Mother of Witches Part Two
Elena the Fair and Natasha the Dark
There was once a gentle woman of Bissel with a few drops of Suel blood in her veins, enough to give her a fair head of hair. Despite that, she had a good heart in her chest and a good head on her shoulders. She married a decent Bisselite man, and she bore him a daughter. They called the girl Elena which in the old tongue means “light” or “beautiful.” The girl was both light and beautiful. Those who saw the child remarked, “Isn’t she a fairhead?” But before the child had reached her fifth year, her mother caught a mysterious fever. (Some said a hex had been set upon her.) As she lay dying, she said to her daughter, “Do not be afraid. Keep a pure heart, and no harm will come to you.” She gave her daughter a small wooden doll and said, “This was mine when I was a girl. Take good care of her as I have tried to care for you.”
Elena’s father mourned his wife for a year and a month. After that, he said to his young daughter, “It’s not right that you should be without a mother and I should be without a wife.” He married a Kettite widow who already had two older daughters. He said, “We will combine our families, and all will be well.”
Not all was well for poor Elena. The Kettite woman resented her step-daughter and mistreated her. Every time she looked on Elena, she saw the face of her rival, the Bissel man’s previous wife. Elena’s beauty eclipsed that of her own daughters, and this irked her all the more, for she imagined the suitors coming for Elena but ignoring her girls. Always she favored her own daughters, giving them all the best to eat and leaving not but the scraps for Elena. While her daughters grew fat, Elena grew into a slender child and all the more fair. Her daughters forced poor Elena to perform all their chores, and if she ever left something out of place or undone, they beat their little step-sister most ruthlessly for the crime. Whenever this happened, Elena comforted her little doll, “Do not cry little doll. Everything will be set right. You will see.”
One day Elena’s father bade his wife and daughters farewell, saying, “I must travel to a faraway city to conduct my trade. I will return before the winter rains have ended.”
Elena’s mother took advantage of the opportunity. After the man had left, she said to his daughter, “Listen to me girl. Our fire has gone out and all the coals are cold; the flint is worn and will not strike a spark. Be a good girl now and go into the woods. Walk to the clearing where you will find a strange peasant’s hut standing on an enormous pair of hen’s legs. Ask the kind woman who lives there to lend us some fire.”
“But haven’t we heard it said that Baba Yaga eats children?” Elena asked worriedly. Elena knew well the tales of Baba Yaga and the dangers of undertaking a visit to her hut.
But her step-mother gave her a smack on the mouth and rebuked her, “That’s what you get for repeating blob-tales!”
Elena set off for the hut of Baba Yaga. She did not know if she walked a short way or a great distance. The woods grew dark all around her. She said to her doll, “Don’t be frightened little doll. I will protect you.” As evening darkened she came to the wide clearing where the remarkable hut swayed upon a great pair of hen’s legs. It appeared as a small, six-sided, windowless log-cabin with a short stout chimney on top. Elena could see no door, for the door was turned toward the forest and away from the clearing. A forbidding fence of human bones surrounded the hut, and upon twelve fenceposts the witch had set twelve human skulls. A ghastly light shone from within the skulls, illuminating the eye sockets like lamps. Elena stood trembling at the sight of it for a long while, whispering, “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid.”
She found the gate and said, “Now, my boney locks, unlock! Now, my sturdy gate, open!”, for so she had heard that Baba Yaga commanded the gate. True to the rumor, the gate swung open on hinges of human knee joints and elbows. Elena shuddered and stepped through it. The gate closed behind her and locked together with a click.
Next she needed the door to the hut. Plucking up her courage, she said, “Little hut, little hut, turn your door to me,” for so she had heard that Baba Yaga commanded the hut. Sure enough, the hut lifted on the enormous magical legs, rotated toward the young girl, and settled to the ground with the door facing her. Elena knocked upon the door. When no one answered straight away, she said to her doll, “It seems that no one is at home. We should leave now and come back some other time.” Before she could turn to leave, the door opened. Elena took two startled steps backwards, expecting to see the ancient hag with the long nose and razor-sharp teeth. Instead, a pretty little girl, no older than Elena herself stood inside the doorway of the hut. She had long dark hair, pale olive skin, and dark eyes like a Kettite girl. She wore a pretty ornamented skirt and embroidered blouse decorated with geometric designs on the cuffs and collar. The dark-haired girl pressed a finger to her lips and said in a hush, “Shshshsh! Mother is sleeping. Come inside and we can play.”
