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The Tsaritsa's Nursemaid


The Tsaritsa’s Nursemaid
by Sandi Leibowitz

From her vantage point above the trees, the witch spied a young man hiking. Who dared enter this forsaken stretch of woods? A lost hunter? No. That woolen cloak fell over breeches of silk, and the man carried neither traps nor bow. A protrusion at his hip indicated a sword hilt—a hero on a quest, then. Yet his eyes were dark with sorrow, not bright with the eagerness for adventure. The witch flew beyond him, toward home.

She passed over a stream shadowed by dense firs, and a stony hill, and arrived at the clearing. Her hut jittered in a macabre dance, its weight bouncing from one huge chicken leg to the other, and swung its door open with a happy whoosh. The witch sailed her mortar straight inside, stored her pestle, and bustled about preparing tea. She so rarely had visitors.

The silver samovar was filled and steaming by the time the young man reached the fence of bones. As the witch sliced the honey cake, she heard the unlatching of the gate, skeletal hands that fitted into a grisly handshake. The eyes of the skulls atop the fence-posts wouldn’t glow; they only did that at night. To arrive so early in the morning, the man had to have traveled in the dark, braving the possibility of wolves or leshies or rusalkas. He would be facing worse.

“Down,” the witch commanded. The chicken legs bent and folded, the house settling like a hen at roost. “Open,” she told the door.

She was proud of the sight that met the young man at the threshold, the glorious hideousness that made mortals recoil. A vulture’s beak of a nose overshadowed her face, which ended in a bristled chin. One eye was clouded gray as a moonstone, the other green as a spring leaf. Knotted gray hair, haphazard as an alder thicket, hung down to her waist. She was clothed in rags and pelts, a peridot-hued snake draped over her shoulders and across her sagging bosom. A dromedarian hump bulged from her stooped back. She smelled of rancid meat.

Despite all that, the young man only flinched slightly before he made a small, respectful bow. “Good day, Baba Yaga,” he said. “I was hoping you would be kind enough to speak with me.”

“Nice manners,” she responded, ushering him inside. The snake poked its forked tongue in his direction, scenting him. “Come, join me for a drink and some medovik.” The witch nodded to the table.

“Thank you. I have traveled far and am very thirsty.”

The hag poured. The hands that passed the cup were those of a maiden, white and unblemished. The man shuddered. Bravely he sipped.

“Brusnika-leaf tisane,” Baba Yaga said. “Very good for your health. Except for the occasional beer, it’s all I drink, and as you see I’ve lived a good, long life.” She cackled, revealing a full set of brownish yellow teeth, the canines sharp as wolf fangs.

“My name is Aleksey.”

Baba Yaga hmmphed. “I thought you’d be more inventive than that, Tsar Aleksey.”

The young man’s eyes widened.

“How may I help you? Everyone who visits me comes for something—never just conversation.”

The tsar coughed, as if to avoid answering. “My wife no longer weaves or makes shirts—”

“Surely you have servants enough to do the spinning and the weaving and the sewing.”

“She barely speaks to me anymore! She shows no interest in our baby.” His voice grew gruff. “She’s constantly embroidering: skulls with glowing eyes, a hut that sits on yellow chicken legs in a black-shadowed forest. When I finally forced myself to ask her what these scenes meant, she would only tell me that she’d once worked for you. Her stepmother sent her here to beg for fire less than a year before I met her. That was about five years ago.”

“Ah, I remember that one.” The witch sighed. She helped herself to a second slice of honey cake. “Vasilissa. Timid but a hard worker, and what a cook! I haven’t eaten that well since. Her kal’ya was thick and sour, her pelmeni so savory. And such blinis!” Baba Yaga smacked her lips.

“I fear for our child!” the tsar exclaimed.

“Why?”

“Our firstborn died when he was less than three months old. He was born strong and healthy but day after day he weakened. Our second son died before his second month. Our daughter, born three weeks ago, also fails to thrive. The palace rings with her wails. Soon, I fear, she will grow too weak even to cry. And then, like her brothers…”

“That is the way of infants,” the crone observed; “we cannot guess—”

“The servants whisper about my wife! They do not trust her. Four maids have come and gone, refusing to wait on her. She has dismissed six nurses. Baba Yaga, I beg you, if you cast some spell on Vasilissa, release her from it!”

