Book Smugglers Publishing Subversive Fairy Tales

Mrs. Yaga by Michal Wojcik

Mrs. Yaga

Mrs. Yaga by Michal Wojcik
Published 11/4/2014 | 2,859 Words

“All he has to do is bypass the gatekeeper of the thrice-tenth kingdom and bring me a fern flower, a dragon’s heart, and a rusałka’s lock of hair. Easy.”

On the outskirts of a quiet Canadian town, in a cabin perched on chicken feet and surrounded by a fence of skulls, live Baba Yaga and her ward, Aurelia. Young Aurelia yearns for romance, for adventure, for freedom from her baba—but every one of Aurelia’s suitors so far has failed Mrs. Yaga’s three simple tasks. When her last—and favorite—date disappears, Aurelia must decide to continue her daydreams of freedom, or embark on an adventure of her own.

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Aurelia grew up in a cabin a little ways outside of town, the one with the red mailbox and the twisted iron fence surmounted by skulls. Sometimes the house would groan and shift and flex its long chicken feet; every so often it would stretch out its legs, lifting Aurelia’s room up over the trees and making crockery slide and smash. Then Mrs. Yaga would speak to the walls and soothe their domicile into settling back down again, to fold its legs like a hen does. An old black-and-white TV stayed perpetually switched on and soundless in the living room, drawing static off the aerial that spindled from the peak of the thatch roof. No wires came in off the main line but there was always power for the TV and the radio and the Mac Classic; as for a phone line, Mrs. Yaga had a cell.

 

“Did you have to do it, baba?” Aurelia asked as she washed dishes. She was nineteen, her hair black as electrical tape and her skin as white as bone. “He was so sweet.”

“You think I took you under my roof just to let the next chłopak with a strong chin and a guitar sweep you away?” Mrs. Yaga cackled, bending into a fridge that dated from the 40s at the very least. She didn’t look like Aurelia’s mother (because she wasn’t), not even her grandmother (because she wasn’t that either). She was old, gnarled like old branches left out in the sun and dry as a pomegranate husk, a collection of spikes and corners. She always wore fur over her shoulders, winter or summer. She always wore a necklace of claws from bears and wolves and tigers that clinked wherever she went.

“Greg doesn’t play a guitar. He draws webcomics,” Aurelia replied stubbornly, making the water splash with the vigour of her scrubbing.

Mrs. Yaga extracted an oversized egg coloured deep violet, clicking her tongue happily before slamming the fridge shut. One tap from her fingernail and a small hole cracked in the egg’s top. She held that to her lips, slurping down its contents, liquid red and thick as blood dribbling down from the corners of her mouth. “Don’t worry,” she said. “If he’s worthy of you he’ll be back. The tasks are simple.”

She wiped her chin clean with her sleeve and shook the shell, eliciting a dull rattle, then split it open on the counter. Out tumbled a foetus with a lizard’s tail and a rooster’s head, its eyes screwed shut tight. Mrs. Yaga held it up and squinted at it a moment before popping the creature into her mouth, crunching the bones with her pointed old teeth. She tossed the broken shell into the compost bin.

“All he has to do is bypass the gatekeeper of the thrice-tenth kingdom and bring me a fern flower, a dragon’s heart, and a rusałka’s lock of hair. Easy.”

“They never come back,” said Aurelia. “Not Daniel. Not Brendan. Not Steve.” The three suitors never returned from their easy tasks: the first was killed by a great grizzly (unlike our grizzlies, the great grizzly is wise and terrible and prowls the Mountains of Dusk leaving the clean-picked corpses of mammoths in its wake); the second was frozen by a basilisk’s stare; the third, less stupid than the others, simply wrote off Aurelia and her baba as irrational and ceased his romantic advances.

“You deserved better, my little chick. A girl with your hips needs a true bohater. Besides, I gave him a sword, which is more than I ever gave the others. Isn’t that good enough?”

Aurelia bit back her next words, let the slosh of porcelain plates in water drift up over their absence. Why must you do this to me? You aren’t my mother. You aren’t of my blood. I don’t even know your first name; all the years I’ve been here you’ve only been baba to me.

Mrs. Yaga leaned in closer, claws clicking together, unfelt wind stirring her wild white hair. She’d always seemed to know what Aurelia thought, her deep grey eyes filled with knowing. But now she only grunted before shuffling out of the kitchen, leaving Aurelia to wipe the counter and sweep the floor.

 

Mrs. Yaga had no steady job, received no regular income or pension cheques. Whatever money she made came from the strange trinkets she sold every Thursday at the market: charms and amulets and love potions and little statues of Slavic gods that no Canadian would have known but that they bought anyway. Sometimes strangers would come from afar asking for private audience, promising countless rewards, but if Mrs. Yaga decided to aid them she seldom asked for cash. Instead she requested less tangible things: a stray dream caught in a web, a bundle of love letters exchanged before the First World War, their soft pencilled marks long faded into illegibility, the soul of a firstborn son. These she all kept in a great iron chest that doubled as a coffee table, until she had need of them.

