It has teeth now.
I was a little red bird, caught in Kezia’s hands, and I had never been more frightened. And frustrated; I was frustrated also, mostly with myself. I’d had what seemed a safe vantage point when the earth came alive- well, safe as anywhere on a giant’s shoulder could be, but at least it appeared she hadn’t noticed me. I had been able to view the horrendous moving of the river and sacking of the village, and hear the strange words that passed between this mountain and Kezia. Well, I recognized the voice: I could never forget it. It lit a sick terror deep in my breast, a throbbing reminder of the seed that had been forced down my throat.
Kezia was in her hand, and there wasn’t much at all I could do about that. It wasn’t that I was being cowardly this time, just pragmatic- what was I, a strigoi made of soft meaty bits, to do against this behemoth? At least she hadn’t crushed her yet, but from the way she spoke- it didn’t look good, and the only thing I could imagine doing was to make some sort of distraction. Light a fire on her tree-studded rear end, perhaps, and see if she noticed. It would have been a crack plan if I’d had any flint and tinder on me, which I didn’t. Oh, for goodness’ sake, where the hell was Pascha? He finally would have been useful at a time like this!
The giant had looked away at a flash of light that suggested dawn, and in a flash I’d changed to a bird and flown to Kezia. But now, caught tight in her grasp out of sight of the golem, I was regretting my choice. What good was I supposed to do here? I could feel Kezia’s pulse beating through her fingers, near as fast as mine.
Was she… frightened? My feathers rose from my body; was she really frightened? Well, of course she would be, this was a very frightening situation- giants springing from the earth and moving rivers and all- her palms were sweating, her heart was beating so very fast… For some reason, it just hadn’t occurred to me that she could ever be frightened. Kezia, so strong, solid, and calm. But she wasn’t a golem anymore…
Abruptly Kezia’s hands jerked, and I fluttered in momentary panic. The grinding noises from outside suggested that the giant was moving again, and taking us with it. I blinked my beady eyes rapidly, but I couldn’t see a damned thing aside from splinters of light peeking around the contours of Kezia’s fingers. She could have chosen a more convenient spot to hide me.
“I want you to tell me something,” said the golem’s voice, and I couldn’t help but shudder in the sweaty darkness; how eerie it was to hear it sounding so ordinary and close by!
Kezia made a soft sound, and coughed, and said, “What is it?”
She really was frightened, O God, I could hear it in her voice, and it was unconscionable; I had to do something.
I heard the clicking and grinding of innumerable small stones, the creaking of wood, and felt Kezia’s hands tighten around me as we rose upwards. When the golem next spoke, her voice was closer.
“It seems you have become a fadua- though not quite like one, all the same. But this is strange to me, for you were a golem, and formed of nothing. How did you move from one form to another with no soul to guide you?”
My little bird heart thrummed faster; there was something queer in the golem’s voice, something almost hungry, and from the clicking and creaking I perceived that we were moving closer and closer to that gigantic mouth.
“Perhaps,” said Kezia, her voice steady despite the fear I could feel through her damp palms, “perhaps golems do have souls.”
The golem chuckled, a low sound that buzzed through my bones.
“You imply that men can create things with souls; that is sheer blasphemy, my daughter.”
“But I was not made by a man,” said Kezia.
A long pause.
“A cunning deception you are,” said the golem, finally. “But now I sense that there is some earth in you yet; that is what binds you here when you should have vanished. Earth, mixed with flesh and bones and blood: I see. I did not believe myself that it would work, when I unearthed them. Yet- here you are. Nearly human. You can feel this now- can you not?”
A faint rumbling sound, and I felt Kezia shaking. I fluttered in the tight cage of her hands, frantic.
“How strange,” said the golem. “What is pain like? What is warmth? I have lived such a long time and never imagined that there would be a way for a golem to truly feel them. But, my daughter- have you given up too much in return?”
I had expected Kezia to answer this right away, and when the silence stretched on I felt increasingly anxious- say it was worth it, my dear, say it! But it seemed she had something else on her mind.
“I can prove to you that I have a soul,” she said. “Because- even if I am not quite human, I am not a golem. I do not have the silver letters anymore.”
In her hands, I fell still.
“You mean to say,” said the golem, “you no longer possess your truth?”
“I do not!” exclaimed Kezia, and suddenly there was a great deal of light- she had taken one of her hands off me to press against her chest. I stayed frozen in her remaining palm, my beady eyes suddenly taking everything in: the giant fingers curving over us, the peering, vacant face, with tree roots wound through the forehead.
“I do not need letters to power me anymore,” Kezia insisted, “because what makes me go is inside now, it is a beating heart and bones and other wet things; I am all solid now and I have no more hollow spaces except when I breathe!”
