I have a little gift for you all: here is a short holiday-themed story featuring Beka, the protagonist in WICKEDLY WONDERFUL. The lovely folks over at Literary Escapism asked me to take part in their yearly "Black Friday" month-long event, in which various authors write a short short in which one of their characters goes Christmas shopping. Of course, Beka celebrates the Winter Solstice, but it worked out anyway. Read on and see how...
A Baba Yaga Goes Shopping
Beka Yancy walked through the rows of artists and craftspeople at the local street fair and tried not to panic. It wasn’t that there weren’t plenty of beautiful things to choose from; it was more that the two people she needed gifts for were simply impossible to buy for.
“I hate the holidays,” she muttered under her breath. “There’s just too much pressure.”
“Oh, please,” her companion snorted. “This from a woman who prevented an underwater volcano from exploding by snapping her fingers.”
Beka sighed. It had taken a lot more than a hand gesture to stop that eruption, but she’d learned from long experience that there was no point in arguing with Chewie, her Chudo-Yudo. Not only was he a dragon, albeit one currently disguised as a gigantic black Newfoundland dog, but he was also as stubborn as he was magical. Luckily, he was also pretty laid back. Which was good, since they were in Santa Carmelita, home of the Seriously Laid Back.
Normally, Beka fit in with her California coast brethren just fine. To all appearances, she was just a typical pretty blonde surfer girl with slight hippy-freak tendencies. There was no way to tell by looking at her that she was also a Baba Yaga, one of a small number of powerful witches who were responsible for watching over the doorways between our world and the Otherworld, keeping the balance of nature, and occasionally (if it couldn’t be avoided), helping out a worthy seeker.
In fact, most days Chewie would still be back at their travelling home, once a hut on chicken legs but now a marginally less conspicuous converted school bus, standing guard over the Water of Life and Death that helped to keep a Baba Yaga magically strong and healthy. But today was different, since they had guests who could be relied upon to keep the Water (and everything else) safe.
The very guests, in fact, that Beka was futilely attempting to find Winter Solstice gifts for, before she had to head back to the bus with the ingredients for a Yuletide feast and celebration.
And it would be a celebration, there was no mistaking that. It was a rare occasion when Beka and her two Baba Yaga sisters, who between them watched over the territory in the United States, managed to get together. Usually they were all too busy putting out fires, both magical and literal (or in Bella’s case, occasionally starting them). So this was going to be a joyous holiday celebration, shared between the closest of friends. If only she could find the perfect gifts.
But what on earth did you get for two powerful witches, one of whom had been around for eighty years (even if she only looked thirty) and tended to be, it could be said, a tad bit cranky, and the other of whom lived in the middle of the woods most of the time and had an unfortunate tendency to burst into flame when she was upset?
“What about that?” Chewie asked, pointing his large blunt head in the direction of the booth they were passing. Thankfully, to anyone nearby, his words would just sound like barking. There were plenty of other dogs at the street fair, so no one would notice, although it was true that all of them were much smaller, and most of them were on leashes. (You think it is a good idea to put a leash on a Chudo-Yudo, you try it.)
Beka peered into the shadowy depths of the tent and shook her head. “There is no way that I am buying Barbara a belly dancing outfit. She’d strangle me with the jingly belt.”
“Good point,” Chewie said. “What about some of that nice pottery?”
She rolled her eyes at him. “Barbara’s Airstream trailer and Bella’s modern gypsy caravan don’t have any more room than our bus. We have to find something small and easily stowed away. Besides, the last time we bought Barbara pottery, she threw it at some poor passer-by who happened to ask her for directions.”
“Well, Baba Yagas don’t like answering questions,” Chewie said. “It’s traditional.”
“Sure,” Beka agreed. “In Russia. That guy was in Cincinnati. How was he supposed to know she was a mythical Slavic fairy tale witch?”
Chewie gave the coughing growl that was his version of a laugh, and a mother moved her child two aisles over.
“Never mind,” Beka fingered some pretty beads and then moved on. She made jewelry, so if that had been the answer, she would have just given Barbara and Bella a necklace each and been done with it. Sadly, neither of them was the “cool sparkly stuff’ type. “ Just help me find something they’ll like. We have to get back to the bus soon. I told them I had to pick up a few things for dinner because I didn’t know they were coming until the last minute. If we take too long, they’ll get suspicious.”
It was silly, she knew, to want so much for the holiday to be perfect, but they had all been raised by the Baba Yagas who had found them as children and realized that their magical potential would make them suitable as replacements. They were the closest thing to family any of them had, and it was a rare Yule when they could all be together. The solstice was a magical time, even in a part of the country that had glistening beach sand instead of snow. Beka was determined to make it a celebration to remember. She’d already picked up all the fixings for a fabulous dinner, and as usual, Barbara had brought along some amazing wine and Bella had baked a pie. All she needed was to find two perfect gifts.
