Will My Literary Agent Dreams Come True? The Importance of Patience in the Query Trenches!

So longtime followers of my blog will know I completed a revision request on my retelling of Stravinsky’s ballet, Firebirdset during the Cold War, with witches and a family of monsters, but most importantly, Baba Yaga.  This is the first novel I seriously queried, and I averaged about a 50% request rate out of the 50 total queries I sent out to top agents.  My query letter was killer, and I’ve had a lot of great agents fall in love with the prose but not the plot, or think the plot and concept are amazing or that the prose is lacking, or some say it was a wonderful novel but they simply didn’t fall in love with it.  Firebird is now with Brandon Sanderson of Mistborn and Charlaine Harris of True Blood’s agent, which makes me giddy.

This is probably it’s last shot, otherwise I am trunking the novel for another time.  I love Firebird to pieces and would love to see it published, and Joshua Bilmes is an absolutely stellar agent.  I think it is worthy of being published and is a very literary fantasy and is hard to pin down.  I would love to someday have it available to eager readers, but I know this is it’s last chance.

It’s a great novel, but I’ve evolved as a writer in the calendar year I finished revising it, by blogging and continuing to write prose and poetry, and my new middle grade novel is absolutely my favorite thing, hands down, I have ever written!  It’s about Marie Laveau’s heir saving New Orleans with her best friend, Raphael, and Papa Legba from Marinette and Mister Carrefour and their zombies and loup garou.  It incorporates a lot of my personal spirituality into it, seeing as I’m technically in a maryaj lwa with Carrefour – Samael’s second favorite form, rife with jazz, canes, saxophones, dreads, and cigars, and also because it has the angels I know and love as May Laveau’s family.  May first came to me when I was 18 a long beautiful summer ago, when I wanted to write a novel about my beloved Uriel and Raphael.  In it, Uriel’s avatar is a precocious thirteen year old, and Raphael is her guardian angel.

It got a lot of requests from #DVPit last October, and I spent some time revising according to several kind agent’s feedback, and now it’s back on submission again.  The first agent that ever gave me a revise and resubmit on Firebird enthusiastically requested the full, and despite being my one of my top choices for agents, Thao is absolutely a wonderful personality and has amazing books under her belt, my favorite being Roshani Chokshi’s Star-Touched Queen and the Abyss Surrounds Us.  There’s no guarantee she or Joshua will like my books, but it feels amazing just to have gotten this far!  If not, I’ll get great feedback and go back to revising, perhaps shelving Firebird and moving on to my new projects!

So what’s in the works for Allie?

Birds Away is my YA contemporary project about a group of teenagers at a science and tech school that get a grant to do a Big Year, in birding terms, seeing as many bird species as you can in the continental US.  Jack Black did a lovely movie called The Big Year and my own experience going to America’s top science and tech school in the world inspired me.  We were a bunch of nerdy, passionate weirdos at my high school, and had everything from a satellite to a cloud-watching club.  Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology has dreamers above all else, and I was one of them.  How fun would it be to read about a group of friends with biological and technical backgrounds road-tripping for a year birding!  This is the novel I needed written yesterday!

Spider King is a YA Fantasy Beauty and the Beast retelling with… well, with a spider prince, and a fantasy civilization that has grown over the milennia after the collapse of a dystopian technological empire that created mutant animal-human hybrids that now live in different kingdoms where ancient tech is few and far between.  A rebel spider prince named Saroth and his blood enemy warrior Princess Melania team up to take down an empire.

Harold the Dragon is an illustrated children’s book about a girl named Maude that has a bashful, scared dragon with glasses named Harold that lives in her closet.  Dragons have to earn their wings by doing good deeds.  They have tea with the little girl ghost in the attic, help zombies cross the street as they are quite slow, and save kittens from trees, which is hard when Harold hasn’t yet earned his wings.

Space Oddity is 20,000 words in and is a David Bowie tribute about stoner Anunnaki aliens, bi girls in space bands, kissing pretty alien princesses, and punk rocking a galactic empire down.  It’s a hoot and a bit like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy mixed with Octavia Butler Lilith’s Brood.  Enki and Ishtar are the main aliens, and it is steeped in Sumerian mythology as befitting a vast alien conspiracy about King Bowie.

So yeah, I’m taking a break from writing novels for a while, as I have a ton of books and comics I want to read.  But four are in the works, along with a devotional chapbook of my poetry about Samael and one for Michael!  Also working on a Norse devotional.  We shall see where 2018 brings me!

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Casting Stars

samael__skoptsy__by_isklive-dbm26gt

“Decay tastes like honey.”

One-shot written in college about Samael and Shannon, whose story has not stopped since I first started writing their story a dozen years ago at twelve.

