Long after the last year of corn and well beyond when farmers abandoned the shattered husks littering grey-soiled acres, the three Baba Yagas planted a child seed in the still-rich dirt of their own secret field.
The Baba Yagas had watched as men and women fled north and north, running from the world’s expanding belt of harrowing heat. Some had come to the Baba Yagas for aid, and with these the Baba Yagas did as they pleased, tricking and favoring in equal measure.
But now, the prairies stretched empty and barren, and the oldest Baba Yaga had grown tired of the sandy tail she kicked up during her flights around the land in her mortar.
It was a time for recollection and recitation, for stories and songs.
And so the Baba Yagas planted a seed to grow a child who could record their greatest deeds for once and all before they left this dying world behind.
And if it turned out the child might do some cleaning and lifting for the Baba Yagas between writing, well then so much the better.
Next to the seed, each Baba Yaga placed a gift.
The first of them planted one of her iron teeth, which had devoured many bones of many men and women, and which she hoped would give the child a deep appetite.
The second of them planted a piece of the moon, which she loved, and which she hoped would help grow a child capable of great wonder.
The third of them planted a handful of dry bonedust, which she hoped would give the child strong, crackling bones.
Each Baba Yaga spit thrice on the ground and then returned to her home, which stood on chicken legs nearby.
“Perhaps tomorrow we will have a child,” the oldest Baba Yaga said as her home lowered itself down far enough for her to step in.
“I should hope so,” the tallest Baba Yaga said as her home, too, bent its great chicken leg and came near. “We are due to leave this place soon.”
The Baba Yaga with the knobbiest knees and the shiniest teeth and the fewest years grunted in agreement with her sisters. She was the hungriest of them, and the meanest, too, and without the crunchy bones of men and dogs, she had grown quiet and murderous.
That night, while the Baba Yagas thought of their stories or flew across the smoggy sky in mortars, the child seed sprouted and grew in the soil, and when dawn’s light illuminated the carcasses of pines and oaks not yet felled by time, a young girl sat upon the dirt, the folds of a too-large once–sky blue dress pooled around her.
“Lovely!” exclaimed the oldest Baba Yaga as she opened her door and looked down. The others soon emerged from their homes and then they were passing her back and forth, peering in her eyes, whispering secrets into the waves of her brown hair, and tracing symbols on the skin of her hands and feet.
“Sisters! Look at her teeth,” the tallest Baba Yaga said, peeling the child’s lips away to reveal a full set of teeth the dull, hidden gold of the autumnal fields the Baba Yagas had once so loved.
“Wonderful,” said the tallest Baba Yaga.
“Hm,” said the knobby-kneed, meanest Baba Yaga, grinding her iron teeth.
It was decided that the child would be named Echinacea for the flowers that once decorated the Baba Yagas’ gardens and fields.
“And the child will come to visit my house first to record my deeds, for I have the greatest number of years and therefore the greatest number of deeds,” the oldest Baba Yaga said.
“It only follows then, sister,” said the tallest Baba Yaga, “that the child comes to my home second, since I am tallest and have seen the most of all of us.”
The meanest Baba Yaga slapped her knobby knees and growled, for she was hungry and mean and did not at all like having to go last. But it was decided and so there was nothing for her to do.
After her sisters had returned to their houses, presumably to think further over what deeds to have the child record, the oldest Baba Yaga said, “You are to join me in my home once the sun has reached its highest point. My home, as you can see, often stands tall on its leg. You will have to find some way inside, for I do not want a child recording my stories who does not have the determination to solve a simple problem such as this. If you can do this, I will give you my stories, minus a gift.”
Echinacea watched Baba Yaga climb into her house, which then rose on a single chicken leg, high, high into the air, well beyond where Echinacea could jump.
Echinacea walked toward the house, hoping to see a ladder or stairs of some sort, and as she did, the chicken leg shuffled and hopped and turned, keeping the door to the house away from her. She walked in circles for quite some time, following the ever-moving house on its ever-shuffling leg.
