Ivan tripped over a root and splashed heavily into a mud puddle. He got up sputtering, cursing the day he’d ventured out to find his fortune. He wiped the mud he could off his face and clothes, but the dampness had already set in. He reached for his pack and found that it too had sunk into the murky water. He fished it out and found that the clothes inside were just as soaked through as those he wore. He would need to find shelter before the cold of nightfall swept in, he realized. Under the dark shade of the giant, close-knit oak trees precious little direct sunlight reached him, even though it was still mid-day, and his clothes would certainly still be wet when darkness came. Even with a fire, he knew there was no way he could stay in the damp clothes in the chill night air. He cursed his luck, cursed Morena, god of the cold, cursed his parents, and, most of all, cursed his damnable lying grandfather and himself for believing those damnable lies.
His mama had begged Ivan not to go into the forests. His batya had called him a damn fool, and a disobedient boy, but Ivan expected no less from his father, who wanted nothing for Ivan and his seven brothers but a life of chopping and hauling timber to be sold in Tiversk.
This had never been enough for Ivan, so different from his brothers. His greatest joy as a child was listening to the stories his dedulya told him of the spirits of the forest, and the legends of the gods. He had thrilled to listen to the tales of firebirds, and the three sister witches named Baba Yaga, and the eternal battles between the god Perun and the dragon Veles.
Those battles, his grandfather told him, took place at the roots of the World Tree, the mighty oak that held up the earth and the sky in its branches. Somewhere in the great forest, Dedulya said, was a child of the World Tree. Only the size of the World Tree’s smallest branch, it was the largest tree in all the world. Its base was as wide around as the town of Tiversk, and a man could climb it for days and never see the top. It was deep in the forest, where only the strongest and bravest could ever hope to find it. But if they did, the reward that awaited them was well worth the cost, Dedulya had confided in Ivan. There lay a treasure of Perun himself, hidden away by the three-headed dragon Zmey Gorynych, one of the many sons of the dread Veles. This particular son, Dedulya had said, was slain by the great hero Dobrynya Nikitich, and his treasure was now unguarded and free for the taking by any man with courage enough.
For years, despite the pleadings of his mother and the beatings from his father, Ivan would periodically venture into the forest in search of the World Tree’s child. He knew how to hunt and fish, how to set camp and build a fire large enough to keep wolves at bay. But always he would return home after a few days, cold and wet and hungry, ready to receive his punishment.
But now he was fourteen and a man, and he was certain he could find the tree and the treasure beneath it. So he had packed his bag with an extra shirt and pair of trousers stolen from one of his brothers. He took with him also his blanket, his hunting knife, his hatchet, and a length of thin rope to set snares. He walked with a long branch of oak that he had sharpened into a spear, useful for catching fish and slow game. It was less useful however, he found, in preventing him from falling flat on his face.
He continued to march into the forest, realizing that even turning back was no longer an option, for he was well and truly lost amongst the massive oak trees.
It was beginning to grow dark when Ivan found his shelter for the night. Chasing through the growth after a rabbit, he suddenly burst into a grassy clearing. The clearing was nearly twenty yards in diameter, and perfectly circular. Nothing but grass grew in it, save for in the center, where Ivan stood in awe of the largest tree he had ever encountered. All thoughts of his dinner forgotten, for a moment he dared to hope that this was the child of the World Tree that he sought. But he quickly realized that it could not be any more than a distant great grandchild. The World Tree’s offspring was said to be as wide around as an entire town. This oak was a mere sapling by comparison, not even as wide around as his family’s cabin.
Still, it could provide him some shelter for the night. He spied a hollow in the tree at ground level, large enough and wide enough that his batya and mama could have stood inside side by side if only Batya would be willing to stoop his head. Not that Batya would. Ivan’s father never bowed to anything unless he had no choice.
Cautiously, his spear held outward, Ivan went to the hollow to investigate. Looking inside, he could see that it extended no further into the tree. There were signs that the hollow had been the resting place of various creatures at one time or another, but all the traces seemed many weeks old at least. The earth that made up the hollow’s floor was soft and warm.
