responded, “You frequent these markets, what do you think is a fair price?”

The merchant fell a-thinking and a-thinking, he could not figure out a price for the carpet.  He was at his wits’ end.

Another merchant came running up and after him a third and a fourth till a great crowd of them collected; they looked at the carpet, marveled at it, and could not set a price. At that moment the royal steward passed by, saw the crowd, and wanted to know what all the merchants were talking about.

So, he went up to them and said, “What is the matter?”

“We cannot price this carpet,” they replied.

The steward looked at the carpet, and he was amazed. “Listen, archer!” he said, “tell me the real truth; where did you get this royal carpet?”

The archer smiled and said, “My wife made it!”

“How much do you want for it?”

“I don’t know the value of it. My wife asked me not to haggle over it, but to take whatever was offered,” the archer explained.  

“Then what do you say to 10,000 rubles?” The archer took the money and gave up the carpet. 

Now this steward was always by the King and ate and drank at his table. So, he went to dine with the King and took the carpet with him.

“Would it please your Majesty to look at the carpet I have bought today?” The King looked and saw there his whole realm just as if it were on the palm of his hand, and he heaved a great sigh.

“Why, what a carpet is this! In all my life I have never seen such a cunning craft. Say now, what will you take for this carpet?” The King drew out 25,000 rubles and put them into the hand of the steward, but the carpet they hung up in the palace.

“That is a mere nothing,” thought the steward, “I’ll make a much better thing out of the second chance.” So, he immediately searched for the archer, sought out his little hut, and entered the dwelling room.  The moment he saw the archer’s wife, at that very instant he forgot all about himself and the errand on which he had come. Nevertheless, the steward forced himself to return home. Afterward, he bungled over everything he took in hand, and whether asleep or awake, he thought only of one thing, the wonderfully lovely little archeress.

The King observed his change, and asked him, “What the matter? What has happened to you to make you so sad?”

“Alas! My king and father, I have seen the archer's wife—such a beauty the world knows not, nor has ever seen!” The King himself was seized with a desire to fall in love with her, and he also went to the abode of the archer. He entered the living room and saw before him a lady of such unspeakable loveliness.  The King suddenly understood what had happened to his son.

“Love’s burning chilblain captured his heart.” “But what does that matter? Why should I remain a bachelor any longer?” he thought. “I know. I’ll marry this beauty for she’s too good to be a mere archer’s wife. From her birth, she was evidently meant to be a Queen! My Queen!”

The King returned to his palace and said to the steward, “Take heed! You were smart enough to show me the archer’s wife, that unspeakable beauty. Now you must be smart enough to get her husband out of the way. I want to marry her myself. And if you don’t remove him, look out! For even though you are my faithful servant, you will be hanged upon some gallows!” Then the steward went about much more afflicted than before and thought as he would, he could not devise a method of getting rid of the archer. He wandered about the broad marketplaces and the narrow lanes.  There he met one day a witchy old hag known as Baba Yaga.

 “Stay, you King’s servant!” cried she. “I can see all your thoughts. You’ll want some help against your unavoidable woe.”

“Ah, help me, dear Baba Yaga! I’ll pay you whatever you want!”

“You’ve been commanded to get rid of Fedot the archer. That thing is not so very easy to do. He indeed is simple, but his wife is frightfully artful. Well now, we’ll need to hit upon an errand that cannot be accomplished quickly. Go to the King and say that he must command the archer to go I know not whither, and fetch I know not what. Such a task as that the archer will never accomplish, though he lives forever and ever.  Either he will vanish altogether, or if he does come back, it will be without arms or legs.” 

The steward rewarded the old hag with gold and hastened back to the King, and then the King sent and commanded the archer to be brought before him.

“Well, Fedot! You are my young warrior and the first in my corps of archers. Do this for me! Go I know not whither, and fetch me I know not what! And mark me, if you don’t bring it back, it is I the King, who tells you that your head shall be severed from your shoulders.”

