Ivan and the Compass – a Youngest Son Story

Here is a story I wrote a few years back, and have always enjoyed. The Youngest Son is often a motif in folk and fairy tales, so I decided to write my own Youngest Son story.

“As long as you have a compass, you will never be lost!” Father told Sasha. Ivan was listening from behind the bushes. He didn’t mean to be, but he had been back there eating the pastry he had snitched from the kitchen when Father came along talking to Sasha. Sasha was going hunting in the forest with Father tomorrow. The two went on down the path to the pasture, and Ivan didn’t hear any more. Still, he thought about what he had heard. A compass sounded like a wondrous, magical thing. With one you would never get lost!

Ivan got lost a lot. He was always getting in trouble for wandering off. Sometimes he was lost to himself, sometimes just to Mother and Father. Still, it was a problem – more for Mother and Father than for Ivan, but they made sure it became his problem when they found him.

Ivan finished his ill-gotten pastry and wandered back to the house. He almost went to see the geese in the pond out in the pasture instead, but he remembered that last time he did that. Mother thought he had drowned because he took off his shoes to try and catch a gosling and Father had found the shoes, but not him, because by then he was crouched in the reeds, trying to catch a frog. When Ivan got home, late and shoeless, Mother was crying, with her apron over her head, and Father was looking very stern. When they found out he was not drowned, he had been sent to bed without his supper. This seemed a bit strange to Ivan. He would have thought they would be happy that he wasn’t drowned. Sasha and Ilya had laughed.

When he got back to the house, everyone was busy. Sasha and Father were milking the cows, Mother was making dinner, and Ilya was doing his schoolwork. Ilya was a good scholar, and had won a place at the big school in town.

Ivan knew if anyone saw him, they would put him to work, so he slipped up into the hayloft to look for the kittens the old tabby had had last month. He thought about taking a walk to see if he could find a buried treasure, but the last time he did that he wound up in the woods, not quite sure where he was, and had missed supper trying to find his way out. Father had come to find him, and was angry with Ivan for getting lost. When they got home, Mother had been crying with her apron over her head again, and Sasha and Ilya had laughed at him again, both for looking for treasure and for getting lost. Once more, Father had made him go to bed without eating, but Ivan hadn’t thought this was much of a problem. He hadn’t wanted a cold dinner, anyway, and he was very tired from all the walking he had done.

Up in the hayloft, Ivan couldn’t find any kittens, so he jumped down into the haystack beside the barn and headed for the woodpile to look for mice. Finding no mice and still shedding bits of hay from his clothes, Ivan slipped through the parlor window into the house and tiptoed up the stairs. Ilya was still at his studies. Ivan sat quietly and watched him for a while. Sometimes if Ilya was doing history or literature, he would tell Ivan tales from what he was learning. Ivan liked that. But tonight, Ilya was playing with a little tool, making circles on paper, and measuring them. After he watched for a while, Ivan got bored. He finally asked, “What is that thing you are using?”

Ilya replied, “It’s just a compass.”

Ivan’s heart raced. It was a compass, that magical thing that meant you could never get lost. He wondered why Ilya was using it, and was going to ask, when Mother called, “Supper!” and they both ran down the stairs to eat.

After supper, Mother and Father caught Ivan before he could get away and made him do his chores, which he had managed to neglect all day. It took him until bedtime to finish them.

By the time he went upstairs to sleep, Ilya had the compass put away in his schoolbag, and Ivan forgot to ask him about it.

The next morning, Ivan was awake early, before his brothers. He saw the little silver compass peeking out of Ilya’s school bag. Today wasn’t a school day. Perhaps he could get away with borrowing it, just for a while, so he could go out for a bit without getting lost and in trouble. He dressed quickly, and had just slipped the compass in his pocket when Father came upstairs to get Sasha so they could go hunting.

Father and Sasha were in a hurry, and didn’t notice anything amiss. Father told Ivan to be good, and not to worry his mother, just this once, for he was getting tired of Ivan making Mother cry into her apron, and then Father and Sasha left. The compass was cool and sharp in Ivan’s pocket, but he didn’t let on that it was there. Ivan had no intention of worrying his mother. He had the magic compass, so he wouldn’t get lost, and Mother would never know.

He left Ilya sleeping and slipped downstairs to grab some bread, cheese and a lovely red apple to put in his pockets, and he was off. Father and Sasha had gone to the big forest, so Ivan thought that he would just go the woods on the other side of the village. It wouldn’t make for quite as good an adventure, but it couldn’t be helped. He didn’t want to meet up with Father and Sasha. They would scold him and send him home. They might even take the magical compass for themselves!

Ivan slipped through the fields beside the village. He did not go through the village, because if anyone saw him, they would stop him and send him home, saying he would get lost and he shouldn’t worry his parents. This had happened more than once.

It took a little longer to go around, but he was soon in the cool shade of the trees, where the underbrush was trampled by people looking for firewood. He went a little deeper in and whistled a happy little tune. He was off on an adventure for certain, today!

He walked beneath the trees, watching small animals scurry away, and listening to the birds sing. He splashed through a small stream and chased a blue dragonfly into a meadow full of flowers. Then he sat down on a rock and ate his bread and cheese. Spying some berry bushes across the way, he went to pick some to wash down the bread and cheese. They were very good, and he was happily plucking and eating berries when he heard a snuffling behind him.

Little boys aren’t the only ones who like berries, and when he turned around, Ivan saw that bears like them too. The bear clearly did not want to share the berry bushes with Ivan and was coming closer, growling.