Soon enough the sun had reached its highest point and Echinacea had made no progress on her task. A sharp, grinding cackle pulled her attention away and up, to where the meanest Baba Yaga leaned out from one window of her own house some way away.
“Tricked so easily, child? You will make a fine stew for me after you have failed!”
And the meanest Baba Yaga clicked her iron teeth together hungrily.
That gave Echinacea an idea.
She moved close to the chicken leg holding up the oldest Baba Yaga’s house and opened her mouth wide. Her wheat-gold teeth caught and held the sun’s light for a moment, a memory of the fields that once covered the prairie.
With a slight chortle, Echinacea bit the chicken leg.
The results were immediate.
The chicken leg holding the oldest Baba Yaga’s house spasmed and flexed, trying to sooth the place where Echinacea had bit it. The leg hopped around and around, perhaps in pain or in distress, and then it simply folded down on itself, moving this way and that to ease the pain of Echinacea’s bite.
As the leg folded, the house dropped down near the ground, and Echinacea ran to the side of the house with the door and leapt inside, making it in just before the chicken leg rose again into the slightly smoggy sky.
Inside, the oldest Baba Yaga sat on an old, old chair made of stone and decorated with wildflowers.
“Well done, child.”
Echinacea smiled, showing off her golden teeth.
Baba Yaga nodded, glad to see her gift in use, for surely the tooth she planted had led to Echinacea’s glorious grin.
“Sit,” Baba Yaga said, tapping a stool next to her. She turned to look out a window, through which she could see the meanest Baba Yaga’s home, and then returned her attention to Echinacea.
Baba Yaga handed the girl a large leaf, a bone, and a well of ink.
“Stories are not free, so what will you give me for mine?” Baba Yaga said.
Echinacea thought for a moment and said, “The blue of my dress?”
Baba Yaga smiled her iron smile and said, “Deal.”
Baba Yaga put a single finger on Echinacea’s dress, and suddenly it was no longer blue but a colorless color, hard to see and harder to remember.
And then, for that entire afternoon, the oldest Baba Yaga told Echinacea some of her greatest deeds: the day she fooled a foreign czar who thought himself bigger than the world, the three tree children who sought Baba Yaga’s aid in fleeing their wicked fathers, the long night when Baba Yaga tricked and ate an army of monsters, their weapons shining in the moonlight.
Echinacea wrote and wrote, until the leaf was covered front and back.
“I’m out of room,” she said finally
Baba Yaga took the leaf and rolled it up. She removed a single thread of her hair and pulled it tight to show Echinacea how strong it was before tying it around the leaf to keep it secure.
“Keep that and share it with the land to be and the animals and plants to come,” the oldest Baba Yaga said. She shooed Echinacea out the door and then her home was hopping away, and just before it reached the horizon, Baba Yaga flew out of it in her mortar, shouting her laughter into the smog and smoke of the sky.
A shadow fell over Echinacea then, and she turned to find the tallest Baba Yaga.
“Echinacea, you are to join me in my home once the moon has reached its highest point. Inside, you will find a great mess. If you can clean this mess with your eyes covered, I will give you my stories, minus a gift.” Into Echinacea’s hand she dropped a strip of black, black cloth, thin as the wind and as impenetrable as the night sky.
And with that the tallest Baba Yaga flew away in her mortar, steering the wild prairie winds with her pestle.
Echinacea waited for night to overtake the sky and the moon with it, and as she was walking toward the tallest Baba Yaga’s house, she heard again the loud breathing and cackling of the meanest Baba Yaga, who stared down at her.
“A stew, a stew,” the meanest Baba Yaga said.
Echinacea ignored her as best she could and, after walking into the tallest Baba Yaga’s house, which was lit by the light of many grey candles and filled with clutter and mess, she wrapped the black, black cloth around her head, knotted the pooling lengths of her colorless dress up nearer her knees, and set to cleaning.
