Okay, okay, one more because I love you and because this isn’t a real story yet and I don’t have to crouch protectively over it and wave my hands to keep the internet off until it’s done. (Fairly soon I will hit that stage, but the publishers generally don’t care about the first few chapters of the first draft, or if they do, nobody’s ever complained about it to me. In this day and age, they may not even care about the whole thing, given that we are deep in the throes of New Media and everything is negotiable.)
Sarah spent most of that evening trying to decide on her heart’s desire.
For a number of years—at least since she turned nine—she had wanted to be a shape-shifter, or if that wasn’t possible, at least to understand the language of animals. But being a shape-shifter would be best. Imagine being able to turn into any animal that ever lived! She could go anywhere—fly like a bird, see with her ears like a bat, swim in the water like a fish. She could talk to the oozy salamanders along the foundation of the house and the alley cats that strolled along the top of the fence. It would be incredible.
When other girls at school were mean to her, she could turn into a wolf—a bear—a wooly mammoth!—and trample them to pieces, or at least pretend that she was going to, because if it came right down to it, Sarah was not sure that she wanted to trample anybody.
(This may seem an unusual ambition, but Sarah had read a great many books about magic and animals and changing your shape. Sarah’s mother believed that books were safe things that kept you inside, which only shows how little she knew about it, because books are one of the least safe things in the world.)
Sarah had just about decided to ask Baba Yaga to make her a shape-shifter—surely someone with a walking house would not find that difficult!—when it occurred to her that it was all very well to think about trampling the members of the fifth-grade class, if somebody saw her, there would undoubtedly be trouble. Turning into a woolly mammoth was bound to get you detention or suspended or even expelled.
If you were expelled, your parents had to teach you at home. Sarah would never get to leave the house except with her mother. She would never get to be the person she was at school, when her mother wasn’t looking, again. (Sarah’s mother, in addition to being wrong about books, would also have been quite surprised to learn that her daughter was a very different person at school than she was at home. This is a common problem among parents.)
Sarah poked at her dinner with her fork, chasing bits of corn around the plate and teasing a few strays out of the mashed potatoes.
If somebody found out you could turn into animals, what would happen? It would be awesome if they asked you to talk to real animals and find out what was wrong with them—maybe tell endangered species what to do to not be so endangered any more, maybe warn them about cars and people with guns—but Sarah had a gloomy notion that it wouldn’t be like that. She had read enough books to know that she’d probably wind up in a government lab somewhere, with people poking her with needles and hooking her up to big monitors covered in jaggy lines.
This was definitely not her heart’s desire.
“You’re awfully quiet,” said her mother. “What are you thinking about so hard?”
Sarah looked up guiltily. “Nothing.”
“Did something happen at school?”
“No.” Sarah took a hasty mouthful of mashed potatoes.
“So what were you thinking about?”
Sarah knew when she’d taken too long to answer because her mother’s smile got brittle around the edges and the skin under her eyes went funny and tight. “Fine. Don’t tell your mother, then.” She turned away from the table.
I wish I was an orphan, thought Sarah, and was so immediately horrified at her own thoughts that she said out loud “I was thinking about being a shape-shifter and whether people would want to poke you with needles and stuff to find out how you did it.”
“Oh, Sarah,” her mother said, and laughed, and that was all right then.
But the damage was done. Sarah laid in bed that night, staring at the darkened ceiling, and wondered if she’d meant it. What if you didn’t need to tell Baba Yaga what you wanted? What if she could look all the way down into your heart and pull it out without any help?
What if her heart’s desire really was to be an orphan?
She didn’t think it was. She loved her mother. She would have cried for ages if her mother died.
On the other hand, she was eleven years old and her mother still bought safety scissors and had childproof plastic caps on all the electric sockets. She didn’t want her mother not to love her, she just would have liked things to be…different.
Thinking like this was like trying to walk down a hallway in the dark, feeling around with her foot for each step, except the hallway was inside her chest and she wasn’t sure where she was going at all.
She fell asleep, still wondering what her heart’s desire could be.
School dragged on forever, and Sarah didn’t raise her hand once. She was usually a pretty good student so the teacher didn’t call on her or embarrass her in class, but Mrs. Selena did give her a rather thoughtful look when she ran out the door to recess.
She was not allowed to take the bus home because other kids on the bus might try to give her drugs, so she waited by the curb with her bookbag until her mother pulled up with the car to drive her home. Sarah spent the ride home staring out the window and not talking, but fortunately her mother was listening to a radio program and didn’t notice.
Her mother went to work on her computer, and Sarah went out to play in the garden. She looked immediately over the wall and saw the roof of the bird-footed house.
She waited ten minutes, to make sure that her mother wasn’t going to get up from the computer, then went to the gate.
The padlock had locked itself again, and Sarah wasn’t sure what she should do. She didn’t think she could climb over the gate, and if she tried to go back through the house, her mother would probably notice it.
Still, if it had worked for Baba Yaga yesterday, maybe there was still a little magic left on it…
“Open, lock,” she whispered to the padlock, putting her lips right down next to it. “Open, bar! Oh please, please open!”
The lock made a cheerful little click! and slid open.
“Oh, thank you!” said Sarah. “Good lock!” She put it into her pocket and looked around quickly. She was probably going to get in horrible trouble, but if Baba Yaga could grant her heart’s desire—that was worth it, wasn’t it?
She slipped the gate open and pulled it most of the way shut behind her, just enough so the latch wouldn’t catch. Then she pelted down the alleyway to Baba Yaga’s house.
The gate was open. Sarah peered around the edge of the wall, then slipped into the yard.
The house was standing several feet above the ground, scratching idily at the grass. There were deep gouges in the lawn. When it saw Sarah, it clapped all its windows and plopped down onto the ground.
