Once upon a time there was a girl named Summer, whose mother loved her very very very much.
Her mother loved her so much that she was not allowed to play outside where someone might grab her, nor go away on sleepovers where there might be an accident or suspicious food. She was not allowed to go away to camp, where she might be squashed by a horse or bitten by diseased mosquitoes, and she most certainly was not allowed to go on the Ferris Wheel at the carnival because (her mother said) the people who maintain the machinery are lazy and not very educated and might get drunk and forget to put a bolt back on and the entire thing could come loose at any moment and fall down and kill everyone inside, and they should probably leave the carnival immediately before it happened.
Occasionally, when Summer expressed a desire to do some of these very dangerous things, her mother would get quite upset. She would grab Summer’s chin and stare deep into her eyes, as if she could see straight down to Summer’s heart, and say, “I’m only saying this because I love you. You’re all I’ve got, and I can’t let anything happen to you. You understand that, right?”
And Summer would nod and say that she understood, because what else could she do?
Her mother went through weeks when she was worse than usual—barging into the bathroom to make sure Summer wasn’t drowning in the bathtub (she was nearly TWELVE! And she could dog-paddle really well, the swim instructor said so!)—or walking through the house, calling her name frantically, and when Summer dropped whatever she was doing and came running to see what the problem was, her mother would only say, “I just wanted to know where you were,” and go back to cooking or working on her computer. It was very difficult.
Summer had never had a father, and wasn’t entirely sure what you did with one, and certainly her mother never had anything good to say about the one Summer didn’t have. But she sometimes thought that it would be nice to have a brother or a sister, not because she particularly liked other children but because it would have been nice to have somebody to share the burden of her mother’s love. If there had been two of them, maybe they could have taken turns. Surely her mother wouldn’t have the energy to keep barging in on both of them in the bathtub.
Unfortunately, there was only Summer.
It is hardly surprising, given this sort of treatment, that Summer was very timid (at least at home) and soon learned to stop asking to ride the Ferris Wheel or go on sleepovers. But it is also not very surprising that in the secret depths of her heart, where her mother could not go, she had vowed to make her escape.
She didn’t want to hurt her mother. During good times, her mother baked cookies and sang songs and showed her how to tie her shoes and helped her with her homework when it was hard (and sometimes when it wasn’t, which was a little bit annoying.) She just wanted her mother to love her a little bit less, like a normal person, so that she could go to camp and not have to leave the carnival early.
Sometimes when her mother grabbed her chin and stared into her eyes, Summer wondered if she could see these traitorous feelings lurking down in the depths. It seemed as if she ought to be able to, because the feelings were so strong, as if they were big rebellious slogans wallpapered around the walls of her heart, saying I THINK I COULD PROBABLY RIDE A HORSE IF IT WAS NICE and I AM NOT AFRAID OF THE FERRIS WHEEL.
But her mother never said anything about it, and so Summer went on thinking these thoughts, and over time she thought them more and more.
One day in spring, when she was playing in the back garden, a house walked into the alley.
The house was very clearly walking, because the roof would go up when it took a step and then sink back down at the bottom of the step, then bob up again. Summer couldn’t see its feet because there was a high wall around her back garden, but she could not think of any other explanation.
The roof of the house was small and sharply peaked, with a jutting gable over the front door. Summer stared at it, open-mouthed, then ran to the gate in the wall that led to the alley.
It was a wooden gate, higher than Summer’s head, and it had a big metal latch with a padlock through it. Summer’s mother would have bricked up the gate entirely if she could have, so that criminals couldn’t come through it, but she had to leave another exit in case the house burned down and they couldn’t get out of the front door. She had compromised with the padlock, and had also told Summer seventeen times that she was never, ever to open the door, particularly not if anyone knocked and asked to be let in. Since Summer had no idea where the key was, she couldn’t have done so anyway, and so was spared being told an eighteenth time.
But even if the gate didn’t open, there was a large crack between the hinges and the wall, and Summer put her shoulder against the bricks and peered out through it at the house.
