Anita G. Gorman grew up in New York City and now lives in northeast Ohio. Since 2014 she has had twenty-seven short stories and eleven essays accepted for publication. Her one-act play, Astrid: or, My Swedish Mama, produced at Youngstown Ohio's Hopewell Theatre in March 2018, starred Anita and her daughter Ingrid.
Baba Yaga and Barbara
Bogdan and Petruta Yaga decided, when their daughter was born, to give her an ordinary first name that would look and sound American, not like their own names. So they named the baby Barbara. They were not thinking clearly at the time.
Bogdan and Petruta had both emigrated from Moldova as children, and to both of them their home country was long ago and far away. Their parents had rarely spoken about life in Moldova. That was too bad.
Little Barbara Yaga grew up like any other American child, watching television, playing video games, and chatting on her smart phone. She was shy, smart, conventional, but at the same time ready for adventure, should adventure show itself to a fourteen-year-old living in Ashleyville, Ohio. She also found herself confused part of the time and often wondered who she really was.
Sometimes Barbara surfed the internet, and one day in early October, she typed in her name, and as she did so another name, one similar to hers, appeared in the results: Baba Yaga. This Baba Yaga seemed to take up a lot of space on her computer screen. Who was she?
Barbara read and read until her mother called her to supper. After a quick dinner, Barbara ran back to her room and continued reading. She had to know more about Baba Yaga. By 10 p.m. she was on the phone with her friend Stacey.
"Stacey. I found out something tonight."
"Ready to go to sleep. Gotta get up early, like you. What's up?"
"I found out about Baba Yaga."
"Listen. I'll read it to you. 'Baba Yaga is a figure in eastern Slavic folklore. She is usually depicted as a very old, ugly woman with a long nose. She flies in a mortar and uses a pestle.' Not sure what that means."
"My mom has those. The mortar is a bowl, and the pestle is a kind of, oh, sort of like a little club. My mom uses the mortar and pestle to smash peppercorns and allspice, stuff like that. When she brought the thing home from the store, she told me that people have been using tools like that for thousands of years. But if this Baba Yaga flies around in a mortar, either the mortar is really, really big, or the old woman is pretty tiny. Either way, it's pretty weird. Gotta go. Talk to you tomorrow."
Barbara knew she had to get to sleep too, so she turned off her laptop and went to bed. During the night she dreamed that her friends at school had started calling her Baba Yaga and were acting scared of her. She looked out her classroom window and into the school parking lot. There it was, a giant mortar with a long pestle sticking out of its top. On the side she saw the inscription, "Keep your hands off. Property of Baba Yaga." It even had a license plate: BY111.
Barbara awoke from her dream. She thought the dream meant something important, so at lunchtime she told the dream to Stacey.
"So you had a dream. Dreams don't mean anything."
"They mean something in the Bible."
"That was then. This is now."
"I want to become Baba Yaga."
"What? Are you crazy?"
"I think it's my destiny. I have her name."
"Your name is Barbara Yaga, not Baba Yaga."
"It's real close to the same name."
"Close, but no cigar, as my dad says. So you told me a little about this person, and she doesn't sound too great to me. She's old and ugly and she has a long nose."
"And she lives in a house that's supported by chicken legs."
"Seriously? You're not making this up?"
"You can't make up stuff like this. Yeah, she lives in a little house supported by chicken legs."
"From real chickens? You're kidding, right?"
Barbara looked glum. "No, I am so not kidding. I thought friends were supposed to be, well, supportive."
"Listen, I think I'm being supportive by trying to get you to stay normal."
"Normal is boring. Baba Yaga is exciting."
"So is this Baba Yaga a nice person, or is she mean? I need to know if we can still be friends."
"Well, she's not very nice." Barbara pulled out her cell phone and played with it for a few minutes. "Looks like she's a witch."
Stacey groaned. "Great. My friend wants to be a witch. Why couldn't your parents be Mr. and Mrs. Arc? Then they could have named you Joan. That would have been better. Much better."
"Yeah, well, my parents are Bogdan and Petruta Yaga, not Jacques and Marie Arc. Wait, here's more stuff. Sometimes Baba Yaga is bad, and she eats people with her iron teeth."