The rain fell like a bridal veil, so soft, onto the sidewalk, mixing with spilled gasoline to form oil rainbows in the gutter. A willow bent over the country street, skirting a peeling white picket fence, branches dancing in the wind. The quaint houses sprung like flowers from the ground, paint fading around screen doors left open in the summer heat. One door flapped open. A young, willowy woman in a red and white plaid sundress and combat boots stepped out, her smile illuminating the drizzle. Her dark, rosy hair spilled like snakes down her shoulders, loose curls like Titian red seen through sunglasses. She yawned, stretched, and ran a hand through her hair, watching the rain pool on her stoop.

“Bloody dreary morning. I’ve seen days in Hell less gloomy than this,” came a deep, rich voice from behind her. A skeleton dressed in a black bathrobe and shades stepped into the door frame, towering over her. He glowered, clutching a cup of coffee in his bony hands, and grumpily sipped it.

The girl sat on the step under the eaves, sheltered from the rain. She laughed, watching a bus barrel by. “I think it’s beautiful. Maybe you need contacts. Or eyeballs, for the matter.

He scoffed. “My vision has nothing to do with it. I loathe tame rain. Where are the wild gales? The clashing thunder? The spears of lightning? Storms should either be tempests or not exist at all. This drizzle is putting me to sleep.”

“Mmm,” the girl said dreamily, dangling her legs over the step’s side and watching a snail inch up the concrete. She plucked it from the steps and cradled the mollusc in her palm. Its radula scraped her hand, tickling her skin, and she laughed. “Someone woke up on the wrong side of the coffin.”

The skeleton growled. “Just because I’m Death doesn’t mean I sleep in coffins like a common leech.”

“Leech?”

“Leech. Vampire. The scum I wipe from my shoes after my morning walks with Cerberus in Hell.”

The girl quirked her brow. “Oh really.” Gently, she placed the snail onto the rose bush bordering the steps. “And what, pray tell, sets you apart from the bloodsuckers?”

“The fact that I actually pose a threat.” The towering skeleton set his coffee mug down on the table chest beside the doorway and pulled a Cuban cigar from his bathrobe pocket. He lit it with a silver lighter and miraculously smoked it. “Anyways, I’m a barrel of laughter compared to those pallid mosquitoes.”

The girl smoothed her skirts. “Really? Because I could have sworn your attitude kills all pleasantness.”

He took a drag from his cigar. “Kills all pleasantness, eh?” The skull grinned. “I am terminal, I suppose.”

“Only the Grim Reaper would be proud of being a pain.” She rolled her eyes, plucked a rose and crushed its petals between her fingers, bringing the rich scent to her nose. “Tell me, Samael. Can you even smell in that form?”

“What I’m lacking in senses I make up for in sheer charm.”

“That didn’t even answer my question.”

“I don’t need smell to appreciate the beauty of a rose.”

“Or touch, or sight, either, apparently,” the girl muttered. She set to lacing her combat boots tight as he puffed smoke into a ring. The smoke writhed and curled into the shape of a serpent. Samael tapped his slippered foot, as if impatient to start the day. He eyed the clock beside the door.

“Come in for breakfast, Shannon” he urged, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder. She wrinkled her lip in disgust.

“Get your corpse hands off me. I’m trying to enjoy the storm.” But her stomach rumbled tellingly. She sighed, relented, and came in, shutting the door. “God, Sam. Why do you insist on prancing around the house as a skeleton? If the neighbors saw you…”

“But they don’t,” he smiled, gleeful. “To them, I look like a perfectly normal human being.”

“In a bathrobe. Only losers appear in public in bathrobes.”

“I’d hardly call a door frame public.”

“Drivers and passerby can see you.” Shannon made her way up the stairs, Samael gazing intently at her derriere. She caught his gaze and glared. “Aren’t you coming up, death in the morning?”

“Appreciating the view. Don’t mind me.” He tilted his shades down and grinned.

Shannon proceeded to walk up the stairs backwards to spite him. “I will not be checked out by a pile of bones. Change your aspect, now, or I’m feeding you to the local dogs.”

Samael stubbed his cigar on his robes. “And you said I kill all pleasantness. Pot calling the kettle black much, dear?”

She was about to reply but, off-balance, tripped on the final step and landed squarely on the derriere Death so admired. She cursed, wincing. “The only thing black about me is going to be my behind. I think I bruised it.”

“I’ll check for you.”

“I’ll pass.” He helped her up. “Stop grinning, damn it. This isn’t funny.”

“I can’t stop grinning. I’m a skull.”

“Well then don’t be a skeleton.”

He remained decidedly calcified. A loud peal of thunder shook the foundations of the house. Shannon massaged her rear end, leering. “I give up,” she said, marching off to her room in the small two-story house she rented for college. She slammed the door closed.

