Once upon a time, not so long ago, these lands were dominated by cold and

ruled by famine. Snow covered the barren fields and the people grew gaunt as the

food grew scarce. It’s amazing, actually, what hunger does to people. What would

you do, snowed into your homes with nothing to eat? What could you do once you

feel the energy seep from your very bones but give yourself up to death? Some did

just that. They walked into the snow and never turned back. When we found them,

their lifeless bodies stiff and frozen, a small smile of relief as they escaped the

nightmare that plagued the land. But of course, these are the least remarkable of the

atrocities committed during the Starving Winter. Oh, sweet summer children,

huddle in and listen closely to a tale of hunger and despair.

During that Starving Winter, there were many deaths. Children, young

women, and eventually even young men all disappeared with hardly a trace. A shoe,

a ribbon, a toy, bloodied clothes were all that could be found of those that went

missing. Winter is hard, even for the wolves. The more superstitious faction of the

village did blame the wolves for these depressing deaths. They blamed the old witch,

Baba Yaga, who lived in the middle of the woods, secluded and alone. Families took

the winter especially hard. Children went hungry, babes often died before their

second moons. And the parents, the poor parents. How useless they must have felt!

Their babies dying, their children either starving or disappearing. What a heavy

burden for any to bear! Can you blame the parents for some of their actions? Some

mothers smothered their infants, returning the children to God before they could

feel the pain of the blasting winds and the gnawing of hunger on their empty bellies.

Some fathers simply abandoned their homes and were never seen again. All of these

horrible, unspeakable things and yet, there is one story that may interest you more

than any other.

The story begins, as most often do, with a family. This family—a mother, a

father, and their daughter and son—struggled greatly under the weight of the

winter. None of them ever had enough to eat. The children were often left alone for

days as their mother and father searched desperately for rabbits, deer, or any food

to bring to the table. Almost always they returned empty-handed.  Now the children

were good, decent children. The boy, Aleksey, was clever—sometimes too clever for

his own good. The girl, Sasha, was immensely beautiful. Despite their children’s

goodness, the parents often bickered over what would become of their children.

None of the family members had had a good meal for over a month now. Even

turnips and potatoes were becoming a rarity down in the village market. Winter

would not relent; it held the village hostage. In their desperation and hunger, the

parents concocted a vile scheme.

What good is cleverness, what good is beauty to a starving man compared to

food? One cannot dine on intellect. Beauty feeds only the eyes. Without the two

children, the stores of food cached away by the mother and father might last them

throughout the winter. Before you gasp, no, these parents did not callously murder

their children. Their plan, one might argue, was a bit crueler. One day, the mother

and father invited their children out on one of their excursions. Snow fell

persistently as they set out. The family trekked through the woods together and the

deeper they went the harder and faster that the snow fell. The snow fell so hard and

so fast that the children could hardly make footprints before they were rendered

almost invisible by the fresh snow. Here, in the middle of a snowstorm, in the middle

of the woods, mother and father alike abandoned their children.

The children desperately attempted to retrace their steps. They called out

into the blizzard, “MOTHER! FATHER!” but all to no avail. Aleksey hugged Sasha to

his side as they knelt and cried over their saddening fate. They were sure they

would freeze to death before their parents ever found them. Soon the sky began to

darken as even the sun abandoned the young children. Just as they had begun to

accept their deaths, Sasha turned to her brother. “Do you smell that Aleksey” she

whispered. Aleksey took a deep whiff of the air. There, hiding amidst the cold air, he

smelt it. “It smells like rassolnik… No wait, it smells like pilemeni…” The children

stood and followed their noses to the source of the delicious smells. Right before the

final darkness set in, the children saw it. The infamous hut stood on chicken legs. A

spindly staircase led to a heavy wooden door. Their noses did not betray them; the

mouth-watering smells emerged from Baba Yaga’s hut.

