It was late winter in the high northern forests of the Rus, the air full of a sullen, dripping wet that was neither rain nor snow. The hard, crystalline landscape of February had given way to the lumpy grey and black of March, and the household of Prince Pyotr Vladimirovich Dobrin was all sniffling and red-eyed from the cold and the damp, and thin from their habitual Lenten diet of turnips, black bread, pickles, and fermented cabbage. But no-one was thinking of chilblains or runny noses, or even of the prospect of a bit of fish on the morrow, for old Dunyashka was to tell a story.
Dunyashka had come to Derevnoe Zemlya, the domain of Pyotr Vladimirovich, twenty years before, on the occasion of his marriage to Marina Ivanovna, the third daughter of the Grand Prince of Moscow. Dunyashka had been Marina’s nurse, then her companion, and when the girl married at sixteen, had gone north with her to make a home in the deep forests north of the Volga. Dunya had nursed each of the six children that eventually came of the union, and though she had long since grown old, with scanty hair and rotting teeth, her black eyes still glittered like a robin’s in spring, and she cooked the finest porridge and told the finest stories in all the lands of the Rus.
That particular evening, she sat in the best place for talking, on the long bench in the kitchen that ran alongside the great oven. This oven was a massive affair built of fired brick, taller than a man and large enough that all six of Pyotr’s children could have squatted comfortably inside. A complex system of flues transferred heat from the wood fire within to the outer bricks, which in turn threw out a steady, radiant heat that warmed the whole room. The back portion of the top of the oven served as a snug sleeping platform the very young, the old, and the sick, the radiant heat from the bricks warding their sleep against the bone-cracking force of the deep winter frosts.
“And what will you have tonight?” Dunya inquired indulgently, enjoying the feel of the fire-warmed brick at her back. The damp cold of March always got into her bones worse even than the bitter cold of January, and as she was old and thin, the frost bit deeper than it once had. Her question had not been an idle one; Pyotr Vladimirovich’s six children were all ranged before her on stools and benches. They all of them loved stories, even the second son, Alyosha, who was fifteen and devout, and who—had anyone asked him—would have maintained stoutly that he preferred to spend his evening in prayer and pious reflection. But his room was dark, cold and damp, the oven hot, and the cups of Dunya’s mead warming. So Alyosha stood just inside the door affecting an expression of pious diffidence through which glanced here and then a flash of boyish eagerness. Servants and grooms leaned comfortably against the walls or squatted on the smooth oaken flooring, enjoying a moment’s peace in the cozy, dim kitchen, the warmest room in the house.
Pyotr Vladimirovich himself was absent; a prize ewe was lambing early. It was her first and he was in the barn with a few of his stable hands, all of them hovering anxiously over the creature. His lady, Marina Ivanovna, was in the kitchen with her children; she sat quietly on the bench beside her old nurse, hands folded quietly on her lap, eyes distant. Dunya watched her with a certain concern; from girlhood her Marya had always possessed a fiery, restless energy, but she had never quite recovered from the birth of Ivan three years before, and that winter she had developed a stubborn and worrisome cough that sapped her strength and dimmed the old fire. But Marina loved stories as much as her children, who had set up a clamor on hearing Dunya’s question.
Suggestions came rattling in from all sides:
At last Marina spoke up. Her voice was quiet, but it cut cleanly through the din.
“Frost,” she said. “Tell us the story of Karachun, the lord of winter.” Dunya looked at her sharply. In Russian, Frost was Moroz, the deep cold, but his older name was Karachun, from the word for short, and under that name he was a death-god, who cut off the lives of even the strongest. It was an ill-omened word, and unlucky to speak it when he still held the land in his grip.
“Very well,” said Dunya after a moment’s hesitation. “I shall tell the story of Frost, of his kindness and his cruelty.” No one made any protest. The story of Frost was an old old tale, and all the young ones had heard it many times before, but in her rich, precise voice it could not fail to delight.
“Long ago,” began Dunyashka, fixing a quelling eye upon Liza and Vanya, who were—at eight and five—the youngest present. Each was making a determined effort to pin the other to the floor and sit on his (or her) head. They finally subsided under her glittering eye, and left off wrestling in favor of more-or-less silent attention, only poking each other occasionally.
“Long ago,” the old lady repeated, with dignity, “There lived a peasant man who had a beautiful daughter.”
