By ROB KEZELIS
This is the second of five chapters. It is highly recommended that you read it aloud to loved one in bed. Kids, too.
If you haven’t read Chapter One — Cick here to read
Once upon a time, deep inside the dark forest, there lived a little girl. She was named Kasha and she lived all by herself. Well, except for her brother, who didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t count because he was such pig-head, and her parents, but they worked all day long and sometimes even long into the night. There was also Grannie Ivanov, but Grannie usually stayed near the big fireplace in the kitchen, especially in winter. The fireplace took up half the kitchen. During the winter, it was kept burning all the time. Grannie even slept near it so she would stay warm.
Actually, Grannie mainly slept on TOP of the oven all winter long. Whenever it got cold, Grannie would ask Kasha and Pig-head to add the wood to the hot coals, or to take her bucket and empty it. So really, in KashaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s mind, she lived all alone.
Last year, it had started snowing early, in the middle of October. Here it was early February, and still the snow seemed to fall straight from the sky. The snow was now much higher than Kasha, so it was not easy to go and play. One time, she dug a tunnel into the snow, but when she was inside, Pig-head stomped on the top until all the snow fell around her and she couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t breathe for a while. Her father pulled her out and yelled at Pig-head, but he just stuck his tongue out at her. Later behind FatherÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s back, Pig-head promised that heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d get her again later.
Boys could be so bad, especially if they were older brothers.
Kasha had one friend in the whole wide world, a rag doll she named Annushka, or Anna for short. Anna was her best friend. Anna even promised Kasha that she would never to tell anyone about KashaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s secrets, so Kasha told her everything, her dreams, her fears and even a love story she once saw in her sleep.
Her dream had a big shiny golden castle in the sky, a handsome prince and wonderful fir green and daisy yellow fairies who flew around the clouds. She was dressed all in white, except for the flowers in her hair that the fairies brought her every morning.
One time a huge, evil ogre had caught her and was about to eat her when the handsome prince jumped out of the forest and stabbed the ogre with his shining, silver sword.
The ogre screamed and ran away, dripping steaming drops of black blood. She and the prince lived happily ever after, and the prince did not have any big brothers to tease or bother them.
It was a fun dream.
Today was her first day of school. After Pig-head and she finished breakfast, they walked down through the snow, over the bridge and waited at the bottom of the hill for a cart that would carry all the other kids from nearby farms. Pig-head had started school last year.
He always told her scary stories about how the Teacher ate bad little girls. He said that because she was such a bad little girl, that she would be the first to be eaten this year.
Kasha would never admit to Pig-head that she was scared, especially of the Teacher. (But, deep down inside, she was!) The cart ride sounded exciting, even though Pig-head would be going with her. She put on her thickest coat and gloves to keep the bitter wind out. Just before they left, Grannie Ivanov called out to both of them.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Watch out for Morozko, Old Man Winter. He loves to eat little girls and little boys for dinner. He is very hungry this season. Dress warmly.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Their Uncle Vanya had told the story of Morozko many times, about how he froze children in their sleep, and how he tricked grown men into talking on and on, even in the bitterest cold, until they became lost in the forest, and how you could never rest when Morozko was near. Old Man Winter was sneaky, mean and loved little children most of all.
Pig-head and Kasha walked down the trail, over the rushing, frosty river, and to the road. You could see the path left by many cartsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ skis and where the horses had trampled down the snow and ice in between. Finally, the cart arrived and the driver helped them both up. There were four other children in the cart.
Kasha looked at the other children, but they did not look scared. She turned her face so they would not see her fear.
The ride to school took almost half of an hour. The school was a one-room wooden building with a little fireplace near the teacherÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s desk. The teacher sat in the front of the class. She had a hooked nose and thick wire glasses. TeacherÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s face wore a frown that seemed to be made out of stone. She was dressed in layers of black, matching her mood perfectly.
