The Hanged Man: Part 6: Ostara
Post #49: In which three young women meet the monsters within them ...
Rose Red’s cringing imagination had proved inadequate to the reality of Baba Yaga. In the circle of storytelling, witness to Artyom’s terrible exposure, Vasilisa’s anguish and rage, Radulf’s despair and Morfran’s revelations, her attention never strayed far from the hideous crone. The Baba’s jibes and revelations were so perfectly timed, each thrust of her verbal knife so exquisitely aimed, and the twitching aside of protective covering so masterful! Yet she merely revealed truth, undeniable, unwelcome, desperately hidden, liberally decorated with taunts and jeers, but nevertheless truth.
There was something clean and sharp about truth, Rose Red thought. The cold clarity of truth was at once unbearably painful and strangely restful. She feared Baba Yaga more than she’d ever feared anyone, felt disgusted and appalled by her. And yet in some deeply primitive way she trusted her. Truth, thought Rose Red, is a neutral thing. Not good, not bad. It just is. This thought made a resting place, a solid rock in a river of chaos. On this night, Baba Yaga and Artemis brought the initiates together with truth.
The White Stag stood nearby. Ever since his appearance in the sunny clearing the day before, she’d felt comforted. During the Baba’s stories, he stood near the chicken legs carrying the house with its eyes like windows and door like a mouth. His white coat glowed dimly with soft light, just like Artemis’s bow. She was there, too, next to the stag, bow resting beside her on the ground. They stood like sentinels, listening and watching. Rose Red wondered if anyone else was aware of their presence.
Baba Yaga had broken the circle, caused another fire to spring into life on the far side of the house and dismissed the man called Morfran abruptly. Now she squatted in front of the skull she used as a drum, hunched and shadowed with her pipe jutting from her pursed lips. The drumming compelled and intoxicated. Rose Red watched Jenny shed her clothing and was amazed at her beauty. She watched Vasilisa dancing with what looked like passionate rage with Death. And no wonder!
The music demanded but Rose Red resisted. She remembered her dance alone in the wet woods, safe from all eyes. The memory of her rage and pain made her shudder. The old feeling of being in the wrong place, of not belonging, of being an imposter, rose in her and she turned away, meaning to move outside the range of firelight and hide in the shadows.
The White Stag stood in her path. A large broken piece of ice rested in his woven antlers. Rose Red stood quite still, shocked and somehow humiliated. She shrank from the memory of her destructive rage and grief on the day she’d danced in the wet forest. She still believed some flaw or wrongness in herself lay at the heart of her difficult relationship with her parents. To feel so much anger and despair about her mother surely revealed a vile and hateful nature.
Remotely, she heard piping and it seemed to her it was the sound of breaking, of shattering and smashing, the sound of sharp, glittering shards, the sound of hidden bleeding that went on and on without mercy or healing. She felt an impulse to push the stag out of the light, get him away from the others so no one would see that incriminating piece of broken ice. It reproached her with its cold, sharp edges. She remembered the feel of the tree branch in her hands, the good, lustful sound of smashing and breaking, the sensual excitement of destruction beyond repair.
The stag lowered his head so the ice caught the firelight and reflected the whirling, mingled figures of Jenny and the Firebird in their dance. Rose Red saw then it was a mirror, not ice, not glass, but a broken mirror with fanged edges. She feared it. She didn’t dare look into it again. She turned away from the sight of it. Her head felt thick, the vaguely herbal smoke pressing against her. She felt queasy, on the edge of nausea. She closed her eyes and swallowed.
She couldn’t stay here. She must to get away from the flickering firelight, the music that overwhelmed her control, the smothering smell and the eyes of the others. She must flee, hide, go to ground somewhere while this night passed.
When she opened her eyes, Death stood in front of her. There was something inexorable about his still figure. She could look right through him, like looking through prison bars made of white bone. The sound of drums filled the night, threaded with the cold needle of the flute, but Death stood in dreadful immobility that made Rose Red feel like screaming. Tension coiled tightly in her, drying her mouth and humming behind her eyes. She closed them, trying to pull herself together.
