Rozhanitse the Beautiful


 
She’d known what the house would look like, but it still seemed strange to her when she saw it, with its walls made of bone and the thin, stork-like legs holding it up. Alenka laid her hand on the pommel of her sword and peered up at the gray-white silhouette, squinting against the sun.

She would have to go in.

Going in was a tricky thing, of course. You had to know the words to open the doors and then—well, you never knew what would happen beyond them.

She had been here once before, a very long time ago, and had come back to tell what she had seen. She hadn’t told it all, though. Not to her father or her sisters. Not to her mother, who, even though she had brought Alenka there, did not fully know what had happened once Alenka had passed inside. Certainly not to Vladimir. Yet Vladimir had known something, perhaps from rumors carried on the wind. There was no way to know with Prince Vladimir. He was the knyaz, after all, and his mother had been a prophetess. From among the children of his former concubines—even Alenka did not know if he was truly her father, but she doubted it—he had chosen Alenka to carry his message.

“Do you know how many men have died in that place?” This had been Yuri’s protest, he who led the prince’s armies, who rode his 
horse at the head of the cavalry. He had scars on his ugly face and only two fingers on his left hand. “Why would you presume to send a girl?” He spat the word “girl” as if he spoke the name of a demon.

Vladimir eyed him with a quiet calm. “Because, Yuri, she is not a man.”

And that was that. And now Alenka stood before the bone hut with its long legs, with her sword and her orders.

Above, the clouds shifted, allowing a shaft of light down through the tree branches. Alenka blinked against it, the brightness spearing into her eyes.

Now or never.

“Little hut, little hut,” she called, her voice strangely high and reedy amidst the sounds of birdsong and the wind. “Turn your face to me!”

For a long moment, nothing happened. Alenka squinted up at the bright sky, wondering if she had spoken the wrong words. If she had, what would be the consequences? Would she die as had the men who had come here?

But something inside her, a throbbing sensation just beneath her heartbeat, said to her, “Stay.”

Something shifted in the silhouette of the strange bone hut, the change so subtle Alenka wasn’t certain what it was. But then it became more obvious, and the legs began to bend at the knees, and to rise and fall.

Slowly, the hut turned around.

Alenka watched, mesmerized. The thin, bone legs moved the hut around in a slow, lurching movement, the hut itself listing to one side and then the other as the legs lifted and lowered, lifted and lowered. Finally, it had turned a full half circle, the side that had once faced the forest shadows now facing Alenka and the puddle of sun that lay upon her.

There was a door at the front of the hut, but it still sat far above Alenka’s head. The door was wide open, the windows to either side of it making it look like a face. The hut tilted forward, then slightly to one side, as if it were asking Alenka a question.

Alenka drew her sword and lifted it. Had the windows truly been eyes, they would have seen the sunlight glint from the sword’s blade, seen Alenka tip it forward, then lay it carefully down on the mossy ground, its point facing her own feet. She knelt there for a moment, head lowered, then stood and lifted her arms.

“Vyed’ma, Vyed’ma,” she said. The word meant witch, but it was so much more. So many things that had been forgotten. “Vyed’ma, I, Alenka, come to you as myself.”

And the hut lowered, tipped forward, and a long mat of woven reeds uncurled from its door like a tongue, the tip of it falling just at Alenka’s feet.

She bent her head and whispered her thanks. Then, her footsteps careful, she walked up the woven reeds into the open door of the hut.
At the top, she stepped carefully inside. It seemed strangely large inside, as if somehow its interior dimensions had outgrown the exterior. She took in her surroundings quickly—the dust that covered the remains of ancient offerings, the glint here and there of gold that remained untarnished.

And a sharp blade of light, from a room beyond the room where she stood.

Alenka stepped toward that threshold quietly, placing one foot gently in front of the other. She felt as if the hut might disappear around her, proving the impossibility of its size—of its very existence—by simply becoming nothing beneath her feet.

The front room, with its dust and small bones and broken clay figures, its occasional glimpse of gold and jewels, had seemed too big to fit inside the square of bones and wood that made up the hut. The second room, behind it, completely belied the hut’s outward appearance. As she crossed that threshold she knew she passed out of the real world—whatever the real world was—and into magic.
She felt it as well; she hadn’t expected that. Hadn’t expected to feel the magic cool and soft against her skin. It was like water, like a cool breeze filled with rain.