Stacey groaned again. "Do you think you can buy iron teeth online? I don't think so."
"I said there was more. Sometimes she's good, or fairly good, anyway, and if she makes a promise she keeps it."
"So if she gets up in a bad mood, she could eat you for breakfast, but if she's happy then she will do something good? Who needs friends like that?"
"Just found a story. Want to hear it?" She was holding her phone in the air.
"Sure." Stacey rolled her eyes.
"OK. 'In Russia a peasant and his wife had a son and daughter who were twins. The twins' mother died and after a few years, the peasant decided that he should marry again. So he did. However, as sometimes happens, the stepmother favored her own children over the twins. She didn't give the twins much food. Finally, she decided she didn't want the children around anymore. She ordered them to visit her own grandmother in a house that stood in the woods on chicken feet. The stepmother told the twins that her grandmother would be kind.'"
"I have a feeling that this could end badly." Stacey was playing with the food on her tray.
"'First the twins went to see their own grandmother. She told them that they were being sent to visit an evil witch. Then she told them that they had to be kind to everyone they met. Giving them milk, cookies, and ham to nourish them, she sent them on their way. Before long they were at a small house that stood on chicken feet. On top of the house there was a rooster's head. When they greeted the old woman inside the little house, the woman told them that they had to do everything she asked of them. If they worked hard, she would reward them; if not, she threatened to eat them. Then the old woman assigned chores to the twins. The girl had to spin, the boy had to fill a tub with water, but the tub would never get filled.'"
"Wish that's the way our tub worked. My mom wasn't happy when I let it overflow last week."
"'The little girl was miserable. When she began to cry, mice appeared and asked for cookies in exchange for their help. She gave them cookies and then they asked her to find the black cat and give it some ham. The cat would then help her.'"
Stacey groaned again. "How long is this story anyway? It'll soon be time for geometry."
"OK. I'll try to speed it up. 'Before long some birds flew by and asked the children for some crumbs, and later, clay and water. The twins obeyed and figured out how to make the tub leak-proof. When they encountered the black cat, they gave him some ham and asked how to get away from the wicked old woman. 'The cat gave the children a towel and a comb. Then the old woman came back to her hut and told the twins she would probably eat them the next day.'"
The bell rang. "Come on, let's go," Stacey yelled.
Barbara got up, quickly disposed of her tray, and looked at her phone. "I can summarize the rest. The next day the witch asked the girl to weave linen and the boy to bring her a lot of firewood. But with the towel and comb the twins ran away. They threw cookies at the dogs, opened the gates with oil, made the birch tree happy by putting a ribbon on it. The cat sat by the loom and made a mess. Then the witch, who really was Baba Yaga, ran after the children. When they threw the towel down, it turned into a river. But Baba Yaga crossed the river, so the children threw the comb on the ground, and it became a forest. The witch could not get through, the twins returned home, and their father realized that his wife had been cruel to his children. He banished her, and the father lived happily ever after with his twins."
Barbara finished just as Ms. Popovic, their geometry teacher, was about to close the door.
When school was over, Barbara plopped down on the seat next to Stacey just as Melba, the bus driver, was revving up the engine.
"So, Barb, that was a really goofy story."
"I liked it. Don't call me Barb. You know I don't like that."
"I just like my real name."
"OK, fine. But why do you like that crazy story?"
"It has a happy ending, but it's so different. I mean, I liked the cat messing up the weaving and the towel turning into a river and the comb becoming a forest. And the little house on chicken legs. Who dreams this stuff up?"
"People from somewhere in Europe. Guess they're different from us."
Barbara seemed to be daydreaming. "You know, my parents were born in Moldova."
"Where's that? In another state?"
"Stacey, I can't always tell when you're serious. I looked it up. My parents don't really remember anything about it. But they sure have Moldovan names."
"So what did you look up?"
