As Philip Pullman explains in the Intro to his delightful, Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, fairy tales are not, strictly speaking “texts.” They are pieces of folk lore that transform with each new telling and teller. And as tellers, we change them, shade them and turn them. We pick our battles, our heroes and villains. Ultimately, with a unique voice, we make these tales our own.
The Dragon and His Grandmother is (very) loosely based on an old Russian fairy tale, told in my croaky October voice and spun through the Dragon’s Nest and shared here, in full, Off the Rails.
The Dragon & His Grandmother
via Shawn MacKENZIE
Once, not long ago in the cosmic scheme of things, in a kingdom by the Emerald Sea, there lived an impatient prince. He had always been this way, since the day he pushed into the world three weeks early. When he crawled he was impatient to toddle; when he walked he was impatient to ride. And as prince, he was most impatient to be king.
And while he waited (impatiently) for that day, he spent hour upon hour in the royal observatory looking through his big brass telescope. He turned his eye seaward, and dreamt of travelling the waves. When he grew up he would be an explorer prince, discovering new lands no one had ever imagined.
As he got older, the sea seemed too vast and exploration too leisurely an activity for his eager nature. No immediate gratification there. So he turned his glass landward, to the nations bordering his father’s kingdom. Most people would marvel at the towns and farms, forests and streams. But the young prince saw only rich, green lands begging for the conquest of a warrior king.
Now, his father, the Old King, was a fair ruler, but he was no longer a warrior. And more germane to our story, like all of us, he was mortal. In time – some say sooner than he ought, but that is another tale – he died, and his impatient son became an even more impatient king.
The moment he claimed crown and scepter, he summoned his ministers and tax collectors, armorers and generals. He was the king and he was going to expand the realm as his father never had. And he was going to do it now.
The impatient young King needed an army as fodder for this land grab. An easy prospect, being king. He simply gave the command. Every man in the kingdom over 16 and under 50 was ordered to fight under his banner. And they did. This gave him a great many soldiers in the field, but few farmers or guildsmen, smithies or tanners at home. Not that he worried about that. The war would be over in a couple of weeks. Impatient kings accept nothing less.
Of course, the people in the neighboring kingdom had other ideas. They quite liked their benevolent leader, paying fair taxes, living in peace, and had no intention of turning their lives over to some upstart despot. So, it was that they were drawn into a very long and very bloody war that could do no one any good.
As the war dragged on, year after year, the fields lay fallow, the shop shelves bare. Still the King would not quit. There was nothing with which to pay taxes, and without taxes, he had nothing with which to pay his army. Draconian threats and promises of empty glory were hardly enough to live on. Hardly enough to die for.
Among the conscripts’ mud-encrusted ranks were three brothers, Osip, Luka, and Lev, grandsons and only kin of a widowed school teacher. For seven long years they’d followed their King’s standard and watched their friends die. Their boots were holey, their tunics tattered; they hadn’t had a warm meal in weeks. As for getting leave, they’d given up on that dream long ago. But still they stuck it out. In times of war, desertion was a capital offense, and as long as they had their heads they could hope to eventually get home, to see their Gran once more.
One day, a company of new recruits arrived in camp, clean-scrubbed innocents half of whom would be worms’ meat by the end of the month. While his comrades were settling in, a lanky tow-headed lad approached the brothers.
“Friendly faces, at last!” he exclaimed. “You probably don’t remember me. It’s been so long. I’m Grisha. We lived next door to you. I was only eight when you went away, so…”
A flash of recognition and Osip clapped the lad on the shoulder. “Grisha, of course! My, you’re quite the young man, now.”
“How are things at home?” Lev asked.
“It’s like a ghost town. Women, little children. A few old men. They’re the only ones left. Holding things together as best they can. The kids are running wild without your Gran keeping them in line, giving them lessons.”
“What do you mean?” they asked in unison.
The lad shifted on his feet. “Oh, I am so sorry,” he said. “I thought – surely you must have heard.”
“We’ve had no letters, no news, for ages.”
“She died at mid-summer. The whole town came out for her funeral; she was much loved, you know.”
The brothers fell silent, their grief doming round them. Grisha muttered a good-bye, then, fading back into the slog and clash of the camp, gave privacy to their loss.
Osip, the eldest was the first to speak. “We should have been there,” he said, wiping his eyes. “With Gran. I’ve had enough of this. Enough of the cold, enough of the blood, enough of this war we’ve no business fighting.”
“Not much we can do about it, though,” Luka shrugged, as cautious as his middle-brother standing made him.