She paused, taken aback, as it washed over her, both frightened and wanting the sensation to go on as long as it possibly could. But it quietly faded, leaving Alenka profoundly sad. It should have been more. Once, she was certain, it had been more.

She took another step forward, and saw what she had come for.

The woman lay on her back in a low bed, her hands crossed over her stomach. Her slim, almost emaciated form was dressed in white, but the color of the cloth looked old, as if it had lain there a long time, picking up shades of ivory, brown, and yellow as time passed. Alenka remembered it being whiter, brighter. She also remembered the woman as fuller, younger, more beautiful.

It had been a long time ago.

The woman was not ugly. Nor was she a withered crone, brittle and powerless, as so many described her. They had never seen her, Alenka knew. They only repeated stories they had heard from someone who had heard from someone who had heard from another who 
claimed to have entered this place. They didn’t know. So few had ever truly been here.

She was beautiful in her way, her face wide across the cheekbones, her eyes closed, her silver hair drawn artfully over her right shoulder to cover her body nearly to her knees in a cloak the color of dew-spun cobwebs. Her hands were pale and thin, the ivory skin straining over the bone. The skin of her face, too, pulled tight across the wide planes of her skull. But her lips were soft pink, and set in a peaceful expression, not quite a smile. Had they been thin and drawn back, showing the teeth of a broken corpse, Alenka could not have borne it. She would have left the place, had she been allowed, and returned to Vladimir to pronounce her mission a lost cause.
But this was no corpse. This was a living creature caught in a sleep that might never end, a mystical sleep woven by careful, ancient magic.

Above her, suspended from a rafter, was a gleaming silver sword.

Alenka did not want to look at the sword. She had to. Slowly, she let her gaze turn from the woman’s quiet, broken beauty to the silver gleam of the blade. For a moment, she watched it. It hung utterly still, and for a moment she could almost believe it was not real.
Of course it was real.

She drew a long, slow breath, the smell of age and dust tickling in her chest. Carefully, she lowered herself to her knees beside the woman’s white bed.

Alenka spoke quietly. The names she used were old, unlike any the men of Vladimir’s court would use to refer to this quiet, sleeping woman. Baba Yaga, they would call her, but Alenka said quietly, “Vyed’ma,” and then “Rozhanitse.” Her voice, careful as it was, seemed to stir the dust in the room, to awaken things better left asleep. She felt as if eyes watched her from the corners.

The room itself seemed to inhale, filling itself with a fresh draught of air. Alenka leaned closer, seeking for any sign of awareness on the woman’s quiet face.

Her eyelids fluttered, the skin paper thin, so thin Alenka suddenly wondered why she hadn’t been able to see the woman’s eyeballs through them. They fluttered like a butterfly’s wings, then slowly opened.

The woman’s eyes were as pale as the rest of her, a ghostly blue like the sky behind a tapestry of clouds like freshly carded wool. They focused straight upward, at the tip of the hanging blade. She did not look at Alenka.

Alenka reached into the bag she carried slung low on her hip.

“I have brought you a gift,” she said, and withdrew the single perfect apple she had carried with her all the way from Kiev. She had wrapped it carefully to keep it from bruising. Now she slipped the wrappings away and held it up so the woman could see it. It was not red, but a pale green that looked almost silver.

The woman sat up slowly, the movements strange, as if the upper part of her body were being pulled into place by strings. When she sat upright, the silver sword hung straight above her head, its tip scant inches from her gossamer hair. Her eyes moved slowly until her gaze met Alenka’s. They still seemed unfocused, as if she were not quite present behind them.

“You have come to kill me.” Her voice, too, was like cobwebs. The sound of it sent a soft shiver across Alenka’s skin.

“Prince Vladimir has sent me to carry out that order.”

“And under what authority does Prince Vladimir issue these orders?”

“His own.”

The woman smiled a little. “I knew this day would come. It is always the lot of the old gods to make way for the new.” Her eyes flicked upward toward the sword. “Do what you have come to do.”

Alenka went to one knee by the woman’s bed, holding the apple toward her, cradled in both hands. “I answer to no man,” she said. “I came to you once before, long before I came into Prince Vladimir’s service. I made a promise to you then, in the name of my mother and my mother’s mother and all the mothers before her. On that day, I was marked in blood.”

Finally the witch’s eyes cleared, shifted to meet Alenka’s more fully. A smile curved the corners of her mouth. Alenka had never seen anything so beautiful.