“I cast no spell on her.”

“Then, out of pity for a devoted husband and father, or love for your kingdom’s ruler, or simply to repay a girl who once served you well, please find out what’s wrong and fix it. If you demand riches, I will pay you handsomely. If you require some sort of sacrifice, I offer myself. I implore you. Help us.” Tears fell from his bright blue eyes.

Baba Yaga regarded him coolly. “I have no interest in gems or coins. A sacrifice is tempting but, like any wolf, I prefer to hunt my prey. As for paying your wife for her services, I already did that; I helped her dispatch her vile stepmother and stepsisters, and set her on the road to a better life.” She raised her bushy eyebrows. “I’m impressed that slight girl managed to snare a tsar.

“However, you’ve sparked my curiosity. I’ll save the child. I will come to your palace in disguise. Expect me tomorrow.”

* * *

Early the next morning, a new nursemaid presented herself at the palace. Drysi was a grandmotherly sort, plump as a cherry pirozhok, with a genial smile and impeccable references. The maid ushered her to the nursery. The infant lay in its cradle, red-faced from crying, a scrawny scrap of a baby.

“Who have we here?” the nursemaid crooned.

“Tsarevna Tatiana Pavla Yekaterina—our Tanya.”

Drysi scooped up the infant and peered into her face. “Hush.” It sounded more like a command than an attempt to soothe. The infant silenced.

The maid stared open-mouthed. She left the nurse to her charge.

They spent the morning getting acquainted. The infant discovered Drysi’s amber beads and reached for them.

“How disappointing,” the nursemaid said, dangling the beads over the cradle. “You have your father’s blue eyes.”

Tanya whimpered. An unpleasant odor revealed the cause of the babe’s distress. The nursemaid changed her, grumbling at the inconvenience.

An hour later the baby cried again. She was dry; it was a hunger cry. No amount of hushing or jouncing would quiet the babe. Where was the tsaritsa? It took a strange mother indeed to ignore the cries of her own infant.

The baby in her arms, the nursemaid marched into the corridor, nose twitching like a hound on the scent. “Tatiana Pavla Yekaterina, cease that caterwauling,” she commanded. The baby howled in response. Drysi pinched its lips together with her thumb and forefinger. Tears flooded the infant’s eyes, its cheeks bulged and reddened, but no sound came out. “That’s what happens when you don’t listen, my pet.”

The nursemaid’s nostrils flared as she approached one of the closed doors. She flung it open. Four ladies stared up from their needlework.

There was no mistaking Vasilissa, even if Baba Yaga hadn’t recognized her. It wasn’t because of the rich brocade of her gown, the gems on her fingers and headdress, or the heavy pearled collar, but the haunted look of her pale face. An odor wafted to Baba Yaga—a whiff of lilac and toad and worm-rich loam. The scent of magic.

“Highness, your daughter needs to be fed.”

“I’m busy,” the tsaritsa said. Her needle flitted in and out of a piece of black velvet. Red and gold stitches covered the fabric, embroidered serpents crawling from the eye-sockets of skulls, flames engulfing roses.

“Too busy to feed your child?” Drysi’s fingers caressed Tanya’s mouth, which opened instantly to bawl.

The tsaritsa scowled but kept stitching. Her hands worked faster. The nursemaid twitched a pinky in her direction. The tsaritsa yelped. A bright spot of blood bloomed on her forefinger. The young queen stuck it in her mouth and sucked.

“Look what you’ve made me do! Since my work has been interrupted—” The queen rose and swept the infant into her arms.

Drysi corrected her position. “Always hold an infant like this. You must take care to support the little head.”

The tsaritsa obeyed with a grimace. She walked into the inner room of her apartments and shut the door. Drysi made as if to follow.

“You can’t go in; she won’t allow it,” one of the ladies whispered.

For a while the crying stopped, but soon the infant started up again. The tsaritsa re-emerged. Barely five minutes had elapsed.

“Take it away.” She held the child out to Drysi.

