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One to See, One to Speak, One to Listen

by Call Me Les about a month ago in vintage · updated 28 days ago
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In the clearing stood a little cabin on chicken's feet.

Image licensed from Shutterstock

The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window. In its luminescence, a delicate figure in white took her last breath before her age of innocence was lost to eternal shadow.

Such was the lore of the little cabin in the clearing that stood on chicken's feet, which had served to deter all but the foolish from ever seeking out the epicentre of the damned for centuries.

But, as time is wont to do, the knowledge of the little cabin and its figure in white slipped into rumour; rumour slipped into myth; and the precursory tale that should never have been forgotten was swallowed up into a more widely known children's parable.

This was the ingress of my involvement in the tale.

As an historian of children's literature, my work at the University of Glasgow had led me deep into the Bohemian Forest along the German-Czech Republic frontier. My task was to unravel the potential origin of a beloved fairytale. Prior to my journey, I had not been aware of the local mystery that introduced a story I had known and loved since childhood.

Now, as I stood upon the brink of dissociation, there was nothing left to do but beg for absolution before falling into the madness of allegory.

*

It had begun one week earlier.

C.O. The Department of English, Glasgow University

June 30, 1922

Dear Dr. Danica Moravek,

As one of the foremost experts in philology, we implore you to help us. Our precinct is located near the hamlet of Boží čes. You may have read in recent headlines that yet another child has gone missing — this time one Anicka Rose, aged six years old. It is the third disappearance of a child in the past three months, and, as may be assumed, parents are demanding answers. Additionally, three American tourists have also been reported missing. With regret, we have been unable to provide anyone with sufficient explanations.

We can offer you a substantial reward, as well as train fare and accommodations. Bring whatever you require; local supplies may be limited.

If it were not urgent, we would not deign to disturb your work. However, we regard you as the singular person who can dispel the vicious superstitions, which have driven some residents to violence.

The villagers believe Baba Yaga has returned.

Most humbly yours,

Sgt. Brazda of the Československá Armáda

The bouncing train jostled my thoughts. I put the letter down and tucked it back into the dirty envelope left to me on my doorstep in the dead of night the previous evening.

It was curious to think why this particular story should be suddenly thrust under my magnifying glass. Yet, given my personal history, I was not sure why it had not entered my mind to explore it on my own. I recalled the many nights curled in my Slavic mother's lap, begging to be told the peculiar story of the bony-legged woman whose cabin was surrounded by a fence of skulls.

I once more pondered the bizarre request. Whoever had left the crumpled, hand-delivered letter and its accompanying file folder must have agreed I was the woman to call upon when literary hysteria had taken root. The dubious reason they did not wish to travel with me — or discuss the matter at all — was troubling. Regardless, I would not disappoint. I had immediately packed my bags, books and boots and boarded the next available train.

The cheery voice of the steward and his refreshment trolley interrupted my musings, and I jolted to attention. Soothing cup of tea in hand, I soon returned to my reverie.

With a chuckle, I remembered listening to the queer detail of Baba Yaga's comical, chicken-legged hut and being frightened by the description of the old woman who, when not eating humans — particularly naughty children — travelled the world with Death himself in an iron kettle so that her ravenous hunger could consume the souls of newly-dead sinners.

But the chuckling ended when I recalled what followed the first time I had heard the fairytale. Upon crying over the unfairness of children being eaten simply because they were naughty, my mother was quick to admonish me:

"Fairytales are rarely fair, nor do they have happy endings, and more often than not, they have sad beginnings. Do not dismiss the plight of Baba Yaga, who was nothing more than a woman forced to live off the land, banished to the woods for only God knows why."

The thought of what my mother, Zdenka, would think of me taking this journey if she had still been alive to accompany me crossed my mind. It was approaching a year since she had passed, but her voice was still as clear in my memory as if we had spoken yesterday.

I flipped open the file folder and began reading the diary inside. It was un-dated, yet plainly an antique. I moved each page with gloved fingers as delicately as if feeding a hummingbird.

Dear friend,

Joseph hath laid with me in the cabin a month ago. Though he pledged me his troth, I awoke to find him absconded — with both my maidenhead and my little purse. I know not what I shall do now. Father hath turned a blind eye to my suffering. He cares not that I was lured into sin. Dearest friend, I have nowhere to hide, nothing to eat, and my future feels bleak as the coming winter. The child and I shall starve.

