I left the village that day. There was little to do. The gold itself would soon revert to its original elements, my charm unweaving itself. Even my poor cottage would soon be little more than a mound of earth, covered by flowers. I had tried to avoid men, and been unable to do so. I had tried to rule them, and a loyal servant had died trying to keep me from death. I had tried to become like men, and had my heart broken as men's do. I did not know what else I might do, but my heart finally knew that I would never be able to rest until I came again to my home, the Summer Realm, and no-one could tell when that might be. Until then, I resolved with greater fervor to keep to the woods and steppes, and away from the towns. Already I regretted my hasty curse upon Basilokov, but it was done and there was no helping it.
The woods were cold, but the winter air was clean and the ground was pure with newfallen snow. I knew that the pristine appearance would not last, but it was like a tonic after the years in the village.
I journeyed three days into the forest, camping as I felt the need of rest and eating from the sack of provisions I had carried from the village. At first it felt strange, to be in the snow without freezing; I had lived with the people in the village, hiding my true nature and powers, that I had almost forgotten how to use them. But the world itself is a fine teacher, and by the end of the three days, I no longer felt the cold so keenly nor hunger so sharply.
I still grieved the loss of Katya; indeed, that grief was the only part of my time in the human world that was still as fresh and sharp as it had been in the village. But even that would fade in time, I knew, though I would always miss her.
The woods were quiet; I did not see so much as a squirrel no matter how deep into the forest I went. I should have seen it as a warning, but my senses were dulled to danger. It had been fifty years since I had hidden myself in the human world, and I thought that surely my trail had gone cold under so many years.
That night, I camped on the ground, clearing it of snow and spreading out a pack of furs I had brought with me. I did not even think to cast my salt circle, but instead lay down and closed my eyes. I did not sleep, but found myself drifting in thought through my memories, back to the Summer Realm. I remembered the warm touch of the night air on my skin, the gentle tension of the flower vines that were my hammock, and the sweetness of the water when I drank from any of the hundreds of streams that flowed through the land.
For a moment, I even thought I could feel the old warmth on my skin, chasing away the chill that not even the warmest summer day in the human world had been able to dispell.
A foul order invaded my reverie, and before I could move, I felt the iron grip of two bony hands clutching my arms. With a start, I opened my eyes to see the wrinkled face of the Baba Yaga peering at me through the darkness.
“No more running for you, feygirl,” she rasped, her toothless gums grinding only a few inches from my face. “Thought you could use a little magic, cast a little charm, and the Yaga wouldn't find out? Think me a harmless old crone?”
I felt the air being crushed out of my lungs, and before I knew it, she had dragged me into her mortar, and we were flying through the air. My ears were filled with the sound of rushing wind, the scraping of the mortar, and the swish of the Baba Yaga's broom. I do not know how long we flew, nor was I familiar with the forest that we finally landed in. The Baba Yaga quickly threw me down into the snow, into the center of a dark circle. She had not made her circle with salt, which was too pure for the likes of her magic; this circle was made with soot, ashes, and slivers of cold iron. I made to run, but she shouted a single word and the circle was made alive with her dark magic, and I was trapped.
How can I describe to anyone what it felt like? The air inside the circle went bitterly cold, and it seemed thick and heavy, more like ice water than air. And through it all, something like lightning, though it brought more darkness than light. I could not move outside of the circle, and barely within it. Around the edges, the Yaga prowled like a scrawny cat, her hungry yellow eyes trained on me.
“I have already been captured once by Koschei,” I called to her, forcing my words through the cold heavy air, “and I will face death again rather than submit to your magic. I know what it is you intend to do with me.”
The grandmother of witches laughed, a truly horrible sound. “Koschei, that fool! Both of you, thinking you can learn your magic from books, fools! You cannot taste it in the air, as I can. You cannot feel it in your veins, as I do. You cannot hear it singing in the ground, as I have. Koschei, for all of his fire and fury, could not see the seal that is set upon you. And I see now that even you did not know! Why, your forehead bears the mark that can only be set by the Lawkeepers: you may not be killed by anyone until such time as they remove that mark. I might blast you with every arc of lightning in the sky, but you would live. Koschei could no more have spilled your blood upon that Gate than mine.”
I raised a hand to my forehead in surprise. I had never seen nor felt any sign of a mark there. The Baba Yaga was not known for telling great truths, but she cackled when she saw me. “Doubt all you like, feygirl. Even if my words are not true, I'll not be killing you today. However, there is a matter to be settled.”
She put her fingers to her mouth and gave a long whistle that sounded like the shriek of some dying thing. A few moments later, Koschei rode into the clearing. His back was more stooped than I remembered, and there were more lines in his face, but his eyes burned as brightly as ever.
“Now give me the egg,” the witch demanded of him, holding out a crooked hand, “for you've seen that I am able to deliver her.”
“I asked for her death,” Koschei croaked, his voice cracked and hoarse. “She still lives.”
“I told you, you fool,” the Yaga said, “it will be begun tonight, the only way that it can be done. But it is the same to me whether she lives or dies, if you will not give me that egg, she lives.” The witch made as if to return to her mortar, but Koschei groaned, and pulled a small egg from the inner pocket of his coat.
It was a strange sight, to see the fiery sorcerer grieve so over giving the witch an egg, but I remembered the stories of how Koschei had gained his immortality, and I knew what the egg must contain. How I wished I could break free and smash it to bits!
When she had the egg stowed away, the Baba Yaga turned her attention back to me. Raising her arms, she began muttering words that I could not understand. The air crackled with the dark energy.
I could feel my heart constricting inside me, and my lungs felt as though they had turned to stone. The world seemed to be leaping up around me, but no, I was shrinking, shrinking, down and down until I could barely see over the rim of my own footprint in the snow. My eyes were fixed upon, and I could draw no breath. My whole body was rigid and I thought the Baba Yaga had lied about her inability to kill me, for it felt like death.
But then the witch lowered her arms, a gloating look spreading over her face. “There is your clever prey, sorcerer, take her if you please.”
Koschei bent over me, and scooped me up in his cold hands. I would have shuddered at the touch if I could.
“I do not understand,” he said, turning me over as if I weighed nothing, “she is a simple wooden doll. This is not death!”
“Fool-headed goat,” the old woman replied. “I have already told you, she bears a mark! Neither you nor I can kill her. But she can kill herself, and natural things may take their course. And if a simple wooden doll be left in a tree top, open to wind, rain, and all the forces of the earth, how long before it turns to splinters and rots away into nothing?”
For the first time, a smile played about Koschei's lips.
“In truth, old witch, you are not as daft as you appear sometimes. One spring, perhaps two. No more can such a fragile little thing last.”
With a leap, he was among the lower branches of a nearby tree, and he climbed quickly, up to the top where the branches swayed with every breath. He lodged me in the crook of two branches, and tied me there with a bit of string. “And to think I once thought to bind you with chains of iron,” he chuckled, “when only a bit of string would have done. Where is your magic now, I wonder?” And then he was gone.