Lev tightened his belt. “Well, there’s something I can do. I’m leaving. Tonight.”
“That’s crazy,” his brothers whispered, looking over their shoulders to be sure no one was eavesdropping on their counsel. “You’re talking desertion. Get caught, and it’s the gallows for sure.”
“I’m not planning on getting caught, am I? Just slip off now, under the new moon, and no one will notice until I’m long gone.”
“What about Grisha. He’s seen us, knows us; he’s going to wonder.”
“And if he does? Remember our first month in ranks? The captains kept us so busy we couldn’t remember our own names, let alone worry about some casual acquaintance from years back. The word on the line is the whole camp’s moving out tomorrow. That’s less than 24 hours. I hide in that big cornfield over there and when their gone, I go the other way. Simple. Listen, I’d rather we stick together, but I will go alone if I must.”
Now Lev was their little brother and Osip and Luka couldn’t very well let him take off on his own. They were all the family in the world to each other, now, and family kept together. Besides, he’d always been the smart one of the three. Perhaps his plan would work. Perhaps they could get away, reinvent themselves, maybe even make their fortunes.
That night, when fires were banked and the dark face of the moon turned upon them, the brothers crept out of camp. Screened by stalk and straw, they pulled their cloaks tight and waited.
But the army did not march on. Instead, beneath a threatening sky, it remained encamped, all around them. Then the rain began, moderate at first, but by evening the air crackled with lightning and a tempest raged. Four days and four nights it rained, sometimes a torrent, sometimes a drizzle. In rising mud and misery, Osip, Luka, and Lev sat out in the field, without food, shelter, or options. Return and they’d be hung; stay and the elements would get them.
“So much for your plan, Lev,” groaned Luka through chattering teeth. “We’re all going to die here like drowned rats.”
“You didn’t have to come,” Lev snapped back. “We’ve been the King’s chattel for years. What’s a little weather compared to that?”
In a futile stab at their circumstance, Osip wrung the rain from his hat then pulled it onto his head. “I’d rather face a fiery Dragon than stay here doing nothing,” he said. “At least we’d be warm.”
“Did someone say ‘Dragon’?” It was a voice, rumbling low as the grave.
The brothers jumped – as much as they could in their soggy condition. Behind them stood a great, black, craggy Dragon. His eyes burned, his wings furled like wind-lashed sails.
“And what, my puny threesome, are you doing out here, cowering like mice midst a herd of cats?”
“We do not cower!” declared Osip, making himself as small as possible.
“Well, actually, yes,” Luka muttered, “we do.”
Only Lev stood tall before the fierce creature. “We are soldiers,” he explained, “not mice.”
The Dragon snorted. “And why are you not over there, with the others of your kind?”
“We have left the King’s army.”
“Aha! Cowards!” His fangs flashed as he rubbed his paws together. “I thought so.”
“We may be deserters but it is not from cowardice,” Lev continued. “The King feeds us little, pays us less, and has kept us from our families, year upon year.”
“Royals are all the same,” the Dragon sneered. “You expected better, I suppose. You are nothing to your King and got what you deserved.”
“We could not even see our Grandmother before she died. She was a good woman and our only kin in all the world. Did we deserve that?”
A wistful sigh escaped the Dragon’s maw. He, too, had a Grandmother – though whether or not he would grieve her passing was a question for another day. Playing with the mud between his claws, he ruminated aloud, “So…perish from hunger or get hung for the deserters you are. A bit of a dilemma, eh?”
The brothers hated to admit it, but the Dragon was right.
“Perhaps I will just eat you where you stand,” the beast growled, relishing the smell of fear in the air. “But I’m not really hungry right now. No…. Perhaps I will help you, beyond your wildest dreams. Take you to safety. I could do that. For a price.” The Dragon grinned, his warm breath singeing their hair. “Oh, I won’t ask too very much,” he said. “Seven years’ service, that’s all.”
Looking one to the other, the brothers knew they were out of options. They’d given the King seven years for nothing. At least the Dragon was offering them their lives. “Whatever you ask,” they replied, “it is yours.”
And he scooped them up in his paws and flew east, far from battle and storm, setting them down in a sunny patch by the side of a well-travelled road. Just being on dry ground was such a delight, they almost forgot their parched throats and empty bellies.
“Where are we?” Osip asked.
“In a land where no one knows you,” the Dragon said. “There is a town not more than a league to the south, down this road.”
“Much good a town will do us when we’re no better than beggars,” complained Luka.