Barbara went back to her phone. "Moldova, it says here, used to be part of the Soviet Union. Now they're independent. Moldova is close to Romania and to Ukraine. There's more. Anyway, they consider themselves to be, you know, Moldovans, not Romanians or Russians or Ukrainians. Their language is like Romanian. Wow. The Russians made them use the Cyrillic alphabet for a while. That's the Russian alphabet. Imagine having to use a new alphabet. So now they are back to using the Latin alphabet, just like us."
"You're so smart, Barbara. Well, your phone is smart anyway. So getting back to this Baba Yaga person, that story had a happy ending, but no thanks to old Baba. Do you still want to be like Baba Yaga? She eats people, for crying out loud!"
"Yeah, I know, but there are some stories where she is good."
"Seriously? So show me one."
Barbara looked at the ceiling of the school bus. "I haven't found one yet."
Stacey sighed. "Maybe there's no story about a nice Baba Yaga."
"They said there was."
"Guess you can find anything you want online."
"Well, if I can't it won't matter. I'm not going to eat anyone."
"No iron teeth. That's your problem." Stacey smiled as she climbed over Barbara to get off at her stop.
When Barbara got home, she went up to her room and turned on her laptop. She needed a plan.
Fortunately, Halloween was coming. A good time to become Baba Yaga. She started looking for a costume on the internet.
Fake long nose? Done. Old-fashioned costume with a long skirt and a shawl? Done. Headscarf? Done. They would be in the mail in a few days. And she hadn't spent much. Good thing she had her own credit card. Her parents trusted her not to overspend. But how was she going to find a really, really big mortar and pestle?
It was obvious that she had to construct them. And then what? Was she going trick or treating inside the mortar? Then it needed wheels. And a motor or something. Impossible. Or she could pull it along. It would still need wheels, unless it sat in her old red wagon. She decided to consult her brother Milo. He was sixteen to Barbara's fourteen.
Milo was at his desk studying. "Hey."
He looked up. "Hey."
"Do you think you could help me build a mortar and pestle for Halloween?"
"Huh? What's that?"
"Just type in the words on your laptop. It's easier if you just see the stuff."
She had to spell "pestle" for him. Then he sat there looking. "So you're going to do some cooking? Doesn't Mom have something like this in the kitchen?"
"No, I need a pretty big mortar and pestle to go with my Baba Yaga Halloween costume."
Milo raised his eyebrows. "Baba who?
"First Stacey and now you. I guess that every time I say the name Baba Yaga, I'm going to have to 'splain everything. Yikes. OK. Here's who she is, I mean was, or is, since she's in folktales."
And so Barbara began. Milo seemed fascinated. "Iron teeth? She eats people? A hut on chicken legs with a rooster's head on the top? And she travels using a mortar and pestle? Why did you pick her for Halloween?"
"Listen, Milo, you're supposed to be smart. Because my name is Barbara Yaga, and that's almost the same as Baba Yaga. And our parents are from Moldova and Moldova is in eastern Europe, and that's where the Baba Yaga legends started. And I'm not sure the stories ever left eastern Europe. They're sure different from anything I've ever read. Anyway, being Baba Yaga, at least for Halloween, is my destiny."
"And while you're walking up and down our street going trick or treat you'll have to tell everyone about Baba Yaga, because they won't have a clue. Or maybe you'll just print up a flyer with her story. Hey, maybe you could put a full-page ad in the paper announcing the arrival of Baba Yaga to Ashleyville, Ohio. Or maybe one of those morning TV programs could interview you. No, that won't work. You have to get to school too early."
Barbara looked glum. "You're right. No one around here knows about Baba Yaga, unless they're from eastern Europe. I doubt that our parents know about her."
"Did you ask them?"
"Well, duh. How about starting there?"
"OK, but can you help me construct a mortar and pestle?"
"Sure. Why not? It'll look good on my resume some day: "I helped construct a really big mortar and pestle to complete my sister's impersonation of Baba Yaga, the wicked witch from somewhere in eastern Europe. This exercise taught me about manual labor, design, architecture, women's rights, folklore, and diversity."
Barbara started to laugh. "You're the best, Milo. And when you start looking for a job, I can write you a recommendation."
"I don't think sisters can do that, not even if they impersonate women with long noses and iron teeth."
That night at dinner, Barbara knew exactly where the family's conversation would lead. So did Milo.
"How was school today, kids?" Their father waited for some ordinary answer like, "Good," before he had to extract more information from them.
"Good. Good. But I have something to ask you about, Dad, something important."
Bogdan Yaga looked concerned. "And that would be?"
And Barbara was off and running, spilling out the story of Baba Yaga, her desire to be the old witch at Halloween, the plans for building a mortar and pestle.
"Barbara, your dinner is getting cold."
"Yes, Mom." She took a few gulps of spaghetti, drank some milk, and continued her story.
"So, Mom and Dad, did you ever hear about Baba Yaga?"
Both her parents shook their heads. Her mother was the first to answer. "I'm not really up on folklore. Maybe I should be. Your grandparents would know, if anyone would. Are you sure you want to be an ugly old witch for Halloween? Why not a princess or a fairy godmother?"
"No. I want to, uh, to make a statement! And Baba Yaga sounds like Barbara Yaga. It's my destiny."
"And what kind of statement would you be making by having iron teeth, a long nose, and a large mortar and pestle?"
Barbara looked down at her plate. "I'm not sure. No, wait. I am sure. I want people to know about Baba Yaga, but I want them to think of her as a force for good and not evil. Yes, that's it!"
"Well, good luck with that," her father said. "Why would Baba Yaga be a force for good when she eats people?"
"I read on the internet that some stories actually show her being nice."
It was Milo's turn. "Yeah, but you said that you haven't found any stories where Baba Yaga is nice. Or even halfway civil."
"I just have to keep looking. Meanwhile, I need to build a mortar and pestle, and there isn't much time."
Her father seemed to be amused. "In my day I was a pretty good carpenter. I can probably figure something out. But I'll need your help, Barbara. Milo, too, if you want."
"What about me?" Petruta Yaga was pouting.
"Sure. Or you could be in charge of researching some stories about Baba Yaga the Good Witch. Whatever you like. See how agreeable I can be?"
In her quest for Baba Yaga stories, Petruta Yaga called her mother the next day after work.
"So you call me? That's nice, Petruta, that once in a while you call your old mama."
"You're not that old, Mama, and you're still working full-time."
"I have to work, so you can get a nice inheritance. Work my fingers to the bone. That's what I do."
"You sound like a charwoman."
"Sometimes I feel like one."
"Mama, you're an accountant!"
'Right. I work my fingers to the bone on the adding machine. And the computer."
"You're laughing at me? Ungrateful child! So why are you calling me, my daughter the lawyer? And how is my son-in-law, the big-shot executive?"
"I'm calling about Baba Yaga. Do you know anything about her?"
"Baba Yaga? I am crossing myself as I speak. Baba Yaga is a bad woman, a witch. She eats people."
"Yes, I know. Here's what's happened. Our Barbara typed her name into a search engine, and suddenly she saw the name Baba Yaga. She read as much as she could about Baba Yaga, and now she wants to go trick or treating on Halloween dressed as that very person, who is almost her namesake. Now I wish we hadn't named her Barbara."
"I told you to give her a good, old-fashioned Moldovan name, but you wouldn't listen. You wouldn't be having this problem if you had named your daughter Georgeta; that was the name I picked out."
"We liked the name Barbara. We wanted her to sound American. We had no idea that the name Barbara Yaga would have repercussions. Why didn't you warn us?"
"Warn you? You never listen to your old mother. Besides, I haven't thought about Baba Yaga in years. We're in America. Baba Yaga has no relevance to America. Anyway, I think Baba Yaga is more Russian than Moldovan."
"Maybe so, but our Barbara is determined to be Baba Yaga for Halloween. I hope it stops there."
"So she wants to parade around town mimicking a woman who eats people? And you're afraid she might want to continue to impersonate Baba Yaga? Does my granddaughter need to see a psychiatrist?"
"I don't think so. I hope not. Listen, here's a good sign. Barbara says there are Baba Yaga stories where the witch is really a good person. She's trying to find some of those stories. She wants to rehabilitate Baba Yaga's reputation."
