Ivan Kupalo: Chapter 1

Prologue:

AMERICA, 1954

Baba Yaga had seen many chubby cheeked babies with skin like milk and eyes like blueberries in her time.  Humans loved their babies, and Baba Yaga loved to eat them, perched atop the food chain like a hoary owl knobbed with age.

There were many predatory birds in Russia, from the mournful Gamayun to the songstress Sirin.  Baba Yaga was more woman than bird, and her chicken-legged hut squawked almost as loud as she.  Eat like a bird she did not, as her paunch showed, but her eyes were avian, deep and endless.  They saw every thread of Russian fate as she flew on her pestle and mortar over hill and harrow, gleaming threads she would spin upon her loom of tendons and bone in due time.

Babies’ soft skin was perfect for basting to brown perfection, their eyes succulent as appetizers.  The cheeks were lovely to pinch hard enough to elicit a satisfying cry or angry wail.  The single sight of one always made her ancient stomach quiver, great maw that it was.

This baby, however, was different.  She was as quiet and perfect as a blooming rose, and her mother was no human, but a goddess. Clearly not designated as the main course for dinner, but a much grander purpose indeed.

The baby girl had a scruff of hair dark as wet ebony, just like Morena, the Slavic goddess of night and death, and latest Russian expat to leave the Soviet Union.  Of the immortals, only Baba Yaga remained.

The Revolution had driven out Russian royalty, and atheism had taken root across the Slavic lands.  A godless country was no home for any god, old or new, and certainly not for Morena, the queen of witches, where her covens were sent to death camps and her village wise women were starved of supper and secrets.  The old ones had stopped telling stories of bogatyrs and Prince Ivan to the children, the land spirits were forgotten, and many a domovoi went hungry.

Baba Yaga had stayed behind because she liked blood, and there was much blood to be had in the Soviet Union.  Indeed, Baba Yaga adored chaos, and she was Russian through and through, comrade to peasant or oligarch or KGB be damned.

Morena cradled Anastasia, her only daughter, as if she were a basket of pearls.  Baba Yaga and the goddess sat in Morena’s herb garden on the new shores of the land of the free, America, where so many Slavs had come: Poles and Serbians, Russians and Bulgarians.  They carried their old Orthodox beliefs and superstitions with them, alongside the dvoeverie double faith, making room for the old gods in their icons and church hymns.  The Poles remembered Morena in their spring festivities, drowning her icon in rivers to rejuvenate her for the warming earth.  Not many gods were as lucky in this day and age, where man had forgotten who had made them.

For every healing recipe or potion passed down from mother to daughter, for every love spell cast in the bathhouse, Morena was there.  She watched the Soviet Union from afar, waiting to return when belief once again seeped from the ground like mist.  And Baba Yaga?  She was Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, the night terrors of children, and shadows that swallowed everything on All Soul’s Eve.

Morena was just another immigrant in the vast melting pot of America, her curiosity and fickle love for a mortal Russian expat the biggest draw to these shining but tarnished shores of liberty.  Gods were mercurial in choosing their lovers, and they took human wives and husbands from time to time.  That, in fact, was how demigods like Rasputin were born, and Anya was no exception.

“She is beautiful, isn’t she?” Morena cooed, tossing her baby girl Anastasia’s hair.  “Eyes like her father, and hair like her mother.  I cannot bear to part with her, but I must for the sake of Buyan.”

Morena’s eyes steeled.  “The Black God rides, growing stronger as the old beliefs rot and peasants starve, and he will be our doom if Anya cannot master her witch fire.”

Morena rocked her child and stared up at the cratered moon.  “She is the light of my brother Jarilo, nothing at all like my darkness.  To have birthed the sun is strange indeed.”

Baba Yaga puffed on her pipe and blew smoke snakes that slithered up to the sky.  “Dear Morena, was it not I that taught you that all magic has a cost?  To birth the light of the gods, you must pay in a million tears.  Give Anya to me and I promise she will be protected until the time comes for her reunion with you, along with her intended.”

Morena laughed, and Anya burbled, toying with a lock of Morena’s curls.  “This bastard prince of Father Frost seems too immature to love even himself.  I wonder how you will work your magic on him to make him see Anya’s light.”

Baba Yaga chuckled.  “I have my ways.  Frost and fire are the primal elements of the world after all, enough to purify the rot of Chernobog himself.  We will be the ones to end this cycle of war between the immortals and Chernobog’s deathless lands.  All it takes, in every fairytale, is true love, and I know a prince whose icy heart may yet be melted by Anya’s fire.  In the end, it will have all been for him.  No daughter of yours would not be selfless, Morena.  That has always been your flaw.”

A sapphire of a tear formed in Morena’s dark eyes.  She held Anya closed, sang her to sleep, then handed her to Baba Yaga.  “Take her then, my witch-mother.  May the Zoryas be with you, and deliver my daughter to a life of peace I cannot give her in this, or any, world.”

Baba Yaga’s grin was a crevasse deep as the Marianna Trench.  “My dear Morena, so it shall come to pass that Anya will know the best peace Buyan can provide, with the best family beyond you I can give her. My wings will be over her at all times, anyhow.  Nothing I do is not without reason.”

Morena bit her ruby red lips.  “I know.”

Anya cooed a word like salvation in her sleep, but it was so quiet even a goddess could not hear.  Morena’s eternal heart was filled with sadness, but her ineffable will stood strong.  She kissed her babe’s forehead and bid her and Baba Yaga goodbye.

Morena watched the chicken hut gateway between worlds spin on its axis and vanish: “Return to me, dear Anastasia.  I would wish upon a thousand firebirds that we shall meet again.”

Chapter 1

BUYAN, KIEVAN RUS

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”

 

In a little dale in the heart of Buyan, where Baba Yaga made her home, was an inn for misfits and magicians. It was three stories tall and majestic as a merchant’s house.  Tsar Dmitri, its leshy lord, was known for his bookish habits and gentleness.  But above all he was famed for his love of his forests, which he tended with utter care.

He was close to the first eldritch witch to enchant Buyan, and Baba Yaga was taking afternoon tea on his porch as they watched the flowers grow.  There was no today or tomorrow in Buyan, just seasons to grow, harvest, and lay fields fallow.  They had all the time in the world in their wolfskin rocking chairs.

There were snowdrops and daffodils, goldenrod and hibiscus.  Leshys had a magic for plants and animals, and whatever flora and fauna Dmitri desired, his kingdom had in abundance.  His pampered squirrels darted about as the kitchen maid Elizaveta watered the plants by wringing her wet rusalka hair.

Baba Yaga stirred her tea with her dusty pinky.  “So your bannik died.  The old dotard drank himself to death.  We all love our vodka, but your bannik made the milk of potatoes his wife.  Wives always kill their husbands in the end,” Baba Yaga chuckled.  “I’ve murdered many a husband in my time, after all.  Perhaps I should consider myself through a shot glass, addictive and deadly in large doses.”  She picked her teeth with a sparrow spine.

Dmitri was peeling an apple round and round as the rind came off.  It fell in spirals onto his porch and he bit into the yellow-white flesh.  “Gods curse the man who marries you.”  Dmitri gave a forlorn look at his empty bathhouse.  “Yes, I am in need of a bannik, but they are often lecherous drunkards and lazy to boot.  Where can I find one that is as industrious as I?”

A bit of baby meat dislodged from Baba Yaga’s canines.  She chewed it thoughtfully.  “I may have an inkling.  I will do you a favor, Dima – I will find you the best bannik in all of Buyan.  Take it as a token of appreciation for your wonderful willow bark tea.  It eases the pains of my eternal old age.”

Dmitri narrowed his emerald eyes.  “Your gifts always have a price, dear babushka.”

Baba Yaga chuckled darkly.  “Oh dear Dima, let go of your apprehension and revel in my favor.  You are a king among tsars, dearest leshy, and it is partially due to my blessing that your lands flourish.”

“Lands that many are jealous of,” Dmitri said slowly, finishing his tea and then picking up a volume of Old Russian epics concerning Prince Vladimir Bright-Sun and his fearless bogatyrs.  “They have brought me many enemies, enough to need the largest vila army in all of Buyan.”

“Then let us hope my favor does not falter, bookish nechist!  Either that or marry that vila general you’ve been lusting after for centuries, maybe then you will not need my protection much longer.  Love fortifies armies, I am told.” Baba Yaga squawked.

Dmitri blushed blue.  “I have no interest in a consort, or Liliya.  I am married to my land.”

“Pssht.  Married to your romantic novels, you are!  Yes, you have my favor indeed, enough to read as much as you do and still have your lands flourish.  Find you a bannik I will.”

“Yes, but sometimes I wonder at your tastes in company.”

Baba Yaga watched the kitchen maid water a patch of sunflowers with her riverine hair.  “Is not Elizaveta a lovely employee?  I brought her to you a century ago and she has been nothing but sunshine, pah!”

Dmitri nodded.  “I suppose so, though she is a bit… airheaded.”

The rusalka danced and sang then tripped over a squirrel and screamed as the vicious squirrels exacted their revenge, nibbling her scales.

“As rusalka are.  You cannot expect a bannik not to love his vodka or a vodyanoi not to smoke his pipe.  Nechist rarely go against their natures.”

“True.”

That night, at home on her loom of past present and future, Baba Yaga wove a tale.  Gold for a princess, blue for a prince, red for love, and black for death.  The human tendons wove taut and true.  Baba Yaga examined the tapestry.

“So that is why the winds told me to settle in dear Dmitri’s realm.  Father Mountain and Mother River, that is not at all what I expected – fairytales are rarely practical, and seldom true.  But you so often choose the unexpected, Father and Mother, and that shall do, that shall do, that shall do…”

 

 

For every princess, a prince.  That is how fairytales go.

The lovers can span ages between meeting, many are enchanted, locked in towers, or enchantress’s children, and seldom is their union sweet.  There are talking wolves, long arduous quests, arrows and swords, robbers and bandits, witches and black steeds that are the Devil’s own demons.

True love often ends in insults and tears, and many an empty bed, but Russian songs were never sweet, and firebirds do not make their roosts in anything but a king’s garden.  Most firebirds in Buyan made their homes in Tsar Dmitri’s royal garden in fact, in a dale just perfect for a couple that might wish for an impossible union on the flames of a fiery tail.

The prince Baba Yaga foresaw was born at the beginning of recorded history, in the northernmost kingdom with the aurora borealis for his bower. His mother was Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden, who once long ago had lost her heart to a village boy.  This time she 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.  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.  Buyan was a land a bit west of the morning and evening star Zorya goddesses and a bit to the north of dreams.  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.  After birth, he 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 Frost, or Ded Moroz’s present-giving ways.  Ded Moroz was the Winter 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.  They were 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.  They considered the banya their only children.

So Morozko grew up fatherless save for Ded Moroz’s stern gaze.  He was 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 the 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.  They still spilled blood on the death goddess Morena’s altar. And Baba Yaga, fabled witch of the mountains, devourer of wandering children, was watching.  The hag of the iron teeth was young, though she never remotely 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 are a treasure, Kolya.  That is why Ded Moroz does not 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.  My father does not know what to make of such a rare jewel as you, my dearest prince.”

Tsar Vladimirs came and conquered, ambitious princes of Kievan Rus uniting Russia.  The capital city was rechristened St. Petersburg in the Eastern Orthodox faith.  The rulers burned the wooden idols of the old gods and erected crosses for the new.  The kings and magistrates dunked the pagan Slavs 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 and renamed them.  The peasants of dvoeverie double faith renamed the gods but never forgot 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 rotting black heart took another name.  He watched, coveting, always waiting.  He had a thousand princesses kept under lock and key in his palace of ice and glass.  It was lit only by flitting firebirds and jewel fresh diamond fruit.  Still, it was missing a crucial light in all the dead magnificence.  It was something that would haunt Morozko in due time.

Morozko paid little attention to the rise and fall of immortals.  He was too busy growing.  He watched cranes fly across the northern wastes and shot 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 for a small while.

Morozko gave little heed to the passage of the gods into history.

One day he would remember his mother’s stories of Chernobog the Black.

