Chapter Ten - All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth
“And why should I help you, Befana, and this… rather tasty looking child?” Justine shrank back behind Befana as Baba Yaga eyed her. Why did everyone want to eat her today, she wondered. She couldn’t look that tasty… She glanced down at herself, curiously, only to flush bright red as she realized she was naked, her body small and pudgy, more a toddler than even a proper child. It took her a moment to realize why she had no clothes on, but even that made no sense.
“W-We’re in the real world?” she asked quietly, tugging on Befana’s sleeve. It didn’t seem possible that what she’d just seen, what they’d just flown over, had been real.
Befana nodded down to her, more an afterthought than anything, too busy talking to Baba Yaga to pay full attention to the little girl at her feet. “Because Ded Moroz is back,” she was saying. “You must have felt him.”
“I did,” Baba Yaga agreed. “And why would I want to chase him away? Without him, my powers always wane at the winter solstice. With him around, and what he is doing, it will be a new age for me, as well.”
“It won’t,” Befana shook her head. “He isn’t the Ded Moroz you battled all those years. He is the warlock again. His powers are back fully, and he is no longer on the side of the nice. And that means the two of you are on the same side… The balance is broken.”
“The balance has been broken ever since he let himself get locked away in that prison,” Baba Yaga countered. “Without him, I’ve had no reason to leave my cabin at the end of the year.”
Justine could tell Befana had hoped to convince this other woman by now, that she was struggling to find something else to say, something that would get her to agree to help. “If you leave him alone,” she said finally, “it will always be the end of the year. And with him not handing out presents, even with him here, you’ll have nothing to do. He’s taken your spot. Do you really want to take his?”
With that, Befana seemed to have hit a nerve. Baba Yaga paused, considering this. “You may have a point,” she conceded finally. “The nasty little children don’t deserve presents, but I would rather continue my solitude than work at his side. And I will get one last fight with him.” A slow smile worked its way across her face. “Yes, for old time’s sake.” With that, she got down from her chair, hopping instead into what looked like a large stone bowl sitting beside the fireplace, with a stone rod inside it, which she grasped and pushed, causing the whole thing to rise into the air, and, after a moment, dart over to the fireplace before shooting up the chimney.
“Well,” Befana sighed. “That was lucky. Maybe now we’ll have a chance.” She started to head for the door, pausing as she realized Justine wasn’t following. “Come along, dear. I would let you stay here, but you know I can’t get inside by myself… And I don’t think you’d want to be alone with Baba Yaga when she returns.”
Justine shook her head at the latter, blushing. “Could I… ummm… Can I find something to wear first?”
“Oh, I’m so sorry, dear! I didn’t even think about that!” She bustled about the cabin for a moment, finding a large afghan and wrapping it around Justine’s little body. “Is that good enough?” Justine wasn’t sure - it covered her, though it didn’t seem much better than the diaper and nightgown she’d been wearing - but she nodded anyway. After all, it wasn’t like they were going to find something stylish and comfortable, and in her size, in this place.
Befana took her outside, the house quickly turning itself back around on its chicken legs as soon as they stepped out of the door, wandering deeper into the forest. Befana got back on her broomstick, gathering Justine up in front of her, practically on her lap, and away they went. They flew for what felt like a very long time, as below them, the ground seemed to be getting covered in more and more snow, until it was all that could be seen. Despite her immunity to the cold, Justine found herself shivering, almost out of instinct, at the sight of it all, knowing that she ought to be freezing, being anywhere near all that in nothing but a blanket. Gradually, the snow began to go down again, being replaced with ice instead.
And then, when they’d been flying above that for what felt like a very long time, the world twisted. Being awake for this transition, Justine instantly recognized that they were no longer in the real world - it helped quite a bit that to see that where there was once nothing, there was now a huge building, seemingly carved out of ice. It was there than Befana landed. The front doors, also ice, were huge, towering over the both of them, and blended in almost perfectly with the rest of the wall. If she hadn’t seen the barest sliver of light coming from between them, she’d have never thought to look for the other signs that alerted her to what she was really looking at.
Befana tapped the doors with her broom, and they swung open slowly, though they were able to walk inside long before they were even halfway done. The inside was lit with lamps, hanging in thin air near the ceiling, though the ice showed no sign of melting from the flames. The place was huge, a multitude of hallways spreading out in front of them, with more doors along each of them, most of them standing open. One hallway in particular, however, had several closed doors, and the corners of the entryway were beginning to close up, like spider-webs of ice being spun. It was towards this hall that Befana went, sweeping away the invading ice with her broomstick, though it started to grow back before they’d gotten to the first door.
Befana tapped on the doors with her broomstick, letting them swing open, revealing all manner of men and women, gratefully filing past her and down the hall. Justine wasn’t quite sure what was going on, until one door revealed a figure in white, not quite human, now quite a bit taller than her. “Kolyada!” she exclaimed. “You’re okay!”
