"Visalia and Her Quest for Fire"
Rev. Greg Ward
A Traditional Folk Tale
(Based on Starhawk's retelling from the Book, "Circle Round")
October 29, 2000
of this story takes place in the hut of the Baba Yaga, although there
are parts that exist in Visalia’s original home and the forest.
Premise: This is a story which helps us understand that death is not ugly and that we need to accept death if we are to utilize and honor the wisdom of our ancestors.
Props: There is a coat rack with a Black Robe on it and a black hat, a table with stuff that looks like food, an old doll,
MUSICAL PRELUDE (music to "Listen, Listen, Listen.")
Listen, listen, listen to my heart’s song
(Greg begins by singing "Listen, Listen, Listen.")
Listen and you will here a very famous fairy tale that has been told throughout the world. Though none of the characters are real, and little of what happens in the story really happens in real life - the story is true in its ability to understand important things about our lives.
Circle round and I'll tell you a scary story for Halloween.
Once long ago, in a small village in Ireland, there lived a merchant and his wife. They had one daughter, named Vasalia, who was both kind and beautiful.
Her mother, who always wore green and white, loved her very much, and dressed Vasalia in the same because she was proud of her daughter and wanted others to see they were together.
They might have lived happily ever after, except that Vasalia's mother was very ill. None of the healers had been able to cure her. But before she died, she called Vasalia to her bedside.
"My daughter," she cried, "my greatest grief is that I must leave you like this, before you are grown, without your mother's protection. But here is my last gift for you. Take this doll, who, like you and I, wears green and white, which are the colors of our ancestors. She is my blessing to you and she will guide you and protect you. Keep her close to you, keep her hidden, and feed her whenever you can. Now kiss me for the last time."
Music ("Listen, Listen, Listen." Some voices come in lightly… fade after one verse)
Vasalia kissed her, and her mother died. For a long time Vasalia and her father grieved and mourned. But life goes on and Vasalia grew until she was almost a woman herself.
Now in that time there was a custom that as a girl was about to become a woman, she went away from their family and stayed with the wise woman of the forest. So, one day, Vasalia's father took her out into the woods, to the small cottage where the wise woman lived, and left her there.
"You must call me stepmother" the wise woman said, "for I will be like another mother to you." And she motioned to two other young women in the house who were slightly older than Vasalia. "And you must call them stepsisters, for they will be like sisters to you. You will work very hard here, but you will learn what you need to know to become a woman and to carry your own fire. But to find and hold your own fire, you will have to overcome some frightening tasks. Whether or not you will be up to these tests, who can say?"
We light this lantern to shine brightly in the darkness and to remind us that not everything that appears scary on the outside is really scary on the inside. Learning to tell the difference helps us find our own fire.
WELCOME AND ANNOUNCEMENTS
Service Leader: Good morning!! My name is ____________ and I am the __________ of this congregation. This morning, along with Jeff Robbins, our pianist, Jonjie Thralls who is playing Vasalia, Laurie Wheeler, Chair of the Religious Education Committee who is playing Baba Yaga, and Martina Queenth, Jamisen and Genna Cooper, our step family, we are glad to welcome you to the Unitarian Universalist Metro Atlanta North Congregation. This morning we will have one of our six yearly intergenerational services that enable the young and old and families of all ages to come together in some veryuncommon worship. Are there any newcomers here who would like to introduce themselves so we may all worship as friends. There are announcements we encourage you to look at in your order of worship, the newsletter and the Adult Programs guide. Please stay and join us for coffee and conversation after the service. And so you will have someone to talk to afterwards, we encourage you to stand and introduce yourself to the people closest to you offering one another the hand of friendship.