Samael was hot on her heels. He may have smirked (it was hard to tell) and began to dissipate, becoming a fine black mist that wafted under the door’s crack and into her inner sanctum. Shannon found herself caught in a thicket of darkness, the cheery light of her room drowned out by his demonic presence. She sighed, staying firmly rooted in her spot instead of stumbling about.

“Cute, Samael.”

Now we’re both black, came his disembodied voice. The darkness swirled round her in a disorienting manner. It pressed against her skin, feeling as the ocean might, rubbing against her in a calming manner. She felt her eyes grow heavy-lidded as the blackness bore her up off the ground, onto the softness of her bed. The pain in her tailbone receded at its silky touch.

“Is this supposed to mimic conditions in the womb? Because I’m claustrophobic, and it’s creeping me out.”

This is a world without sight. Isn’t it soothing?

The rain picked up outside, beating a staccato rhythm on the roof.

“I guess,” she admitted, closing her eyes and breathing deeply. The blackness filled her lungs, moving through her like the tide. Samael stretched inside of her, settling into her neurons and rooting himself in her brain. She squirmed beneath the weight of it all. “But aren’t you the least bit squicked out by what we’re doing?”

Possession? he hummed.

She flinched. “I hate it when you call it that. Like it’s something demonic.”

He cackled. It is.

“Fine, yes, possession. It seems unholy. Unnatural.”

But you enjoy it.

She shifted uncomfortably. “Maybe,” she muttered.

Then why should it be a sin? I’m just trying to ease your pain.

“All I did was fall on my ass.”

The darkness, somehow, snorted. You know there are deeper pains within you than that.

Shannon shuddered. “You had to remind me.”

Suppressing them does nothing for you, girl. We can find comfort in each other. I can help you face your fears, if you’ll only allow me.

“Are you trying to put me off breakfast?”

Suffering goes well with coffee.

Shannon relented. “Fine, hit me with your best shot.” She burrowed under her covers, letting the blackness take her away. Samael riffed through her mind- she felt him like a pressure on her temple. Images flashed behind her closed eyes: the war in Heaven. The carnage of battle. A desolate Eden left to waste… Samael chose a moment and settled on it.

Shannon watched Samael fall, limbs mangled, from a battle on high. She ran, screaming, through the Fields of Asphodel, as Azazel laughed on high, victorious. Throngs of Grigori pursued her.

“Damn you bastards!” she screamed, firing shots from her blessed Colt revolver. Bursts of ether hit the Grigori pursuants. The ones hit stumbled and fell, but there were too many. They were closing in.

“Samael!” she called, desperate. He lay broken, bleeding ichor onto the plain white flowers beneath him. “We need to escape. Now.” She holstered her gun and unlatched Samael’s scythe from where it was held at her back. Swinging it in a mad arc, she summoned a portal to Pandemonium, Hell’s capital. Samael groaned, in pieces.

“My head,” he choked. “Take my head. I’ll regenerate the rest.”

Shannon took the severed head and cradled it in her arms, staining her battle tunic in black blood. She rushed through the portal, scythe in hand. Samael choked out a word in angelic to seal it. The cries of the Grigori army echoed after its closure. Shannon collapsed, in some cobblestoned street in Pandemonium’s, the capital of Hell’s, lethal streets. Cries of pleasure and pain indicated they were in the market district, where every service imaginable was sold. The night hung heavy with jasmine and spice as Shannon leaned against a wall in the slim alley, breath ragged. She held the severed head to her chest, traumatized. Grisly bits of ribboned flesh hung from his neck and snapped spine.

“Blood. I need to feed,” Samael rasped.

Shannon obliged, jaded to the process. She was Samael’s lifeline in this state. The blood of Eve flowed through her, mother of mankind and keeper of the Fruit of Life. The Fruit was a metaphor for her blood, she the stout trunk of the Tree of Life, for what better place to hide immortality but in a woman? Eve was the Tree given life, and Shannon, as her reincarnation, possessed her powers.

She held Samael to her neck- he sunk his viper fangs into the soft skin beneath her jaw line, sucking at the providence of the blood. Shannon cried out at the pain as the liquid beneath her skin welled up, flowing between his lips. Samael sighed, pain abated. In a flash he was whole again, sated by her rejuvenating blood.

“Blood is the life,” he murmured, sagging against her.

“Stop quoting Dracula, idiot,” she breathed, exhausted. They clung to each other, Shannon shuddering. “I hate this. This half-existence we’re eking out. Neither one of us whole. I had to carry your head, Samael. It’s disgusting.”

“War requires sacrifice. And we are two parts of a whole. Live with it.”

The vision ended.

“Why are you showing me this?” Shannon demanded. She beat against the blackness, forcing it out of her. She coughed as it left her lungs. The darkness swirled like a storm cloud, condensing into a severe black robe. Samael appeared, fully human, save for a pair of majestic raven wings, his pale skin shining in the morning light that poured through the window. He fixed the collar of his robe and looked at her intently.

