There’s a special place in my heart for old school fairy tales, though this is the first time I’ve pulled an established character into one of my own. Baba Yaga, a staple of Slavic folklore, has been portrayed as both helpful and villainous, and is often ambiguous. I’ve included bits of the original tradition (her chicken legged hut, iron teeth, and bone gate) and a few references to various stories. On Wikipedia, I found mention of a blue rose tea that enables her to grow a year younger (she ages when helping people), but could not find the actual story in which this exists. (If anyone knows it…) In the meantime, it’s my deepest fear that I’ve somehow replicated something old and I’m not original after all.
Hope you enjoy! Please note the copyright at the bottom.
Baba Yaga had become a person in miniature. She was curled up and dried up and blew in the wind like a leaf. She did not go beyond sight of her gate when gathering food and the small offerings left by passersby. The chicken legs that supported her house no longer stepped smoothly, but took uneven, lurching steps. They were scabby and bandaged with rags. One side of her gate had been knocked down years before, but still there were no trespassers. The hut’s legs and rags were grey; the walls were grey; the roof was grey; the door was grey. Grey shadows were visible through the sagging window. Even Baba Yaga had become grey from the dust that seamed the angles of her face. She owned a blue cloak, of which she took particular care. It was a patch of night sky with no stars. She put it over her shoulders and leaned back in her creaky chair until hunger moved her, or a sudden shuffle in the legs of her house stirred her.
The stories called her a witch. They said she ate—had eaten—children. It was silly to suspect that from her now. She was too fragile. It had been years since she’d had meat to flavor the soups she brewed from roots and grass. Her iron teeth itched and she picked at them with her long nails before drifting off to sleep atop her oven at night.
When she heard the piglet squeal, she mistook it for a dream, but it did not stop when she opened her eyes. Rolling from her oven, she went to the window and peered out. She watched a young girl pull at her gate and kick the old bones to splinters. A skull fell to the ground and rolled to face Baba Yaga. She frowned and focused on the pink, squirming mass under the girl’s left arm. It squealed more urgently as the girl stepped into the clearing. Its eyes bulged and its tail whipped. The girl whispered to it and rubbed its ears as she set it down. The piglet tried to run, but she pulled at the rope tied around its middle to keep it close.
Baba Yaga dropped down from her window and looked around her scruffy hut. There was wood enough for a single fire. Bowls of seeds and berries lined the single shelf over her basin. The floor was dusty, in need of a wash. The girl could clean it.
There had been a time when her gate could not have been dragged apart or smashed down. Now a little girl could break through and Baba Yaga hated her for it. She sat in her chair and picked her teeth, listening to the girl and piglet cross her yard. There was a long pause, then a shy knock. Baba Yaga stood and answered the door, acting for all the world like a peaceable old woman who would invite the girl to warm up and share a cup of tea and plate of cookies. But she had no tea and she had no cookies.
“Were you sent, or did you come on your own?” asked Baba Yaga.
“No one sent me,” said the girl.
“What do you want?”
“My brother has been turned into a pig.” She reeled him in by his rope, tail first, and picked him up. The girl was young, twelve or thirteen, and had blond hair to her waist. The ends of it were clumped and uneven. She wore a pink dress and rain boots. Her legs were bare and her knees were chapped from cold. The first snow had not come, but the air was bitter and caustic. Baba Yaga did not want to leave the door open. She pushed it wider and motioned for the girl to follow. Once they were inside, the door slammed tight. It was the most sudden movement the hut had made in years.
Baba Yaga made a display of lighting her oven and encouraging the warmth in the girl’s direction. She went to her chair and put her cloak back over her shoulders. The girl shivered.
“Why should I do anything for your brother? Clearly he wasn’t good enough as a man. Let me butcher him and you can have his ears and cheeks to take home. You look so hungry.”
“No.” said the girl.
“If you clean my hut and fill my tub and cook my dinner, I will help you.”
The girl looked around at the spilled berries and the dusty floor. She took in the torn curtains over the window that needed mending and the unwashed bowls in the basin. There was a damp smell hanging over everything. Surely the place would freeze solid in the winter. The girl set her brother on the floor. He pressed against her legs as she fished around in her pocket. She came up with a twisted scrap of paper; something oily had been screwed up inside it.
“Who said?” interrupted Baba Yaga.
“I don’t know,” said the girl. “He lives at the edge of the forest in a house with a red roof. He grows blue roses in pots inside his windows.”
“Of course, of course.”
The girl smiled nervously. “He said you would help my brother if I gave you a cup of tea made from his roses. That it would help you bear the cost of helping me.”
