by Edward Ahern
This is a substantial retelling of a story from Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales.
Baba Yaga is a witch, a terrible old woman with iron teeth like poker and tongs.
She uses her teeth to eat up little Russian children. She usually only eats the bad children, because the good ones get away. She is bony all over and her eyes flash, and she drives about in a mortar, beating it with a pestle, and sweeping up her tracks with a besom, a broom made of twigs, so you cannot tell which way she has gone.
She lives in a little hut which stands on hen’s legs. Sometimes it faces the forest, sometimes it faces the path, and sometimes it walks about.
And this is one story about Baba Yaga.
Once there was a widowed old man who lived in a hut with his little daughter. They were happy together, and they used to smile at each other across a table piled up with bread and jam. Her favorite things were a hair comb and a pretty handkerchief her father had given her.
Then the old man decided to marry again and everything changed. There was no more bread and jam on the table, and no more peeping at each other, first from this side of the samovar and then from that side as she sat with her father at tea.
The stepmother insisted that everything that went wrong was the little girl’s fault. The old man believed his new wife and had no more kind words for his little daughter. After a while the stepmother insisted that the little girl was too bad to sit at table. She would throw the daughter a crust and tell her to get out of the hut and eat it somewhere else.
The little girl would go away by herself to the shed in the yard, wet the dry crust with her tears, and eat it all by herself. She cried about the old days, and cried about the days that were to come. She was scrunched up in a corner of the shed, eating her crust and sobbing sadly when she heard a little noise. It was like this: scritch, scritch. It was a little gray mouse.
And out he came. Pointed nose, long whiskers, little round ears and bright eyes. Out came his little humpy body and long tail. He sat up on his hind legs, curled his tail twice around himself and looked at the little girl.
Now, this little girl had a kind heart, so she forgot her sorrows and threw a scrap of her crust to the little mouse. The mouse nibbled and nibbled and soon was looking for another scrap. She gave him another, and another and another, until there was nothing left of her crust. But the girl didn’t mind being hungry, she was happy to watch the mouse nibbling and nibbling.
The mouse looked at her with his bright little eyes. “Thank you,” he said in a small squeaky voice. “You are a kind little girl and I’m only a mouse, and I’ve eaten all your crust. But there is one thing I can do for you.
“The woman in the hut, your cruel stepmother, is sister to Baba Yaga, the bony-legged witch. If your stepmother ever wants you to take a message to her sister, come and tell me. For Baba Yaga will eat you with her iron teeth if you do not know what to do.”
When the little girl walked back into the hut she looked hard at her stepmother, and indeed, she had a long nose and was as bony as a fish with all the meat stripped off. The little girl thought of Baba Yaga and shivered.
The stepmother ordered her to clean up the samovar and tea things, tidy the house, sweep out the floor with a besom and clean everyone’s boots. And so she did until she was ordered off to bed.
That next morning it happened. The old man went off to the village to visit friends. As soon as the old man had walked out of sight the stepmother called to the little girl. “You are to go today into the forest to my sister, your dear little aunt,” hissed the stepmother, “and ask her for a needle and thread to mend a shirt.”
“But here is a needle and thread,” replied the girl.
“Hold your tongue,” snarled the stepmother, gnashing her teeth with a noise like clashing knives. “You are to go today to your dear little aunt to ask for a needle and thread.”
“How shall I find her?” asked the little girl, nearly crying. For she began to think that her stepmother’s sister really was Baba Yaga, the bony-legged witch.
The stepmother grabbed hold of the girl’s nose and pinched it hard. “That’s your nose, nitwit, feel it?”
“Yeth,” said the girl through the pain in her nose.
“You must go along the road into the forest until you come to a newly fallen oak tree, then turn left and follow your nose and you will find her. Be off with you, lazy one. Here is a towel to put the needle and thread in.”
The little girl walked out of the hut wanting to go to the shed to ask the mouse what she should do. But when she looked back her stepmother was watching from the doorway of the hut, so she had no choice but to take the path into the forest.