As far as Aurelia knew she was one of these gifts, left here by her parents after some great favour, though Mrs. Yaga didn’t keep her in the chest. Instead she ordered Aurelia about—to tend the cows and chickens and demons, keep the cabin clean, stoke the fire, cook meals, awaken the skulls at night so that their gazes would roam the yard like searchlights. In return, Mrs. Yaga taught her how to read and do arithmetic and advanced chemistry, how to speak Polish and Russian and Czech, how to churn butter and spin wool. Later, she tried to teach Aurelia how to chant spells, but Aurelia was rubbish at magic. She could sing the words prettily enough, but she could not make the words come true. She couldn’t even transform a secret visitor into a pin to stick in her embroidery, to hide away from baba’s prying—the most basic of spells for any ward of Mrs. Yaga.

The one thing Aurelia didn’t learn much about was Mrs. Yaga herself. She was unaccountably old, and yet she seemed to have no past, no youth, as if she came into the world already bent and bruised. Only once had Mrs. Yaga relented to Aurelia’s pestering about what her life had been before coming to Canada, saying, “I am a Yaga of a sisterhood of Yagas. When folk came across the water to this land from Ukraine and Poland and Russia, they brought their babas with them. I was a jędza baba of Poland, so I joined my sisters and crossed the sea in my mortar. Wherever the Slavs go, the Yagas follow.”

That was as much an explanation as she ever gave.

Aurelia had a lingering sense that the old lady was constantly appraising her with eyes that betrayed gnawing hunger. She feared that one day Mrs. Yaga would bake her in the oven and eat her, but that hadn’t happened. Not yet, not for nineteen years.

 

The mortar still loomed in the attic, but these days Mrs. Yaga preferred driving the pickup she kept parked outside. The crone puttered into town that night, leaving Aurelia behind to lie in her room and listen to Greg’s mix tape on her battered old Walkman and think on what life might’ve been like if she weren’t Mrs. Yaga’s ward, the people she might have met. The boys she might have met.

Since she turned thirteen, boys cast longing glances when she ran errands in town. They were terrified of Mrs. Yaga, though, who would grab tight hold of Aurelia with her bony fingers and affix any who stared with the evil eye. So when Aurelia started going out alone some years later, few men worked up the courage to talk to her. Even less to try and kiss her. And inevitably, if things went far enough and Aurelia couldn’t keep the relationship a secret anymore (she never could keep secrets from Mrs. Yaga, baba knew them all) then her suitor would meet Mrs. Yaga and Mrs. Yaga would send him on a quest.

Poor Greg. He was by far her favourite. He’d come back from uni for the summer and would wait every week with a bouquet of hand-picked flowers on the path Aurelia took from the grocery store. She should have done more to resist his advances, drive him away, because now Mrs. Yaga had sent him to the thrice-tenth kingdom wherefrom few mortals could return.

The Walkman stopped playing, electromagnetic tape spilling out in one big tangle when Aurelia tried to pull the cassette free. She slipped off the headphones, threw the Walkman on the floor and balled her hands into fists. She grabbed a jacket and a shawl from the closet and then her handbag, and made her way up the twisty shambling staircase and the rickety ladder to the topmost floor.

She hesitated when she saw the mortar big and round and filled with shadow. She froze and listened for footsteps or the sound of a truck pulling into the driveway. All she heard were the usual pops and groans and whispers of the house. A thrill shook her, fear and excitement tangling as she gripped the long pestle leaning against the wall beside the skis and bicycle wheels, and the pestle seemed to respond, warming to her touch. Aurelia took it with her to the shutters and threw them open, startling the ravens perched on the ledge beyond. Dust swirled up in the wind, motes catching the dying sunlight before blowing away.

She leaned on the pestle and looked out over the road and the forest for one long moment before squaring her shoulders and turning back, hoisting herself into the pestle’s bowl. The inside was dark and moist against her legs and thighs. It too responded to her, accepting her, letting her settle in its maw, and when she pushed against the floorboards with the pestle, the mortar rose a few inches into the air then lurched in an unsteady spinning way towards the open window.

Aurelia fought the wobble that threatened to spill her, brought the pestle around like a paddle and hastily rowed at the sky. She’d never ridden the mortar before, but she’d seen Mrs. Yaga depart in its embrace and she’d read the old books in the library, the ones written in Old Church Slavonic by hand on vellum, and she’d also gone canoeing once or twice. So she succeeded in steadying the beastly container as she passed the window frame and out over the yard. Her brow furrowed in determination as she swiftly brought the mortar to bear, passing beyond the fence, beyond this sleepy town in northern British Columbia, and over the wavering boundary to the thrice-tenth kingdom.