The archer turned and left the palace.  He came home very sad and thoughtful. And his wife asked him: “Why are you so sad, darling; has any misfortune befallen you?”

“The King has sent me I know not whither to fetch I know not what. It is through your beauty that this ruin has come upon us!”

“Yes, indeed!” she said. “This service is no light one! It takes nine years to get there, and nine years to get back again, eighteen years in all, and God only knows if it can be managed even then!”

“What’s to be done then, and what will become of me?” he cried.

“Pray God and lie down to sleep, the morning is wiser than the evening,” she said. “Tomorrow you will know all.” 

The archer lay down to sleep, and his wife sat watching till midnight, opened her book of spells, and the two youths immediately appeared before her.

“What is your pleasure, and what do you command?” they cried.

“Do you know how one can manage to go I know not whither, and fetch I know not what?” she asked.

“No, we do not know.” She closed the book, and the youths disappeared from before her eyes. In the morning the archeress awoke her husband.

“Go to the King,” said she, “and ask for gold from the treasury for your journey. You have a pilgrimage of eighteen years before you. When you have the money, return to me to say farewell.”

The archer went to the King, received a whole purse full of money, and returned to say goodbye to his wife. She gave him a pocket handkerchief and a ball. Then she said: “When you go out of the town, throw this ball in front of you, and wherever it rolls, follow it. Here too is my pocket handkerchief; when you wash yourself, wherever you may be, always dry your face with this handkerchief.”

The archer took leave of his wife and his comrades, bowed low on all four sides of him, and went beyond the barriers of the city. He threw the ball in front of him; the ball rolled and rolled, and he followed it.

A month or so passed away, and then the King called the steward and said to him: “The archer has departed to wander about the wide world for eighteen years, and he will not return alive. Now eighteen years are not two weeks, and no little disaster may have befallen him by the way. Go then to the archer’s house and bring his wife to the palace!”

So, the steward went to the archer’s house, entered the room, and said to the beautiful archeress: “Greetings wise woman! The King commands you to come to the court!” So, to the court, she went.

The King received her with joy and led her into his golden halls. “Will you be a Queen? I will make you, my spouse!” he said.

The archer’s wife was indigent. “Where was such a thing ever seen, where was such a thing ever heard of, to take a wife away from her living husband? Though he is nothing but a simple archer, he is for all that my lawful husband.”

“If you don’t come of your own accord, I’ll take you by force!” the King roared.

But the beauty laughed, stamped upon the floor, turned into a dove, and flew out of the window.

The archer passed through many countries and kingdoms, and the ball continued rolling. Whenever they came to a river the ball expanded into a bridge, and whenever the archer wished to rest, the ball widened into a downy bed. Whether the time was long or whether it was short, the tale was quickly told, although the deed was not quickly done. Suffice it to say that the archer finally came to a vast and wealthy palace.  The ball rolled right up against the door and vanished. The archer begins to think. “I had better go straight on.”  So, he went up the staircase into a room, and there he found three lovely damsels.

“Where have you come from and for what reason are you here, good man?” they said.

“Alas! Lovely damsels, you ask me not to rest from my long journey, but you begin to torment me with questions. First, you should give me something to eat and drink and let me rest, and only then should you ask me of my journey!” They immediately laid the table, gave him something to eat and drink, and made him lie down to rest. The archer slept away his weariness, rose from his soft bed, and the lovely damsels brought him a washing basin and an embroidered towel. He washed himself in the clear spring water, but the towel he would not take.

“I have my handkerchief to wipe my face,” said he, and he drew out the handkerchief and began to dry himself.

And the lovely damsels started questioning him. “Tell us, good man! Where did you get that handkerchief?”

“My wife gave it to me.”

“Then you must have married one of our kinswomen.” Then they called their old mother, and she looked at the handkerchief, recognizing it in the same instant.

She cried, “This is indeed my daughter’s handkerchief!” Then she began to put all manner of questions to the archer. He told her how he had married her daughter, and how the King had sent him I know not whither, to fetch I know not what.

