The Tale of the Slavic CinderellaPosted: 15 February 2011
I’ve written quite a lot about the folklore of China and Japan in the last few weeks, so I thought it was time to write about the folklore of other countries. The one I’m about to tell is a well-known version of the classic Cinderella tale from Russia. I first encountered the tale of the Slavic Cinderella, also known as The Twelve Months, late last year and was surprised by the similarities it bears not only to Cinderella but also to Neil Gaiman’s short story October In The Chair, which features the Twelve Months sat around a campfire sharing their stories. I wonder if this may have been one of them…
There was once a widow who had two daughters. The younger of these, Helen, was her own daughter; the elder, named Marouckla, was her husband’s daughter from a previous marriage. The widow loved Helen dearly and lavished as many gifts, clothes and other expensive indulgences as she could afford upon Helen; but she did not love Marouckla at all, and gave Marouckla only what dignity begrudged her to. Helen lived a carefree life full of parties and other amusements, but Marouckla was forced to remain at home and work hard for the widow and her half-sister.
Despite her unlucky situation in life Marouckla was a pleasant and sweet child, who did her best in her household chores. But the sweeter she was, the more Helen and her mother despised her; for as she grew, Marouckla became more and more beautiful while Helen became ugly.
Eventually, the widow told Marouckla that she was never to leave the house again; her appearance was so ugly, she told the poor girl, that she would disgust the people living nearby and prevent her sister Helen from being courted by suitors. However, the widow’s real reason for doing this was because she knew, despite Marouckla’s ragged clothes, that she was far prettier than Helen. Any suitor would soon choose Marouckla over the unsightly and spoilt younger girl.
Years passed and Helen received no suitors. Jealous and angry, the widow and her daughter planned to rid themselves of Marouckla once and for all.
That winter was the coldest that any living in the village could remember. The mountains were covered in snow and even Helen did not emerge from the warmth of the cottage to attend her usual parties. She became bored and decided to play a wicked trick on Marouckla.
“Marouckla, go into the mountains and fetch me some violets. Fresh ones, mind you! I want to decorate my gown with them so I may be the prettiest.” she said.
“But, my dear sister, violets do not grow in the snow,” Marouckla replied.
“You lazy thing! How dare you disobey me! Go right at once, with not another word! If you return without the violets, I will kill you!”
Together, Helen and her mother forced Marouckla out into the cold night and locked the door. Weeping, Marouckla made her way up into the mountains to search for the violets.
Before long, she came to a campfire among a clearing in the woods. Drawing near, she saw twelve grand and stately men sat around it. Three were old and venerable, with long beards of white hair; three were of a good age; three were young and handsome, and the final three were almost as young as she. All were dressed in rich finery. She was immediately ashamed of her own rags and kept her distance. However, she shivered so much with cold that she amassed her courage and stepped forward.
“Men of God, may I warm myself at your fire? I am frozen with the bitter cold.”
The eldest of the men was sat on a greater stone than that of his fellows; and it was he who turned to her and asked, “What brings you here, daughter? What do you seek?”
“I am looking for violets,” she answered.
“But surely you know, child, that violets do not grow in the snows of winter?”
“I know,” she said, “but I have been sent by my sister to fetch them. If I return without the violets, she will kill me. Please tell me where to find them, good shepherds,” she sobbed.
The great January, for that was he, rose and turned to one of the younger men and said, “Brother March, you may take the highest place.” Handing the younger man his wand, January swapped seats with him.
As March took the greatest seat, he waved his wand over the fire. The snow around them began to melt. The trees and plants around Marouckla began to bud, and below her feet the grass grew green. The meadow became resplendent and blue with violets.
“Pick them quickly, Marouckla,” urged March.
Thanking March profusely, Marouckla gathered bunches of the flowers and hurried back down the mountain to the village. The widow and her sister were amazed to see the flowers, the scent of which filled the whole house. Yet, they were suspicious.
“Where did you find these?” snapped Helen unkindly, as she had hoped Marouckla would not return.
“On the mountain, as you asked, my sister,” Marouckla replied.
Helen took the flowers and kept them for herself and her mother, and the two of them left Marouckla to clean the kitchen, despite her cold and soggy clothes.
The next day, the widow had another wicked idea.
“Marouckla, I would like to eat some strawberries. Go and fetch me some from the mountain!”
“But mother, strawberries do not grow in January,” Marouckla replied.
“How dare you defy me! You will do as I ask without question! If you do not return with my strawberries I will surely kill you!” cried the old widow, this time sure of her plan to get rid of Marouckla. Yet again, they pushed Marouckla out of the house and crying, Marouckla made her way back up the mountain to search for strawberries.
Again she came to the campfire among the trees, with the twelve old men arranged around it. Again she asked, “Men of God, may I warm myself at your fire?”
January turned to her and said to her, “What brings you here amongst us again, Marouckla? What do you seek?”
