Boney Legs, or, Becoming the Baba Yaga  by Anna Marie Laforest

     A little girl fell out of the Russian sky into a soft but very cold mound of snow.  At first the indentation of her body kept the wind away, but as she scrambled up to look around, the cold came piercing through.  She was about four years old, and she knew she had been taken from her home, but where that was, and who had dropped her here, she did not know.  Around her on all sides was vast white empty space.  She would have fallen down out of dizziness, but there was no further to fall.  Anyway, her feet, wrapped only in silk sandals, seemed stuck to the snow.      

 

     The cold wind brought many sounds to her ears - a scraping of claws trying to gain traction on the ice, about a kilometer away, the phit-phoot of an owl whose little prey had escaped, and the skrip-skrabble of a much larger animal lumbering in the snow.   She stayed very still and listened.  Below those sounds, she imagined she could hear the respiration of the earth, heaving a little under the weight of all the snow.  Mmmmmhhh, ahhhhhh.  Mmmmmhhh, ahhhhhh.

 

     The girl pulled her light shawl tightly around her body and tucked herself into a ball.  It started snowing, and soon she was covered with a blanket of white.  Mmmmmhhh, ahhhhh, said the ground below.  Mmmhh, aahh, answered the snow above.  The girl’s breath attuned to the land and she grew sleepily indifferent to her fate… 

 

     “She is frozen, but alive,” said a snowy owl, swooping down to take the little girl’s pulse.

 

     “You can tell she is royalty, even though she is wrapped in a rag,” said an ermine, whose own coat was a thick full-winter white. 

 

     “Let’s go,” said a white bear, picking the girl up and stowing her under her own bulky fur, holding the girl there with one fat paw and skrip-skrabbling off as fast as she could.

 

     A little later the girl awoke to find herself in a cozy bear cave.   She was on a straw bed and had been covered with animal skins.  There were more animal skins on the walls.  In a crib in one corner were a pair of hibernating cubs, and in the other corner a steaming samovar with an enameled pot of honey tea.   In front of the fire stretched the white ermine.  She was filing her claws.

 

     “Oh, good, you’re back in the land of the living,” she said to the girl.  “Bear and owl are out getting more firewood, they should be back in a minute.  Here, drink this tea.”

 

     The tea went straight to the girl’s heart and toes and warmed them through.   “Thank you,” she said.  “Did you dig me out of the snow?”

 

     “Bear scooped you up.  We saw you from quite a distance.  What kind of bird was that, that dropped you?  I’ve never seen anything like it.”

 

     “I… don’t know.   Whatever it was grabbed me and pushed my head down.”

 

     “It looked like a giant bat, huge wings, large yellow canine teeth.  I’m glad it dropped you, I would hate to have had to fight it.”  The ermine yawned and stretched again.

 

     The bear and the snowy owl came in then, the bear’s arms full of branches and bones.  She tossed the branches onto the fire and put the bones in a bin near a cupboard.  The owl perched herself on the edge of the straw bed and said,

 

     “What is your name, little one?”

 

     The girl was fascinated by the owl’s deep emerald eyes, and watched them watch her.  She thought she’d seen that color before, in rocks or jewels somewhere, but she could not think of her own name. 

 

     “That’s okay,” said the bear.  “You may be nameless but you are not homeless.  You are here now with us.  We will call you…. “

 

     The animals looked at the girl; she was young, but big-boned and full of a gangly sort of health.  As she swung her knees out of the blanket-skins to get a second cup of honey-tea, her legs reminded them of a young colt’s.  “We will call you Boney Legs!” said the owl.

 

     “Baby Boney Legs,” said the bear, giving the girl a hug.

 

     Boney Legs stayed with her new friends until she was eight years old, doubling her life so far, and in that time she learned many things, though most of them were about bones and fire.  Of course she learned how to create and extinguish fire, and how to eat meat off of a bone.  But she also learned how to translate the stories that were in the flames of the fireplace and tell them to the bear cubs as they went to sleep. 