Elena stepped inside the hut of Baba Yaga and discovered an unremarkable cottage not unlike any other old peasant’s hovel: a floor of packed earth, wooden walls, and ordinary ceiling rafters. Here was a simple room furnished with a wooden table, a single chair, a washbasin, a woodstove, and a chimney. There along one wall lay a straw-filled mattress covered with a worn quilt. A peasant’s wardrobe of tattered shirts, skirts, aprons, jerkins, and worn cloaks hung draped upon pegs, set into the wall. A few shelves carried the clutter of personal belongings: bread boxes, combs, eating utensils, and sewing supplies—the simple things of life. A basket next to the stove, however, belied all the ordinariness, for it contained the half-gnawed and charred bones of men, gnomes, dwarves, halflings, and goblinkind, marked by the gnash of sharp teeth. Moreover, the giant cat, Vladimir, ever roamed the hut. Wherever one turned to look, it seemed that Vladimir was there also, staring back with unblinking cat’s eyes.
Most frightful of all, laying across the top of the woodstove was the skinny old hag herself, fast asleep and snoring through her nose in a most frightful manner.
“I am Elena and this is my doll. We are your neighbors from the other side of the woods. I have come to ask for some fire to relight our hearth,” Elena explained to the girl.
“I am Natasha,” the dark-haired girl replied sweetly and with a bow in the manner of the people of Ket. She eyed the doll under Elena’s arm. “I cannot give you any fire until mother wakes from her nap. If we disturb her, she may devour us both!”
“No matter, we can play with your doll until she awakes. And if you like, I will teach your doll to talk.”
Elena thought it would be wonderful if her doll could talk; after all, she spoke to the doll all the time. Wouldn’t it be grand if the doll could speak too? The girls played around the stove, having a delightful time pretending to teach the doll to talk. Then Natasha scribbled on the floor with a piece of charcoal and made a little circle. “Set the doll down in the middle of the circle,” she instructed.
Baba Yaga woke from her nap and sniffed at the air. “Fa! I smell the blood of a Bissel girl. Who have you let into the house Natasha? She stinks of light and life!”
“This is Elena, my friend from beyond the wood. She has come to fetch a gleed of fire. And she has brought along with her a wonderful doll. We have been playing with it, waiting for you to waken.”
“Well girl,” Baba Yaga keaked as she looked Elena up and down. “Have you come here on your own accord, or did somebody send you?”
“On my own accord,” Elena answered, “Because somebody sent me to borrow some fire if you please.”
Baba Yaga scowled at this answer, unsure of what to make of it. She thought for a moment, and then said, “I will give you a scoop of hot coals, but you must do something to pay me for it first. I have a bag of millet here. Remove all the black bits from it by morning and I will give you some fire and send you on your way. If not, I will surely eat you up.”
Then Baba Yaga said to Natasha, “It’s time for your studies. You can play with your friend later, if I haven’t eaten her up.” She took the dark-haired girl away through a door that Elena had not noticed before. Elena found herself locked inside the hut with Vladimir the cat, and since there was nothing else for it, she sat down on the floor with the large bag and began to sort the black bits out from the millet. “Woe is me, I will never be able to finish by morning,” she lamented.
Just then a voice beside her said, “Let me help sister, and you will see how useful I can be.” Elena looked down, astonished to see her black-haired doll still sitting in the center of the magical circle Natasha had drawn.
“Did you talk?” she asked the doll.
“Yes sister. And I will sort the millet for you too. Why should you sift all night long?”
Elena picked up the doll and set it before the bag of millet. Sure enough, the doll went right to the task, and bade Elena go to sleep. Elena laid down on the donge and fell into a deep and restful sleep. When she awoke in morning, the doll had all the black bits separated out from the bag.
Baba Yaga returned expecting to snatch up the little girl for breakfast, but then she saw the sorted millet with all the black bits separated out. “You could not have passed my test if some servant of mine had not helped you. When I find out who did this, I will make them pay.” She gave Vladimir a menacing glare but the wise old cat merely returned a placid unblinking gaze.
“Now I will take some hot glowing coals and be on my way,” Elena said, but the old witch stopped her.
“Not so fast! Since you cheated me out of my breakfast, go to the yard where the black geese nest and fetch me some eggs. Then I will give you some hot coals and send you on your way.”
