Baba Yaga lives deep in the Hudson Valley in a house on chicken legs. She studied sculpture at the Rhode Island School of Design back in the ’50s and transformed the stilts holding the home up over her backyard pond.
Her lot is surrounded by an ancient fence studded with bleached skulls—deer and squirrel bones collected from roadkill as well as more exotic finds from friends and admirers. The mountain lion from the wildlife control officer in Montana, the humans from the medical museum director in Philadelphia.
Her neighbors think the whole place is an eyesore that brings down their property values. Back when this town was an artists’ enclave, Baba Yaga would host salons for her friends who came up from the city. Now she lives next to a Trump supporter with flags all over his porch and across the street from a tech executive building a doomsday bunker under his lawn.
Baba Yaga wasn’t always a witch. She started out as the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants in a New England fishing village. She left for school as soon as she could and moved to the West Village once she finished. She found success as a sculptor and taught at universities before her first husband slept with one of her students.
That was when she started to become a witch, when she gave up on the first husband and traded the city for the rabbits and the owls. Her transformation was complete after the things her second husband did to her niece when she was visiting on summer break. Baba Yaga kicked him out when she realized what had happened, but her sister never let her see Nadia again.
That second husband died of hemlock poisoning. It grows wild in these areas. There’s even some at the edge of Baba Yaga’s lawn.
Baba Yaga lives in her house with an African gray parrot who is older than she is and a ginger cat with a meow that sounds like he smokes three packs a day. She doesn’t get many visitors anymore, which is fine with her.
One summer day, a girl with short blonde hair wanders up to the skull fence while the witch is digging dandelions out of her flower beds.
“Baba Yaga, I don’t want to go to my ballet lesson,” the girl calls. “Can I stay here with you until it’s over?”
Baba Yaga squints at the child. She has surprisingly dark, liquid eyes for one so fair. She looks even younger than Nadia was the last time she saw her, all those years ago.
“What’s your name?” Baba Yaga asks.
“Vasilisa. I live next door.”
Baba Yaga glances towards her neighbor’s house. The trees are thick but she can spot a flicker of a blue and red flag through the branches.
“You can stay for a bit and help me weed the garden. But you must go home by sundown.”
The witch hands Vasilisa a trowel and shows her how to dig up the weeds without harming the flowers’ roots. Her little hands learn fast. The cat wanders outside and nuzzles against their legs.
“Why don’t you want to go to your lesson?” Baba Yaga asks.
Vasilisa yanks a stubborn stalk out of the ground and wipes her dirty hands on her jeans. “I don’t like the costumes they make us wear. Tutus are dumb.”
Baba Yaga snorts at the girl’s brusqueness.
“At my last recital they made us wear makeup. It’s like, I’m nine! I don’t need this!”
Baba Yaga tosses a yellow flower over her shoulder. “Smart girl.”
Vasilisa goes home at sundown, covered in dirt and grinning.
The next day, Baba Yaga finds a note in her mailbox: Please do not invite our daughter to your property without our permission!!! She assumes she will not see the girl again.
Then, months later, a knock on the door. The witch answers to find Vasilisa, sniffling and red-eyed.
“My dad found me playing married with my friend and now he says I can’t see her anymore.” Vasilisa wipes her nose with her sleeve. “Can I stay here until he leaves for his trip tonight?”
Baba Yaga nods. “You can help me bake. But you must go home by sundown.”
The witch tells Vasilisa to wash her hands and shows her how to knead sourdough. It goes into the oven and afterward they eat it with butter and raspberry jam.
“What does playing married mean?” Baba Yaga asks.
Vasilisa licks a streak of jam from her finger. “I was the man and she was the woman. We were dancing and hugging like you would do at a wedding. Then she told me to kiss her, so I did, and my dad saw.”
Baba Yaga wipes crumbs from the table. “Did you also want to kiss her?”
Vasilisa’s voice is small but defiant. “Yes.”
“Then you two did nothing wrong. But wait until you’re older for that stuff, when it’s easier to stay away from your parents.”
The girl goes home at sundown and Baba Yaga does not see her for the entire winter. Sometimes she sees the father, but he does not say hello, only glares if they pass each other in town or along the road.
In spring, there is another knock on the door. Baba Yaga answers and sees a bruise blooming on Vasilisa’s cheek. The girl is not crying, but her eyes look empty.
The witch brings her inside and applies ice, aloe.
“Baba Yaga, I don’t want to live with my parents anymore,” Vasilisa says. “Can I stay here with you?”
Baba Yaga may be a witch, but there is not much she can do about lawyers and police.
“Not the way you want, not forever.” Baba Yaga strokes the child’s hair. “I’m sorry, honey.”
Vasilisa’s upper lip trembles, the mask of composure about to shatter. “Then I want to be a bird so I can fly away.”
Baba Yaga stares at the girl and marvels at the strength emanating from the tiny figure. She has seen too much for one so young, yet she refuses to believe that she is powerless. One glance at the girl’s eyes reveals that even if her neighbor denies her request, Vasilisa will never stop looking for a way out.
Baba Yaga heaves herself from her chair and goes into her art studio. She brings back a box full of dozens of feathers: eagle, cardinal, chickadee.
She presents the box to Vasilisa. “Pick one.”
Without hesitation, the girl chooses a bright blue feather. Baba Yaga takes it from her hand, waves it over her face and arms. Crone and child close their eyes.
When Baba Yaga’s eyelids lift, Vasilisa is gone. A tiny bluebird flutters near the window, staring at the witch with liquid black eyes.
Yells erupt from the neighbors’ lot, voices calling for a lost child.
Baba Yaga blows the bird a kiss and opens the door. The creature flies out into the evening, an electric spot of blue against the orange sunset.
SOPHIE PANZER is the author of the chapbooks Survive July (Red Bird Chapbooks 2019), Mothers of the Apocalypse (Ethel Press 2019), and Bone Church (dancing girl press 2020). Her fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and long-listed for Wigleaf Top 50. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Heavy Feather Review, Whale Road Review, Menacing Hedge, Lammergeier, The Hellebore and others. She lives in Philadelphia.
REBECCA PYLE, named at birth for Daphne du Maurier’s and Hitchcock’s masterpieces, Rebecca, is both writer and artist whose artwork and writing are in Fugue, The Chattahoochee Review, Muse/A Journal, JuxtaProse, The Menteur, Cobalt Review, The Hong Kong Review, New England Review, Gargoyle, The Kleksograph, and The Penn Review. Pyle has lived the past decade or two in Utah, not terribly far from the often cloud-draped Great Salt Lake and its many small islands continually hosting migrating birds. Her artwork has appeared on covers of over a dozen journals, and within many others.