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Melanie Dunstan 1997 The end of another day. The animals were ready for the night, the preparations made for tomorrow’s market day and the dishes were being dried. In the corner, the rocking chair beckoned, warmed by the crackling log fire. The end of the second day of Grandmother’s visit to the farm.

 

Yuri was playing a determined game of babushkatag with little Ishi, who was shrieking like Borlyov’s donkey as she dodged round her mother’s ankles, clutching onto the long skirts for balance. Taysia was being quiet, for once, but her lower lip was sticking very far out, and occasionally it trembled, between drying one plate and the next. Michal, the eldest, was strenuously operating the pump for his mother’s rinsewater, occasionally stopping to check and see if he had grown any muscles from the exercise. Sitting at the head of the long pine table, the Bubba, the children’s grandmother, was sketching with soft charcoal and a piece of precious paper.

 

Yuri sidled over to her, followed by a toddling Ishinna. "What doin’, Bubba-la?" asked Yuri, who at age three could not understand why anyone would want to sit down when they could run and play.

 

"Just drawing a picture, my dear. It’s something we used to do when we were children..." The Bubba carried on sketching. Michal and Taysia exchanged a Significant Look. The idea of giving children pieces of paper for their amusement was extremely unusual. Good paper was scarce, so it was carefully hoarded - and terribly expensive. Far too good for children to play with - and even more so half a century previously, when papermaking processes were even less refined. But then the story was that Bubba’s Maman had been French, and had run away to sea - so maybe she had done other eccentric things as well. Taysia shrugged, and went back to nursing her half-dried plate and the chip on her shoulder. But Michal’s eyes narrowed and became hawk-like. He waited.

 

"What picture, Bubba-la?" Yuri asked, as he clambered up on a stool to see better. Not to be outdone, Ishi shrieked until the old lady picked her up and set her on another chair. "Look, Yuri, I’m drawing a picture of the Tsar’s palace. Your grandfather took me there once, and it was very splendid." Taysia sighed as she placed the last dried dish away, and then drifted over to the table to see. "Now Taysia, put away that lower lip. Someone is going to trip up on it any minute, and then there will be too much excitement and shouting to hear my story...."

 

"A story, a story, Bubba-la’s goin’ to tell a story!" shouted Yuri, and ran at high speed over to the fire. Ishinna grabbed at elderly, wrinkled hands to help her in the race to the rocking chair.

 

Finally, they all settled down. Michal looking into the fire, dreaming, as usual. Yuri brought a cushion to hide behind in case he was scared. Taysia alternately brushed her own and Ishi’s hair, and occasionally her clothes, and hands and feet, to the accompaniment of baby giggles. And Bubba rocked in the chair. Slowly, the sounds of the fire became easier to hear.

 

"And where shall I begin?" asked the old lady, pretending to think. The children laughed. "Begin with the princess - the horrid one - from last night" said Taysia sullenly. "Ah, Taysia you begin to make me think you are related to her!" laughed the Bubba, who then looked up very sharply at the sudden thump of the needlework basket on the kitchen table. "Anneke my child, why don’t you come and listen too?" "I believe I’ve heard that one before, Mumma," replied the children’s mother, in overly-polite tones.

 

The Bubba winked at the youngsters; "Hoylehen" she whispered loudly. The children giggled as their mother jumped to her feet. "Mumma, I am neither little nor grey , nor is my temper bad, nor do I pretend not to listen and then eavesdrop - I didn’t like that name as a child, nor do I like it now....." "Anneke my child, you may not like to have a goblin’s name, but sometimes it does suit you....." replied the old lady, smiling. Taysia and Michal hid their heads and pretended they weren’t giggling.

 

"Grrrrr!" came the sounds from the table. "Anneke, do you have a cold? A sneeze perhaps? Do you need a handkerchief do you think?" "No, Mumma. Thank you, Mumma". The Bubba leaned towards the children "You may be laughing now my dears, but just wait until it’s your turn to be Mumma or Papa - your Mumma has a wicked temper and her sense of humour is much sharper than mine!!" Michal looked sober for a moment and then brightened "Yes, I remember Bubba - when Mumma was cutting the Schoolteacher’s hair and she got too close to his ears and he didn’t like it, and she said she may as well cut them off because he didn’t use them anyway...." "Yes, Michal, something like that," grinned the Bubba. "Now, on to the story - and we must make it short tonight - no, don’t groan - we have a wonderful journey to the market tomorrow and we must be up bright and early before the sun!"

