This week, due to a dearth of blog fodder, I am resorting to fiction. It’s a bit long, so if you have to pee, do it now.
The future is opaque. We cannot know what will happen in the next hour, or even the next second. To avoid this fearful uncertainty, we participate in consensual reality, which uses pattern recognition to predict the future. The sun has risen in the east since time immemorial and it is reasonable to assume it will do so tomorrow. For the most part, this mass hallucination is benign.
But there are moments when fate hangs on the cusp of possibility. In these moments, blindness to uncertainty and addiction to pattern become lethal. Richard Tasker and his recently earned B. Sc. in Economics have arrived at just such a moment. He is spectacularly ill-equipped to deal with it, having spent all of his twenty two years slavishly attempting to earn the approval of his father by following the rules. Fortunately, help is available.
Richard is not dressed for walking through a forest. He is wearing his interview suit, grey worsted with a fine blue pinstripe over a white shirt and solid navy tie. He remembers choosing the navy tie over the red paisley because it seemed more conservative. He also remembers putting on shoes and socks and wonders what happened to them as he limps barefoot between the trees. He does not know where he is, or how he came to be here, or even how long he’s been here because his watch has stopped.
The path, a narrow ribbon of packed dirt winding between what he thinks of as giant Christmas trees, ends abruptly at the edge of a sunny clearing. At its centre, a small house with a curved roof stands on yellow stilts, surrounded by a white picket fence. Richard approaches it though the long grass, stopping when he comes close enough to see the pickets of the fence are human thigh bones and the finials crowning them are human skulls. What appeared, from a distance, to be rounded wooden shingles covering the roof and walls, turn out, on closer inspection, to be giant, red-brown feathers. The stilts on which the house stands are actually scaled and clawed bird feet. There are no windows or doors.
He walks around the house, intending to find where the forest path continues on the far side of the clearing. Everything looks the same and after a time he realizes he has made several circuits of the house. The trail of bent grass stalks he created when he left the forest has disappeared. He can no longer see where he entered the clearing. “What the hell am I supposed to do now?” he mutters. He believes the question is rhetorical.
The house makes a loud squawking noise. A gate like a rib cage appears in the fence and a circular opening with jagged white edges yawns in the feathered wall. The house squawks again, as though issuing an invitation, and squats down until the newly created door is touching the ground. Richard pushes open the gate, walks up to the door and peers inside.
There is one room. A plain wooden bed with a thin mattress stands against the left wall. Opposite the bed, flames dance among three small logs burning inside a large stone fireplace. The walls, as much as he can tell in the firelight, appear to be paneled in richly carved wood. On a bench by the fireplace sits... something. Its face, under the broad, bald dome of the skull, is so crumpled and imploded with age, Richard is unable to assign gender or race. He’s not even sure of the species. Simian eyes, deeply set, stare accusingly at him.
‘’You late,” the creature says, in a heavy Russian accent as it leans down to pick up a knife from beside the bench. The blade is the brightest object in the room. “Come in. Hold out hands.”
Richard tucks his hands behind his back. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you. I’ll leave now.”
Heavy white eyebrows draw together. “You not new servant?”
“No! No. I was just walking through the forest and saw your house.”
The creature drops the knife back to the floor and rises. The folds of a long green skirt fall to the ground. A ragged black shawl, thickly embellished with frayed embroidery, drapes over the humped shoulders. The ends of the shawl cross over at the front and tie together behind the back. The occupant of the house, Richard decides, is a woman. Her lipless mouth expands into a gaping smile, exposing a single, tusk-like eye tooth. Firelight flashes off its yellow point. “Ah well, you better come in.”
Richard lifts his right leg to step backward but finds himself compelled to step over the teeth of the threshold into the room instead. Behind his back, he clasps his left wrist tightly with his right hand.
“You must be tired,” the woman says. She gestures to the bench hospitably. “Sit. Rest. You want tea?” The tooth flashes again. Suddenly Richard is thirsty. He presses his lips firmly together and remains absolutely still. Her smile disappears. She closes her eyes and sighs. “Okay. We do hard way. What is your question?”
“I don’t have a question.”
