“This—this—“ Lizzie couldn’t get the words out. She set the mirror down for fear of smashing it, her hands were that unsteady. But she held onto the walnut, suddenly more precious to her, even, than the map. Baba Yaga watched her with a sidelong glance.
Lizzie tried to collect herself, but she was overcome. She sat back and stared at the treasure in her hands. Her heart shook in her chest, and from all corners of her inner world she heard and felt her sisters, all the women held captive for so long— and she trembled and cried for each of them, for the sudden and surprising hope that it was possible, that they would all be free.
She picked up the mirror again and carefully tilted it so that the nut revealed its true nature. Her visions split and every one of them was looking through Lizzie’s eyes, searching, searching for her own slippers, for her own promise of freedom. Lizzie tilted the nut this way and that so that the shoes slid and rearranged themselves: and there were hers, plain and worn and still muddy from the field, but hers. She had never seen anything so beautiful.
Baba Yaga tsked but Lizzie ignored her. It felt so good to feel so much hope! And she felt it in the rest of them— how thin they had worn themselves in the two days she’d been gone, in their long imprisonment in the tower.
And then there was a snap and Lizzie’s vision shot back into a single focus. She reeled back. Her head ached and her eyes danced with black spots. She shook her head, shook it like a dog just come out of the water, but the pressure built.
“Trouble,” breathed the witch. Then Bluebeard spoke.
His voice was black and crushing as a cave deep under rock. It rang in her ears, but close, with no echo. His whisper-growl was as loud as a shout and it sent convulsions up her spine, made her stomach clench and heave, set her teeth on edge.
“I’m not your wife!” Lizzie unballed her fists and pressed her hands over her ears, but it didn’t stop the sound from touching her. Every word ran over her skin and it was as if she was naked, back in their bedroom again. She thrashed on the floor and felt the yaga pry the mirror and the nut from her hands.
You have disobeyed me, wife. Disobeyed me greatly. You have sinned against me, and you have drawn all your fellow whores with you. You will be punished, and so will they, and you will see that it would have been better to stand still and let me slit your throat. Your suffering will be greater because you tried to save them. They are whole, but they won’t be for long.
“Stop it! Stop it!” Lizzie screamed. She threw herself against the witch’s chair, tumbled sideways, clawed at her own face, but she didn’t feel it. The raking of his words inside her was far worse.
Which one shall I choose first?
Lizzie heard a cry and her vision fractured. Multiple views from inside the tower slid back and forth, and she felt all their hearts racing.
It was Taisia. She was seeing Taisia in a dozen refractions. And standing behind her with his naked arm clamped around her neck was Bluebeard. He scanned the watchers. He knew, somehow, that she was seeing him through them, and he made good use of it.
He flipped something in his free hand and caught the whirl of glinting silver easily: the dagger.
“No! How did he get a knife?”
We’re sorry! A chorus of voices cried. We saw the shoes— we looked away, all of us at once. We’re sorry!
Lizzie wept where she crouched on the floor. She squeezed her eyes shut but it was not use, she could still see him: he pressed the knife to Taisia’s neck. Her eyes bulged even wider and Lizzie gasped for breath with the rest of them. Then, quite suddenly, he spun the girl out away from him and caught her wrist in his hand. The knife flashed in one quick motion and Lizzie cried out in pain and clutched at her left hand.
“What is it?” muttered the yaga. “I can’t see it clearly— too many feelings.”
Lizzie gasped and rocked. “Her hand— he’s cut off her finger.”
Lizzie stared at her. “What does it matter? You are as heartless as he is!”
“Something to discuss another time,” said the witch, still keeping her voice low. “Which one?”
In answer, Lizzie held out her hand. The left ring finger had turned a sickly black, as bad as gangrene. Baba Yaga sucked in her lips and thought. She shook her head. “Best to keep listening.”
Lizzie forced herself to set the pain aside and push down the panic both for Taisia and herself. Bluebeard was talking.
Did you hear me, wife? You have until sunset to return. Sacrifice yourself or I’ll take every finger. I’ll cut the tongue from her head. He addressed the crowd. Tell this ‘sister’ of yours to give up. See how many there are of you, and still I am stronger. Still I am the master. If she returns before the day is done, you will lose only your tongues. Lizzie saw dozens of wicked grins. Tell her if she fails to return or comes too late you won’t have feet left to put into shoes.
There was another scream in Lizzie’s head, and she echoed it until her throat was raw. She snatched at her hand again: now the little finger had turned black and she knew Taisia was missing two.
“Oh God, oh God,” she cried.
“Hush. God’s got nothing to do with this. If he’s done making proclamations and giving you headaches then get up.”
“You’re cruel,” Lizzie wept.
“Oh yes, cruel. That’s what they call me. You’re the cruel one: looking but not doing. Do you think you have all the time in the world? You know the sacrifices made every minute you delay.”
Lizzie hugged her knees to her chest. Her entire body ached. “You don’t care. You’re the witch. You don’t get involved. So shut up and leave me alone.”
The witch snapped her teeth. “Under other circumstances, that breach of my hospitality would have gotten you eaten. Instead I’m going to help you pick your tokens. Even the Baba Yaga has preferences, and I’ve had enough of this Bluebeard.” She spat and this time the fire sparked purple. “And you’re right, I want my porcelain tub back.”
It was this deadpan, almost childish admission that pulled Lizzie out of her despair. She actually laughed. The witch eyed her wryly until she was done. Lizzie felt like a husk of a person, as if her insides had been gouged out. She rubbed a hand across her stomach.
“I haven’t felt like that since…”
“How about after you kill him you come back here and we talk it all out over a cup of tea?”
Baba Yaga snorted. “First things first: kill the bastard. For that you’ll need the lace, the needle, the mirror, and I recommend the Seven League Boots.”
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