IT WAS BECAUSE I WENT to the forest. I had walked from red dawn till smoky dusk: my feet ached, my god, I could hardly believe it but I had walked all day. Nipped fingers, and frozen toes in my galoshes. The road was turning dark.
It was the precipice of winter. The pine trees stretched long and grey; the cedar-limbs were encrusted in hoar. When the dusk was gathering long azure shadows in the boughs of the trees, when time grew sprig to sprig, twig to branch, I caught a glimpse of her. First, a shadow: she wasn’t very tall. Then, also, a cloud. She was smoking a pipe.
She appeared the way a specter appears: I didn’t see her come from anywhere. An old gnarled woman, bent, standing by a gaunt fir bole. She was dressed in washed-out rags; she almost looked one with the wet, grey terrain.
She was looking straight at me; the smoke curled windwards from her pipe. Dead eyes, undead eyes, eyes where fire used to burn.
“You smell,” she said. Small red veins crawled up her ancient cheeks. She pressed the lip of the pipe to her own shriveled lips. “You smell of soul. Of Russia.”
My mouth dried up and I could almost taste the ashes on my tongue. “I’m, only—” My heel snagged on a root. “I’m only passing by,” I said. Straightened, and tried to remember. “I’m taking a walk.”
She let out a high, wheezing laugh, at that. Spittle flew from her filamentous mouth. “A walk, eh?”
She blew out a plume of smoke, slowly. I blinked –– she was suddenly right by my side.
“Oh, oh,” she said, she sounded so amused, “but you look so soft. That’s how it is with you, young people. Ah-ah! Tender, tender flesh!”
Something wild sparked in her voice. I knew who she was, oh, oh I knew who she was. Bile rose in my throat. I had known of her for a very long time.
Her three knobby fingers closed around my wrist. “Come with me, girl.”
Her grip was pincer-strong. Oh god, I thought. I’m going to be her dinner.
She lived in a hut on chicken legs. It perched at the edge of the forest, silhouetted against a murky sky. A single strip of moon streamed across the grey lawn — I saw a chipped human skull, perched precariously on a wooden stake by the door.
“Well,” she rasped, at the threshold. Her sharp nail poked my back. “Go on in. The night won’t wait.”
Warm, and red, inside. The white bed-stove, heavy, large –– a heartily crackling fire, a bundle of wood. Dried, shriveled herbs, hanging on the wall. A giant mortar stood in the corner.
She hobbled in behind me, and straight to the stove. I watched her bend over a steaming black kettle; her dry, old breasts nearly spilled from her dress. I stumbled over a broom lying on the floor.
Her old fingers circled the kettle’s rim. “Ah-ah. Hot water.”
I don’t want to I don’t want to be boiled alive—
“Mm. Hot water.” She shoved down the lid. “For you to wash. Take off that raggedy dress, it’s hardly clinging to you anyhow.”
That night, I lay on the floor, in a heap of dried pine sprigs with a woolen blanket ridden with holes. She was sitting on her stool in front of the fire, bent over the same heavy kettle. I could see the outline of her skinny, bumpy spine through her rags.
She was smoking, still. A mountain fog blown from from a cleft –– the smoke wisped out from her thin, scraggly lips, billowed in the air, disappeared. Yellow teeth with crooked veins, a mouth that sank in on itself. Her nose curled down, like a hawk’s beak. She had a wart by her left eye.
Again, she brought the pipe to her lips. Her stained fingers had long, black nails. I fell asleep watching the red glow on her old, shriveled hands.
I washed every morning. A slip of twilight, pale blue, and grey –– I stood in the old wooden trough, shivering, naked. The smell of pine was in the air. It was cold. The blue light filtered through the single, square window.
It was like the first time: she clambered up onto a rickety stool behind me, so she was just my height. “Here,” she said, wiping her long stained fingers on her smock, and dumped half the water from the wooden bucket. I pushed back the hair plastered to my face. “You dirty, filthy thing — you’ve the scent of swamp on you.” She gave me a brown lump that looked suspiciously unlike soap. I always managed to brush it over my arms, once, before she dumped the rest of the bucket-water over my head.