Kasha was told to sit in the front row. The other students found their seats. Pig-head sat behind Kasha.
The teacher started with the older students, asking them to open their spellers and take out their writing tablets. She started giving them grammar problems and words to write down. Kasha soon got bored and started thinking about her doll Annushka. She wondered if Anna missed her as much as she missed Anna.
Kasha jumped with a start. The Teacher had just slammed her long wooden ruler on KashaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s desk. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Why are you day dreaming? You cannot learn if you do not listen. You have just earned one detention.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Kasha did not know what detention was, but it sounded bad. The Teacher continued her lessons with only one short break for lunch. Kasha managed to stay awake and alert for the rest of class, even if it was for the older children.
The Teacher passed out small pieces of paper. Each student was instructed to print his or her name on it with an ink pen. Kasha carefully filled out her name on the top, being very careful not to drip any ink on the rest of the scrap of paper. She heard something fly past her ear, and saw a wad of paper hit the front of TeacherÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s desk with a bang.
The Teacher looked up, frowned even more, then walked to the front of the desk. She stooped down and picked up the wadded up paper. She unfolded it and turned to Kasha. The paper had KashaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s name on it.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Is this what you do with your trash? Throw it at the Teacher? Shame on you! You wicked little girl. Your detention starts tonight, right after class.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Kasha tried to explain that it wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t her paper at all, but the Teacher refused to listen.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“You will go kneel in front of the class. Then you will stay after school and wash each and every tablet in the classroom.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Kasha walked to the corner the Teacher pointed at. She saw from the corner of her eye, Pig-head trying to keep from laughing. She was sure that he threw the paper with her name on it. Kasha tried to keep the tears from running down her face. She was there for the rest of the class.
Finally, class was over. KashaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s knees hurt from all the kneeling. She started washing the writing tablets. She heard the cart approach just as she dried the last tablet. She ran to get her coat and hat, but by the time she ran outside, the cart had already gone. She saw Pig-head whispering something to the cart driver as they left. She tried to chase the cart, but the snow was too deep. She fell face down into the snow. She saw the cart moving further away with each breath.
Kasha began to cry. She turned back to the school. The door locked behind her and everyone else had left. It was getting cold and dark outside. Kasha began to walk.
It was hard work, even if she tried to stay in the path made by the cartÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s skis. Finally, she tried walking in the tracks of the horses. That was a little easier. The wind was still blowing all around her, but luckily, the snow had stopped falling.
The last bit of sunlight was now gone. A few wispy clouds moved across the night sky. Behind the clouds was a smallest sliver of the moon. It gave her a little light to see by. On and on she walked. Kasha was getting very cold and tired. Her empty tummy made loud noises to her. She could not feel her fingertips even though she wore thick, woolen mittens. The wind seemed to grow even louder and angrier.
Finally, she got to the hilly road that led to her house. She had lost track of time. Because her family always talked about how far that was, she knew that she still had two more kilometers to go.
Because of the snow and wind, the hill leading to her home was steep, icy and slippery. She heard the trees rub back and forth against each other. The wind was making them talk to each other. The clouds now covered the moon. It was all dark except for the slightest hint of light over the hill.
She thought that she heard someone behind her. Could it be Morozko? The terrible Old Man Winter, coming after her? She tried to run, but found that she could not keep her footing if she hurried. On and on she climbed the hill. Often she would slip, and have to climb back to where she started. By the time she came to the bridge, she was sure that that someone was behind her.
As she tried to cross the icy bridge, she slipped again, but this time, she fell down the snow bank. Down and down she tumbled. Finally, she landed on the riverÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s ice. She heard it cracking under her weight. The river moved so quickly that it hardly ever froze up completely. The cracking sound was horrible. It sounded as though the river wanted to eat her up.
Kasha was terrified. She heard someone calling her name, just like Morozko would do if he were after her. She was even more terrified.
