Lizzie wiped her palms across her eyes. Her left hand throbbed. “The map, the sword, a way to see the true nature of things, and the boots. But…” She looked at the walnut.
“Like I said, first things first. You want the slippers, but what good are they if, how did he put it? They ‘have no feet to put shoes on?’”
Lizzie retched and swallowed hard. “But I promised them—“
“And you shall come to that when you come to it.”
“But I need—“
“Yes, but what do they need?” snapped the witch. “You want your shoes. You want this all to be over so you can go home and have everything be like it was before. Let me save you the time: it won’t. Nothing will be like it was. Because you are not like you were.” She inspected the girl. “You’re barely the same person. Hardly anything’s left.” When this made Lizzie sob anew, she rolled her eyes. She crouched down, and when she spoke her voice, though still gravelly, was softer. “I’m not the hugging type. So, please, Lizzie Jane Borden, I implore you, for the sake of yourself and many, many others, get up.”
Lizzie didn’t know how she got to her feet, but she stood, eye to eye with the witch. Her voice was small and tight, wrung out of her body. “Of course I want all this to be over and to go back to normal. But so do they— that’s what the rest of them want. And we need the shoes. I can’t leave the shoes.” She stood straighter. “The wolf! I can call the wolf! It carried me here and it said it would help me again!” She felt so light she wouldn’t have been surprised if she had started to float up from the floor. But Baba Yaga’s voice and steady stare pierced the balloon of Lizzie’s rising hope.
“The shoes are not as powerful as you think. You’ve outgrown them, certainly, and many if not all of the others have, too.” She held up a gnarled hand and stopped Lizzie from interrupting. “I know. Someone told you you had to have them. But how did you get out without them? Was it impossible?”
“No. But it was hard. It hurt.”
Baba Yaga raised an eyebrow. “Was it the greatest pain you’d ever experienced? Were you ripped open, rent apart?” Lizzie looked away, down at the floor. “This is a time for the truth, Lizzie Borden. You came into this with your eyes closed to everything you didn’t want to see. Tell the truth now. Say it— say what you knew from the beginning.”
Lizzie closed her eyes. Her stomach ached and she swayed like a slim poplar in a great wind, but inside there was relief. It spiraled up through her core, pushed past the tight-clamped denial, squeezed past her ribs, bumped and nudged at her throat until she had to give in and take a breath, and it came out of her, a wheeze of bad air with it:
“I knew I shouldn’t go with him. I knew it was dangerous. I knew…”
“You knew it would be your death.” Baba Yaga nodded. “But the knowing was deep in the core, and you lived here:” she ran her finer over Lizzie’s bare arm. Lizzie shuddered with the electricity kindled in the touch. The witch wagged the same finger at her.
“You seem smart enough, though, and stubborn enough. Save yourself some time and don’t regret a moment of it. And certainly don’t blame the flesh.” She gripped Lizzie’s wrist so her palm faced out, and held her own hand close to it. A moment later a blue heat began to build between their palms; it shocked and sparked, a current that snapped through invisible tracks in Lizzie’s body. “This is never to blame. It’s simply no good to only live here, an ant, thinking the whole world is a crumb of dirt.” She pushed her fingers against Lizzie’s breastbone and— Lizzie gave a gurgling gasp— through her breastbone; she caressed some inner workings of Lizzie’s chest and the girl swooned. But part of her mind registered that though it was horrifying, it didn’t hurt. But oh, it was strange!
“If you want to come out of this more than you were before, if you want your scars to be not a burden but a blessing, you will have to go deeper.”
Lizzie’s mind, which if she had ever thought to describe it before would have seemed to her most like a vast and echoey room, was now a press of blood and flesh: the pump of her heart through her veins; the skipping, zinging currents underneath her skin that sent messages of cold, hot, danger, good; and something else, something like a story: an inheritance.
Baba Yaga withdrew her fingers and Lizzie came back to the outer world with a lurch. She saw with a start that her outstretched and steadying hand rested on the witch’s bony chest: two fingers, like a master hunter’s arrow or a healer’s blessing, right at her heart.
She stared at the witch. Her body felt hot— not the consuming, subsuming flood she had felt in her marriage bed, but not so unlike it either. It was a new kind of desire, one that had nothing to do with the singular person before her and everything to do with …
“I don’t know what to call this,” Lizzie breathed. The atmosphere in the little cottage was dense, rich, swirling; every particle of sound, every puff of breath, even every swirling thought curled and uncurled, eddied and moved around them and in and out of them. “I’ve never—“ she stopped; the silt of the air settled and cleared, and she looked at the witch.
“I have felt this before.”
Baba Yaga nodded. “Of course you have. But now you remember.”
Lizzie nodded, too. She looked at her two fingers, still connected to the witch, and lifted them away with a small sigh. It was like being just newly awake, or being aware she was dreaming— that was the closest she could come to putting it into words, and she kept the words to herself so as not to break the spell. But the yaga knew all the same.
“This is why you must leave the shoes and take my Seven League Boots instead. Going back to the old way of living will only set you back— all of you. You are at a crossroads, and though I don’t care especially for you— “ she said it without venom— “I care for the Balance. You think you and your sisters have already given much. Why should that mean you should not give more? What was the fight for if not to make it all better, truer, right?
“Take the boots, girl, and deal with the matter of old soles later, when the world isn’t about to end.”
Lizzie’s eyebrows raised. “Is it ending?”
Baba Yaga shrugged. “The Mother of All Witches is entitled to a dramatic flair now and then. Ah— here comes the Bringer of Midnight. You have half the darkness and all of the light to finish your task. Make your choice and begin.”
Hoofbeats shuddered the ground, rumbled up through Lizzie’s bones, sending that same buzz through her joints. The house moved and shifted on its chicken feet, but Lizzie weathered it like a sailor on a ship, like a trick horse rider standing on the saddle. All the thoughts and fears sloshed around inside her, too; all the worries and opinions about who was right, what she should take, but she held her balance, anticipated the undertow of despair. She looked at Baba Yaga.
“I will take your advice: the lace, the mirror, the needle… and the boots.”
The witch arched an eyebrow. “You’ve decided to trust me?”
Lizzie shook her head and smiled. “I’ve decided to trust myself. You just happen to be right.”
“Well, that’s a small comfort,” said the witch, but Lizzie felt certain she was pleased. Baba Yaga had no use for a stranger’s adoration— and, Lizzie felt surprised to think it— neither did she. But she respected the witch, and a decision had to be made… and, though it churned up that nervous slough around the island of her steady heart, this was the choice she made for herself and for all of them.
The rider on the black horse leapt over the hut. The air hung silent but for the whistling of speed. Lizzie picked up the objects that would, she hoped, seal a fortunate fate, and stepped into the old leather slippers.
The rider landed. The ground exploded. Lizzie stumbled and took a step forward, and Baba Yaga’s hut was gone.
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