A vampire in the garden.
The witch had a vampire tied up in the garden.
When I first saw it, I nearly fainted: it was the same one, that red-haired girl who’d snarled at me so on Baba Yaga’s doorstep. Now she hung limp, tied to a cross by her wrists and ankles. Perhaps she was meant to look crucified, but she really looked more like a tomato plant on a trellis amidst the other plants.
She was not frightening at all like this, hanging boneless, eyes shut, apparently unconscious. I was not sure how I had even been frightened of her before, when she had pushed me back against the door- but she had more strength than you’d expect, for such a little body, and her words were thick with venom.
It wasn’t as if the witch had warned me about her being there, or told me a single thing: all she’d done was ordered me to go out and plant some bluebells in the garden around the new tree.
I supposed that the vampire was meant to be the new tree, for she happened to have a white branch growing out of one arm.
She may have threatened to kill me and drink my blood, but it was still quite hard not to pity her when she hung there like that. Especially when she had been caught by Baba Yaga herself. I assumed that the white branch was part of some spell or another. I hadn’t known vampires could be affected by spells like mortal men and women, but then again, I didn’t know very much about vampires.
I wondered if perhaps I ought to bring her water. Would a vampire need water? No, more than that, how would I even give it to her? Her hands were tied, so I’d have to go right up and pour it in her mouth, and that seemed to me an especially stupid thing to do.
I glanced at the bluebells I’d planted around her feet. Why bluebells, anyhow? The witch had shook me roughly awake and demanded I go fetch her some the night before. She’d been cackling away to herself as though some particularly wicked though had struck her. Though I daresay a kindly thought would have been much rarer.
Why was I worrying so much about the vampire, anyhow? I shook my head and emptied the slop bucket out into the garden. Remnants of Baba Yaga’s last meal splashed out over the plants, coating them with viscous red and black things. By now I had learned to pinch my nose and not look very closely.
There was a great creaking and rattling behind me, and I glanced back. The house had turned on its axis, so that now the front door was facing out towards the garden. One of the shutters on the windows creaked open slightly, and a thin shaft of reddish light spilled out over my arm.
I smiled, and reached out and patted the wooden siding on one side of the door. The roof shingles rattled appreciatively.
One thing I had gotten used to, and even learned to appreciate, living with the witch, was that all the inanimate objects she kept with her tended to take on a small amount of personality. Even the bucket seemed to sigh when I scraped the bloody remains of Baba Yaga’s slop into it. But the house was certainly the most active of all of them. It was, I thought, a little bit catlike in its manner, despite the presence of the chicken legs. It liked a bit of fuss and attention, but only on its own terms; if I tried to coo and stroke it whenever I pleased it would turn around and ignore me.
There were certainly many signs that I had gone quite mad, staying with Baba Yaga, and patting and talking sweetly to her house was the least of them. But then, she was a Yaga, after all. In Russia there was not a child who did not know the name. When she had offered to make a contract me, I had not known just who she was, only that she was a witch, but I had learned soon enough after that.
I sighed, and the house’s door creaked open slightly, a questioning sound. I had stopped my petting at the thought of my deal with the witch.
From behind me, there came a groan, and the door snapped smartly shut. I turned, empty bucket knocking against my shins. The vampire had raised her head, and I saw that she had begun to open her eyes, squinting against the light: they were vivid blue.
I had my hand on the doorknob, ready to slip through the door before she saw me, but no such luck. The moment I started to turn it, the house rumbled and opened its shutters to send a glare of red light out towards the vampire, who made an angry hissing sound.
“You,” she snarled.
The shutters behind me smacked open and shut as I turned to face her. It was inevitable, anyhow; I didn’t suppose the witch was going to move her anytime soon.
“Hello,” I said, trying to seem as though I didn’t notice how she was tied up or the way that she was drawing her lips back to snarl at me.
She twitched, as if the word had been a stone I’d thrown at her. Her fingers clenched, and I saw her test the bonds at her wrists- then stop with a flinch. The arm with the branch growing out of it had flexed in an uncomfortable-looking direction.
“I am sorry about your situation,” I said. I was uncomfortable, too. “I would help you, but I don’t believe the witch would-”
“Help me?” the vampire spat, and writhed again at her bonds. “Help me?! You?”
“Well- I would,” I said, put out in spite of myself.
The creature laughed, and then went limp in her bonds. “Oh! So you want to help me? Then come over here and put your neck in my mouth.”
She opened her mouth, showing me a very healthy-looking set of teeth. I was a bit surprised to see that her canines did not look much longer or pointier than onrdinary ones, though she did have a chipped front tooth that looked mildly sharp.
