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Ivan Bilibin

Illustration by Ivan Bilibin for “Tsar Saltan”

Ochi chyornye, ochi zhguchie!” Sagacia sang as she dusted the high top of the wardrobe in Vasilisa’s room, wishing, oh, so deeply, that her wise mentor would finish up her business beyond the nine kingdoms and return home.

Ochi strastnye i prekrasnye!” she sang, lifting the pole duster to the ceiling fan in a grand gesture.

Kak lyublyu ya vas,!” she attempted a Russian bear kick to the left, “Kak boyus’ ya vas,” and to the right.

“Znat’ uvidel vas,” she twirled gracefully, opening her arms, preparing for the low notes, and bellowed to the small framed print above Vasilisa’s pillow.

“Your dark eyes.”

She started to courtsey, but, instead, gasped.

There it was: that lovely Ivan Bilibin print, looking every bit the work of the master. The cask containing the Tsaritsa and Prince Guidon carried by the breaking wave, its Seussian squiggles of seafoam flinging themselves from the wavetips, splashing into the stars.

A moment captured, still quivering. The Tsaritsa and her son sealed into a barrel and thrown into the sea after her sisters and her mother, that evil Barbarikha, had intercepted and replaced those letters; Tsar Saltan, off waging battle, none the wiser.

Sagacia half remembered Priscilla Howe’s tweets of the skazka.

The sisters were not pleased to see the youngest marrying the Tsar. Not pleased at all. Still, the wedding was that evening.

The next day the Tsar went off to war, leaving his newly pregnant bride behind. He was still away 9 months later, when his son was born.

When the Tsaritsa sent a message to the Tsar, the two jealous sisters and their hateful mother intercepted it.

The message to the Tsar was changed to this: “Neither son nor daughter, nor mouse nor frog, is your child. Your wife gave birth to a beast.”

The Tsar sent this message: “Wait until I get home. We’ll decide what to do.” The evil sisters changed this to “Kill the baby & his mother.”

The Tsar’s boyars put the Tsaritsa and her son in a cask, sealed it well, and threw it into the sea.

“Simplia!” she ordered. (Sagacia, that is, not the Tsaritsa.) “Simplia! Come here at once!”

Simplia appeared at the door, her hair tied up in a bandana, paper towels and Windex in her hands. “Huh?” she wondered.

“Look!” Sagacia said, pointing to the print. “Look at that.”

“Uh-huh,” said Simplia. “Nice colors. Good frame.” She tore off a paper towel and pumped some Windex onto the glass.

“No,” Sagacia said, stopping her. “What story is that, I mean?” she urged.

Simplia cocked her head in thought.

“Tsar Saltan!” Sagacia answered her own question. “Tsar Saltan! Tsar Saltan! Tsar Saltan!”

“Oh, yeah, …”

“Do you remember what’s in that barrel?” Sagacia asked.

“Uh, Prince Guidon and his mother, right?”

“Right! And do you remember how they got there?”

“Uh, Let’s see. The boyars sealed them in there…”

“Because…” Sagacia urged.

“Um,” Simplia murmered. “Because Babarikha and the sisters intercepted a letter from the Tsar and traded it for a false message telling them…”

“Ta da!” Sagacia cheered, and she knighted Simplia with the pole duster, tapping her shoulders, left and right, then her head.

“So…” Simplia puzzled.

“So, that’s another story with an intercepted letter in it, right?” Sagacia said proudly.

“Oh, yeah!” Simplia agreed.  “And they replaced it with a false letter with homicidal intent. Dilettante in Delhi will be really glad to hear about this! And with pictures too!”

“Right! And that, my dear,” said Sagacia, “Is why you should always approach your spring cleaning with a sense of adventure!”