July 1, 2016

A Burning Tale, By Lissa Sloan


They say you should not speak my name. They say if you so much as whisper it, I might appear. But on nights like tonight, some folk cannot quite resist. How beastly she is, they say, with her jagged teeth, gobbling up small children who stray off the path. How terrifying is her hut that turns on chicken legs, with its fence made of thigh bones and burning-eyed skulls. How fearsome are the three horsemen she commands, the first black as the night, the next white as the dawn, the last red as the sun.

And just between us, say stepmothers to stepsisters, she would be just the thing to rid us of this tiresome bit of baggage, this motherless, worthless servant girl.

They say I am only a story. Too wild, too ancient, too ravenous to be true. But some nights they do still think of me, if by chance their flames go out. For on this shortest night, when my Dark Midnight is at his weakest, all good folk make their fires the brightest. They make them burn high and hot, all the brief night long, feeding flames to my Red Sun that will last him all the year. If by chance, on this night of all nights, if the fire has gone out, if the last candle flame is guttering and sputtering, then stepmothers and stepsisters could almost believe I am real after all.

For they know one more thing about me, besides my crooked nose, so long it touches the ceiling of my hut when I lie down to snore my rattling snores, besides my red eyes and my iron teeth and my hideous claws. They know I keep the light burning.

Off with you, they shriek at the child, and don't come back without a light. They believe in me just enough to think we will do their neglected work, this little slip of a girl and me. Or they send me their unwanted rubbish, this leftover girl, in hopes that I will finish her off. I don't suppose they care which. They believe I will do their bidding.

And so they send her, a hungry little waif with nothing to guide her but the shine in her eyes and the doll in her pocket. She does look good enough to eat. But fair is fair, and I always give my visitors a chance.

Oh yes, I know the girl's secret. That little bundle of rags she keeps in her pocket. Her mother-doll. It led her through the blackness, right to my door. Turn left at the path. Now right. Now straight ahead. Tell the hut, 'turn your back to the forest, your front to me,' and it will show you the door. I know the child feeds her doll scraps of meat and crumbs of cake and thimbles full of tea. I know that in return, it does the impossible tasks I set. We understand each other, this doll and I. It nods to me as the girl comes through my door. And I nod back. Fair is fair.

And when my hut is neat as a pin, grain sorted and seeds cleaned, I send the child on her way, before my shortest Dark Midnight is over. She must be home before he gallops past her, making way for my earliest Bright Dawn. I give her the favor she requests, for fair is fair and I have my reasons. This red-eyed skull will light her way, speeding her home, task completed.

And yet I gave her more, more than she asked for. My blazing skull will light not only the candle and the fire, but the whole house and more. For I have not forgotten stepmother and stepsisters waiting idly inside, thinking I will do their bidding. I do no one's bidding. And yet my Red Sun will be fed. When he follows my Bright Dawn, his mount's hooves leaping into the air to take his place in the sky, he will never be so long or so strong as he is this day. By their burning, the stepmother and stepsisters will feed him so well that he will warm the land and ripen the crops like never before. He will bring plenty and health, full bellies and strong beasts. At least until next year. My Red Sun and I, we make no guarantees.

And that blessed, tasty little morsel? The doll in her pocket will whisper to her all she needs to know. Don't go in the house. Hand the light through the door. Run for your life. And she will be wise enough to listen, and brave enough to carry on. That suits me well, for someone must live to tell the tale. And fair is fair.

They say I am only a story. But I keep the light burning.

Lissa Sloan's poems and short stories are published in Enchanted Conversation, Niteblade Magazine, Krampusnacht: Twelve Nights of Krampus, and Frozen Fairy Tales.  “Death in Winter,” Lissa's contribution to Frozen Fairy Tales, has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  Visit her online at her website, lissasloan.com, or on twitter: @LissaSloan. 

Image by Ivan Bilibin.

3 comments

  1. Loved the tone of the story--and its eerily happy ending.

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  2. Wonderful reclaiming (sort of) of Baba Yaga! I love her voice!

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  3. I admire the strong voice in this story. I think it's challenging to create such a strong voice in such a short story especially. I thought the repetition of "fair is fair" and "I keep the light burning" really gave the story resonance. The idea of the doll "guiding" the little girl as she does here is a powerful touch too.

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