Ivan immediately set to work. With his knife and hands he dug a small pit in the soft earth to house a fire. Then he dove back into the forest to gather wood. Within minutes he returned with an armful and began to pull apart the smaller sticks to use as kindling. The night was coming on quickly, and the bitter cold was setting in, but before its bite could truly be felt Ivan had prepared a low fire just outside the entrance to the hollow. The fire quickly warmed the inside of his temporary home, which trapped in the heat even better than Ivan could have hoped. Soon his clothes were dry, and one by one he removed his other clothes and the blanket from his pack and held them out in front of the fire to dry. Once the fire popped and an ember jumped out and onto his blanket as he held in in front of the flame, nearly catching it alight. But this was quickly extinguished and disaster averted.
As each item dried, Ivan folded it up and laid it onto the earthen floor, making a pillow for his head. When the last of the moisture had left his blanket, he curled up in it and lay his head down. Though he was still hungry, the heat inside the hollow and the exertion of the day gave him a deep feeling of drowsy contentment, and he was asleep almost as soon as his head was laid down, wrapped up in the warmth and his dreams of heroes and treasure.
Midway through the night he awoke to the sounds of wolves howling, and the screams of some great dying creature. His fire had burnt down nearly to embers, and he could see nothing past the edge of the clearing. The edge of the primeval forest was a dark wall against the night, and the cold made him wrap his blanket closer about him.
He held his spear tightly and placed more wood onto the fire. But even now, in the darkness, half asleep and jolted from his dreams by the sound of predators, Ivan realized that the wolves were far away, and that whatever their kill was would sustain them for the night. He had little to fear, here in his hollow. Soon he drifted away again. But this time his dreams were of three-headed dragons, and werewolves, and the things that Dedulya had told him await in the forest for disobedient boys.
When he awoke the next morning, the fire had gone out and was nothing but thin smoke. The sun had begun to rise already, and would soon be up above the trees. Ivan rubbed his eyes and looked out of his hollow into the soft morning light, and was shocked to see a small house sitting a few yards away, its chimney smoking merrily.
The house couldn’t have been there last evening, he thought. It was still light when he arrived. And even if it had been black as pitch, he’d surely have noticed an entire house!
He poked his head out from the hollow, trying to get a better look at the little home. He saw movement, out of the corner of his left eye. Something black and stout, hobbling toward him. It put on a burst of speed when he turned his head to see it fully, racing toward him in a dark blur.
With a shout, he fell back into the hollow. He grabbed his spear, and, his back planted against the back wall of the hollow, he pointed it out toward the entrance.
For a moment, it was quiet. Then a hand reached around the edge of the entrance to the hollow. Long, gnarled fingers curved and gripped the side. Following behind the hand came the face of an old woman. She was extraordinarily ugly, her face knotted and gnarled like an ancient, diseased tree. Her short, stout figure was clothed entirely in a black cloak that seemed to be made of raven feathers. She smiled, cracking her ancient and rough features.
“Hello, little one,” she crooned. “Are you lost?”
Ivan said nothing. The old woman continued. “You look hungry, child. Let me help you. Come, come!”
Ivan did not move. Once, he and his brothers had caught an old wolf in a trap. The creature had likely been pushed out of its pack for weakness, and was starving. The wolf had whined, and cried, and averted its gaze, showing its subservience. Ivan’s youngest brother, Vladimir, had been taken in by the wolf’s pathetic display, and moved toward it. Maybe he had intended to comfort it, or even to release it. Ivan had only just pulled the boy back before the wolf’s jaws snapped shut as it lunged for his throat. For all its seeming benevolence, there was a hunger in its eyes that the wolf could not hide, and Ivan had seen it where his brother had not. He saw it too in this old woman.
She was moving closer now, and her voice was almost a whisper. “Come child, come. Let Baba Yaga feed you…”
Now Ivan knew the creature’s name. It was the name of a demon his dedulya had warned him of, a beast that steals and cooks children. Ivan struck out with his spear. Baba Yaga screeched and grabbed the spear, pulling it away and lunging toward Ivan. She bared her teeth as she charged. Ivan could see they were black and sharp. Her crone’s hands had become the talons of a hawk. One great clawed hand wrapped around his spear as the other clutched at Ivan’s face.