Now that she had to actually walk up to the door, she felt so nervous that she was almost queasy, as if someone had dropped a brick into her stomach.
What if Baba Yaga hadn’t been joking yesterday, and she was in a bad mood and sucked the marrow out of Sarah’s bones?
What if it turned out that Sarah was a horrible person and her heart’s desire was an awful thing that nobody should want?
She halted halfway to the door and pressed her hands to her chest.
She hadn’t noticed yesterday that there was a skull on the front door, right in the middle, where a normal person might hang a wreath.
The house lifted its back end up and inched forward a little, like a dog wanting to play. This must have made the floors tilt inside, because Sarah heard a banging and sliding of furniture and Baba Yaga yelled “Fool house! I’ll trade you in for one with turtle feet and a three car garage!” The house sank back down, but wiggled forward a little more, until the front door was only a few feet away.
The skull on the door wasn’t human, or at least it wasn’t entirely human. It had big canine teeth like a dog and long spiraling horns like an antelope.
Was it a door knocker? Was she supposed to grab the dangling jawbone and rap it against the door?
Sarah gulped and reached out her hand.
The skull opened its eyes.
Since it had empty eye sockets and no eyelids, Sarah wasn’t quite sure how its eyes had been closed in the first place, but something flipped in the eye sockets and the skull was very definitely looking back at her.
“I shouldn’t go in if I were you,” said the skull.
Sarah squeaked and took a step back.
“I did,” said the skull mournfully. “You can see where I wound up.”
“Did she kill you?” asked Sarah, ready to run away at once.
“Well,” said the skull. “Well. Not exactly. Not as such. I was already dead. Sort of dead. Rather dead. I came in feet first, you might say. But I didn’t ask to be made into a door knocker!”
“I can see how that would be bad,” said Sarah. She put a hand on her neck, in the spot where you could feel your pulse. Her heart was pounding furiously. “Um. Is she—is she in a bad mood?”
The skull clattered its jaw from side to side. “Not today. She’s in a pretty good mood, I’d say. She’s had breakfast and lunch and afternoon tea. I shouldn’t go in if she were waiting on dinner. Baba Yaga gets very impatient if she hasn’t been fed.”
Sarah exhaled. It didn’t sound as if the marrow was going to be sucked out of her bones. Of course, there was the matter of the skull—but it had already been dead, and it was a little wicked to fool around with dead people’s bones, but not nearly so wicked as making them dead in the first place.
“Did you always have horns?” she asked. “When you were alive?”
“No,” said the skull, glancing up at its horns with obvious pride. “I wish I had. They’re the best thing about being a door knocker. At Yuletide she turns them into reindeer antlers. Those would have been marvelous.”
“They’re very good horns,” said Sarah. “Can I go in? She said she’d give me my heart’s desire.”
“Oh, well then,” said the skull. “If that’s what she said. She doesn’t go back on her word, you know, although she could teach the Devil a few things about loopholes.”
The door swung open.
Sarah stepped up into Baba Yaga’s house and went inside.
The inside of the house was dark and smelled strongly of bleach. That wasn’t the smell that Sarah 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 Sarah. “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 Sarah. “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. Sarah’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 Sarah.
“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 Sarah 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.”
Sarah 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…”
Sarah’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,” Sarah 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 awhile ago, but it still doesn’t keep them away. Everybody thinks they’re special.”
Sarah 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, Sarah 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. Sarah 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.”
Sarah 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 (Sarah gasped for breath) and rummaged around in her housecoat. “Blast! I left it in my other coat. Be a dear and pull it off the coatrack, will you?”
There was a coatrack by the door. Sarah 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.
Sarah 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.
Sarah 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 Sarah 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 Sarah 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 Sarah.
“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. Sarah 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 eyes. “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 Sarah.
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!”
Sarah 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.
To go meta again for a moment…
At the moment I am not sure where this is going, I am merely writing until I no longer know what happens next. If that points is 15 or 20K along, I’ll pack it up and send it off to my agent with a somewhat squashy plot synopsis and see what she says. (I generally wait until at least 15K before I trouble my agent with it, because I don’t know if a story is “live” until then.)
There are four categories, at least with my agent so far.
“I love this, oh my god, this is fabulous!” (aka “I will push the hell out of this right this minute.”)
“I like what I’ve read so far.” (Give me more and maybe I can sell this/selling this is hit or miss but we may get lucky.)
“I like this but I have no idea how to sell it.” (It’s good, but the length/subject matter/structure is sufficiently unusual that I don’t know where to pitch it. I will keep it around and push it now and again to people who might be interested in taking a chance, but it may have to wait until you’re established enough for publishers to go for something weird.)
“This kinda freaks me out and I just don’t think I can sell it.” (And now we have to have the awkward conversation where I explain that I don’t like this at all and it gives me the creeping horrors and then two or three years later, I will wind up suggesting it to Sofawolf anyway, because I am an agent to my bones, and have sort of come around on the creepiness in the interim.)
Just in case someone asks why I do not immediately consider self-publishing for some of these stories, the answer is a pretty straightforward one—the SMALLEST advance my agent has ever gotten me on a book is $15K. Given the choice between money up front, someone else handling all the costs and publicity and distribution and assigning me a lovely editor to make things better, or going it alone—well, you get the idea. This is not to say that I wouldn’t self-publish something, since there are projects far better suited to it (that fairy tale anthology, say…) or that self-publishing is BAD, it’s just that I am currently in a position where traditional publishing works oh my god so much better for me, and I have no current desire to swim those icy and difficult waters if I’ve got the option of using somebody else’s heated boat. That may change, the world may change, I may change, but that’s the current state of affairs, and anyone who tells you they know exactly where the industry is headed is so full of it that their shoes squelch when they walk.