The skin-wearing sisters had a little campsite by a little pond at the bottom of a little valley. Boarskin called out, “Donkeyskin! A visitor!” as they approached.
Donkeyskin was taller than either of the other sisters, and her face had a sweeping scar that ran from the corner of her left eye down to her chin. It pulled the corner of her mouth down into a permanent frown, and her eyes were like a dog that has been kicked too many times to be hopeful.
She started up when Boarskin and Bearskin arrived, and Boarskin said, “Easy, easy, dear heart. It’s only a girl with a weasel in her pocket.” Donkeyskin settled back down onto her rock, watching Summer with her ravaged eyes.
There was a fire. Summer was glad for the heat, for the forest seemed to be getting colder, and the sky was definitely changing from bright hard blue to a softer, velvety color. Red light began to creep up from the western horizon.
It occurred to her that she was definitely going to be out after dark, and her mother had most certainly noticed that she was gone by now. The thought gave Summer a pang, because her mother would be very angry and very frightened. But she remembered what it had said in the saint’s book, and she rubbed the acorn in her pocket and decided not to worry about it. Either time would pass differently or it wouldn’t, and there was precious little she could do about it right now.
“Would you like tea?” asked Boarskin. “It’s made with white sage and the hips of the desert rose. The tea leaves themselves are imported, of course.”
Donkeyskin silently poured out cups of tea and handed them around. Summer’s cup was made of bone china, with a lizard painted on the side. There was a white spiral through the center of its body, and another on the bottom of the bone china saucer.
The teacups and saucers seemed terribly out of place in the middle of the desert, and she looked from them, up to Boarskin, and back again.
“No need to look so surprised,” said Boarskin, smiling.
“We do have some nice things,” said Bearskin. “It’s important to have beautiful things in exile.”
Donkeyskin said nothing.
“Are you in exile?” asked Summer. She had always assumed that people in exile had to live in prisons or on distant islands.
“Most assuredly,” said Boarskin. “We’re princesses. Well, more or less.”
“I was a chieftain’s daughter,” said Bearskin, as if announcing that she had some terrible disease.
“Close enough, close enough,” said Boarskin. “Our fathers went quite mad, I’m afraid. Long and sordid tales all, and I won’t trouble you with them, not on your first night in the world. But it’s a hard thing when your father goes mad, particularly when he’s the king. The only thing left to do then is to put on an animal skin and go out and try your fortune. So we did. Some of us, admittedly, with more difficulty than others.”
Donkeyskin shifted restlessly on her rock. Her teacup clattered in its saucer.
Summer’s father had died a long time ago, so long ago that Summer never remembered him. Occasionally grown-ups told her how sad it must be, to grow up without a father, and Summer always nodded politely, because you had to be polite, even to grown-ups who had no idea what they were talking about. It was entirely possible that some children who had lost their fathers felt very sad about it, but Summer was not among them.
She had tried, once or twice, to work up tears about it, when she was in the mood to feel small and sad and ill-used, but she couldn’t really manage it. Her mother had made it abundantly clear that they were better off without him, and since there were other children at her school who had fathers that yelled and screamed, or vanished for years at a time, Summer thought it was not so bad. It could have been better, but it could have been worse, too.
Apparently it could have been a great deal worse, if these women had to put on animal skins and flee into the desert.
“You’re leaving out a great deal,” said Bearskin grimly.
“Yes I am,” said Boarskin. “It’s my story to tell or not tell if I choose, and I choose not to tell it tonight. If you want to tell yours, go ahead.”
Bearskin said, “Hmmph!” but nothing more.
Donkeyskin got up from her rock and wandered a little way away. There were tumbled red rocks through the valley, and ferns grew in cracks near the pond.
Farther away there were no ferns, only tough little scrubby bushes with a wild, clean smell. She stood beside one of the bushes, breaking off little bits of leaves with her fingers. The tail of the donkey skin hung down behind her.
“Now then, Summer,” said Boarskin, pouring more tea into Summer’s cup. “How did you get here? Did you ride in by fern-fish or step through a door in the hedge? Did you walk into a dragon’s shadow?”
“She doesn’t smell of dragon,” said Bearskin.
“Well…” said Summer, wrapping her fingers around her teacup to keep them warm. “Baba Yaga told me she was giving me my heart’s desire, and then I went out of her house and I was in the hallway with the stained glass windows.”
“Baba Yaga sent you?” asked Boarskin and Bearskin at once, and drew together on their rock.
Donkeyskin drew the hood of her cloak up over her head. Its long donkey ears were tattered and it had white stones sewn into the eyes.
“Um,” said Summer. “Yes?”
They looked at each other, then back at her.
