Mother of Witches, Part One
In the Hut of Baba Yaga
In the lands of Ket, they say that Duhl Parath had three daughters. Kadar, the daughter of Hasnat, Ya’huth, the daughter of Nasri, and Hura, the daughter of the Houri Princess Jedta. When this last one was born, Duhl Parath said, “Have I need of another daughter? The ones I already have trouble me enough.” He tore her away from her mother, rolled her up in a ball, and threw her down to Oerth. Deep in the Bramblewood Forest a Kettite wife gave birth to a squalling girl. The midwife exclaimed, “Oh unhappy woman! This Needfest Godsnight you have borne for your husband a daughter! Would that Istus had smiled on you with a son! He might have made a great name.”
The father of the girl snatched up his newborn daughter and, without a word, took her out to drown her in the river.
“Why will you drown me father? Am I not dark and lovely like my mother?” the infant bleated.
“I drown you because I desired a son. What use for a daughter have I?” the Kettite replied.
“I beg you, leave me here by the banks to wail and blore,” the newborn infant girl begged. “If no one comes to rescue me, I will perish quick enough to suit you.”
The Kettite shrugged, “What difference should it make to me?” He left the newborn girl beside the water and returned to his pavilion beneath the Bramblewood boughs.
In those days Baba Yaga’s Hut danced in a clearing of the Bramblewood not far away. It happened that, on that very night, the old witch flew about seeking a Needfest meal. Just as some witches fly through the night air upon broomsticks, Baba Yaga swooped about in a great pestle and mortar, and indeed, she dragged a broom behind her to conceal her tracks so that none might follow her back to the dancing hut. Oftentimes the old woman skimmed along over the ground and scooped up children, or anyone she fancied, and carried them away to cook in her pot. That night, the bloring of the newborn girl caught her ear. She found the naked baby thrashing and kicking in the mud beside the river.
“Now who would throw away such a fine tender morsel?” the old witch clucked. She swooped down and picked up the newborn girl in her boney fingers. “You will make nice dumpling for my Needfest soup!”
“That I will indeed,” the newborn girl assured her. “Only take me home with you, and I shall jump straightway into the cooking pot.”
Baba Yaga took the girl back to her dancing hut, but before she could cook the soup, she needed to draw water for the broth. “Why should you have to draw the water when you have me?” the newborn girl asked. “Let me draw the water for you mother, and I will show you how useful I can be.”
This sounded reasonable to the old witch. She gave the newborn a bucket and directed her to the creek. The newborn girl said to herself, “Woe is me! I am too small to carry even one bucket of water, how shall I fill the great cauldron with water?”
Baba Yaga’s sly old cat Vladimir overheard these words and said, “Don’t fret little mouse. I will fetch the water for the pot.” And he did. He picked up the bucket, taking the handle in his teeth the way a mother cat carries her kittens by the scruff of their napes. By the time the old cat had filled the cauldron, Baba Yaga had grown hungry indeed, but first she needed to gather wood for the fire to heat the broth.
“Why should you have to gather the wood when you have me here?” the newborn girl asked. “Let me gather some sticks for you mother, and I will show you how useful I can be.”
This sounded reasonable to the old witch. She gave the newborn a kerchief and directed her to the edge of the clearing where she could find plenty of sticks from the Bramblewood. The newborn girl said to herself, “Woe is me! I am too small to carry even one armload of sticks, how shall I fill the woodbox?”
Vladimir purred, “Don’t fret little mouse. I will carry the sticks to fill the woodbox.” And he did, one bundle at a time the way a cat carries a sparrow in its teeth. By the time the cat filled the woodbox, Baba Yaga had grown exceedingly hungry, but first she needed to light the fire under the pot.
“Why should you have to fuss over hot coals and fan them to a flame when you have me?” the newborn girl asked. “Let me kindle the fire for you mother, and I will show you how useful I can be.”
This sounded reasonable to the old witch. She gave the newborn girl a pair of tongs and a set of bellows and directed her to the hearth. The newborn girl said to herself, “Woe is me! I am too small to wield the tongs and pump the bellows, how shall I fill kindle the fire?”
Baba Yaga’s sly old cat Vladimir purred, “Don’t fret little mouse! I will fetch the hot embers and blow upon the coals.” And he did, gathering the embers with his velvet paws and blowing upon them until they kindled to life. By the time the flames licked the iron pot, Baba Yaga was famished.
“No more delays,” the old witch growled, “Hop into that pot as you promised me.”
“I would do so straightaway mother, except that I am afraid I am so small I will make a blashy broth and scarcely make a morsel for you. Why should you go hungry when I know where to find a meal worthy of your great appetite?”
“Very well, take me there,” the old witch said.
“Now do me one more favor,” the newborn girl said in the ear of the old cat. She climbed upon the back of the sly old cat like man climbs up on a horse. She led the old witch through the woods until they came to the pavilion where her mother and father slept under the Needfest moons. Baba Yaga scooped them both up, carried them back to the dancing hut, and dropped them into the boiling pot.
“Now that we’ve eaten your father and your mother,” the old witch said as she sucked the marrow from the bones, “I must make you my own daughter, for I have made you an orphan after all, and you are indeed a useful girl. We will call you Natasha.” So they called her Natasha because, in those days, that name was often given to girls born during Needfest.
Vladimir the cat blinked his eyes knowingly and curled up with the newborn girl to warm the chill from her tiny bones.
Read the next chapter: Elena the Fair and Natasha the Dark