The inside of the house was dark and smelled strongly of bleach. That wasn’t the smell that Summer would have expected inside a magical bird-footed house, but maybe even magic bathtubs needed scrubbing occasionally.
“There you are,” said Baba Yaga. She was sitting in a rocking chair in front of the fire. There were a few coals in the fireplace, giving off a little red light.
“Is now a good time?” asked Summer. “Only I don’t know if I can get away later, because of my mother—”
“Pick a candle,” said the old woman, ignoring this speech.
“One of the ones on the table, girl! Quick, quick! I may be immortal as makes no odds, but I’m still not getting any younger.”
“Oh,” said Summer. “Um. Okay.” There was a little round table in the middle of the room, and on it stood a dozen candles. They were all colors and sizes. A few of them had been melted partway down. Several were shaped like animals. Summer’s hand hovered over a silver unicorn, with the wick coming out of its horn, but then settled on a plain beeswax frog. The wick had been burned down a little way already and beads of honey-colored wax ran down its sides.
“This one,” said Summer.
“Bring it here.”
The frog candle felt surprisingly heavy in her hands. She walked towards Baba Yaga’s chair but stopped a pace short, a little afraid.
“Scared?” asked the old woman, raising an eyebrow. Her hat with the salamander was sitting on the mantelpiece. The salamander looked to be asleep. Baba Yaga’s hair was long and gray and fell over the back of her chair in a stringy curtain.
“Sensible of you. Hand me the candle.” She stretched out one gloved hand and Summer dropped the frog into it. Baba Yaga’s fingernails were short and blunt and it looked as if she bit them.
“The frog. Hmm. Plain beeswax. Interesting. Neither here nor there yet. You’re not much more than a tadpole yourself, are you? Already burnt, though. Hmm. Well, that’s something, anyway.”
Summer wondered what Baba Yaga would have said if she’d picked the unicorn.
The old woman reached into a pocket—she was wearing a shapeless gray housecoat over her shapeless gray dress—and brought out a shiny silver lighter. She snapped it a few times and then lit the wick on the frog’s back. When the flame had caught, she reached up and set it on the mantle next to her hat.
“There. That’s done. Now then, about your heart’s desire…”
Summer’s stomach turned over again. Maybe she didn’t want to know. She had a sudden mad urge to bolt from the room.
“What would you ask for, if you could ask for anything?” asked Baba Yaga.
“I don’t know,” Summer confessed. “I was going to ask you to make me a shape-shifter—so I could turn into animals and talk to them, maybe—but I don’t know if that’s my heart’s desire and now I don’t know if I even want that at all.”
“Hmm,” said Baba Yaga, nodding slowly. “A surprisingly good wish, all things considered. Not practical, in this day and age, perhaps, but I’ve heard a lot worse.” She propped up her chin on her hand. Her wrinkles carved deep shadows around her mouth.
“You can tell a lot about people by the things they think they want,” she said. “At least yours is interesting. I’m sick to death of young fools who want wealth and power and the hand of their true love. I started eating them a while ago, but it still doesn’t keep them away. Everybody thinks they’re special.”
Summer did not feel at all special. She didn’t think Baba Yaga was joking about eating people. She thought she was telling the exact truth.
For one thing, she didn’t seem to be the type to make jokes.
For another, Summer had just this very moment noticed that her rocking chair was made out of bones.
She wondered if she could make it to the door.
“Noticed my chair, have you?” asked Baba Yaga, and cackled. She rocked back on the chair’s runners, and the bones creaked and tapped against the wooden floor, like a dozen people cracking their knuckles all at once. “Relax, girl. I’m not hungry—not right at the moment—and anybody who has such interesting wishes is too good to waste on an afternoon snack.”
She rocked again. Those heavy black eyes bored into her, down into the chamber of her heart again. Summer felt as if there was a small animal inside her guts, clawing her stomach and chewing on her nerves. It was hard to breathe.
“Y-e-e-s-s,” said Baba Yaga after a moment. “Yes, I see. Very sensible. Even more so than being a shape-shifter, and less chance to get caught up in being a deer or a stoat or something and not wanting to turn back.”
“Very seductive minds, deer. You’d hate to be one otherwise.”
Summer was having a hard time thinking about deer. Things were shifting around inside her. Baba Yaga was not just reading the words written on her heart, she was moving the furniture around and hammering on the walls.
She held out a hand as if to ward off the old woman’s gaze. “W-what are you doing?”
“Giving you your heart’s desire,” said Baba Yaga. “Here, you’ll probably need this.” She looked away (Summer gasped for breath) and rummaged around in her housecoat. “Blast! I left it in my other coat. Be a love and pull it off the coatrack, will you?”
