Flying the Coop

Issue #182

The hut lumbered past Nadia Daniilovna’s window, so close that she could have reached out and brushed her fingers against its dark timbers. It seemed to be having trouble with the rain-slick planking laid across the streets, because it moved like a drunk: tottering forward a few steps on its clawed bird feet, then pausing and listing from side to side. Nadia heard the scrape of its eaves against her roof and winced as a cascade of shingles crashed down into the street.

As the hut creaked onwards, she spotted Bogdana Osorgina peering out of her own window. Before Nadia could make some gesture of fellow-suffering, the older woman crossed herself and slammed the shutters closed.

The hut awkwardly navigated a twist in the road and turned towards the saltworks, disappearing from view except for its misshapen chimney bobbing above the modest rooftops. Its shuffling footsteps faded, and Nadia regretfully returned to the problem of her father’s corpse.

Daniil Ivanov, foremost fur trader in the north, was laid out in his whites with his feet pointed towards the icon in the corner. The three candles placed about his head were sinking into puddles of red wax, and still the priest had not come. Nobody had come. They were all hiding from the witch’s hut.

Nadia sat at the head of the bier and brushed a straying grey hair back behind her father’s ear. “What am I to do, Papa? I can’t carry you alone, but our friends are cowards. They would not have dared to disrespect you like this when you were alive.”

Daniil Ivanov said nothing. Nadia plucked at his fingers like she had as a child, trying to slip her hand in his. But his hands were as limp and cold as a dead salmon, and Nadia knew from a recent inspection that the skin over his sagging belly was turning an unpleasant shade of sea-green. Outside, the sun dipped towards the horizon. Already she had spent three nights alone with Papa’s body. The thought of another, while the room filled with the stench of his rotting, was too much to bear.

Rain spat against the roof, and the mantle clock ticked away the minutes. Nadia had just about made up her mind to forcibly drag the priest down from his churchyard when there was a tentative rap at the door.

Opening it, Nadia found herself facing a curly-haired youth in a marten-fur cloak. Aleksandr Parfeev, the son of one her father’s old trading partners and a frequent visitor at Nadia’s home when they had both been children. His beard was still more goat than bear, but he would be a fine pall-bearer.

Aleksandr doffed his round-brimmed hat and bowed low, the gallantry somewhat spoiled by the way he peered under his own armpit to check the road behind him. “My condolences, Nadia. I hope am not too late for Daniil Ivanov’s service?”

“No, Aleksandr, although everybody else is. You have to help me get him up to the church.”

A hen squawked somewhere nearby, and Aleksandr jumped. “Ah, he is still here then? I had thought, perhaps...”

Aleksandr had been brave to come, and Nadia felt sorry for him, but she wasn’t about to let him out of her clutches now. “You know Daniil Ivanov always thought of you as the son he never had, Sasha,” she lied, pulling him into the house. “He would have been thrilled to know that you were guiding him to his final rest.”

Daniil Ivanov had been a large man, and even with Aleksandr’s help, Nadia couldn’t lift the casket to her shoulders. She gripped the rear handles at the level of her waist while Aleksandr held up the front. He had to walk backwards to keep a proper hold and hunch forward to match Nadia’s height. They struggled up through the town like this, and to Nadia’s shame she had to rest her arms twice. During these pauses they laid the coffin across their knees, to avoid placing Daniil Ivanov onto unconsecrated dirt. Nadia knew that the neighbors were watching them, but nobody came to their aid. “Cowards!” she shouted at the shuttered windows. “He would have carried you! May your beards molt and your wombs shrivel!”

“Nadia!” hissed Aleksandr. “You will bring the witch down on us.”

They took up the body again and staggered on through the drizzle, feet slapping against the logs that kept the roads from dissolving into slush. They were in sight of the churchyard gates when the witch’s hut hopped out from between two buildings, thirty paces behind them.

It was the first time Nadia had seen it in its entirety: a dark log cabin perched atop a pair of chicken legs at least as tall as she. It bound towards them in a series of ungainly lurches, sending tremors through the logs with each jump. Aleksandr was freezing up, so Nadia shoved the casket forward to ram him in the stomach. “Come on, Sasha!” she shouted.