“There is no tea that can make up for growing a year older, girl. You’re too young to understand what it is to be as old as I am.”
“But drinking it will make you a year younger.”
“Give me that.” Baba Yaga snatched the paper packet from the girl and sniffed it. It smelled plain, like an ordinary rose, but the wet smell of decay was underneath. When she breathed again, the air came more willingly into her lungs. She sniffed the packet more earnestly and the cold was less entrenched in her bones. There was a way to be warm again, but a hint was not enough. She threw the packet at the girl’s feet. It bounced off the piglet and landed on the dirty floor.
“Idiot.” said Baba Yaga. “I am centuries old. I’m old from time, and I’m old from aiding people who trick me into service. Fixing your brother will age me one more year and you only have tea to give me back that same year. If I help you, your payment will leave me as I am. I will gain nothing!”
“But you will lose nothing either,” protested the girl. Her eyes were suddenly glassy, wet. Baba Yaga realized she was about to cry, but was not moved.
“I’ll drink the tea to wash down the pig.” She reached down to the girl’s feet. The girl, who reached first for her brother, could not catch the packet fast enough. “I’ll let you leave in exchange for your tea. Get out.”
“I can get more,” the girl said, beginning to shake.
“Can you?” Baba Yaga gave the girl a hard look. There wasn’t anything to her. Her dress had a single pocket at the waist and she carried a limp little rucksack that couldn’t have held more than a day’s meal. “It’s a two-day walk to the edge of this forest.”
“So it will take you four days to come back.”
“What will you eat?”
The girl fidgeted. “There is food yet in this forest if you dig for it. The man was very kind. He gave me bread to come out here. Maybe he’ll give me bread again with the tea.”
Baba Yaga laughed. “He gave you free bread!”
“It wasn’t free. It came with the tea. The tea I paid for.”
Baba Yaga looked at the girl again. She was very rough looking and winter had yet to come down upon them. “He felt sorry for you. Cry harder this time. Tell him I require a dozen cups of tea, and when he leaves to make it—I’m sure his method is very secret, yes?—take one of his potted roses and bring it here.”
“No. That’s wrong and won’t do you any good. You won’t know how to make the tea.”
“You think I can’t get tea from a rose? I’ve got a sample here, don’t I? There’s nothing in this tea that I won’t know,” she squeezed the damp packet for emphasis.
The girl shook and her brother buried his face in her chest. “If I do this, you’ll turn him back like he was and you’ll let me leave?”
“Yes. For a whole pot of blue roses, I’ll make the pig like he was and let you leave. Now start walking and use this to find food on the way.” She handed the girl a narrow trowel.
The girl took it awkwardly. “Is it—”
“No, it’s not magic. It’s for digging in the dirt.”
“You’d have one less mouth to feed if you left the pig with me. Look how skinny he is.”
“No! My brother is coming with me.” The girl hugged him so tightly he squeaked and she ran out the door.
It had been a long time since Baba Yaga had waited for anything, and she did not like it. She turned the packet of tea over and over in her hands. She was desperate to drink it, but not until she knew how to recreate it and had a stock of roses on hand. She consoled herself that it was only one year; she could wait for a single year. It was the promise of many years, of returned decades, that made her mouth water.
No one knew how old she was, not even Baba Yaga. When she was younger, she could keenly sense the weight of each new year. Then they had begun to pile higher and higher, most without her immediate notice, the way that adding weight to an already heavy pack makes little difference. Now she was in a decrepit endstage with every aspect of life dominated by her failing faculties. Her enchanted hut, made mobile by addition of its chicken legs, had been bright and quick-moving when new. The legs had run smooth and fast to carry her from unsafe areas into new hunting grounds. But the old legs were beyond her healing magic. Given their age, they were as good as they could be. When impatient, she thought about doing away with them and starting over, but after so many years, the legs had a sense of personality about them. She liked them.
The dried petals did not smell entirely correct. She dismissed this out of hand; after all, they were blue and did not look like proper roses either. Their scent was sickly sweet, like syrup, with an undercurrent of dirt, of rot. She tried to strip the enchantment from them, but found instead that the roses held an innate magical property. She was pleased. This would make the tea simple to recreate. She would only need to dry and break the petals. But there was something else, a second ingredient, that Baba Yaga could not determine. It had no smell, no taste; it shellacked each blue petal, coating them in a hard, crystalline substance. If the roses themselves were magic, why the varnish?
She spent much of her waiting time under her blanket, on top of her oven, in half-hibernation for the coming winter. Already, it was unbearably cold. She mended her curtains and tacked their ends to the wall so they wouldn’t flap in the draft. She would repair the windows later. When she wasn’t so tired.
