She stooped to scoop the cluster of items up but Baba Yaga’s voice cut through like a shock.
“Oh, I don’t think so.”
Lizzie spun around. “But you said— the stew was hospitality, even I could see it wasn’t part of the debt!”
The witch cocked an eyebrow. “I sense you are very close to accusing the most powerful sorcerer in the known world of trickery, so I will do you a favor and stop you before you overstep the limits of my… kindness.” Here Lizzie grunted but kept her lips pressed shut. How could she have felt such kinship and respect for this woman only moments before and now want nothing more than to throttle her until her head rolled off?
Baba Yaga smiled. “It’s easy to see impassioned thoughts, but I can’t eat you and I’m ready to be done with you—”
“And you want your tub back,” cut in Lizzie.
“—So I will make this simple. It’s a privilege not many get, so be quiet and listen.” She pointed to the collection of objects at Lizzie’s feet. “You asked for what you needed and no more.”
“You only need seven items.”
Lizzie looked from the witch to the floor and back again. “Well then—“ she steadied her voice, “Well, then I think you must have forgotten something, because there are only six here. Or are you counting the stew?”
“I’ve already told you, the stew was the stew—“ Lizzie bit back that no, the witch hadn’t said any such thing— “You require seven items of magical power to assist you. You already have three.”
Lizzie opened her mouth to protest, then her hand flew to the slack pouch that hung at her hip: the feather, the fur, the scale.
“Yes,” nodded Baba Yaga. “So you must choose. And though I enjoy a fit of temper from time to time, I’ve meddled enough. This is entirely up to you.”
Lizzie dropped to a squat and stared at the pile on the floor: the mirror, the comb, the worn-out slippers, needle, thread, walnut. This is not what I expected, she thought. Then she snorted so that Baba Yaga narrowed her eyes: It’s been a long time since anything went as I expected it to. She fingered the items, picked them up and turned them over in her hands. I wonder…
“Thoughts are not hidden from me,” said the witch. She pursed her lips and Lizzie wondered if Baba Yaga had said more than she intended. She shrugged. She’s curious about what I’ll pick.
“All right. Well, I have three wild things already. Three promises of help, though I don’t know what that will be. And these things—“ she gestured to the floor, “they don’t look like anything special, but they must be.” She studied them and then looked over her shoulder at Baba Yaga. The witch looked away. Again, Lizzie picked things up and set them down, but when she held the mirror out at arm’s length she gasped and nearly dropped it.
“Careful!” growled Baba Yaga, but Lizzie wasn’t listening. She pointed into the reflection: The angle was such that she saw the witch in the circle of glass, but she was changing, fluid as candle smoke. She was old and bent with wild, matted hair; then she was a girl of twelve with two tight braids and a pinched look on her face; then a woman in her middle years whose back was straight and whose jaw was set: a woman who had seen things; it flashed between ages, and then— Lizzie spun around.
“You! You’re the wolf! You’re the raven and the salmon!” She gripped the mirror between white fingers.
“Utter nonsense,” replied the witch.
Lizzie pointed at the mirror, shoved it before the witch. “I saw it! I saw the wolf in here— it was you!”
“Child, get that out of my face. You are becoming ridiculous. I can turn into any creature that suits me, but that doesn’t mean I was one of your playmates.”
Lizzie stared at her, open-mouthed. “I don’t understand you. I know it was you, but…” she looked back to the mirror and shook her head. “I don’t understand why you won’t tell me. You’re allowed to be kind, to be helpful—“
“No, I’m not,” snapped the witch. “I’m Baba Yaga. I am the most powerful of all witches. I’m the keeper of the rising sun and the light of day and the dark of the night. I keep the balance of creation and destruction. I’m impartial and I am finicky as the winds. Don’t talk about things you don’t understand.”
Lizzie twisted her mouth to the side. “Well, I don’t believe you. And I don’t believe that you were ever satisfied to not understand something.” The witch’s black eyes flicked to Lizzie’s face, but she said nothing. Lizzie sighed. “Fine. I don’t have time to try to change a bitter opinion. And I understand how this works, I think.” She picked up the comb and held it before the mirror. Even with her premonition, what she saw thrilled her and made her scalp prickle.
Reflected in the mirror was a dense forest of black-trunked trees. They grew so closely together that a mouse could hardly have sneaked between them. A moment later the reflection turned to a rake, then back to a simple hair comb once more. Lizzie nodded and set the comb aside.
She picked up the worn sheepskin slippers, and they transformed into— Seven League Boots! Taisia’s voice rang out in Lizzie’s mind. “What?”
Baba Yaga grunted. “Seven leagues in every step. They’ve served me well.”
Lizzie turned back to the slippers with new respect.
The needle was more difficult to understand. It flashed for a moment as a shinging sword, but then was only a needle, nothing more, sewing all manner of things: fine cloth to canvas, even suturing a wound. Lizzie set it back down feeling she hadn’t grasped its importance.
But the lace’s value was immediately clear: it fluttered in an unseen wind and turned into a map! The flower curls of fine thread transformed into trees, the diamonds rose into mountains— and at the center of one of them there pulsed a bead of red. Lizzie looked up at the witch.
“Is that it? Is that his heart?”
Baba Yaga only grunted and looked away, but Lizzie felt the twitch of her mouth was as good as a yes. She traced the mountain and touched the spot of red, then yelped and drew her finger back and stuck it in her mouth. “Ow!”
Baba Yaga merely raised an eyebrow. “He’s a nasty one. I didn’t know much…” Lizzie slid the scrap of lace to one side: she would surely need that.
She picked up the walnut without much expectation, then dropped it so that it skittered across the floor and sent her diving for it. She held it up with a trembling hand to the mirror once more: it was no longer a tiny nut, but a cavernous trunk crammed to the top with dozens of pairs of ladies shoes.
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