For me, as a child growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, the Palekh painting style was as synonymous with Russia as Cossack dancing and Matryoshka dolls. It’s been a pleasure to come back to it as an adult and understand a little more about it, from an adult’s point of view.
Palekh is a little town about 200 miles east of Moscow, which was famous as long ago as the 17th Century as a centre for the painting of religious ikons. Ikons were a characteristic part of Eastern Orthodox Christianity; and the church at the time was at the heart of the cultural and political life of Mother Russia.
With the October Revolution in 1917, suddenly there was no market for religious iconography, and Palekh’s painters turned to the decorative arts to make their living.
According to http://www.russianlacquerart.com/cnt/Palekh the painter Ivan Golikov saw a black lacquered box in Moscow, and developed a technique for producing lacquered papier-mache which could be decorated in bright, enamel-like colours. This painting style has become synonymous with the town. Artists used the technique on a variety of objects, from flat panels to boxes, brooches and jars, and the Palekh Art School was opened to teach the techniques.
I remember some gorgeous books from my childhood (I bought the one illustrated here recently on the second-hand market, although it’s not one I’ve read before) and the Palekh painters thrived by illustrating well-known stories (The Firebird, The Swan-Geese, Vasilisa the Wise), folk wisdoms, and revolutionary themes.
The technique, and the town that shares its name, saw a renaissance during the second half of the twentieth century, and there are still workshops producing Palekh paintings to this day.
Of course, I’m primarily a painter with words, and as usual opening up a new box in my mind produced a new story. This one will appear in my upcoming book of stories, Treacle, and Other Twisted Tales, which I hope will come out in the summer, but here it is for your enjoyment. I’d love to hear what you think of it. https://www.facebook.com/TheCalgaryChessman/?ref=bookmarks https://twitter.com/Alayanabeth
She’d promised herself the trip of a lifetime. While waiting for her visa to be granted she’d brushed up on her schoolgirl Russian, pored over travel brochures and websites, and scoured the internet for information on the museums and historic buildings she wanted to visit. With her itinerary and accommodation booked, all that remained was to board the Aeroflot flight and give in to the pleasure of anticipation.
The only reading she’d brought with her was a battered copy of Russian Folk Tales, a present from her grandmother. Baba had filled her childhood with firebirds and cossacks, matryoshka dolls and waterwitches, the dark, smoky interiors of yurts, and the wide, cold spaces of the Siberian wastes. But Maryika had been more interested in Tolstoy’s Napoleonic shenanigans than the adventures of Beautiful Yelena and she’d forgotten most of it. She’d dozed off with the book on her lap, open to a Palekh style illustration of the Swan Maiden, the plane droning its way across a continent and into a different time. She was looking forward to it so much.
Now things were very different. It was getting darker. The sky had completely clouded over and the wind was beginning to pick up. Maryika whimpered to herself. She might have to spend the night outside, and she still didn’t have any idea how she’d managed to get here, wherever ‘here’ was.
She’d got off the train along with all the other travellers, hundreds of them streaming along the platform and out into the intricate series of tunnels that linked Moscow’s Metro stations with the outside world. Being in the Metro was a frankly hallucinatory experience, the screech and roar of the trains and gunmetal scent of the track vying with the gorgeous, over-embellished eighteenth-century-ballroom vibe of the décor. If she looked up at the ceilings, she could fantasize that at any moment her comfortable tee shirt and trousers would metamorphose into a sumptuous silk-and-satin gown, and some minor dvoryane would be bending his lips over her hand and sweeping her into the mazurka. A moment later, another train would come rushing into the station, its hot breath swirling across the platform like the wind under the Firebird’s wings, conjuring a completely different flurry of images.
For a little while, in the Metro, she could pretend that her dream of Imperial Russia was still alive, but the reality was that the much anticipated trip had been a disappointment. Moscow was cold, grey and monumental – admittedly, as advertised – but the expectation that she would be able to dig beneath its intimidating surface and find the colourful, exhilarating Russia of her grandmother’s stories had turned out to be a childish fantasy.
