Baba Yaga

Always wanted to do a re-imagining of my favorite folktales and this is the first I shall work on. This is a re-imagining of the tale of the Russian Hag, Baba Yaga and Vassiliya the Beautiful. Enjoy.

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The menacing darkness of the dark woods pulsed around them as they ran, hand in hand, a small boy and girl, paired but not really the same.

The whispers rustled the black leaves of the firs and rattled the pines that hung from the tips like little Christmas ornaments. The whispers spoke warnings that neither child could hear but it didn’t matter because neither child would heed them anyway.
Baba Yaga had called to them from the warmth of their babushka’s hut and they ran to answer.

The trunks grew larger as they made their way into the dark maw of the forest, groans banishing the silence as they raised their roots above the ground to make obstacles to block the children’s path. Branches dipped low and created curtains to shield the proper paths and whole boughs leaned this way and that, urging the children away. But in the trance which held them, they danced through the branches and leapt over the roots and pirouetted around the cracked tree trunks, and back to the forgotten path.

Their eyes were wide but unseeing; their skin numb to the touch and unfeeling, their noses blocked to the rich acrid smell of peat and fermented leaves. Their ears heard nothing but the music of Baba Yaga’s stirring witch spoon, stirring endlessly, its metallic keening relentless.

Things stirred from their lairs, yellowed eyes blinking in the darkness of burrows and perches up in trees, riveted to the flash of brightly coloured frock and pantaloon as they passed. But it was not the children’s noisy traipse through the woods that woken them but the thing that beckoned to them, it had been years, nay decades since such power had poured from the stilted hut. Trolls and ogres, malicious sprites and benevolent spectres all rose from within their haunts and joined the race, following at a leisurely pace, to watch the spectacle that would soon unfold.

It had been a century since there had been juveniles strong enough to hear the call of Baba Yaga’s magic.

The boy, smaller of the two spotted it first, the source of the music that called to them.
He faltered; it was nothing like he had ever seen before. The part of his mind that glimpsed things that shouldn’t be through the sides of his eyes recognising it for what it was. His sister stopped beside him and gawked at the things on which the house rested. They were gigantic chicken legs, cut off just above the first joint, massive yellow scales scalloped across the robust length of leg lined with stringy sinew and branching out into four feet that spread out and dug into the earth. Like they were still attached to a real chicken, they straightened and bent as if to preen and leaned the house to one side as one of the legs lifted off the earth to claw at the black permafrost of the clearing in which it stood, shaking of thumb sized feather louse that dropped to the upturned earth and scurried back up a scaly leg to the hidden safety of its feathered home.

The house atop it was even more fantastical that it’s means of locomotion. It was composed entirely of roughly hewn fir logs, joined together and the tiny slits between each log sealed shut with black tar that still bubbled in places. There were no doors or windows on any side of the house and the only orifice, a circular chimney the diameter of a year old tree sapling spat out globs of black smoke that hung over the house like a pregnant cloud. Carved into the fir logs were script in a forgotten language, curved signs and symbols that danced as the children looked at them and teased them with the possibility of comprehension. It took both children pooling their collective will to tear their eyes away from the dancing words.

The boy rubbed his temples and leaned forward. The nausea that followed opening his mind to his sister’s telepathy was something that he had never been able to overcome. No one knew that the connection they shared was still that strong, many twins of the babushka lost their connection when they reached the peak of childhood and drew apart. His twelve year old sister was special, she was a blessed one.

The house gave a squawk that startled both children and a great rush stampede of feet fell away behind them as the creatures who had come to watch retreated to a safe distance. The children looked into darkness behind them using Dmitri’s inner Sight to peer at the creatures behind them. They realised the witch-spoon had stopped singing as well and turned back in alarm.
The house was squatted in the ground, feet tucked under it, waiting. The girl, Vassiliya approached cautiously, Dmitri followed a step behind, his eyes screwed shut so he could focus solely on his inner Sight. He Saw the house survey them with something akin to amusement as it watched their approach. Then a line of script from the house’s belly jumped out to him.

“BEWARE OF THE BONES”

“Vassiliya!”

He shouted and she stopped, not a moment too soon. The barren earth began to tremble as three skeletal hands dug themselves out from under it. The house preened contentedly as the hands dug out thigh and arm bones, rib cages and skulls from the earth and began to build from the piles they amassed. The children watched in wonder as the hands fused sockets into joints and stuffed bigger bones into smaller ones, until around the house, there was a hedge made entirely out of human bones exactly Vassiliya’s height, for she was a head taller than Dmitri. Topping the hedge, seperated by exactly an arm’s length were skulls on elongated necks. They snapped their jaws filled with teeth sharpened to points at the children when if they got too close.