I could hear both of them below me now, though their voices sounded distant. “That has done it for the feygirl. None shall ever dare defy me again! Farewell then, Yaga, until the time is right to bring down the Gate and claim the Realm.”
But the witch just laughed. “Idiot! Did you think I was done with you? You are my vassal now, for I hold your soul against my heart, and I can crush it into nothingness at a whim. It is no good getting angry: see, I have it in my hand, and it will crack at any moment! Better, that is better. Now go your way, for I have no need of you now, but know that when the Realm is claimed, you will not be the one sitting on its throne.”
Then I heard a sound like a great wind, and I knew that the Baba Yaga had departed. When Koschei left, I do not know. My eyes were open to the sun blazing high overhead, and I felt the wind passing by.
I hung in the tree for nine days, I think, though time seemed to pass strangely. The sun rose and set, but I could not close my eyes to rest. The treetop rocked, but I could not sleep. And ever under the current of my thoughts was the single memory: they knew how to take the Gate.
On the ninth day, I saw a black spot in the sky. It soared here and there, and finally it came near enough for me to see that it was a great raven. I longed to call out to it, to charm it close enough to take a message for me, but my mouth was the mouth of a doll, and it would not move.
But slowly the raven flew closer towards me, finally landing in the tree that I was bound to. It regarded me for some time with its hard bright eyes. Then, with a few swift swipes of its beak, the strings holding me were cut. I toppled from my perch, and fell down into the branches, but in a moment the raven had caught me in its talons, and we were aloft.
I watched to forest passing below, each towering pine looking much like the last, and all of the trees spread out like a carpet. Ahead, I saw a thin line of brown snaking through the trees and the snow: a road, and a large one, by the looks of it. And on that road, men with horses, laden with packs and parcels.
I scarcely had time to notice them before the raven opened his claws, and I fell through the air. It was a long way to the ground, and I tumbled head over heels many times. Then, with a soft crunch, I plunged into the snow on the side of the road, buried.
I was only in the snow for a moment before I felt a gloved hand pulling me free. Large fingers brushed the white stuff from my body, and I heard an exclamation of surprise. “A doll! What would a bird be doing with such a thing this far from a village?” Then I was tucked into a pocket of the man's coat, and all was quiet.
When I was drawn out again, it was in the warm firelit room of a house. I could see fine rugs on the floor, and a woman in a chair by the fire, rocking gently. She was with child, and her face glowed in the ruddy light.
“See? It's a fine little doll, it must have belonged to a rich man's daughter in some city. I have no idea where the bird found it, or why it carried it so far, but I thought to bring it home to you.”
The women smiled, running a finger along my wooden robes. “It is beautiful. And our little girl will love her.”
“So sure you are that it is a girl,” laughed the man. “And why not a fine boy for me, to carry on my name?”
“All in good time,” the woman responded, hand on her belly, “all in good time.”
The next morning, the merchant left for his day's work, and his wife took time to clean me, wiping away the mud that had gathered in the cracks of my wooden form.
“There,” she said quietly, “much better. Perfect for my little girl when she arrives.” She set me on the mantle above the fire, and stared at me for a long time, until I began to wonder if she guessed the truth about the little wooden doll her husband had brought home.
“I am still trying to think of a name, doll,” she finally continued. “I know that my child will be a girl, in the way that women often know, but I do not have a name for her. I have tried my mother's name, and it simply isn't right, and I have no other women in my family to name her after.” With those words, she fell silent, and spent the rest of the morning rocking quietly and looking out the window at the snow outside.
The days passed slowly but pleasantly, given the circumstances. I was still trapped in this form, but there was no immediate danger; things could have been far worse, and so I waited and watched.
The time grew very near for the merchant's wife to deliver her child, and she seemed to grow more attached to me as the day drew closer. She talked to me for hours when the house was empty, telling me of her hopes for her child, and her memories of her own childhood. She was a simple soul, but good as gold at heart, and in time I grew to enjoy her stories, though I had no way of showing it.
One day, when she was in pain from the child inside, she lay in bed, nibbling a bit of bread for her midday meal. She told me of the grand parties she had given her dolls as a child. “You see, doll, my parents would always give me little scraps from the table to feed my dolls, though of course they knew that I are it all myself in the end. But sometimes I almost thought the dolls would eat it, their eyes looked so real. I would hold up a bit of bread to their lips, like this.” she broke off a crumb and held it to my wooden lips.
And suddenly, the bread was gone, and I felt my powers of movement returning. I was still a tiny wooden doll, but I could move. I looked up at the merchant's wife, who stared at me in shock. I feared that a scare could harm the child she carried, so I spoke quickly.
“Do not be afraid! I have been cursed by an enemy of mine to be in this form, but I mean only good for you and your daughter.”
“But...a simple doll...”
“It is difficult to explain, but you must trust me. I will do anything I can to help you, your husband, or your daughter, in gratitude for saving me from the snow. But you must tell no-one of this.”
she continued to stare at me for a long time, wrestling with the reality of what was happening. Finally, she made the sign against evil, and said, “I don't believe you are here to harm us, or you would have done so. It is a strange story, however, like something that my nurse might have told me when I was very young.” She winced as the baby moved within her. “And still I have not a name for the child. I have almost decided to name her for a friend of my grandmother's; she never had children of her own to carry on her name, and my grandmother thought very highly of her.”
Hoping to comfort and calm the poor woman, I replied, “that is a fine thing. What was her name?”
“It was a name from an old story. My grandmother said she was called Vasilissa.”
I fell silent in wonder as she spoke. Could it be? I looked closely at her face, and saw something familiar in the lines of it.
“Tell me about your grandmother. It will take your mind off the pain.”
She shifted position, and her fine straight hair was spread across her pillow. “She was tall and she moved like a willow. Her hair was once the color of wheat, but it had turned white by the time I knew her, and her eyes were always laughing. Her name was Katya, and she died when I was very little. I have not been back to that village to put flowers on her grave since I met my Sergei. He has been very good to me, though his work often takes him away from home. He has promised that after the baby is born, we will all three go back to the village to put flowers on her grave, and to see my mother.”
It was very strange, I thought, that the raven should drop me at the feet of the man who married one of Katya's granddaughters. What strange pattern was this that had me in its grip? There was no knowing, but it seemed to be a pattern that worked outside of the Baba Yaga's will, and so I was somewhat glad for it.
I could feel my limbs stiffening again, and quickly whispered, “I must go now, but when you or your daughter have need, give me a bit of food and I will help you.”
In a few moments, I had lost the freedom of movement, and was once again a doll. But this time, I did not merely watch; I also waited. For now I knew that the Baba Yaga could not fully impose her will on me: there was some power yet that watched both of us, and there was more to this game than met the eye.
In three days' time, the merchant's wife gave birth to a daughter. It was a messy affair, as all births must be, but at the end of the pain was great rejoicing, for both the girl and the mother were healthy. The daughter was unusually beautiful, with big grey eyes that seemed to take in everything. Her skin was pale and rosy, and her hair was a beautiful brown, like her mother's, gleaming in the sunlight that streamed in from the window.