So, I began to live with Baba Yaga:
In the morning, when I woke up, she’d sit boiling something in the kettle over the fire. She crouched on her haunches; her bony shoulders jutted out, like crags.
Often, she sang. She crooned at her kettle, quietly. Almost too thoughtfully; it was terrifyingly soft. As if there was a temptress hidden under the swathes of wrinkled skin, folded in the scraggly limbs. As if she lurked somewhere in her bones. A secret — a fire burning in the furnace. A crack. A divulgence.
Like this: as if she was overgrown. An old half-toothless woman, living in the woods. This little dry thing that devours things alive. I always fell asleep watching her, once, twice, thrice, from over the fire.
During the day, I cleaned her house. I swept the floor with her old sorgo broom; I climbed onto the stool and dusted the cobwebs away from her bookshelves, from her things.
She had many interesting things –– a bowl of golden apples; a firebird feather; an old scabrous blow-horn painted black, with a chink in the side. I dusted all of them –– and still everywhere, there was dust, as if it grew on the shelves overnight. It took me all day. I could feel her eyes burning, watching, perforating me.
And so, every morning: I woke up to her voice. I arose early, with the dawn, when it was still dark. She dumped water on me from her kettle; she threw me her broom. I began again: the floor, the shelves, the objects; the firewood, chopped outside.
I slept deeply at night, somehow; till dawn I dreamt of home, of an old, plucking music playing in the distance.
On the sixth morning, I woke up to squawks and swearing –– to the cawing of three huge black birds. They perched on the window, flapping their wings. I’d never seen crows that large in my life. Three silhouettes, against the light.
She was running around with her broom. “What have you come for, eh? My gold? My silver? Best to make a pie out of you lot. Out! Out––out––out!” She swept at them with the bristly head. “And shut up!”
I got up, hugging my shoulders. Sleep hung like a mist before my eyes. It was earlier than usual. She looked at me sharply over her shoulder.
“What are they saying?” I asked.
“Same old nonsense, all that lives must die –– pfah! –– passing from nature to e-ter-nity–– Enough!” She threw me a heavy metal spoon she had pocketed somewhere in her apron. I caught it with my left hand, just barely. Baba Yaga whirled around. “Make yourself useful.”
That was how we killed the birds. She was much better at it than I was –– she got the first two fast, three hits, a clean effective kill beneath the fuss, and they fell on the floor, crumpled wings, spilled wet innards, black and pink.
I smashed the third one with her spoon –– ground it to the wall, once, twice, its head leaked over my forefinger; its eye bulged out and smeared on my palm. Go on, she said. She grinned. A feather stuck to her bloody handle. I wiped my fingers on my dress, like she did.
The pie was delicious. You wouldn’t quite think it, but Baba Yaga was a very good cook.
I’m not sure why they didn’t try to fly away.
By evening, if I finished everything she had tasked me with for the day, she’d reach out with her long spindly hand and drag the three-legged stool across the floor, till it was at her side. Her fingers would tap on its old wooden seat.
I would sit. I sat and watched her ancient profile, from the side, in glances: a strange, avine face. I was stitching up a tear in an old woolen blanket. She was sorting mushrooms. She had gathered them early that morning –– she said she would take me with her tomorrow.
“We’ll go by the river, too,” she said, eyeing me from behind her woven basket. It stood between us, on the table, filled to the brim. She picked another mushroom and pinched it between her thumb and forefinger, as if it would try to get away. “Down to the fire river, and up back by the aspens. That’s where all the good ones are.”
I eyed the one she had in her hand. I couldn’t recall ever picking one like it. It was bright red. “Isn’t that––” I asked, “isn’t that poisonous?”