 

"Now, don’t poke Ishinna, Yuri - or you’ll wake her up. Taysia, move Ishi a little so she’s further from the fire. That’s right, sit quietly now, and set your mind free, for here is a tale of old and of wonder, from after the dawn of time....." the children sighed, contentedly.

 

"Now the new Anastasia had arrived without attendants and courtiers, but she soon made up for that. Even on that initial journey to the palace, she was busily instructing the Majordomo in her wishes. And by the time they reached there, the Majordomo was a very worried man. He loved his king, Ivan, very much, and it would seem that this new princess was going to make poor Ivan’s life a misery. "

 

"But why, Bubba-la? What could the princess do?" "The dragon princess, you mean. Don’t forget the real Anastasia was somewhere else," grumbled Michal. "Children, you have to realise that even though the Anastasia was not a true princess, she had grown up in a wonderful palace, with servants, and fine clothes and the very best that money could buy. She was raised to be a ruler over other people, but without the responsibilities of a true princess. So she knew very little - and, unfortunately, cared even less - about the lives of the people she ruled over. And all this was very soon apparent to the poor Majordomo. By the time they all got to the palace, he was wishing he had never set eyes on her.

 

"And when she got out of the carriage at the palace door, the first thing she did was strike the footman on the face, for being slow to set the steps for her" Yuri shrieked, and hid his head in the cushion. "It’s all right, babushka," soothed Tasha. "Mumma only gave you a smack today because you kicked the milk churn purposely. She doesn’t smack for accidents, like that horrible princess" "NOT a babushka!" growled Yuri, from the depths of the cushion.

"Yuri Potyaltsinski, Brovnya Farm Estates, Nurieta, Yuzchem, and I’m three!" "Hush, Yuri, yes we know. Listen to the story", sighed Taysia.

 

"Well, my dears," said the old lady "then Anastasia did something that people talk about even to this day. The entire staff had assembled on the steps for respect, so that she could meet them. She was introduced to the housekeeper, who was a wonderful old lady with shining eyes and a face as round as an apple, and who had looked after King Ivan and his family beautifully for many years. ‘Get someone younger’ sniffed Anastasia, not even bothering to look into the poor housekeeper’s eyes. ‘I want people my own age near me’. All along the line, the older staff members edged backwards, pushing the younger ones forward, in order to please their new mistress. At each step of the walk, Anastasia paused, and said an unkind thing to the member of staff on that step. Some were too dirty for her, some too old, some not neat enough for her tastes - and some she just didn’t like the look of."

 

"Tasha’s Walk!" breathed Taysia. "NOW I know what it means!" "Yes, my dear, that was Tasha’s Walk. Never before in the history of this country had anyone seen such a public display of such very bad manners. And if it was your Schoolteacher calling you out for playing Tasha’s Walk, you should be very ashamed..." "No, no Bubba, it wasn’t me; it was Antje Rostockovich, really it was; she wouldn’t choose any boys for her team in the Novyela Debate... and the Schoolteacher had to call for first on her team, and he called Michal, then Sergei and Pollo and Borje and she was really nasty about the whole thing...." "Well, Michal, now you know how that poor Majordomo felt....." "I hate Antje Rostockovich," scowled Michal. "She plays Tasha’s Walk all the time when no grownups are looking...."

 

"Let’s get back to the story, shall we?" interrupted the old lady "Now at the very top of the stairs, just before the grand doors, stood a little boy - no, bigger than you, Yuri, but not as big as Michal. Maybe seven summers, he was, and tall and straight and handsome as any boy could wish... and as Anastasia swept up to him, he looked back boldly and unafraid. ‘A child!’ she exclaimed loudly ‘In a palace?’ She turned disdainfully to the cringing Majordomo behind her. ‘Get rid of it.’ She snapped, crisply. The entire staff, especially the Majordomo, who loved the boy like a son, gasped. But as Anastasia placed the first of her pointed toes on the luxurious carpet of the palace, she heard a still, small, child’s voice behind her: ‘That’s no princess.’

