The Hanged Man: Part 6: Ostara
Post #47: In which further secrets are exposed ...
Baba Yaga broke the silence. “Oh, yesss! If it isn’t the cripple! How dare you disturb us this night? Sit down, you whelp, and be silent! You’ll learn more of your fine family!”
She turned her iron gaze on Radulf, sitting next to Artyom. “How would you like a story, Wolf?” she inquired sweetly. “I’ll tell one just for you. A little lamb story, innocent and tender!”
Radulf met her gaze calmly but Artyom recognized uncertainty in his face. The name Wolf suited him well. He looked rather wolf-like with his lean body and thick dark hair, streaked with grey. He looked hard and canny and his eyes gleamed in the firelight.
Without a word, Rumpelstiltskin rose to his feet. He took Vasilisa by the hand. She allowed him to lead her out of the puddle. He knelt at her bare feet and spilled water out of one of the water skins, rinsing them clean. He took her back to her place in the circle next to Rose Red and she sat down abruptly, as though the strength left her legs. Dar draped a blanket around her shoulders.
Rumpelstiltskin picked up a shovel and scooped up the vomit, kicking dirt over the place. He disappeared beyond the circle of firelight for a moment and returned with the cleaned shovel, which he stacked neatly with the others.
It seemed to Artyom everyone breathed a sigh of relief and some of the tension left the circle.
Radulf reached up and tugged on Artyom’s hand and he sat, pulling away from Radulf’s grasp and clenching his fists, his eyes on Baba Yaga. Morfran took a place on the other side of Radulf.
The Baba watched this cynically, stroking her chin, smiling unpleasantly to herself. She opened her mouth to speak, but suddenly the Firebird, which had again come to rest on the rim of the cauldron, took flight with a sweep of its wings and flew across the circle like a ray of light, landing rather heavily on Artyom’s shoulder. He straightened automatically to support the bird’s weight, feeling comforted by its favor.
“Very well!” snapped Baba Yaga. “All cozy, then? All clean and comfortable? Everyone’s snotty nose wiped? Is everyone quite ready?”
“The Sea King’s a busy, busy boy! He has more than one daughter, oh yesss! Oh yesss! Good thing, too! He breeds them weak, does Marceau! One daughter falls in love with a patricide and is too sniveling to leave him when he abuses her. That one was your pitiful mother, boy!” She shot a look at Morfran, who looked down into his lap, his face hardening. Baba Yaga laughed.
“Another daughter is this little sweetling!” She glared at Vasilisa, who looked expressionlessly back.
“It’s not true!” growled Artyom. Baba Yaga shot him a glance of gleeful malevolence and continued.
“Now hear the story of a third daughter of mighty Marceau, a King of the Sea!
“The Sea King, his senile mother, and his six simpering daughters lived in a palace made of coral, brittle, impractical stuff, not like good strong iron! They made pets out of fish and played in sea gardens. The youngest daughter was called Marella.” Baba Yaga made a face. “’Shining sea,’ it means. Disgusting!”
This idiotic child wasn’t content with her coral palace and her easy life, not she! She wanted more! She was obsessed with the world of land above.
Her grandmother, instead of teaching her something useful, told her pretty tales of ships and cities, people who walked about on two legs and animals that walked about on four. The flowers had a cloying scent and fish sang in the tops of trees as disagreeably as Marella herself, who loved to sing. Naturally! What could be sweeter than a singing mermaid? But I fixed that!
It’s the custom among sea people that on the day of the fifteenth birthday they can visit the world of land. Marella thought that time would never come.
One by one her sisters turned fifteen and returned to the palace to tell her all they’d seen and heard. But it wasn’t enough. She lay in her bed and spun idiotic romantic fantasies, looking up, searching for dim moon and starlight. Sometimes a shadow passed above her, and she imagined the great ships her sisters and grandmother had described. Marella longed for that unknown world, and I gave her what she wanted. Kind old Baba! Wise old Mother Yaga gave her everything she wished for!
At last, her fifteenth birthday came. She rose up to the surface of the sea. Sunset drenched the sky with the color of blood because I was brewing a storm especially for her. A storm with lighting and thunder and iron waves! The setting sun outlined clouds in red and gold, like yon goat man’s cape. A little way off a ship lay at anchor and Marella, lifted in the growing swell, saw glowing lanterns, heard music for the first time, and saw men and women clasped in one another’s arms, turning and swaying. In the center of everything stood a young scoundrel with black hair.
