Kate Feld’s essays and short fiction have appeared in journals and anthologies including Minor Literature[s], Neon, Caught by the River, Banshee and Entropy. She lives in Manchester and runs creative nonfiction project The Real Story (therealstory.org). She is currently writing a cycle of lyric essays on womanhood, identity and the unconscious. Find her on Twitter @katefeld
One of the best-known characters of Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga is a terrifying crone, a nature spirit who can be both good and evil. Savage, bony, ravenous and wise, she travels around in an enchanted mortar and pestle, sweeping away all traces of her passing with a broom. She lives deep in the forest in a hut that moves around on chicken legs; sometimes it’s surrounded by a fence made of human bones. She is always accompanied by a shrieking wind and has a host of supernatural servants at her command including a pair of disembodied hands. She is deeply ambiguous, possessing her own unknowable agenda; seek her out and she might help you, or she might grind your bones in her mortar and pestle. You can read more about her here and here.
In this piece I wanted to explore the way women are perceived as threatening if they do not perform the work of softening their countenance and their words. There are few empowered roles for older women – particularly those with no child-rearing role – to play in the accepted narrative of public life; mostly they are made invisible. Here, Baba Yaga represents an older woman with wisdom and agency who rejects that invisibility, who does not care what men think of her. In our culture, what could be more dangerous?
Baba Yaga sits next to me on the bus. Bitchy resting face.
I saw a mug that said ‘I’m not angry, this is just my face.’ I wanted to give it to her for Christmas. But she doesn’t celebrate Christmas.
I want a mug that says: BABA YAGA IS MY CO-PILOT or WWBYD: WHAT WOULD BABA YAGA DO? or TEAM BABA (YAGA).
You’re supposed to remember to keep your facial expression within comfortable parameters. When you’re a girl you begin learning how to plane down edges and embody the soft landing. Lately I’m losing my touch. Sometimes it’s captured on camera and I am made to confront what you see: dark brow thunderhead Medusa-eyed showing white at the edges like a spooked mare holy fuck that woman is terrifying
I feel mild regret for my existing client base but I can no longer create the expectation that a certain level of service will be provided to you glancewise or even conversationally. Yes, inside my face also there is some new trouble.
You have bitten your tongue so habitually and with such force that there is nerve damage and we’re sorry to inform you that you will never regain full sensation.
Now every time I start to bite my tongue Baba Yaga jabs me in the delicate flesh of my belly with her mortar (or is it a pestle?) and I open mouth and speak. My stomach is ringed with a belt of bruises. My words sow consternation. Bitter fruit that will never ripen, loamy rows slaked with rock salt.
I will tell you candidly: there is a modicum of shunning.
No one wants to sit next to Baba Yaga on the bus except me. I’ve gotten used to the sharp scent of my monster mother. Do you find it so unpleasant?
Baba Yaga pursues her own agenda which is inconceivable. Maybe there is a rationality to it in the end, a Russian joke in which the punchline takes a very, very long time to come finally arriving when all the listeners have long ago stopped paying attention and wandered off, grown old, died. Only then: she laughs.
She got so tired of hearing me whine about becoming invisible that she turned both of us really invisible for a day. You have to crouch in uncomfortable places so no one sits on you. Only stupid people dream of being invisible.
Here is a secret spell for conjuring Baba Yaga:
- Fill a tin pot with nine-days snow.
- Pluck the first silver head from your own head.
- Procure a half-rotten carrot and hit yourself hard in the face with it because, you cretin, no one commands Baba Yaga.
She comes or she does not.
I stopped painting my nails. Then I stopped filing them. See here, it looks like they are growing into sharp points. Would you say they could pierce your skin? Wait. If I am to be terrifying then let me be really terrifying. I will be the best at terrifying.
Author image by Gary Calton, used with permission. Feature image Baba Yaga from Wikimedia in the public domain.