People laugh when I tell them I love fairy tales. “You never grew up,” they say. “You’re like Peter Pan.” Peter Pan, a story very much like this one full of beauty and darkness. When Lonav read this story at The Writing Desk, my eyes became wide and my mouth fell open. This. This was a fairy tale retelling, complete with its blurred boundaries, love and magic. From the beginning to the end, I sat in wonder of this retelling, full-body reading as I threw my hands into the air, laughed and gasped loudly. I have struggled, trying to write retellings that never turn out the way I want them to but Lonav has taken a fairy tale and turned it around so that it walks with grace, as the reader waddles behind it in amazement. So waddle with me Reader, and let us find the house with chicken legs.
Once upon a time, in faraway communist Russia, a 25-year-old redhead started believing that her rag doll was alive. “That rag doll is not alive,” her stepmother sighed to the local physician. Vasilisa got angry and bit the physician’s groping fingers while the doll plucked his eyeballs. That rag doll was indeed alive.
Life proceeded normally for Vasilisa Kalashnik. She treated the doll like a low-cost alternative to a Bolonka, feeding her some milk and bread every night. But the stepmother’s life was miserable; there were rumours about her being abusive to Vasilisa, the doll was already harassing her daughters, and nobody visited her home anymore. Their last guest darted off from the living room, shouting “D’yavol! D’yavol!”. Vasilisa’s father decided it would be wise to leave the city and move up north, to a village where winters were colder, river-water was clearer, and necromancy was normalised.
Quick backstory: The doll was passed down to Vasilisa by her mother. “It grants wishes,” she told Vasilisa from her deathbed. “Of course, it doesn’t,” Vasilisa replied. “I’m not a kid anymore, mom, stop it.” Only yesterday did she discover the doll’s secret powers. By pure chance, she confided her love for a certain man, and wished that he were King. The next day, Vladimir Lenin had formed the government.
Due to the lower cost of living, Vasilisa’s family owned a much bigger house now. One day, the doll had fetched her medicinal herbs from the next-door enchanted forest. She was sceptical at first – “It smells like Ivan the Terrible” – but applied it on her skin anyway, growing more and more beautiful every second. Word got out. Under normal circumstances, people would have freaked out, but not in Russia. The villagers fanboyed Vasilisa, bringing tributes to her doll like milk, cows that made the milk, and bondage equipment. “This place is batshit,” she thought.
The Kalashniks quickly rose to star status. The stepmother threw a feast every week, and each feast was larger and more expensive than the one before. On new year’s eve, the Kalashniks were planning fireworks and frogs for dinner. The stepmother sent her two daughters to fetch frogs, preferably the green and ugly ones. “Don’t hurt the brains, they are the tastiest in all Zemlya,” she informed the twelve-year-olds, handing them a dagger.
Vasilisa was given the task of fetching fireworks from Baba Yaga, a local full-time witch, dwelling in a forest as deep as her insecurities. She talked to the doll to distract herself from the dark, dark canopy. “What do you think Baba Yaga will be like?”
The doll answered, “An introvert.”
Vasilisa was sceptical at first, but then she caught a glimpse of Baba Yaga’s house. Skulls with red, glowing sockets perched on a fence soaring all the way up and then curving inward like a birdcage. Yup, definitely an introvert. A lawn sprawled around her hut and a slanted sign read “Nicholas II FTW”. The hut itself stood on chicken legs and the flares reflected off the chasm underneath. “Is that the toilet?” she quizzed the doll. Just then, the floor shook like her stepmother’s bedroom at night and a terrifying cackle pervaded the forest. Vasilisa quickly hid the doll in her pouch and sprinted for the forest. But Baba Yaga was faster. She flew down on her giant mortar, filling the air with the scent of gunpowder.
“Well, well, a child in this part of the forest, aren’t you special?”
Vasilisa wanted to be scared. She wanted to run away and scream ”D’yavol! D’yavol!“ like her guests back in the city. But Baba Yaga’s nose was the funniest affair of her life. It was bony, long, really long like the World War. “Have you considered plastic surgery?” Vasilisa blurted out.
“Say what child?” Baba Yaga’s eyes flashed purple, the tip of the mortar lifting Vasilisa’s chin. “Do you wish to die?”
“No, I do not. ” Vasilisa clenched her pouch. “But there’s no reason that you cannot be a pretty witch and an introverted witch, all at the same time.”
“I don’t know but eating you sounds far more exciting,” Baba Yaga snickered.
“I know you won’t eat me. You were out picking berries and mushrooms. Your shopping bag is see-through. ” For some strange reason, Vasilisa sincerely felt like helping her. “You’re a vegetarian. That’s part of the reason why you live here, away from that carnivorous village.”
Baba Yaga wasn’t ready for such an attack. She got down from her mortar. “Are you a psychologist?”
“Sort of,” Vasilisa smiled, her fingers stroking the pouch.
Baba Yaga considered her for a moment, then invited her inside. The hut was more spacious than it looked and smelt of grass. There was a TV, a stove that elongated from one corner to another, and a feasting table. Baba Yaga was pouring black tea from her kettle. “And where do I avail this plastic surgery you speak of?”
Vasilisa took a sip of what could have been potential poison. “There’s no surgeon in this part of the country. But I know someone – or something – that can help you. But first, you must let me use your fireworks.”
Baba Yaga gave her the fireworks and they put on a tremendous show in the sky that night. Next morning, Vasilisa kept her promise and visited Baba Yaga’s hut. She fed the doll a little milk and bread from the kitchen, and whispered, “Please fix Baba Yaga’s nose.” The doll grabbed the nearest knife and jumped from the stove, slashing away at Baba Yaga.
There was no blood. The nose withered on the floor like a lily. Baba Yaga seemed to have regained fifty years of her life. She looked just as pretty as Vasilisa who smiled at her. They became friends and started living together, working on the hut, and established a much smarter toilet system. Eventually, they married. They treated the rag doll like their daughter, and stopped asking her for favours. The sign on the lawn was replaced by “Can’t be bothered”.
On the other end of the forest, Vasilisa’s stepmother threw her 78th feast, her largest yet. But there weren’t any guests. The village had been emptied, like it was never inhabited. The only lingering presence of human civilization would be felt near the feasting table, where a pile of bones rested along with the stepmother, gnawing at her husband and two daughters.
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