Perhaps she had expected me to shrink back, rather than peer at her curiously, for she closed her mouth with an expression I thought was confusion.
“Are you going to stand there all day gawping?” she snapped. “Go away! I’d rather to speak with your mistress, anyhow!”
“She’s not at home,” I explained. “She took Pascha with her and went away somewhere. Kazimir is here, though.”
I had just recently learned his name- that huge, solemn black horse with a drooping head- and only from asking Zakhar. Kazimir hadn’t said a word since he’d returned to the paddock, just stood there silently to one side.
“I don’t want to speak to him,” the vampire said sourly. “Or you. You seem to have forgotten that I’m going to kill you.”
She said it with much conviction, but it was very hard to feel imtimidated by someone who looked so pitiful.
“Why do you want to kill me?” I asked.
“Shut up! Don’t you know what I am?”
“I mean,” I said, rubbing at the chafing skin on one of my arms, “I know that you’re a vampire, after a sort, and you prefer to drink blood-”
“Your blood,” the vampire added helpfully, “in particular.”
“But why in particular? We’ve never met before, have we?”
My question hung in the air a moment as the vampire narrowed her eyes at me. Then suddenly she laughed.
“You think I have some grudge against you? For a little suckling piggy, how self-important you are! But I’m afraid that after I’ve had your blood, I shan’t give your pretty little face a second thought. You should’ve been dead with your life in my belly long ago.”
I swallowed my indignation and said, “So we have met.”
“No. The hunter doesn’t meet the doe he looses an arrow at the woods. I was to have you at my mercy, but that foul witch got to you first. And she’s the cause of all my troubles now! When I’m free from this I shall see her stamp and scream!”
She wriggled in an agitated way, like a netted trout.
“Stop, please!” I exclaimed. “You’re making yourself bleed!”
Indeed, blood was beginning to drip down the white branch protruding from her arm, very bright against the pale. The two pink flower buds on the tips of the twigs trembled.
She stopped struggling and hung there, panting. Drops of blood were hitting the bluebells at her feet, making them nod gently.
“I am sorry about your- er- difficulty with Baba Yaga,” I said, frowning at her arm, which was still dripping. I hadn’t known vampires had such ordinary-looking blood. Why drink blood if you already had it? “I just don’t see why it must involve me.”
One of her red curls fell into her eyes as she glared at me, and she blew it away with a puff of breath.
“Because,” she said, very slowly and patronizingly, “you were mine, and she took you.”
“But she didn’t take me at all! I went to her, and asked her for- asked her for something. So you’ve got it all wr-”
“You don’t understand! The moment she saw you on that forest path, she had designs on you, and she meant to have you return. Don’t speak as though you had free will, piggy!”
Drip-drip-drip went her blood, and she grimaced during the last few words. I wondered if it was my imagination that the flower buds on the branch were blushing redder.
I opened my mouth to explain to her that no, the reason I had gone to Baba Yaga was because my father had died, and I had desperately needed to get away from my stepfamily- but then a dreadful thought occurred to me. I could picture my father’s body in the forest, lying with eyes and jaws agape, throat torn as though he had been mauled by some beast. I had found him there just after meeting the witch for the first time.
I had thought it strange, through my grief, that the wolf, or bear, or whatever had killed him had not stayed to feed on his body…
“Would the witch…”
I trailed off, because I had just looked back at the vampire’s face and found it to be wearing a most unpleasant grin.
“What, girl? Would the witch what?”
“Never mind,” I said, because another, equally unpleasant idea had come to me. I tried to push it away, and shook my head. I was only weary; sleep had been hard to come by for some time.
“Would it help you,” I said instead, “if I let you drink just a bit of my blood? I am sure I could spare a few drops, if it was only a few.”
The vampire recoiled, or tried to, her heels knocking against the wooden stake.
“A few drops?” she spat. “Keep them! I don’t want your drippings, I want your life, girl!”
“I don’t know why,” I said. “I have precious little left as it…”
“Be quiet,” said the vampire. “Shut up! How dare you try to befriend me- you think sweet words will make me spare you when the time comes? I will kill you- kill you and be glad of it, pig!”
She was trembling against the stake. For a moment I thought that my words really were having an effect on her, but then she said, “I killed him, you know, but his life’s blood was not near as sweet as yours shall be.”
I turned away, back towards the house, which creaked its shutters at me. The vampire was chuckling cruelly behind me.
“Ah! Where’s your pity and sweetness gone, girl? Maybe you’ve realized the sort of thing I am.”
I placed one hand against the wall of the house and looked back at her, deep into her blue eyes. I looked for something, some inkling of regret, of discomfort, of humanity. But even though I had thought that all vampires were once human, I saw no sign that this one had ever been so.
