Hungry, hungry, hungry.
Struggle as I might, I could not escape Pascha’s grasp. I even tried to change the shape of my clay, to slip amorphously from his fingers, but whatever changes I made he stymied with changes of his own. His fingers were hot as coals. I did not remember his flesh being so hot.
“Let me go, Pascha,” I said, for the hundredth time, and for the hundredth time, he only laughed at me. His horse’s legs churned over the earth below, trampling moss and ferns, dislodging rocks, somehow managing to avoid every tree. The canopy was closing tighter and tighter over our heads the further we traveled, and I felt certain that we were going to Baba Yaga’s house.
I twisted my head to look behind us, but there was no sign of Gabi. We had lost her quickly. She had not even changed her shape to chase us.
“Let me go,” I said, yet again. “Gabi will not try to find me. She does not need either of us anymore.”
“Oh? Perhaps we should make a bet of it,” said Pascha, raising me to his face so that I could see him arch one eyebrow. “I say she chases us, and pretty hard, too.”
“I have nothing to bet with,” I said, though it was not quite true- I had ten ban.
“It doesn’t really matter, either way,” Pascha told me, and tossed me from one palm to the other. I grabbed his thumb as I landed, startled by my sudden flight. He was not holding onto the reins, but then again, why would he need to?
“Why does it not matter?”
“Because I have you,” said Pascha. “I’m satisfied with just that result.” He drew me rather close to his face and sniffed me. “You smell like Kazimir, you know.”
I pushed his nose away with both arms. “What do you want from Gabi and I?”
“Only sport,” said Pascha, his tone suddenly deepening to a near-growl. “You ought to tell me where Kazimir is.”
“I will not. In fact, I do not even know.”
“Oh! If you won’t tell me, then I’ll have to keep hold of you,” said Pascha, with a shrug. I thought that he did not seem very upset about the prospect. “It is very convenient for me that you turned so small. How did that happen, by the way?”
“I do not have any reason to tell you,” I said. “Especially not when you have kidnapped me.”
“Well, you aren’t wrong on either account, I suppose.” His eyes flickered, and I saw a sharp brightness behind them that faded quickly. “It must feel queer to be a prisoner of a prisoner.”
“You still have not said why you took me prisoner. Are you taking me to the Baba?”
“I am under orders to do no such thing,” said Pascha, his fingers shifting restlessly around my midsection. “My allotted task is to fetch back Kazimir.”
“You will not be able to,” I said, cheering a little at the thought. “He is free now.”
“So he is,” muttered Pascha, and I saw that spark light his eyes again. “So I must search for him.”
“Is that what you are doing now? Searching? If you let me go, I will help you.”
“You are just a little weasel, Kezia,” said Pascha, showing me his teeth. “But no! The sun is high, and I must return to my paddock. Those are the rules, you see.”
I ducked, narrowly avoiding a branch that whipped past my shoulder; we were still moving very fast.
“So you are bringing me to her!”
“Bringing you to her, but not to her, Kezia,” said Pascha. “As I said before, I have no orders to do such a thing. As a matter of fact, I don’t believe that she knows you exist.”
“Then I do not see why you will not let me go!”
Pascha gave me a heavy sigh, and shook his head in a solemn and irritating way.
“Never mind. You just think on all that I’ve said for a little while. And here is the gate!”
I turned around- we had been moving so fast that I had not even realized we were approaching Baba Yaga’s house until we were in the same clearing. There was the hut, so unassuming-looking in the daytime, with the fence made of bones all around. And there was more now, too- the earth just beside the hut was scorched and blackened and free of trees, and a more ordinary fence ringed it. There was a large white horse standing within.
Pascha leapt over the bone gate and came to an abrupt stop, a kind of dead stop that a real horse would never have been able to make. He wound up his arm and tossed me, without warning, against Baba Yaga’s front step. I was flattened by the force of the impact.
Without waiting for me to pick myself up and reshape myself, Pascha wheeled around and jumped into the little paddock with the white horse. As soon as he cleared it, the man version of him on the horse’s back began to fade away, and only a reddish stallion, shaking his mane, was left behind.
I peeled myself off the step and cried, “Pascha!”
“Shh!” said the white horse, and went to nip the red stallion. Pascha snorted softly and kicked out into the air.
I was going to ask why he had hushed me, but got my answer before I could. The wood under my feet suddenly rattled, and Baba Yaga’s door shuddered in its frame. From within the house there came the sound of a tremendous snore. The witch was at home.
