Dark night. Wild wood. The moon howls. Gorse grasps, branch cuts, brier tears. You run and you run and you run. The ground is broken and betrays your feet. Ice grips, frost crackles. But this is not the night of beauty. You are lost. Crows cackle in the dark — this is their midnight. The darkness owns the land. Feet twist, hands reach, and you run. Why did you come here, Ivan? Why did you leave your warm home, your loving family, your beautiful wife? Why, Ivan? Unknown beasts move in the shadows; this is no longer the adventure you dreamed of — the call of the wild has led you into darkness. These are the lands of Baba Yaga now; this is the country of the black witch. Bones crack, blood churns, sinew stretches — this is the last resort. And you run. You came on horse-back like a prince, wearing your valour like a flag; you came in like a hero returning, triumph in your eyes. You came in bright colours, a messenger of the sun. You were open and free and gave your heart to the wind. Now your horse has fallen and ravens have eaten its flesh and the sun is a memory of another life. This is Baba Yaga’s land. Her iron teeth grind the frost. Why did you come here, Ivan? What did you long for when the sun was shining that led you away from the light? Were the prophets mistaken? Was not love enough? What greedy thirst came in the sunlight for the shadow lands, and why? Your armour has rusted that shone like gold and your flaxen hair is white; your hands that stoked passion and played the sweetest music of summer, they are bleeding now. Why did you come here, Ivan? Even the moon is laughing now, though you composed a hundred songs for her; she is no longer your mistress; your only intimacy now is with the dark.
Did it begin with a dream, Ivan? Did a shadow pass over your sleep? Did some crooked messenger appear at your door and lay your soul at your feet? Where was the sun when you turned your back on daylight and rode to the dark woods? This is not the rainbow’s end or the crystal light castles of splendour. This is not the bright revelation of dawn and the promise of possibility and birth.
You ache. Muscles burn; breath gasps. The air is poison — the wind whispers all your failings into the ear of your heart. Your golden shield with its fire-bird cracked and broke in the fall; your sword of truth and beauty shattered in the cold. Now swamp sucks at your feet and all your fine furs cannot keep out the chill and damp of the marsh. Twisted root; snagging branch; the wilds are wilder than you dreamed. All the faces of the dead are gathering in the dark; all the voices of the ancestors are crowding to chide you in your weakness. Why did you come here, Ivan?
Somewhere far from here, your baby is sleeping.
Somewhere far from here, your beloved is awake. She is wondering where you are and she cannot help you.
Somewhere, Baba Yaga has smelled your blood and is mending the gate of her dark house. It is not far. Already, the hut turns on its chicken foot and the skulls on the fence are chattering. Now you hear them in the night; now you hear nothing. Baba Yaga will make your bones into fence-posts and grease the gate with your fat. Nothing better to drink than a hero’s blood, Ivan; nothing better to eat than a hero’s sun-blushed flesh. Still you run — deeper into nowhere, lost in the darkness. Silver birch does not speak to you now of magic or the fairy-folk, only reaches for your eyes. Alder broods darkly in water; Elder whips your back as you run. And whichever way you run, you are coming closer to the hut in the woods where the dark witch lives. Why did you come here, Ivan?
You are trying to remember, though the dark night tears at you. Who sent you to go I-know-not-where, to fetch I-know-not-what? Who? Why did you go to the house of the deathless? Why did you leave your fine castle and all the beauty of the sunlight.
You came because you had to, Ivan. You came because the sun is not enough, though your brothers said it was so, though your father did not believe in the dark forest, nor your mother, who kept silent. You came because you were until now a child and thought the sunlight was the whole kingdom. Because, one day when there were no shadows, a black finch came and rested on your window-sill and sang its song of sorrow and flew away and none of your advisors could see it or hear it, nor your sisters or your child or all the kingdom, only you. Because the little black finch sang a song only you could hear, you followed it. Though they begged you to stay; though they banished night and played the music of heaven for you; though they brought you golden apples and clothes spun of silver and silk to wear, you left because you had heard and you had to follow. Not rising up like a star into heaven; not like an angel on its wings of sunlight and glory, but falling like a wounded deer or a sickened branch; like a drowning man, you disappeared and no one could save you.
Now you have worn iron and ashes, worn out your shoes on paths made of coal. Your staves are broken and you have torn your cap three times in the forest. All your tears of self-pity have been cried and they did not make a river deep enough to sail away on. You have spent all your glory on remembering how to walk and there is nowhere left to go. You who were made of fire and air now crawl on the ground with the ice in your face; you who were the champion of light, now moving only in darkness.
She grinds her teeth and sparks fill the air.
She scratches her chin and the trees shake.
She flies through the night, hungry for the blood of fools.
You are beginning to starve and there is nothing anywhere to eat.
If you had had a choice, you would not have come.
If you had known how dark it was, you would have lit more candles and moved closer to the fire and slept on the breast of your beloved. You are not yet blessed by surviving the darkness, and not all do. She will drink your blood like nectar, Ivan, and no one will remember.
Dark night. Wild wood. The moon howls. Desperate, longing, you begin to eat the shadows. Though they are bitter, though they are the food you swore you would never eat; though the laws of the sunlight forbid it, though it means you will never be free again, you begin to eat. Now the night will always be part of you. Now you have tasted poison and the fruit of darkness. Never will you be an unblemished hero of sunlight again.
And Baba Yaga laughs and the trees dies and the water churns and you know you are going to die and you cannot go on. You cannot even crawl further and you lie in the dead grass and the mud, face-to-face with the dead and you no longer have the name you were born into — you have forgotten sunlight and all the tastes of sweetness. Everything has proven you wrong and still, somehow, you know that you have made the journey that only you can make, though you have eaten shadows and are becoming part of Death, still you remember the chord that awoke in you when the black finch sang on your window sill and you turned your back on the sun. It is all that remains, and only now is it finally enough.
And the black witch eats you. She breaks your bones and makes butter from your blood. She hangs your skin from a birch tree and leaves your skull on the fence and in that mess of gut and heart and bile, she rummages her bony fingers like broken sticks, like shards of shattered pot. There in the belly of your dying, she pulls out something, tenderly as a mother, or a lover, or a grandmother with some precious jewel, and she wipes off the grime, blows breath too sour for the daylight. Some tiny form stirs, and shakes itself and she warms it with her breath of the dark; it stretches its small, black wings. And begins to sing. On the ageless, eternal finger of Baba Yaga, it sings the song that was sorrow in the daylight, the song that no one but you could hear. In the dark night, it lifts its voice and Baba Yaga smiles. The withered trees blossom in the underworld and the dead come to life. The black finch sings the song of your soul, the song you were born to sing and you alone and you remember. No longer the dark night has power over your fear. No longer the wild wood anywhere but your home. The moon howls and you sing, wild, mad, terrible and beautiful and the kingdom of heaven shakes, because a soul has escaped the tyranny of light. Now you have gone beyond sunlight and all of creation sings. You are returning — the broken shield and sword of beauty in your arms, you ride on a horse made of death and moonlight. Never again will you sleep in the golden castle of the sun, but you will live and breathe and laugh with your beloved and your child in the valley of the shadow of the death and the mountains of the everlasting life. You have been I-know-not-where and fetched I-know-not-what; you have worn iron and ashes and the clothes of the dead, but you live.
Now your roots tangle in the love of the dark earth.
Now your head blazes with the remembered fire of heaven.
Only in the dying light were you made whole, and you caress the world with your song of glory and the dark, the sunshine and the night. You who were born into sunlight, Ivan, carry the black finch on your arm — no more sword and shield; now there is nothing left but singing the song that only you were born to sing.