HAND OF FRIENDSHIP
STORY PART II
Storyteller: Vasalia did work hard. The stepmother taught her all the arts and skills of women in that time; spinning and weaving, growing food, gathering herbs, wisdom about the earth and her body. There was also all the cooking, cleaning and the usual housework to do. As Vasalia was the youngest, much of the hardest work fell to her. She did it all cheerfully, without complaining, even though sometimes she was so tired she could hardly drag herself up to the little loft where she sleep. But always, she fed her doll and whispered a little prayer to her mother who she missed.
Vasalia loved learning and she was certainly learning a lot. Everyday she figured out something new she could do and began to feel confident and proud of herself. Only one thing worried her and that was when the stepsisters hinted at the terrible challenge that she would have to meet.
"To be a woman means more than being able to spin and weave and gather herbs," the elder stepsister would say. "to be a real woman, you must own your own fire. And there's only one place you can get that fire."
"Where?" Vasalia would ask anxiously. "Tell me where!"
"I can't tell you - it would scare you too much!" And she would run away laughing.
"Where is the only place fire can be found?" Vasalia asked turning to the younger stepsister.
She smiled a secret, knowing smile. "You'll find out soon enough," she said. "Remember, only a very brave woman has her own fire."
Vasalia didn't feel very brave. In fact, as the time of leaving grew closer and closer, she became more and more frightened, for she knew that the day of her challenge could not be long in coming. But she said nothing to the stepmother or the two stepsisters, because she didn't want them to think she was a coward. The only person she confided in was her doll, whom she talked to faithfully every night as she fed her the crumbs she'd saved from dinner.
"Don't be afraid, Vasalia," the doll reassured her. "When the time comes to face your challenge, I will help." That made her feel a little better. But only a little.
One night, as a cold wind howled outside, while Vasalia and the stepsisters were all sitting and working by candlelight, and a low fire burned in the hearth, the stepmother came in through the door and a draft of wind snuck inside and blew out the candles. She closed the door and the fire went out.
"The fire has gone out!" the stepmother exclaimed. "And the room has grown dark! Who will go and get fire so that we can relight the candles?"
In those days, there weren't any matches or lighters. They hadn't been invented yet. The only way to light fire was to borrow a glowing coal from somebody else.
"My needle gives enough light for me to see by," said the oldest stepsister. And she showed a needle at the end of some thread that seemed to glow brightly in the dark.
"My loom gives enough light for me to see by," said the younger stepsister, and as she pulled the rack of the loom down the tapestry she was weaving began to shine.
"Vasalia," the stepmother said, "you must go and get fire. The time has come for you to face your challenge."
"Where must I go?" Vasalia asked, trying not to show how frightened she was.
"There is only one place to get fire," the stepmother said. "You must go to the house of the Baba Yaga, in the heart of the forest, and ask her for fire.
"Is that the only place?!?" Vasalia pleaded. She had heard stories of the Baba Yaga. The people in the village said she was an ugly fearsome creature. Some said she had only one eye that saw everything and long yellow teeth. Some even hinted that she would eat little children.
Vasalia was truly scared, but without saying a word, she went up to her loft, got her warm cloak and fed her doll.
"Oh doll, I am so scared," she confessed. "I'm not sure that I really want to be a woman. Maybe I should just stay a little girl for the rest of my life."
"Don't be afraid," the doll said. "Put me in your pocket, and I will help you."
So she did. As Vasalia left the cottage and went out into the forest, the night was dark and the wind was blowing hard. Vasalia didn't know which way to go, but she began walking in the direction that seemed best to her, and she could feel her doll nodding in agreement. She walked on and on through the dark and scary woods, and each time she came to a fork in the road she chose a direction and then asked her doll if her choice was right. Sometimes she was right, sometimes she was wrong, but always, the doll guided her. And so she walked all through the long night.
HYMN STEP BY STEP
JOYS AND CONCERNS
Service Leader: Like Vasalia, we've all walked in some scary woods and survived. During the scary parts, it helps to share our concerns. When we have made it safely, we yearn to share the joy of what we've discovered. Now is the time that this community sets aside to share its joys and concerns.
