Babi Yaga is a witch who figures in most Russian Fairy Tales. A malevolent old crone with one long fang overhanging her lower lip, she whirls through the air in a magic mortar and pestle, cutting great crop circles into wheat fields whenever she descends. Although Babi Yagi dresses in moon colors–red, white and black–she looks remarkably like a ragged bag lady. But she’s far from homeless. The witch lives in a cottage that stands on chicken legs. It’s surrounded by twelve poles topped with human skulls. There is always an empty thirteenth pole ready for the head of the next visitor who blunders into her yard.
Dangerous as Babi Yaga is, visitors constantly come to her house to ask for favors. The witch will begrudgingly bestow marvelous, magical gifts if the visitors behave properly. But if the guest should blunder, their head is stuck atop the thirteenth pole.
The old witch is a metaphor for life itself, which can either reward or destroy us. Babi Yaga’s challenges teach essential lessons: compassion must be tempered with discipline,
strength is based on humility, and wisdom is derived from understanding.
Meeting the witch is invariably a life changing experience. And it’s only a matter of time before each of us do indeed meet up with her. Her house has legs, so it’s always moving. It can settle in a landfill, on an empty lot, or in a neighborhood park. At this very moment Babi Yagi may be moving next to you.
THE FIRST SIGHTING
No one looked up when the witch Babi Yaga flew over the city skyline splotched with neon lights. Most people presumed the whirl of her flying mortar and pestle was the churning blade of a police helicopter patrolling the interstate highway.
Nor did anyone draw back in horror whenever they passed the old crone on the street later that evening. Dressed in her ragged black coat and dirty white scarf, her iron streaked hair tied back by a red bandana, Babi Yaga did not look remarkably different from any other street person loitering in an alleyway or huddled over a warm grate.
If anyone did look at her closely, they would quickly glance away?disconcerted by the icy glint in her steely eyes and the sharp, pointed tooth that hung down over her lower lip.
The old witch felt justifiably angry. The ancient forest that had been her home for centuries was clear-cut by a logging industry, forcing her to move. But the vindictive crone could not be disposed of easily. She relocated her home in a landfill on a new continent. The cottage blended into this sprawling wasteland of garbage dunes so completely that none of the waste disposal workers who offloaded their trucks paid it any mind. Throwing away a small house with faded red shutters was no more astonishing than discarding refrigerators, cabinet television sets and cracked bathtubs, box mattresses or the washer-dryer combinations that had become homes for the skunks, coyotes and foxes that also inhabited the landfill.
The skunks, dubbed “Little Children of the Devil” by early settlers, were Babi Yaga’s special pets. She always took time to shift through the edible garbage to find food for them to eat. The skunks in turn patrolled the perimeter around the witch’s house so no came close enough to notice that it was
encircled by thirteen poles and that twelve were topped with human skulls.
On a day much like any other, the skunks waited patiently for Babi Yagi to sort through a choice pile of fresh garbage. The animals kept their distance, instinctively sensing they should be wary of the old witch. Unlike humans, they understood how unpredictable she could be. They also had reason to fear human interlopers, and hid behind a broken crate when they heard the rumbling of an engine as a battered blue pick-up truck loaded down with junk approached the landfill. Babi Yaga paid it no attention, and continued picking through a crate of moldy fruit.
Two young men got out of the pick-up and started offloading their trash. They noticed Babi Yaga, but presumed she was a homeless person shifting through the garbage for untainted melons.
“Poor old woman,” Jed sighed. “Imagine having to dig through garbage for food!”
“It ain’t our problem,” his brother Josh said.
“I guess not,” Jed nodded as he helped offload the broken furniture they had cleaned out of their garage.
The old witch scowled as she glanced their way. But the two boys kept their distance, so she turned her attention back to the crate of damaged fruit. Just before the pickup lumbered off, Jed ran up to her and handed her a candy bar wrapped in a five-dollar bill.