The Dragon scowled. These humans were never satisfied. Then, from thin air, he pulled a small whip and handed it to Lev.
“Flick this whip, and as much money as you desire will appear before you. You can live as great lords, keep manors and horses, and drive about in carriages. Or give it all to the poor, whatever you wish. For seven years, this is your boon. At the end of that time, you’re mine.” Then he placed a great book before them. With due solemnity, all three of them inscribed their names.
“Oh, one more thing,” said the Dragon, spreading his wings and rising into the air. “The rules say I have to give you a way out of our bargain. So, when next we meet, I will set you a riddle. Guess it, if you can, and you shall be free, out of my power forever.” A stream of Dragon fire lit up the sky, and he was gone.
Say what one will, the Dragon was as good as his word. With the help of the magical lash, the brothers had riches to spare. They travelled where they pleased, and when they pleased. They lived in grand houses, wore fine clothes, and rode magnificent horses. But their lives were not all prodigal merrymaking. In honor of their Grandmother, they also used their good fortune to build schools and libraries, hospitals and museums. They even kept track of the war they’d abandoned, as it ground on ad nauseam, creating victims on all sides. They helped those they could, regardless of nation or allegiance. In short, they found their way in the world and did little wrong.
“I wonder what the Dragon would say about all we’ve done,” Luka mused, glancing over his shoulder, just in case.
Lev laughed. “Can’t speak for the Dragon,” he said, “but I think Gran would be pleased we’re not total scoundrels.”
Unlike their stint in the military, the years full of joy and good works passed very quickly for the brothers. So it was, with hardly expectation or warning, they found themselves in the glade where their adventures had begun with only a fortnight left to call their own.
Osip and Luka paced up and down, up and down, until they wore the sod bare. They had grown accustomed to the easy life, and the thought of being in a Dragon’s service for even one day did not appeal at all.
Lev, on the other hand, remained sanguine and carefree. He lay down on the grass and stared into the clear blue sky. “Oh, sit down, you two,” he said. “You worry like old hens. We just have to guess the riddle, remember? I’ve always been good at riddles.”
“Not Dragon riddles,” moaned Osip.
“Oh, God, we’re doomed!” Luka cried, head in his hands. “There’s no help for it, none at all.”
But Lev shrugged off their gloom. “Well, no matter what,” he declared, “we’ve had good innings. No one can take that from us, not even the Dragon.”
This last thought did not cheer his brothers one bit.
As they sat by the side of the road, all long looks and creased brows, an old woman passed by. She was calico covered, head to foot, her grey straw hair spiking out from under her feathered hat.
“Sad faces on such fine gentlemen,” she said. “Whatever is the matter?”
“What is it to you,” snapped Osip.
“Brother, is that any way to speak to a stranger?” Lev chided. “Forgive my brother, madam. He has more on his mind than it can hold.”
“Perhaps I can help,” the old woman offered, “if you tell me what your trouble is.”
And, because the woman reminded them not a little of their Grandmother, they told her the story of their bargain with the Dragon, and how the time was fast approaching for them to pay their due. “If only we could guess the riddle,” they said.
The old woman thought for a long time. “A Dragon, hmmm, yes,” she said at last. “They are tricky ones. I can tell you this: if you would help yourselves, one of you must follow that path into the woods. At the end of the path you’ll find a ramshackle building all tumbled rocks and thatch, rather like a little house, perched upon two pillars, rather like giant chicken legs. Don’t worry, you’ll know it when you see it. There you will find the help you need.” With that she bade them farewell and continued on her way.
“Well that was damn peculiar,” Osip said.
“And not much help, either,” added Luka.
“You two are hopeless,” laughed their little brother. “Just wait here and fret – pull your hair out for good measure. I won’t be long.” And with that, Lev vanished into the woods.
It was almost dusk when he came upon the mound of rocks atop two pillars. It didn’t look much like what you or I would call a house – though the pillars were remarkably like chicken legs – but Lev knew it when he saw it.
Inside sat a very, very old woman, her wild white hair cascading round her, down to the floor. She sniffed the air and glared at the intruder.
“Are you a fool, young man? Or just ill-mannered, barging into a stranger’s house like that.”
“Begging your pardon, ma’am. I try to be neither. Truth is, I was sent here by an elderly woman I met on the post road. She said you might be able to help us – my brothers and me” And Lev told the old woman their story, beginning to end.