They named the girl Vasilissa, and it was strange to hear my name spoken so often to refer to another. I had lost so much, must I lose my name too?
The merchant and his wife were very happy in those days, and I sat silently upon the mantle above the fireplace, watching and waiting. The merchant's wife, whose name was Sofya, sang to Little Vasilissa, brushing her fine hair and teaching her the names of everything in the house. Her husband, Yuri, began to prosper in his business, and slowly the house filled with fine things from far away. Vasilissa wore dresses that had been made in the large city at the heart of the land, stitched with pearls from the coast. They were very happy, and so the years passed.
Sofya rarely brought me to life, though she tended to do so when Yuri was away on a long trip. Now, more often, she took me down from the shelf that Vasilissa might have something to play with. She was a gentle child, and Sofya ensured that my wooden body was not damaged.
There came a day, when Vasilissa was eight years of age, and she sat on the floor playing happily with a book of colorful pictures that her father had brought home from his latest trip. Sofya sat in her rocking chair, mending a shirt, and smiling to hear Vasilissa reading so well. But as the day went on, Sofya grew pale, and her rocking slowed. Once or twice she coughed, hiding the sound with her hand.
By the time Yuri came home that night, Sofya had taken to her bed, and lay shivering under the blankets. When morning came, she was no better, and Yuri sent for a doctor. Vasilissa sat by her mother all day, carefully stroking her hand and whispering to her. The doctor came, and listened to the sound of Sofya's cough. He frowned, and put an ear to her back, asking her to breathe deeply. Whatever he heard made him grow very solemn, and he pulled Yuri outside to talk to him. Yuri returned to the house alone, almost as pale as Sofya.
As the days went by, Sofya grew paler and weaker, until finally she could no longer raise her head. Yuri was by her side at every moment, and my little namesake stopped her playing to join in.
Sofya smiled wanly at her daughter, and took the small little hand into her own. “Vasilissa, my perfect little girl, I am going to have to leave you very soon. I wanted so badly to see you grow up and become the beautiful woman I know you will become, but there is no time left for us.” She beckoned to Yuri, and whispered something in his ear. He walked to the fireplace and took me from my place upon the mantle, handing me to Sofya. She cradled my wooden form in her hand, then turned back to Vasilissa. “I am going to leave you with this. If you are ever in trouble, my daughter, if you need help, give the doll a bit of bread and water, and tell your troubles to her. Take her with my blessing, light of my heart.” She wrapped Vasilissa's little fingers around me, and then her hands fell back to the bed. She did not move again.
A priest was sent for, and the last rites were performed, though Sofya never knew it. As the sun went down that day, she slipped away from the world, and Yuri wept as though the whole world had been destroyed.
That night, I sat in the dark of Vasilissa's room. The whole house was very still, as if even the mice that so often crept in were staying away from respect for the dead. Then, in the darkness, the shuffling of feet, and I felt myself being picked up by small hands. In a moment, a crumb of bread was touched to my lips, and I felt movement return. I quickly ate the bread, and sipped the water that Vasilissa had brought, then looked up at her.
Her grey eyes were shining with tears, and her face was red with crying. Her hair, so carefully put up into braids by her mother a few days ago, was now wispy and coming down, for Yuri had had no thought for such things.
“Oh doll,” she whispered, “I miss my mother. She died today, and I want her to come and tell me a story and rock me to sleep like she used to. I do not know what to do now that she is gone.”
I looked at the child for a moment; what could I do? Had Sofya come to me early in her illness, I might have been able to heal her, but it had not occurred to her, and what was done was done. The girl's grief would not be assuaged by herbs, nor a glamor; I know of no cure for loss in the world of men, nor is there any such thing in the Summer Realms, for all their glory.
But I could not tell the child such things, so I simply smiled and replied, “Go to sleep, Vasilissa. Things look their worst by night; you will feel better in the morning.”
Obediently, she climbed back into her bed, and I stood on the small table nearby. “Will you watch over me while I sleep, doll?” asked Vasilissa, voice already sleepy.
“Yes, I will watch.”
And I did. The night passed in silence, and when morning came, I felt my freedom of movement fall away again, and I was once more a simple wooden doll. But Vasilissa seemed to rise in better spirits than she had been in for several days.
There were many difficult days that winter. When time came for Sofya to be buried, Vasilissa hid me in the pocket of her mourning dress and clutched me all through the service.
Winter passed into spring, and spring into summer. Slowly, Yuri and Vasilissa rebuilt their lives. Their world would never be the same without Sofya, but they could at least go on living together. At first, Vasilissa talked to me every night, then every week, and finally not at all.
The seasons continued their passage, and Vasilissa grew into a beautiful girl. She was tall and willowy, with rich brown hair that rippled down her back when she brushed out her braids. Her eyes, though they were as grey as the sea on a cloudy day, were full of light. She had the light heart of a child who knows that she is loved, and she was always eager to do whatever household task needed to be done. But sometimes Yuri came into her room to watch as she slept, and I could tell that he was troubled.
In Vasilissa's twelfth year, everything changed. Yuri left on a long business trip, and Vasilissa waited for him to return, keeping the house running smoothly and taking care of all tasks as she always had. When word came that he was returning, she ran out to the yard to greet him. From my usual spot on the mantle, I could see the laden horses come up from the road. But two horses were not weighed down with packs, but with people: a woman sat on a pale horse, and two girls, only a little older than Vasilissa rode a small sturdy brown pack horse.
Vasilissa beckoned for them to come inside, and soon everyone was gathered in the main room. Yuri stepped forward. “My dearest daughter, I know how difficult things have been for you, losing your mother at such a young age. I did not want you to enter into womanhood without a mother. This is Maryusa, my new wife, and her daughters Kira and Dima.” Vasilissa stepped forward, raising her arms to embrace the two new girls, but both of them gave her such a cold glance that she stopped, then stepped back again.
Maryusa spoke, and her voice had a note in it that I did not like. “So, this is the daughter you spoke so much of, Yuri! In truth, she is somewhat older than I had expected.” Her ice blue eyes roved over Vasilissa, taking in every detail and weighing it.
“I hope that you will all love each other as much as I love each of you,” Yuri continued, looking at each in turn. “After all, we have all known loss, and I believe that we can find wholeness in each other.”
The next few months were like the calm of a summer day before a storm, when the air is too still and lightning feels like it is prickling in the sky. Maryusa made no immediate changes in Yuri's household, but merely watched. Poor Yuri was so intent in his desire to give Vasilissa a mother right away that he did not take the time to consider what sort of woman would make a good mother to her. Maryusa's eyes were always flicking to the fine rugs on the floor, the gold candlesticks on the mantle, and the rich furs on the bed, calculating how much each had cost. I wondered if she even cared for Yuri himself at all, or merely his gold, and my heart ached for the man.
