It was late winter in northern Rus’, the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow. The brilliant February landscape had given way to the dreary grey of March, and the household of the boyar Pyotr Vladimirovich were all sniffling from the damp and thin from six weeks’ fasting on black bread and fermented cabbage. But no one was thinking of chilblains or runny noses, or even, wistfully, of porridge and roast meats, for Dunya was to tell a story.
That evening, the old lady sat in the best place for talking: in the kitchen, on the wooden bench beside the oven. This oven was a massive affair built of fired clay, taller than a man and large enough that all four of Pyotr Vladimirovich’s children could have fit easily inside. The flat top served as a sleeping platform; its innards cooked their food, heated their kitchen and made steam-baths for the sick.
“And what tale will you have tonight?” Dunya inquired, enjoying the feel of the fire at her back. Her question was not an idle one; all four of Pyotr’s children sat before her, perched on stools. All of them loved stories, even the second son, Sasha, who was a self-consciously devout child, and would have insisted—had anyone asked him—that he preferred to pass the evening in prayer. But the church was cold, the sleet outside unrelenting. Sasha had thrust his head out-of-doors, gotten a faceful of wet, and retired, vanquished, to a stool a little apart from the others where he sat affecting an expression of pious indifference.
The others set up a clamor on hearing Dunya’s question:
“Finist the Falcon!”
“Ivan and the Grey Wolf!”
Little Alyosha stood on his stool and waved his arms, the better to be heard amongst his bigger siblings, and Pyotr’s boarhound raised its big, scarred head at the commotion.
But before Dunya could answer, the outer door banged open and there came a roar from the rain without. A woman appeared in the doorway, shaking the wet from her long hair. Her face glowed with the chill, but she was thinner than even her children; the firelight cast shadow in the hollows of cheek and throat and temple. Her deep-set eyes threw back the firelight. She seized Alyosha and caught him in her arms.
The child squealed in delight. “Mother!” he cried. “Matyushka!”
Marina Ivanovna sank onto her stool, drawing it nearer the blaze. Alyosha, still clasped in her arms, wound both fists around her braid. She trembled, though it was hard to see under her heavy clothes. “Pray the wretched ewe delivers tonight,” she said. “Otherwise I fear we shall never see your father again. Are you telling stories Dunya?”
“If we might have quiet,” said the old lady tartly. She had been Marina’s nurse too, long ago.
“I’ll have a story,” said Marina at once. Her tone was light, but her eyes were dark. Dunya gave her a sharp glance. The wind sobbed outside. “Tell the story of Frost, Dunyashka. “Tell us of the frost-demon, who was the winter-king Karachun. He abroad tonight, and angry at the springtime.”
Dunya hesitated. The elder children looked at each other. In Russian, Frost was called Morozko, the demon of winter. But long ago, the people called him Karachun, the death-god. Under that name, he was king of black midwinter who came for bad children and froze them in the night. It was an ill-omened word, and unlucky to speak it while he still held the land in his grip. Marina was holding her son very tightly. Alyosha squirmed and tugged his mother’s braid.
“Very well,” said Dunya after a moment’s hesitation. “I shall tell the story of Morozko, of his kindness and his cruelty.” She put a slight emphasis on this name: the safe name that could not bring them ill luck. Marina smiled sardonically, and untangled her son’s hands. None of the others made any protest. The story of Frost was an old old tale. They had all heard it many times before. But in Dunya’s rich, precise voice it could not fail to delight.
“In a certain princedom—,” began Dunya. She paused, and fixed a quelling eye upon Alyosha, who was squealing like a bat and bouncing in his mother’s arms.
“Hush,” said Marina and handed him her braid again to play with.
“In a certain princedom,” the old lady repeated, with dignity, “There lived a peasant who had a beautiful daughter.”
“Whasser name?” mumbled Alyosha. He was old enough to test the veracity of fairy tales by seeking precise details from the tellers.
“Her name was Marfa,” said the old lady. “Little Marfa. And she was beautiful as sunshine in June, and brave and good-hearted besides. But Marfa had no mother; her own had died when she was an infant. Although her father had remarried, Marfa was still as motherless as any orphan could be. For while Marfa’s stepmother was quite a handsome woman, they say, and she made delicious cakes, wove fine cloth, and brewed rich kvas, her heart was cold and cruel. She hated Marfa for the girl’s beauty and goodness, favoring instead her own ugly, lazy daughter in all things. First the woman tried to make Marfa ugly in turn by giving her all the hardest work in the house, so that her hands would be twisted, her back bent, and her face lined. But Marfa was a strong girl, and perhaps possessed a bit of magic besides, for she did all her work uncomplainingly and went on growing lovelier and lovelier as the years passed.
“So the stepmother—” Seeing Alyosha’s open mouth, Dunya quickly added “—Darya was her name—finding she could not make Marfa hard or ugly, schemed to rid herself of the girl once and for all. Thus, one day at midwinter, Darya turned to her husband and said, ‘Husband, I believe it is time for our Marfa to be wed.’
Marfa was in the izba cooking pancakes. She looked at her stepmother with astonished joy, for the lady had never taken an interest in the girl, except to find fault. But her delight quickly turned to dismay.
‘—And I have just the husband for her. Load her into the sledge and take her into the forest. We shall wed her to Morozko, the lord of winter. Can any maiden ask for a finer or richer bridegroom? Why he is master of the white snow, the black firs, and the silver frost!’
