Baba Yaga walked towards me, and I walked backwards away from her. The roots tangled in my toes, and I stumbled. Gabi made a sound, tried to lunge forward, but Pascha dragged her back by her collar.
“Be still, you fool,” I heard him hiss.
Baba Yaga chuckled. Beneath her fluttering cape, she was so small and withered, shorter than me, nearly creaking with each step. But there was nothing weak about her. Her wrinkled skin seemed like it had retracted, compressed around something that had once been much larger, and that at any moment that thing might escape, and the witch would balloon outwards and engulf everything in her path. And it was not just a feeling, it was the truth: I had caught a glimpse of her true, monstrous self in her house before, while she slept. And now she was positively brimming with a terrible kind of energy, as she advanced on me, and I knew that at any moment now the monster might emerge and swallow me whole.
“Where is my Vasilisa?” she purred, reaching towards me with curled claws, and laughed when I scrambled backwards faster. “Do you lie, to give yourself a little more time? Look into my eyes and let me see.”
I was not lying, but I did not look into her eyes. Moisture had soaked into the back of my vest and trickled down my neck, my heart hammered, and every muscle in my body was taut. I think that it was the feeling of terror. Gabi’s face mirrored it where she stood before Pascha’s human self, watching me with her hands curled into fists. Pascha’s face was impassive. All three of them, the horsemen- they seemed faded to me, as though most of the light and color had been drawn out of them. When they had burst into the clearing mere minutes ago, Pascha had set the canopy on fire to let in fresh air, but the effort of it had made him turn transparent. It seemed that they had not yet recovered from their ordeal as the miniature sun. Or had the witch done something else to them?
My toes caught in yet more roots poking out of the dusty earth, but I kept my balance. Crina had been silent, once the witch had come into the clearing, led by poor Noroc… Was it an acknowledgement of her loss? Had she lost? Her poison no longer affected us- with the fresh air had come my wits and my remaining strength; the horrible pounding of my head and the heaviness of my chest had faded like a bad dream. And Gabi was awake. Gabi had survived, and even stood on her own two feet now! I could do what I had to do, for her. It was a terrible, dangerous thing that I was doing, betraying poor Vasilisa… But I could do it. I had backed up so far that I could almost stretch out and touch the golem. I hoped it would not move.
“You won’t look at me,” said the witch, her eyes glinting small and dark under her feathery-white brows. “I think you do lie. No matter. I won’t let you sneak away this time, dearie. If you don’t hold still, I shall have my horseman grab you again.”
I swallowed, to get more moisture into my throat, and then said, “But I am showing you where she is, I promise.”
“I don’t see her,” said Baba Yaga, creeping forward, baring her few remaining fangs. But were there more teeth in her mouth than I remembered? “Hmm, hmm, but perhaps I can smell her. Is she hiding from me? Or is it the lingering scent of somebody who is no longer here?”
“She’s still in this clearing,” I insisted, which was true. The golem loomed large out of the corner of my eye, and it took all my strength to stop walking backwards. It was beside me now, hunched down and curled forward like someone who had a stomachache. But golems did not get stomachaches. I wondered if Baba Yaga knew that golems were hollow inside. I saw no spark of realization in her eyes as she advanced upon me, running her tongue over her teeth.
I had no more time to be afraid. I reached out and took the golem’s big hand.
Nobody had expected this, it seemed. Gabi’s eyebrows drew together, and Baba Yaga stopped moving, tilting her head to one side. The golem swiveled its lump of a head to look at me, and I felt a slight resistance against my grip. Only the element of surprise was keeping it from jerking away from me, I knew. Quickly I moved the big hand and pressed it against my stomach, where the vest rose up; against my navel, where the hole from the vine was.
My hollow space.
I felt our connection like a rush of warm water, like a sudden great expansion inside my head, from a cramped cellar to a high-ceilinged cathedral. He was vast! It was so stunning that I felt dizzy, from the size of him, from the pure open space. Adamina had been a tight little creature of locks and doors, a cabinet with labeled jars inside, containing thoughts and memories and emotions that all had names… But Taavi was wide open! He had built nothing around himself to keep everything in order!
Taavi… is that your name?
Outside I must have closed my eyes, for I saw nothing, heard nothing: I had been sucked completely into the moment we were sharing. I felt his response like a gentle current against my face, not words or pictures but something more… pure.