Baba Yaga chuckled. “Raw, it is. Boil it thrice –– you’ll lick your fingers clean after the meal.” Her eyes roamed over my face, my shoulders. Her clawed hand reached into the basket again. “You should know this, by your age.”
I looked down at my lap. “I’ll learn. I’m only a girl.”
She leaned forward. “Only?” she said, reaching her hand to my face. Her scraggly fingers played over my scalp and over the span of my shoulders. They coiled at the nape of my neck. “You’re not only a girl.”
I folded the plaid blanket in half. A white shame burst out where she touched me.
“Listen to that, the little, thumping heart, working so hard. How many years, already, hmm?”
I looked at her ancient, sunken face. Seventeen, I wanted to say. Seventeen years. Or was it? Perhaps eighteen already, who knew. It didn’t seem to matter much, anyway. I couldn’t remember.
The next morning, the dew clung cold to the branches, it was grey and dawn, she walked ahead of me and she looked like the forest, especially from the back. Her leg dragged behind her. She walked off-kelter, off-rhythm.
Stippled light filtered slowly through the woods. When the red spilled out into the sky, it caught in my hair and set it alight. It was getting colder. My breath billowed in the air, a white cloud, something full of memories. I squinted my eyes, and tried not to fall far behind. She limped, but she was fast.
She picked things I had been taught were poisonous my entire life. She picked things I had never seen. Yes, beneath the aspens grew a smattering of boletes with little brown caps –– but she picked toadstools, too, and false morels. Fly agaric. What was that –– boil it thrice? Her black nails, pluck –– she didn’t even use a knife. It was fast, like the birds. She grunted as she stood.
“Does it hurt?” I twitched my fingers. “Your leg.”
She didn’t turn around. “Old bones start to ache, when the cold comes. What, what did you think? They don’t call me Bone-Leg for nothing.”
The sun was already up, far up. I took two more steps.
“Here,” I said. I leaned down a little and gave her my arm.
She took it slowly. Her fingers wrapped around my wrist. She gave me the basket. She didn’t bother to say anything else.
At the river, the dead leaves swirled in eddies and whorls the color of tea. It looked like a regular river; I don’t know why she said it was full of fire.
“Well,” she said, and her hand let go of mine. She caught sight of something she liked, six thin milkcaps growing near the roots. She swooped down when she saw them, pinched each stem, sharp nails, tossed them in the basket. “You might as well wash here,” she said as she stood up. “It’s effort to heat up all that water, you know.”
She took out the same brown lump from a fold in her rags. I took off my wooden shoes and pulled off my coat, and then my dress. The air was fresh and smelled of fall. The wind made me shiver, it pricked on my thighs, and my sides; I could smell the river, too.
I didn’t want to. The water looked cold.
“Well, well, go on in,” she creaked, “it’s old maid’s summer. Won’t be warm for a long time, after this.”
I dipped my toe in. She hobbled to the river’s edge and put her hands on my bare shoulders. Her nails dug a little into my skin. She pushed. She brushed her old hands down, to my collarbones, sank to my sternum, the soap slipped against my skin.
“Pfft,” she said from somewhere behind my ear, full of old spittle. “Surely you don’t think you are only a girl.”
I waded further in, a step, and she turned me around. Her long spindly fingers spanned the breadth of my chest.
“You are very young, but not so little, anymore, already,” she said. I stared straight at her old mesmeric face. “You’re rather lovely, full of self, hmm?” Her fingers ran down my spine. “Full of flavor.”
I bent down and ran the cool brown water over my calves. It smelled strongly of earth. I waded deeper in, and she leaned over to keep her fingers on me. I remembered suddenly — I don’t know why it came over me.
“I am to be married. In a year.”
Baba Yaga clucked her tongue. Her hands ran up again. “And do you want to be married?” she said.
I raised my chin very high. “No.”
“Good,” she said. She let go. “Now clean yourself up, I don’t have all day.”
