Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Telling Tales – Chapter 5

The Promise of a Great Gray Wolf

The old man took a swig of his beer. His food was long finished, and he looked at the breadcrumbs with something like sadness. “Anyway,” he said at last, “I think everyone knows what happened after that. You don’t just overthrow a monarchy and start something brand new. No, Koschey was the new Monarch.It mattered little to him in short order. He amassed his wealth, yes, and his power, and now he had an army of his own at his beck and call. But it turns out he preferred decimating opposing armies through his own efforts. Less to rely upon others. I think it’s a regency now, technically. My understanding is that Koschey hasn’t shown his face in decades.”

“Centuries!” said the merchant next to him, who had finally introduced himself as Yevgeny. “Assuming he’s even real. My grandfather used to tell stories about old Koschey the Deathless, and they were the same stories he heard from his grandfather.”

“That’s the question, isn’t it?” asked the old man back. “Is the story relating facts, or is it speaking to deeper truths? The evil of men.”

The belligerent Dmitri snorted. “That’s even more outlandish. Either Koschey existed or he’s some kind of warning to us all? Beware, or we could become Koschey?”

“I think the real danger is in becoming his parents,” said the bartender. All of the men in the inn – for everyone else was a man – turned to her. “They gave their hearts to their child and lost themselves. Koschey is… He’s whatever is bad. He’s the consequence of every wrong decision.”

Sergei chuckled. “That’s naive,” he said. “What of these Monarchs? Their four armies? Each of those armies is a bad decision?”

“Yes! They should have asked Baba Yaga how to defeat him.” Dmitri’s face went blank as everyone else laughed at how her solution painted him into a corner. She looked at the traveler with new eyes, appreciating how his stories had turned what could have been a horrible night into one that was palatable and becoming profitable, even if it had meant telling her own story. She wasn’t sure how she felt about him incorporating the heartbeat from her forest into his own story of Koschey eating the soldier. It was clever and quick thinking, to be sure, but she still had nightmares, especially if she happened to sleep against her husband’s back and felt his heart, one two three four. Tonight would undoubtedly be one of those nights. She didn’t want to let the traveler off quite so easily for that. “There is another way, too, of course.”

The conversations around her abruptly stopped and the old man looked at her with something like curiosity and delight. “Indeed? Another way to defeat Koschey, besides going through Baba Yaga? Where were you when I was traveling with Prince Ivan?” he laughed.

It was a story her grandmother had told her, that she had heard from her grandmother, that she had had from her grandmother before her. “Yes. There is a person who knows where Koschey’s heart lies, and if she ever got to it, it would mean his end.”

The traveler was positively giddy. Not only did he have shelter from the storm, he had been fed. He was drinking beer. He was in good company. He had the promise of a place to sleep. And here he was about to get a new story. “And who might that be?” he challenged. He desperately wanted to hear something new. He hoped that his dare to the bartender would keep her talking.

* * *

She lived with her mother and her sister at the edge of the oldest forest. Neither she nor her sister were pretty, and certainly no one would have gone so far as to say that they were beautiful. All three of the family worked hard to keep their small home running.There was nothing to say from the outside that one sister was better or different than the other. They were different people, yes, of course they were, and everyone that knew them said so. But if you’d asked for a description of one or the other from someone who’d just met them, you’d get the same words. Honest. Hard working. Plain.

And yet, their mother favored the younger sister, for no obvious reason that could be divined. Both sisters worked all day and they both shared in the work, but if there was a worse task to do, it was the older sister who did it. Anything heavier, smellier, or more difficult fell on her shoulders. It wasn’t out of spite. Neither the mother nor the younger sister even noticed. On the few occasions when the elder sister asked for a respite from one of the worse jobs, the younger had a cough, or the mother told her she should set a better example.

It was, in a word, unfair.

It didn’t weigh on the elder sister as much as you might think. She had grown up this way and she was used to it. She dreamed, though, of escape. She dreamed of the prince that would find her and rescue her from her plight – which was really living with a family that loved her but took advantage of her. Not the worst of plights in a world of things gone bad. But she was allowed to dream.

