I am Baba Yaga and I will not eat human flesh today.
“What’s that, Doctor?” asks the scrub technician. She automatically reaches to scratch my nose for me—my skin is so dry now that I’ve stopped bathing in the blood of innocents.
A curled lip and a quick snort are enough to make her reconsider. Ah, in the old days, I would have blown twin snot-rockets of flame into her face. Instead, I lay my 10-blade just below the patient’s xiphoid process and drag it downwards to their pubic bone.
Blood dribbles from the incision. A sigh escapes my lips.
Once upon a time, I cut people open like this. Almost like this. I tore them open with teeth and claws and knives and sharp sticks. I threw them screaming into ovens and kicked the door shut, cackled while they baked, and made wind chimes with their bones.
The first cut is always the most difficult. It triggers something deep inside me—the smell of cauterized flesh, the heat rising from an open body. Have you ever seen steaming entrails in the dead January snow? Norman Rockwell ought to have painted that on his cards.
My stomach growls, the sound of a two-hundred-year-old oak—rotted from the inside—falling in the Russian forest. It has been ninety-six days since I last ate someone, according to the hash marks scratched on my thigh. He was a drifter in the subway whose filthy clothes did not bother me, but his filthy soul left a rancid aftertaste for days. Punishment for losing my self-control.
“First incision, ten forty-five.” The scrub tech makes a note in the operative record.
I open my eyes. I am Baba Yaga and I will not eat human flesh today. It’s not worth it, not for this fifty-three-year-old male, who stinks of lechery and petty sarcasm. I operate only on adults to resist temptation. You wouldn’t offer an alcoholic aged scotch because they’d have to drink it. It’d be rude not to.
As if he’s overheard my insults, the patient’s eyes flutter open.
“Anesthesia!” I snap.
Anesthesia peers over their drape. “Yes, Dr. Yaga?”
“Why isn’t my patient properly sedated!”
He mutters about body weight and “unique physiology.” Someday I will kill him. Not to eat him, just to teach him a lesson.
The surgery proceeds quickly. It isn’t difficult for a woman like me, who braids her hair with the tails of firebirds, who rides a mortar and pestle faster than any F-16 and nimble as a dragonfly, who lives under the earth in a thatched hut on chicken legs that is also a luxurious studio apartment downtown, well-furnished with repurposed gnawed bones that my houseguests mistake as “cottagecore.”
And if sometimes I stumble into the bathroom and lock the door and press a raw, quivering, hot gallbladder to my lips before my nose grows into a beak large enough to nudge the drop-tile ceiling while I swallow the organ in one gulp, well—
My therapist calls that deflection. But she doesn’t like it either when I say what do you expect? I’m a three-thousand-year-old evil witch. That’s black-and-white thinking, Baba, she’ll say. We’ve talked about this. It’s important to see people as the complex, paradoxical beings they really are. To be contradictory is to be human. Two things can be true at once, she’ll say.
Can’t I want to eat children and not be evil?
I thought the therapist would only tell me to stop being evil. Instead, she said I think this is a very important part of you, and I wouldn’t feel right telling you to cut it out. Perhaps we can still fulfill these desires, in a safer, more constructive way? Hence, the forged medical degree hanging in my office.
Perhaps you’re surprised I have a therapist. In 2021, who doesn’t? After three thousand years, I decided it was time to better myself. Be less problematic. Do better. My therapist says we’re always growing and changing, and no one can stay the same forever. Don’t I want to change into a better person?
It’s also 2021 and there are more surveillance cameras than I could spit at, all the hidden forests are laid out on Google Maps, and I expect parents to start microchipping their children any day now.
But also personal growth, and all that.
Before the patient is closed up, I take a deep breath and inhale the last of the fumes from the electrocauterer. It’s not exactly the scent of buttered flesh studded with cloves cooking in an oven, but it will have to do. Soon I’ll offer to walk the gallbladder to pathology and stop in the single bathroom in pre-op and—
“Dr. Yaga?” A nurse sticks her head in the room. “I’m very sorry to bother you, but—“
“I am in the middle of closing!” Of course, I could stitch the patient up with my toes in my sleep. I’ve done it before. But my chest swells to see her cower in fear. Ah, how I miss the old days.
No, Baba Yaga, only a part of you misses the old days.
“I’m sorry, it’s just—” she says.
“There’s a patient crashing in the ER—“
“Pfah!” I would rather eat vegetables than an appendix. “No. I’m done for the day.”
“But there’s no one else.”
“Transfer the patient.”
“They won’t live that long.”
No one will live that long. What difference does fifty minutes or fifty years make? I set down my scalpel and peel off my gloves. Under the blue surgical drape, I run my finger down the new incision, feeling the bumps and lumps of the sutures. Oh, I could tear them back open with my fingernails. “Go.”
The technician rattles off the history. “Severe abdominal pain for 48 hours, white count thirty, temperature 102. She’s floridly septic.”
