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Bilibin, Ivan, illustrator. Vassilisa the Beautiful. Moscow: Department for the Production of State Documents, 1900.Simplia was muttering again, but Sagacia had heard what she said and moved in to debunk academe’s equivalent of an urban legend.

“Sigmund Freud didn’t actually say that, you know,” she told her friend. “Scholars concur. That quote is totally apocryphal.”

Simplia looked up from the letter she was reading and said, “Just because nobody actually said it doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”

She handed the letter over to Sagacia. “This just came in through the bathroom window. Makes a good argument for sometimes going no deeper than the surface of a fairy tale.”

Written on engraved stationery in meticulous calligraphy, beginning with a Zapf Chancery flourish — “Thank you!” — Sagacia read:

Dear Vasilisa the Wise, the Brave, the Beautiful, the Honest and Innocent,

All these decades, centuries perhaps, after your step-mother sent you into the forest to borrow fire from Baba Yaga, I owe your mother (God rest her soul), you, and your doll a debt of gratitude. Your behavior serves as an example for me to emulate when, as a reader of palms and gazer into crystal balls, I am required to tell the fortunes of scoundrels, con artists, liars, cheats, and sellers of snake oil. If I am to keep my gifts, I must never lie. If I am to keep my livelihood, there are some truths I dare not tell.

On her deathbed, when your mother gave you the little doll, she cautioned you to tell no one about it. Your own sainted mother instructed you to keep a secret from your father, your friends, the world. From this, I learned that discretion is not the same as dishonesty or dissembling. 

When Baba Yaga demands to know why you are able to perform — to perfection — the  impossible tasks she sets for you, you heed the doll’s admonition to tell Baba Yaga nothing but the truth. It took some creativity to come up with an honest answer that wouldn’t reveal the doll’s existence, but you did it: “Because of a my dead mother’s blessing.” From that response, I learned that refusing to tell everything you know about a matter is not necessarily the same as a telling a half-truth. 

Your behavior in that story (“Vasilisa the Beautiful“)  has taught me to watch out for myself. There won’t always be benevolent forces of magic working for me. In fact, I might find myself surrounded only by malevolence, and in that case I have only my wits to keep me safe. Thanks to you, your dear mother, and that doll, I can now decide when full disclosure feels like too much exposure and calibrate my responses accordingly.

Forever in your debt, I remain yours sincerely,

Carefully Clairvoyant in Cleveland

Sagacia read the letter, knit her brow, and cocked her head at her friend.

“Yeah,” she said. “Even on the surface a fairy tale has a lot to say. I’m trying to think of one that’s been as obviously helpful to me as ‘Vasilisa the Beautiful’ has been to Carefully Clairvoyant.”

“It’s a lot like what Waiting in Winnepeg wrote about last month,” Simplia observed. “Except instead of a story popping into your line of sight at just the right time, it’s like the multiplication tables after you’ve got them memorized. They give you a tool, fitted to your hand, ready to work with.”

“Do you have one of those?” her friend asked.

“That shoemaker again. And his wife. They didn’t become monarchs. They never got rich. The magic went away as soon as they were back on their feet. The story says they lived in prosperity and contentment for the rest of their good long days. Who wouldn’t aspire to that future?” After a moment she asked Sagacia, “What’s a fairy tale that’s given you something to live by?”

Sagacia grinned. “‘The Old Woman and the Vinegar Bottle.'”

Simplia nodded, “Yeah. About being content with what you have.”

“Not that,” said Sagacia. “I don’t think I could be content living in a vinegar bottle. I don’t blame the old woman in the story for wanting a better housing arrangement. But I do think the reason she didn’t like the very first place she envisioned — the little cottage — is because she never told the fairy ‘thank you.’ That’s my lesson: Always remember to say thank you.”

As if on cue, both Simpletons looked out beyond the fourth wall that separated them from the imaginations of their readers. They waved their most energetic waves, grinned their toothiest grins and said,

“THANK YOU for dropping by today! And if you rely on any ordinary, everyday wisdom you got from a fairy tale, we’d love it if you’d tell us about it.”


Bilibin, Ivan, illustrator. Vassilisa the Beautiful. Moscow: Department for the Production of State Documents, 1900.