“Because you’ve been repulsed by me ever since that happened.”

She looked away from him. “I knew, in theory, what I had to do. I just never… never thought it would be so gory. So horrible.”

Samael softened. “It doesn’t have to be. We are two parts of a whole, the snake and the maiden, the serpent and its tree. I bite your heel and you bruise my head, but the curse that’s between us is sweeter still.”

“You know I hate it when you quote cryptic Biblical verses.”

Samael glanced out the window. “Sometimes old, tired words are the best ones. But truly, Shannon. You are weary. So weary. I could feel it in your soul. Yet you hide it so well. Sometimes I forget how fragile you are…” He glided over to her, sitting at the edge of the bed.

Shannon frowned. “I’m anything but fragile, Sam.”

He stroked the bit of her leg that poked out from under the quilt. “All humans are fragile. Even you. If I could, I would swaddle you like a newborn and protect you from the world. But I can’t…” His eyes lingered on the faint scars on her neck that would be gone in a week’s time. He hung his head in shame. “I wish there was another way.”

“Don’t, Sam. I’m glad I can help you, that I can serve some purpose in this godforsaken war. It’s just trying at times. It feels so unnatural, like everything we do. Like I’m being preyed upon.”

Samael’s face looked pained. He sighed, lying down beside Shannon. She shifted to allow him space, curling up beside him. “It doesn’t have to be that way,” he breathed, threading his arms around her waist. “I can be gentle, girl. God knows I want to be.” He was intoxicated by her scent, like vanilla mingled with roses. Samael inhaled sharply, inches from her neck.

“You do?” she whispered.

“Yes,” Samael murmured, parting his lips. Lust bubbled up in his core and he ran his hands over her midriff, pulling her closer. Fangs instinctively slid down from his gums, the temptation too much. Shannon watched, intrigued.

“Won’t you spoil your breakfast, Vlad?” she teased, bringing her mouth to his and sucking on his lower lip. Samael moaned.

Death bristled. “I am not a vampire, worm.”

“All evidence points to the contrary.” Shannon laughed, running her fingers through his thick coal hair. She sighed, pressing against him. “I’ll admit, it would feel good, if I were relaxed. The god damn drugs your venom injects into me gives me a high better than, well, anything. It’s euphoric. I’ve never felt so blissful in my life. But it’s always at the wrong time, when we’re in dire straits. I’ve never gotten to enjoy it…” Thunder roiled outside and a true downpour began, darkening the room. Shannon grinned, weariness forgotten, a devilish glint in her eye. “Is it gloomy enough for you now, Sam?”

He glanced out the window. “Decidedly so.”

“Good.” She smiled, and with sudden force pushed him onto his back. His wings spread out beneath them.

“Ho, worm. What’s gotten into you?”

Lightning flashed, illuminating Shannon’s sleek body. She rose to her knees, straddling Samael. Her breasts hung like globes from her small frame, hidden by the demure collar of her dress.

“The storm,” she replied, bending down to kiss his brow.

Samael ran his hands over the ripe curve of her hips, smiling crookedly. He stroked her back with his wingtips, gently pushing her down with his feathers. Shannon trailed kisses down his sharp nose to his lips, sucking at his fangs so the sweet venom escaped and entered her mouth. She swallowed, letting out a soft moan at the taste.

“God, Sam. I’m literally addicted to you. Our relationship isn’t healthy.”

“It was never healthy to begin with.”

“True,” she whispered, licking the venom that wept from his hollow fang. “Mmm. You taste like summer and oases. Can I market this shit?”

“What? Demon spit?”

Shannon laughed. “I’d label it something more appealing. Devil’s Kiss. We could sell it on the black market and make a fortune.”

“You know it’s lethal to anyone but you, don’t you?”

Shannon paused. “What?”

“That’s right. It’s poison. I use it to separate souls from the body. My name means ‘gall of God’ for a reason.”

“Like what the Internet said about the angel of death dripping gall into dead men’s mouths…” Shannon said, her mouth opened in an O of realization. “I’VE BEEN DRINKING DEATH SHIT!?!”

Samael grinned like a shark. “You’ve swallowed worse.”

“Bastard!” She slapped him. Her hand ached from impact upon his adamantine flesh. Samael roared with laughter, shaking between her legs. His quaking lurched her forward, onto his chest, and he wrapped his arms around her with vise-like strength, crushing her to him so she couldn’t escape. “Let me go, you sick shit!” Shannon screamed.

“If I’m sick, you’ve been infected as well. You are what you eat, worm.”

“Shrivel up and die, you walking corpse.”

Samael did.

Shannon shrieked, in the clutches of a mummy. “I DIDN’T MEAN THAT LITERALLY!”

