They camped on the lawn in the shade of the stable which, though worn and weathered, was still standing. It was a mild morning, though none could guess what season it was. Eldest— Joanna— settled (or at least quieted) the argument as they lay wrapped in horse blankets from the stable.
“It’s spring. I don’t care if we never saw winter. Look how small the leaves are. It’s spring coming close to summer.”
“Planting time,” said Lizzie, quietly.
Apple— Magda— lay next to her and shifted closer. “What’s that?”
“Planting time. It’s when… when I left. A year ago.”
Magda was quiet, then said, “Or ten years ago. Who can say? This has been a strange place.”
Voices murmured. Conversations rose and fell, and before the birds had fully woken up, they were asleep.
Lizzie dreamed of her brothers, and of Baba Yaga. The witch kept pulling on her skirt and she kept trying to catch up to Jacobi and Hescher who were out in a field with their regiment.
“Listen to me,” said Baba Yaga, “I have things to tell you. It’s not wise to ignore a witch when she visits your dreams.”
“Go away. I don’t want to know whatever it is. I’m going home. Hescher! Jacobi,” she shouted, “wait for me!”
“You think I’m trying to stop you— I only have words—“
“As if I don’t know the power of words!” Lizzie looked at her, then turned back in irritation— her brothers were farther from her now and she struggled against Baba Yaga’s bony grip. “Hescher! Jacobi! It’s me, Lizzie!”
“Just hush a moment before every creature Below hears you and comes running.”
Lizzie felt a chill and looked at her. “What?”
The witch cocked her eyebrows. “Oh, you think you can just waltz into the Underworld and then waltz out again and no one will notice? I happen to have heard that there’s a certain blind ogre crashing into things and making quite a ruckus, not to mention a disarmed golem and a grieving chimera who thinks you’ve stolen one of her babies.”
“But— I had to!”
“Hmm. Well, that’s something you can be sure no one will agree upon. Someone always has to do something, don’t they? And there are consequences in Above, Below and in the Middle.”
Lizzie rubbed her temple which was beginning to ache. “I don’t understand you. You’re not making sense.” She turned back to the golden field, but it was empty. The soldiers were only a cluster of gray and red in the distance, ready to march over the horizon to serve their king. “No, wait—“ she turned back to the witch. “You’ve made me miss them!”
“You’re dreaming, child.”
“Then go away and let me sleep, old woman. You have no reason to be here.”
Baba Yaga pursed her lips. Lizzie felt Magda shift against her, sensed the warm cocoons of bodies sleeping heavily around her own restless figure.
“All right, get it out. Satisfy yourself and then please go away and let me sleep!”
“Here’s the thing, Lizzie Borden, you’ve started something.” She held up her hand and went on. “You’ve called on animal guides and walked Below. There’s talk that you’ll find a door and walk down that path again.” Lizzie sputtered but the witch continued. “Whether you do or don’t, things will be different for you. Go back to your old life, go find your dear brothers— you’ve earned that right. But I’m telling you as a favor that you’re marked. You’ve seen and done things that leave a sheen on a person. Oh, not that kind,” she said when Lizzie looked down at her bare arms. “I can see it, and there are others as can, too. You’ll be surprised at first who notices it; who visits you, who asks for advice.” Baba Yaga looked thoughtful. “It always begins without your realizing. And then…” She stirred herself and remembered the girl before her.
“I’m telling you this so you don’t waste your life thinking you’re different than you are. You may as well been born riding a goat, a wooden spoon in your hand.” Lizzie stared at her. “No? Well, that story worked when the old witch explained things to me. What I mean to say is that you’re marked—“
“Yes, you’ve said that, but what—“
“It means that from here on out you will see things and hear things that others won’t. Either they can’t or they’re too dull or scared to keep their eyes open. And as such you will live a life that is unlike most others.”
Lizzie squinted at her. “But like some? Like some who live in huts that run about on chicken legs? Is that what you’re trying to say? That I’m doomed to be a witch?”
Baba Yaga scoffed. “Doomed? Certainly not! Not gauranteed, either. I’m saying there is a key in your hand, girl, and there are doors that it opens. So don’t sit at home darning your husband’s stockings your whole life, eh?” She turned to go and Lizzie felt the heaviness of sleep pull on her shoulders.
“Oh, I nearly forgot,” added the witch unconvincingly, “tell the others if they want the shoes, well, they are free to come and fetch them.”
“You… won’t eat them?” asked Lizzie dozily, struggling to get the words to line up.
“Eat them? Who ever heard of a witch eating shoes!” And Baba Yaga faded into a pearly white world of sleep.
When Lizzie woke she was alone, but a dress was laid out beside her. It gave her a start, a terrible jolt, and for just a second she was back in the bedchamber. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to breathe steadily through the horse-scented blanket.
Lizzie opened her eyes again: Magda and Joanna were hurrying over. Well, Magda was hurrying. Joanna strode and then waited while Magda explained.
“Jo’s been organizing things. At first we didn’t want to search through the rubble, but she insisted, and we found some of our things as well as food. It seems the rooms he didn’t go in weren’t so badly damaged. Bri and the others were able to dig into the pantry and made up some soup. And— well, we’ll show you, but first you must have a bath.”
“A bath? Is the bathroom still standing?” Lizzie peered around Magda’s round shoulder at the heap of stone over which a half dozen figures walked.
“Goodness, no! Come one, I’l show you!”
Three minutes later Lizzie was stripped and in the horse trough. There was the comforting smell of woodsmoke nearby, and one of the servants hurried over with a glowing stone gripped in a currier’s tool.
“Careful, Miss,” she said and dropped the rock into the instantly bubbling water.
Lizzie soaked and scrubbed, and Magda helped wash her hair. When at last she was clean and dry and dressed again, she remembered the dream visit from Baba Yaga.
Joanna nodded at the news. “That answers one question, then. I’ve been wondering what to tell them. Do they go home? What if they don’t want to— or can’t? For some of us, it’s been years.” She held out her arms. “I was the first, Lizzie. And if he took a new wife each year— or even each season… no one in my village will believe I’m alive, and if they see me, unaged—“
“They’ll think you’re a witch,” finished Lizzie.
“I expect so.”
Lizzie chewed her lip and shook her head. “I hadn’t thought that far. I’d only planned until sunset yesterday!” She laughed and then fell silent again. “I don’t know. I don’t know at all.”
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