When it was necessary to go to the market, Maryusa took all three girls with her and Yuri, and the family made their way slowly through the crowded space. I rode along silently, tucked into Vasilissa's dress pocket. Maryusa looked not so much at the wares and goods on display, but at the other townsfolk, and especially at the young men. I followed her eyes, and saw what she saw: that wherever Vasilissa went, the young men of the village watched her. She was too young for marriage now, but not for long. Another five years would see her come of age, and betrothals often were settled years in advance. Maryusa watched her own daughters, and saw that few of the young men even noticed them, though they were closer to the age for marriage. From that day onward, Maryusa always found a way to make sure that Vasilissa stayed home on market day.
At the end of the season, Yuri resumed his usual travels, convinced that he left a solid family behind him. It was in these times that Maryusa chose to act.
One morning, after Yuri had been gone for two days, Vasilissa went into the kitchen for breakfast, and instead of finding the usual bowl of warm porridge with fresh milk, there was laid out a wooden plate with a heel of bread on it, and a glass of water.
Maryusa looked up from the stove and said, “Times are difficult, Vaslissa, and we must all do our part. You are too big to laze around the house all day. The whole house needs to be swept clean.”
Vasilissa hurriedly ate her plain breakfast and began to sweep. The house had indeed gotten dusty, but this was largely because Kira and Dima often tracked mud through the house on their shoes, and did not bother to remove their shoes before coming into the house. It took most of the morning for Vasilissa to sweep the house, and wipe the counters and shelves free of dust.
When Maryusa called the girls together for lunch, Kira and Dima were each given a hot roasted fish over boiled potatoes, and fresh bread with butter, while Vasilissa only had a salty piece of dried fish and a tough slice of old bread. She ate quietly, offering no questions, and after the meal was over, returned to her room. But she was not left there in peace for long; soon, Maryusa bustled in. “What do you think you're doing? The firewood for the stove must be brought in, and water drawn from the well, and all of the bed linens aired. Hurry!”
So Vasilissa did her chores, stopping quickly by the mantle to slip me into her dress pocket. She did not finish the work she had been given until the sun began to sink below the horizon, and she was very tired.
When she went into the kitchen for dinner, she found that Maryusa and her daughters had already eaten a fine dinner, and were at their sewing. “I'm sorry, Vasilissa, but you cannot expect much for dinner if you insist on being late,” Maryusa said with a frown, handing her a small slice of hard cheese and another slice of stale bread.
As Vasilissa took the weak dinner, her stepmother took a quick glance at her hands. It was too quick for anyone else to notice, but I saw a swift smile touch her lips at the sight of the blisters forming on Vasilissa's hands. At that moment, I knew her plan, and hated her for it. A young woman with calloused hands and sun-burned face would soon lose her reputation for beauty, and the young men would turn their attentions to others with fairer skin and smooth hands.
“Before you go to bed, Vasilissa,” Maryusa said, “I need you to sweep out the ashes from the stove and make sure that it is clean for cooking tomorrow.”
I felt a strange warmth on my cheek, and realized that a tear from Vasilissa's eye had fallen on me, and she struggled to keep the rest of the flood at bay.
“Yes, ma'am,” she said quietly, and sat down to finish her meal. Almost as soon as she was done, the stepmother and her daughters blew out the candles and went to bed, leaving her to do her work in the light of the coals of the fire.
She sat on the bricks in front of the fireplace for a long time, then took me from her pocket and placed a crumb from her bread before me. When I began to move, she burst out in tears.
“Oh, little doll, I knew that my stepmother did not take very kindly toward me, but I don't know how I can do everything she asks! I am not afraid to work hard, but she asks for so much that I cannot do it all in a day. See, my hands are blistered and my feet ache.”
I let her empty herself of her sorrow, then quietly repeated my first advice to her. “Go to sleep, little Vasilissa. Things look their worst by night, you will feel better in the morning.”
“But I must clean the fireplace--”
“Sleep. I will take care of the fireplace.”
She hesitated, and I saw the doubt in her eyes. She was no longer the young girl content to hear words of simple comfort from a magical doll, and she wanted assurance that she would not suffer for taking the liberty of a single night's sleep.
“Trust me, Vasilissa, or if you cannot do that, then trust your mother who gave me into your keeping.”
With those words, her eyes softened, and without a further word, went to her bed and slept.
Quietly, I spoke a few of the charms that I knew, and in moments the fireplace was clear of ash, the bricks swept clean, and the hearth free of soot. Then, the simple task done, I made my way into Vasilissa's room and stood on the table, watching her. As I felt the power of movement beginning to drain away, I used the last few moments of freedom to whisper words of protection over her, that the sun might not burn her skin, nor the broom blister her hands, nor the ground bruise her feet. And then I was still, and Vasilissa slept.
Things continued in this way for months while Yuri was away. I often watched Maryusa staring at Vasilissa, wondering why her stepdaughter's skin did not roughen, nor her face burn in the sun. In truth, Vasilissa only grew more beautiful, and my charms had nothing to do with it. There is a beauty that comes from suffering born with courage, and no-one can give that beauty away: it must be earned. Meanwhile, Kira and Dima grew more sullen, and though their skin was pale and clear, their looks darkened with every passing day. Cruelty and bitterness make their way into the body as much as courage and love.
Now several of the young men of the village made it a point to stop by the house on occasion, to watch the dark-haired girl sweep the path and beat the dust from the rugs. Even when Kira and Dima appeared in their finest silks, dressed from head to toe by their mother, they drew no such longing glances. And Maryusa's jealousy grew.
Vasilissa called on me every night now, pouring out the latest cruelties she suffered, and asking for my advice and help. It was a simple thing to do her nightly chores, for Maryusa never stayed awake to watch Vasilissa do them, but checked the results upon waking in the morning. I even charmed many of the household items to make her daily work easier.
But what I found I could not do was answer her one question, “Why does my stepmother do this to me?” Who can explain the ways of a jealous woman to a young girl who has known nothing but unconditional love? She had done everything she could think of to earn Maryusa's affection, but she did not know that such a task was impossible, and I did not know how to tell her without snuffing out the innocence that was such a great part of her beauty.
Finally, Maryusa had had enough of half measures, and decided to have done with Vasilissa once and for all. From my spot on the mantle, I watched her set up the room with precision, then call the three young women in.
When Kira came, she was seated in a comfortable chair, and her mother whispered something in her ear, pressing a handful of lace into her hands.
Dima, when she arrived, was given an embroidery hoop and a packet of fine silver needles.
Vasilissa was last to arrive, for she had had a final task to finish. She slipped me into her pocket as she passed the hearth. The fire had been put out, and the only light in the room was a single candle. Vasilissa was given a mass of flax, and a spindle.
“Now girls,” said Maryusa, putting on her kerchief and taking a basket from a peg by the door, “there is much to be done, and I expect to find your tasks finished when I return. We do not have much money until Yuri returns from his trip, so you must make do with the single candle I've left for you.” With that, she turned and went out, closing the door behind her.