She was so eager that it astounded me, and it also dismayed me, as I cast my eyes upon the vine protruding from her navel, leading to the wilted, battered bush: where tangled within the leafless branches was just the slightest glint of silver. She didn’t know! And I, curse it, I had never told her!
I was too distraught to wonder if the giant noticed me there in Kezia’s hand, plainly visible; anyway, even if she did, what difference could I make? She must have seen me, but gave no indication of it- she was fascinated by Kezia. And when she next spoke, I realized that she knew.
“My sweet child,” she said, a lilt coming to her voice that made me shiver, because it sounded so familiar, “you think that you have been reborn, and unbound, but isn’t there something that ties you to the earth still?”
“I do not know what you mean,” said Kezia.
“You tore out the roots,” said the golem, “and you ran away- but- the connection is still there. I see it. I see your truth.”
Hesitantly, Kezia’s hand went up towards her own forehead, and there came a chuckle from the mountain.
“No, not there…”
Slowly, up came the giant’s other hand, rising- rising- shedding bits of rock and soil- fingers curving just enough to lightly grasp the wilted bush between them.
“It’s here,” she said. “What I gave you, it’s here still.”
She began to lift the bush up, and I saw the line of Kezia’s vine rising with it, and my heart stuttered. No!
Kezia cried out as I fought free from her grasp, my tiny claws growing longer and sharper, my eyes widening, my wings lengthening, and as an owl I swooped through the curve between the giant’s thumb and forefinger and screeched into her face.
I do not know what the golem made of this, for she did not react, as I circled and shrilled out defiance, flapping and hissing and lashing out at the earth with my talons. The trees on her head creaked, and a few stones tumbled down the side of her face, and my eye caught faint movement between the trunks- a herd of deer, fleeing down the back of her vast scalp. But no, there- as I swooped higher I saw something else, hunched down at the base of a vast tree- a young brown man. His eyes flicked to meet mine as I swept past. It was Pascha, in human form.
It was a mere instant I saw him, then I was circling down again; but his expression- it had been oddly cold. Had he been there the whole time, listening, waiting…?
I curved back down, and now my round eyes landed on Kezia, and saw her clutching her hand. She was bleeding- I had cut her in my escape. The little shock of this realization was quickly drowned out as I realized something else: what leaked out of the wound and dripped down onto the golem’s hand was not red. But neither was it colorless. It was pale pink, and translucent: something in-between.
The golem dropped the bush, and said, “So, you are still alive.”
Her free hand rose, and I banked, flapping hard- the vast fingers suddenly blotted out the sky- Kezia screamed, “Gabi!”- and then I was spinning, and spinning, and fire, and nothing.
I thought that she would get away- she was so fast, and Adamina’s hand was so slow- and she nearly did, nearly, because only the very tip of Adamina’s middle finger struck her wing. But the vast force behind that little touch! I saw Gabi’s wing crumple, and she spun downwards, downwards, out of sight-
I ran to the edge of Adamina’s palm and screamed her name, shoving back at the giant fingers that curled close around me, searching the darkness below for any sign of her tiny red form. Then suddenly there was a clap like thunder, and the flesh on my left side seared even before I flinched and raised my arm to shield against the sudden light.
Adamina went still, as the light flashed and gave me a glimpse of the back of her vast hollow skull. With smarting eyes I tracked the source of it, to the top of her head- the trees there were afire! Flames gushed down the dry roots winding through her clay, and birds flew from the trees in waves as the wood creaked and whined. As sparks whirled through the air, I saw a figure rise up at the very edge of her forehead, silhouetted against the smoke and whirling sparks: Pascha.
But not as I had seen him before. He was taller, and- and looser, somehow, like he wasn’t quite solid anymore, like there was light shining all the way through him, and his eyes were like violet embers. He opened his mouth, and his teeth shone like little flames.
“Baba Yaga! Baba Yaga!”
The wind picked up, and whipped around us all, and the flames rose and guttered. The earth below my feet was beginning to tremble.
“Baba Yaga!” Pascha shouted again. “My mistress! I’ve found the golem’s weakness!”
The wind howled, and in it I heard the old witch’s jubilant shriek of laughter, and clapped my hands over my ears. Adamina shook, and stones and branches and entire trees began to fall away from her body. The holes that were her eyes began to collapse inwards, crumbling into soil, freeing up that delicate lattice of tiny, threadlike roots- and her hand, with me on the palm, began to sink downwards, first slowly, then faster and faster, until I was clutching her thumb just to stay aboard. She was falling apart!