The girl arrived early on the fourth day. As before, Baba Yaga heard the pig first. It began squealing when it recognized the bone gate. The girl carried it across the yard under one arm. The other cradled a small black pot with a black stick planted stiffly.
The girl knocked and Baba Yaga flung open the door with naked eagerness. “Give it here,” she cried and reached for the pot. “What’s this?” she asked, as soon as she got a clear look. The blooms, stems, and leaves were black and brittle, as though the plant had been exposed to great heat and left to dry. “What am I supposed to do with this? It can’t be planted. It’s dead!”
“It withered as I walked,” said the girl.
“Did you take care of it? What about water, warmth?” But as Baba Yaga examined the plant, she knew it was no fault of the girl’s. The black petals were arranged as on a healthy rose and the leaves remained perky and upright. The stem was still strong, but dark and fragile. Some magic had pushed the plant to impotence.
Baba Yaga ran a long nail up the stem. The magic was still inside and she understood the glossy finish on the tea leaves now—it was a preservative. She waved a fingertip over one of the tea leaves and the coating fell off and shrank like old skin. The clean petal withered to the same blackness of the potted plant.
“You’re supposed to pour the hot water straight over the leaves; no tampering. That’s what he said. I’ve brought you your roses, now fix my brother and let me leave.”
She looked down her long nose at the girl. It was true that the price had been paid. A pot of blue roses was a pot of blue roses, whether it was useable or not. She had not specified. Baba Yaga sighed heavily and nodded. One year older, and one year back with the tea. The original deal.
The girl set the pig on the floor, her hand hesitant on the knotted rope. It ran straight out the door, squealing all the way. The girl jumped up, “Oh, he’s escaped!” she cried. She turned to run after it.
“Stop,” said Baba Yaga. She put up an arm and the girl froze. Her arm stretched across the hut and blocked the girl from the door. “I saw what you did. You let him go. Why would you do that if you brought him to be cured?” She moved her arm from the girl and snapped her fingers. The pig’s squealing cut off abruptly as the girl edged closer to the door.
“You said I could leave. I brought a pot of roses and I’m allowed to go.”
“Yes. And your brother as he was. I remember.”
Baba Yaga crooked her finger and the little pig marched back into the hut. Its legs moved mechanically and its eyes rolled balefully between Baba Yaga and the girl. She picked it up and shook it as the girl ran away. The pig was a pig. Nothing more. She wrapped her hand around its neck and twisted until it stopped moving. She threw it against the wall.
“That’s not your brother!” she roared, and the girl flinched, half across the clearing. She ran faster and faster, gathering speed to jump over the gate, but Baba Yaga’s loud voice remained in her ear, “It was only ever a pig! You lied!”
Baba Yaga stormed around her hut. With pig’s blood on the wall and floor, it was even more unpleasant than it had been. The chicken legs shuffled back and forth as they listened to her make up her mind: to go or to stay. She saw now that it was a trick. The man with the roses was baiting her. He knew she would come for them, she could not help it. She opened her oven and stuffed in the pig. She set a pot for tea and wrapped herself in her blanket. The hut took one slow, hesitant step forward. Then another, and another, out into the night.
Baba Yaga sniffed out the roses’ magic as she travelled, following the path the girl had taken to her hut. No doubt she was now running home another way, some secret way she prayed Baba Yaga would not know. She had been sent with the pig and tea as bait; she knew, as well as the man, that Baba Yaga would be coming. As the hut moved, the wind whistled around it and trees bent. Her anger made its own way through the woods and she followed in its wake. She had been tricked. At the heart of every question was a simple answer. The blue roses were magic and anyone could brew tea from them. The crystalline varnish wasn’t to preserve them, it was to make them rot under examination. It was to make her think the flower man held some secret power, that the roses could not thrive outside his presence. He had conspired with the girl to deliver a pot of dried roses that would let the girl escape and draw Baba Yaga south from her woods.
The hut stepped wildly. It hopped and spun as it had in the old days, the energetic days. Baba Yaga was big with anger. Her skinny arms and legs spanned the width of the hut. She slept curled on the floor, her long limbs bunched like a spider’s. It was a day and a half to the man’s house. The hut slowed as it reached its destination and the wind grew quiet. She stood as the hut spun in place to point its door to the red-roofed house. Baba Yaga peered out. The house was dark.
She stepped outside, and her hut dipped low to help her down. When she was out, it scampered back to the treeline, crouched, and waited. Baba Yaga walked to the house very slowly. It was absolutely quiet. She was expected, she knew it. That the man would be outside his home, ready to ambush her when she entered, was so obvious that it forced a laugh past her lips. She had magic and she was afraid of nothing.