The girl smiled, kneeling down in front of her. “So are you! I was afraid Krampus had gotten you!” Justine considered telling the girl about everything that had happened since they’d parted ways, but finally decided to simply shake her head, as Krampus didn’t have her any more.
“Run along, Kolyada,” commanded someone, his voice deep and powerful, yet somehow still gentle. “We all have a lot to do.”
Kolyada nodded, said a quick, “Goodbye,”, and scurried away. Justine turned, hardly surprised at the sight behind her.
There he was, dressed in white robes, but with a red cloak with golden fringe draped over top, a red miter trimmed with a golden cross atop his head, over his long white hair, holding a large, ornate, golden book in one hand, and a staff topped with a golden ornament in the other. It wasn’t how she’d ever imagined him, but she knew who he was instantly just the same. He smiled at her from behind his white beard as she gaped, wide-eyed. “Hello, Justine.”
“A-Are you going to fight Ded Moroz?” she asked, not sure what answer she wanted. Ded Moroz had to be stopped, of course, but, even after everything, she didn’t want him to be hurt.
“Not the way you’re thinking,” he told her. “But yes. Would you like to help?” Justine paused for only a moment before nodding. Saint Nicholas gestured her over with his staff, then covered her with his cloak. Justine’d had quite enough of being confined in places she couldn’t see, so she quickly tried to push her way out of the cloth, breaking free to find herself in a living room. It was small, simple, clearly not from the other world, an equally small Christmas tree in one corner, hung with white lights, a few homemade ornaments, and not much else, a few packages tucked beneath.
The lights on the tree reflected strangely in the window, or, rather, as Justine realized after a moment, the ice outside the window. Staring out through it made everything slightly distorted, as if she were looking through a funhouse mirror, but she could still make out enough to see that the building she was in wasn’t the only one frozen over. She turned back around to ask Saint Nicholas what was going on, finding him setting a bag of presents by the tree and beckoning her over to him, ushering her under his cloak again, though, seeming to have noticed her discomfort, he didn’t close it around her, letting her see as he knocked on the wall with his staff.
They stood there for a minute, long enough for her to start squirming, unsure what they were waiting for. Then she heard noises from behind them, the sound of small feet doing their best to be quiet, clearly not very good at it, then, just as she heard a tiny gasp, Saint Nicholas pushed her forward, and they were outside. Justine took a step forward, a bit disoriented by the sudden change, and slipped on the ice, saved only by Saint Nicholas again, steadying her. She saw him slip his book into his cloak before producing another bag from within, setting it by the window of the small house they were outside of. He tapped the window with his staff and the ice began to melt, letting him tap again, on the glass, bringing another child running, allowing them just a glimpse before vanishing once again.
Justine wasn’t sure how many places they visited, how many towns and cities frozen over, how many windows and trees they left bags of presents beneath. It wasn’t the same as it had been with Ded Moroz, getting to see the joy on the kids’ faces in person when they saw their gifts, but it was nice just the same.
And then, finally, they reached a city that hadn’t been totally overtaken by the ice. They landed on a dry stretch of sidewalk, something she hadn’t seen in a while. It was something of a shock, but not as much as the stalagmite of ice that erupted in front of them. Justine let out a squeak of surprise, glancing upwards to see pair of figures overhead, one in a stone ship, weaving its way through the air, dodging the ice thrown by the other, a man in white, leaping from one pillar of ice to another as they erupted from the ground in front of him, sending fireballs back at him in return.
“Why don’t you stop them?” Justine asked, staring up at Saint Nicholas.
“Because I can’t,” he shook his head. “Are you ready to?”
“Me?” Justine blinked, sure she hadn’t heard him right. “What can I do?”
“Ded Moroz lost his faith because of you,” he said. “It wasn’t your fault, but it happened just the same. Maybe, just maybe, you can restore it.”
“And then he’ll be good again?”
Justine hesitated, staring down at her feet. “But… Would he have to be banished again? He doesn’t deserve that…”
Saint Nicholas bent down, stroking her hair. “Justine, he chose to go there. So long as he was free, he and Baba Yaga drew power from one another… One can never truly defeat the other. But with Ded Moroz gone, Baba Yaga left Christmastime alone. There is old magic in their bond, too powerful even for me, so Ded Moroz made a sacrifice. But he missed his work, and that let him get talked into doing something stupid by the others.”
“And then they tricked him,” Justine nodded. “And they used me to do it.”
“Yes,” Saint Nicholas smiled sadly at her. “Now, are you willing to make a sacrifice yourself?”
Justine stared up into the air, at the man in white there, raising his staff above his head, sending a wall of ice down the city street, cars thrown into the air and frozen there, like flies in amber. And she remembered him as he was, that kindly man in the red coat, smiling and laughing as he handed out presents. She nodded.
