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.”

Advertisements

A Writerly Update

So my best friend Sam just got an offer of representation from the fabulous literary agent Patricia Nelson. Sam writes lush historical fantasy and her twisted retelling of Cinderella set during the French Revolution with illusion magic and victim’s balls is literally to be guillotined for.  I am so proud of Sam and cannot wait to see her books on library shelves where they belong!  My favorite is still in the works, so I’ll keep hush about it, but needless to say, she is awesome!

I’m still waiting on about seven literary agents, from #DVPit request to two fulls and two partials.  From Brandon Sanderson’s agent to Meg Cabot’s agent to two new rock star agents, they are all really awesome and if even one was to offer it would make my life.  I mean, I’ve wanted to be an author since I was eleven and I penned my first space opera and locked my baby brother in the room and read him the entire plot of Jupiter Ascending mixed with the Book of Enoch that was my drivel of a novel.  Then I kept on writing, and writing, and writing, short stories and long stories and essays and poetry… and I’m still writing.  I’ll admit I’m stalling a bit on my fiction: my short story Ghazal hasn’t progressed past 2,000 words and Chwal and Space Oddity are still at 20,000.  It’s hard to focus on new projects when you have your manuscript out with four awesome agents and queries out with others.  You’re kind of in no man’s land, and you might pour all your creative energy into distractions, which for me means I go apeshit with poetry.

I’m probably a far better poet than I am a writer, and that’s okay, I’ve only ever finished two novels out of the ten or so I tried to complete from elementary school on.  The first got a lot of interest from Sourcebooks and Harlequin but unfortunately no one wants to publish New Adult romance, as that genre is unmarketable and as dead as a fish out of water.  Also, the writing probably wasn’t the best, as it was my first finished novel and not the most meticulously plotted, oversaturated with characters, and a bit juvenile.  But that’s okay.  I loved writing it, and my second novel is better.

Will Ivan Kupalo get published?  I have no idea.  I’ve had agents tell me the writing is lush and perfect but that the plot sucked, that the concept was perfect but the writing was unpolished and lacking, that the story was poorly executed or that the story was crafted perfectly but they just didn’t fall in love with it.  I honestly can’t revise when like twenty agents are giving me completely conflicting feedback, and there’s no point in revising when you have fulls and like five partials out.  One of my dream agents did give me a revise and resubmit, and if all seven agents fail I would be more than happy to edit again and revise – I am getting that itch, as I am constantly playing with projects, and Ivan Kupalo is in dire need of revamping with my newly acquired skills.  I’ve grown a lot as a writer since December, but I’m hoping to be doing editing from the other side of the fence this time – with an agent to guide me!

So where do I stand now?   Who knows.  Maybe this was a practice novel.  But I love the story I told, and the journey was worth it.  Things are moving along in my life.  I got a graduate teaching assistantship, full scholarship, and huge stipend from my master’s program, and I’m seriously considering becoming a professor of communication and doing the PhD track.  I have a wonderful man in my life that I love.  I’m independent now and supporting myself.  My kindred is doing great and my magickal abilities are intensifying.  The gods and angels are on my side.  My mental health is the most stable it’s been since I went to the ward at 19, and 5 summers later, after my bipolar type 1 with psychotic features, OCD, and panic disorder/anxiety diagnosis, I graduated with honors from the top school in Virginia, have been published in everything from POWER Magazine to Renewable Energy World, learned a lot of life lessons, taught myself to read again after my mind was decimated by illness, overcame bouts of depression and mania, and have become a very strong person.

I found a religious path that I have been meandering towards since I became pagan at 7 after reading D’aulaires, and my kindred has brought such joy and completion into my life.  I found my tribe.  I am training magickally and have cut out toxic people in my life and toxic spirits.  I’m learning to ground, to shield, to shamanic journey in controlled settings instead of dangerously astral projecting to the otherworlds and almost ending up demon chow or being dumb enough to invoke an archangel into my body by force and then have a seizure (I was a dumb 16 year old, okay).  I’m rambling, but really, my writing can wait.

I’m still a really shitty writer.  Most authors don’t get published until they’re 30 or 40.  I don’t think I’ll ever find my voice, as I literally have a hundred different writing personalities… but whatever.  It’s funner that way!  Point is, I’m still growing, and my writing still needs a crapload of editing before it hits shelves.  I’m not even halfway through my twenties and every year, my writing grows by leaps and bounds.