He was pleased that I had recognized his name. I felt a memory come eddying towards me: Vasilisa’s face, seen from a great height, the dim sensation of her hand upon my arm, her singsong voice listing many sounds, until she paused upon the one that became my name.
Kezia! I reminded myself. I could not get lost in him. Oh, I had been overconfident, thinking that he would be easier than Adamina because he was so simple… His simplicity would overwhelm me! I was as bad as Adamina, with my words and my reason and my experience: boxes and labels. I might drown in his openness, his newness.
But he had a name now. And he had felt that he was a he now, a being that referred to itself, a being separate from the rest of the world. I tied myself down to these bits and pieces of his growing identity, desperately trying to anchor myself against the current.
But the connection was not just one-way, and his confusion surged back against me, nearly making me lose my grip. He did not know what to make of all my words and thoughts and memories, clumsily pushing up against them, fumbling and opening them and then reeling back from shock. I was forced to recall them along with him: flashes of a three-headed dragon, a flower budding on the back of Gabi’s neck, little bats crawling into my mouth and eyes. Was this how the other Kezia had felt, when I had stumbled through her head?
But there was no time to let him explore me, or vice versa. Outside of us the witch was waiting, and I doubted she would hesitate much longer. I brought the image of a silver needle to the forefront of my mind, praying that he would connect with it.
He did, he recognized it, though a moment ago he had no idea what a needle was called- he picked up words like little scraps, one at a time, when they were given to him as orders- there was no ghost inside him to draw their meanings from- he was a being only meant to be defined by commands. But I remembered the needle, the little silver shine- I liked the shine, it was bright, like the eye of a-
-the eye of a bird, peering at me from up in the branches, and it was a good feeling that it gave me, the shine, and it was standing up in the ground like a sharp thorn. And I picked it up and almost lost it because it was so small, and it was almost lost in my clay, the clay pressing around it, it was only a shining line, and I did not want to lose it in my hand, and so I put it on my head, and it felt-
-it felt safe up there, like a safe place. But though it was safe I could not see it in my head, because I could not see my own head, see the shine, I had not thought of this, it was safe but I could not see the bird’s eye shine. This was no good but I knew that if I tried to reach up and pull it out with my hand, my clay hand on my clay forehead, I would lose it, lose it deep in the clay, because it was small, and it was sharp, and it would go through my clay and disappear, so I had no choice but to leave it there, knowing it was safe on the surface but not able to see the shine.
But there were other parts of myself that I could see that were not like my hands, always pressing into things, and if I found another shine I might be able to see it and keep it safe if I put it there, so I looked, and looked, and found interesting things, even if they were not shiny. And if I found something interesting, like a branch with a dark whorl or lines carved by little insects, I would put it on my arm, or my chest, something like a stone with a red streak on one side, or a leaf that the sun shone through and left little dark spots, I could put it on myself and see it whenever I wanted, and even put it on my head if it was big enough that I would not lose it, because I could pull it off and look at it whenever I wanted, and even on my back, and my shoulders, all the things that I liked to look at, I could have them.
And I had so many interesting things to look at now, but I still thought of the little shine, but I knew that it was there on my forehead, so that was good, it was there and safe, and I could make a picture of it inside my head, which was almost as good as seeing it again, it was like how I saw Mother now, just a picture in my head, and I could pretend that the things I was doing were what she wanted me to-
I dragged myself out of the current of Taavi’s memories, reminding myself- Kezia, Kezia, Kezia, I am Kezia! Mother- not my mother, not his mother either, despite what he thought- I felt that way too, Taavi, I felt that sickly love, but she is not our mother!
He was confused, he did not understand- the bitterness, the riot of emotion, the layers of my memory surrounding Adamina were more than he had ever encountered. I did not have time to teach him! I did my best to push her aside from the both of us, though he still grasped feebly at the thought of her, and I felt his desperate longing to please her again. Please mother, please mother, please, mother…
Enough! I thought, and he reeled back from my anger. I was being too harsh with him, but there was no time, no time! The needle, the needle- he had to pull out the needle and give it to me!
But the shine will be lost if Taavi touches it, Taavi’s hands are too big and clumsy…
No, Taavi, you are not clumsy at all! I urged, pressing on my own memories of learning to manipulate my clay at will. He could extract it without using his hands at all, if he just concentrated, and felt for it. His body could be any shape he wanted it to be.
