Written in 1935 by Daniil Kharms, and adapted to English by yours truly. Kharms often wrote his stories for publication in Soviet children's magazines, which is the context you'll need to understand the ending.


You have to imagine this story as told by two young children, making up outrageous situations and trying to outdo one another for the sheer fun of it. Kharms was a famous dadaist writer, and all of his work leans heavily into the surreal. It took me many years before I learned to appreciate the deeper layers of his narratives, but it also explains why he was one of the most popular children's authors in the Soviet Union. His whimsy appeals on the same level as Roald Dahl and Dr. Seuss, but unlike them, he remains virtually unknown outside of his homeland, mostly due to strict sensorship throughout his lifetime. It is my hope that my translation does him justice.

A Fairy Tale

“So,” said Vanya as he opened his lined notebook. “Let’s write a fairy tale.”


“Okay,” said little Lena, sitting beside him.


Vanya picked up a pencil and wrote: “Once upon a time, there lived a king.”


Here, Vanya paused and lifted his eyes to the ceiling, deep in thought. Lena peeked into the notebook and read what he had written.


“A story like that already exists,” said little Lena.


“How do you know?” said Vanya.


“‘Cause I read it,” said Lena.


“So what does it say?” asked Vanya.


“Well, it’s about the king having tea with some sliced apples, when suddenly he choked. So the queen started hitting him on the back to dislodge the bit of apple stuck in his throat. But the king thought that the queen was picking a fight, so he smacked her on the head with a cup. Here the queen got angry and smacked him with a plate. Then the king hit her with a bowl. And the queen hit him with a chair. And the king leapt up and hit her with the table. And the queen pulled down the china cabinet on top of the king. But the king climbed out from under the cabinet and threw his crown at the queen. Then the queen grabbed the king by the hair and tossed him out the window. But the king climbed back in through another window, grabbed the queen, and stuffed her into the fireplace. The queen clambered up the chimney onto the rooftop, lowered herself down the drain pipe into the garden, and climbed back into the room, where the king was busy stoking the fireplace to roast the queen. The queen snuck up behind the king and gave him a good kick. The king fell into the fireplace and burned up. So that’s the whole fairy tale,” said Lena.


“That’s a stupid fairy tale,” said Vanya. “I wanted to write something very different.”


“Well, go ahead then,” said Lena.


Vanya picked up the pencil and wrote: “Once upon a time, there lived a bandit.”


“Hang on,” cried Lena. “There’s already a story like that one.”


“I didn’t know,” said Vanya.


“How could you not?” said Lena. “It’s the one where the bandit, fleeing from the guards, jumped onto his horse, but overshot and fell to the ground on the other side. The bandit cursed and jumped back onto the horse, but again he miscalculated, tumbled over the saddle, and fell to the ground. The bandit stood up, shook his fist, jumped onto the horse, again overshot, and fell to the ground. Here the bandit pulled the gun from its holster, fired into the air, and jumped onto the horse again, but with such zeal that he completely overshot the saddle and fell to the ground. Then the bandit tore the hat off his head, stomped it into the dirt, again jumped onto the horse, again overshot, fell to the ground and broke his leg. The horse got bored and wandered off. The bandit limped over to the horse and smacked it on the forehead with his fist. The horse reared and ran away. Just then, the guards arrived, grabbed the bandit, and led him off to jail.”


“I guess I won’t be writing about the bandit,” said Vanya.


“What will it be about then?” said little Lena.


“I will write a fairy tale about a blacksmith,” said Vanya. 


He wrote down: “Once upon a time, there lived a blacksmith.”


“Such a story exists too!” cried Lena.


“But…” said Vanya, and put down his pencil.


“But of course!” said Lena. “Once upon a time, there lived a blacksmith. One day, he was forging a horseshoe, and swung his hammer with such force, that the hammer slipped off the handle, flew out the window, killed four pigeons, hit a fire hydrant, bounced aside, shattered the window in the Brandmeister’s house, flew over the table where the Brandmeister himself dined with his wife, smashed through the wall in the Brandmeister’s house, and flew out into the street. Here it tipped over a streetlamp, knocked an ice cream vendor off his feet, and hit the esteemable Herr Carl Friedrich Schusterlinger on the crown of his head right as he took off his top hat so he could air out his scalp. Having bounced off the head of Herr Carl Friedrich Schusterlinger, the hammer flew back, knocked the ice cream vendor off his feet a second time, toppled two cats off the rooftop, tipped over a cow, killed four sparrows, flew back through the smithy window, and wedged back onto the handle which the blacksmith still held in his right hand. All this happened so quickly that the blacksmith didn’t notice anything and kept right on forging that horseshoe.”


“So then I guess the story about the blacksmith has been written already. Then I will write a story about myself,” said Vanya, and wrote: “Once upon a time, there lived a boy named Vanya.”


“There’s a story about Vanya too,” said little Lena. “Once upon a time, there lived a boy named Vanya. One day, he walked up to—”


“Now hang on,” said Vanya. “I was going to write about me.”


“And there’s one about you,” said Lena.


“That’s impossible,” said Vanya.


“And I’m telling you it’s been written,” said Lena.


“How could it be written?” asked Vanya in astonishment.


“Go to the store and buy "Canary Magazine", Volume #7, and there you’ll read the story about yourself,” said Lena.


Vanya went and bought Volume 7 of the "Canary Magazine" for the year 1935. And in it, he read the very same story which you have just heard for yourselves.


- The End -