The drumming filled her body. It entered through her ears, on her breath, was absorbed through her very skin. With her eyes closed, she felt her pulse and breathing adjust to it, take up its rhythm. She couldn’t resist its insidious power. She opened her eyes. There in front of her stood her mother, Queen Snow White.
She wore a simple dress of deep pink. The queen had always told Rose Red this color flattered every complexion and hid signs of aging. A rope of pearls hung around her throat and another wove through her long black hair. Bitterness and grief lined her face, emphasizing her age.
The queen began to dance. Not a stylized, formal, controlled dance of the ballroom, but a wild dance of hips and elbows, knees and shoulders. Hair flew in a black storm, streaked with white pearls, and the pink dress twisted. Rose Red saw with horror bare feet under the hem of the dress. She couldn’t ever recall seeing her mother with bare feet before. It was a dance of silent screaming, a dance of pain beyond words, a dance of twisted rage.
Rose Red tried to drop her face in her hands, tried to wrench her gaze away, tried to turn and flee, but she found herself dancing too. She danced her own dance and it was like dancing in her own blood, dancing in her own filth, in her own grief. She and the queen danced with each other and Rose Red felt powerless to stop, powerless to run away, powerless to hide.
They turned together, Rose Red and her mother, and there stood the White Stag, patient and calm, holding the mirror in his antlers that were like twisted bones. The mirror reflected Rose Red dancing with …Death. Death, grinning his vacant, meaningless grin. Death, whose gyrating bones looked as though they would fall in a jumble any moment but somehow stayed loosely but solidly bound together. Not Queen Snow White, but Death. Rose Red forced her eyes away from the mirror and turned her body to face the other dancer. Queen Snow White raised her hands to her cloud of hair and began to wrench it in handfuls out of her head. The pearls fell in a white flurry and the flute gave a note of silver and bone, silver and bone, to each luminescent sphere.
Rose Red closed her eyes and shrieked. The drumming stopped. For a moment, everything was suspended. She didn’t open her eyes. She didn’t want to see any more. In the breathless silence the piping began, gentle and coaxing. It soothed and calmed. It made her think of the way she talked to birds and wild creatures. Her throat felt raw and dry. She breathed. She opened her eyes.
There in front of her danced a child. She had long black hair, beautifully cared for and looking oddly elegant. She wore a simple dress of deep pink. Around her neck hung a rope of pearls, and another wove elaborately through the fall of hair. Her skin was pale and without blemish, her lips full and red. She danced hesitantly, shyly, as though uncertain or afraid. She danced as though invisible prison bars surrounded her. She danced small and tight, looking ready to cringe and freeze into immobility at any moment. Her face was expressionless, as flat as that of a doll.
Tears blurred Rose Red’s vision and fell down her cheeks, warm and comforting. Tenderness swelled powerfully and painfully within her. She reached forward carefully with her hand to the dancing child. Dancing, but so remote! She reached out, but the child didn’t respond. She didn’t meet Rose Red’s eyes or even look into her face. She danced as though alone, danced with that pale, expressionless face. Of course, thought Rose Red, of course she doesn’t respond. She knows nothing of response, for no one has ever held a hand out in love, or in comfort.
Her own feet began to move tentatively to the sound of the flute. Her feet danced innocence and isolation. They danced a small and delicate dance that listened and watched for danger. Rose Red danced the dance of a hunched shoulder, the dance of invisibility, the dance of powerlessness and dumb hopelessness. Rose Red and the child danced together, and slowly Rose Red pivoted until she once again faced the stag, and still he stood there, looking at her out of his large, dark eyes. She raised her own eyes to the fragment of mirror and found Death reflected beside her. Death, dancing with childish, fearful grace, twirling and floating, raising his arms and then quickly dropping them, as though afraid to call attention to himself. Rose Red couldn’t decide if he mocked the child or was so at one with her his empty chest filled with her pain.
