by Marian Allen
Halloween made it so easy.
Baba Yaga could remember when parents kept their children indoors on All Hallows Eve, huddled around a fire, with fearsomely carved and lit root vegetables on either side of the door, treats left on the stoop for the spirits. Now, the evening hours and the treats belonged to the little ones, and the late hours and the tricks belonged to the raucous older ones.
She couldn’t complain: When she’d seen the way the wind was blowing, she’d bought shares in what was now the biggest candy/cleaning supplies/toilet paper conglomerate in the world. It kept a woman with simple tastes very well, indeed.
On Halloween, she found a target location (these days, using Google Earth), made her hut on chicken legs invisible, and flew it into place. The woods and forests surrounding small hamlets that she had known were few and far between, but they did exist. And there were people who preferred property with a bit of wild out back. And campers. And survivalists.
Children, taught from the cradle to be wary of the strange and the stranger, weren’t as easy to lure as they had once been, but Halloween was one of the times in the year when almost all the grown-ups said to almost all the children, “Yes, you were right all along. It is all about you.”
Now, as twilight descended, the babble and shriek of over-excited children crescendoed and fell. Porch lights winked out.
Baba Yaga waved a bony hand (not her own) and the eyes of the skulls stuck onto her bone fence winked on, glowing red in competition with the street lights a thousand yards away.
A child’s face – centuries of familiarity told Baba Yaga that it was the face of a little girl — appeared at a back window of the nearest house. The eyes widened, the mouth opened greedily. The face turned. It spoke, and Baba Yaga read the lips: “Mama, somebody else is still giving out candy! Right out back! Let’s go!”
An adult looked out above the little head and said, “I don’t see anything. It’s over.”
“You don’t see that?”
The adult looked over her shoulder, back into the house.
“Silly! It just the reflection of the microwave clock. Duh.”
The adult ruffled the girl’s hair, even though the child frowned and pulled away from the indignity.
“Ah,” said Baba Yaga, approvingly.
In the window, the adult said, “Let’s go watch the movie.”
Baba Yaga knew this meant “in the other room,” not “at the cinema.” The cinema had come and gone so quickly, compared to her own life span, it had hardly been worth learning the word.
She also knew it wouldn’t be long before the child made an excuse to leave the room. And, yes, she had barely had time to congratulate herself on her patience when there was a demanding knock on the hut’s door.
She opened the door slowly, letting the hinges creak and groan.
The child, short brown hair still tousled by her mother’s possessive affection, confident gray eyes beaming security, chocolate-smeared mouth wide with expectant satisfaction, held up an empty plastic jack-o-lantern and crowed, “Trick or treat!”
Baba Yaga stepped back and let the hut do its work.
The child’s eyes widened and her mouth dropped slightly open. As if in a trance – though she wasn’t – the little girl stepped into the hut. She made a bee-line to the table, where dried herbs were laid out in neat rows. Her hands hovered over them, but didn’t touch, not even lightly.
She looked around the kitchen with its roaring hearthfire, its cauldron, its copper bowls and pans hanging on the walls and said the words that children had been saying for centuries:
“It’s bigger on the inside!”
And it was. It was either an infinite number of rooms or a finite number of rooms with infinite connections. A child could run from the store room to the kitchen and find herself in the attic. Or the library. Or the garage where she kept her mortar and pestle for flying. Or the computer room.
Baba Yaga closed the door.
“Trick,” she said.
The girl whirled to face her, tense, but not panicked.
The childish features formed into a ferocious scowl and the little fingers curled into fists.
“You’d better let me out, or you’ll wish you had!”
“And what will you do, my little bird?”
“I’m not your little bird! I’m Mama’s little squirrel!”
“Are you, now?” She caused a chair to slide across the floor and into the backs of the “squirrel”’s knees, and the child sat down in spite of herself.
She launched herself to her feet, but a gesture from Baba Yaga made her sit again.
“Do you have a name, my little bird?”
The child ground her teeth in rage and struggled to stand. “Not … telling!”
Baba Yaga nodded in satisfaction. “I’ll call you Magpie. My little Magpie.”
“Not … yours!”
“Oh, but you are. At least, for the time being. My hut needs neatening. Cleaning. Do a good job, and I’ll let you live. For as long as you do a good job.”
Now came the time when they cried or called for help.
“Help! Mama! Mommyyyyyy!”
Baba Yaga put her hand over her own mouth and the child – Magpie – was silent.
“Here, have some hot chocolate. I make very good hot chocolate, if I do say so myself.”
She held a mug to Magpie’s mouth and made her drink the warm, sweet, milky beverage.
Now the child would have only a muddy memory of a life before the hut.
The witch had a good feeling about this one. This one would turn into a good worker. More than that: This one would be curious but cautious, having learned from her one mistake of thinking herself safe in any situation. This one was willful. This one was spiteful and vengeful. This one would learn more than how to sweep and dust. This one would sneak and watch and steal knowledge wherever she could.
She wouldn’t eat this one. This one, she’d turn into a witch.