This is a story from the mysterious Ural Mountains. It comes from a time when the spirits of forests and mountains still moved among humans, watching them, searching for those who could be taught their secrets before such ancient wisdom was lost forever. One such spirit was especially revered for her magic and great beauty. Some people knew her as an ancient mountain goddess; others called her the Mistress of the Copper Mountain, or the Malachite Lady, a name taken from the lovely green stone so often found in areas rich in copper...
[Based on Bazhov's stories, Ptushko's 1946 classic film, and other sources]
Once upon a time, a wandering boy was adopted by a lonely stonecutter named Prokopitch. Since Prokopitch had grown too old to care for his small flock of sheep and goats, taking in the orphan allowed Prokopitch to stay at home and carve while the boy drove the flock each day into their pasture above the village. The boy, Danila, loved animals and didn't mind being a shepherd, especially since he now had enough food and a warm bed at night.
Each dawn, Prokopitch would prepare a lunch of thick bread and goat's cheese for the boy and Danila would set off into the mountains. Each evening, the boy would return. After dinner Danila would watch as the old man worked into the night, carving stone boxes and small animals by candlelight. They spoke little--the old man was unaccustomed to human companionship, and the boy was quiet by nature.
One day, Danila forgot to take his lunch. Busy polishing a malachite box for an important client, Prokopitch never noticed. But as the noonday sun shone through the cottage windows, rays of light spilled over the boy's birchen basket and attracted the stonecutter's attention. The old man looked up. "Eh? What's that? Poor boy, he'll need his lunch. He's thin enough as it is. I'll bring it up to him--the walk will do me good." The old man found his walking stick and set off.
As the stonecutter neared the high pastures, he heard the sweet notes of a flute. Touched by the lovely music, he slowed his pace. Imagine his surprise when he went around a bend and saw that the piper was Danila! The boy sat on a large rock completely lost in his music while the herd grazed peacefully around him. On a smaller rock directly across from Danila, a lizard was sunning itself, its bright eyes fixed intently upon the boy. "Danila!" the man called in amazement. The startled boy spun around at the sound. The stonecutter went on, "Even the birds are jealous of you--where did you learn to play like that?"
It's not m-m-me," the boy stammered. "When I carved the p-p-pipe, I heard the music inside the wood." The old man reached for the wooden flute and examined it with a craftsman's eye. It was crude in places, and not well polished, but clearly the boy had a gift. "Hmmm, hmm," he grunted, too wise to argue with the boy. "Yes, yes, I see. It was inside the wood."
After that, he often joined Danila for lunch. At first he came to listen to the music in the clear mountain air. But slowly he also began teaching the boy to carve wooden animals. Danila had nimble fingers and learned quickly. Prokopitch was pleased. Soon he taught Danila to carve more difficult figures, first in wood, then in stone. The old man was amused to see that the bright-eyed lizard often watched their lessons from a nearby rock. "So you want to be an artist too, eh?" he chuckled. The lizard paid no attention.
Years passed and Danila grew from childhood to young manhood. One early spring day, Prokopitch discovered that someone besides the mountain lizard watched Danila. It was Katya, the young daughter of a neighbor. She was lying in the grass, her tender gaze fixed upon Danila's face as he played his flute. The old man smiled to himself and turned around before either of them noticed. The boy's becoming a man, he thought.
Katya hadn't heard the old stonecutter approach that day. She heard only the music. As she watched Danila, she remembered when she had first fallen in love with him. She had been a little girl then. It was she who had first seen him wandering through the village streets, ragged, cold, and hungry. Something about his defiant stare touched her heart. "What's your name?" she asked. "Danila," he replied. "Danila, Danila," she murmured, loving its sound. "Mine's Katya. Where do you live?" He looked away from her. "Nowhere."
The little girl had drawn her brows tightly together and shut her eyes. The face of the old stonecutter flickered behind her eyes. She opened her eyes and pointed up a mountain path to Prokopitch's cottage. "Go there," she said. The boy stared for a moment and then obeyed.
After Prokopitch gave him a home, she sometimes joined the boy in the pasture where they played together with the goats. It was Katya who found the piece of wood that he carved into a flute. "Will you play for me?" she asked when it was finished. "I don't know how yet," he replied. But when she joined him the next day, she discovered he'd already mastered the little flute. A lizard watched him with bright eyes -- and Katya felt a stab of jealousy because it was the lizard, not her, who first heard his music. She glared at the lizard but it ignored her.