Pascha came to the paddock fence and put his nose over it.
“The girl,” he whispered. “Speak to the girl.”
The white horse nipped him again.
“Don’t listen to him,” it said, and I realized that I recognized the voice- it was Zakhar. He looked a good deal healthier than he had the last time I had seen him, though at times he shimmered slightly at the edges, like a mirage.
I felt it would be better to obey his advice, especially since I did not have any idea what Pascha’s meant. I marched determinedly down the steps (determinedly as one could when each step spanned half one’s height) and back to the skeletal gate. I noticed that the eyes of the skulls that rested on each post were not glowing anymore. Did it mean that the skeletons were asleep? Did skeletons even need sleep?
I got my answer when I tried to duck underneath the gate. With a clatter, the bones moved and blocked my path. I jumped back and tried to circle around, but they shuffled with me, stubbornly forming a wall too small even for me to slip through. I tried to push them, to no avail- they were stiff as iron bars. When I stepped back, defeated, they sprang into their proper places once more.
“Pascha,” I hissed angrily, but he had his back turned and appeared to be ignoring me. Zakhar was watching me, but when I called his name he only turned one ear back and made no response.
I looked back towards the fence, and the bones quivered warningly. It seemed that I was trapped within for the moment until I could figure out a way to get them to move. Perhaps Gabi would catch up to us soon and help me. If she had even followed me. I still was not sure if she had tried. It might be better for both of us if she did not.
The thought made me feel sad and sour, like unleavened bread.
Another snore rattled the hut behind me, and the whole thing shifted. I caught just a small glimpse of one of the scaly legs tucked underneath as the thing resettled itself into the ground.
The door swung open, and I flattened against the step. But I need not have bothered. The one that stepped out was not the witch, but a young woman with fair hair carrying a bucket. She poured the bucket out on the side of the steps, wrinkling her nose.
I recognized her- I had met her here before, though I had completely forgotten about it. It was the woman I had helped with the sieve. She looked even thinner and dirtier now since the last time that I had seen her.
Quickly I got up and ran towards her, for she was already turning to go back inside the hut.
She jumped at the sound of my voice, and looked all around, but she was looking too high. I scrambled up the step and tugged at the bottom of her skirt.
“I am down here.”
She clutched at her skirt and looked down, her expression one of fear and bewilderment.
“What- what are you?”
“Do you not remember me?” I asked. “We met once before. I was larger then.”
For a moment she stared at me, her brow furrowed and the stinking bucket clutched tight against her chest, and then she said, “Oh! You are the clay creature who helped me! Your name- was it Ke, Kezia?”
“Yes,” I said. “I hope that I did not get you into any trouble.”
She shook her head with a small smile. “She was furious, but it is not your fault. She has set me to doing even more impossible tasks since then. I think that she wants me to stay her servant forever.”
“That is not right,” I said. “I will help you again if I can. But right now I am in trouble myself.”
The woman glanced behind herself, and then carefully shut the door and knelt before me on the steps, tucking her long skirt over her knees.
“What is your trouble? You helped me, so I would like to help you as well.”
I put one hand on her knee, feeling somewhat touched by her kindness. “I am trapped inside this fence and I cannot get out. The gate will not let me pass through.”
“I see,” said the woman, nodding. She tucked a few strands of her long hair, which were falling from her headscarf, behind her ear. “It won’t let me out, either. But perhaps if you got big again, you could try jumping over it…?”
“I cannot get any bigger than this right now,” I said. It seemed like too much trouble to try to describe the circumstances that had led to my size, so I left it at that. “And I do not think it would be as easy as jumping.”
“You’re right, of course,” said the woman, cupping her chin in her hand. “I haven’t worked at it much, since I’m still waiting for the witch to give me what I asked for, but there must be some way to get out of it. She has all these ‘rules,’ you see. I never knew that witches had rules, but apparently it’s very bad if you break them.”
Pascha had said something to a similar effect, I recalled. I looked at the paddock again and saw that he and Zakhar were lying down on the scorched ground together.
“Maybe there’s some kind of key,” the woman mused. “I know! Come inside the hut with me and we’ll have a look around.”
“What about the witch?” I asked. Her snores had not let up during our discussion.
“She’s quite a heavy sleeper,” said the woman, with a slight scowl. “And you’re so small, I think I can hide you from her if she wakes up. But we ought to be careful.”
