Chubby Legs lived in the middle of a dark forest. And his cottage was a shaggy, little cottage that stood upon pig's feet. It was the gloomy kind of house a person who liked to cook children in his soup would live in. But Chubby Legs was too timid to go out and catch children on his own. He would stand in the shadows of his porch, listening to the wind snarfle through the trees, and wait for a lost child to wander by. He would wait and wait, and when no child came along he would tire of waiting and make a woorra-woorra sound. Finally, he would lose all patience and throw something. Then he would stomp inside and fix his usual meal of rutabagas, beets, and bugs.
But this story is less about Chubby Legs than it is about a little girl named Ludmilla Lyugabut. Now you may think her name would rhyme with lug-nut. But her father was one of those Russians who wanted to live in Paris and eat croissants. So he taught her to pronounce her name "Loozhboo." And then he died.
After the funeral, Ludmilla had moved to the country, where her mother married a retired official for his money. The official's name would be very hard for you to pronounce. So we will just call him Mr. Wobbledyhead. His neighbors called him that because he shook his head at everything and because he was mean and stingy and very hard to like. If they had liked him, they would have learned to pronounce his name.
Mr. Wobbledyhead was so cheap that Ludmilla's mother finally ran away with a handsome tinker. But Ludmilla's mother was not so very nice either because when she left Mr. Wobbledyhead she left Ludmilla, too. As soon as Ludmilla's mother was gone, Mr. Wobbledyhead fired his only servant and made Ludmilla do all the chores. He even made her sleep on a straw pallet in the kitchen so he would not have to heat her room.
But even though her stepfather had no time for her and no interest in her cares and her joys, Ludmilla was quietly obedient and cared for him and the house. She had a good, if somewhat fearful, heart. And even though it hardly showed, she had an independent mind and thought for herself.
Ludmilla's stepfather never bought anything he could borrow. One day he needed Ludmilla to sew up the holes in his borrowed socks. So he sent her to the nearest village to borrow a needle and thread. Even though it would take her most of the day to walk though the woods to the village and back, Mr. Wobbledyhead would only give her a lard sandwich. And then he tied a bright red string around her finger so she would not forget what she was to borrow. Ludmilla would never in a thousand years have needed such a reminder. But it was easier for selfish Mr. Wobbledyhead to treat Ludmilla as if she were stupid than to take the time to learn how smart she was.
Ludmilla left early in the morning. She had a shiny kopeck in the hem of her dress in case no one would lend her a needle and thread. She followed the little trail between the villages that ran through the dark woods. Soon the sky clouded over making the woods darker, and a cold rain dripped down through the trees.
In the dark woods, Ludmilla missed a turning of the path and the next thing she knew she was lost. Even though she was a little frightened, Ludmilla stopped and sat down in the driest place she could find. And then she did some quiet thinking. She thought about going back. She thought about going ahead. And she thought about being afraid and staying where she was. Finally, she decided to walk in the direction in which she hoped the main path lay.
She had walked for only a little while when she saw a lighted cottage through the trees. The cottage was surrounded by a fence of iron spikes and the gate was closed. Approaching the cottage she slipped and fell in the mud.
"Drat," she said and walked to the gate, wiping the mud from her hands.
"Hello!" she called to the cottage. But no one answered.
Seeing the warm light in the windows, Ludmilla decided to go and knock on the cottage door. She pushed open the iron gate which cried out, "Screeee!" from its rusty, old hinges.
"Poor gate," she said, "no one listens to your troubles. Let me grease your hinges."
And onto the hinges she smeared the lard from her sandwich.
Then Ludmilla walked into the yard. Her heart took fright as a great, black wolfhound ran around the cottage toward her. But when she saw how his ribs showed through and how dirty he was, she pitied him.
"Poor dog," she said, "no one takes care of you. You look so hungry."
And she gave him the bread from her sandwich.
Chubby Legs had been beneath the eaves of his porch, trying to stay dry and hoping for Child Soup, when Ludmilla had appeared. It was all he could do to stop his woorra-woorra noise and get inside before he was seen. With his pointy nose and iron teeth he knew he was scary to look at and did not want to frighten his dinner away.
He waited breathlessly inside the front door wondering if he had all the ingredients for Child Soup. When no one came to the door, Chubby Legs had half decided to peek outside, when he remembered his magic spoon. He waddled back to the kitchen and grabbed the large wooden cooking spoon that had belonged to his mother. It was her favorite spoon for stirring children.