Dreams are just dreams, and work is work, and so it was that the older sister was dreaming while she should have been paying greater attention, because not all work is safe. She was raising water from the well, bucket by bucket, with the well cover sitting off to the side. If she had been paying attention, she might not have shifted her foot. If she hadn’t shifted her foot, she might not have lost her balance. If she hadn’t lost her balance, she wouldn’t have fallen.

Wells are dangerous places. Narrow and dark, with mud to pull you under and gasses to suffocate you before you can even call twice for help. Both sisters knew this very well. The young woman struck one side wall and scraped along another and fell ever farther and ever faster, much farther than the rope would typically travel to reach the water. If she had had her bearings, she might have thought this was strange, but instead it only served to stoke her fear. She fell and she fell and when she finally struck the bottom, it was not water that she hit, but solid earth. No mud. No gas.

She was lucky to be alive. If she had had her bearings, she might have been grateful. Relieved. If she had been awake.

But awake she did. She was dead. She must be. Instead of the bottom of a well, she lay in a field of golden wheat, the bright yellow sun shining down on her from a blue sky above. “I am dead and this is what happens next. I may as well enjoy myself,” she thought. She looked at the bright world around her. Colors were sharper. Birdcalls were clearer. She felt her head, but there were no bumps and no blood. She felt her body, and there were no broken bones. She didn’t hurt in any way. She wasn’t hungry. She lay back down and stared up at the sky and let the mild breeze wave the grasses around her in lovely patterns.

She couldn’t say how long she lay there. It seemed a great deal of time, but the sun had barely moved. She wouldn’t have risen, either, except for the cries she was hearing, creeping in at the edge of her hearing. “What could be wrong if I’m dead?” she said with a frown, and made her way toward the sounds.

At the edge of the field, beyond the tall grass and in a circle of stones that someone had wisely set out in the dirt in case of fire, stood a stone hearth. On the near side sat a leather bag, full to overflowing with loaves of bread that fell steadily, one at a time, from the mouth of the oven, wherein could be seen a fire that grew and fell, pulsing. With every roar of the flames, a new loaf of bread fell.

“Help me, please,” called the bag, “for I am stuffed and surely I will break.”

“Me, help me,” called the oven, “I am so hot I will soon crack and be no more.”

“I am certainly dead,” the young woman confirmed, “because bags and ovens do not talk. That is a relief.” She meant that she was glad everything made sense still. Nevertheless, she made haste because the bag and oven seemed in pain. As grew nearer, she saw the dough that fell into the oven, a small mass and growing smaller, also calling out for help, “There will be nothing left of me!”

“What to do?” she wondered. If she closed the bag, the bread would still fall and the oven would still crack. If she moved the dough, the oven would still crack and perhaps dump hot coals on the bag. She ran to the other side where she saw an iron shovel dumping coal into the back of the hearth. The pile of coal cried for mercy but the shovel showed none.

“Please, won’t you slow down?” she asked the shovel.

“I am strong and I can keep working, fear not,” it answered.

“But if you keep working, you will exhaust everyone around you. There will be no more coal. There will be no more hearth. The bread and the bag will be exhausted and destroyed.”

“They are weak,” countered the shovel. “I am helping them build up their strength. DIG went the shovel and GROAN went the coal and CREAK went the hearth.

“They will be stronger when they have had a chance to replenish themselves. A good night’s rest is what they need.”

“And rest they will, come nightfall, but that is hours away,” said the shovel.

“You are too strong to need a rest,” she observed.

“That is true,” agreed the shovel.

“You dig tirelessly.”

“I do. It is my goal and my purpose and without it my life would be meaningless.”

“Would you kill yourself to keep your life meaningful?”

The shovel paused.

“Help,” whimpered the dough.

“If you shoveled coal even faster, you would have a great fire, would you not?” she asked.

“What?” said the coal.

“Excuse me?” asked the hearth.

“You’re speaking nonsense,” it accused her, which she thought were interesting words for a shovel to say to a girl.

“Not at all. Iron melts, does it not? You did not come in to the world this way. You were given a shape by a smith in a forge.”

