Science Fiction & Fantasy

CHOSEN ONES

Advertisement

Fiction

Baba Yaga and the Seven Hills

BABA YAGA MAKES ARRANGEMENTS FOR HER TRIP TO SAN FRANCISCO

It doesn’t take long. She has few earthly possessions and her travel options are limited. There is a train that runs west through the Swamp Forest to the coast, but everyone knows and fears the old witch here, and on moving trains, she can cause quite a commotion.

“Do not eat my children, Baba Yaga!” people cry when she steps onto the dining car. “Oh, please, have mercy! Do not use your pestle to grind up my bones!” She sits quietly in a booth, minding her own business, while the locals shriek and run about and fling themselves to their deaths in the fast-passing countryside.

Planes. Baba Yaga tried a plane once. They charged extra to check her broom as oversize luggage and wouldn’t let her extend her three-foot-long, wart-covered nose into the aisle. When she arrived at her destination and a customs agent asked her to state the purpose of her visit, the witch tried to explain that every man in this village was foretold to lose three left toes. The customs agent just stared at her blankly, repeating “Business or pleasure?” until, finally, she was forced to choose an answer she wasn’t entirely satisfied with.

So trains are out, and planes as well. Baba Yaga is powerful, but far too old to travel on foot. And like anyone carrying the weight of forty-two-and-a-half iron teeth and twelve feet of hair, she hates to swim.

So the mortar and pestle will have to do. Not a smooth ride, by anyone’s standards: squatting in the mortar’s bowl; in one hand, a pestle she rows through the air; in the other, a small birch broom to wipe her trail. It’s murder on the hip flexors, and a light breeze could set her wildly off course. Still, if she covers a thousand miles on each clear day, she will get to San Francisco soon enough.

Why San Francisco? Baba Yaga needs help—serious help, magical help—and she knows San Francisco to be a place of magic. The city built on seven hills. Vehicles that drive themselves. Eyeglasses that hold alternate universes. Buildings that stay standing when the ground beneath them splits in two. If anyone can help her, they will be in San Francisco.

Baba Yaga doesn’t like to ask for help ordinarily. She is a prideful witch and a capable one too. But this time, things have spun too far out of her control. What’s the problem? Her house, her beloved wood hut, has up and run away.

This is the trouble with living in a house that has legs, especially speedy chicken legs with muscular haunches and long, sharp claws—and especially a house as temperamental as Baba Yaga’s.

It is hard work maintaining a good relationship with your house, much harder even than with a family member or a lover or a fellow renter you hardly know. You have a disagreement with your housemate, you go into your separate rooms for some time to cool off. You have a disagreement with your house, and where do you go?

With Baba Yaga and her chicken-legged hut, it was a case of one too many undelivered poppyseed rolls. Poppyseed rolls were the hut’s favorite treat, and Baba Yaga brought them home special from the market. The hut loved to unravel the yeasty bread with its claws and expose the dark, grainy paste inside. She did not go to the market often, having other witchly business to attend to, so the hut would have to wait and wait, growing ever more peckish.

One day, fresh from the market, Baba Yaga made a mistake. Instead of giving the poppyseed roll to the hut—it was still warm and sticky in the bag—she fed it to the red-cheeked child tied up next to the big wood stove. She had been fattening him up for weeks, and that night he would be her dinner. It was the witch’s secret ingredient: little children always taste better with something sweet at their core.

The first time she did this, the hut was hurt and confused.

The second time, the hut was furious.

The third time, the hut threw her—and the child she was not quite through eating—out of its front door and promptly stormed off. Baba Yaga sat stunned in the worn patch of grass with the better part of a leg dangling out of her mouth, while the hut didn’t even look back.

In the days that followed, the witch sulked in the shadows of boulders and the shelter of larch trees, waiting for her darling hut to come back. When it did not come, she sent a message to all the lichens and mosses of the taiga to be on the lookout for a runaway hut. When they returned no information, she asked the foxes and lynxes the same. When that didn’t work, Baba Yaga knew she would have to go look for herself.

She has heard that, in San Francisco, someone magicked a map of the world so small and precise that anyone can find anything from the palm of their hand. With magic so powerful at their disposal, she thinks, surely someone in San Francisco can help.