The corpse laughed, voice dry and unused. Shannon tore herself free of it’s embrace. “FUCK YOU, AND FUCK YOUR GROSS NECROPHILIA.” She attempted to bolt from the room. The corpse rasped a word in angelic, locking the door. Trapped, she turned, back against the wall, balling her hands into fists.

Samael laughed like the Crypt Keeper, rising from the bed like a zombie and trudging towards her on dead knees. He held out his arms, performing an over-dramatic, stumbling corpse walk. An ax materialized in his hands. “HEEERRREEEE’S JOHNNY!” he declared, referencing The Shining. Shannon, not a fan of Stephen King, and especially not a fan of ax-wielding corpses, dived toward her desk and grabbed the most likely weapon from it- a perfume bottle. She doused Samael with it.

He dropped the ax, rubbing at his eyes and hissing. “That burns! You know, as a corpse, I have no tear ducts, so it’s ten times worse. How inconsiderate of you.”

Shannon looked upon him grimly, arms crossed. “You’re calling me inconsiderate? You turned into a cadaver when we were making out, you freak!”

Samael sniffed, an awkward sound for a corpse to make, as they didn’t normally breathe. “I was just doing exactly what you told me to. I consider that very considerate.”

Shannon opened the perfume bottle, hurling its contents at him. She screamed. Samael, drenched, shook himself off, glowering.

“You have no sense of humor,” he muttered, shifting back into his fully fleshed, definitively alive form. He smelled overpoweringly of vanilla.

“And you have no sense of decency!” She kicked the ax out of her way, furious. “God, sometimes I just want to bury you out in the backyard where you belong,” she said coldly. “Six feet under where you can’t hurt a soul.”

Samael’s eyes widened. “You don’t mean that, Shannon.”

“Yes, I do!”

Pain flashed in his face. “I was only trying to make you laugh…” He licked his fangs self-consciously, wishing they would retract. He hated to admit it to himself, but seeing Shannon in such a state of passion elicited certain… reactions in him. That was partially the reason he terrorized her. He became aware of his groin straining against his robes and blushed.

Shannon glared at him. “Great. Boniface has a boner. The world’s sense of humor is cruel indeed. God damn you, you get turned on by this! You’re a creature of filth, Samael. Absolutely revolting.”

He winced. Samael shifted, trying to hide his erection. “Dirty talk so early in the morning, Shannon?” he muttered, eyes downcast in shame.

She snorted. “You wish.”

He dared not meet her eyes. Samael cursed himself. His blood flow was still heading southward as he watched the rise and fall of Shannon’s breasts. He couldn’t tear his gaze away…

“Stop staring at my chest.”

“Your face is too intimidating at the moment. I’d rather not bask in its vitriol,” he said, glum.

She sighed. “My god, Samael. You know I didn’t mean what I said. You’re not revolting, at least, not like this. Human.”

He shrugged, slipping his hands into his pockets. “You don’t accept me in all my aspects, though. I’m Death, Shannon, lord of decay. I have sides of me that are gruesome. And you shy away from them constantly-”

“Whoa! You expect me to hook up with a cadaver?”

“NO. But you don’t need to act so repulsed. You couldn’t leave my arms faster.”

“You were a CORPSE!”

“But they were still my arms. Just like it was still my head you cradled in the streets of Pandemonium. I may come to you broken, in pieces, but it will still always be me.” He shifted into his skeletal form, looking forlornly at her with hollows for eyes. “You recoil at my touch. How do you think that makes me feel?”

“Fuck, Sam. Yes, I’m highly uncomfortable around anything that looks like remains. I’m living. It’s natural. As for how you feel, don’t you realize that?”

“I do,” he said quietly. “But it doesn’t pain me any less.”

“I love you, idiot! Even when you’re a sack of bones!”

He glided over to her, dark tendrils of his robe reaching out to taste her skin. “You do?” he murmured. Samael loomed over her.

She took his bony hands in his. “Yes, Samael,” she said, lacing her fingers through his. “But that doesn’t mean I’m going to hook up with the Grim Reaper.”

He laughed, shifting back into his human form. “Fair enough.” Blush still tinged his pale cheeks. “I’m sorry I upset you.”

Shannon pulled him close. “Don’t be. But really. Here’s Johnny?”

Samael smirked. He enveloped her in a hug, erection pressing against her stomach. She looked down. “We should do something about that,” she said, grinning wickedly.

Samael’s core tightened at the suggestion. He let Shannon take control as she led him to the bed. She sashayed, smiling wildly, and tangoed with him to the mattress. Her eyes burned like cigarettes.

“Mmm…” Samael said in approval, following her down onto the bed. They met in a tangle of limbs, lips heated as their mouths joined. He groaned, grinding into her against the flimsy fabric of her dress. Shannon sighed in pleasure as he left smoldering kisses along her collarbone, trailing up to the softness of her neck.