Nechist – what the farmers in fields called land spirits – continued life in Buyan unaffected by Christianity, like Snegurochka and Morozko.  Peasants still left out kasha for house elf domovois.  Humans continued avoiding the rivers in the evening lest they stray upon the drowned human suicides.  The dead girls, now siren rusalka, would sing and seduce them to a freezing watery death.  The peasants prayed that the Amazonian vila, guardians of the weather, would not drench crops in rain.  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 as a wood wife to a forest king leshy.

Thanks to shifting belief, Ded Moroz became something like Santa and rebranded the family business to deliver presents to children across Russia at New Years.  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.  He sought his fortune in cities and the wilds when nechist still walked Russia and beyond alongside humanity.  Morozko threw his icy crown off the ends of Buyan’s glaciers and renounced Ded Moroz’s heritage.  He was fully content to be a bannik, not a prince.

“To hell with princehood,” he muttered, “I’m a bastard through and through, and I would rather have nothing to my name and be free than be bound by convention and a court.”

So Morozko set off past the glaciers, to the land of evergreen and birch, and Snegurochka wept tears of ice.

 

 

Baba Yaga was aback her mortar and pestle with her witch-daughter Morena, the wind-wild goddess with a body like a birch.  Morena flew aback a broom in a red velvet cloak and black rags of a dress.  They were flying as fast as an eagle over the Caucasus Mountains, sending their flocks of crows and owls to harvest ingredients: poisonous herbs and dwarven treasures, alongside a fair amount of children’s first breaths and mother’s last words.

This spell would be one in a long line against Chernobog, the Black God, who longed to unseat Morena and her consort Jarilo from the heavens and spread sterile, cold perfection with the infection of his cursed deathless lands upon Buyan.  Nature abhors a vacuum, but vacuums abhor nature, and Chernobog was the void that ate all he drained of blood and left his victims cold and lifeless.

Russia was both light and dark, poison and honey, and black Morena was the queen of immortals.  Passionate but feral, she carried madness with her like a worm in her brain.  Watching her bare milky-breasted, nipples like pink daggers as she beat at her chest with venik branches to guide the winds, Baba Yaga was proud of Morena’s ferocity.  Her witch-daughter was all wolf, all wild, and the best hope at destroying Chernobog for good.

If Morena was a wolf, then Chernobog was a vulture, circling in the sky waiting for a feast.  Would this spell or the next seal the coffin in his box?  The Zorya’s whispered in their prophetic trills that Morena would birth Bilobog, the remedy to Chernobog’s destruction, but so far her union with the sunlit god Jarilo had proven tempestuous and fruitless.

Baba Yaga had tried spell after spell to make Morena’s inhospitable womb of ice and night a planting ground for Jarilo’s seed, but stillborn embryo after bloody abortion followed.  It drove Morena deeper into her madness and desperation, and it drove Jarilo farther from Morena.  They failed again and again, Chernobog’s blackness spread, and Buyan was growing darker.  The crops failed more, the spirits thirsted, and the deathless maidens haunted the outer boundaries, hunting for ungiven comfort.

It was time for Baba Yaga to tell Morena, her dearest godchild, a heartbreaking truth.  They had sent a fetch in the form of a giant to Chernobog’s deathless lands with the fruit of that night’s labor, enchanted to wreak havoc on his palace of glass and ice and tear the oak tree of his heart from its roots.  Each egregore and familiar that died at Chernobog’s hands infuriated him more, and drew him further into no man’s land, where they might strike him in earnest with spells and curses, but Chernobog was wily, and deathless to boot.  It would take a mortal to kill him, and a mortal man to bring life to the goddess of death, as only humanity tasted of the black cup of destruction and passed on into the great unknown no god or nechist knew.

Baba Yaga told this to Morena, that her marriage to Jarilo would prove fruitless, and that she should seek a mortal’s bed.  There were rats on Morena’s shoulders and crows in her black black hair.  She gave a ragged sigh, moths leaving her mouth as she exhaled.

“I suppose it is true, witch-mother.  Burning day and dark night are never on earth at the same time, and for Bilobog to walk the earth, my child must have mortal blood.  All the heroes, from Ilya Muromets to Dobryna Nikitich, were partially human after all.  They were the ones to slay dragons, not insipid Jarilo or my stubborn father Perun.”  Morena looked out the window of Baba Yaga’s chicken hut and the darkness of the night shuddered under the death goddess’s gaze.  “I will travel Russia for however long it takes to find the father of Buyan’s avenger, though my trek may span centuries.”

Baba Yaga gave a weak smile.  “This war is tiring for us both, and you have a heavy cross to bear, dear Marzanna.”

Morena plaited her tangled hair.  “If I could but have one child, one witch-babe to suckle at my breasts and coddle under the starlight and winds, it will have been worth it.”

Baba Yaga did not want to tell the daydreaming Morena that to keep a half-mortal child in a house of immortals at war would be a death sentence, but for once in her long long life, she kept quiet.   Baba Yaga would ensure any child of Morena’s was like a second limb to her, the mistress of the chicken legged hut, and would want for nothing.

But those nothings could not be fed by Bilobog’s birth mother, and so it would come to pass as Baba Yaga had seen during that summer at Tsar Dmitri’s: that a bastard prince and motherless princess would somehow save Buyan.

 

 

Morozko became famed for his treatment of guests at banyas and his divination prowess.  Word traveled of the tenderness with which he beat bushels of green peeled venik against patron’s backs.  He could steam and ice the different pools just so, and his reputation began to precede him.  Morozko worked for different leshys in different kingdoms who had carved Buyan up between them in a patchwork thanks to games of chess and war.  Leshy tsars sometimes lost half a forest to an ill-thought bet.  Winners led their pampered squirrels in great migrations to their new lands.

First Morozko traveled on foot, then on horseback when he had saved enough money. He possessed 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.  Her wood-dark eyes were like kindling.

She smiled like a shark.

“You are 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 that I wander farther into the wilds I find that I am losing my way.  I do not know what I am looking for still!  After all these godforsaken years, I am alone.”

“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 gigantic 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 have searched nearly every inch of Buyan and I have found nothing but petty leshys.  I know warring vila and seductress rusalka and absolutely nothing that suits me.  I have had my heart broken by a vampir with hair like autumn leaves.  My money was stolen by leshy tsars that shortchanged me and my services.  My name has been lost to the wind.  All I know is that a bastard belongs nowhere!”

“Pah, soap shavings!  Everyone belongs somewhere, even a down-on-his-luck half-breed.  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 is the famous leshy that won his woods from Saint 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…”

“Hah!”  Baba Yaga laughed like a crow.  “A banya that needs tending.  The old bannik died.  Climb up my steps, I promise the snakes do not bite.”

Morozko did.

“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. Ferns bordered the fence next to 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 cannot imagine you were ever much to look at,” he muttered between breaths.

They came to a wooden three-story inn fronted by a millpond with the most perfect banya Morozko had ever seen.  He quaked at the sight of it.  His smoky magic reached out and sensed the power and enchantment of the bathhouse.  He measured the potency within its wall and suddenly knew how it would bend to his will.  It would be his work, bread, and soul.

Tsar Dmitri and his staff waited in the meadow fronting the inn.  The smile on the leshy’s face was like sunlight on water:

“Welcome home, my son,” Dmitri said.

“Tsar Dmitri, it is 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, dear lad.  Here we are all just keepers of the woods, wayward souls in the haven that is my forest.  Here you will find lecherous vodyanoi mermen that can outdrink you by ten gallons of vodka.  There are witches who will steal your heart away if you are not careful.  Here, come, Liliya, help Morozko to his quarters.”

Morozko found himself inside a banya that was built for him.  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 trespassing human’s 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 am finally home.  My wandering heart is now, despite all my dreams, content.”

 

 

Centuries passed, but Buyan stayed the same.  Morozko settled into tending the banya and thought of Dmitri as his father and the staff as his brothers and sisters.  He delighted in Dmitri’s annual councils with his leshy noblemen and the celebrations in the village that followed.  He would chase after vila warrior women and flirtatious, dangerous rusalka on St. John’s Eve, searching for fern flowers that would lead to an evening of lovemaking.  Many times he sat with Dmitri in the kitchen by the woodstove on rainy evenings and read from Dmitri’s collection of human literature.

Baba Yaga watched, waited, and smoked her perpetual pipe.  She took Morozko under her hoary wing to become the babushka he never had.

It could have been today or tomorrow when Morozko got the letter of a present to deliver.  Perhaps a package just like Ded Moroz and Snegurochka carried on the winter holidays.  He had not forgotten his word, and it was in his blood to fulfill letters requesting parcel delivery.

After so many years and so many moons Morozko had lost track it had come time for Morozko to make good on his promise to Baba Yaga.  She summoned him in the dead of night. He was hoping to get some cigarettes from her storage.

What he got was nothing what he expected.

Night played like a worn balalaika, strumming stars across the sky.  Firs bent like widows in the wind.  It was a familiar scene in Buyan, minus the human visitor.

Morozko unwrapped the so-called present, unfolding bits of tissue paper to reveal swaddling.  He was surprised to see that he held an infant in his arms. “A baby?” he asked, thinking it one of babushka’s pranks.  “Smells tender.  I bet she tastes like chicken.  Is this your afternoon palate cleanser?”

“You wish!  Hungry for baby soul sashimi, eh?”  Baba Yaga’s iron teeth flashed.  “Spill a drop of her blood and I’ll cook you in my pot.”

“Yeah right.”  Morozko pulled back her swaddling and examined the child’s face.  “Her soul is too appetizing to be anything but a snack.”

“Her name is Anya.  That is all you need to know.”  Baba Yaga laughed.  The wrinkles on her skin were like furrows in brown earth.  “Take her home to your tsar courtesy of your babushka.  Bathe her in the banya and ruddy her flesh with birch bark.  Make her a child of the woods.  When she has ripened like fruit from the love of your inn, send her to me.”

Morozko looked at Baba Yaga in confusion.  “What?  Dima will never stand for this.  The borders to Earth are all closed save your world-hopping house.  It’s unheard of for mortals to come to Buyan anymore.”

Pfft.  Your tsar will see my way, even if I have to pluck his eyes out and wear them so he sees my point of view.”  She cackled like a crow as she rested on her hovering mortar.

“But babushka-”

“No buts!  Go, Kolya: back to the banya with you.”  Baba Yaga took her pestle, ground it into the air, and flew away.

Morozko looked down at the infant.

“Well, mooncalf.  Looks like you won’t end up in my stomach after all.”

Anya gurgled.

“You think this is a joke?”  Morozko brought his face close to Anya’s.  “I could swallow you in one gulp.  Your soul would be all mine to play with.  A trinket I could use to light the banya, hung from the rafters with my other meals.”

Anya reached out and touched Morozko’s nose.

“Guh?”

“Get your grubby hands off me,” Morozko said, clutching the infant close as snow crunched under his boots.  “Forget babushka’s dried up hide.  That hag has gone senile.”

He walked through pillars of birch.  Scant clouds brought snow.  Patches in cirrus allowed the moon to shine through.  Morozko’s fur coat sheltered him from the falling white.  Snowflakes steamed as they hit his exposed skin.

As a bathhouse spirit Morozko carried the sauna with him.  Anya nestled close to his skin and babbled.  “Eee?”

“Yes Anya, I see your point.”  Morozko softened, peering into her eyes.  “So where exactly did you come from?  Or is that a secret too?”

Anya cried out in hunger.

Morozko thumbed her lips, and she sucked his finger.  Anya nipped the soft flesh under his nail with wet gums.

“I am guessing Baba Yaga did not give you dinner,” Morozko sighed, accidentally jostling the girl as he plucked his finger away.  “She does not have a very good track record with children.  Neither do most nechist.  We either steal them as thralls, eat or drown them – sometimes both – or abduct them to be our brides.  I can’t imagine Dmitri would want a wood wife not yet out of diapers.”

Anya cooed.

Morozko frowned.  “I cannot give you milk, but I might just have something better.”