BABA YAGA LOOKS FOR A SUITABLE APARTMENT

It doesn’t take long. She is not particular. The hut was cramped and musty and rather prone to mood swings, and the hut is all Baba Yaga has ever known. When it shifted from one leg to the other, as things on two legs sometimes do, everything not attached by bolts or magic went sliding to the other side of the room. Because hers was a restless hut, this meant the furniture was constantly being rearranged. Still, Baba Yaga misses that dear hut so.

In San Francisco, Baba Yaga’s wish list is short: one, small windows; two, low ceilings; three, a spooky closet door with a mind of its own. In an old Victorian off Haight Street, she finds all three. The tenants are renting out a pantry roughly the size of the hut, with as little charm. She likes that when she lies on her cot with her bony, blue-veined arms outstretched, she can touch a wall with either hand. Her long nose rattles against the ceiling beams when she snores, just like home.

Outside the one small window, a billboard blocks any possible view. Baba Yaga admires the strange words and pictures, the two tall stilts on which it stands. “Relentless Hot Sauce,” it reads. “All heat, no mercy.”

Her first day on the lease, Baba Yaga unpacks the contents of her mortar: a bundle of herbs and a vial of blood, an extra shawl and the small birch broom. She looks at them all lined up on the wobbly nightstand and feels very pleased with herself indeed.

This lasts for exactly one week, which the witch spends visiting each of the city’s seven hills. Seven miles north to south, seven miles east to west, and seven peaks in the space between: Baba Yaga knows it’s this arithmetic that gives the city its magic. She whispers their names at each summit, calling their power up from the ground to aid her in her search: Telegraph, Nob, Rincon, Russian, Twin, Davidson, and Sutro.

On her eighth day in San Francisco, Baba Yaga is invited to her first house meeting.

“Babs,” her housemates say. (They have taken to calling her Babs, despite the way her yellow eyes go red every time they do so.) “Babs, why have you let your scraggly hair clog the shower drain? Why have you left raw meat in the vegan area of the refrigerator? Why have you gone outside and erected a fence made of skulls?”

They are brash and indignant in their youth, and do not yet know the importance of a protection spell. They say, “Haven’t you ever lived with housemates before?”

Baba Yaga doesn’t know how to respond. They don’t know her here like they do in the Swamp Forest, and they can imagine nothing more dull or less fearsome than an old woman with old traditions and not enough of their language.

Can your house be your housemate? She misses the way her hut was always in motion, shifting in place or strolling to the river or moving in a circle, flattening the grass. She is always listening for the screech of metal skating over wood floors. She cannot get used to staying still.

The meeting is discouraging for Baba Yaga—too reminiscent of other recent domestic failures—but she cannot let herself dwell on it. It is not why she is here.

BABA YAGA FINDS THE TAMALE LADY IN A DIMLY LIT BAR

This takes a long time, because in San Francisco, there are too many dimly lit bars and only one Tamale Lady.

There’s the bar with the games and the one with the fighting, and the one with the smoking cocktails that Baba Yaga understands to be some potent kind of magic. There’s the bar that seems designed especially for pirates, with its dark wood and death’s-head flags and bottles of amber rum, and this makes her very nervous; she never did get on well with pirates.

The bar with the password is the most vexing. Baba Yaga is excellent at passwords, at gaining access in general, but with every word she says, the broad man outside shakes his head a blunt, indifferent no.

The prophecy came to her in grains of rotten corn: a dark-haired woman in a long white dress carrying a covered metallic tray from table to table. So when the witch finally sees the Tamale Lady, she recognizes her instantly.

“Magic woman,” Baba Yaga greets her, and holds out the vial of blood as an offering.

“Oh!” The Tamale Lady nearly drops her tray in surprise. “Thanks but no thanks, mama. I carry my own wherever I go.” She pulls a tiny bottle of hot sauce from the folds of her skirt and turns the label toward Baba Yaga. The words are familiar: “Relentless. All heat, no mercy.”

Baba Yaga tucks the vial of blood away and starts again. “Esteemed woman. I come a long way to ask for help. My hut is gone and I know not where. I feel your magic from very far. Do you understand me?”

The Tamale Lady looks Baba Yaga up and down and sighs. She sets her tray of tamales on the nearest table. “Mama, I think I’ve heard this one before. I don’t know if I can help you, but I know I’m gonna try.” She slides into the booth and waves for Baba Yaga to join her. When she lifts the lid off one corner of the tray, steam comes billowing out.

