My dad read me bedtime tales. Not sweet ones. He read the “skazki” of Russia -- the Wonder Tales -- replete with horrific violence where the hero more often than not is chopped up into a thousand tiny pieces (though he does recover). They scared me, and I loved them.
The one I related to most dearly, was the wild tale of “Vasilissa the Beautiful.” This is the Russian version of Cinderella, complete with the hateful stepmother and the two wicked stepsisters...
At her step-sisters’ orders, Vasilissa must wander through the wilds of untamed forests alone at night. Vasilissa must go to the home of the very spirit of the wilderness, that is Baba Ya-ga’ (accent on the second syllable). She must enter the yard where the fence is made of human bones, where each fence-post is topped with a human skull the eyes of which light up at dusk, and fade at dawn. She must enter the house that turns constantly on giant chickens’ feet. And, she must deal with Baba Ya-ga’ herself! Deliciously terrifying imagery.
And through all of this, this story taught me more about how to live life than I ever realized. In fact, I only caught on to the subtle and yet beautifully pervasive lesson it imparted -- a week ago!
I might say that Vasilissa saved my life, more than once.
Here’s the thread that led me to seeing this:
I was deeply involved in preparing a public presentation elucidating Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” I had marked the Vasilissa story to use as an example of the “Helper,” delineated In Campbell’s outline. Each time that Baba Ya-ga’ gave Vasilissa an insurmountable task, the child pulled out a little doll that her dying mother had given her. As instructed by her mother, Vasilissa gave the doll something to eat, something to drink, and told the doll her troubles--and there! the task was done!
In my notes for the talk, I even included a modern-day example -- how I had given a little doll to a dear child I knew, a neighbor of mine, with similar instructions. She never mentioned the doll to me until she grew to womanhood. And then, one day: “Remember that doll you gave me as a kid?” she asked me. “It worked! How did you know?”
But the true, deep lesson embedded not only in “Vasilissa the Beautiful” but in all the skazki was subtle enough that I missed it until I was awakened -- as if by an alarm -- at 3am, just days before the talk.
It is she, Vasilissa, who is the Helper. She is the Helper for the listener of the tale.
Unlike the tales/movies/playtoys given to our children nowadays, Vasilissa could not engage in epic one-person battles, defeating hordes of evil-doers with breath-taking gymnastics and superpowers. She was not a wise-cracking, bad-ass heroine with a temper.
She was ordinary.......and yet she was not.
We meet Vasilissa as an ordinary child, alone and frightened, and sent away to face terrific dangers. It is HOW she faces these dangers that turns out to be the teaching that saved my life several times over. I absorbed her behavior with the listening, again and again, to my father reading the story.
Speaking personally now, I offer but one example (from several similar, teeteringly lethal ones -- for I was a slow learner).
In the early spring of 1970 (I was 23), I was living in Roxbury (then a dangerous neighborhood--gangs, drugs, violence... but cheap rent). Late one evening, I was walking home from the MTA. I knew enough to walk down the middle of the streets -- so that no-one hidden in the shadows could reach out and grab me.
However, directly in front of me, in the center of the intersection -- arms folded, feet spread, and head cocked to one side -- was a large young man. Over against the row of closed-up shops to my left, was a line-up of young men -- arms folded, heads cocked, leaning against the wall behind them. All eyes were on me.
There was no ignoring them.
I entered a space of deep calm. I assessed my options (there were none). There was only this moment in this place with these people. Clearly, the man blocking my way wanted my attention. I could see that.
I walked directly up to him and looked directly into his eyes, one human being seeing another human being. “What do you want?” I asked calmly, not stuttering, not glancing around.
Perhaps, then, I had surprised him for he hesitated a moment...
“Uh.... you got a... a nickel?”
“Sure, man,” I said with the slightest of smiles, maintaining clear-eyed contact. Then I reached for my little pull-string bag where I kept my money, poured some coins into my hand, and selected from among the dimes, pennies, nickels and quarters -- just one nickel.
Returning the other coins into the bag, and the bag into my pocket, I calmly handed the nickel to him, looking again directly into his eyes.
This is what he asked for. This is what I gave him -- along with a slight and calm smile of humanity between us.
And I walked around him, unhindered, and continued the last block to where I was staying.
I no longer put myself in these situations. I do not take for granted my ability to defuse them -- I was clearly lucky that I had walked away unharmed each of those times. That was then.
But what I realize NOW, is that the way I responded was the way in which Vasilissa dealt with her trials. In those situations, it was the very best I could possibly have done -- becoming calm, seeing my situation clearly, and dealing with it directly.
Baba Ya-ga’ even said as much to Vasilissa. Here is the exchange, taken from the very book my dad held as he read to me...
After putting Vasilissa through a number of trials, Baba Ya-ga’ asks snappishly:
“Well, why dost thou say nothing...”
“I spoke not,” Vasilissa answered, “because I dared not. But if thou wilt allow me, grandmother, I wish to ask thee some questions.”
“Well, only remember that every question does not lead to good...”
(Vasilissa then poses a few questions about various beings she has seen since coming to this wild and vast forest. Baba Ya-ga’ answers each question and adds, “Ask me more.” -- but one time, she ground her teeth.)
“Ask me more!”
Vasilissa, remembering the warning Baba Ya-ga’ had given her, that not every question led to good, was silent.
“Ask me more! ... Why dost thou not ask me more?...”
Vasilissa saw how she snarled at her and she answered, “The three questions are enough for me... As thou hast said, grandmother, I would not, through knowing overmuch, become too soon old.”
“It is well for thee,” said Baba Ya-ga’....
Likewise, it was well for me, that night in Roxbury, that I asked no more.
Here is what would have happened to Vasilissa had she continued:
“...Hadst thou asked of them, my servants, the three pairs of hands would have seized thee also, as they did the wheat and poppy seeds, to be my food.”
The week after I moved out, another woman quite similar to myself, and living in the very same neighborhood, was assaulted by a gang of young men and forced to pour flammable liquid over herself and set herself on fire. She lived only long enough to tell the police.