STORY PART III
Storyteller: Vasalia walked for a long way. Just as she was beginning to tire, she heard the noise of hoofbeats behind her, and a horse and rider all in white dashed past her. Dawn came and the sky grew light. Again she heard hoofbeats and a horse and rider all in red ran by. The sun rose. Vasalia walked on and came to a clearing. In front of her was a high hedge made of bones. Atop each post was a skeleton head. Behind her she heard hoofbeats and a rider and horse, all in black, appeared and leaped over the hedge.
Vasalia realized that this is where the Baba Yaga must live. Even though the house was terrifying and the riders were scary, she felt a calm in her bones. She felt the doll by her side and there was no alarm in her heart. She didn't know what would happen but she trusted her doll to help.
Suddenly she heard a sound like the wailing of all the winds in the world, and the Baba Yaga herself appeard. She was truly a fearsome sight. He clothes were black and her hair hung down in long grey locks. Vasalia looked hard at her face, expecting to see the horrible eye and the long yellow teeth, but it seemd to her that the Baba Yaga's face kept changing, so that she couldn't have said if it was ugly or beautiful, old or young.
The Baba sniffed the air and wrinkled her nose. "What is that smell I smell?" she cackled. I smell an Irish child!
"It is I," Vasalia said stepping forward. "I am Vasalia, and I have come to ask you to give me fire."
The Baba Yaga examined her closely. "I know you," she said. "I know your people. Come into my house. There you will work for me. IF you work well, I will give you fire. If you do not, maybe you'll stay forever, or maybe I might just eat you up." Vasalia looked at the bones on the ledge and wondered if they might be other girls who had come to Baba Yaga before. "Open up wide, Gate!" the Baba Yaga commanded and the gate flew open. She entered and Vasalia followed.
Inside the hedge was the strangest house she had ever seen. It seemed to, mysteriously, revolve around and around. "Be still house!" Baba Yaga commanded. The door opened and they went inside.
Immediately Baba Yaga sat in a large chair. Opposite the chair was an open hearth, with a brick oven build into the wall. "There is food in the oven," the Baba Yaga said. "Bring it to me."
Vasalia opened the oven door and there she found enough food for ten ordinary people. There was borscht and soup and roast chickens and potatoes and a whole side of beef. She served the food the Baba Yaga, who ate it all with great enjoyment and no table manners whatsoever! She slurped the soup and crackled the bones between her teeth. And she left nothing for Vasalia but a crust of bread and a few picked over bones.
"I'm going out," the Baba Yaga said when she had finished. "I'll be back early in the morning. While I am gone, I want you to clean this house from top to bottom, scrubbing it so that not a speck of dirt remains. Cook my breakfast and my midday meal, and be sure to cook enough, for I eat as much as any ten ordinary people. Oh, yes - and behind the house, in my granary, is a pile of corn as big as a barn. Sort the mildewed corn from the good corn, and leave it in two neat piles. If you work well, I will be pleased with you, and if you do not." the Baba Yaga just smiled and Vasalia felt herself shudder!" And with that the Baba Yaga left in a hurry.
Poor Vasalia! Already she was so tired from walking all night. She knew she could never do all that the Baba Yaga had asked of her by morning. Why had she ever come? She would end up in this place forever! And she was so hungry! Nevertheless, she saved one corner of her small crust of bread and fed her doll.
"I might as well begin," she told herself, "even if I cannot finish." So she began to clean up the supper dishes, and to scrub the table and the floor, while tears dripped from her eyes.
Service Leader: The Baba Yaga isn't real. Or is she? How many times have we seen our lives made uncomfortable by impossible tasks placed in our way. And we've despaired, "why is the world so wicked sometimes?" And at times like these, we look at the world and wonder if its face is indeed, beautiful or ugly. Are there times you've faced lately that have made you wonder if the world was ugly? Who showed faith in you and helped you, like the doll, persevere? How did you find the courage to start and face what seemed impossible?
