She rolled to her side and gripped her head with a moan. The room was spinning— no, it was the house itself, whirling on its chicken legs. She squinted and looked up.
Baba Yaga stood in the center of the hut, legs wide as a mountain, arms out, palms up. Her hair crackled with energy, gold and blue and flashing. All around an unseen wind lifted, rocked, turned, toppled every item on every shelf. Cupboard doors and hidden crannies banged open and the contents of the witch’s store of magic charms and enchanted objects flew into view and orbited around her.
The house whirled, the air spun, the clutter of items grew denser. Lizzie flattened herself on the floor and closed her eyes. She felt ill. She could no longer tell if it was she who was stationary with the whole world spinning and tilting, or vice versa. Just when she thought she would be sick, it all stopped. The house dropped two feet, there was a great crash, and Lizzie was pelted.
“‘Gimme, go away.’ That’s how it goes every time. If I wasn’t bound— what a trial mortals are.” Lizzie felt a bony foot nudge her hip. “Get up. I’m not running a hotel and you don’t require a place to stay for the night.”
Lizzie pushed herself up and looked around. The worn wooden floorboards were strewn with objects— more than she could possibly carry.
“Is… is this all that I require?” she asked.
Baba Yaga cackled. “All this? You flatter yourself. You haven’t attracted all of it. Gravity did most of it.” Lizzie stared at her. “Oh, all right.” The witch snapped her fingers and more than half the detritus on the floor flew or scurried or otherwise picked itself up and put itself away. When the scuffling quieted there remained: the mirror, the comb, a walnut, a pair of very worn-out sheepskin slippers, a glinting silver needle, and a spool of graying thread. Lizzie furrowed her brow and at last looked up at the witch.
The pot in the fireplace rattled. Baba Yaga shot it a look, but the ladle only banged more loudly against the side. She sighed loudly and dropped into her chair, arms crossed. “I owe you a hospitality.” Her lips pulled back from her iron teeth as if the word put a bad taste in her mouth. “Stew’s in the kettle. Bowls are in the cupboard.” She flicked her finger over her head and a cabinet on the wall banged open revealing a single porcelain bowl. When Lizzie didn’t get up Baba Yaga snarled, “The laws of hospitality only demand so much. I am a witch. So move yourself or go hungry.”
The stab of hunger had muted itself to a throbbing ache in her middle, but now it flared back to full force and Lizzie groaned. She stood shakily up, clutching at the bench beside her, and stepped carefully around the assortment of apparently magical items. Baba Yaga said nothing while she ladled the stew, not even when she managed to remember manners enough to ask if the witch wouldn’t like some as well (this was answered with a hiss and a brooding stare in the other direction). When she had eaten three bowls, and was so full she regretted her last helping, her mind felt much clearer. She swiped the brown residue from the side of the white bowl with her finger and studied the items on the floor: the mirror and comb she could sense the value of, or, the magic of; hadn’t the mirror shown a very different reflection when Baba Yaga had held it up? Maybe the mirror had made the change in the witch more than Lizzie’s combing. The walnut she had a niggling feeling about— some story or promise or nursery rhyme she’d heard as a child. But the others: the needle, thread and slippers…
She looked up. Baba Yaga was watching her and turned her face away. No, she wasn’t looking at me, she was looking at the bowl. She held it up and took a closer look herself. There was something familiar about it, which was odd, since it was only a bowl— only a bowl! You’re in a witch’s hut! Think! She ran her fingers over the rim, turned it over: there was a blackened marking of a chicken’s foot. She tapped her fingernail against the side of the bowl and thought. She could feel Baba Yaga watching her now, looking from her to the bowl and back. She tapped again.
And then her vision swam: there was the tower, there, blurred at the edges of her vision were the women, and there, in the center, was the porcelain tub. Lizzie’s head snapped up and she looked the witch full in the face.
“It’s yours, isn’t it? That’s your tub up in the tower.” Rage filled her. “How could you? How could you? And you’re a woman.”
Baba Yaga rose like a serpent from her chair and towered over Lizzie, but Lizzie was too angry to feel afraid, and she stood too, level with the Mother of All Witches.
“What difference does that make? Why should I be good? Because instead of the sword I am built of the cup? Because a man expects soft pleasure between my legs? Because my breast can suckle a dozen babes?” Her eyes blazed and her hair crackled in blue-violet and sparks of gold around her. “Is that all? I will fight and stab and cut. I will seize pleasure where I find it. And I will sup from myself and need no other’s nourishment.
“You are a child— and only a lucky one. You don’t know a thing beyond what you’ve been taught. You see what they tell you to see: the preacher, your husband, your father.” She spat into the hearth and the fire blazed green. “You don’t even know your own sex— the power of it on its own. The magic of it.” She shook her head. “I do. I have tested it and tried it, and I have become the Baba Yaga.”
Lizzie leaned back as if in a strong wind. The torrent, the storm of the witch’s words stung, tore at her as if to rip her thin shift to scraps. But this was not an unjust beating, a smack with a ruler for asking a question of the traveling minister, a look of fury from Bluebeard.
Baba Yaga pulled back and stared hard at her. Then, “Yes. I am,” and she sat back in her chair.
Lizzie sank to her bench. “I don’t know. But I’m learning. I’m paying attention.” She laughed and the sound surprised her. “I’m here in your hut! That’s something.” Baba Yaga made a tiny nod. They sat in silence.
“But it is your tub in his tower, isn’t it?”
Baba Yaga snorted, but there was pain in it. “Of course it is. He’d have no magic at all without me.” Her iron teeth clenched and released and clenched again. She looked at Lizzie. “There was a time when I didn’t know enough either.”
Lizzie nodded. “Well, when I’m done with him, it will still be yours. I’ll give it back.”
Baba Yaga looked sharply at her. “Why? More good manners? Keep it, then.”
Lizzie cocked an eyebrow. “No, as a matter of fact. I’ll give it back because I can.” She stood. “I thank you for the food. Now I’ll be taking what I need and be going.”
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