They ran, jostling poor Papa about inside his casket. Nadia forced herself not to look back at the charging house, but she kept expecting the witch’s soot-black tongue to snake out around her ankle and bring herself, Aleksandr, and Papa all crashing down onto the logs. She could hear its door banging back and forth as it closed the distance.

Somehow, Nadia kept her grip and Aleksandr kept his footing, and they passed between the iron gateposts just a few feet ahead of their pursuer. The gate was too small for the hut to pass through, and it collided against the railings with a ringing clang that bent the ironwork like windblown reeds.

Another charge would probably have brought down the fence, but the witch seemed to have given up the chase. The hut sank to its haunches, blocking the buckled gateway

While Aleksandr laid Daniil Ivanov’s casket down by the open grave that had been prepared for him the day before, Nadia ventured into the church of the saints. To her disgust, she found it empty and the candles unlit. Even the priest was in hiding. Having gotten this far, Nadia wasn’t going to wait for however long it would take for the coward to return, so she took the Psalter from the vestry and carried it back outside. The hut was still loitering by the gateway.

The rain trickled mud into the hole. Nadia stood with her back resolutely turned against the witch, crying out the church-words. Aleksandr’s aghast gaze was fixed on the hut behind her, but he clasped his hands piously and chimed his responses when needed.

When she closed the book, the witch’s hut clattered its shutters in ghoulish applause. Nadia’s chest tightened, but she was too angry to cry. Angry at the witch, and the weather, and her neighbors, who had all conspired to shame proud Daniil Ivanov into this pauper’s funeral.

Aleksandr rigged up some sodden ropes, and together they lowered the casket into the hole. It settled with a squelch. Gravedigging was menial work, but he took up the shovel without complaint and began to splatter sods onto the casket. Rain and sweat plastered down his curls, and he gave only a perfunctory protest when Nadia found a birch broom and helped him scrape dirt down onto her father’s casket.

The witch’s hut remained. It was still there when Aleksandr was patting down the last of the turned earth, although half-hidden in the shadow of the church spires. In the end, Nadia and Aleksandr had to climb over the churchyard’s back fence and circle around the twilight streets to get home. Aleksandr offered Nadia the protection of the Parfeev house, but she turned him down. She must be seen to be unflappable. Reputation was everything, in the furrier trade.

The next day, the hut was waiting in the road outside Nadia’s house. Her startled shriek as she opened the shutters sent crows flapping up from its snow-crusted shingles, but the hut remained still. A spiral knothole above its lintel sat at the level of Nadia’s window, staring in like a lidless eye. She instinctively clapped a protective arm across her face and slammed the shutters closed.

Legs trembling, Nadia leaned her weight against the wall and counted to a hundred. When her heartbeat had steadied, she inched the shutters ajar and took another peek.

The knothole leered.

There was no point in screaming again, nobody was likely to come to her aid while a witch’s house squatted outside. She was just going to have to deal with this herself.

She went downstairs and lit a taper. “If you are here, Grandmother Yaga, I mean you no harm.” she called out. When there was no reply, Nadia ran to the food bin and crumbled all the eggshells she could find, ensuring that the witch could not crawl out of them as her kind were known to do. Then, giving the lie to her words, Nadia picked up a sharp knife and opened every cupboard and chest, wondering as she did so whether the witch swallowed her victims whole or crunched them first, and which would be more unpleasant.

The house was empty, though to be certain Nadia had to enter her father’s room for the first time since his illness. His sable coat, left hanging on the door, still carried his scent, and Nadia couldn’t bear to leave it languishing in the dark. She carried it out and hung it on the workroom peg as if Papa had just come home, and fresh wave of grief wracked her. Once it passed she was left with a rising sense of indignation. Did Grandmother Yaga have no decency, to haunt a person still in mourning?

Nadia banged open the front door and glared at the cottage. Its doorstep stood level with her head, and it was shifting its weight slowly from leg to leg so that its floor tilted first one way, then the other. It must have been there all night, because the dirt beneath its shadow was dry while all around it lay newly fallen snow.

“Grandmother, what is it you want from me?” Nadia called. Surely if the witch had wanted to eat her, she would have done so already. Emboldened by this reasoning, Nadia knocked as high up on the door as she could reach. Maybe if she offered a gift, the witch would go away. There was always a deal to be made.

