This telling by Ember Andrews, with gratitude and acknowledgment to Starhawk; Clarissa Pinkola Estés; Maryianna Mayer; John Brazaitas; Ruby Berry; and Sibbelan Forrester’s translation of Russian folklore compilations by Aleksandr Afanas’ev and Ivan Khudiakov.
Once upon a time, there was a young girl named Vasilisa. Let’s say that she lived in the woods, and in a time of great change. Let’s say that she grew up connected to the magic of the earth, and knew the whispers of the forest as her first lullabies. And then, let’s say that her mother died. Because this is the beginning of a fairytale and mothers so often die at the beginning of a fairytale.
(“Why?” you may ask. Because, dear one, a story is a treasure map back to the sacred, to that which we have lost. And so, we begin with loss.)
But, on her deathbed, Vasilisa’s mother gave her a gift.
“Here,” said her mother, as she handed Vasilisa a small, soft doll made by her own hands. “My darling, this is for you,” she said. “When I am gone, the doll will help you. Always keep her with you and never show her to anyone. When you don’t know or you feel alone in the world, feed her a little bread, give her a sip of water, and she will be your good and worthy guide.“ Vasilisa‘s mother uttered these words with her last breath, kissed Vasilisa‘s head, and died. (Ah…Loss.)
“But, what of Vasalisa’s other parent?” you say. Well, dear one, they (singular they) were also bereft and through that long winter, they mourned. But spring follows winter and summer follows spring and before long, they met a widow with two daughters. The widow spoke sweetly to Vasilisa – when they were around. Also, they needed someone to care for Vasilisa so they could work. And so they married her and Vasilisa was left alone with her new stepmother. Not good dear ones, not good.
Because this stepmother had a cruel heart and her daughters also did. They all delighted in making Vasilisa feel unworthy and unseen. They all delighted in the ways they made sure Vasilisa knew that in this new family, she did not belong. The stepmother and stepsisters piled labor after labor upon her, which Vasilisa did with a will, though never was it enough.
But still, she lived and she grew strong and –the storytellers say– she grew beautiful. How is this possible in the face of such cruelty, we might ask? Was it perhaps the healing powers of the forest in which she lived? After all, who among us witches is has not been strengthened by the trees? Or, perhaps it was the innocence of her age, when each thing is only now, and not every time before…. We know for certain one thing: she was helped by the power of her doll, for each day she gave the doll a bit of her bread, even when her portion was small. Each night, she gave the doll a sip of water beneath the waxing and waning moon’s gaze. And at all times, she carried her doll in the pocket of her red apron and Vasilisa learned to know her doll’s guiding voice.
Which was very good, because the day came when Vasilisa’s stepmother and stepsisters decided they wanted to be rid of her for good. They decided that there was something about Vasilisa – her innocence or her earth magic or even her faith in the invisible – something that was intolerable.
“I can’t stand it anymore,“ said one stepsister.
“She must go,“ said the other.
“I know,“ said their cruel mother. “Let us smother our hearth and all the flames in the house. We will tell her she must go to Baba Yaga for fire. The witch in the woods will surely eat her.”
Now, Baba Yaga was a fearsome creature and a wild one. Some called her “Grandmother” and said she was a friend to the forest creatures. But some also said that she had iron teeth, which she used to eat little (and even big) children who strayed too close to her hut.
All her life, Vasilisa had been told frightening stories of the witch in the woods.
But the fire was out.
And one stepsister said, “I won’t go! It is too dark out there.”
And the other said, “I won’t go! It will ruin my silk shoes.”
And the stepmother said, “Vasilisa! You must go!”
And Vasilisa stood before their furious stares and in that moment, she found reason to go into the pantry, where she took out her doll and shared her worries. Then she fed her doll a bit of bread and a sip of water and said “Oh Dolly! What should I do?“
And the doll’s eyes lit up like candles. And it said, “Don’t be afraid, dear Vasilisa! Go forth, but always keep me with you. Nothing bad can happen to you at Baba Yaga’s while I am with you.”
And so, dear ones, Vasilisa stepped out and began her journey into Baba Yaga’s dark forest. We know what this feels like, don’t we? To be poised on the precipice of the unknown – all that is familiar is behind us. And what is before us? The unknown, which may be horrible. May be wonderful. The unknown, which may be new life. Or may be just death.
(When was the last time you walked into a dark woods, not knowing what lies ahead? Aren’t you? Aren’t we all, now?)
To Vasilisa, it was terrible. She stood on the front step of her parent’s house and looked out. The moon shone down through bare branches into a night that went on and on. Ahead, the path turned and disappeared. With all her heart, she longed to not go. But her dolly nudged her and she knew that, though death threatened ahead, another kind of death was certain behind.