“True,” the shovel agreed, and while it considered her words, she lifted the dough from the side of the hearth and held it in her hands. “You’re not saying anything bad about my father are you?”

“The smith? Surely not! You are perfectly proportioned!” It was a funny thing, she thought, to see a shovel preen.

“I am,” the shovel agreed, tilting slightly so that the sun would catch it at its best angle. “Day in and day out I shovel, and yet I am undented.”

“Magnificent,” she agreed. “How hot was your father’s forge?”

The shovel considered. “Hot. Much hotter than this oven.”

“I bet you could make it that hot. You’re strong and fast.” “I’m sure I could! But I would need a great deal more coal.”

She looked down at the pile of coal, which was slightly larger now that the shovel had been talking and not shoveling. Even the dough in her hands was bigger than it had been. “I think you are wrong,” the young woman said.

“I know my coal,” huffed the shovel.

“Not about the coal, about your life.”

“I beg your pardon,” huffed the shovel again. “I think I know my own life fairly well.”

“Hello?” whispered the hearth. “I’m getting chilly.”

PLINK went the coal, and another lump appeared on the pile. PLINK PLINK.

“I’m nearly done with the bread,” called the bag from the far side. “I’m going to be hungry soon.”

“Look at your shape,” she said, and moved the dough around, as it was getting quite heavy and large now. “You say you dig, but digging is work, and you do it for love. There is no hardship for you.” The shovel granted her this was true. PLINK went the coal. PLINK PLINK. “I look at your shape,” and as she said these words she moved around the shovel so as to take in its magnificence from all sides, “and I don’t see dirt or grime. I know hard work. There is no shame in it, quite the opposite, but what you do here with your friends, this is a dance.” PLINK went the coal. PLINK PLINK. “Listen to the coal.”

“But I didn’t say anything,” the coal said. PLINK. PLINK PLINK.

She returned the dough to the shelf above the hearth and held her arms up to the shovel. “May I?” If it could have, the shovel would have blushed. Instead it hemmed and hawed and finally allowed, that yes, she could. They danced. “One-two-three, one-two-three,” she counted. Plink-plink-plink, went the coal, plink-plink-plink. She let the pile grow. “One-tw0-three, dig-two-three, shovel-two-three.”

“ROAR-two-three!” bellowed the oven as the flames leapt high.

“Fall-two-three,” said the dough, dropping a lump into the chimney.

“Bake-two-three,” said the oven.

“BURP-two-three,” finished the bag, but even as it was swallowing the bread, the young woman was already digging.

“Shovel-two-three!” cried the shovel as she let it go. The coal didn’t grow too fast and it didn’t get too small. Neither did the dough. The oven didn’t get too hot and the bag didn’t get too full.

“I’m definitely dead,” she thought, “but it’s not so bad.” She watched them dance, the coal rising and falling like the tide. It made her happy just to watch them.

Her name was Marya and she lived in a small hut where she enjoyed being dead very much every day.She had as much food to eat as she wished. She worked as hard as she wanted to. She traveled a great deal, but always stayed close to her home so that she could be back by dark. She missed her mother and younger sister, but she never felt lonely or suffered a lack of companionship, although there were no other people to be found.

Until one day she heard cursing and shouting and screaming, the sort of sounds that come from an angry grandmother’s mouth. The sounds were very loud indeed. She doubted that she had ever seen a grandmother as angry as this one. She met the woman in a clearing a three hour walk from her house. She was stooped and wrinkled and vicious with rage, her words all but incomprehensible through spit and fury.

“Can I help you?” Marya offered.

Her voice shocked the crone into momentary silence, but she shot back almost immediately, “Who are you to help me?”

“You’re the first visitor I have met in these lands besides myself. It’s not bad here. It’s quite lovely, in fact. Are you hungry?” From a leather and silk lined pocket, she withdrew a warm loaf of bread that hadn’t been in her pocket a moment ago.

“I’m starving,” spat the old woman, but she didn’t make a move from where she stood. “What do you want for it?”