The hut jolted back a step, as if it had been stung. Nobody answered. In fact, there was no sign of the witch at all. The hut’s chimney was smokeless, as it had been yesterday, and what old woman could spend October without a fire burning in the stove?

“Are you lost?” Nadia asked the hut. She noticed Bogdana Osorgina’s shutters inch open across the road and realized the absurdity of conducting a dialogue with a wooden cabin. “The forest is that way,” she said, pointing to the distant grey treeline, and then she returned to her own house to prepare for market day, the centerpiece of her week. Hopefully, the hut would leave her alone if she ignored it. 

The hut was still waiting half an hour later when she reemerged with her barrow of carefully packed skins and coats. She pretended not to notice it and started wheeling her goods down the street, but after a moment, she heard the hesitant click of claws following behind.

The pallid sun was rising at her back, and the hut dogged her heels so closely that she walked within the elongated triangle of its shadow. Ahead of her, women screamed and men cursed, and the streets quickly emptied again. It was no good; if she arrived at the trading square with the hut in tow, the market would be thrown into chaos. But she couldn’t give up—with Papa gone, it was more vital than ever to show that Daniil Ivanov’s Fine Fur Emporium was still in business.

She came to a narrow side-road that was little more than a drainage ditch running between two rows of stinking tanneries, twisting and narrowing as it went. Thinking quickly, Nadia swerved and pushed her cart into the alley. Behind her she saw that the hut had paused at the mouth of the tunnel, perhaps sizing up the width. It took a few cautious steps after her, timbers creaking.

“That’s right,” encouraged Nadia, adopting the falsely cheery tone she used with dogs and children. “Come along, then.”

The hut managed one mighty surge forward and then came to a halt, wedged between the walls. It kicked its legs forlornly and pitched back and forth, grinding its flanks against the buildings that confined it. Nadia, quashing a pang of unexpected guilt, trundled her way out into the next street, leaving the hut trapped.

The market was smaller than usual, but not even the threat of the witch had closed it down completely. When Nadia arrived, the air was thick with traders’ cries, smoothed of their consonants through long repetition. She pushed through the crowd, graciously accepting excuses from any who had missed Daniil Ivanov’s funeral. Several of the traders offered to man her stall for her during this difficult time, but Nadia brushed them off. An hour of weakness can cost a year of business, Papa had liked to say. When she reached Ivanov’s Fine Fur Emporium on furrier’s row, she bundled away her old stool and pointedly sat in the canvas chair that had been his.

“Fine furs, fine furs and cloths,” she called, slapping her mittened hands together to keep them limber. Her breath steamed. “Fox, badger, Siberian beaver. Or how about some Damascene silk, eighty kopeks the yard. The closest weave this side of the Orient. How about it, Anna Parsokova? Some watered silk to bring out your eyes?”

Nadia could keep up this easy patter for hours, but it was drawing no customers today. The merchants’ wives, embalmed in their pungent makeup, gave her smiles of condolence but did not pause. Former customers idly picked through her merchandise then moved on down the row to buy moth-eaten cloaks from cheap peddlers.

A humiliating hour passed, and her cries grew more strained, until at last an ironmonger shouted back, “Nobody wants your furs, girl! They’re cursed by death, and you charge too much for them.”

Nadia’s cheeks went hot. “The price matches the quality! How dare you say such a thing about my business!”

“It was Daniil Ivanov’s business. Your business is to squeeze out a few sons,” advised the ironmonger. “That’s the way to honor your father.”

Nadia was drawing in her breath to speak her mind at that, when Aleksandr appeared. “I’ll buy something,” he said loudly, staring down the crowd. “I would be proud to shop at Daniil Ivanov’s stall. What do you have available, Nadia?”

At last. “Well, feast your eyes on this caftan,” Nadia was beginning, when her spiel was interrupted by distant screams. People craned uncertainly as the cries grew louder, washing towards them like a wave.

Aleksandr seized Nadia’s arm and dragged her out of her booth, and then the air was full of splinters. She fell to the ground and twisted around to see the chicken hut looming against the sky, Damascene silk fluttering from its rafters like a pennant. It was sprawled lopsidedly in the wreckage of her stall, legs churning as it tried to regain its balance.

