This year, Sophie's back and at it again, giving us her interpretation of Vasilisa the Beautiful. Baba Yaga during the Cold War — it's not one you want to miss!
When I first read Vasilisa the Beautiful, I think I was about seven. It was in the kind of book of “world stories” that substitutes in Kipling for most of the southern hemisphere. But this strange Russian story with its glowing skulls, terrifying (yet oddly sympathetic) witch, and wonderful magical doll always stayed with me. It was many years before I read it again, but I immediately remembered, with great vividness, Vasilisa's sisters sending her off to Baba Yaga to borrow some fire. If you haven't had the chance to enjoy this story, you can find a pretty standard version of it here. In the little story that follows, I have plucked Vasilisa from her Tsarist setting to land her squarely in the middle of New York's Russian emigre community at the height of the Cold War. I hope you enjoy my interpretation.
Vasilisa's feet were planted wide, like any experienced subway rider, and she kept her fingers wrapped tightly around her handbag itself rather than merely the strap while the other hand gripped the overhead rail to keep her upright. There were never any seats available on the train at this time of night, and even if one had opened up for a moment, she would only have had to surrender it the next time an old man or woman got on. She swayed lightly in the rhythm of the train's movement, the peaceful beauty on her face only heightened by her shabby coat, too-big boots, and oft-darned gloves, and she was the unconscious subject of more than a few admiring looks. Even with her eyes closed, she could tell when the stop for Brighton Beach was approaching, for the sharp-sounding English words were replaced by gentler murmurs of Russian as the community some called Little Odessa came home from work.
But home now was not her true home—not the large communal apartment in Leningrad where she and her mother had competed to see who could give Papa the first kiss when he came home late from the newspaper offices. Not even the small efficiency flat where Mama had coughed out her life's blood while Papa, who had gained a reputation for defying party authorities in his journalism, went out each day to try and find some kind of work for his little family.
But now Papa was gone—dead, her stepmother Lilya said, but Eva said he was in a work camp, deep in the Urals, and while Lilya might, almost certainly would, lie to her, Eva would not. Eva was a little wooden doll who lived in Vasilisa's coat pocket, but she was not an ordinary doll. She was a gift from Vasilisa's mother who, in the last days when she could hardly speak, had wrapped her daughter's hand around the doll and choked out, “Let no one see her. Only touch a little food to her lips when you meet trouble.” Poor mother, well she might foresee trouble for her beautiful daughter, for her body was scarce cold before the party official's widow upstairs, with her two vicious daughters, was making a dead set for Papa. And he, who was not so much foolish as just plain desperate, had married her almost indecently fast. He said Lilya could get them out through Berlin, and that much she had done—only Papa had been arrested before he could come with them.
In the period of abject misery that followed her mother's death and her father's betrayal of that beloved memory, Vasilisa had little enough will to play with a doll, her mother's strange instructions notwithstanding. It was, indeed, only one day when Vasilisa spilled a cup of tea with jam that she was preparing for her stepmother and splashed it onto the face of her little doll, that she finally heard Eva's voice for the first time. Though her initial communications were not very helpful at all (Eva was rather demanding after her long fast), soon Eva became more than companion and more than servant, even, for it turned out that the little creature was quite able to scrub down a floor, wash windows, and steal fruit from the market garden over the fence. But when poor Vasilisa lay down in her lonely pallet on the floor—for she could not be so selfish to expect a whole bed to herself while her stepsisters shared!--little Eva would whisper the old Hebrew prayers to the Creator of Twilight and Giver of Sleep, blessing Vasilisa's slumber, just as the girl's mother had once done. Though Vasilisa could not understand the language, still the peace and comfort of it was much to her. Once in a great while, Eva could be coaxed to tell stories of Vasilisa's great-grandfather, her creator. He had been a worker of kaballistic magic; hidden away in a remote dacha, he had toyed with life itself, and to his beloved daughter, Eva's first mistress, he had taught the secrets of magic.
Eva was Vasilisa's own little miracle, the one thing that now made living in New York with her stepmother and stepsisters tolerable. She lived for the times of quiet, when Eva was helping her with her chambermaid's work at the hotel or feeding her oranges from the market stalls, telling stories and offering comfort to sweeten the weary hours. It was not quite like having her mother back again, but it was close enough for the girl's hungry heart.