“All right,” I said, though in truth I would have preferred staying outside. But I did not want to sit on the step and wait for someone who might not come for me.
“My name, by the way, is Vasilisa,” said the woman, holding out her hand.
I took one of her fingers with a burst of both happiness and sadness, because now I knew her name, and because I had only now realized that she looked a little bit like Kezia’s Christian girl.
“I am glad to have your name,” I said, and she smiled as I climbed onto her palm.
“I’m only glad to finally be able to give it to someone who is so kind,” she said, and rather than grasping me, as Gabi had done, she put me up on her shoulder. I steadied myself with one hand on her pale neck.
Vasilisa put a finger to her lips, and then opened the door to the hut.
It felt like we were stepping through a kind of palpable wall of anxiety, going into that place, though it might have just been the way I felt her tensing up beneath my feet. I myself was unsettled by the fact that it was very dim within the hut, the only light coming from the dying fire in the earthen stove, and in the gloom there were odd reflections everywhere. It was cluttered as before, but now I saw that there were several long, spindly objects cris-crossing the whole of the room, and there was something about the contortion of them that made me feel a kind of sick discomfort. And then, as Vasilisa drew closer, and the walls rattled from another tremendous snore, I realized why that was. I was looking at the arms and legs of the witch.
Baba Yaga, in her sleep, was singularly unpleasant to look at. She spanned one corner of the hut to the other, her arms and legs impossibly long and thin and bony, with sagging old skin that looked like it would curl and crack like old parchment. They folded and bent and tucked into the corners in more ways than seemed right or possible, and her toes were nearly as long as her fingers, and her fingernails were nearly as long as her toes. But that was not the real worst of it, for though her limbs were long and bony, the body of Baba Yaga was fat and swollen in her bed, the curve of her nose covering up her eyes, her mouth open just enough to show four wide-spaced teeth. She reminded me of a crane fly, or a long-legged spider, and though her sleep looked deep I felt with certainty that one brush against her appalling limbs would rouse her in a fury.
Vasilisa ducked under Baba Yaga’s left leg much more calmly than I would have managed to, though I supposed that she had had to get used to it after being her so long. The witch did not wake up, though she took a deep breath, and it almost seemed like the walls of the hut moved outwards and inwards with the rise and fall of her chest.
We came to what I thought of Vasilisa’s corner, the pile of dirty straw beside the oven. I could smell, very faintly, the scent of roasting meat from within, and hear the sizzle of fat along with the whine and pop of the flames.
“Were you going to prepare something to eat?” I whispered in her ear. “I do not want to interrupt your meal.”
Mutely, she shook her head; her expression, very close to me, seemed disturbed.
“I only eat the witch’s leftovers, and only if I do all the chores in time.”
“That is not right! What must you do?”
Vasilisa pointed to the wooden tub beside her meager bed, the one that I had helped her fill with the sieve, and I saw that it now had a twin. Only this one was filled with sand instead of water.
“She has set me another impossible task,” she murmured. “That tub there is full of poppy seeds mixed with sand, and I’ve got to separate them all out.”
I leaned out from her shoulder to have a better look and saw that she had made a very tiny pile of seeds on a handkerchief standing on a bureau (the very one where Zakhar’s chamber pot had once rested) that looked like nothing in comparison to the heap of sand she had left to sift through.
“Why does she make you do these things?” I asked, forgetting to keep my voice down in my outrage. Vasilisa tried to hush me, but it was too late: the witch’s long, terrible legs moved, and her breath stopped midsnore.
Vasilisa snatched me at once and thrust me behind her back, so that I could not see Baba Yaga anymore, but I did hear the creak of her movements, and her voice: an old dry rasp, punctuated by sucking noises around her few teeth.
“Who are you speaking to, my child?”
“No one, Mistress,” stammered Vasilisa.
“Don’t be silly,” said the Baba, and the hut around us creaked again, and the wall before my eyes seemed to curve inwards slightly. “You were not speaking to yourself, and you hold something behind your back.”
I felt the tension all through Vasilisa’s hand, but then she slowly seemed to relax herself.
“It- I only spoke to my doll, Mistress,” she said, and drew me back around to show the witch. I held perfectly still.
The witch had drawn her skinny knees to her chest, and rested her bony elbows on them, and her long, tangled white hair made a sort of cloak over it all, so that the proportions of her almost looked all right, if you squinted, but her wide eyes- black and wide and staring, they were, with chips of blue and white and greater darkness the longer you looked at them- her eyes were unmistakably the eyes of a witch.
