The Hanged Man: Part 6: Ostara
Post # 43: In which meetings and reunions ...
Part 6: Ostara
(O-STAR-ah) Spring equinox; balance point between Yule and summer solstice. Increasing fertility and creativity.
The Card: The High Priestess
Female power and wisdom
“The firsst to arrive iss Baba Yaga. She doesn’t know she’s arrived, for she sleeps, lying flat on her back with her chin and nose curving over her mouth, snoring. Her bed is rather greasy, as there hasn’t lately been a skivvy to wash her laundry. The bed stands in a room and the room is in a house on scaly chicken legs and the chicken legs have done the work of travel and are quite happy to reach the end of the journey. The legs stand in the sun, looking peaceful, slightly cocked at first one knee and then the other, like a horse. The house’s eyelids are closed and a long thin string of sticky saliva falls from the lock on the front door, which is made of a bony snout with sharp teeth. Baba Yaga has tasks to do and preparations to make, but for now she sleeps.”
“Sleep ends abruptly, and with it, peace. Baba Yaga wakes with a strangled snore, springs out of bed with fire on her tongue, throws open a window, making the human finger bone catch rattle, and lets a magnificent flow of cursing and shrieking come up from the bottom of her iron-tipped dirty feet.”
“Ugh,” said the Hanged Man.
Vasilisa and her companions, sitting in a quiet group near the edge of a sun-filled glade a respectful distance from the dozing chicken legs, jumped in surprise when Baba Yaga appeared at the window, as did the chicken legs, executing a comical hop as they momentarily lost their balance.
Nephthys recovered herself first. She stood up, facing the shrieking, gesticulating figure in the window.
“We didn’t wake you up,” she called. “We were quiet. We were invited to the party, and we’ve come!”
Vasilisa envied Nephthys’s assurance. Her previous experience gave her no confidence in dealing with Baba Yaga. She groped in her apron pocket with two fingers and felt the doll her mother had given her. The doll had seen her through her first encounter with the Mother of Witches, and she’d been alone then. Now she was with friends, and perhaps someone who offered more than friendship would be here as well. Rumpelstiltskin had told her and Jenny initiation was a choice, an invitation to growth and power, but Vasilisa knew both would come at a price if Baba Yaga took a hand in things, and she feared the price.
In fact, her initial encounter with Baba Yaga had not been her first brush with deep magic. It seemed strange to her that an impoverished peasant girl of no importance and no family should encounter anyone with great power, yet she had. Perhaps the doll her mother made her attracted magical energy. Power was a fearful thing, and she didn’t want to attract it, but the doll was all she had left of her dead mother and she couldn’t lay it aside. In an effort to remain unobtrusive and unworthy of either punishment or notice, she’d worked hard to be kind and accommodating since childhood.
Even so, magic and power found her, and here she was, yet again, in proximity to Baba Yaga.
She lifted her chin. She would see it through. She would not be cowed. If her hopes were realized, she would step across the threshold of this initiation into a new life — the life of a woman. She would hold fast to that.
Baba Yaga withdrew inside the house, but they could hear her muttering and cursing as she moved about, slamming doors and cupboards and knocking objects over. They heard a smash, as if a plate had been hurled against a wall. The front door opened and Baba Yaga appeared and stomped down the stairs to the ground. Without so much as glancing at the group watching her with varying degrees of amusement, interest and horror, she bent over a huge greasy black cauldron, stirring the unseen depths with her bony arm. The stirring released a stench that reached the circle on the grass. Baba Yaga emerged from inside the cauldron with a long bone gripped tightly in her hand. Grumpily, she stumped to a flat piece of ground well away from the trees. She used the bone as a stick and drew a large circle in the earth.
“Fire pit,” she said briefly, glaring. “You,” her needle-like gaze on Jenny, “and you,” this to Vasilisa, “dig and lay stones.” Her eyes moved to Rose Red. “You gather wood.” They looked back at her in fascination for a moment, and then she opened her mouth and roared, “Do it now, brats!”
They did. Baba Yaga completely ignored Rumpelstiltskin, but he didn’t appear to take this to heart. As Vasilisa bent her back over her shovel, she watched him go to a large piece of rock near the edge of the woods, study it, tap it with his mallet, take out his chisel and split it into thin slabs, perfect for lining the fire pit. He lent a hand with the digging, helped drag the pieces of rock to the pit and showed Jenny and Vasilisa how to fit them together as a lining, then went with Rose Red under the trees with a hatchet and saw. In an unbelievably short time, they’d made a fire pit and laid it with kindling, ready for lighting.
Meanwhile, Nephthys dragged her folded piece of cloth over to Baba Yaga’s cauldron and the child and crone bent their heads together over the contents.
The fire pit finished, Vasilisa returned to where Mary and Artemis sat. She tried to see what Baba Yaga and Nephthys busied themselves with. She suspected the knotted dragging cloth contained bones, and if so, she thought she might know what would come next.