Nadia was distantly aware that Aleksandr was calling her name, but she was too furious to pay him any mind. “You...you monstrous henhouse!” she screamed. She snatched up a shard of planking and charged forward, swinging the timber like a woodsman’s axe.

The hut scrambled to its feet, shedding beaver pelts, but not before she reached it. THWACK – she brought the plank up hard against its wall, chipping its dark-stained wood. “Terrifying children!” she screamed. “Interrupting funerals! Ruining markets! You’re a disgrace!” She chased it across the square, raining blows onto its rear end while it rampaged desperately through the aisles. In the end it demolished a tinker’s stand to break loose and waded into the shallows of the river, which it followed until it twisted away out of sight behind the monastery.

Nadia flung the plank after it and turned to see half the town staring at her in shock. “Hooray for Nadia Daniilovna,” chirped a small boy, but he was quickly hushed by his father.  

Nadia trudged back to the remnants of Papa’s stall and began gathering her wares. After a moment Aleksandr joined her. Around them the rest of the traders were streaming out of the square, no doubt anxious to be home before the hut made a return visit.

“You have lost some stock,” Aleksandr observed, as they dumped torn and muddied furs back into the barrow.

Nadia nodded tiredly. Half of the coats were now ruined. Maybe she could reconstitute them as rugs. She picked up an old birch broom from the wreckage and tried to scrape some of the mud off the pelts.

“Let me give you some money to help cover the damage.”

Nadia demurred, but Aleksandr insisted on at least buying the caftan. He then pushed her barrow back up the streets in silence, although his lips moved as if he were rehearsing something to himself. When they reached her house, he coughed deliberately and turned to face her.

“Nadia, I must tell you that I have been giving some thought to our future.”

“My future is in fur,” said Nadia, unlocking the door.

“To be sure! But things are different now, which is why I think we can help each other. You have your father’s expertise, I have respectability. Not that you have anything to be ashamed of, only, you know how the world is.”

“I do, Sasha. Thank you.”

“I have been in touch with some trappers upriver at Khotilov, but the Parfeev name is not yet...fully established. If I could approach them with the backing of Daniil Ivanov’s Fine Fur Emporium, then they might be willing to entrust me with their stock.”

“You? Or us?”

“We would be partners, of course; and your honored father’s name would come first on the shingle,” Aleksandr explained. “I thought, ‘Ivanov and Parfeev: Pelts of Distinction’.”

“What about Danillovna and Parfeev?” asked Nadia tartly.

Aleksandr laughed nervously. “You will think on the offer?” he asked.

“Very hard,” Nadia assured him, and closed the door. It had taken Papa twenty years to build up the Ivanov name; she wasn’t going to let Aleksandr borrow it, however charitable his intentions might be.

Yet her own prospects seemed little better. She spent the afternoon sitting by the stove with a quill in her hand and Papa’s accounts book on her knee. Hearth taxes. Stall repair. Fresh skins and transport. The numbers multiplied maliciously beneath her pen.

She doodled Aleksandr’s honest and open face in the income column. Had she been too hasty? It would cost her nothing to offer a name, and Aleksandr would be the one bearing all the risks of the journey.    

She drew him again in expenditure, a cruel, slack-jawed caricature. Once it was known that they were partners, how long until Ivanov’s Fine Fur Emporium became Aleksandr’s business in the eyes of the town, and she a mere stall-holder?

For now, she needed to assess the damage from the hut’s rampage at the market, see what she could salvage. Let them see her with her head held high at next week’s market. Show them what Daniil Ivanov’s daughter was made of.

She scattered sawdust on the damaged furs to absorb the dirt, then started beating them clean with the silver birch broom. It was tiring work, and she went out to the well for a drink after half an hour. When she came back, the broom was floating in the air, still beating furs on its own.

Nadia slumped into her chair and watched the broom carry out its duties. It must have fallen from the witch’s hut at the market. That meant that sooner or later Grandmother Yaga would be back to look for it, and an angry witch was the last thing she needed right now.

The broom swept the last of the sawdust out the door and, its business complete, dropped to the planking with a clatter.

People always said that Grandmother Yaga was a fair trader, in her way. Maybe in return for her broom she would offer some compensation for Nadia’s lost furs. Business was business, surely, even for witches.