There was a knocking at the front door that made him jump.
"I'm coming," he called and hurried back to the door.
"Who's there?" he asked, trying to sound as pleasant as he could, which was not very pleasant.
"It's Ludmilla Lyugabut from just beyond the forest. I was going to the village and lost my way. Can you please help me?"
"Of course I can, my child," replied Chubby Legs with less sweetness and more Child Soup in his voice.
Ludmilla did not like the sound of the voice behind the door and was turning away when the door banged open behind her. The little witch-boy flobbled out the door and touched Ludmilla between the shoulderblades with his magic spoon. She stopped as if turned to stone.
"Come in, dearie," said Chubby Legs with nothing but Child Soup in his voice.
Ludmilla's poor heart was terribly frightened. In her heart she was running away and away from this terrible cottage. But the magic spoon was stronger.
She could only repeat, "Um in dearie," and follow the witch inside.
"We need to get you cleaned up. All that mud will spoil the soup," said Chubby Legs with an evil laugh.
"Oil the soup," mumbled Ludmilla.
Scared as she was, she refused to give up. She told her heart that somehow she would get away.
Chubby Legs led her through the cottage and into the kitchen. Using the spoon, he thrust her into a small room where a turkey-footed tub stood, full of cold water.
"You take your bath while I start dinner," said Chubby Legs.
He giggled in delight and slammed the door behind her.
Ludmilla listened as the bolt was thrown, locking her in. She stood there shaking as she heard the witch clump and flumble about the kitchen while he built a great, hot fire in the stone hearth.
"Child Soup again?" said a voice behind her.
Ludmilla turned around. On the windowsill perched a scruffy old raven.
"I hate children and their soup," he said. "They give the house a terrible smell."
And he turned up his beak at her.
"I'm not a child," said Ludmilla firmly. "And I'm not going to be soup if I can help it."
"Hush," said the bird. "Not so loud."
Then he said, "Nice red string you have there. Got any tin foil?"
"Are you bathing, girl?" called Chubby Legs from the next room.
"Say yes," said the Raven.
And, impossibly, he turned his head upside down and winked at her from under his beak.
"Yes," said Ludmilla obediently.
"So do you have any tin foil?" repeated the bird.
Ludmilla had to think of something to keep from being turned into soup.
"No," she said. "But I have a shiny kopeck."
"A shiny kopeck?" asked the Raven.
"Pretty shiny. Help me to escape and this kopeck and string are yours," said Ludmilla.
She put them both into the palm of her hand.
The Raven leaned over to see them better.
"Are you washing, girl?" called the witch-boy.
"Yes, she's bathing," shouted the Raven, impatiently.
Then he said to Ludmilla, "Give them to me and I'll help."
Ludmilla gave him the coin and the string.
"Now, please, how do I get out of here?" begged Ludmilla.
"Crawl out the window," said the bird, and he bit the kopeck with his beak.
"I could have thought of that myself!" she said.
"It's hard to think under pressure," croaked the Raven. "Now get out of here and don't forget the soap."
"The soap?" exclaimed Ludmilla.
"Trust me. If you get in a pinch, throw the soap behind you."
The Raven flew into the corner to be alone with his kopeck and string.
Ludmilla grabbed the piece of soap and scuttled out the window.
She dropped to the ground and ran for the gate. From behind her came the sound of someone running and she froze with fear. It was the great, black wolfhound but he did not bark or bite.
"Take my collar," he said. "If you get in a pinch, throw it behind you."
Ludmilla slipped the collar from the dog's head and ran to the gate. She was almost outside when a voice called, "Wait!"
Fear grabbed Ludmilla by the heart again and she stopped in spite of herself.
The voice spoke again. "The key! Take my key!" It was the gate calling to her.
Ludmilla took the key and asked, "If I get in a pinch, should I throw the key behind me?"
"No," said the gate. "Lock me and get out of here!"
Ludmilla locked the gate and threw the key into the trees. Then she ran as fast as ever she could.
Back in the cottage, Chubby Legs was all a-woorra-woorra with impatience. He flung open the door to the bath.
"Are you still washing, girl?" he demanded.
But no little girl was anywhere to be seen. Chubby Legs shook his magic spoon at the Raven.
"How could you let her get away?"
