Lizzie stared at her. “What’s a Yaga? What are you talking about?”
Taisia shook back her hair. She was beautiful, barely more than a child, but when she spoke no one doubted her. She had all the authority of the old crone who had told her stories since she was old enough to sit up and listen.
“A yaga is a witch— a kind of witch. Baba Yaga is the oldest, the most powerful. She has wild hair like brambles atop her head and her teeth are made of iron. Some say she rides in a mortar, pushing herself along with a pestle, but my grandmother said she could sail through the air in a bathtub. Her house is deep in the forest and it cannot be found except by those in great need. The house is guarded by strange beasts. It stands on chicken legs and can move about the yard.
“Baba Yaga can take off her head and hold it under her arm. She can grant wishes. She can control time: her three sons are the Dawn, the Day, and the Night, who each ride on a white, a red, and a black horse. She is the great mother but also the destroyer. She is the mistress of Death itself. One must be very clever or very good or have something the Yaga wants in order to gain her favor.”
No one spoke for a while. Lizzie felt a sense of dread in her stomach. “But what if you aren’t good enough or clever enough or have what she wants?”
“Then she eats you.”
Lizzie rocked back on her heels and shook her head. “She doesn’t sound any better than him,” she jerked her thumb at the pile of women. “This could take a while. Bri? Will you find some rope?” Bri nodded and walked to the door. “And some clothes, for them?”
Lizzie stood and walked to the window. She leaned on the sill, winced and drew back her wounded hand. It was wrapped with a strip of her slip and it throbbed. She was lucky no tendons had been cut. It seemed impossible, but everything here seems impossible. She rubbed her tired eyes. I don’t know how I’m going to finish this. How do I outsmart the mother of all witches? How—
She spun around. “I can’t leave. I can’t go anywhere. I don’t have any shoes, none of us do!”
Sun bathed the women, bloodstained to such a degree that it was hardly noticeable that they were naked. Every face looked up at Lizzie. It was absurd! She began to laugh, and the laughter shook her, shook tears out of her, made her double over until she had to clutch her side. “We— don’t — have any — shoes!” They were all laughing, letting it out of their tired, scarred, abused bodies like steam issuing from hot rocks after a sudden rain. “God, a pair of shoes…”
Bri knocked and walked in. Her face was hidden by a stack of neatly folded dresses, which she set carefully on a windowsill, the only clean space to be found in the bloody tower. Lizzie stopped laughing and stared.
“Bri, your shoes. Give me your shoes!”
Bri looked blankly at her and bent to undo the leather ties.
“Wait.” It was Joanna. Lizzie looked at her. “We don’t know what will happen if she gives them away; we don’t know if they will allow you to leave the grounds. We’ll need her help while you’re at the Yaga’s; she must be able to come and go from this room.”
“Taisia has an idea.”
Taisia stepped forward. Her hair was so pale it seemed as if she was wearing a white-gold dress. “It is a difficult journey into the center of the forest, but if he has used the Yaga’s magic the hardest part will be to cross the boundaries, to pass through the invisible walls that make this place a prison.”
“I know, but—“
“Who has free pass in and out?”
“No one, only—“ she stopped and took a step back. “You don’t mean him?”
Taisia nodded. “I believe if you wear his clothes—“
“But I only need shoes!”
“Listen,” said Joanna. Lizzie clamped her mouth shut.
“Baba Yaga is not evil. She is shrewd.” Taisia gestured to the tower. “I do not believe she willingly did this. I do not believe that even in exchange for his heart she granted him this strong magic freely.”
“You think he tricked her?” asked Lizzie.
“He has been very clever.”
Lizzie considered. “But why do you want me to dress as him?”
“A Yaga’s house cannot be found unless she allows it to be. It might be enough that you seek to defeat the man who cheated her…”
“Or I might need to stand out?” She shuddered. “I might need to dress as the man she wants to kill?”
“It’s more likely she wants to eat him and add his bones to the fence around her yard,” said Taisia.
“That is not comforting! Why do I even have to be the one to go? Haven’t I done enough?” She looked at the others and stopped. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry— you’ve, you’ve been through even more than I have. I’m just… I don’t want to go alone.” Her voice was quiet. “I’m afraid. I thought the poison would be enough. And then the knife. What if the Yaga doesn’t solve the problem either? And then I’m out there, by myself? What if I never see any of you again? What if I never set any of us free?”