For some time, the three girls worked in silence. Then Kira looked out the window, where the sun was slipping below the horizon. She got up and took a pair of tongs from a basket on the heath, and made to trim the wick of the candle. But with a quick punch, she put out the light.
“Oh dear,” she said loudly, with a great deal of emphasis on each word. “Now the light has gone out, and mother told us to finish our work before she comes home! Whatever shall we do? One of us must go fetch fire!”
Dima replied, “The moon is bright tonight, and I can see my silver needles flashing well enough to work. Someone else must go.”
“I can see my steel pins,” Kira said quickly but clumsily, “and I can finish. But poor poor Vasilissa could never see well enough to spin her flax by that light.”
With that, the two older girls grabbed Vasilissa by her arms, and bustled her to the door. Dima slid the lock back and opened the latch, and Kira pushed Vasilissa out into the night.
“Come back when you have brought fire,” the two called in unison, and slammed the door closed. With a cold click, I heard the iron lock close.
Vasilissa quickly searched her pockets, and found a bit of bread crust that she had left there earlier in the day, and gave it to me. When I regained my movement, she said hurriedly, “Oh, doll, I am cast out to fetch fire, what shall I do? The road into the village crosses a river, and the bridge is drawn back at night. I must go to the woods and see what I can find there.”
“Why the woods,” I asked, “is there someone who lives there who will have a burning fire to give you a coal?”
She shuddered. “Yes, there is a witch who lives in the woods, and I know of no other place where I can get the fire. They will not let me return home without it.” She walked a short distance into the woods, and stood, looking over her shoulder at her home.
I urged her to go forward into the woods, and soon the clearing was lost to our sight. There were no wolves in this part of the forest, for it was too close to the human hunters for their comfort. Nevertheless, I kept myself alert for any dangers that might be in the wood. There was something out there that did not feel as it should, but I could not place the sensation.
Vasilissa wandered for most of the night; it took her a long time to find her way through the brambles and the roots that were so easy to trip over. I told her to sleep, to recover her strength, but she refused, pushing on through the night.
Finally, when the night was at its coldest, and dawn soon to appear, she broke through the undergrowth into another clearing. At the sight of it, I felt a chill of fear run through me.
For there in the middle of the clearing was a cottage, spinning and whirling on tall monstrous chicken legs. All around the cottage was a fence of spikes, and on each spike hung a man's skull, and a terrible fiery light shone from the eyes, lighting the clearing all around.
“That is the house of the witch,” Vasilissa whispered to me, but her words were cut short by a sound of hoofbeats. She crouched low behind a bush, and in a moment we saw a rider clothed all in black, on a black horse. He rode into the clearing and leaped over the fence. The moment his horse's hooves touched the ground, horse and rider disappeared, and the sky began to grow light.
I could feel my body returning to its ordinary wooden state, and whispered quickly, “If you go inside the Baba Yaga's house, you must never let her see me. I will do whatever I can to help and protect you, but she must never see me.” And with that, I fell silent, and could do no more than watch.
As Vasilissa stood there, a rider dressed all in red appeared in the clearing, and jumped the fence, then rode quickly off into the woods as the sun rose. Moments later, a rider all in white, upon the largest white horse I have ever seen, did the same, and daylight broke on the clearing.
She waited there all day, fearful of approaching the spinning cottage, but yet more fearful of returning home. It was clear that the stories she had heard about the witch in the woods were only pale shadows of the truth, but I could not speak and tell her so. Finally, the sun began to set, and the riders returned, just as we had seen them go in the morning.
And then came the sound that I had learned to dread above all others: the sound of a high windstorm, with a loud scraping behind it. In moments, the Baba Yaga rushed into the clearing, driving her mortar on with the iron pestle, and the trees tossed by the wind that bore her on. As she entered the clearing, she looked up at her cottage, whirling like a dervish on the chicken legs, and called out, “Little house, little house, stand the way thy mother made thee, with thy back to the forest and thy door to me.” At those words, the cottage stopped its mad spinning, and the door flew open.
The Baba Yaga turned suddenly, sniffing the air. I feared that she scented the magic that I bore, but she called out, “I smell the bone and blood of a Russian! Show yourself!” Trembling, Vasilissa stepped into the clearing, and bowed her head. “Please, grandmother, it is only I, Yuri's daughter, come to borrow fire, for ours has gone out.”
The Yaga inspected her for a time, then nodded gruffly. “I know of your house. But if you wish to take fire from the Baba Yaga, you must serve me for three days. Do you agree?”
the girl hesitated. With everything in me, I wanted to tell her to run, but I could not speak. With a deep breath, Vasilissa agreed, and with the witch, entered the chicken leg house.
When we arrived inside, the Baba Yaga spread herself out on the hearth to soak up the warmth from the bricks. She demanded that Vasilissa prepare the dinner that had been bubbling on the stove, and in a short time, the table was set with a large pot of soup, a fresh loaf of bread, and a bowl of roasted potatoes. Getting up, the witch devoured it all, leaving only a single ladle of soup for Vasilissa's dinner, along with half a crust of bread.
Before she lay down to sleep, the witch towered over the poor girl, and gave her instructions for the next day. “You will keep my house for me, and I expect to see the house and yard swept clean. Cook my dinner and have it hot and waiting for me when I return. Most importantly, I have a bag of wheat in my storehouse. Before I return tomorrow, you must sort through it, and separate out all of the black grains. If I see even one black grain in the bag, it's you I'll be having for my dinner!” With that, she slammed the door to her bedroom, leaving Vasilissa alone in the dark.
She had saved one sip of soup and quickly gave it to me.
“Do not worry, Vasilissa,” I told her, when my movement returned. “Sleep now, and rise when the Yaga does. Let the rest take care of itself.”
She nodded, and soon was fast asleep. With a few simple spells, the housework was soon done, and by the light of the moon outside, I could see that the yard was now swept clean. The charm for the wheat in the storehouse was more difficult, but I managed it just before the Yaga arose. I had feared that she would be able to feel my magic, and ferret out my presence, but her whole cottage was rank with spells and power, and she could not possibly have told my simple work from her own.
The witch awoke, and was out the door in a rush of wind. As we watched from the window, the knight in black returned, the white and red riders departed, and the Yaga herself flew into the woods in her mortar with the sound of a storm.
Vasilissa then looked around the cottage, and discovered that all the housework had been done, and the yard swept clean. “Thank you, little doll, thank you with all my heart,” she said, but I could not respond to her gratitude.
The day passed in quietness; in truth, it was the first time in several months when the poor girl had been allowed to rest for more than a few hours at night. The only task left was to cook the witch's dinner, and that was a simple matter.
When evening fell, the Yaga burst through the door in a rush of wind. “My dinner, girl, my dinner,” she howled, sitting her old bones at the table. In a moment, then dinner was placed before her, and she devoured it, again leaving only scraps for the girl. When the food was gone, the Yaga inspected every corner of her house, and found nothing to criticize. Finally, she turned back to Vasilissa.