“Now,” Shannon breathed.

Samael slipped his fangs into her flesh painlessly. Drunk off endorphins, Shannon cried out, closing her eyes as waves of bliss carried her away. She clutched him to her, breathing in the airy scent of his downy wings. Gently, Samael eased her out of her panties and slid inside her, pumping slowly as he drank her in. He moaned, letting the crimson drench his tongue. They made love softly, to the sound of the rain.

It was like casting stars. Sending your fishing line out to snag on the brightest one. Thunder boomed like the cries of the gods. The minutes spilled out like jewels between them, one after another until they seemed ceaseless. Finally, the line snagged, and the diamonds blossomed forth. Their moans mingled together like ribbons.

Spent, Samael collapsed in her arms, seeking her breasts as a pillow. Shannon sighed, cuddling against him.

“Breakfast?” she asked.

They laughed.

Monster Girls

She’s got moonglow tits that bob in night waters, perfect round globes like curled-up white rabbits with black peaks of areola and gray nipples because she’s all poison and ebony eyes and milky skin. She’s curled up in my closet in a nest fit for the Zu bird and sweet seraph curses and she crows and speaks the language of birds that are girls, or girls that are monsters, with scaled legs and owl wings from ancient Sumerian carvings, but she’s not perched on two lions, her thin wan legs are jumping on your bed and you’re throwing pillows at each other and painting her lips and talons with a pop of cherry poison. It’s all fun and games until arsenic kisses and slashed throats of words fly, it’s all spin the bottle with succubi until neon lights at your favorite strip mall get busted to splinters by her rage. She’s wailing, she’s railing, and it’s so fun to terrorize the neighborhood with your monster girl. She smells like mothball and tastes like whiskey but it’s all swell, all is well, because you’re gay, just a little bit, for a lot of your pretty murderesses, like that goddess of death whose bone feet you kissed as you rubbed one out on grave dirt. You’re just a shadow drowning in moonlight, really, just a paper cutout in the shape of curves and gold and blue and you seek a black hole to consume you. Void Mother you toast to past the witching hour with a new best friend, she’s in Gaia training sitting on a hill in armor with a sword and donkey, learning from Valkyries the recipe for hurricanes, and she’s a piece of the Mother, just like you are, just like every girl you know is, and men fear us all. Your monster girl is feral, like pine barrens in a blizzard, or the nothingness at the lip of a night full of pain, and she has fangs sharp as a wolf and toes that end in bruises from kicking too many cans barefoot. She’s dressed in bandages, she’s dressed in a gown, and her hair is ratty black tangles. Oh how you love dressing her and prettying her up and confiding in her your soul, for you were raised to be a doll, but not her – no, she is a hyena, and their women are the kings. When you scissor, it’s to old jazz that switches between Frank Sinatra, and as your hands tangle the curls at her parting later on as you drink white wine, you and her watch the rain and know the sky is crying for its lost moon.

Devil’s Advocate

The mundane business of dying.

Shadows.  Speech.  A dream.

“What the Sam Hill is going on in this court room?”

The businessman summons something.  The swirling darkness becomes a court room.  The ghost of his assistant warns him:

“The prosecutor, sir- he’s not of this world.”

“But I thought he was the judge!”

“He’s that too, sir, apparently.  The celestial court room is rigged, and the prosecuting angel has found you wanting.”

“I always knew the Devil was a lawyer.”

“Shh- he’s reached his ruling!”

A third eye burns on his head.  The Left Hand utters his judgement:

“Your soul is piss-ugly and dark as Lucifer’s shit.  I can, however, be swayed by vodka.”

“And?”

“And what?  Cough up the Play Bunnies and alcohol and I let you off.  There will, however, be a cost.  Just a paltry thing.  Your  get-out-of-Hell-free fee.”

“A cost- I see.  You want my soul, I presume?”

“Are you out of your rotting mind?  Your soul is hideous.  No.  Your daughter.”

“My daughter?  That, sir, is too far!”

“You summoned me to court.  Only I can prevent Michael’s shining sword from being rammed up your sinning ass.  Trust me, it’s not pleasurable at all.”

“My- my only child?  I could never…”

The Judging Angels smirks.

“Eternal torment, human.  Do you know how long eternity is?”

So the father sold his child to the man of many names.

*

Seven winters pass.  She has the face of a starving angel.  Her mother dies in labor.  The father does not remember.

Each night, she has a visitor.

“Daddy, I saw him again.  The Shadow Man.  He was standing at my door, watching me- daddy, I can’t sleep.”

His daughter stands before him, clutching her stuffed doll against her trembling chest.  He tucks his little angel into bed, urging her to sleep.