 

     Owl taught her how to place fire in a skull bone and carry it around on a stick to light the pathways of the long white nights, the light blazing from the eye sockets making patterns on the snow floor. 

 

     Bear taught her how to listen to the bones of the dead. 

 

     “Bless the bones with water first, and ask the ancestors to bless you.  Hold the bones closer to your ear, my dear.  That’s it.”

 

     Ermine taught her how to honor the power in others and in herself. 

 

     “Our animal lives would be solely about annihilation if we did not honor each other.  Whenever you can make an alliance, such as owl and I have done, do it.  Life-force must always be renewed.  You will know who is ready and who is not.  Never forget who you are.”

 

     “Who am I?” she said.

 

     “You are royalty,” the ermine answered.  “Royalty, Boney Legs.”

 

     Owl taught her to shake and scatter small bones to get answers to questions.  

 

     “You can use acorns or seeds too.  See, now,” she said, casting some onto the floor, “how they say next summer will come early?”

 

     Boney Legs kept the bear’s hut clean with a broom she had fashioned out of trees, bushes, and roots.  When she added some of her own long hair to the broom, it became magic.  The broom would leave her hand and clean the house, and, reading her wishes, would sweep the dust, ashes, and bits of bone out the door and far into the woods.  After that, it always dipped itself into the lake, or into the snow, and came back clean.

 

     On her eighth birthday, mother bear decided it was time to return the girl to her own kind. 

 

     “But she is royalty,’ said the ermine, “regular mortals will not see that.”

 

     “If they do not, she will shake them up.  Anyway, her initiation with us is over,” said the owl.  “She must go.”

 

     They had a party for her, and many animals came to wish her well.  The spiders brought her some newly woven clothes, and the otters made her some perfume from rushes near the river – “in case the humans smell as bad as ermine does,” they joked,  and then Boney Legs and the owl began a long journey toward the south.

 

     After many miles, Owl led the girl to a hut at the edge of a village.  She flew to the door, knocked and hooted, turned her wings in a good-bye glide, and left…

 

     An old woman opened the door and found a girl with long dark hair carrying a broom and a fist full of little bones.  She had a long, curved nose, long sturdy legs, and a piercing gaze as if there were fire behind her eyes.  She had no shoes and was sorely in need of a bath. 

 

     “Please,” the girl said, “may I stay a while with you?”

 

     The woman’s heart melted and she took the girl in. 

 

     The woman had no children of her own, and found this girl to be very intelligent, if a bit rough, and so she called her “Oomnaya,” which is Russian for “smart.”  Oomnaya would stoke a fire with her bare hands one moment, then speak with exquisite manners the next.  She had no qualms about twisting a chicken’s neck, for example, or combing her hair with bare fingers.  But she would defer to the old woman in everything, watching her with keen eyes, soaking up everything she needed to know about being human.  One thing she noticed right away was that the old woman needed no bones or acorns to be able to predict what other people might do.   

 

     Oomnaya called the woman “Babushka,” which is “Grannie” in Russian, and they grew to love and protect each other.  When the children of the village called Oomnaya terrible names, because she was so much bigger-boned than the little pretty girls, Babushka shooed them away and told her not to bother about it.  When a thief came in the night, looking for her grandmother’s silver, Oomnaya jumped from her cot and reached into the fire and tossed him a hot ember instead.  She growled the growl of the white bear, and the man ran off. 

 

     The next day she scoured the woods with her broom, swept up some animal parts and fashioned a lock out of thighbones and teeth for the door of her Babushka’s hut.  She sat on the porch, and with blood red eyes she guarded the geese.

 

     Babushka taught Oomnaya how to make dolls and bears out of cornhusks, and they had many puppet shows at night in front of the fire, Babushka laughing at Oomnaya’s bear stories, and Oomnaya marveling at how prescient her grannie’s stories were.  Grannie would have the dolls enact a marriage between, say, Misha and Dunya, and the next week the village would announce the engagement of – yes - Misha and Dunya. 