If she hadn’t been convinced by the miserable faces at the airport, the grey sleet blowing across the streets and the taciturn grumpiness of the cab drivers, this morning’s mugging had done it in spades. Her flight home was tomorrow. She only needed to get through one more night, and then she could go to the airport and let modern technology whisk her home, safe and a little more worldly-wise. But the mugger had taken more than her self-confidence; he had taken her wallet, her tickets, her passport – she was lost in the middle of Moscow with nothing but the clothes she stood up in and her inadequate Russian to fall back on.
There was enough cash in her trouser pocket to pay for a cab ride back to the run-down hotel she’d been staying in. There she intended to take refuge in her room (already paid for) and somehow find out how to phone the embassy and ask for their help. But the counter staff at the hotel had changed shift, and the new floor manager didn’t know her. She tried to explain about the mugging, but he wasn’t interested. No ID – no passport – no room. She had the feeling he might respond to a bribe as she stumbled, with increasing desperation, through her stock of Russian phrases, but unfortunately the mugger had the rest of her money. In the end, she backed out of the hotel and wandered the streets, frozen and miserable, until at last the cold forced her into the Metro, where at least she could keep warm for a while.
She looked up. The crowd off the last train had rushed past her, a small island in a sea of commuters, but then the corridor had fallen quiet. The pedestrian tunnel branched ahead, and she had to choose between two exits. One smelled fresher than the other: a whiff of snow and, oddly enough, pine needles. All right, then. She’d go up to street level and try to find a police station. Sooner or later, surely someone would understand what she was saying?
Instead, she’d stumbled out of the tunnel into a forest. And, turning, she found that the tunnel entrance was no longer behind her. She was truly lost, somewhere in the middle of a forest of conifers with lichen-coated trunks and dense, aromatic foliage, and she’d been stumbling across the mossy ground for hours.
There was light ahead, a break in the canopy, and Maryika pushed towards it. The trees thinned and she saw that she was on the edge of a clearing. The late afternoon sun glinted off a field of grass and wild flowers, and there were horses grazing. Beautiful horses; one white, one dark bay, glowing in the sun, one pale chestnut with flaxen mane and tail. Their limbs were slim and elegant, their manes long and flowing, their haunches well-muscled and their conformation perfect. Maryika had never been one of those girls who go through a horsy stage, but she knew pretty when she saw it. The closest horse (Flaxen Mane) lifted its head from grazing and looked at her. Its enormous eyes glowed with intelligence.
Maryika pinched herself. In the midst of the horses, whirling and dancing across the ground, was a house – a hut, really – spinning as if caught in its own miniature whirlwind. It seemed to have legs. The pinching hurt, but the hut was still there. It came nearer, and the branches above her began to move in a wind she couldn’t yet feel. She clung to the trunk of her tree and stared in disbelief. The horse took a step or two closer.
“Are you in need of assistance?”
Maryika felt the last scraps of her sanity shredding away. Her pulse thudded in her ears, as her heart rate rocketed. Her knees shook; only the tree was holding her up. The horse nudged her.
“I said, do you need help? You don’t look very well.”
Ye gods. As hallucinations go, this was a doozie. Maryika gave up. At least the horse didn’t look as though it was going to mug her again.
“I’m cold, tired, and lost, and I haven’t eaten anything all day. Also I’m in a forest in the middle of a Metro station, with a talking horse, looking at a dancing house. I’m not exactly coping here.”
The horse snorted. It sounded surprisingly like a human laugh. “I can help you there,” it said. “I’ll tell you what to say to make the house stop. You have to say it exactly right, though.”
“What?” Maryika’s subconscious mind had decided to take what was in front of her at face value, but her intellect was still struggling to make sense of things.