 

An hour elapsed before Aurelia spotted the lair of the dragon under starlight and moonlight, the entrance to its cavern folded between the heels of the Mountains of Dusk. Smoke billowed from there in intertwining streams, threading together like rope. I’ll wait for him here, Aurelia thought, directing the mortar to descend onto the narrow path to the dragon’s gates. She stowed the pestle away and hoisted herself out from the bowl, her legs cramped and muscles aching, and she tumbled indelicately in the dirt. When she lifted her head, she saw something glimmer in the rocks above her, and she reached into her handbag for a flashlight before wandering up the path.

It was the sword. A sabre, its hilt hammered together in the form of an eagle’s head. The flashlight’s beam went this way and that, lancing the sheer cliffs above before settling on Greg’s footprints leading down from the mountain. Then it moved to a great disturbance of shattered boulders, tumbled stone. Gregory had seen the dragon, that was plain. He’d dropped the sword and fled.

Aurelia took up the blade and sat on a nearby stone, idly contemplating the size, the weight, before her gaze went back to the dragon’s cave and the smoke that issued in puffs with each of the dragon’s breaths. Then back down the path, to wherever Greg might be. He was probably back in British Columbia, the thrice-tenth kingdom peeling away until he emerged on some highway somewhere and hitched a ride back home. Memories of rusałki and other forest demons would fade until they became but dreams, mere fodder for essays while he completed his folklore degree. He would forget Aurelia, too, and all she’d have left of Greg would be wilted flowers and a broken mix tape.

Why do they always listen to Mrs. Yaga? Are they so afraid, that they’d rather chance the thrice-tenth kingdom than whisk me away themselves? Do they think I’m someone they can own, something they can barter for? Aren’t I prize enough without a quest attached?

And lastly: A fucking mix tape?

No. Fuck no. A man needed to do more than that. I need to do more than that.

Aurelia gripped the sabre tight and headed up the path towards the smell of ash and brimstone.

 

Mrs. Yaga was waiting in the yard by the chicken coup when Aurelia glided down in the mortar. Three months had gone by, three long hard months etched into Aurelia’s face and the cracked skin of her hands. Her jeans and jacket were replaced by a Polish peasant’s dress and cloak of deepest indigo. The old witch said nothing when Aurelia clambered out from the pestle and reached in again for a rough leather sack. The young woman said nothing when she opened the mouth and deposited the sack’s contents at Mrs. Yaga’s feet.

A delicate flower with five golden petals each the size of a hand, a ghostly white light at its centre flicking about like a cat’s pupil. It smelled of mangos. A bound cord of sea-green hair. A heart that glowed with inner fire, not much larger than a human heart, and yet clearly the heart of something other.

Mrs. Yaga stared into Aurelia’s eyes and a smile touched those cracked and bloody lips. “Why did you bring these to me? You are no suitor, my little chick. I did not send you on this quest.”

They stared at each other a while longer, measuring.

“I am my own suitor,” answered Aurelia.

“Ah.” Mrs. Yaga nodded, then she thrust her chin towards the mortar. “You stole that from me.”

“You weren’t using it.”

Mrs. Yaga clicked her tongue, stooped and dug her fingers into the dragon’s heart, hefting it, admiring the glow.

“I—” Aurelia began, stopped herself, began again. “I always wondered, why only the men were allowed to be bohaterowie. Why you only gave quests to them.”

Mrs. Yaga shook her head. “I never gave quests to them. The fools would never have finished them, never would have trodden the dark paths of the world’s mirror and emerged unscathed. It was not in their hearts.” She paused, pierced Aurelia with her gaze. “The quests were for you, when you realized you had strength to complete them. Your training is done, Aurelia Wiśniewska. You may go where you will.”

Aurelia swallowed, nodded. “Thank you, baba.”

“Don’t mention it.” Mrs. Yaga was already shuffling towards the cabin, waving a hand dismissively, and Aurelia watched as the mortar slowly wobbled after its master.

Then she turned to the gate, and the road, and the world beyond the fence of skulls, and began to walk.

The End

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9 Comments

  • Alison
    November 4, 2014 at 5:22 am

    Such an enjoyable read. I loved the quirkiness of it all: the flying mortar and pestle, the egg-sucking, the mix-tape. And I thought the ending was perfect. Thanks Book Smugglers for discovering this tale, and Michal for writing it.

  • Matthew
    November 4, 2014 at 12:31 pm

    I quite loved this tale and look forward to more from the author. 🙂

  • tanita
    November 7, 2014 at 6:28 pm

    YEAH, baby. And she got up, and did it HERSELF.
    I have a friend who collects the tales of Baba Yaga, she’s the chair of the Russian Dept. at her university. I know just to get for her now. Thanks, guys.

  • Catherine King
    November 9, 2014 at 5:05 pm

    That was a lovely gem of a story. I especially liked the mingling of details from small-town Canadian life and myths smoke-filled yet blazing.

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