The house had gigantic scaly legs like a bird. They went up past Summer’s shoulders and they ended in clawed feet as big as bathtubs. The round scales on the front of each leg were the size of automobile tires.
As she watched, the house took another step forward. The roof went up and came bobbing down. The house’s foot came down on an old soda can in the alley and it went crink! and was crushed flat.
“Whoa,” said Summer.
The house heard her. It stopped, and instead of taking another step forward it put its other foot down beside the first one and hunkered down on its heels.
The underside of the house was now about three feet from the ground. The bird legs didn’t seem to attach to the house in any way that Summer could see. They vanished instead into a tangle of pipes, which were probably plumbing, but which looked suspiciously scaly, as if they had also been made out of chicken feet.
A little faucet, the sort you would attach a hose to, stuck out from the side of the house nearest Summer. Instead of a knob with spokes, it had a little skull on it, no bigger than Summer’s palm. The skull’s jaws were open in a huge grin, and it was turned sideways so that it looked rather silly as well as alarming.
It wasn’t a very large house. It couldn’t have more than two rooms in it, one upstairs and one down, and even those wouldn’t be any larger than Summer’s own bedroom. Even so, the sides of the house came very close to the walls on either side of the alley. If it walked by the gate, Summer would be able to fit her hand through the gap at the hinges and touch the faucet as it went past.
She twisted around so that she could look down the alley the other direction. Surely someone was going to come along any moment—a delivery driver or one of the people who parked in the alley sometimes—and get out and complain about the house blocking the road?
But nobody did. Summer took a quick look behind her at the back porch to make sure that her mother hadn’t come out.
One of the windows of the house flew open and the shutters banged back. “Not here!” said a woman’s voice from inside the house. “The next yard over, fool house!”
The house stamped its feet and settled even lower to the ground.
“Gah!” The woman reached through the window and slapped the house’s outer wall. She was wearing long black gloves with the fingers cut out of them. “The next one! I’ll have you breaded and fried and made into colossal drumsticks!”
The bottom of the house hit the concrete of the alley with a thud.
“Saint Sunday’s bones!” cried the woman, pulling her hand back, and then she said a great many other things, some of which were extremely rude. Summer paid careful attention to these and committed many of them to memory.
After a moment, the front door opened, and the woman came out.
She was very old and very stout. Her black gloves went up to the elbow and the ends were frayed and unraveling. Her dress was gray and shapeless and she wore a tall purple hat like a top hat, with a live salamander on top of it. Summer could tell that the salamander was alive because its throat pulsed as it breathed, and it blinked its eyes very slowly in the sunlight.
She was leaning on a cane but could stand without it, because as soon as she stepped out of the door she turned around and whacked the house across the gutters with the cane.
The house rattled its pipes and slammed all its windows shut with a hmmmph! sound.
“Glorified chicken coop! I’ll take you apart and sell you for scrap!” cried the old woman. “You’re not my first house, you know! I had a marvelous cottage that padded about on leopard feet, and I had it shot and stuffed and turned into a storage shed for a much more minor infraction than this!”
Summer could not help but feel sorry for the leopard-footed house and made a small noise of dismay.
The old woman whipped around, scowling, and Summer did not pull back nearly quickly enough.
“Aha!” she cried, stomping toward the gate. Summer backed away hurriedly, but although she could not see the old woman, she could hear the click of her shoes and the tap of her cane. “I see you there! Spying on me, were you?”
“I was not!” said Summer, indignant. “I was just looking! I’ve never seen a house like that before!”
There was a long pause, during which Summer remembered that she was never ever ever in ten million years on pain of death supposed to talk to strangers, and the old woman went hmmmph! rather like the house.
“Well,” said the old woman grudgingly, “I suppose that’s true enough. There aren’t any other houses like mine. What’s your name?”
“I’m not supposed to talk to strangers,” said Summer, and because that felt horribly rude, she added, “I’m sorry.” She looked back over her shoulder, but her mother had not come out to demand to know who she was talking to.
“If you’re waiting for someone to come and make introductions, you’ll be waiting a long time,” snapped the old woman. “Besides, it’s not strangers you need to worry about—it’s the ones you know that get you.” She came closer and peered through the crack in the gate. Summer could see one bright black eye and the side of her nose. “I’m Baba Yaga.”