Ever thine, Eleonora

*

Blindfold removed, I took in my surroundings. My breathing came in ragged waves. The ancient trees pressed in around me, their clapping leaves imitating jeering spectators at a mediæval beheading. I stood in the dark, dressed in nothing, my bare body exposed for all to see, hands bound and mouth gagged; whatever freedoms I had assumed could never be stripped of me had vanished when they removed my clothes.

Next to me, my fellow kidnapped victims, also naked, were arranged in a line: a young blonde woman, a middle-aged man, and an older woman. Each had been dragged into the woods on a leash with blindfolds over their eyes as I had been. Each was taking in the scenery as I was.

I had no idea who they were or why any of us had been included in this depraved gathering, but my intuition led me to assume I would soon discover the aberrant reason.

"One to see, one to speak, one to listen. Forever hungry."

The eerie refrain of the villagers as they had paraded us to the cabin in the woods echoed in my mind, reverberating inside me in increasing pandemonium.

I wanted the words to stop.

But I did not want to hear the silence.

The middle-aged man was first to be pulled forwards. Though he dug in his heels, his writhing body was placed upon the altar in front of the cabin and tied down. From inside the darkened doorway strode a figure hooded in a blood-red cape.

Two of the villagers lashed a rope around the man's neck and pulled it taut. Strangulation is a ghastly exhibition, but when I tried to look away, the person holding my leash wrenched my head forwards again.

Then, as abruptly as it had begun, the strangling ceased. The hooded figure, the "witch", picked up a rusty, grime encrusted farrier's pick, forced it into the man's eye sockets and scooped.

Pop.

Pop.

Even above the gagged screaming, I heard the moist sound of their removal. Then the witch addressed her audience:

"Eyes that see but choose to look away, eyes that care not for their fellow-creatures; we have seen your soul and your eyes belong to us."

I had not noticed it before, but adjacent to the witch sat a large, black dog. The witch discharged the eyeballs to him, and he snapped up the viscous treat with relish.

Bile rose into my mouth; the diary's sorrowful words had been made clear.

When the witch carved into the man's abdomen with the knife, the sloshing sound was almost as repugnant as the smell.

Dear God, I thought to myself. This ritual was mediæval. Hanged, drawn and — whatever else fits their pleasure.

Both the women muted their futile wailing after the dog devoured the eyeballs. Nevertheless, their quiet tears continued to fall. I remained dry-eyed, as angry and unforgiving as Montresor leading Fortunato to the catacombs.

There had to be a way out of this predicament.

*

Dear friend,

It is not true! Yes, I did goeth to the crone's den in the hope of a medick. However, once there, the decision was made for me, and I lost the babe to natural causes. I stayed on with Agnes for the length of time required to heal and determine a way to earn my pittance — a seamstress my intended pursuit. But, alas! My reputation hath been further ruined by rumours from my former neighbour's daughter. Reluctance to employ me hath turned to refusal.

Ever thine, Eleonora

*

The young blonde was bowed to the altar from her feeble hiding place behind the elder woman. Plump and beautiful, cutting down something so pure was a sin. But, perhaps, I thought, that was the point.

"One to see, one to speak, one to listen. Forever hungry."

After they removed her noose, the villagers crowded around the altar, each taking their turn to force-feed the victim's mouth with bits of the forest floor. The blonde's limbs lay listless in their restraints as the leaves and detritus were wedged into her mouth. Next, her larynx was torn from her throat with a filleting knife.

The witch raised her knife for a second time and modified her earlier proclamation:

"Voice that chooses to speak falsehoods, voice that cares not for their fellow-creatures; we have seen your soul and your voice belongs to us."

When the instrument pierced her innards I prayed that the strangulation had been more effective for her than the man. But it was hard to say since she had no voice left with which to scream. The blonde’s intestines joined the man's with a repulsive spatter; her larynx, the witch fed to the salivating, black hound at her side.

*

Dear friend,

Agnes hath been summoned to join me on trial, and I am sick with grief that this most kind and generous soul is to share my fate. The biddies in the village condemn me with the vilest words imaginable. None are willing to listen to my plight. None are willing to believe the truth. I cannot bring myself to pray for God's mercy on my behalf or theirs.