“Very well, then, you have kept my house clean and cooked my dinner. But there was another task I set you before I left; have you seperated my wheat?” With a clap of her hands, the bag of wheat appeared from the storehouse, and the witch plunged her hands into it. But no matter how many handfuls she drew out, she could find not a single black grain in the whole bag.” With a grunt of satisfaction, she clapped her hands again. A pair of hands appeared in midair and clutched the bag of wheat, then disappeared again. Vasilissa was startled, but said nothing.
The witch looked her over. “you have done well with your first day's work, but you agreed to three! Tomorrow, you must clean the house and yard again, and have my dinner hot and ready when I arrive. In addition, you must take the sack of barley from my storehouse, and seperate all the split grains. If I come home to find even one grain out of place, it's you who will be my dinner!” And then we were alone.
Again, Vasilissa had saved me a scrap of her dinner, and again I bid her sleep. The second night and day passed as had the first, and the witch had no choice but to let the girl work her final day, and set her the task of cleaning every speck of dust from a bag of poppyseeds.
After finishing Vasilissa's tasks that night, I used the rest of the time to explore the little cottage. There was not much to it, but in one corner, disused and covered with dust, I saw a large chest. Something drew me to it, a slight pricking that indicated the presence of strong magic. I put my eye to the keyhole and whispered a word for light. Then, inside the chest, I saw something that was worth more than gold to me at that moment: books. Not just any books, but books with strange symbols on the spines, and warnings on the covers. Books of magic.
The witch herself had no need of such things: her powers came from herself and were never learned. But she had no desire for others to acquire power, and so she had collected any books she could find, and locked them away.
I spent the rest of the night reading the books, searching for the spells and charms I needed. When the Yaga stirred the next morning, I had learned what I needed, and the chest was locked again, as if it had never been disturbed. I returned to Vasilissa's pocket just before I lost the capacity for movement alltogether.
We both waited anxiously for the witch to come home on the third night. When we heard the roar of a great wind, we knew that the time of reckoning had come. The Yaga devoured her dinner in a great rush, then turned to Vasilissa with her cold beady eyes.
“Well, girl, you have served me well these three days. You may have found my house strange, but you know how to keep your thoughts to yourself. That is good, for no-one should seek to know too much, lest she grow old too soon. But for your good service, you may ask questions of me.”
The girl thought for a moment, then asked, “Every evening, I have seen a rider all in black, seated upon a black horse, ride away into the woods, and every morning he returns again. Who is he?”
“that is the night, who is my good servant. He comes and goes to spread darkness upon the earth for a few hours. Ask again, Yuri's daughter.”
“Every morning, I have seen a rider, all in red, upon a great red horse. He disappears into the woods at sunrise, and returns at sunset. Who is he?”
“why, that is the red sun, who goes out to bring light and warmth to all the earth for a span of hours. Ask again, little Vasilissa.”
“Every morning, I have watched as a man clothed all in white, seated upon the largest white horse I have ever seen, rides out into the woods. Every evening, he returns again. Who is he?”
The Yaga chuckled, and leaned forward. “That is the bright daylight, and he is my servant. He rides all over the earth for a span of hours. Now, ask me again, you have seen other wonders in my house. Ask me whatever you wish!”
But the girl hesitated, seeing the hungry look in the witch's eyes. “No, if you please, that is all I wish to know. I do not wish to grow too soon old.”
with a curse, the witch leapt up from her chair. “Had you asked me one more question, I could have claimed you, and my servants would have dragged you off to make you my slave forever! Very well, you will have your cursed fire. Only tell me one thing: how did you do all the tasks I set for you? There are not many girls in the world who are able to do such a thing.”
for a moment, Vasilissa's fingers twitched toward the pocket where she kept me, and I feared that she would forget her promise. Then she spoke. “It is my dead mother's blessing that has helped me.”
The witch flew into a great rage, and the door of the cottage burst open, showing the black of night outside. “What? There can be no blessings under this roof! Get out! Get out!”
Vasilissa ran to the door and leaped out, crashing into the yard. The fence stood between her and the forest, and the skulls that lined the top were blazing with light. As she ran, the Yaga grabbed one of the skulls and threw it at her. “take your payment, your fire, and never return!” Vasilissa caught the skull, and didn't stop running until we reached the woods.
Once safely out of sight of the clearing, she quickly gave me a bit of bread she'd saved from dinner.
“I have the fire,” she exclaimed proudly, holding up the skull with light blazing from the eye sockets.
“then let's take it back to your father's house and be done with this business,” I said, eager to be as far from the Yaga's house as possible. She broke a branch off a fallen tree, and stuck the skull on it like a torch. By its light, she quickly found the paths through the woods, and when dawn arrived, she broke through the woods into the clearing that surrounded her father's house. Every window was cold and dark, but she knocked on the door.
In a moment, I heard the lock slide back, and Maryusa drew the girl in. The house was as cold as the air outside, and the three women in the house were bundled in furs and robes,trying to keep warm.
“Vasilissa!' exclaimed Maryusa, “we were so worried! I heard about what happened, and we kept waiting for you to return with the fire. These past three days, we have been unable to light fire, and any coals we bring from town go cold as soon as they cross the threshold.” In her fear, Maryusa did not berate the girl for her absence, or her unfinished work.
“Do not worry,” Vasilissa said, sticking the skull into the fireplace, “we can light our fires from this.” And the wood that sat in the fireplace caught fire almost instantly, and soon the fire roared merrily. The skull was kept on its stick and placed in brace in the wall.
Soon, Maryusa and her daughters grew warm, and shed their extra robes and furs. Then they began to sweat, and their faces were flushed. “Isn't it growing warm in here,” asked Kira, but her mother bid her keep silent and be grateful for the warmth.
Vasilissa seemed unaffected by the heat, but from her dress pocket I could see the eyes of the skull glowing brighter and brighter. Then, there was a flash of fire that engulfed the room. Three screams tore through the room, but fell quickly silent; Vasilissa threw her arms up to sheild her eyes, and by the time she could see again, it was over.
The fire had reduced the three faithless women into piles of ash; there would not even be enough left to give them a proper burial. When she saw what had happened, Vasilissa fell to her knees, weeping. I could do nothing to rouse her.
As night fell, she slowly ceased her tears, and got up from the floor. She took me from her dress pocket, and looked at me for a long time. There was a look in her eyes that I had not seen before, and I knew that she was no longer the simple girl who did as she was told. I knew in that moment that she would never wake me to movement again.
She carefully swept the ashes into three jars and sealed them tightly. Lining them up on the mantle, she then set out, with me still in her pocket as a silent wooden doll. She reached the river just before the bridge was withdrawn, and crossed it, making her way into the town.
There was a little house on the edge of town, and she knocked on the door. A shuffling sound came from inside, and an old woman's voice called out, “Who is it at my door so late at night?”
“It is Vasilissa, old Agafiya, Sofya's daughter.”