“It is you,” Rozhanitse said, and took the apple from Alenka’s hands.

Alenka bent her head, showing her obeisance. She had come here for one purpose, and that purpose had little to do with what Prince Vladimir had asked of her.

She heard the woman take a bite from the apple. When the soft sound had faded, Alenka looked up and took the apple back from Rozhanitse’s outstretched hand. She too ate from the silver-green fruit. It tasted light and sweet, like sugared air.

“You realize what you have just done?” Rozhanitse asked her, and Alenka nodded.

“I do.”

The witch nodded in return. “Might I see your mark?”

“Yes.” Alenka held the apple up again. Rozhanitse touched it, and it fell apart in Alenka’s hand, breaking into tiny white grains like snow, then disappeared.

Alenka carefully unlaced the ties at her throat, widening the open collar and drawing one side of her tunic down over her left shoulder. On the curve of her left breast was a red mark, a spiral that followed the contours of her body. The witch leaned forward to touch it, tracing the tip of her finger along the lines. Finally she lowered her hand to gently cup Alenka’s breast.

“I remember placing this mark on you,” she said. “You had only just begun to bleed.”

Alenka nodded. She remembered it as well. She had been so afraid, but in the end there had been nothing to fear at all.

“Your mother made the choice for you,” Rozhanitse went on. “Do you still stand by it?”

“Yes.” She drew her tunic back up around her shoulders, still feeling the warm imprint of the witch’s hand on her breast. “It is why I have come.”

“Then take the sword,” Rozhanitse said, “and do what you have come to do.”

Alenka only stood for a moment, frozen, afraid not of what she had pledged to do those years ago, but of what it meant for Rozhanitse. Sitting there on her bed with her gossamer hair and the perfect whiteness of her gown, she was the most beautiful thing Alenka had ever seen. And within her pale eyes, Alenka saw no fear, but only a quiet acceptance and weariness beyond measure.

Had Alenka seen fear there, she would have turned away and returned to Kiev to face whatever consequences might await her. But the weariness… It was so heavy. Alenka felt as if it spread from the witch’s eyes into the air, settling on Alenka’s own shoulders with a weight like armor.

Alenka lowered her gaze again, then closed her eyes. In that moment of dark silence, she drew around her the tattered remnants of strength and memory.

She heard the whispered phrases her mother had spoken, the words in a language centuries dead, that only a few still knew. Words that bound Alenka to this place and to this moment. Words that bound her to Rozhanitse, once a goddess. Always a goddess.

When she opened her eyes again she rose and reached for the sword.

The hilt was warm in her hands, and nearly out of her reach, but she closed her grip around it, pulling it toward her. For a moment she thought she wouldn’t be able to move it, but it shifted in its place, easing toward her. She pulled it against her breast.

“Are you certain?” she said to the witch.

“It is time.”

And it was. Vladimir and his declared allegiance to this new God had severed the last of the ties to the ancient powers that had once filled this land. Perhaps one day they would come again, nurtured from the seeds that lay even there, among the new priests, the new icons.

Alenka set the tip of the sword against the floor and leaned forward. She kissed the witch’s mouth, taking in her warm breath. On that silent word came all the old words, the prayers, the powers and magic, and all the ancient pain, and all the weariness of endless time.

When Alenka drew back, there were tears in her eyes, and they glistened like silver.

She lifted the sword and gently, firmly, pressed it through Rozhanitse’s heart.

She could not have been prepared for it. The press of the blade passed through her own chest; she could feel the cold metal sunder her own body. It was pain like no other she had ever experienced, but at the same time it was ecstasy, and it was joy.

You give birth to yourself. The words came from far away, the voice of Rozhanitse, and yet Alenka’s own voice. You give birth to the world.

The body of the witch—the goddess—spun itself apart into silken threads, like spider silk floating in the silent air. The threads blew and settled over Alenka’s face, her body, until her dark hair became the silver of moonbeams, her eyes the clean white of a morning star.

When Alenka opened her eyes again, the sword was gone. She was alone in the room. The witch was gone, and so was Alenka.

She stepped toward the bed where Rozhanitse had lain and lowered herself upon it. Above her the sword appeared again, suspended. As she lay down, the hut, the bone legs beneath it, the very earth itself began to tremble. The bony legs buckled at their knees and the hut sank quietly into the earth, until finally the ground and the grass and the roots of the trees covered it as if it had never been.