So, Vasilisa stepped off the porch and onto the stony, twisting path. She followed it, winding through tall trees that moaned in the wind until she came to the first fork. She stopped and as she pulled her dolly from her apron, she heard a loud Crack! …as of a branch breaking beneath a foot. There are wolves in these woods. She froze, listening…then took out a bit of bread, which she fed to her doll. “Which way shall I go, Dolly?“ She whispered. She turned to the right, and the doll shook and trembled. But when she turned left, the doll grew still and whispered “Yes, that is the way.“ So that way Vasilisa went and after a time the trees opened and she smelled water and the stars burned bright above and all around her, she heard the frogs making their night song, which is also the sound of grief, which is also the song of our ancestors, which is also the sound of hope.
In this way, Vasilisa travelled all through the night: though her heart hammered and would hurry her steps, over and over she paused and asked her dolly “Which way should I go?” She walked and walked, through hemlock and cedar and birch. It seemed that the forest would never end when suddenly she heard the crashing sound of a large body hurtling toward her. “Wolves at last!“ She thought. But no! An enormous white horse with a rider also dressed in white burst through the birch trees, leapt over the path and then, fast as he had appeared, was gone again. Vasilisa stood frozen with her hand on her throat for one long moment. Two. Three. I don’t mind telling you, dear one, that she thought of turning back. But she didn’t. (In moments like these, there is nothing for it but to listen to our ancestors and go on.)
As she began to breathe again, she noticed that the sky was now pale behind the dark treetops. She walked on, soon pushing through a thicket of wild roses whose thorns scratched her so that her arms bled. Again, she heard the sound of a force hurtling towards her. High over the thicket, she jumped, this time a red rider! And when she had passed, the sun rose fiery in the east. Within hours, the sun blazed hot and still Vasilisa walked on, until at last the light begin to fade and she came to a clearing where she saw the strangest sight.
There stood a fence made of human bones and every fence post was topped with a human skull. Inside the fence, a house… but what a house! Its roof was green as a spring meadow, its walls were of thickest cedar bark, and all the hinges and nails were made of knuckle and finger bones. But strangest of all, the house danced upon great yellow chicken legs, scaly and so fiercely clawed that as it spun round and round, it scratched great furrows and the smell of freshly turned earth filled the glade.
“Oh Dolly,” said Vasilisa, though she knew the answer before she asked. “Is this the house I seek?”
“Yes,” said the doll, but her answer was almost drowned out by the pounding of hooves and Vasilisa turned to see an enormous black rider, galloping straight at her. She didn’t even have time to duck! Over her head they leapt, black of horse and harness, black of boot and cloak, and as they did, night fell. At once, all the skulls on the fence blazed with a wild, orange fire.
It was at that moment that Baba Yaga landed with a loud Thump!
Landed, I say, because the Grandmother of Time rides the sky in a great mortar and where she lands, mushrooms spring up round her. Baba Yaga! Her gray hair a sail, her nose so long and her chin so curved that they nearly touch. Baba Yaga, with teeth of iron, a giant pestle in one hand and in the other a broom made of the hair of persons long dead.
“You!” screeched Baba Yaga. “What are you doing here?”
“Grandmother, the fire in my house has gone out,” said Vasilisa. “Without it, my people will die.”
“I know your people!” shouted Baba Yaga and then fixed Vasilisa with an amber eye. “And I know you. Why should I give you fire?”
“Because I ask,” said Vasilisa, with the help of her doll.
“You are lucky,” said Baba Yaga. “That is the right answer. But I can’t just give you the fire, you must work for me. You must accomplish many tasks! And if not, you will die.”
And with that, the Grandmother of Time went to the house that danced on chicken legs, and in Vasilisa went too.
Now, my dear ones, have you ever walked into a house that you knew to be haunted? Put your hand on the knob of a darkened door and heard the creak as you slowly let mortal sight and light into a place where the living have not walked for decades? Have you felt the spirit finger brush up the back of your neck as youheard the door swing shut behind you?
Vasilisa felt it as she followed Baba Yaga in. The door swung closed behind her and the doorknob snapped at her as it went by, but she hardly noticed.
She was looking at the inside of Baba Yaga’s house for the first time. This is the house of the Grandmother of Time. Whole time lives here; the house is bigger inside than outside and it is full of wonders. The far wall was covered with a great oven, large enough to cook a whole person and the window of the oven was shaped like giant eyes, which narrowed and blinked slowly at Vasilisa like a satisfied cat.
