Baba Yaga, the wicked witch from the Russian and Slavic lore was feared by all as she would eat humans, especially little children and line her fence with the skulls of those she ate. Those who came to her little hut seeking favours (they always did) seldom returned alive.
A very long time ago in Russia, lived an old couple who had a young and beautiful daughter named Vasilisa. Sadly for Vasilisa, her mother fell terribly ill and it looked as though the end was near. As Vasilisa sat weeping by her mother’s bedside, her mother took a little wooden doll and placed it in her hands. “Do not cry my little one! This doll, which my own mother gave me, will take good care of you when I’m gone. Whenever you’re troubled, find someplace quiet and give her something to eat. She will always guide and help you. Make sure you don’t let anybody see her.” Before long, her mother passed away.
Vasilisa’s father was a merchant and was often away from home for many days. He decided to marry again so that his daughter would not be left alone. In their village was a widow Lilliya who had two daughters of her own. Vasilisa’s father got some really bad advice from some not-so-well meaning people and got married to this woman. Lilliya was very bad tempered and hated the very sight of the slender and fair Vasilisa as both her daughters were stout and ugly. It didn’t help that they were not of pleasant disposition either. But they pretended to be very affectionate towards Vasilisa in her father’s presence.
Shortly afterwards, Vasilisa’s father left for one of his long journeys. Once he was gone, Lilliya showed her true colours. She made Vasilisa do all the work in the house — the cleaning, the washing and the cooking. Envious of her pale beauty, she made her work in the fields all day, hoping the sun would burn her skin and make it rough... But remember Vasilisa had her mama’s doll. She would go off quietly somewhere, take the doll out of her pocket and give it something to eat. The doll’s eyes would begin to shine and it would become almost human. The doll would then go about doing all the chores, while Vasilisa rested under a tree or picked flowers. The doll would even make herbal sunscreen cream for her so that her pale beauty would be spared from the harsh sunlight.
The step-mother gave Vasilisa just scraps to eat and it angered her further that the girl was growing more beautiful and healthy every day while she and her daughters became even scrawnier and ugly despite eating well.
Poor Vasilisa! She missed her dear mother and now her father too was not showing any signs of returning. She would weep in her little room every night and feed her doll whatever little food she got in the house. “Do not be sad, Vasilisa, for the morning is always wiser than evening. Forget your troubles and go to sleep for tomorrow will be much better,” the doll would tell her. Somehow these words always brought her comfort.
One day, Lilliya announced that they were going to shift to a house on the edge of the birch forest. This was part of a wicked plan of hers of course for in that forest lived Baba Yaga, the Wicked Witch. The witch was known to eat humans and Lilliya planned to send Vasilisa to her. “We don’t have any money left and your father doesn’t seem to be coming back,’’ she told Vasilisa, “All we can afford now is a little house by the birch forest.’’
So they moved to an old run down cottage near the birch forest, far, far away from the village. Nobody lived around there for miles. Every day, her step mother would send Vasilisa to the forest to collect wood in hope that the witch would catch her. But it never happened (thanks to the little wooden doll, Vasilisa was safe.) So she came up with another diabolic plan.
One night, the mother gave the three girls some work to do. The eldest daughter was sewing, the second was knitting socks and Vasilisa was spinning yarn. Only a thin branch of a birch burnt in the fire place that dark winter’s night. “You will have to make do with this my dears as we don’t have any left,” Lilliya told the girls and her own daughters hid their smiles. Soon that already weak light died out. “Oh no! What do we do now? Someone has to go to Baba Yaga’s house and get some light. Which one of you will go?” Lilliya asked slyly.
“Oh, I’m not going, I can still see my needle,” said the eldest. “And I’m not going as I can see my needle too,” said the second girl promptly for they had rehearsed this speech already. So Vasilisa was sent out into the inky blackness of the night to get a light from Baba Yaga.
The poor girl shivered in cold and fright. A powerful wind roared menacingly through the birch forest. She took her wooden doll out of her pocket and fed her a piece of bread she had saved. “What can I do now, little doll? How will I find my way to Baba Yaga’s house? She eats everybody like chicken! All that is left of people who go to her are the bones she spits out!”
“Don’t be afraid Vasilisa! No harm will befall you as long as I’m with you. We’ll go and get that light,” said the doll. There was no moon in the sky and even the stars forgot to shine that night. Clutching the doll to her chest, Vasilisa stumbled through the dark forest, not even sure of where she was going.