“What about those nice woven straw hats?” the dragon-dog asked. He was chewing on a large hotdog. Beka decided it would be better not to ask him where he’d gotten it.
“A straw hat?”
“Bella is a redhead,” Chewie said. “It will keep her from getting freckles on that cute little nose.”
“She spends most of her time in the woods,” Beka said. “She doesn’t need a hat. And straw probably isn’t the best choice for a woman who occasionally has sparks coming out of her fingertips when she isn’t paying attention.”
Chewie didn’t look impressed by that argument, but since he had a bit of an accidental flame issue himself, he wouldn’t. “Fine,” he said. “But you have to pick something. I’m getting hungry.”
“You’re always hungry,” Beka said, admiring more than complaining.
“I’m very large,” he said.
“Yes, yes you are,” she agreed, patting him affectionately on his massive head.
Then she saw something that made her stop in her tracks, causing Chewie to almost knock her over as he bumped into the back of her legs.
“Oh,” she said, putting one hand to her mouth. “I don’t believe it.”
She walked slowly over to a small, slightly ragged booth on the outskirts of the gathering. The tent had seen better days; its canopy listed decidedly to the right, and there were places where it had clearly been mended more than once. It was more beige than white, and its metal poles were bent and crooked, much like the old woman who sat at the table inside, a shawl wrapped around her shoulders even though the day was reasonably warm.
Her wares were set out on a faded flower-embroidered cloth, instead of a fancy display, but neither the surroundings nor the lack of embellishment could take away from the simple beauty of the objects on the table.
“Are those matryoskas?” Beka asked, gazing at the hand-painted face on a wooden doll. The details of the simple cylindrical figure was elaborately drawn and stunningly detailed, from the gleaming amber eyes to the ebony tresses and the lacy black dress that adorned the figure. The one Beka reached for was painted in darker colors, but there was one sitting next to it which bore the image of a red-haired woman wearing a gown of vibrant green. They were elegant and old-fashioned and a little mysterious. In short, they were perfect.
“They are,” the woman said, showing worn teeth in a pleased smile. “You know of Russian nesting dolls?” She had a trace of an accent, musical and exotic despite her drab surroundings. She lifted the top doll to show the smaller ones underneath, each slightly different but still meticulously painted.
“I do,” Beka breathed. “But I never expected to find one here.”
The woman laughed, a merry sound that made her wrinkles dance. “They are far from home, it is true. As am I. But my mother made ones like these, as did her mother before her. I suppose I should try to sell something more modern, but it is hard to change when one gets older.”
“I have a friend who would agree with you,” Beka said with a grin. “But I think these are fabulous, and they are just what I have been looking for. I’d like to buy these two, the dark one and the red.”
The old woman’s eyes widened beneath slightly bushy gray brows. “Both?” she said. “They are a little dear, I’m afraid. Perhaps more than you wish to spend.” She sounded resigned, as though she’d spent a long day telling people the price of her beautiful dolls, only to have them turn and walk away.
“And so they should be,” Beka said indignantly. “I’m sure each one took you days to paint. Maybe weeks.”
Chewie woofed in agreement, making the woman’s eyes widen even further.
“Besides,” Beka said. “There is no price too much to pay for the perfect gift for the truest of friends.” She put her hand into her pocket for her purse and then hesitated, wiggling her fingers instead to magically reach into her stash back at the bus, so that when her hand reemerged, it held a soft velvet pouch. She handed it to the old lady. “I think this should be enough, but why don’t you check.”
The woman opened the pouch and peered inside, then gazed up at Beka in amazement. Apparently no one had ever given her a bag full of ancient gold coins before.
“Are they real?” she asked, one gnarled finger reaching inside to touch them.
“As real as your talent,” Beka said quite firmly. If there was one thing a Baba Yaga knew, it was the importance of giving a fair trade. All the fairy tales said so.
“Then it is too much,” the old woman said. “Far too much.”
“If you could see the look on my friends’ faces when I give them these, you would know that I have gotten the better part of the deal,” Beka said, her heart filled with joy as the woman wrapped her perfect gifts in crinkling gold tissue paper.
“Wait,” she said, as the woman handed over her purchases. “You put three dolls in here. I only bought two.”
“The other is for you,” the woman said with a knowing smile and just the hint of a wink. “I knew I painted that one with the beautiful yellow hair for someone special. I just didn’t know how special when I made her.”
Beka nodded, the bargain accepted. “A blessed solstice to you,” she said.
“And to you, Baba Yaga. A blessed solstice to you and yours.”