The piping began to fade away, silence stretching between notes until the next note wasn’t played. Again, Rose Red closed her eyes, wondering dully what could possibly be next. She no longer wanted to flee. She would stand. She would dance with whatever came. She would face whatever the mirror showed her.
A drum beat started, insistent and sensual and slightly mad. Rose Red knew without looking the Baba drummed. Then another rhythm joined in, like a container for the first rhythm. Steady, comforting as a heartbeat, sounding as though it would go on to the end of time and beyond, unhurried and unwearied. Nephthys beat the round, domed skull in front of her. And then the flute began again, a joyous sound speaking to Rose Red of green trees, trickling water, the peace of deep woods, the instinctive lives of birds and animals in all their lovely and mysterious complexity. Her body began to move and now her fear, rage and pain fell away and she danced coming home to peace and safety.
She opened her eyes and looked straight into the shining eyes of an old woman with a cap of curly silver hair. Her skin was lined and weathered, her lips smiling, a scatter of freckles on her cheeks. She wore a linen tunic embroidered with leaves, flowers and animals. The sleeves, collar and hem were decorated with golden thread. She wore soft-looking leather boots on her feet and a belt of braided leather and gold at her waist with a supple sheath for a knife.
The old woman danced with grace and confidence. Rose Red saw in her movements the echo of a running doe’s flank, the brown sweep of wing, the silver flash of a swimming fish, the clever hands of a raccoon and the sinuous shape of a snake. It was a dance of serenity and life. It was joy, not ecstatic, but steady, rooted, grounded in Nephthys’s drumming.
Rose Red turned towards the mirror. This time she found only herself, wearing the tunic Jenny and Vasilisa had made, her own curly black hair in a tangle around her cheeks. As she watched her reflection, she saw the face of the old woman pass across her own for a moment, like a shadow. She moved closer to the stag and the mirror, still dancing, searching for another glimpse of the old dancer. It was like watching a reflection in water, shimmering, moving with an unseen current. A fleeting movement of arm, a turn of head, the soft, crumpled texture of a lined neck, each present for an instant and then sliding away in the reflection. Still dancing, Rose Red reached out a hand to touch the mirror and a sharp edge cut her deeply. She gasped and blood fell from the finger onto the ground. Her feet stopped and she looked around, as though waking from a dream, wanting something to bind her finger with and stop the bleeding.
Death stood there before her again. He wasn’t dancing and Rose Red suddenly realized drum and flute were silent. Death reached out and took her hand, warm and bleeding and alive, in his own bony grasp. He touched the tip of his finger to the cut, coating it in blood, as though dipping a brush in paint. Still holding her hand in one of his, he leaned forward, bringing the scarlet finger bone to her lips, and painted her mouth carefully with her own blood. She stood, docile, and allowed this. It was an oddly formal, ritualistic action and something about the touch of Death’s finger on her mouth shot straight into her groin with a fiery pang, so she nearly groaned aloud.
She saw a streak of movement in the corner of her eye. Out of the dark shadows and into the firelight sprang a fox. It leapt, graceful, silent and cat like, straight for Death. Death recoiled slightly in a gentle clinking of bones, the two figures merged, and Rose Red saw the fox sitting neatly, dog-like, inside Death’s rib cage. It stretched its head forward and began casually gnawing at a rib bone. Rose Red clearly saw the gleam of its tooth, whiter than Death’s bones. The fox, still gnawing, looked straight into her eyes.
Rose Red turned her head and looked into the mirror. There stood Death and there within his rib cage, its tail neatly wrapped around its feet, sat the fox, gnawing at the rib. Its slanted amber eyes were fixed on her face. It ignored the mirror. For a long moment Rose Red looked into her own face, seeing in memory Queen Snow White in her pearls and deep pink; the isolated, stoic child who had survived; and the serene old woman who – had? – would? – attained joy.