Artemis’s attention was on something, and Vasilisa followed the direction of her interest. A rabbit moved slowly out into sunlight from the cool shadows under the nearby trees, hopping and pausing to feed in the leisurely manner of a rabbit without fear. It moved to and fro, nibbling busily, ears twitching as an insect or long green stem tickled. To Vasilisa’s surprise, the rabbit approached Mary as though it knew and trusted her. Tentatively, looking amazed, Mary reached out a hand and stroked its back. Its fur was a soft brown, warm with sun.
“Do you recognize him? He recognizes you!”
Vasilisa looked up, startled. A young man stood there, pushing straight black hair out of his eyes. His skin was olive and his eyes almond shaped. He grinned at Mary, cheeks bunching into firm rounds.
Careless of the rabbit, Mary sprang to her feet in one swift movement and flung her arms around him.
“Kunik! Kunik! I can’t believe it! What are you doing here?”
“Girl!” It was a shriek of impatience, as though the caller had been at it for some time.
Mary, released from Kunik’s embrace, turned and found Baba Yaga, standing with hands on hips, radiating contempt. Nephthys stood next to her, looking rather bored.
Mary immediately obeyed, feeling dazed by the sudden and wholly unexpected appearance of Kunik, and greatly reluctant to approach the old hag. Baba Yaga watched her come with a beady eye. She tapped a sharpened tooth with an iron fingernail. Mary stood before her, looking at the ground so as to avoid the Baba’s fierce gaze and also in an effort to palliate the stench coming from her. Baba Yaga walked slowly around Mary and it seemed to the young woman her eyes saw through her clothing and skin into her very soul. The Baba came back in front of her, looked at Nephthys with a raised sarcastic eyebrow, and snorted magnificently through her nose, shooting out a virulent green blob of mucus.
“Show me your seeds, Seed-Bearer,” demanded Baba Yaga. In spite of the sneer in her voice, the title gave Mary courage. She raised her gaze to the Baba’s cold eyes and reached into her tunic for the seeds. Nephthys gestured towards the ground and Mary knelt next to Nephthys’s cloth and laid out her bundles and bags of seeds.
She unpacked the pouch of birch bark made so long ago in Janus House, lined with sealskin and holding carefully labeled twists of seeds. There were the pouches from Elizabeth and Demeter and the red silk bag from Anemone. There was the sandy bag from Nephthys. Mary laid out, one by one, every bundle and twist and pouch she’d collected on the road. When she had displayed them all, she stood again and looked silently at Baba Yaga.
“Hmmph,” said the Baba, pleased and yet not pleased. “Is that all?”
“Yes,” said Mary, feeling inadequate but too intimidated to defend herself.
“Hmmmmppphhh,” repeated the Baba, drawing out the sound nastily. “Very well. Go away.”
Mary retreated gladly, conscious of the Baba’s eyes on her all the way back to the group sitting in the sun. She took care to go slowly and keep her back straight.
Kunik sat in the circle with the others, looking quite comfortable and at ease. Mary remembered the shy boy she’d met on a winter day at the edge of the icy sea. She remembered the strange, heartbreaking story Kunik had told, the wonder and tenderness of his drumming, how he’d created picture and sound and movement with the instrument. But she couldn’t remember a rabbit. A rabbit at the edge of the winter sea?
She reached the group. Kunik was speaking.
“…and so, the white rabbit became a brown rabbit and when at last the burrow he’d found became unblocked, he went through and found himself back at home, in the place where he’d started, now a lovely, scented place with green grass, shy flowers and damp earth, and, best of all, other little brown rabbits.”
The little brown rabbit, nestled close to Kunik’s knee as he told the story, hopped over to Mary and crouched in front of her, looking up with dark eyes.
“Surrender!” she said. “It’s you? You’re real?”
The rabbit dropped his gaze and nibbled at a bit of clover between his front paws.
Mary looked at Kunik helplessly, not even knowing how to frame a question.
Kunik laughed. “Oh yes, he’s real.”
“I don’t understand,” Mary began, but the rest of her words were lost.
A rough track wound out of the trees across the clearing, and a brightly painted wooden cart drawn by a horse appeared. On the side of the cart the words, “Come and be welcome. Go and be free. Harm shall not enter.” were painted. At the reins lounged a lean man with dark hair and shirt sleeves rolled up over hard-looking forearms.
Two men on foot followed the cart, walking together in easy companionship.
“Artyom!” Vasilisa called, and ran to meet the shorter of the two men.
He looked just as she remembered, with his short sandy hair, his wide chest and the clothes he wore when hunting or traveling without the trappings of his royal birth and station. She noticed with pride he wore one of the linen shirts she’d embroidered for him. She wanted to throw herself into his arms the way Mary had greeted Kunik, but she was conscious of all the eyes upon them and Artyom’s position. He smiled warmly, but embraced her formally, kissing her on each cheek, and she endeavored to match his restraint.
Artyom’s walking companion was Radulf, an older man with thick grey-flecked hair, a short beard and deep-set eyes.
After a few minutes of jumbled introductions and excited talk, which Baba Yaga pointedly ignored, order was restored.