“Alas! My dear son-in-law, not even I have heard of this marvel. But come now, perchance my servants may know of it.” 

Then the old woman fetched her book of spells, turned over the leaves, and immediately there appeared two giants. “What is your pleasure, and what is your command?”

“Look now, my faithful servants, carry me together with my son-in-law to the wide sea Ocean, and place us in the very center of it—in the very abyss.” Immediately the giants caught up the archer and the old woman, and bore them, as by a hurricane, to the wide sea Ocean, and placed them in the center of it—in the very abyss. There they stood like two vast columns and held the archer and the old woman in their arms. Then the old woman cried with a loud voice, and there came swimming up to her all the fish and creeping things of the sea so that the blue sea was no longer to be seen for the multitude of them.

“Hark! Fish and creeping things of the sea. You who swim everywhere, have you heard how to go I know not whither, to fetch I know not what?

And all the fishes and creeping things exclaimed with one voice, “No, we have never heard of it.”

Suddenly a lame old croaking frog forced its way to the front and said, “Kwa, kwa; I know where this marvel is to be found.”

“Well, dear, that is just what I want to know,” said the old woman, and she took up the frog and told the giants to carry her and her son-in-law home. 

In an instant, they found themselves in their own courtyard. Then the old woman began to question the frog. “How and by what road can my son-in-law go?”

And the frog answered, “This place is at the end of the world—far, far away. I would gladly lead him myself, but I am so frightfully old, that I can scarcely move my legs. I could not get there in fifty years.”

The old woman sent for a big jar, filled it with fresh milk, put the frog inside, and said to her son-in-law, “Hold this jar in your hand and the frog will show you the way.” The archer took the jar with the frog, said goodbye to his mother-in-law and his sisters-in-law, and set out on his way. On he went, and the frog showed him the way. Whether it be far or near, long or short, matters not; suffice it that he came to the fiery river.  Beyond this river was a high mountain, and on this mountain, a door was to be seen. “Kwa, kwa,” said the frog, “let me out of the jar, we must cross over this river.”

The archer took it from the jar and placed it on the ground. “Now, my good youth, sit on me. More firmly. Don’t be afraid. You will not smash me.” The youth sat on the frog and pressed it down to the ground. The frog began to swell; it swelled and swelled until it was as large as a haystack. All that the archer now thought of was the risk of falling off.

“If I fall off it will be the death of me,” thought he. The frog, when it had done swelling, took a leap and leaped with one big bound right across the fiery stream, and again made itself quite little.

“Now, good youth, go through that door and I’ll wait for you here. You will come into a cavern and will need to hide yourself well. In a short time two old men will enter; listen to what they are saying, and see what they do, and when they are gone, say and do as they did.” 

The archer went into the mountain, opened the door, and found the cavern. It was dark enough to put one’s eyes out. He fumbled his way along and felt all about him with his arms until he felt an empty chest, into which he hid himself.

And now, after he had waited some time, two old men entered and said: “Hi! Shmat-Razum! come and feed us.”

At that very instant—there’s no telling how—lightning flashes lit candelabras, thundered plates and dishes, and various wines and meats appeared upon the table. The old men ate and drank, and then they commanded “Shmat-Razum! take it all away.” And immediately there was nothing, neither table, nor wine, nor meats, and the candelabras all went out. 

The archer heard the two old men going out, crept out of the chest, and cried: “Hi! Shmat-Razum!”

“What is your pleasure?”

“Feed me.” Again, everything appeared. The candelabras were lighted, the table was covered, and all the meats and drinks appeared upon it. The archer sat down at the table and said, “Hi! Shmat-Razum. Come, brother, and sit down with me, let’s eat and drink together. I can’t stand eating all alone.”

And an invisible voice answered him: “Alas! good man, where have you come from? It’s thirty years since I have served the two old men here, and during all that time they have never once asked me to sit down with them.”

The archer looked around and was amazed. He saw nobody, yet the meat disappeared from the dishes as if someone was sweeping them away, and the wine bottles lifted themselves up, poured themselves into the glasses, and in a moment the glasses were empty.

