Words from Jeff
“I’d like to share with you something from the upcoming Gaslight and Grimm anthology and my story “The Walking House”. This was one of my favorite moments to write and it’s when the inspiration of the story appears on stage in the form of Baba Yaga and her house on legs. To briefly set things up, our three adventurers Nikolai, Piter and Svetlana have searched the Russian countryside for a walking machine built by the inventor Gubernetsky never imagining that it belongs to the person whose name is used to frighten little girls into good behavior. Their balloon has landed in the meadow and they think their journey from Moscow is over, but in truth, the challenge is just beginning.”
“The Walking House”
By: Jeff Young
They followed the footsteps of the walking machine for another day until Nikolai saw the river. The more he looked at the course of the water below the less sense it made. So he pulled the cords and dropped ballast allowing the Swan to ascend. The higher the balloon rose, the stranger the landscape below became. The river was bent about nearly in a great circle and its course in the arc of the perimeter was fretted with loop upon loop. The whole of the land encompassed by the river was more than four miles across. There were clumps of woods and rich green meadows all fenced in by the water. The footsteps of the walking machine ran all about, crossing the enclosed area. It was Piter that saw the roof. Nikolai worked the controls diligently, venting the hot air to allow the Swan to descend. When they were a few feet from the ground, Nikolai’s heart hitched briefly for the little house below was akin to the gondola of the Swan. There was no sign of the walking machine.
As they drew nearer, Nikolai could see two chimneys that rose from the back of the house and both were plumed with heavy gray smoke. The house itself sat upon a small circular hummock. It was late morning when Nikolai glided the Swan to a rest a respectable distance away and the balloon’s passengers prepared to greet the inhabitants. Nikolai put on the best clothes he’d brought along and Svetlana drew a brush through his errant hair. He couldn’t help but notice the way that her gaze was drawn repeatedly to the house and the intensity of her consideration. Piter picked up his notebook, dusted off the cover and then dusted off the top of his boots as well. Then they stepped down from the Swan to walk up to the house.
The closer they got, the stranger the structure appeared. There was a fence about the perimeter of the house that every so often was topped with a white round knob. Nikolai noted that there was a gap between the fence and the grass in front of it. There was no path or road leading to the house, which was also strange. It was about that point he noticed the white knobs on the fence were actually skulls lit from within by some eldritch light. Then the chimneys belched forth pure black smoke. There was a low rumbling for an instant and the entire hummock and house lifted up into the air on a giant pair of iron legs. The whole great machine began to turn about in a circle, the legs moving purposefully looking for all the world like those of a giant chicken despite their gears and pistons. The ground shook with each iron footfall.
Nikolai couldn’t help himself. He fell backwards in the grass and lie there, his mouth opening and shutting like a fish pulled from the river. The air filled with the sharp odor of burning wood. Piter’s journal hung limply from his fingers. Only Svetlana was unaffected. She strode forward nearly to the walking machines shadow and cried out, “Izbushka! Izbushka! Turn your back to the wood and your front to me!”
Piter was mumbling to himself, backing away as Nikolai found his feet. Walking as calmly as he could, Nikolai went to stand next to Svetlana. She looked at him briefly, a smile on her face, before crying out again, “Come out, come out Baba Yaga. Your child’s child calls to you.”
The circling hut came to an abrupt halt, legs folding as great jets of steam shot out from the undercarriage. Nikolai desperately wanted to get a better look at the mechanism of the walking machine’s legs but he remained at Svetlana’s side.
Piter’s mumbling was becoming more audible. “You called her by name. You called the witch with the iron teeth. The witch that eats up bad little girls. You called that nightmare your kin!”
Svetlana turned and reaching out struck Piter a slap across the cheek. “Yes, I did and when I was a young girl and uncontrollable my mother sent me to spend summers with Baba Yaga. She used to look at me and say ‘long of hair, short of wit.’ I will tell you that time with my grandmother took the wildness from me and instilled discipline like nothing else would.”
The front door of the house opened wide and out strode one of the thinnest women Nikolai had ever seen. She wore a long gown with a red collar and her nose jutted before her like the prow of a boat. Voluminous gray and white hair billowed about Baba Yaga like a cape. She carried the long handle of a pestle in one hand. When she passed Piter who was quivering like a hare before a serpent, she struck out with the pestle at his knee and toppled him to the ground. The muscles of her arm were like knobbed wood. Then she walked the last few steps to stand before Svetlana and Nikolai.
Her dark black eyes raked Nikolai from head to toe and when she swung her pestle at him, he was fortunate to maintain enough wits to side step its blow. Her head cocked to one side like a crow and she grinned abruptly, gray iron teeth glistening wetly in the sunlight. Her other hand shot out and grasped his shoulder digging painfully into the muscle there. Nikolai did his best to look her directly in the eye and breathe evenly as she appraised him. Baba Yaga made a deep coughing noise, “Huh,” and then turned to Svetlana. The two of them stood there for a time staring at each other. In that moment, Nikolai could see the similarity of features. Then Sveta tipped her brow down and bowed to her grandmother.
“Good,” rasped Baba Yaga, “Too much longer and I might have felt the need to bend that stiff neck of yours.”
Turning back to Nikolai, she asked, “What would you have from me, you who smells of far off Moscow?”
Nikolai forced himself to speak, “I would learn all I can about the walking house and speak to Sasha Gubernetsky.”
Something changed in Baba Yaga’s expression and some of the furrowed wrinkles on her forehead smoothed briefly. Then she turned and pointed at a small stone lying in the grass close to the wall of the house. “Talk to Sasha all you want, but you’re too late for conversation. He fills up the ground there. But he did build me something like no other in exchange for a peaceful place away from men who only wanted to use the walking machine for war. Sasha gave me a home that matched the foolish legends made by half drunken farmers.
If you want to learn about the walking house that is another matter. You do three tasks for me, and I will let you learn its secrets.” Her smile was once more a crescent of shining iron.
Again her gaze met Svetlana’s. “I know what you want daughter’s daughter and your task is the same as his. You may help and counsel, but you must not do. That is his alone.”
Finally, she turned to Piter who still lay sprawled on the ground and would not meet her gaze. “What would you have?”
“Only peace with you grandmother and nothing else.”
“So your head is not as empty as your courage. Well enough. There is an axe around the back of the house. You chop wood.”
Piter scrambled up and bowed deeply. Then he scurried away around the side of the house. Nikolai couldn’t help but notice the notebook in his hand and the pencil running across its pages as he stumbled along. If Piter was lucky Baba Yaga might not notice.
“First task,” said Baba Yaga facing Nikolai again. “You must start fire with water. Find me when your fire is burning and tell me how you have done it.” With that she turned and reentered the house, the front door slamming closed behind her.
For a few moments, Nikolai simply stood there trying to take it all in. It did make a sort of sense. He’d heard stories about the walking house of Baba Yaga. Sasha had come here to the wilderness. But those were the easy parts to accept. He looked at Svetlana, “Your grandmother is the stuff of children’s nightmares and fairytales. Piter cannot even look her in the eye.”
“She had to be someone’s grandmother,” was Svetlana’s short reply.
Thanks Jeff for the interview and sneak peek at your new story!
If you missed Jeff’s interview, click here to read about him!
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