But the clearing did not stay dark for long—for as soon as the sky turned to night, the eyes of all the skulls around the fence lit up with fire, illuminating the hut and allowing Vasilisa to see. Suddenly, everything went still, like the calm before a storm. Then, the trees began to creak and groan, the leaves began to rustle in the sudden wind, and Baba Yaga came flying out of the forest. She rode through the forest in a giant iron mortar, steered by the pestle, and she swept away the path behind her with a large broom. She rode up to the gate and, in a commanding voice that sounded like iron scraping on iron, said: “Turn your back to the forest and your face to me.” At the sound of her voice, the hut turned so that the front door faced her. Then, Baba Yaga turned to face Vasilisa—she had been able to sense her presence long before she reached the clearing. “And what brings you to my hut, Vasilisa?” Of course, being an all-powerful witch, she already knew her name.
Vasilisa trembled as she walked a little closer to Baba Yaga, bowing low before her, but her voice was steady. “Baba Yaga, grandmother, I am here at the urging of my stepmother and stepsisters. We have no light left in the house, and they have asked me to come to you to fetch fire to bring back to them.” Baba Yaga looked at Vasilisa for a moment, observing her closely. “All right, Vasilisa—I will give you fire. However, the fire does not come without a cost—in return, you must stay with me for a time and work to earn it. If you do not, I will put you in my cauldron, cook you, and eat you. Do you understand?” Vasilisa nodded firmly, though her whole body shook with fear. Baba Yaga then turned to her gates and commanded them to unlock and open, which they did. As soon as she and Vasilisa crossed the threshold, the gate slammed shut and locked itself tightly—if Vasilisa had even thought of trying to escape, there was no chance she could do so now.
They entered the wooden hut, and Baba Yaga sat down by the hearth. She said to Vasilisa, “I am hungry. Bring me everything that is in the oven, quickly.” Vasilisa did as she was asked, opening the oven, surprised to find enough food to feed three fully-grown men inside—all kinds of roasted meats and vegetables, as well as some bread. She lay the food before Baba Yaga, who then said to Vasilisa, “Now bring me something to drink from the cellar—all this food will make me thirsty.” Vasilisa did as she was told, running to the cellar, and finding all kinds of beverages stored below. Seeing the amount of food Baba Yaga had prepared for herself, she brought up a large quantity of kvass and honeyed wine. Baba Yaga ate and drank it all, leaving Vasilisa only a few roasted vegetables, a scrap of meat, and a small amount of kvass. Yawning and stretching, Baba Yaga stood up and prepared to go to bed. Before she retired to her room, she spoke to Vasilisa again. “When I drive away tomorrow morning, I want you to clean the yard, sweep the floors, and cook my supper. Then, I want you to take eight bushels of wheat from my storehouse and pick out all the black grains and wild peas. If you have not completed these tasks before I return, I will put you in my cauldron, cook you, and eat you. Do you understand?” Vasilisa nodded firmly, although a little less so than when she first arrived, and Baba Yaga withdrew to her room.
Vasilisa waited a few minutes and, when she was sure that Baba Yaga would not return, she took the little wooden doll out of her pocket and set some of the meat, vegetables, and kvass before it. “Little doll, gift of my mother, eat and drink a little and listen to my grief. I am in Baba Yaga’s hut, locked in by her skeletal gates, and I am afraid. She has given me an impossible task, and if I do not complete it by the time she returns tomorrow, she will put me in her cauldron, cook, and eat me. What do I do?” The little doll’s eyes began to glow like the early morning sun, and it sprang to life, just as it always had before. It ate a little of the food, drank a little of the kvass, and said, “Vasilisa, gift of your mother, do not despair. Your mother watches over you still, and as long as you have her blessing, you cannot be harmed. Eat the food that is left to you, comfort yourself, and sleep—the morning will bring you peace.” Vasilisa did as the doll asked—she ate the food before her, wrapped her arms around herself and breathed deeply, and then fell asleep on the floor.
When Vasilisa woke the next morning, she took a deep breath and rubbed her eyes, forgetting for just a moment that she was in Baba Yaga’s hut. It was very early, so it was still dark outside, and her eyes adjusted slowly to the darkness. She looked out the windows of the hut and saw the skulls on the fence, and she noticed that the flames in their eyes were beginning to dim. The white horse she had seen in the forest came trotting out from behind the hut, leapt over the fence, and disappeared. As soon as it was gone, the sky began to lighten, and the skulls’ eyes went completely out. Baba Yaga stood in the yard and gave three loud, sharp whistles. The iron mortar and pestle and the giant broom rushed to her side from the kitchen, and as she climbed into the mortar, the red horse galloped from behind the hut and leapt over the fence, disappearing just as the white horse had, and the sun rose over the trees. Baba Yaga commanded the gate to unlock and open, just as she had the day before, and they did as she asked, locking immediately behind her as she began her travels into the deepest parts of the forest.