“Nothing,” answered Marya. “Please, eat. You are welcome to stay with me in my house, but it is a good walk from here. I sought you out when I heard you. I wasn’t as angry when I arrived, only confused. I’ll help you build your own house if you like.”

“I’ve got a house. I don’t need another one,” said the other.

Marya pondered the new arrival. “As you like. I’ll leave you alone, then, but I’ll leave this bread here in case you want it, and I’ll mark the path back to my house in case you decide to visit.” Then she did just as she said she would and three hours later was safe in her house.

Not long before nightfall, the old woman appeared at her door. She was not as angry now, and the change in mood had wrought a marvelous change in her face. Were she not so old and were she not the only other person Marya had met here, she might not have recognized her. “I’m sorry for my outburst before,” the woman began. She looked around the house, saw the saws and axes on the walls, and the muscles that lined Marya’s arms and legs. “You built this place yourself?”

“No one else,” Marya agreed. Then she urged the woman to sit before the hearth, where several logs lay stacked and ready for lighting. From another pocket, she withdrew a lump of coal that had not been there before, blew on it in her palms until it caught fire, and set it under the wood. From an empty net by her counter, she pulled a fresh fish that she prepared for their dinner. Afterwards, she straightened the old woman’s hair with a comb made of bone and wrapped it neatly in a bun under a fine silk net that another person might have mistaken for a cobweb on the wall. By the time she went to sleep, the old woman’s face had softened and there wasn’t the slightest glimmer of anger in her eyes.

“I taught them how to dance,” Marya explained to Mother Holle in the following days, which is what the old woman said Marya could call her. She introduced her to the shovel, coal, hearth, dough, and bag, and explained that they were so grateful they agreed between themselves to give her coal or bread whenever she asked.She introduced her to the spider, the fly, the frog, the fish, the hawk, the raven, and the fish, and explained that they were so grateful that the spiders gave her silk, the fish gave her food, the insects left her alone, and the others brought her rabbits or eggs or plants to eat. “They only needed to know how to work together.”

The old woman was less impressed with the talking shovel, which still stammered and became flustered whenever Marya touched it, than she was with Marya’s ingenuity and generosity. “You’re a rare one,” she said. “You’ve asked for nothing and you’ve given a great deal. Is there nothing you want for yourself?”

Marya smiled. “Nothing I want but a great deal that I wish. I miss my mother and my sister, and I hope that one day they will join me here.”

“Oh, my dear, I don’t think that’s very likely.”

“That’s what I don’t understand,” said Marya. “You’re the first person besides myself to arrive here. I should have thought that in Death, there would be people arriving all of the time.”

Mother Holle’s jaw dropped the slightest bit before she gave a guffaw that outsized her small frame. “Death? My dear child, we’re not dead!”

“How is that possible, Mother? Animals and bags don’t speak.”

“Of course, they do, if you know how to listen and hear. My house, for example, fell in love with a dog-headed bird. It’s a relationship that’s doomed to fail, I’m sorry to say,” she added with a sigh a sad wag of her head. “It’s made her so happy, but you can’t tell a simurgh where to fly and you can’t make it land for long.”

“Can I see my mother and sister again?”

“The path is neither straight nor true and there is more than one hazard along the way. Won’t you miss your friends here?”

“I’m afraid I will miss everyone I am not with,” Marya said, “but my friends here will be with me always.” To prove her point, she withdrew a warm lump of coal from a pocket and blew on it. “Fire does not burn me and I always have enough food.”

“Your gift is wonder,” approved Mother Holle. “I could cover you with gold and you would not be richer than you are now. Your flaw is that you do not pair your wonder with curiosity. You must learn your own dance.”

Marya’s eyes sparkled. “I see. Yes. Thank you, Mother!”

Mother Holle told her how to leave and how long it would take to get to the castle, and when the ground shook she said, “Ah, me, how time flies.” A large house then hove into view, lurching from side to side on enormous chicken legs. It settled sadly before the two women and the air it pushed away sounded like a sigh.

“Are you Baba Yaga?” asked Marya.

