(Essay 2) Baba Part II: The Drowned Girls (A tale of Vasilisa) by Jillian Parker
With a sudden clatter, Marya, Varya, Darya, Varya, and Zarya began to shift back and forth on the table, as if attempting to dance, and they squeaked all at once, “You’d better take us outside to see Vasilisa.” So Vera, with fumbling fingers, assembled the dolls in their proper order, slipped them into her apron pocket, grabbed her own coat, and donned her own summer shoes, which, like Vasilisa’s, were plaited from birch bark.
A breeze stirred the tall grasses where Vasilisa stood murmuring near the pond in the marsh. She grasped a tall staff, capped with her old companion, the skull, which cast an eerie amber glow. When her eyes became accustomed to the strange twilight, Vera could just make out some faint shapes moving within the water, the silvery outlines of maidens gliding to and fro. These must be the drowned girls of legend, she thought. The rusalki, who had died before their time.
Near the edge of the pond, a seething, dark red shape appeared, and it seemed as if the water were filled with blood, until, with a splash, a head emerged, then another, and yet another, and an enormous crimson, scaly body emerged. Vasilisa did not seem surprised. She leaned her staff against the tree, and bowed deeply. Vera gasped at the sight of her friend greeting a dripping, three-headed dragon. However, this was Vasilisa, and odd adventures were not foreign to her history.
The dragon hissed and spoke. Vasilisa answered. Vera didn’t catch the response, but she did see what occurred next. The dragon unhinged its voluminous jaws, and began spewing its fire straight at Vasilisa, until her entire body was framed by flame. Vasilisa’s mouth emitted an unearthly scream, as if in imitation of hundred inconsolable loons who had just lost their mates. Vera watched helplessly while Vasilisa writhed in agony. Her body did not appear to actually catch on fire, but it did begin to morph, to demonstrate all of the possible iterations of Vasilisa, from infant to laughing maiden, to a grimacing crone that resembled none other than Baba Yaga, until, finally, she returned to a trembling version of herself.
The flame surrounding Vasilisa’s body subsided, and she would have fallen to the ground, but the dragon nudged her with one of its heads, and she actually hugged it around the neck, to Vera’s chagrin. Then Vasilisa took the staff with the skull, and stepped into the water. There was another outburst from the dragon. This time, the water was brightly illuminated, and Vera could see that it was a rainbow of iridescent girls and women, all shapes, sizes, and colors, some half-naked, some with their hair floating freely, others with crowns of ribbons and flowers. As the flame from the dragon’s mouth reached the first rusalka, she opened her own watery mouth to catch it, and then the strangest thing happened.
After the flame traveled through the rusalka’s translucent torso and limbs, she began to rise into the air, chanting:
“I am now a cup filling with light, my sisters. My loneliness is a set of lungs being filled with air for the first time.”
Then the rusalka floated above the branches of the nearest tree until she was out of sight.
Some of the other rusalki became curious or courageous enough to swim closer to the dragon, and same scenario began to repeat itself with the next girl. But this time, the figure of a warrior, with visible wounds from some ancient battle, caught her by the heel, and just as she rose into the air, he, too, found himself aloft, and he stole a kiss from her there, to which she did not seem to object. The two of them plaited themselves into a soaring braid of color just over Vasilisa’s head until they evaporated. For a while, the scene continued, until hundreds of the drowned girls, glowing like multi-colored fireflies, had ascended into the twilight.
“That is enough for now. I will return.” hissed the dragon. Vasilisa turned to him and dragged her waterlogged self back out of the water, and threw her arms around its neck. The amber light shining from the skull’s eyes went dim. A zephyr shuffled the grasses and the leaves for a moment or two.
Vera blinked. The dragon had disappeared, leaving only a haggard-looking Vasilisa, dripping on the bank of the pond. Vasilisa greeted Vera. “I’m glad you came, Verochka. It is almost time for you to meet my Zmey.” she said. She reached into her own pocket and showed Vera the smallest matryoshka, the size of a pinto bean. “Here is Nadya,” she said. “Nadezhda is the one we keep with us till the last. Let’s go have some tea.”
And the two women walked back to the izba together.