When Master Prokopitch began to join Danila, Katya came less frequently so that she wouldn't interfere with their lessons. But once she hid in the trees, watching them. She saw how Danila's eyes lit up when he was carving. She wondered if his eyes would ever light up that way when he looked at her.
Now, as she lay in the grass watching him, listening to the otherworldly music, she wondered again if he would ever feel for her what she had long felt for him. Danila laid down the pipe and smiled at her. Then he reached for a small malachite lizard he was carving and Katya, disappointed, knew she had already become invisible to him. If it wasn't his music, it was his carving -- how could she compete? Sighing, she got to her feet and started back to the village. He never even looked up.
Katya decided to stop visiting Danila after that, hoping he might miss her and call at her home. Weeks passed. Her mother noticed that Katya had become sad and pensive. "What's wrong, little one?" she asked. "Nothing," Katya said. From outside she heard her name being called by a group of village maidens. "Katya, Katya! -- we're going up to the forest! -- come with us!" Grateful for a diversion, Katya accompanied them up to the birch forests on the far side of the village pastures. Being with her friends lightened Katya's spirits. The maidens filled the forest with laughter as they garlanded one another's heads with flowers and braids of birch leaves, and then roamed, singing, among the shining white trunks of the forest.
Katya wandered off from the others. She was humming to herself, dreaming, when she saw a large, elegant white flower growing in the shade of a clump of tall birches. Awed, she drew in her breath. A thin sound floated through the birch grove, a sound like the wind, and suddenly she recognized it as the sound of Danila's flute. She was startled. Usually he pastured his flock at some distance from this place. She listened again, and slowly smiled. Hardly aware of what she was doing, Katya plucked the flower and walked towards the music.
Danila sensed Katya's presence even before she left the shadows of the trees. He stopped piping and turned to face her. He had missed her very much. She saw his eyes light up and her heart skipped a beat. Finally! she thought, finally! Smiling, without a word, she held out the flower. Then, suddenly shy, she fled back into the birch trees and vanished.
Danila was transfixed by the flower's beauty. He had never seen such a blossom before. He ran his fingers over the pale, smooth petals, feeling their coolness, their clean lines. If only I could carve something like this in stone! he thought.
That evening Danila worked like one possessed, determined to find a way to capture the flower's beauty in stone. He memorized every vein and curve of the petals, their lilt and slope. When Katya returned to the pasture a few days later, hoping again to see the light in his eyes, he was nowhere to be found. Instead, a young neighbor's boy watched the flock. "Where's Danila?" she asked. "Working," the child said.
She went to Prokopitch's cottage, peering through the window, and saw Danila attacking a piece of stone with his chisels, sending stone chips flying in every direction. Nearby in a pitcher of water stood the flower she had given him. "What have I done?" she wondered miserably, and turned away.
For many weeks Danila worked on his stone flower. Summer came and went and he continued to work. He thought of nothing else. Prokopitch tried to reason with him but Danila paid no attention.
Autumn arrived and Katya wandered alone up in the pastures and along the streams. Once she thought she saw the lizard watching her, only it suddenly turned into a dark, shimmering woman who laughed at her and then vanished into the falling golden leaves. Katya shook her head, fearful that her heartbreak might lead to madness.
In the early winter Danila finally finished the stone flower. The whole village agreed that it was beautiful. No one had ever seen a better one. But Danila was dissatisfied. The work was cleverly crafted, but lifeless. It looked like stone, not like living petals. He fell into a deep depression. Alarmed, Prokopitch sent for Katya and begged her to help.
She called on Danila the following day and was relieved that at least a glimmer of light entered his eyes when he saw her. She sat across from him at the worktable. "We must talk," she said, "but first will you play your pipe for me?" He protested but she insisted and finally he gave in. The music caught his spirit anew and he felt gently brushed by its joy for the first time in many months. He looked at Katya across the table, his eyes filling with tears. Never had she looked so beautiful to him. How could he not have known he was in love with her! How could he have wasted his time trying to carve something in stone that belonged only in frail tissues of life? He hated himself for his blindness, his foolishness. How fortunate that Katya was still patient with him! He put down his flute. "Will you marry me, Katya?" he whispered.