“I am looking for strawberries, sir,” she replied.
“Look around you child; do you not see the snow? Strawberries do not ripen in the winter-time!” exclaimed January.
“Yes sir, but if I do not return with strawberries my mother will surely kill me,” she replied.
January rose up out of his seat and handed his wand to another of his brothers. “Brother June, take the highest place.”
As June took the greatest seat and waved the wand over the fire, once again the cold snows of winter retreated and Marouckla soon felt the hot summer sun warming her frozen skin. Birds sang in the trees and the ground was thick with the beautiful scent of flowers and moss. Under the bushes little wild strawberry plants grew and blossomed, bringing forth the most succulent strawberries Marouckla had ever seen.
“Gather them quickly, young Marouckla,” smiled June.
Marouckla wept with joy and thanked June as she gathered as many of the rich strawberries as she could; then running back down the mountainside, she soon reached the house where her mother and sister were already celebrating her demise. Naturally unpleased to see Marouckla again, the old widow’s greedy eyes were soon drawn to the armfuls of ripe strawberries she carried.
“And where did you find these? Did you steal them?” snapped the old widow, snatching the fruit from her.
“No mother, I found them in the forest on the mountainside,” Marouckla replied, still shivering from the cold.
The widow grimaced at Marouckla, her evil plan having been thwarted. Taking the strawberries, she shared them with Helen but did not give a single one to Marouckla. Marouckla had brought so many that the strawberries lasted for three days. However, after the three days had passed, the widow and her daughter became hungry once more. That night, the wind howled most awfully down the chimney and outside, a blizzard raged. Surveying the weather through the window, the widow and her daughter called to Marouckla again.
“Marouckla, we are tired of strawberries. Fetch us some red apples from the forest; only the ripest ones will do!”
“But mother, dear sister, whoever heard of apples growing in winter?” Marouckla replied.
“Be off with you, you disobedient child! If you do not return with the best apples we have ever seen, this time we will certainly kill you!” and again, they bundled Marouckla out into the driving wind and shut the door on her.
Though the wind tore through her flimsy clothes and the hail bruised her skin and blinded her, Marouckla eventually found her way back to the forest, and to her relief, again the twelve men sat around the great fire in the clearing.
Surprised to see Marouckla, January addressed her. “Whatever are you here for this time, my child, that draws you out on the darkest night of the year? What do you seek?”
“I am looking for red apples,” she replied.
“You are sorely mistaken, Marouckla; you must know that even red apples do not appear in the depth of winter!” cried the great January.
“But I must find them, I must; my mother and sister will certainly kill me. Please, good shepherds, please tell me where I can find them!” sobbed Marouckla.
Rising from his seat, January strode across the circle to a brother not much younger than himself. “Brother September, take the highest place.”
September took the wand and waved it over the fire; soon the trees burst out into vibrant colours of yellow, orange and red. A swirl of leaves blew in on the cold north-eastern wind. Marouckla searched in vain throughout the forest for an apple tree; and at last, she espied one of a great height upon which hung juicier apples than she had ever seen before. She shook it gladly; one, and then two apples fell to the ground.
“That is enough,” said September.
Curtseying as best she could, Marouckla thanked September and hurried back to the village, where her mother and sister were outraged to see her. The old widow snatched an apple from her.
“You have only brought two! Where are the rest?” she shouted.
“There are more on the mountain-top,” Marouckla replied.
“You greedy girl! You ate the rest on the way back!” snapped Helen.
“No dear sister, I did not. I shook the tree and only two fell down; the shepherds would not let me take any more.”
Helen turned to her mother, ignoring Marouckla. “Mother, give me my cloak. I will go and see for myself where the apples are growing; and if the shepherds tell me to stop, well! I will ignore them!” and with that, Helen hurried out into the night.
Before long Helen too came upon the twelve months sat in the clearing. But she did not greet them at all and had almost marched right past them when January rose and spoke to her.
“What brings you here, daughter? What do you seek?”
“It’s none of your business!” snapped Helen, turning up her nose at his white hair and the stone upon whence he sat, taking him and his companions for beggars. She turned her heel and hurried off into the forest. January frowned and waved his wand over his head. The fire immediately died down and the cold wind blew ever stronger. The snow swirled through the trees and the sky darkened. Helen stumbled around and soon became hopelessly lost in the midst of the storm.
Back in the village, the old widow waited anxiously for her daughter’s return. Many hours passed and when she did not return, she snapped at Marouckla, “this is your doing, and when I return, you will be dead!”
That said, she ran out into the snow after her daughter.
Marouckla waited and prayed for the return of her stepmother and sister, but they did not; both had frozen to death on the mountainside. Marouckla inherited the farm where they had all lived and in time, met a young farmer who came to live with her there. They had many children together and their lives were peaceful and full of joy.