THE GOLDEN AX
The young woodcutter Ivan and his wife, Tania, lived in a small hut at the edge of the village. In winter, icy blasts whistled down the chimney and through the chinks in the walls. When the rains came in spring, the roof leaked like a sieve. "But a leaky roof is better than no roof at all," Ivan said cheerfully and mended the worn‑out thatch as best he could.
No matter how hard times were, Ivan didn't worry. "Our Father in heaven watches over us," he told Tania. "Whatever fortune He sends, we must be grateful." Then with clasped hands and bowed head, he gave thanks for the black bread and thin potato soup his wife had contrived for supper.
The couple had grateful hearts, and though there was not much to eat, and less to wear, they were content. "So long as I have you, golubka, my little dove, two strong arms and my ax, I'm rich as the Czar of Russia," he told his wife.
Ivan loved his ax. It was his pride, his means of providing for Tania. With his ax he felled stout forest trees, chopped the wood neatly and sold it to the rich Boyar, the nobleman who lived in the great manor beyond the village. "No one cuts wood that burns better," the Boyar would say, even as he drove a sharp bargain. "But the price is dear. I can get a load of wood cheaper from Vasily."
"Each of us must live," was Ivan's pleasant reply, but in the end, the Boyar always bought his wood.
Ivan was content enough with what the Boyar gave him. It was a proud day when he went home with a few rubles jingling in his pocket. "This calls for a celebration," Tania would say, throwing her arms around her husband's neck. "Tonight we'll feast on roast duck."
One morning toward spring, when Ivan arose and looked out the window‑the snow had disappeared in the night. "Look, my dove," he cried in excitement. "The snow has melted. I can go to the lake and chop down the big tree the Boyar wants for his woodpile."
"And build it mountain high," added Tania, clapping her hands.
"Then we'll celebrate," 'Ivan said gaily, pulling on his boots. They'd had few celebrations of late, what with early snows and a hard winter. The BoyAr's woodpile had dwindled, and so had their meager funds. If it hadn't been for odd jobs the youth picked up in the village, the rabbit or bird he snared now and then, and Tania's skill at darning laces and linens for the rich folk, the pair would, have fared worse. Still, they'd been warm. "It's a poor woodsman as can't have a hot fire," Ivan always said.
And here it was spring, the sun was bright, and Ivan off to cut a tree. "There never was such a day," he shouted, kissing Tania farewell.
At the lake there were few traces of snow, the water sparkled like diamonds and Ivan sang lustily as he set to work. The tree was big, and to hew it took skill. But when at last the tree crashed to the ground, top branches toward the clearing and trunk toward the lake, the cut was clean and the youth pleased. "It lies like a noble warrior, slain on the battlefield," he said, viewing his handiwork with pride.
Now whether Ivan was woolgathering, or whether he wasn't, he couldn't remember when telling Tania, later, how everything happened. But as he stood with his back to the lake, he had the odd feeling someone was pulling the ax from his hand.
Ivan whirled around quickly. No one was there. But in that split second, he saw the ax fly through the air toward the lake. With a sickening plop, it sank to the bottom.
Uttering a cry of dismay, Ivan dived into the water, but he had no luck in recovering the ax. He plunged to the bottom three‑five-seven times. Nevertheless, though the water was so clear he saw pebbles and shells, and hundreds of gaping fish, he saw no trace of his ax.
At last Ivan climbed back to shore. There he hunched on a stone in a pool of water and tried hard to think what to do next. "May our Father in heaven and all His saints help me," he cried in despair. "What can a woodcutter do without an ax?"
The longer Ivan thought of his plight, the more hopeless things seemed, for besides losing his ax, he'd lost his livelihood. Even if he scrimped and saved three times seven years, he couldn't ever earn rubles enough to buy so fine a tool. The ax, he used had been handed down in his family, goodness knows how many generations.
Ivan had just brushed his eyes with his hand, when he heard a voice ask, "Have you lost this ax?" Though it seemed to come from the water, the youth's eyes were too blurred with tears for him to be sure.
Then all at once he saw the face of a man, with white dripping locks and a long white beard, rise slowly from the lake. It one wraithlike hand he grasped a golden ax‑an ax. that glittered and gleamed splendidly as the scepter of His Majesty, the Most Glorious Czar.
Ivan, overcome with wonder, tried to speak, but no words came. "Have you lost this ax?" repeated the apparition.
"No, kind Uncle," Ivan gasped, not knowing how else to address so grand a personage. "It‑it's not mine. Mine isn't splendid and fine. Mine's just an ax. But w‑who are you?" he added quaveringly.
"The Spirit of the Lake," replied the old one. "This is my realm. But fear nothing," he added, as Ivan's teeth chattered. "I heard you say you'd lost an ax. Wait till I get another."
Ivan's heart beat with a faint hope. Perhaps after all, he'd get back his precious ax. But this hope soon vanished. When the Water Spirit reappeared, he held an ax of pure shining silver. "Is this yours?" he asked, twirling the thing so it caught the sun's rays.
