Yesterday, looking for new stories, I was browsing in Ralston’s Russian Fairy Tales and came across a story about the rivalry between the prophet Elijah [venerated under the name of Ilya in Russia] and Saint Nicholas. I learnt from Ralston’s own notes that Elijah had responsibility for what came down from the skies: thunder, lightning, hail, weather in general – indeed, in Old Novgorod there were two churches dedicated to Elijah, and you prayed in one to ask for rain to start and in the other for it to stop – they were known as Wet Elijah and Dry Elijah.
However, I needed Google to tell me that Elijah was the patron saint of Russian paratroopers, whose national day therefore falls on August 2nd, which corresponds to July 20th of the Orthodox calendar, Elijah’s day, around harvest-time.
These only apparently random facts make a good introduction to the story, but what I found interesting was the way in which the story grew under my hands. The peasant in it worships Nicholas, rather than Elijah, and when Nicholas, chatting with Elijah, hears that the prophet plans to ruin the peasant’s crop with hail, the saint advises the peasant to sell his crop in advance to the priest of Elijah’s church. Selling your crop in the field is, of course, a recipe for financial disaster and establishes the dominance of financiers over farmers. Here, however, it is a piece of insider dealing, prudence masquerading as profligacy.
When Ilya and Nikolai wander that way again, and Ilya smirks at the destruction his hail has wrought, Nikolai wipes the smile off his face by telling him that the ruined crop is now owned by the prophet’s priest, which moves the prophet to declare that he will sort matters, which moves Nikolai to urge the peasant to go to the priest and buy back the ruined crop.
This is where my habit of tidying up motivation produced a mischievously creative addition. Nikolai suggests that the peasant should tell the priest that he feels guilty about the loss the priest has sustained, and offer him half the purchase-price to buy back the field, so that they share the loss between them. It was then that the imp in my brain made the peasant say, ‘Will he believe me?’ and made Nikolai say, ‘He’s a priest – they believe anything.’
Elijah can’t have been listening, because I wasn’t immediately struck down by lightning.
That first little addition came to me after the first time of telling, which was an impromptu ‘bare-bones’ job at an under-attended poetry-group yesterday morning, and it went into the first proper telling last night, at Southampton Story Club. But on the drive home another little twist occurred to me. After the first couple of incidents, and even more after the threshing, which I’ll let you read about for yourself, Ilya strongly suspects that Nikolai is in collusion with the peasant, which Nikolai naturally denies. Ralston’s version simply has Nikolai appear to the peasant, but it felt much more natural to me to have the saint appear in a dream. But a peasant, who has been working hard all day, will not necessarily want to have his sleep disturbed, so, when he complains about this, Nikolai can explain that it’s simply so that Elijah won’t find out, but he is suspicious, which leads neatly into the final encounter, which again I’ll let you read for yourself.
This is another of the things that make me love storytelling: the stories are alive, and grow.