A Visit to Baba Yaga

I don’t work with Baba Yaga, or at least I haven’t in the past. As a general rule, she’s a fearsome figure, and she does not like men; I’ve always thought it was most prudent to give her a wide berth. But I recently had a profoundly moving encounter with her, which has changed the nature of that dynamic. This is an experience I had while meditating—call it a daydream, a hallucination, an active imagination, what-have-you. What follows is a narrative account of my meeting with the most fearsome witch in all of folklore.

“Grandmother,” I say, “Grandmother, I am frightened.”

“Of course you are,” she replies, “They are always frightened, when they come to me. Only fear drives them into the woods.”

She is old. She has always been old. She was old even at the beginning of time, before the earth was made, so old that she has no name. For her, there is only a title, whispered in awe by the fluttering of the owl’s wings, belted in adoration and fear by the bullfrogs in the swamp at sunset. Terrible old woman, hideous hag. Baba Yaga, Baba Yaga.

She grins at me, and her teeth are made of iron. A few flecks of rust tarnish the edge of one incisor. If she ever had teeth of her own, they rotted out long ago, and she has replaced them with dentures harder than stone. Those dentures make it easier for her to crack the bones of the children who come to visit her, seeking comfort in the dark.

In the distance, I can hear the bullfrogs croaking. Baba Yaga, Baba Yaga. The frogs saw me sloshing through their muddy domain on my way to visit grandmother. They know she will eat well tonight.

“Why do you hate children?” I ask. I shouldn’t ask the question, I know. It’s impudent, disrespectful, the sort of thing for which she might snap off a finger. But Baba Yaga is a funny old woman; there’s a chance she will kill me and eat me, and grind my bones to make her bread as the giants used to do in the days that dragons walked the Earth, but no doubt she has already made up her mind whether I’m going to leave her home alive. She will kill me or she won’t, but that is a matter out of my hands. If she likes me, she will smile wider and permit the question. If she dislikes me, she will kill me no more cruelly than she would have anyway, for Baba Yaga does not waste her time on cruelty for cruelty’s sake.

At the mention of children, she spits over her shoulder, a charm to ward off evil. How funny, I think, that she should need protection from them.

“They have no manners,” she says, turning a blue eye to meet my gaze, “They are wild, and loud, like a pack of dogs. I don’t have time for dogs that haven’t been trained.”

Dogs. I wonder sometimes if that’s how she sees all of us, the whole human race, like a pile of dogs that haven’t been spayed, haven’t been housetrained, and keep breeding and shitting on the carpet. How loud must we seem, to this woman who was old before anyone knew what age was? How puerile? Loud and smelly and playful, in the presence of a grandmother who has never known the meaning of play?

The worst thing anyone can do when they come into the forest seeking Baba Yaga’s aid is to assume they are her equal. Baba Yaga has no equals; she is above all. She was here before anyone and anything, in her hut mounted on a giant set of chicken’s legs, and she will remain long after we are gone. In the final days of the universe, when the last star is dim and red and about to wink out, it will shine on Baba Yaga’s hut, unchanged through the eons. She will be here even after there is no light to shine on her.

But if we are like dogs to her—and Baba Yaga does not much care for dogs, nor for any animal that has had the killing instinct bred out of it—there are some dogs that can do tricks. Some dogs can stand on their hind legs, or open doors, or find their way home from the other side of the world. These are not people to Baba Yaga, for in truth no one is, but they are at least not altogether beneath her attention.

I realize I have been sitting in silence, pinned beneath her sharp eye.

“You know why I have come?” I say, hesitant.

She smiles again, and a tongue appears from between her jaws to run along the upper row of her shining teeth.

“You come for the same reason they all come,” she says, “Your world is…”

She pauses, and I realize in this moment that she’s searching for a word I do not know, some subtle Russian concept that I might be able to understand if I’d ever read Pushkin or Dostoevsky. English is not her language, is not her nature, and she struggles to express herself. Finally, with an exasperated grunt, she makes a shoving motion with both hands, then uses two gnarled fingers to mimic something twisting and falling from a great height.

“Broken,” she says, “Upside-down. It topples when it should stand.”

The turn of phrase would strike me as amusing given other circumstances, but instead I only nod, taken in by the solemnity of the idea she is trying to convey.

“It always is, when they come to me. Always toppling. Always the people are sick. Healthy people, they do not need Baba Yaga.”

I try to swallow; my throat is dry.

“Can you,” I begin to say, then stop and correct myself, “Will you help?”

She shrugs and puts out a hand.

“What have you brought me?” she says.

I reach into my bag and pull out a chicken carcass, carefully wrapped. The meat has mostly been picked from it, but that doesn’t matter. Baba Yaga prefers the bones.

I set the carcass on the table between me and the terrible woman, all too aware that if she does not accept my offering I will be splayed out on the table and picked clean just like the chicken is. Next to it, I place a bottle of vodka, three apples, and a sack of rye.

She surveys my gifts.

“Apples,” she snorts, “I do not know why people bring me apples. What do I look like, some young beautiful lady? Save apples for the one you desire, stupid boy. You do not give apples to something you fear.”