Before Aleksey could even react, Sasha’s little fist reached out to knock upon

the witch’s door. Aleksey swiftly caught his sister’s wrist before any contact could be

made. Her big, beautifully blue eyes began to water and the black lashes that

rimmed them dampened. “Aleksey, I am just so hungry” little Sasha cried. Moved by

his little sister’s beauty, Aleksey overcame his better judgment and he himself

knocked.

Warmth and the enticing odors of home cooking spilled forth from the

threshold. And there she stood. Her enormous girth almost filled the doorway.

Although extremely robust, she was far from ugly. Tales spun about the witch

mentioned a hooked nose, warts, a face wrinkled with age but the face that Aleksey

and Sasha looked at had none of these characteristics. Baba Yaga might have even

been called beautiful for her age and weight. Her white-blonde hair was tucked

neatly into a braid, her eyes—piercing and blue as ice—stared at the abandoned

children at her doorstep. “Do you not see that I have taken great pains to be alone?”

the witch asked calmly. Sasha bravely stepped forth, “Bab—Ma’am, we have lost our

father and mother in the snow storm. Could you please let us in to warm our bones

and give us but a morsel to eat?” Aleksey quickly and thoughtfully added, “We will

help you with whatever tasks you need! My sister is more than just a pretty face, she

can help you in the kitchen and I can do any heavy work unsuited for ladies”.  Moved

by the little one’s beauty and interested by the intelligence of the elder, the witch’s

rosebud lips pulled into a smirk. “All right, small ones. Come in and eat your fill,

tomorrow you shall help me with whatever I ask you to help me with.”

Hand in hand, Aleksey and Sasha entered the witch’s hut. Through some

magic, the hut was much larger on the inside than it appeared from the outside. A

crackling fireplace, a large stove, and three ovens warmed the witch’s home

excellently. Each of the ovens was occupied with baking breads, rising cakes and the

like. The stovetop was similarly cluttered with pots and pans boiling soups and

frying meats. The children sat at the witch’s table while she served them dish after

dish. The children began with the hearty rassolnik, moved on to the borscht, ate a

fair amount of piroshky and finally ended their meal with an apple sharlotka and

kvass. Their bellies full and their bodies warm, the children fell into a deep,

comfortable sleep.

Ah, so you think you know this tale? You think that at this point the witch

reveals her true intention by cooking and eating those sweet, sweet children. Bah,

you are foolish to think that is how this story goes. Those children had the best time

of their lives in that hut. The following morning, they awoke peacefully and set to

their chores. For little Sasha, this included cleaning the kitchen and preparing all the

dough, vegetables, fruits and herbs that Baba Yaga required for her dishes and her

magic. Aleksey was sent out to tend to Baba Yaga’s animals and to split the wood

which fed the fires in the hut.  By the late afternoon, Baba would be in the kitchen

cooking up food and magic together with the children. After the end of their second

meal, the children squirmed in their seats. “Was the food not to your liking, small

ones?” the witch inquired. “Baba Yaga… we want to find our parents. We want to go

home” Sasha murmured timidly, fearful of the witch’s rage. Instead of rage, the

children saw only confusion in the witch’s icy-blue eyes. “But you have all that you

need and all the food you can eat here with me. If you want to leave, I shall not stop

you. But your departure would sadden me greatly” the witch replied. Aleksey and

Sasha looked at one another and agreed, they would stay one more day with the

witch. The next day, after the chores, the magic and the food were all done Aleksey

said, “Baba Yaga, we want to go home. We need to find our parents”. Again the witch

repeated, “But you have all that you need and all the food you can eat here with me.

If you want to leave, I shall not stop you. But your departure would sadden me

greatly”. Once more the children thought to stay one more day, and be a help to the

woman who had shown them such immense kindness. By the end of the third day,

Sasha told the witch, “Baba Yaga… we want to find our parents. We want to go

home”. Once more the witch replied, “But you have all that you need and all the food

you can eat here with me. If you want to leave, I shall not stop you. But your

departure would sadden me greatly”. The twins realized there was no way to leave

their hostess without demonstrating great disrespect. They also came to the

realization that the witch spoke truly. Here they had all the food they could ever

want; it would be difficult to eat a watery soup with slivers of turnip and potato.

