So I’ve come a long way with Firebird, and the revision process has been so much fun. When I started it at 20 (almost four years ago!) during winter after it had been in the works since I was a freshman in college, I was heavily influenced by Nikolai Gogol’s works, The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov (I just had to put in a snazzy cat demon similar to Behemoth to pay homage), the YA Katerina trilogy by Robin Bridges, and of course Deathless by Cat Valente. Since I took a Russian Mythology class when I was 19, I had wanted to write a story about a family of Russian spirits that raised an orphan. I had no idea what context it would be in, and I played around with plot ideas – having the orphan narrate, deciding whether or not to make it like Lermontov’s Demon or more like Evenings at a Farm Near Dinkaka, and how exactly to convey my middle school love of leshys onto the page. Before I knew anything about Slavic myths, I was OBSESSED with leshys, to the point I would blather on about them to my best friends. I also had this idea floating around in my head about a grumpy bannik but wasn’t quite sure where to place him in the novel. I worked on it for three years (still counting!) and accidentally retold the Firebird ballet when all I really wanted to do was write about pyromaniac demon cats that dance and doting leshy dads. I’m really proud of what I’ve accomplished and am fleshing the story out majorly thanks to great feedback. To give you a peek, here is the new prologue, which I love!
And in my dreams I see myself on a wolf’s back
Riding along a forest path
To do battle with Kashchei
In that land where a princess sits under lock and key,
Pining behind massive walls.
There gardens surround a palace all of glass;
There Firebirds sing by night
And peck at golden fruit.
– Yakov Polonsky, “A Winter’s Journey”
The prince was born in the northernmost kingdom, with the aurora borealis for his bower, his mother Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden, who once long ago had lost her heart to a village boy, but this time had lost it to a bannik. Perhaps it was the curve of the bathhouse spirit’s strong arms as he chopped wood for the banya that had done Snegurochka in, or perhaps it was his rascal smile. Whatever it was, it had worked. Taking unattainable lovers was a snow maiden habit, after all.
Time tended to move in cycles in Buyan, home to the Slavic spirits – a land a bit west of the morning and evening star Zorya goddesses, a bit to the north of dreams – and its residents’ actions were no exception to the mythic circles of their fairytale land. Snegurochka’s heart was notorious for wandering, and it too fell victim to Buyan’s ebb and flow.
Just like his mother’s heart, the prince, a strange mix of steam and snow, was born a traveler, and toddled his first steps out of his mother’s womb, into the wilds. Snegurochka had to catch him in her snowflake-spun arms before he disappeared for good.
He was named Morozko after Snegurochka’s father, Ded Moroz, the Frost King that wanted little to do with a bastard prince and much less to do with the rabble-rousing bannik that had sired him. Snegurochka melted with bliss at the sight of her newborn boy and in doing so scared away her lover: banniks were never good fathers anyways, too concerned with steaming saunas and overseeing the rituals of the banya to make attentive parents. Banyas were the heart of Russian communities, and banniks, overseers of the rituals of the bathhouse, had little care for their offspring, considering the banya their only children.
So Morozko grew up fatherless save for Ded Moroz’s stern gaze, half of frost, half of fire, and nothing at all like his family.
“Mother, why does dedushka hate me?” Morozko asked before Russia was little more than a land fought over by pagans erecting poles to snakeskin Veles, the chthonic god in the underworld below and thundering Perun, the king of the gods above. The people still swore on the Earth Mother Mokosh in those days, still spilled blood on the death goddess Morena’s altar, and Baba Yaga, fabled witch of the mountains, devourer of wandering children, hag of the iron teeth – she was young, though she never looked it.
After asking about his grandfather, Snegurochka had enfolded the sparks in her son’s hands and molded them into a rose of fire encased in ice. “You’re a treasure, Kolya. That’s why Ded Moroz doesn’t understand you. My father showers treasure down upon girls in need like ice crystals from clouds but never keeps them for himself. He gave me away once to the people and only took me back when I was on Morena’s doorstep. Ded Moroz is known for winter’s barrenness, not summer’s warmth, and you are your father, all heat. Grandfather does not know what to make of such a rare jewel as you, my dearest prince.”
Vladimirs came and conquered, ambitious princes of Kievan Rus, rechristened St. Petersburg, and the rulers burned the wooden idols of the old gods and erected crosses for the new, dunking the pagans in the capital’s river to baptize them in impromptu fashion.
Baba Yaga watched from her chicken hut all the while, stroking her chin hairs, smoking her pipe, waiting. The pagans, now Christians, still paid tribute to the old gods as saints, renaming them – Veles became St. Nicholas of wanderers, Perun was called St. Elijah the Thunderer, and sweet Mokosh was St. Paraskeva of looms and Friday – but not forgetting them. Veles and Perun retreated, the Zoryas abandoned their shining star thrones, and Mokosh slept deep below the mountains, at the base of the Tree of Life.
And one god, with a black, black heart, took another name, watching, watching, always waiting.
Morozko paid little attention to the rise and fall of immortals. He was too busy growing, watching cranes fly across the northern wastes, shooting arrows of steam at elk to be dried and cured in the smokehouse. His grandfather barely tolerated him, Snegurochka loved him, and that was enough to churn butter, at least for a while.
Morozko gave little heed to the passage of the gods, but one day, he would remember his mother’s stories of Chernobog the Black.
Nechist, what the farmers in fields called land spirits, just like Morozko and his mother, continued life in Buyan unaffected by Christianity. Peasants still left out kasha for house elf domovois and continued avoiding the rivers in the evening lest they stray upon the drowned suicides, now siren rusalka, who would sing and seduce them to a watery death. They prayed that the Amazonian vila, guardians of the weather, wouldn’t drench crops in rain and, once in a blue moon, a wild girl would wander back to her village, covered in moss and half-mad, having escaped from an ill-fortuned marriage to a forest king leshy.