"What reputation? No one in Ashleyville, Ohio has heard of Baba Yaga. Trust me. She has no reputation, good or bad, here in America. And I'll eat my babushka if our Barbara finds any stories about a nice Baba Yaga. Rehabilitate? Fat chance."
"Well, she may have a reputation after our Barbara finishes constructing her mortar and pestle."
"You are presumably not kidding!"
"No I am not. And we are all helping to build the mortar and pestle. It's a family project."
"Why did I send you to that fancy college, so you could build a mortar and pestle for a kid posing as a wicked old woman? You don't have better things to do?"
"Yes, I do. But it's Halloween and it's the first time that Barbara has been really enthusiastic about anything." Her mother grunted.
"Listen, Mama, if you somehow find a Baba Yaga story that does not include barbecuing people, please let me know."
"All right. Slim chance of that. La revedere. Te iubesc!"
"Love you too, Mama. Bye."
As the days went by, Bogdan Yaga supervised the building of a fairly large mortar and a matching pestle made of wood and paper mache. The entire family took part, and it occurred to Barbara that this unusual cooperative venture might be a good human-interest article for the Ashleyville Gazette. But she hesitated to send the newspaper her idea. In fact, as the mortar and pestle grew day by day, she began to have second thoughts about being Baba Yaga. But it was too late to back down, much too late.
Finally, Halloween arrived. Trick or treat was scheduled from 4 to 6 p.m. Saying goodbye to Stacey, Barbara hopped off the school bus and then walked slowly to her house. If only she had found a folktale about a good Baba Yaga! But she hadn't, and she had to accept the fact that she was about to impersonate an ugly cannibal from eastern Europe. And she was probably going to have to tell some gruesome stories to curious neighbors.
At 4 p.m. her father insisted on taking a photo of his daughter Baba Yaga standing next to her mortar (license plate BY111) and holding her pestle. And then she started down the street, apprehensive but excited.
As she pulled her mortar, Barbara underwent a transformation. She was beginning to feel like an eastern European legend. She even mastered a voice she thought appropriate for Baba Yaga. At each house on her street, Hickory Lane, she gave a quick summary of the story about the twins and the witch if the homeowner seemed interested in her identity. And they all seemed to have questions when they saw an old crone pulling a very large mortar and holding a pestle.
Up and down the street Barbara went, enthusiastically throwing her candy treats into the mortar. For a fleeting minute she wondered why Stacey had declined to go trick-or-treating with her and why Milo had decided at the last minute to ask for goodies on the other side of town with his friend Jake. And then she forgot about her friend and her brother and concentrated instead on being the fearful, horrible, nasty, conniving Baba Yaga.
By the time she reached the end of her street, Barbara had collected quite a bit of candy. But there was still close to an hour to go, so she turned left and walked a few blocks to an area that was unfamiliar. Before her stood a cul-de-sac, Memory Lane. She had not been there before, but she had heard stories about an old woman who lived there by herself. Barbara looked around. All the houses were dark, except for one house in the middle, where a light shone from the window.
"Might as well try that one," she said out loud. "No point in trying houses that are all dark. Wonder where everyone is. Probably trick-or-treating somewhere else." She parked her mortar, threw the pestle inside, walked up the steps, and rang the bell.
Nothing. Then, as she was about to leave, she heard a voice. "I'm coming. I'm coming." The door opened slowly. An old woman stood there. "Yes?" She squinted at Barbara and looked past her to the mortar and pestle. "Baba Yaga! You're Baba Yaga!' she yelled, as she tried slamming the door. But Barbara's foot intervened.
"Wait! My name is Barbara Yaga. I live on Hickory Lane just a few blocks away. I'm only fourteen. I'm not old enough to be Baba Yaga. I just found out about her a few weeks ago. It's Halloween. I'm trick-or-treating. I just picked her because my name, Barbara Yaga, is almost the same as Baba Yaga."
The woman seemed frightened. Barbara continued. "Look, don't be afraid of me. Please."
"Are you sure you're not Baba Yaga?"
"Very sure. Watch me take off this crazy nose I'm wearing."
The old woman watched while Barbara removed the nose and took off the scarf wrapped around her head. "See. I'm just a kid."