Before she could reach him though, he grabbed his dagger with his free hand and thrust it out, cutting a great gash in her grasping talon. With a cry like a wounded hawk, she stumbled back, clutching her wounded hand, which had reverted to that of an old woman.
Ivan followed her out of the hollow, keeping his spear point in between them and his dagger at the ready. Baba Yaga backed away, hissing at Ivan. “Why would you hurt your baba?” she cried.
“Tell me where to find the child of the World Tree,” Ivan said. When she didn’t answer, he repeated himself, louder. “Tell me where to find the child of the World Tree!”
It was a well-known fact that demons, and witches like the Baba Yaga most of all, knew of things that no one else did. All the secrets of the dark forest they called home were known to them. Surely, Ivan thought, the creature must know where his destination lay.
The crone laughed. “So, my child, you seek gold, do you? Your baba has gold. Come, come inside, and I will show you riches, my child.” Ivan stabbed at her with his spear and the demon cried out. Once more Ivan said, “Tell me where to find the child of the World Tree.” Everyone knew that no demon could deny a command thrice given. Baba Yaga hissed again. Then, pulling her feathery cloak about her, she sank to the grassy earth, knowing now that she had been defeated by the boy.
“I do not know, child. The secrets of the gods are of no interest to me. But I know one who does. My loathsome, foul sister, who lives ten miles west of here with our third sister. She will know where to find your treasure. But she will not speak with you if you come to her so armed.”
Ivan was dubious. Sensing his trepidation, the demon went on. “But luckily for you, I would not have so sweet a child taken by my miserable, contemptible relations. Odious wretch my oldest sister is, she would not even know how to properly cook you. No no no, I will keep you safe from my detestable kin.”
With that, the old woman got up and darted into the nearby house with startling swiftness. In a few moments, she emerged with an old tin horn clutched in her twisted hand. This she brought to the boy and placed on the grass in front of him. She backed away.
“Take the horn, child. Inside is the call of the firebird. Blow upon it three times, and he will come to your aid, wherever you may be. Find your answer from my sister, then blow the horn. Believe me, I would not have you given over to those vile, base witches. Blow the horn, and you will be saved from them. Blow the horn, and you will not end up in their pot. Blow the horn, and you will be carried far away.”
With that, she ran off again into the house. Ivan nearly gave chase, but then the house began to move. The small building shook violently as it rose up from the ground upon two great bird legs. Ivan could hear Baba Yaga inside cackling as the building ran into the forest, crashing through the trees.
Ivan reached the home of Baba Yaga’s sister before noon of the next day. He had taken his journey slowly the day previous, keeping the sun to his back, then following it after it had reached its zenith. He didn’t want to risk finding the creature near dark, so near the end of the day he had meandered, gathering food to fill his belly and wood for a fire. He’d found one particularly dense copse of trees where he set up camp in for the night. He slept little, waking often at the thought of wolves or Baba Yaga’s sharp, black teeth. But his fears fled in the light of the next day, and, pushing onward toward the home of the second Baba Yaga, Ivan felt as though he was Dobrynya Nikitich himself, off to battle with a great dragon.
In a short few hours, he came upon a circular clearing, similar to the first in many respects. Here, though, the grass was patchy and withered, the earth hard. The large tree in the center was bent in its top branches, and bore no leaves. The small building that sat nearby was ramshackle, a hovel compared to the warm home of the first Baba Yaga.
Gathering his courage, Ivan laid down his spear and dagger, and, holding the horn close against his chest, stepped into the clearing.
Almost immediately the door of the house opened, and a small, dark shape came shuffling out. Its head was down, and it seemed to be sniffing the air, the way a hound would. It stopped, and its head snapped up to look straight at Ivan. He nearly bolted back into the forest, toward his spear, his dagger, anything that might kill the creature. Like the two clearings, the first and second Baba Yaga were very much alike. Their sisterhood was evident in their short stature, their dark, feathery cloaks, and their hideous features. But like the clearing surrounding her, this Baba Yaga was all the more terrible and hideous than her sister. Her face was so callused and ancient looking that she barely even seemed human. She was thinner than her sister, her reptilian skin pulled tight across the bones. Staring straight at him, unblinking, Baba Yaga began to shuffle toward him. Willing himself with every bit of courage he possessed, Ivan walked forward toward her as well. When there were a few yards left between them, he called out, “That’s far enough!”