STORY PART IV
Storyteller: As Vasalia wiped the tears from her eyes, she began to clean up the dishes and the piles of bones from dinner.
"Why do you cry?" she heard in the soft voice of her doll.
"Oh doll, I will never finish all this work, and the Baba Yaga will be back and something horrible will happen.
"Don't be afraid," the doll said. "Didn't I tell you I would help you? Go to sleep and get some rest. The morning is cleverer than the evening."
So Vasalia took the advice of her doll and lay down on blanket in the corner of the room. Instantly she was asleep, and she didn't wake until the hooves of the white rider pounded past the window of the house. She awoke to the dawn. The house was clean, the food was cooked, the corn was sorted. While she slept, the doll had done it all.
The red rider thundered past the house, and the sun rose. With a sound like the wailing of a thousand winds, the Baba Yaga appeared, coming through the gate in the hedge of bones. She burst in the room.
"Breakfast, lunch and dinner!" she cried out. Vasalia served her all the food the doll had cooked, enough for ten ordinary people. The Baba Yaga ate it all, leaving Vasalia only a few spoonfuls of porridge.
"The house looks clean," the Baba Yaga said. "And the corn?"
"All sorted. Every last grain."
Baba Yaga shrugged. She looked a little frustrated.
"Well, I guess I won't eat you just yet, the Baba Yaga said. She
whistled, and out of the air three pair of hands appeared. They flew
through the air bringing all the good corn in from the granary and using
the mortar and pestle to grind it into meal.
A clatter of hooves was heard outside, and the black rider dashed by. Night fell.
"I am going out, the Baba Yaga said. "While I am gone I want you to clean the house again so not a speck of dirt remains. Cook my breakfast lunch and dinner and be sure to cook enough for ten ordinary people. And in the granary is a pile of poppy seeds - bigger than three barns - I want you to sort the seed from the dirt and leave it in two neat piles. If you work well, I will be pleased. And if you do not - maybe I will eat you for breakfast. And with that, she left.
Poor Vasalia! She knew that she could never do all the work the Baba Yaga had left for her. It seemed she would never get out of this house and never be able to return to her village as a woman. Sighing, she fed her daoll and then picked up a broom and began to sweep the floor. "I might as well begin," she told herself, "even if I can't finish."
"Vasalia, why are you sighing?" her doll spoke up softly. "Didn't I tell you I would help you? Go to sleep and get some rest. Remember, the morning is cleverer than the evening.
So Vasalia lay down, and in an instant she was asleep. She woke only when the white rider clattered past the window of the house, and dawn came. Again the doll had done all the work while she slept.
Service Leader: So far, this community has been horribly unsuccessful at finding the kind of doll who did all our work for us while we've slept. The work that we accomplish as a community comes from our own hands, our dreams and our money. We will now receive this morning's offering for the work of this community.
Service Leader: We are grateful for this offering, for those who provide it and for the work it allows us to undertake.
STORY PART V
Storyteller: The red rider dashed by, and the sun rose. With a sound like the wailing of a thousand winds, the Baba Yaga rode in through the gate of the hedge in her mortar, climbed out, and came into the house.
"Breakfast, lunch and dinner!" she cried. And Vasalia fed her all the food that the doll had cooked.
"The house looks clean," the Baba Yaga said. "And the poppy seeds?"
"All sorted. Every last one, "Vasalia responded. The Baba Yaga whistled and the three pair of hands appeared and ground the seeds into oil.
"You have indeed worked well," the Baba Yaga said. "I am pleased with you, so I will let you ask me some questions, because I am sure you must have many. But remember, too many questions can make you old before your time."
The doll stirred in Vasalia's pocket, and she thought to ask about he riders. "Who are the riders, the white, the red and the black?"