There was a coatrack by the door. Summer had a brief mad notion of trying to wrench the door open and run away, but the coatrack shuffled forward to meet her. It had carved wooden feet like a crocodile. Its claws clicked on the floor.
Summer would have liked to think that she was having a nightmare, but she couldn’t bring herself to believe it. Everything was too crisp and clear, from the clicking claws to the smell of bleach and beeswax. She reached a hand out blindly and the coatrack turned so that a large gray coat was in front of her.
“Left front pocket,” said Baba Yaga. “Pockets are important. Yours don’t hold enough, but that’s easily fixed.” She waved a hand negligently in Summer’s direction.
Summer dipped her hand in obediently and felt…fur.
She tugged. Something in the pocket let out a yawp and a sharp triangular little head poked over the top of the fabric.
She jumped back. Baba Yaga cackled.
“Go on, girl,” she said, “go on. It’s only a weasel.”
“Does it bite?” asked Summer warily.
“Of course it bites. It’s a weasel. They don’t kill their prey with pretty words and poisoned sweetmeats.”
The weasel rolled its eyes. It was less than a foot long and its eyes were tiny blood-black beads, but Summer actually saw the eye-roll. She felt obscurely comforted and put out her hand.
The weasel stepped gravely onto her palm and sat down.
“I’ll need a weasel?” asked Summer.
“Possibly. It gets him out of my coat, anyway, and that’s all to the good.” Baba Yaga leaned back in her rocking chair and closed her eyes. “Close the door behind you on your way out.”
The door swung open. The skull winked at her. Summer was only too glad to leave, but some perverse instinct made her pause on the threshold.
“But—er—Baba Yaga—ma’am—what about my heart’s desire?”
The old woman on her chair of bones opened one eye. “What about it?”
“You said—I thought you said—”
“I said I’d give it to you,” said Baba Yaga. “I never said I’d tell you what it was. That’s another sort of gift. Be off with you! The candle won’t burn forever, and I’d get back before the flame goes out, if I were you.” She flapped a hand at Summer.
The door was under her hand, practically pulling her out of the odd little house. “Go, go!” whispered the skull. “Hurry now, while she’s still in a good mood!”
Summer stepped out of the house, deeply confused. She’d asked for her heart’s desire and gotten a weasel. What did that mean?
She looked up from her furry handful.
The yard was gone.
The wall and the gate and the alley were gone.
She was standing in a long hallway with a bare wooden floor, lined by empty suits of armor and cut with arching windows of purple glass.
Baba Yaga’s house had vanished.
She looked down at the weasel. It looked back up at her and shrugged, a tiny shrug that rippled through its entire body.
“What do I do?” she whispered.
“I’ve no idea,” the weasel whispered back, “but you might start by watching where you were going.”
Summer was so startled to hear the weasel talking—although after the skull, she didn’t know why she’d be surprised—that she nearly dropped it. It whipped between her fingers, as quick as a skink, and threw its front paws around her thumb.
“Sorry,” whispered Summer. “You surprised me!”
She hadn’t expected the weasel to talk. The skull had talked and the house had been pretty…err…expressive, but the weasel was something else again.
Then again, she hadn’t expected to walk out of the door of the bird-footed house and find herself in a hallway either.
It was ironic—a word that grown-ups used a lot, and which Summer felt she was finally coming to understand—that after all that time wanting to be able to talk to animals, when she finally had a real honest-to-god talking animal in front of her, she could only think of a single question.
“Where are we?” she asked the weasel.
The weasel climbed up to her shoulder. It—he—peered both ways down the hall and said, “I haven’t the foggiest idea. If it’s a chicken coop, it’s an awfully big one.”
“I don’t think it’s a chicken coop,” said Summer. “There’s a lot of stained glass.”
“Perhaps they’re very religious chickens.”
Summer thought that this was no help at all, but since talking to the weasel was keeping her from being scared of the fact that she was somewhere very strange, she didn’t say so.
At the end of the hall, a long way away, she could see a door. Since there didn’t seem to be anything else to do, she began to walk towards it.
The stained glass windows were interesting. They were extremely purple. There were saints and angels in them, clad in purple, with purple halos and wings. Only their faces and hands were a different color, and some of the angels even had purple hair.
Summer walked past three or four windows, full of saints smiling and solemn and stern. When she reached a window with an elderly saint with a long white beard, she had to stop and smile.
“He looks nice,” she said.
“I suppose,” said the weasel, who was licking his shoulder. “Humans are the best judge of other humans.”