“Of course you have question. Only question people come to Baba Yaga.”
“Then why you in forest? Only thing in forest is Chicken. Only thing in Chicken is Baba Yaga.”
“I didn’t mean to come here. I’ll leave now.” Richard turns to step out the door, but it is gone. In the flickering light, animal faces carved into the unbroken walls leer at him. “Where’s the door?”
“No door. Chicken open when question answered.”
“But I don’t have a question.”
“Then you must find question, or you stay forever.”
“What kind of question?”
Baba Yaga sits back down on the bench. “I not know.” She flaps her hand outward. “I not give question. I give answer.”
Richard tries to think of a question. Nothing comes.
Baba Yaga shrugs. “Okay, okay. I give you question and answer. Same price. Package deal.”
“What? You think I work for nothing? Is business. You look like nice boy. I give you discount. Son, daughter, doesn’t matter. Okay even not firstborn.”
Richard backs up until a carved projection on the wall presses into his left buttock. “Firstborn? Child? Are you nuts?”
“No give child?”
Baba Yaga stands and approaches her visitor. This close, the old woman has a vague, unpleasant smell, like damp, dirty laundry. “Hmmm. Tough. Too much muscle.” A sharp fingernail pokes at Richard’s stomach. “Not much fat. But make tasty stew. Okay. I take you.”
“To eat?” His voice rises to a pitch it has not achieved since early adolescence. “Even if I had a question, which I don’t, and I wanted an answer, which I don’t, what good would it do me if you ate me?”
“No good. This why I ask for child. But no. You not give child. You not give self. What you give?”
“Do you take money?”
“Depends. You have gold?”
Richard extracts his wallet from his back pocket and pulls out a card. “American Express?”
“Don’t try cheat me. Is not gold, is gold colored.”
“It’s a credit card.”
“No credit. What else you got?”
“Okay, how about my watch.”
“Watch? What do?”
“It tells time.”
The room vibrates as a directionless sound echoes through it. “Brrrk. Brrrk.”
Startled, Richard looks wildly around. “What’s that?”
“Chicken laughing because you think watch tell time.”
“Okay, it’s not working right now, but all it needs is a new battery.”
“Brrrk. Brrrk.” The room vibrates again.
Baba Yaga hobbles over to the nearest wall and kicks it. “Stop. Is rude.” She returns to the bench and sits down. “Watch no work here. What else?”
Richard shrugs. “I don’t have anything else. Look, I can’t pay you, so why don’t you just let me leave.”
She shakes her head. “Is not work that way. Chicken not open until answer.”
“Can’t you tell it to open the door?”
The room shakes harder as the house laughs again. Richard loses his balance and falls to the floor.
Baba Yaga sighs. “I wish.” She stares into the fire for a time. “Okay, you not pay. I not work free. We make bet. You find answer, Chicken open, you leave. I find answer, you lose.”
“What happens if I lose?”
“There’s no other way to open the door?”
Baba Yaga says nothing.
Richard swallows and feels his Adam’s apple scrape on the collar of his shirt, which suddenly seems several sizes too small. “Okay,” he says, pulling down the knot of his tie and undoing the top button of his shirt, ““here’s my question. What day is today?”
This time the shaking of the house is so violent that the old woman falls from her seat to the floor. She reaches under the bench for the knife and throws it at the wall. The blade makes three bright circles through the air before sinking half its length into the carved wood.
“Raaawk!” the house protests and the shaking stops.
“Again with time?” Placing her palm on the bench, Baba Yaga levers herself up. “Stop make Chicken laugh.”
Richard pushes himself up to a sitting position but remains on the floor. “I don’t get it. What’s so funny?”
“Here no time, only now. Chicken think you make joke.” She rubs her hip. “We need real question.”
He stares at his bare feet while a hard lump of frustration forms under his breastbone. “What real question?”
“Question you come for,” she replies in a tone suitable for conversing with an idiot.
“I don’t have a real question!” he shouts, surprising himself with the volume of his denial. “And where the hell are my shoes?”
The house gives a satisfied cluck. Richard looks at the old woman. Her eyes are brightly approving and his frustration melts into apprehension. “Is that my question?” He hopes not. He doesn’t know the answer.