She turned them on me now, and I found myself sinking into the depths of those eyes, and I wanted to cover my face with my hands. In fact, I almost forgot myself and did just that, because I had a wretched feeling that the longer I looked into her eyes, the less I would want to look away.
“I’ve never seen you carry an ugly thing like that before,” said the witch, finally bringing her eyes back up to Vasilisa.
“I made it for myself out of clay, Mistress,” said Vasilisa, and I marveled at her calm tone. “I- I suppose I got lonely.”
“Lonely?” The witch’s laugh sounded like a rusted hacksaw. “With myself, and my faithful servants here to accompany you? What an insult.”
She drew one of her sheets over herself, covering herself further like an old hermit, and hissed, “Bring the meat.”
“But it isn’t finished cooking-”
“How many times must I tell you? Bring the meat when I ask.”
Vasilisa executed a nervous curtsy, the hand around my waist beginning to sweat, and set me down on the bureau so that she could have both hands free to drag a massive spatula out of the oven. I had been expecting, from the smell, to see something like neatly-trimmed shanks or loins, but what had been roasting was little more than crude lumps of flesh, covered in blackened skin. It was impossible to tell what they had once been. Some of the ones on the far end of the spatula still leaked blood.
Vasilisa staggered under the weight of it all, and the witch reached out one of her bony arms and thrust a low table before herself for Vasilisa to deposit the meat onto. The little thing audibly groaned under the weight of it all.
Baba Yaga rose from her bed to hover over the table, still covered by her blanket and hair, so that only glimpses of her thin white limbs and black shining eyes peeped out. She flicked her hoary fingers at Vasilisa, who gratefully withdrew to the wall beside the stove. She glanced at me, though I was still frozen, playing the doll.
She picked up the nearest bit of meat, curling her fingers around it so that the juices squeezed out, and thrust it into her mouth. Vasilisa winced, and I would have liked to as well. The witch chewed with her mouth open, and there came a horrible symphony of sucking, grinding, crunching noises with it, and blood and juices spattered all over her emotionless face. I wondered how it was that she could chew the tough stuff with so few teeth left in her mouth, but I did not want to wonder too hard, for it meant I would have to look at the blackened spots on her gums where the missing teeth had been.
Baba Yaga finished her first piece of meat and picked up the next, tearing it off a splintered bone with her lonely fangs.
“Still so hungry,” she hissed, right through the mouthful, with a horrible liquid quality to her voice. “I would so like to eat you, my dear girl.”
Vasilisa made no response to this, and did not even act surprised. I could not say the same for myself; how I wished I was bigger and stronger! Baba Yaga took another gigantic bite before she spoke again.
“Hungry, hungry, hungry. Yet I must keep you alive.” She sucked the last bit of meat off the bone, then threw it in Vasilisa’s direction. “Here is a bit of your dinner, girl! Eat the marrow, if you must! Count yourself lucky I keep you thin, for if I fattened you up I would never be able to keep my hands off of you.”
Her laugh was sickly and wretched-sounding. Vasilisa picked up the bit of bone and silently turned it over in her hands.
“You are quiet tonight,” growled the witch. “I see that you have not completed the task I have given you, lazybones.”
“No, Mistress, I have not,” said Vasilisa, with an edge to her voice that made Baba Yaga’s eyes light up. She dragged the next piece of meat across the table to herself and slapped it down for emphasis.
“So! You think the task is too difficult, then? I thought it simple, but if you say you cannot accomplish even that-”
“Please, give me but one more day, Mistress,” said Vasilisa, in a dull way. The fire in Baba Yaga’s eyes seemed to dim at this, and she sat back and thrust the meat into her mouth.
“So be it,” she gurgled. “Stubborn again, I see. No matter. Tomorrow I will ask you again, and the day after that, until you give in and say you have lost our wager.”
To this Vasilisa responded with a sharp frown, one that looked to me frighteningly insolent, but it only seemed to amuse the witch, for she gave a thick-sounding chuckle and gathered up yet more meat.
“Don’t forget that I have seen your fate,” she said, mashing a handful into her mouth. She chewed, wiped herself with her wrist, then clapped her thin hands: to my surprise, three creatures like spiders crawled up onto the table and began clearing the remains of her meal away again. But they were not spiders- they were the disembodied, purple-tinged hands I had seen mounted on the wall before. I remembered Zakhar’s warning and tried not to look at them.