Vasilisa trembled, remembering the impossible tasks that had been set before her, but she soon realized that the yard was already cleaned, the floors neatly swept, and the little doll was sitting in the storehouse picking the last of the grains and peas out of the bushels of wheat. Vasilisa felt her heart lighten and she breathed a deep sigh of relief. She rushed over to the doll and picked it up, hugging it close to her and whispering thanks over and over again, tears running down her face. She thought she felt the little doll give her a kiss on her cheek where her tears had fallen, though she couldn’t be sure. All that was left to do was to cook Baba Yaga’s supper. As a child, Vasilisa had sat in the kitchen and watched her mother cook their meals, and had committed most of the recipes to memory—she examined what was available in the storehouse and brought the food into the kitchen to prepare Baba Yaga’s supper. It took her most of the day, but when she was done, she was able to rest a little, and she allowed herself that brief moment of peace.
As the sky began to grow dark, Vasilisa laid out the table for Baba Yaga’s evening meal and sat at the window waiting for her to return. She heard the familiar sound of horse’s hooves against soft earth and saw the black horse running out of the deep, dark forest, disappearing like the others as it leaped over the fence. As soon as it was gone from sight, night fell, and the fire in the eyes of the skulls on the fence leapt to life. Not long after, the trees began to creak and groan, the leaves to rustle, and Baba Yaga came flying out of the forest in her mortar, steering with the pestle and brushing away the path behind her with the broom. Vasilisa let her into the hut, and Baba Yaga stopped and smelled the air—she had never smelled anything quite so delicious before. But before she would allow herself to eat, she asked Vasilisa, “Have you done all of the tasks I set before you, or am I to put you in my cauldron?” Vasilisa bowed before her and said, “Grandmother, I have completed every task you asked of me. I promise you that if you were to look for yourself, you will see that this is true.” Baba Yaga did so and, seeing that the yard was clean, the floors were swept, and the bushels of wheat were clear of all grains and peas. She was pleased, and admittedly stunned—no one had ever gotten this far before.
Baba Yaga turned to Vasilisa and said, “Vasilisa, I am grateful for the work that you have done.” Then, she said, “I call to the three hands, friends of my heart—come and take this wheat that Vasilisa has prepared and grind it for my bread.” At that moment, three pairs of hands appeared from within the storehouse walls and took away the eight bushels. Then, Baba Yaga sat at the table, and Vasilisa laid out all the food that she had cooked during the day, enough for four fully-grown men. She also went down to the cellar and brought up kvass and honeyed wine, more than enough to wash down the food. Baba Yaga ate almost all of it, bones and all. She was surprised to find herself making spontaneous yummy noises as she ate—she had never eaten quite so well. Although she was a pretty good cook herself, she had never made anything this delicious.
After finishing her meal, Baba Yaga stood and stretched, then turned to Vasilisa and said, “Tomorrow, I want you to do as you have done today—clean the yard, sweep the floors, and cook my supper. On top of this, I want you to take from my storehouse sixteen bushels of poppy seeds and clean each one of dirt. Someone has mixed earth into them to make me angry, and I need them all spotless. Do as I ask, or I will put you in my cauldron, cook you, and eat you. Do you understand?” Vasilisa nodded firmly, a little more confident knowing that she had the protection of her little wooden doll. As soon as Baba Yaga retired to her room, Vasilisa took the doll from her pocket, gave it a little morsel of meat and a drop of kvass—all that was left from Baba Yaga—and said, “Little doll, gift of my mother, eat and drink a little and listen to my troubles. Baba Yaga has given me another impossible task, and if I do not complete it by the time she returns tomorrow, she will put me in her cauldron, cook, and eat me. What do I do?” The little doll’s eyes sparked to life. It ate the morsel of meat, drank the drop of kvass, and said, “Vasilisa, gift of your mother, do not despair. Your mother watches over you still, and as long as you have her blessing, you cannot be harmed. Comfort yourself and sleep—the morning will bring you peace.” Vasilisa did as the doll asked, wrapping her arms around herself and breathing deeply, and then falling asleep on the floor.
This is part 2 of 3 in a series of this retelling of the story by guest author Ilssya Silfen. Stay tuned for the next release of this story.
Ilyssa Silfen has been a practicing Witch for nineteen years. Her poem “Sekhmet as Healer” was published in Sekhmet: When the Lion Roars, an anthology compiled by Galina Krasskova, published by Asphodel Press. She also had an article (“Fire in the Belly: Sekhmet and Me,” Issue #26) and a poem (“A Witch’s Prayer,” Issue #33) published in Witches and Pagans magazine.