When Vasilisa woke the next morning, she repeated the routine from the morning before—she watched out the window as the white and red horses leapt over the fence and disappeared, and the sun rose before her as the skulls’ eyes flickered out. She watched as Baba Yaga called her mortar, pestle, and broom to her and rode out of the gate into the deep, dark forest, and then she went to the storehouse to find the little doll cleaning the last of the poppy seeds of dirt. As she had done the day before, she swept the doll up into her arms with tears of gratitude, and this time she knew the doll was kissing her on the cheek where her tears had fallen. She returned the doll to her pocket and brought up food from the storehouse, enough for five fully-grown men, and spent the whole day cooking Baba Yaga’s supper. She only had a few minutes to herself before the sky began to grow dark, but she was grateful for even that.
She laid out the table for Baba Yaga’s supper, and then went to the window to await Baba Yaga’s return. The black horse that heralded the coming of night galloped out of the forest and leapt over the fence just as Vasilisa reached the window, and the sky grew dark and the skulls’ eyes flared to life. A moment later, Vasilisa heard the familiar sound of the trees creaking and groaning, and Baba Yaga flew into the yard on her mortar, steered by the pestle, brushing the path away from behind her with the broom. Vasilisa let Baba Yaga into the hut, and Baba Yaga stopped and smelled the air—again, the air smelled of the most delicious food she had ever tasted. 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?” As she had done the night before, 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 poppy seeds were clear of all dirt, she was pleased, and even more stunned than the night before—she was sure that Vasilisa would not be able to pull this off twice, and yet…
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 these poppy seeds that Vasilisa has prepared and press them for their oil.” At that moment, three pairs of hands appeared from within the storehouse walls and took away the sixteen bushels. Then, Baba Yaga sat at the table, and Vasilisa laid out all the food that she had cooked during the day. She then went down to the cellar and brought up kvass and honeyed wine, more than she had brought up the night before or the night before that. Baba Yaga ate and drank it all—every bone, every morsel, every drop. When she was finished, she looked at Vasilisa, who stood in silence and appeared to be somewhat afraid.
“Why do you stand there in silence, Vasilisa,” Baba Yaga asked. “I dared not speak without being spoken to, grandmother,” Vasilisa replied, “but if you will allow me, I do have a few questions that I wish to ask of you.” Baba Yaga was taken aback by her bravery and nodded her head, but held up her hand and said, “I will allow you to ask me questions, but remember that not all questions lead to good answers, and knowing too much will make you grow old too soon.”
Vasilisa nodded her head in understanding, and then said, “I must ask you of the white horse. When I began my travels to your hut, a white horse passed me on the road, as white as the Russian snow, and I have seen them every morning since. Who are they?” Baba Yaga replied, “They are my white, bright day. They serve under me, and they cannot and will not harm you. Ask me another question.” Vasilisa said, “I must ask you of the red horse. When I was a little further into the forest, a red horse passed me on the road, as red as the blood that flows from me each month, and I have seen them every morning since. Who are they?” Baba Yaga replied, “They are the red, round sun. They serve under me, and they cannot and will not harm you. Ask me another question.” Vasilisa said, “I must ask you of the black horse. When I arrived at your hut, a black horse passed me and leapt over the fence, and I have seen them every night since. Who are they?” Baba Yaga replied, “They are my black, dark night. They serve under me, and they cannot and will not harm you. Ask me another question.”
Remembering what Baba Yaga had said about asking too many questions, Vasilisa chose to stay quiet. Baba Yaga seemed to grow annoyed at her silence. “Why do you grow silent again? Are you not curious about the three hands that serve me? Why don’t you ask me about them?” Vasilisa felt the little doll grip her finger in her pocket, and she said, “The three questions I have already asked have sated my curiosity. As you have said, grandmother, it is not good to ask too many questions, as not all of them lead to good answers.” Baba Yaga gave a small grin in Vasilisa’s direction. “Very good, Vasilisa. I’m glad that you decided only to ask about the horses—if you had asked about the hands, they would have dragged you into the storehouse and prepared you for my cauldron. And I must admit, I would have been sad—I have grown fond of you. So now I must ask you a question—how is it that you were able to complete the impossible tasks I set before you? And how were you able to cook such delicious meals? No mortal human has ever been able to complete my tasks successfully, and I must know.”
The little doll squeezed Vasilisa’s hand again, and she replied, “The blessing of my dead mother helps me.”