“What shall we do, Dimi?” Vassiliya asked.
There was terror in her eyes.

“We shall outwit the house.” Dmitri said.

He closed his eyes and powered his inner Sight, the temporal world falling away around him and opening him to the land of the spirits underneath. The hedge gleamed with a black energy, and a line was dug in the earth just before the hedge. He had seen things like that when he followed the men to hunt in the woods; they set traps that came to life only if it was disturbed. The fence was yet to be completed. Further away, the three skeletal hands toiled away, building the last of the sentinel skulls.

Dmitri’s eyes flew open and he called to Vassiliya.

“Pick the biggest rock you can find and follow me.”

He ran around the hedge, stumbling mid-way and picking himself up at the last minute as a skull lunged at him. Vassiliya swatted the skull away with the stone and the hedge groaned. They quickly came to what Dmitri had Seen. There was a small gap in the hedge and the hands were frantically digging out bones to fill it. An immobile skull sat in the earth.

“Crush it with the stone.”

Vassiliya took aim and lobbed the rock in her hands at the skull. It sailed, hit it with a satisfying crunch and the skull fractured and fell to yellowed crumbs. The skeletal hands immediately stopped their building and scurried to the house, crawling over its logs to the roof and disappearing into its chimney. The children smiled in relief. The first hurdle wasn’t as hard as they had feared.

They crossed the fence, and padded to the house which immediately stood and backed away from them, running to the end of its corral of skulls and stopping short of the skulls which turned in and snapped at its legs. It squawked piteously, afraid of the children who had outwitted it.

A rattled caw reverberated from within the house’s belly.

“Why have you terrified my house? Were you sent or did you come of your own free will?”

“Is this a trick?” Dmitri asked.

A hackneyed laugh replied him. “Of course it is. What self respecting witch would fail to trick a child?>”

Something shot out of the chimney and the children watched in horror. It was the skeletal hands carrying a new skull. They landed beside the opening the children had come in through, scrambled up and quickly closed it, topping the closed opening with the new skull which immediately began to glow with inner light. Their work done, the hands burrowed themselves back into the earth.
Dmitri turned back to the house; his hand held in his sister’s for courage and called to the witch inside.

“One of us was sent, and the other came of free will. We will not reveal who.”

There was a pause.

“Then if one of you was sent, then they must know the secret words that open my doors to guests.”

Vassiliya paused, there was something familiar about the way the witch had phrased her question, something that she had heard the hunters say when they returned from the woods with spoil. She squeezed Dmitri’s hand spoke into his head, imposing her thoughts on his.

The prayer the woodsmen said when they returned to their wives alive, but feral from giving themselves over to the wildness of the elements. A prayer to return them back to civilisation.

“TURN YOUR BACK TO THE FOREST AND YOUR FRONT TO ME!”

The house groaned and bowed to the ground. Turning as it did and settled once again before them. It was only then the children realised the house had only shown its back to them the entire time. The front of the house had three circular holes, two smaller ones that served as windows and a large one that served as a door, all stuffed with hay. The house spat out the hay from its ‘mouth’ and bent low enough for the children to walk in with no difficulties.
The inside of the hut was large and spacious and airy. Tar was supposed to keep the air dry and moisture free, like the silos at home but somehow the tar in Baba Yaga’s house breathed, and kept the insides cool. They stood near the door, ill at ease.
There was a scraping sound as the inhabitant of the house made her way into the light.

The children gasped when they saw her. Age had made the witch androgynous with a large bald head save for a few white strands of hair that fell over her spotted face. Her eyes were housed in darkened cavernous sockets, the saggy skin contrasting greatly with the sharp pupils that gleamed inside, one blue and one brown. Her unnaturally long aquiline nose rattled as she breathed, the rasp rattling the utensils that hung over her cauldron, as she took deep breaths through her open mouth filled with dull metal teeth. Her body was a taut tarp of skin, stretched over shrunken bones and she was bent in half, seated in a mortar that hid most of her abdomen and thighs away from view. She dragged herself along with a pestle, a silver birch broom set across her thighs.

“You have found my lair. What brings you?”

“Your witch-spoon.” Vassiliya replied. “It sang to me in my sleep and brought me here.”

“I see.” The witch said and in a deft move, she pulled out the broom and swatted down an ordinary looking brown ladle, on which pastoral scenes had been carved.

“That old thing should learn to keep quiet.”

“How old are you?” Dmitri blurted.

The witch cackled. “I shall not suffer harm for such a trivial thing.” She leant forward, almost toppling her mortar and peered at the children.

