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.”
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.”
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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”