 

     But alas, on Oomnaya’s 13th birthday, her beloved Babushka developed a very high fever and died.   The very day the girl buried her grannie, the village mayor and priest came out to the hut and ordered Oomnaya to leave.  They declared that the village owned the property and that she was to return to her own people, wherever that might be. 

 

     The girl knew they were lying; her grandmother had taught her how to understand the villagers’ minds and read their intentions.   She thought back to the ermine’s advice, about using power wisely.   She asked for three days’ grace, and then she would leave.

 

     Oomnaya spent the three days packing up grannie’s belongings - her clothes, her pots, her mortar and pestle for the poppy seeds, the poppy seeds themselves.  She wished she had paid better attention to grannie’s baking, especially the poppy seed cake, but she would just have to figure it out.   She packed the dolls, and she packed her grannie’s special tea that was made with dried blue roses.

 

     After everything was ready, Oomnaya went out to the woods with her broom and swept up several strong branches and some long vines for twine.  She made a sled and bound her grannie’s belongings onto it with the vines.  On the third day she was off, pulling the sled with the strength of her over-sized bones.

 

     She pulled for three days, over forest floor, over snow, over ice, stopping only to build a fire or to sleep with the sled between the wind and her head.   She was homeless again, but this time she would make her own hut. 

 

     On the third day she decided she would call herself “Baba” in honor of her Babushka, even though it would be years before she had the warts and jagged teeth to go with it.  On the third night she found the cave of her old friend the bear, but it was long empty.  No skins, bones, cubs, or samovar with honey tea.  Plenty of room to build a fire, though.

 

     She unpacked the poppy seeds and some sugar and set to baking her first poppy seed cake.  Tired and hungry, she poured about ten times the amount of poppy seeds needed for a cake, and set the batter over the fire. 

 

     In a little while the snowy owl noticed the fire in the cave and swooped down.  She found a half-eaten poppy seed cake and her old friend Boney Legs in the middle of a hallucinogenic dream.  The owl called for help and the forest animals brought ice and snow and melted it over the girl.  

 

     “Oh,” she said, after recovering.  “I dreamed who dropped me in the snow nine years ago.  It was my father.”

 

     “Ah,” said the owl.  “Get some sleep now.  I will tend the fire until morning.”

 

     And the owl sang mother bear’s song to the girl:

 

Skripi, noga!

Skripi, lipovaya.

I voda spit,

I zemlya to spit… *

 

 

     In the morning the owl said to Baba, “We will help you build a new hut when you return, but first you must journey back to your father by yourself.”

 

     “I don’t know where he is.”

 

     “Follow your heart for the first few steps.  You will be guided after that.”

 

     The girl cooked some eggs and drank deeply from a nearby lake the owl found, which had not frozen over.  She put on one of her grannie’s voluminous skirts and stowed the rest of the belongings in the old bear cave, covering the entrance to keep the snow out.   She waved to the owl and started off, not knowing how difficult this journey might be.  She turned three times with her eyes closed, and found herself heading west-southwest.

 

     Baba walked for three days and three nights without stopping.  She walked straight through her boots and now her feet were frozen.   At dawn she saw a white flash go by, followed a little later by a red flash as the sun came up.  She kept walking.  At dusk she saw a black flash.  As it went out of sight it seemed to her that it had been a rider on a horse.   

 

     On the fourth day, at dawn, unable to lift her frozen feet, she built a fire around herself, and called out loud, “Where are my guides?  If you are going to help me, help me now!”

 

     Immediately – whoosh! - a white horse, with a white warrior aloft, appeared at Baba’s side.  “I am your Dawn,” the warrior said.   “What is your wish?” 

 

     “I would like to find my father before I lose my feet.”

 

     The warrior reached down and picked Baba up, placing her in front of him onto the white horse.  The horse kicked some snow onto the fire to put it out, and they took off.  They rode until noon, at which point a red horse with a red warrior - whoosh!  - appeared.  The red warrior scooped Baba off of the white horse and put her in front of him.  “I am your Sun,” he said, and galloped off with her.