She walked along the path into the forest, with the day getting darker and darker as the forest closed in. Then she came to a newly felled oak tree and was starting to turn left onto a deer trail when she heard a scritch scritching from under the tree.
And out rustled a little mouse, gray and round like the one in the shed. The mouse arched its neck and looked up at the girl. “My cousin told me to watch out for you,” he said.
“Oh mouse, my stepmother has sent me to Baba Yaga, the bony-legged witch, and I don’t know what to do.”
“It will be difficult. On your way to the witch’s hut you will find alongside the trail four lost things: a loaf of bread, a chunk of meat, a ball of butter and a bright ribbon. Take care to bring them with you, and when you reach your aunt’s, use them as you think best.”
Just outside the gate was a thin birch tree with very few leaves that rustled and rustled as she came near. “Poor tree,” she thought, and she tied the bright blue ribbon in its branches so it did not look so bare.
The gate, as she pushed it open, squeaked painfully.
“Poor gate,” she thought, She took out the butter and rubbed it over the hinges.
Closer to the hut was a huge dog, very thin, gnawing on a branch, for he had nothing else to eat. “Poor dog,” she thought, and she handed the bread loaf to the dog, who gobbled it up and licked his lips.
The little girl went slowly up to the hut and knocked on the door.
“Come in, little girl,” said Baba Yaga.
The little girl went in and Baba Yaga, the bony-legged witch, sat weaving at a loom. In a corner of the hut crouched a thin black cat watching a mouse hole.
“Good day to youm auntie,” said the little girl in a whispery voice.
“Good day to youm niece,” said Baba Yaga.
“My stepmother has sent me to you to ask for a needle and thread to mend a shirt.”
“Very well.” Baba Yaga smiled and showed her iron teeth.”You sit down here at the loom and go on with my weaving while I get you the needle and thread.”
After the little girl sat down at the loom and began to weave Baba Yaga went out and called her servant. “Go prepare a hot bath, very hot. Then scrub my niece. Scrub her very clean. I’ll make a choice meal of her.”
The servant came into the hut for the water jug. The little girl begged, ”Don’t be too quick in making the fire, and try to carry the water in a sieve. Here is my handkerchief for your trouble.”
The servant smiled but said nothing, for she was very afraid of Baba Yaga. But she took a very long time preparing the bath.
Baba Yaga came to the window and asked,” Are you weaving, little niece? Are you weaving, my pretty?”
“I am weaving, auntie.” And the loom went clickety-clack.
When Baba Yaga went away, the little girl spoke to the thin black cat. “What are you doing, thin black cat?”
“Watching for a mouse. I haven’t had anything to eat for three days.”
“Poor cat. Here is a nice chunk of meat.”
And she handed the meat to the cat who gobbled it right up and said “Little girl, do you want to get out of this?”
“Catkin, I must get out of this or Baba Yaga is going to eat me with her iron teeth.”
“Well,” said the cat,” for your kindness I will help you.”
Just then Baba Yaga came back to the window to check on the girl. “Are you weaving, little niece? Are you weaving, my pretty?”
“I am weaving auntie.” And the loom went clickety-clack, clickety-clack.
After Baba Yaga went away, the cat said,” You have a comb in your hair and a towel. Run away with them while Baba Yaga is in the bath house. Keep listening. When Baba Yaga gets close, throw away the towel and keep running. Keep listening, and when she is close again, throw away the comb.”
“But she’ll hear the loom stop.”
“I’ll take care of that,” said the cat. The cat jumped up and took the little girl’s place at the loom. Clickety-clack, clickety-clack, it never stopped for a moment.
The little girl jumped out of the hut and ran on flickering legs toward the gate.
The big dog jumped up to tear her to pieces, but just as he was about to spring he saw it was the little girl. “Why this is the little girl who gave me the loaf.” And he crouched down again with his head between his paws.
The gate opened right up on buttered hinges with not a squeak or a groan.
The birch tree began to lash at the little girl’s eyes with its branches but saw who it was and stopped to admire again its pretty blue ribbon.
