Posts Tagged ‘witch’

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The Blessing of Vasillisa – A Retelling of a Russian Folktale

December 22, 2016

vaillisa

The Blessing of Vasillisa
(A Retelling of a Russian Folktale)

for my mother, for whom I sad everyday

Mother yet lies in her deathbed when she calls her only child to her side. “Daughter,” she said to the middling red-haired Vasillisa, “You will go with your uncle, Motya, when he arrives.”

“No, mother,” Vasillisa cried. “He is too thin. There is never anything sweet to eat.”

It was true, Motya was very skinny. The man was poor and he had no wife nor children of his own. And Vasillisa had no other relatives. All her one uncle owned was a house that he and his brother, Vasillisa’s father, had inherited years ago from their dead mother. There Vasillisa would go and live.

The now dying mother tries to console her daughter, “He will feed you, Vasillisa. Motya can hunt if that is all he is able to do. He killed the boar that tore open your father.”

“The meat was sour and too hard to chew,” complained the red-haired girl.

“I know,” her exhausted mother replied.

The tragic young woman still had some strength and she uncovers a wooden doll from beneath her tattered woolen shroud. A beautiful pale face, yellow hair and a swirling blue dress decorates the figure. Vasillisa herself had no dress, but she could not be jealous. This was one was only paint.

Nevertheless, the painterly craftsmanship appeared as made by a royal artisan. On the contrary, the blocky shape of the totem was nothing more than ordinary. Motya may have carved it. Mother dispels the suspicion.

“My mother gave this to me and her mother gave it to her. She is special. Vasillisa, this is my blessing to you. Until you were born then after your father was killed, she was all I had, beside you. She is enough.”

Vasillisa carefully lifts the painted figure from her mother’s shaking hand. The girl is respectful because she knows this was the only gift she would receive from her mother. It was the last thing she would receive and the last of the woman’s love. “What is her name?”

“She has no name,” mother told her daughter. “It is important you do not give a name to her. I do not know why, but there are things you should never know. Never ask for her name. Keep her secret.”

Vasillisa nods. The girl smiles despite the silver tear in her eye.

Mother then tells her daughter before sleeping forever, “Give her a little to eat and a little to drink, then she will help you. She will save you when you need her most.”

Motya did then come and Vasillisa stuffs all she owns into a burlap sack. There too goes her mother’s blessing, but the red-haired girl carries her tears and grief openly. These were the only things she did not hide from her uncle. Motya claims, “I understand.”

The thin man in loose overalls asks her only, “Keep watch for the lord of the land. I will bury your mother here, next to your father. The one earthly thing the dead are forever entitled to is the ground that covers them. Who would argue that away?”

Once Motya had finished the burial unattended, he walks back miles to his home with Vasillisa by his side. His niece carries her belongings on her back. Even when Motya tells her, “I can help you with this burden,” Vasillisa refuses her uncle.

Having himself carried nothing with him, Motya tells his niece, “My cupboard is bare, but there may yet be berries in the bushes. We might catch a bird. The bark on the trees is still green.”

Not hungry, Vasillisa refuses the invitation to forage food. She says nothing and only shakes her head while the pair continue a quiet journey unfed through moonlight. Late in the evening, she hears her uncle’s stomach growl. Not a single animal answers.

The wooden house to which Motya brings his niece is no bigger than the sod home with a single room from which Vasillisa had come. The shadows this night could not make it more tiny. Even the yard surrounding Motya’s house is smaller than the garden Vasillisa and her mother had tended for their lord. And her uncle’s less-acre was yet studded with the stumps of long-felled trees.

“Go inside,” Motya tells her, “I’ll find for us some food.”

“At night?” Vasillisa asked.

“I have traps,” claimed her uncle. “But take care, a witch may come.”

“A witch?” Vasillisa chittered between her teeth.

“You’ll see,” promised her uncle. “It will be fine, in the morning. Maybe we’ll eat.”

“You’re fine, Vasillisa, you’ll be safe. I will see to that,” Motya shouted before disappearing into dark woods. “I promised so much to your mother. She knows. She watches.”

“Watches?” mumbled the red-haired girl and she goes alone into her uncle’s house. She pictures the unblinking doll hidden in the sack slung over her shoulder. That sack comes twirling down before Vasillisa with its chocked neck yet in her tight first.

The girl scoffs, “Witch.” Vasillisa refuses to believe witches exist. She had been scared by stories about giants and trolls, ghosts and even Ded Moroz, but that was when she was a littler girl. Since those short years ago, she has only become more alone. The summers have gotten shorter and the winters have become more cold. And she has still seen no proof of anything not natural. Today, her heart turned to stone.

Vasillisa thinks once more about the nameless blessing again with her own eyes wide in the dim glow of fireplace embers inside her uncle’s home. She contemplates digging the doll from the crypt of her bundled clothes then casting it into the hearth where it may blaze and illuminate the room.

“No,” said the red-haired girl to no one but herself. “The doll was given to me in the spirit of love. She is all I have to remember my sweet mother. I will respect her wishes.”

The totem remains untouched in the sack and Vasillisa finds kindling and a log. These, instead of her pretty heirloom, ignite upon the embers and warm and lighten the room. As she expected of her uncle Motya, there is nothing special here to see. There are two rooms, yet not so unlike the one in her old home, and also a bare pantry. Although, the walls of this house are paneled with wooden slabs and not mud.

She cannot know, but her uncle seems absent for hours. Motya is gone so long that Vasillisa grows weary of waiting. Having nothing to eat nor any care for food, the red-haired girl finds a path to her uncle’s bed of straw. The fire in the hearth heats the whole small house. And her burlap sack is a comfortable enough pillow that she falls asleep. Her dreams are quiet until dawn.

The following morning, Vasillisa is awakened by her uncle Motya. The front door is knocked open and shakes the wall it bangs against. “Don’t be afraid,” Motya pants. “Come outside. See this but don’t run away.”

The warning does worry the red-haired girl but she is yet drowsy and confused. Vasillisa slips from her uncle’s bed. She steps outside leaving the door wide open. The fire had died long ago in the night, but the sun was shining. The day was warm and the eastern horizon was rich with yellow and pink. A shadow moved through the forest, one that rose solidly above the trees.

A house walked upon the treetops, a wooden house much like Motya’s, but neat and proud. Vasillisa could now plainly see her uncle’s house in the daylight. Outside, too, his home was not proud. The walking house boasted itself. Iron-red shutters ornamented the house and red trim run about its concealed windows. Uncle Motya’s house lacked the features. The only opening into his home was its door. And unlike Motya’s, the roof of the enchanted house was made of thatch and not tiles of wood.

The walking house on stilts came closer then stepped into the deforested clearing where stood Vasillisa and her uncle. The ghastly sight of its supports prompted Motya to say, “You see? Do you remember? Your mother told you the stories.”

Vasillisa stuttered, “Fairy tales.” As her uncle instructed, the red-haired girl did not yet run away.

The house standing above Vasillisa and her uncle, impossibly upon two crooked legs of a gargantuan chicken, this impossible house belonged in a fevered dream. This was the dwelling a witch, an infamous witch, the Baba Yaga.

Vasillisa recalled the legend. These legs were stolen from a living rooster, a black cock that crows only at sunset. Even then the bird makes no sound. No one can say if the witch had also taken it’s voice. Some have said to the red-haired girl herself that they have watched it fly in clumsy spirals at night, for spinsters in villages claim it yet lives. They have said the bird struggles to go the moon.

Once the horrible house takes another step toward them, Vasillisa truly speaks to her uncle Motya the first time since he had come for her. Her voice shudders when she says, “Baba Yaga.”

“Uncle, should we go back inside your house?”

The red-haired girl was not thinking. The witch might kill them both anytime she wished. The enormous talons of her home could easily tear apart and crush Motya’s small house.

“Yes, Vasillisa,” Her uncle instructed. “Gather your belongings. You have all your things, yes?”

Vasillisa did not answer. Instead, she wonders aloud what had been said to frighten her, “Does the witch eat children?”

Motya replies as his niece rushes into his house, “No, not children, not you today. Don’t be afraid, Vasillisa.”

No sooner than a moment after Vasillisa snatched up her sack of clothing, Motya enters his house behind her. The aroma of roasted potatoes comes with him, and though she is still frightened, the red-haired girl feels her belly rumble. Melted cheese also teases her nose. Then the odor of smoke and ash makes her nostrils itch. Vasillisa turns around and she spies the witch.

Uncle Motya stands besides the crooked old woman. Motya holds a steaming pot of potatoes and he grins, albeit uneasily. The witch smiles, too, and bares sharp yellow teeth. She declares herself to the red-haired girl. “I am Baba Yaga.”

“I know,” Vasillisa answered. She gropes for the wooden doll her mother had given her and she feels it snug there in the sack.

Baba Yaga cackles. “All the children know me!” Both Vasillisa and Motya agree and merely nod their heads. These two scrutinize their visitor without questions.

The long and unkempt hair of the crone is the color of coal. Its matted strands smudge patterns on her wrinkled face like those painted on the dress of Vasillisa’s blessing. Although, the vision of the old woman was the opposite of beautiful. The slovenly hag looked to have dragged her head through the char of a stove. Clamped locks also blacken the collar and shoulders of the woman’s coarse tawny gown.

“She has brought us breakfast,” Motya eventually stated. He gestures deliberately when he sniffs from the uncovered pot.

Baba Yaga leers at Vasillisa. “It’s safe to eat. If you can’t trust that, well, you will now prepare our suppers.”

“Uncle, what does she mean?” Vasillisa immediately asked Motya.

“You didn’t tell her?’ titters the witch.

“No,” Motya confessed. He then pleads to his only niece. “I’m sorry, Vasillisa. I have a house, but there is no food for us. This year has not been kind. I’m unable to feed myself.”

“Eat,” cackled the witch. “Eat now and worry about yourself tomorrow. Vasillisa will live with me.”

The bent Baba Yaga does not need to stoop when she speaks to the little red-haired girl.

“You will wash my plates and sharpen my knives. You will sweep my house and stoke the fire. You, Vasillisa, you will churn my butter and knead the dough for my meat pies.”

Reciting the list makes the woman to giggle then gag. Baba Yaga appears about to spit then instead she swallows hard. “You will come with me, girl. And we will leave your uncle a bag of potatoes and a crumble of cheese.”

Her blood runs cold when Vasillisa asks, “Uncle.”

Motya tells her, “It’s true. Don’t be afraid. Yaga will care for you.”

“It is true,” echoed the witch. “I have no children of my own and no grandchildren. That is who you shall be to me. Call me ‘Grandmother.’ I will enjoy that if you did.”

“Uncle Motya?” Vasillisa begged again.