Another wall was covered in clocks, some of the hands moving forward and some moving backward and some spinning in both directions at once. The roof was hung with herbs and spider webs washed in starlight and in the center of the room was a great cabinet, covered by a wooden cutting board. Under the cutting board, there were 100 drawers that held the memory of the land. From this one spilled the whiskers of an imperial mammoth, from that one the tooth of a giant ground sloth and from another one there was a darkness that climbed out, fell back and then tried to climb out again.
But most wondrous of all were the pairs of disembodied hands that floated in mid-air: One pair hovered over the cutting board, chopping parsnips and carrots in a blur. One pair floated over the great chair in the corner turning a spindle above a basket and a pair of bloody scissors.
And one pair was taking off Baba Yaga’s cloak and hanging it on the hook next to the oven, which pursed its lips and begin to blow warm air on the witch’s cloak filling the house with the smell of hot iron and damp earth.
But none of the floating hands were cleaning, though every surface was covered with mess! There was dust everywhere and dishes covered with dried food and the sink contained a pile of pots and pans with a crust of grease on cold water.
“Well?” said Baba Yaga as Vasilisa stared. “What are you waiting for? Get to work and clean all this up.” Baba Yaga pointed to her largest clock, the one in the center of the wall of time. Around its edge, was written Once, Not Yet, Too Late and Now!
“I want every surface sparkling and my dinner made by the time the clock strikes Now!” said Baby Yaga. “Or YOU will be my dinner!”
Then Baba Yaga turned and went through a door that wasn’t there and Vasilisa was alone. “Oh Dolly,“ she said. “I have cooked and cleaned before but never like this! How will I ever begin?”
“Take faith,“ said her dolly. “I will help you.“
So Vasilisa began. And she worked and worked, and some say that after time her dolly said “Go to sleep now, dear. Morning is cleverer than evening. “ And some say that Vasilisa did sleep and that when she woke up, the house was spotless and even the drawer full of darkness was closed and the smell of delicious things filled the room and when Vasilisa went to the oven, she found a six-foot roasted salmon, stuffed with mushrooms and kasha, and blinis filled with cream cheese in a blackberry sauce and a huge crock full of beets and another of nettle soup. One by one, she put all of these delicious foods on the top of the sparkling clean cutting board and just in time! For at that moment Vasilisa heard the loud Thump! in the front yard and she looked at the clock and it was Now!
Baba Yaga burst through the front door. “Where’s my dinner?“ she shrieked.
“Here, Grandmother!“ said Vasilisa
Baba Yaga sat down to eat and with what gusto! She slurped the soup and sucked the fat from the salmon bones, all the while looking for a speck of dirt but she could find none! She ate the whole feast, save one crust, which she gave to Vasilisa as she rose.
“Come,“ she said and walked past Vasilisa to a pair of doors, which she flung open to reveal a dark, earthen cellar lit by only one dim lamp. Inside was a huge mound of corn and an even larger mound loomed behind it.
“Sort that,“ Baba Yaga said, pointing at the mound of corn. “The mildewed from the sweet. Sort every kernel! And when you’re done, do the other as well. There are one million poppy seeds in that mound of dirt. Do it all by Now! Or I will have you for dinner!“
And Baba Yaga turned and left by the door that wasn’t there and Vasilisa despaired. It smelled so terrible, the stench of mold’s thousand small deaths filled the cellar. But worse than that, Vasilisa knew that Baba Yaga would take her life if she failed and the mounds were huge. To sort every kernel! One million poppy seeds! “Oh Dolly, no matter how hard I work, it is impossible. I can’t see and there is too much. I will surely die!“ said Vasilisa.
But her dolly shook harder than she ever had. “You must put your faith in me.” her dolly said. “There is no other way if you are to survive.“
And so Vasilisa thrust her hands into the mound of corn. Through the long night, she sorted and some say she stopped and her doll finished the work. And some say she never slept but entered a dream of Deep Doing, a weave of work and rest and work that went on and on and on and on. And the clocks struck “Too late,” and “Never.” And the clock struck “Once” upon a time, and this time, in our time, she crouched there, alone and also not alone in the shelter of that small cellar. And some say that it was not labor but magic that she did that night.
At last, the cellar doors burst open and there stood Baba Yaga silhouetted before her. Her hair was a hurricane. She filled the threshold and Vasilisa rose from the floor of the dark cellar and stood.