The husband—his name was Boris Borisovich—stared in horror at his wife. Boris loved his daughter, after all, and the cold embrace of the winter god is not for mortal maidens. But perhaps Darya had a bit of magic of her own, for her husband could refuse her nothing. So, weeping, he loaded his daughter into the sledge, drove her deep into the forest, and left her at the foot of a fir tree. Long the girl sat alone, and she shivered and shook and grew colder and colder. At length, she heard a great clattering and snapping. She looked up to behold Frost himself coming towards her, leaping amongst the trees and snapping his fingers.”
“But what did he look like?” Olga demanded.
Dunya shrugged. “As to that, no two tellers agree. Some say he is naught but a cold, crackling breeze whispering among the firs. Others say he is an old man in a sledge, with bright eyes and cold hands. Others say he is like a warrior in his prime, but robed all in white, with weapons of ice. No one knows. But something came to Marfa as she sat there; an icy blast whipped around her face, and she grew colder than ever. And then Frost spoke to her, in the voice of the winter wind and the falling snow:
‘Are you quite warm, my beauty?’
Marfa was a well-brought up girl who bore her troubles uncomplainingly, so she replied, ‘Quite warm, thank you, dear Lord Frost.’ At this, the demon laughed and as he did, the wind blew harder than ever, and all the trees groaned above their heads. Frost asked again, ‘And now? Warm enough, sweetheart?’ And Marfa, though she could barely speak from the cold again replied, ‘Warm, I am warm, thank you.’ Now it was a storm that raged overhead; the wind howled and gnashed its teeth until poor Marfa was certain it would tear the skin from her bones. But Frost was not laughing now, and when he asked a third time: ‘Warm, my darling?’ she answered, forcing the words between frozen lips as blackness danced before her eyes, ‘Yes—warm. I am warm, my lord Frost.’
Then he was filled with admiration for her courage and took pity on her plight. He wrapped her in his own robe of blue brocade and laid her in his sledge. With his own hands he whipped up the horse, drove out of the forest, and left the girl by her own front door, still wrapped in the magnificent robe and bearing also a chest of gems and gold and silver ornaments. Marfa’s father wept with joy to see the girl once more, but Darya and her daughter were furious to see Marfa so richly clad and radiant, with a prince’s ransom at her side. So Darya turned to her husband and said, ‘Husband, quickly! Take my daughter Liza up in your sledge. The gifts that Frost has given Marfa are nothing to what he will give my girl!’
Though in his heart Boris protested all this folly, he took Liza up in his sledge. The girl was wearing her finest embroidered sarafan and wrapped in heavy fur robes. Her father took her deep into the woods and left her beneath the same fir tree. Liza in turn sat a long time. She had begun to grow very cold, despite her furs, when at last Frost came through the trees, cracking his fingers and laughing to himself. He danced right up to Liza and breathed into her face, and his breath was the wind out of the north that freezes skin to bone. Then he smiled and asked, ‘Warm enough, darling?’ Liza, shuddering, answered, ‘Of course not, you fool! Can you not see that I am near perished with cold?’ Then the wind blew harder than ever, howling about them in great, tearing gusts. Over the din he asked, ‘And now? Quite warm?’ And the girl shrieked back, ‘But no, idiot! I am frozen! I have never been colder in my life! I am waiting for my bridegroom Frost, but the oaf hasn’t come.’ Hearing this, Frost’s eyes grew hard as adamant; he laid his fingers on her throat, leaned forward and whispered into the girl’s ear, ‘Warm now, my pigeon?’ But the girl could not answer, for she had died when he touched her and now lay frozen and stiff in the snow.
At home, Darya waited, pacing back and forth. ‘Two chests of gold at least,’ she said, rubbing her hands. ‘A wedding-dress of silk velvet and the bridal-blankets of the finest wool.’ Her husband said nothing. The shadows began to lengthen and there was still no sign of her daughter. At length, Darya sent her husband out in the sledge to retrieve the girl, admonishing him to have care with the chests of treasure. But when Boris reached the tree where he had left his daughter that morning, there was no richly carven chest: only the girl herself, lying dead in the snow.
With a heavy heart, the man lifted her in his arms, laid her in his sledge and bore her back home. The mother ran out to meet them. ‘Liza,’ she called. ‘My love, you must come in and show your mother the bridal portion.’
But then she saw that in the sledge there was no living bride, but only the corpse of her child. Then the finger of Frost touched her heart too and she fell dead on the spot.”
There was a small, appreciative silence.
Then Olga spoke up plaintively, “But what happened to Marfa? Did she marry him? King Frost?”
“Cold embrace, indeed,” Kolya muttered to no one in particular, grinning.
Dunya gave him an austere look.
“Well, no,” she said. “I shouldn’t think so. What use does Winter have for a mortal maiden? More likely she married a fine, rich peasant, and brought him the largest dowry in all Rus’.”
Olga looked ready to protest this unromantic conclusion, but Dunya had already risen with a creaking of bones, eager to retire. The top of the oven was large as a great bed. The old and the young and the sick slept upon it. Dunya made her bed there with Alyosha.
The others kissed their mother and slipped away. At last Marina herself rose. Despite her winter clothes, Dunya saw anew how thin she had grown. The old lady’s heart smote her. It will soon be spring, she comforted herself. The woods will turn green and the beasts give rich milk. The sun will make her well again. And I will make her pie with eggs and curds and pheasant. But the look in Marina’s eyes filled the old nurse with strange foreboding.