Authors: Joy Preble
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Historical, #Europe, #Love & Romance, #Fantasy & Magic
Copyright © 2011 by Joy Preble
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nts portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
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For all the mothers and all the daughters and for
those who love with full and passionate hearts.
“I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.”
“Not Waving but Drowning”
Through the skull in my fireplace, I watch her. Does she know, I wonder? Does she sense my presence? It is hard to say. But I suppose it does not really matter. We are connected in ways she does not yet understand—ways that even I find curious. I am Baba Yaga, and she is Anne, and our destinies have mingled, twisted tightly together even before she found her way to my forest. Anne Michaelson—the ordinary girl who wasn’t ordinary at all. The one who brought Anastasia out from my hut and captured the heart of a foolish man named Ethan. The one who weeps quietly, night after night, because she saved a girl who chose to die, and this does not sit easily on her heart. I would help her, I think, if I were not what I am. But as that cannot change, at least for now, I watch. I offer no balm. No words of comfort.
I am the glorious Baba Yaga. And while this is not a simple thing, it is what it is. I am the one who changes others. The Bone Mother. The Crone. For ever and ever, I have flown the skies in my mortar. Stirred the air with my pestle. Ground my enemies to dust or chewed them whole with my iron teeth and placed their heads on pikes outside my hut. I have come and gone as I pleased. Danced barefoot in my forest. Felt the sting of icy rain on my skin. Ridden fast through the woods with my horsemen. Taken lovers when I pleased. Reveled in the summer air. Laughed with glee as autumn approached. My season. The time of change. The wonderful approach of death.
But now there is something else. Something unexpected. Or rather, something I had forgotten to expect. It lurks in the water and watches my girl just as I watch her. Just as I watch it.
Water is not my true element. I am of the earth and the sky. I am of the fire. But in the seas and oceans, the rivers and streams, I am not at ease. I soar through the skies in my mortar. Nothing passes through my forest unchanged—not even this creature that floats below the surface of things, the one that has been haunting my girl. Honed to the bone, as I am. Skin pale as alabaster. Eyes dark with a hunger that verges on madness. Hair tangled and wild as her heart. Like me, she is not what she once was. But she is not what she wants to be either.
Then again, who really is? Even I have desires beyond my reach. At least for now. So she floats and waits, and so do I. Like all good stories, this one cannot begin until it is ready. However we come to our roles—air, water, earth, fire—we will fly, float, crawl, burn. It is, after all, our destiny.
And so I study the creature that watches Anne. A picture within a picture within the glowing eyes of the skull, licked by the flames of my fireplace. I stretch out my hands, brown and gnarled, etched with lines of my past, my present, my future. My cat, my
his feline fur black as night, eyes yellow as bile, nips at my ankles. His sharp pink tongue flicks at a stray crumb on my hard wooden floor—the same floor that Anastasia used to sweep for me until it gleamed. Now the cup of hot, sweet tea that I drink—the one she used to bring me—is tinged with bitterness at her absence.
Does the woman in the water know that I am not so far away? Would she change her course if she did? I smile at the thought of it and see the glint of my iron teeth reflected in the eyes of the skull. If she wandered into my forest, I might grind her bones with my pestle. Crush what she is and reform it to my will. But she cannot cross over. She never could. She can only swim and hope and wait.
So I watch them. I stare into my fire. And realize that for all of us, there is no going back. We have all traveled too far, too deep.
In my dream, I sit at Baba Yaga’s table. One of her huge brown hands stirs something in the kettle hanging in the fireplace. The other creeps across the smooth wooden floor on its fingertips, a roughly crafted robin’s-egg blue pottery mug hooked to its huge pinkie finger. This is gross and unsettling, and if I were awake, I’d probably say so. Detached hands offering people beverages is—generally speaking—rather icky. But I’m not awake. At least, I hope I’m not.
“Drink,” Baba Yaga says to me. “If you want to control the power that sits in your veins, then choose to drink.” The sleeves of her long, brown cotton dress flap emptily as her hands go about their business.
“No,” I tell her. I shiver as I watch those empty sleeves. “I’m not yours. You have no hold on me, Baba Yaga. I’m not Anastasia. I’m Anne. Whatever you’re offering, I don’t want it.”
“Oh, child,” she says. Her mouth turns up in a hideous smile. Those iron teeth glint at me. The wrinkles in her dark face are etched so deeply that I wonder if they pain her somehow. It’s as though they dip right inside her face. “You have no idea what’s coming. No idea what you’re giving up.”
“I don’t care,” I tell her. “Whatever it is, I don’t want it.”
She’s still laughing at me, her gravelly voice filling my head, when I wake up, my camisole soaked with sweat. I tell myself to breathe—just breathe—and lie there in the darkness under my ceiling fan until my heart stops pounding and the cool air takes the heat from my skin.