Then the archer went on eating and drinking, but he said: “Listen, Shmat-Razum! Will you be my servant? You will have a good time of it with me.”

“Why should I not? I have been growing weary here, and I see, you are a good man.”

 “Well, get everything ready and come with me,” said the archer.

The archer came out of the cave and looked around him.  There was nothing. “Shmat-Razum, are you there?”

“I am here. Fear not. I’ll never desert you.”

“Right,” replied the archer, and he sat him on the frog. The frog swelled out and leaped across the fiery stream.  He placed it in the jar and set off on his return journey. He came to his mother-in-law and made his new servant regale the old woman and her daughters right royally. Shmat-Razum feasted them so bountifully that the old woman very nearly danced for joy and ordered the frog three jars of fresh milk every nine days for its faithful services. The archer then took leave of his mother-in-law and wended his way homeward. He went on and on till he was utterly exhausted, his swift feet trembled beneath him, and his white arms sank by his side.

“Alas!” said he, “Shmat-Razum, do you not see how weary I am? My legs fail me.”

“Why didn’t you tell me long ago? I will bring you to the place alive and well.” And immediately the archer was seized by a whirlwind and carried through the air so quickly that his hat fell from his head.

“Hi! Shmat-Razum! Stop a minute. My hat has fallen from my head.”

“Too late, master. You can’t get it. Your cap is now 5,000 miles behind you.” Towns and villages, rivers, and forests, melted away beneath the feet of the archer.

And now the archer was flying over the deep sea, and Shmat-Razum told him: “If you will let me, I would make a golden bower on this sea, and you will be able to rest and be happy!”

“Do so then,” said the archer, and straightway they began descending towards the sea. For a moment, the waves splashed high, and then a small island appeared, and on the island was a golden pleasure-house.

Shmat-Razum said to the archer: “Sit in this pleasure house and rest and look out upon the sea. Three merchant vessels will sail by and stop at the island. You must invite the merchants in and hospitably entertain them.  Exchange me for three wondrous things which the merchants will bring with them. In due time I will return to you again.”

The archer kept watch, and lo! From the west three ships came sailing up, and the merchantmen saw the island and the golden pleasure house.  “It’s a marvel!” they said, “how many times have we sailed here, and nothing was to be seen but the sea! And now, behold! a golden pleasure house is here. Come, friends, let us put to shore and feast our eyes upon it!” So immediately they lowered the sails and cast the anchor, three of the merchants climbed into a light skiff, and they came to the shore.

“Hail, good man!”

“Hail, wayfaring merchants, you men of many marts! Be so good as to turn in to me, stroll about at your ease, make merry, and repose. This pleasure house was built expressly for guests that come by the sea!” The merchants entered the bower and sat them down on footstools.

“Hi! Shmat-Razum!” cried the archer; “give us something to eat and drink.” The table appeared, and on the table was wine and savory meats; whatever the soul desired was there with the wishing. The merchants sighed in envy.

“Come,” said they, “let us make an exchange. Give us your servant, and take from us what marvels you like best.”

“But what marvels have you then?” the archer asked.

“Look and see!” One of the merchants drew out of his pocket a little casket, and he had no sooner opened it than a lovely garden spread out all over the island with fragrant flowers and pleasant paths. But when he shut the casket, the garden immediately disappeared. The second merchant drew from beneath the folds of his garment an axe and began to tap with it. “Rap-tap!” out came a ship. “Rap-tap!” out came another ship. A hundred times he rapped and made a hundred ships with sails and guns and crews complete.  The ships sailed, and the sailors stood by the guns and took orders from the merchant. The merchant gloried in it for a while, but then he concealed his axe and the ships vanished out of sight just as if they had never been. The third merchant produced a horn, blew into one end of it, and immediately an army appeared, both horse and foot, with cannons and banners, and through all the ranks went the roll of martial music, and the armor of the warriors flashed like fire in the sunlight. The merchant rejoiced in it all, then he took his horn and blew into the other end of it, and there was nothing to be seen, the whole of that martial might was no more.