Baba Yaga learns that the Tamale Lady is one of San Francisco’s great mothers—not the mother who births you, necessarily, but the one who feeds you when you are hungry and holds you when you are cold and plaits your hair when you are sad and do not know what else you need.

“There’s a sickness in this city,” she tells Baba Yaga. “The people are hurting. There’s more to own than ever yet they have less than ever, or else they feel they do. They look for magic everywhere and forget they are the source.”

People come to the table for tamales. The warm, inviting smell fills the bar, strong enough to overtake the witch’s natural sulfuric stench, and a line forms, slinking between the tables and chairs. There is the sound of many feet shuffling and sticking and unsticking from the floor. Some pay with crumpled bills and glittering coins, while others bring glasses of black liquor and pink wine: offerings for the mother. Some cannot pay at all—stumbling into the table, mumbling apologies, holding their elbows and struggling to focus their eyes—and the Tamale Lady is kindest to them. She drops one, two, three tamales onto a paper napkin. Baba Yaga watches people open the corn husks hungrily, each tamale a long-awaited gift to unwrap.

“There’s a lot like you, you know,” the Tamale Lady continues. “Houses gone and they don’t know where to go. Though I get the feeling you’re a little different.” She selects two glasses from the growing assortment on the table, hands one to Baba Yaga and contemplates the other.

“My tamales taste good ’cause I put good in them. Nothing too magical about that. Besides that, I just try to listen. Make sure these kids know somebody cares that they go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning.”

She raises her glass and motions for Baba Yaga to raise hers too. They toast “Salud!” and “Nazdarovya!” The Tamale Lady downs the black liquor in one gulp. The witch does the same, glass and all.

Baba Yaga chews the glass thoughtfully, working over what the Tamale Lady has said, and her tongue and gums remain bloodless, and thick shards stick out from between her iron teeth. The crunching is loud enough to be heard over the music, loud enough that the people at a neighboring table turn around.

The Tamale Lady grins. “You’re a funny one, mama. You know, I can’t tell you where your house went off to, but I think I might know someone who can. He’s a friend of mine. Overlapping interests, so to speak. Here’s exactly where to find him . . .”

BABA YAGA MEETS THE BROWNIE MAN IN A SPRAWLING PARK BORDERED BY PALM TREES

She tries to give him her bundle of herbs as an offering, but he shakes his head and says that’s one thing he’s never short on. Still, he sniffs the twine-wrapped bundle and laughs. Baba Yaga wonders if any of her magic is any good here.

They take their seats on the dry grass, Baba Yaga a bit indelicately due to the crookedness of her back and the way her stiff, tree-trunk knees aren’t meant to be folded. The Brownie Man wears a long jacket with many pockets, some so bulky that he has to shift their contents in order to find a comfortable position on the ground.

“I come a long way to ask for help,” the witch begins. “My hut is gone and I know not where. The city’s great mother speaks of your magic. Do you understand me?”

The Brownie Man nods. “That’d be Miss Ramos you’re talking about. A good woman there, and we got a good thing going. Meaning, I got the treats and she’s got the eats. Meaning, the medicine I prescribe, you see, it’s got a tendency to make the people hungry.”

“What potion is that?” Baba Yaga pokes at one of the bulging pockets with a gnarled finger, the nail yellow and long enough to curl.

“Potion, huh? I like that. I’m gonna use that, potion. I got all kinds of potions. The kind that cleanse your heart when it’s all dark, hopeless sludge. The kind that quiet your mind when you got a million thoughts in there, scurrying around and multiplying and keeping you from sleep. The kind that make you love everybody and the kind that make you think twice about who it is you love. The kind that make you remember your gods, ’cause these kids are always forgetting.”

Baba Yaga examines the row of houses opposite the park. They are tall and stately and painted in harmonious shades of peach and seafoam and cream, but they are not her house, her precious hut, and that makes them nothing at all.

“Sometimes I put ’em into little cakes and cookies too. That’s why they call me the Brownie Man. You think no one can help you? The Brownie Man can.”

Help. The witch’s attention snaps back to him. “Yes, this is why I come. My hut is gone and I know not where. Can you help me?”