That night she wasn’t as chatty as usual. Her old eyes stared off into the fire, and she started, once, twice. She made me get an old jar of preserves from the shelf, and a bowl, too. She wanted to eat. None for me, I only watched: The berries stained her old mouth into something younger, almost childlike.
Baba Yaga licked her lips. “I was young once too, you know, and I was nice to look at,” she said, looking off into the pitch-black beyond the small square window.
I looked at her very hard, and I couldn’t imagine it. She laughed.
“You serious, foolish thing,” she said. “Why, look at those brows, drawn down like that, always. Like a night-owl. Wooogh! Smile a little. It wouldn’t kill you.”
I bent my head down again, and made my lips turn up into a smile. She looked hard at me for a moment, and then passed me the spoon.
That night, I dreamt of a woman with long black hair. She tiptoed around the cabin room, stamped down with her small foot. Maybe she was dancing. In the evening, the song rolled out of the gloaming into the fire, and she tapped along with the flames. She was tall, and had long arms, and a long neck. All night I seemed to see her standing over me, saying something, dancing something. Perhaps it was a warning.
“Is your name really Yaga?” I asked. It was evening; we always talked in the evening. My fingers kneaded against her leg, up-and-down. We came to do that in the evenings, too.
“Hah!” Baba Yaga said, her mouth twitching; things I said always seemed to amuse her. “What a question. Wouldn’t you like to know, you curious fickle thing.” She brushed her hand through my hair. “And would my name be, if not Yaga? Nastasya Fyodorovna? Alyona Semyonovna?”
I bit my lip.
“Don’t ask too many questions. If people are too inquisitive, I eat them.”
“If you ask one––” I said, looking up at her. I tried to make my eyes soft. “If you ask one, can I ask one?”
Baba Yaga laughed at that, too. “So, so. You think you’re so clever? I bargain with the devil, little owl.” She sighed and slowly scratched a nail along my scalp. Her fingers curled by my ear. “Well, I’ll bite,” she snapped, soft. “Why did you really come here, hmm?”
I breathed in. “I like the forest.”
She blew out her smoke. “Ah, a girl who likes death.”
I stared at her very hard: the etched crease between white brows, the wart, the tear-shaped nostrils, the four long hairs that grew from them. A smoky cataract bloomed in her left eye.
“You’re not alive, are you?”
Her eyes were far away, a frozen wasteland. “And for what do you need to know that, little one? Are you interested, now, in death?”
She brought the pipe to her lips. The smoke filtered from her lips like a stream of ghosts. A black sadness, a haze. How long was she living here? She had a habit of talking to herself. Of muttering, sometimes. I suppose she thought I didn’t hear. Maybe that’s the sort of thing you develop if you live alone at the edge of the forest.
I brushed my fingers against her calf, varicose veins. Old flesh, too, can sing, if somebody kneads it. She leaned back, bared her old everything, her neck-not-a-neck, a column swathed in age and acres of skin, dripping, drooling, melting, a fallen curtain, crumpled cloth. Like the scraggly neck of a chicken. There’s some magic, yet, in these bones, she said. Somehow, something began to melt and leak in my eyes. Some magic, yet. What’s left for an old corpse?
That night, I dreamt I saw the night-woman standing, drinking. Her shadow morphed on the wall. Dancing, again; but why was she always dancing? She had long hair and smouldering eyes, a witchy haze; the fire was almost dead. The light was orange, as she stretched, stretched out, stepped out, stomped, flung out her hands. She had black hair and a beautiful face. Birdlike, but very beautiful. A pair of coals. Her hair moved as if dead spirits were passing through it. But, she, she was still young…
Morning. I almost couldn’t remember it anymore. The village, the muddy road, the muddy tracks. Manure. The smell of –– what did the village smell of? We made something there. My head used to ache from the smell of it. It hardly ever aches anymore.
I turned around and watched her as the water came down, the old trough, the brown lump, the bucket. Her skin was hanging on nothing, she was just a pile of bones. She was just a pair of hungry eyes, fettered, set in a decaying frame. She had great, sad eyes. Her face looked even more like a skull. She watched me like a hawk, like an ancient predator.