The hut had left town, but it didn’t take long to pick up its trail. The guard at the wolf gate pointed wordlessly towards the woods, and just off the road oversized chicken tracks broke the crust of yesterday’s snow. Each arrow-like print was as long as Nadia’s arm.

Leaving the woodsmoke and churchbells behind her, Nadia followed the tracks into the mottled spines of the birch forest with the broom tucked under her arm. Broken branches littered the trail, evidence of the hut’s passing. It must be nearby; nothing that large could have pushed very deeply into these trees.

She heard the hut before she saw it. The crunch of snow, the clatter of sticks. Mustering her courage, Nadia strode through the thinning trees and came out into a sunlit clearing.

The hut was tilted backwards, so that its rear edge rested against the snow. This was apparently to free up its feet, as in one claw it delicately held a thin branch which it was trying to jam upright into the ground. A lopsided line of similar branches, some already fallen prone, marked a semicircle around the clearing.

“Hello, hut,” said Nadia, extending the broom as a peace offering.

The hut started and dropped its branch. It shuffled aimlessly back and forth for a few steps, then tilted its facade aloofly upwards.

Silence descended on the clearing. Nadia hadn’t bargained on the house having hurt feelings. Before she could think of a diplomatic way to get it to open its door, the hut jerked out a leg and kicked something hard and white through the slush towards her. Nadia bent forward and picked up a hare’s skull, picked clean by scavengers.

Not wanting to offend, she lifted the little skull with both hands. Balancing shakily, the hut extended a talon and pointed at the line of sticks, and Nadia realized what it was asking. She jammed the skull onto the firmest post, tilting it so that its empty sockets stared up at the grey sky. The chicken-hut bent forward, bringing its doorway close to the grisly totem, then straightened again and creaked its eaves.

“I’m sorry if we both lost our temper yesterday. I didn’t want you to get in trouble for losing Grandmother Yaga’s broom. Is she in?” She stood on tip-toe to reach for the door handle, but the hut twisted away before she could grab it, leaving her facing the tightly-packed logs of the side wall.

Nadia didn’t approve of sulking. She followed the wall around the corner, catching a glimpse of the doorway, but the hut rotated to follow her movement. Nadia paced an entire circuit of the clearing like this, the doorway always just out of reach, until she had caught up with her own footprints again.

“Stop behaving like a child,” she said. This time she broke into a jog, watching the chicken feet scramble to keep up. Once the house had some momentum going, Nadia turned on her heel and sprinted back the way she had come. The hut hopped into reverse with surprising deftness, and just as Nadia reached the doorway it fell away again. Reckless with exasperation, Nadia dove between the hut’s legs and burst out beneath the opposite wall. With a crescendo of creaks, the hut leapt into the air and twisted itself around a full half-circle before landing.

“Enough!” shouted Nadia. “Turn and face me, or you’ll feel my stick!”

Cowed, the house crouched. With a groan of rusty hinges, the door swung open.

Nadia saw no fire burning inside, but the snow’s reflected sunlight spilled into the doorway and cast a grey light across pine boards, soot-stained walls hung with animal skins, and an iron cauldron on the central stove. And there, hunched over the cauldron, was a seemingly headless figure, clad in furs.

“Grandmother?” asked Nadia, stomach twisting. “Grandmother, I’ve brought your broom back.”

The figure didn’t stir, and Nadia hesitated out in the sunshine.

“Grandmother?”

Mouth dry with nerves, Nadia put a knee up to the sill and hauled herself into the doorframe. She let her eyes adjust, taking in a petrified thorn bush in the corner that was usually given over to an icon, a vast mortar and pestle against the wall, and the fur-clad figure in the centre of the room. It was slumped over the cauldron, head immersed in the liquid.

The hut listed nervously; it was like being on a river-barge. “Gently,” murmured Nadia, stroking the splintery wall, and she crept into the centre of the small room. The cauldron was almost full, and despite the hut’s recent acrobatics the surface still glistened with congealed fat. Grandmother Yaga’s head was immersed in this soup, her wattled neck like a branch frozen into the winter-ice.

Nadia took a handful of brittle hair and, when the body didn’t stir, she hauled it up out of the broth.