 

     They travelled for the rest of the day, stopping twice for Baba to walk a bit and test her feet.  The warrior handed her some red grapes, and they continued on until dark.  Then the black horse and rider showed up, with silver saddle and trim, and a gleaming sword by the night warrior’s side.  He pulled Baba onto the horse and they rode, Baba behind him this time, so she could rest her head on his shoulder and sleep through the night.

 

     She went this way, alternating horses and warriors, for another three days.  The climate had slowly become warmer, and the sun was blazing by the third day as the red horse stopped in front of a group of caves near the sea.  The horse knelt to let Baba climb down.

 

     “We will be here to escort you back when you are ready, my lady,” said the warrior.

 

     Baba thanked him though she wasn’t sure she felt much like a ‘lady.’    As she stood in front of the caves, her childhood memories came flooding back.  She was a child of Hades, the Greek god of the Underworld.  She had never known her mother, but she remembered her father well.  As powerful and as old as he was, the ruler of death and the underworld had taken time to play games with her in front of these very caves.  They had hunted emeralds, her favorite gem, together.  And often, when his work got tough, he’d take a break and invite her up to the sea to swim, the very sea she could see from the mouths of these caves.  

 

     She knew which cave to enter, and was greatly excited.  But what if Hades had forgotten her?  What if he had intended for her to perish in the great white Slavic snow?  Well.  Baba drew herself up to her full height.  It was time to find out.  She took a skull she had hidden in her great skirts and snapped her fingers above it.  Fire blazed from the eye sockets, and she held it in front of her as she descended to her father’s palace.

 

     She traced her other hand along the dirt and marble walls as she descended.  Here and there sparked a gem, just as she remembered, but as she went further down, the gems multiplied and soon the walls were crammed with fresh jewels of all shapes and colors, amethyst, citrine, lemon quartz, rose quartz.  Even in the skull-light, the pathway was dazzling.  What had happened since she’d left?  

 

     At the lower gates Baba found a garden that had never been there before either.  Daffodils and tulips were poking out between mossy rocks, and fat pink and yellow blossoms lined a whimsically trimmed boxwood maze.  Water flowed from hidden fountains and, in one roped-off section, big leafy lettuces were growing.

 

     Strangest of all was the gardener, a young woman with fresh daisies interspersed in her long flowing hair, who was collecting grapes and roses into her apron.  She had the long careful fingers and glittering nails of an artist, and as she touched the trees and flowers they doubled their leaves and bent toward her.  As she collected the roses, they smiled and burbled themselves into the scent of tea.  The grapevines laughed as she touched them, and their tears fell in fruit clusters into her hands.

 

     The gardener turned and waved.  “Hello!” she called, and stepped over to Baba.  She beheld in Baba a young woman wadded up in heavy skirts, rather stooped for her age, with unwashed greasy hair, and thick dark eyebrows bent in dismay.   A pointed, crooked chin.  Teeth that had been sharpened on bones.  Bare hands holding a fired-up skull.

 

     “Why, you look just like my husband, if he were a girl!” she exclaimed in delight.

 

     “Who are you?” said Baba, staring at the gardener’s bright green eyes, and not understanding her lightness.  “Did my father hire you to make this garden?”

 

     “Oh, you must be Anastasiya!   Hades said you would arrive this year or next.  I’m SO glad to meet you!  My name is Persephone.  I became Queen of the Underworld last year.  Rather accidentally, I’m afraid.”

 

     “What?”  But their conversation was interrupted by a crrackkk! - and a flash of subterranean lightning as Hades appeared. 

 

     “Stasiya!  My Stasiya!  You made it!”  The ruler of the Underworld ran toward Baba who was too stunned to move.    Here was her father, all right, but instead of the severe robes she used to see him in, he was wearing black jeans and a tee shirt with a plutonian logo -- the circle of the soul above a burning cauldron or chalice.  He still had wild white hair, white eyebrows sprouting in every direction, and a judgmental chin. 

