Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Rhymes with “Bitch” Ty-ty Story Time Edition: Baba Yaga

Okay, Crickets, if there’s one thing WhiteUnicorn loves almost as much as unicorns, it’s witches. I love old witches and young witches, pretty witches and ugly witches, witches on television, witches in books, good witches…and most of all, I love me some evil witches.

Now, witchcraft has been around ever since the first woman picked up the chicken bones her hairy smelly husband had tossed on the floor, and mixed them with some spit and dirt to curse his teeth to fall out. And it’s been around ever since.

There are some glorious examples of witches throughout history, like Hecate, the Greek Goddess of witchcraft, and Medea (a personal favorite), or the Wicked Witch of the West from Oz, or the wicked stepmother from Snow White, or Hermione from Hogwarts…the list is long. And we’ll get to most of them soon enough.

But if we’re talking about badass witches; if we’re talking about pure nastiness and spite; if we’re talking about weirdness and creepiness, we need to start with a real piece of work: Baba Yaga.

Baba Yaga lives deep in the dark gloomy forests somewhere in Eastern Europe, or possibly Russia. She lives in a house that stands on two giant chicken legs, with a fence of bones and skulls. At night, the skulls light up. It makes everything ever so much more festive when the clean-picked bones of the people you have kidnapped and eaten light up at night. Makes the place feel like home.

Baba Yaga flies around in a giant mortar and pestle, and likes to collect children who don’t eat their beets from their beds in the middle of the night, and eat them.
Isn’t she wonderful?

There are a ton of stories about her, but here is one of my favorites.

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Mischa who lived with her father and mother on the outskirts of a huge dark forest. One day, Mischa’s mother fell ill, and she knew her time was upon her. She called poor Mischa to her bedside and said:
“Darling Mischa, I give you four things before I die. First, let me kiss you and bless you. Remember to be always kind and good”
Mischa kissed her mother.
“Now, here are three other gifts. A ribbon, a lump of coal, and a comb. Keep them with you always, for they will help you when you most need them”
And with that, she died.

Mischa’s father was lonely after his wife died, so he went looking for a wife, and one day, he brought home a woman and her ugly daughter to be Mischa’s new stepmother and stepsister.

Mischa’s stepmother was as cruel and heartless as Mischa’s mother had been loving and good. Mischa was beaten daily, forced to eat the scraps from the dinners she cooked, and sleep in the ashes of the fire at night. Even so, all the handsome men in the village nearby came to look at pretty Mischa and sigh, and none of them would look at her ugly stepsister at all.

At last, there was no more flour in the house to make bread. The stepmother and daughter had spent all the money Mischa’s father had left for them while he was away. Mischa’s stepmother saw a chance to be rid Mischa, so that her daughter could be married. She seized a broom and beat Mischa, and screamed:
“Greedy wretch! You have eaten all our food, and now there is no flour to feed us!”
Her evil little eyes gleamed.
“So now, you must go into the woods and get a bag of flour from Baba Yaga, or I shall beat you to death!”

Mischa feared for her life, but she did as she was told and set out into the woods with only the ribbon, the lump of coal, and the comb her mother had given her.

As she was walking through the forest, she heard the sound of feet pounding. When she looked behind a tree, she spied a nasty little troll who was standing at the entrance to a large anthill, and stomping on every poor ant that scurried out. Mischa’s good heart was full of anger at the spiteful troll. She rushed at the troll and smacked him on the back of the head, which made him wail and run off. The ants gathered up their dead comrades, and continued with their work.

As Mischa walked deeper into the forest, she heard the agitated quacks of ducks. When she came to the side of a pond, she saw the same nasty little troll throwing stones at some ducklings in the reeds. Her heart was filled with sympathy for the poor ducklings, and she rushed up to the troll and kicked him in the shins. He howled and ran off.

As Mischa neared the deepest, gloomiest part of the forest, she heard the caw of ravens. She looked up, and there was the troll, trying to steal raven chicks from their nest. Mischa grabbed a nearby stone, took aim, and hit the troll square in the head. He fell down dead.
Mischa continued on her way.