He reached for a flask at his waist, unscrewed the top, and offered her nectar pressed from fern flowers that bloomed on Ivan Kupalo, or St. John’s Eve, the summer festival of love, beauty, and magic.  The flowers the fern flower bore were rarer than a five-leaf clover.

Anya drank.

“So that is how I get you to shut up, eh?”  He rocked Anya as she nursed.  “Witch’s brew.  There is nothing sweeter, except perhaps your soul,” he teased.

Anya squirmed, burrowed into his coat.  Morozko smoothed her coal-dark curls.

“Eating you would be like killing myself.  You have drunk half my mixer anyways.  Good thing Baba Yaga did not see me steal it from her fridge.  How is that for an introduction, mooncalf?  Alcoholic baby food, Mother Mokosh have mercy.” Morozko adjusted his collar.  He peered into the future, as banniks are wont to do, and got hints of what was to come.  This ability did not often work.  When it did, his visions were clear as crystal lattice icicles.

“You will call me many things: ‘Bannik,’ ‘bastard,’ ‘terror.’  But however cruel you think me, remember it was I that carried you through the darkness.  The banya now runs through your veins.  Let it cleanse you of human weakness.  I will raise you in the strength of the nechist.  I have taken a liking to the girl who survived Baba Yaga’s hut.”

She burbled.  Morozko clutched her close.

“Anya, you are mine.  I promise to forever protect you, especially from Baba Yaga’s cauldron.”

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When Babushka Was Young

When Baba Yaga was young, she had cornsilk hair
razors for teeth, and arms pale as walrus tusks.

When Baba Yaga danced, the ferns caught on fire
and the mountains wept rivers to veil her glory.

Where Baba Yaga walked, Ivan da Maryas bloomed
the forest awakened and wolves kept her rhythm.

What Baba Yaga wants, she plucks from the Zoryas
she took witchcraft from the depths, pestle salt.

When Baba Yaga cooks, she simmers greens to reds
brews baby bone stew – it ages her just right.

When Baba Yaga sings, zhar ptica flies far away,
and Kashchei’s princesses bend like roaring wind.

What Baba Yaga is, is the taiga and god hollows
Babushka sees all, knows all, takes all she wants.

Aback Grey Wolf

Grey Wolf is my steed, the winds they blow
as blue tassel blankets shiver under snow
we race through avalanche and quaking fir
as harts, hinds and bears awake, they stir
the woods into frenzy, Baba Yaga’s gates
close at dusk, and we surely must placate
the iron-toothed witch whose gift we take
to the Northern Lights where auroras shake
the sun sets, sky empty, fire burning late
we arrive at her door, the crone salivates.

Excerpt from Firebird

So far I’ve added around 15,000 words to my Stravinsky retelling, with about 10,000 more to go.  Hoping to finish by the end of NaNoWriMo.

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.  My father does not know what to make of such a rare jewel as you, my dearest prince.”

Tsar Vladimirs came and conquered, ambitious princes of Kievan Rus, rechristened St. Petersburg in the Eastern Orthodox faith, and the rulers burned the wooden idols of the old gods and erected crosses for the new, dunking the pagan Russians 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 and snowstorms and travelers, Perun was called St. Elijah the Thunderer whose hammer brought the rains, and sweet Mokosh was St. Paraskeva of looms, womenfolk and Friday – renaming but not forgetting them.  Veles and Perun retreated, the Zoryas abandoned their shining star thrones to wander, and Mokosh slept deep below the mountains, at the base of the Tree of Life.

And one god, with a rotting, black heart, he took another name, watching, coveting, always waiting, with a thousand princesses kept under lock and key in his palace of ice and glass, lit only by flitting firebirds and jewel fresh diamond fruit.

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 small while.

Morozko gave little heed to the passage of the gods into history, 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 human suicides, now siren rusalka, who would sing and seduce them to a freezing 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 as a wood wife 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 at New Years, 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 green peeled venik branches against patron’s backs, the way he steamed and iced the different pools just so, and his reputation began to preceed him.  He worked for different leshys in different kingdoms who had carved Buyan up between them  in a patchwork thanks to games of chess and war, with leshy tsars sometimes losing half a forest to an ill-thought bet, then leading their pampered 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 are 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 that I wander farther into the wilds, I find that I’m losing my way.  I do not know what I am looking for, still!  After all these godforsaken years, I’m alone.”

“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 gigantic 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 have found nothing but petty leshys and warring vila and seductress rusalka and nothing, absolutely nothing that suits me.  I’ve had my heart broken by a vampir with hair like autumn leaves, my money stolen by leshy tsars that shortchanged me and my services, 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 is the famous leshy that won his woods from Saint 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…”

“Hah!”  Baba Yaga laughed like a crow.  “A banya that needs tending.  The old bannik died.  Climb up my steps, I promise the snakes don’t bite.”

Morozko did.

“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 cannot 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 and soul.

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 is 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, dear lad.  Here we are all just keepers of the woods, wayward souls in the haven that is my forest.  Here you will find lecherous vodyanoi mermen 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 trespassing human’s 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 now, despite all my dreams, content.”

 

 

Centuries passed, but Buyan stayed the same.  Morozko settled into tending the banya and thought of Dmitri as his father and the staff as his brothers and sisters.  He delighted in Dmitri’s annual councils with his leshy noblemen and the celebrations in the village that followed.  He would chase after vila warrior women and flirtatious, dangerous rusalka on St. John’s Eve, searching for fern flowers that would lead to an evening of lovemaking, or sit with Dmitri in the kitchen by the woodstove on rainy evenings and read from Dmitri’s great collection of human literature.

Baba Yaga watched, waited, and smoked her perpetual pipe, taking Morozko under her hoary wing to become the babushka he never had.

It could have been today or tomorrow when Morozko got the letter of a present to deliver, a package just like Ded Moroz and Snegurochka carried on the winter holidays.  He had not forgotten his word, and it was in his blood to fulfill letters requesting parcel delivery.

After so many years, so many moons Morozko had lost track, it had come time for Morozko to make good on his promise to Baba Yaga.  She summoned him in the dead of night, and he was hoping to get some cigarettes from her storage.

What he got was nothing what he expected.

Night played like a worn balalaika, strumming stars across the sky.  Firs bent like widows in the wind.  It was a familiar scene in Buyan, minus the human visitor.

Morozko unwrapped the so-called present, unfolding bits of tissue paper to reveal swaddling, and was surprised to see that he held an infant in his arms. “A baby?” he asked, thinking it one of babushka’s pranks.  “Smells tender.  I bet she tastes like chicken.  Is this your afternoon palate cleanser?”

“You wish!  Hungry for baby soul sashimi, eh?”  Baba Yaga’s iron teeth flashed.  “Spill a drop of her blood and I’ll cook you in my pot.”

“Yeah right.”  Morozko pulled back her swaddling and examined the child’s face.  “Her soul is too appetizing to be anything but a snack.”

“Her name’s Anya.  That is all you need to know.”  Baba Yaga laughed, wrinkles on her skin like furrows in brown earth.  “Take her home to your tsar, courtesy of your babushka.  Bathe her in the banya and ruddy her flesh with birch bark.  Make her a child of the woods.  When she has ripened like fruit from the love of your inn, send her to me.”

Morozko looked at Baba Yaga in confusion.  “What?  Dima will never stand for this.  The borders to Earth are all closed save your world-hopping house.  It’s unheard of for mortals to come to Buyan anymore.”

Pfft.  Your tsar will see my way, even if I have to pluck his eyes out and wear them so he sees my point of view.”  She cackled like a crow as she rested on her hovering mortar.

“But babushka-”

“No buts!  Go, Kolya: back to the banya with you.”  Baba Yaga took her pestle, ground it into the air, and flew away.

Morozko looked down at the infant.

“Well, mooncalf.  Looks like you won’t end up in my stomach after all.”

Anya gurgled.

“You think this is a joke?”  Morozko brought his face close to Anya’s.  “I could swallow you in one gulp.  Your soul would be all mine to play with.  A trinket I could use to light the banya, hung from the rafters with my other meals.”

Anya reached out and touched Morozko’s nose.

“Guh?”

“Get your grubby hands off me,” Morozko said, clutching the infant close as snow crunched under his boots.  “Forget babushka’s dried up hide.  That hag has gone senile.”

He walked through pillars of birch.  Scant clouds brought snow, patches allowing the moon to shine through.  Morozko’s fur coat sheltered him from the falling white.  Snowflakes steamed as they hit his exposed skin.

As a bathhouse spirit, he carried the sauna with him.  Anya nestled close to his skin and babbled.  “Eee?”

“Yes, Anya, I see your point.”  Morozko softened, peering into her eyes.  “So where exactly did you come from?  Or is that secret too?”

Anya cried out in hunger.

Morozko thumbed her lips, and she sucked his finger.  Anya nipped the soft flesh under his nail with wet gums.

“I am guessing Baba Yaga did not give you dinner,” Morozko sighed, accidentally jostling the girl as he plucked his finger away.  “She does not have a very good track record with children.  Neither do most nechist.  We either steal them as thralls, eat or perhaps drown them, sometimes both, or abduct them to be our brides.  I can’t imagine Dmitri would want a wood wife not yet out of diapers.”

Anya cooed.

Morozko frowned.  “I cannot give you milk, but I might just have something better.”

He reached for a flask at his waist, unscrewed the top, and offered her nectar pressed from fern flowers that bloomed on Ivan Kupalo, or St. John’s Eve, the summer festival of love, beauty, and magic, with the flowers it bore rarer than a five-leaf clover.

Anya drank.

“So that is how I get you to shut up, eh?”  He rocked Anya as she nursed.  “Witch’s brew.  There is nothing sweeter, except perhaps your soul,” he teased.

Anya squirmed, burrowed into his coat.  Morozko smoothed her coal-dark curls.

“Eating you would be like killing myself.  You have drunk half my mixer, anyways.  Good thing Baba Yaga did not see me steal it from her fridge.  How is that for an introduction, mooncalf?  Alcoholic baby food.” Morozko adjusted his collar.  He peered into the future, as banniks are wont to do, and got hints of what was to come.  This ability didn’t often work, but when it did, his visions were clear as crystal lattice icicles.

“You will call me many things: ‘Bannik,’ ‘bastard,’ ‘terror.’  But however cruel you think me, remember it was I that carried you through the darkness.  The banya now runs through your veins.  Let it cleanse you of human weakness.  I will raise you in the strength of the nechist.  I have taken a liking to the girl who survived Baba Yaga’s hut.”

She burbled.  Morozko clutched her close.

“Anya, you are mine.  I promise to forever protect you, especially from Baba Yaga’s cauldron.”

Morozko reached into his pocket and withdrew a cigarette.  He spat sparks onto its end and took a contemplative drag.  The moon cut a sliver in the star-pricked sky.  Morozko watched as silver Amazonian vila militias flew on high, heralding a storm.

“Great, it is going to blizzard,” Morozko said, coming to a rickety bridge.  He peered at his reflection in the moonlight and cast his cigarette into the water.  His image rippled: white hair braided back, youthful faced, with a proud point to his ears like all nechist.

What was Morozko doing, carrying Baba Yaga’s bundle like some errand boy?  He was keeper of Tsar Dmitri’s inn between realms.  Sure, he was the inn’s grocery boy, but this was a bit too degrading – what in thrice nine kingdoms was he doing babysitting?  Morozko looked into the water, with half a mind to drop Anya in.  Giving her to Dmitri would be like sealing his fate as Ded Moroz’s heir, a glorified present deliverer to grubby children throughout Russia and beyond.

The stream’s surface stirred.  A curtain of hair pooled below.  Morozko walked away, banishing all thoughts of leaving the girl behind.  “Not with that crazy fish.”

“Kolya?”  Elizaveta emerged from the stream.  The rusalka’s flesh shone fish-silver in the darkness.  Her wet hair froze.  “What did you bring me?”

Elizaveta, Morozko thought.  Sweet girl but completely clueless.  Too kind for the seductress rusalka, she had sought haven in Dmitri’s kitchen years ago, content to sing her pond weed songs while roasting fowl over a fire.  She had never so much as drowned a single peasant or taken a vodyanoi merman to bed, though there were many rowdy vodyanoi that fancied the airheaded rusalka that had probably been dented on the head at death.  What else would explain her vapid kindness?  She had drowned herself over a sailor like Lorelei, but that was many years ago.  Now she only loved her baking and her cleaning and her ragtag nechist family.