“I’m Summer,” said Summer.
“Hmm. Suits you. What do you think of my house?”
“It’s a very interesting house,” said Summer, “but I don’t think you should hit it. It’s not very nice.”
The house rattled its pipes in a loud, satisfied manner, and Baba Yaga cackled. “Fair enough!” She turned away from the gate to say, over her shoulder, “I see why you stopped.”
The house preened a little.
Baba Yaga put her eye back to the gap in the hinge. “Open the gate, will you?” she said. “Whispering through cracks is all very good for foolish lovers and eloping brides, but you’re too young and I’m too old and have had far too many husbands besides.”
“I can’t,” said Summer. “I mean, there’s a padlock. It’s only a little bike lock, but it’s still locked. And my mother would never let me. And how many husbands have you had?”
“Plenty,” said Baba Yaga. “Good and bad and most points in between, starting when I wasn’t much older than you and had less sense than the gods gave geese. But never mind that. A padlock, eh?”
Summer heard the crack of her cane against the wooden gate, and Baba Yaga chanted, “Open, lock! Open, bar!”
The padlock twisted neatly open and fell off the latch. The gate swung silently open.
Summer took another step back. Baba Yaga was rather alarming (if quite interesting) and if her mother saw her talking to a strange old woman in the back garden, with the gate open, Summer was going to be in more trouble than anyone had ever been in in the history of the world.
Baba Yaga stood framed between the walls with her house squatting behind her. The salamander on her hat fixed Summer with eyes like wet pebbles.
“Are you frightened?” asked the old woman. “You should be, you know. I am as old as sinning and twice as dangerous. I drink my beer from the skulls of heroes.”
Summer did not know that women drank beer. Her mother never drank beer. She called it nasty, low stuff and said that she’d never allow it in the house.
Summer said as much to Baba Yaga.
The old woman’s eyes narrowed. “You’re dangerously ignorant, girl,” she said. “It is not your fault at the moment, though if you grow much older, it will be.”
Summer looked back toward the house.
“Hmmm,” said Baba Yaga. “Stand, girl, and let me know you.”
Baba Yaga took two steps forward, digging her cane into the ground. Summer knew that she should run away, run back to the house and get her mother and call the police immediately, but her feet seemed to be stuck to the ground. She tried to lift one up and it stayed stuck, as if the soles of her sneakers had turned to glue.
Baba Yaga came up right next to her, close enough that Summer could smell her. She didn’t smell like an old woman, like cold cream and antiseptic, the way Summer’s grandmother smelled in the home. She smelled like an animal, like a cat’s fur, like sharp herbs and old books. The salamander on her hat twitched its tail restlessly back and forth.
The old woman stared into Summer’s eyes, down deep, deeper than her mother ever saw. Summer could feel Baba Yaga looking all the way down into her, into the chamber with her thoughts written on the walls.
“Well,” said Baba Yaga, taking a step back, and Summer could move again.
She could have run, but she didn’t. She felt dizzy. She blinked several times and rubbed her forehead. She could hear crows cawing behind her eyes.
“All right!” Baba Yaga called over her shoulder to the house. “You were right, you overgrown lump of yesterday’s architecture!”
She turned back to Summer and poked her in the chest with the tip of her cane. “Tomorrow. You come to the house tomorrow, and I’ll grant you your heart’s desire, unless I’m in a bad mood, in which case I’ll probably suck the marrow out of your bones. Either way. Tomorrow, you hear?”
And she turned and stumped out of the garden, leaning on her cane. The gate slammed shut behind her and the padlock clambered up the wooden crosspiece on the gate and swung itself out to the latch.
The bird-footed house stood up. It paced down the alley, two yards down, to the house with a FOR SALE sign out front. Then it rose up high on one leg and stepped daintily over the wall.
For a moment it stood there, very tall against the sky. An upstairs window sash rose an inch or two, and the house winked at Summer.
Then the house settled down on its heels, and that was that, at least until tomorrow.