Melanie Dunstan 1997 The end of the day. The cows were milked, the horses in the barn, the chickens fed and the dishes washed. In the corner, the rocking chair beckoned, warmed by the crackling fire. The end of first day of Grandmother's visit to the farm.

"Bubba, Bubba, Bubba-la! A story, please?" wheedled, Michal, the eldest. Taysia clasped her hands together in delight and Yuri pretended to be playing with his wooden frog. Ishinna, the youngest, had only been walking a week, and grabbed at elderly, wrinkled hands to help her race to the rocking chair.

Finally, they all settled down. Michal looking into the fire, dreaming of dragons. Yuri at his knee, wooden frog very much in evidence, just in case the story was scary. Taysia had brought a pillow to rest on, and was watching the ruddy light through cascades of falling golden hair. And Ishi was curled up on a warm, ample lap, listening avidly to the ticking of her Bubba's watch.

One by one, they all sighed with contentment. The fire sparkled and popped in the grate. Anna - for even an old Bubba might have a name - pretended to think of a story. The children laughed at the pantomime.

"And where shall I begin?" asked the old lady, her eyes twinkling merrily in the firelight. "Oh, tell us of when your Maman was a girl!" gushed Taysia, for whom the world was insufficiently filled with romance. The Maman in question had been French, and was infamous for her wicked ways. Anna glanced obliquely towards the large kitchen table, where her eldest daughter sat mending socks. She received a strong 'No!', mouthed silently from above a stubborn chin. Taysia had already been brought home by her uncle twice, for trying - and failing - to run away to sea, inspired by stories of her great-grandmother.

The old lady's sigh escaped silently from above an equally stubborn chin, as she found a way to please everyone, in the tradition of the old storytellers. "Well, " she said, "I am here for the next four nights. What do you say that we have one story, broken down into pieces...." "Will there be dragons?" interrupted Michal, hand on imaginary sword. "But of course!" replied Bubba, "However, not the dragons you might expect." "And can we have a princess? With long hair?" asked Taysia, who also wanted to be Rapunzel when she grew up. "Oh, I think we can manage that!" laughed Bubba, her face turning into a grinning winterapple. "And what can we include for our Yuri?" she asked. "I like pudding...." announced the boy, who at three, was just beginning to learn that the dark was scary, and that gustatory delights helped take his mind off the fact. The two eldest children screamed with laughter, waking Ishinna, who had dozed off in the warmth.

"I think we can manage all of that," smiled Bubba, as the children settled down contentedly again. "Yes, something for everybody - even for me! We shall also include the old country, for Mama, since when she was a child her favourite stories used to come from there....." "And the new country, for Papa!" Interrupted Taysia, who liked to have everything fair. "Of course," was the reply. "Sit quietly now, and set your mind free, for here is a tale of old and of wonder, from after the dawn of time....." And this is what she told them.

"Once upon a time, there was a young girl. Oh, a little older than Taysia, perhaps, but we are not sure. She was a quiet child, and she tried to be happy, but it wasn't easy for her. Her parents, you see, were dead, and her beautiful sisters, and her special, handsome young brother, who had been going to take care of them all when he grew up and became a man. It was all very sad.

"What was she called?" asked Taysia, all ready to identify with the little girl to the hilt. "Oh, let's call her Tasha" smiled the old lady, and nodded at the sharp intake of breath from her daughter. "A name means nothing, these days. We could call her fire, or stone, and it wouldn't matter" The children laughed "or Dragon Princess!" cried Michal. " Call her honeycake," suggested Yuri, who was still a little sticky after his favourite dessert. "Well, now, let's see," replied the old Bubba. "Tasha had to work for her living, after the squabbles." "You mean like me and Michal and Yuri fight? GrownUPs do that?" asked Taysia, incredulously. "Oh, my dear, dear child - grownups fight much harder and more bitterly than you and your brothers. And over similarly stupid things... like over kingdoms and land and power... just the same as you three fight over toys, and space to keep them nicely, and who goes first..." she tailed off, staring into the crackling fire.

"But Bubba-la, what happened to the grownups who did the fighting? Did they have to get sent to their rooms like we do when we're naughty?" asked Taysia, still amazed that grownups would fight. "Something like that, my dear. Some of them got sent very far away indeed..." "Or killed!" interrupted Michal, brandishing an imaginary sword. "With blood, and screaming and guts everywhere!" Yuri shrieked and hid his head in Taysia's dress. "Now, Michal, shall we leave that kind of talk and concentrate on those who did survive, but had to get sent away?" asked Bubba, gently, as she reached down and tousled Yuri's golden curls. "Let's talk about Tasha, Yuri!" whispered Taysia. Blue eyes emerged from grey homespun - but not far, just in case.

