Lizzie shook and her breath, once so steady and golden, jerked in her body. Exhaustion pressed down on her, a sheath, a funeral shroud sewed tight so that her limbs could not lift, so that her eyes could not open.
But they did open, just the tiniest bit. In all that despair there was still hope.
Baba Yaga was patting her head, running her gnarled and knobby fingers over the silvery braid that hung halfway down her back. And as she did so, her fingers looked less crooked to Lizzie. The witch sat straighter, her eyes grew brighter, or— Lizzie couldn’t quite tell. She was sure the witch was changing, looking less terrible and terrifying, but even as she had the thought she felt it slipping away from her. Baba Yaga was so captivating in each moment that all memories of how she might or might not have looked the moment before were pushed from Lizzie’s mortal head.
Baba Yaga threw back her head and stood up— reaching a fuller height than Lizzie had remembered. She faced the pale, worn girl before her and grinned: her teeth were still made of flashing iron, a truth that was like a dousing of cold water.
“Get up, girl, and bring me my mirror so I may see what you have done.”
Lizzie stood and handed her the mirror that quivered on the mantle; the silver glass zapped and buzzed against her fingertips with a mysterious cool heat. The witch held the mirror out and took a long look. As she studied herself, Lizzie studied her: Baba Yaga’s eyes narrowed, but not with disapproval. She tilted her head this way and that and did nothing but smile until she flipped the end of her braid over her shoulder. Then she let out a shriek.
“Wickedness hidden in goodness! You’ve tricked me! Who told you, girl?” She spat and steamed, positively radiated fury like a boiling kettle. Lizzie stepped back and bumped against the stone hearth.
“I— I didn’t—“ then something made her snap her mouth shut. Baba Yaga fumed and raged. She stomped and kicked. Trinkets and books fell from shelves and shattered or broke their bindings, reformed and sprang back up again. The arm chair shuffled quickly sideways to avoid a kick from the witch’s bony foot. Even the house shifted side to side. When the witch grew quiet again she reminded Lizzie very much of a horse worked into a lather. She opened her mouth, thought better of it, and crossed the small room to the basin of water on the shelf. She dipped the dipper and brought it to the witch who hissed, sulky as a child, but accepted it and drank it down. Lizzie sat once more on the bench and waited. Baba Yaga was every stage of life and death rolled into one, each taking turns on the surface; when she spoke again, she had regained some of her ancientness.
“You’ve bound me, girl. A trick so old and simple that if I could feel shame I would hate myself.” She lifted her head and looked with dagger-sharpness at the girl before her. “But that is a waste of poison that only mortal flesh indulges. And so I tip my hat to you,” at these words a battered leather hat with a wide brim flew from a hook; she twirled it in her long fingers and released it again, and it flew back to its perch like an ungainly pet bird. “Bluebeard’s wives have never made it beyond the boundary, never lived to tell the tale.” She spat into the fire and it blazed green and purple. “But you have— and you’ve held some purity within yourself, and now you’ve bound me with it. What is it you wish?”
Lizzie raised her eyebrows and blinked back at the witch. “I—“
The witch’s eyebrows lifted even higher. “You didn’t know? Well, luck is indeed on your side.” She pulled at her braid and waved the feathered end. Lizzie’s white thread shone bright as starlight. “I’m in your debt until you cut this cord, Lizzie Borden, the thirty-sixth Mrs. Bluebeard (though no more legitimate than any before you). So, let us begin. It does not suit the Mother of All Witches to be Bound. What is it you want?”
Lizzie took a deep breath and thought hard. The witch waited, but it was an itching, impatient wait that pestered Lizzie like black flies. She shook her head, tried to hear her sisters back in the tower, tried to think of the wisest possible request. And then, her eyes flew open and she looked back at the witch.
“Baba Yaga, you are the Mother of All Witches. You are the wisest and most cunning person I have ever met. Where I guess, you know. You know my errand already—“ here the witch smiled in spite of herself— “If you were I, what would you ask for?”
Baba Yaga’s smile soured. She drew herself up in her chair, lips pursed once more. Lizzie squinted. “Would you like me to stroke your hair for a while?”
“Oh, you might as well! I hate this! Hate, hate, hate!”
Lizzie stood behind the chair and drew her fingers gently through the smooth silver-black hair, letting her nails work against the scalp. Baba Yaga purred like a cat. “That’s better. Gone are the days when maidens respect witches. I used to receive tributes! I was consulted, valued! But the world only sees warts and wrinkles. I am not beautiful enough for them…”
“Beauty can be a problem,” said Lizzie, without stopping to think if it was the right thing to say or not. She was equally hypnotized by the rhythmic glide of her hands in the witch’s hair.
But Baba Yaga agreed. “Too, true! Good looks attract brutes like honey attracts flies. But it’s manners that make the trap.”
Baba Yaga waved her hand as if the answer was obvious. “What woman will leave a husband who hits her? It isn’t proper. Better to keep a secret, wear a veil. No— they come asking for beauty, but they never come asking for wits. And then they’re trapped and they can’t leave.”
Lizzie let her fingers lift and fall, lift and fall. At last: “I’ve left.”
Baba Yaga jerked her head up and looked at her. “Oh. Yes. I’d forgotten already. Well, Bluebeard is a fine mess— worse than most, but not by so much. Hmph. Well— what do you want?”
Lizzie waited: left hand, right hand, left hand— she stopped with her right hand hovering over the witch’s head. Baba Yaga grunted. “Go on.” Nothing. “Oh! All right. You ought to ask for what you need to finish the job, whatever that is, and nothing more. Now get back to combing, girl.”
But Lizzie remained motionless. The kaleidoscope sight was back, sudden as a flash of sun through a prism, and all the other women were pointing, looking, urging her to ask for this item or that item: the walnut, the comb, a knife, a spyglass, a ball of yarn, a murky jar of something that might be a terrible poison, a lucky charm, a lock of hair… Lizzie pressed her hands to her ears and closed her eyes. They don’t understand— hush. Hush!
It was quiet. It was silent as the edge of death, the whole world waiting to hear if a final breath will be drawn. Then Lizzie knew. She sucked in air through her teeth and spoke carefully, slowly; a magic golden chain of words and wishes that would seal her fate and save them all.
“I wish for what I need to end Bluebeard’s magic and restore all who have been under his power.”
The words hung in the air a moment like motes of dust. She watched them, the witch watched them, every knick knack and pot and stick of firewood watched them. Then they swirled and dove like an arrow, like the blade of a knife into the white, white thread.
The thread snapped, Baba Yaga’s exploded from its braid and Lizzie slammed into the shelf behind her, felt a splitting pain in the back of her head, and everything went black.
Thanks for supporting my work-in-progress! Please leave a comment:
- What do you like?
- What stands out?
- What are you curious about?
- (No suggestions/grammar critiques, please).
-Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux