The lights blazed from the open mouths and eye sockets. Lizzie froze where she stood and stared.
The fence stretched to either side, disappearing into a darkness that she now saw was dotted with more white-orange globes of flickering light. The fence posts were leg bones, from hip to foot. She assumed the shifting appearance was due to the guttering flames, but as she watched, one of the toes twitched and the fence shuffled and settled back into place. The gate was made of arms and hands that came together in a set of interwoven fingers. One of them un-laced itself and crooked at her. Lizzie glanced behind her; of course there was no one there. The finger beckoned again. She stepped closer— and immediately wished she hadn’t.
Hands shot out and grabbed her by the doublet, fleshless hands of time-bleached white. She stifled a scream and struggled against the grip. The skulls on the fenceposts turned to watch her. She twisted and turned, popped off a button wriggled free of the doublet entirely. She staggered back and panted for breath while the skeletal hands grabbed and pulled at the empty air and then contented themselves with wringing the sodden velvet so that it ran with water and blood and muck. The skulls clacked their teeth, and immediately the hands passed the cloth up and waved it before the gaping place where once a human nose had been. The flames burned brightly in the skulls’ eye sockets, and when both had been shown the doublet, they rotated and spoke as one.
“You come hidden in another’s clothing, stinking of another’s errand. If your only hope is to trick the mother of all witches, it is too late for you. The Great Baba Yaga will tear you to pieces, eat your flesh and stand your limbs here to guard the gates. Even now, it is too late.”
Lizzie felt a heaviness at her feet and looked down. To her horror, the ground was closing up over her ankles, covering her boots. Not my boots! She thought and yanked up hard. She tumbled free and fell— arms caught her, many arms— and again she was in the grip of the gate! She was in a mass of bodies: Taisia, Fabiana, Apple— he was crushing them all, spanning their bodies with his iron grip. The bones turned to blood, the white to red. She was back in the tower, back in the tub, torn to pieces, thrown to the bottom—
The skulls breathed out raspy puffs of smoke— they were laughing.
“Have mercy! Help me! You were human once, too!”
“None show mercy, dead or alive, unless they see some benefit for themselves. This is the law of nature,” said the bones.
The hands had her hair now, and the dirty white shirt, the pantaloons. She struggled and shrieked, unable to keep quiet. “It’s not true!” She heard the shirt rip, remembered the buttons on the pantaloons and struggled harder. “I helped! I helped and my horse of power helped.”
Again the skulls all around the fence laughed their smokey laughs. “We were liars, too, before we died. The fear of death takes decency first.”
“No!” Lizzie wrenched herself free with a great ripping sound. She tumbled over again, twisting one knee as she escaped the pantaloons. She leapt to her feet. She was wearing only her white shift now.
The skulls hissed but she was louder. “I have proof!”
They fell suddenly silent. She threw a hand to her chest and gasped for breath. “A raven, a wolf, a fish— I helped them all. Well, I helped two myself and my horse helped the third. Each gave me a token. Look in the pocket and see.”
Bony fingers fumbled at the doublet, wringing it and shaking it until the black feather, the gray-brown fur and the shimmering scale fluttered to the ground. There was a clattering and then silence.
“Is that proof enough for you? May I enter now?”
The skulls muttered and tongues of fire flicked out. “Goodness clothed in wickedness. How were we to know? Ours is anyone with debts against his soul. But goodness goes to the Yaga.” They clacked and clattered. Lizzie looked at the bones.
“Are you afraid?”
“May I pass?”
The feet beneath the fenceposts shuffled and shifted. “We will be punished.”
“But why? Oh, never mind. She won’t know— I won’t tell her.”
The teeth chattered. “She will hear it in our shrieking hinges. We are bound to tell the truth.”
Lizzie puzzled over this. At last she said, “But you have to let me in now?”
The skulls nodded. Their fires sank low and the clasped hands that locked the gate unwound themselves.
“Wait!” Lizzie spied her bag on the ground. It was only an empty sack now, but it had held the buttered bread and cheese. She turned it inside out. Even in the dim light, the cloth had an oily sheen. She walked up to the gate, hesitating at first, but it didn’t move. She found the hinges and rubbed the traces of butter into them. She massaged each joint until she was sure she had found them all, and the cloth was dull and dry. She nodded. “Now try it.”
The hands unlocked. The shoulders heaved. The bones clicked and ticked, but the gates swung silently open over the black ground. The flames leapt once more in the skulls.
“A kindness— a kindness!” Word spread in grating whispers around the yard. The way was open. She bent and picked up the three tokens from the ground. Bluebeard’s clothes were shredded and of no use. She put the feather, the fur, the scale in the bodice of her shift and stood up.
“A kindness, a kindness!” the bones whispered, though Lizzie couldn’t guess if this was encouragement, thanks or instruction. She could see nothing more than a bit if bare dirt in the circles of light cast on the fence posts. The skulls were watching her. She took a deep breath then she stepped through the gate.
READER RESPONSE: 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