“Kolya, you are staring at me like I am a ghost.  What are you carrying?” Elizaveta repeated.

“Nothing, loon-wife.”  Morozko backed away.  He tripped on a root and fell to the ground, rolling so he did not hurt Anya.

Anya awoke, crying out.

Elizaveta froze.  “Is that a human?” She touched her midriff.  “Rusalka are barren.  But now, I can have a daughter.  Oh Kolya, you should never have!  Whatever will Dmitri think?”

“Morena’s frost, no!  This is Baba Yaga’s brat.  Why would I give her to you?”

Elizaveta narrowed her eyes.  “Why did not babushka eat her?”

Morozko sighed, smoothing his coat.  He rocked Anya.  “Quiet, mooncalf.”  Morozko turned to Elizaveta.  “The hag has gone demented, that is why.  She wants us to raise Anya.  As if Dmitri would have any use for a girl not out of diapers.”

Elizaveta’s eyes swirled.  “Anya, eh?  How mysterious.”

Morozko shrugged.  “She is an orphan, I’d guess, from anywhere.  There isn’t a country babushka does not raid children from.  From what I can tell, Baba Yaga thinks it is all a grand prank: a human raised by spirits.  I can’t see Dima liking this.”

“Dima can suck a mushroom.  He can turn as small as one, anyhow.  Leshys have such a strange magic.  Oh, mooncalf, you poor little lost girl!” Elizaveta said, making to hold Anya.

Morozko backed away.  “Chernobog’s black heart, you have got pond scum for brains swimming around in your fishy head.  Mooncalf isn’t her name.  She is Anya, and she is mine.  She will make a nice decoration.  I think I will place her in a cage on my dresser.  You can clean out the poop.”

“But you wanted to eat her.”

“I changed my mind.”

“Let me just hold her!”

Morozko relented.

Elizaveta glowed, cradling Anya and tucking her deep into her swaddling.  “Oh sweet child,” Elizaveta crooned.  “Little Annushka.  You are sweet as a fish’s tail, more darling than pond weed.  I love you already like a new mother her dearest darling child.”

Morozko rolled his eyes.

Elizaveta kissed Anya’s cheek, but paused and wrinkled her nose.

“Her mouth smells like fern flower juice.” Elizaveta glared at Morozko.  “What the hell did you do?  Did you give a human girl an alcoholic mixer?”

Morozko looked at a tree.  He began to whistle.

“Kolya!”

“Fine.  I fed her witch’s brew.  She was hungry!”

Elizaveta’s eyes widened.  “Idiot!  How could you hurt such an innocent child?  Have you no heart?”

“You know for a fact that I do not.  I am all steam and fire.”  Morozko scoffed.  “Pfft.  Anyways.  Witch’s brew will strengthen her.  It is a harsh world that Anya will live in.  Better to drink up now rather than later when the decades have beaten weariness into her puny human bones.”

“You know how that magic works!  Whatever nechist feeds a human fern flower juice marks them as their own, just as celebrants on Ivan Kupalo mark their friendship by mixing fern flower drinks.  She is bound to you now through raging blizzard and bone melt summer suns.  Oh Kolya, what have you done?”

“I am only counteracting Baba Yaga’s claim!  The hag cannot have her all to herself.  Anya belongs to us all,” Morozko said, stubborn.

The howling of wolves silenced them.  They shared a furtive look.

Morozko stiffened.  “Curse it, it is Dima,” he said.  “Quick, hand her to me.”

The blizzard intensified, snow like a slaver’s whip.  The vila were skirmishing over territory, Dmitri’s battalion waging icy war against Tsar Vladimir the Bent, Dmitri’s jealous brother, to the north’s ragtag forces.  Their icy arrows and frosty spears and icicle swords brought the fury of nature down upon Buyan.  Morozko tucked Anya into his coat and let steam pour from his skin, ridding her of the cold.  Maybe she would look better on his desk.  He could teach her to sing like a songbird and dress her up in exotic outfits like a dancing monkey, perhaps?  Humans could not be that hard to teach tricks.

The vila forces moved their enemies to the left, clearing the sky.  But in their absence, the woods stirred.  A flurry of animals – foxes, caribou, bears – spiraled out from the birch.  In the distance a great figure, tall as the tallest fir, moved across the land, overseeing his flock of beasts.  It was Dmitri, the leshy lord of the forest.

He sang a lilting melody, his dinner plate eyes like clover.  The leshy’s great antlers were rimed with frost, and the leaves in his green-gold hair formed a halo in the buffeting wind.  Birds nested in his beard, and his bluish skin was like water.  He carried a cudgel, signifying his sovereignty over beasts.

Dmitri paused in his song, eyes zeroing in on Morozko.  The wolves that thronged round Dmitri’s ankles let out plaintive cries.

Their howls froze Morozko’s bubbling marrow.  The last thing he wanted to deal with was Dmitri’s wrath.

Steeling himself, Morozko called out to his tsar: “Dima, get your head out of the clouds and come home with us.  There is fresh blini with caviar waiting and medovukha if you are so inclined.”

Dmitri’s pupils dilated.  “I need vodka to warm my sap,” he grunted.  With great strides he approached, shrinking all the while until he was the size of a burly man.  Dmitri buried his hand in the mane of a white wolf.  He spread his other arm wide in welcome.  “Kolya.  Liza.  Kinder faces never graced Mother Mokosh’s earth.”  His voice was like the mountains.  “What tricks have you two been up to?”

Elizaveta glanced at Morozko.  “Help.  This is your fault!” she mouthed.

Dmitri’s nostrils flared.  “A human girl?” he said, cheer gone.  In a bolt of lightning he was at Morozko’s side.  “I smell a child on you, son.”  The tsar lifted Morozko’s coat and saw Anya hidden within the thick white furs.

Dmitri’s eyes were cold emeralds.  “I told you to never bring mortals to my realm again,” he said.  Dmitri kneaded his brow. “I know that you have a taste for humans – that banniks delight in trespassing souls – but this is inexcusable.  I pardon your unappetizing habits on Earth, but this is the realm of nechist, our home.  Her kind does not belong here, not any longer.  The girl cannot be your plaything.  Return her at once to whatever hole you fished her from.”

“I would,” Morozko said through gritted teeth, “except that Baba Yaga dropped her into my arms like a demented stork.  She is meant as a present to you for whatever idiot reason babushka has.  I swear that hag is senile!”

“What?” Dmitri breathed.

“Babushka wants us to raise her,” Morozko muttered.  “She would at least make a cute decoration.”

Elizaveta waited with bated breath for Dmitri’s decision.  “I could feed her, Dima.  I am sure she is so small she could survive off kitchen scraps and my milk.”

“Curse that witch.”  Dmitri appraised Anya, then sighed, weighing his cudgel in his hands.

A wolf whined, wanting to be petted.  Dmitri obliged.  “I guess we should keep her, then, or we will invoke babushka’s black magick.  What Baba Yaga wants with this child, I cannot imagine.”

“Oh Dima,” Elizaveta said, embracing Dmitri.  “Do not worry.  I will braid fern flowers into her hair on St. John’s Eve and love Anya with all my gills.  I will keep her out of your way.  It will be like she does not exist.”

“No,” Dmitri said.  “She is our child now.  I will treat Anya as I would any child of my forests.  Bring her here.  I will bless her with the spirit of the woods.  She will need its protection to survive.”

Dmitri lifted the baby and placed a kiss on her brow.

Anya cried out at his touch.  Flecks of green blossomed in her irises – the leshy’s mark – and she laughed, playing with Dmitri’s beard.

Dmitri smiled.  “Maybe this girl will be a blessing.”  Dmitri handed Anya back to Morozko.  “The claim you have laid on her is deep.  Yes, Kolya – I can smell the fern flower nectar.  The bonds of friendship and protection run through her and your blood.  Don’t look like a deer caught in the headlights of Perun’s chariot.  Witch’s brew is a powerful thing, not just in alcoholic drinks.”

Morozko flinched.  “But?”

“No excuses,” said Dmitri.  “You are her guardian from now on.  She sleeps in your bed tonight.”

Morozko cursed.  “In the banya?  That is no place for a child!  It is a house of spirits and witchcraft, not diapers and disasters in the form of toddlers that do not know how to use the toilet.”

Anya smiled dreamily.  “Muh huh guh?”

“Mooncalf!” Morozko crowed, wiping a bit of drool from her lips.

The baby giggled, then looked at Dmitri.  “Hoo?”

Dmitri’s face softened.  “Yes my girl, he will take care of her.  We all will, from now on.  Morozko: you will keep her warm.  As for disasters, you have a mop.”  Dmitri smiled at the girl in his arms.  “Anya needs no swan feather ticks or silken sheets.  She will be our child – a girl of the woods!  My dear leshonky, a girl after my own sap-laden wood-ringed heart.”  Dmitri smoothed Anya’s curls.

Morozko begrudgingly accepted Anya back from Dmitri.

The blizzard thickened as the trio made their way back to Dmitri’s inn, a waystation between worlds.  It served as the tsar’s court and a gathering place for nechist.

The proud wooden three-story was decorated with carvings of beings from Slavic folklore: Zmei Gorynych the lethal dragon from Slavic folklore reared his fearsome three heads, a firebird flitted between golden apple trees in a jeweled garden, proud Prince Vladimir, the former ruthless ruler of Kievan Rus of old, now St. Petersburg, oversaw noblemen and wind-wild bogatyr knights in his grand palace courtyard.  Nightingale the Robber – a scoundrel whose whistling could rid a forest of birds – hid in a fir, awaiting the famous knight Ilya Muromets who had been painted by so many Russian artists.  On the stoop, a small, furred man frantically swept snow from the floorboards, his efforts fruitless.

“Oi, Osya.  Quit sweeping away Father Frost’s coat away with your dying breaths and go inside,” Dmitri said.  “I swear, domovois never know when to quit, even when vilas are raining hell down on the earth.”

Iosif froze, spooked.  “Oh, Dima, it is just you.”  Iosif blushed beneath his pelt.  He dropped his broom in surprise then hastened to pick it up.  “It is just, why, all this snow clutters the stoop so, and once it is iced over, why, someone might trip and break an ankle.  Welcome home.  Liliya has dinner waiting.  She just returned from her battle victorious as always”

Iosif’s beady eyes caught sight of Anya, clutched close to Morozko’s chest for warmth.  “Oh?” Iosif breathed.  “Oh, sweet Mokosh, such a beautiful child.  I – I feel faint.  A girl?  A mistress for my humble home?  Never in thrice nine kingdoms did I dream I would serve a human again, not since nechist stopped walking the earth centuries ago.  But why, my tsar, this is not typical of you at – at all!”

Dmitri shrugged.  His wolves dispersed.  “Baba Yaga demands it.  As you well know, babushka works in mysterious ways.  We must raise her as our own.  She will be my daughter, a leshonky.  She is pretty enough to be a forest maiden – look at those eyes like leaves against a cloudless summer sky.  I know our Anya will be a strong sapling, sure to bear the most beautiful, fragrant blossoms, perfect for halcyon roosts.  Is not that right, my little firebird?  You are pretty enough to enchant princes and sorcerers and charming enough to grant wishes like a genie.”

Anya cooed.

The domovoi put a hand over his heart: “Yes,” Iosif breathed.  “Yes in a thousand ways.  I have not had a mistress in centuries.  I long for a child to leave me milk and biscuits.  That was my daily bread for centuries – children’s treats left in a nook by the stairs, wives’ worries combed out in curled hair as my mistresses slept.  I will care for her with all my soul, I swear it, my tsar.”

“Then you are in luck,” Morozko said, shoving Anya at Iosif.  “She sleeps with Osya tonight.  I absolutely will not have her pissing herself.  I need my beauty sleep.  Youthful looks do not come easily to me, being half bannik and all – I can feel the fine lines forming on my face already, maybe I will steal Liliya’s wrinkle cream-”

“Kolya, enough!” Dmitri said.  “You claimed Anya, now treat her as your own.”