“No. But good start.” Baba Yaga claps her hands. “I have tea while you think.”
Beside the fire place, a panel opens in the wall. Two bodiless hands float out, bearing a wooden tray containing an engraved silver samovar and two glass beakers in silver filigree holders. The hands are mismatched. The right hand is slender and pale, with pink, oval nails. The left hand is darker skinned and broad palmed, with calloused finger tips. They place the tray on the end of the bench. The small hand puts a spoon in one of the glasses and holds it under the spout of the samovar, while the large hand pulls the lever to pour the tea. Gliding across the room, the small hand offers the glass to Richard.
“No thank you,” he says.
“Is okay,” Baba Yaga assures him. “Come from servant, Not poison. Only poison if I give.”
The tooth makes no appearance. Richard feels no thirst and no compulsion to take the glass, so he takes it. “Thank you.”
The small hand makes a graceful rippling gesture with its fingers and returns to fill the other glass, which it gives to Baba Yaga. Both hands then hover in the air over the tray, holding each other with fingers entwined.
Baba Yaga sips her tea, then wags a skeletal forefinger. “Stupid hand. Why you no listen? I tell you, he no good musician. Where you think other hand is?”
The right hand disengages. Fingers spread wide, it flies back through the open panel by the fireplace. A noise like breaking pottery erupts then a regular clanging, as though something is being struck with an iron pan. The left hand moves to the other side of the fireplace and presses itself against the wall.
“Da. You hide,” Baba Yaga tells the hand. “Go kitchen now, all ten fingers broken.” The clanging stops abruptly and the panel by the fireplace slams shut. Baba Yaga shakes her head and says conversationally, “Before, I take whole person as servant. Always problems. So I think, don’t need whole person, just take hands. Hah! Still problems.”
“What happens to the rest of them after you cut off their hands?”
“Waiting. They come. They say ‘Baba Yaga, I have problem. Please fix.’ I say ‘Okay, you work, I give wish.’ Work finish, body back, wish granted. But,” she points at the hand by the fireplace, “wish not solve problem. Same person as before. Make same problem.” She salutes Richard with her tea glass. “You smart, you come for answer, not wish.”
Richard sighs. “If I can find the question.”
“I help.” Baba Yaga walks to the back of the room. Grabbing the nose of a carved wolf, she slides back a panel to reveal a dark glass rectangle mounted horizontally inside the cupboard. She twists her neck to look at Richard. “What this?”
“How should I know. It’s your house. Don’t you know what’s in your own cupboard?”
“I not artistic. Chicken do decorating. Is from your world, da? What is?”
Richard rises to his feet and crosses the room to stand beside the old woman. He peers into the cupboard. “It looks like a flat screen TV.”
“TeeVee. What do?”
“It shows pictures.”
“Da?” Baba Yaga turns eagerly back to the TV. “Chicken, show pictures.”
The screen brightens and the house appears, sitting in the meadow, surrounded by its grim white fence.
Baba Yaga gasps, “Ahhh! This you, Chicken? Feathers very smooth. New fence very pretty.”
The chimney of the house bends slightly, as though in agreement.
Baba Yaga hobbles back to the bench. “In crystal ball, picture always wavy. Give me terrible headaches. Tee Vee better.” She sits down on the end farthest from the fire. “Now think about shoes.”
Richard remembers putting on his black brogues. On the screen, a picture of his feet in the shoes appears, as though he is looking down on them. They are standing on a sidewalk. The image pans up the face of a building to show a corporate logo. “Consolidated Financial Services!” he exclaims. “I remember now. I had a job interview there today. Investment counselor. But I don’t remember the interview.” The picture swerves back to Richard’s shoes as they walk away from the building. For a while they walk on cement, then veer off onto grass, coming to a halt beside a fountain. Richard watches his legs hopping awkwardly as his hands pry off his shoes and socks before rolling up his pant legs. He sees his bare foot stepping over the rim of the fountain and the screen freezes on his legs, pale and foreshortened, knee deep in water. “I didn’t go to the interview. I went wading.” Why? he thinks, but is careful not to voice the question.