“I am who I am. When people seek me for their own gain, they call me Baba Yaga. But I am always Mother Holle. Few and far between are those who meet me thus. Farewell, daughter,” she said, and stepped through the front door. “You poor silly thing,” she said to the house, patting its door. “Had your heart broken again, did you?”

* * *

“I’ll tell you where my heart is,” said Koschey the Deathless, “if you can clean my stables by the end of the day. If you can’t, I’ll have to kill you.”

It was a game they played, Koschey as lord and Marya as servant, and in their game, they had each learned one very important thing. Marya learned that Koschey was a liar.

The first day he came home and professed shock at the state of the wardrobe where he had told her his heart lay. It was polished to a high gloss, the individual grains of the wood shining one next to the other in lengthy swirls of light browns and near blacks. “You foolish girl,” he scoffed, “it’s not in the wardrobe!”

The second day he shook his head at the state of his moat, burbling with clean water and clear of the muck that had filled it for so long. The monstrous creatures that lived inside it cavorted with delight, as tame in their joy with Marya as they had ever been as innocent cubs. “You really think I would have kept it in the moat?” he laughed.

Every day he set her an impossible task – clean my stables, remove the dust from every surface in my castle, separate the lentils from the peas – and every day she completed her work. Then she would go to where he said his heart was and clean that as well.

He was not surprised that she asked about his heart. Everyone asked Koschey about his heart. Everyone who knew of him knew his story – perhaps not his childhood, no, not that, but they knew that to hold his heart was to hold his deathlessness, and to hold is to command. What no one expected, what no one ever knew until the moment it happened, is that given time, Koschey would tell them all exactly where it was.

Why? Your guess is as good as mine.

Oh, he tested them all and he tested them all differently. For all I know, he had three times thirty castles, with someone like Marya in every one and a test suited to each. While Marya learned that Koschey was a liar, Koschey learned that Marya had secrets of her own. He didn’t know how the moat became clean, and all of his divining failed to reveal the spell that she had used. He didn’t know how she had cleaned his wardrobe or removed the dust, and all of his scrying failed to turn up a magical token or a horn from some great spirit or another. Each test that in which she succeeded led to a failure on the part of Koschey in which he could not determine her magic.

In those days, Koschey the Deathless had two armies that would fight one another when there was no great power to be destroyed. All of their horses befouled the stables day after day and night after night and it was this impossible task, the stable’s cleaning, to which he set Marya. “I will see how she manages, because I am sure that she will,” he said, and transformed himself into a horsefly to observe.

What he did not know and what he had not learned is that Marya didn’t care about his heart, not one little bit.

From where he flew, in and out of the stable, trailing at a discreet distance, Koschey watched Marya dance. She traipsed her way from stable to moat, from moat to river, from river to stable. She tripped gaily in and out of stalls, ducked in and around neighing horses, through the manure of a thousand thousand horses.

It warrants saying that Koschey, a wizard among wizards, was not a man used to being confused. “She cannot possibly clean the stables this way,” he thought to himself, “and yet, every day she succeeds in my tasks.” He studied her dance. Perhaps her footing would suggest to him what it was that she was doing, he thought, but he learned nothing new. His patience was rewarded only slightly toward the end of the day.

Koschey was due back, so far as Marya knew, within the hour, and yet she done nothing but dance all day. Koschey grew more and more curious but never doubted that she would somehow accomplish her work, and sure enough, things began to happen.

It began with the monstrous beasts in the moat, splashing each other to a rhythmic beat. The water sang as it rose and fell, cresting above and beyond its banks. Curiously, disconnected entirely from the moat, the river began to follow suit, rising and falling, rising and falling. Soon it was a flood, coursing merrily through footpaths and horse trails and following the dancing Marya at an improbably slow rate. It followed her to the stables and curled into a pool. On the other side, the horses pranced their way out, leaving in two careful lines, one wrapping back around each side of the massive building. When the building was empty of all but filth, the river poured in.

Marya led the moat and the moat showed the river and the river cleaned the stable and deposited days and months and years of manure along its banks for miles and miles away. The horses dove in where the river left its original path, and as they did, the rushing waters resumed their normal course, leaving the horses to high step their way with the last of the liquid as they returned to their stalls. The water stayed with them, flowed along their bodies, until they re-entered their stalls, as clean and cool as they had ever been since they were foals.