After the squabbles, the balance of power had changed. The people who used to be in charge were all gone, and in their place were ordinary men and women, who knew nothing about the responsibilities of looking after the land and the people. They made some very strange rules and it was a hard time for everyone who had to make adjustments. "We know what that's like," nodded Tasha. "When Yuri has his turn in charge of the games we have to play "Slava's Pig" for ages!" and she sighed at the memory. "What happened to Tasha then, Bubba?"

"Well the rules were changed so that everyone had to work," the story continued. The eldest children nodded. They, too, had their chores to do. "What did Tasha work at?" Asked Taysia eagerly.

"Well, now Tasha knew lots of different languages very well, and she would have liked to teach people how to speak them, but she wasn't very old, and nobody would engage her as a teacher. So instead, she earned her keep at a farmhouse, helping the farmer's wife and his sister to clean and to cook the meals for all the farm workers." "I'm a farmer!" asserted Yuri, stoutly. "I keep chickens!" "Yes, and you'd better keep them away from my vegetable patch," said Taysia, crossly. They're pecking up all the seedlings!" "Now, now, children, let's get back to the story," admonished Anna.

"Tasha's distant cousin had taken her to live at the farmhouse when all her family had died. And there she stayed, for many years, learning all about farming and cooking, and cleaning, but never forgetting her manners, and always being sweet and gentle, even when she was cross, just like a true princess!" Michal pulled his sister's waist-length hair. "Hear that, imp? True princesses are sweet and gentle!" Taysia aimed a kick at Michal, who moved, and so Yuri got hurt instead and started to wail. "Now see what you've done!" shouted Taysia. "I didn't hit him!" protested Michal. "Ssssh! Guess what happens to the princess next!" cried the old lady. Immediately the tumult subsided and the children looked expectantly at their Bubba. All except Ishi, who had briefly opened her eyes and mouth at the noise, stuffed her fist in one and closed the others and had promptly returned to sleep.

"One day, when Tasha was quite old, well maybe eighteen or nineteen perhaps, the distant cousin came to visit her. He was well on in years by then, and his one desire was that Tasha should marry and have beautiful children for the glory of the old country. For he was a patriot, this cousin, and he had relatives who had been members of the people in charge before the squabbles, which some people were starting to call the bloody revolution. Not everybody was happy with the changes, as the new people in charge didn't seem to be making a very good job of it. One day, Tasha's cousin felt sure, the true leaders of the country would reclaim their heritage, even if it were through their children. He felt that Tasha should do her duty as a princess should." "A princess!" gasped Taysia, sitting bolt upright. "Now, did I say that? Did I say she was a princess?" demanded the old lady, in mock severity. "A princess! Oh, Michal, there is a princess in the story!" and Taysia subsided back onto her pillow, perfectly satisfied.

"The cousin had arranged for Tasha to go and visit a very important person far, far away across the sea, and he had arranged that one of his daughters, who was a little bit older than Tasha, should go with her. You can imagine the tearful goodbyes at the farmhouse when Tasha had to leave. Even though the men had often joked with Tasha about her ladylike manners being out of place in a farm kitchen, and teased her that she would not find a prince in her pudding, they were still very fond of the girl." "Yaaaay! A pudding!" cried Yuri. "I like pudding!!" "Quiet, Yuri, or we'll eat you as if you were a pudding!" hissed Taysia, who could well imagine herself on adventures to foreign shores in an utterly romantic voyage across the sea, and didn't want to spoil the image with puddings.

"No dragons yet," grumbled Michal. "Ah, but you haven't met the patriot's daughter!" replied Anna. "Now there was a real dragon, if ever there was one. She had eyes that snapped like fire, and black hair and her eyebrows were thick and fierce. She was more frightening than Bugarov's mother!" the children shivered delightedly as the old lady continued. "Her hands were soft, for she did sewing work for her living, and white, for she kept out of the sun and was careful about keeping her skin beautifully pale. But those hands could feel hard as nails when she slapped poor Tasha, which was often." "Oh, how terrible!" moaned Taysia, almost in tears. "Oh, yes," replied Bubba "that wicked girl made poor Tasha's life an absolute misery on that ship. She was supposed to be looking after Tasha and making sure that Tasha arrived safely at the home of this very important man in Yuzhem" "I live in Yuzhem!" shouted Yuri. "Yuri Potyaltsinski, Brovnya Farm Estates, Nurieta, Yuzhem, and I'm three!" "Hush, Yuri, yes we know. That's very good", sighed Taysia, tired of hearing yet another repetition of Yuri's latest piece of knowledge.