The lock slide aside, and a wrinkled old face peered into the night. “Yes, I know you! But what brings you here now?”
In a voice that ached with an exhaustion deeper than her very bone, Vasilissa replied, “If you please, Agafiya, my stepmother and sisters are dead, and I do not know when my father will return. Please let me stay with you until he comes home.”
At this plea, the old woman quickly brought the young girl inside. She gave her a steaming bowl of cabbage soup, and a hot loaf of bread. Vasilissa ate both without stopping; she had grown very thin indeed.
She slept that night in the old woman's house, a sleep almost as deep as death. When morning came, she woke. She got up, and pulled me out of her dress pocket.
“I thank you for all of your help, doll,” she whispered, placing me on the mantle above the old woman's fireplace. “But from here, I must do things for myself. I have lost everything, and I must make my own way.” She kissed the top of my head, and left me there.
I watched her from there. I saw the moment when she received news that her father had been lost in a snowstorm; she wept, but did not break. She was past breaking now. Agafiya enjoyed her company, and the two kept house together very well. In time, Vasilissa began to smile again, but there was always a quiet sadness behind it. She rejected the suits of all of the boys in the town; there were few who did not try to win her hand, but she would have nothing to do with any of them. “Let them marry wives who sing and dance and make merry,” she told Agafiya once, “and leave me to myself. I have had enough of keeping house for another.”
Like all who are young, she thought that her grief would last forever, but she herself could not see when it had begun to pass. One day, she came home from the market with a mass of flax in her basket, and in the evenings she would sit and spin it. Her delicate fingers were skilled in spinning, and the thread was as thin and fine as a hair.
One day the thread was done, and she sat in the warm glow of the fire, looking at her work.
“It is very fine thread,” commented Agafiya, eyes on her own knitting.
“Yes. Perhaps you should take it to the market tomorrow and sell it; surely someone is in need of fine flaxen thread to spin.”
Agafiya did just that, and spent the next day at the market. When the evening came, she returned to the house where Vasilissa had been working and cleaning all day.
“What luck in the market today,” asked Vasilissa. Her dark brown hair was bound in braids around her head, and her cheeks were flushed from sweeping the floor.
“No luck in the market,” replied the old woman, taking in the beauty of the younger with a measured gaze. “At least, not with your flaxen thread. All of the craftsmen said that they knew of no loom delicate enough to weave such a fine thread, though all were agreed that it was a very marvelous thread.”
There was silence in the house for awhile as the women ate. Vasilissa did not seem as calm and resigned as she usually did, though Agafiya ate steadily as always.
Later that evening, when both were sitting in front of the fire, working with their sewing, Vasilissa commented, “It seems a shame to waste a thread as fine as that one.”
“It does, at that,” Agafiya replied.
“I wonder if a loom could be made to weave that thread.”
“I asked several of the craftsmen, as well as the woodworkers, and they thought that it might be done, but none knew of any craftsman skilled enough to attempt such a thing.” Agafiya's voice was calm and betrayed nothing, but I could have sworn that her eyes flickered to me for an instant before returning to her work. “Such a shame, about that thread.”
“Yes,” Vasilissa said, staring into the fire, her sewing in her lap.
That night, long after both women had retired to their beds and the moonlight lay in long patches on the floor, I heard a creak. In a moment, I was off the shelf, cradled in Vasilissa's palm, and a crumb of bread placed to my lips.
“Wake up, little doll,” she whispered, and her voice has hoarse with intensity. “I never wanted your help again, because it leads to great and terrible things. I wish I had died in that forest, rather than see Maryusa and her daughters burned so horribly. But I hate the thought of my thread, that I spun so carefully, going to waste.”
“I will weave it for you, if you like,” I replied quietly, but she shook her head.
“No, I will not have you do anything that I can do for myself. But, please, doll, will you make me a loom so that I might weave the thread?”
Her grey eyes shone in the moonlight, and I realized again just how young she was, for all her pretense at being aged by grief. “Yes, I can. Go back to sleep, Vasilissa, you will have your loom in the morning.”
She looked at me for a moment longer, then went back to her room in silence. It took me some time to create the loom; I had not used any charms for some time, and it was a tricky request. After all, this could be no illusion or glamor, but a functioning machine. But finally it was done, as the first rays of light began to lighten the sky. I returned to my place on the mantle just before the freedom of movement left.
A few moments later, Vasilissa ran into the room, looking around quickly. Her eyes fell upon the new loom, which was standing in the corner, ready to use. She sat down, without bothering to change from her nightgown, and immediately began to thread the flax into the loom.
An hour later, when Agafiya awoke and came into the room, Vasilissa had already begun to weave and a tiny amount of cloth hung from the bottom of the loom. The old woman said nothing, but went about the chores of the household, cooking and cleaning and all of Vasilissa's tasks, leaving the young woman to her own work.
For many days she wove, and the thread was so fine that it took a long time for the cloth to gain any length at all, but slowly it grw, until one day she had a full length of the finest linen that I have ever seen.
Wordlessly, she presented it to Agafiya for inspection. The old woman took a needle from her darning basket, and drew a corner of the cloth through the eye of the needle. With a steady hand, she slowly pulled the length of the fabric through the needle. Both women stood for a moment, looking at the beautiful cloth; then Agafiya reached out and deftly folded the cloth, wrapping it in a scarf and tucking it into her basket.
“Will you take it to market for me,” asked Vasilissa, looking up at the older woman.
“I will take it,” she replied, and tying a scarf over her hair, went out. She was gone for a very long time, and Vasilissa tried to occupy her time with her old tasks; she cooked their meal and cleaned the house, sweeping the floor with a vigor that I had not seen from her in a long time. But no matter how she threw herself into her work, she could not keep herself from running to the window and looking up the path.
Finally, after the sun had reached its highest point and begun to slip back toward the horizon, Agafiya slowly made her way up her path and opened the door. Vasilissa darted across the room, but stopped short when she caught sight of the fabric bundle still stowed in the basket.
“My linen would not sell at the market” she asked. I could see that she was trying not to show the amount of pain it caused her. Agafiya shook her head, then slowly smiled.
“Ah, my dear child, I did not take it to the market. It is far too fine for our little market. No, I walked up the road to the tsar's palace instead. Back and forth I walked in front of the palace walls, holding up the cloth for all to see. More and more people looked out of the windows, but I said nothing and kept walking. Finally, the tsar himself looked out of the window, and he watched me for a long time. Then, he ducked back into the palace, and a few moments later, the guards came out to bring me inside. When I came before him, he asked to see the linen. His eyes lit up as he looked at it, and I could tell that he was picturing himself in the fine clothes that could be made from such cloth.”
The old woman reached into her basket and pulled out a pouch that jingled with the unmistakable sound of money. “As you can see, he paid us handsomely for cloth.”
“But if he paid for the cloth, why have you brought it back?” asked Vasilissa.