The stables were spotless. The horses were clean. The tools hung neatly where they belonged. The river was back where it belonged and the monstrous creatures in the equally clean moat growled convincingly at the birds that flew overhead.

It was all exactly the way Koschey expected it to be. Marya had completed her task. As usual, she had gone above and beyond her task. And there was still thirty minutes before he was “due home.” Thirty minutes for her to go to the latest place that he had confided the secret of his heart, underneath the stone steps.

Still Marya danced. She did not take out a shovel. She did not attempt to loosen a single paver or support. She danced and rain fell and the steps gleamed, polished and new.

“What have I learned?” mused Koschey, who does not like riddles. “What indeed?”

He had learned nothing at all.

Marya’s tasks grew more formidable, but not always greater in size. Once every single part of the castle was clean, Koschey had her clean every part of the grounds. Once the grounds were clean, he had her straighten every part of the castle. By the time she was finished, the orchards stood in neat rows. The hedges with their iron thorns, the slightest scrape from which would put you into a hundred year sleep, now tangled themselves into beautiful patterns and knots. The dungeons were perfectly dank and the spider webs hung just so. Then it was on to finding things that Koschey had lost or misplaced or simply wanted.

“Make me a birdcage made of gold.”

“Make me a saddle of the purest white leather.”

“Someday I may marry. Sew for me a dress of moonlight and stardust.”

Every day Marya asked Koschey where he kept his heart. Every day he told her a lie and set her a new task with the promise that he would kill her if she failed. Marya did not think that he was lying about that part.

She knew that he no longer left on his wild travels. She knew that he stayed and spied on her and attempted to discern the manner by which she accomplished each and every job. She knew that however much he knew, he would not listen, and so every day she danced. Some days it was a pounding, stomping crush of a dance. Others she flowed like a gentle breeze. It was less her mood and more the task ahead of her and the lives that she touched, for one does not dance with a monstrous beast to the same beat that one dances with a river or a shovel.

She saw Koschey as a horsefly. She saw him as a spider. She saw him as a sunbeam, a fish, a poisonous flower. She saw him as a wind, a bird, the morning mist, and a blade of grass.

She danced. She waited and she danced.

Marya was no prettier now than when she fell down the well. She was no thinner, but she was much stronger and she had the grace and whimsy of a daffodil on the breeze. She was as patient as ever. She danced better and with more partners and what she learned about them was that the uglier the partner, the more loyal the partner. The moat, having been cleansed, would have turned to rain if she were to but ask it. The monstrous creatures, though they might snap to let her know that they were still fearsome, would have torn any other to bits that would have harmed her. The earwigs and weevils helped her clean and told her where Koschey sat, watching, and what his form was. They did not care for her looks one way or the other. They loved to dance and they loved that she danced with them, they who were scorned and feared by everyone else.

And she waited and she learned and did every job she was given. Just as old Mother Holle told her to do.

“I will tell you where my heart is, for all the good that it will do you,” sneered Koschey. “Beyond the thrice tenth kingdom is a lake, and in that lake is an island, and on that island is a tower with no doors. At the top of that tower is a room in which there is a locked chest. In that chest is a bag and in that bag is a world. In that world swims a duck with an egg inside her. In that egg is a hare, ready to run. One of those hare’s tufts of fur is a needle, and that needle is actually my heart.”

Marya nodded, deep in thought.

“You will never find it,” laughed Koschey with scorn.

“I was thinking,” said Marya, “that it would take a great deal of work to clean and straighten all of those parts.”

Koschey’s face went red with rage. “I have had enough of your trickery. You will restore every piece of my castle down to the lowest mote of dust to the way it was when you came here. If there is a single thing out of place – a cobweb, a wet stone in the dungeons – you will pay for it with your life.” To make sure she understood the most meager extent of his power, he took a hold of one leg with both hands and lifted up until he ripped himself in half.