I could… look at the shine again?
Yes, Taavi, yes- you have so much power that you do not even know about, and I could show you how to use it all- but right now we must be swift, little brother. I need you to give me the needle.
As I imparted this to him, I felt myself tense: it was clear that he treasured the thing. He would not want to give it up so easily…
I will give you the shine.
He replied to me without a trace of resistance, and for a moment I was shocked, but no. Of course he would not refuse an order. Of course.
Thank you, Taavi. And I am sorry for this.
He did not know ‘sorry.’ He had yet to understand that some actions could cause guilt or regret. He touched the word tentatively, and then recoiled.
You will not take away my mistress!
With a jolt I realized that I had been too open, that he had seen an image of Vasilisa inside my sense of guilt- mistress? Why was she his mistress?
Another memory, a moment: for some reason it was Gabi’s face, Gabi’s tight grimace, an old man I recognized as Elan in the background- Gabi leaping to stab me in the forehead with a bloody splinter. Before that moment, the golem had known exactly what to do to please its mother. After that moment, I did not know anything anymore. The sense of mother suddenly vanished. What had mother been ordering me to do, exactly? At the time, I had barely understood what mother even meant. The word had been conjured up at the sight of her face, when she had created me, pulled my muddy body hastily out of the ground, told me, “Drive the intruders away, or kill them.”
After that moment, the words that I had understood so clearly and strung up inside my mind fell down in a jumble, and I did not know what to do. And I was lost. I wanted to go back to mother. But I had not finished what she had asked me to do. But I did not know what it was. I knew that I was meant to obey mother, but I did not know enough about words to use them on my own. I did not understand anything at all. It was frightening. I was very frightened because I did not understand anything. Mother would have helped me understand but I did not know where she was, the moment before the splinter had pierced me I had known but I did not know anything now. It was frightening, it was frightening, I was lost, lost, lost…
After some time I calmed down, and I remembered what I had been doing before the piercing, and it was to try and get, to try and get the people on the ground somewhere. Away. “Away” was away. So I took the limp body of the remaining one “away.” But after a long time I saw it come back. So I picked it up again and started to carry it “away.” I did not know how far “away” was. But I moved many things “away.” The black thing with the teeth “away.” And then… and then…
A touch to my forehead, and then…
She was my mistress!
And for the first time in that long time I felt no more fear, and I was happy, because she was my mistress, and I knew what to do again, and I loved her so much, and I was safe, because she would help me understand, because she knew what to do, and I loved her, and she gave me my name, and I loved her.
And then the “intruder” took it away again.
She gave you back your free will!
I do not like ‘free will,’ I do not like it, it is frightening, I am not safe. I want my mother, I want my mistress.
No, Taavi… You do not need them to-
A spark of pain traveled up my arm, and I felt my body flinch in reality, and gasp. Our connection grew hazy.
What is that?
He came towards the pain curiously, then jerked back.
It is bad!
Taavi! The needle! I thought, desperately clinging to him as I felt him growing more distant. I did not want to hurt Vasilisa- I did not want to have to give her to the witch! He had to feel that, to know I was telling the truth; there was no deception between us, and in any case I did not think he understood what lying was. But if I could not get the needle, to save Gabi and myself, I would- I would-
That was his thought, pulling on the word I had used, searching through the things I had shown him as the pain in my arm grew brighter and harsher, searching through his own forehead, peeling away the clay.
There were the silver letters. With a pang, I stopped him from exposing them to the air- not those, keep them hidden, Taavi!
He obeyed, of course, but there was a dim moment of bewilderment; he searched around and around inside his own self, feeling twigs and stones and leaves and bones and the silver letters again, but no needle.
It is not here…
I think it was the horrible shock that made me drop his hand, and in an instant the connection was lost, and I awoke to searing agony.
I was screaming. The pain was too much to bear. There were teeth in my shoulder.
Baba Yaga released me, and screamed back in my face with a mouth full of blood. Drops of it spattered onto my cheeks as I fell backwards onto the forest floor, landing hard on the dirt and roots, clutching the dark morass that had been my shoulder with one shaking hand. Dark blood oozed through my fingers like syrup.
“Human now, you taste human, good enough to eat,” gurgled the witch, through her mouthful of my blood, and she hunched down over me, and o, her eyes were just like Gabi’s had been when she fed, wide and round and dark and remorseless. I could not look away from them. I could not move, except to shake, as she took my arm in her withered hand and bit down on it.