Fresh snow fell gently on the day of their wedding and the whole village was there to celebrate. After the solemnities, there was feasting and dancing lasting far into the evening. Katya glowed with happiness, but a curious restlessness began growing in Danila. He moved around the room and finally joined a small group of men seated around the village elder. This withered old man was telling stories about the Mistress of Copper Mountain, whose underground kingdom, he said, was filled with jewels and shining flowers made of stone. Danila stared at the man's ancient face. "I never heard of her before -- where is she to be found?" he finally asked. "High up in the mountains," the man said, looking at Danila with a strange half-smile, "where no one ever goes. It's just a story, of course." The other men laughed, emptied their glasses, called for more, and no one noticed when Danila slipped out of the house.
He went back to Prokopitch's cottage and stared at his stone flower in the moonlight on his worktable. It seemed to taunt him, mocking him for his lack of skill. Danila picked up a mallet and smashed the flower into tiny pieces. Then, determined to find the Malachite Lady or perish in the attempt, he ran out into the snowy night and headed for the mountains.
He walked for days. At first he felt neither hunger nor cold. Once, hearing a rustling in the pines behind him, he glanced back and thought he glimpsed a dark-haired woman in rainbow robes following him. He blinked in surprise -- and she vanished. When the pines rustled again, his sharp eyes caught sight of a lizard jumping from one bough to another. My eyes are playing tricks on me, he thought -- first a beautiful woman, then a summer lizard.
After many days Danila found himself in a high mountain pass facing a towering expanse of solid rock. Cold, hunger, and exhaustion swept through him. He couldn't go forward, nor did he have the strength to go back. Despairing, he sank to the ground and put his head in his hands. "I've been a fool," he muttered. "And now I've lost everything -- Katya, my life, my work. I've lost it all."
A sound like the tinkling of crystal bells came to his ears. I'm dying, he thought, and buried his head more deeply in his hands. The tinkling continued, growing louder, then turned into laughter. Startled, Danila looked up and again saw the dark-haired woman in rainbow robes. "You!" he breathed in awe. Lost childhood memories unexpectedly flooded into his mind and Danila realized he had been dreaming of her ever since he was a little boy.
"Yes, I've always been near you," she was laughing again, the sound of tiny temple bells blowing in the wind. "I've been waiting for you for a long time." She seemed to blur for a moment, turning into a woman as tall as the pines, watching him serenely, her embroidered garments as green as malachite. Shapeshifting again, she became human sized, dressed in flowing garments the color of rubies and carnelians. Her face changed, darkened, and the robes were lapis lazuli, amethyst, shimmering, then fading, until Danila was amazed to see nothing but a small lizard, staring boldly, while tinkling laughter rang all around them.
He reached out to touch the tiny creature, but it vanished in a flash, leaving the dark-haired woman in robes of many hues. In her hand was a birch wand, new green leaves sprouting from its tip. She waved it towards the wall of solid rock and the wall began to move, one side sliding out from another, revealing steps cut into the rock, leading down into the depths of the mountain. "Come," she ordered.
Heart pounding, Danila followed. The mountain-goddess guided him through caverns, each one more beautiful than the last. Their walls shone with outcroppings of gems, and more jewels covered the ground. One cavern had a ceiling so low that Danila could barely stand upright -- the amethyst walls were lit from by an unseen light source and he felt as if he and the Mistress of Copper Mountain were held for a moment in the jewel's heart. She touched his brow briefly, and rivers of fire wakened throughout his body. Then she moved on, calling him to follow her into a cavern whose ceiling stretched so far up into the shadows that he could not even see where it ended. She sat on a stone bench and gestured for him to join her. Scooping up a handful of precious gems from the floor, she tempted him with them. "All these can be yours," she smiled. "No," he said firmly. "I'm not looking for wealth." Again she touched his brow. "What then?" she asked. "The Stone Flower," he replied. "I want you to teach me how to carve the stone into something so wondrous that it seems like living tissue." She rose to her feet. "Come then," she said, pleased.
It seemed to Danila that they walked forever through caves of dazzling light before they finally reached one filled with stone flowers, small and large, of many colors, blossoming from the walls and ground. He had never seen anything so beautiful. Shall I ever be able to master this art? he wondered.
"Not even I can answer that," she murmured, reading his thoughts. They went down more steps and finally entered a cave with a great uncut piece of translucent green stone thrusting straight up out of the ground to a height twice Danila's own size. Danila stared in wonder. "This is your Stone Flower," she said quietly. "It's been waiting for you for a very long time. Your tools are there at its foot." She turned to leave.