The Brownie Man pulls a short cigarette from one of his pockets, lights it, and takes a lazy drag. When he offers it to her, she shakes her head.

“Where you from, by the way? I can’t place your accent.”

“Very far. Deep in the Swamp Forest below the Fragile Ice Sea.”

Smoke fills the space between them. “You know, this city, it’s like no place else. Meaning, it’s like heaven and hell rolled into one, then you add a bunch of hills people got to climb up and down each day. And the kids here, they’re fixing to do big things, even if it’s hard and keeps getting harder. Me and Miss Ramos, we’re happy to be part of that. Meaning, her tamales, my potions, they’re two kinds of sustenance. Meaning, we’re always trying to put back what the city takes away.”

All this time, he has been drawing from his cigarette, working it down to a nub. He looks all around him. “Shit. Why they got to put that damned ashtray all the way over there?”

Baba Yaga follows his gaze toward a cylindrical receptacle sixty or so feet away. “I can help,” she says, and detaches her hands from her body. It has been a long time since she has done this magic, but she is glad to see it can be of use. The left hand plucks the cigarette butt from between the Brownie Man’s lips and flies off in the direction of the ashtray. The right hand hovers in midair, pale and knob-knuckled.

The Brownie Man stares agape at the hand, then at the clean, bloodless stumps of her wrists, then back at the hand. “Well, that’s something I ain’t ever seen before. Why does this one come off too?”

“They are companions,” Baba Yaga shrugs. “They come and go together.”

Just then, the left hand darts back, having done its master’s bidding, and both hands reattach themselves to their respective stumps. The witch wrings her wrists, setting everything back in place.

“So I help you. Now you help me?” she asks hopefully.

“Ah.” The Brownie Man has already pulled a second cigarette out of his pocket. “I don’t know about your hut, but I know some folks who might. They’re the ones with all the power in the city and they know how to find anything, man. The Inventors. You hear about the cars and the maps? Yeah, that’s them. You got to be careful though. Meaning, they’re just about impossible to get a hold of. And dangerous too. Meaning, they’re liable to eat you up if you do.”

Baba Yaga is not the least bit afraid, and says so.

The Brownie Man starts emptying his pockets top to bottom—a phone, then another phone, another, then another—muttering, “Now, which one is it?” Finally, with five or six stacked up on the brittle grass in front of them, he finds the one he’s looking for and presses a button to turn it on. When it comes to life, he taps here and there and shows Baba Yaga how to send what he calls an email. “Like I said, no promises you’ll get an answer. But if you do, these are your guys. Just remember what I told you.”

“As for me, and for the meantime, I got something you might like.” He hands the witch a pile of cellophane-wrapped brownies and points to them one by one. “This potion, it’s good for homesickness. This potion, it’ll keep your eyes sharp. And this one, this one’s important: it’s the one for not giving up.”

Baba Yaga thanks him and stands, her bones groaning and creaking the whole way up. She brushes the grass off her back and legs and makes her way toward the line of swaying palms, brownies in hand. When she looks back, the Brownie Man has already gathered a crowd.

BABA YAGA HAS A BETTER IDEA

Now, she is not deaf to guidance, nor is she averse to trying new things—but part of being a wise old witch is knowing which advice to heed, which to ignore, and which to manipulate in the ways that best serve her. And this email thing, it was never going to happen.

Baba Yaga doesn’t know emails, but she does know forests. And forests are full of little messengers—lichens and mosses, lynxes and foxes—who can make themselves small enough and tall enough to reach the places that nobody else can. Birds are especially useful, untroubled by the obstacles of land. The witch has seen plenty of birds in San Francisco—lovely, ugly, iridescent things—but none that the people seem to like. They throw stones at them and shoo them off ledges and kick them out of backlit doorways. No matter, Baba Yaga thinks. She can make her own.

When she returns to the apartment off Haight Street, she leaves the cellophane-wrapped brownies on the kitchen counter: an offering for the housemates. (It does no good to have enemies who could instead be friends, especially if you plan to live as long as someone like Baba Yaga.) Then she pulls a bowl down from the cupboard and prepares to make her magic.

She empties the vial of blood and mixes in the bundle of herbs; she drops in a thread from her spare shawl and a bit of branch from her small birch broom. Then she goes outside and marches up to the billboard. “All heat, no mercy,” it declares. She arches a brow, mildly amused.

