Prof. J. Longo | Fall 2023

Category: Student Posts (Page 1 of 42)

Elya & The Witch

I’m doing a fusion and reinterpretation of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Wild Swans- a story in which a princess’s must weave coats of stinging nettles while under a vow of silence to turn her brothers back into humans from swans, elsewise get burned at the stake- with Baba Yaga- a witch in Russian folklore of varying moral ambiguity and possessing cannibalistic tendencies.

In the original Wild Swans, Elisa’s wicked stepmother turns her eleven brothers into swans, though they return to human form at night, and banishes her. They carry her to safety in a foreign land, and the fairy Queen advises her to make coats of stinging nettles while under a vow of silence and when the final one is complete, the brothers can put them on and turn back into humans. While she is completing this task, she meets a king who falls in love with her despite her silence and decides to marry her. The archbishop thinks she’s a witch, and she cannot testify her innocence so she’s sentenced to be burned at the stake. She knits right up until shes about to be put on a pyre, and tosses the final coat to the last brother, who all turn back into humans and explain what happened, though the incomplete nature of the last coat leaves one brother  with a swan wing instead of an arm. All is well, Elisa gets married, moving on.

Baba Yaga’s tales are many and varied, but generally come down to her having specific if arbitrary rules, and exacting brutal punishment if broken. In some tales, she’s a mother in law trying to get her son’s wife killed, in others she’s a child eating monster, in yet others she is benevolent if strange and exacting, but she is always a force of nature. A crone with a mortar and pestle and a house with chicken’s feet, she has some of the most evocative imagery I’ve found in folktales.

My thought as to how this fusion works is thus- (Elisa, now named Elya, a Russian name of related roots and similar meanings) is not a princess, but of moderate status in a Russian manor settlement, somewhat isolated and near the wilds. Her family aren’t serfs, but aren’t nobility either. Her eleven brothers go out on a hunting party and find themselves in the woods deeper and older than those they’ve known before. One of them, the eldest, kills a fowl of Baba Yaga’s and in rage she turns them all to swans. 

Elya searches the woods for her brothers, never finding them, but eventually comes across a house on chicken legs. She knocks and entreaties the witch to let her know if she’s seen any sign of the brothers, asking for help. The witch is moderately charmed by her earnestness and devotion, and decides to make her a deal. She’ll answer any question the girl asks her, including the ones she just did, in order, but she will only answer one each week. In exchange, she requires Elia’s sworn servitude. When she asks Elya if she agrees to serve her, she replies, “until I have my brothers back.” Elya does not quite know why the witch looks so approving.

Elya complies and life goes on- cleaning the house, tending to the garden and animals, and making the occasional trip to Baba Yaga’s carnivorous sister- whom she survives, if only by the skin of her teeth sometimes.  She assists in making potions and observes Baba Yaga’s magic, begins to collect and create some trinkets of her own. Baba Yaga leaves many books strewn about, and often talks to herself. Elya learns, some. When she begins to exhibit an affinity for the local wildlife, Baba Yaga teaches her to make traps and makes her catch them food. 

Baba Yaga herself is grating, to Elya. A harsh and demanding taskmaster that often outright refuses to explain simple things, then demands Elya redo them correctly, she is otherwise brusque and aloof. Elya often near bites through her lip to keep from speaking her mind.

Every week Baba Yaga answers one of Elya’s  initial questions, before she’s allowed to ask new ones. Has she seen them? Yes. Does she know where they are? She does. Can she help her find them? She certainly can. Are you a witch? Yes.

Upon the fifth week, instead of allowing a new question, the Baba Yaga describes the path to her sister’s house- which Elya had had to find her way to on her own, but certainly had asked about. She hadn’t asked many questions during her stay, but enough that she has weeks before she can simply learn where her brothers are.

When one of her traps catches a fairy, Elya decides to free it. She begins to ask it for help with her brothers, but the Baba Yaga approaches and it flees. Elya starts to stammer through a lie about it, but the Baba Yaga stops her with a warning that it’s a poor idea to do so. Instead, she says that as Elya has taken their dinner, it must be replaced and orders her to take the largest swan from out back, kill, and prepare it. She notes over their meal that Elya might want to take care to preserve the meat well, as it ought to last them a long time and it would be a shame to kill more of them.

When she finally manages to ask Baba where the brothers are- they’re in the backyard! She’s confused but checks anyway, and returns inside to very carefully not ask questions. She knows the witch to be intentionally unhelpful, but not to be a liar. Uncharacteristically, Baba Yaga smiles and explicates- why, she saw them there just this morning. She’s rather certain that they’re still there.