He tells his niece, “Yaga is your now your grandmother. Go with her and be fed. Grow up healthy and strong and know all those things I have never known.”

“For potatoes, uncle,” stammered the red-haired girl. The revelation causes the witch to bellow. After a moment, Motya laughs aloud, too.

“Now, bring your things,” Baba Yaga commands the red-haired girl. “If you will not eat.”

The witch attempts to lure the girl. “There are boiled eggs in my house.”

Though she is wary, Vasillisa does go with Baba Yaga where she is promised a home. As she leaves his house, her uncle Motya tells the red-haired girl and through a mouth full of potatoes and cheese, “Your mother watches you. Remember her love for you.”

Vasillisa does not know if his words were meant to comfort her. She does not even know if she is truly safe. Unconcerned with the girl’s doubt, Baba Yaga takes her hand and leads her outside and into her squatting house. The witch chants as they go.

“You will wash the plates and sharpen my knives. You will sweep this house and stoke the fire.”

“You will milk my goat and feed her hay. This you must do everyday.”

“On Tuesday, you will shake the rugs. And on Thursday, you will hunt bed bugs.”

“Shake the linens twice at night. Shake them until there are no more lice.”

The darkness inside the witch’s house first blinds the red-haired girl. As Vasillisa lets her eyes adjust to the light of glowing coals in a hearth, she listens as a chicken constantly clucks like the heavy tick of a grandfather clock. Baba Yaga adds to the girl’s chores.

“Empty the chamber pot each and every morn. Even if you are tired and worn.”

“Do this for me and you will have a place to stay. Do these chores and more and you will live happy that day.”

Once her vision is restored, Vasillisa scans her surroundings and hunts for the noisy bird. She does not find the chicken, but as she looks she sees a goat. The bloated animal stands in a mound of hay with its face in a corner of stucco walls. Beneath, its utter is swollen and red.

Having watched the red-haired girl, Baba Yaga says to Vasillisa, “Yes, there she is. She is Alyonushka. Rub your hands with butter before you begin your chore so you are gentle with her teats. I used to have a pig and a cow, but I ate them both.”

“Where is the chicken?” Vasillisa accidentally felt brave and asked.

“There is no chicken,” Baba Yaga answered. “But you to eat an egg, I know it. You must be hungry. They are there in the cupboard.”

The witch points a long and thin finger toward an ornate and antique cabinet. “Call me grandmother and I’ll give you two.”

Knowing this was expected of her, Vasillisa answers with a soft voice. “Grandmother.”

The title makes the witch hoot. She praises her new granddaughter. “Good, the eggs are in that cupboard. You can get them yourself.”

Vasillisa puts down her sack and she does what Baba Yaga has told her to do. She fetches two hard boiled eggs. They are as any other boiled egg with the color of tanned leather. Yet suspicious, Vasillisa cracks one open against the cupboard and peels away its shell. Nothing appears out of ordinary. The rubbery white shines and feels slick.

“Eat,” demanded the witch.

Vasillisa does take bite and finds the chalky yoke is ordinary, too. She pockets the second egg in her blouse and finishes eating the first. She swallows not because of hunger but rather at the pleasure of the hag.

In those moments she chewed, Vasillisa examined the dark room in which she stood. The high ceiling rafters could not possibly be contained in this house no bigger than Motya’s own. And three blackened doorways opened into rooms that could not exist. There was more to this enchanted hut than the red-haired girl might believe.

“Good,” Baba Yaga stated. “No we will find a creek and you will scrub my pans.”

The witch laughs while she repeats herself. “You will wash the plates and sharpen my knives.”

“There is water beneath the basin, there, and lye and a brush,” Baba Yaga tells the girl. The witch then utters something Vasillisa does not understand and she clicks her tongue twice. The whole house sways and does not stop. It rocks left and right as if it were a boat on water. Only when the red-haired girl has finished her task does the house come to rest. The clucking she heard earlier had never ceased and the noise persists.

Baba Yaga tells Vasillisa what to do next. “Empty the wash water and rinse the basin in the creek outside. Rinse the pots and fill the buckets. Let me hear you speak. Do you understand?”

“Yes, grandmother,” Vasillisa replied without hesitation.

“Good, don’t run away. I have all your belongings in the world. Don’t fret, just like you, they will stay safe with me here. But don’t dally, you have other things to do.”

“Yes, grandmother.”

Iron pots, forks, knives and wooden spoons come with the enameled white basin when Vasillisa hefts it from a shelf and carries it outside. The weather is colder here in the wooded foothills the red-haired girl finds the walking house has taken them. Outdoors, the noise of the invisible chicken is replaced by that of a slow wind and chuckling brook.

Vasillisa follows the sound to the running water and relieves herself of the weight of her burden. Already, she grows weary of her work but she does as she has been told. Her fingers feel they freeze in the running water until they ache. While alone and finishing her work, a man calls from behind her back.

“Little girl, are you a captive of the Baba Yaga?”

Vasillisa stands and turns around. A shivering, pale-faced man with bony white hands stands in the forest like an apparition. The red-haired girl can only say, “Are you real?”

“Aye,” the ghostly man replied. “What you are doing with the witch?”

“I did not think she could exist.”

“I can take you away,” promised the stranger. The witch then summons her serving girl.

“Vasillisa, come back home. You’ve been gone too long.”

The sound of the witch makes the cold man start. “I’ll come back for you. I’ll rescue you tonight,” he said and jumps into brush. Vasillisa could not see where he hid. Baba Yaga had come, and for his fortune, or that of the red-haired girl, the witch did not see her rescuer either.

“Come inside, Vasillisa,” Baba Yaga commands. “You will sleep with me in my bed tonight. You will keep this old woman warm.”

The witch snickers while she wraps a dark shawl more tightly around her shoulders. “Living children have such warm bodies.”

Vasillisa gathers the dripping cookware and lugs all in the basin back to the walking hut. Not yet finished with her tasks, she returns worn to the creek and fills two buckets with fresh water. All the while, Baba Yaga urges her to rush. As she and the witch go back inside, the hag asks the red-haired girl, “Did you talk to anyone while you out?”

Hoping the hidden pale man did not lie to her, Vasillisa answers, “No.” The witch cannot discover she may be rescued this evening.

“Lucky for you,” Baba Yaga tells the girl. “This is a haunted wood. Did you see any spirits?”

Vasillisa shakes her head. Inside the house, she first sees her burlap sack is on the floor where she had dropped it. After placing the basin back where she had taken it, she goes and lifts up all she owns. While she gropes for the blessing her mother had given her, the red-haired girl could swear she feels the doll twitch inside the baggage.

“There you are,” said the witch. “Your things are untouched. Now, put the dishes on the shelves next to the basin and the utensils into their drawer. We have another place to go. Do you like the color indigo? There is a dyer I know who sells dresses for little girls. Would you like a new blue dress, Vasillisa? My granddaughter should look pretty. That’s what I think.”

“You do like dresses, right? All little girls like dresses. Never lie to me, Vasillisa. I will find you out.”

Baba Yaga pauses and stares into the girl’s wide hazel eyes. With another two clicks of her tongue, Baba Yaga starts her house moving again.

“Stoke the fire, grandchild. Make it blaze. I’ll be back in a moment.”

The witch goes into the center doorway on the back wall. After a moment passed and Vasillisa tossed a log into the hearth and brought the fire to life, she grew curious why Baba Yaga made no sound. She also wanted to inspect her blessing and see why it mayhap moved under her touch. The red-haired girl creeps toward the center doorway and peeks inside. There is no witch, only a long pantry stocked with pickling and preserves.

“How?” she wondered aloud and contemplated if her guardian was merely as unseen as the noisy chicken.

“Grandmother?” Vasillisa calls but she hears no answer. No footfalls sound above the volume of the clucking. Convinced she is alone, Vasillisa quickly retrieves her blessing and at once decides she will eat her second egg.

The unnamed totem is in no different condition than when Vasillisa had stowed it away. She holds it in her lap and cracks open the egg with a knuckle. She eats most and recalls what her mother had told her before she died.

“Give her a little to eat and a little to drink, then she will save you when you need her most.”

So, Vasillisa presses crumbs of yoke to the doll’s painted lips. It does not move and was probably not hungry. Herself thirsty, the red-haired girl cups her palm and carries water from the bucket she had filled from the cold brook back to the planked floor where she sat with her figure. She sips most but also dribbles water over the dolls smooth cheeks.

“Vasillisa, you called for your grandmother?” the witch shouts before entering the glowing front room. The red-haired girl had seconds to stash the doll and, holding her breath, she does so before Baba Yaga returns.

“Grandmother,” she gasps when the witch is in sight. “Where did you go?”

“This house as many rooms,” Baba Yaga said when she began a long soliloquy. “Rooms you cannot see. And stairwells taller than trees.”

“There are flights to heaven and pits into hell. If you see them, you will scrub them as well.”

“You will scrub each step, with your lovely red hair. Until your crown turns black and you are older than care.”

“You will be an old woman, like me, before you are done.”

“All your years will pass without hope or sun. Oh, but the things you will learn. When you are ready, granddaughter, when you are old enough.”

The house stops moving with a lurch that nearly sends Baba Yaga and the red-haired girl tumbling. The witch scolds her home. “Damn you, you stupid rooster. Do that again and we will eat one of your legs!”

“Are you hungry, Vasillisa? I hope you will be if that ever happens again.”

“I ate my other egg,” the girl softly demurs. Her response sets the witch to hoarse giggles.

“Next time,” said the hag gathering her composure. “We are here, at the home of the dyer. Come with me, girl, and pick your dress.”

Baba Yaga grabs Vasillisa’s hand and yanks her up and outside. The girl’s burlap sack stays behind. Outdoors, the sun already sets but the weather is much warmer than in the foothills where the red-haired girl encountered the ghost of a man. She has decided, what Vasillisa did see was some specter. He may have died this last winter in the cold of night. He was best forgotten so that his soul is left in peace. Her hope for rescue seemed buried with him.

“Baba Yaga,” interjected a dark man. His hands and arms are a brilliant blue up to his elbows. And so were, too, stained the the long sleeves of his shirt rolled in tight bundles around his biceps. They all meet on the sand of a shore on a great sea. This dyer’s home and trade are housed in tall violet tents.

“Who have you brought with you to the west? A little girl, is she for trade?”

“No, craftsman,” answered Baba Yaga. “This is my new granddaughter.”

“A new one, hey,” the man commented in a disheartening manner. “I suppose she is special.”

The witch tells him, “Special to me, certainly.”

The dark dyer adds, “That red hair, oh, she is lovely. I suppose you waste her beauty washing dishes and shaking rugs.”