“It’s just your imagination, sweetheart.  Monsters belong in movies.  Now shh,” he whispers, stroking her flaxen hair.  “Daddy- daddy’s here for you.”  He flips on the TV, unable to shake inexplicable fear.  She drifts off to sleep.

He curses under his breath.  Above, her room is pristine, with a silky pink bower over her bed.  He often marvels at how she plays.  She sequesters herself in her room, methodical in the perfectly arranged tea sets.  She sits there all day, rearranging the china cups and perfect, porcelain dolls.  She holds them like relics, smoothing the pleats in their dresses, calming a stray hair.

Then, she will sit and stare.  Humming softly to herself, the strain of a violin.  Her father can never complain.  She is the perfect child.  Quiet and obedient.  An angel in the making.

“Daddy, don’t leave.  He’s coming.”

She will wake with bruises on her thighs.  Acid kisses fester.  Hidden under muslin, not allowed to show her dad.

“No, darling,” he whispers, stepping past the threshold.  “There’s nothing here.”  Gently, he shuts the door.  He closes it fast so the shadows cannot catch him.  A wind creeps under the door slit.  Something ices his bones.  He stumbles down the staircase and fall into stupor-ed sleep.

A vicious silhouette slinks from behind tf his daughter’s door.  It stands by her bedside.  A freezing draft teased the lacy curtains.

“Nothing here?” A chthonic voice echoes.  “Oh, but of course there is.”

The shadow brushes her hair back.  Kisses the child’s brow.  It sings a lullaby, somber, like the wind.

She stirs, rosebud lips opening in question.  Her cherub nose tilts upward, as if breathing in the moon.  He hushes her silent struggle, kisses her asleep.

“In time.  In time.  In time.”

*

Rains come. They flood her soul.  The world turns, as it would.

Her father lay sdead in the ground, pale and rigid as crypt.  She sits in the shadow of his masoleum, crimson umbrella fending off the rain.  It pours from the stone eaves like tears from angels’ eyes.

The funeral procession marched away, a ghost train on the wind.  She has imagined it in her head- it is only a flock of crows.  Three for a wedding, ten for Old Scratch  No one had come to mourn him.  Only her, in black lace and a nude taffeta gown.  

She curses the corpse below her.

Her mourning veil drifts in the stormy wind.  The roses she carries wilted, white as the touch of death.  She sips pomegranate tea, paralyzed to her fate.  The drink mists like a ghost.  She waits at the mausoleum’s steps.

“I know you’re there,” she whispers.

A crow caws in the dripping pine.

She draws a doll from her purse, hands clad in calfskin gloves.  The shadow takes it from her, brushing against her skin.  His touch is like winter’s bone.  

“Such a fragile thing.  How charming.”  The thick shadows recede.  They revealing the pale cold one.  Sam Hill grins back at her.  He holds the porcelain girl, placed it atop her father’s coffin.  “We will bury her, but not yet. It is good to look at your rot.”  He traces the doll’s cracks.  “These are the dead parts of you.  You can be her no more.  Go ahead-” he says gently, hands on her shoulder.   He guides her to the base of the stone. She stares down at the faded doll.  “Make peace, dove.”

“With what?”

What ties you to this world.  Your innocence.  It was a thin thread cut by death.”

“You know I won’t go with you.  I’m taking my life if you do,” she says calmly.  She withdraws a silver blade.  

Antique Venetian?  Impressive.  Either way, dear angel, you know that I will have you.” His voice rasps like an addict’s.  His darkness drown her, suffocating like a black cloud.  She recoils, tripping blindly down the steps to falling in an icy puddle.  He lifts her off the ground.

“Either way, I have you.  I hoped it was alive.  But dead- dead can work.”

“So I have no choice?” she demands.  “Absolutley none at all.”

Some claims run deeper than blood.  Nothing keeps the moth from her flame.”

“It was made before I was born.”

There is no birth or death.  Just change.”

“Then what are you?”

“An end.  A dance.  A beginning.”

“Sam Hill, rot in Hell.”

“Gladly.  If it’s with you.”

Her cheeks burn with anger.  She smashes the doll on the stone.

Thirteen crows caw above.  She whispers a broken rhyme.  She knows what it means.  A curse.

They bury the shattered porcelain,.  It is a spiriting away of sorts.  Mists rise in their trail.  Lilies bloom in their wake.  His raiment is death, her bridal train crows.  He holds her in the crook of his arm.  

“You won’t miss much.  I promise.  This place is cruel and broken.

“I never loved this world.”

 

The Night is Full of Haints

There’s a blackness that coats Snake’s Hollow, like night left her shawl over the entire town.  It is thick, it is alive, and to breathe it in is to choke down smoke and the ripe red cayenne peppers left in rum at the peristyle.

Call the blackness an omen, call it sin.  Out of all the humans in my small Louisiana home, only I can see it.