Great pieces of what had been Adamina bounced and whirled downwards, chunks of earth the size of houses, and I could not help but shout again as one flew perilous inches away from my head. It was covered in burning trees. I squeezed my eyes shut and clutched the thumb, heart hammering, but a second later I was wrenched free and flying backwards into an unbearable heat.
I cried out, twisted vainly, opened my eyes again. When I looked up I saw the heaving chest of a horse with a fiery mane, and wings of flame, clutching me with forelegs that ended with talons. The great curved nails dug against the fabric of my borrowed shirt around my chest. Behind him I saw the rest of the massed earth falling back into place, the disparate pieces settling, the trees, doused of flames, shoving themselves back into the flattened ground, the great face vanishing in a vast cloud of dust. Adamina- I did not know if Pascha had managed to harm her or not- but she had retreated. But from the way the earth shifted and kept the trees standing straight up, I knew that she was not yet destroyed.
Pasha flew me swiftly downwards, skimming over the broken roofs of what had been the village, barely missing the treetops, which roiled briefly beneath us as we passed. But then we were out over the meadow, or what was left of it- just a narrow grassy strip between the Starving Forest and the wild wood where Baba Yaga had made her home.
Pascha dropped me a short distance onto the soft grass, knocking the breath out of me, and then landed noisily a few feet away. The fire shrank from him, and his talons became hooves, and on his back appeared the image of a man in armor, with his head bowed.
I struggled to push myself up. More hoofbeats were thundering towards us, and I could see the shapes of them against the horizon with the rising sun. A white horse, with a white man astride- and the black shadow trailing behind. And there, striding between them both, the crooked figure of the witch.
My legs felt very weak and sore, but for once they obeyed me, and I stood up. Pascha wheeled around to stand beside me, and my cold skin seemed to thaw from the proximity of his warmth. But when I looked up at his face, it was emotionless.
Baba Yaga and the other horsemen were approaching swiftly. I reached out to Pascha and tugged on his stirrup, only realizing that I was crying when I spoke.
“Did you see where Gabi fell? Did you see, Pascha?”
He shifted away from me, and I tried to quickly wipe my tears away. Hot liquid smeared on my face- my hand was still bleeding with that pink, saplike fluid. It smelled sweet, and I hated it.
Zakhar, armored astride his heavy white charger, cantered over to my other side, as though he meant to keep me from escaping. But that was foolish. I could not have hoped to escape no matter how hard I tried. The arms I had used to crush him with were gone now. Instead the vine that grew from my navel was coiled in the grass, and the withered bush alongside.
It contains your truth, she had said. The letters? Did she mean the silver letters, and the coin. I have found the golem’s weakness, Pascha had said. I stepped sideways, away from him, closer to Zakhar.
Baba Yaga came to stand before me, with Kazimir slinking more slowly behind her, like a malevolent shadow. It was strange to see the witch out in the open, in the sunlight. In the field, she looked very nearly human, only a little bent, a little aged, a little wild, with her long white hair hanging around her like a cloud. She could have passed for someone’s grandmother if you had seen her from some distance.
She stood wordlessly for a moment, her withered old mouth puckered into a frown. I wiped my eyes again and gripped my cold shoulders. Something bad was about to happen, I as certain of it.
Pascha finally broke the silence, his horse-self pawing at the grass as his man-self spoke.
“Mistress, I have found it- the weakness of golems. It lies within that.”
He pointed to the bush that lay beside me. Something went tight in my solid stomach. Beside me, Zakar shifted on his four legs, and I thought I heard him say, very softly, “Fool.”
“Be silent!” shrieked the witch, and Pascha shimmered as he shrank back, both avatars cringing together. “Swine! That is not what I told you to seek!”
“The- other object,” he said, shrinking away further, shrinking in size, in fact, “the other- I could not find it- I thought that if I gave you your prior request-”
With a cry, he stopped speaking entirely, and diminished even more rapidly, the lines between man and horse blurring until he was nothing more than a large, trembling flame floating in midair. The witch raised a hand and clenched it tightly into a fist, and the flame glittered with violet sparks.
Zakhar shifted again, and behind the witch, Kazimir’s horse head thrust forward with a soft hiss. She whipped around to glare at him, her hand upraised, and he fell back with a doglike whimper.
“I should blot out the lot of you!” she shrieked. “Failures! Fools! And you!”
Without warning her fingers caught around my throat, her claws digging into my skin. I choked- my breath would not come through- my head pounded, and spots danced before my eyes. I could barely make out what she was snarling in my ear.
“What have you done with it? Where have you hidden it?”
Her breath smelled like sour milk and rotten meat, and the wetness of it fell with a physical weight upon my hair; I gagged and wheezed. She let me go, and caught the front of my borrowed vest before I could fall over backwards.
