SNEGUROCHKA (THE SNOW MAIDEN)
Deep in the forests of Northern Russia, in an isba (log hut), lived an old wood cutter and his wife. Times were hard, for winter had set in and deep snow covered the ground.
The wood cutter and his wife were both kind and hardworking but they were also sad and lonely, for they were childless and there was no-one to care for them or to help them through the cold winter.
The days passed slowly, with hard work their only comfort. There was wood to chop and food to find.
Then one day, whilst clearing an area so they could chop some more wood, they began to pile together heaps of snow. Remembering the games they used to play in their childhood, the old couple began to shape the snow into human form. By the time they had finished they were nearly frozen but the image of the young girl they had created was so beautiful, it was beyond description.
“See wife,” said the old man, “our daughter Snegurochka.” (Snow maiden.) The old woman smiled but as her husband turned away, there were tears in her eyes.
In the forest the twigs crackled and snapped, for watching the old couple was none other than Father Frost, an old winter god that lived deep in the forest glades.
Father Frost felt pity for the old couple and, at that moment, he decided to create for them a daughter in his own spirit. He scratched his long white beard and pondered for a while before raising the great staff he carried into the air. A frizzle of magic ripped through the forest.
The old couple turned to admire once more their handiwork and were astonished to see, standing in their garden, the most beautiful pale maiden with long flaxen hair.
She was dressed in a long, light blue robe, its collar and cuffs trimmed with soft fur; her robe was covered in shimmering snowflakes. On her head was a hat of fur and snowflakes that looked a little like a crown and which sparkled like an icy flame. Her shoulders were covered with a cape of dark blue and on her feet she wore embroidered boots.
The old couple blinked in wonder and disbelief, for there in front of them was their longed for child. Snegurochka hesitantly came towards them and their hearts leapt with joy as the young maid said, “If it pleases you, I have come to be your daughter and will care for you as my mother and father.”
The old woman grasped the snow maiden’s pale hand and with great joy led her towards the isba. As she followed the couple Snegurochka felt the trees and the beasts of the winter forest bid her a happy life.
Snegurochka helped with the chores and cared well for the couple. They could not believe their luck at having such a kind and beautiful child.
Despite this her parents worried about her, she was so quiet and pale; sometimes she seemed so frail as to be lifeless. However, there was always fire in her bright blue eyes and her smile could light up the forest.
The snow maiden loved the trees and the creatures of the forest. In her mortal form, she was a dutiful daughter to her new parents, never complaining or moaning but there was a distance in her eyes.
Two happy months passed and it was time for the winter celebrations. The town streets, a few miles away, were alive with strollers and entertainers.
Happy groups of people sometimes passed through the forest on their way to town. Snegurochka watched the people through a frozen window pane of the isba. Concerned, the old woman suggested that Snegurochka should join the celebrations, for it must be very dull living all the time with an old couple, but Snegurochka assured them she was very happy.
Then one day, as she was looking out of the icy window, she saw Misgir, the son of a nobleman, and his fiancée Coupava, in the glade where they lived. She saw them lark about and play in the snow. She also observed the very special bond that existed between the young couple, a bond that she had never known.
Later that day, as she was out walking in the forest, Father Frost came to her and warned her that she must never form such a friendship with a human or disaster would befall her. Nevertheless poor Snegurochka could not stop thinking of the strange bond between the two young people.
Wanting to understand more, she could resist no longer. The old woman, helped her put on her little cape, and she went out to join the people walking towards the town.
It was not long before somebody saw the beautiful young lady standing on the edge of the town and Snegurochka was bid welcome. She saw Misgir and Coupava in the crowd and went to talk to them but a jealous Coupava pulled Misgir roughly away. Despite this, the crowd was captivated by her beauty and innocence.
From then on Snegurochka came to town quite often.
One day, as she enjoyed the bustle of the throngs of people, she heard strains of the most charming music. It was the songs of a young shepherd boy. He was named Lel. Snegurochka moved closer to hear more. Lel saw the young maiden watching him play his flute and thought her very beautiful. He fell deeply in love with Snegurochka and they soon became inseparable.
The weeks passed and spring was approaching. Father Frost was alarmed. He warned Snegurochka to keep away from the bright rays of the sun god which could kill her. She must always, he said, stay in the shade.
As spring approached the people left their homes more often.
Whenever the young girls came out to stroll and to sing, Lel would run to Snegurochka’s isba, tap on the window and say, “Beautiful Snegurochka, do come and join us”.
Once she appeared, he never left her side. They would dance in the shade of the trees but Snegurochka knew there was still something missing, she knew she did not feel the way the humans did.
The more she thought of Lel, the more pale and weak she became but, despite this, she sought out Mother Spring in the forest and asked if she could feel the special bond the humans felt. Mother Spring said she would grant her wish but, if she followed this path, she would surely perish. Snegurochka went sadly home.
Father Frost continued to watch her from a distance for he knew what would soon happen to her.
For a while she stayed away from the forest walks, the town and Lel. Then, one beautiful morning, Lel came to Snegurochka’s little window and pleaded with her to come out with him, just once, just for a moment. For a long while Snegurochka refused to listen but, finally, her heart could no longer resist. She realised she could hide away forever or enjoy, if only briefly, what it was like to be really human.
She walked with Lel to the edge of the birch forest.
“Lel, play your flute for me!” she asked.
Her heart felt warm. She stood before Lel, there was so little life left in her, her pale face looked bloodless and her arms and legs tingled. The young man played his flute. She listened to the song and felt love for the first time. Tears rolled down from her eyes.
However, she was a creature of ice and snow and could not survive the warmth she felt in her heart. With the faintest sigh, she began to melt.
As they stepped from the forest into the rays of the sun, Lel went to hold Snegurochka but, as he did so, her feet melted beneath her; she fell onto the damp earth and suddenly vanished. There was nothing left but an icy mist, drifting upward into the blue sky.
As the snow maiden faded away, spring spread over the land: the frost retreated and the small flowers of the fields began to bloom. Everyone was cheered by the return of spring. Everyone that is except, the young shepherd who felt desolate and cold, despite the warmth of the sun.
As for the old couple, they felt their loss deeply but, in their hearts, they had always known the magic could not last. They were just thankful for the beautiful snow maiden who had brought such warmth and joy to their lives and given them hope in the depths of winter.
But what of the snow maiden? Well, it is said that, as she melted away, her spirit was caught by Father Frost who retreated to far lands with the advance of Mother Spring. He took the spirit of his daughter across the stars to the frozen lands of the north, where she again took the form of a beautiful young woman. Here she plays all through the summer – on the frozen seas.
But, each year in winter, on the first day of the New Year, Father Frost and the Snow Maiden return to Russia in their troika (sleigh). And they continue to work their magic, as they did long ago for the woodcutter and his wife, for those who are good and kind, particularly the children, bringing them small gifts and helping to make their dreams come true.