When the train arrived at Vasilisa's stop, she gave a little anticipatory shiver, for it was February, and the weather above was freezing and wretched. Though Eva had proved a fair enough cobbler, lining and mending Vasilisa's boots, even she could not make such an old, skimpy coat and scarf enough to keep warm when the icy sleet drove across the streets in sharp gales. It was, however, a short walk from the subway stop to the little apartment Lilya had found for them when she decided they had to move because the rabbi's son in their old building had taken an interest in Vasilisa. Still, the girl was thoroughly wet and chilled through by the time she climbed the stairs to the old pre-war apartment. When she opened the door to find the living room in almost complete darkness—and cold, to boot—she was ready to wail with frustration.
It took a long moment for Vasilisa's eyes to adjust to the darkness, but when they did, she picked out the glowing ember of her stepmother's cigarette as she sat at the uncurtained window. “The power went out,” Lilya said. “You see, you keep back your tips to buy food and face cream, and now we have no light. Stupid girl, go upstairs and borrow a candle from the old Cossack witch.”
Those final words affected Vasilisa more unpleasantly than a slap might have done. “Where are Alexandra and Mariya?” Vasilisa asked, her voice trembling. “Could not one of them go?”
“They are in bed, keeping warm under the blankets. So may you, but first, you must fetch me a candle from Irina Pavelovna Yaga. Go! You girls wear holes in your socks all day long, but I must beg for a candle to darn them by!”
And Vasilisa, who had no other choice, turned and left the apartment, still wrapped in her outdoor things, for she'd not even had time to take off her coat. The Cossack witch! In fact, both parts of the seemingly inflammatory appellation were evident truth, for old Irina often collected her mail from downstairs dressed, unbelievably, in an antique captain's uniform of the Tsar's own regiment of Cossacks, and it was well known that if you wanted to conceive a child, ease a cough, soothe arthritic joints or tantalize a lover, Irina Yaga could help you. She grew herbs on the fire escape with seeds she had smuggled in from her home in the wild Caucasus mountains: strange, dangerous-looking plants that seemed ready to devour any hand that touched them save her own. Vasilisa was terrified of the old woman, who looked ready to eat anyone who dared speak to her and was clearly mad.
The stairs, which usually stank of carbolic, smelt of herbs as Vasilisa climbed up the last flight to the old witch's apartment, and the girl became almost dizzy, though she did not know why. She stood on the landing, biting her lip and screwing up her courage for a long time, but finally, she rapped lightly with her knuckles on the door which almost seemed, for just a moment, to give under her hand. But no, she was tired and imagining things.
The door was still on the chain when the old woman pulled it open, and Vasilisa could see that while Irina still wore her wide men's trousers, she had on a silk blouse and long, ornate earrings. She held a mortar and pestle in her hands and pounded furiously at pungent herbs. The old woman did not speak at first, but stared at Vasilisa fiercely.
“I beg your pardon, madam, but I must ask--”
The witch scowled so angrily that Vasilisa's words died in her throat, and when the girl fell silent, she spoke. “Who are you? Mind your manners, devochka! I have no time for idle chat; I am expecting company.”
Vasilisa swallowed hard, and her hand curled around Eva in her pocket for courage. “Your pardon, Irina Pavelovna. I am Vasilisa Gregorovna, and my stepmother has sent me to ask if we might borrow a candle, for we have lost power.”
“Your stepmother, hmm? Yes, Vasilisa Gregorovna, I know your stepmother, and her daughters too.” There was a strange, eager fire in Irina's eyes now. “I know them, and one day soon, I think they shall know me. You shall have a candle—but come inside, for I believe it is you I was expecting.” Then, faster than the timid girl could even cry out, let alone flee, she unchained the door, caught Vasilisa's wrist in a grip like iron, and yanked her inside, bolting the door behind them. Vasilisa was helpless in the power of the Cossack witch.
Downstairs, Lilya flipped the breaker and smiled unpleasantly. “Come and kiss me, girls,” she called to her daughters. “We won't be seeing that one again for a long time.”
* * **Artwork used is "Baba Yaga" from artist Daria Azolina - go check her out!