 

     Baba let her father hug her, but she held herself stiffly as he did.   “My name is Baba,” she said, clutching the fiery skull tightly.  “I don’t remember being Anastasiya.”

 

     Persephone moved discreetly away, indicating with a graceful finger that she and Baba would talk later. 

 

     “Ah, my Stasiya,” said Hades.  “How you’ve suffered.  But you made it back!  I knew you’d make it back!”

 

     “Why did you drop me into the Russian snows?”

 

     “Yes, yes, well, technically speaking my minion’s minion did that.”

 

     “But you ordered it.”

 

     “Yes.  I ordered it.  You are a goddess of the Underworld.  You have a destiny, Stasiya.  A mission.  Look, you can’t help mortals with their deaths and rebirths unless you have experienced death yourself.”

 

      “I was four years old!”

 

     “Did you feel the earth breathing below you and above you?”

 

     “I didn’t know I wasn’t mortal.  I thought I was going to die.”

 

     “Did you feel the earth breathing above you and below you?” 

 

     Baba admitted she had felt it.  Mmmmmhhhhh, aaahhhh.

 

     “Then you have experienced a shamanic death.”

 

     “But that was nine years ago.  I lived with the animals and chewed raw meat from bones.  I lived with a grannie that I lost as soon as I learned to really love her.  I buried her with my own hands.”

 

     “Did you survive all these little deaths?”

 

     “Little?  Well, I am here, aren’t I?”

 

     “Then you have experienced shamanic rebirth.  You are ready for your destiny.”  He jumped up and in his gladness he kicked the grainy ceiling with his boot. 

 

     Baba wanted to scream at him, yeah, well, maybe I’ve had enough of destiny.  But she remembered the ermine’s advice about honoring power and she merely stood in front of this god, her father.  Standing there, it seemed to her that she might be a little taller than he, he in his jumping boots, she in her solid Slavic bones.   

 

     “Popa,” she said, “who is this new wife of yours?”

 

     “Yes, she is different.  She has streamlined me.   I even eat lettuce now.”

 

     “She is not much older than I am!”

 

     “Well, yes, well…  age doesn’t matter much among the gods, does it, Stasiya?”

 

     “Why did you name me that?”

 

     “Your mother was Russian.   ‘Anastasiya’ is both Greek and Russian for ‘resurrection.’   We thought it an auspicious name for you.  Good for business.”

 

     “May I go to my room now?”  Baba was determined not to cry in front of Hades or his delicate wife.

 

     For three days Baba stayed in her room and would not come out.  The first day she cried and raged, and raged and cried.  It seemed her father had set her up, forcing her to experience the life/death/life cycle just so she could come back and help him with his work.  She wanted to toss the fire-skull out into the hall and burn up the whole palace.

 

     The second day she pulled one of Babushka’s hand-made dolls from where it had traveled in a pocket of her vast skirt.  She set the doll on a marble dresser and made an offering of poppy seeds to honor her grannie, and tried to imbue the doll with grannie’s spirit.  She talked all day to the doll, and all night again, calming down slowly, recovering a little bit of intuition with each word.

 

     The third day she rested, to regain her physical balance.  She rang the servant’s bell and ordered an enormous dinner.  Thanks to Persephone’s garden, the dinner was as revivifying as anything she could have wished for above ground.

 

     On the fourth day Baba emerged to have breakfast with Hades and Persephone.   There was bacon and eggs, coffee and tea and toast, but the toast was black.

 

     “No matter what we do down here, the toast is always burnt,” said Hades.  “Tonight I am making a pizza to celebrate your return!  I’ll try not to burn that.”

 

     “He thinks pizzas are the great appeasement of the younger generation,” Persephone explained.  “The only problem is it takes him hours and hours to make it.  He tries to watch the dough rise, and so it takes forever.”

 

     “I’m not a very good baker either,” Baba said, remembering the poppy seed cake.  “But I can slice the pepperoni and help cut up the green peppers.  It’s the least I can do before I leave.”

 

     “Leave?” said Hades.  “But of course you’ll stay!  You are ready to begin the Great Work.”