“She’s still hungry,” the nursemaid insisted.

One of the ladies-in-waiting shook her head. Another mouthed, “Don’t.” True, nothing would be gained if Drysi were sent away; Baba Yaga would just have to return in a different guise.

“Yes, Highness.” She curtsied and left.

In the kitchens, she had the cook boil some milk, which she diluted with water. She added a lump of sugar and waited for it to cool. She dipped her finger in the mixture and let the baby suck. The wailing stopped.

“There, you see, Tanya? Drysi will take good care of you.” The nursemaid dunked a corner of the infant’s blanket into the milk and dripped it into her waiting mouth. Soon the little bowl was nearly empty and Tanya dozed contentedly.

“Did none of the other nurses think to do this?” the nursemaid asked.

“Aye, all of them,” the cook replied. “And if the tsaritsa hears you did, you’ll be sent packing like the rest. She insists the child drink only mother’s milk.”

“And yet seldom nurses.”

“I’ve ne’er heard the like.” The woman shook her head. “’Twere the same with the first two babes, poor creatures. You mustn’t come down here again. She’ll know. But whenever I can, I’ll sneak some milk to you.”

“Thank you.” The nurse carried her sleeping charge upstairs to the nursery.

* * *

The next time the child cried to feed, Drysi found the mother strolling in the gardens with her ladies.

“Surely you don’t expect me to bare my bosom in public?” the tsaritsa said.

The nursemaid might have countered that all mothers did so, but she turned on her heels without argument.

In the nursery, she rocked the infant in her arms. “Who would imagine that a girl so hurt by her mother’s death and a stepmother’s cruelty could be so cruel in turn to her own flesh?”

An hour later, Drysi picked up her head, listening like a cat attuned to the scrabbling of mice within the walls. “Your mother has returned to her apartments,” she told the child, “and so shall we.”

When Drysi entered the antechamber, the women sat at their embroidery again. The tsarita’s white hands fluttered like frantic doves at the black cloth.

The nursemaid smiled at the young mother. “Tanya is hungry, Highness.”

Vasilissa didn’t look up. “You see that I’m busy, Drysi.”

“Just a few moments, my queen, to feed the baby, then I’ll whisk her back to the nursery.”

The young mother sighed and laid down the black velvet. Streams of scarlet thread flowed down its seams to pool like lakes of blood at the hem. “Give her to me.”

She returned from her room in moments—not time enough to feed a mouseling, let alone a child. “How does any woman bear it? Perpetually tethered to a baby’s needs.” The tsaritsa shuddered. “That greedy wet mouth always at your breast.”

“Allow me to hire a wet nurse. I know several respectable women—“

“Never!” Vasilissa screeched. “And don’t suggest that I feed it watered cow’s or sheep’s milk. A child should drink only the milk of its own mother.”

Better than let it starve, Baba Yaga thought, but she kept mum.

* * *

In the afternoon, a maid carried up a tray to the nursery.

“Bah!” Baba Yaga wrinkled her nose at the scent of the tea and poured it into her chamber pot. She stuffed an apple pastila into her mouth and fed the infant.

When Tanya turned her head away from the cloth, sated, the witch sniffed the air. Vasilissa was back in the garden; that gave her plenty of time. “I must find out what’s wrong with your mother,” she said. “Stay asleep till I come back. There will be no crying.” She waved the amber beads over the cradle.

She lit her pipe and puffed. The smoke formed the outline of a figure, which took on Drysi’s likeness. The fetch stared at the infant with vacant smoke-gray eyes, set her foot upon the cradle, and rocked it.

Baba Yaga rattled her beads. A skinny servant girl stood in Drysi’s place. She tucked a cloth under her arm and slid into the hallway.

The girl entered the tsaritsa’s empty apartments, softly closing the door behind her. She sped through the antechamber; besides the queen’s needlework, Baba Yaga had never noticed anything out of the ordinary there.

The walls of the inner chamber were pale green, brightly painted with birds and flowers and flourishes. The paint was recent, a bridegroom’s gift for his young wife, the room fitted more for comfort and beauty than opulence. But Baba Yaga smelled the wrongness.