“I think that you are hiding something from me, Vasilisa,” said Baba Yaga, very suddenly, and I saw Vasilisa twitch and swallow. I myself tried to hold more still than I had ever held before. I tried to imagine that I was stone.
“I hide many things from you, Mistress,” said Vasilisa, after a moment of silence.
“Ah, I see,” said the witch, and she shed her blanket, rising taller. She wore the simplest of clothing, and it was all tattered and threadbare, with long, trailing sleeves gray from years of washing. The walls of the hut seemed to suddenly flex outwards slightly, as Baba Yaga adjusted herself, her body coming somewhat into proportion, so that she could have passed for an ordinary old crone. Except for those eyes.
“We are both women, of course,” she continued, leaning down to pick something up from the cluttered floor- I saw that it was a stone mortar and pestle. “We must have our secrets. But my dear, when you give in, and let me make you a part of myself, there will be nothing that is not shared between us. So that is why I will let you have whatever you have hidden in that little doll for now.”
With those frightening words, the door slammed open all by itself, making Vasilisa jump. Baba Yaga swept out of the hut with her mortar and pestle in hand, gurgling and cackling, kicking over a broom as she passed. The door slammed back shut behind her and the latch clicked into place.
There were about three beats of complete silence, and then with a long sigh Vasilisa sank down with her back to the wall and put her head in her arms.
“It’s all right, Kezia,” she said, her voice muffled. “You can move now.”
At once I clambered down from the bureau, using the drawers for handholds, so that I could stand by her knee and put a hand on it.
“Are you all right? I did not get you into more trouble, did I?”
“Oh, no, no,” said Vasilisa, raising her head to smile at me with red-rimmed eyes, “that was ordinary, just ordinary for her. I think even if you’d moved she wouldn’t have cared, because she thinks she’s got me, you see. She’s just waiting for me to give up.”
“What did she mean,” I asked, “when she said she was going to make you a part of her?”
She shook her head.
“I don’t really know. It must mean she wants to steal my soul, because they say witches sell souls to the devil, don’t they? My God, if there is a devil out there worse than she is, I can’t imagine it.”
I did not know what a devil was, but I did not feel that it would be prudent to ask at the moment. Vasilisa kept speaking.
“When I first came to her, I was just looking for a light- but then several things went and happened-” She paused to rub her eyes. “She saw what it was I wanted and offered me a wager. Three tasks I had to do for her, and she would give me my freedom. I agreed, but I- I did not realize that they would be impossible.”
“The first one was filling the sieve with water?” I guessed, and she nodded.
“And the second is separating the seeds from this sand. I tried to think of a clever solution like the one you first gave me, I did, but I’ve only managed to pull them out by hand… I even used my stocking, you see.” She pulled up her skirts and showed me a bald patch on her stocking where it looked like a piece had been cut out.
“I tried to use it like a cheesecloth, and sift the seeds from the sand, but they are still too fine, and the sand clumps together until everything is a mess.”
“I think that was a very good idea,” I told her. “I would not have thought of it.”
“If it was a good idea, it would have worked,” said Vasilisa. “It may take me a year or more to pull out all of these damnable seeds by hand, and it’s only the second task! What will the third be? Perhaps it would be better for me to give up after all…”
“Do not say that,” I urged her, putting both hands on her knee. “Have you tried to just run away? Or is the gate locked to you too?”
“Oh, if running away was all I had to do!” laughed Vasilisa. “When I wagered for my freedom, I didn’t mean freedom from this witch. I have lived in worse places than this wretched hut, Kezia, and I think I really would sell my soul to the devil to keep out of them…”
“Please,” I begged, tugging on the fabric of her skirt, “please, do not give up. I will help you again with this task.”
She reached out and stroked my head with one finger.
“Oh, you have such a good heart, but I do not think that even with two of us working it will take that much less time… I cannot ask you to stay here for months and months.”
“No,” I said, “but Zakhar said that there was a clever way to solve each of these tasks, and I think that if we both think on it we can come up with the right way to do it.”
She looked at me for a moment, then rubbed her cheeks, so that a little color came back into them.
“Maybe you’re right. She has me do so much work while she’s here that I’ve hardly had any sleep… I’m afraid my mind is not as sharp as it should be. I may not be seeing a solution that’s obvious to you.”