"I beg your pardon," responded the bird. "I was looking at these."
He held up the shiny kopeck and red string.
"Who is supposed to be missing?"
Chubby Legs swatted at the raven and stomped away with a woorra-woorra-woorra.
He flobbled out of the house as fast as his chubby legs would carry him and found his wolfhound sitting in the middle of the yard. Chubby Legs shook his magic spoon at the dog.
"Where is the little girl I was going to put in my soup? How could you let her run away?"
The dog gave his master a hard look.
"You keep me here to guard your house and I have served you faithfully. But never a kind word have I had from you. That little girl thought of my hunger and shared her food with me."
"Woorra-woorra," snarled the witch and he swatted at the dog with his magic spoon.
Hurrying to the gate, he found it locked.
Chubby Legs screamed at the gate, "Where is the little girl I was going to put in my soup? How could you let her run away?"
The gate replied stiffly, "You keep me here to guard your cottage with my spirit trapped in these iron bars. Never have you shown me mercy or kindness. She heard my poor, old hinges squeak and oiled them with lard."
Looking beyond the fence, Chubby Legs could see Ludmilla disappearing into the forest. He uttered a spell and thwacked the gate with the magic spoon.
SPRONG! The gate crashed open.
The witch-boy whispered to the spoon and it grew and grew until it was as big as a broom. He straddled it like a hobby-horse and flew after Ludmilla, half carried by the spoon, half running on his blubby legs.
It was not long until Ludmilla heard the witch-boy behind her.
"I will catch you, girl," he cried, "and you will be my soup!"
The witch-boy needed the spoon to be small again to catch Ludmilla. So off the spoon he hopped and running as fast as ever he could, he shrank the spoon and poked it at Ludmilla.
Ludmilla knew that she was almost caught. But when fear tried to grab her by the heart, she remembered the soap. She pulled it from the pocket of her dress and flung it over her shoulder.
"Yahooweee!" cried the soap and it sprouted legs as it hit the ground.
Chubby Legs swung the magic spoon at the lively, little bar of lye but the soap just laughed and slid under the witch-boy's foot. The witch-boy fell down with a flump.
Quick as a flickered wink, the witch-boy jumped to his feet. He whispered to his spoon and was once again racing after Ludmilla.
Ludmilla did not look back. She just ran and ran as fast as ever she could. Soon she heard the woorra-woorra sound of the witch getting closer and closer.
Almost upon her, red-faced and furious, Chubby Legs called out, "I will have you, girl. I will boil you with carrots and onions and bugs and beets and you will be MY SOUP!"
He leapt from his spoon and tried to freeze her with it.
Ludmilla remembered the dog collar. Without looking back, she pulled it from her pocket and flung it behind her.
"Yahooweee!" cried the dog collar and it grew and grew into a mighty hoop, flying straight as a plate to the witch's feet.
Chubby Legs tried to dodge the magic collar. But it looped 'round his legs with a squeal of delight and quick as a wink pulled itself up tight.
Chubby Legs went down like a sack of pudding. His woorra-woorra rose to a roar. And then, losing control of himself entirely, he flung the magic spoon at Ludmilla. The spoon that had held Ludmilla in its power flew through the air and struck her between the shoulderblades.
In spite of herself, she stopped.
She thought that Chubby Legs had caught her. But gathering her courage, she forced herself to turn. There on the ground was the spoon, unable to harm her now that it was out of the witch-boy's hands.
Ludmilla looked the witch-boy right in the eye.
His face did a little twitch. "Don't you touch my spoon, girl!"
Ludmilla picked up the spoon and ran.
Unable to get the collar off his legs and angry about his wooden spoon, Chubby Legs behaved very poorly, as you can imagine.
But no matter what he did or said, Ludmilla kept running and never looked back. She did not stop until she found herself on the path that ran through the forest. Now she knew where she was. She could go on to the village and borrow the thread. Or she could go back to old Wobbledyhead. Or maybe she could do something else.
In one direction lay her home, a home with no mother, no father, no love. A home with a poor bed of straw and endless chores. In the other direction lay the deepening dark of evening, the village, and beyond that, the wide, wide world.
Ludmilla sat down to think.
She thought her own thoughts for a very long time. The rain stopped. The afternoon came and went. Finally, she made up her mind.
Hugging herself against the evening chill, Ludmilla began to walk toward the nearest village. She wasn't going home. And she wasn't going to borrow any thread.