Again I screamed, felt something inside me grind from the strength of that bite, felt my flesh give way as she sucked and grinned at me, all teeth and gum and red on papery-white skin. Her terrible eyes, I could not look away from her eyes, even as she swallowed, even as she opened her jaw for another bite! And I realized, I realized the terrible truth- that she was going to make her own connection with me, like the one I had just broken with Taavi, except I would not get away from hers, ever. I would become a part of that horrible empty space behind her eyes, swallowed up and cut up and digested for eternity. And the witch grinned, and smacked her bloody lips, and opened her mouth for another bite.
And then suddenly she frowned, and in that instant I could look away from her eyes, and saw-
Gabi scrambling up onto Baba Yaga’s back, her shirt missing, snarling, her hands squeezing at the witch’s crooked neck, her eyes alight with hatred.
I lay on my back and could only shake, oozing more dark blood onto the ground- human blood, Gabi’s blood- a singing in my ears, a throbbing in my head, pain, pain, agony– I could only watch as Baba Yaga slowly straightened up, slowly, slowly, reached back, slowly, slowly, and caught Gabi under the arm and tossed her to the ground, as lightly as you would toss a sparrow.
“I told you to wait your turn, girl,” she hissed. “Baba Yaga does not like having her meals interrupted.”
“As if I’d make it easy for you, you old shit,” spat Gabi, who was struggling to get up, though she was clearly in pain from the way she had landed. “I don’t care if we’re both going to die, I am going to make trouble for you until the very last second my heart is still beating, and when you eat my filthy miserable soul you’re going to choke on it!”
The witch raised one mossy, bare foot and planted it squarely in the center of Gabi’s chest, between her breasts, forcing her flat on her back, and chided, “Value yourself more, dearie.”
In between beats of agony I choked out a sound, struggled to move my arm- Gabi was close, so close, if I could just grasp her hand- if only I could hold her hand, in the moment before it was all over. But all I could do was retch and shudder.
The witch was unfolding. She was growing bigger without growing at all, but I could feel her, that terrible pressure increasing. The trees around us were creaking from the force of it. I could not speak.
Baba Yaga laughed, and took her foot off of Gabi’s chest.
“Why not? Come, and try to stop me as I eat up your beloved.”
Gabi struggled to her feet, as I tried to cough out a desperate word- the witch leisurely turned back towards me, leisurely knelt down, leisurely ignored Gabi’s desperate hands as she struggled to yank her back from me. I knew from her first tug that it was hopeless. The witch’s bones were like iron. Gabi swore, with tears in her eyes, kicked at her, slapped her face, clawed at her leathery skin as Baba Yaga knelt back down over me, grinning.
Gabi was screaming, clawing, fighting an immovable object.
“No! No! No! The golem! Look at the golem, damn you!”
Baba Yaga lifted my unbitten arm, considered it as though it were a shank of lamb, blood and spittle drooling from the corner of her mouth. I tried to shut my eyes, but she had caught me in hers again; I would have to watch.
“The golem! THE GOLEM!”
Baba Yaga’s hairy nostrils flared, and she gave a little grunt of annoyance, deep in her throat, and put my arm in her mouth- I felt her broken fangs graze my skin, the wet heat of her breath- and then her nostrils flared again, and she snuffled, like a dog.
She dropped my arm, pushed away the shrieking Gabi, still snuffling, and waddled around on her knees until she faced Taavi.
Taavi, my poor brother Taavi; he was standing up with Vasilisa’s limp body in his arms.
“My Vasilsa!” screeched Baba Yaga, and in a flash she had snatched her away from him, and cradled her in her own arms with surprising tenderness, leaning close over her face. “Oh! Oh!”
Gabi dragged herself up from the ground once more, and crawled over to me, gripping my hand. I mustered what strength I had left and tried to squeeze back. Tears were rolling freely down her cheeks.
“Oh, oh,” crooned the witch, touching Vasilisa’s closed eyes, her parted lips. “Oh!”
She was not moving, I realized. Her skin was so pale it was nearly gray. And her chest did not rise and fall.
“Dead!” shrieked the witch, throwing back her head. “Dead! Dead! My Vasilisa, dead!”