"B-b-ut," he stammered. "I don't yet know the secret. Forgive me, Holy Lady, but I'd hoped you'd teach me this." She laughed, her form blurring and shifting until she stood as tall as a great pine. "You've always known the secret, Danila. Listen to the music inside the stone just as you listened to it inside the wood when you carved your flute. Don't force it to become what you want. Listen to what the stone wants." Then she vanished.
With a mixture of fear and exhilaration, Danila went to the great stone and leaned his cheek against it, rubbing his hands over it in a caress. He heard nothing. He sat down with his back against the stone, trying to breathe its patterns into his own body. Exhausted, he finally curled up beside it and slept. When he awoke, he discovered warm bread, fresh berries, and a flask of mountain water standing nearby. Ravenous, he ate and drank, then slept again. Finally, rested, he again leaned his face against the stone, embracing it with his arms, staying in that position for hours, listening, listening, and, slowly, hearing.
Only after many days did he finally begin carving, only when the stone's music had melted into him, becoming part of him. Only then did he truly know that the stone was inviting him to carve it into the flower that had long sung, invisibly, deep within the mineral's heart.
In the outside world, winter had turned to spring, then summer, and finally autumn while Katya grieved for her husband. Her parents and friends all urged her to forget Danila and marry someone else, but she refused. At last, to get away from their nagging voices, she went to stay with Prokopitch, helping him polish his stone boxes, selling them for him in the village market, and preparing his meals. The old man rarely spoke, and this suited Katya's own sorrowful mood. She never went up to the pastures anymore. A neighbor's child tended the old man's sheep and goats, but the child had his meals with his own family and Katya rarely saw him.
One evening, while Prokopitch was carving, Katya was brushing her hair in front of a mirror. She stared dreamily into the mirror, mesmerized by the movement of her golden hair in the candlelight. Suddenly, the surface of the mirror trembled and clouded over. Startled, Katya leaned closer and watched as Danila appeared before her eyes! She saw him in a cavern with jewels glistening from the walls, but these were nothing compared with the beauty of the translucent green flower he was carving. "Danila!" she cried, and it almost seemed as if he heard her, for he dropped his chisel, and looked around. She reached out to touch him, but her fingers met only her mirror. Then a second figure appeared -- the dark woman she thought she had seen turn into a lizard when she had wandered heartbroken through the upper pastures a year earlier. The woman reached out for Danila and he moved willingly into her arms. "No!" Katya sobbed, "no." The vision vanished.
Katya went the next day to seek the advice of the village elder, a wise man, older than anyone in living memory. He listened with half shut eyes. "It's Her," he said at last. "That's who you saw. Danila asked about Her the night of your wedding. I told him it was only a story but he must have guessed the truth."
"Her? Who do you mean, 'her'?" Katya demanded. When she learned what the elder knew, little though it was, she decided to follow Danila into the high mountains. Goddess or not, she determined, she and Danila belonged together and she wanted him back.
The first snows were starting to fall when Katya kissed Prokopitch goodbye, told him not to worry, and set off. She was warmly dressed and carried enough food to last for several days, or longer, if she were careful. The elder hadn't known how long she might have to walk and she wanted to be prepared.
The storm worsened as she climbed higher. Trees reached out to catch at her clothing, roots sprang up to trip her, the wind tore at her braids, tangling them in the branches, and a tree uprooted itself before her eyes and nearly crushed her. Several times she thought she heard tiny bells and someone laughing at her, and once she glimpsed the dark lizard-woman, but a moment later there was nothing. "Maybe she's watching me, maybe she's not," Katya muttered aloud. "I don't care. She can't stop me." Katya had great courage. She trusted that even her otherworldly rival would be unable to defeat the strength of Katya's love for Danila. The dangers she might have to face on the way were small compared to treasure she sought.
Danila's work on the Stone Flower was nearing completion. He was awed that the stone had allowed him to shape its music into such beauty. The petals seemed to breathe, lit by an inner radiance. The stone has given me the secret of giving form to its soul, he thought. Sometimes he wondered if the stone's soul and his own weren't the same, so closely were they intertwined. He stepped back now, gazing upwards at the luminous petals. The goddess suddenly appeared at his side, her silken green robes swirling around her. Danila barely glanced at her.