"The white rider is my dawn, who brings the luck and willingness to begin. The red rider is my rising sun, my day, who brings the arrogance and confidence to try what seems beyond possibility. The black rider is my night, who carries the wisdom of letting go. For you know that I am the grandmother of time. Now, do you have more questions?"
Vasalia wanted to ask about the three pairs of hands, but she felt the doll jumping in her pocket, and so, instead, she replied, "No thank you. As you said, too many questions will make me old before my time."
"You are wise for one so young. Now I will ask you a question. Look into my face, and tell me how I look to you. Be honest, now. Am I very ugly?"
Vasalia felt in her pocket, but the doll remained still. She looked into the Baba Yaga's face, but for all the world she couldn't have told her what she saw.
"Well, have you no answer?"
If I answer wrong, she may eat me, Vasalia worried. But I don't know what to say. So I had better tell the truth. Outside the hooves of the black horse clattered. The black rider went by and it was night.
"Your face changes, Baba Yaga. I could not say whether you are ugly or beautiful, old or young."
"My one fearsome eye, my long yellow teeth - are they not horrible to you?"
"All my life, that is how you were described to me. But in truth, that is not what I see."
"Ah, child, come closer, and although you haven't asked, I will show you a mystery. You see, once I had a beautiful face. Once all people showered me with praise and gifts. They knew me as the grandmother of time itself, and when their time on earth was over, they came to reflect, to weigh the days of their lives and to rest - a rest greater than any they had known where they could set down all their burdens. Here, I helped them sort through their lives, separating what was sweet from what was spoiled. And when they were ready I ground all the hopes and hardships, all the good and bad of their lives into their original elements so they could be reborn. That is why my house revolves and revolves. Enter the house of death, and turn around and come out through the door of life. Enter life through the door of birth, and round you come through the gate of death. Only when you know this mystery can you find your own fire."
"Why do people fear you? Vasalia asked.
"I am not frightening except to those who have mistakenly assumed that all death is bad," the Baba Yaga replied. "So death became a terrifying and ugly thing. They fear my teeth because they think that death will devour them. They fear my eye because they think death is always looking at them.
As she listened to the Baba Yaga speak, Vasalia became less and less afraid. She remembered her mother and the blessing she gave her before she died.
And the doll in her pocket. And she looked up at the Baba Yaga and saw, not the horrible yellow teeth, but her mother's smile. Not the one fearsome eye, but the soft brown eyes of her mother. And suddenly she could see that the Baba Yaga was not frightening. She wasn't even real at all. She was just an old coat rack with a large black robe hanging over it. And when she removed the heavy black coat she saw what she'd been looking for. Inside a carved out pumpkin was a glowing coal. The fire she had come for in the first place.
Vasalia began to feel much more at ease. But just as she began to feel more at home in this strange place the Baba Yaga's face appeared back in the coat and startled her. She grabbed the pumpkin lantern and turned and fled as fast as she could into the forest. The doll guided her so that she took the right turn at every crossroad. The lantern glowed fiercely bright and lit the path all the way back to the cottage.
HYMN ONE MORE STEP
One more step, we will take one more step
Storyteller: When she got back to the cottage, she found it dark and shuttered. She opened the door and found it empty. The stepmother and stepsisters were gone.
"Your time of training is over," the doll whispered to her. "You are a woman now, with your own fire, your own hearth, your own knowledge of the mysteries. It is time to return to your village.
Vasalia nodded. She would return to her village. She had her own fire now. She would live on her own, or perhaps she would take in some of the older women in the village and help them sort through their lives. With her own fire she would be able to spin flax into the finest thread, to weave that thread into the finest cloth and sew that cloth into the garments that would keep the world warm. That is just what she would do, until it was time to do something else - fall in love, maybe, or travel to faraway lands, fight against injustice, end the world of wicked and frightening ways, or any of the many things a woman can do when she carries her own fire.
And so she did.
MUSICAL POSTLUDE "Listen, Listen, Listen