She examined the dressing table but found no potions amongst the paint pots and jars of powder, no hexes hidden in the jewel boxes. She peered into chests and trunks, touching, sniffing.

Baba Yaga fingered the brocade bed-hangings. When her hands moved across the satin bedclothes, a faint electric current surged through them—traces of magic. The witch searched under the pillows, peeked beneath blanket and sheet, no matter that they lay perfectly straight. Still nothing. She bent to peer under the bed. Waves of malignancy radiated from a casket of carved oak.

The mere touch of the lid made the witch’s fingers ache. Inside, Baba Yaga discovered a gown of crimson silk, covered with hundreds of golden eyes. It was too small even for a newborn. The casket held nothing but strange, embroidered clothes. Who were these tiny garments for?

The exterior door creaked. Baba Yaga shoved the casket back in its hiding place. She stood and began to dust the bedposts. The interior door opened.

“Who are you?” the tsaritsa demanded.

“Highness!” The girl dropped into an awkward curtsey. “I am—Katya, the new chambermaid. I just started cleaning here. May I continue?”

“I have a terrible headache,” Vasilissa complained. “Go ahead, if you can be quiet.” The tsaritsa lay down on the bed.

Katya dusted the objects on the dressing table. The tsaritsa peered at her, placing a protective hand over her right pocket. The maid polished the brass poker by the hearth.

“Not yet, not yet,” Vasilissa whispered. She paused as if someone spoke. “A new chambermaid. You must be patient!”

Katya dusted the mantel.

“Yes, my darling, my dove. Yes, always. Always, Masha,” the tsaritsa muttered. “Are you soon done?” she whined to the maid. “My head… It aches so!” She put a hand to her forehead; the other still covered her pocket.

“Yes, Highness, soon. If you wish, I’ll leave now.”

“Yes, yes, go!”

* * *

In the depths of the night, Drysi stood above Tanya’s cradle. “Your mother’s not merely mad. Is it her magic I smell, or another’s? We shall soon find out.”

She pinched the baby’s lips to ensure her quiet and conjured the smoke-nursemaid from her pipe. Between her hands she rolled the amber beads. The witch’s body shrank. A black cat slunk out of the chamber.

It almost hissed when two points of flame hovered in the air before it. It was only the reflection of the cat’s eyes in the tall looking-glass in the corridor. Baba Yaga muttered a quiet curse in the feline tongue, and a smoky shade descended over the cat’s golden-green eyes. Now it was invisible, a shadow amongst shadows.

It nudged open the door to the tsarita’s apartments and squeezed inside. The outer chamber was empty. The cat entered the inner room. The odor of toads and lilacs was as potent as the scent of a corpse. Vasilissa slept in the curtained bed, curled up in a tight ball.

The cat sat in the corner and waited.

“Vasilissa. Vasilissa!” The cat pricked up its ears at the sound of a muffled voice. “Wake up!”

The tsaritsa jolted awake. She threw off the covers. In her arms she clutched a wooden doll. It had a painted face: white skin, black eyes, pink-circle cheeks, and a red line for a mouth. The surface paint was chipped here and there; the black arc of one eyebrow had been erased. The cat’s keen eyes made out the embroidered design on the doll’s golden gown: screaming women who melted like wax candles.

“Vasilissa!” the doll hissed. “I’m hungry!”

The queen slid her shift from her shoulders and bared her breasts. She cradled the doll in her arms and placed it against her nipple.

“There, my little doll, take it. Eat a little, drink a little,” Vasilissa crooned.

The red line of the doll’s mouth cracked and widened into a gaping hole. The doll latched onto the woman’s teat and sucked. It fed a good, long time. Vasilissa moaned quietly, either from pain or bliss, or some combination of the two.

Finally the doll pulled away. Its eyes glowed like fireflies. The scent of loam and toad and lilacs intensified. The doll jumped from Vasilissa’s arms onto the pillow. Its movements were livelier and less wooden.

“Your milk tastes sour. You’ve fed the false tsaretsna too frequently today.”

“N-no, hardly at all.”

“Don’t lie to me, Vasilissa. I always know when you’re lying. Who do you love better? Tatiana or me?”