But something was wrong. The air around the house was thick. Baba Yaga raised her nose and sniffed and found the same, curious scent of the rose petals. But now, there was no trace of decay. The air was bubbly and sweet, bright, and full of sun. It made her light-headed, but not unpleasantly so. She felt tipsy and young. She laughed again, and now the sound wasn’t sharp, it was a giggle, low and girlish. She put a hand over her smile and took a step toward the house, swaying slightly. Her hut jumped and shivered from where it watched.
Baba Yaga stopped. There was something she was trying to remember. She looked down at her feet to concentrate, and when she looked up again, the house was lit brightly. Light burst from the windows and picked out a seam along the roof line. It looked fit to fly apart and now she could see that one whole side of it was glass, fine panes of glass with no cracks or bubbles, and the house was filled with flowers.
She blinked and the door opened. Or, it had been open and she hadn’t noticed. Was the light brighter now? She couldn’t tell. The smell from the roses was the most lovely thing. The scent mellowed as she grew calm; it was the scent of fine wine, of summer, of a deep and lasting warmth. If she went inside, she would never spend another night on her oven.
She went inside.
The door closed.
Baba Yaga stretched her hand out and touched the nearest rose. Its petals were furred softly, like the skin of a ripe peach. She reached down to where its stem anchored it to the bush and snapped it free. She lifted it before her eyes, mesmerized by the deep and vibrant blue, the life-giving aroma, and pushed the entire blossom into her mouth.
Baba Yaga thought she knew everything about hunger. The days spent in her chair when her hunting grounds dried up were torment. Food required so much time—time to hunt and gather, to cook, to eat—when these occupations fell away, there was nothing for her to eat, and hours to think of it. But those lean days paled before her need for the roses. Their blueness and hypnotic scent were thirst and hunger together. If she did not eat them, she would surely die.
She broke off blossom after blossom. She pulled manicured bushes up by the root and let their pots break on the floor. She ate the flowers off each stem, her teeth shining dully as they closed and opened on a manic hinge. Leaves and branches and thorns fell around her in a circle as she moved down the line of flowers, starved and ravenous.
The change was not immediate.
At first it was a continuation of the bright light, the drunken feeling. Then Baba Yaga realized her arms were reaching down farther and farther to the table. Her back was straightening, rising from its stooped posture as she returned to her former height. The pots grew less substantial in her arms; she threw them against the wall, reveling in the tight feeling of her muscles, her returned capacity to lift and bend and propel. She bounced in place and slowed her binge as she became more interested in her renewed vigor. The smell of the roses grew stronger to retain its temptation, but she had already turned from the table.
She ran to the window to look out, to test her eyes against the darkness. She could see the treeline silhouetted against the stars where her little hut capered and bounced. She could see each blade of grass in the light streaming from the window. The sounds! There were insects and birds, a whole world coming to life in her ears, ramping up louder and louder like an orchestra tuning itself. She felt sorrow for her former self, for the mud she had lived in and thought natural. She had been right to be miserly, to be stingy with her help. How could she have allowed herself to take on so many years, so much debt? To be young was the miraculous gift beyond magic.
But then she grew shorter.
This, she noticed immediately. She feared the roses were temporary. That she would grow bent and half-deaf with the sharp memory of what was lost. But she could feel that her back was still straight. She was dropping down to the size and shape of a child. She looked at her arm and saw she was as scrawny as she had ever been. Her arm’s only definition was the knobby elbow that formed its widest part.
Baba Yaga heard a whimper and did not recognize it as her own sound. Her head was sinking lower and lower. Her vantage point was three feet from the ground when it stopped. She remembered now that her mother said she’d been a small child. That she hadn’t grown until she reached puberty and inherited her magic. She held out her hand and waited for the tickle in her fingertips. That old, invincible feeling that her magic gave when it ran over her nerves.
Not once ever in her old grey hut, in the dry and time-damaged body of her former self, had she been helpless. She was pitiful and sorry, greatly weakened, but not incapable. She may not have been able to make her hut spry again, but she could turn pigs to humans and back again, she could bring rain and she could fly, she could turn towels into rivers and combs into forests. She could do anything but be young and that is why the man had known to send his daughter with the pig and the tea to tempt her away and make her small and tiny, able to be picked up and carried by a single arm.
Which is what happened.