And in the evening, the fire, she was humming, again. I touched her hand, slowly, slowly. Her old fingers uncurled. Who are you, I wanted to ask, who were you, who have you become? The sun was sinking outside and the room filled with a tender lilac dusk. She uncurled her long fingers slowly, one by one. They were stained with so many things, and she took my hand the way a woman does, the way a friend does. Without turning my way, she blew on the fire.
Only, a tear slipped down her old, wrinkled cheek. “That’s how it is, isn’t it, little owl?” Her old voice exhaled like a plume of smoke, like a last breath. She was so old. She turned to me –– the cataract in her left eye had melted away. “Oh, but we know.” Something warm and dark leaked into her tone. “We know how this always ends. But you are so young, so young, still –– what can you possibly know of life already? You little fool who ran away. What, what was there to run away for? But you won’t go. What is there left for you, for you to care about old Bone-Leg?”
I didn’t say it out loud but I said to myself I won’t run away, yes, yes, of course, what was there to run for? Baba Yaga, and her hands, I took hold of her hands. Old Bone-Leg. I could almost see her ghost hovering above her, clinging to her. The little fool who ran away. We had been living together in the woods for so long. Weeks, was it, or months? It felt like so long.
The black-haired woman appeared again in two nights. Again, she danced, by the fire. A strange sort of wind howled outside. Then, again, the night after. Split, split, again, the next night, again, the night after, always before dawn. I began to recognize her steps. I began to wait for her steps. I began to watch and wait.
The day the first snows came, Baba Yaga left in the middle of the day. I sorted the herbs, the dried grasses, the seeds. I washed the floor, and swept the dust from the bookshelves.
She came back late, when it was almost dark. She clicked her tongue –– she sat down by the fire, I sat down next to her, it was always like this, it was always the same. I pressed my fingers to her leg, she sighed. She looked older, even, than usual, these days. Her thin skin seemed to cry out to me. She came alive under my fingertips.
“What do you want, little owl, hmm?” she asked suddenly. She threaded her fingers through my hair like she always did.
This. I pressed a kiss to her knuckles. “I want the winter to be easy.”
“That’s a very good wish.”
I stood up, slowly, stretched to my toes, bent over her. I tasted her skin, at the temple, it was soft, it was so thin, it was almost paper or linen it was so close to her insides. She was alive, she was a person and she was alive, my mother—
Here is the truth: I loved her, in the end.
The night howled outside the window, it was just us, just us in all the world. An old lonely woman and me. I felt tears brimming in my eyes. An old wrinkled woman, my love. A witch. A dead witch. Her skin, again, looked soft grey in the dusk.
I ran my fingers through her hair, it was so soft, what was there, it was almost moonlight. A crimson odor filled my head. Her lips were suddenly very red, the hair turned black underhand. The smell of must, and pipe smoke. A supple line along her throat, her long fingers ran over my shoulders, over, over, over, I felt something shimmering in my dress. A dancing rhythm, this woman, like shadows on the wall.
A warm slip, her hand found mine, I knew who she was, she stood up, she was taller, she was closer. She bit softly at my lip, lapped at the edges, let a soft sound into my mouth. Ah, ah, little owl, you taste––
I know I tasted like strawberries, I ate some of her preserves before. I tasted of female, of Russia, of the soul, flesh on flesh, she wasn’t bones but flesh, I tasted delicious. I was kissing a crone and a goddess, I was kissing the soil, I was kissing death on the mouth, her eyes flew open very wide –– she pulled, she was on me, her fingers were under my skin. The sweetness, the crunch of fresh bone. She had never been toothless. She had very strong jaws. Like this: my soul caught in my throat. I stumbled, I stumbled back, into the fire, into the oven. A hiss. A kiss.
Later, dinner, that night. I tasted of meat, in the end. She had me roasted. I was delicious with mushroom preserves and mead wine.