“What if you had never tried at all?” The soft, kind voice belonged to Apple. She looked steadily at Lizzie with her sad, gentle eyes.
“We would still be in that tub. I would never have looked my sisters in the eyes again.” Fabiana clasped hands with two other black-haired girls; she looked both tender and fierce.
The others echoed her, every one of them.
“It’s better like this, even if we go no further,” said Joanna. “Even if I have to sit on this disgusting dung heap for the rest of my life. Even if I am stuck in this tower, in this castle. It’s still better. Thank you, Lizzie Borden.”
Bluebeard was stripped of his clothes and bound, nearly naked and laid in the tub. “I’m not wearing his underwear. This is bad enough.”
They had all washed and dressed, thanks to Bri’s assistance, and now they were eating soup and bread perched on chairs brought up from the lower floors. Two of them took turns watching Bluebeard, but he was either out cold or feigning sleep. Every one among them had a knife, though there was disagreement about this.
“More weapons mean more for him to get his hands on,” Apple had argued. But Fabiana and others refused to go unarmed, and Joanna had settled the matter by posting a watch.
Lizzie sighed and wiped her mouth. It was lovely to be with these women. Bluebeard had called them sisters. She looked up. “What did he mean— ‘sister magic?’”
The others looked around. Taisia spoke up; Lizzie was starting to wonder if Taisia’s grandmother had been some kind of yaga herself. “It is a magic of blood and connection. It is the kind of magic that tells a mother working in the field that a wolf is coming for her baby. Or the way children in the same family might know each other’s thoughts.”
“But most of you aren’t really sisters,” said Lizzie.
“We are as good as,” said Fabiana, looking fiercely at all of them.
Taisia nodded. “But it is more than wishing it.” She held out her arms, laced with fine pink scars that were beginning to fade to white. “He put us all in there together. Our innermost parts have touched. Your blood is my blood. We are mixed. I think even if we go our separate ways and never see one another again, we will always be connected. We will hear one another’s voices in our hearts and minds.” They sat with this knowledge, then Taisia looked up, face bright.
“Lizzie, let me see your wound.”
Lizzie crossed to her and held out her right arm. Taisia untied the knot and loosened the wrappings. She nodded at the cleft in the flesh. She gestured. “Now, Fabiana, show me yours.”
Fabiana’s wrist was smooth.
Lizzie thought she understood. “Mine should have healed, shouldn’t it? When you were put back together it all came back together. But I haven’t. Why?”
“He tried to break the sister magic. The dagger was in Fabiana’s hand—“
“I didn’t want to!” Fabiana’s eyes flashed.
Taisia continued, “We healed together. But you were not in pieces in the tub with us.”
“And I hope not to be,” said Lizzie, “no offense to you.”
Apple came and stood close. “Do you mean…? Here.” She drew her knife from her belt and before Lizzie could shot for her to stop, Apple made a small cut on her own wrist. Then she clasped Lizzie’s arm so that their wrists touched. Lizzie stared.
“But— it’s like ‘blood brothers.’ That doesn’t work… does it?”
Taisia just tipped her head and waited. Lizzie drew her hand away. She flexed her fingers. They felt stiff, but the pain was gone. She turned her palm up: her skin was knitted together once more with only a thin pink line to show where the cut had been.
“We’ll be with you Lizzie. Blood to blood. You won’t be alone,” said Apple. Her eyes were glowing. Lizzie hugged her close. “Thank you.” She looked at them, “Thank you all.”
There was a noise from the tub. Bluebeard stirred. Lizzie squared her shoulders. “All right, I’m ready.”
Bluebeard’s 37th wife stripped off her dress and pulled on his clothes. She squashed the velvet hat with its broken black feather onto her head. Last of all she tied on his too-big shoes. Then she bid goodbye to her sisters, left the tower, and didn’t stop walking until she opened the front door and stepped out.
Leave a comment and tell me what you like, what images stand out, or your curious questions. (No suggestions/grammar critiques, please). Thanks for supporting my work-in-progress! -Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux