Unraveling Baba Yaga is a prose poem I wrote for my mother…
The story of Baba Yaga is one of her favorites. It originated in the Slavic countries of Europe, as a folktale. In the story, Baba Yaga is hideous and old, living in her house in the woods, with only animal companions.
I re-imagined this story of spiritual transformation through trial because I love the whole notion of shape-shifters and the merging of nature and wildness with human life.
Baba Yaga is fierce and she is terrible, but there is also a tenderness that ultimately emerges in her. It may not happen until she dies, but how is that different from the transformation that many people go through when facing illness, difficulties, or death?
She is in exile because she revealed Shamanic secrets to a human child. As a result, she's sent out into the woods (darkness) as her penance. Once there, she must serve and answer the worst and most unruly children, aging rapidly under the weight of their questions. However, each day she spends there, she repays her debt. She literally uses up her life, answering questions that she has no power to refuse.
To me, Baba Yaga represents the most pure part of us, the part of us that is unchanging and unfettered by anything that happens to us.
I think that's why my mother loves the story. That's why I love it, too.
|Baba Yaga's house|
Unraveling Baba Yaga
by Shavawn M. Berry
The crow medicine man raised one blue-black wing over the bird’s small frame as she cowered on the floor. His voice erupted from his beak, its pebbly sound showering around her.
You have betrayed the order of the shape-shifters by revealing our powers to a human boy. You are therefore exiled to the birch wood of the far north, with only animal guides as companions.
The fire hissed as the medicine man spit his spell into the rising flames. One by one, moving around the circle in which she sat, tribal witnesses turned their backs on her. Shunned, she was now dead to every breed of bird. She would spend her life in human form, never again able to shape-shift and take to the sky.
In your new life, unruly, rotten and lost human children will find their way to you. They will puzzle you with riddles you have no choice but to answer.
The human girl noticed her bruised arms and bare feet. A stranger here, she didn’t recognize this, or any other, grove of trees. She awoke next to a rat terrier and a Manx. They sat a few feet away, regarding her with suspicion.
In the distance, a log cabin stood – its tin roof reflecting the moon.
She rose. Cat and dog followed suit. As she moved toward the cabin, it suddenly ducked into the trees and hid. Barking, Dog made chase. House ran deeper and deeper into the woods as the girl gave chase, too.
Cat followed for a while, then slowed, then stopped. She washed her paws, sitting back, waiting patiently for an outcome.
House stood twenty yards or so away on two large chicken legs. It occasionally scratched at the dirt, and circled as though settling itself into a nest. Desperate for a place to call home, the girl spoke the first words that came to her. In a soothing voice, she called Turn your back to the forest, your front to me.
The small house shifted to the north and nestled itself on the ground. A red door materialized, keyhole a mouth with sharp teeth. Without hesitation, the girl crossed the threshold. Once inside, she felt right at home.
A magic gate needs a password. What was hers?
The medicine man – yes, she remembered him now – had been right. Snot-nosed brats, runaways, ruffians, and ragamuffins found their way to her door. Their voices singed her ears with questions, riddles, and more questions. They sucked the marrow from her bones –
Early on she realized, for every kindness, every answer she gave, she aged a whole year.
Now, no longer a girl, or even a maiden, her face showed every tributary of middle age. Her hair hung in shanks around her face, peppered with gray.
These brats stole my life. They yanked my spirit loose of its tether, left me nothing but a shell.
She was especially rough on boys; boys who thought they could outwit her, or worse, make her love them. Poor fools. Tibia, fibula, femur and patella formed pickets for her lovely white fence. Vacant skulls lined its edge, wind combing their sockets.
Face scuffed up as a dried apple,
she drinks tea made of blue roses
and for an hour – maybe two – she’s young again.
Barely breathing, this last dreadful child’s question upon her:
How can I find my way home?
Her throat, raw with phlegm, percolates an answer:
Cat and dog wrap her in a shroud, dragging her corpse outside to a hastily arranged funeral pyre.
House dances a jig beside a weathered birch whose roots feather deep into the forest.
Cat lights kindling, bits of string and fluff, leftover candle nubs, and oil from the bedside lamp. The fire leaps to life. As the crone’s body sputters and starts to burn, an indigo bird emerges, eyes the color of polished rubies.
She whispers over a clamor of hissing and barking and flying fur:
In exile no more.
|Photography by Lisa Saraswati Cawley|
Shavawn M. Berry: Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Olentangy Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Rebelle Society, The Cancer Poetry Project 2, Kinema Poetics, Kalliope, Poet Lore, Westview - A Journal of Western Oklahoma, Meridian Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, Concho River Review, North Atlantic Review, Synapse, Living Buddhism, Blue Mountain Arts/SPS, and Poetry Seattle. Her technique essay on the dramatic monologue/persona poem is featured in a poetry database published in 2013 by Ebsco Publishing. In 1998, she received her MPW in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles where she specialized in Creative Nonfiction and Memoir. Ms. Berry teaches writing at Arizona State University where she is currently a 2013 Lincoln Ethics Teaching Fellow. A portfolio featuring a selection of her essays, blog postings here and prose available here. Connect with her on Facebook here.
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