“White of wing and swift as well, and loud of voice and clear as well, and fixed on course and shrewd as well, carry my message so!” She throws the contents of the bowl onto the billboard’s face.

Quickly, as if following orders, the letters rearrange themselves into the message she wishes to send: that her dearest hut has gone missing; that, though it is small for a hut and faster than most, she knows someone will rise to the challenge; that the challenge will be worthwhile and the prize will be grand—the kind of prize that can shake an entire life and the ones around it.

The billboard message rips off its wooden frame and folds once, then twice, then many times until it resembles an immense, sharp-edged bird. From its beak glide more birds, dozens, hundreds, all with duplicate messages, that fly off to paste themselves over existing billboards around the city. Baba Yaga places them strategically so the Inventors will be sure to see them. She sends birds to the billboards outside the Inventors’ homes, and those on the sides of the roads they take to work. Then she sends seven birds to each of the seven hills for good measure.

And to all the world, the billboards continue to shout about Relentless Hot Sauce. The Inventors alone can see.

BABA YAGA LISTENS FOR THE HEARTBEAT OF THE CITY

Back at the old Victorian, the tides have changed for Baba Yaga and the housemates. The brownie offering goes over well, and the housemates are as quick to forgive as they were once to anger. It doesn’t hurt that the witch uses a spell to remove the offending clumps of hair from the clogged shower drain. The hair comes up as wiry, silver-gray snakes, which, with a bit of finessing—eyes here, a mouth there—the witch can happily keep as pets. The housemates agree it’s okay, so long as the snakes stay in her room, and overall the mood in the house is one of peaceful coexistence.

So it comes to pass that Baba Yaga attends a silent disco. The housemates explain the concept—everyone who wants to hear the music hears it; everyone who doesn’t, doesn’t—and the witch remarks that this must be some kind of magic.

“That’s a nice way to look at it,” one housemate smiles, and passes her a pair of headphones. Baba Yaga dances with the rest of the silent discoers at the beach, moving in wide, loping arcs; her bunioned feet sinking into the cold, damp sand; her lumpy, bumpy hands holding the headphones tight against her ears.

Baba Yaga goes to a punk rock show.

Baba Yaga goes to a poetry slam.

The housemates invite Baba Yaga to Alcatraz, but she has to refuse: a prison on an island is no place a non-swimming witch should go. She hasn’t made it to six-hundred-something years old without establishing rules such as this.

Baba Yaga goes on a ferry ride around the bay. In the dining cabin, they sell cucumber sandwiches and strawberry juice and the same black liquor the Tamale Lady drank in the sticky-floored bar that night. The cabin is cramped and dank, and the movement on the water feels almost like walking on chicken legs—but the spotless white cloth on the tables reminds the witch how far she is from home. Still, it feels good to be toing and froing. She watches the waves tumble outside the window until her gut starts tumbling too.

All this time, Baba Yaga hears nothing from the billboard birds that she has set loose on the city. She calls to them from her cot every night—her nightgown scratchy like she likes, the tip of her nose flat against the ceiling just so, but her world not quite right.

BABA YAGA HEARS BACK

When the response finally comes, it’s in the dead of night and around the size and shape of a domestic pigeon. It flies headfirst into Baba Yaga’s windowpane, cracking the glass, then picks itself up and does the same thing again and again until she wakes up and lets it in. Impromptu magic with limited ingredients is not the witch’s preferred way to work. Of the hundreds of birds she made, there were bound to be a few duds.

The billboard bird, oblivious to its injuries, unfurls its wings and flattens itself out on the sill. At its center is a message in small typed font:

Ms. Yaga,

Inventor Number One Six One Six will see you at the address, date, and time printed below. Please arrive ten minutes prior to your appointment. Note this time window is not flexible.

– The Office of the Inventors

Baba Yaga feels a spark start in the dense calluses of her feet and travel up through her bony legs, through the hump of her back, the length of her nose, the tangles of her hair. This is it: her beloved hut will be found and returned! They will be together again, spinning in the clearing, chasing through the blue-green firs.