“Little dove, how can you ask it? It was you who gave me comfort when I was lost and lonely. You loved me and offered me hope when my stepmother treated me like a servant, no, a slave! You saved me from dying in Baba Yaga’s hut. You’re everything to me, Masha!”

“Don’t you love your husband better?” the doll demanded. “Do you miss his sweet kisses? His strong arms? Doesn’t he protect you?”

“No!” Vasilissa protested. “You are my protector, Masha. All my love, all my heart belong to you.”

The doll’s red mouth widened into a rictus. Its fingerless hands reached up to pet the tsaritsa’s head. Vasilissa closed her eyes and sighed. The doll stroked and stroked. When it finally stopped, the tsaritsa opened her arms, and the doll hopped into them. They crooned so quietly to each other even the cat could hear nothing but a commingled murmur. Eventually, the embers of the doll’s eyes extinguished. Vasilissa curled up on her side, hugging the doll, covered them both with her blanket, and promptly fell asleep.

The cat crept from the room. Back in the nursery, Baba Yaga resumed Drysi’s form. She blew at the smoke-nurse, which dissipated into nothing.

“How did I not smell this before? How did I not guess that Vasilissa had such help when she performed the tasks I set her?” The infant roused and fussed. The nursemaid rocked the cradle. “I must destroy the doll—but she keeps it with her day and night. How shall I convince her to part with it?” Drysi’s hand strayed to her chin, where Baba Yaga would have stroked the familiar bristles.

* * *

The next day broke unseemly hot for April, summer come early. Gnats and flies flooded through the open windows. Listlessly the tsaritsa took Tanya to nurse. As she stepped across the threshold to her inner chamber, three flies descended upon her. One landed on her flushed cheek and drank the sweat that beaded there.

“Oh!” Without a hand free to swat it off, Vasilissa had to shake her head like a horse.

When she returned to the antechamber, she gave the baby to the nurse. “It’s too hot,” she whimpered, sinking into her chair.

“Perhaps a cool bath will refresh you, Highness,” one of the ladies suggested.

“Yes, yes, Gavrila! Or I fear I won’t survive.”

“Call the servants to bring water,” the lady told the others.

The nursemaid left. Neither the tsaritsa nor her companions noticed that she hadn’t spoken, nor that Gavrila’s brown eyes appeared leaf-green.

“Till the bath is ready, come inside and rest.” Gavrila’s voice was softer than its wont, musical as a lullaby. “Shall I undress you, Highness?”

“Yes, attend me.”

Gavrila offered her arm, led the tsaritsa to the inner room, and shut the door.

Vasilissa sat limply at the edge of the bed while Gavrila pulled off her mistress’ boots and removed her jeweled headdress, veil and pearled headband.

“There, my dove,” the sweet voice cooed. Gavrila untied her pocket. The tsaritsa lifted her arms and her lady removed the heavy brocade shuba, the gold-embroidered letnik, the sleeveless sarafan. Carefully the lady placed the garments atop each other on the bed. The tsaritsa wore only her white shift. “Hush, my sweet, lie down.”

The tsaritsa closed her eyes. Her lady unwound her golden braids and combed her hair.

“Good Gavrila,” Vasilissa said drowsily.

Servants entered with ewers of water. They filled the copper tub and departed. Gavrila led her mistress over and held her hand as she stepped in.

“Close your eyes, Highness. Sink down into the water. Dip your head in so your ears are covered. The world will grow calm and still.” Gavrila’s voice was a caress of sound. “I shall return soon to dress you. Let the water drown your sorrows and cleanse you of your cares.”

Vasilissa closed her eyes and sank beneath the surface, her nose and mouth tilted upward. “Mmm.”

Gavrila went to the pile of clothes on the bed, her back to her mistress. She removed the doll from the tsaritsa’s pocket, covering the mouth lest it cry out. From her own pocket she took a long white ribbon, which she wrapped around the doll’s mouth. She sped from the chamber, down the servants’ stairs to the nursery.

Baba Yaga muttered, strengthening the wards around the cradle. She bound the doll’s limbs with a red ribbon, then a black. Only then did she cut the white one from its mouth. “Who created you? Serafima?”