“Come now,” it purred, “give me a drop of that blood.”
I went into the house and slammed the door.
I stood within the room for a few very long moments, breathing shallowly, clenching and unclenching my fists. My heart thundered in my breast, with rage or sorrow or fear I could not say.
It seemed my father had, truly, been killed by a beast.
Gradually I managed to calm myself, taking great gulps of the stale air within the hut. It was not as though the vampire could follow me here, ingloriously restrained as it was. And it was not as if this new knowledge changed much, if anything, about the life I had to now endure.
At the thought, my stomach curled underneath my ribcage, reminding me of how empty it felt. I rubbed my eyes and cast around the hut. The single room was cluttered as ever, with barely any space to walk between things: the bed sidled up to the table squeezed up to the bureau leaned against the oven. Yet I had noticed that even though everything the witch brought inisde only just seemed to fit, nothing would ever not fit.
It was not very Christian to admire witchcraft, but I had to admit that I was jealous of that particular skill, as I ducked underneath a row of hanging dried herbs. I could think of many times over when it would have been useful to me. When my stepmother told me that I could only keep as many of my mother’s belongings as I could fit into my arms, for example. When three boys gave me flowers and I had to scramble to hide them in my basket before she saw and wrenched it all out of my hands.
Of course, it was wrong of me to so maliciously pick out memories that painted my stepmother in a poor light. There were good ones, too. For example, she had… she had…
She had told me I was pretty once!
(Though I believe her exact words were Too pretty, accompanied by eyes like daggers, while my stepsister had sniveled by the fire.)
I shook my head, and as I passed the witch’s stinking mattress, absently straightened the rumbled blankets. She would never let me wash them, which irked at me, but at the very least I could try to have them appear neat.
I had stashed a bit of food in a wooden trough- it had formerly held sand and poppy seeds- and now pulled the items out one by one. A bit of charred meat (origin unknown), one of the sweet red fruits from the garden, and the stale heel from a loaf of bread. That last had been my prize, and I had eaten it slowly and reverently over the last few days. It had come into my posession when the witch received one of her rare visitors, a tall, confused-looking young man who knocked on the door and entered without noticing me gawping at him from near the horse paddock. A short time later, Baba Yaga had exited the hut, looking pleased, and when I dared reenter it there was absolutely no sign of her guest.
Aside from his clothing and satchel, that was, and there had been bread and a few coins mixed in all that. Also a knife, but that was useless for me: the witch had a thousand knives, all for me to use in slaughtering more animals for her dinner, and if I had at any point turned one against her doubtless the edge would have blunted itself immediately.
In any case, I rarely had any sort of bread, or anything that might be made with flour, living with the witch, so it was with great care that I took a few delicate nibbles. Even stale, it was a lovely change from meat and vegetables.
The front step creaked, and I hastily dropped the bread into the trough out of sight. But it was only the house shifting itself, rattling the pots and pans and making the herbs swing wildly as it moved around to face away from the garden again. That meant the witch might be returning home soon. I grabbed the corner of the bureau as it started to slide forward; the house was rocking slightly from side to side as it nestled down again.
As the groaning and clattering ceased, I heard a voice calling from outside:
“Baba Yaga! Baba Yaga! If that’s you returning, you’d better come back here and speak to me!”
I gritted my teeth- I’d nearly forgotten about her. Well, that was not true. I had not forgotten her at all, only willed myself to pretend she wasn’t really there.
I rubbed my temples with my palms, wishing she would stop shouting. I did not have much time to dawdle about- there was cooking and cleaning to do, always, and the garden to tend to, if I was bold enough to go back outside. If I was bold enough.
If I was really bold, I could have turned my head over to pondering the latest- and last- task that the witch had compelled me to complete for her. The third, and final, seemingly impossible task.
Only it hadn’t seemed impossible. When I had shown the witch the separated poppy seeds, and the sand at the bottom of the barrel, she had stamped and cursed and flung things about in a most satisfying tantrum. But then she had become dreadfully quiet, which never boded well, and had turned to me with a smile.
“Someone,” she had said, “or something, has been helping you, and that’s cheating, my sweet Vasilisa.”
When I had opened my mouth to make some feeble protest, she raised a withered hand.
“All is well! I cannot deny that you’ve completed what I’ve asked. But now we shall have to make the task a bit more challenging, hmm?”
At this I had bitten my lip, expecting her to spout some wildly impossible deed, such as carrying a mountain or kissing a bear. But it was nothing like that at all.
“I want you to find me a needle. Your freedom lies at the end of it.”