“Well, you see, as soon as he had bought the cloth, he sent for all of the royal tailors. They came, with their scissors and their measures and their pins, but none of them would cut the cloth, for they knew that they were unable to sew such fine material. So the tsar called me back, and asked me where I had gotten such linen. 'In truth, your highness, it was woven by my ward, a fine young woman with no family.' When he heard this, he was much delighted, and said, 'Go back to your home, woman, and have your ward make this cloth into fine shirts for me to wear. Then, when the shirts are finished, have her bring them to me here at my palace, for I greatly desire to see the hands that can do such work.”
As she spoke, Vasilissa's eyes grew bright with hope, but her cheeks grew pale. When Agafiya finished her story, she cried out, “Oh, Agafiya, why have you done this? I was content to stay here with you, unknown, living out my life until I died and all memory of my cursed name was lost. But now you have brought me to the attention of the tsar! Surely such a thing can only end badly!”
The old woman just patted her hand gently. “Come, dear, let us eat our dinner and go to sleep. You can start on the shirts in the morning, and things will look better to you then.”
Vasilissa was as deft with a needle and thread as she was with shuttle and loom, and it was not long before the linen had been cut and sewn into a dozen of the finest shirts for the tsar. Surely any ruler would be proud to wear such things; they were so delicate that I could scarcely believe they were made by human hands at all.
The morning after she finished the shirts, she woke early and washed her face with cold water from the river; the chill brought the blood to her cheeks and made them glow. She put on her finest dress—a work dress that had not yet required any patching—and braided her hair with great care. When Agafiya awoke, the two ate breakfast in silence, then the old woman helped the young one pack the shirts into the basket so that they would not wrinkle. As she crossed the room to the door, Vasilissa paused for a moment, then quickly took me from my place on the mantle and slipped me into her dress pocket and walked out the door.
The day was sunny and bright, and there were already a few people on the road. We quickly passed through the town and the market, and the noise of the plaza fell away as Vasilissa made her way up the road toward the tsar's palace. She did not speak to me, nor wake my from my inanimate state, but I was glad that she had chosen to bring me along.
It took several hours to reach the palace, and the sun was high in the sky when we arrived. When we reached the palace, Vasilissa showed one of the shirts to the guards, and we were quickly brought into the palace.
Vasilissa's footsteps echoed on the marble floors, and there were rich tapestries hanging on every wall. She was nervous, but there was also a lightness to her step that I had not seen in many years.
Finally, we were ushered into the presence of the tsar, and I was surprised. I had expected to find a middle-aged man, dressed in rich clothes and suffering the effects of too much rich food. But this tsar was young, with a fine full mustache; he had just come in from hunting, and his rough clothes were stained with mud. He greeted Vasilissa, and begged leave to change his clothes that he might not damage the new shirts.
Soon, he had returned, and though he now wore the fine clothes of his class, he retained the health and vigor of the true outdoorsman. Vasilissa lifted one of the shirts from her basket, and carefully handed it to him for inspection.
He lightly rubbed the cloth between his thumb and finger, and examined the stitching. Finally, he folded the shirt and handed it back. “This is, without a doubt, the finest clothing that I have ever laid eyes upon. Valet! Come and take these shirts from this good woman, and have them placed in my wardrobe immediately.”
he then took Vasilissa's hand in his own, and lightly touched the tips of her fingers. “Such great skill with the fabric,” he murmured, “and yet your hands are as soft and smooth as the linen itself.”
Vasilissa blushed and looked down at the floor, but did not remove her hand from his.
Within a season, the entire countryside was buzzing with news about the upcoming royal wedding. Orders for food, clothing, and all manner of things had been issuing from the palace for weeks.
Vasilissa had been given er own suite of rooms, and a flock of handmaidens to wait upon her, and she was never alone. I knew that I needed to act quickly, but I did not want to reveal myself to anyone else, lest any stories escape the palace and enter the gossip of the villagers.
Finally, the day before the wedding, one of the maids fell ill, and another stayed in their quarters to care for her, and Vasilissa was alone. I could tell that she was somewhat relieved, and a bit unsure of how to spend her time. I could not move, in the form of the wooden doll, but I exerted every ounce of my willpower. Vasilissa glanced at me, then paced about the room for a short while. Finally, she walked over to the table where I sat and put a small crumb of cake to my lips. As soon as I began to move, she said, “Doll, I thank you for all the help you have given me. I could not have woven the cloth without your loom. But I have no need of you anymore; I am to be married to the tsar, and I shall be very happy, which I had never thought to be again. I cannot just give you away as I would any other doll. What is it that you wish of me?”
“You've already done it,” I whispered. I closed my eyes, and called to mind the spells I had learned in the chicken leg house of the Baba Yaga, and whispered the charms in a rush of breath. I felt the magic running all over me, piercing me like a spear, and turning my wooden body to flesh once more.
I opened my eyes again, ignoring the pain that still lanced through me. Vasilissa stood in the middle of the room, grey eyes wide and staring.
“I'm sorry, there was never time to tell you. Always something to be done, always so little time...Shortly before you were born, the Baba Yaga caught me unawares in the forest, and imprisoned me in the form of the wooden doll. She intended that I stay forever lost, to crumble away in the snow and wind. But instead your father found me, and your mother discovered the small hole in the charm,that allowed me to speak and move for a time. When we were in the Yaga's house, I found a book of spells that taught me how to undo her evil charm. And so I stand before you now, in my true form.”
She stood open-mouthed for a moment, then reached out a hand and touched my hair, which flowed down my back in waves. “Then, if you are not my little doll, who are you?”
“That is a difficult question to answer. Once, I was a creature of the Summer Realm, Hyperborea, and the great Gate of that land lies far from here. But for many hundreds of your years, I have been outcast, set to wander here in your world. And then, for a short span of decades, I was a humble peasant woman in a nearby village. The village has changed, but the people live on. One of them remembered my former name, the name of an herb woman who knew the skill of medicine. Her name, my name, was Vasilissa, and the grand-daughter of a woman she once helped remembered that name, and gave it to her daughter in my memory.”
The young woman murmured the name, pondering the story.
“It is time for me to go now,” I said, though it nearly broke my heart to leave her. “I must go back and find the way back to my land. I believe it is also time for my exile to be over. Please, help me get to the palace gates without being seen. I do not want any word of a mysterious young woman reaching the ears of the Baba Yaga.”
Moments later, we were hurrying down the passageways of the palace. I had a scarf tied around my hair, half covering my face, and Vasilissa had laden my arms with dresses to be sent down to the washerwoman. We made our way down to the lower level of the castle and after leaving the gowns in the laundry, Vasilissa showed me a back door out of the palace.
“Again, I thank you for everyting. Without your help, I would never have come out of the woods alive, or met the tsar who will soon be my husband. Truly, I am happy now, and I thank you.” She embraced my quickly, then disappeared back into the palace.
I set out on the road, and as I came to the top of the hill, I looked back. I thought I could see a pale face at one of the windows, watching my journey, but when I looked again, it was gone.