“Here,” he said with an awkward shrug. “Maybe you can buy some lunch or something.” He took a step backwards and almost tripped over a bent frying pan.
The old woman looked at him sharply over the bulge of her bulbous nose. Her small, glinting eyes were so gray they were almost colorless. She glowered under thickly knit eyebrows.
“No good deed goes unpunished,” she cackled.
“Yeah, well…” Jed walked away hurriedly. He suddenly felt stupid and even embarrassed by his generosity.
“The old woman with the red headscarf watched him until the truck clattered out of sight.
“What’d you give her?” Josh asked as the landfill receded in their rear view mirror.
“Nothing much, just what I had in my pocket?a five-dollar bill and a candy bar,” Jed told him. He didn’t add that the old woman had been rude and ungrateful. That admission would
only have prompted further ridicule from his brother.
They drove in silence down a long stretch of gravel road. Suddenly the truck began to sputter and choke.
Josh sounded angry. “Oh man! I told you to top off the gas tank!”
“I checked—we had half a tank of gas,” Jed told him.
“The gauge stopped working last week!” Josh yelled.
“Why didn’t you say something?”
“I did—I told you to top off the tank!”
The truck sputtered to a halt just before they turned onto the highway and refused to budge an inch further no matter how hard Josh swore. The two young men finally pushed the pickup to the side of the road and began the long hike to the nearest filling station.
“This is just great!” Josh grumbled as the sun glowed like a red hot poker, scorching the asphalt with sizzling heat.
“Sorry,” Jed murmured. He couldn’t think of anything else to say.
They trudged down the road and finally reached the filling station. Josh was looking forward a tall, cold drink?then he realized he didn’t have his wallet.
“This is just great!” he exclaimed. “You got any money, Jed?”
Sheepishly Jed dug through his pockets although he knew he’d given his five-dollar bill to the old woman. He eventually found two dollars wadded in his back pocket and a dollar’s worth of change.
They didn’t have money for both drinks and gas, so they just bought the fuel. Then they had to borrow a gas can from the station and leave Josh’s watch as a security deposit until they brought it back. Instead of a cool drink, they gulped lukewarm water from the public drinking fountain.
“I’m hungry too,” Jed grumbled as they trudged wearily back to the pickup.
“Don’t tell me your problems,” Josh scoffed. “You’re the one who gave his candy bar away.”
“No good deed goes unpunished,” Jed remembered the old woman’s words as she glared at him. The sun rose higher in the sky, devouring their shadows as it reached its zenith. Tired, thirsty and hungry, they reached the pickup at last and found Josh’s wallet wedged in between the seat cushions.
“Must’ve fallen out of my pocket,” Josh said as he scratched his head. “I never had that happen before.” They had just enough gas to reach another filling station before the pickup died again. This time Josh used his credit card to fill the tank.
Then he drove back to the first station to return the gas can and retrieve his watch. It was long past noon when they finally bought sandwiches and jumbo fountain drinks.
“What a day!” Jed sighed. He wanted nothing more than to veg out in front of the television for the rest of the afternoon. But as they emerged from the dead zone surrounding the landfill, his cell phone played a rhapsody to alert him to a new voice mail. A good friend was desperate for a ride to the airport up north.
“No good deed goes unpunished,” Jed sighed as he listened to his message.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Josh asked.
“Just that I’m dog tired and Tom needs a ride. Can I borrow the truck?” Jed asked.
“You’re crazy,” Josh told him. “That’s a two hour drive up and another two hours back.”
“I know, but I can’t let Tom down.”
Later, much later, as the silver scythe of the crescent moon gleamed in the darkened sky, Jed began his long drive home. He had drunk an entire thermos of coffee, but his eyelids were still heavy and drooping.
“I’ll pull over and get some shut eye,” he told himself and remembered there was a rest stop a few miles ahead. “I just need to get there,” he said aloud as he shook his head to ward off the entanglement of sleep. But he soon began dozing again despite his best efforts to stay awake. Gritting his teeth, Jet stared at the hypnotizing white line in the center of the road.