It was always unwise to interrupt the witch, but at this I had sputtered out, “A- a needle? That’s all?”
Baba Yaga had merely grinned and stroked the soft hairs on her chin.
A needle should not been such a hard thing to find. After all, the hut was filled with all sorts of clutter in the corners, things like cracked spinning wheels and gardening trowels and broken chair legs and small statues of fat, naked women that made me blush. I couldn’t imagine how there wouldn’t be a sewing kit of some sort amidst all of it.
Of course, you may well think me a fool. Why would the witch ever make it so easy for me? I searched and searched, amidst all the mess- I found a number of peculiar curiosities, like an extremely large, withered old turnip, a beautiful golden slipper (only marred by the spots of blood within the toe), and a live white duck. The duck was currently living quite contentedly in one of the bureau drawers, nibbling on leftover grain and poppy seeds, but it brought me no closer to finding a needle. Indeed, I could not find so much as a spool of thread within the hut. Perhaps the only way to get one was to find a village and buy one there, but how was I to do that? The witch had warned me that leaving her yard meant that our wager was forfeit, and then I’d be left alone and lost in the forest. There had to be some clever way of solving this task the same as all the rest, but I just couldn’t think of it. How could there be a riddle hidden in a demand like “find me a needle”? Ought I to go look in a haystack?
I did wish, with increasing frequency, that I might meet my mysterious clay doll again- Kezia, that was her name- big or little. I fancied that she would keep shrinking, and the next time I’d see her, she’d be smaller than a mouse. I had told her quite proudly that I’d solve this last task for myself, yet what did I have to show for it now?
I will admit that I was wanting for a kindly face, as well. The witch was not so bad as my stepmother, in truth, for at least she was fond of me, in her own, er, way. But she was rarely about, and when she was, she often barked orders at me and went at once to sleep. Her horsemen were also difficult to talk to, if they were even about; Zakhar turned his big nose up at me, the black one was utterly silent. Pascha, the red, was the friendliest, and his wicked jibes had made me laugh on occasion, but I felt that the witch kept him in the tightest grip of all, for often he would stop talking midsentence with a pained look, as though someone had tugged an invisible lead attatched to his neck.
And now, of course, there was the vampire in the garden, likely the furthest out of all of them from something I could befriend.
With a sigh that was somewhat self-pitying (I will admit) I withdrew my red fruit from the bucket and ate it slowly as I wandered about the cabin. If I were Baba Yaga, where would I hide a needle? It was hard to imagine anything from her perspective. Perhaps it was hidden on the roof, or buried in the garden. How hopeless was my search!
I paused beside the witch’s great stinking bed, the fruit dripping at my lips. On the wall between the posts was a wooden frame, the sort a hunter might hang the head of a deer upon, and on it were mounted three purplish-looking human hands. These were among the witch’s most mysterious servants, and they had always given me a sour feeling in my stomach the longer I looked at them. Even as I stared now, I thought I saw the littlest finger of one twitch ever so slightly- but it could have been my imagination.
But this time I did not look away. I could not help but notice, from so close a proximity, that there was something curious about them (besides the purplish tinge). All around the edges of the fingers was a very faint stitching, as though they had been cut lengthwise and stitched back together again. It was the first of any sort of stitching that I had seen within the witch’s house, and I wondered…
I drew the fruit away from my mouth, and with my free hand reached out to touch the tip of one of the middle hand’s fingers.
As soon as I made contact with the skin, I knew that this had been a poor choice: it was not cold, as I had expected, but burning furiously hot, so much so that I cried out. The hand jerked and then leapt forward to snatch my wrist. The other two dropped down from the wall and began scuttling towards me across the floor.
I stumbled back, dropping the fruit with a wet smack, and tried to shake off the burning hand, which was slowly inching its way up my arm. The others crawled towards me over the floor with horrid soft tapping noises. One ran into the fruit and grasped it so that the red flesh pulped and spurted within its fingers. I heard the hard pit within crack. The other darted forward and grabbed the bottom of my skirt.
I screamed and aimed a kick at it, sending it flying away in a satisfying arc, but even at this the one on my arm leapt again and grabbed my face, hot as a brand, fingers digging into my cheeks. I was blinded, and fell backwards, and something else hot and horrid scampered up my side and wetly grasped my neck. And squeezed.
There was a tremendous bang.
“Eh, fie, off her, fools!”
At the croaking command, the hands released me at once, and fell to the floor like dead things. I coughed and choked and gasped my way away from them until my back hit a pair of bony legs.
Baba Yaga caught me by the hair and yanked me up onto my feet.