The night is full of haints, the church bells toll on their own, and sometimes, you gotta feed the crossroads.  That’s what the blackness brings – loup garou, zombies, the Petro Nation – and they stay away because of Raff and Papa Leggie, always on the town’s edge, but someday, they’ll come marching right on in.  That I know for sure, that it’s only a matter of time before your shadows catch up with you

Tonight I’m gonna meet them.

The blackness snakes across the woods like Spanish moss then enter people’s dreams every night, and my God-fearing granmamma makes a sound in her sleep that could curdle milk.  When I was younger, barely in elementary school, Raff would cover me with his old white wings and sing me to sleep in the tongue of angels, and the next day in church Papa Leggie would have ten more lines on his bark whorl face.  Leggie and God, they’re poker buddies, so Raff tells me.

I wonder if they gamble over which town’s turn it is to vanish into the blackness next.

Winter down here is chill and muggy, and maybe I’m riled up on Maya Angelou’s poetry that sweet momma loves to read to me before our dinner prayers, but I’m brave, and Raff is asleep on the roof, and not a soul is awake in this silly town.  They’re all tired out from church where they tried to get slices of salvation just like apple pie, and they’re clearly ain’t enough to go around like at church picnics, or the damn shadows wouldn’t be here watching me.

At the end of Still I Rise tonight, momma said “Be brave May Octavie Laveau, be strong, ‘cause this world will beat stubborn women down, and you ain’t worth anything if you ain’t stubborn as a mule.”  I wish I was like Storm in X-Men and could clear this place of the darkness, but it’s more than weather.

The blackness is in the bones of this town, fabled for Calf Springs that will heal and Snakes Springs that will curse.  There are so many heroes in my comics and movies – Leia, Nubia, Black Panther, Vixen – and I got a cape and light-up plastic light saber from a few years ago from when I still used to play make believe.  I put them on as a shield of sorts, full of sweet childhood memories, then crawl out the window, onto the gutter, and down the widow’s walk –

Wings in my face, strong hands at my waist.  I’m hauled from the widow’s walk back into my room like a lil girl picking flowers.

Raff just popped up like a daisy from a grave.  Jack’s rabbit if he ain’t fast as a hare.  I could have sworn I lulled him to sleep with momma’s chocolate chip cookies.  No one can see Raff ‘cept me, and he’s been with me since birth.  Love him but he’s a pain in my tush sometimes.

His scarred face is all stern, and he sits me down on my bed and dang it am I in for a talking.

“May!  What did I tell you about going out at night?  It’s too dangerous for you to even fathom!  I didn’t raise you to lose you, girl.”  His voice gets all gentle in the end, and he scratches his shaved curls.

I squint at Raff in the darkness of my room.  He’s got skin brown as me, and I used to not believe that he was an angel when I was younger.  I would say angels were only blonde women that played harps flying round the manger of baby Jesus, but Raff has a flaming sword and ain’t very good with babies.  He thinks they’re cute and all, but he’s been a bachelor since Literal Day 1.

“You didn’t raise me to be a scaredy cat either, Raff.  I’ve seen the Baron come down at fetes and watched my uncle get ridden by Ogou and swallow fire.  There’s a magic to my town, a curse of some kind that only I can see, and I’m going to save it.  I won’t let Snake’s Hollow be another of Leggie’s bets.”

“Legba isn’t trying to gamble Snake’s Hollow away, May,” Raff sighs, sitting down next to me.  “He’s trying to protect it.  We all are.”

The blackness exhales outside my window – it always comes at the stroke of 3:00 AM, the witching hour, then leaves by dawn, and the sun is coming up.  The howls of the loup garou on the bayou kept me awake all night.  When it breathes, it sounds like the whistle of a ghost train, and when it leaves, it’s like a tea kettle burning.

Raff makes the sign of the cross, only his fingers draw holy fire on the air, and the cross floats to me where it kisses my heart.  Blessings from angels never hurt, but I ain’t in needof  his protection.  I need his answers.

“You’re funny, Raff, you ain’t a proper man, and you ain’t a good angel.  Angels don’t lie, after all.”

Raff narrows his sunny yellow eyes, the irises an unearthly amber.  “What am I lying about?”

“Bets.  The lwa make bets all the time.  Leggie’s a trickster, after all.”

“Legba loves you, May.  He’s keeping the blackness away.  We all are.  Now go to bed.  You got school tomorrow.”  He hugs me then takes off my cape and tries to tuck me in.

“I don’t need you pulling the blankets up Raff, I’m eleven, not seven.”

Raff smiles like river pearls are in his mouth, then laughs.  “’Night, May-flower.”  He climbs up onto the roof and soon I can hear him snoring like a foghorn.

I watch the blackness until dawn drives it out.

The night is alive in Snake’s Hollow.

In the dark, the Dead have names.

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.”