She was walking toward the wide, wide world.
This is a story about a little girl who lived in Mother Russia before the days of television or cars or even trains. How little was she? I do not know: maybe six or maybe ten or maybe twenty-two. You just be quiet and listen. The name of this little girl was Ludmilla Lyugabut. Now you may think her name rhymes with lugnut. But her father was one of those Russians who wanted to live in Paris and eat croissants. So he taught her to pronounce her name "Loozhboo." And then he died.
Ludmilla's life went downhill from there. Her mother married a crabby old postman for his money. And then she ran off with a handsome tinker, leaving Ludmilla behind. The crabby old man treated Ludmilla just like a servant. And if Ludmilla had been like a lot of other little boys and girls she would be a servant still. But Ludmilla had an independent mind and thought for herself. So she ran away into the wide, wide world. Her first adventure was ... oh, never mind; that story is told in another place. This is its very own story, a story about Ludmilla and the Lardy-Heads.
You will remember that after Ludmilla escaped from the witch-boy and ran away with his magic spoon she had thought and thought about what to do, whether to go home to her crabby old stepfather or to run away into the wide, wide world. By the time she had chosen the wide, wide world it was getting dark and the forest was wet with rain. So Ludmilla found a great hollow tree to sleep in and she made her bed as comfortable as she could with the pine needles that covered the forest floor. For the forests in Russia are great, green forests of spruce and pine and fir that go on and on, almost to the end of the world. There are plenty of pine needles.
Ludmilla awoke when the sunlight crept into the hollow tree. She was happy, if a little scared, to be on her own in the wide, wide world. All she knew was that home was behind her and the nearest village in front of her. But that was enough. Ludmilla headed for the village.
Soon she came to a brightly painted sign beside the path. It said: "GVIR - This way!" and pointed the way she was going.
"GVIR?" she asked out loud. "I wonder what that could mean."
In a little while, she came to another sign: "GVIR - Over the next hill!"
Ludmilla knew that the nearest village was over the next hill. Maybe the signs were a warning, she thought. Ludmilla remembered stories about brigands who burned down villages and carried all good things away. She began to be afraid. Then she thought a little harder.
"Stop being silly," she said to herself. "Brigands don't put signs on the path to warn people." Ludmilla stopped being afraid and walked over the next hill. There she found the village. In front of it was a great, wooden sign that read: "Greatest Village In Russia!"
"Greatest Village In Russia," said Ludmilla. "GVIR." But the village did not look so very great. It was only a jumble of little houses made of mud and sticks. On the top of a hill were the only nice buildings she could see. One was a long, low building painted a lovely red. The other was a great, white house that looked almost like a church, with its gold roof and onion dome.
"I wonder who lives there?" Ludmilla asked herself and then she walked into the village.
The first villager she saw was a skinny, old man standing knee-deep in the mud of a large garden and shoveling horse manure.
"What are you doing?" Ludmilla asked the man.
"I work in agriculture!" said the man, proudly. "I have the best of all jobs in the Greatest Village In Russia! Now run along; I'm very busy!"
Ludmilla looked at the muddy garden and the wheelbarrow full of horse manure and then she ran along.
Next she saw a poor little woman with holes in her shoes. She was painting wooden signs in a cold and dirty shed. Most of the signs said: "GVIR - This way!" A few of them said: "GVIR - Over the next hill!" The little woman was shivering in the cold and dribbling paint into her shoes where her toes poked through.
"What are you doing?" Ludmilla asked the little woman.
"I work in advertising!" said the woman, proudly. "I have the best of all jobs in the Greatest Village In Russia! Now run along; I'm very busy!"
Ludmilla looked at the dirty, little shed and the holes in the woman's shoes and then she ran along.
The little village had only two streets. As Ludmilla turned the only corner in town, she ran into a herd of pigs. Behind them ran a poor little man covered in mud and other piggy things. He stopped for breath as he came to Ludmilla.
"What are you doing?" Ludmilla asked the man.
"I work in management!" said the little man, proudly. "I have the best of all jobs--"
"Manager Pootkin!" shouted a voice behind Ludmilla. "Please return to managing your employees! They should be at the school!"
"Yes, Mr. Lardy-Head!" said little Mr. Pootkin and he ran after his pigs.
"And what are you doing here, little girl?" shouted the voice.