“She is not wasted on depravity,” Yaga sharply replied. “Now stop your coveting and show us dresses you have dyed. Do you have one for a small girl?”

The dyer rubs his chin and his tone changes toward frigid. “Careful, witch. We meet only to haggle.”

Yaga says, “Already, your prices are too steep. Let us stick to the business of your wares.”

“Eh,” he snorts and glances sidelong at Vasillisa.

“I’m watching you,” Baba Yaga said to the dyer.

“And God watches you,” he suddenly exclaims. Vasillisa spots an indigo blur thrust into the dyer’s waist pouch then come back out. He produces a blue gem embedded in white. The whole resembles an off-color yoke set off-center in a fist-sized egg. The dyer flashes the artifact into the face of the witch.

“A ward?” scoffed the hag. She mocks the holy craftsman in a harsh guffaw. “I will burn all your work to the ground. Flee while you can.”

Flame comes expelled from her nostrils and mouth. The tents ignite under her breath. Fire still licks her lips and the tip of her nose when the witch commands, “Vasillisa, grab all you can before it burns.”

The dark dyer runs from the inferno and takes with him his relic. Vasillisa and Baba Yaga seize all they are able and any clothe not already ablaze. And the witch threatens deeper vengeance upon the escaped man.

“He will pay,” she promises. “His livelihood is done. But I’ll keep him alive so he regrets his feeble affront.”

“Let us go back into my house,” suggested the witch. Her voice is labored.

The hag drags her feet and her back bends further forward than Vasillisa has yet seen, and despite the few blue clothes Baba Yaga looted. The red-haired girl is terrified. Her heart beats fast and her breath and legs are quick. But it is not the fire or the dark man that had frightened her, rather the terrible wrath of the witch.

“Oh, granddaughter, the wretched dyer found me unaware,” moaned the hag. “I was unprepared and I am exhausted.”

The pair go into the walking house. Both Baba Yaga and Vasillisa drop all the the dyed garments onto the floor. “Pick them up,” ordered the witch as she stumbles to the darkened doorway at her left. “Sort and fold them and place them on a shelf.”

Vasillisa instead first rushes toward her sack of belongings. The girl overturns the bag and shakes out all her clothes, looking for her blessing, the last comfort her mother provided.

“What are you doing?” asked the hag lingering at the threshold. “You have a new dress. If you can’t appreciate my gifts to you, what am I to do, burn all your rags? Put on the dress. Let me see.”

Her heart sinks and her stomach rises in her throat when the red-haired girl does not find her doll. Confused where it might have gone, she utters, “Grandmother?”

“Put it on,” the hag repeated.

“Yes, grandmother.”

Vasillisa relents yet scans her pile of old clothing, looking for the totem. Though she doubts herself, the doll may yet be hidden beneath the scattered pile. Vasillisa turns around and finds the dress for which she and Baba Yaga had come to the sea. The garment is only slightly charred. She pulls it on and over the drab blouse and pants she already wears.

The hag praises her. “Good, pretty girl, now I will lie down.”

As the witch vanishes into darkness, Vasillisa inspects her new garment. Unlike the painted dress of her blessing, this one is real and the clothe genuinely flows when twirled in a breeze. It hangs loosely but her clothes underneath yet create lumps. She at least pulls off her slacks. restoring her flat stomach and straight hips.

“Feed Alyonushka,” Baba Yaga shouted from the other room. “Change her hay and throw the waste outside. There are bales in the room next to where she is chained.”

“Milk her and don’t forget to butter your hands, there is a butter churn and a bucket there in that other room near the hay.”

She adds another chore after taking a breath. “And bring to me some cheese you find there. You, too, granddaughter must be famished. We will eat it together in bed.”

“Tomorrow we will go north where she can eat thistles.”

Vasillisa leaves her clothing and the blue garments lying on the floor and first tends to the goat she has been assigned. Her thoughts dance between the lost doll, the horrible power of the witch and the work she has yet to do. While gathering together her list of chores, Baba Yaga issues more commands.

“Oh, sweep the floor before you are ready for bed. And shake the rugs. Do all this tonight and you are done. There is a broom there. Do you see it?”

“Yes, grandmother,” Vasillisa dutifully answered.

“Good. Don’t forget the cheese.”

Vasillisa finds a bucket in the other room, which actually becomes a long stable once she’s stepped inside. Empty bays occupy the whole length. Farm tools – hoes, forks and picks – metal pails and wooden buckets are gathered near her entrance. There is no other exit. The butter churn is also handy. Rolls and wedges of cheeses lie atop a shelf above them all.

After greasing each of her hands pressing them into the churn, she fetches a clean pail and returns to her task with the goat. The pail goes placed underneath. Vasillisa kneels then stands on her knees before grasping the sore teats of the animal. When she does take hold, the goat flinches. So, the red-haired girl tries once more and gently.

Upon the ring of the first squirt of milk against the bottom of the pail, Baba Yaga is reminded to say, “Don’t let Alyonushka nip you. She has iron teeth.”

The revelation is second in Vasillisa’s horror once she sees the milk from the utter comes out as black oil. The substance smells like rot. She holds her nose and screeches. “Grandmother, the milk is foul. It smells foul!”

“No,” countered the witch. “Look in the pail.”

Vasillisa glances into the container and sees the liquid has become bone white. The red-haired girl is still awed when Baba Yaga tells her, “You should have first changed out the soiled hay. That helps. Remember to do all these things daughter, or your work only becomes worse.”

Once the pail is filled, Vasillisa places it back in the stable where she found it. The cheese she breaks from a wedge crumbles in her fingers, but she does her best to bring the portion to the witch in one piece. Both hands are required for the feat. Having forgot her pending tasks, Vasillisa remembers to kick her clothes on the floor and search for her blessing. She does not see the doll. The witch hastens her.

“Have you finished, Vasillisa? Your grandmother is chilly. And she is hungry.”

“Coming,” the girl answered.

Vasillisa brings the cheese into the room in which the witch slept. “Crawl into bed with me,” stated the hag. “Good, you remembered our supper.”

The witch takes more than her share from the girl’s hands before Vasillisa jumps up and lies next to the hag. The red-haired girl remains fully clothed as she customarily slept. And to her surprise, she discovers the fat mattress is stuffed with feathers and numerous pillows are filled with down. Her enthusiasm dies when she finds the witch’s body is cold even through the old hag’s nightgown.

Baba Yaga lies curled against the girl’s back. She rests her frigid chin upon Vasillisa’s cheek. Even her breath is chilly. And her exhalation reeks. The red-haired girl cannot stop commenting. “Grandmother, do you ever chew mint?”

Baba Yaga laughs. Catching her breath and settling herself, she asks her grandchild, “You have a new dress. What do you have to say?”

Vasillisa holds her nose and says, “Thank you, grandmother?”

“You are welcome grandchild. Thank you for bringing us cheese.”

Tomorrow is narrated while the witch begins to doze.“Tomorrow, we go north, further north than your home where you mother is buried, further than you have ever known. Then we go east.”

“Remember, shake the linens twice at night. Shake them until there are no more lice.”

“Empty the chamber pot each and every morn, even if you are tired and worn.”

The witch then clicks her tongue twice and the house begins to sway. Baba Yaga also starts to snore. Vasillisa falls asleep shivering and covering her nose with one hand and eating cheese with her other. All the work that day had tired her and did quell her grief. And any tears she had yet to shed because her lost were overcome by sleep.

The walking house surrounds Vasillisa in the dream she has while embraced by Baba Yaga. She dreams she is alone in the enchanted hut. There is no witch and even the foul iron goat is gone. The shutters have been thrust open and heavy velvet drapes the red-haired girl did not see when she was awake, they are withdrawn from glass windows. Daylight brightens the interior. The extinguished hearth is cold and Vasillisa feels chilled.

A pair of blue hands suddenly appear pressed against the pane before her. The dark face of the dyer plainly presents itself behind his colored arms. Vasillisa remembers the tools in the adjacent stable and she wants to defend herself, but she does not budge. Looking about, she notes the floor is uncluttered as she recalled leaving it yesterday. Her clothes are missing and so is the doll. The dyer is then gone.

The door is also now open and Vasillisa sees a snowy forest outside. She spots the ghostly man from yesterday. He runs and ducks from sight behind a thick fir tree. She is then conscious in the dark.

Remembering her neglected chores, Vasillisa slips from bed. She notices the house that had rocked her to sleep has stopped moving. Maybe its lurch to a stand still had awakened her, although she could not know. The witch still slept.

Eager not to displease Baba Yaga, Vasillisa stoops and gropes for a chamberpot beneath the bed. She nudges the vessel and it feels it is empty, it did not slosh when it tipped and made no sound. The pot thus stays where it was found. Upon moving into the front room, the red-haired girl sees the fire has been stoked. Light flickers blurred shadows into the room.

All her belongings have been packed back into the sack there in the center of the room. The pilfered indigo linens and garments are folded and placed onto shelves and the floor is swept. Even the hay the swollen goat now lies upon is fresh and neat. More importantly than all, her doll has returned. It sits upright upon the burlap bag she brought with her.

“You helped me,” exclaimed the red-haired girl to her blessing, although she wasn’t so loud as to wake the witch. The time they spend alone together is short. A whispered, “Thank you,” is all Vasillisa could wish upon the totem.

The moment the red-haired girl picks up her doll, Baba Yaga is heard rolling from bed. “Granddaughter?” called the hag. Vasillisa hides the totem behind her back.

“Oh, look at all you’ve done already,” the witch said as she entered the room. “But you didn’t shake the linens.”

“We were asleep, grandmother,” Vasillisa pleads. “And I didn’t want to wake you.”

The reply makes the witch grin. “Good girl. You make me glad I keep you, but it’s okay. It is better to wake early once or twice than be eaten alive at night. But we survive, and that’s all right.”

“You are a wonderful maid,” Baba Yaga said before turning around and getting dressed. “And so pretty in your dress. What would you like for breakfast?”

Vasillisa hides the doll again, this time, under her blouse beneath the dress. She looks only slightly more lumpy than without the totem and it holds itself in place upon loose stitches and a small rip. Safely concealed against her skin, the doll makes Vasillisa herself feel more secure.

The red-haired girl eventually ventures a reply to the hag. “Porridge?”

“Porridge?” Baba Yaga answered.

Vasillisa adds, “And peach preserve. I saw a jar in the pantry.”

“Snooping, eh?” jested the witch. “You may yet discover the stairwells yourself.”

“Maybe, grandmother.”

The red-haired girl does pause to think about her suggestion. “Is the milk safe to eat?”

Baba Yaga tells her, “You never complained about the cheese. They both come from Alyonushka. Your uncle seemed pleased.”