Rose Red walked to the White Stag and carefully reached forward. Blood stained her cut hand. The White Stag bowed his head and she took the mirror in both hands and lifted it out of his antlers. She carried it to the black iron cauldron squatting on the ground near the fire and let it drop into the black depths. It didn’t shatter but cracked once with a final kind of sound.
Rose Red returned to where Death stood, encasing the shape of the fox. The fox ceased its gnawing and watched her approach, eyes wary. She stood close to Death, nearly toe to toe, but she didn’t look at that eternal grimace. Dark eyes and amber eyes looked into one another. She raised her hands and curled her fingers around Death’s ribs.
“Is it you?” she breathed, knowing the answer already.
The fox stretched its neck forward and licked the blood, delicately, firmly, off her mouth.
Jenny danced with the Firebird.
The drumming entered her bones and her blood. She’d never danced before, but her body recognized the elemental beat in a sort of ecstasy and she felt herself changed, transformed into something peeled of all civilized softness. She felt a fierce impulse to take off her clothes. The drumbeat demanded it. The bitter green scented smoke demanded it. Her body felt ripe and must be released from its husk of clothing.
Clasped in the inexorable, pounding rhythm, she pulled her linen tunic over her head, loosed her leather and gold braided belt and dropped her leggings. She slid the leather tie off the end of her long plait and shook out her hair. At once she became vividly aware of the cool night air and the radiant warmth of the fire. Her long hair swept against her neck, shoulders, arms and breasts in a caress like the brush of a large wing as she danced. She closed her eyes and lifted her face to the night sky, feeling fire-warmed air against her bare throat. Her breasts swayed, heavy and alive.
Into this sensual awareness, the flute began again, inserting itself delicately, brushing against her, stroking the fine hair on her body into erect awareness.
She opened her eyes and found, just above her, the Firebird. It twisted and turned gracefully in the air, wings and long tail flowing. It too was caught in the erotic net of drumbeat. It coiled and uncoiled, sinuous as a snake, then exploded upward in a golden shower of light like an unfolding flower of fire. Jenny saw gold and orange and crimson, flashes of green and blue and violet. She cried out in wonder, hearing her own triumphant, harsh cry with amazement. She whirled and danced, captive to drumming and piping, and the Firebird revolved above her, its bright feathers and her brown hair mingling. Glowing wing and shapely arm, heavy tassel of hair and graceful tail blended together, wove together, each becoming a part of the other until the boundary dissolved between the woman and the golden bird.
Then Death appeared, grinning his merciless, unending, maniacal grin. He danced in front of her, too close, crowding her, making her fall back a step to avoid the hard touch of his bones. Death danced, rotating pelvis, shoulders, head and knees, but not together, no, rather in a terrible visual cacophony, an impossible gyrating chaos. Jenny turned to avoid him and he stepped sideways and remained in front of her, so close he blocked her from the rest of the circle, from the warmth of the fire, and from her joyous dance with the Firebird. Her feet became heavy and angry, shackled to the drumbeat. She felt hounded, defensive, trapped. She would stop. She would not dance with Death! She would not be forced. But the Firebird! Oh, the Firebird! The Firebird that leads one to treasure!
Death, as though relenting, fell back a step, and then another. Jenny relaxed slightly, dancing strongly, proudly, with straight back and shoulders thrown wide. She glared at Death, grinning fiercely.
He grinned back, of course he did, without the slightest change of expression, and flung a bony hand into the air. From his fingers blossomed a golden, gossamer shimmer, opening like a flower and falling gently around the Firebird. In a deft movement too swift to see, Death made a circular sweeping motion with his upraised hand, gathering the edges of the blossom together and pulling them tight, and the Firebird let out an agonized cry and hung motionless, a glowing stationary thing in the air. Death twisted his hand and jerked hard, wrapping the fine strands of the net around his wrist.