A few minutes later, the urge to sleep swept over him with a vengeance. This time he felt as if someone had thrown a net of dreams over his head. As Jed’s eyes flicked shut, the truck swerved into the center meridian. He awoke with a start as a horn’s blare jerked him awake. Horrified, he stared into the glaring headlights of a semi-truck bearing down on him.
In desperation, he jerked the wheel. The pickup swerved then rolled.
“I’m dead!” Jed thought as time froze to a halt. A barrage of sight and sounds melded into a single sensation. Just as he was blinded by the on-coming headlights, he heard the whirl of a police helicopter directly overhead. Now he felt the sudden rush of cold wind and imagined he was flying. An instant later gravel crunched beneath his tires as the pickup shuddered to a halt. At that moment Jed caught a glimpse of
a withered face with a bulbous nose pressed up against his window.
“I’m hallucinating,” he said aloud as the night dissolved into darkness.
He awoke sometime later to find he had parked on the side of the road. Had he dreamt about the near collision?
“I guess I did. I must’ve pulled over and fallen asleep,” he murmured as he stretched and looked around. Then he noticed a five-dollar bill on the dashboard, wrapped around a candy bar.
THE SECOND SIGHTING
Karl was numb with disbelief as he took the elevator down to the wide, marble lobby in his high rise office building. He barely felt the weight of the cardboard box he was clutching, packed with personal items and a potted plant in a ceramic jardinière.
He automatically took a step back when the elevator doors opened on the next floor and a man in a business suit entered, carrying a briefcase. They avoided each other’s eyes,
mutually embarrassed that one man still had a job while the other had lost his.
The elevator opened on ground level. Karl hesitated a moment to let the businessman exit first. He almost got clipped as the elevator doors snapped shut behind him.
“This is it. I won’t be coming back,” Karl thought stonily as he crossed the lobby and exited through the revolving doors. The realization unnerved him. His investment company had abruptly folded, throwing everyone in his office out of work. But he took no comfort in knowing that his co-workers were probably in even more desperate straits.
“I’ll pare back to the bone,” Karl reasoned as he walked to the parking garage. “I’ll make minimum card payments. That’ll buy a few month’s time.”
He realized he would have to find a cheaper apartment and give up his sports car. Now he wished he hadn’t bought an imported leather couch and that he hadn’t eaten out at the Chinese restaurant last Friday night. The bar bill alone could have bought a week’s worth of groceries.
“Worst case scenario, I’ll have to move in with my mother.”
Karl thought then shuddered. “I don’t want to move back home!”
As he reached his car, an old bag lady wearing a ragged black coat, her head muffled by a dirty red scarf, shuffled up to him and asked for spare change.
“Damn it! I’m carrying a box with a potted plant! Do I look like I have spare change?” he wanted to ask. For a moment he simply glared at the old woman, who glared back over the hump of her large, bulbous nose. She reminded him of his Grandmother, silently accusing him of tracking mud over her clean linoleum.
“I guess it’s not your fault that I’m having a bad day,” he said as he dug into his pocket. When he handed the woman a few quarters, she pocketed them without a word of thanks. At first her ingratitude irritated Karl. Then he reasoned that he too might be immune to polite amenities if he were reduced to living on the street.
That possibility was entirely disconcerting. Karl drove home and searched the classified ads as he ate Chinese leftovers. The only jobs he found were for newspaper carriers. He also circled ads for several inexpensive apartments, resolving to look at them first thing in the morning.
The first apartment Karl inspected the next day was listed as “historic.” It was in such disrepair that the tile in the kitchen and bathroom were black with mold. The second apartment promised the renter a panoramic view, but the windows overlooked a parking lot. Disheartened, Karl drove to the address listed for the third apartment, and found himself on the edge of a woods.