When he finished, she patted him fondly on the knee, her head nodding up and down. “Goodness,” she said, “you three have gotten into the thick of it. And I should know. The Dragon is my grandson.”
“Oh, I am sorry,” said Lev.
“Yes, me, too.” She sniffed him again. “Well, you seem a sincere man – and I am never wrong about these things. But is it enough? These brothers of yours, they couldn’t be bothered to come, I suppose? Why should I help them?”
Lev stood there, chagrinned down to his toes. “I don’t know,” he said. “But they are my brothers. I gladly do anything you ask in return. Chop wood, fix your roof, anything.”
The ancient woman cackled at his offer. “We will see,” she said.
And for ten days, Lev split wood, repaired thatch, even reset the chimney. His muscles ached, his hands, smooth after years of high living, were blistered raw. Still, when the old woman came to check his labors, he did not complain. He simply smiled, accepting the borscht and black bread she brought for his supper, and asked, “Is there anything else I can do?”
“We will see.”
The fortnight almost over, the old woman called the young man into her house. “The Dragon is coming for dinner tonight, and he expects a great bowl of oyster stew. For this I need a cask full of oysters.” She handed him a basket tall as herself and said, “Fill this with oysters and return before sunset and I shall help you. You and your absent brothers.”
A puzzled look came over Lev’s face. What was it about this family and their riddles? Oysters, in the woods? One last task and he didn’t know what to do.
The old woman grinned. “Get a move on, young man, or my grandson might just eat you instead!”
It was mid-day when, hot, tired, and lost, with his basket still empty, Lev plopped himself down on a fallen tree. “Oh, Grandma,” he sighed, staring up into the canopy, “you raised a simpleton. Oysters, really? There’s not even a lake for miles, let alone the sea.”
Just as he was feeling too pathetic for words, the thicket beside him shook with a high barking laugh, “Hee-chee! Simple-simple simpleton!” A fox emerged from the scrub, brush high, and looked him in the eye. “You’ve been in that chicken house,” she said. “I can smell the old woman on you. And that the Dragon is coming for supper.”
“A smart little fox,” Lev said with a bow. “You don’t happen to know where I can fill this basket with oysters, do you?”
“Not shelled or from the sea, that’s for sure. But walk ten minutes that way, towards the sun, and you’ll find a beech grove. Around each tree grow mushrooms, big as your hand. King oysters, we call them.”
“Oh, such a fool I am!” Lev laughed. “Of course! Good fox, what do I owe you. Ask and it’s yours.”
“A promise that got you here, no doubt,” the fox barked. “I ask nothing. But, among the oysters, should you find something else – something rare and unusual, perhaps – I will not turn tail on it as payment.”
A hour later, bent beneath his load of fungi, he returned to the fox. “You have aided me more than I can say, good fox. This, I believe is yours.” He took from his purse a firebird egg, large as a turnip, gold as the sun.
“Bless you kind sir. My kits thank you, and their kits after.” And with a yip and a yap, the fox wrapped her tail round her treasured fee and disappeared.
“You are brighter than I thought,” the old woman said, sorting through Lev’s harvest. “Yes, much brighter. These will make a fine stew, and I will help you. Come…” and she lifted up a large stone which lay over the cellar. “Hide yourself here,” she said. “You can hear all that is spoken in this room.”
“From down there?”
She grinned. “The floor may be thick but my grandson’s voice is thunder. Sit very still. When the Dragon comes, I will ask him about this riddle of his. He tells me everything, especially when he’s had a barrel or two of brandy wine. Listen carefully to what he says and you will be fine.”
At the stroke of midnight the Dragon swooped in and asked for his supper. The old woman laid the table with enough food and drink for a small village (for Dragon appetites are very large, and sharp as their teeth), and they dined together. As he tucked into his second bowl of oyster stew with a hundred-stack side of latkes, his Grandmother poured more wine and said:
“So what have you been doing with yourself all day? Any souls to add to your book?”
“It’s been a dreary day, Gran’mama. No luck at all. War rages all about us but the souls seem remarkably content. I would suspect someone working against me,” he laughed, “if I didn’t know better. But tomorrow will be better. I have three soldiers under contract and my hold on them is as tight as woodbine in August.”
“Soldiers, eh? Well, they can be slippery, very slippery. And you know the rules about the escape clause.”
“Yes, yes, I know the rules,” the Dragon scoffed. “These three will get their riddle, and they will still be mine. They will never be able to guess the answer.”
“What sort of a riddle is it?” the old woman asked.