Someday I will be a decent writer, a decent poet, a decent blogger.  Maybe I’ll even get a novel published.  But I’m not counting on it, instead, I will just continue to write and enjoy living dozens of lives from New Orleans to outer space to mythical Russia to other worlds like Asgard and Heaven.  Writing for me is above all a spiritual endeavor: all my writing is pagan by nature, and all of it is a take on mental illness and struggles with inner demons.  I color my own writing, I can’t be divorced from the reality that I am a seriously mentally ill disabled writer that literally believes the gods talk to her and actually sees them in physical reality, does magick, channels deities like Loki and the Grim Reaper, manifests reality through intention, and considers some of the most eldritch spirits in existence friends or beasts to be tamed.  When you’ve been raised by the archangels and archdemons since the ripe old age of 2, you end up kind of… weird.

The divine is extremely immanent for me – I can feel and perceive spirits with all five of my senses, so of course I offer up my writing to the divine like Joan of Arc on a paper pyre.  Honestly, most of my writing is channeled, as as my gythia says, “You’re channeling all the fucking time,” and I do so without realizing it, but hey, it makes for a good story.  Words pour into my head through my crown chakra, poems bubble up from my heart, and the ancient ones rise up and paint my life in Joseph  Campbell colors.

Writing is a journey.  It never ends.  All I can do is enjoy the scenery.

Words Like Chains

“Write your heart,” you said, “and not in the poetic sense – no, I want the gristle smeared on the pages, I want your hands to bleed, see – I just bit your pinky, and I will kiss your fingers gory until you can summon angel and demon and god.  You’re a wordsmith – a skald – a weaver of stories, and I will break you to make you sing.”

So you pushed, and you dissected, and you beat the words out of me until I vomited prose.  It came in tangles of guts, my entrails coming up from twelve to twenty-four, chasing after divination in the smoke of my offered meat.  You built up the pyre and my screamed poems were offerings as your flames licked me bone and the gods were pleased

The spirits came, the spirits came, the spirits danced and I rode Thunderbird’s back and I fought by Michael’s side and all along you were my shadow, my rood, my doom.

My magic is screaming the runes, my galdr is a harp that details the rise and fall and comeback of pantheons that crumble to dust then rise from ashes.

The dead speak to me.  The gods whisper sweet rhymes in my ear.  I am Isis in Osiris’ tomb, Eve in the Garden of Evil, Aslaug whose song is the World Tree.

I have lived so many lives, and I am ageless but so close to the end.

The words wanted blood.  The words wanted sacrifice.  Sleepless nights, endless research of kennings and Kabbalah, I hung myself from the Sephiroth and ended up a Qliphoth whore.

I cheat.  I channel spirits and get high then write down their stories.  I used you and your brother and the whole host of the cosmos to get fancy words and things that stuck.  There’s fly tape in my book binding and you’re a midge buzzing in my ear hung from the ceiling of my book.

You thought I would be your disciple, that Satan could win the Woman Clothed in the Sun, you made me out to be the Whore of Babylon to your Beast and it took me two dozen years, but I found the eraser, and now you’re drowning in my ink spill.

I used to think my words weren’t mine.  I had a complex that I was just a vessel, just a receptacle and trance whore, and maybe I kind of am, but I also bled, I bled, I bled out countless hours and your words are no longer chains.  Nachash means fettered, and I bind you, I cast you out, I curse you.

You are no longer the storyteller.

Your book ends, my poem begins.

Churning Literary Butter

So my manuscript is with 11 amazing agents right now – 3 fulls and 7 partials ranging from 10-50 pages. I just got a lovely rejection from a great agent saying there was nothing wrong with my manuscript, just that he didn’t click and had to be very selective in taking on clients, which made me feel great, as instead of getting feedback to improve on as I was in 2016, that means my manuscript is at the point where I just need the right agent to come along and fall in love with it, like the Taylor Swift song, where some literary magic happens. One agent from #DVPit has already said they were immediately sucked in to the first twenty pages and had a mighty need to read the rest and extended me a full request this weekend, almost overnight, and she is oodles of awesome. I’m pretty excited about that one. 🙂

My top picks are Brandon Sanderson’s agent, Meg Cabot’s agent, a new agent at Aevitas that seems like my spirit animal, and a former St. Martin’s Press Editor that is amazing and fun. All the rest are amazing too – I only query agents I think would be good fits for me.

So I still have eleven shots at making this manuscript work, which is more than the two I had in February. Doing revisions for the first two agents opened the door to so much possibility. And I’m ready to play with Ivan Kupalo again, to make it even better. I think chances are pretty good that I have a shot at a literary agent – the rejections I’ve gotten (3 out of 15 so far) have all been complimentary and one Big Name Agent with lots of six figure deals even asked for me to resubmit if I ever revised the beginning. It was good to put away Ivan Kupalo and work on Chwal, and I’m hoping to finish Chwal for Pitch Wars in August. But I might go with Space Oddity because that is such a fun manuscript.