The witch also tells her, “Oats are in the pantry, fetch two cups. And take down those peaches. I’ll get the milk and make certain it is safe.”

Vasillisa is glad to make breakfast with Baba Yaga. This morning is the first in which the witch behaves as a grandmother, and the little red-haired girl had never known her own. While Baba Yaga stirs the porridge over the hearth, Vasillisa is told, “Take Alyonushka outside, let her roam free for a little while, we will not hunt thistles for her.”

A leather collar latches a metal chain to the animal. Vasillisa is careful as she releases the buckle and watches that she is not bit. The goat has behaved itself when the red-haired girl is near, but the late warning the witch had given her yesterday stays foremost in her thoughts. Once the animal is free, Vasillisa opens the front door and lets it dash out of the house. Snow wherever they had come had not yet melted in this forest. And the scenery was uninteresting. Baba Yaga and the girl sit and eat their own meal.

“There is a blacksmith near,” the witch mentioned. “Look for him when you go and bring Alyonushka back home. If you see him, don’t let him take you. I will speak to the man. You will know him by his red hands.”

“Yes, grandmother.”

Given her porridge and mission, Baba Yaga says to the girl, “Wash the bowls and the pot. You know where the lye is and where the water belongs. Already, you are learning of each nook in this house.”

The washing is finished in haste, Vasillisa did not need her doll to help her with this task. She tosses the dishwater outside then tells her grandmother, “We need fresh water.”

“Take the buckets with you, fill them with snow,” the witch suggested. “We will let it melt near the hearth. Go and fetch Alyonushka.”

“Yes, grandmother,” Vasillisa said. She lifts the buckets and feels her wooden doll bump against her ribs. Her blessing goes with the red-haired girl and she has no fear of the blacksmith she expects to see. She does loathe he may be like the dyer. Baba Yaga seems to know only men with no good in their hearts. Uncle Motya was not an exception, although she hated him less today after eating peaches at breakfast.

“Alyonushka?” cried the red-haired girl two steps straight out of the house. Where she stood offered plenty of pure snow. She overfills the wooden buckets and puts them inside near the fire.

“Alyonushka,” she shouted again outside once more. Baba Yaga follows.

The witch tells her, “You go left and I’ll go right. Keep the house in sight so you, too, are not lost.”

The witch finds the blacksmith the same time Vasillisa spots the swollen goat behind a shrinking snow drift.

“Baba Yaga, is this your true face?” Vasillisa hears the man say in a loud voice. “You take a different shape each time we meet. I would not know you, but for your house.”

“Alyonushka, let’s go back home,” the red-haired girl encouraged the animal.

The animal leads their way. All the while, Vasillisa listens to the conversation between the stranger and the witch.

“You would not recognize me at all if you didn’t know my name,” Baba Yaga told him.

“I doubt so,” he replied. “Who can mistake your walking hut? They would so at their own peril.”

The blacksmith is even larger than Vasillisa expected, and more red. She sees him after coming around the witch’s enchanted hut. He is bald yet his face and scalp appear scalded. His big hands are burned and blistered.

“Bah, today I am a grandmother. How is a grandmother to look?” Baba Yaga asked him.

He tells her, “Prettier.”

The hag laughs at his reply. “Ha!”

The big blacksmith spots Vasillisa at that same time. “Is this your grandchild?” he asked the witch. “She looks delicious.”

“She is not for eating, I am happy with this one. And she is too curious. I need hinges for doors.”

The doll Vasillisa carries beneath her arm then twitches. The girl’s movement alone did not make the totem shake. She pins it against her flesh so it stops moving. The goat then flees. She had no grip on the animal.

“Alyonushka!” shouted Baba Yaga. She also scolds the blacksmith. “You wretched man, you frightened my goat.”

“Go after her, granddaughter. Don’t let her run away spooked. We may not get her back.”

Vasillisa chases after the goat. The witch follows but she is not as quick as the red-haired girl. The pair lose sight of each other after passing the drift where the animal was first found. Vasillisa does not see the goat and it is not long before the girl becomes lost.

The big red blacksmith finds her. “Where is your grandmother?” he asked Vasillisa before anything else.

She answers honestly, “I don’t know.”

“Mmmh,” he hums triumphantly then lunges for her arm. Vasillisa barely escapes. And it is the doll that screeches and not her. The ear-splitting noise that comes from beneath her arm is unearthly, like that from a banshee if the red-haired girl could say if she had ever heard the cry.

“You, there,” shouted the witch. Baba Yaga is yet far away. She accuses the man from a distance. “What are you doing with my grandchild?” The blacksmith flees in the opposite direction Vasillisa yet runs away.

The red-haired girl sprints until the red man and the witch have vanished. She runs till near nightfall when her bare legs have become cold and numb. Once she has spent all her energy and stops, the witch finally catches her.

“You have been running in circles,” Baba Yaga said. See, too, barely has breath. “Let us go back and rescue Alyonushka. She is not far.”

Their pace is slow moving through slush and wet snow, and the sun sets by a degree with each step. Still, Vasillisa and her new grandmother come to the goat. They pull her hoof from a rabbit hole in which she had been stuck. Baba Yaga questions the red-haired girl as they lead the limping animal back to the walking house.

“Tell me, granddaughter, did you make that sound? I have heard the same from souls tortured in hell.”

Vasillisa cannot stop her teeth from chattering. She stutters without comprehension while she grows only more cold. Relieved she had been saved twice tonight, the girl tries only to thank her grandmother. Baba Yaga tells her, “Don’t worry. No one will touch you ever again.”

“You only need hot milk.”

Within sight of home, the pair come across the corpse of the burned blacksmith. Vasillisa tries to ask if the witch had killed the man, but all she says is, “Did you, did you, d-did you…”

Baba Yaga only chortles and pulls a toothed knife from a sheath beneath her shawl and at her waist. She tells Vasillisa, “See who is coming to supper tonight.” With that, the witch cuts out the dead man’s heart. The red-haired girl nearly wretches, but the cold yet holds her frozen throat.

“Go back to the house,” the witch tells the shaking Vasillisa. “And you, Alyonushka, you go, too. Put another log in the hearth. We all want the fire well and hot.”

Baba Yaga hustles the two ahead while she finishes her wicked work. Although, in their separate conditions, neither of them move any faster than the old hag. Baba Yaga catches up to them before they arrive at the door of her squatted home.

Vasillisa tries her hardest to stoke the fire inside while the witch instead buckles the collar back onto her goat. The hag then returns to the red-haired girl with a blanket off her own bed. Vasillisa is wrapped first then Baba Yaga herself stirs up a blaze in the hearth and adds more wood. She soon warms fresh milk from Alyonushka over the fire and in a ceramic mug. This goes to Vasillisa once it is hot.

The witch then pulls an iron skillet off a shelf and lets it heat in the hearth. Meanwhile, snug underneath a blanket and with her fingers tingling, Vasillisa pulls her mother’s blessing from under her clothes. It stays concealed beneath her covering and the red-haired girl cannot see the totem, but neither does Baba Yaga.

The girl fondles each of her doll’s limbs. She brushes its smooth face with her palm and presses against the wooden shape of its hair. All the while, the totem never moves. It remains stiff in hands, inert, unlike when they were together outside in the snow.

“No creeping around in the house,” Baba Yaga warns the girl while she fries the blacksmith’s heart in a pan. The witch seasons the bloody meat with salt, black pepper and what smells to Vasillisa is dill. The aroma of the meat is sweet and pleasant yet knowing its origin makes it distasteful. Yaga merrily rambles will she cooks.

“I have no hinges I can put on doors I may lock and keep you out of where you don’t belong. You will just have to respect my wishes, I expect it. You, granddaughter, you thought you lost yourself in the woods. What happens if get lost in my house? What will happen to you if you are not found?”

Vasillisa shrugs but Baba Yaga is not watching, The witch does not look at the red-haired girl the whole time she spends frying an unsavory dinner. In a minute, she groans. “Oh, I forgot to grease the pan, but I don’t have any oil.”

The red-haired girl tries to be helpful and she suggests, “You could use butter, grandmother.”

“Bah,” dismissed the witch. “Save it for Alyonushka. We will go to market tomorrow and buy corn. We’ll make oil ourselves. I’ll show you how. But, this time, you will need to scrub the skillet extra well. The meat has burned itself against the metal.”

Vasillisa smells the grease and char. That alone makes her feel ill. The thought of scraping human flesh, especially fried, turns her stomach. She wretches again unproductively when the witch asks, “Would you like to try a little of the blacksmith?”

The sounds the red-haired girl makes and the green in her face amuses the old hag. “Okay, it’s all for me. We’ll soak the pan in the basin tonight and you can add it your chores tomorrow.”

“What will you eat?”

“I’m not hungry anymore, grandmother,” Vasillisa told Baba Yaga.

“You will be. What would you like?

“Peach preserve? Only a little.”

“That’s all?” the witch replied bemused. “That’s all right. You know where it is in the pantry and it’s safe to go there. Whenever you like.”

Finished with her grisly meal, Baba Yaga invites Vasillisa to bed. The red-haired girl, too. has eaten a small portion of preserve and she has no excuse to stay awake. The witch also tells her, “Bring my blanket. Though, the hearth has made the whole house hot, it is night and morning will be cold.”

In that luxurious bed, Baba Yaga holds her adopted grandchild close to her cold body. In return, Vasillisa cradles her doll as does the witch cradle the red-haired girl. Vasillisa keeps them both warm even when neither truly needs her heat. Soon, the witch sleeps and snorts and grunts as does a sow.

Vasillisa covers her ears and face with the blanket she had worn all evening. The dark is nothing to her, but when she closes her eyes, the red-haired girl has a vision of the blacksmith. He stand over them in bed. His chest is an open cavity and his hands are missing as well as his heart. The bloody stumps are not a dream.

The girl cannot sleep, and the witch feels too cold for any comfort. Vasillisa had enough of being chilled already that day. She wakes Baba Yaga with urgency. “Grandmother, we must shake the linens.”

The witch stirs and sounds groggy when she agrees. “Yes, you’re a good girl to remember. It’s better not to be eaten alive.”

Baba Yaga returns to sleep after the sheets are shaken and the bed is made again. She had forgotten her granddaughter and snores more while Vasillisa is let free to roam. The red-haired girl takes her doll with her into the front room.

With nothing else to do, she decides she will rinse the pot and bowl left washed in the basin that morning. The crusted skillet remains there and soaks. The snow in buckets near the fire melted long ago. The overfill of water it had become had spilled over and not yet evaporated off the wooden floor. Even so, more than enough remains that Vasillisa can finish her task.

She then eats more peach preserve with her fingers. The red-haired girl attempts to feed a little to her painted blond doll, but the figure will not eat. She whispers so Baba Yaga does not hear. “Did you cry out today?” she asked her totem. Vasillisa already knows it was so. “Did you summon our grandmother?”

