The Best Wet Nurse in Sylvie Vale - A Barrayaran Folktale

by Susan Profit

This was originally posted to the lois-bujold mailing list in March 2002.

Back in the time of Isolation, when we were safe from the Cetagandans, the Count at Vorkosigan Vashnoi was looking for a wet nurse for his third son who had not yet been born. Since his own wet nurse had been from Sylvie Vale, he decided that the one for his son should come from there too. He sent word he would arrive on the first of May to find the best Wet Nurse in Sylvie Vale.

There lived in our village two young sisters both still maidens. But the youngest had seen from afar the Count's eldest son and had fallen in love with him. Katya, for that was her name, headed deep into the forest. She walked for three days in sun and rain until she found the Baba Yaga's Hut. It was spinning on the chicken legs just like any top and surrounded by a fence with skulls on every post with no gate. Katya saw those and paled, but still knew she had to talk to the fearsome witchwoman.

Like any polite girl, she knocked on the fence and called out "Baba? I know you are wise beyond all measure, could I come in and speak with you?" There was a tap on her shoulder, and Katya found the Baba looming over her with a grin like a skull and breath as foul as any pigsty.

Baba Yaga looked her over, and said "What is it you need from a poor old woman like me?" as her eyes glittered like the last embers in the fire at night.

"I want to marry the count's heir, but to do this I must be the best Wet Nurse in Sylvie Vale." Katya shook when she saw the laughter on the Baba's face.

Baba Yaga laughed and laughed and laughed. When she was done she said, "If you will clean my house, I will make you the best Wet Nurse in all of Sylvie Vale, but you will not marry the Count's heir for all that." Katya was stunned, but still certain she could win him if she had the chance, she said "All right." Baba Yaga took her into her home.

It was a horrible mess. The furniture was piled high with dirty dishes, a flock of chickens, dirty clothes and bundles of herbs and bottles of potions. the floor was filled with dirty old bones, more dirty clothes, pots and pans and used straw from the stable piled so high you almost couldn't see the chair and table. The kitchen was filled with ashes and soot, more dirty dishes than Katya had ever seen in her life and smelled worse than any old barn.

Baba Yaga handed her a broom, a rag and a sick chicken. "If this house isn't cleaned when I get back I will eat you for dinner instead of the chicken." Katya nodded numbly, not sure even where to start. "Under the chair you will find a chest, and in that chest you will find a great treasure. But do not open the chest, do not steal the chest or I will come after you."

Katya sighed as Baba Yaga left to fly across the sky in her mortar and pestle. She started in one corner of the room and cleaned like she had never cleaned before. Noon came, and still she cleaned, supper came and she cleaned some more. Just as the new moon crescent was rising above the horizon with dawn paling the sky in the east, she was done. Katya heard the mortar and pestle landing and Baba Yaga coming up the steps.

Baba Yaga looked around and smiled a nasty smile.. She went down on her bony knees and looked under the chair. She pulled out the chest, and asked it "Did she open you?" The lid of the chest clattered a bit and said "No." "Did she try to steal you?" The chest clattered a bit more and said "No."

Baba Yaga rose and faced Katya. "With the treasure in this chest you will be the best Wet Nurse in Sylvie Vale. But you will not win the Count's heir for your husband for all of that." Her face smiled a bit more softly though and her voice too became sweeter. "You have been a good girl, and I promise you you will be happy in the Count's service." At that, Baba Yaga pulled out of the chest the finest white dress, made of the softest cotton, embroidered with the brightest flowers and birds. She pulled out a fine soft yellow sarafan to go over the top of it, with the sweetest embroidered hem that Katya had ever seen.

She walked Katya to the Mortar and pestle and said "Go home now, and always be a good girl." And the thing whipped into the air and quick as a breath, Katya was home.

Katya told her sister what had happened, and showed her the dress. The sister smiled a nasty smile and said, "Well, that doesn't seem to be too hard. I will go and ask Baba Yaga to make me the best Wet Nurse in Sylvie vale." So she marched out the door, headed off into the forest calling every step of the way "Baba Yaga, give me a ride to your hut, I'm tired of walking!"

She spent four days wandering through brambles and prickles, fording streams and bogs and getting so muddy and dirty and torn it was a wonder she had any skin left. But finally, she found Baba Yaga's twirling hut on the chicken legs. When she got to the fence topped with skulls, she called out "Baba Yaga, I demand you make me a better wet nurse than my sister!"

With a tap on her shoulder, there was Baba Yaga again. But she looked even nastier than before. "I will make you a better wet nurse than your sister, I will even promise you will marry the Count's heir, but you will not be happy. All you have to do is clean my house."

Now, Lena entered the house and saw the horrible mess it was in and she growled "You tricked me!" to Baba Yaga. But Baba Yaga only smiled her horrible grin and said "Not yet." Lena worked and worked, but still even though she had all the dishes washed and the bones and straw out of the house, it didn't look -quite- clean somehow. She found the chest, and even though Baba Yaga had warned her not to open it, she did. But what she found was a handsome armsman. He stepped out of the chest, took her hand and led her to the bed, where they dallied the night away. Just at the dawn, they heard the Baba Yaga returning.

She entered the room and found the girl and the armsman in her bed. She smiled a nasty smile and said "As I promised, you will be a better wet nurse than your sister, for you will be pregnant and she will not. And you will catch the eye of the Count's heir and he will marry you, but when he finds you are pregnant by another man, he will put you aside and marry another. And you will live our your life scrubbing pots and pans in his kitchen."

She threw the girl in the Mortar and Pestle and it whisked her away quick as a breath, then dumped her in the goat pen outside her own home.

That morning, the Count arrived with his troop of armsmen, looking for the best wet nurse in Sylvie Vale. He did not have with him his son and heir by his first wife. Katya threw on her fine white cotton shift and butter yellow sarafan and hurried out to be among those to be chosen. Her sister also hurried out there along with several other women who were much more experienced and teased the two girls terribly about their inexperience.

Katya saw a handsome armsman, tall and dark haired with twinkling grey eyes and a ready laugh. All thoughts of the count's heir fled from her heart, all she could think about was the armsman in brown and silver uniform. So, when the count asked her questions to see how good a wet nurse she would be, she blurted out that she was a maiden and had no experience at all. He shook his head and asked her sister questions. Now, her sister had listened to the other women giving answers, and gave all the right ones and so the Count declared he would hire Lena. Everyone shivered as they heard the awful sound of Baba Yaga's laughter ringing out across the sky.

As the Count turned to leave, a Baba approached him. She whispered into his ear, looked over at the handsome young armsman and whispered some more. So the count called out to Katya "Girl, where are your parents?" "Dead sir, I live here with my sister." "This armsman of mine is very taken with your beauty. I know he is much older than you are, but he is a good man and has served me well. Would you marry him?"

What could Katya say? She nodded and all the women of the village hurried off with her to give her a wedding feast so she could be married before they left.

As Baba Yaga had foretold, on the way to Vorkosigan Vashnoi, the Count's heir joined them, met and fell in love with Lena. But when he discovered she was pregnant by another man, he set her aside as a scullery maid. Katya found herself pregnant by her new husband before they arrived. When her sister was sent to the kitchens, Katya's husband suggested Katya for the wet nurse. The count accepted and they were all happy except Lena who ignored the words of Baba Yaga.

© 2002 by Susan Profit (

Current version by Michael Bernardi,

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Last updated: May 6th 2002