Organizing the big things took no time. A cauldron rolled ever so slowly into a corner. A chair scoot, scoot, scooted over next to the gentle heat of the fireplace, a bookshelf filled with big, booky rectangles on which Echinacea slipped and tripped as she cleaned.
Soon enough, the room was quite organized, but Echinacea felt great swaths of spilled-and-then-dried food and drink on the floor, which had been hiding beneath the clutter now cleared away. It stuck and clung to her feet, holding her in place unless she pulled hard.
“This will not do,” Echinacea said to herself, remembering what the tallest Baba Yaga had said. “Everything must be clean.”
And so Echinacea set about with her hands, searching for water and a cloth to wipe up the mess. She moved past the bookshelf, now full, and past the chair snuggled comfortably by the fire. Her hands traced the outline of the cauldron in the corner and the loom set near the window. And finally, she found a washbasin with a small pool of cool water in it.
But she found or felt no rag around the washbasin or anywhere near, and another full tour of the house resulted in nothing. For a moment she considered tearing a few pages from one of Baba Yaga’s books to use as a rag, but this, she thought, would not be such a good plan.
And then Echinacea remembered her dress of no particular color. She reached down and unknotted the extra cloth, which fell in layers around her feet. It was nothing to pull off several strips, and soon enough Echinacea had several wash clothes and a colorless dress that no longer trailed so far past her ankles.
As the tallest Baba Yaga returned, flying in with a cackling cry through one of the windows, Echinacea dropped the last strip of dirtied cloth into a wastebin. With the seeing of her fingers, the house seemed clean, but she still waited with trepidation for the tallest Baba Yaga to speak.
“Well done,” Baba Yaga said, slipping the blindfold from Echinacea’s eyes and handing it back to the girl. With her eyes uncovered, Echinacea could appreciate how cozy and comfortable the house felt, cleaned and orderly now.
“Sit,” Baba Yaga said, pointing toward a small chair at a small desk already holding a large leaf, a bone, and a well of ink. For her part, Baba Yaga settled herself into a large chair made of wood that Echinacea had pushed and shoved and struggled with to get into a suitable corner.
“Stories are not free,” Baba Yaga said, “so what will you give me for mine?”
Echinacea thought for a moment, wondering what she had left to give.
“The brown of my hair?”
Baba Yaga, who had lived for many years on the prairie and spent many days studying the richness of mud, the gifts of shaded tree bark and long-fallen leaves, smiled and said, “Deal.”
She snapped her fingers once and Echinacea’s hair was suddenly the uncertain grey of a soon-to-rain sky. Echinacea found she quite liked it.
Baba Yaga then began to tell her stories, speaking late, late into the night, telling a tale for every half-remembered constellation in the sky, stories of orphans and stolen bouquets of bluestem, stories of dawn flights in her mortar and beauty lost and found, stories of the woods and the prairies and the world.
Echinacea wrote and wrote, until the leaf was covered in her tidy lines.
“I am out of room,” she said, and the tallest Baba Yaga nodded, taking the leaf and rolling it up, tying it off with a single strand of her hair, which held strong though Baba Yaga pulled it taut beforehand.
For a moment, she was quiet, looking out the window toward the meanest Baba Yaga’s home.
Finally she passed the leaf back to Echinacea.
“Keep that and share it with the voiceless rocks and the too-loud wind.”
And that done, the tallest Baba Yaga leapt into her mortar and went flying out the window, leaving behind her home, her possessions, all that offered her roots.
Echinacea found she was growing quite hungry, and so she looked through the tallest Baba Yaga’s cupboards until she found several potatoes. One of these she ate then and there, and another she slipped into her pocket, nestling it deep down by the two rolled up leaves containing the Baba Yagas’ stories.
She then walked out of the house and into the thin, yellow, smog-diffused light of dawn.
“And now,” the meanest Baba Yaga said, standing in her doorway. She motioned for Echinacea to come in and turned into the low-light of her home.