“It was an impulse!  I mean, sure, she would look good next to my mirror, sort of cute like a chubby china doll, but eventually I will have to feed her, and is keeping a human in a cage really all that easy?  What if she outgrows it?  Do not humans grow?  How big exactly do girls get, anyways?”

“Oh Kolya, you are through and through idiot.  She will grow like any rusalka or vila  does until she reaches maidenhood, at which point she will stop growing, sprout fangs, and become immortal – I think.”  Elizaveta’s cheeks flamed a fishy green.  “Whatever happens, you did feed her witch’s brew.  That means she is automatically yours,” Elizaveta pointed out.  The rusalka giggled. “What were you thinking?”

“He was not, as usual.”  Dmitri chuckled.  “Give her back, Osya.  You will have time enough to coddle our darling Anya.  You can tell by her wood-dark hair that she will be wise like her adoptive father.  Baba Yaga chose our little orphan well.  I feel like she is a cutting from me already.”

Iosif handed Anya back reluctantly.  “Sweet Annushka, my raskovnik,” Iosif said, referring to the four-leafed Slavic herbs that opened portals to heaven, hell, and the hereafter, “you’ve unlocked the door to my heart.”

“A raskovnik?  Why do you and Dima keep comparing her to a plant!”  Morozko took the girl, rocking her in his arms.  “Soil yourself and I feed you to Dima’s wolves, mooncalf.  You are sure to be juicy and fat.  Now let me go find a cage in the chicken coup that is just your size…”

Anya gazed up at him with eyes flecked leshy-clover.  “Uew gew gah.  Muh ugh guh.  Kee!”  She burped, surprising herself, with breath that smelled like alcoholic fern flower juice.

Dmitri winced.

Anya giggled, then burped again.  “Hoo?”

Morozko sighed.  “Veles’ snakeskin boots, she is drunk and she does not even have any will of her own.  All she does is babble.  How can I teach her tricks if she cannot even say my name?  I am giving her back to Baba Yaga.  Humans are useless – she cannot dance like a monkey, sing like a parrot, or fetch a stick like a dog!  Humans have needs – the need to be taken care of!  This Anya is worthless.”

“Kolya.  Are you on a bender again?  That is no way to talk to a child!” Elizaveta said.  She looked imploringly at Dmitri, her wide fish eyes like moons.  “Surely there is a better guardian for her.  Like – um, like me!  Or Liliya even.  I will keep Anya in the kitchen and let her wash dishes.  Babies can wash dishes, cannot they?  What if she licks them, or, or takes a bath in the suds?  Her skin is so soft and spotless, I bet it has cleansing powers like Baba Yaga’s ivory combs.”

Dmitri yawned.  “Argue all you want, but Kolya staked his claim first.  All your watery milk or kitchen scraps will not deny him that.  I am going to go sleep and read Evenings on a Farm Near Dinkaka.  I suggest you do too: choose something lighthearted by Gogol from the inn’s library and doze off.  We will sort things out over breakfast, when I come to terms with the fact that I have suddenly become a father to a human.”

With that, Dmitri went inside. There was a resolute shut of the door.

Elizaveta looked at Morozko with wet eyes.  She was crying like a faucet, something the emotional rusalka tended to do.  “Cherish Anya.  Mokosh knows you need softness.  Maybe she will blunt your rough edges. I sure do hope so!”

Morozko bit his lip.  He rocked Anya with vengeance.  “If she cannot dance, I will find some other use for her.  A coat hanger maybe, her head is shaped just right-“

“Ugh!  You are awful!”  Elizaveta stomped over to the mill pond fronting the house.  Her silvery form dissolved into water with an angry resounding splash.

Iosif looked with longing at Anya, clutching his broom.  “Were that I had found her.  She would be all mine, my own sweet mistress to dote on.  You are lucky Kolya, just like a winter bloom raskovnik.”

“Stop talking about mythical plants, house elf.  One man’s luck is another man’s curse.”

“Oh, but I do not think so.”  Iosif blended into the woodwork and was gone.

“Once again, I am alone with a baby… I delivered the present to myself.  I completely failed at being dedushka’s heir – he and mother give presents away, not claim them on accident!”  Morozko sighed, looking up at the stars, then down at his newest acquisition.  “What are you grinning at?” Morozko said, smoothing Anya’s hair.

She cooed.  “Koya?”

It almost sounded like the diminutive of his name.  Strange.  So fragile, a little defenseless thing.  Whatever would Morozko do with this girl named Anya?  Anastasia?  He could not tell.

Perhaps Elizaveta is right, Morozko thought, and I will soften.  Would that be so bad?  He pondered this as he went to the banya behind the inn.  Morozko’s room was between the walls, a small, humble thing, with a bed covered in wolfskin and a stove.  He spat sparks onto the stove’s wood and soon the room flooded with warmth from the furnace of his stomach.

Morozko stripped and donned his nightshirt, settling into the blankets with Anya.  He eyed his dresser, imagining her in a cage, and shook his head.  “I took that joke too far and upset Liza.  Little tiny Anya, what will I do with you?  You are just a human.  You do not belong in Buyan, not in this day and age.”  He rocked her to sleep, singing a lullaby he had once heard, long ago in a cradle of ice.

The remnant ragtag forces of the enemy vila fell in white streaks, shedding silver blood onto the snow.  Their cries were like sirens’ voices.  Battle over, the blizzard cleared.

The moon struck like a hammer in the night.  Morozko’s song drifted far away, over Tsar Dmitri’s mountains, across glacial seas, past thrice nine kingdoms and further, to the great icy keep of the watcher in the night.  His old bones shivered as he heard the familiar tune.

“What is this?” asked Kashchei quietly.  He looked out his tower window at the unforgiving stars, who had witnessed so many of his deaths and shed not a single burning tear between them.  Kashchei, who made a habit of collecting fair maidens and keeping them under lock and key in his palace of glass.  He wondered, at the end of his days, if his girls or the Zoryas would mourn for him.  Something in the song spoke of his finale, just like his fiddle’s supple croon that he was so fond of, his dancing captive princesses waltzing just for him.

The lullaby drifted under the Milky Way, ferried by Kashchei’s longing.  Kashchei wanted all that the song touched.  He wanted to understand, like a word on the tongue one cannot quite remember.  He followed the ribbons of notes, to the small room in the banya lit by souls, where Morozko was singing.

“A girl?”  Kashchei snarled in surprise.

Anya looked at him while Morozko sang.  She pointed a chubby finger.  “Ooo?”

Morozko caught Anya’s hand and laughed.  “Hah.  What is it, the ghost of Queen Maria Morevna?  That is just a legend, just like Ivan Tsarevich or… Kaschei the Deathless.  Only I suppose he is not so much a legend and more a scoundrel.  Whoever has frightened you, I promise to keep you safe.  You make the sweetest sounds, mooncalf.”

His name.  The bannik, familiar, had mentioned his name.

Kashchei felt naked before the child, and hastened back to his kingdom.

A worm of want bored into his heart: this singular worm different from the maggots and grubs already feasting on his rotting black heart.

This hungry worm had a name: Anastasia.

Kashchei the Deathless coveted Anya.

And that is never good for a girl.

 

 

“There’s nothing mystic in this magic,”

Baba Yaga said, “nothing so strange

as you would make it out to be.”

 

“This world is wide and wild

and full of wonders, and in your

yearning to see fireworks,

you overlook the glory

in a dandelion, the spectacle

trapped inside a butterfly.”

 

“There’s nothing modern in this story,”

Baba Yaga said, “nothing ancient,

nothing old or new or anything except

eternal — we are the wind, the waves,

the water whispering stories

to the dolphins and the dreaming whales.”

 

“We are everything. We are anything.

Remember that, my Vassilisa, and

I will set you free.”

 

“There’s nothing gained if nothing’s ventured,”

Baba Yaga said, and gave me back my heart,

and opened wide the door,

and let me go.

-“Baba Yaga Said” by Seanan McGuire

 

The nechist family sat round the kitchen table next morning, a bright storm-born dawn painting frosting on the snow outside the large bay window.

Iosif gazed into his bowl of salted kasha, stirring it with a furred hand.  He looked into the cereal as if divining portents from entrails – witches used organs to tell the future, domovois used cereal.  Beside him, Dmitri read a newspaper, chuckling occasionally.  Elizaveta rocked Anya, singing a song about drowned kisses and sailors lost in Siberian fjords.

“Do not coddle her, Liza,” Morozko said.  “She was the devil last night, keeping me up with her wailing.  I had to change her not once, but twice.”  He indicated the improvised cloth diaper torn from Morozko’s shirts that Anya wore beneath her blankets.

Elizaveta’s fish-snout flared.  She smoothed her sarafan.  “Anya is an angel, and you are too stupid to realize it.  She is the best thing that has ever happened to you, except perhaps Dima and us taking your lost, down-on-your-luck princehood in.”

Iosif looked up from his newly disturbed kasha.  He had been scrying, a gift certain nechist like banniks and domovois had.  Nechist had many magics, some of the forest, some of the flame, and some so strange they could tell the future from cereal.  “I heard you sing to her late last night, Kolya, from my perch on the stairs,” Iosif said.  “Such a lovely song.  Anya will come to cherish you above all of us.  I have seen it in my bowl.”

Morozko grimaced.  “Old age has given you cataracts.  Do not trust kasha to tell you the truth.  You once said Dima would marry a vila, and the only vila in our inn’s service is as sexless, megalomaniacal, and anal retentive as Lenin.”

Morozko reached for a piece of rye bread, butter, and sliced sausage – a simple Russian breakfast, but hearty nonetheless.  He piled them onto his plate.

Dmitri glanced up from his paper, his antlers hung with pine cones – leshys were famously bad at accessorizing.  “A domovoi never lies.  You would be wise to heed Osya’s words.”

“Osya can dance with Morena,” Morozko said, referring to the Slavic goddess of winter and death.  He glanced at Anya. “I need a human’s affection like I need a sword in the side.  Like I said, she is my decoration, nothing more.  Cute, but a useless trinket.  She cannot dance, can she?”

“We both need a human’s love.  That is what house spirits were made for,” Iosif said softly, his beady eyes downcast.  “For Dima and Liza it is different.  They are not tied to humans like a bannik or domovoi are.  Do you not long for a bather to leave you fir branches and soap clippings in the sauna, like they used to before peasants gave way to comrades?”

Morozko steepled his fingers under his chin.  “Yes, I suppose so….  I have not served a wandering human in so long though.  It feels unnatural now.  I usually flay humans, not attend to them.  Humans ceased walking in Buyan long ago, and my banya is hung with trespasser’s souls – thieves, murderers, and rapists who tried to take advantage of my bathers once long ago, before the mythic left the material.  What kind of place is that to raise a young girl in?”

Elizaveta unlaced the neck of her sarafan and set to nursing Anya.  The rusalka’s milk came watery but sweet, and Anya latched on with rosy lips. “It is better than many.  At least Anya will know she is protected by a fearsome guardian.  You are strong, Morozko.  You can protect her like you did the bathers of old.”

Dmitri sipped his coffee.  “Children do not get to choose their circumstances.  It is, however, up to them to make the best of their surroundings.  And Anya is doing swimmingly.”

Anya looked up from Elizaveta’s silver scale breast and cooed.

Morozko scrunched his nose.  “Her pea brain cannot tell that she is surrounded by monsters.”   He stretched.  “Chernobog’s black heart, where is the tea?  Is Lilyka our grand old general dead?  Huzzah!  Has the stick up her ass finally punctured her brain?”

There was the sound of bells and rain.  The scent of petrichor and ozone.  “No.  I was serving guests instead of complaining constantly like you, idiot bannik.”

In stepped a vila.  She carried a steaming brass samovar that smelled of delicious black tea.  Hair the color of rain fell to her ankles.  Her skin was translucent as mist, and one could see through her vaguely, like a crowded snow globe, or frosted glass.