Her appointment is scheduled for the very next day. She readies herself and her few belongings and, after a thought, magics the billboard bird into a new, flesh-and-feather form. It cries out in pain, falling sideways, favoring its bent wing. She picks it up and briefly considers its alert, beadlike eyes—then she puts it out of its misery. With her iron teeth, she rips off the head, chewing only once, only twice, before swallowing it whole.

BABA YAGA TAKES A BUS TO THE OFFICE OF THE INVENTORS

She does not know the logistics of landing her mortar and pestle downtown. On the bus, it’s standing room only and she relishes the movement under her feet, the unsteadiness she grew accustomed to while living in the hut. When the wheels pass over speed bumps and dip into potholes, the witch stumbles and nearly falls, but no one gets up to offer her their seat.

At the Office of the Inventors, most everything is glass. Glass ceilings meet glass walls, which in turn meet glass floors, the monotony broken only by the lusterless metal at the joints. Winding glass staircases lead to glass rooms, through which Baba Yaga can see glass bottles and glass desks, then the next glass room, then the next. Total transparency. Everything in the open. How do they hide their magic? she thinks.

The lobby is empty but for a small rectangular screen set on a slim leg ending in a single wheel. In the corner is an unmarked black door, blacker than the black liquor even—cavity black, grave-plot black. The wheeled thing rolls toward her, emitting a peculiar chirp she hasn’t heard before. “Sign in here,” it speaks in a perfectly even tone. Baba Yaga leans forward to see the screen. Sign in here, a line of text repeats.

She waits there across from the odd, demanding creature for what feels like a century, feeling unanchored and exposed. She thinks about the hut roaming madly through the taiga alone.

“Ms. Yaga,” says a bodiless voice from the direction of the black door. “Inventor Number One Six One Six will see you now.”

Inventor Number One Six One Six is not what Baba Yaga expects. He looks younger than any prince she’s ever met and wears clothing that doesn’t reach past his elbows or knees. He sits on a large inflated ball behind a cluttered glass desk, bouncing up and down as he speaks.

“Hey! Ms. Yaga, is it? Am I pronouncing that right?” He gestures for her to sit in the chair opposite him. “How was your commute in? Can I get you anything to drink?”

His questions come in rapid succession; he doesn’t wait for her to answer one before he asks another. The white board behind him is covered in diagrams, their lines still wet and glistening. Between them, scattered along the desk, are miscellaneous items the witch assumes must be recent inventions.

She eyes one: a tiny bottle, its contents the deep orange-red of a phoenix’s plume. The label reads “Relentless.”

One Six One Six follows her gaze. “Ah, yes, that’s one of ours. Doing well on the market.” Then, briskly: “So, Ms. Yaga, what do you have for me today?”

Baba Yaga explains her problem like she explained it all those times before. She starts from the beginning, leaving out nothing—save for the barbecued children (which she has found to be one of those divisive topics) and the house meeting (the details of which she doesn’t care to relive). She describes the hut by its exact dimensions, by its material composition, and by its dearness too. How lost she feels without it, how uneasy and detached from the roots of her magic. What that means for the Swamp Forest, and for the rest of the world.

One Six One Six’s focus shifts around the room as she speaks: to the abstract painting here, the arrangement of glass vases there; to the row of glass-barreled fountain pens on the desk. He takes his time selecting one, then rolls it back and forth between his middle finger and thumb.

When Baba Yaga finishes, she looks at him expectantly.

The Inventor says nothing.

Finally, with a start: “Sorry, you caught me drifting there. Juggling all these projects, you know? Mind’s always going a mile a minute. But I think I’m picking up on this. What was that last thing you said? A house, but small?”

Baba Yaga confirms, yes, that is her hut. It is small, but more importantly, it is beloved.

“Got it. Well, the good news is that it’s not a bad idea. The bad news is that it’s been done before. To death, in fact. Tiny houses have been out there for a while. They’re downtrending now, if you can believe it. You got anything else for me?”

Baba Yaga stares at him, bewildered. Anything else? She told him her whole story—what more could he want?

“Well, Ms. Yaga, unfortunately, I can’t commit investment funds to a concept that’s already on the market. New. Disruptive. Life-changing. That’s what we’re after. That’s where the magic is. That’s where the money is.”

He rolls the pen between his middle finger and thumb. That’s where the magic is echoes in the witch’s ears.