 

     Persephone signaled to Baba to hold off discussion of that.  “Do you need a chariot for getting around in?” she asked her.

 

     “Oh, traveling, that’s all right then,” said Hades.  “I’ll make you an open white chariot with six horses.  It’ll be large enough to carry all three skeletons with you.”

 

     “No,” said Baba, not taking the bait by asking what skeletons.  “I travel alone.”

 

     “Do you have a vessel of some sort, in those vast skirts of yours?” Persephone asked mildly.

 

     Baba rummaged around her skirts and found her grannie’s mortar and pestle for grinding herbs and seeds. 

 

     “Perfect – bring it out to the gateway.”

 

     “That’s not grand enough,” grumbled Hades, but he knew the young women would have their way.

 

     Out past the gardens, at the gateway, Persephone said, “Now Baba, look into my eyes for thirty seconds.”

 

     Baba looked into the goddess’s emerald green eyes and recognized the same color as the eyes of her friend, the snowy owl.   She realized she could trust Persephone.   These emerald eyes were very, very deep – looking into them Baba imagined herself sailing through the green leaves and needles of all the trees above ground, sailing over the blue-green deep seas, sailing in a vessel that hugged her close and had soft cushions for her bony feet.   

 

     When she looked away from Persephone’s eyes, she beheld her traveling vessel.  Reading Baba’s dreams, Persephone had touched the mortar and made it cauldron-sized, big enough to hold the bony girl.  The pestle became a sort of rudder, for direction.  “Get in, try it out,” she said.

 

     Baba stepped in and found blue-green cushions for her feet, but even more exciting was the real emerald lining Persephone had endowed the cauldron with.   Baba touched the lining.   “Zzzz, ffzzz!”  - the lining flashed, and Baba and the mortar were above ground, rising over the gardens.  She practiced with the rudder while Persephone, below, clapped her hands in delight.  “You can make it invisible any time you want,” she called up.

 

     When Baba finally came back down, Persephone had gone to renew the colors of the gems outside the palace walls, and Hades was busy adjudicating dead souls, each according to their essence and their deeds.

 

     Baba explored the rest of the palace and found the bathing and laundry room.  With no one else about, she stripped and washed herself and her clothes in boiling water.  She discovered the pleasure of using soap, and more than that, as she dressed herself in clean skirts she felt more authoritative than ever.  She vowed to wash her clothes every day from then on.

 

     She meandered back through the palace and found Persephone’s private rooms. 

 

     “Oh, do come in,” Persephone called to her.  

 

     Baba came in and admired the richly textured fabrics of all the dresses there. 

 

     “I brought all those from my home in the upper world,” she said.  “Some are knock-offs from my mom, Demeter.   (Oh, how I miss my mom.)   But, Stasiya, or should I call you Baba, you are wearing a most amazing perfume.  I don’t recognize it.”

 

     “It’s from the otters.  I can’t really smell it.”

 

     “Oh, let’s trade then!  Can I have it?  You can have anything you want from my rooms here.” 

 

     “Call me Baba.  I want… I want…”  She didn’t know how to say that what she really wanted, at that moment, was to be beautiful, like Persephone.  She did not want to trade her knowings of the animal world or her love for her warty Babushka, but she was a young teenager, after all, and wanted to look beautiful, if just once.

 

     But of course Persephone could read her dreams.  “Baba, I will give you my beauty secret.  Many women and goddesses have traveled here to find it.  I usually give them a jar filled with other things.  But I will give you the real thing, on two conditions.”  She opened a drawer of her dressing table and pulled out a milky-white jar and untwisted the top to check it.  “This one’s fresh.”

 

     “What are the conditions?”

 

     “First, that you realize you are already beautiful.  Why, Baba, you have three warrior-horsemen, lingering around up there at the entrance to the Underground, just waiting for the chance to ride with you again.  Did you not feel any vibes when you rode here with them?”

 

     Baba had to admit she had.  Dead tired as she’d been, there were some stirrings.  She’d thought it was just the excitement of travel, or leftover yearnings from the poppy seed entrancement.