She returns outside and eventually sets eyes on the ten remaining swans. And realises exactly what has happened. Amidst the horror and disgust, the grief and the revulsion, a single-minded fury rises up and Elya storms back into the house. “You deceitful, horrible wretch! I’ll kill you!” She lunges​​ towards the witch with a carving knife but is stopped dead by magic. 

“I’ve shredded men for lesser offences,” the Baba Yaga says, and plucks the tongue from her mouth, eating it in one bite. “Be grateful this is all I shall take. You’re a useful girl, you know. And besides, I did tell you not to lie. You cannot kill me, as you are my servant. Your brothers are still mine, and not yours to take.”

Elya grieves. She tries to free her brothers but finds she cannot, both she and they bound by the Baba Yaga’s magic. What was summer has turned to fall, and as the chill seeps in Elya realises that all too soon it shall be winter. Elya begins to spend long days hunting, amongst her other tasks, to fill the cellar with meats to dry, to keep her brothers safe. She learns as much magic as she can, especially as winter comes and hunting is more and more useless- she assists around the house and reads by candlelight all night. She makes ink from soot and quills from hunted game, to ask the Baba Yaga the questions she’s earned, but the Baba Yaga burns them on sight, and she quickly runs out of anything she can write on without it being considered ruining the Baba Yaga’s things, which she is explicitly forbidden from doing and physically cannot. 

Eventually through her studies, she figures out how to summon a fairy, and manages to coax the one she rescued through the debt it owes her. She’d asked for help finding her brothers, when she freed it from the trap, and amidst the cursed swans in the back garden, it puts together the clues. It explains the need for her to stomp nettles into flax and weave them into fabric from which to make coats- that it will be painful, and perhaps the work of years, but would work. 

And yet, in the dead of winter, there is no green in sight. So she must wait. Elya weeps, and the fairy promises her one more boon, provided what she asks is within its power. She’s rather unimpressed, unable as she is to ask for anything, but noise is heard from within the cabin and she urges the fairy to flee. It can’t follow through on its promise if it’s dinner, after all.

Come spring, Elya begins to collect nettles on her hunts and, at night, starts to make the yarn. Bubbling rashes begin to spread up her calves and arms, and fatigue paints purple half moons beneath her eyes. The Baba Yaga asks where the rashes came from, but Elya cannot reply.

Life goes on. Elya works long into each night, and rises in the morning to serve the witch. Her days are hard and busy, her nights so again. Seasons come and go, but Elya is determined. Sometimes, when the Baba Yaga is away, she works out in the gardens with her brothers. One day, finally, she’s sewing together the final coat as Baba Yaga returns home far earlier than expected, flying above the yard in her mortar. 

Elya may not know if the witch knows what she saw, or what it means, but that she cannot risk that she has. More importantly, she hasn’t made dinner. She hasn’t caught dinner, even, she had three or four days, she thought, at least. When the Baba Yaga is away, she eats bread and chicken eggs. She runs inside to grab the other nine coats and back into the yard to throw them all over her brothers as the Baba Yaga walks up the house’s front steps. 

By the time she’s finished wrangling ten swans into coats, the Baba Yaga is nearly at the back door. “And what are you doing?” She asks, leaning towards Elya to look at her closer. Her gaze switches towards the back door, beginning to start towards it. Elya grabs the witches tongue with one hand and the carving knife on her belt with the other, and cuts it off. 

She puts the shocked and bleeding witch’s tongue in her own mouth and speaks with it. 

“After all this time you owe me many answers. I find I have no questions.” 

Elya kills the witch, grabbing some jars to gather her blood- it’s awfully useful to put to waste, before she exits to find her brothers in the back garden. All human but the youngest, his coat’s missing sleeve leaving one arm a wing. Their reunion is joyful and extended. 

 Elya sews her new tongue into place, feeds them all their first proper meal in years, and leads them all back to town, removing the feathers and beads from her hair and wrapping the youngest in her cloak to hide his wing. They return to their family home and there’s much fanfare, at first, but the strange girl with scarred hands and fox’s eyes is unsettling to the townsfolk, and very quickly suspected of witchcraft, nevermind that Ivan can’t hide his wing forever. There may be an actual conflict here, or not, but regardless, Elya and Ivan realize they don’t and will never belong here, not anymore. 

They return, instead, to the house on chicken legs. And Elya begins to summon a fairy. 

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