My storm caught them unawares, with no time to reach safe harbor. It was a fine storm, if I do say so myself. Sailors hurriedly quenched the lanterns and climbed through the rigging, trying to ready the ship, for all the good it did them! I watched until they were all aloft, and then I unleashed the wind and watched them fall. Sometimes they landed in water and sometimes they landed—splat!—on the deck. The ship labored with sea and wind, her timbers groaning. In no time at all she began to break apart.”
Baba Yaga rubbed her hands with glee, remembering.
“There was panic and screaming and chaos, wind and waves and death! The ship made a great noise as she split open. Oh, it was lovely!”
She stopped speaking, sucking meditatively on a back tooth.
“Where was I? Oh, of course. Wretched Marella! Well, naturally she saw the black-haired puppy go into the water when the ship split in two, and being a silly little girl, she saved him instead of someone worthier. She cradled his dear dark head and gazed into his unconscious vapid face and sang her pestilential songs of the sea, letting the waves take them where they would. Very romantic! Foolish girl! Stupid girl!”
Next to Artyom, Radulf made an incoherent sound, half gasp and half groan. Morfran, on Radulf’s other side, turned to him in surprise. Baba Yaga cackled, cracked her bony knuckles, and continued.
“Dawn broke. The ship was gone and her black-haired inamorata a dead weight in Marella’s arms. They washed up beneath a palace of golden stone with marble steps leading up from the sea. She laid the man on a step above the reach of the waves, concealed herself and watched. A servant came out and cried ‘It’s the prince! The prince is saved!’ Others came hurrying and helped him up the stairs and into the castle.
Predictably, Marella brooded. She possessed a secret! No one understood! No one had ever known such longing, such love! Oh, she made the most of it! She hung around the prince’s castle, hoping for a glimpse of her love. Once or twice, she saw him at night, standing on a balcony looking out across the waves. Oh, the joy of it! Oh, the bliss of gazing, worshipful, at the unattainable! The sweet misery and drama of it all! Hiding in the darkness, she sang, an infernal noise, and it seemed to her that he heard!”
Baba Yaga clasped her hands together, laid her cheek against them and gave a maidenly sigh that smelled of the charnel ground, rolling her eyes.
“Marella’s grandmother tried to talk some sense into the chit. Naturally, Marella paid no attention. They never do. Always certain they’re tragically misunderstood, special, meant for greater things! Young people are such an infernal nuisance! Her father, Marceau, ignored the whole thing. Too busy he was, to take any notice of his daughters. His interest in them was finished the moment he spawned them.
So Marella whined, and pined, and wept, and drifted around in a romantic dream, driving everyone mad. Since her family was so hard and cold and uncaring, she eventually decided to visit the Sea Witch.”
Baba Yaga stood up and bowed with a show of modesty.
“Me. And I gave her just what she wanted. A long, cold, dark journey, full of nightmare dangers!
I put on a face like a drowned woman and let the rags of the dead float around my tresses.”
She patted at her matted hair, preening.
“’I know why you’ve come,’ I told her. ‘You want to change your true shape for love of a young human man about whom you know nothing! Very well. But there’s a price to pay, you know.’
‘I’ll pay any price,’ she said proudly. I knew she would.
‘I’ll make a drink. If you take it, your tail will divide into two legs, but every step you take will be as though on naked blades. You’ll never move your legs without pain.’
‘I’ll endure the pain,’ she said. ‘Give me the drink.’
Stupid girl! I decided to up the price a little.
‘I’ll also require your voice,’ I said.
That made her pause! ‘Why?’ she whined. ‘Then what will be left to me?’
‘Why, true love, of course, and a new life. You’ll be beautiful, the most graceful thing he’s ever seen. How could he resist? But be warned, girl. If you fail to win his heart and he marries another, you’ll die.’
She agreed, of course, in the end. The romantic sacrifice was too much for her to resist!
She pulled herself up on the marble steps and swallowed the drink. The pain made her black out. When she woke the Prince stood above her and she possessed two white legs.
Of course, they questioned her, but she couldn’t answer! Every step was as though she walked on the points of knives, but everyone admired her grace and beauty. Noble, pointless suffering! How edifying!”
Baba Yaga sighed with mock satisfaction.
“The idiot prince, naturally, was charmed with her looks. He called her his little foundling and treated her like a sister. She was always at his side.
She soon discovered she still wasn’t satisfied. Of course. Perfectly predictable. Very boring. At night, she snuck down the marble steps to put her feet in the sea and remembered her old life, her family, and her precious songs. Her sisters visited her, but didn’t come too close, being wiser than she! But she could hear their squalling and weeping across the waves.