Finally, she yelled back, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Hello, Morozko? Is that you? Please leave me alone. Please donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t hurt me.Ã¢â‚¬Â She heard her name being called again. If it was Morozko, would he help or hurt her? She decided that she had no choice. The ice was cracking faster and faster. She felt it move under her.
Just then she saw Uncle Vanya hurry over the bridge. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Wait there, little Kasha, donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t move!Ã¢â‚¬Â She almost fell with relief. Uncle Vanya grabbed a broken tree branch and held it out to her.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Take this, Kasha and crawl towards me slowly.Ã¢â‚¬Â Just then the ice broke through. Kasha fell into rushing water at least knee deep. The cold was so painful that Kasha couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t even scream.
Uncle Vanya dropped the branch and jumped into the river to grab her before the rushing water pulled her away. He picked her up like a little doll over his shoulder and ran back to their cabin. Kasha could barely tell what was happening. Everything was getting misty, dark, and oh, so cold.
The next thing she knew, she was back at home. Mother and Grannie had taken off all her wet clothing and started to rub her with coarse linen towels. They sat her right next to the roaring fire. Grannie wrapped her with GrannieÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s biggest and longest gown. Mother put FatherÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s thick wooly socks on her feet. They came up way above her knees. The feeling started to return to her fingers, legs and face. It tingled and hurt a lot as she warmed up.
Her mother and Grannie were still in tears. Uncle Vanya handed her a mug of hot tea. He poured in a little brandy. The brandy made her eyes water, but she drank it down just like Mother told her.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Oh, my little Kasha, we were so worried. Why did you not take the cart home?Ã¢â‚¬Â asked her mother.
Kasha saw Pig-head peering around the corner, looking at her with tearful eyes. She knew that finally she could get back at Pig-head. He had been so mean to her. But, still, he was her brother. And he looked more scared than she ever was.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Mamushka, I forgot something at school, so I thought I could hurry back and get it.Ã¢â‚¬Â There, Kasha did it. She had lied. She had never lied to her mother before. She saw Pig-head looking at her with grateful thanks and relief. She knew from that then on, Pig-head would never tease her again.
Only Uncle Vanya saw the looks that Pig-head and Kasha exchanged. He looked funny with his pants were off. While they dried, he was wearing a funny night gown. Vanya grabbed his own tea, and added a lot more brandy to his mug. He decided to put a stop to any more questions.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Come, little Kasha, it is time for you to go to bed. Let me read you a story.Ã¢â‚¬Â Uncle Vanya picked her up in his bear-like arms and took her upstairs to her little room, but not before Mother and Father and Grannie kissed her.
Uncle Vanya pulled out a sack and sat in a chair next to her bed.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“You are a brave little girl, Kasha. You walked five kilometers at night without any help, in the deepest winter chill. That is really brave. I am so proud of you. But please donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t do it again.Ã¢â‚¬Â He smiled at her and patted her head gently. Annushka the doll was waiting for her under the covers.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Kasha, I can guess what your brother did. But, Kasha, you should know that he was scared when you didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t come home. You were brave not telling on him. I think heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s learned his lesson. LetÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s just keep it a secret between us.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Kasha nodded her head, still shivering a little in her bed. She pulled all the covers over her tightly.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Do you mind if I read to you?Ã¢â‚¬Â Uncle Vanya had a great deep voice and she loved it when he made different animal sounds and other noises as he read. She nodded to him eagerly. Uncle Vanya pulled out a big leather book from his sack. Ã¢â‚¬Å“This is a story about another brave little girl. Her name is Haruko. She lives in Japan, a beautiful country far away. Japan is filled with magic and sorcerers and dragons. It has beautiful mountains, deep rivers and many, many secrets. She has a beautiful name, Haruko, almost as sweet as yours, little Kasha. Would you like to hear it?Ã¢â‚¬Â
Kasha nodded between her shivers. He started reading:
(Robert Kezelis is a lawyer, sculptor and writing curmudgeon based south of Chicago.)