The painted red line opened to speak. “Who are you, to have power over me?”

“A greater than she who made you. Answer.”

“Yes,” the doll said. “Vasilissa’s mother made me to watch over her and keep her safe. And that I’ve done.”

“But you crave more,” Baba Yaga said.

“I take my due, and I’ve not yet taken all. Vasilissa will give me anything I ask for.”

“So I fear. You killed her first two children, as you seek to kill Tanya. Why?”

“Vasilissa must love only ME!” the doll screamed. It rocked frantically, trying to free itself of its bindings.

“How have you acquired so much power?” the witch asked.

“First, I consumed Vasilissa’s fear and her loneliness. Then I asked her for food and drink and she gave it to me. All through her childhood she fed me, and I grew stronger. When she bore the first upstart tsarevitch, she loved him too, too much. He had to die! I commanded her: feed me, and let him starve. And she obeyed. The little tsarevitch was buried under the cold, cold earth and I grew warm, warm, warm!

“When Vasilissa bore her second child, I drank her milk again, and grew even stronger. I made him die, too. Then the tsarevna was born—oh, a daughter.” The doll’s mouth became a red scrawl. “I feared Vasilissa would love it more than the other two—even more than me. But day and night I drink and drink and soon the tsarevna, the wicked little tsarevna, will starve.

“Once I’ve killed it, there will be no stopping me. I will eat its body and drink its blood. How strong I’ll be! Then I shall kill the tsar. Vasilissa will be mine, all mine, forever!” The doll laughed, its mouth opening wide to reveal the abyss within. “I will kill everyone in the palace—in the kingdom! I will obliterate the world till nothing’s left but me and Vasilissa and our love.”

“I will not let you,” Baba Yaga said.

“You can’t stop me. This is what I want and I will have it.”

“You can want nothing because there is no ‘you.’ Your power is mere moonlight, the reflection of a dead sun.”

“Lies! I AM! I love and desire. My will forces the world to bend and re-make itself.” The doll’s bound body quaked. “You can never hurt me, Gavrila, you flimsy sack of blood-bloated skin.”

“Enough.” Baba Yaga no longer needed a disguise. Besides, she missed her true form. With a flick of her head, Gavrila’s lovely nose lengthened, her back stooped, her chin sprouted bristles.

The doll shrieked, a long and lusty wail, louder than the worst of Tanya’s hunger cries. “Vasilissa! Help me!”

The witch hurled it to the floor. From the dressing table she took the cleaver she’d borrowed from the kitchens. She knelt, raised the cleaver high, and brought it down on the wooden body. She hacked and hacked, till a pile of wood fragments lay strewn amongst bits of cloth and sawdust.

A distant scream rang out.

Baba Yaga rose and waited. Doors slammed throughout the palace. Then closer, she made out the tsaritsa’s voice crying, “Masha! Masha!”

The nursery door flung open. Vasilissa, bare-footed, her shift clinging to her body, dripped water like a rusalka. Her wild eyes darted about the room. When they discovered the ruins of the doll, she sank to her knees beside them.

“Masha, Masha! My dove, my little one!” Sobs wracked her thin body. The wooden remnants of the doll twitched, striving to rejoin, but failed.

Vasilissa finally noticed Baba Yaga. “You! What have you done?” With a growl, she flew at the witch.

Baba Yaga arrested her with an eagle’s grip. Vasilissa thrashed, attempting to get free, but the crone was too strong. The tsaritsa stopped resisting. She whimpered and sobbed anew. The witch released her.

“What will I do without Masha? She was everything to me!”

“She was nothing,” Baba Yaga said. “Your mother’s foolish attempt to protect you from the perils of the world. Did you know she was a witch?”

Vasilissa shook her head. But she was barely attending. Her eyes fixated on the broken pieces of wood.

“Serafima might have become powerful but she gave it up for the safety of marriage, for a fine brick house and a husband and children, for pretty robes and the crumbs of a nice man’s flattery. But magic will not be denied. The stifling of her power killed your mother. When she knew she was dying, she poured her love for you into that doll. But she also imbued it with her fears and her thwarted magic. Your own untapped power continued to strengthen the object.”