 

In the days to come Anastasia’s behaviour became the talk of the country. She was alternately charming and nasty by whim, and her personal servants were in fear of her temper and her fists. She lashed out with her iron-heeled slippers at horses, at men and at children indiscriminately. She slapped serving women for meals which were not to her taste. Once she even threw her plate at the head serving woman, who was minor nobility and NOT amused. Anastasia was feared. Anastastia was hated. Anastasia was in her element. Gradually, the staff closest to Anastasia were replaced, with people who were of a similar age and temprement to herself.

 

The Majordomo had his ears boxed for mixing up her titles and accorded her the ‘Grand highness, her imperious duchess Anastasia’ in front of all the local nobility. Perhaps it could have been ignored, except for a clear, childish giggle that had sounded in the shocked hush following the Majordomo’s announcement.

 

The second upstairs maid had gone home in tears after being scolded for pouring laundry blue into Anastasia’s milk-bath. Nobody knew who the culprit was - for sure..."

 

"I know who it was!" shrieked Yuri, waking up little Ishinna, who wailed and had to be picked up and comforted. "The boy did it!" "Hush, Yuri," whispered Taysia. "Let Bubba finish the story!" "But it WAS the boy, just like me" insisted Yuri, in a slightly quieter tone. The old lady nodded.

 

"Yes, Yuri; for every nasty thing that horrid Anastasia did, it seemed that she got paid back in rubles by the boy. Finally the Majordomo decided that something HAD to be done. So he went to Ivan...’my lord,’ said the Majordomo, ‘I have come about Michal - he’s causing some problems...’ yes, Michal, you needn’t jump up - the boy had the same name as you. There are lots of people with the same name in the world. Not so very surprising..."

 

"But why didn’t he say it was that wretched princess who was causing the problems?" growled Michal, obviously annoyed that his namesake had received the blame for the atrocious behaviour of Anastasia. "Well, Michal, politics is a hard master. Ivan had to marry, for the good of the country and the people, and he had to marry someone of his own, or near to his own, standing. It didn’t matter what he thought about the situation. Nor what he thought about his bride. The only thing that mattered was that she was of the right parentage, of the right age and able to give him many children. That’s the way it is with nobility. So they say...."

 

"Oh, the poor man!" exclaimed Taysia, her eyes filling with tears at the plight of Ivan "I cannot bear it that he should marry such a horrible dragon princess!" "Ah, my dear, perhaps you would like to go back in time and marry him yourself? Shall I see what I can arrange?" The black eyes of the old lady twinkled sharply - and for a moment Taysia believed that the deed could be done. "No, no, no, Bubba-la please - I like it just fine at the farmhouse with the family!" The children shrieked with laughter. Ishinna woke again, and had to be handed to her mother for comfort, as the children could not stop laughing at the idea of Taysia being sent back in time to marry King Ivan.

 

"Poor Ivan didn’t know what to do, for he loved his son dearly...." "SON?" shouted Michal "Yes, my dear, the boy was Ivan’s son. When Ivan had been a much younger man, he had fallen in love with a young girl who was the daughter of a very good friend of his at court... and she had bourn him a son, and died in the process. It was very sad." "Oh, the poor man - the poor boy!" cried Taysia. "Now it’s even worse that the dragon princess is going to be queen there!"

 

"I would punish her! She wouldn’t get away with any of that kind of behaviour around me!" The old lady sighed. "Sit down, Michal, you’re so like your father.

Well, Ivan and the Majordomo spent many hours discussing what should be done about Michal, before he got into trouble sufficently serious that would cause him to be expelled forever from the court. In the end they decided to send him away for a time. It grieved them both severely, I’m sorry to say, but the boy benefitted from the change, as he was finally given a chance to be a boy, rather than a King’s son, and he greatly enjoyed living in the little village to where he was sent.

 

"He lived at the house of the miller, and so spent a good deal of his time delivering the sacks of flour to the farms around, when he wasn’t helping at the mill. In a very short time he grew tall and strong from all the good work and healthy exercise...." "Papa always says that! You can grow tall and strong from good work and healthy exercise... he always says that, Bubba-la", said Taysia. "Yes, my lamb, I know. Now, by some coincidence, the village that Michal had been sent to was the same one where the Sea captain and the Real Tasha were living..." "Oh! Bubba! I nearly forgot the real princess!" gasped Taysia. "Well Michal was a regular visitor at Tasha’s farmhouse. Only by now, she was called Anna, so as not to let anyone know who she really was. For she had fallen in love with her wonderful rescuer, and had no desire to be carted off to the palace to marry a man she had never met, even if it was for the good of the country.