Liliya’s eyes settled on Morozko.  “I spent all night defending us and then made breakfast.  All you had to do was babysit a simple child, yet you buzz on like a fly in distress.  You were stupid enough to claim her.  You cannot go back on a bond as sacred as shared fern flower juice.  You know what their bloom symbolizes: eternal union.”  Liliya slammed the samovar down in front of Morozko.  “You may think of it just as alcohol, but it means much more than just an exotic way to get drunk!”

“Whatever, Lilyka.  Your defense created a blizzard, oh illustrious general.  It got in everyone’s way, enough so that you almost buried the baby in snow.  You are losing your touch, I think.”

Morozko poured tea with a smirk on his face.  The vila and he often clashed, each strong personalities – one of rain and one of fire, not likely to mix agreeably.

Liliya settled across from him with her breakfast.  She made a point to steal a piece of bread from Morozko’s plate.  He sighed but did not bother to protest as she took an angry bite. “The battle I won last night was strategic.  Who cares about a silly blizzard?”  Liliya shrugged.  “We secured peace for months to come against Tsar Vladimir the Bent.  He waved his patched white flag, as he has a dozen times before, and it is off to his horrible kingdom until he gets the itch to invade again.  How he is Dima’s brother, I will never understand: there isn’t a generous woody bone in his body.”

“My brother Vlad never did play well with me.”  Dmitri smiled.  “I have not had a better general since my antlers were nubs, Liliya.  Your service and leadership is invaluable.  Kolya, you would do well to learn from her.”

Morozko choked on his tea.

“It is my pleasure.”  Liliya shot a glance at Morozko.  “What were you doing, gossiping with Baba Yaga?  Did your taste for human souls overwhelm you?  Were you going to get piss drunk and hit on that vampir at the edge of the woods again?  You know she cannot stand you.  No woman can.  Also, you do not have a very good record with vampirs, if I remember correctly.”

Morozko cleared his throat.  “No!  All I wanted were some stupid cigarettes, but I got a god damned baby instead.  What the?-” he stopped short, looking down to see that Anya, having been placed on the floor, had crawled over to pull at Morozko’s pants.  She looked up at him with large questioning eyes.

“Guh?”  A bit of drool clung to her lip.  “Keeya!”

Anya began chewing on Morozko’s sock, wetting it with saliva.  He was disgusted.

Mooncalf.”  Morozko picked her up, prying her hands loose of his pants.  Anya laughed, grabbing his hair.  Morozko cursed.

“Well do not you have a way with children?  Just like your grandfather Ded Moroz.  What are you going to do, leave her to freeze in the forest?” Liliya said.

Anya looked at Morozko with a curious face, nose twitching.  “Koya?”

Morozko’s eyes widened.  “Did pea brain just say my name?”

Dmitri slammed his newspaper shut.  “Sweet Mother Mokosh, I cannot believe it.  I suppose it is because she has been thrice-blessed: witch’s brew, a rusalka’s milk, a leshy’s kiss.  There is no telling what she will do.  She probably knows your name thanks to your ill-laid claim.”

“Koya Keeya Koo!” Anya burbled, tugging at his hair.  She bounced in his arms, excited.

“Tell me, who am I, little water lily?” Elizaveta crooned.

Anya pointed a plump finger at Elizaveta.  “Liya!  Loo?”  She laughed.

Dmitri whistled.  “Color me impressed.”

“If she was such a quick learner, she would not soil herself like one of Baba Yaga’s feed pig – she would be singing like a parrot already.  Anya would actually liven up my cramped room, not stink it up with crap.” Morozko said, but the enthusiasm behind his bitterness was gone.

Anya continued, pointing at the leshy.  “Da?”

Dmitri paled beneath his bluish skin.  “Did she just call me father?”

“Da da doo da.”

“Sweet Mokosh, I need a drink,” Dmitri said.  He rubbed his temple.  “I have never had a child before.  Sure, I have imagined what it would be like, but… but… oh, just look at her.  She is irresistible.  I have never stolen a human like Vladimir does his wood wives but now I know why.  They are too precious to bear!”

“We have no mortal mistress,” Iosif said, his voice hallowed.  “She is a witch, an enchantress, a Circe or Medea, but encapsulated in a miniature form.”

“I doubt she is a witch, just precocious,” Morozko snorted, smoothing Anya’s damp bark curls.

“Ozya!” Anya cried.  She continued to babble, toying with Morozko’s hair.  She chewed on a lock, talking to herself.  “Keeya!”

“Well that was a hard string of letters…”  Liliya stopped mid-bite into her kasha.  “Chernobog’s rot, the kid is smart even though she is the size of a dumpling.  We will have to enroll her in university soon: Dumpling University!”

“Dumplings aside, where did Baba Yaga find her, is what I would like to know,” Dmitri murmured.  He picked up his newspaper again and buried his nose and antlers in it.

There was a cackling beyond the lead glass window as if on cue.  The smell of rich blood and old bones.  The eldritch stink of ancient magic.  “America, you nechist!”  Crows croaked and flew past the pane.

The nechist looked to find Baba Yaga’s face pressed against the window, her breath steaming the pane.  In the steam swirled snakes and beetles.  “I come with gifts for my witch-daughter, whom you have so diligently protected.  I am proud of you, leshy – it is about time you stopped reading your silly books and raised an heir.  Your brother Vladimir the Bent has a harem of wood wives to force himself upon and sire leafy children, yet all you have are musty Pushkin and Tolstoy.  I wonder what you do late at night, wifeless, with only the page!  I did not think Russian classics that racy.”

Dmitri winced, blue skin turning a blueberry shade.  “That was low, even for babushka,” he muttered.

Baba Yaga flew her mortar to the front and entered like a hyena, with feral majesty.  Clutched against her back was a burlap sack, the top opened to expose cloth diapers.  She looked like a demented, decrepit Snegurochka on her way to a Black Mass, not a New Year’s celebration.

The nechist looked on in surprise.

America?” Dmitri echoed.  He scratched his antler nub.  “That is a far away country and not a friend of Russia.”

Baba Yaga chuckled.  “Yes, you lot of carbuncles.  I found her mewling in a park when I was raiding the capital for children, somewhere between Pennsylvania Avenue and Independence Street.  Don’t be so surprised that I went to the land of liberty: Americans taste like barbecues and long, indulgent summers.  The progeny of Washingtonians have a bit of desperation too, which quickens the stew.  They add such sweet spice to my winter stews.  I was about to devour her when, out of nowhere, she cried out “Yaga, Yaga!”  Then she kissed my finger, just so, like a familiar nuzzling her witch-mother.  I stopped immediately, recognizing in her the witch-blood.”  Baba Yaga sniffed the air.  “She smells of Russian bone, sweat, and spit.  Like coven.  Like kin.”

Baba Yaga plopped the burlap bag onto the floor.  Out spilled baby toiletries, bars of soap, and traditional Russian toys: china dolls in sarafans, painted wooden eggs, clay animals, matroyshka, a rattle painted with a firebird – and, at the very bottom, a silver mirror embossed with the Alkonost, the mythical Slavic siren who promised sanctuary, paradise – her song stopped tsars in their tracks and made them forget their tsarinas, wanting nothing else but the bird maiden forevermore.

Anya fixated on the Alkonost mirror.  Morozko set her down, curious as to what powers such an object had.  He could smell some kind of magic on it, an old dark spell.

Anya, like a firefly to a flame, darted for the toy, plopped herself down, and looked into it.

Morozko peered at it too.  Its surface was smooth as water, reflecting Anya’s round face.  He picked it up.

Instead of his visage in the mercury, he saw Anya giggling.  Morozko traced the gold filigree on the edge, his lips forming an O of surprise.

“It is enchanted?”  Morozko turned the mirror in his hands.  “I would expect no less from you, babushka.  Even your mirrors have devious uses.”

“Of course,” Baba Yaga clucked.  “This is so your wayward family can watch over Anya when she is off wandering like witches do.  I have a personal investment in her, so make sure you keep her safe, leshy who calls himself tsar, and you – wayward prince after my own heart.” Baba Yaga took Anya into her wizened arms.  “Oh, little bird, what I have in store for you!  You would never guess if hounds were at your throat and you needed the answer to survive.”

Anya’s surrogate father winced at the metaphor.  “Can we ask what exactly you have planned for my new child?”  Dmitri glanced over his coffee cup, his green gaze hardening like malachite.

Baba Yaga cackled.  “Inquiring noses inevitably get chopped off, bookish leshy who calls himself tsar.  What I plan for Anya is neither here nor there – it is somewhere in between, just like Buyan.  All you need to do is raise her well and keep your babushka happy!”

“But what will we teach her?” asked Liliya, stirring her kasha.  “We didn’t exactly go to college.  Maybe Dumpling University is a good idea after all…”

Baba Yaga snorted.  “As if I would leave a girl’s education up to talking streams and saunas.  She will go to school where I found her, with me posing as her rightful legal guardian – do not look at me like that, Dima.  I can shimmy my chest and don a woman’s skin like any witch worth her salt.  Humans will not be able to tell the difference between Baba Yaga and her real babushka!”

“This seems like a world of pain for one girl,” Morozko opined.  Anya was chewing on his pant leg again, but this time he did not stop her.

“It is always about one girl.”  Baba Yaga smiled, fire kindling in her wood-dark eyes.  “One girl Ivan Tsarevich chases after.  One princess Kashchei carries away.  One Vasilissa that braves my hut.  One ballerina that dances the Firebird.  The world moves for singular girls more often than you know.”

“The world stops just as often for fools.”  Morozko placed the Alkonost mirror before Anya and gently pried her mouthy appetite from his pants.  “She is too small, too fragile.  Too easily broken.  Anyways, how can a girl raised by nechist be anything but a joke?”

“Jokes and riddles have potent power – a deep magic all their own.  So what if Anya is our jester?  At least she is good for a laugh.”  Baba Yaga’s rheumy eyes locked on Morozko’s.  “She will bring you laughter, and much more pain.  You were an idiot to claim her as usual, little lost ice prince.”

Morozko was pinned under the hag’s gaze.  His breath came fitfully as his vision hazed.  Old magic from his father’s side gripped him – a bannik’s foresight, but instead of cereal, it was Baba Yaga’s words that brought the vision on.  He had rarely seen things of the future since he was a young boy playing with flames, staring into the heart of the fire, and this revelation took Morozko by surprise:

He saw crimson on snow.  A girl with hair like wet wood and a body like a birch, throwing knives, dancing the khorovod, twirling in a skirt of fire.  Flames like a firebird.  A long, sharp needle.  Golden eggs.  A tree more man than wood, and a woman more wood than man.

Finally, the face of a lover, better left for dead, crumbling in his hands into dust.

Morozko inhaled sharply, gaze clearing.  “Shit.”

His nechist family looked at him in confusion, but Baba Yaga – she just laughed.  Few spirits knew more of the future’s song than she who whistled it over a loom of dried tendons and bones, spinning secrets and legends.

“Kolya, are you alright?  Whatever did you see?” Dmitri asked, his voice an anchoring force, pulling Morozko back to the present.  “You look like you’ve seen the ghost of Kashchei’s lost girls.”

“I saw flames.  A temptress.  Blood,” Morozko breathed.  He looked at Anya in fear, shaking.  “Take her back, babushka, please.  She will bring suffering our adoptive family and soon to all of Buyan.  A witchling does not belong in Tsar Dmitri the Bountiful’s kingdom.  She was born under an ill-omened moon, under witch stars.”

Baba Yaga smiled all wolf-woman, flashing serrated iron teeth.  “I do everything for a reason, Snegurochka’s wandering bastard prince.  You fear your heart spilling out like pine nuts into your hands.  You frighten at the thought that you will quake like fir trees in the winter wind all but for a child.  That you could become nothing but steam in her arms, stripped of your skin and mind.  Temptress indeed, you say?  The only temptation she will bring is the challenge for you to grow into your much-delayed adulthood.”

Morozko’s stomach fell to the ground.  “I cannot be responsible for this – for what I saw.  I took her in, not knowing what I was looking for.  I still don’t know what I left Ded Moroz’s kingdom for, but whatever it was, it was never for this.  Destruction at the hands of a girl!”

