Smetanya visited all the fabled places in the woods, the places where godlings were said to have been born or where heroes brought down crafty villains. She wasn't supposed to, because she was a woman. It bade ill for her to adventure, or seek solace in loneliness; her Baba Olga scolded her incessantly: How would she find a strong husband? Whose house could she belong to when she was fully grown, an independent woman?
But Smetanya only dreamed and invented. Dreamed of pathways and clearings and faery groves, and invented excuses to wander, to avoid women's work. She walked to many places in the countryside, but always she favored the woods. And in the barren winter, when the men cursed her and said she was crazy for going to the deep forest every day, she nestled at the base of the tallest tree.
One morning, while the air clung about her woven blankets and the cold snatched frozen puffs from her lungs, she lay in rhapsody by the tree. Presently she heard twigs crackling. The Winter Bear approached, god of the snow and the forest, twice again as big as any other bear. And on his back was his lover, a kind old witch and still comely through the marks of her longevity.
This witch saw Tanya and stroked Winter Bear's head. He stopped, looked at her, then looked at Tanya. He let his lover down and she came to where Tanya sat. She carried two buckets.
The encounter penetrated Tanya's world as if through a fog. The witch put a bucket at Tanya's feet and smiled. Abruptly she tipped back her head and emptied the second all over herself, seeming not to consider the cold. It was clean water, cascading down her coarse dress, dousing her whole body. And while Tanya watched, the witch shifted form.
Her legs strengthened and filled out. She stood straighter, with the posture of a girl. The wrinkles and crow's feet erased themselves. Her hair went from white to shining brown. Her bosom lifted, her hips widened. She looked not yet twenty.
The Bear's lover smiled again at young Smetanya and remounted her king. He grunted contentedly and shuffled off into his demesnes.
So Tanya came upon this bucket of water, which her hard Slavonic church-mind said was exactly that; but her heart palpitated strangely, and she knew the water was something powerful.
Tanya grew older, and less filled with fancy, and less new to wonder. She went no longer to ancient paths and enchanted bridges. Eventually she ceased even to go to the woods. She married a druzhinnik, a King's Knight, who conquered her body with fervor and occupied this new territory with hardy babies. Tanya was a mother. She wasn't gossiped about by the townspeople anymore.
She became weary and bent, till folk called her first Mother, and then Baba Tanya. But the remarkable thing is this—she never forgot that morning in the old forest. The bucket of water stayed in a corner under a mound of straw, covered by a thick rag and bewitched with the little, superstitious charms Baba Tanya came to know, to keep probing insects and querulous children away. Smetanya remembered.
On a teeming summer's evening she sat over her spinning, considering the rough harvest that season. But a spark bloomed across her thoughts, and her eyes traveled very slowly to the mound of straw in the corner. She hobbled to that corner and removed from its covering the bucket. She laughed and upturned it over her head. No one in the village ever heard of her again.
But the Winter Bear has taken two lovers, which he is sometimes wont to do.