God hath closed His ears.

Agnes, lo! I hear the horse steps and the squeaking wheels of the jail cart come to carry us to our deaths. My hand trembles as I write. Will no one defend me? Have I not always been a godly and obedient daughter and friend? Am I to die on a pyre for a sin I did not intend to commit and another which, even hath I commited it, should not be a sin?

They are here.

Fare-thee-well, friend.

*

The old woman moved with a level of decorum which surprised me for it cloaked her nudity in grandeur. Her stoic ascent to the altar was under her own strength.

"One to see, one to speak, one to listen. Forever hungry."

When she slipped on her counterparts' entrails, however, her composure crumbled like a dried leaf, and the old woman flung herself onto the witch's robes in a desperate bid for salvation.

The witch's countenance remained concealed, so it was with some assumption on my part that I concluded the nod given to her hangmen implied the witch would reward her victim's earlier courage — or status as an elder — by strangling her to the point of death before moving on to sweeter meats.

The strangling concluded with greater haste. The witch raised a cleaver.

Said the witch:

"Ears that choose to ignore the truth, ears that care not for their fellow-creatures; we have seen your soul and your ears belong to us."

When the old woman's ears were sliced off and fed to the dog, the victim stirred not a muscle, nor when her bowels were drained onto the steaming pile at the witch's feet. It appeared I was fortunately correct in my earlier summation.

I shall not die on their terms. I have wriggled free of the knots.

*

Dearest Eleonora,

My heart is sick with the loss of mine only sister. Worse still, my time of lying in has begun early. I am forever alone in the dark. I long for thy company with an unending ache in my bosom; only my tears and thy words printed here have I to keep me company and mark the day's passage.

If I had known my soul would perish when thy body burnt to ash on the pyre, I would have climbed upon it whither thou stood. I no longer believe in God's mercy or justice and I have made my wishes knownst to Lucifer. When my child is born, we shall come and find thee.

Together, vengeance shall be ours.

Your loving sister, Madeleine

*

One of the villagers yanked me forwards by the leash around my neck, and I dropped before the witch on my knees. I shut my eyes, not in prayer but to keep them from noticing I was no longer afraid.

Someone slapped my bare back with a switch, and my eyes sprang open. The pain cut through me, yet I kept my resolve as sharp as the blade I had managed to collect from one of my captors and conceal between my thighs.

They may have taken my clothes from me; they would never take my dignity.

But first, I swallowed my pride and pleaded to be spared.

It wasn't uncommon in Eleonora's time for the execution of a pregnant woman to be delayed until they gave birth — if they could wait merely a few months.

I blurted out my secret. Their reply was swift.

"It matters not...it matters not...it matters not..."

I laughed with mirth at their lack of compassion. It was the height of irony that the disclosure of my pregnancy and pleas for mercy should fall on deaf ears!

They repeated their new chant, placing their arms round each other and swaying in a circle surrounding the witch and I. For the first time, I wondered if their pupils were dilated from more than the darkness.

The tightening circle was a fortunate misstep on their part. No longer did I perceive the single possibility of ending my life and my child's on our terms; I newly determined I might have an opportunity to bring the witch down to hell with me.

Carpe diem.

My lunge took the witch by surprise, and I stabbed her in the side. But the witch reacted as though I had tapped her with a feather. She extracted the knife like it were some pesky insect, cast it aside, and cackled. Looking up into the cavity under her hood from my place at her feet, I could have sworn she was smiling at me.

Using the last of my strength, I scrambled forward and retrieved the blade from where it had fallen. I levelled the point to my throat, but the acolytes arrested my hands before I could release my vein. Two days starvation had taken its toll and I was too fatigued to try again. My body and mind could not agree upon defeat, however, and I seethed with acrimony. It was at that moment of despair I shared the briefest of conversation with the witch over the thrumming din.

It is essential that I record it here for you, dear friend, word by word:

"You were not brought to me to die, nor was your child. But you may not ever leave the forest again."

"Then that is still a punishment. There is no honour in your pardon."

"Fairytales are rarely fair, Danica."

My stomach dropped to my knees. That sentiment was so familiar.

Too familiar.