At nightfall, she came to the house of Baba Yaga. She opened the gate of bones and stood at the house on its chicken feet, and said:
“Turn your back to the forest, your front to me”
A door opened, and there was Baba Yaga.
“And who presents herself for my cooking pot?” she cackled, her sharp teeth gleaming.
“I have been sent to ask you for a bag of flour, Grandmother” stammered poor Mischa.
“Then you shall have it,” replied Baba Yaga, “If you can complete three tasks I set you. If you cannot, I shall eat you. You’ll be delicious with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”

Mischa shuddered with fear, but had no choice. She spent the night in Baba Yaga’s guest room, praying.
The next morning, Baba Yaga took Mischa into a giant storage room. In the middle of the room was a pile of rice higher than her head.
“You have one day to separate the husk from each grain of rice and place them in a separate pile” snarled Baba Yaga, “or it’s into my pot you go!”
With that, she left.
Mischa knew she could never complete this task in a day. She sat down by the pile of rice and cried. But suddenly, there was a whisper of thousands of tiny feet. Mischa looked around, and from a hole in the floor poured thousands of ants. They covered the huge pile of rice, and separated each husk from each grain as Mischa watched in amazement.
Just as the last grain of rice had been stripped and the last ant had disappeared back through the hole in the floor, Baba Yaga, drooling with anticipation, burst through the door.
Her jaw dropped to see the neatly sorted rice.
“You have done well,” she muttered, “but there is more to come tomorrow.”

The next morning Baba Yaga led Mischa to the edge of a huge lake. She clutched a long string of pearls in her gnarled hand, broke the chain, and flung the pearls far and wide into the water.
You have one day to find each pearl at the bottom of the lake” cackled Baba Yaga, “or it’s into my pot you go!”
With that, she left.

Mischa knew she could never find all the pearls at the bottom of the lake. She sat at the edge of the water and cried. But suddenly, she heard the quacking of a hundred ducks. Mischa looked up, and saw a multitude of ducks swim to the center of the lake, and dive under the water. Again and again they dove down, and by the end of the day, they had returned all the pearls to her side. Just as the last duck deposited the last pearl and swam off, Baba Yaga appeared, slobbering in anticipation.
Her jaw dropped to see the pile of pearls at Mischa’s side.
“You have done well,” she muttered, “but there is more to come tomorrow.”

The next morning Baba Yaga led Mischa to the top of a tall hill. She held in her gnarled hand a stalk of dandelion with a round white head of dandelion seeds.
“You have one day to find every dandelion seed”, snarled Baba Yaga, “or it’s into my pot you go!”
With that, she blew the dandelion seeds into the air, and left.

Mischa watched the seeds float into the sky, and sat down and cried. Suddenly, she heard the rustle of many wings, and as she looked up she saw dozens of ravens fly overhead in pursuit of the seeds.
One by one, throughout the day, a raven returned with a seed in its beak. Just as the last raven delivered the last seed and flew away, Baba Yaga appeared, drooling with hunger.
Her jaw dropped to see every dandelion seed.
“You have done well” she said “and you shall be rewarded”

Baba Yaga led Mischa to another room in her house. The room was filled with gold and jewels.
“Here is a sack full of flour”, said Baba Yaga, handing her a full sack, “And here is a sack you may fill with treasure.” She handed Mischa an empty sack. “Now take what you can and begone.” With that, she disappeared.

Mischa filled the empty sack with gold, and set out on her way home.

Later that night, Baba Yaga returned home. One of the glowing skulls on her fence stared at her balefully.
“You do know that Mischa didn’t do all those tasks herself, don’t’ you?” the skull asked.” She was helped each time, by ants, and ducks, and ravens.”

With a shriek of rage, Baba Yaga jumped into her mortar and pestle and flew off in pursuit of poor Mischa.

Mischa heard the scream of the witch as she flew after her, and she knew that Baba Yaga meant to kill her. She said a prayer to her mother in Heaven, and suddenly the ribbon her mother had given her slipped from her pocket. As soon as it touched the ground, the ribbon became a mighty rushing river.
Baba Yaga saw the river too late, and crashed into the water with her mortar and pestle.

Mischa was halfway home by the time Baba Yaga had crossed the river, but soon she could hear the witch’s screams right behind her. She said another prayer to her mother in Heaven, and suddenly the lump of coal her mother had given her slipped from her pocket. As soon as it touched the ground, it became a huge mountain. Baba Yaga saw the mountain too late, and crashed into it with her mortar and pestle.

Mischa was almost out of the forest by the time Baba Yaga had flown over the mountain. But soon she could hear the witch’s screams so close to her ear that it tingled. Mischa said a third prayer to her mother in Heaven, and suddenly the comb that her mother had given her slipped from her pocket. As soon as it touched the ground, it became a giant forest of thorns. Baba Yaga saw the thorns too late, and crashed into them with her mortar and pestle. The thorns were so prickly and sharp that Baba Yaga was forced to turn around and go home.

Mischa returned to her house with the flour and her gold.
When her stepmother, who had never expected to see her again, asked her where she got the gold, she honestly replied that Baba Yaga had given it to her as a gift.

The wicked stepmother wanted gold for her self, so she sent her own daughter to fetch flour from Baba Yaga. When the wretched girl did not return, the stepmother went to see Baba Yaga herself, and was never heard from again.
Mischa used her gold as a fine dowry, and was married to a handsome duke, and lived happily ever after.

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