The doll remains still. Nevertheless, Vasillisa tells it, “Thank you. I feared what might have become of us – like the blacksmith to the witch’s supper.”

The red-haired girl places the doll atop her sack of belongings yet laying on the floor. The totem goes propped upright so it might watch where Vasillisa strays. The girl tiptoes into the pantry once more and returns with two handfuls of oats. This goes onto a ceramic platter and presented to the goat.

“This is Alyonushka,” she quietly tells her unnamed doll. “We shouldn’t feed her from the palms of our hands because of her teeth.”

She then tells the animal. “This is my blessing, don’t tell Baba Yaga. She doesn’t have a name. There are things we should never know.”

The goat seems happy for its treat, so Vasillisa slips into the stable to butter her hands and bring back a pail. She talks softly to her totem beneath the sound of milk splashed against tin. “We must be gentle, her teats are sorely red. I don’t know why, but maybe we can help. If we can do that, maybe Alyonushka will not bite.”

Finished with that chore, the red-haired girl stokes the fire in the hearth one more time. And with nothing left to do, she remembers the linens again. “Stay there,” Vasillisa whispered to her doll.

In the bedroom, she wakes Baba Yaga again. “Grandmother, we must shake the linens a second time.”

“Yes,” grumbles the witch after she’s been disturbed. This time, she decides to change her plan. “Let this old woman rest. Maybe our work is too ambitious. I’ll let you know if we must shake off bugs.”

“All right, grandmother,” Vasillisa replies when it was obvious Baba Yaga did not see she had nodded her head.

“Come back to bed already,” begged the witch. “We both need our sleep.”

“I’m not sleepy, grandmother.”

Baba Yaga will not be refused. “I insist.”

So, Vasillisa crawls next to the witch. She allows herself to shiver all night in the cold woman’s grasp. She dares not argue. Her beautiful doll stays alone in the other room, alert atop the sack and watching with eyes that never close. Vasillisa, too, keeps her eyes open.

Try as she had, the red-haired girl did fall asleep. At daybreak, the witch awakes her with a fright. “Granddaughter, look at what you have done!”

The enchanted house is already moving, swaying one way to the other. The motion before was relaxing, but having been awakened with a start, Vasillisa is disorientated. She first fears Baba Yaga had discovered her doll. The witch instead reveals her own surprise. “You scoured the skillet. You could have waited. Look how clean it is, it’s never been scrubbed so throughly.”

The revelation is a small balm. The red-haired girl’s heart only settles a bit with the explanation, but it jumps again when she discovers her totem lies in bed next to her. It is there beneath her dress and against her bare chest. She knows so before lifting the blanket.

“How?” she whispered to her doll.

Baba Yaga comes into the bedroom before any answer. “Get up, sleepy. We will have breakfast then go to market. You may shake the linens now.”

The house stops moving before Vasillisa is done with her work. When the red-haired girl is finished, Baba Yaga summons her into the front room and they eat porridge again. Vasillisa tries a boysenberry jam this morning in place of peaches. Her totem stays hidden in her shirt and under her arm the whole while.

“Finish your chores here, then we will go shopping together,” Baba Yaga commands then makes certain the chamber pot must be emptied.

Soon, when another round of work is done, Vasillisa dumps the pot and waste water in the basin outside. While out of the house, she sees they have come to the walls of a city. Opposite the forest yesterday, this place is warm and overcast. Tiled minarets peek over the stone construction. Dull covered booths and tables stand in rows on both sides of a cobbled path all the distance toward an open gate.

“What city is this?” the red-haired girl asked Baba Yaga when the witch joins her outdoors.

“Mysore in the East,” replied the hag.

Wary of the witch’s acquaintances, Vasillisa asks her, “Do you know someone here?”

“No one, but I know there is corn at this market. Toss the basin and pot inside and let’s go.”

Vasillisa does as she has been told then walks with the witch toward the street vendors. The separate booths each carry a variety of wares, but they individually specialize offering one main foodstuff – grains, vegetables, fruits – everything grown and fresh. Corn displays itself in bushels on a table ten steps away.

A man with yellow hands, from mustard plants also there in bundles amidst the bushels of corn, he greets the shoppers from the northwest. Whereas his skin is not as dark as the dyer on the sea, he is dressed in flowing bright clothing like the craftsman. It is the same attire as all the merchants present here. All wear as different colors as the variety of their wares.

Baba Yaga asks the merchant, “Do you make mustard sauce?”

“Yes, ma’am, I do,” the man with yellow hands replied.

“And do you sell eggs?” she queried.

“My brother offers those and the mustard condiment, behind you, across the road.”

Baba Yaga produces copper coins and trades them for a bushel of corn. She tells Vasillisa, “Pick it up and carry it home. I will go purchase mustard and eggs.”

The weight of the bushel is too great for the red-haired girl. She struggles lifting the corn and fails to take it anywhere. “Grandmother,” she begged for help.

Her voice does not carry further than her grunts and Baba Yaga does not hear. The witch is too noisy while she haggles with the corn merchant’s brother, He, too, has yellow hands. The corn merchant notices and gallantly steps around his table. “I’ll help you, little girl. Where are you taking this?”

As he lifts the burden from Vasillisa’s strained limbs, the red-haired girl feels movement in the pit of her arm. Her doll spins right and left. Vasillisa can feel it turns itself deliberately and not in accident because of her own action. “Grandmother,” she shouted. Vasillisa called again louder on purpose.

Baba Yaga turns around and shouts. “What are you doing with my grandchild?”

The helpful merchant drops the basket and cobs of corn come tumbling out. He pleads, “I am only giving my assistance. Please, I meant no offense.”

Baba Yaga accuses him, “My granddaughter thinks you’re a wicked man.”

“No, grandmother,” Vasillisa objected.

“She only needed help,” he testified, “The bushel is too heavy for her. She is still small.”

“We’ll see about small. Get out of the way,” hissed the witch. Baba Yaga gathers the stray cobs with her hands and feet. The corn goes kicked and swatted into the spilled bushel. Though she is bent and not much taller than Vasillisa herself, Baba Yaga hoists the full burden upon her shoulder. She required no help.

“Come, grandchild. We are done shopping.”

Vasillisa is so impressed by the strength of the old hag that speech is stolen from her throat. She follows Baba Yaga back to the enchanted house, all the while awed and her mouth agape. Neither of them remember the mustard nor the eggs and they return home with only corn. Vasillisa opens the door for her strong grandmother.

“They are all strangers here, stay in the house,” grumbled the witch. “I will not have any of them harm my granddaughter. I swear, each man we meet…”

“But. Grandmother,” Vasillisa started to explain. Baba Yaga will not listen because she is full of rage.

“I’ll teach that one a lesson,” the witch threatened.

Baba Yaga is back out of the house before the red-haired girl can say, “It may have been a mistake.” But she does and is not heard.

Having no one else to help, Vasillisa, cries to her doll. “What did I do? What were you trying to tell me?”

Her blessing reveals nothing. Baba Yaga instead is heard to shout, “Shuck my corn.”

Vasillisa again does as she has been told. The husks are left to lie on the floor and the bare cobs are piled together in a wide cauldron she had spotted. The red-haired girl assumed they will be boiled, she has never produced oil from corn. The witch returns as she pours water atop the golden pyramid.

“We need more water, grandmother,” Vasillisa dutifully reported.

“Bah, we will reuse what we’ve got. We don’t need any water for this,” answered the witch.

“Sweep up these husks and put them in a sack, I will find a use for them.”

Vasillisa takes up the straw broom and an empty burlap sack that is handy. Watching the witch while they both work, the red-haired girl hopes she is not too late to explain what may have happened in the market. “Grandmother…”

Her effort ends when she sees the witch produce from a pouch two jars of mustard and ten yellow fingers. Vasillisa cannot speak. She does not even know if she wants to ask what Baba Yaga will do with the amputations. The witch volunteers the explanation.

“I’ll keep these, too.” Baba Yaga rolls the fingers as if they were dice onto the shelf she had placed the mustard jars.

“Now we have everything we need,” she told Vasillisa. The hag sounds merry again. She tells her granddaughter, “Bring a pot.”

While the red-haired girl does as she’s been told, Baba Yaga chants in a tongue Vasillisa has never heard. She could not understand them even if she was familiar. The words sound slurred. And there are really no words, but one long string of consonants and howls. The invocation throbs in the girl’s chest and makes her uneasy. She grasps her blessing hidden under her arm.

Disembodied hands come summoned over the cauldron of shucked corn. Each materialize before Vasillisa’s open eyes – a pair of red hands, another two that are yellow, then a pair of blue and the last two of white. The witch laughs as if the old woman has lost her mind.

The colored limbs pick up the cobs one at a time and they squeeze each until they drip. The oil they produce is caught in the pot Vasillisa had brought for her grandmother. Baba Yaga teases the red-haired girl. “You see them, there, yes?”

Vasillisa thinks she nods her head. Instead she rotates her chin around in the air. The witch offers more. “Do you want to know who they belong to?”

The doll beneath Vasillisa’s dress kicks wildly against her ribs.

“I can name them each for you,” Baba Yaga added and cackles.

The doll now spins and jumps. Vasillisa covers her ears and shouts, “No!”

The witch sees the doll shake under her granddaughter’s clothes. “What is that? What do you have there?”

“Nothing,” Vasillisa lied. Baba Yaga demands to know.

“Show me, child. Don’t hide anything from me.”

“No, grandmother. She is a secret.”

“You keep no secrets from me. I have fed you, you stay in my home.”

Vasillisa feels desperate for hope. She hates she will disappoint the wish of her mother. At the same time, the blessing does not help her. All she has left are tears. “Grandmother, please.”

“Show me your secret,” Baba Yaga insisted. “You cannot lie to me.”

All the red-haired girl can do is pull the beautiful wooden doll from her dress. When she does so, the spectrum of phantom hands vanish. Because the totem appeared is no proof they have been dispelled. All the corn cobs have been squeezed and it looks like their work had been finished.

“Where did that came from?” scowled the hag. “Do you know what that is?”

Vasillisa sniffles, “She is my dead mother’s blessing.”

The news alarms the witch. “What?”

The girl does not think Baba Yaga wished a reply. The witch tells her, “That is a bane. Your mother has cursed you against me. Those hands… all those dead men are not because of me. I didn’t count all those fingers.”

“Begone, out of this house away from me. You are not my granddaughter. Take all your belongings and that doll. I’ll have nothing to do with you!”