“Well, I do not know about that,” I said. “But I will do my best to help you. I think that you should try to get some rest now.”
“I have no time for that; the witch will be back in the span of a few hours, and I have chores to finish up, and I must slaughter one of her animals for her next meal, and-”
“But I am here now,” I cajoled. “I will wake you up before she gets back. Sleep now, and let me work on this problem- the time will not be wasted.”
Vasilisa still seemed hesitant, and looked as though she might want to protest some more, but then her brow furrowed, and she said, softly, “What worse can she do if I do not finish her work for her? I’m not one of her servants; let them do it.” She shot a hard glance towards the three hands, which had mounted themselves back on the wall.
“Yes,” I agreed, though uncertainly: I did feel that there might be a little bit worse that Baba Yaga could do to her. But some iron had come into Vasilisa’s back, and she rose from the ground, her skirts trailing over my head, and walked to the bed.
“She may as well sleep in that dirty straw,” she said contemptuously, “and let me have the bed; I am the one doing all her work-”
She paused, for she had lifted the blanket, and was staring down at the bare mattress. Her expression changed, and I wished I was at an angle where I could see what she was seeing, for it had become quite interesting. Slowly she replaced the blanket and went back to her straw-filled corner.
“Best not get too far ahead of myself,” she said to the air, which only made me wonder even more what was under that blanket. But I had best not get too ahead of myself either.
It did not take Vasilisa very long at all to fall asleep curled up in her little pile of hay. She must have been terribly tired, for I could not even imagine being able to fall asleep in such a damp, dirty place. I wondered if she was cold, and wished that I had something to cover her with.
But I did not, and I was not going to pretend that I had a very long time to spend thinking about other things besides Vasilisa’s task. I very much did not want her to be asleep when the witch returned.
So I turned my gaze to the tub of sand and poppy seeds. It was not very clean-looking sand, and in fact was full of black specks that could have been seeds or could have been other mystery substances. I climbed up a little stool beside the tub and stuck one hand in it- then withdrew it, covered in little particles. It seemed that my sticky body would not help me complete the task by hand.
But I was very certain that there was a simple way to solve this problem. I did not think that she would be allowed to assign an impossible task by her own rules, though it was possible that I was misunderstanding how she worked. I did wonder what Pascha had been trying to accomplish by bringing me here. He had said that I should speak to the girl- did he mean for me to help Vasilisa?
I could not say that I would have expected him to do that out of the kindness of his heart, though. Perhaps by helping Vasilisa, I would be helping him. I did not mind helping either of them, to be honest, though it would have been nice if he had asked me instead of kidnapping me. But maybe the witch would have been suspicious if he had done that. I did not know; I was thinking in circles, and I should have been focusing on the task at hand.
I brushed the particles of sand off of my arm and looked around the area. In Vasilisa’s corner were clustered the stove, the bureau, her pile of hay, and the wooden tub with the sand in it- and the other tub, the one that she had filled with water from the sieve.
As soon as I looked at that second tub a thought occurred to me, and I scrambled down the stool and dragged it the short way across the floor to the second tub so that I could peer down inside. Yes- it was still filled with the water Vasilisa had carried in for the witch. It was surprisingly clear for being in such a filthy, dusty house. I saw a shadow of my reflection on the bottom, a little clay nubbin with empty eyes.
I turned around and sat down on the stool with my chin in my hands, kicking my feet as I pondered. The idea in my head seemed too simple to be true, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense that the two tasks Vasilisa had been assigned would be connected in some way.
But I was not sure, and if I was wrong, I risked ruining her chances altogether. I had to be very careful. I got down from the stool again and went over to the table, which loomed above me, still dripping at the sides from Baba Yaga’s messy meal. On the floor beside it was a basket of cutlery (untouched), including a tin spoon.
I took the spoon and embedded it in my clay back so that I could have my hands free. The unfortunate thing about being tiny was that every action required a great many more steps: I had to fetch the stool, drag it back to the tub with the sand, climb onto it, pull the spoon from my back to use it to scoop up some sand like a tiny shovel, climb down the stool without spilling the sand, move the stool back to the water tub, climb onto it again, and finally…
I tilted the spoon over the water’s surface and knew at once that my idea had been correct, and it was all worth it. The sand sank.
The seeds floated.
An hour or two must have passed by the time I woke Vasilisa again, by gently patting her cheek. She sat up with a gasp and a flurry of straw.