"But instead," continued Bubba "Tasha was the one who was made to do the fetching and carrying. Tasha had to wash the clothes. Tasha had to carry messages to the captain about the heat, and the way that nasty dragon-girl's meals were cooked" "What was her name?" growled Michal, angrily. "I would have made her behave properly!" and he looked very fierce and strong.

"Now, that is the strangest thing," replied Anna. "As soon as the ship left the old country, that nasty dragon-girl made Tasha listen to the most terrible things you could imagine. She said that Tasha should be called 'dusty girl' from now on. She said that she was taking Tasha's name for herself, that she herself was going to visit the very important man in Yuzhem, instead of 'dusty girl'; yes, and even marry him, if she so pleased. Tasha was not a real princess any longer; she had spent too much time on the farm and was only fit for farm work. When Tasha started to object, the dragon-girl showed her the needle that she kept in a little wooden case around her neck. She said that the needle was poisoned, and that she would stick it into Tasha if she did not agree to go along with the story.... Now, Taysia, stop sobbing. It all comes out in the end, just wait....

Tasha didn't know what to do, and she spent many hours, staring unhappily out to the endless horizons in search of an answer, when the new 'Tasha' was resting. But no answer seemed to come. However the sea captain, who was wonderfully kind and generous, had noticed poor Tasha's unhappiness, and one day he ventured to speak to her.... For Tasha, these were the first kind words she had heard since leaving the old country, and she burst into floods of tears.

Slowly, as the days went by, the sea captain heard more and more of her story.... 'and do you really want to be a princess and marry an important man in Yuzhem?' asked the sea-captain one day. 'No of course not!' cried Tasha. 'All I know now is the farm, and to cook, and to clean, and to be a good helper with the work. I would not know how to behave with an important man. I would not feel at home!' 'But weren't you a princess yourself, once?' asked the sea-captain, gently. 'I had three beautiful older sisters to be the princesses!' wailed Tasha. 'I had a brother who was going to grow up and be Tsar!' and she stopped, aghast, her hands clasped over her mouth.

The sea captain gently touched her arm. 'I thought it would be something like that,' he said quietly. 'Your secret is safe with me.' "What secret?" interrupted Taysia. "She was the missing princess, silly," snorted Michal. "That sea-captain could have turned her over to the leaders of the revolution, and she would have been killed, just like the rest of her family!" "Just for being a princess?" screeched Taysia "Oh, that's just too horrible! What happened next, Bubba-la?"

"Well, it wasn't too long before the ship reached Yuzhem," continued the old lady. In the confusion of disembarking, the new Tasha - the new Anastasia, I should say - didn't notice when the sea-captain didn't send her 'dusty-girl' messenger back to her. Instead, he quietly spirited our heroine away from the docks, without a soul being the wiser. He was a very kind and courageous man.

And that is the story of how Tasha escaped the dragon, and of how 'Princess Anastasia' arrived in Yuzhem without any attendants or companions. She made up for that later, of course." "And the missing princess went missing again," breathed Taysia, afire with the joy of the idea. "Can we have some more of the story tomorrow, Bubba?" "But of course," replied the little old lady. "Time for bed, now!" She handed sleeping Ishi into maternal arms for conveying to bed. At the door, Michal turned. "Your husband was a sea-captain, wasn't he, Bubba?" he asked. "Oh, Michal," laughed the old lady "my husband sailed a fishing boat for his living! We had a poor farm by the sea, and my husband's catch helped us to eat and to earn enough money to live!" chuckling, she stooped to rake over the coals in the fireplace. But Michal's eyes were thoughtful as he left the room, and his mother was angry when she returned to it.

"I don't think you should be telling this tale to the children!" she whispered, angrily. "Oh, Anneke, my child, your children need stories as much as you ever did. And you must admit, I can tell some very good stories, can't I?" still chuckling, the old lady eased herself back into the rocking chair, to watch the embers die down a little before she went to bed herself.


The next chapter...