Here they were becoming something more than they ever could have in their village.

Aleksey would probably end up a woodsman and Sasha of course would make a

beautiful bride to a rich merchant or some lesser nobleman if they returned now.

Here, Baba Yaga taught them both the secrets and skills for the arcane art of magic.

They felt traitorous to leave their parents behind, but Aleksey and Sasha finally

acknowledged that they were better off with the witch for the time being.

Three months went by. Three months of sleet, snow and heavy rains but the

children looked like they had never known of hunger in their lives. They were

healthy, strong and powerful—they had learned much in their time with the witch.

Finally, at the end of that third month, winter began to weaken. In the mornings a

watery sunrise greeted the land and promised a beautiful spring. When the snows

began to thaw, the children made their decision. They’d leave the comfort,

mentoring and the safety the witch provided. They’d find what had become of their

parents. Baba Yaga hugged little Sasha and bestowed upon her a gift. “You must be

more like your brother, Sasha,” the witch crooned “here are the eyes of an owl so

that you may see all with unclouded judgment”. Next Baba Yaga turned to Aleksey,

“You boy are clever enough. Here is something to give you strength when you need

it” she said, handing him a beautiful silver knife. The children thanked the witch

from the bottom of their hearts; the kindness she had shown them was a rare

treasure in and of itself.

With heavy hearts the children began their trek back to the village. A magical

spell, in addition to the melting snow, helped them find their way back home. Their

return was not a happy one. The village appeared empty. The children entered the

first home they saw only to find complete and utter desolation inside. Everything

was thrown about—what little furnishings these people possessed were mere

splinters now. As if this weren’t enough, there was also an immense amount of

blood splatted on the walls, spilled on the ground and even speckled on the ceiling.

Each home that the children entered shared a similar scene. Slowly they made their

way to the end of the village, where their family home stood. However, here the

children did not find signs of a struggle. The home was clean and neat, the stove

warm as a cauldron of soup bubbled away. Sasha lifted the lid of cauldron and her

new owl-wise eyes filled with tears. Inside the pot was none other than a human

hand. Her owl-wise eyes brought her clarity. Her parents were monsters. They were

the wolves that had plagued the village and all the surrounding villages. The

disappearances of children, young women, weak men before the snow set in were

all her parents work. Sasha cried as she explained the dark truth to Aleksey. A

floorboard creaked as a dark presence filled the threshold. The children turned to

face two enormous black wolves.

The wolves eyes sparked with recognition but their teeth were bared all the

same. From the mouth of a she-wolf a growl emerged that sounded like words, “You

look better fed than we left you. We did not want to eat you; you were our children

so we thought to leave you to die. But now… Your plump little bellies will make a

delicious meal. We haven’t eaten well since the last month. Mostly we’ve been

rationing. But you should last us into the full blossoming of spring.” And so the she-

wolf and her mate lunged at the children. Sasha cleverly grabbed the pot of boiling

water from the stove and threw it in the face of the wolf. Aleksey summoned all his

strength and all his courage and waited. The she-wolf pounced, her jagged claws

extended and yellowed teeth dripping drool. At the final moment Aleksey threw his

whole weight into the wolf, driving the shimmering silver blade into her heart.

Dejected and alone, the two children wandered until they found their way

back to Baba Yaga’s hut. Baba Yaga welcomed them back with no questions. Under

her tutelage they grew to be strong and powerful sorcerers. After many years, they

left the witch’s hut in search of their own place. Together these children attempt

magic that even Baba Yaga would shiver at. They have maintained their youth and

have dedicated their lives to defending children everywhere. Now come, the

piroshkies are finished baking. Be good children like Aleksey and Sasha—smart and

beautiful, strong and kind—and magic may just find its way to you.