He did look nice. He was skinny and bony and his wrists stuck out of his robes. His beard fell down to his waist, but didn’t quite disguise a grin. Two grim-faced angels flanked him, their enormous purple wings outstretched.
In one hand, the saint held a very large book.
Summer went on to the next window.
It was the same saint again. This time he seemed to be leaning forward, and he was pointing a finger toward the viewer.
She hurried on to the next one, and was delighted to see the same saint again. He was giving her a knowing grin and was pointing at his book.
“They’re almost like a flipbook!” she said, walking more quickly. “Where each page has a drawing and if you flip the pages really fast they move!” She was aware that an actual flipbook made of stained glass would weigh thousands of pounds, and flipping it would probably be very difficult and involve a lot of screaming and crashing and breaking glass, so perhaps this was the best that the window-makers could manage.
In the next window, the saint was making a run for it. He was half out of the frame, his beard flapping behind him, and the two shocked angels were just starting to turn after him.
Summer broke into a run. The weasel clutched at her hair.
Even though he was made of stained glass, she couldn’t escape the feeling that the saint was running alongside her. The next few windows flashed by, and in each one, the saint was running full-tilt, book clutched to his chest, with his robes flapping behind him and his bony ankles showing. He was wearing purple stained-glass sneakers with no socks. Summer giggled at the notion of a saint wearing sneakers.
Eventually the angels caught up to him. Not very fair, thought Summer. They have wings!
And indeed the wings were the first things you saw, a few feathers in the left side of the frame, followed by an outstretched hand. The angel had long fingernails, almost like claws.
“Do you think angels really have claws?” she asked the weasel, slowing down a bit.
“Wouldn’t surprise me,” said the weasel. “I have claws, and I eat eggs and mice and rabbits. Sins are probably a lot tougher than eggs or mice.”
“What about rabbits?” asked Summer.
“Don’t mess with rabbits.”
Her side was starting to hurt from running, so she settled for walking quickly. The saint, still grinning, had turned to look over his shoulder at the pursuing angels. You could just see one’s face now, mouth open as if the angel were shouting.
On the far side of the next suit of armor, the angels finally caught him. They grabbed the back of his robes and hauled. The saint’s book went flying through the air.
In the last window but one, the angels hauled the saint away. Their purple wings seemed to quiver with outrage. The saint, still grinning, adjusted his halo with one hand, and with the other, tucked under the edge of his flapping robes, he pointed toward the book.
Summer reached the last window. All that remained of the saint and the angels was a stray feather on the far left, and the tip of a purple sneaker. The book lay open at the bottom of the window. Words had been painted across the lavender pages, in a bold, flowing script.
“You know,” said Summer, “it almost looks like you can read it.”
“Maybe you can,” said the weasel. “I can’t read.”
“It doesn’t come up much when you’re a weasel.”
Getting close to the stained glass book meant stepping between two suits of armor. That was a little creepy. They were very definitely empty—the visors were up and you could see inside—but it was still all too easy to imagine them waking up, the visors clanking down and those big mailed fists reaching for you.
She was also just a little afraid that she’d knock into one by accident and it would fall over and clatter into dozens of little armored pieces and then she’d have to try and put it back together the right way before the owner of the hallway came back and found it.
Up close, the stained glass book was much bigger than any textbook Summer had ever had for school. When she stood on her tiptoes, she could read the words. She read each line out loud to the weasel.
1. Don’t worry about things that you cannot fix.
2. Antelope women are not to be trusted.
3. You cannot change essential nature with magic.
“Hmm,” said Summer. “I understand the first one. But what’s an antelope woman? And what does the last one mean?”
“It means you can’t change something into something else with magic, not really,” said the weasel. “If you turned me into a human, I’d still be a weasel inside. If we turned you into a rabbit, you’d still be a little girl down deep, where it matters.”
“I’m nearly twelve,” said Summer, a bit indignant. “I’m not that little.”
The weasel flipped his tail across her neck and said nothing.
She took a last long look at the book and read the three statements over again to herself. They seemed important. The saint had run away from the angels in order to show them to her—or to show them to someone, anyway, there was no telling how long the hallway had been here. Obviously the stained glass maker had had a very peculiar sense of humor.
She glanced back down the hallway. If she walked back down, the other direction, would she still see the running saint, or would the windows be full of the angels dragging him back to his original spot?
It was an unsettling thought. Summer found that she didn’t really want to know, and instead went to the door. It stood slightly ajar, and she could smell cool air and leaves through the crack.
She pushed the door open and stepped outside.
Behind her, the stained glass saint stuck his head back in the final window. He picked up his book, grinning, tossed his beard over his shoulder, and danced a jig with a suddenly joyous angel.