“I said, repeat these words after me. Say them exactly as I do.” The horse leaned forward and blew into her ear. The sound it made burbled at a very low pitch, just at the edge of Maryika’s hearing, and she could make no sense of it. The horse’s breath whooshed past her face, stirring her hair. It smelled of haybales and buttercups and sunshine.
Maryika stared at it, bemused and silent. The horse shook its head, danced sideways a step, and stood on Maryika’s foot.
“Ow, what the fuck?”
The house abruptly ceased whirling. It turned until its door faced her, then sank down on its legs which, at close quarters, turned out to be rough and scaled. Each ended in a giant, three-toed foot. Maryika glared at the horse.
“I thought I had to repeat what you said, exactly.”
The horse moved its shoulder in what could only be described as a shrug. “Close enough,” it said.
The door creaked open and the horse put its head in. “Good oh,” it said. “Up you go.”
Maryika gingerly approached the hut and put her foot on its bottom step. The wood creaked and the hut vibrated as the chicken-legs shifted a little. Maryika put her hand up to her mouth and backed away. The horse whinnied.
“Oh, all right then.”
Maryika let out an involuntary squeal as the house spoke, in a voice that was a mix of creaking door, shifting roof-tile and a bit of hen’s cackle. It shuffled on the spot, and then the legs bent a little more and the bottom step thumped down squarely on the earth, sending up a puff of dust. The horse edged behind Maryika and nudged her forwards.
A skirl of wind sent snowflakes into her face as the sun vanished into a purple mass of cloud that was rapidly climbing the sky. Maryika took her courage in both hands and climbed into the hut. She had no idea what she was doing, really she didn’t, but that was an iron stove she could see in there, and there was a samovar on it. Fire and coffee spoke a language that went straight to her hind-brain and overrode the screaming whisper of panic that was governing all her higher functions.
The hut was not unoccupied. On a worn rug in front of the stove lay a scrawny cat. It eyed Maryika over its dinner, a piece of greenish fishskin. In the hut’s gloom, Maryika peered at it. The piece of fishskin seemed to have a button attached.
The horse poked its head in through the doorway and made her jump. “That’s a very thin cat,” it remarked, conversationally.
The hut creaked. “That one gets plenty to eat,” it rumbled. “She just never gets any fatter.”
The cat regarded them with baleful yellow eyes, then retrieved its dinner and carried it away into a dark corner. Maryika strained her eyes after it, but either the shadows were darker than they appeared or the corner was deeper than it should be. Either way, the cat had disappeared, and for some odd reason this was reassuring. She stroked the horse’s nose. “Thank you,” she said.
“He didn’t do it for nothing, you know.” She jumped as the house spoke again. It was extremely disconcerting to be inside the thing that was talking to you. Maryika’s Baba had given her a fund of half-remembered Russian folktales from her own childhood, and Maryika recognised the Hut with Fowl’s Legs, though she didn’t remember it talking. Still – this was her hallucination; she could hardly argue with the details. She was only pleased that the hut’s owner did not appear to be in residence.
The house creaked. The horse shuffled its hooves. Maryika looked enquiringly at it. The horse nodded its head, in a reassuringly horsy gesture, then whuffled at her again. “There is something you could do for me,” it said, tentatively.
“Oh, anything you like.” Maryika was beginning to warm up, and as she’d already given up on her sanity there didn’t seem any reason not to be helpful.
“Well, it’s just that…” The horse paused, and gestured with its nose towards a small lidded pot on the edge of the hearth. “See that pot?”
Maryika pulled the pot towards herself and opened the lid. The pot was about half full of poppy seeds. The horse breathed out, and a small cloud of seeds rose into the air. A few of them clung to Maryika’s skin.
“Please scrape up the dust from the floor and put it into the pot.”
The floor shuddered under Maryika’s bottom as the hut let out a grumbling sound. She squeaked in fright, but the hut subsided again. “Are you sure?” it said to the horse.