The Dragon drained his wine and laughed. “A most impossible riddle, that’s its sort. I will tell you this much: In the Emerald Sea lies a dead sea-cat – that shall be their roast meat; and the rib of a whale – that shall be their silver spoon; and the hollow foot of a dead horse – that shall be their wineglass.”
“My, you are a clever Dragon,” his Grandmother flattered. “I don’t even understand it! Your soldiers would be blessed, indeed, if they guess the answer.”
Right pleased with himself, the Dragon yawned and stretched. The brandy wine had loosened his tongue and now it was making him sleepy. He curled up by the front door and was snoring in a Kiev minute.
The old woman opened the stone trap in the floor and Lev emerged from the cellar.
“Did you hear everything? Did you understand?”
“Yes,” Lev whispered in replied. “I think I know enough. Thank you, you have helped me more than I can say.”
Slipping out through the window, so as not to wake the Dragon, Lev raced back to his brothers. After two weeks, they were near bald from worry, and the youngest could not help but laugh. He told them all about his adventure with the Dragon’s Grandmother.
“Are you sure about this?” they asked.
“From the Dragon’s lips to my ears. I couldn’t be surer.”
And the brothers were so thrilled, they could have danced a jig if they knew how. Instead, they took out the little whip, and crack, swish, summoned such a plenitude of gold that it mounded round them like a Dragon’s hoard.
The sun was high overhead the next day when the Dragon flew down, book in paw. “Well, aren’t you fine gentlemen!” he said. “Seven years have treated you very well.” He opened his book and pointed to the brothers’ signatures, “It is reckoning time, my friends.”
“Not so fast, Dragon,” Osip said. “You promised us a chance to wipe our account clean. A riddle, you promised. Is a Dragon as good as his word?”
“Humph-grumph,” the Dragon chuffed. “You doubt it? I could eat you right here, but I won’t. That’s hardly good form.” He smiled, confident they were his. “Very well, then. Riddle me this: I will take you underground with me; you shall have a meal there. If you can tell me what you will get for your roast meat, you shall be free. I’ll even let you keep the little whip for good measure.”
“In the Emerald Sea,” the eldest replied, “lies a dead sea-cat; that shall be the roast meat.”
The Dragon frowned, raking his talons into the soil. A lucky guess, no more. He turned to the middle brother. “Ah, but what shall be your spoon?”
Luka looked to his brothers for courage. What if Lev heard it wrong, what if… “The – the rib of a whale. It shall be our silver spoon,” he stammered.
“Gnggggrrrrrrrrrrr!” the Dragon growled, smoke curling from his nostrils. “Cheats,” he snarled under his breath, weighing the consequences of an impulsive human snack. There were rules. Checks and balances. His Gran’mama would call him on it, for sure. He’d lost, and he knew it down to his tail. But a Dragon never admits defeat – not aloud. Leering eye-ball to eye-ball with the youngest brother, he dared, “Do you know what your wineglass shall be?”
Lev scratched his head and stroked his beard. “Hmmm,” he said with feigned distress, “you do not make this easy, Dragon. I believe an old horse’s hoof shall be our wineglass.”
With a bellow that rattled windows from Tashkent to Minsk, the Dragon rose into the air, his power over the brothers shattered.
“I don’t know how you did it,” he roared. “Cheated, no doubt. But I am a Dragon of my word. Your lives are your own, for all the good they will do you!”
Lev tipped his hat. “I am sure we will manage, Dragon.” Then, as the great beast flew off, he called after: “There is a king to the west stuck in a 14-year-old war. I bet he’s in the mood to deal over a bowl of oyster stew.”
The Dragon raised his brows and laughed, then, tipping his wings to the west, he disappeared beyond the horizon.
Magic whip in hand, the brothers mounted their horses and rode off in the other direction. They were healthy, wealthy, and much wiser than when they first met the Dragon and planned on remaining so.
A week later, the great war ended, and the King who’d started it all mysteriously disappeared. What the Dragon had to do with all this was anyone’s guess, though it is true that, once peace broke out, the beast was never seen in that part of the world again.
The brothers were finally able to cease their travelling and return home. There, with the help of their gold-giving lash, they rebuilt what was ruined and then some. In time, the city became the gem of the whole continent, a center of art, learning, and trade that would make even a Dragon’s Grandmother proud.
Osip, Luka, and Lev lived out their lives as the honored founders of the town’s new golden age. In time, they were interred beside their Grandmother, an eternal flame burning like Dragon fire over their graves.
The Dragon’s whip was not found among their estate.