“Seeing ones. The bond between you two is so strong. I have not seen one this strong in centuries.” She shuddered. “And the girl is blessed.”

Suddenly, she lunged at Dmitri, her mortar levitating and covering the space between her and the children in the time it took Vassiliya to blink, her claws scratching at his face. He put up his hands to protect himself and she swung her pestle at him, hitting him in the ribs and breaking two. He doubled over and she grabbed him by the scruff of her shirt and dragged him back into the darkness at the end of the hut with her. Vassiliya flew at them and the house tilted away, causing her to tumble back to the wall into which the circular door was set.

“Dimi!” she screamed.

The witch cackled. “No one can come to my lair of their own free will. If you are not summoned then you receive no boons from me.”

“What will you do to him?” Vassiliya asked.

“Nothing for now. But I cannot guarantee anything for long.”

Vassiliya felt the tears brim behind her eyelids, threatening to fall. Dmitri had followed her only because she had asked him. And now he was in danger because of her. She had to save him from the witch. She just had to. She opened her mind to the spirits and listened to their whisperings. And she heard what she had ignored for the longest time. The truth about the witch.

“You are obligated to answer my questions aren’t you?”

The witch croaked. “Who told you that? I had made sure that knowledge was forgotten.”

“You cannot silence the spirits and you have not answered me.”

The reply came hesitantly. “Yes.”

The house trembled and the chimney grew wider letting more moonlight, just in time for Vassiliya to see new spots and wrinkles appear on the witch’s face. What the spirits had told her was true. Each question answered aged the witch.

“Careful, little girl. You are blessed because of your ignorance. Ignorance is lost through questions answered.”

Vassiliya wanted to disregard the witch, but something inside her knew the witch’s words were true. She was already losing her innocence. But she had to try to save her brother.

“How can I kill you?”

“When the last strand falls from my head. I shall die.”

A clump of the witch’s hair detached and floated to the floor beside her. The house fidgeted nervously. There were only three strands left on the witch’s head. Three questions.

The question came to her, it was a foreign invasive thought that bludgeoned its way to her conscious mind. She felt her lips form the words without her consent.

“Reveal to me who you were before you turned.”

One of the three strands broke and swirled around the witch, revolving so fast she came a blur of white. Then it stopped abruptly and Vassiliya gasped. Standing before her was a spectre of a woman she thought she would never see again. Her mother.

“This is a trick!” Vassiliya cried. “Stop this lie, I don’t want to see it.”

“Vassiliya.” Dmitri said quietly. “It is no lie. I can See, even with the Sight, this is no glamour.”

The witch sighed as the spell fell away and she collapsed into her mortar.

“This is why the witch-spoon called to you and your brother. My time is almost done. And it is looking for an heir to take over from me.”

Vassiliya stepped away from her mother and brother. “I will never participate in this sorcery.”

“You do not have a choice. I came into your village fourteen years ago. The witch-spoon gave me a boon. And I gave life to you and your brother. I prayed you would inherit nothing from me. But my prayers were for naught.
“Being a Baba Yaga is not an evil. I am merely the physical manifestation of the nature of the forest. Good and evil and everything in between. I keep the woods replenished and provide meat for the spit and wood for the hearth and rain in springtime. I am death and rebirth, the personification of the eternal cycle.”

“I can refuse it. I will refuse it.” Vassiliya replied. “I want a normal life. Not this horror.”

Baba Yaga was losing patience. “It cannot be refused. It must be passed to one of my bloodline.”

“I refuse it! I refuse it! I do not want this!”

“Then why did you answer the witch-spoon’s song?” the witch who was their mother asked not unkindly.

Vassiliya stuttered. “I thought, I just wanted…”

“I shall take the curse.” Dmitri said.

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The woods were awash with howling wind as the two drenched figures stumbled out of the woods and into the wooded village. The men were gathering at the edge with torches and pikes, two children had gone missing and their father had roused a party to search for them.

“Papa!” Vassiliya called as she stumbled forward with her charge.

A blond haired man with weary eyes turned when he heard her voice and barrelled through the throng to his daughter. He caught just as she fell and she turned the person on her back into his arms. The hood which hid the face slid back and he gasped. His wife, Talula who had gone missing almost a decade before lay in his arms, gaunt and sickly and unconscious. He felt his heart swell with unexpected joy.

“Where did you find her?”

Vassiliya sighed. “We rescued her in the woods. The Baba Yaga who lives there had her prisoner.”

“How did you manage that? Your brother! Where is Dmitri?”

There were tears in Vassiliya’s eyes. “He gave his life, for Mama. And for me.”

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