 

     “Second, you must promise to visit us every year, for at least a week, in the winter. “

 

     “You want to see me every year?”

 

     “Of course I do.  It has to be fall or winter, though.  I’m not here in the spring and summer.”

 

     “My father will be cross with me when I leave tomorrow.”

 

     “He’ll get over it.  If you visit regularly, you can compare notes on your life/death/life cycle work.”

 

     “Do you really think that is my destiny?  I do want to work in the land of my mother and my babushka.”

 

     “Yes, Baba, it is your sacred work.  The mortals have many little deaths in their lives.  When they get lazy and ignore their deeper living, you will scare them back into what is essential to their souls.  It is so fitting that you brought a mortar and pestle with you in your skirts, to become your vehicle, because – “

 

     “Yes!  Because I will grind them down to their bones.”

 

     That was a bit stronger than what Persephone was going to say, but she continued smiling. 

 

     Baba had a sudden thought.   “Oh, but Persephone, if I use your beauty cream, I won’t be able to scare them.”

 

     “That’s right.  But you can use it at other times.  By the way, make sure you build your home large enough for your Day, your Sun, and your Night warriors and their horses.  I have a feeling they will stay with you a long, long time.  They will be loyal, even after your chin is so long it touches your knees.”

 

     “Persephone, may I ask you another question?” 

 

     “Of course!”

 

     “Why do you keep coloring the gemstones every day, even though they lose their luster so fast underground?  Why do you spend so many hours on diverting water to a garden that has no sun?”

 

     “Oh, my dear!  Unused creative power becomes a poison, as you well know!  Everything is a matter of renewal.  Even your father finally saw that.  Now… do I smell pizza dough?”

 

     The three had a great supper of pizza and wine.  Hades’ flannel shirt was covered with flour where he’d wiped his hands from the dough.  Persephone poured the wine into her favorite cut-glass crystal stems.  The river otter scent from her wrists wafted up to her nose and she smiled again – she already had plans to crossbreed some of her violets with the musky notes of this perfume. 

 

     Baba’s face was gleamingly unblemished, and her jaw considerably softened, prompting her father to poke at the corner of his eye with a floury finger.  “Stasiya, you look just like your mother!”

 

     The next day Baba left amid much ranting and kicking of the ceiling by her father.  She almost turned around, but Persephone whispered, “You have father issues, I have mother issues.  Don’t forget to come back!” 

 

     Although she would not accept his three skeletons, Hades did manage to give Baba three pairs of skeletal hands. 

 

     “Do not tell anyone about these hands,” he said, wrapping the ghostly bones in a white cloth.  “There are mysteries none should know.  If anyone asks about the work that these hands will do, you must kill them.”

 

     “What can I tell people?”

 

     “Don’t tell them anything.  Show them who they are by being who you are.  You will teach the men to focus, the women to find their intuition.  And honor everything the forest animals have taught you.”

 

     When Baba arrived home, the animals had already constructed a hut for her.  It stood high on a giant scaly chicken leg and it twirled and danced in ecstasy when it saw her paddling toward it in her emerald-lined mortar.  The animal-skeleton locks on the door sprang open at her first word.  The windows of the hut looked like eyes, and were red from the fire within.  The skulls on the fence around the hut were those of her animal friends’ ancestors, and they glowed with fire as soon as Baba arrived. 

 

     The animals, led by the snowy owl and the children of the ermine and the bear, cheered for Baba’s return.  “Baba-Yaga!” they called up to her.  “Baba-Yaga!”   Animals do love rhyme, and Baba did not mind, it was like saying her name and erasing it at the same time, like the silver birch broom she used to brush away the tracks behind her.

 

_____________________

 

*The bear’s song is from a traditional Russian rhyme: 

 

Creak away, legs!

Creak away, lindens

The water sleeps

And the earth sleeps too…  

 

The song is about a bear hunting an old woman, but the owl uses it as a lullaby that would have been very familiar to her old friend Boney Legs.