“Baba Yaga, the cannibal?”
“Baba Yaga, the crone?”
“Baba Yaga, the witch, the wonder-worker, the teeth-that-bite-the-ground—”
Boarskin pressed a hand to her lips. “That Baba Yaga?”
“Don’t be a fool,” said Bearskin sharply. “Do you think anyone else would dare claim that name? She’d feed them into her cauldron and take them out as a hundred spiny salamanders. She’d turn them into a drift of wildflowers and plant them in a sheep meadow. She’d make their bones into the root of a fig tree and sink them into their own children’s graves.”
“She—she didn’t do any of that. She said she’d eat me if she was in a bad mood, but I didn’t think she meant it. Well, she had a chair made of bones, so I wondered, but…” Summer twisted her fingers together. “Um. She gave me a weasel.”
The weasel stuck his head out of her pocket and gave her a dirty look.
“Very useful animals, weasels,” said Boarskin. This appeared to mollify the weasel. He gave Boarskin a tiny nod and then went back into Summer’s pocket without giving any sign that he could talk.
“It was a student of Baba Yaga’s that gave me my skin,” said Donkeyskin.
Her voice was as hoarse as a grackle’s call. The other two sisters looked at her.
“Well,” said Boarskin. “Well. I did not know that. I thought—” She stopped and became very interested in her teacup.
“There’s a debt owed, then,” said Bearskin.
“You don’t owe me,” said Summer hurriedly. The notion of these three women—who were sort of interesting, but sort of frightening—owing her anything was a little scary. She wouldn’t mind help, but she didn’t want them to get resentful, the way that her mother did about the credit card companies.
“No, we don’t,” said Boarskin. “But our sister owes Baba Yaga, and that is another matter entirely.” She sat up straighter. “Well. Where are you going, then, Summer-who-Baba-Yaga-sent, in search of your heart’s desire?”
Summer took a swallow of tea, trying to buy time for an answer. She still couldn’t think of one. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “She didn’t tell me. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, or which way I’m supposed to go. If I’m even supposed to go somewhere.”
In the stories that she had read, when you went to another world, you usually knew what you were doing, didn’t you? You were met by fauns who told you about prophecies, or you landed in the middle of a war and it was immediately obvious whose side you were supposed to be on.
“I don’t suppose you know any prophecies?” she asked, without much hope.
“Dozens,” said Boarskin. “Hundreds. They’re not much use.”
“There’s a beach at Head-of-Nag that has slips of paper instead of sand, with a prophecy written on each one,” said Bearskin, “and the tide brings new ones in each day.”
Well, it had been a long shot anyway.
So far she’d seen a stained glass saint and three odd sisters who might be princesses and a very strange forest…
Summer slipped her hand in her pocket, past the weasel, and ran her thumb over the carved acorn. “Is there—can you tell me—is there any way to help the poor Frog Tree?”
“Why do you care what happens to a tree?” asked Bearskin.
“It—well—” What could she say? That maybe if she hadn’t been there, encouraging it, the tree wouldn’t have tried so hard and lost all its leaves in the process? That the dryad had looked sad and weary and hopeful all at once?
Were those good enough reasons for someone like Bearskin?
She tried to think of reasons that the sisters might understand.
“When Baba Yaga spoke to me,” she said finally, “she had me pick a candle. And I picked one shaped like a frog. And then I saw the tree, and it needed help…”
The sisters exchanged glances.
“We’ll send you to the Waystation,” said Boarskin firmly. “Finding ways is what they do best. If you’ve lost your way—or if you’re not sure of your way to begin with—you can’t go wrong with the Waystation.”
“Okay,” said Summer. “Is it very far?”
“A half-day’s hike,” said Boarskin. “It’ll come out to meet you if you get lost, so you needn’t worry too much.”
She was glad to have a direction, even if she didn’t know anything about it. It was better to have somewhere that you were trying to get to—even if it was very far away—than to simply wander around lost. “Do I have to go now?” It was full dark in the desert now.
“You’ll need to set out when the sand-stars come out,” said Bearskin.
“Beginning a journey by their light brings luck, and you should never turn down an offer of luck.”
“You have an hour or two,” said Boarskin. “Try to take a nap, if you can. You may use my bedroll.”
So Summer laid down on Boarskin’s bedroll, which was a thick sheaf of blankets that smelled like Boarskin’s hair. The weasel crept out of her pocket and curled up against her neck.
For a little while, she thought she wouldn’t sleep. She was very tired and her legs were sore, but she was also wide awake and excited. The three sisters were moving around the campsite quietly, murmuring to each other and scrubbing up the dinner plates with sand. But then Donkeyskin sat down by the fire and began to sing a wordless, crooning song, and Summer’s eyes closed and she slept.