And the little girl ran on flickering legs.
And the thin black cat sat at the loom, making it go clickety-clack, clickety-clack. But you never saw such a tangle as the tangle caused by the thin black cat.
And presently Baba Yaga, the bony-legged witch, came back to the window. “Are you weaving, little niece? Are you weaving, my pretty?”
“I am weaving,” screeched the cat, clickety-clack, clickety-clack, tangling and tangling.
“That is not the voice of my little dinner,” screamed Baba Yaga, and she jumped through the window grinding her iron teeth. But there was only the thin black cat, tangling and tangling.
Baba Yaga grabbed the cat and began swinging it around. “Why didn’t you tear the little girl’s eyes out?”
“In all the years I have served you, you only gave me one little bone, but the little girl on first meeting gave me a nice chunk of meat.”
Baba Yaga threw the cat into the loom and rushed out toward the gate.
She screamed at the servant, “Why did you take so long with the bath?” And to the dog she growled, “Why didn’t you tear her to pieces?” And to the gate she yelled, “Why didn’t you squeal when she opened you?” And to the birch tree she squawked, “Why didn’t you tear her face with your branches?”
But they were all silent, thinking that the bony-legged witch had never given them anything but abuse.
Baba Yaga gnashed at them all with her iron teeth, jumped into her mortar and sat down. Grabbing the pestle she began beating the mortar and as it flew along the ground she swept up her tracks with a besom.
The little girl had kept running, stopping only to put her ear to the ground and listen. Finally she heard the bangety-bang, bangety-bang of Baba Yaga beating the mortar with the pestle. And there was the bony-legged witch, rushing along the trail, sweeping with her besom.
As quickly as she could, the little girl took out the towel and threw it on the ground. And the towel grew longer and wider, and wetter and wetter, until it was a deep broad river between Baba Yaga and the little girl.
Baba Yaga came rushing up in the mortar. But the mortar could not float with Baba Yaga inside it. The bony-legged witch drove the mortar into the river, but only got wet. Tongs and pokers falling down a chimney were nothing to the sound Baba Yaga made as she gnashed her teeth. She turned around and drove back to the little hut on chicken legs. There she gathered her cattle herd and drove them all back to the river.
“Drink, drink!” she screamed at the cattle, and the cattle drank up the river to the last drop. Baba Yaga jumped back into her mortar and began again beating it with her pestle. The mortar glided across the river bed and along the trail, speeding in pursuit of the little girl.
But the little girl had kept putting her ear to the ground. Bangety-bang, bangety-bang she heard. And Baba Yaga came into view again, furiously banging on the mortar and sweeping with the besom.
The little girl pulled the comb from her hair and threw it on the ground. The comb began sprouting more and more teeth and bigger and thicker and the teeth grew into a dense forest, so thick that not even Baba Yaga could force her way through.
Baba Yaga, the bony-legged witch, gnashed her teeth and screamed but knew that she could not get through the forest. So she turned around and drove her mortar back to the little hut on chicken legs.
The little girl ran all the way home. When she reached their hut she was afraid to go in so she went into the shed. Scritch, scritch, out came the little mouse.
“So you got away all right, my dear. Good children usually do. Now run into the house. Your father is back and is very worried about you. He will listen to what you tell him, so tell him everything.”
When the little girl went into the hut, the father saw her and said,” Where have you been? I was so worried. And why are you so out of breath?”
The stepmother turned yellow when she saw the little girl, and her eyes glowed and her teeth ground together until they broke.
But the little girl wasn’t afraid and went to her father and climbed on his knee and told him everything just as it had happened.
When the old man learned that his new wife had sent his daughter to be eaten by Baba Yaga he was so angry that he drove the stepmother out of the hut. And he lived in the hut with just the little girl. Much better it was for both of them.
And the little mouse visited the hut, and every day it would sit on the table and eat crumbs and warm its paws on the little girl’s cup of tea.
Copyright © 2012 by Edward Ahern