“Little lazybones! Haven’t I warned you not to disturb my servants?” She cocked her head and seemed to discern an answer from the garbled sounds I was making. “No? Well, consider that your warning!”
She cackled and pushed me away, so that I fell back and grasped the bureau to keep myself upright. With a snap of her fingers, the hands jumped and scuttled back up to their places on the wall.
“Mistress,” came a voice, and I turned and saw Pascha, in human form, standing in the doorway. In one hand he held a live fawn by its hind legs, in the other, a squirming swan.
The witch waved a lazy hand, and moved her bed aside with a hearty kick. Beneath it was a trapdoor, which lifted up unaided. Pascha strode forward and dropped both the sad-looking fawn and the hissing bird down into the blackness below.
The door snapped shut.
“I do think I shall do well for supper,” said the witch, baring her teeth. “But first, I shall tend to my garden.”
She seemed to be in a terribly good mood. From my position on the bureau, I flicked my eyes at Pascha. To my surprise, he was stony-faced. Normally he would have given me a wink or a shrug, some kind of response. His mood seemed as low as Baba Yaga’s was high.
“I dismiss you,” she said now, flicking her fingers at him. “Rest yourself, for very soon I shall have all three of you very busy.”
He bowed, still wearing a mask of anger, and retreated through the door. The witch tugged the bed back over the trapdoor with a grunt, and then looked at me.
“What a great deal of trouble you got yourself into while I was away! Are you sure you wouldn’t rather sit on my spatula and let me cook you?”
She tutted, and then stamped her foot. Every piece of furniture rattled as I felt the house begin turning itself back around. I grabbed one of the drawers behind me before it slid open and revealed the duck.
“How do you like my new tree, girl?” she asked, drawing a tattered cloak from her shoulders and tossing it onto the bed.
It took me a moment to realize what she meant, then I said, “I’m afraid I don’t like it very much at all.”
At this she only chuckled.
“Come out into the garden with me.”
Of course I could not refuse, reluctant as I was, so when the door opened I followed her outside.
The vampire, I noticed at once, had gone limp again on her trellis, her curls fallen over her eyes as her head drooped forwards. A bit of spittle was dripping from her chin. I was rather shocked to realize that one of the pink- no, red- flowers on the branch protruding from her arm had opened up.
The witch seemed to notice this too, and a nasty smile spread across her face, far too full of teeth. She prodded the loose earth where I had planted the bluebells with her toe for a moment, then bent down and plucked a spray. This she twirled in her hand as she spoke.
With a start, the vampire’s head jerked up, and her eyes opened, vividly blue. The witch stroked the bluebells across her chin.
“Well? Have you no words for me, then?”
The vampire stared at the witch in a curiously blank way.
“Do you know where the golem is?”
“Eh?” said the witch, a note of displeasure in her tone. “Golem?”
“I must find the golem,” said the vampire. “Please release me. I must find the golem.”
Baba Yaga sucked her teeth, then leaned to examine the red flower on the vampire’s arm.
“Crude,” she muttered. “How terribly crude! I had hoped for something better, Mother Forest.”
“Let me go,” said the vampire, still in that oddly calm way.
“You, my dear,” said the witch, “are a catspaw of a catspaw. How unfortunate for you.” She raised the spray of bluebells above the vampire’s arm and tapped their heads. I saw a faint dusting of pollen fall over the red blossom.
“I must find the golem,” the vampire insisted.
“Golem,” Baba Yaga murmured, stretching out the word as though it was unfamiliar to her tongue. Not to me, though- I suddenly recalled where I had heard it before. It was what the clay doll, Kezia, had referred to herself as!
“What will you do,” asked Baba Yaga, crumpling the bluebells in one hand, “once you find this golem, strigoi?”
The vampire tilted her head slightly.
“I will destroy it.”
My heart seemed to drop to my knees.
“Eh, how typical.” Baba Yaga shook her head, then turned her back on the vampire. “Well, you shan’t be doing that anytime soon, my dear.”
“Let me go. I must-”
“Oh, be quiet! I wish I could prune you now. I’d rather have you squirming and screaming again.”
The vampire merely blinked. I was staring at her, so transfixed that it took me a few moments to realize that the witch, likewise, was observing me.
“Does something concern you, dearie?”
I unstuck my mouth, which had gone quite dry, and said, “No- nothing- nothing in particular.”
The witch wrinkled her nose in a manner that suggested she was absolutely certain I was lying.
“I shall have a rest,” she growled. “My meal had better be ready when I wake.”
“Yes, mistress,” I said, inclining my head, and did not look up again until she had passed and slammed the door behind herself.
Then I raised my head again, and stared at the vampire, who matched my gaze with an incurious one of her own.