“I have no power.” Vasilissa’s voice was flat and thin.

“It’s there, though stunted. When you served me years ago, I knew you’d inherited your mother’s abilities and assumed you used them to perform the tasks I set you. I didn’t realize you only made use of the fetish she gave you.” Baba Yaga lifted the girl’s chin and made her look into her eyes. “Because your magic is still tied to it, and to your need, the doll could re-form itself. I cannot permit that to happen. Toss it in the fire and put this behind you.”

Several wood splinters rolled to Vasilissa, like iron filings attracted to a magnet. The tsaritsa’s lips quivered.

The crone held the girl by the shoulders. “The doll told me it wants to kill your husband and your child, to destroy everything except you. Is that what you really want? Are you strong enough to be the woman your mother hoped you’d become? Or will you dance to the tune a block of wood sings?”

Baba Yaga dropped her hands from the girl’s shoulders.

Vasilissa knelt by the doll’s remains. She buried her face in her lap and rocked and rocked. At last she raised her head. She picked up the largest pieces of wood and threw them into the fire. From deep within the fireplace came a high-pitched scream. The tsaritsa gathered the remaining pieces of wood, sweeping the sawdust into the apron she made of her outstretched shift, and flung them in after. The flames leapt up greedily at the offering. Vasilissa stared at them until the last bit of wood curled black and turned to ash.

“There’s only silence,” she whispered. “For as long as I can remember, Masha’s voice filled my head, even when she wasn’t speaking. There’s nothing now but emptiness.”

“You’re wrong,” Baba Yaga said. “There’s all the world. Listen!”

A fly droned on the windowsill. Outside the room came the drift of voices. The baby kicked her feet against the edge of the cradle.

Vasilissa’s body lost its tension.

“Finally, no one else’s voice in your ears. There’s room now for your voice.” Baba Yaga stretched out her hands to help the girl to her feet. “And now, you have a choice to make. You must be brave, as you once were years ago when you traveled the forest path to my hut. Braver, since you no longer have the doll to shield you or do your work for you. Your triumphs will be your own, but so will your messes.

“Will you stay here, pick up the severed threads of your life as wife and mother? You may be happy, very happy, for the tsar truly loves you, and your Tanya is a sweet child. However, if you do, your buried power will dim and die, or scuttle away warped in some fashion as your mother’s did; magic requires attention. Or you may return to my hut to study how to harness your power and develop your craft. After that, make of your life what you will. Return here, if the tsar will have you. Or take a different lover. Many lovers. Or none. One decision opens onto a universe of others. What will you choose, Vasilissa?”

The pale girl stared at the white nursery wall. She picked up Tanya and held her tightly, as the witch had never seen her do before, and kissed her.

* * *

Baba Yaga propelled her mortar briskly through the currents of the air. Long before she reached the clearing, she spied her hut. It raced through the forest to greet her. Giddily it danced before settling down in its new spot.

“Old fool,” the witch chuckled as she disembarked. She patted the doorframe as she entered.

Vasilissa stepped across the threshold. Baba Yaga had insisted she leave behind her pearled headdress, for witches do not cover their hair; during their ride, the wind had tugged her braids loose, so the gold tumbled and tangled and frizzed like a hill covered in wild broom. Her pale cheeks had taken on a rosy hue. Her eyes shone bright as peridots. Perhaps, Baba Yaga thought, she’ll do after all.

* * *

Author of the poetry collections THE BONE-JOINER and EURYDICE SINGS, Sandi Leibowitz writes speculative fiction and poetry found in magazines such as Uncanny, Devilfish Review, Liminality, Pantheon and Metaphorosis. Her poems have won second- and third-place Dwarf Stars, and been nominated for the Rhysling, Pushcart Prize, and Best of the Net awards. She is the editor of Sycorax Press, which has published poetry books by Shannon Connor Winward and Rebecca Buchanan, and Sycorax Journal. She lives in New York City.

What do you think is the most important aspect of a fantasy story?

A good story, same as it is for any other genre, along with characters you care about, and interesting world-building.

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