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 delighted in making Vasilisa feel unworthy and unseen. They delighted in all 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 the Baba Yaga for fire. The witch in the woods will surely eat her.”
Now, the 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, Vasilisa stepped out and began her journey into Baba Yaga’s dark forest.
To be continued…