Saint Nicholas took out his book and flipped it open, then took a pen and crossed something out before scribbling down something else. “You’ve been through a lot tonight,” he told her. “I think you deserve to be taken off the naughty list, don’t you?” She smiled up at him. “Then we have only one more stop to make,” he said, and he took her to another living room. There was a Christmas tree, with lights and decorations, but they were all too neat, placed just right, with none of the spontaneity of childhood enthusiasm. On an end table by a chair, she saw a picture of a couple, not quite young anymore, smiling, yet with a strange sadness in their eyes.
“Drink,” Saint Nicholas commanded, handing her a canteen. Automatically, she took it, tilting it back, sucking down the sweet water until she felt her knees shake, and then give out. She fell onto the floor, surprised, and when she tried to stand back up, she found that her arms seemed to have stopped working correctly as well. She tried to ask what was going on, why she was getting younger even though she was in the real world, but her mouth seemed incapable of real speech, and she merely babbled instead, her bottom lip quivering as her futile attempts wore on.
“It’s all right, child,” Saint Nicholas comforted her. “This is the water of life. It what allows us to stay alive as long as we have. It has a… different effect on mortals, as you may have noticed.” He raised the canteen above her, letting the water spill out gently onto her body. Instinctively, she tried to squirm away from it, but rather than feeling wet, she felt the same warmth she’d felt when she’d first drank the water, only this time, it seemed to be soaking into every fiber of her being. “Now I have some presents for you,” Saint Nicholas said, bringing out another bag, opening it.
He took a small cradle out first, setting it beside her, followed by a package of diapers. She whimpered at that, but despite her best attempts at squirming away from them, she was very quickly taped into one and set inside the cradle. The bag was still bulging, but the only other thing he took out before leaving it there beside her, beneath the tree, was a small blanket, which he draped over her tiny, wriggling body. He kissed her forehead and stood up. “Goodnight, Snegurochka,” he said.
Justine tried to shake her head, tried to tell him, just as she tried to tell everyone else, that she wasn’t this Snegurochka, whatever it was. “No, you weren’t,” Saint Nicholas agreed. “But legends are always changing.” With that, he tapped the wall with his staff and disappeared, leaving her behind, eyelids quickly growing too heavy to keep open, the best present her new parents would ever get.
Annika grimaced as she fell, the pavement ripping her tights, scratching up her knees. Tears welled in her eyes as she tried to get to her feet, only to get pushed down again.
“<Come on, baby>,” the older girl taunted, “<tell us about Ded Moroz again!>”
“<Yeah>,” one of the cronies joined in. “<Did you ask him for a new dolly this year?>”
Annika did her best to ignore them. She was used to older kids - she’d always been a very smart girl, skipping grades easily. She was quiet, too, usually keeping her opinions to herself… And yet, she always found herself in this discussion, year after year. Gradually, the counter-points had turned from general uncertainty to outright mockery. She always hoped they would forget it by the next winter, yet they always brought it up, and, no matter how much easier she knew it would make things, she just couldn’t bring herself to lie.
“<Aww, is the baby gonna cry?>”, one of the girls mocked. She didn’t, at least not until they’d grown tired of her and let her finish her walk home, and her mother went to work putting alcohol on her scrapes and patching her up, scolding her for once again forgetting her coat at school, telling she she was going to catch pneumonia one of these days. She wasn’t too worried, really - the cold didn’t bother her, and she’d never had so much as a sniffle.
“<Even if you still believe,>” her mother told her, “<You don’t have to tell them that.>”
But Annika didn’t mind. A little extra bullying this time of the year didn’t mean much, not when she knew she was right, especially not tonight.
She finished her homework before supper, then pretended to be tired as they ate so her parents would recommend she went to bed early. She did, though for only a few hours, long enough for them to go to sleep, so she could get dressed. She always tried to look nice, picking out her best dress, carefully polishing her shoes, brushing her hair until her arm got tired, making sure she looked nice for when he arrived, before going into the living room to wait.
“Are you ready?” he asked when he finally got there, shocking her out of her slumber, much to her chagrin. She always tried to stay awake for him, but hadn’t quite made it yet.
She got up off the couch, straightening her dress. “Yes,” she said, the word tasting strange and unfamiliar on her tongue now, reaching out for his hand.
The place still gave her the creeps, knowing what lay beyond the walls, despite being sure that, even if they were free, they couldn’t touch her anymore. She stayed closed to his side, trusting his staff to keep her safe, just as it always had. But every year, she grew more afraid it wouldn’t. Every year, her resolution to stay a good girl grew harder and harder, and she found herself wanting to slip back into her old ways. And she did miss the ways things used to be, though not as much now as she had in those early days. Every year, she worried she already had, despite her vigilance, that when he saw her, he would be disappointed in her, he’d see her for what she knew she really was, just an imposter. Finally, they reached the end of the hall, and he tapped on the ice, letting the door swing open.
“Vnushka!” came the voice from inside. She smiled, her fears dissolving, melting inside her like snowflakes, and she rushed inside to give her grandfather a hug.