When I was the Baba Yaga of the house
on my terrible chicken legs,
the children sat close on the sofa as I read,
both of them together
determined to be scared.
Careful! I cackled, stalking them
among the pillows:
You bad Russian boy,
I eat you up!
They shivered and squirmed, my delicious sons,
waiting for a mighty arm
to seize them.
I chased them screeching down the hall,
I catch you, I eat you!
my witch-blade hungry for the spurt of laughter -
What stopped me
even as I lifted my hand?
The stricken voice that cried: Eat him!
Eat my brother.
From “Swimming in the Rain: New & Selected Poems, 1980-2015,” Autumn House Press.
An unsung benefit of reading aloud to children is the opportunity to playact and do funny voices – (e.g. “cackle,” “screech”). Sane adults distinguish between real situations and imaginary situations, while normal young children enjoy exploring this boundary (“determined to be scared”). However, things can go wrong.
This child is truly scared, not pretending: His mother is just having fun (“my witch blade hungry for the spurt of laughter”). He however sees her as a horrible witch threatening to eat him. Trying to save himself, he cries: “Eat him! Eat my brother!” – in a moment of acute sibling rivalry, a huge issue for small children, as anyone with a second or subsequent baby can testify.
It is also a huge issue in the Jewish foundation story. On Simhat Torah this week, the cycle of Torah readings begins with Chapters 1 though 6 of Genesis, including the first story of sibling rivalry: Cain and Abel, ending in a fratricide.
Indeed, the stories in Genesis as a whole constitute a compendium of sibling conflict: the perceived rivalry between Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob cheating Esau out of his birthright, Rachel and Leah’s rivalry over love. Joseph’s envious brothers cooperate to gang up and bully him, but at the end of Genesis he trumps them, leading into the Book of Exodus, which is rooted in more constructive cooperation among siblings: Miriam figures out how to save Moses and along with Aaron helps him lead the Children of Israel in the desert. This story sequence seems to mimic functional psychological growth.
Baba Yaga’s story comes from another tradition, Russian folklore, and has been retold in English in a number of versions. An old witch with bony legs (conflated here with the chicken legs of her hut in the forest), she, like her more seductively domiciled counterpart in the German story of Hansel and Gretel, likes to eat children, a practice also shared by the Pagan god Moloch and sternly countermanded in Leviticus.
Chana Bloch, who lives in California, has published five books of poetry and is co-translator from Hebrew of a version of “The Song of Songs” and poetry by Yehuda Amichai and Dahlia Ravikovitch.
*Musing: How does the voice that stops the mother’s hand sound like the angel’s voice in the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac?
*Bonus 1: Bloch reads “Brothers”
*Bonus 2: Baba Yaga’s “Hut on Fowl’s Legs” is one of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”
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