Baba Yaga laughed.  “You will find in dear Annusha what you seek: all of you.  Comfort.  Love.  A joke.  But you, Kolya – in her you will find your humility.  Perhaps that is what frightens you so much.”

“Changing cloth diapers will humble me?” Morozko echoed, queasy.  “No, there is more that you are not telling us, but it is not like you would ever give me a straight answer, babushka.  You are as crooked as a chess piece bent out of shape by a frustrated leshy that lost half his forest on a bet.”

Baba Yaga clicked her lips.  “Right you are, soap shavings.  Stop worrying so much and relax – I would never plant a curse in your inn.  Tscha!  Come bother me in a handful of years when our dear Anya has grown.”

Baba Yaga bent over to run her hands through Anya’s hair.

Anya burbled.  “Yaya?”

“Yes, little bird.  Your babushka has spoiled you rotten.”  Baba Yaga stroked her chin-hairs and glanced at the nechist.  “Keep my witch-daughter safe.  Especially you two, Dima and Kolya.  You will come to treasure her more than your majestic woods or your humble banya.  That I can guarantee you.”

Baba Yaga strode through the back door, mounted her mortar, and churned her pestle away.  She left a murder of ravens and the stench of drying blood in her wake, quivering skirts shaking snow.

The nechist looked to each other.

“Is it wise to keep her under our roof, after the calamity Kolya saw?” Liliya said, clutching the sword she kept perpetually at her side.

Dmitri rubbed his antlers, which were shedding their velvet in bits and close to falling off at the season’s turn.  “She has been with us yet a night and morning, but already this little wood child has a place in my heart.  Divination is always faulty: in her Osya sees beauty, a blessing, yet Kolya has seen danger, a curse.  I would guess the truth is somewhere in between.  Just like a good story read by the hearth – always keeping you guessing.”

Elizaveta dabbed her eyes with an already wet handkerchief.  “I do not care if she is cursed.  I love her.”

Morozko looked at the sun that was beginning to rise: “I will admit it, the mooncalf grows on you, even if you are more used to stripping human trespassers of skin than guarding small defenseless babies.  I suppose we shall wait and see what happens with Baba Yaga’s little witchling…”

 

 

If there was a curse upon Anya, it seemed to work in reverse: the more she grew, the more her adoptive family fell in love with the preternatural child.  Elizaveta carried her in a sling on her back, twirling around with a mop as she sung lullabies to the child who burbled along like a songbird.  Liliya had to be dissuaded by Dmitri from beginning training the small girl on bow and arrow, as she could not yet walk, just play with blocks and crawl around the inn like a missile headed straight for disaster.  Iosif was never not slipping Anya freshly pared fruit slices or spoonful’s of apple sauce, and Morozko played and played with her, tucking her in each night as he sang a glimmering winter lullaby.

Frost’s kiss on the ground melted.  Dmitri began taking Anya on his sojourns through the woods as the weather warmed thanks to Mother Mokosh waking from her winter hibernation at the base of the Tree of Life.  Dmitri tucked his little surrogate wood child against his chest like a cross.  The wolves tried to nip her chubby heels and would have eaten her if not for Dmitri’s protection and several story tall height.

“Da da?  Kree!” she cooed one day when they were in the thick of the wilderness, in a valley where sweet flowers and fruits grew round the year despite summer’s warmth or winter’s barren winds.  It was a grove sacred to the old gods, where rare beasts made their roosts.  Anya was pointing at a firebird.  It nested in a golden apple tree, preening its brilliant fiery peacock wings.

“Yes, my love.  It is zhar ptica, the firebird.  She brings good fortune to all who see her.  Unless of course, you are a fool of a prince that wishes for more than he can handle!  Then, my dear, you will find yourself in for a world of pain.”

Grinning as only a leshy can, with a smile like sunlight on water, Dmitri coaxed the firebird from her nest.  The bird cried out, rustling her tail, flitted into his hand and then off into the forest.  A single feather fell into Dmitri’s palm.  The firebird fled with a song like chapel bells, leaving a trail of sparks that traced loop-de-loops in the encroaching gloaming.

Anya reached for the feather.  Dmitri gave it to her, warmed by his daughter’s joy.

“Ooo,” she said again, clutching it with tiny hands.  She did not let it go until Morozko pried it from her stubborn fingers in return for several Cheerios.

The feather glowed late into the night in the room between the banya walls.  Anya sat at a high chair, refusing her mushed peas as usual.

She banged her tiny fists onto her high chair’s wooden table, smushing the peas in the process.  “No!  No!  No!”  Her green hands were covered in vegetable goop.

Morozko groaned.  “Morsel, if you do not eat this green crap, so help me, I will flay you ten ways til morning, just like I do those who harm the peace of the banya, which you are most certainly doing.

Anya’s lips quivered.  Tears spilled from her eyes.  “Koya?” she whined, crying.

Morozko cursed himself.  “Damnit, I upset the little vegetable destroyer.  Shh, shh it is alright, Annushka.”  He lifted her up out of the chair and into his arms.  She squirmed in his grasp, mashing the remnants of the peas on his face.  “Mooncalf, I would never dream of hurting you.  No matter how hungry I was.  Here.”  He handed her the firebird feather.  “Your favorite toy, I suppose.”

She giggled, sorrow forgotten as she took the glowing plumage into her dollish hands.  Morozko rocked her on his knee as she played with the feather.

“Mother Mokosh help me, I will have to feed you that dry cereal crap you just love, just like I always do, will I not?  Getting you to eat peas is a battle I just cannot win, can I.”

Morozko sighed, placing her on his bed and reaching under it to withdraw a box of Cheerios.  He reached into the cabinet beside his bed and found a bowl.  Pouring the cereal in, he set it before Anya and began feeding them to her one by one.  She pecked at the Cheerios like a bird, her grin wide, then began to pick them up with stubby fingers and bring them to her mouth.

“You sure are ravenous, little witch.  You take after me in that regard.  Except my appetite is more for alcohol, and yours is for subpar cereal that tastes like soggy cardboard and wood shavings.”

“Ooo goo?”

“Right.  Ooo goo indeed.  Whatever that means.”

“Keeya!  Keeya?  Kree!”  She waved the firebird feather aloft, so enthusiastic that she almost dropped it.

Morozko steadied her hand.  “Be careful not to light the bed on fire with your excitement, silly mooncalf.”

“Muh huh.  Keeya?”

Anya crawled to Morozko and fell asleep almost instantly in his lap, the beloved firebird feather still safe in her grasp.

Morozko touched the girl as if she were shards of glass.  “Oh Annushka, whatever will become of a girl as trusting and gentle as you in a realm where your kind is flapjacked into blini for Baba Yaga’s breakfast?  How oh how will you become my ruin?  You couldn’t hurt a mayfly, for you are one – a slave to time, an ending so close to your beginning.  Will you even remember me, I wonder, in your next life?”

Anya sighed and sucked her thumb.

Morozko stroked her hair.  “Do you know what you are at all?  And when you realize it, Anya, will it be too late for all of us?”

The next morning, with dark bags under his eyes, Morozko sat round the table of spirits while Iosif doted on Anya.  Liliya applied mascara with an embossed compact mirror, darkening her silver lashes.  Elizaveta hummed to herself, sewing a dress for Anya.  Her sharp silver needle reminded Morozko of something, but of what – well, he was not quit sure.

“Annushka, you will be beautiful in this little red sarafan.  My miniature firebird,” Elizaveta said.  She looked at the girl.  Iosif was on his brown, furred back, holding Anya high as if she were a plane, moving her to and fro.  “Osya.  Whatever are you doing?  Make sure not to drop my breakable daughter!”

“Why, I am teaching her to fly, just like her favorite bird,” Iosif said, bashful.  He made the sounds of a firebird, all chiming and bells tolling like Eastern Orthodox monks being called to prayer.

Anya laughed, wiggling her arms.  “Scree kree!”

Dmitri surveyed the room, nose still buried in another one of his tattered books.  He noticed Morozko’s listless stare.  “Oi, my son.  What kept you up last night?  You look exhausted, not your usual stubborn self.”

Morozko stared at the floor, scuffing his feet on the worn whorled wood.  “Nothing,” he murmured.  He sipped his black tea quietly.

Liliya scrutinized Morozko.  Her translucent form shifted like mist, lit by shafts of light from the window only to burst into opaline colors.  “Afraid you will break the baby?”

“No.  I just – what if I crush her in my sleep?  What if Anya gets sick from some exotic disease or something as simple as the flu and even Baba Yaga’s witchery cannot heal her?  She will not eat her food half the time, especially peas.  She just smears them on the table and my face!  It is like she does not trust me.  What if she grows up and- and-”

“And what?  Has no need for you?”  Liliya laughed.  “Please.  She has not even taken her first steps.  She cannot run away from you yet, soap shavings.”

“Shut up.  Only babushka calls me that,’” Morozko grumbled.  “Do not call a bannik anything to do with soap.  It is demeaning.  Remember, I am Artic royalty, illustrious general of sticks up the ass.”

Liliya fluoresced silver with laughter.  She tucked her blue robe close round her shoulders.  “What can I say?  The nickname has caught on.  And if I have a stick up my ass, you have Perun’s hammer up yours.”

Iosif set Anya down.  “Please, you two, you are speaking foul words in front of an innocent child!”

The almost-toddler crawled towards Morozko and plopped herself down at his feet, tugging at his boots.  “Yum yum?” she asked, her most recent word for food.

“See, look at that!”  Liliya snorted.  “She is joined at the hip to you, Kolya.  Annushka will not even eat if you do not feed her directly.”  Liliya closed her compact mirror, finished with beautifying her already ethereal vila form.

Liliya went to the kitchen and came back with fresh apple sauce crushed and sweetened with sugar from the golden apples of the firebird’s roost in the old god’s sacred grove.  Morozko lifted Anya into his lap and set to feeding her, one spoonful at a time until her small stomach puffed out under her dress like a round pastry.

Anya beamed.  Her small hand enfolded his thumb, toying with the silver ring at its base.  A silver ring that flashed like a vampir’s fang so Morozko thought.  He flinched.

Apple sauce dribbled down Anya’s open-mouth grin.  “Keeya!”

“Oh, mooncalf,” Morozko said.  He dabbed at the dripping sauce with his napkin.  “Keep your mouth open that wide and your soul will slip out.  It has happened to many a human.  Their soul slips out and they become shades in the deathless lands, forever cursed to wander, to hunger, and never ever find succor.  Keep your little lips shut, Anya: make sure your soul stays safe.”

Dmitri chuckled, the ivy on his antlers bristling with green shoots.  “For once you want a soul to stay put and have no desire to hang it from your rafters, my son,” Dmitri observed.  “It seems you have actually had a change of heart for once.  You have even been avoiding bars as of late, and I cannot remember your last bender or frolic with a vila or that rusalka with the bad teeth but rather… well, busty assets.  Ahem…”

“Yum!” Anya approved.  Morozko spooned apple sauce into her rosy mouth.

“I have all the souls I need,” Morozko said, distant.  “My banya could not be lighter if I set it aflame.  As for the girls and the booze, that would not be a good example for Annushka.  I feel like this girl is judging me with her raskovnik eyes, unlocking my every sin.  I see why you and Osya compare her to plants,” Morozko referred to the rare plants that were the keys to the spiritual world and cornerstone of Slavic witchcraft.

The day wore on.  The inn bustled with guests of all colors, with tails from different tales.  Lecherous mermen vodyanoi soaked in tubs by the hearth, drinking vodka and courting rusalka – especially flustered Elizaveta, who stumbled over her wet hair and tripped over her words – as the lusty mermen were wont to do.  The inn’s rarely seen nameless kikimora, the ill-luck companion house elf to the resident domovoi, spun on a loom while vampir dined on fresh blood.  Long-traveling witches exchanged tales of daring-do and drank toad tea.  A lone wizard with a crooked hat played chess with a minor imp of Hell, betting over a rare map and shining jewels.