“It is all right, it is only me,” I said, waving until she looked down at me. “The Baba is not back yet. You are safe.”
Vasilisa pushed her hair back from her forehead with one hand and nodded slowly. Her hand made another dirty smear across her face.
“I always dream strangely when I sleep here,” she said.
“Did you have bad dreams?” I asked. I had never had a dream, but I knew that they could be good or bad. I supposed that the visions I had taken from Kezia were what dreams were like: memories of things that had never happened to you.
“No, not bad, exactly,” said Vasilisa, licking her lips. “More… the sort of dreams you’re afraid you’ll never wake up from, if you know what I mean.”
I did not. But I thought that they still sounded like bad dreams.
“Look, Vasilisa,” I said, gently pulling on one of her sleeves. “Look in the tub of sand.”
At this she looked down at me with a nervous, quavery smile, and I wished I could smile back- no, I could, I could change how my face looked, I could do it, only she had looked away again by the time I realized this. She got up to peer down into the tub and then covered her eyes with her hands.
“Oh, Kezia, you’ve done it again!”
I climbed up onto the stool beside her, trying not to puff out my clay chest. At the bottom of the tub was a pile of poppy seeds, completely free of the sand- though slightly damp. Once I had figured out a system, it had not taken me long at all to move the mix into the water and then skim the floating seeds off the surface. I suppose that even as a very small golem I was good at getting work done.
“How can I thank you?” Vasilisa was saying, through her hands. “How can I repay you for this?”
“It is all right,” I said, patting her calf through her skirt. She sounded genuinely upset, and I was a little concerned. “You do not have to repay me. I am happy to help you. You seem like a good person.”
At this Vasilisa pulled down her hands from her face, and very slowly shook her head, though at what I was not certain. Then she knelt down and gave me a very soft little kiss right at the top of my forehead.
“I will repay you, Kezia,” she said, solemnly, looking me directly in the eyes. “I don’t know how just yet, but if I ever do get out of here… Oh, there’s only one more task left!” She buried her face in her hands and started weeping loudly, and I was at a loss for what to do, but luckily she did not cry for very long and moved her hands again to gaze at me seriously.
“I will help you get out of here first,” she said. “Before the witch comes back… I can’t rely on your help for the third task. I’ll figure that one out on my own.”
“I do not mind helping you again,” I said.
“No, you must have places you want to be besides here,” said Vasilisa, shaking her head. “You said so yourself that you wanted to escape. And now I am going to help you with that, at the very least.”
I found I could not have argued with her if I tried, so I let her wipe her tears away and put me back on her shoulder.
“I am finding that even that little bit of sleep made me somewhat more clearheaded,” she said, as I steadied myself with one hand on her neck. “I do not think there’s a key for the gate here- if she has one, I’m certain that the witch would take it with her. It makes little sense to leave your home locked up without taking the key, doesn’t it?”
“I suppose it does not,” I said.
“But perhaps we can get out another way. I have been thinking recently that her servants do not like her very much.” She said this to me gravely, as though she was imparting a grave secret; I was not sure what to do with it.
“I- suppose they do not.”
“Don’t laugh if it seemed obvious to you! The first I met was that white Zakhar fellow, and he liked her a great deal, so I thought that they all must be like that- sort of a respect for magic, regardless of her dreadful personality. But now I believe that he’s the unusual one, especially after meeting that red fellow.”
“His name is Pascha,” I supplied.
“Is it? I have had little chance to talk with him; I think the witch keeps a much tighter leash on him than the other one. But be that as it may, I think that the bones in the gate count as her servants too, because they can reassemble and walk around, and even bones must have been part of somebody at some point, right?”
“I… suppose.” She was talking quite fast now; I felt that she might need more sleep. She prattled on, her eyes overbright.
“And she really does treat them dreadfully; have you seen how worn they are? And that gate creaks like anything. I wonder if…” She hesitated, then took the handkerchief of poppy seeds that was still on the bureau and squeezed it in her fist.
“What are you doing?” I asked, alarmed. “That could-”
“She said to separate them from the sand,” replied Vasilisa, “not what condition they should be in. Besides, I am only squeezing a little oil out of them, they’ll be fine.”
“But why do you need oil?”
“It is my turn to be clever now,” she declared. “Kezia, I want you to take this handkerchief and oil the hinge to the gate.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling as though there was something I was not following. “Is that one of your chores?”
