Had Lizzie been seeing normally, the shock of an old woman lifting off her head would have frozen her to the spot. But in the many refractions of her sisters’ eyes the whole thing happened in cascades. Everything filtered through this strange kaleidoscope that made it both less and more real.
So she took the head without hesitation, sat down on a nearby stool, and set to combing. Baba Yaga’s hands fidgeted in her lap, twitching like two crabs. How strange that she would give me her head. It isn’t very safe, is it? Lizzie wondered.
A kindness, said the voices, a strong magic that binds everything, a deeper truth.
Lizzie tumbled and sifted these words in her mind, but they were like pebbles dropped from hand to hand, over and over again. They were sounds, they were feelings. Her mind floated like this while her hands worked busily, slowly, steadily.
She could feel the importance of not yanking the witch’s hair, and she could feel the press of time. Baba Yaga had said nothing to her about how much or little of it she had, but Lizzie felt it still. It was the same way she had felt the currents of magic, like little lightning storms, out in the yard. But Baba Yaga’s hut was like a pressure cooker and she could feel the build begin.
She teased with the comb and worked the bigger items loose with her fingers. A small pile of twigs and pinecones and other detritus gathered on the floor by her chair. She worked at the matts; it would not have been possible with a lone, naked eye, but she saw each hair, could follow the path it wound around others and was able to undo its confusing steps.
The largest snarls were gone now and Baba Yaga’s hair stood out like a dandelion puff, but closer to the scalp it was tight as brambles. Lizzie was tempted to glance at the window, to spare just one of her many eyes to see how much time had passed, but she did not. Something wobbled on the shelf behind her and she nearly turned around but a hushing, in-drawn breath from the sisters stopped her.
She dug her fingers down into the witch’s hair. It was thick as fur, dense and wild as a wolf’s pelt, and nearly identical in color. She wriggled her fingers back and forth. There was a small sigh from her lap, and from the corner of her vision she saw the witch’s hands twitch as if to silence it. She bit back a smile and worked her fingers in deeper until she reached the scalp.
She massaged and pressed— there was a pattering by the door and Lizzie had to squint hard to stop herself from looking up. Baba Yaga’s hair grew; as each tangle loosened the halo expanded. Lizzie worked over half the scalp when she understood that the hairs were actually unravelling themselves; the curls were stretching, pulling straight and smooth.
The house tilted and lurched; Lizzie gripped the hair in her fists and only managed to stop herself from pulling hard in surprise. The splash of color in the window shifted, the room swayed in a clumsy rhythm, and then stopped: the house had moved, turned to face another corner of the yard. The witch’s hands twitched, almost pointing, almost tempting Lizzie to get up and look, to see what marvelous changes might be happening outside.
A kindness, a ferocity, said the sisters.
Lizzie was barely breathing now. Her breath swirled and fell back again. Every part of her was untangling the puzzle in her hands. Almost every part of her. As the pressure and focus built both without her and within her, one part of her attention kept dashing itself against the edges of her concentration like a fly against a pane of glass. I want to see what’s making that noise, it said.
There is no noise, Lizzie thought back. Then something small rattled on a shelf high up and to her left.
See, said the difficult voice. What is it? Could be something useful. She won’t notice.
Hush! Lizzie squinted so that her eyes were nearly closed. She worked her fingers quickly along the base of Baba Yaga’s head, kneading and freeing and smoothing. A second small moan escaped the witch’s lips, and the fingers snapped and the joints cracked.
There’s not much time, said the voice, you can feel it. Why sit there wasting time on an old lady’s hair? She can’t do anything without her head. You could toss it out in the yard, take whatever you want and go!
Why not?, whined the voice. Why won’t you ever do what we want to do? Why do you have to be so Good? Is that all you want?
Lizzie clenched her teeth and teased out the last tangle. She shook her head but said nothing. She picked up the comb and drew it quickly through the long silver-brown hair that cascaded in waves across her lap. Something rattled, something pattered, and the sewing basket began to wiggle, tinkling with pins and needles.
What if she won’t grant you a wish? What if this is our only chance? Don’t you care about yourself? Don’t you care about me? She’s using you— once you’re done she’ll put you in the pot and eat you up and—
Far in the distance came the sound of hoof beats. This set the voice to buzzing, to non-stop chatter that blurred and clattered with the wiggling, stuttering noises of the bits and bobs in the hut. Lizzie gritted her teeth to keep the sound out, closed her eyes completely and worked purely by feel. The house shifted under her. The sound of the galloping horse grew closer. Her fingers flew: over and under, again and again, braiding the long, thick hair.
She reached the end and jerked back with a shock: she had nothing to tie it with.
I told you! I told you! Said the voice. The house was shaking so much now that she felt she would break apart, fly in every direction. And then:
In the moment before the silence, she found a loose white thread at the hem of her shift and pulled.
As the red rider on the red horse leapt up over the hut, color so bright and hot that Lizzie could see their outline through her tight-shut lids, she cut the thread with her teeth.
At the very last second, just before the horse’s hooves cleared the peak of the roof, she twisted the thread around the end of the braid and let it fall.
And as the red light of sunset poured through the window and the ground shook with horse and rider’s impact, Lizzie placed the witch’s head carefully into her waiting, claw-like hands. And that was it— that was enough. It had to be.
She slumped in her chair, head aching and fingers throbbing.
Then Baba Yaga fitted her head back onto her shoulders, turned to look this way and that, and began to laugh.
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