The Story Finder

Voices in Fairy Tales

by Michelle Tocher

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Old Man Ivansko’s Return from the Underworld

I still have an ache in my shoulder.

“Why?” My grandchildren ask me.

“Well, it happened when I released your grandmother from the underworld many years ago. She was trapped down there in a golden castle. I freed her easily enough, but I was left down underground, and the journey back was pretty near impossible.”

“Why, Grandfather?”

“I was long way down, far beyond the ends of the earth. I found a giant who told me to go to Baba Yaga’s house. When I got there, I went straight on in without knocking on the door. ‘Fie, fie, Russian bones, why have you come here?’ she roared. I said, ‘Little grandmother, a giant told me to come and ask for your powerful eagle to take me back to Russia.’ She sweetened right up. I think it was because I called her little grandmother. It made her feel almost human. She said, ‘Go to the garden. At the gate there stands a sentry. Take the keys from him and go through seven doors. As you open the last door the eagle will flutter his mighty wings, and if you are not frightened of him, sit on his back and he will fly.'”

“But why does your shoulder hurt, Grandfather?” the little one insisted.

“Oh, well, that’s because Baba Yaga told me to take meat and feed a piece to the eagle every time he turned around. He turned around many times on that long journey home! I ran out of food, so the eagle plucked a piece of meat from my shoulder. He made a big hole in my flesh. Then we flew through the hole he made, back to Russia!”

“No, Grandfather. Really?”

“Yes, and when I got down off his back, he spat out the piece of meat. He told me to put it back on my shoulder. I did, and the wound healed. But I still have the ache.”

“You still ache because your brothers betrayed you,” says my wife, who gives me a cup of warm tea.

Old Man Ivankso’s Return from the Underworld in The Three Kingdoms, Russian Fairy Tales, Collected by Aleksandr Afanas’ev. Image by Andrey Shishkin.

Old Man Ivansko's Return from the Underworld

Ivansko’s return journey cost him a pound of his own flesh. Have you ever used the expression, “It cost me a pound of flesh?” What was the sacrifice you made, and what was it for?