I am so grateful to all these amazing literary agents that have cheered me on and believed in me, even if they ultimately did not take me on. When I cried at my first full rejection from Neil Gaiman’s agent at the tender age of 21, at 24 I take rejections with gusto and save them in an email folder so I can carry around a bag of them like Meg Cabot does (she actually hides it under the bed), maybe frame them on my wall (especially the one from Marion Zimmer Bradley’s agent on the full he got back to me in six days, haha).

Something magic is afoot. My second short story may soon be getting published by Pantheon Magazine as it moved past the fiction team and is under consideration by the editors. Simon and Schuster just requested my romance novel. I finally feel like I’ve got novel-writing a little bit figured out, and I’m barely 24. If you had told the 21 year old who had never completed a novel in her life that in three years time she would have gotten full or partial requests from the top ten fantasy agents in the business she wouldn’t have believed you. My dreams are so close to fruition, and at Beltane’s balefire I pulled an envelope with my future Tarot card – 8 of Cups, the wish card – your dreams are close at hand.

My dreams are so close. Like stars I can pluck from the sky. And it all happened because I worked through writing horrible stories since the age of 11 onwards to ones I’m proud of now. I wrote horrible query letters for two years before I learned how to actually write something that didn’t give agents a gag reflex. I blame youth and stupidity. 😛

So basically I’m just really excited. I’m going to let Ivan Kupalo rest and I’m kind of actually hoping for a conditional R&R or editorial agent as I would love to rework some bits and bobs after having not touched it since January. In the interim I have two novels to work on, flash fiction, short stories, and reams of poetry.

Even if I never get an agent, I’ll still be happy, because writing is like breathing to me.

And that’s enough to churn butter.

Lucky Number 13

#DVPit is about halfway over, and I’ve had some AH-MAZING agents make partial requests, putting the agents with my manuscript up to… lucky number 13!

I really wanted to explore my Russian heritage when I wrote this book.  I didn’t know I was part Russian until I did genealogy research after college – I’d always felt this inexplicable draw to the culture, and people had always told me I had a Slavic nose, and I kept dreaming about Baba Yaga sending me on delivery routes aback Grey Wolf or making me milk a golden cow with silver udders – but it didn’t really cement until I learned I’m a direct descendant of Vladimir the Great (Saint Vladimir) and Vladimir Monomakh, also this awesome cave prophetess named Malusha.

One of my dying dreams is to go to Russia and visit Gogol and Pushkin’s homes.  This novel wouldn’t have been created without Cat Valente’s unbelievably amazing Deathless, which really inspired me at 21 to finally write that Russian novel that had been in my head since age 19.  Dreams of Morena, Veles, and Perun would follow, and so would obsessively watching Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky ballets and listening to Mussorgsky on repeat.

I’m obsessed with Russian folklore.  Libby and I both took an entire class dedicated to it, and I lifted the name Morozko from our favorite Soviet film.  What intrigued me the most were the nechist, or land and house spirits – the domovoi and rusalka, the vila and bannik (why did I try to make a bannik hot!)  But above all, it was for the love of leshys that I retold an entire ballet.  Also for Baba Yaga, because my babushka is amazing, and crazy af.

Hopefully I’ll have an agent soon – I will probably spontaneously combust if I get an offer, but I’ll keep you all updated accordingly!

Waiting and Excitement

So I just got another partial request for my manuscript – meaning Ivan Kupalo is with five agents total, with about a dozen queries waiting on a response.  That’s three fulls and two partials out, and #DVPit is coming up on Wednesday.  This will be my first time pitching the revised manuscript as Adult, not YA, so we’ll see how that goes!

I’m really excited about all the fulls I have out and am obsessively checking my email only to find spam – I can’t help it!  I hope at least one literary agent falls in love with Ivan Kupalo as much as I loved writing it, but it’s okay if they don’t, I have three other projects I want to write Space Oddity first (1/4 of the way done), then Birds Away and Spider King.

Also Simon and Schuster just requested my romance novel, so we’ll see how that goes.  It’s also with St. Martin’s Press.

Things are looking exciting, and my friend said this really good quote with writing:

If things are getting hard, it means you’re close to success.

Writerly Update

So one of my dream agents emailed me yesterday to say he is reading my manuscript now.  Trigger excitement!

This agent was the first to see to the heart of my manuscript, tell me what worked, what didn’t, what needed work, and advised me to revise it into an adult fantasy, beef up the word count, and add more exposition and characterization.  He even let me pester him with questions about my novel for revision purposes when most agents will give you form rejects on fulls.   To say I am eternally grateful is an understatement.

He was gracious enough to take another look at the revision I did half a year later and has some amazing projects he has worked on from New Adult Sci Fi about virtual reality combat to a really awesome LGBTQA+ story about two competing male love interests for a girl that end up falling in love – with each other!

Crossing my fingers and working on my next novel to distract myself.  If anything, I’ll get great feedback, so it’s a win-win situation. 🙂