While little Baba Yaga stood—though perhaps now she can only be called Yaga—while little Yaga stood, finding wonder and dismay in her youth, the man reentered his home through the back door and scooped her up. His arms were sinewy and tough, built over years of hard labor. Yaga whimpered again and recognized the sound this time. She had often heard a child’s cry, but it was different to her now. She did not think the man had magic beyond ownership of the roses. She saw now that the opposite side of the house was occupied by other flowers. Most, she had never seen, but knew them for hybrids. So that was it then—he had played around until he found something magic. A memory drifted by and she grabbed it—she had given away magical seeds once. Were these their offspring, spliced and bred with other flowers into something to reduce her? She looked up at the man and examined the flat depth of his eye until she was certain that his size was his only power over her.
His chest rumbled against her side and she realized he was speaking. “I was a boy when we met. There must have been so many children who ran to you. I was lost in the woods. When I called out, your hut was there and you stood in the door. You made me an offer. Do you remember?
“No,” said Yaga, truthfully.
She wiggled in his grasp, pushing against his chest. He held her the way he’d hold his own child, secure against his body, her face buried in his shoulder as though he’d found her in the rain and was bringing her home. She wondered what he would do to her. Would he drown her? Burn her? There had been an axe outside. He might take the head from her shoulders with a half-hearted swing, not even caring to aim.
Yaga tucked her head down tighter into his shoulder and wrapped her arms around herself. His grip loosened slightly. He made an approving sound in the back of his throat. She wondered if there was any part of him that was still afraid of her, that was relieved she was going quietly.
Her body was numb and empty without its usual pulse of magic. Her ears were quiet. Before, it had been the lowest rumble in her bones that spurted and tickled and made her teeth itch. Her teeth. Yaga tensed, hopeful. She ran her tongue over her teeth and found them sharp and strong. She clenched them and heard the familiar metallic click. The man did not hear it, but felt her change in attitude. She was a live wire under his arm now, tense and coiled. His grip tightened, but she still pushed her right arm up to grip his shoulder. She turned her head in the same motion and sank her teeth into the side of his neck.
He yelled and clamped both hands around her waist to push her away. His thumbs drove up under her ribcage. She was so tiny! But she took advantage of his changed hold to wrap her left arm around his neck and tighten her right. She clenched her jaw. The harder he pushed her away, the tighter she bit. She could feel reluctance in his arms. He knew that if he pushed her away too strongly, the side of his neck would come away in her teeth.
His left arm found her face, but she was slick with blood already and squirming, tearing at him in a frenzy. He threw her to the ground and pressed both hands tight to his own neck, defensive and angry. He cursed at her, but she could not understand his words. He spoke in a foreign tongue now, his native voice, but still Yaga could not remember who he had been. He lunged at her, off-balance. Yaga darted away, but found the door was locked. It was a waiting game then. She needed to avoid his reach while he bled out. He chased her and she danced away, playing with him like a child. She crawled under the rose table and popped up on the other side, mocking him. She ran around him, grinning her bloody smile, watching him swing wildly, bent over, trying to reach her from his great height. All the while, he kept one hand to his neck, but it was not enough. She saw his eyes dim and knew he would not catch her.
His knees hit the floor with a crack and Yaga felt an upwelling of optimism. Of triumph. Of gratitude for the strange birthright that gave her iron teeth if not size or strength. Even as a child, she did not need to be afraid.
Most of the roses had been lost to her feast, others had been crushed and swatted by the man’s desperate swings and punches. Yaga pulled a single pot from the wreckage that was largely undamaged. It held a small rosebush with new buds. She gathered heads of other roses and the best of the loose petals. She would not need them for a long time, but she would dry them for tea and grow the bush she had found. She would take her hut somewhere safe to make poultices for its old legs, and when she inherited her magic once more, everything would be as it should.
There was a knock on the door.
Yaga turned, startled.
“Father?” said a voice, from the other side. “Let me in. Why have you locked the door?”
Stupid girl, thought Yaga. The girl had approached the house from the wrong side. She had not seen in the windows. If she had peeked in, she would have seen the carnage and known to stay away. Or perhaps she had seen and misunderstood, she must have assumed her great bear of a father could handle an old witch.
The girl’s footsteps moved away and Yaga knew she was coming around to look inside, probably chastising herself for doing things in the wrong order. She ran to the front door, wishing there was a way to clean the blood quickly from her mouth and clothes. She extinguished the lights in the doorway. Perhaps if there was enough shadow, the girl would not realize—
“Hello?” called Yaga.
The girl ran back to the door when she heard a child’s voice. “Who are you? Did my father save you from the witch? Is he inside?”
“Yes,” said Yaga. “Come and see.” She held out her hand and she smiled.
© E.F. Sunland and That’s What She Read, 2010-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to E.F. Sunland That’s What She Read with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.