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.