“Sure as Koschey’s overcoat,” said Flaxen Mane.
The hut grumbled again. “Koschey doesn’t have an overcoat,” it said. “The witch ate it.”
“Do you mean Baba Yaga?” Maryika summoned up a vague childhood memory, but nearly dropped the pot of seeds as the house shuddered. The horse danced backwards from the doorway, but shoved its head back in again as soon as the house calmed down.
“Please don’t say the name,” it said. “She’ll come for her name, and you really don’t want to meet her. Believe me.”
The house groaned. “Don’t even think it,” it muttered. The window shutters opened and banged shut again, letting a cold draught and a flurry of snowflakes into the room.
The horse ignored it. “Please scrape up as much dust as you can. Put it in the pot and stir it in well. Don’t worry. You’re doing the right thing.”
“Why?” Maryika brushed her hand across the floor. Sure enough, there was a layer of dust. It coated her palm and she rubbed it against her trousers.
“One day Vasilisa the Wise is going to come, and when she wins me we will ride like the wind across the great steppe and rescue the prince.” The horse spoke these words with a rhythmic, poetic cadence that gave them great significance. Maryika could almost hear that each word was capitalised. “Ride Like the Wind,” it said again, happily. “The witch will give her three tasks to do. One of them will be to separate poppy seeds from dust. It’s meant to be impossible.”
Maryika tipped the pot, watching the tiny seeds flow from one side to the other. “I can see how it would be,” she said.
“But there’s a problem with his plan.” The hut shifted slightly, and Maryika put out a hand to brace herself against the floor. It let out a henlike squawk, “Boccoc!” and settled down again. “Can’t separate the dust from the seeds without mixing them in the first place.”
The horse bowed its head to her. “And I can’t collect dust without hands,” it pointed out, reasonably. Maryika nodded. It made sense, she supposed.
She swept up the dust with the side of her palm and collected it, a bit at a time. Once she’d started adding it to the pot she got into the swing of the task and scraped dust out of all the corners. When she got to the place where the cat had slunk into the shadows, there was no sign of it. She did pick a greyish mother-of-pearl button out of the dust. She put the button in her pocket.
When she finished, she put the lid back on the pot and set it neatly back in its place. Then she stood up and lifted the samovar, pouring the sweet, strong, black liquid into a cup she took down from a shelf. She sat on the rug in front of the stove, sipping the coffee and slowly warming up, inside and out. The horse nudged her a final time and backed out of the hut, which banged its own door shut, almost catching the horse’s nose. Maryika sank down on the rug, suddenly sleepy, and the last thing she heard as she closed her eyes was the deep, burbly voice of the horse. “Your part in the story is small, Maryushka, but you are more important than you know.”
The sun in her eyes woke her. For a moment she felt disoriented, trapped by the seatbelt across her lap, frightened by the strange, white-and-grey plastic world that surrounded her. Then the rushing of wind in her ears resolved itself into the sound of an aircraft’s engines, the glowing heat of the fire transmuted into the ‘Fasten Seatbelts’ sign, and the smell of coffee was the cabin attendant leaning over with an offer to fill her cup.
Maryika took the proffered brew – a thin, watery disappointment after the coffee in the Hut with Fowl’s Legs – along with a poppyseed breakfast roll, and turned to look out of the tiny window of the plane. Beneath her the white-and-grey tops of the clouds rushed past like the rolling backs of running beasts. The sun shot into her eyes again, blinding her, but just as the stewardess reached past her to close the blind Maryika thought she saw, amidst the clouds, a curling, flowing, misty trail of flaxen and gold. It didn’t surprise her at all when she pulled the button from her pocket.
Illustrations: Russian Fairy Tales: Palekh Painting by Alexei Orleansky; Vasilisa the Wise, Palekh lacquered box, seen on http://www.russianlacquerart.com/cnt/Palekh