The old woman looked relieved. "Oh."
"May I come in? You're the first person I've met who's heard of Baba Yaga. Besides my grandmother, that is."
"Well, all right. I don't get many visitors. I don't think I have anything for trick-or-treat, but I did make some chocolate cookies this afternoon. Would you like some cookies and milk? We can look out of the window and see your mortar and pestle. We wouldn't want anyone to take them. I am quite impressed."
"My family made the mortar and pestle. Yes, cookies and milk would be good."
The old woman disappeared into the kitchen. When she came back, they both sat down on the couch and began tasting their snacks.
"These cookies are good."
"Thank you." Then they were silent for a few minutes.
"Please tell me how you know about Baba Yaga."
"My family came from Russia. My grandmother used to tell me Baba Yaga stories. They were very scary. I never wanted to walk in the woods by myself for fear of finding a little hut standing on chicken legs with a rooster's head on its roof. She is a most unpleasant character, and I do not like what that says about old women."
"Oh? What does it say?"
"That old women are ugly and evil."
"Not all old women."
"True, but think of the stories in fairy tales about old women. They are usually witches. Or evil stepmothers."
"I guess that's true. But then there are fairy godmothers, too. By the way, I have been trying to find Baba Yaga stories where she is a good woman. So far I haven't found anything. Do you know any?"
The old woman closed her eyes. "Let me think. Yes, I remember one."
"Oh, please tell it."
"Once upon a time there was an old woman named Baba Yaga. She lived in a little hut in the woods. On the roof of her house was the head of a rooster made out of wood and painted in bright colors. The house was supported by chicken legs made out of metal. Baba Yaga had metal teeth, the result of an unfortunate trip to an incompetent dentist. She lived all by herself, and her closest neighbor was a mile away. The neighbors didn't know Baba Yaga, but when she walked to town for her food and supplies pulling a strange object on wheels that looked like a mortar (without the pestle), the passers-by made fun of her. Before long stories were circulating about Baba Yaga, and parents frightened their children into obedience by telling them that if they were naughty, they would be sent to Baba Yaga's house where she would eat them for dinner.
"Baba Yaga did not know that the people in the village were telling lies about her. All she knew was that children were afraid of her and parents kept their children away from her. She herself had never married. She had no children. She had no dog. She had no friends. She was sad at the way she was treated, and so she retreated into her own little world. The stories about her became more and more lurid.
"Then one day a little girl knocked on her door. Baba Yaga opened the door and scowled at the girl. 'What do you want?' she said as she tried to close the door. But the young girl put her foot in the door. Baba Yaga resigned herself to the idea that she had a visitor. She let the girl into her house and offered her milk and cookies. It turned out that the girl was trying to find out who she really was: good or bad, bold or shy, active or passive. Baba Yaga saw in that young girl her own young self, the girl she had been so many years ago. She decided that she had wasted many years, but it was not too late to start her life over again. From then on she insisted on being friendly to everyone she met. The little girl visited the old woman once a week. She even invited Baba Yaga to meet her family. And after a period of time, the stories about the old woman stopped, or if they still circulated, the villagers would say that the stories were not about their Baba Yaga. No, those stories were about another Baba Yaga who lived miles away."
The woman was silent. Barbara thought about what she had just heard. "Did you just make that up?"
"Why do you think I made it up?"
"Because I think that I am the little girl in the story, even though I'm not really little."
The old woman laughed. "Make of the story what you will. That's the thing about stories, especially folk tales. They tell us about our fears and our hopes. They teach children the rules of society. They help us figure out who we are and what we want to be and how to get there--by being loving and caring or smart and clever or, who knows, by some other means."
"How do you know so much?"
"I have lived a long time. If you live long enough and you pay attention, you learn a thing or two. Now, it's getting dark, so I think that you and your mortar and pestle should be on your way. Will you come back and see me sometime?"
"And perhaps next year at this time you will have a new identity. You have 365 days to find out who you really are."
Barbara didn't bother putting her fake nose back on. She tossed it and the headscarf into the mortar and began walking home, eating candy the whole time.