The stink of decay burst into the frigid air. A squashed and bloated mush, too far gone to resemble a face, emerged dripping from the liquid. Nadia let the body slide down to the floor. The cold had preserved the witch well, and beneath a tattered bear-hide Nadia could see pendulous breasts and bony legs. But there were no claws, no talons. She was just an old woman, dead a long time.    

Nadia sat on the sagging mattress, the broom falling to the floor. “Oh hut,” she said. “I’m so sorry. Now we are both alone.”

The chimney gave a mournful whistle.

It seemed rude to leave, but Nadia didn’t know what to do. She stared at the old woman coiled on the floor. She knew she should go, but she couldn’t leave the hut with a corpse inside it. It would be like having a dead mouse caught in your throat. Not even witches and their huts deserved that.

Nadia wrapped her scarf around her nose and mouth and bent forward to grab the dead witch’s shoulders. In a series of rasping tugs, she dragged the corpse towards the sunlight, but before she could reach it the door slammed shut and plunged the room into darkness.

“We have to take her outside to bury her,” said Nadia. “You have to let go.”

A minute passed, and just as Nadia was starting to lose her composure the door reluctantly creaked open again. The chicken-hut tilted its frame forward, so Nadia was able to slither the corpse out onto the snow. In the sunlight, the body looked shrunken and pale.

Now she had another problem. Beneath the snow the soil was frozen, and Nadia had no way to thaw it. She thought about guiding the hut back into town, taking the body to the churchyard, but she somehow doubted that the priests would accept it.  

Then there was a clatter within the hut’s walls and then, sailing out in stately procession, came the mortar, the pestle, and the broom she had returned.

The pestle dragged its base through the snow, tracing a circle six-feet wide. The broom then set to work whisking white clumps out of the boundary. Once the hard-packed soil had been revealed, the mortar tipped to allow the pestle to lever the witch’s limp body into its basin. The mortar ground its way into the circle’s centre and deposited the body there before returning to settle by the hut. The broom neatly swept away its tracks and then fell to the ground beside it.

This display so captivated Nadia that for a while she did not realize that she was being joined by others. Like ghosts, the creatures of the woods slipped through the trees and took up positions in a ring around the corpse. Crows shared the bare branches with squirrels. Martens and foxes sat alongside a snow-frosted bear. Nadia quailed as a pair of wolves emerged, but they paid her no mind, settling themselves down amidst a family of beavers without a snarl. Within five minutes, a whole forest family had assembled, breathing in soft unison, while the hut stood above them all like a gangly youth, awkward in his height.

Nadia drew her cloak tighter around her, and looked about nervously. “I suppose I should say a few words, being the only person who can speak. You... don’t speak, do you?”

The animals were silent.

“Well, then...

“I didn’t know Grandmother Yaga, but I know what you must be feeling. It’s very hard when the person you rely on is taken away from you. And after they’re gone, everyone just seems to expect that you’ll go away too, but you have to keep going somehow. Even if the person who should be most proud of you isn’t around to see it.”

Her voice caught, and she had to swallow back the tightness in her throat before she could go on.

“I don’t know if all the stories about her were true, and if she really ate children, then... she shouldn’t have. But I know Grandmother Yaga never had to worry about creditors. She lived a long time, she did what she wanted and she went where she wanted, and that seems like a good life to me. Wherever she is now, she should be proud.”

Nadia paused to wipe a knuckle across her eyes. “I’m sorry for your loss,” she finished, lamely.

The hut lifted a yellow claw and lowered it slowly until its talons closed around the little body. Nadia watched in respectful silence. For a minute all was stillness, then the hut released its grasp and took two paces backwards.

And the animals went to work.

Nadia had never seen dismemberment, but she felt no revulsion. In the circumstances, she couldn’t think of anything more fitting. The wolves took turns tearing at the torso, the bear solemnly pulled off an arm, birds pecked away the face. Finally, the squirrels lapped up the bloodstained snow, and then there was nothing.

The service was over. As each animal left, it touched its muzzle to the hut’s legs. Some approached Nadia too – she nervously endured a pawing from the bear before it left the clearing. Rubles of fur, Nadia thought regretfully, watching it go.

When they were all gone, the hut bent its knees and swung open its door with a creak. The invitation was clear, but Nadia shook her head. “No, I have to go home, to my business,” she said. The hut bobbed and then abruptly strode off into the trees.