Between them, Elizaveta scurried, perpetually wet hair piled atop her head as she served dish after dish of steaming shchi cabbage soup and the choicest cuts of fowl, freshly smoked meats and mulled wine from the cellars.  Liliya was busy in the kitchen after training her sister troops in their daily martial exercises, preparing meals, while Iosif tidied the rooms, tending to laundry and beds.  Anya was out with Dmitri on one of his wanderings.

Morozko, on break from attending banya guests, peeped into the refrigerator – for even spirits have electricity, even if it was faulty and temperamental when it’s magic generator was feeling lazy – searching for kvass, his favorite type of fermented Russian rye bread drink, only to find they were out of baby food. Morozko admitted he needed to make a shopping trip to Earth.  This required going to Baba Yaga’s hut, the watchtower between the human world and Buyan, ever spinning on its chicken leg axis in a liminal wayward dance – a bit like the celestial polka, but even more dangerous with Russia’s hag in the lead.

Morozko set out into the woods, down an overgrown path past the stream.  The land steamed where his feet met it.  Sometimes he would take a leap like an elk and leave two large indentations like a Soviet missile crash.  At this he laughed and skipped.  He was, after all, still more boy than man, and found delight in small things.

Eventually, he came to a hut on chicken legs, several stories tall, rimmed with bones and majestic as a merchant’s house.  It took him back to the first time he had seen Baba Yaga’s unnerving house at his long-abandoned camp by the Volga River, during his wandering days.

“Hut, hut, turn your back to the forest and your face towards me,” Morozko called with confidence.

Baba Yaga’s hut turned to face him, creaking and wobbling as it moved.  The hag came to the door, dressed in a pink bathrobe and fluffy slippers with cats on them.  She yawned and chewed her gums.

“Soap shavings.  Why did you disturb my afternoon nap?”  Baba Yaga peered at him from beneath a sleeping mask.  She had on eye cream, which almost made Morozko laugh.  He stopped because her scowl could smite a dinosaur, much less him.

Morozko shifted, tucking his hands in his pockets.  “Anya needs food,” he told the ground.  No way did he want to meet the gaze of a witch whose beauty sleep he had interrupted.

“Hah.  Your fern flower bond not enough for my little bird?”

Morozko bristled.  “That was once, by the gods!  I do not do that anymore.  She is weaned, anyways, and eats Cheerios quite fine.  It is not necessary to feed her that way, and I was an idiot to do so before.”

“Agreed, you dolt of a bannik.  Who knows what magics your blood gave her?  Tscha, only the turning of the moon will tell.  Fine, fine, little hut: lean down and accept this banya fool.”

The hut bent down.  Morozko climbed onto the porch, grabbing the skull railing to steady himself.  The way up was rickety, as always.

“Thank you, babushka.”

“Oh, do not thank me, boy.  I would much sooner steam you to a misty cloud than help you.  My interest in the girl is personal.”

“Do you feel like telling me what those interests are, finally?”

“Hah!  Trying our luck today, are we.  If you would like to keep your man bits, stay out of my business.  You would never understand it, anyways.  Just be happy your babushka is feeling generous for her wayward bastard prince.”

Baba Yaga whistled.  The stamping of hooves echoed through the woods.  A mare daisy-yellow as day cantered to her mistress.  Baba Yaga reached into her skirts and withdrew a sugar cube.  She fed it to the mare, stroking her mane. “Den’, would you be so kind as to escort Kolya to Earth?”  Her magical horses and manservants were Den’, Noch, and Solntse – the familiars Baba Yaga had named after long day, cruel night, and the merciless sun.  Her faithful servants always.

The mare whinnied.  She bent down gently so Morozko could mount her.

“Little hut, little hut, turn your back to this world and your face toward the realm of man,” Baba Yaga ordered.

The hut obliged.  They left the world of Slavic nechist, where magic still reigned, and entered Earth, where magic was hidden, like a wedding dress stowed away in the attic, yellowed but beautiful and lacy, waiting to be remade and shine.  The hut squawked like a rutting rooster whose interest was piqued by a strutting chicken.

Morozko found himself on the back of Den’ on the porch of a picturesque house with white picket fences, tucked away into deciduous woods.  Baba Yaga was softer, with a grandmotherly face, dressed in a pink house dress and heels.  A gravel path led away from the abode.  The air smelled of tranquility, nuclear families, apple pie – rich American suburbia.

Morozko rode bare-back away from the hut.  “I will be back before nightfall, I promise,” he called to Baba Yaga.

Baba Yaga clucked.  “Do not get lost, little prince.  You have already strayed far from your icy home.  One day Father Frost’s legacy will catch up to you.”

“Gods, please do not remind me.  The day I become a present deliverer to bratty snot-nosed children is the day I commit seppuku Japanese-style with a butter knife,” Morozko muttered.  He whipped Den’s reins and set off at a steady canter.

The moment the horse’s hooves hit the driveway, Morozko found himself inside a citrine-colored car that drove itself down the path.  Morozko relaxed, letting Den’ take him to the grocers nearby.  They sped out of the woods through suburbs and strip malls.  Spring glossed the land in verdant greens and blooms.  Morozko rolled down the window, inhaling the lush air.  American flags dotted some houses, and he chuckled.

“We are far from the motherland, are we not, Den’?”

The engine purred in response.

Baba Yaga had insisted on familiarizing Anya’s guardians with her homeland.  Nechist naturally knew human languages, so speaking English was never a problem, but the cultural divide still existed.  Americans seemed too loud for Morozko’s taste.  He also hated the specific breed of literati that populated the D.C. metropolis, reciting poet’s pamphlets as they walked headfirst into grimy alley walls.  He could never tell the difference between them and the homeless – anyways, Baba Yaga could pass for a bag lady for sure.

Den’ parked at a nondescript family-owned mom and pop store.  Morozko caught sight of himself in the store’s window, glamoured so he blended in with the humans.  His nechist features were softened, his fangs gone.  Still, Morozko was too vain to rid himself of his white-gold hair, just like his mother’s – and, unfortunately, like his grandfather’s.  At least his skin wasn’t blue and iced in snow fractal tattoos.

Several women lost their breath at the sight of Morozko, chittering like birds and giggling to each other as they left, giving him winks and backwards glances.

Morozko smirked.  They could be like putty in his hands, if he only so desired.  Human women were so easy to manipulate, bed, and taste like fine soul wine on his tongue.  He had dined on their blood in Moscow of old with – with her… a name he did not like to repeat.

He looked at the silver ring on his thumb and his hunger reared its head.

In fact, that wasn’t such a bad idea: the day was still young, and it was about time he spent the night with a woman his own age, not a small child in diapers with crayons.

Morozko picked up cigarettes and went to the baby food section, selecting cans and jars of the mushed crap Anya delighted in.  He came to the cereal aisle, to the ever-hallowed Cheerios.  Morozko piled several boxes into his grocery cart and proceeded to pay at the register.  Baba Yaga had been courteous enough to stock the glove box with an endless supply of American currency.  Morozko thought the elderly Presidents in white wigs quite hilarious.

The girl at the register eyed Morozko.  “Is that it?” she asked, hair in a beehive.

Morozko gave a crooked smile.

“Wait.  Here.”  The cashier blushed, scribbling her phone number on his receipt.  Morozko took it and eyed the string of numbers.  “I get off in a while,” she said to the floor tiles, too intimidated to meet his gaze.  “There is, well, there is a malt shop at the other side of the shopping mall.  Maybe we could meet up later, at say, oh, 5:00?”

Morozko gave her a kind look.  “You like chocolate malts?”

The girl twirled a ringlet of hair.  She nodded, licking her lips.

Morozko herded his groceries into Den’s trunk and took a joy ride for a few hours.  He returned to the strip mall at precisely 5:00 PM.  The cashier was waiting for him in the malt shop, dressed in strappy heels and a classic white dress, Old Hollywood style.

She waved, nervous.  Morozko could smell the excitement in her blood.

“Hi,” she said, “Thanks for meeting me.  It is just, you always come to the store and you are always so mysterious.  I would like to get to know you.  I hope it is not awkward.  Oh God.  I never do this.  How unladylike of me, please, forgive me.”

“No, it’s my pleasure,” Morozko said.   “You look like you enjoy a good old-fashioned Coke.”

“How did you know?”

“A lucky guess.  It is of course on me.”

Morozko ordered for them and they drank together, soda and malts, then split a banana sundae, talking about little things.

“So your accent?”  She hesitated.  Are you Russian?”  She ran her nails over the lid of her cup.  “It must be dangerous to be Russian in America, with the last decade and all.”

“I suppose.”  He took a small sip.  “I do not pay much attention to politics.  Nechist – I mean, um, ahem – my community does not care much for Communism.”

The cashier beamed.  “I agree.  So, you buy the same thing every time: baby food and cigarettes.  Whoever is the baby food for?  You look too young to be married, my apologies if that is offensive.  I seem to be saying all the wrong things tonight.”

Morozko put his hand on hers to steady her.  “You have not said a single wrong thing.”  Morozko shrugged.  “As for the food, it is for a niece.”

“That is wonderful, helping your sibling out with their kid.  I love my new nephew, he is adorable beyond reason and words.  When he was born, a little bit of my soul flew out to guard him, like an angel, I think.  Look at me!  Becoming a poet for the love of a baby.  Must be my maternal instincts.  Sorry if that was saccharine.”

“It was the truth.  We both have precious things our souls guard.”

“You are absolutely right.”

They continued conversing late into the night.  Morozko let her do most of the talking.

“So, um, well, I live in an apartment near here, and I just got a bottle of expensive Italian wine for my birthday.”  She stumbled over her words.  “Do you, well – would you like to try some, I suppose?”

“Of course.”

Kisses followed wine, and Morozko’s hunger reared its head.  The girl, barely a woman, with closed eyes, did not notice when his fangs slipped out.  Morozko paused from kissing her.

She murmured.  A quick enchantment sent her off to sleep.

Morozko lowered his lips to her neck.  His bite was quick and painless – still, the girl’s mouth opened in surprise.

He drank her earthy blood and filled with her soul.  It smelled like marigolds and tasted like chocolate and forgotten treasure.  His hunger subsided.

Morozko healed her wound, a simple magic.  He tucked her into bed and left.

Den’ awaited Morozko in the parking lot beyond.  The horse-turned-car drove pell mell back to Baba Yaga’s.  Baba Yaga was in a rocking chair, smoking a pipe as the moon sailed past.  The smoke formed wisps of worms and inched off into the horizon slowly.

Den’ shifted into a mare and stooped low so Morozko could dismount.

Baba Yaga wrinkled her nose, spotting the red on his teeth.  “I can smell the delicious sweat, blood, and soul of a human on you.  A hapless young woman, as usual?”

Morozko shrugged, taking the groceries from the horse’s back onto his shoulder.  “I have my dalliances, just like you.  Banniks always love souls, after all.”

“Pah.  My dalliances are more of the eating limbs and bone variety, not easy seductions of boring mortal maidens.  You kept me waiting, boy!  My hut is not just a door you can stroll through at your own leisure.  This place is the watchtower between worlds!  Now come.”  She grinned, baring sharp iron teeth.  “Give your babushka a kiss.”

Morozko recoiled, nearly dropping his groceries.  “In thrice nine kingdoms, no.”

The hut stirred, shaking Morozko so that he fell.  Baba Yaga cackled.  “Dolt.  I gave you an easy way out, and you refused.  Now you will stay all night mucking the stables of Den’, Solntse, and Noch’.  The work is hard as the sun on your back, long as the day, and cruel as night.  Isn’t that right, sweet Den’?”

The mare neighed in agreement.

Morozko sighed.  “Fine.  I will muck your damn stables.”

Baba Yaga Tells Vasilissa

Bake us cookies sweet, he said
I baked them rough like my ancient feet.

Smile like an angel for me, he said
I bit his ring finger clean to bone.

Make me a stew for my aching joints
I brewed nettle and nightshade and rue.

I am not your sweetheart, I am not your wife.
I am terror and iron.

I am wild and woman.

I am my own,
my own.

A Hint of My Novel in Progress

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.”

Morozko did.

“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.”