I only coughed the first time I tried to speak, an ache spreading over my neck like a blossom. “I- I do not know what you are speaking of…”
The witch growled, the rumble of a much larger beast.
“My death! You took my death!”
“Your…” I was bewildered. Had I heard wrong? Baba Yaga paced before me, her dark eyes electric with rage.
“She passed it to you- Vasilisa! And my foolish servants failed to see!” She passed a dark look around at the two horsemen and the flame that had once been Pascha. “I have wrung the truth out of her, and now I will do the same to you- where is it?”
I put my hand to my throat and tried to swallow; with every step Baba Yaga took I could see my doom coming that much closer. Frantically I cast my mind back to the last time I had seen Vasilisa. Had she given me anything? The seed- no, that could not have been it, Baba Yaga had wanted me to have it. The box- no, the same- but inside the box, there had been… there had been…
I might have said it out loud, in my surprise, or perhaps she merely gleaned it from my expression, for her eyes slitted, and I had to turn slightly away from her gaze.
“You know now, do you? You realize what it was you took?” Before I could answer, she gripped my chin and dragged me down onto my knees before her. “No- you don’t know at all! Baba Yaga cannot die, for she sewed away her death with a silver needle! Do you know, little earth-cast child, what a tiny thing a death is? You cannot even see it- but I heard it, smelt it, felt it at the tip of the needle when I pulled the thread through my soul- balanced on the very point of it- and I cut the thread, and fed the needle to a white duck from Russia, and hid the duck in the darkest corner of my home-”
She seemed to run out of breath here, and gasped a moment, her bony chest rising and falling rapidly.
“And that little wench,” she wheezed, “that little piglet, that girl Vasilisa- she gave it to you, without even knowing what it was!”
My thoughts were coming together in a dim way, though little of what the witch raved about made sense to me. But the sight of her so unraveled gave me the smallest glimmer of courage.
“What have you done to Vasilisa?”
Baba Yaga snarled, and her hand rose as though she were going to strike me, but instead she said, “I shall blast you to bits unless you give me my death back!”
“If you do that,” I said, hardly daring to believe the words that were coming from my own mouth, “you will never know where I put it.”
Baba Yaga’s eyes went wide, and every white hair on her head seemed to stand straight out, and her fingers curled into claws, and she screamed– such a furious sound that I thought my head would split, and I was glad I was already on my knees, for I surely would have fallen otherwise.
But, after a little while, the dreadful noise dwindled away, and Baba Yaga seemed to shrink back into an ordinary old woman, albeit steaming slightly from the shoulders.
“So,” she hissed, “it has teeth now.”
Once again her hand was at my neck, but much gentler now, the sharp nails only lightly stroking my skin, so that gooseflesh rose there.
“Tell me,” she crooned. “What is it that you want from me, dearie? For my death, I’ll do anything- it’s the only thing that was ever truly mine.”
I felt Zakhar’s astonished gaze on me, and Kazimir’s too, and I tried not to look directly into her eyes. My mind scrambled- what did I want? Why had I gone and said such a foolish thing? I could have just told her where I put it- oh, no, I did not even remember exactly where I had put it- in a tree, at the edge of the forest? I had to find it again before she realized I was bluffing!
“I- I want-”
My tongue, fat and clumsy, made me stumble over my next words, and Baba Yaga’s grip on me tightened.
“I want you to free them- the horsemen- and Vasilisa as well!”
Dead silence. Not even the grass in the meadow moved. Pascha’s flame had frozen mid-flicker.
“Very well,” said the witch, her voice low and dark, and I think that I should have felt triumphant just then instead of terrified. “For the return of my precious death, they shall be freed. But.”
I heard Zakhar shift and draw breath beside me; Kazimir had faded to a grey shadow behind the witch.
“But,” said Baba Yaga, “if I do not receive my death by- say-” She looked up at the horizon, at the brilliantly red sunrise. “By the time the sun sets tonight.”
“Tonight-!” I smothered my own protest. A frightening smile had crept over her face, and she looked at me with her eyes shining blackly.
“When the sun sets,” she said, “and I do not have my death back, I will sniff you out, earth’s child, and find your hiding place, and eat you. You should be ripe by then, dearie, and I think the taste of it would almost be as wonderful as having my death back.”
She stroked a line down beneath my chin, and then let me go. I found myself shaking, with both fear and relief.
“My servants will watch over you,” she said, sweeping her arm out to indicate the three silent horsemen. “To be sure that no harm comes to you before then.”
She turned, as though she were going to simply leave, after all that, and then paused.
“When the sun sets,” she said, “and I do not have my death, I will eat you- and I shall seek out that strigoi you are so fond of, and tear out both of her hearts, and pin them over my mantle.”