Though she did not need to, the witch threw back her hood to reveal her face. The confirmation that Zdenka, my once loving and gentle mother, had played hostess to this morbid ritual was the final grain of sand, and the tears I had been holding at bay slid down my face like a torrent of rain.

Before I could make further inquiries, my mother gestured over my shoulders to several figures in black that had previously been hidden in the shadows. Zdenka waved her arm, and I recognized the visage of the young Anicka, whose disappearance had first brought me to these evil woods, when she tottered forth with a chalice.

My apprehension did not succeed against my dehydration.

I drank the bitter liquid dry.

Once the last drop was drunk, Zdenka took my hands with an icy cold grip and kissed my cheek with frozen lips:

"Madeleine was your great, great, great, great grandmother, my child. I have reached my 100th year. My time has ended."

"Will I be permitted to raise my daughter? I am assuming it will be a daughter."

"Yes, after you sleep. But first, you must sleep."

We had reached the end of all words, and to my utmost terror a flash of comprehension dawned on me.

What most outsiders have neglected in translation, what I decided not to inform you of earlier, dear friend, is that Baba Yaga is a triad of women by the same name. She is the crone, the mother and the maiden.

Within my body, I tingled from head to toe with a cool chill, as though the breeze off the mountain sought to burrow through my veins. My sight grew dim, and I collapsed onto the earth.

Sometime later, an unknown person's hands bathed me, dressed me in a white, cotton gown and laid me to rest in a bed. I heard the striking of the match and glimpsed the faint flame of the candle, which had been lit in the window next to me. The last sensation I remembered was a gentle caress along my suddenly swollen abdomen, and the placement of this journal and pen in my folded arms.

Then the cabin rose up onto its chicken feet and strutted off into the night.

*~Woe betide any lost mortal who follows the candle's light to our cabin. The Baba Yaga sleep lightly, and we are always hungry.~*

--end of contest entry--

Author's note: Thank you for reading! I've taken a direction from my favourite author of the macabre by using a single person, somewhat unreliable narrator and by reducing the dialogue to an absolute minimum. If you can guess who my favourite author is based on the clue I have embedded, please don’t hesitate to let me know in the comments! It is my hope that this story is one which can be read aloud to an audience. In this way, it may be best enjoyed in a group around a campfire on a warm, dark summer's eve.

This story is submitted to the Campfire Ghost Story Contest on Vocal Media.

~For C Xx~

With gracious thanks to Madoka Mori and Caroline Jane for flanking me in the 11th hour so that this dark story could see the light of your computer screen. Attached are their entries; I highly recommend reading both stories next!

vintage

About the author

Call Me Les

She/her | Cat enthusiast | "Word-Nerd" | Fueled by buttertarts

  • Co-Founding admin at Vocal Social Society & Great Incantations
  • Co-Founder of the Vocal Creators Chronicle
  • Vocal Spotlight
  • Book: Owl in a Towel

~&~

No words left unspoken.

Reader insights

Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  2. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

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Comments (12)

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  • Babs Iverson14 days ago

    Read your horrific horror story. Fantastic tale!!!

  • J. Delaney-Howe27 days ago

    Homerun with this one. Original and very well written.

  • Madoka Mori28 days ago

    You really stuck the landing with this one, Les! Bravo!

  • Carol Townend29 days ago

    Gruesome with a chilling narrative. This is my kind of read. I loved every second of reading it!

  • Amy Writes30 days ago

    My Eastern European roots LOVED this retelling of the story of Baba Yaga. Her lore has fascinated me since I was a child. Well done!!!

  • Chilling! Great rendition of the Baba Yaga!

  • Gerald Holmes30 days ago

    Spectacular writing. The flow, the characters, the use of language, everything about this spells winner.

  • C. H. Richardabout a month ago

    Well done, I love the twist at the end. Not sure who the narrator is, but would love to see read out loud.

  • Dharrsheena Raja Segarranabout a month ago

    I love body horror and gore so I absolutely loved your story! You did an excellent job on this one!

  • Angel Whelanabout a month ago

    Bravo!!! My mother in law’s childhood nickname was Baba Yaga, because she is Agnieszka (Jagusa). She hated it. But the story is great!

  • Stephanie Downardabout a month ago

    Awesome horror story! ❤️ I love all things gory so this was great!

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