“Bring me the eyes of the Baba Yaga,” she said, “and then I will marry you.”
Fearless Ivan could not understand why the fairest princess in all the land would want for a pair of old witch’s eyes, but through thrice nine kingdoms he rode on his valiant steed to the forest of crows. When he found the old wooden shack with it’s fence of bones in the gloom of a small clearing, he smiled at his good fortune. This looked to be the house of the old witch. He would soon be married to the most beautiful girl in the whole kingdom.
He dimounted and tethered his horse to a tree. He petted it’s face and looked up at the keyhole of sky above him. Peering into the strangely silent shadows of the forest all around him and the dark, sullen windows of the shack, he wiped his hand down his jerkin, then gripped the hilt of his sword and stepped towards the door. The door creaked open nervously at Ivan’s touch, and in he cautiously stepped.
It seemed there was nobody home. There was no fire in the hearth, and not even half a flame on half a candle. The only sound was a distant buzzing. Perhaps a bee trapped in a jar. As Fearless Ivan prowled the room, the buzzing became more distinct. And then he saw it. Laid on a shelf was a dusty old bottle in which a dim light glowed. When he looked closer, Ivan could see an old man inside it, sat fast asleep at a table. And on the table was a tiny red matryoshka doll, a tiny candle and some tools.
Fearless Ivan tapped on the bottle. The old man kept on snoring. Ivan tapped a little harder. The old man spluttered and woke up. He scowled at Ivan. “What’s the meaning of this?”
“My name is Ivan,” said Ivan. “Fearless Ivan. I’m here to rescue you!”
“You’ll have to speak up,” said the old man, “I’m in a bottle.”
“I’m here to kill the Baba Yaga!” shouted Ivan.
“Oh. Then you’d better leave,” said the old man. “You’re in great danger.”
“Don’t you want rescuing?”
“No,” said the old man. “Go away.”
Ivan peered in closer. “What are you doing?”
“I’m working,” the old man grumbled, “and I intend to finish what I’ve started.”
“But what are you working on? What is so important about a matryoshka?!”
The old man sighed. “I suppose you’ll not leave until I tell you?”
“I’ll not leave till I’ve done what I came here to do.” Fearless Ivan stood adamant.
“Oh, very well then.” The old man patted his pockets and looked about, then he spied and reached across the table for his cob pipe.
“Once upon a time, when I was a young man much like yourself,” the old man tapped out his pipe on the table, “I came to this house looking to prove how brave I was. Brave Ivan, they used to call me.” The old man packed his pipe with tobacco and leaned back in his chair. He pushed the pipe into the thick of his beard and lit it with a taper. Fearless Ivan watched the blue smoke snake and curl out of Brave Ivan’s beard. It seemed to him like the smoldering of a thatched cottage on fire.
“I was promised to – oh, some rich young beauty… I can’t recall her name…” Brave Ivan drew again on his pipe and let his beard smoulder awhile. “And so I came here, to this little wooden house, full of bluster and bravado, in search of a witch.”
“And then what happened?” asked Fearless Ivan.
“Well, I was invited in by a young woman. A very handsome thing, she was. She sat me down and we talked, and she offered me a bottle of vodka.
“I thought to myself, ‘Well, Brave Ivan, you came here to prove yourself, and one way is as good as another’. I made some talk, and the vodka – well, you know how it loosens the tongue. I got to talking all about myself and making myself grand, you know. Ivan The Killer Of This, Ivan The Killer Of That…
“And this young lady, she just laughs – a beautiful musical laugh, you know, like one of those singing trees with all the bells on – and she plays me a tune on the balalaika. And she sang – now how did it go…
I will give you wishes three
Wishes three, wishes three
And then I’ll sit upon your knee
And I’ll call you my own
You’ll whisper what you’d like to do
You and me, me and you
And three wishes will just be two
And I’ll call you my own
And in the throes of pagan bliss
Fires hiss, wanton miss
You’ll beg for just another kiss
And I’ll call you my own
With two wishes just spent on fun
Putting shillings in the bun
You’ll now be only left with one
And I’ll call you my own
You’ll wish to do it all again
One last wish, make it rain
In the back door come again
And I’ll call you my own”
The old man pointed his pipe at Fearless Ivan. “You’d think I would know better… ah, but I was a young man, and I thought myself a pretty sharp pin. I just kept bragging and boasting and draining the bottle, and having a good feel of her as she played. But the vodka seemed to get the better of me. My head started to spin. It felt like the whole house was walking around. Then, before I knew it, she was putting a cork in the bottle – right on top of my head! And she started shaking the bottle, shaking me about in it, laughing her head off. And here she’s kept me, on the shelf. And now, if you don’t mind, I’ve got my work to do.”
“Don’t you worry,” said Fearless Ivan. “I’ll rescue you!”
“You’ll do no such thing!” cried the old man.
But Fearless Ivan was through with listening. It was time for action! He pulled out the cork and shook the old man out of the bottle. The old man clattered loudly, all elbows and knees, across the floor.
Then Ivan picked up the matryoshka doll and examined it. It was much larger than it looked in the bottle. Painted on it was the kindly face of an old grandmother in a simple peasant dress and headscarf, knitting children’s mittens. Ivan opened this first shell and found another doll within. It was bigger than the first shell, and it bore the cruel countenance of an old witch inside a pestle. He opened this to find the next, bigger still, wore the face of a loving mother, doting on a baby cradled in her arms. Ivan opened this shell and found an even larger one inside – a wicked stepmother beating a child. He opened this to see the innocent face of a young virgin protecting a little doe under her arm. She had the most beautiful face he had ever seen. But this one was tight. Fearless Ivan tried everything in his might to get inside but, much as he twisted and forced her, she would not open. But then it opened of itself, just a crack, and two crafty eyes looked at him from within and chuckled. Ivan cried out in fright and threw the doll down. It smashed on the floor and Baba Yaga herself jumped out.
Fearless Ivan jumped back and stumbled over the old man, who also looked a lot larger out of the bottle. The old man chided Ivan for his clumsiness and threw the bottle at him, which bounced off Ivan’s head, and Ivan did an off kilter two step.
Baba Yaga, now magnificently full-bodied, danced voluptuously around the room wearing seven veils and shaking her breasts at the old man, setting his pipe alight.
Fearless Ivan stood rubbing his head. “Do you have any vinegar and brown paper?”
Baba Yaga stopped dancing and twitched her nose, then turned and looked at Ivan. “Russkim Dukhom! What do you want?!”
“Vinegar…” said Ivan, absently, “and brown paper…”
Baba Yaga looked Fearless Ivan up and down and walked right up to him. “Show me your Russian bone, my pretty boy,” she purred in his ear, and she took a hold of him between his legs. “Ha! Where is the marrow?” She laughed at the young man as she turned away, her black hair a nest of hissing snakes down her back. “You’re lucky I’ve already eaten.” She picked up an old moth eaten rug and threw it at Ivan, “Now get out!” He caught it in his arms and saw it was the skin of his own horse. “If you want to ride him home,” said Baba Yaga, “the bones are outside.”
And so Fearless Ivan took the horse skin outside and dressed it on the fresh skeleton of his horse. He looked into the hollows of it’s sad empty eyes and patted it’s long bony face as, above him, crows wheeled at the tree tops, raucously mocking. Then Ivan rode home.