The ground began to thunder and shake before her bare heel had even met the ground. She ducked instinctively and a blaze of white shot over her: a horse and rider so dazzling she could only squint from where she crouched. They streaked across the yard leaving daylight in their wake, jumped the fence on the far side, and were gone.
Lizzie took a slow breath and stood up. The sky above was bright blue as a new dawn. The fires in the skulls had gone out or grown too faint to be seen.
A short house with a thatched roof and rust-red walls stood on three over-sized chicken legs stood in the yellow-speckled yard. There was no one about. The house shifted and one of the three legs scratched the back of another leg. It took a few steps and settled itself once more. But besides that— and if she did not look closely at the white fence— it seemed like a perfectly normal little homestead out in the back country.
Except for the buzz and crackle of magic in the air. It couldn’t be anything else. It felt not unlike a gusty and inconsistent wind, making the hairs on the backs of her arms stand up and then just as suddenly lie flat again. It was a place for anyone to be on their guard.
She crossed the yard, looking left and right all the time, pausing at each burst of hair-raising energy that swirled invisibly into her. And then she was at the door.
But a few feet below the door, raised up as the house was. She reached up, hesitated for a moment, and then a gust of prickly magic pushed her and she rapped against the old wood harder than she had meant to do. She stepped quickly back, but the house shuffled forward. The rust-red door swung inward and three worn wooden steps unfolded, like a tongue, and waited for her to ascend.
Lizzie looked back, but there was no one to see— the skulls were blank and silent, the animals had left her long ago, and her sisters— they were worlds away. She pressed a hand to her heart but felt nothing. I wish they would speak to me. What if the blood magic isn’t working anymore? Or what if— She stopped herself. If she was alone in all this now, it wouldn’t help her to dwell on it. But it mattered, so she whispered. “I’m at Baba Yaga’s hut. I’m going in now. Wish me—“
“Well then come in,” said a voice, harsh and rasping as an old iron file.
Lizzie jumped, and to her surprise her feet wouldn’t move backwards but planted themselves on the first step.
“Have you come this far to waste time now? You’re letting all the air out!” The steps flipped upward and Lizzie catapulted through the open doorway, which closed with a bang behind her. She sat up and rubbed at her head where a goose egg was already forming, and looked around.
It was hot and stifling in the little cottage. The walls were hung with all manner of things: pots and roots and something shriveled that Lizzie looked hurriedly away from. Baba Yaga saw her flinch and laughed: it raised the hairs on Lizzie’s head. Her laugh stabbed the air like a pitchfork throws hay.
Without meaning to, Lizzie looked at her, at the Mother of All Witches.
She was short and square-faced. Her shoulders were broad for such a small frame, and her hips, too. She had a bump on her nose, and a notable chin. A frizz of gray-streaked hair reached like brambles from under her kerchief. Her clothes were plain: worn reds and grays and browns with here and there a fleck of patterned blue. All this, Lizzie saw in an instant— and then her gaze was drawn, iron filings to a magnet, to the old woman’s eyes.
They were dark, beetle-black, set deep in the wrinkles of her brown face. But they missed nothing. They were both far younger and far older than the rest of her appeared. They were what gave her away as a witch: there was a danger in them, a warning, and in this case, a desire for challenge.
“Ho, ho! A virgin maid sent as sacrifice to Old Mother!” She clapped her hands together and then sniffed. “No, not quite so lily-white after all.” She leaned closer. Lizzie froze where she was; all power of movement had left her. Baba Yaga studied her, and Lizzie had never felt so seen, so laid bare. A nakedness that had nothing to do with her insufficient shift came over her, and she felt herself blushing.
Baba Yaga snorted. “As if I haven’t seen more than this! So, you’ve spent time with Bluebeard, have you? I suppose you’ve come to beg for your shoes.”
Lizzie’s surprise broke the iron grip on her tongue. “Shoes? You have our shoes?”
The witch’s eyes narrowed. “It is not my custom to give away answers before they’re asked for. Why are you here? What do you want?”
Lizzie was about to say she was here to find Bluebeard’s heart, but something stopped her.
A kindness, a kindness.
She looked at Baba Yaga, brown as a walnut and hard as steel, and dropped her gaze. “I’m intruding on you and your hospitality. May I do something for you?”
“Ha! As if I needed anything from you! From any of the many who come here looking for wishes or answers. I don’t give my favor to anyone— good deeds or no.”
“I didn’t say it would be a good deed,” Lizzie snapped. “I just offered to be helpful.”
Baba Yaga looked at her, and Lizzie waited. She didn’t know what had made her so rash— the long journey, her hunger, or the whole terrible story of her life since she left home. But the witch didn’t strike. She rubbed a yellow-nailed finger across her whiskery chin and considered.
“I could have you pick lentils from ashes. I could make you gather pearls strewn in the meadow. I could show you three maidens sleeping as if dead and ask you to determine which ate honey before she began to dream. But these are only tricks, tests which hardly amuse me anymore.” She narrowed her eyes. “It is not my job to tell you anything, least of all what you can do for me. Offer me something that pleases me and I’ll grant you one wish, or jump in the pot and I will waste no time making a meal of you.”
Lizzie’s heart punched in her throat, but her mind was detached, light as a balloon, and calm. She saw everything in that little hut all at once— and in that moment she felt her sisters: every one of them was loaning her their eyes so that the room refracted, the colors concentrated, and certain elements stood out: a walnut on a high shelf, the slippers that stood by the door, the sewing basket by the fireplace— and a cracked mirror and wooden comb on the mantle. Each of these swirled around in her mind. Each seemed important. But which one?
In answer, the mirror and comb clattered to the floor. The mirror shattered into a dozen pieces, Baba Yaga let out a cry, and the shards flew back together. But instead of the items returning to their place above the fire as she clearly intended them to do, they twitched on the floor, waiting.
Lizzie looked at her. In the refracted light she noticed now that the witch’s hair was matted and snarled and riddled with burs and twigs. It was clear: “Let me comb your hair, granny.”
Baba Yaga snarled, but sat herself down in the rocking chair. Lizzie was about to say it would be difficult to do the task while she sat in such a high-backed chair, when the witch reached up and pulled off her own head.
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