The Firebird fell ungracefully out of the air onto the ground in a puff of feathers and Death, looking into Jenny’s eyes, tightened and twisted the strands of the golden net around his hand again, a third time, a fourth time. The Firebird shrieked in agony and Jenny heard a delicate cracking, as of fragile, thin bones breaking, a rippling sound. She thought wildly of Baba Yaga’s drumsticks — surely, they were bones and the Baba snapped them with strong fingers -- but she knew it was the sound of the Firebird’s bones breaking.
She screamed and lunged toward Death, meaning to break him apart, smash him into pieces, unwind the terrible, killing net, but he eluded her, skipping backward and winding the net around his bony wrist in a thick golden sleeve. The Firebird hung silent and limp, becoming a diminishing ball of golden light that dimmed and dimmed, golden glow filmed with smoke or dust, and then the net no longer contained anything at all. It was a twisted rope of gold, trailing limply on the ground, hanging from Death’s hand and wrist like a dead snake. He jerked at it and a few soft feathers fell between the net’s meshes. That was all.
A black, icy wave of despair rose up in Jenny and she fell into it, nearly senseless. The ground felt hard beneath her hip and shoulder. The only light in the world came from the pitiful scatter of feathers. She couldn’t see the fire or feel warmth or hear drumbeat. There was nothing but death and darkness. The Firebird was gone. The Firebird was destroyed. Her groping fingers found the twisted rope of net and she closed her hand around it…
…and recognized it. She herself had woven the golden strands of the net. She’d woven them out of straw. Somehow, she’d provided the means to murder the Firebird.
She jerked her hand back from the loathsome thing, but found she couldn’t release it. It tightened in her hand, pulling her to her knees and then to her feet. Baba Yaga stood there, a malevolent grin on her face. Death was gone. The fire burned low and sullen. The circle was mute.
“Now then, my princess, we come to you,” said Baba Yaga contemptuously. “You, motherless, sold by your father for more than you’re worth, of course,” she spat onto one of the feathers, turning the soft golden flutter into a wet, draggled thing on the ground. “You, with your pretensions to marry a king!”
“I didn’t want to marry a king!” protested Jenny. “I didn’t ask for that! It was all my father!”
“Oh, yessss, I know all about it! Your father had no use for you! The king had no use for you, either, as you couldn’t make him rich! The only one who wanted you was that little freak of nature Rumpelstiltskin! That male thing with balls who carries on as though he has the tits and crack of a woman! And what is he? Neither one thing or another!”
The Baba threw back her head and shrieked at the sky. “A fine thing to be loved by such as he! So, you went off with him! Well and good! But the next man didn’t want you, either! You couldn’t pass the test! You’re an imposter, a cuckoo in the nest, an ugly duckling! You’re nothing! What can you do? Spin straw into gold? Pah! Gold of no use to anyone else! Straw pretending to be something it’s not — just like you! What are you? Who are you? You’re nothing!”
Baba Yaga looked down at the net in her iron-tipped hand and a smile spread over her face. “Wait, now. Wait! I forgot! Here’s some gold you spun that did something useful! Here’s some gold, but it wasn’t made of straw!” She cackled with delight. “No, duckie, no, no, this wasn’t straw! You spun this lovely little net out of what you are!” She untwisted the net lovingly, caressing it as she spread it out. “See that strand there? That’s made from no need! Yes, no need makes a mighty strong strand! This one here, this is made from trying to please! Trying to please! An important ingredient in any net! And here, here is being good. Oh, that’s one of my favorites! Being good. Being goooood!”
The Baba sneered magnificently under her down-curving nose. “These,” she spread out several strands, “these are They! What They say! What They expect! What They teach! Their rules!” Impatiently, she jerked the net out of Jenny’s appalled hands and spread it out further. “Oh yesss, yess, very nice! Here’s hunger! See these strands, girl?” She shook out the net under Jenny’s nose. “Here, and here? Soul hunger, mmmm, yes, delicious…” The Baba trailed off into distracted mumbling and her belly rumbled loudly. “And here! Heart hunger! Poor starving little heart! Poor little hungry heart! Juicy…dripping…heart!”