Inside, Echinacea found the meanest Baba Yaga sitting at a scarred, burned wooden table, a curved fork and a rusted spoon in front of her. She grunted once and the door shut behind Ecinacea, locking tightly.
“You are filthy, and your dress looks a mess,” Baba Yaga said. “I suppose my sisters have had you cleaning and running about.”
Baba Yaga considered her and then shook her head.
“No matter. I have never minded the taste of dirt or grime.”
Echinacea, unsure of what to say, considered the locked door and remained silent.
“Before my dinner,” Baba Yaga said, smiling her iron smile, “you will tell me what my sisters told you. I will have their stories, and then I will have you.”
Echinacea, remembering her time with the other Baba Yagas, said, “Stories are not free, and you have asked for two, so I must ask for two things in return.”
The meanest Baba Yaga slapped at her knobby knees and ground her teeth together, but she was caught and she knew it.
“Very well,” she growled. “Ask and be done.”
Echinacea reached into the pocket of her colorless dress and said, “A blindfold, so as not to spoil the hearing of these stories with my pitiful dress and dirtied face and hands.”
“Fine, fine,” Baba Yaga said, taking the blindfold and tying it over her eyes. “And the other?”
“Fidgeting hands can be a great distraction, so I will tie your hands together to keep them calm and still.”
“Yes, fine,” Baba Yaga said, impatient. Great drools of saliva dipped from the corners of her sagging mouth to fall on her dull dress.
Echinacea pulled the rolled up leaves from her pocket and took off the strands of hair, tying them tight around Baba Yaga’s wrists.
“Now, the stories,” Baba Yaga said, scooting toward where she knew Echinacea to be. “And then dinner.”
Echinacea read the stories from the leaves, and it took her a whole day and night. As she read, she kept up her strength by eating the potato she had taken from the tallest Baba Yaga’s house.
The meanest Baba Yaga, though, ate nothing, and as the day grew into night, she grew weaker and weaker, her hands losing feeling under the tight pull of the hairs tied around her wrists. Finally, Echinacea finished the last story from the second leaf, and Baba Yaga cried out in relief.
She reached out for Echinacea, her speed like a snake, her hands grabbing and pulling at Echinacea’s.
“Bones, delicious bones and blood,” Baba Yaga said, smiling wide as she brought Echinacea’s hands, one in each of her own, toward her mouth.
But Echinacea was strong and free, and Baba Yaga was weak with hunger, her eyes covered and her wrists tied together. Just as she was about to bite down on Echinacea’s hands, Echinacea ripped them away and pushed Baba Yaga’s own hands into her mouth.
And the meanest Baba Yaga bit down hard and ate her hands. Such was her hunger, so great and powerful, and such was the pressure of the tie around her wrists, that she continued chewing, the pain like nothing next to the sheer joy of eating, finally eating.
“How tough and old you taste, Echinacea!” she said between bites, the blindfold keeping her from seeing what she had done. Echinacea said nothing.
The meanest Baba Yaga, so long starved for bones and tricks, ate and ate until there was little left of her but her head, a still-chewing thing. This Echinacea took, holding it carefully in her hands and far away from her body.
Out the door she went into the light of a new day. She found the spot where she had grown up from the ground, and here she planted the meanest Baba Yaga’s head, planting it deep, deep in the earth, until she could barely hear the sound of its chewing.
When she turned around, she saw the meanest Baba Yaga’s house hopping away on its chicken leg, glad, perhaps, to finally be rid of its master. Echinacea walked into the only house left, the home that had once belonged to the tallest Baba Yaga, and went to sleep.
That night, the moon pierced through the smog and clouds for the first time in many years, and Echinacea woke to see it. In its pale, comforting light, she found that something had grown from the place where she had planted the meanest Baba Yaga. It was a mortar, perfectly sized for her to fit in it, and pestle, its smoothness perfect in her hand.
With a slight cackle, Echinacea climbed into her mortar and flew high into the sky, a barely glimpsed figure in the moonlight, racing the wind.