And this is where the witch, Baba Yaga, abandons Vasillisa and her blessed doll, on a road to the city of Mysore in the East. There is nothing she can do in protest, nor is she certain she wanted to stay with the wicked woman any longer. There is only one regret she was sure about. Instead of her bag of clothes, the red-haired girl discovers all she had snatched was the sack filled with corn husks.

– END

Matthew Sawyer

If you enjoyed reading this story I have others at Smashwords

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Insight Into Absurd Recesses Of Inspiration

October 12, 2013

Sometime ago in previous posts, I mentioned my sequel to Debbie’s Hellmouth. I call the book The Betulha Dohrman Legacy. Its manuscript is sitting unwrapped with a real publisher – this self-publishing stuff isn’t working for me. I have no clue where I can find a substantive fan-base.

Bitching and whining aside, I found again one my inspirations for a critical event in The Betulha Dohrman Legacy. This tragedy supposedly occurred in Nigeria, although I suspect these mutations are not uncommon. My similar phantasmagoria happens in Southern Wisconsin, outside an evil little place called Wister Town.

Warning, not for the recently fed. View at risk of your own ingestion…

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Following Debbie Menon … and her house

January 9, 2012

Last year, Debbie Menon had hoped she’d make an appearance in 2012. She’s the tough and eager Real Estate Agent in the unpublished story Debbie’s Hellmouth. The story is still not published and the house is yet for sale. Curious buyers can read about the property online free here. Debbie Menon is still listed as the agent and represents the unseen seller – a mysterious, witchy Betulha Dohrman.

Debbie Menon

Debbie desperately wants the old, faux-Victorian house in Wister Town sold – perhaps to a hopeful publisher? Anyone curious and who lives outside the Midwest can see the swath of southwestern Wisconsin toured in the story on a crude map illustrated on the drafted cover for Debbies Hellmouth.

Hellmouth Glyph

If anyone else wants to read more about Debbie, there is a short story that tells her tale ten years ago. Portal Painter is included with similarly weird short horror stories gathered for Matthew Sawyer’s second collection, called A Codex of Malevolence.

Portal Painter by Matthew Sawyer

This short story was originally posted last year, so readers may remember and know Debbie Menon hopes she will become a professional painter in Los Angeles. Her mural in a pizzeria catches the interest of a local screenwriter. He pays Debbie thousands of dollars to paint a pattern on his concrete patio floor. The writer tells her the design is a portal.

Portal Painter
by
Matthew Sawyer

My fifteen foot long mural of an Italian picnic still looked pretty good. After finishing the painting, I came back to the ‘Double Drabble’ pizzeria in North Hollywood to fix holes in the canvas. Predictably, a kid poked my painting with a fork.

The height of the canvas stretched from beneath the top of the restaurant tables, which lined the wall, to the ceiling. I expressed concerns about the extending painting’s dimensions, but Lou said artwork would be fine. The damage justified my original recommendation to keep the height of the work to only about six feet, but the cautious assessment made no difference now. There were holes to be patched.

Lou Drabble agreed to pay extra for the paint and the canvas, but he denied compensation for the extra time required for the work. Although, Lou and Vic, the cook, fed me every time I walked into the restaurant. The offer gave me a reason to come back periodically to say “Hello” and check the condition of my mural. As I walked into the long and narrow dining area this afternoon, I saw my punctured painting and a chubby Asian guy looking at it.

The Asian man turned to face me as I walked into the dining area. He smiled and slipped off his black overcoat, uncovering a wet, black button-up shirt. The warm California day punished him for having overdressed. Experienced with the dry climate, I wore my sweat pants and a T-shirt today.

“Debbie Menon?” the man asked, “You need a picture next to your biography here on the wall.”

“I hate photographs of myself,” I honestly replied. “I’m the little girl on the picnic blanket, on the right side. Her hair is a lot darker than mine.”

“Yes,” the man said gazing at my painting. His eyes locked on the figure I pointed at. “You look Mexican.”

“No,” I said, gritting my teeth. “That’s the way Lou wanted the faces.”

“You shouldn’t have listened to him,” Vic said from behind me.

“He paid for it,” I reminded Vic.

“Change it back now. Between him and me, I’m the only one here looking at it.”

“No, its fine,” the Asian man insisted.

“Excuse me, who are you?” I politely asked the man. I suspected he was the screenwriter a friend of mine, Eddie, told me about earlier today.

The screenwriter asked Vic, who in turn asked my roommate, if he knew whether I was interested in doing book illustrations. As an unknown artist, I explored every opportunity.

The man grew a long, horribly uneven mustache on his upper lip. He combed the uneven hair over his lips. The hair on the man’s scalp may have also been butchered, but impossible to determine. He slicked his hair back with shining oils.

“I should introduce myself,” the man stated. “I’m Nai KriangSak, you can call me Sak.”

“Hi, Sak, you know my name,” I smiled. “Are you the one Vic, here, told Gary to tell me about?”

“Well, I don’t know,” Sak said shrugging his shoulders.

“Yep,” Vic said. “Debbie, meet Sak, and Sak please say hello to Debbie.”

“Hello, Debbie,” said Sak and smiled. The man had nice, white teeth. “I’m looking for an illustrator for my book.”

“Well, I can do illustration, but I want to paint stuff that interests me,” I told Sak. “Otherwise it gets boring and no fun.”

“But what you did for Double Drabble is acceptable,” Sak claimed. “I love it!”

“That’s not really my style though. That’s just for Lou,” I confessed to Sak.

I painted the first mural I had ever created in the restaurant in a desperate move to show off my talent. I compromised too much of myself. I did not begin to assert how I personally expressed myself until after my second mural, two cities away. The owner let me do whatever I wanted with images of sunflowers.

“Well, what is your style?” Sak asked with genuine curiosity.

“Like Georgia O’Keefe, but on a fractal level,” I said, anxious to talk about my artwork. “Other artists have done it before, but I make my own special dreamland in my paintings.”

“That doesn’t matter,” Sak said immediately. “How about you come over to my house? I have a pattern to be painted, but I can’t do it. I’m not an artist and I have poor eyesight.”

“Sure,” I instantly caved. Work still outweighed artistic expression. “I usually charge forty dollars an hour, and that doesn’t include paint, canvas or if I need a new brush.”

“That’s fine. I’ll give you two hundred dollars an hour. You will be needed for a minimum of three,” Sak told me.

“I’m not going to argue,” I answered stunned. The generous pay staggered me. “All right, I’ll take six hundred dollars for a few hours of work. Do you want me to come over to your place? When do you want to meet?”

“Let’s go now,” Sak said.

The late hour made the invitation suspicious. I looked at Vic. He smiled and waved me out the door. I knew Vic well enough to know that he and I thought alike. I can handle myself, and six hundred dollars is a decent incentive to take some risk. But the rushed work had not allowed time to gather materials.

“The paint store is closed until tomorrow morning. I don’t have any of my own right now,” I told Sak.

“We don’t need your supplies,” Sak happily said, bowing and gesturing me toward the front door. “I have paint at my house. And you’ll paint on the concrete of my patio.”

“Is it some kind of decorative pattern for the floor?” I asked a little confused.

“No,” Sak said. “A portal.”

“A what?”

“A portal, or door,” Sak ominously explained. “I need the Sumerian symbol on my floor.”

“Oh, a symbol?!” I shouted. “You want me to paint a symbol. That’s no problem. I’ll be done in a few minutes.”

“Yes, but you need to copy two symbols on the floor by hand, to make a new one,” Sak explained, complicating the work I expected to do.

The man did say he will pay me six hundred dollars. I supposed Sak expected me to exert my talent and training. I had to call my roommate before leaving the restaurant, just to let him know where I’m at. I no longer expected to get home before dawn. But, according to Sak’s offer, the extra hours meant even more pay.

“Let me see the symbols,” I said. “Do you have copies?”

“No,” Sak replied in sudden angst. “The images won’t photocopy. They are in a book; very old and precious.”

The job now sounded perilous, so I thought I knew why Sak offered so much money. Still, I wondered why he asked me if he would be better off hiring people who did things like art restorations. But he did and that fact made me happy. Sak gave me his address when I asked. He told me to follow him over to his house once I made my call.

On the answering machine at my shared apartment, I left a message to myself listing Sak’s name and address. I then told Sak that I parked in back of the Drabble and will meet him on the street in front of the restaurant. Sak agreed and told me he drove a brand new black sports car. He went out the front while used the back door. Once I pulled my red subcompact out of the alley and around the block, I followed my eager patron back to his house.

He lived in a residential neighborhood a few blocks from the restaurant. Sak could have walked to the Drabble, if he braved the local street gang and the most dangerous intersection to pedestrians in the Valley. That fact about the intersection is the truth. On average, someone got killed walking across the Lankershim cross street every week. Granted, thousands of cars and people passed the intersection every day.

Sak lived in one of the endless, stuccoed single-story houses in the treeless neighborhood. I’m glad I followed him. I wouldd have gotten lost counting the numbers on the identical buildings as I looked for the house.

I parked on the street, behind Sak’s sports car. I don’t know how Sak managed avoid the vehicle being stolen or if he even worried about someone breaking into his car. I figured his vehicle is a bigger target, so I felt safe leaving my cheap junker behind his prize vehicle in this neighborhood at night.

Sak led me into his home. I saw lights in the windows as Sak and I walked up the short front walk. The door was unlocked, so Sak and I strolled straight inside. People were inside his house, although I only heard their echoed voices. Sak seemed unconcerned and shut the door behind me.

“I’ll get the book,” Sak said as he poked his head into what appeared the kitchen.

I noted where the beige carpet of the room, in which I stood, came to an end. Uncomplimentary green linoleum began where the carpet ended. Though I only saw a sliver, the slick floor covering probably spread across the concealed room.

Sak said nothing when he gazed into the kitchen, but the talking stopped. He turned into a dark hallway, perpendicular to the entrance of the kitchen. A young girl walked from the kitchen, followed by two skinny boys.

“Hi,” the girl said to me. She did not introduce herself. Neither did the two boys. In fact, they said nothing at all, only stared.

“Hi,” I answered.

I think the three kids were old enough to be out of high school. After I graduated from college, distinguishing the age of people younger than me became a problem. Those signs that said IDs were checked for alcohol sales to anyone who appeared under thirty were specific instructions for me, if I ever got a job as a clerk at a convenience store. At my age, I only had three categories for how old a person is: too young, young or old. I didn’t count dead as a category, but Eddie insisted the classification applicable.

All of the kids were taller than Sak and I. The pair of us were about the same height. I wondered who these Caucasian kids were, maybe groupies. I supposed screenwriters can have groupies. Although, I expect that would make entertainment news and I never heard of Sak before he introduced himself.