Baba Yaga paused, looking intently down at the mesh spread across her palms and dropping down toward the ground. She dropped her voice into a whisper. “Ah! Here’s a strand spun from injured instinct! Injured instinct,” she repeated, as though reading an ingredient from a cookery book. “I’ll tell you what, my worthless little piece of gimcrack! If you weave another net from injured instinct, we’ll inveigle Vasilisa’s doll out of her pocket and do away with it! Then perhaps I’ll let you live — a salvage deal for a new master!” She went off into gales of laughter.
Jenny looked down at the terrible net, the net of her own making, the naked illustration of her most secret heart, spread out in a glimmering web of gold. Carefully, gently, she unwound the rest of the net, gathering it into a soft shining bundle, and took it off Baba Yaga’s hands as though she was a clothes line. She squatted with the net in her arms, remembering she was naked as she felt her heels against her buttocks and her sex open, and lovingly gathered up the golden feathers, including the one the Baba had spat on. She rose to her feet, one of her knees popping, and approached the iron cauldron that already contained Surrender’s body and Mary’s seeds. Without looking inside, she lowered in the net and feathers. Her grief for the Firebird was a dry, hard weight in her belly. Her grief for herself fluttered behind the cage of her sternum and ribs, frantic, imprisoned and anguished.
Jenny returned to where her discarded clothes lay on the ground. Wearily, she put them on. Baba Yaga was gone. The Firebird was gone. Was it too late for her to save herself? Was the net too tight around her, even now, for her to ever be free of it? How could she begin to disentangle herself? She heard the Baba’s sneering voice, “Who are you? What are you?”
I’m a spinner, she thought. I’m a woman. I create beauty and value out of life. I’m not for sale. I…am. I am. I am.
She stood looking into the fire as she thought. Something moved next to her and Rumpelstiltskin came to stand with her. She hadn’t thought of him for hours.
“How is it with you?” she asked. He looked up at her, firelight throwing strange shadows on his strong features. “Is everyone all right — over there?” she gestured towards the men’s fire on the other side of Baba Yaga’s elevated house.
“All is well,” said Rumpelstiltskin, sounding comfortingly ordinary. The sound of his voice made her feel very young. “We must talk. I have something for you.
They walked away from the fire to the pale fence of bones. Jenny sat down, feeling tired out.
Rumpelstiltskin handed her a single broad feather, large, but not as large as the Firebird’s feathers. She took it, holding the smooth shaft between her fingers.
“What does it mean?” she asked, bewildered.
Rumpelstiltskin reached into his shirt and drew out another feather the same size and shape. He held it up so it was silhouetted against the fire. “This one is brown and cream colored,” he said. “It’s like yours. They’re owl feathers, a message from Minerva.”
“Minerva?” Jenny felt more and more confused.
“Minerva is an ancient wise one who often takes the shape of an owl,” explained Rumpelstiltskin. “She spins, dyes and weaves in a workshop in the harbor city of Griffin Town. She’s a teacher and an excellent business woman.”
“Do you know her?” asked Jenny.
“I haven’t met her. I know of her. But I received the same message from her during your time with Hans.” Jenny stiffened. “I didn’t know what to do until this feather came. I took it as a sign all would be well if I left you for a time, that you wouldn’t be quite alone.”
“But how does she know me?” Jenny asked.
“Minerva has watched over you for a long time. She knows what you can do. She offers you a place as an apprentice.”
“She… wants to teach me?”
“No one in on Webbd knows more about spinning, Jenny. She can teach you things no one else can. I can think of no better place for you than with Minerva, but you need not go if you don’t want to. Only you can choose.”
“I’ll go,” said Jenny.
(This post was published with this essay.)