I nod, hesitant. When she does not say or do anything more, I reach out and take the apples, stuffing them back into my bag. Baba Yaga nods.

“Better,” she says, “But it is still not enough. You have more to give.”

Something wicked gleams in her eye.

“They always have more to give, when they come,” she says, “They do not come until they are desperate, until they will give anything old Baba asks. This is the way of things.”

I have read the stories. I knew this transaction was coming. Baba Yaga always asks for more than is offered to her. This is not selfishness, for in truth there is nothing and no one that would have any right to accuse her of such a fault. The word “selfish” means nothing to her, because she has no self. She simply is, and what she is demands a greater sacrifice than what is offered.

But I must not agree in haste. She may want labor from me, she may want wealth. She may want my life. I must not acquiesce until she has stipulated her terms, though, for then she will surely demand all of that and more.

“What is it you would ask of me, Grandmother?” I say. She wags a finger in my face.

“Clever boy,” she says, “Too clever for your own good. Boys who grow too quickly find themselves that much closer to the grave.”

As she speaks, she reaches for the vodka, pulling down two wooden cups from a cupboard near the stove and pouring a measure for each of us. She sets the cup before me.

“Drink,” she says.

I drink, downing the whole cup in one swig, straining not to cough at the alcohol burning in the back of my throat. To cough would be weakness, and Baba Yaga does not tolerate weakness.

She pours me another glass. We drink again.

And a third time.

Molodets,” she mutters, wiping her chin, “Here is what I ask of you, my shining boy who is too old to be his own age and who has the stench of death on him from a world that has already died and begun to rot. You will serve me.”

A shiver runs up my spine, and I feel my shoulders tense.

“Oh, do not look at me like that,” she chides, “It is easy work. Not back-breaking. I will not make you chop wood. You will wear a mark, to show that you are mine, and you will bring me in your home and honor my name. Drink vodka with me and give me your bones, the bones are good. Nice and juicy.”

She plucks a wing from the chicken carcass and snaps it between her fingers to emphasize the point, tossing both halves into her mouth and crunching them between her iron jaws.

“You are mine,” she says, “You have always been mine, one-who-is-too-old-to-be-young. You do not belong in the world that is toppling, the world of upside-down and sick. But that is where you come from, no? You come into the woods looking for me, through the marsh, away from the path, to the place in the forest where the wolves do not dare to go. You come like they all do, the ones who do not belong in the dying world, because you want Baba Yaga to make it so that—pftt!—the world is no longer dying. It no longer topples. Like magic. That is what you want, yes?”

I nod.

She shakes her head.

“This is what you do not know. It will topple anyway. Tipsy-topsy-turvy-topple. It is what the world does. Always, things fall apart. Always, things are sick. Always, they die. Usually there is a new thing that comes after them, and that is…”

She mutters again; again, there is some obscure Russian word here lost to me.

“The order of things,” she says at last, “It is right. It is as things should be. But always, always the world will topple. The world you come from, the thing you have come to ask me to save, it is gone already. It cannot be saved. It is gone.”

She pauses for effect and looks at me, her gaze piercing me as if to test whether I truly understand. And then she sighs.

“See,” she says, “You do not understand. Not yet. You are still young, one-who-is-old, and you do not know the peace of letting things die. It will come in time. It will come as you serve me. So here is what you are going to do. You are going to wear the mark, as I told you, to show the world that you are mine. You will keep the memory of me in your home, and you will give me your vodka and your bones. But I will give you fire from my stove, which you may take back to your world as all of them do when they come seeking the wisdom of Baba Yaga. It will not un-topple what you wanted to save, but it will help you see. You will see things as I see them, here, in the forest, where it is quiet and there are not so many loud dogs making such a mess of themselves. Take my fire home with you, and keep it burning until you see things clearly. When you are ready to return to Baba Yaga, I will be here. I am always here.”

She stands, and hobbles to the stove, opening it and reaching in for a glowing, red-hot coal. She plucks the coal from the stove, not seeming to notice the heat, and holds it out to me.

“Go on,” she says, “You came seeking my help. Do not refuse it when it is given.”

I don’t want to touch the coal—it’s burning, after all, and I can’t help thinking somewhere in the back of my mind that this is a long joke on Baba Yaga’s part, that I’ll take the coal and it will sear my flesh and she will laugh and laugh until tears roll down her face, and then she’ll throw me in the oven and cook me up for dinner. But I bite the inside of my cheek, reach out, and take the coal from her. Even though it’s still glowing, it rests in my hand like a cool stone plucked from a riverbed.

“Thank you, Grandmother,” I manage to say. She makes a dismissive gesture in my direction.

“You may leave now,” she says, “I am tired of talking.”

I bow my head and duck out the door into the cool night. The stars are shining overhead, thousands and thousands of points of fierce, uncaring light in a sky with no moon. In the distance, I realize, the frogs have stopped croaking. Now is the time to sit in silence. To watch. And to wait.

4 thoughts on “A Visit to Baba Yaga

  1. This is beautiful. Legitimately. I’ve also been seeing Baba Yaga more and more around me; I sleep beside a book that is written with her namesake. I’m curious about how you followed up from this experience during meditation, and also what meditation you do ❤ Thanks for sharing this!

    Like

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