She howled with something I might have called grief, her shoulders quaking; but it only lasted a moment before a rumbling, feral snarl burst out of her, and she stamped her feet, Vasilisa’s corpse wagging in her arms, screaming, “Curse you, curse you, I curse you, Treewitch! I’ll burn you to the ground for this! I’ll sow this earth with salt! I’ll poison your water, strip bare your trees, run a spear of frost through every green core here! I’ll leave not one root unturned- the Hercynian forest will be naught more than a memory in the minds of men when I have finished with you!”
Taavi put his hands over his face, clearly terrified, but the witch had not even noticed him, it seemed, with all her ranting and raving. There was a creak and a jingle as Pascha pulled himself back up onto his horse-self, and Kazimir was retreating too; clearly something was going to happen soon, she was going to do something very dangerous. I managed to squeeze Gabi’s hand a little tighter, and was comforted when she squeezed back.
“I shall raze this forest to the ground,” said Baba Yaga, and she coughed, like she had gotten choked up, “after I have eaten my two remaining-”
What happened just then was hard for me to see, from my angle on the ground, and it made so little sense that I thought I had not even seen it correctly until I heard Gabi gasp.
Vasilisa, formerly limp, had raised one curled hand to touch against the witch’s forehead. When it fell back, I saw a tiny, shining something sticking out of it.
Baba Yaga made a noise, like a surprised little whine, as Vasilisa forced herself out of her arms, staggering back against Taavi, who took his hands away from his face and clumsily tried to support her. Her expression was utterly empty, as she looked back at the witch, who was…
She was sagging, every bit of her, her skin hanging off her arms lower and lower in great bags, drooping deeper and deeper under her jowls, falling away from her eyes to show more and more red until suddenly I could see the glistening muscles in her jaw; her lips hung down horribly, her fingers drooped forwards like sausage skins, her withered breasts poked out of her cloak with skin like boiled cabbage. And Baba Yaga sank down to her ballooning, sagging knees with a deep moan, slumping forward onto the pile of skin that was hanging off her chest, and very suddenly she was nothing but that, old withered skin, with nothing solid left inside.
The needle shone brightly, still sticking out of the spot that had once been her forehead in the grotesque puddle on the ground. After a very long moment of absolute silence, Taavi started to reach for it. Vasilisa slapped his hand aside.
Gabi let out a long, long breath, that turned into a bark of laughter at the end.
“She’s gone!” she cried out, and knelt down and kissed me on both cheeks, making me flinch. “Kezia! KEZIA! She’s gone!”
Was she? I stared hard at the empty bag of skin: it seemed to be turning browner and browner, decaying and shrivelling before our very eyes. Was the witch dead? From the mere prick of a needle?
I rolled my eyes back over to look at Pascha, and saw only air: he was not there any more, horse or man. Kazimir and Zakhar, too; they were all utterly gone, leaving only Gabi’s shirt and the sad little heap that was Noroc.
Gabi kissed my lips, getting my attention back, then rose and trotted over to her shirt, then trotted back somewhat less steadily back to me, to try and wrap it around my mangled arm. I bit my lip and shut my eyes and tried not to yell as she gently lifted it.
“She’s gone, she’s gone, Kezia,” Gabi was saying under her breath, in a singsong tone, interspersing it with soft kisses to my lips, cheeks, neck. “I love you, she’s gone.”
I felt the shirt tighten around my arm and could not stop a whimper, which made her nuzzle up and murmur soothing words, near-nonsense as I breathed shallowly through my teeth- “You’re good, you’re brave, I love you, my dear, I love you.”
“Ouch,” I finally managed to wheeze back, and she laughed softly.
“I’m sorry, but it must be tight if we’re to stop that bleeding. It isn’t much of a bandage, but it is a magic shirt, so perhaps it’ll be of some help… And you, don’t you dare take one step closer, unless you want me to tear that throat out.”
This last statement caught me off-guard, until I realized it was not directed at me, but at Vasilisa, who was staring at the two of us. Behind her, Taavi was still looking down at what was left of Baba Yaga.
“Vasilisa,” I croaked. “You… are not dead?”
Indeed, she seemed to be standing with no effort at all, with no sign of the poison in her veins, but when she met my eyes I felt a surge of nausea that had little to do with my wounds. Her cheeks were still corpse-pale, with no bloom of color to them.
“She’s not dead,” said Gabi, crouching over me, one hand hovering protectively over my arm, and the blood-soaked ground beneath it. “But she’s not alive, either.”