Baba Yaga reaches down and picks up a shapeless leather bag from under the bench. Pulling out an equally shapeless piece of fabric, she begins to knit. The clacking of the needles blends hypnotically with the crackling of the logs in the fireplace.
Richard sips his tea, searching his memory for an explanation of why he didn’t go to the interview. With sixty-five thousand in student loans to be repaid, walking away from a potential job seems like a stupid thing to do. Even worse, how will he explain this to his Dad, who pulled strings to set up the interview? He watches the old woman’s hands, rhythmically twisting yarn around the needles, and wonders about what it will be like to be cooped up inside a chicken house forever. The inadvertent pun makes him giggle, then he realizes that sitting in a chicken, under threat of death, has been more exciting than anything he has experienced for years.
“I don’t want that job.” Richard whispers. “I don’t want that life. I don’t want to be like my father, buried behind a desk.”
Baba Yaga watches his face but says nothing. The needles clack faster, as though they have a life of their own, separate from her hands. The crackling of the fire becomes louder and the room becomes warmer. Sleepily, Richard remembers a book his mother read to him, in the cuddled, just-before-bed time of his childhood. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. For years afterward he had been obsessed with the idea of becoming a sailor.
“I want to travel to the ends of the earth.” He tests the words out loud. “I want to become a dragon and rescue a beautiful maiden.” His voice grows firmer with each word until he is almost shouting. “I want adventure! I want to make a difference!” The needles fall silent. Baba Yaga stares at him with sharp, black eyes that seem almost kindly. She nods encouragement. Helplessly, pushed by need he cannot control, desperate for the answer and heedless of the consequences, Richard utters his true question. “What the hell am I supposed to do now?”
Chicken crows a crescendo of approval. Beside the fireplace, the musician hand makes a fist and punches upward into the air. Baba Yaga folds up her knitting and pushes it back into the bag. “Easy answer.” Ticking off each point on a withered finger, she instructs him: “Get dragon tattoo. Join merchant marine. Rescue maiden in… I think should be Bangkok. Join Peace Corps. End war.”
Richard glares at her. “What kind of an answer is that?”
“Is good answer. Give everything you want.”
“But it’s ludicrous! How am I supposed to end war?”
‘Okay. That part, maybe too hard. But rest easy, da?”
“It is, isn’t it?” he whispers, then chokes out a laugh.
“What funny?” Baba Yaga asks.
Richard scrubs his eye sockets with the heels of his palms. “Too bad I’ll never get to do all that.”
Baba Yaga hangs her head. “Ah.” The curled tip of a red Turkish slipper peeps out from beneath the hem of the green skirt and inscribes a half circle on the stone floor. “I lie. You want big risk. I give big risk. I vegetarian.”
Sunlight streams into the room when Chicken opens the door. Richard turns to face the light. Its warmth penetrates his chest through to his heart. He feels taller. His shoulders feel broader. He takes two slow, long breaths then crosses to the bench where he kneels at Baba Yaga’s feet. Lifting her withered claw to his lips, he kisses it lightly. “Thank you.”
She pats his cheek with her free hand. “You good boy.” The pat transforms into a painful pinch. “No screw up.”
Richard Tasker gets a dragon tattoo on his right bicep. He joins the merchant marine and sails around the world several times having many adventures and rescuing any number of fair and rewardingly grateful maidens from perils as diverse as broken stiletto heels and white slavery. But it isn’t until he pulls the beautiful and philanthropically inclined Amanda Peabody, of the Boston Peabodys, from the wreckage of an overturned Bangkok tour bus that his destiny finds him.
They marry and serve together in the Peace Corp for two decades, during which time Richard’s work in microfinance leads him to write his book ‘The Profits of Sharing’. Within five years of its publication, the far more lucrative practices of cooperative capitalism have replaced competitive profit models. Within ten years, all governments have demilitarized as the higher standards of living created by the new global economy make patriotic boundaries undesirable.
During his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, Richard passionately thanks ‘the woman who opened my eyes and changed my life’. The audience, and Amanda herself, assume he is referring to his wife.