"Alas, no, good Uncle." Ivan shook his head, bitterly disappointed. "My ax isn't elegant and grand. It's just an old, ordinary workaday ax with an ashwood handle. But it chops well," he added hastily. "I keep the blade sharp and rub it with mutton fat, to make it shiny."
Something like a smile quivered on the Spirit's pale lips. "Then I'll look again. Possibly I can find your ax." Once more he disappeared. And this time, when he came back, he was holding Ivan's lost ax. "Is this yours?" he asked.
Ivan clasped his hands. "Yes, that's my ax," he cried, tears of gratitude in his eyes. "Now I can work again and take care of my Tania. Thank you, dear Uncle."
The Spirit's eyes glowed warmly. "You are an honest man, Ivan," he said kindly. "I wanted to test you. It was I who slipped this ax from your hand. When I showed you the costly ones, and you said they were not yours, I knew you were worthy. Your reward shall be great. All three axes are now yours, to use as you see fit."
When Ivan tried to thank the Spirit and say all he wanted was the ax that was rightfully his, the Water Demon raised his wraithlike hand. "When I disappear," he said, "you will find on the bank the three axes. Return to your wife, use your wealth wisely, and may you prosper the rest of your days."
So saying, the Spirit sank to the bottom of the lake and‑at Ivan's feet lay the axes‑one gleaming gold, one of silver, and the old working ax with the handle of ash. "Our Father be praised," whispered Ivan, gathering them to his bosom. All the way home he kept saying, "Now we are rich. Tonight Tania shall celebrate."
And Tania did, not only that night, but every night so long as they lived. For after the couple sold the golden ax‑saying merely that the Spirit of the Lake had given it to them‑they were richer even than the Boyar in his fine manor house. But unlike the nobleman's, their wants were simple. "We'll save the silver against a rainy day," said Tania. "We have no need for so much."
The first thing Ivan did was go to the woods and cut enough trees to build a snug little house. And when it was finished, what with flowerpots on the sills, curtains at the windows, and a row of shiny bright copper, Tania was happy as a Czarina. And as for her husband, the great Czar himself couldn't have been prouder than Ivan, the day he fastened the cock weathervane to the ridgepole. "It's an ill wind that blows no one good," he told Tania, thinking of his lost ax.
The young couple were content in their little new house. Never did they turn beggar or stranger from the door. They succored the sick for miles about, eased the lot of the poor, and, as time went on, reared seven stalwart sons.
Everyone in the village rejoiced in the good fortune of the two ‑everyone, that is, save the greedy woodcutter Vasily. While others said proudly, "Riches haven't spoiled them. Ivan still chops wood. Tania bakes her own bread," he sneered and schemed.
Envy grew like a weed in Vasily's heart. "The silly fool doesn't know how to enjoy his wealth," he said meanly. "Now he's rich, he passes out bread to beggars, gives them rubles like kopecks and works like a serf himself." More than once Vasily watched Ivan fell trees, cut branches into firewood, and then invite those who were cold to take the fagots for their own. Now if he, Vasily, were to receive a golden ax, he'd wear fur on his tunic, eat like a lord and flash a jewel on his finger!
Thinking what he'd do if he had a golden ax led to Vasily's splendid idea‑his idea of how to get one anyway. That's when he shouldered his ax and went to the lake. Once there, he hurled the ax into the water. Then he sat on a stone and lamented noisily.
All the while the woodcutter was making his outcry, he kept a sharp eye on the water. And after a while, when the surface quivered, the head and shoulders of the Water Demon emerged, and then a hand grasping a golden ax appeared, Vasily's eyes glittered with greed. "Is this your ax?" the Spirit asked.
"Yes, yes, that's mine, the very ax I lost," cried the woodcutter, stretching out eager hands. But no sooner were the words out of his mouth than he realized he'd made a dreadful mistake.
The Spirit's eyes blazed. "You are lying," he thundered in a voice so terrible Vasily blanched. "Go home and envy your neighbor no more. Your greed shall be punished."
"But‑but, my ax‑" wailed Vasily, now fearful lest the Demon refuse to return his property.
When the Water Demon sank from sight without deigning to reply, Vasily was even more upset. The rest of that day, all that night, and the day after that, he waited and hoped the being would return.
"Pray, good Spirit, give me my ax," the woodcutter kept pleading. "I meant no harm. If only you'll let me have my old ax‑"
But the longer Vasily moaned for his ax, the more hushed the stillness around the lake became. There was not even a ripple on the water.
At last Vasily gave a sigh, rose stiffly and plodded home with drooping shoulders and hanging head. Having lost the tool by which he earned his bread, he didn't know what to do.
Just before he reached the village, Vasily thought of a man who was old and feeble‑too weak to swing an ax longer. "I'll buy his," the woodcutter said, his eyes brightening. And so he did, for a song. But the ax was dull and the blade nicked. To the end of his days, Vasily was poor.
As for Ivan, everything he touched prospered. With his Tania, his seven sons and his little house with the cock on the roof, he lived long and was the happiest man in all Russia.