Elena went out to the yard where the huge black geese cackled and honked and flapped their wings at her. She said, “Woe is me, I am afraid the geese will harm me if I take their eggs.” But just as she was about to try to gather a few eggs from a goose nest, her little doll said, “Let me help you sister, and you will see how useful I can be. But if you try to gather the eggs yourself, the black geese will pluck out your eyes and pull your soul out through your nose.”
“How frightful!” Elena exclaimed. Sure enough, the little doll gathered up the eggs, and no one had their eyes plucked out or the souls pulled out through their nose.
Baba Yaga scowled and muttered when Elena brought her the eggs. “You could not have passed my test if some servant of mine had not helped you. When I find out who did this, I will make them pay. But listen to me now. I have one more task for you before I let you go. I am receiving guests this afternoon, and I must tidy up and prepare a meal. Take my broom and sweep out my hut, then slaughter the big hog and bake us a ham with onions, some fresh bread, and a blood pudding. If the food isn’t ready by the time I return, I will serve you to my fangy-mouthed guests.”
“Goodness!” Elena exclaimed after the witch had left. “I had best set to it.” She took up the broom from the corner, but as she swept the floor, the broom only made the floor dustier and dirtier. “Woe is me! I will never be able to finish before Baba Yaga returns,” she said to her doll. Just as she expected, the doll said, “Let me help you sister, and you will see how useful I can be.” Sure enough, the little doll swept out the hut, slaughtered the big hog, baked a ham with onions, kneaded up a batch of dough, baked a loaf of fresh bread, and boiled up a blood pudding. By then the whole day was passed and the sun had set behind the woods.
The door swung open and, with a gust of wind that moaned like a banshee, Baba Yaga came in just in time to see the little doll setting out the hot loaf of bread on the table to cool. “Give me that doll!” the old witch demanded.
“Oh no, I never could do that. My mother gave me this doll before she died and told me to take care of it.”
Baba Yaga leapt at Elena and tried to grab the doll from her hands, but as the door was still standing open, Elena jumped up and fled out the door. Baba Yaga crashed around the stove in pursuit, but it just so happened that the witch’s big cat Vladimir happened to be strolling across the floor at that very moment. The old witch tripped over the cat and fell head long, giving Elena just enough time to slam the door behind her and hurry into the yard.
“Now, my boney locks, unlock! Now, my sturdy gate, open!” Elena cried in terror as she fled across the witch’s yard. The boney gate clicked and unlatched. The black geese honked and flapped their wings, and all sorts of terrifying spirits and ghosts and devils shrieked and scolded at her from every side. Thinking quickly, Elena grabbed one of the lighted skulls and waved it around to ward them all off. The ghastly light from the skull illuminated her way back home.
When she arrived back at her father’s cottage with the skull, she found it completely dark. Her step-mother and step-sisters were surprised to see that she had returned at all, but they were glad of the light she brought with them. The entire time she had been gone, they had been unable to make the flint strike a spark. “Perhaps we can kindle the hearth from the magic fire that lights the skull,” Elena said. She brought the skull to the hearth and, sure enough, flames leapt out from the eye sockets and ignited the kindling.
“Now fetch more fuel to stoke the fire!” the step-mother commanded.
Elena went out to the woodpile to gather an armload of sticks, but her little doll said, “Let me help you sister, and you will see how useful I can be.” The little doll hurried back into the cottage and picked up the step-mother and threw her into the hearth. The woman burst into flames just like she was made of dried birch bark and tallow. The two step-sisters screamed and howled, but the little doll threw them into the hearth too, and they burned up just the same.
“My, but you are a useful little doll,” Elena said. Then she remembered the glowing skull and how she had stolen it from Baba Yaga’s fence. “I suppose I had best return it before Baba Yaga comes looking for it.” That same night, she returned to the hut of Baba Yaga, using the skull to light her way back.
“Have you come here on your own accord, or did somebody send you?” Baba Yaga asked her.
“On my own free will,” Elena said.
“She is a clever one!” Natasha said. “Let me keep her and take care of her. She will be my sister, and you will be her mother, even as you are a mother to me.”
Baba Yaga never could say no to Natasha, and so Elena the Fair entered the hut of Baba Yaga and became the playmate and sister of Natasha the Dark. Vladimir the cat purred affectionately and curled up in the girl’s lap.
Read the next chapter: The Sultan’s Son and the Witch’s Sister