Ludmilla turned around to find a great, fat man with a great, black beard frowning at her. He wore lovely, high leather boots to keep the mud off and a clean, white suit. He stood with his hands on his hips waiting for Ludmilla to answer.
"I'm just looking, thank you," said Ludmilla without thinking.
"Looking? Looking! We don't pay you to look around here!" shouted Mr. Lardy-Head and he pulled at his great, black beard with both hands.
"You don't pay me at all," replied Ludmilla.
"Of course not!" shouted the man, pulling at his beard. "You're only a little girl! Why aren't you in school?"
"I don't go to school, if you please," said Ludmilla, hoping the man would stop shouting soon.
"Don't go to school! How will you ever get a job when you grow up if you don't go to school?!" He was pulling his beard so hard that his face stuck out like a plate. Before Ludmilla could answer, he took her by the ear shouting, "Come with me," and led her up the hill.
At the top of the hill was the great, white house and the low, red building Ludmilla had seen earlier. The red building had bars over the windows and a great, iron lock on the door. Inside, someone was shouting about pigs.
"This is the best of all schools in the Greatest Village In Russia!" shouted Mr. Lardy-Head as he unlocked the door and pushed Ludmilla inside. "Study hard!" he shouted. And then he locked the door behind her.
Inside were a dozen children and forty-seven pigs. In the middle of the room was a great, fat woman, with lovely, high leather boots to keep the mud off and a clean, white dress, who shouted, "Feed your pigs, children! Feed your pigs! Study hard and have the best of all jobs when you grow up!"
Ludmilla thought schools were about reading and writing, not about pigs. She asked a little boy with big, dirty ears and bare, muddy feet, "What kind of school is this?"
"This is the best of all schools in the Greatest Village In Russia!" answered the little boy.
"What do you learn here?" asked Ludmilla.
"Pigs," he said and fell over one.
Ludmilla helped him up. "Pigs?"
"We learn something different every year. This year it's pigs."
"Feed your pigs, children! Feed your pigs!" shouted the lady in white. "Study hard and have the best of all jobs when you grow up!"
"Who is she?" asked Ludmilla.
"That's Mrs. Lardy-Head," answered the boy.
"Little girl?" shouted Mrs. Lardy-Head. "Why aren't you feeding your pigs?" Mrs. Lardy-Head stood with her hands on her hips waiting for Ludmilla to answer.
Ludmilla remembered that answering Mr. Lardy-Head without thinking had caused her to be locked in a muddy schoolhouse with a herd of pigs. So she thought about what the best thing to say would be before she said, "I am feeding them, Mrs. Lardy-Head." And she picked up a bucket of slop and curtsied.
"Feed your pigs, children! Feed your pigs!" shouted Mrs. Lardy-Head. "Study hard and have the best of all jobs when you grow up!"
That evening, Mr. Lardy-Head unlocked the schoolhouse door and let the children go home with their parents, who were waiting outside, poor and tired. Ludmilla thought this would be a good time to head for the next village. But as she came out the door, Mr. Lardy-Head grabbed her by the ear.
"Where are your parents, little girl?" he asked.
"They don't live here," she answered without thinking.
"Then you'd better sleep in the schoolhouse," he said and pushed her back inside. "More pigs tomorrow."
Ludmilla looked around the dark, muddy room and decided never to speak to a grown-up again without thinking. At least the pigs were gone; someone had let them out a little door in the back. Finding all the doors locked, Ludmilla lay down in the driest place she could find and tried to go to sleep. Tomorrow she would think of what to do.
No sooner had Ludmilla closed her eyes than she heard a rapping at the window. The window had bars on the outside but there was only oil-paper on the inside to keep out the wind and rain. Ludmilla tore off the paper to see who was there; it was a raven, the very Raven who had helped her escape from the witch-boy.
"Let me in," said the Raven. "I'm going with you."
Ludmilla helped the large, black bird squeeze through the bars. He flapped to the ground, cocked his head to one side, and asked, "Where are we going?"
"We're not going anywhere," said Ludmilla. "We're locked in."
"You're locked in," said the Raven, correcting her. "Tell me about it."
Ludmilla told him all about the Greatest Village and the Lardy-Heads and the pigs.
"I thought you lived with the witch-boy," she said when she was finished.
"I did. But he's impossible to live with ever since you ran away with the spoon."
"What spoon?" asked Ludmilla.
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