A fresh wave of loneliness hit Nadia as the sound of cracking branches faded into the distance. And after all that, she hadn’t even managed to return the broom – it lay with the other tools on the snow. It seemed she couldn’t even give things away this week. Maybe she could find a use for the witch’s tools left behind. She gathered up the broom and the pestle, which seemed surprisingly light for its size, and then experimentally tapped the edge of the mortar.

“Rise,” she said.

The mortar rose an inch into the air. To Nadia’s satisfaction, when she began to retrace her footprints it hovered along behind her.

Returning through the wolf gate, Nadia wrapped her arms around the mortar and feigned carrying it through the streets of town. As she approached her house at dusk, she saw Bogdana Osorgina’s son bouncing a ball in the road. Before she could call a greeting, his mother emerged from her doorway and grabbed him by the shirt.

“Stay away from that half-woman’s door! Don’t you know that Nadia Daniilovna will eat you up if you enter her house, just like she ate her father?”

The child laughed and skipped back to his house. Bogdana Osorgina met Nadia’s eyes, frowned, and hurried in after him. Her shutters closed with a bang.

“She thinks I’m a witch,” Nadia said wonderingly to her magic mortar. “And so what if I was? To think that I would harm dear Papa. How dare she!”

The mortar sounded a ringing note, like a glass being struck, and Nadia hastily dumped it by the hat-rack. Suddenly ashamed of her wild afternoon, she covered the tools with a blanket and lit the lamps.

Night crept over the town. Nadia clicked her abacus and puzzled over her father’s accounts and thought of the night wind blowing through the trees. She wondered where the hut was going, and if it would find shelter for the night. Or were its walls shelter enough?

Her reverie was interrupted by a rap at the door. She opened it to find Aleksandr stamping his boots outside. “Nadia,” he said, “May I come in?”

“Of course, Sasha,” Nadia said, stepping aside. Aleksandr hung his felt hat on the nail, hesitated before her, and then ducked his head to brush his lips against her calloused fingers.

“Have you considered my suggestion?” he asked as he straightened.

“I have,” said Nadia, tucking her hands into her skirts. “And I am flattered, but I must refuse.”

To her surprise, Aleksandr grabbed her shoulders and looked her straight in the eye. His breath smelled of vodka. “And you are right to do so! It was an insulting offer. Let me say what is truly in my heart – I want us to be married.”

“Married?” she echoed, sliding out of his grasp.

“I know how lost you must be feeling without Daniil Ivanov’s guidance,” he continued, swaying slightly.

“Sasha...”

“...a woman should not live alone...”

“Sasha...”

“...all we could achieve together...”

“Sasha!”

He paused, blinking at her.

“Sasha. You know that even if we were married, I wouldn’t be one of those wax statues you see adorning their husbands at church. I intend to carry on as I have been.”

“Naturally... naturally. You would retain your place at the stall, but we must be sensible, Nadia. A furri... a furrer... a person in our field must travel to meet with the trappers, and the roads are not safe for a woman. Brigands will not care about your family name.”

Nadia looked into his earnest face, her fingers twitching over imaginary abacus beads. With access to the whole of Aleksandr’s savings, they could keep afloat for a year. Long enough to establish her own reputation and win back Papa’s customers. But as a stall-holder? As a Parfeev? Papa’s ironic eyebrows loomed in her mind.

“I...” she hesitated.

Emboldened, Aleksandr grasped her hand. “Let me take the burden from your shoulders.” he murmured. “It’s what Daniil Ivanov would have wanted.”

She snatched her hand back. “You don’t know anything about what he would have wanted!”

Aleksandr closed his eyes and wiped a wrist across his sweating forehead. “I don’t understand, Nadia, I would be very good to you.”

“I know you would, Aleksandr,” she said. “But it’s not the life I want.”

His face darkened; with his soft curls and wide collar, he looked to Nadia like a little boy about to throw a tantrum. “So, you think you can do better than me? What, you want some noble’s son?”

“Sasha! Don’t be ridiculous.”

“You should hear what everyone has been saying about you! Up until now, I didn’t believe it, but first that monstrous house, and now this manliness. You really are acting like a witch!”

