Thursday, March 7, 2013

A tale told in tweets: Baba Yaga

I just completed another tale told in tweets. This is the third such retelling: the first (Tatterhood) and the second (The Magic Pot) were a lot of fun, so I decided to give it another go. It’s a good challenge, thinking about how to tell a traditional tale in such tiny chunks; retaining the meaning while making it fit in this modern medium is exactly the kind of thing I like to think about.

I picked Baba Yaga for this tweetale. I love Baba Yaga. She is such a complex character, certainly not good, but not entirely evil. She is a sly, wily witchy woman who lives in sly, wily tales full of gory detail and rich language that are a delight to tell. What’s more, this Baba Yaga story has four well-drawn and distinct females in it; Baba Yaga herself; the girl who finds a way to rescue her brother and her own self; the wicked stepmother, full of fear and longing for love and the safety of her own children; and the wise but ineffective grandmother. It thrills me that kindness is the magic weapon in this story, the tool the children use to find help and effect their escape. The whole story is kind of a dance between cruelty and kindness. This story also asks the question why did the father let his children be abused? It’s directly in the text, a question that’s often overlooked in other wicked stepmother stories. 

I love these complicated, traditional stories. Maybe I particularly love Baba Yaga because of my own Russian heritage, but regardless, it is a juicy story with much to recommend it.

Here is my text, modified for twitter. If you’d like to see it in situ go to my twitter stream and look for the #tweetale hashtag. I’m planning to do another the week after next, so keep an eye open.

Baba Yaga
Adapted for twitter by Laura Packer

Once upon a time, somewhere in Russia, there were born twins to a poor peasant couple.

The babies, a son and daughter, were beautiful and strong, but their mother never recovered from their birth.  

Their father mourned sincerely for a long time, but eventually decided he must remarry, and so he did.  

Perhaps his heart was buried with his wife, because he did not choose a kind woman for his second wife.  

Soon enough the father and his new wife began to have children, and the stepmother grew envious of her stepchildren.  

The stepmother's cruelty knew no bounds. She scolded them, starved them and sent them away from home whenever she could.  

We can only wonder at what pain lurked in her heart to make her so cruel to her step-children. we can only wonder that the father was so blind.  

Her bitterness finally drove her to wonder how she could be rid of her stepson and daughter for good. Who among us has never had a wicked thought?  

The stepmother's wicked thought grew like a poisonous vine that strangled what kindness may have been left in her soul. She decided… 

…to send her stepchildren to visit the old witch, thinking surely the hag would consume them alive.  

"Dear children," she said to the orphans, "go to my grandmother who lives in the forest in a hut on hen's feet. Do everything she asks and she will give you sweet things to eat."  

"You will be happy."  

The children left their home. But instead of going to the witch, the sister, a bright little girl, took her brother's hand…  

…and ran to their own old, old grandmother and told her all about what had happened.  

The good grandmother wept with sorrow for their fate, for their wicked stepmother, for their blind father.  

"You would not be safe here, so you must follow your fate. But here is a hint: Be kind and good to everyone…"  

"…do not speak ill words to any; help the weakest and always hope that for you, too, there will be the needed help."  

The good grandmother gave them milk to drink and cookies to eat. There are cookies everywhere, even in Russia, and then…  

She sent them off to their fate.  

The children felt so small in the big wood. One might have wept and the other might have cried. But soon enough…  

They found a strange and wondrous hut. It stood on scrawny chicken legs with a rooster's comb belching out smoke. The toes were crossed.  

They cried out, "Izboushka, Izboushka! turn thy back to the forest and thy front to us!"  

The hut did as they commanded. The children looked and saw the witch resting inside, her head near the threshold, feet in the corners.

The children were afraid, and stood close, very close together, but in spite of their fear they said very politely…  

"Grandmother, our stepmother sent us to serve thee." The old woman looked at them and stroked her hairy chin.  

"All right; I am not opposed to keeping you, children. If you satisfy my wishes I shall reward you; if not, I shall eat you up."  

The witch ordered the girl to spin thread, and the boy to carry water in a sieve to fill a big tub.  

The poor girl wept at her spinning-wheel in fear for her brother. At once, all around her, appeared grey mice squeaking and saying…  

"Sweet girl, do not cry. Give us cookies and we will help." She gave them the cookies left over from her kind grandmother.  

"Now," squeaked the mice, "go find the black cat. He is very sad; pull the burrs from his fur and he will help."  