Frowning, she read his thoughts. He's restless, she thought, and irritable. He thinks he's accomplished what he came for but he's wrong. I've been able to awaken his soul but not his human heart. Without both, one day he'll abuse what now still has the power to awe him. He's flawed, like a jewel with no warmth. It's better that he die here. Unless...
She blurred her form into a wind, leaving the caverns far behind, and a moment later she was swirling high above the pines, searching for a hungry, exhausted woman lost in the mountains.
Katya couldn't permit herself to recognize that she was hopelessly lost, starving, her feet swollen, her clothes torn, her body frozen and numb. It would be so good, she thought, just to sit and rest for a moment, to lie in the snow, to fall asleep, and never wake. "No," she muttered grimly. "Never. I'll keep searching as long as I have any strength left." She closed her eyes tightly and tried to summon the visions that had once came to her so readily. But nothing happened. She opened them and stumbled on. "Danila, Danila," she murmured, finding strength in his name.
Hours later, not knowing nor caring how she got there, Katya found herself in a mountain pass facing a towering expanse of rock. It looked impassable, yet scattered birch leaves marked a path towards something glowing at the base of the dark rock, inviting her to draw nearer. When she did, she discovered a secret entrance -- and steps leading down into a cavern shining with light. Cautiously, she entered.
It was warm inside. She found a steaming, hissing pool of mineral waters where she knelt and drank. She felt the warmth coursing through her body, restoring her. Beyond the pool was a tunnel leading into larger caverns. "Danila!" she called as the path drew her downwards.
The Malachite Lady stood at Danila's side and reached out to touch his cheek. He pulled away. "No," he said shortly. "Not now -- forgive me, Holy Lady, but the stone flower is finished now. I need to leave -- I need to show others what I can do. I miss the pastures, the forests. I miss --" and his voice caught in a half-sob, "I miss Katya. I've been down here too long." As he turned, she reached out to hold him back but he tore away and rushed toward one of the tunnels leading out of the cavern. Abruptly, a sheet of rock fell into place, sealing it off. Frightened, Danila ran towards another opening, trying to hurtle through it before she could act. But another sheet of rock was already crashing into place. Her tinkling laughter rang through the air. "You see, you can't leave me if I don't wish it."
From a distance Danila heard someone calling his name and he froze, dazed, as the name echoed through the vast network of caves. Slowly, the voice came nearer until finally he recognized it. "Katya!" he cried, springing towards the last opening. "Katya! Katya!" He leaped through the passage and into the next cavern, still shouting, rushing over the uneven ground. Katya, guided by his voice, now suddenly appeared at the other end of the same cavern and ran towards him as if her feet were winged. They met for a moment in a tearful, joyous embrace. Then Danila broke free. "Come," he whispered urgently, "I must get you out of here before it's too late!"
The laughter of a thousand tiny bells filled the cavern and the Mistress of Copper Mountain towered above them. "Quick!" Danila said, "get behind me." He tried to pull her to safety, but Katya was too fast. She stepped forward, boldly confronting the goddess. "You've kept him long enough," she shouted. "Now it's my turn! -- I want him back!"
The towering figure blurred and coiled itself into a woman in rainbow robes who was now only slightly taller than Katya herself. Katya stared into her dark, fathomless eyes. "I know you've cared well for him," she said more gently, "but no one could love him as much as I do -- please, please, Holy Lady, let him go." The goddess shifted her gaze to Danila. "And you, Danila?" she asked softly. "What is in your heart?" Danila couldn't speak. He moved forward, placing one arm protectively around Katya. Tears streamed down his face as he felt his heart bursting within him. The Malachite Lady read his heart. Yes, she thought, we've succeeded at last.
Turning back to Katya, she reached into her flowing sleeves and pulled out a malachite box. "I entrust it to you, Katya. I've already given Danila the secret of the Stone Flower, but to you, I give of my own essence."
Katya opened the box and gasped. It was filled with pebbles and jewels in all the colors of the rainbow. She picked up a plain stone of polished granite and saw the goddess blur into a spirit of grey mists and fog with a laughter as rich as summer thunder. Then a piece of amber, and the mists swirled downward and turned into a small woman in golden robes embroidered with pine needles. A ruby, and the goddess grew tall, dressed in snapping flames. Lapis Luzuli, and she turned into a cosmic mother whose robes were the night sky scattered with stars. She smiled at Katya. "Back in your world, you'll no longer see me as you just have, but the power remains coiled in each stone, responsive to a heart wise enough to understand."
Then she vanished.