“This can’t be right!” he thought as he checked GPS. Map quest indicated a path snaking through the forest just large enough to be a bike trail but too small to accommodate a compact car. Curious, Karl parked on the side of the road and followed the path as it plunged through the trees. The trail ran straight for a while then twisted back. He had just decided to give up and retrace his steps when he stumbled onto a white cottage with a black roof and faded red shutters set in a small clearing.
“This is really off the beaten path, but then I won’t be commuting to the city in the immediate future,” Karl thought as he walked up to the house. The shutters were closed, but the door was unlocked.
“I bet the rent’s low because this is so out of the way,” he mused as he nudged open the front door and peeked into the single room. The only furnishings were a pot bellied stove and an ornate wooden armoire.
“That probably doubles as a closet,” Karl thought. Curiosity led him to open it. A scream curdled in his throat as he faced a headless body crammed into one side of the armoire.
Karl felt his stomach heave into his throat. He abruptly felt as if he was riding an elevator that had accelerated without warning. Then he realized he hadn’t imagined the sensation. The house had physically lurched upward. He ran back to the door and found the step suspended ten feet above ground! Karl let his eyes slide from the steep drop to the trees ringing the clearing, then up the trunks of the trees. He stepped back in horror when he reached eye level with a ring of sharp poles capped by human skulls. The pole opposite the door held a freshly severed head. Its flesh had just begun to blacken and its staring eyes were sunk deep into their sockets.
Karl felt the final vestiges of his Chinese dinner heave into his esophagus. Just then a loud, whirring noise that sounded like a giant insect descended on the house. Karl shut the door
quickly and looked around for a place to hide. The armoire offered the only possibility. One half of the armoire was already occupied by the headless corpse, but the other side was empty.
Swallowing his miasma, Karl stepped into the armoire and tried to pull the door shut, but his jacket caught on the hinge and kept the door slightly ajar. His stomach churned as the house dropped to ground again, then the front door opened. He gasped as the old bag lady he had met outside his office building entered the room.
The old crone’s cold, steely eyes narrowed to slits as she glanced around. Then Babi Yagi lifted her wizened head and sniffed as if testing the air. The nostrils of her huge, bulbous nose flared over the creases of her deep, nasal-labial folds. Her thin lips curled into a frown.
The witch walked directly to the armoire and threw the door open. Karl quivered inside.
“What do you want?” the witch asked sharply. Her voice grated like gravel rubbing against rusted metal.
“I…I…” Karl stammered as he dug in his pocket, desperately hoping to find something he could use for a
weapon. His trembling fingers locked around a small piece of metal.
“I wanted to give you this,” his voice sank to a hoarse whisper as he held out a quarter.
The witch snatched it and held it up to examine it, then turned back to Karl. Her eyes glinted like cold metal.
“Don’t hurt me!” Karl pleaded. When he tried to fall on his knees, he inadvertently nudged the headless corpse. The body toppled forward, the raw stump of its severed neck leaving a red streak as it brushed against his chest. Karl shuddered and closed his eyes.
He heard the witch say, “You lost your job and you don’t have any options. You’d be better off dead.”
“I don’t want to die!” Karl gasped.
“You’ve got nothing to live for,” the witch argued as she pushed the headless corpse aside.
“I’ll find something to live for! I want to live! I don’t care how bad things are–I want to go on living!” Karl cried. His eyes flew open, then fluttered wildly as he stared into abject darkness.
“Help!” he whimpered, thinking that this must be what it was like to be dead and headless. Then he realized that his head was still very much attached to his body. He turned his neck gingerly and saw a streetlight shining outside his living room window.
He checked his watch. It was midnight. He was back in his own apartment. An empty box of Chinese carry-out lay discarded on the glass-topped coffee table next to the classified section of the newspaper.
Karl reached for the lamp switch, and felt a surge of bile scathe his esophagus.
“I shouldn’t eat leftover Chinese,” he berated himself. Any other evening he would have been vexed. But this evening he was simply grateful—more grateful than he thought he ever could be—just to be alive!
Published in Stories