The witches take flight, our coven flying over the sea in a ship of brooms meant to harvest the ocean. Baba Yaga, my witch mother, is at the helm, and she calls me Latke as a nickname – I ate too many potatoes, I am assuming.
“My child, we are the wind and rivers given life, the soul of the world is a witch! You are simple yet soulful like a Latke, and potatoes are the might of the Russian soul.” She churns her mortar and pestle and arabesques through the air. Our horde of witches and cherti ride aback a soulful gale. Dancing With Mr. D could be playing in the background as we reach land, a small St. Petersburg dockyard with snow that comes from the blankets on our brooms. “Never forget you are the earth given shape in a woman, as all women are, and cherish your peculiar magic.”
“I will, babushka,” I say, and we land in a belladonna field with asphodel capping the summit. We wend in a long snow-laden path to Baba Yaga’s house, where the witches turn into chickens in her yards, the cherti retire to revel in the woods, and Baba Yaga makes me chamomile and lemon tea. “Say, what is the price of magic?” I ask, stirring honey into my tea.
“True love, and wedding Zmei Gorynych.”
“The red dragon?”
“Yes, no man is fit for a witch unless he is a dragon. Now go, my child, to the cliff where the gulls roost, and gather me sea-foam touched moss, the kind that is gray blue, for I will use it to brew you a potion of truth.” She hands me a wicker basket made with human bone and bids me off to fetch her potion’s ingredients. “I also need a mermaid scale. Only then, once I have brewed truth, will you know your husband’s fate, the fate of your magic, and how they twine together like strands of yarn.”
“I’m off, then! Thanks for the tea,” I say cheerily, dressed in traditional Russian dress and kerchief, with leather boots and a string of pearls at my neck. I walk down the feathery path to the place where the rocks grow into scree, and the cliff facing the ocean juts downward. Climbing, I descend the cliff, my basket in tow. The gulls start at my intrusion and soon I have found the magic sea moss, which smells of salt and dreams. I put a bit to my lips if only to taste the clouds of sea foam, and it is tangy. I laugh, my basket full.
Suddenly, from the seas depths comes Zmei Gorynych, a red black dragon whose snout steams with ocean water. He smiles at me with fiery eyes.
“What are you doing intruding on my domain?” Zmei breathes like incineration, his voice a sonorous hum.
“I am but collecting sea moss, Zmei,” I say wholeheartedly, pushing my breasts out with pride to display that my heart is pure. “Nature does not belong even to a dragon. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need a mermaid scale.”
He is amused, snorting fire in laughter. “Mount my shoulderblades, witch daughter, and I shall take you to the cove of vodyanoi and rusalka.”
I leap from the cliff onto his back, to the ridges between his head and shoulders, basket akimbo, and pet his horns. “Say, Zmei, would you wed me? Baba Yaga says I am fit for no man but a dragon, and why, you are the handsomest creature I have ever seen.”
“Only if your kiss turns me into a man. Only true love’s kiss can turn Zmei into a man, and a man back into Zmei.”
He jettisons from the cliff and sets out to the mermaid cove. “I shall try my luck against your fiery breath then, oh fearsome Zmei Gorynych!” I laugh as we somersault through the air.
The mermaids, vodyanoi, and rusalka and sirens are gallivanting on nacreous shoals in a little isle crescent cove.
“Maidens!” Zmei bellows. “Give me a scale as tribute for my protection.”
A coquettish mermaid laughs with pink coral scales and plucks a holographic scale from her fins. “Here, dearest Zmei, my dear doting king.”
Zmei kisses her brow with his large snout. He passes me the fragile scale with his claws.
“Here, witch daughter – the scale of a mermaid bold.”
“Thank you, dragon,” I say, then we land on the hill above Baba Yaga’s hut. I dismount Zmei and come to see his face. “Make sure the fire has left your gullet,” I say boldly, and he exhales any remaining smoke. “The kiss of true or false love, then, dear Zmei,” I say, then weave my lips with the ridges of his snout.
Suddenly, a black haired boyar is kissing me back, handsome as the devil, and he smiles sinuously. “You shall be my bride then, dear witch daughter.”
Baba Yaga makes the potion in the presence of Zmei – now human – and I. “Hah! You, dear witch daughter, are the dragon rider – what is his kingdom is yours, and your children are his, and your magic will be of fire, water, air, and earth. In you rests legions.”
Zmei takes my hand and leads me out into the wilderness.
And, not once, from the witch’s cabin, do I look back after I fly off on my dragon king.