Vasilisa watched the cart driver move gracefully across the clearing to where Baba Yaga bent, muttering and clawing among piles of seeds and bones.
“Weeelll!” sneered the Baba, deigning to take notice.
“Good day to you, Grandmother,” he said respectfully, but his eyes gleamed with mischief.
The Baba glared at him, tapping a bony foot impatiently, huffing in an aggravated manner. Suddenly she stopped, strained briefly, and farted loudly.
“Oh, get out of my sight,” she snapped. “You’re far more trouble than you’re worth.”
He turned and walked back to the group of fascinated onlookers around the cart. Vasilisa could see him chuckling to himself. The horse, still in his traces, shifted his weight from one hind foot to another, cocked his tail and farted in echo of Baba Yaga, but with much better-smelling results. Nephthys, still with the Baba, giggled delightedly, and Vasilisa exchanged smiles with the others, but remained prudently silent.
Vasilisa and Rose Red helped lay food out on blankets while the others fetched water, unloaded the cart, and unharnessed the horse, who was called Gideon.
Rumpelstiltskin and Rose Red found wild strawberries. They were tiny, the size of the end of Vasilisa’s thumb, and tartly ripe. Artemis invited Baba Yaga and Nephthys to sit down and eat. Baba Yaga glared, snorted, and stomped up the stairs to her front door, which she slammed, making the chicken legs twitch. Nephthys, smiling to herself, skipped over and plopped herself down next to Mary. Kunik gave Surrender a mound of strawberries and evicted him from the middle of the circle of people.
They finished the meal with handfuls of strawberries. The cart driver, Dar, took a soft velvet cloth from an inside pocket and unwrapped a bone flute, banded with silver and decorated with gems. He polished it, though it looked to Vasilisa as though neither speck nor smudge marred it. He put the flute to his lips and began to play.
Next to her, Artyom lay back in the grass, hands folded over his stomach and eyes closed. Vasilisa feasted her eyes on him, the strong blade of his cheek with its gleam of blond stubble, his broad hands, a gold ring on the little finger of his left hand, and his dusty boots. He was there. Her fears about the initiation and the price Baba Yaga might exact for it drained away. With Artyom at her side, she could face a dozen Baba Yagas. And after initiation…well, she would learn to be the wife of a ruler. She would be worthy of him.
Theirs had been a strange courtship, mostly at a remove, with the Firebird as a go between. She would never forget the first day she’d seen Artyom in the market. His servant bought Vasilisa’s linen for Artyom’s shirts, but the linen was so fine he couldn’t find a seamstress, so the young ruler himself came to ask her to make the shirts.
They came from the same land of deep forest, though he was a ruler’s son and she a peasant. They shared a common language, and they shared the Firebird, the magical creature every child in their country knew stories about. The jeweled Firebird could lead you to your treasure, legend said. Vasilisa, imagining such a creature, embroidered Artyom’s shirts with a border of Firebirds in red silk thread, and like some hero out of the old stories, he’d brought the Firebird out of myth into reality and it became their courier.
At her first encounter with Baba Yaga, the old hag gave Vasilisa a human skull on a stick, a fearsome object that reduced her stepsisters and stepmother to piles of cinders while Vasilisa slept. At times it burned with a fiery light, and at other times it appeared to be nothing more than a rather battered old skull. This weird object made Vasilisa more nervous than the doll her mother had made. That at least had been a gift of love, a gift made out of her mother’s blood and tears. The skull was a different matter, yet Vasilisa found her reluctance to set it aside was greater than her reluctance to keep it with her. In an odd sort of way, it seemed to watch over her and guide her, like the doll. The skull could be deadly, however. She did not mourn her stepmother and stepsisters, who had done their best to destroy her, but she hadn’t wished them burned to cinders, either. No doubt it had been difficult to share husband and father with a daughter from a previous wife.
The skull and the Firebird demonstrated a strange affinity. The skull invariably lit in the Firebird’s presence. Noting this, Vasilisa impulsively loaned the grisly thing to Artyom the second and last time she’d seen him. Like the Firebird, the skull connected them is some deep way. It was an unlikely love token, but it was one of her two most powerful and valuable possessions.
It also assured she would see him again, at least once, to retrieve it.
After that second visit, they’d written nearly every day. Now, at last, they came together again to take part in this initiation, and the skull rested on Artyom’s discarded coat on the ground beside him.
Vasilisa leaned back on her elbows, closed her eyes, and felt the warm sun on her face. The taste of strawberries lingered in her mouth. Her stomach felt comfortably full. A strand of tough dried meat was trapped between two of her teeth. She felt it dreamily with her tongue, trying to dislodge it. The notes of the flute idled, leading her thoughts this way and that in the same way Surrender hopped slowly in the grass. The music moved, then paused. Moved one way, then another. Back tracked. Moved quickly for a few notes and then slowed down again.
Vasilisa realized the music had stopped. She lay next to Artyom in the warm grass, completely at ease. She thought perhaps she’d fallen asleep for a moment. No one spoke and a deep, easy feeling of relaxation settled on the circle. She felt alert but disinclined to move.
(This post was published with this essay.)