Ivan thought quickly, “I do not want to lose my life to this bear, but the if the compass keeps me from getting lost, perhaps it will also keep me from losing my life!” So he whipped out the compass, and spread it out and spun around in a circle just as he had seen Ilya do, but in the air instead of on paper. A large circle appeared where the compass had spun around and then the circle fell to the ground. It was a huge berry pie! Ivan reached down, grabbed the pie, and tossed it towards the bear.

Now the bear knew a good thing when he saw it and stopped to slurp up the pie. Ivan scooted into the bushes and away down a path until he was well away from the berry bushes and the bear.

Since he was on the path, he decided to follow it and see where it went. He walked happily along it until he came to a large stream. He was delighted. This was just the right size stream to try tickling trout. Sasha and Ilya had told him all about tickling trout. You had to be ever so still and slip your hand under them and gently rub their bellies until they weren’t suspecting anything and then scoop them out of the water as fast as you could.

Ivan promptly lay down on his belly on the bank to see if he could tickle a trout.

He did not see a trout, or any other fish for that matter, and he squirmed closer to the water, and then closer still to see if he could see one. He squirmed closer yet again, when SPLASH! He wiggled right over the edge and into the stream.

Now, the stream was deeper and faster than it looked. Ivan found that he could not touch the bottom and the bank was moving away quickly. He could swim a little – Father had taught him after thinking he had drowned in the goose pond – so he kept his head above the water while he felt for the compass. He pulled it out, swirled it around in the water, and all of a sudden he felt something underneath him.

A large round lily pad was coming up under him, and soon folded around him like a huge cup. He was floating along on top of the stream in a lily pad boat! This was fun! Ivan happily bobbed along down the stream and when it joined up with the river, he decided to see where that took him for a while. He floated past the fields and beyond the little village, and soon he was floating through the big forest. He saw a sandy beach ahead, and by paddling with his hand, managed to land his lily-boat there.  When he hopped out, the lily pad floated off, and Ivan was on his own again.

Now, Ivan knew that Father and Sasha were hunting in the big forest today, but he decided that since the forest was such a big place that they probably wouldn’t meet up. So, he started off into the big, tall trees to see what he could find there.

After a little bit, Ivan heard a snuffling and snorting sound. “Not another bear!” he thought, but then he came round a big tree and saw that it was not a bear, but a wild boar. Ivan had heard tales about wild boars, and knew how dangerous they were. He backed up slowly, before it could see him, and climbed into one of the enormous forest trees. He sat on a limb, watching the boar, and wondering what he was going to do. He took out his apple and ate it while he thought.

Then Ivan heard voices. It was Father and Sasha, and they were coming this way! Ivan was struck with terror at the thought that the boar might go after Father and Sasha. He threw down the rest of his apple to distract the boar. Thinking quickly, he pulled out his compass and, stretching it out as wide as it would go, twirled it in the air. A very large circle floated down from Ivan’s perch in the tree and landed on the path below, between the boar and Father and Sasha. It kept floating downward, and suddenly there was a large pit in the middle of the path.

The boar heard the people coming down the path and charged towards them – and right into the pit.

“What was that noise?” asked Father. “It sounded just like a wild boar!”

“I hope not,” replied Sasha nervously.

Ivan put his hands over his mouth so they would not hear him giggling in the tree over their heads.

“Look!” cried Father. “I don’t remember this pit being on this path, but it has caught a boar for us!”

As they set about getting the boar out of the pit and preparing to haul it away, Ivan crept down the tree and away from the path. He was getting hungry, and tired – it must be time for lunch by now – and he was ready to go home. He pulled out his trusty compass and twirled it in the air one more time. A stream of sparkling lights flew from the compass and off through the trees. Ivan followed at a jog and soon found himself very near home. The lights twinkled out and Ivan walked the rest of the way happily. Truly, he had had a wonderful day, and not gotten lost once, thanks to the magical compass.

When he came into the kitchen, Mother was just putting out lunch on the table. She scolded him, “Where have you been all morning? I thought you had gotten lost again! And look at you! What a mess you are! Go and wash and put on clean clothes right now, before you come to  this table!” Ivan ran off to change before she could ask him any more questions.

When he came back down the stairs, Father and Sasha were back. “You should see the grand boar we found in a pit in the woods! We are taking it to the village for a big pig roast!” boomed Father. Ilya came in from inspecting the boar and caught sight of Ivan, and the compass in Ivan’s pocket.

“Ivan! What are you doing with my compass? I have been looking all over for it! This is not a toy for you to play with!” cried Ilya.

Ivan said, “But Father says that if you have a compass you will never get lost, so since people always fuss at me about getting lost, I thought it might be a good thing for me!”

Ilya snatched it away and answered, “This is not the same kind of compass. This one is for geometry, for making circles!”

Father laughed and said, “Yes, Ivan, the other sort of compass is this,” and he took out a small case with letters in a circle and a small arrow in the middle. “this one always shows you which way is north. It is not magical, though. You must know the direction you need to go. Although I wish there were a magical compass for you, little one, with the way you like to get lost!” and he laughed.

Ivan opened his mouth to tell Father that he was wrong, Ilya’s was a magical compass, but then he closed it again. Sometimes it wasn’t worth it to try to tell big people anything.

“Hey!” said Ilya, “What have you done with this!? It is filthy! Look, I found berry bits on it, and water weed stuck in it, and dirt in it, too. And what’s this sparkly stuff all over the ends?”

Ivan just smiled.

(c) Jane W. Wolfinbarger, 2007



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