“I’m a painter. I did that mural at Double Drabble,” I listed. I didn’t drop my name, but I felt compelled to somehow identify myself. The revelation seemed fair, because then I asked who the kids were. An awkward silence, after I told them what I did, insist we get to know each other.

“We’re his coven,” the girl laughed, pointing down the dark hallway.

“Deema, don’t be rude,” said the boy with a purple goatee and who wore a heavy metal T-shirt.

“Yeah,” said the clean-shaven boy. He sported a butch haircut.

“I’m Jonny, he’s Tim, and the girl in the shirt with the cartoon pig is Deema,” Jonny said, pointing at the only other girl in the room. His goatee dipped into the loose collar of his T-Shirt as he spoke.

“I’m Debbie,” I said as Sak returned.

Sak carried a thick book with yellow pages. The book covers were wrapped in plastic. Sak wore pink, satin gloves. The fingers appeared shaped like those on gloves made for a woman. His thick fingers stretched the seams of the apparel. I remembered noticing that Sak had small, thick hands. The long ends of the glove’s fingers looked crooked and lumpy, pushed partially full of air.

“Here,” Sak commanded my attention. “I’ll hold it. When you copy the glyphs, I’ll set the book on the table open to the pages. But, please, no touching.”

The request did not seem odd at all. Sak gave me a lot of money to copy pictures out of what appeared an ancient and fragile book. It must be valuable. I wondered if Sak himself wrapped the tome in plastic, which is fine by me. I certainly had no idea about preservation other than spreading varnish over something. I doubted the technique worked for books. Well, the outside would look good, permanently, but the pages will stick together.

“Ooh, I love the book,” Tim droned.

“You all go clear off the patio,” Sak ordered his coven, fans or minions. I still had no clue why the kids hung out here. Evidently, the two boys and girl served as on-hand furniture movers.

Sak opened the book directly to the first page he wanted to show me; close to the middle of the tome. I saw no book mark and I know his finger had not held the page. Sak turned right to the page he desired. The dry, yellow pages seemed to hold themselves together quite well. As Sak unintentionally demonstrated, they appeared extremely resilient to being pinched and bent.

The pattern was a circle, with curls flowing in opposite directions in and out of the circle. The design seemed simple enough to reproduce. I just needed to be sure to capture the correct number of swirls. Seven spirals swirled from the outside of the circle, six from the inside. They didn’t completely curl in upon themselves, leaving wide, negative space around the ornate, geometric pattern.

The second pattern Sak showed me was a pentagram. Only the outside of the figure had been drawn, no pentagon formed the center of the star. The lines between the vertexes of the five points were broken. The pentagram appeared well ventilated. The drawing of this shape appeared significantly larger than the circle.

“I need this pentagram to fit inside the circle,” Sak said, as I expected he would.

“I suppose it will make a decent floor decoration,” I conjectured aloud. “It’s little creepy, with the star and all.”

“So you can do it?” asked Sak.

“Yeah, no problem,” I said. “I want to get the final pattern on paper and show you before I paint it.”

Sak paused. He looked hesitant; maybe because the value of the book prohibited him from pulling it out again. Sak may be overanxious about the mysterious volume. He also might just want to have his painting completed. Coming to his place so late today supported the latter hypothesis. Maybe he had a party planned tomorrow. After I allowed Sak a quiet moment to resolve his indecision, he agreed.

“I’ll need a paper and pencil,” I told Sak. “And, do you have chalk for the patio?”

“Yes, I’ve got all those things,” Sak said. “What else do you want, because I have it.”

I wanted to be an established artist with clients knocking on my door, but I don’t think that is what Sak meant. All I needed for this particular job is something to make markings. Nothing beat a number two pencil as the fastest tool, but I will have to switch to something less lasting once my canvas became concrete.

“How about a place I can sit down and draw?” I asked. “Someplace with a lot of light.”

“Have a seat in the kitchen,” Sak said pointing toward the room with the linoleum floor. The precious book lay open, balanced on its spine, in the palm of one of Sak’s hands. I gasped.

The book stayed glued flat on Sak’s palm. My patron seemed unconcerned, or unaware, of his own reckless treatment of his book. Sak followed me into the kitchen and put the book down at the far end of the table, out of my reach from where I sat.

“You can look, but don’t touch,” Sak said smiling. He dropped his expression into a grimace. “Seriously, don’t touch the pages with your bare hands. Here, put on my gloves.”

Sak took off his feminine gloves and handed them to me. After having been stretched out, the gloves fit loose around my knuckles. Sak waited for me to put them both on before he left to retrieve paper and a pencil. When Sak came back, I asked him a logistics question.

“When I’m done drawing a copy of the pentagram, will you turn the page back to the circle?”

“You’ve got the gloves now. You can turn the page,” Sak said.

“Which page is it,” I sheepishly asked. “I wasn’t paying attention when you flipped through the book.”

“Just turn the page, you’ll see it.”

The answer Sak gave implied I can thumb through the pages until I found the image I looked for. That suited me. I grew curious as to what the volume might be. The book appeared professionally bound. The plastic, in which Sak had wrapped the book covers, made ascertaining the material difficult. The black, visible sliver of binding looked like leather.

Not a lot of words appeared on the page with the pentagram. The text had been handwritten, not typeset. The language might be Latin; it looked foreign with dotted bars at the end of a lot of words. I hoped other pages in the book included translations or even a recognizable drawing. The book itself became a distraction and remained oblique.

I reminded myself of the late afternoon and my goal to be done in less than three hours. Now that I knew exactly what I needed to paint, I now anticipated finishing in less than two. But if I became fascinated with the book, I will get stuck here all night. I resolved myself to quickly copy the pictures and give the book back to Sak.

Copying the pentagram was easy. White space composed most of the image. I could not use a ruler to draw the visible pieces of the pentagram. The original artist bent the lines. Whether the crookedness was unintentional or not, I wanted to make certain I captured the image exactly. I meticulously copied what I saw. Sak periodically returned to the kitchen during the minutes I spent drawing the pentagram. He heaped on praise for my artistic abilities.

I told Sak that instead of copying the pentagram inside the circle, I will copy the circle around the pentagram. Sak thought the idea ingenious, rather than realizing I had simply drawn the broken pentagram first. I let him think I had inspirations of genius. The idea probably made him feel better about paying me so much money for the artwork.

When I turned back the page in the book, I instantly arrived at the image of the circle. I could have sworn when Sak showed me the two images, he turned a lump of pages at once. I turned around and asked him if I found the correct image. Sak looked at the page to which I had turned and nodded his head.

“There is only one Circle of Wind in the book,” Sak said.

“Circle of Wind?” I asked. “That sounds like a Kung-Fu move in an old movie.”

“It’s a glyph,” Sak corrected me. “You just have to paint it.”

“Well, that’s good,” I said.

Once I started copying the circle I suddenly needed to concentrated. For some reason, I could not draw the dimension of the circle on the same paper as the pentagram. The circle refused to stay round. I erased my light, preparatory scribbles. Drawing the circle on a separate piece of paper seemed to work smoothly. I even managed to approximate the size of the circle I will need.

I put my two drawings together. Looking at the images side by side made me dizzy. I instantly suspected I was growing tired.

“Hey, Sak, do you have any cola? I want to wake myself up,” I asked my host and patron.

“Oh, sure,” Sak said. He opened the glass sliding door from the kitchen to the patio.

I then noticed night had fallen. Time passed without my conscious awareness, although my body certainly knew. My neck, back and drawing hand ached.

I could not see or hear anything outside in the darkness, but remembered Sak had sent the kids to clear off his patio. Sak flipped on the exterior light, causing the two boys and girl to stare blindly into the glowing bulb. Deema was standing before Jonny and Tim, who stood side by side. They looked as if caught speaking to each other in secret. The trio blinked their eyes and stepped forward, wordless.

Sak waved a can of soda in front of the open patio door and then gave it to me. The three kids walked into the kitchen and each grabbed their own can from the fridge. Deema looked over my shoulder while Sak stepped out of the room.

“How’s it going?” Deema asked about my progress. I showed her my copies.

“That is fast!” Tim exclaimed.

“I did this already,” Deema claimed. She shouted into the hall the lead from the living room. I presumed that is where Sak continually disappeared. “I drew these already, Sak!”

“But this is fast,” Jonny agreed with Tim.

Sak raced back into the kitchen.

“Yes,” Sak said to Deema. “But now Debbie will draw them, put together.”

“Good luck with that,” Deema said grudgingly. “I’m still working on it.”

“See?” Sak said. “Debbie went to school.”

“Then send me school, Sak,” Deema demanded. She sounded threatening.

“That will take too long,” Sak protested. “Debbie is a proven professional.”

“Well, I don’t know about proven,” I said. “You saw my first mural.”

“Yes,” Sak validated. “It’s good and you’re fast.”

“I work better without people looking over my shoulder,” I hinted to Sak. I especially did not appreciate Deema’s criticism, even though she told the truth. She sounded jealous.

“All right, everyone,” Sak said, gathering his servants. “Go watch TV or read my stories.”

“Let’s watch TV,” Jonny voted.

The kids took their soda with them. Sak followed the three into the living room. I failed to recognize the sound of the movie they found on television. Although, even if I did remember the movie, I would not know its name. Nor would I be able to elaborate on the story beyond the dialog. Whenever I sat in front of the television, I became inattentive while I doodled in my sketchbook.

I tapped my drawings together, intending to trace the image that shown from beneath the paper. I saw nothing. When I stacked sheets of paper, and put them against the light, I still did not see an image bleed through. I even switched the sheet I placed on top and only saw the image immediately in front of me.

Light bled through the paper. The top sheet glowed white when held against the illumination. I should have at least seen a shadow of the image. I heavily marked an empty corner of a single sheet of paper before again testing the transparency of the paper against the light. My scratches were plainly visible through the top sheet of paper.

I thought about going into the living room and telling Sak I’ll probably need more time to figure out how to trace the image, but then I did not want to provoke Deema. She would instantly proclaim my higher education for nothing. That won’t happen. I resolved to tackle the problem without disruption.

I will manually scribe one image over the other. With a deep breath, I put myself to the task. I shut the book before starting work again.

I placed my drawn images side by side again. My dizziness instantly returned, until I partially concealed one image with the paper of another. The strange reaction perplexed me. The cola did not seem to help, but when I wasn’t looking at my drawings side by side, I felt fine.

I started copying the pentagram inside the circle in earnest. As long as I kept a little piece of the pentagram concealed, I worked strong and steady. The combined images must create some sort of optical illusion. Making everyone sick is a horrible idea for a backyard grill party. Although, Sak may be crafting a special trap for people infringing on his copyrights. My fantasy only reminded me how late the hour must have become. The time flew by.