In the middle of the night, Bearskin shook her shoulder. “Up, Summer,” she said. “The stars are coming out.”
Summer opened her eyes. Overhead, the stars were a fierce blaze like she had never seen, great clouds of stars like foam, laying in white twinkling drifts across the sky. There were no stars like that over Summer’s back garden.
“They’re already up,” she mumbled, sitting up and wiping at her eyes. Her skin felt gritty.
“Not those stars,” said Bearskin. “Sand-stars. You know.”
She didn’t know. She pushed her hair out of her eyes and wished for a toothbrush, not because she enjoyed brushing her teeth but because her mother had impressed on her that if you do not brush in the morning, your teeth will probably turn black and fall out by nightfall.
Boarskin pressed a cup of something hot into her hands. If it was tea, it was a different tea than any she had ever had. It went down her throat like warm smoke. She wasn’t entirely sure that she liked it—it tasted of campfires and burning—but the air was very cold and it warmed her.
“There’s one,” said Boarskin, and pointed.
Summer looked, and saw a star on the ground.
It looked like a star. It was small and it glowed blue-green against the sand. She could see a hint of light reflected on the curve of a mesquite bush and the hummocks of sand around it.
Another sand-star appeared, a little behind it, and then another beyond that, and suddenly they all came out at once, a hundred thousand stars, until the desert was lit from below as well as above.
Summer let out a long, shuddering breath.
“They’re beautiful,” she said.
“Don’t touch them,” said Boarskin. “Watch your feet. They sting.”
Something heavy landed on her shoulders. The weasel squeaked and scurried away into her pocket again.
She turned, startled, and saw Donkeyskin standing behind her. The woman had thrown a heavy blanket over her head, or something like a blanket with a hole in the middle. “The desert is cold at night,” whispered Donkeyskin.
“I didn’t know that the desert got so cold,” Summer said. The blanket had dark, heavy lines across it, but she couldn’t make out the colors by starlight. A design of lizards chased one another across the hem. “Thank you.”
Donkeyskin crooked up one corner of her mouth and turned away.
Boarskin fastened a bottle of water to Summer’s jeans, through the loop that held belts (if you wore belts, which Summer didn’t.) It was made of leather and had a little stopper covered in wax. “Use this sparingly, but don’t be afraid to drink it. Walk toward the horizon, toward the highest mountain. Can you see it?”
Summer nodded. She could see the mountain against the sky, a deeper darkness against the velvety stars.
Bearskin came close. The former chieftain’s daughter studied Summer’s face for a moment, her own face dark and serious. Then she leaned in and kissed Summer’s forehead. “Go quickly or slowly, near or far, in fear or courage—but come back to us.”
Summer had no idea what you said to that. “Um.” She shifted from foot to foot. “Thank you. Um. Goodbye?”
Bearskin and Boarskin nodded. Donkeyskin was crouched in the shadows of a sage bush, and made no sound.
It seemed strange to walk into the desert alone, away from the campfire. She was not entirely sure that she wasn’t still asleep and dreaming. The dark mountain seemed a long way off.
She half-expected one of the women to call after her, to tell her to stop, or to wait, that they’d come with her. They were grown-ups and she was a child, and grown-ups didn’t simply let children walk off alone. What if she fell into a hole or was attacked or got lost or died of thirst?
But they did not call.
When she reached the top of the first ridge, she looked back, and saw the campfire, surprisingly small, behind her. One of the sisters—Boarskin, she thought—was watching her. Summer raised her hand, and Boarskin raised hers in return.
It occurred to her that perhaps the sisters thought that she was capable of walking into the dark by herself, without a grown-up with her.
On the far side of the ridge, the stars lay spread before her like lanterns. One was only a few feet away. She approached, placing her feet cautiously in the white-blue glow.
It was a scorpion.
Its body glowed fiercely white. Her eyes travelled over the blunt claws and the wickedly curved tail. If it had made a move—even the tiniest shift of its legs on the sand—she would have shrieked and bolted back to the campfire.
It didn’t move. Summer took a deep breath and let it out and thought I’m being stupid. It was beautiful when I didn’t know what it was.
“It won’t chase you,” whispered the weasel in her ear. “They’re slow creatures, and not very bright. It’ll only sting you if you step on it, and that’s not likely to happen when they’re glowing like fox-fire.”
The mountain wasn’t getting any closer standing here. Perhaps it was better if the scorpions were glowing. Less chance of stepping on one by mistake.
The air was cold. Her breath frosted in front of her. Slowly, one foot in front of the other, she made her way across the desert by scorpion-light.