“No- but I have done it before, and something most peculiar happens. I thought it was a coincidence.” She shook the seeds out of the handkerchief and leaned down to hand it to me. I folded it up like a sheet to carry it tucked underneath one arm.
“Try it,” said Vasilisa. “If all goes well, I think you will be able to make it out before the witch comes back. But you must go as quick as you can.”
“All right,” I said, though I still felt as though I was not understanding everything. “Thank you, Vasilisa.”
“No, no, you’re the one I ought to thank,” she said, pressing one hand against her heart. “Kezia, I do hope we meet again- I hope we meet somewhere besides this dreadful hut.”
“If you want that to happen you must not give up again,” I told her, and she smiled.
“I won’t. God be with you, little Kezia.”
She opened the door for me, and I slipped outside, blinking in the suddenly-bright sunlight. It felt somehow wrong to leave her trapped in the grimness of the witch’s hut, but I did not think that there was much else I could do to help her and besides (I reminded myself) I needed to find Gabi. Though outside the hut I still saw no sign of her.
The forest around me was green and silent, the air absolutely still, not a leaf moving. The spot where Vasilisa had dumped out the witch’s midden stank in the sunshine. I looked over at the paddock and realized that it was empty: Pascha and Zakhar were gone. Perhaps the witch had taken them with her.
I took the handkerchief from under my arm. It had been warm from being clenched in Vasilisa’s hand, but the heat was fading quickly against my clay flesh. The poppyseed oil she had squeezed into it had no scent, though it did offer the cloth a slight dark sheen.
I made my way down the witch’s front step and back to the bone gate, holding the handkerchief out in front of myself like a flag. The bones trembled in their places as I got closer, but they did not jump up to block me as before. Vasilisa had been on to something.
There were two hinges to the gate, each made of a collection of very short, small bones: finger bones? I was not quite sure as I had never spent much time studying a skeleton. I started on the low hinge first, working the handkerchief between the gaps. When that was done I climbed up to the second one, handkerchief draped over my head. The gate seemed to space its space marginally wider to accommodate me, so that I could brace myself between two long bones as I worked on the top hinge.
I had only barely gotten started when a rattling noise made me look up. The skull that was perched on the post beside me was looking down at me with glowing eyes. It chattered its teeth at me and spoke in a soft, tiny voice.
“O, oil my bones, oil the scrapes that the witch’s teeth made. She ate me up, you know.”
I hesitated, rag in hand, entirely unnerved. It was one thing to see a skeleton move and then a whole other thing to hear it speak. And it was still speaking.
“I am dead, but my bones still ache when the hinges catch. Isn’t that unfair?”
“It does seem like she should at least oil you,” I told the skull. “Since you are helping her by being her gate.”
Click, click, click went the skull’s broken teeth- I realized it was laughing silently. The voice rose up out of it again, a fragment, a whisper.
“Helping is not what I do- I exist, I am a tool, I have no will. A slave cannot even die without permission. And you- you would use me too, I know it; you did not come to oil me out of kindness. You want me to open for you, defy my mistress!”
The bones suddenly clenched up against me, and I dropped the handkerchief and squirmed free, slipping and sliding down their pockmarked surfaces until I hit the dirt. The skull rattled condescendingly.
I decided to stay where I was for the time being, and pulled the fallen handkerchief into my lap.
“Well,” I admitted, “you are not wrong. I do want you to open for me, if you could. I am sorry for not asking you first. But the witch does not know I am here, so I do not think you will get in trouble for letting me escape.”
My words were followed by a long silence. A slight wind ruffled some of the leaves above our heads, making the shadows on the ground dance. The gate creaked with them.
“Very well,” said the tiny voice. “I will let you out. But not because you oiled me. The girl who stays in the witch’s house- she oiled me, and wanted nothing in return; I opened for her and she did not go out. I fear that it is her fate to join me as part of this fence. If you are her friend, I will let you pass.”
With these ominous words, the bone gate slowly creaked open.
“Hurry,” whispered the fading voice, “hurry, the witch feels that something has changed, and she is rushing back. Run as far and as fast as you can if you do not want her to catch you.”
“Thank you!” I said, and wrapped the handkerchief around my shoulders like a white shawl. “I will try to come back and help Vasilisa again! I do not want her to become part of the fence.”
“Hurry,” was the only response. The wind was picking up, and the treetops were starting to whirl. I pulled the handkerchief tighter around my shoulders and ran back into the woods.