Marya wept as she danced, explaining in every step to every thing in and around the castle what Koschey demanded. “I would not ask you to sacrifice all you have gained. There are so many of you and there is just me. I cannot ask all of you to give up so much, so today is my last day with you. Tonight Koschey will kill me and I will never see my mother or my sister again.” She did not speak these words, of course. She danced them, even as Koschey watched the tears streaming down her face.

The castle did not get cleaner throughout the day. The hedges did not unwind. The moat did not become foul and the stables did not fill with dung, but old Koschey is as patient as he is curious. Would Marya pull off this last feat by the end of the day? He would kill or dismiss her, either way.

With thirty minutes left, nothing happened. With ten minutes, nothing. At the hour, Koschey transformed himself from the gray wolf into which he shaped himself to stand before Marya. “You have failed in your work.”

Marya held her head high. “I did not fail. I chose not to inflict your will upon my friends.”

“Your friends?” laughed Koschey. “There is no one here besides you and me, and soon there will be one less.”

Before Koschey could so much as open his mouth, however, the stones of the castle rose up. The moat left its banks and the monstrous creatures crawled out. The hedges with their iron thorns whipped and lashed at him and the spiders and mites and flies bit and stung. He took one shape after another, but the castle grounds gave him no relief, recognizing him for what he was by the sound of the wasps in chest.

He cursed Marya, “Keep the castle then, and enjoy it as much as you may!”

The water and creatures settled down once he left, happy to keep their new mistress and to lose Koschey forever, but where Marya had stood defiant a moment before now sat a large gray wolf.

Try as she might, Marya could no longer become human. Mother Holle had given her a list of the animals she would need to become in order to escape this world that Marya had once called “Death,” and the gray wolf was the last of them. She could turn as easily to a hare as to an eagle, but no matter what she did, she could not turn to her old self any longer. “Koschey has had his revenge upon me,” she grieved. “I could go home now, but to what? My mother and sister would not recognize me. They would not understand me and they would either try to kill me or tame me.”

The castle and its grounds comforted her. They danced around her to lift her spirits. To some extent, they succeeded, but never for long. She knew what they were trying to do and she loved them for it all the more. She traveled far afield as a wolf, but always returned to the castle. She grew to know the lands far beyond the iron hedges, places that she had only taken in once while traveling on her way to what had then been Koschey’s castle. It was there, one day, that she was nearly crushed by a house.

“Who’s there?” called an angry voice. “Oh, it’s you, is it?” The great gray wolf looked up into the scowling face of Baba Yaga that became the smiling Mother Holle. “I didn’t expect to find you here again. Didn’t quite go according to plan, I take it?”

“No,” said the wolf. “And yes. I can go home now, but I can’t turn into myself any more. I am now and will always be a beast.”

“Don’t you want to ask me how to change back?” asked Mother Holle, the creases of Baba Yaga seaming her face.

“There are few things I want and many that I wish,” answered the wolf. “I have friends here, and responsibilities to them. My wants and desires are not so great that I can abandon them.”

“Come inside and we’ll go and see your friends,” said the friendly old woman. She patted the house and said, “Let’s go, love,” and on its ungainly, powerful legs, the house staggered across hill and dale.

“You might want to set down outside the hedge,” suggested the wolf. “There are creatures in the moat and I wouldn’t want your house to fall for any of them.” Mother Holle only laughed. They went inside the castle while the hut played outside with the monstrous beasts and the great gray wolf showed Mother Holle everything her friends had done in all of the terrible beauty of the castle.

“That Koschey,” Mother Holle said with a shake of her head, “that Koschey. I’ll tell you what. I’ll tell you how to kill him – just so you know. I’ll even tell you how to turn back into your old self, but it won’t be pleasant and it won’t be easy and it won’t be quick.”

“I couldn’t leave my friends,” the wolf protested.

“They wouldn’t be your friends if they demanded that you stay,” Mother Holle said, and it was true. Everything in the castle and the grounds swore they would wait for her.

The great gray wolf wept grateful tears. “Thank you, friends. I shall return, I swear. And someday, I promise, we will have Koschey the Deathleass hanging in our dungeon for what he has done to us.”

And after once last dance, she ran off.

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