It suited the prince well to acquire mute arm candy. What more could any man want? He could prattle and pontificate to his heart’s content, no competition, no interruption and no danger someone would steal attention away from him! He told her about the night his ship sank. He vaguely remembered being held by the waves, and the sound of singing. He wanted to remember more, but he couldn’t. Marella slobbered on his hand and gazed into his eyes like an abject dog, but he turned away.
Well, inevitably, the prince chose a wife of means and some power. Marella stood like a martyr at the wedding. The newly wedded pair and the wedding party went out to a ship anchored in the harbor. The sun set and those tawdry golden lanterns were lit. Little Marella danced to the music, her feet light and sure, though every step gave her pain.
While the ship slept, she sat, watching for dawn and no doubt thinking long thoughts of death and futility and loss. More romantic twaddle! Then her sisters appeared. She could hardly recognize them because they’d cut off their long hair.”
Baba Yaga bounced to her feet and reached for a broom leaning against the bone palisade. She brandished the length of wooden branch with a tassel of hair, dark and clotted with filth, in the firelight.
“’Oh, sister!’ She put on a high falsetto. ‘We’ve sold our hair to the Sea Witch so she’d help you! Plunge this knife into the prince before the sun rises and bathe your feet in his blood. They’ll join back together and become a tail. Come back to us and live your true life, sister! Make haste! Make haste! Dawn arrives!’”
“Isn’t that sweeeeet?” inquired the Baba of Vasilisa. “Almost as sweet as you, poppet!”
“Well, she took the knife and found the cabin where her beloved and his new wife lay drooling on their pillows together, probably the happiest moment in their miserable marriage. The sky reddened. Marella bent and kissed her prince, sucking out every last piece of drama right to the end. When the sun rose a few moments later, she tossed the knife and herself overboard and became nothing more than dirty froth on a wave, and good riddance to the miserable wench!”
Radulf wept. He looked straight into Baba Yaga’s sneering face and tears ran from his eyes, shining in the firelight, and dripped out of his short beard. Morfran sat silent next to him, appearing deep in thought.
Baba Yaga grinned. She dropped the broom and put her hands on her hips. “Story time is over!” she shouted gaily. “Time to put an end to coeducation! No more cunt perfume, boys! No more hide the poker, girls!” She went off into a shriek of ribald laughter.
“You!” she screamed, encompassing Dar, Radulf, Artyom and Kunik with a sweep of her arm, “over there!” She gestured to the other side of the house on chicken legs, clapped twice, spit in the fire and flung out her arm in a commanding gesture. An identical fire pit, fire and pile of wood appeared on the far side of the clearing. Dar led Radulf and Kunik away, but Artyom was determined to take no more orders from this horrible old woman. He stood where he was, immobile, stubborn and seething with rage, hoping she’d make an issue of it, but she ignored him.
“You!” She pointed an iron-tipped finger at Morfran. “Get out! We don’t want you! Your part is over!”
She kicked her cauldron over, spilling its contents, and rootled, grunting, throwing aside rags; an old smelly shoe; assorted bones, some with gristle attached; what looked like a dried-up head with a quiff of lifeless hair; a dirty plate; a sticky handful of utensils; a saw blade with broken teeth; a pair of heavy shears with a loose pin, so the blades twisted instead of meeting true; a handful of rags, folded just so, with dark stains that looked like blood on them; and a dead chicken.
She gave a cackle of satisfaction and stood up with a small pipe in her hand. She reached into a fold of her filthy tunic, groped lewdly between her breasts, and brought out a bag, which she opened, sniffed at loudly, and inserted her thumb and forefinger into, transferring a pinch of its contents into the pipe. She picked up a splinter out of the fire, taking no notice of flames or heat, and applied this to the pipe bowl. A sweet, heavy smell rose from it and she closed her eyes, inhaling deeply.
She turned with sudden grace, looking much younger, drew back her arm and threw the packet straight toward Artemis, who stood quietly with her bow resting on the ground beside her. The Baba clapped her hands sharply one time and the bag became two as it flew through the air. Artemis put out a hand and caught both bags neatly. She scattered the contents of one bag over the flames, murmuring something in a low voice. She turned then and walked away, passing between the chicken legs and under Baba Yaga’s hovel, and disappeared in shadows around the fire where the men gathered.
Baba Yaga went to where the skull she’d drummed on lay on the ground, its brown and weathered dome curving in the firelight, picked up her drumsticks, squatted, and with the pipe clenched between her sharpened, grey teeth, began to drum. A heavy, smoky scent of herbs and sweet grass rose from the fire, which burned low in glowing coals and embers.
(This post was published with this essay.)