“Why, because I’m trying to continue the trade I was born to? You think I need a pizzle-stick to sell fur?” With a flash of inspiration, she snatched up the pestle and poked him in the belly with it. “Well here’s mine, longer than anybody’s. Go tell that to your friends at the tavern, and tell them to pay any debts they owe me as well, or I’ll make sure they feel the end of it.”

Aleksandr stared at her, aghast, then drew himself up and took a deep breath. “I will put this madness down to your grief,” he said at last. “And give you another opportunity to accept my suit next week.” He gave a jerky bow, then stalked out—leaving his hat still hanging on the nail. Nadia heard him pause after a few steps, could picture his expression as he struggled with his pride. Then he stomped on, bare-headed.

Nadia looked dolefully at the pestle in her hand. “Poor Aleksandr, I shouldn’t have spoken so harshly to him. He was only telling the truth. What should I do, Grandmother? Who is going to do business with a spinster?”

Not that Grandmother Yaga had ever had to worry about being mocked or short-changed, Nadia thought bitterly. Grandmother Yaga was the one woman who had commanded respect without a man beside her, and no brigand would have crossed her. Reputation was everything, in that way.

Nadia went back to her accounts and listened to the silence fill up the rooms around her. It smothered the tick of the clock and pressed against the panes, washing out from its source—the cold room, without a fire, where Daniil Ivanov’s chair sat empty.

She looked at the coat peg, where his sable coat still hung, his scent all but faded.

She began to cry.

Soft gasps at first, then great weeping sobs that shook her chest. Nadia ran to the coat and snuffled into its soft folds, her tears running down its hairs and staining the wood below her.

She knelt like that until the fire was down to its embers and the night was at its darkest. Then she took a deep breath and got to work.

She dug out her father’s sign from the pieces of her ruined stall and made the necessary adjustments. Then she packed a traveling bag, tipped her remaining valuables into her pockets, dragged the mortar, broom and pestle out onto the doorstep, and locked the front door. Climbing into the bowl, she cried out, “Take me back to Grandmother Yaga’s house.”

The mortar sprang into the air and soared over the white-capped rooftops. Nadia clutched its rim and blinked away the tears stung from her eyes by the frosty wind. The lights of the town-fires fell away behind her, and soon she was gliding above trees turned to quicksilver by the moon. Birds sang in their sleep as she passed.

Skimming across the waste, she caught up with the hut ten miles from town. It was striding across the snow, incongruously black against the white. Nadia drew up alongside and gave the door a poke with her pestle.

“Open up, my friend. It’s too cold a night to be alone.”

The door swung open and the mortar slipped inside, coming down on the planking with a crash. Nadia stepped out and stretched, then lit a candle from her bag. In the warm yellow light, the hut seemed as cozy as a root cellar. It needed a scrub, but afterwards it would do very nicely as a home.

Not a home, she corrected herself. A partner.

“How quickly can you get to Khotilov?” she called out. “There are men there with pelts to sell, and between us I think we can convince them to come to a deal. You’re not afraid of brigands, are you?”

The hut flapped its shutters derisively and quickened its pace until it seemed to be flying across the plains. Nadia leaned out into the cold night air and hung their new shingle by the door.

DANIILOVNA AND YAGAVICH: TRAVELING FUR EMPORIUM


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Jack Nicholls grew up among a collection of eight thousand speculative fiction books and never escaped their gravitational pull. His stories have been published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Award-Winning Australian Writing 2012, and Aurealis. Like many Australians, he currently resides in London. His website can be found at www.jacknicholls.net.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“Dirt Witch” by Eljay Daly
“The Tale of the Aggrieved Astrologer” by Jack Nicholls

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3 Comments on “Flying the Coop”

3 Responses to “Flying the Coop”

  1. Nick says:

    Great story, good to see its finally published. Can highly recommend The Tale of the Aggrieved Astrologer also.

  2. Simon Oh See says:

    Nice one, Jack! Felt like a reimagining of some of your recent travels — just how I might imagine those landscapes and markets and houses to be all the way from the antipodes.

  3. […] “Flying the Coop” by Jack Nicholls They were in sight of the churchyard gates when the witch’s hut hopped out from between two buildings, thirty paces behind them. […]

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