Baba Yaga was silent and pursed her lips. Never before had someone been brave enough to ask her any questions, and never before had anyone shown her the respect due to her. Furthermore, never before had anyone cooked for her as well as Vasilisa had. Mother’s blessing, indeed. She was impressed.
After a time, she motioned to Vasilisa to follow her out to the front gate. When they reached the gate, Baba Yaga plucked one of the skulls from the fence and spoke: “You have your mother’s blessing, and now you have mine. In return for your respect, I grant you freedom. Bring this skull back to your home. When the time is right—you will know when—return and bring the skull back to me. I promise you no harm.”
Any fear that remained in Vasilisa left her body—she knew in her bones that she had earned Baba Yaga’s respect, in turn, and that she was safe now. She took the skull from Baba Yaga’s wise, wrinkled hands, thanked her, and began her journey back through the wild, dark forest to the house where her stepmother and stepsisters were waiting for her. Just before she stepped on the path, she found a large birch branch that would make a sizable walking stick and placed the skull on top. As she continued on the path, she passed the white horse first, and as they galloped past, dawn broke. A little later, she passed the red horse, and the sun rose, helping light her way home. Many hours later, just as she was reaching the edge of the forest, the black horse rode past her, and the sky grew dark.
As she walked up to the house, she noticed that the windows were still dark, and when she entered the doorway, a chill went down her spine—it was incredibly cold. “Vasilisa!” her stepmother and stepsisters cried. They were surprised that she had survived her journey—for they had not sent her to Baba Yaga’s hut to fetch the fire, of course. They meant to send her to her death. They expected to be able to light another fire as soon as Vasilisa had left the front door. What they did not know was that, by sending Vasilisa into the dark forest, they had cursed themselves and the house in which they lived—no fire would stay lit in the home, no matter how hard they tried. By the end of the third day, they were shivering and starving—they had no light, no heat, and no way to cook their food. By the time Vasilisa returned, they were desperate—and Vasilisa knew that the warmth they showed her was for their own benefit, not hers.
As if to prove her point, her stepmother came forward and snatched the skull off the branch, without so much as a thank you, and placed it on a candlestick over the hearth. Her stepmother looked curiously at the skull, and soon her eyes glazed over, and her mouth fell slack. Her gaze would not—could not—leave the skull’s eyes, and her stepsisters soon followed suit, walking over to the hearth, mesmerized by the flames emanating from the eye sockets. They never so much as flinched as the fire in the skull’s eyes grew larger and hotter, until the three of them caught fire and were reduced to ashes. Vasilisa, with both her dead mother and Baba Yaga’s blessings, was untouched.
Vasilisa stood silently, staring at the three piles of ashes that used to be her stepmother and stepsisters. She was free—finally free. She waited in the house for three days for her father to find her, the light from the fire in the skull’s eyes sourcing her with light and heat, as well as fire with which to cook her food. At the end of the third day, when her father had not returned for her, she knew—whether he was no longer of this world or simply could not find his way—that he would not be coming back. She thought about trying to return to her childhood home but soon realized that she no longer remembered the way. The only path she knew was the path to Baba Yaga’s hut—so that was the path she chose.
She gathered what belongings she could comfortably carry, put the skull back on the birch branch, and stepped back into the forest without a single glance behind her. She smiled as she passed each of the three horses—the white, the red, and the black—and soon found herself at Baba Yaga’s hut. The gate unlocked and opened, and the hut turned around so that the front door faced her, and Baba Yaga stood in the doorway, grinning knowingly.
“Vasilisa—just as I promised, you now have your freedom. I gave you my blessing, and now I give you the choice to remain with me, of your own free will. If you choose not to stay, you will still always have my blessing. If you choose to stay, I will teach you all the magic that I know.”
Vasilisa was surprised to find that she did not even need to think about it—despite the overwhelming fear she felt in Baba Yaga’s presence just a mere few days prior, right now she felt the warmth that was hidden from the others, and she knew that this was where she was meant to be. Reaching into her pocket, she felt the little wooden doll resting comfortably there, and she knew that every part of her life—the good and the bad—had led her here. She said yes immediately, and Baba Yaga brought her inside, ready to teach her how to make the trees creak and groan with her presence; which plants to use for healing, which to use for protection, and which to use for malice; how to identify the edible mushrooms from the poison ones; how to speak with the birds that dwelled in the trees, with the deer, the elk, and the wolves that roamed the hidden places; how to harness the elements, the raw power of the natural world, and become one with it; how to weave the magic of the forest.
And that is what she did.
This is part 3 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.