A Bone Picket Fence


By Kyle Matthews

She had come to the house on chicken legs only a year old, but her blood still remembered some of the warmth of day, and the singing of birds rather than crickets, the sun’s kindness. Mother Baba told her that her parents had offered her on their doorstep, entreating the demon to spare their house. She had, and she had taken Starling and raised her as her own. Mother Baba said that some day, she would be Baba Yaga. Starling hoped that day was long in coming. A thought in the dark as she watched the baleful woods; one she had thought many times before.

I heard that, dear.

Starling turned involuntarily to the lighted window. The silhouette of the old woman hadn’t moved but her dry, rasping voice was echoing in her head.

“I am sorry, Mother Baba,” whispered Starling to the night.

Come inside, love, the night answered back with Baba Yaga’s voice. Come out of the cold.

“Am I to be punished, Mother?”

Yes, love. Come to me.

Starling turned from the trees and felt her raven-dark hair shift around her face. Mother Baba said her hair had been yellow when her parents offered her to death in return for life; yellow as daylight, color of the sun. Now, even in the silver glow of the moon, it hung as shredded shadow past her shoulders and curled around her pale eyes, which were the color of nothingness against her white skin, color of emptiness.

The steps to the porch were high, for the chicken legs that stood at the four corners of the house were tall. Sometimes their taloned feet shifted, lifted to scratch the dirt absently, or to strut where Baba Yaga bade them. Every night within the night they moved to a different clearing in the forest, trees bowing away to make one if there had been none before. The house was never in the same spot twice. And every time it settled, Starling made a wall of bones, with never enough time to finish it.

The door opened to Starling’s gentle pull, and warm, glowing firelight accepted her into the single room of the house. The room was very plain, save for the fireplace, which was framed within a handsome hearth carved of stone, with scenes and figures of the Dark Forest as it had been long ago when it was not so dark, and Baba Yaga had been young and beautiful. Flames roared the full height of the hearth, which was half again as high as Starling standing her tallest, but not from wood. Faggots of bone bound loosely with strips of human skin fed the malevolent fire, and every so often Baba Yaga paused from her knitting to throw another in from the pile at her chicken-clawed feet. A cauldron, huge and black and marked with rust and the stains of too much age, hung over the flames. Something bubbling hissed and splattered inside its massive walls.

“I am sorry, Mother Baba,” Starling said, bowing to the bowed figure that sat in the rocking chair by the fire. The chair creaked as the old woman urged it back and forth, telling its own tale of too many years seen and endured. Its companion and master, the bane of living men and women, peered at Starling over her bone-white needles and flesh-colored yarn. A ragged scarf of darkly stained skin was wound around her head. Underneath white hair clung in mangled, frazzled wisps to her crabapple skull and bearded her cheeks and gnarled chin with light stubble. Her eyes were the wasted yellow of sick sunlight, wet and half blind as they studied Starling mildly. And always sadly.

She spoke aloud this time. “Your supper is ready, dear, and it is growing cold. You must eat it now.”

Starling looked at the oaken table, bearing only an earthenware bowl of something steaming, and standing quietly on chicken legs. A single chair was stood before the bowl, also on chicken legs, though smaller and more impatient. As she watched, the table and chair trotted over to her and she sat down and looked inside the bowl.


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