“Have you done it? Have you sorted every seed?“
“Yes, Grandmother,“ said Vasilisa
Baba Yaga peered past Vasilisa into the gloom. “So you have,” she said. “Well then. Have you any questions for me?“
Vasilisa thought of all the strange things she had seen. But what she asked was this: “On my way to your house, I passed a white rider in the forest. Do you know who he is?“
“Oh yes. That one is my dawn, he brings the luck and willingness to begin.”
“And the red rider, is she also yours?“
“That is my rising sun. She brings the arrogance and the confidence to do large things.”
“And the black rider, Grandmother?“
“Oh, that one,“ purred Baba Yaga. “They are my night. They bring the willingness to let go.”
When Vasilisa was silent, Baba Yaga said “Surely, you have another question!“
Then Vasilisa wanted to ask about the floating hands, but just as she started to speak, her dolly jumped in her pocket, so she snapped her mouth shut. “No Grandmother, I have no more questions.“
“Ah, you are wise for one so young,” said Baba Yaga. “Asking too many questions can make you old before your time! But now I have a question for you.” And Baba Yaga crooked her bony finger at Vasilisa. “Come closer. Closer. Closer!” she said, until Vasilisa stood at the cellar door, her nose almost touching Baba Yaga’s nose.
“Now then, child: How have you accomplished these tasks I have set?“ Baba Yaga said.
Vasilisa stood so close to Baba Yaga that she could smell the witch’s fetid breath, see the iron gleam of her teeth. Vasilisa wanted to step back, cast her eyes down and say the thing that had soothed so many times before. Say, “I just did my best.“ She felt her feet on the earth. She felt the doll in her pocket. And she looked into Baba Yaga’s eyes. “By the blessing of my mother,” she said.
At these words, Baba Yaga shrieked and grabbed Vasilisa by the collar. “By her blessing? By her blessing?!?” At once, Baba Yaga yanked Vasilisa from the cellar, shoved her through the house, out the front door and down the rickety steps into the yard, where she grabbed a flaming skull from the top of a fence post. “Here’s your fire!“ She cried.
She stuck the skull on a stick and thrust it into Vasilisa’s hand. “Don’t say another word! Take it! Go!“
The gate sprung open and Vasilisa was two steps out the gate when she thought to turn and say “thank you” but the doll jumped! So she did not say thank you but plunged into the forest with the skull. Eerie orange and yellow flames poured from its eye sockets, from the little triangles of its nose, from gaping jaw. She hurried through the dark forest with it, knowing when it was time to take this turn and that. But as she began to draw closer to her old home, she wondered whether perhaps the skull was too strange and too awful. “What if I am called a witch?“ she thought and even if she ought to bury the skull and not carry it forth.
But as she thought this, the smell of water came to her and she turned into the place where the trees widened. On both sides, the mystery of the waters reflected the white moon among the stars. She heard the night song of the frogs swelling around her; their voices were clearer than that voice of shame.
She said out loud. “I will be called a witch.“ And it wasn’t a question.
Then at last, she took the final turn in the path and saw the house she had left behind. How small it looked and how dark! As indeed it was. For as she approached, outpoured her stepsisters and stepmother, crying with blame.
“Where have you been?” They said. “We have been in the cold and the dark!” Though they had thought to trick her, they had not been able to re-light the fire since she left. They ran towards her, fingers pointing.
At that moment, the skull turned of its own accord. Out of it blazed a light that was so searing, so fierce and pure that some say the stepmother and stepsisters burned to cinders where they stood and some say they shrieked and ran and some say they were illusions and they were never really there at all. And some end the story there… Which we might do if this were the story of an ordinary person‘s initiation.
But this is the story of the initiation of a witch. And we know, dear ones, that a witch’s initiation calls for a spell. Vasilisa knew this too, and so she cast her spell on a weaver’s loom. The ancestors told me that she made the loom from the jawbones of a horse and the warp and weft of the loom were threads from the horse’s mane. They told me that upon this loom, Vasilisa wove her own fate by making a cloth so fine that she became famous as the most skilled weaver in the land.
But the spell, you ask? That too she made. And the ancestors tell me that sometimes you can hear the spell in the wind, in the dark forest, in the frogs’ song. Listen to the voice of Vasilisa, singing as she weaves her fate on the loom with the nine threads:
One for the lineage of my mother
Two for the courage to discover
the strength to walk through the night.
Three for frogs and starlight.
Four for the riders three
Five for the strength not to flee,
when I heard Baba Yaga’s loud Thump!
Six for my doll’s subtle jump
As I passed test after test
And learned how to weave work and rest.
Seven for shelter in fear, to face death and claim “I am here.”
Eight for the skull that I carried
Eight for the shame that I buried
And nine for the wisdom that came
with the witch’s healing flame.