My stomach suddenly dropped when I realized my stupid mistake. I never asked how Sak wanted the swirls on the inside of the circle to intersect with the pentagram. Do the swirls join the severed ends of the pentagram? If that detail did not matter, I can finish in ten minutes. Sak had to make the call.

I was getting tired and only wanted to go home. If I needed to start over, I probably had to see the pentagram again. The work will also have to wait until I finished the week at my full-time job.

I put on the gloves and brought the book with me into the living room. My nearly finished drawing came, along pinned to my side, beneath my left elbow. Sak watched me enter the room from his overstuffed chair. Jonny looked up from the television.

“Here’s the book back, Sak,” I said.

“Put it down and give me the gloves,” Sak said anxiously.

“I don’t know how you want the images to overlap,” I confessed in front of Deema as I put the book on the coffee table and lay the pink gloves on top. “But I’m almost done.”

“You’re almost done?” Sak asked excited. He bounced from his chair.

I took the drawing from beneath my arm to show Sak. Jonny still watched me whereas Tim and Deema seemed enthralled by some late-night talent competition. I held my drawing out in front of me. When I showed Sak, Jonny vomited unto the carpet; in front of the couch he sat upon with his friends.

“It is finished!” Sak shouted, overjoyed.

“Dammit, Jonny!” Deema shouted. The three kids maneuvered from Jonny’s splattered expulsion.

“I didn’t think it was finished,” I honestly said to Sak and looked at my drawing again. At second glance, the image did indeed appear complete. That’s funny, I swore when I stopped drawing the image was obviously incomplete. I could easily pick up the drawing where I left off. “No, Sak. Let me check the pentagram drawing again. I’m sure I left out a couple lines.”

Even though only a few lines comprised the drawing of the pentagram, something felt missing. True replications are betrayed by amateur mistakes. For the sake of my own integrity, the pattern needed to be perfect.

“You got it done?” Deema suddenly interjected herself. “Let me see.”

Deema jumped over the creamy yellow puddle that seeped into the carpet. I showed my newfound nemesis my drawing. Deema also vomited, just like Jonny. I whipped the drawing out of the path of sick and retreated to the kitchen. Sak followed right behind me.

“Can you paint it tonight?” Sak asked turning the patio lights back on.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m tired and I have to go to work tomorrow afternoon.”

“I’ll give you two thousand dollars on top of what your total hours will give you. I’ll pay all of it tonight, when you finish, in cash.”

“You owe me sixteen hundred dollars already,” I reminded Sak. I felt guilty about asking for so much money without having lain a single brush stroke. But, Sak did say two hundred dollars an hour.

“Yes, that’s fine,” Sak said. “You’ll have it all in cash when you finish.”

Thirty-six hundred dollars is more money than I make in a month at my full-time job. I felt like Sak paid me like a real artist should be paid, despite how little I accomplished. My tired giddiness with earning such a wild wage chased away any guilt. I set aside all caution and hesitation, and agreed to paint my composite image immediately.

Sak and I went onto the patio. The kids let us go alone. No one appeared in the kitchen while Sak showed me the quart of lidless black paint on the patio, against the wall. The can had no label either. A fat rubber band held a plastic wrap over the open end of the container. I don’t know why the paint was in the unlabeled can, maybe poured from a larger can, but the color is definitely black. Brand new, small and medium sized brushes lay on the concrete behind the can. Sak really had prepared.

“The top of the pentagram has to point to the north,” Sak said pointing at the block wall just beyond his patio.

“Now is that the Satanic pentagram where the goat’s ears and nuzzle make up the star? Because the points representing the horns, they’re on the top. In your book, it looked like it’s the other way around. I don’t know what that is called.”

Sak thought for a moment. After gazing at my drawing again, right-side up, he asked me to confirm his observation. “This is how it is in the book?”

“Mmm-hmm,” I hummed.

“Then paint it like it is in the book,” Sak decided.

“All right, I’ll get started,” I said, finding the chalk that rolled against the house. “This may take a little while. I don’t know why I’m taking so long.”

“No,” Sak objected. “You’re fast! Deema has tried since last year.”

“Maybe you’re right about the education,” I agreed with Sak.

I finished tracing the drawing on the concrete with chalk. The task took no time at all. I expected the painting to go just as easily. The temporary lines only needed to be filled in with paint. As I painted, I felt nauseous.

“Hey, Sak,” I called up from kneeling on the floor. By the time I finished, I’m sure I’ll be lying down. “Do you have ginger ale or something to calm a stomach?”

“Yes, sure. I’ve got antacids, too,” Sak volunteered.

“That will be great,” I answered thankful. “I’ll take both.”

I faced the patio door as I painted and saw into Sak’s home. He went back into the house, but stayed in the kitchen. Sak knew exactly which cupboard he kept his antacids. He brought the half-full plastic container to me with the ginger ale. I was grateful.

I started to feel like Deema and Jonny, yet to lose the contents of my stomach. A fast-acting flu bug must have victimized me. The speed of the virus and the number of sick people made me wonder if we suffered from food poisoning. The only thing I shared with Deema and Jonny is the cola, in our own, individual cans. The soda might have all come from a bad batch.

While working, and feeling better, that nagging thought about the unfinished glyph returned. I wanted to look at the book again and asked Sak.

“No,” Sak said. “The drawing is fine. It’s almost dawn.”

“Dawn, really?” I asked surprised. Time had really flown, and I was almost done. I knew exactly where I had stopped on this painting. Despite the chalk lines, I made a point of laying a pebble down in the spot where paint still needed to go.

“I didn’t anticipate the time, but it’s actually perfect,” Sak insisted. I guess he stood looking over my shoulder for hours. His vigilance made me self-conscious.

“But it might not be perfect with the images in the book,” I stated, not wanting to give up my artistic integrity.

“Okay,” Sak instantly agreed. “I’ll get the book, but you, continue painting. You can add in what you’ve missed, right?”

“Yeah, I suppose,” I answered, not completely satisfied to wait and see if my mistake was really just a missing piece. Two things convinced me to follow Sak’s direction; I was tired and felt sick again.

After painting a few more seconds after answering Sak, I talked to him again. “Hey, Sak, can I have another ginger ale and some more antacids?”

“Sure,” Sak said going into his house. “The antacids are still there on the floor, next to you.”

I reached for the bottle, now only a quarter full. No wonder I felt bloated and queasy. Ironically, the bloated feeling was the lesser of the two evils. I ate another couple of tablets. Sak returned with the drowsy looking kids and my ginger ale.

A hot wind suddenly blew up. I turned away from the blast, feeling the rising temperature on my back. I wondered if the wind is the Santa Ana’s I experienced last year. I could not remember the season, the weather could have been like this last summer. The wind would not dissuade me from completing my work before dawn, but I needed to work fast. I saw the eastern horizon glow neon blue over the Verdugo Hills.

“You’re almost finished,” Sak said as I slowly stood, aching.

“I said that,” I snapped at Sak. I should be happy, being so close to earning so much money. Instead, exhaustion made me bitchy. “Are you going to get the book?”

I drank the ginger ale Sak handed me before he went back inside. The kids stayed outside with me. Nobody looked at my painting.

“I couldn’t do that,” Deema told me.

“It kinda makes you sick looking at it, doesn’t it?” Tim asked Jonny.

“Yeah, but that’s how you know its got real power,” Jonny answered.

“What are you two talking about?” I asked the boys.

“Your circle,” Jonny told me. “Deema worked at it for a long time. Man, you’re fast!”

“Christ, Jonny!” Deema shouted.

“That’s the point, Deema,” Jonny stated. “There isn’t one, so we gotta summon our own.”

“What are you guys talking about?” I asked draining the last of my ginger ale. I felt better again, maybe I stopped painting the image. I crawled down on the concrete and started again, because I wanted to finish by the break of day.

The wind seemed to come in gusts. The heat and the blowing sand wasn’t so bad while I stayed close to the ground. I listened to the kids answer my question as I worked.

“You’ve got to read Sak’s writing,” Deema said, speaking over whatever Jonny babbled. “The man is like a prophet.”

The impression I missed something in my drawing still nagged me. I desperately wanted to look at the book again, but Sak had not returned. I don’t know what took him so long, the book lay on a chair in the dining room. I was tempted just to look myself. Except, Sak returned wearing the pink gloves and carrying the tome.

“Which one did you want to see, the circle or the pentagram?” Sak asked.

“The pentagram,” I answered. The image is so simple, especially with its abundance of empty spaces. I saw the image as perfectly whole when I looked at my drawing, but I knew that is where my mistake lay. It’s funny I knew the unfinished corner before Sak proclaimed my drawing finished, but I then lost the spot when he made his announcement.

“I’ll find it, you keep painting,” Sak said as he turned the pages.

The first rays of light cut into the fog of morning. Bands of golden clouds, between the black earth and starless sky, looked like they perhaps formed a bridge to heaven. The foot of the bridge never touched the earth. I wonder how any soul left this world.

I brushed the last thick line of black paint on the concrete. Dust and sand, blowing in the wind, became embedded in the drying paint. I lay on my right side. My back and left thigh felt hot in the light of dawn, as if I lay under a summertime sun at noon.

The band of golden clouds widened and tilted toward the ground. The fresh blue skies were visible through the fog, but Sak’s backyard remained entrenched in shadows.

“Thank you,” Sak said as he turned around and went back inside.

I jumped up and caught Sak in his living room. “What time is it?”

“It’s six AM,” Sak answered. Thank you again, Debbie.”

I thought about how much Sak owed me. The amount of money is insane, but the tired and rotten way I felt right now made the sum seem justified.

“You owe me forty-four hundred dollars,” I told Sak, delivering my invoice for cash upon completion.

“Of course, and thank you again,” Sak said handing the money to me in wrapped stacks of one hundred dollar bills.

“So what is the design for anyway?” I had to ask.

A lot of hassle went into getting this job done. Something supernatural seemed to complicate my otherwise straight forward path. Whatever stalled me fell versus my perseverance. I think I deserved to know the future of the product of my sacrifice.

“A gateway,” Sak said. “I thought the nearest I would ever get to the afterlife is Hell. But you beat the start of the equinox.”

I honestly did not know how to reply to Sak. I understood he stayed awake all night and probably felt just as loopy as me. Sak probably tried to screw around with my head and got himself confused as he told his tall tale. I knew a lot of people in Wisconsin like that. I decided to entertain him.

“If it’s supposed to be the bridge to heaven, why is it so hot?”

“I don’t know,” Sak said looking disappointed.

END

The A Codex of Malevolence Trade Paperback is available at LULU.COM.

The ebook, in a variety of formats, is available at Smashwords.


A Codex of Malevolence

A Codex of Malevolence printed copies and ebooks are available at LULU and Smashwords.

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