I sit up, fumble on my nightstand for my cell phone. The blue glow makes me blink as I flip it open and scroll to Ethan’s number. My fingers hover there. Press? Don’t press? Tell him? Don’t tell him? It’s a routine I’ve been going through night after night now that the dreams are back. I know I should call.
Let me know if you need me,
he always says. He checks on me once a week. Lately, he asks,
Is there something going on? You need to tell me, Anne.
And maybe because he doesn’t press me, doesn’t call me out on what I’m sure he knows is a lie, I keep it to myself. I think about the few times that we kissed—that first time in the rain when Anastasia went back to die, and some others before he left. Tentative kisses that spoke of something more to come. The feel of him, the musky smell of him. Those crazy, ridiculous blue eyes. But then he left. And if he’s coming back, he hasn’t said. What kind of silly girl would I be to think those kisses meant the same thing to him? Better to move on. Better to keep things to myself.
So I don’t tell him that things are getting weird again. Maybe they’ve never stopped being weird. If I tell him the truth, then I’ll have to admit that the magic inside me hasn’t let up one bit. And since this scares the hell out of me, it’s a lot easier to lie.
But right now in the dark, with my heart still erratic, I imagine myself fessing up.
Funny thing, Ethan. Those powers you said would go away now that Anastasia didn’t need saving anymore? Well, they haven’t. I’m juiced up to the max most days with this stuff lurking inside me. But Anastasia’s dead for real now. So what use is this magic to me? And why aren’t you here to help me figure things out?
Maybe that’s why he left in the first place. Not to find himself or wander Europe. I mean, I get
. He was immortal for so long, and now he’s not. He needs to know what that means. But maybe his journey took him that far, and now he’s just done. Easier to bolt than to commit to the craziness again. Or to a girl he’s known for just a few weeks. No matter how much they’ve been through together.
But I’m having these dreams again, and Baba Yaga hasn’t let me go. I’m as much her prisoner as Anastasia ever was—I’m not stuck in that creepy hut, but I end up there night after night anyway. If it’s not real, it feels real. And if I’ve learned one thing about all this magic business, it’s that those two things are pretty much the same.
I don’t know what she wants. Okay, that’s a lie. I don’t want to know. Whatever it is she thinks I can do or wants me for or hopes I’ll stumble into—I don’t want any part of it. And who else can I tell that to except Ethan? But then I remember that I’ve told him that before. Only it didn’t really matter. When you’re destiny girl, you don’t get a lot of choice.
This is what I ponder while I sit here in the dark in the middle of the night. This and the fact that I probably bombed some of my final exams last week, and that summer’s beginning, but I’m not exactly in a summery mood. Outside my window, some early-rising bird squeaks out a chirp. Just one lonely little
, and then it’s gone. Phone still in my hand, I walk to the window. The cool glass feels good as I press my forehead against it.
“Liar,” I say to myself. “Go ahead. Blame everything on him.”
Because here’s the real truth: as much as I hate the chaos that Ethan Kozninsky brought with him when he smashed into my life last fall, I don’t hate him. Not at all. And I won’t say that I love him. But I won’t say that I don’t either. What I will say—just not to him, and definitely not to Tess because she’d get all judgy even though she’s my best friend and certainly has had some major lack of judgment of her own—is that I can’t get him out of my thoughts. Dreaming or waking, he’s always there somewhere. I’ve told myself that’s ridiculous. But telling it to myself doesn’t make it true. Since he’s been away, I’ve felt empty and alone and incomplete. And no matter how much I do to push away those feelings, they just keep coming back.
Serious neediness. Not something to make a girl feel proud. So I toss the phone on my nightstand, climb back into bed, draw my knees to my chest, and hike the covers up to my chin. It’s not just the dreams anymore, I know. Or my more-than-slightly-conflicted feelings for one absurdly handsome, blue-eyed Russian. It’s what I saw just now when I peered out into the darkness of our supposedly boring little Chicago suburb. It’s the other thing I haven’t mentioned to Ethan…
She was out there again, barely noticeable in the flicker of water from the Spauldings’ sprinkler that comes on in the middle of the night. Just like last night, when she was leaning against the oak tree a few houses down during that thunderstorm. The same woman who’d stared at me silently a few weeks ago as she sat at the edge of the duck pond near our house, her tattered lilac dress soaked, her hair a mass of wild black waves. The woman who sometimes has a fish tail and sometimes has legs. The one who seems to be stalking me.
I close my eyes. I won’t sleep, but at least I’ll rest. If she’s out there still, I won’t go look. If this is all starting again, I don’t want any part of it.
Only I’m pretty sure that once again, I don’t have a choice.