 

"And in time, Anna married the Sea captain, and they had a little girl, who was called Anna too, and Michal would come and play with her often, for there were few children in the village. Time moved onwards, garlanded by seasons, festivals and years. And one day, some ten years after Michal had been sent to the village, there was a message for him to return to the palace, for Ivan was very ill and wanted to see him before he died.

 

"Now the miller was very old, and could not make the journey, so he arranged that Michal should go with the Sea captain to the palace. For the Sea captain had been to the palace before, and Michal was too precious to the King to just let him journey the distance alone. And the Sea captain took Anna, for he could not bear to be parted from her, nor from their little girl. So they all journeyed to the palace, in the wagon, making haste to see Ivan before he died. But when they got there - what a shock!

 

"My dears, the palace was falling to bits outside, the building unpainted and uncared for, until the wagon reached nearly to the front doors, where some small rosebushes were obviously well-tended. The guards were surly and rude, and sent the wagon to the tradesmen’s entrance before even asking who was riding in it. In the kitchen, Michal ran to the cook, whom he had known and loved well whilst he was at the palace. As she hugged him, the cook told Michal and the visitors all about the hideous changes in the palace, and how wicked Anastasia was, and how the king was nearly dead of a broken heart from all the nasty things she had done. Michal was very sad, but he took the news like a man and determined to see his father as soon as possible. The Sea captain wanted to stay with the cook whilst he visited, and Anna certainly did, I know - for she felt very at home in that kitchen.... " "I know - puddings!" shouted Yuri. "Yes, Yuri, Anna felt very at home indeed. But that was not to be. For Michal insisted that they both visit his father with him; he needed a friendly face or two to help him meet with his father.

 

"Many of the rooms they passed on the way showed signs that renovations had been started, but not completed. Chaos was everywhere. As they walked quietly past the throne room’s open doors, they could see Anastasia on the throne, with some men kneeling in front of her, and they could hear the high-pitched laughter of the court. Just as they rounded the corner, they bumped into a man in uniform. ‘And what are peasants doing wandering alone in the palace?’ he thundered. Unfortunately for Michal and the rest, the laughter in the throne room had just stopped, and so the man’s words were heard by all inside. Anastasia waved an imperious hand ‘Bring the interlopers here!’ she announced, in a bored tone of voice.

 

"Surrounded by guards, Michal, the Sea captain, Anna and little Anna all walked slowly towards the throne. ‘STOP!’ commanded Anastasia. She pointed at the Sea captain. ‘You I know. Stand aside. You, Michal, it’s about time you returned. Life here was getting decidedly dull. Now we have a new sport - it will be called peasant-baiting. Michal shall show us how to play!!’ The courtiers laughed, nastily. Anna shuddered. Anastasia noticed the movement, noticed the woman. ‘Aaaaah. NOW I see something I have waited for a VERY long time to view.... well, dusty-girl - what have you to say for yourself?"

 

"Oh, NO!" wailed Taysia, hugging Yuri, who was having a few quiet tears into her grey homespun. "Now my dears, it does sound like all is lost, but I can assure you the story goes on for tomorrow and the next day.... and it does all turn out for the best..." said the Bubba. "Promise?" asked Taysia, tearfully. "Promise", assented the old lady. "Now dry your tears, and think of the good things ahead for tomorrow at the market." Yuri immediately brightened. "I’m going to buy a wooden flute at the market!" he announced. "C’mon Yuri, time for bed," said Taysia. "Let me wash your face, mine too. What a mess!" and she led a tired Yuri away.

 

Michal was idly turning the paper with the picture of the palace on it in the light of the fire. "Mumma, what was the palace like?" he asked, gently. Seated at the table, his mother’s head was bent over the mending. "I don’t really remember, my lamb," she said. "I was only ever there as a child..." "Oh," said Michal. Then he got up and went to bed.

 

"Anneke, my child, you needn’t get so white about the lips over this story. Children need stories. They all do. And as I always say, I can tell some very good stories, can’t I?" chuckling a little, the old lady eased herself back into the rocking chair, to watch the embers die down a little before she went to bed herself.

 

Anastasia Moves In by Melanie Dunstan, 1997

Tasha

 

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