“Your marvels are well enough, but they are of no use to me,” said the archer; “your hosts and your fleets would do honor to a Tsar, but I am only a simple archer. If you would change with me, then must you give me all your three wonders in exchange for my one invisible servant.”

“But won’t that be too much?”

“Know that I’ll make no other exchange.”

The merchants considered among themselves: “What’s the use of this garden, these ships, and these hosts to us? ’It will be better to do the exchange. At any rate, we shall always be able to eat and drink our fill without the least trouble.”

So, they gave the archer their wonders and said: “Well, Shmat-Razum, we’ll take you with us.  Will you serve us well and loyally?”

“Why should I not serve you? It is all the same with me with whom I live.” The merchants returned to their ships and regaled all their crews right royally.

“Hi! Shmat-Razum! Rouse yourself!”

And everyone on board ate and drank their fill and lay down and slept heavily. But the archer sat in his golden bower and grew pensive and said: “Alas! My heart yearns after my faithful servant, Shmat-Razum. I wonder where he is now!”

“I am here, master!” he said, and the archer was glad.

“Is it not time for us to hasten home?” And he had no sooner spoken than a whirlwind seized him and bore him into the air.

The merchants awoke from their sleep and wanted to drink away the effects of their carouse. “Hi! Shmat-Razum, give us some more drinks by way of a pick-me-up!”

But no one answered, no one rendered them that service. Order and shout as they might, things remained precisely as they were. “Well, gentlemen! This conman has fooled us! The devil take him, and may the island vanish and the golden bower perish.” Thus, the merchants lamented and lamented, and then they spread their sails and departed for where their business called them.

The archer flew back to his country and descended into a waste place by the blue sea. “Hi, Shmat-Razum, can we not build a little castle here?”

“Why not? It shall be ready immediately.” And immediately the castle sprang up, more beautiful than words can tell.  It was twice as good as a royal palace. The archer opened his casket and a garden immediately appeared round the castle with pleasant country paths and marvelous flowers. The archer sat at the open window and quite fell in love with his garden. Suddenly a dove flew in at the window, plumped down upon the ground, and turned into his lovely young wife. They embraced and greeted each other.

And the wife said to the archer, “Ever since you left home, I have been flying as a blue dove among the woods and groves. How happily we will now live together forevermore!”

Early the next morning the King came out onto his balcony and looked towards the blue sea and behold! On the very shore stood a new castle, and round the castle was a green garden. “Who then is this presumptuous stranger who builds on my land without my leave?”

Then his couriers ran over, asked questions, and returned.  They told him that this castle was built by the archer, and he himself dwelt in the castle and his wife with him. The King was angrier than ever.  He ordered them to assemble the troops.  “Go to the shores of the sea, root up the garden, smash the castle into little bits, and bring the archer and his wife to me,” he screamed. The archer saw the King’s army coming against him, which was very strong.  Then he seized his axe quickly and rapped with it, “Rap-tap!”

Out came a ship. He rapped one hundred times and made one hundred ships. Then he seized his horn and blew it once, and several footmen rolled out. He blew in the other end, and many horses rolled out. The commanders of all the corps came rushing up to him and asked him for orders. The archer bade them to begin the battle. The music struck up, the drums rolled, and the regiments moved forward against the royal army. The infantry, like a solid wall, broke down their center, the horse cut them off at the wings and took them captive, and the guns from the fleet played upon the capital. The King saw that all his army was flying, and rushed forward to stop them—but how? He could not do it, and in a moment, he was swept from his horse during the fierce fight and trampled underfoot. When the fight was over the people assembled and begged the archer to accept the whole realm from their hands. To this, he consented and ruled that kingdom peaceably throughout his life.

There is much more to say about this story but we’ll leave that until next month!

Adapted from Bain, R. Nisbet, Russian Fairy Tales: From the Skazki of Polevoi. 3rd ed. London: A. H. Bullen, 1901.


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