Three poems by Ki E. Russell
Baba Yaga wraps her bony fingers around the pole and climbs. She tugs her body over bumps
and scaly chicken skin, crawls between the teeth of the door, drops the basket of berries,
shoves stringy black hair behind a pointed ear, and fans the coals.
The stairs outside my room moan under my stepfather’s feet.
Ashy hoof prints cover the floor. A ragged wolf pelt cures over the hearth. Crumbs scatter.
A petitioner’s blue rose wilts on the floor. In the corner, the mortar smeared with mud.
The pestle’s crack keeps it from steering her through the forest.
A crash on the stairs and a beery curse.
She glares at the broken broom, mutters about walking like any old hag. The silver straws: plucked by pig brothers who swore to clean for a night’s board. Vasilissa crouches
in the corner combing her doll’s hair and begging to go home.
A chapped hand slips around the edge of my door.
Baba Yaga polishes the teeth in her keyhole’s mouth and mumbles under her breath. Strangers enter her hut too often. First the girl seeking light, then three porcine brothers. She’s witch
of the woods, not fairy godmother. Time the chicken legs scuttled to a new marsh.
His grinning face hovers in the hall.
Vasilissa glances out the window and nods a greeting to the Night horseman. He spurs
the horse past the gate. Baba Yaga pinches the girl’s arm, shoves a glowing skull
into her hands and points to the door. The girl races away.
He’s leaning over me now and the room shrinks.
Baba Yaga bolts the door and her three hands shimmer into view. The pigs spoiled the place then tried to sneak off at dawn. At least the girl said please. Baba Yaga plucks the ruined flower from the floor, checks three pork roasts, and adds more coal.
His hand slithers up my shirt.
Ivan the Sweet
His brothers approach me first,
according to birth order.
My long blue nose
They call me Hag.
Last, the unloved
Often he has titles:
Ivan the Lazy, Foolish Ivan.
He approaches my hut
after his brothers
and calls me Mother.
He chants pretty rhymes
and I offer him advice
and seven league boots.
Later, his brothers strip
away these treasures
and bludgeon him
until even his chest stills.
No one ever counts on Koshchei,
an ogre on ogrish business
grumbling through the woods.
He rends the brothers
limb from spoiled limb,
dribbles water on Ivan’s brow
and the boy wakes.
We let him escape
though he returns. And stays.
Later Koshchei drops by my hut.
I pour tea and grind bones
into flour for bread. We dip
the toast in our mugs and wonder
how sweet Ivan’s bones
would be if only
he wasn’t so polite.
Baba Yaga Gets a Student
I sleep in my hut
my feet pressed
in the doorjamb,
a breast on each shelf,
my head resting
against the chimney.
The gate creaks
and the skulls jaw
My hut spins round.
Its claws scrape
the dirt. A girl
stares without blinking
past my blue nose
and into my eyes.
I order the house
and sweep the girl over
I take her basket of belladonna blooms.
She weaves spider webs into my hair
and my crooked fingers
draw words from her lips:
a cure for her father.
I stare into the dish of oil
and see his arms paddle
the sheets, his feet kick
air as he swims his bed
across a river.
His wife’s skin caverns
around her mouth.
When she was younger there were dimples
but now her hollow cheeks frame sharp teeth.
She counts the coins spilling out of the mattress.
and strokes his smoldering brow.
She spoons poison between his flaking lips.
You came too late, girl.
Once he bathes in the river
I cannot call him.
I shrink my body and the girl
slides onto the bench beside me
to gaze into the oil.
His limbs twist under the sheets—burning scraps
of paper coiling into ash.
We see behind his lids
what plagues the retinas:
A beak sifts through loam,
snaps up bloated bodies.
He slogs through the muck. Slip-sliding one step
ahead of the piercing beak.
The mud rises up his thighs,
creeps over his groin.
His feet tangle in twisted roots.
Bronze light flares along a tree limb,
flays the orbs of his eyes.
The fever ulcers through his skull.
The oil sizzles in the bowl.
The girl and I choke on the splatters.
My apprentice slithers off the bench
and hangs the kettle over the fire.