Soon enough the cat was purring in the sunlight, his fur smooth and clean. "I shall help you as you have helped me."  

Meanwhile, her brother was in tears. No matter how hard he tried the sieve would not hold water and the tub was dry.  

Little birds, flying near by, chirped, "Kind-hearted little children, give us some crumbs and we will advise you."  

The children gave the birds some crumbs left over from their cookies and the grateful birds chirped again…  

"Some clay and water, children dear!" then away they flew through the air.  

The clever children understood the hint, spat in the sieve, plastered it up with clay and filled the tub in a very short time.  

When they returned to the hut they met the black cat on the threshold. "Dear Kitty-cat, tell us what…"  

“…Must we do in order to get away from your mistress, the witch?"
"Well," very seriously answered the cat…  

"I will give you a towel and a comb and then you must run away. When you hear the witch running after you, drop…"  

"…the towel behind your back and a large river will appear. If you hear her once more, throw down the comb and…"  

"…there will appear a dark wood. This wood will protect you from the wicked witch, my mistress."  

Baba Yaga came home just then, her stomach growling in anticipation of tender child stew.  

"Well," she said to the children, "today you were brave and smart; tomorrow your work will be harder. I hope I shall eat you up."  

The poor children went to bed, not to a warm bed prepared by loving hands, but on the straw in a cold corner.  

Nearly scared to death from fear, they lay there, afraid to talk, afraid even to breathe.  

The next morning the witch ordered all the linen to be woven and all of the firewood to be brought from the forest.  

They knew it was time to make their escape.  

The children took the towel and comb and ran away as fast as their feet could possibly carry them.  

The sharp-toothed dogs were after them, but they threw them the cookies that were left; the gates did not open themselves, but…  

the children smoothed them with oil; the birch tree near the path almost scratched their eyes out, but… 

the gentle girl tied a pretty ribbon to it. They went farther and farther, ran out of the dark forest into the wide, sunny fields.  

The cat sat down by the loom and tore the thread to pieces, purring with delight.  

Baba Yaga returned.  

"Where are the children?" she shouted. "Why did you let them go, treacherous cat? Why did you not scratched their faces?"  

The cat hissed, "I have served you so many years and you have never treated me with kindness, while the children combed my fur."  

The witch railed at the dogs, the gates, and the birch tree near the path. Her spittle flew like rain.  

"Well," barked the dogs, "you may be our mistress, but you have never done us a favor, and the children were kind to us."  

The gates squeaked, "We were always ready to obey you, but you neglected us, and the children soothed us with oil."  

The birch tree lisped, "You never put a even simple thread over my branches and the girl adorned them with a pretty ribbon."  

Baba Yaga knew that there was no help and followed the children herself. She grabbed her broom, all that was loyal, and left.  

The children heard the wind howl at her coming and threw the towel behind them. At once a river, wide and blue, flooded the field.  

Baba Yaga hopped along the shore until she finally found a shallow place and crossed it.  

Again the children heard her hurry after them and so they threw down the comb. This time a dark and dusky forest grew…  

…in which the roots were interwoven, the branches matted together, and the tree-tops touching each other. The witch… 

tried very hard to pass through, but in vain, and so, purple with rage, near to bursting, she returned home.  

The orphans rushed to their father, told him all about their great distress. "Ah, father, why do you… 

"…love us less than our brothers and sisters?"  

The father was ashamed and became angry. He sent the wicked stepmother away and lived a new life with his good children.  

From that time he watched over their happiness and never neglected them any more.  

How do I know this story is true? Why, one was there who told me about it but I promised her I would not tell  

(c) 2013 Laura Packer
Creative Commons License


  1. A few things have been striking me about your twittertales (which I get on email from FB, I think, but who knows?). Strongest is: getting the tale in dribbles focuses me on the language, and you have chosen pregnant language for these wee bits. That's a pleasure.
    Then again, I know all of these tales and am not in any suspense about what will happen, so it's probably easier for me to focus on the language.

    Getting the tale over a long period of time lets it racket around in my head more. Those little kind children have more presence, perhaps.

    At this point, I think dribble-telling (? what else to call it?) is a viable way of presenting written folktales, and offers some different kinds of experience from publication completely and at once. Thanks for doing it, Laura!

  2. I love this Tweeter Tales. It shows power in the stories; that they can be distilled to such strength of words. The imagery is there: potent, strong. And Baba Yaga is one of my faves!

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