“But how about this: you come up with something else, something with legs, and you call me, and we’ll talk again. The Office appreciates that great ideas can come from anywhere. Just remember, do your research this time. It’s really gotta have legs.”

“My house has legs,” Baba Yaga says softly.

The Inventor’s expression turns to pity. “I’m sorry, Ms. Yaga. It does not.”

BABA YAGA DISCOVERS THE MAGIC OF TACOS

Dejected, Baba Yaga leaves the Office of the Inventors and walks her tired bones down the street, Telegraph Hill with its famous tower looming in the distance, until the scent wafting from a nearby taqueria stops her in her tracks. It smells good, like something she has smelled before: the tamales in the dimly lit bar, and also the tender meat of children cooking in the big stove in the small hut, once upon a time.

She finds an empty booth close to the window. The light over the table hangs so low that, when Baba Yaga slides in, she hits it with her nose.

In a booth on the other side of the room, a group of young people eat from paper-lined trays, talking and laughing between bites. One reaches for the bottle of hot sauce at the center of the table. Baba Yaga can just make out the label, Relentless, and the words: “Man, I am addicted to this stuff.”

The witch inhales deeply, listens to the sizzle from the grill. She thinks about the Tamale Lady and the Brownie Man, who have found ways to mend the broken people from the inside out. She thinks about her housemates, who generate and absorb magic every day but do not have the language to call it what it is. She thinks about the Inventors, for whom magic means something else entirely, something complicated and tied up in numbers and markets.

“Ma’am.” A boy in a grease-smudged apron approaches, interrupting her thoughts. “Ma’am,” he says again, gently. “You can’t just sit here. You have to order something.” He points to a menu above the counter.

The menu is plastered with pictures of various dishes between fine lines of handwritten text that she can’t understand—and one other thing: the restaurant logo. The words “Pollo Bailando” curve over an outline of a dancing chicken. Though the image is still, it gives the impression of movement, as if you might blink and find the chicken suddenly standing on the other leg.

Could it be? Its legs are muscular at the haunches.

Could it be? They end in long, sharp claws.

Baba Yaga recognizes in the logo something of her dear hut. When she points and asks, “Where is that?,” there is a new urgency in her voice.

The boy spins around, confused.

She jabs her yellow-nailed finger toward the image of the dancing chicken.

“Oh, that?” The boy looks relieved. “We actually get all of our chicken local, from an organic free-range farm in Sacramento. I forget the name, but I can get my manager if you—”

Sacramento.

As the boy drones on, she begins to see it in the back of her mind. It feels as real to her as the visions of the Tamale Lady before they met. Sacramento: the hut strutting through a meadow, towering over its brothers, feasting on parsley and sunflower seeds.

San Francisco has its heroes and its villains, and its healers and its ailing too. What more could it want from a witch who stinks of sulfur and carries around her weight in hair? What more could it offer her? Better to leave them on their way, and be on hers as well.

She remembers the Brownie Man’s potions and the one he said was most important, the one for not giving up. She hopes the housemates make good use of it. The witch, in all her years, has never felt the need for that sort of potion. And if the need should arise, she can make her own.

By the time the boy starts listing the menu items, she is already gone.

Flying north over San Francisco’s rolling landscape that night, she thanks each of the hills as she passes by:

“Spasibo, Davidson.”

“Spasibo, Sutro.”

“Spasibo, Twin.”

“Spasibo, Rincon.”

“Spasibo, Nob.”

“Spasibo, Telegraph.”

“And spasibo, Russian.”

“Blagodaryu vas.”

If not in one place, Baba Yaga vows, then another. If not in this place, then the next. She will travel to the ends of the earth for her hut. If her long life has taught her anything, it is that the ends of the earth, they are not so far apart.

She makes good time, the wind blowing in her favor and warmer as she leaves San Francisco’s fog belt. A short while later, under the cover of darkness, she drops down in a half-tilled field neighboring a poultry farm, her mortar landing noiselessly on the soil.

It feels good to clamber out after the flight, stretch her bony legs. Baba Yaga looks in the direction of the coops. She still hasn’t gotten used to staying still.

Kristina Ten

Kristina Ten is a Russian-American writer of short fiction and poetry, and a 2019 graduate of Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Masters ReviewCosmonauts AvenuePithead Chapel, and elsewhere. You can find her at kristinaten.com and on Twitter as @kristina_ten.