The young male narrator, who "has been thrown by fate for six months into the remote village of Perebrod, Volyn province, on the outskirts of Polesie," is unbearably bored. His only entertainment is hunting with his servant Yarmola and trying to teach the latter to read and write. One day, during a terrible snowstorm, the hero learns from the usually reluctant Yarmola that a dozen miles from his house lives the real witch Manuyliha, who appeared out of nowhere in the village and then was evicted for their witchcraft deeds.
The opportunity to meet her appears quickly: as soon as it gets warmer, the hero sets out on a hunt and, lost in the woods, stumbles upon a hut. Assuming that the local forester lives there, he goes inside and finds an old woman "with all the features of a Baba-Yaga, as she is depicted in the folk epic". Manuilikha greets the hero unkindly, but noticeably revives when he pulls out a silver quarter and asks the old woman to fortune-telling. In the midst of fortune-telling, the witch's granddaughter, Olesya, a dark-haired beauty "about twenty to twenty-five years old," enters the house. She treats the narrator kindly and shows him the way home.
All the first spring days the image of Olesya does not leave the narrator's mind.
I myself had no idea what delicate, strong, invisible threads tied my heart to this charming, unknown to me girl.
When the forest roads dry up, the narrator goes to the witch's hut. Like the first time, the granddaughter welcomes the guest much more affably than Manuilikha. And when the guest asks Olesya to read his fortune, she admits that she has already spread cards on him once and predicted that this year he will "get a lot of love from the queen of clubs with dark hair. And to those "who will love you, you will bring a lot of grief. The cards also tell Olesa that to the queen of clubs this hero will bring disgrace, which is worse than death...
Seeing the narrator off, Olesya attempts to prove to him that she and her grandmother have the true gift of witchcraft, and conducts several experiments on him - she heals his deep cut and makes him stumble after her. Then the hero tries to find out where Manuilikha came from in Polesie, to which Olesya replies evasively that her grandmother does not like to talk about it. Then the narrator introduces himself for the first time - his name is Ivan Timofeyevich.
From that day on, the hero becomes a frequent visitor to the hut. Olesya is always happy to see him, though she welcomes him discreetly. But the old woman is not particularly pleased, but Ivan manages to placate her with gifts, Olesya's intercession also helps.
Ivan is fascinated not only by Olesya's beauty. He is also attracted by her original mind. Many arguments flare up between them when Ivan tries to scientifically justify Olesya's "black art." Despite their differences, a deep affection develops between them. Meanwhile, Ivan's relations with Yarmola, who disapproves of his acquaintance with the sorceress, are spoiled. The servant also does not like the fact that both witches are afraid of the church.
Once, when Ivan comes back to the hut, he finds the witch and her granddaughter upset: the local uriadnik has ordered them out of the hut at twenty-four and threatened to send them to prison if they disobey. Ivan volunteers to help, and the old woman does not refuse the offer, despite Olesina's displeasure. Ivan begs the uriadnik not to throw the women out of the house, to which he protests and calls the old woman and her granddaughter "a menace round here. Having placated the uriadnik with refreshments and expensive presents, Ivan finally gets his way. The uriadnik promises to leave Manuiliha and Olesya alone.
From this time on, Olesya begins to avoid Ivan and any explanation with him.
Separation is to love what the wind is to a fire: it blows out a small love and makes a great one even stronger.
Here Ivan falls unexpectedly and seriously ill - for six days he has been "stricken with a terrible Fields fever". It is only after his recovery that he manages to explain himself to Olesya. The girl has avoided meeting Ivan only because she wanted to escape her destiny. Understanding that it is impossible, she declares her love for him. Ivan reciprocates her feelings, but Olesya cannot forget her fortune-telling. However, despite Ivan's misgivings and Manuilikha's anger, their love flourishes.
Meanwhile, Ivan's official duties at Perebrod are coming to an end, and he increasingly comes to the idea of marrying Olesya and taking her with him. Having convinced himself of the correctness of this decision, he proposes to his beloved. But Olesya refuses - she does not want to spoil the life of the young, educated baron. The girl even suggests that Ivan should simply follow him, without any marriage.
Ivan suspects that her refusal is due to her fear of church, to which Olesya says that for the love of him she is ready to overcome this superstition. She arranges to meet him in church the next day, on the Feast of the Holy Trinity, and Ivan is seized by a terrible premonition.
The vague attraction of the heart is never wrong in its quick secret premonitions.
The next day Ivan is delayed by official business and does not make it to church in time. On returning home, he catches the local clerk telling him about today's "fun" - the village girls caught a witch on the square, who was given a shakedown and wanted to smear her with tar, but she managed to escape. Indeed, Olesya came to the church, served the mass, after which the village girls jumped on her. Having miraculously escaped, Olesya threatened them that they would remember her and weep a lot.
All these details Ivan learns later. In the meantime, he rushes into the forest and finds Olesya beaten senseless in the hut with fever and Manuilikha cursing him. Olesya comes to herself and explains to Ivan that she and her grandmother can no longer stay here, so she and Ivan will have to separate. As she says goodbye Olesya confesses that she would like to have a child with Ivan and wishes he did not have one.
That same night a heavy hailstorm falls on Perebrod. In the morning Yarmola wakes Ivan up and advises him to get out of the village - the hail, which has damaged the livestock of half the village, according to the villagers, was imposed by witches for revenge, and the embittered people are already beginning to "cry evil" about Ivan. Wishing to warn Olesya of the impending misfortune, the hero rushes to the hut, where he finds only the traces of his hasty escape and bright red beads, which have remained the only memory of Olesya and her tender, generous love...