Thanks to shifting belief, Ded Moroz became something like Santa and rebranded the family business, delivering presents to children across Russia, as Father Frost was nothing if not good at giving away gifts like blizzards. He and Snegurochka worked with the efficiency of a snowstorm.
Still, Morozko couldn’t summon a single snowflake, much less command the winds to carry him to merchant’s homes and give their daughters baubles. So he set out, with his mother’s blessing and grandfather’s disgrace, to seek his fortune in cities and the wilds, when nechist still walked Russia and beyond alongside humanity. He threw his icy crown off the ends of Buyan’s glaciers and renounced Ded Moroz’s heritage, content to be a bannik, not a prince.
Morozko became famed for his treatment of guests at banyas, his divination prowess, the tenderness with which he beat bushels of venik against patron’s backs, the way he steamed and iced the different pools just so, and his reputation preceded him. He worked for different leshys in different kingdoms who had carved Buyan up between them between games of chess, sometimes losing half a forest and leading their squirrels in great migrations to their new lands.
First Morozko traveled on foot, then on horseback when he had saved enough money, with his mother’s wandering heart, always searching for a place to belong but never finding it. He was camping by the Volga River one night when he heard the click-clack creak of a hut on chicken legs. A hag with iron teeth and a fence of bones sat smoking her pipe in a rocking chair, wood-dark eyes like kindling. She smiled like a shark.
“You’re lost, Prince Morozko,” Baba Yaga observed.
Morozko stood up and dusted off his trousers of snow. “I have no compass to guide me, babushka. Every day I wander farther into the wilds, I lose my way. I do not know what I am looking for.”
“Family, a home, a father, love – I can give it all to you if you give me something precious.”
Morozko peered up at the famous witch who Snegurochka had sometimes entertained in his grandfather’s kingdom. “I have nothing of value – I threw my inheritance away, I travel with only a quiver full of cheap arrows and a doddering, broken horse. What could you possibly want?”
Baba Yaga took a pestle from beside her rocking chair, set down her pipe, and pointed the pestle in Morozko’s direction: “Your word, half-blood bannik. One day I will ask you to do me a favor. If you value your life, you will not refuse me. If you accept my offer, I will give your wandering heart a home.”
“Where? I’ve searched nearly every inch of Buyan, and I’ve found nothing but petty leshys and warring vila and nothing, nothing that suits me. I’ve had my heart broken, my money stolen, my name lost to the wind, and all I know is that a bastard belongs nowhere.”
“Pah, soap shavings! Everyone belongs somewhere, even a down-on-his-luck half-breed. Come, come sit on my porch, drink my vodka, eat a pierogi, and stop wallowing in your misery. I will take you to Tsar Dmitri’s emerald forests, where I make my home. There is no place kinder or sweet as baby’s bubbling marrow in Buyan.”
Morozko’s eyes widened. “I thought Dmitri was a myth. He’s the famous leshy that won his woods from King Vladimir the Great when Russia was first formed. The one with an army of a thousand vila and an inn famed for its beauty. Its banya must be splendid…”
Baba Yaga laughed like a crow. “A banya that needs tending. Climb up my steps, I promise the snakes don’t bite.”
“Hut, hut, turn your back from this wintry waste and your face to Dima’s realm!” Baba Yaga commanded, smacking her pestle on the porch.
The chicken-legged hut spun like a drunk duck; their surroundings blurred. Morozko steadied himself on the femur railing. When they landed, they were in a hollow tucked away into autumn woods, with ferns bordering the fence and an herb garden raked with spines.
Baba Yaga ambled along the porch, using her pestle as a cane. “Come, come soap shavings! I told Dima he would have a visitor. His staff are excited to meet you – that or scared of what I may bring. They never do like my presents very much, especially the squealing children.”
Morozko followed Baba Yaga – the crone moved faster than her hobbled appearance let on. She mounted her hovering mortar, churned the air with her pestle, and was off. Morozko ran to keep up.
“Hah! The wind in my hair makes me feel young again, being chased by a pretty boy, why, it’s just as in my youth!”
Morozko frowned. “I can’t imagine you were ever much to look at,” he muttered between breaths.
They came to a wooden three story inn fronted by a mill pond, with the most perfect banya Morozko had ever seen. He quaked at the sight of it, his smoky magic reaching out and sensing the power and enchantment of the bathhouse, the potency within its walls, how it would bend to his will, be his work and bed.
Tsar Dmitri and his staff waited in the meadow fronting the inn, the smile on the leshy’s face like sunlight on water:
“Welcome home, my son,” Dmitri said.
“Tsar Dmitri, it’s an honor,” Morozko said, kneeling before the forest king.
Dmitri’s blue face crinkled in a smile. The bells on his antlers chimed as he extended his hand to help Morozko up: “No use bowing, lad. Here we are all just keepers of the woods, wayward souls in the haven that is my forest. Here you will find vodyanoi that can outdrink you by ten gallons of vodka and witches who will steal your heart away if you’re not careful. Here, come, Liliya, help Morozko to his quarters.”
Morozko found himself inside a banya that was built for him, and the fire in his belly simmered to a gentle steam. He stretched on his wolfskin bed and looked up at the ceiling, which would look just so studded with souls. Dmitri’s wolves called to salute the rising moon.
He got up and settled at a rickety desk, dipped a quill into an inkpot, and began a letter to Snegurochka:
“Mother, I’m finally home. My wandering heart is content.”