The old woman stopped, intrigued by the impertinence of the young boy. She called out to him, “Hello child, well met. What brings you so deep into Baba Yaga’s woods?”
With great effort, Ivan managed to keep his voice from shaking. “I seek the child of the World Tree, and the treasure beneath. Tell me where it is, demon.”
The creature laughed. “Demon! Little lost boy, this is no way to speak to your baba, who is so kind to you. You want to know where cousin Zmey put his shiny things. Wait a moment there, your baba has something for you.” Baba Yaga scuttledinto her hovel, returning moments later with a rolled piece of paper in one hand, the other behind her back. She came only as close as she had been before, and released the paper into the air.
By some magic, the paper began to float, as if on a breeze, coming to rest just in front of Ivan. Never taking his eyes off the crone, he reached down and snatched up the paper. Looking over it quickly, he could see it was a map of the forest, showing both of the Baba Yaga clearings and the World Tree’s child, marked large in the center. Ivan’s heart raced with excitement at the thought of finally reaching his goal.
Then he saw the long, curved knife the Baba Yaga had brought out from behind her back, and his heart sank into his stomach. He took a step back, and the Baba Yaga reached out toward him.
“Oh, do not go, brave little man. Stay! Stay for dinner with your baba and her sister.”
Ivan turned to run toward the tree line and his weapons, only to be met with the sight of another old woman wrapped in a feathery black cloak, emerging from the forest. Only then did he remember; the first Baba Yaga had mentioned two of her kin living together here.
From both sides, the demons began to hasten their approach. There was only one path of escape left to Ivan. Pulling the horn to his lips he blew as hard as he could. Once. Twice. Three times he blew, each note more powerful and piercing than the last. The sound halted the Baba Yaga sisters in their tracks, and they grabbed their ears as if the sound pained them.
Suddenly, from all ends of the clearing, birds began to swarm inward, around Ivan and the sisters. Screeching, the Baba Yagas tore at the air, pulling birds down with their talon-like hands and sharp black teeth, ripping and rending. But they were surrounded on all sides, and distracted from their original prey.
Ivan wasted no time, and ran toward the forest’s edge. Behind him, he heard the screams of fury from the sisters. They had noticed his flight. Ivan did not know if even in the forest he could find salvation now.
Then, between him and the treeline landed a great bird, a raven the size of a man. It looked at him and bowed its head, beckoning him to climb atop it. With the sounds of the Baba Yaga sisters close behind him, Ivan needed no added incentive. This, he realized, must be the firebird he had been told of.
He ran, and jumped atop the beast, which kicked off from the ground with a powerful thrust of its wings just as the eldest Baba Yaga reached them. She reached out for Ivan, but grabbed only a handful of long, black feathers.
As Ivan and the bird spiraled higher and higher the terrible screeching of the Baba Yagas faded away.
Soon, Ivan allowed himself to relax. It was cold, up there in the sky, but the feeling of soaring above the trees was exhilarating. All the same, something tickled at the back of his memory. Some detail he had looked past.
As he held his face close to the great raven’s black feathers, he realized what it was. When the bird had landed, he’d noticed a scar across its foot, a gash there as if it had been torn open by a blade.
His heart beat loudly against his chest. He felt it must be audible, even above the whipping of the wind.
He nearly shouted, so that he could be heard. “Thank… thank you!” he cried. “Thank you for saving me from those demons.”
After a moment, the bird answered back. Its voice was that of the first Baba Yaga that Ivan had met in the grassy clearing, peering into his tree hollow. “Of course, my dear child! I told you I would never let my sisters have a morsel so sweet as yourself!”
Away they flew above the forest, Ivan’s cries were lost in the wind.
Nathan Elwood is a student of Library Science with a tattoo of the final line from “The Waste Land” on his shoulder He has a passionate love for writing and drinking craft beers, and an unfortunate habit of mixing the two hobbies.