“What was her name?” interjected Vanya, who was wont to try and test the veracity of fairy tales by seeking precise details from the tellers. Dunya, however was equal to such interruptions, merely saying:
“Why, Masha, to be sure. Little Masha. And she was beautiful as sunshine in June, and brave and good-hearted besides. But Masha had no mother, for her own had died when she was an infant, and although her father had remarried, little Masha was still as motherless as any orphan could be. For though Masha’s stepmother was quite a handsome woman, they say, and she made delicious cakes, wove fine cloth, and brewed rich mead, her heart was cold and cruel, and she hated Masha for the girl’s beauty and good heart, favoring instead her own ugly, lazy daughter in all things. First the woman tried to make Masha ugly in turn by giving her all the hardest work in the house, so that her lovely hands would be twisted, her back bent, and her face lined. But Masha 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 Vanya’s open mouth, Dunyashka quickly added “—Dasha Nikolaevna was her name—finding she could not make Masha hard or ugly, schemed instead to rid herself of the girl once and for all. Thus, one bright, icy day in midwinter, Dasha Nikolaevna turned to her husband and said sweetly, ‘Husband, I believe it is time for our little Masha to be wed.’ Masha was in the izba cooking pancakes, and she looked at her stepmother with astonished joy, for the lady had never taken an interest at all in the girl, except to find a fault, and the news that she might at last be married was the loveliest thing the girl had ever heard. But her delight quickly turned to dismay as the woman went on:
‘And I have just the husband for her. Just load her into the sledge and take her into the forest. We shall wed her to the Moroz, to Frost, the lord of winter. Can any maiden ask for a finer or richer bridegroom?’ The husband—his name was Ivan Ivanovich, Vanya—stared in horror at his wife, and he could not believe his ears. Ivan Ivanovich loved his elder daughter, after all, and he shrank from the thought of leaving her to the cold embrace of the winter god. But perhaps Dasha Nikolaevna had a bit of magic of her own, for her husband could refuse her nothing, and in this matter, as in others, he was powerless. So, weeping, he loaded his daughter into the sledge, drove her deep into the forest, and left her alone at the foot of a huge fir tree. Long the girl sat there alone, and she shivered and shook and grew colder and colder. At length, she heard a great clattering and snapping, and she looked up to behold Frost himself coming toward her, leaping amongst the trees and snapping his fingers as he came.”
“But what did he look like?” Liza demanded.
Dunyashka’s lips thinned at yet another interruption, but she replied steadily:
“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 blue and white and his weapons are of ice. No one knows. But something came to little Masha as she sat there, and icy wind 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?’ Masha was a well-brought up girl who bore her troubles uncomplainingly, and so she replied, ‘Quite warm, thank you, dear Lord Frost.’ At this, the creature laughed and as he did, the wind blew harder than ever, and all the trees groaned over their heads, and Frost asked again, ‘And now? Warm enough, sweetheart?’ And Masha, though she cold barely speak from the cold again replied, ‘Warm, I am warm, thank you.’ And now it was a storm that raged above their heads; the wind howled and gnashed its teeth until poor Masha 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 fortitude and took pity on her plight. He wrapped her in his own robe of brocade and white fur and picked her up and laid her in his own sledge, a beautiful thing drawn by a magnificent troika of gleaming white horses. With his own hands he whipped them up, and drove out of the forest to the girl’s house, and left her there by the door, still wrapped in the magnificent fur robe and possessed also of a richly carven chest of gems and gold and silver ornaments. Masha’s father was beside himself with joy to see the girl once more, but Dasha Nikolaevna and her daughter—named Olga, Vanya—were beside themselves with jealousy to see her so richly clad and radiant, with a prince’s ransom in gifts at her side. So Dasha Nikolaevna turned to her husband and said, ‘Husband, quickly! Take my daughter Olga up in your sledge and drive her into the woods. The gifts that Frost has given Masha are nothing to what she will give my girl!’
Though in his heart Ivan Ivanovich protested all this folly, he took Olga up in his sledge, the girl wearing her finest embroidered sarafan and wrapped in fur robes, and took her deep into the woods and left her beneath the same fir tree. Olga in turn sat a long time, and she had begun to grow very cold, despite her fur robes, when at last Frost came through the trees, cracking his fingers and laughing to himself as he came. He danced right up to Olga and breathed into her face, and his breath was the deadly wind out of the north that freezes skin off bone. Then he smiled at her and asked, ‘Warm enough, darling?’ and Olga, shuddering, answered, ‘Of course not, you fool! Can you not see that I am near perished with cold?’ And then the wind blew harder than ever, howling about them in great, tearing gusts, and over the din he asked again, ‘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 and 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 had touched her and now lay frozen and stiff in the snow.
At home, Dasha Nikolaevna waited, pacing impatiently back and forth, speculating aloud as to what kind of gift Frost would bestow upon her darling Olga. But the shadows were lengthening and there was still no sign of her daughter. At length, she sent her husband out to retrieve her in the sledge, admonishing him to have a care with the great chest of treasure. But when Ivan Ivanovich reached the tree where he had left Olga that morning, there was no richly carven chest, but only the girl herself, lying dead in the snow. With a heavy heart, the man lifted her in his arms and bore her back home. When the mother, running out to meet him, saw the body of her girl in his arms, the finger of frost touched her heart too and she fell dead on the spot.”
There was a small, appreciative silence after Dunyashka had finished. Then another Olga, Pyotr’s fourth daughter, spoke plaintively, “But what happened to Masha? Did she marry him? King Frost?”
“Cold embrace, indeed,” Vasilii, the eldest son, muttered to no one in particular, grinning.
Dunyashka gave him an austere look.
“Well, no,” she said. “I shouldn’t think so. What use does Winter have for a warm, mortal maiden? More likely she married a fine, rich peasant, and brought him the largest dowry in all Russia.”
Olga sighed a bit, and looked ready to protest this distinctly unromantic conclusion, but Dunyashka had already risen with a great sighing and creaking of bones, and seemed eager to retire. She made her bed on the great oven, with little Liza and Vanya, the youngest and therefore most frequently chilled in the winter. The servants decamped in ones and twos, eager for the warmth of their own beds, and any brief relief from Lenten hunger they might find there. The children kissed their mother and followed suit, and at last Marina herself rose, accompanied by her maid, but she moved slowly and despite her bulky outer robe Dunya saw anew how thin she had grown. The old lady’s heart smote her and she promised under her breath that as soon as spring brought green things to the woods and rich milk to the goats, that she would coax food into her mistress and make her well again.