“I don’t take pediatric patients.” A drop of blood leaks from the stitches and I let up. “Ship her out.”
“She won’t make it. She’s already on three pressors just to keep her blood pressure at 100 over 60.”
“Then she’ll die, like children have for centuries.”
The nurse gasps. The anesthesiologist’s eyes are wide, and the scrub technician glares at me with naked loathing.
They’re looking at me like I’m…evil.
Only a part of you is evil, Baba Yaga. We all have destructive parts. That’s what my therapist says. I’m not all evil. That’s black-and-white thinking again.
“And thank goodness, with modern medicine, we can save her.” The room sighs at my mercy. I wave my hand at the unconscious patient before me. “Well. Get him out of here! Get this room prepped! Is consent signed? Why are you still standing there? Go!”
They scatter like birds. A nurse wheels out my former patient and I pretend to wash my hands. Once the room is empty, I suck the welled blood trapped underneath my thumbnail. It should take the edge off.
I can do this. That’s called positive affirmation. The surgery is a simple one. A thousand years ago, perhaps her parents would have come to my doorstep begging for her life, and I would set them some impossible task, like collecting a teaspoon of moonlight to sweeten my morning tea. They would fail, of course, unless it was a fairy tale and a hapless creature took pity on them. I’d wail and stamp my feet while they absconded with their healed daughter—because in a fairy tale, word is bond—leaving me alone and hungry. I would have fed the daughter well and made her happy, before I—
I am not supposed to downplay the murder and consumption of others. My therapist calls it “minimization.”
The doors burst open and a hospital bed arrives, serving the girl up to me. She is the color of old socks, washed so often they were never white. The nurse was right—she’d never survive the transfer.
I’m doing the right thing. The moral thing. Old Baba Yaga can be merciful. I can keep my promises. I’ll have her appendix out in the time it takes a crow to pluck three feathers. My blade slides into her skin so easily.
The scent hits me.
The scrub technician hears the inward hiss of my breath. “Dr. Yaga?” she asks. “Do you need something?”
It’s the scent of skinned knees, mysterious bruises that materialize after a day of playing with sticks as swords, the coppery shame of first periods. My teeth begin to poke through my mask, and my nails strain the tips of my gloves.
“A 10-blade?” prompts the scrub tech. “Retractor? Kidney basin?”
I’ll kill the scrub tech first. Simple. Clean. Tear her head off. Then I’ll kill the nurse with my claws through her trachea. I’ll save the anesthesiologist for last. He’ll poke his head around the curtain and I’ll spring on him, my talons spearing through his chest.
Then I’ll savor the child. Alone. Uninterrupted. Silent. Screaming would be better, but beggars can’t be choosers.
“Are you all right?”
I’m more than all right. All of the confusion and conflict, all of the grinding parts inside of me are aligned. I want this.
Dr. Yaga. When did I become such a thing? I am Baba Yaga.
I am Baba Yaga and I will not eat human flesh today.
What a stupid saying. I am Baba Yaga and I can eat flesh today, tomorrow, and the next day. Whenever I’d like. Because I deserve it. Haven’t I gone ninety-six days not eating flesh? Just once, just this once. Just a little.
A piece. I’ll only take a piece of her. A finger. No one will notice. Just wait. Wait until after. Then I can take a piece. Only a piece a little piece only a piece a little piece I promise—
I tell myself this lie. I promise myself a broken promise. That’s all I need to get through this—a lie, a hope, a piece, a promise.
“Anesthesia?” I snap.
Anesthesia peeks his head above the curtain. “It’s James.”
“Wake the patient up.” I peel the gloves off my hands, snapping. I break my promise to myself and want to destroy this world, this cruel, heartless world that puts delicious children in it and denies me them.
“Fastest appendectomy I’ve ever seen,” says Anesthesia. Thirty-five minutes have disappeared, devoured by my mindless hunger.
My gown flaps behind me, a poor facsimile of the nights borne on membranous wings, bearing down on lost souls in the forest. I’d have spent the day with the oven warming my hut, curled up on its chicken legs, then taken flight after the sun receded, and caught this girl in my forest running away from a perfectly suitable if boring husband for “true love.” My fangs ache at the thought of dark treetops, mm, yes, the rush of wind as I bear down, the flurry of leaves, the way the girl turns her head to see me just before I—
The bathroom door rattles on its hinges. The handle comes off in my hand. The gallbladder is in my mouth and down my gullet before the door swings back to knock against the stall.
Gone. Too fast. Not enough. Not enough.
Just a finger. She has nine others. A toe? A nibble of her earlobe. What I really want is to chomp down on her thigh.
I am Baba Yaga and I will not eat human flesh today.
I have not spent a year and fifteen thousand dollars in therapy to eat flesh today. Me, Baba Yaga, in therapy! Why not? I could eat the world, or I could try therapy. It’s not that I want to eat human flesh, only a part of me. A very old part of me that’s acting out, trying to ease the emotional neglect I experienced as a child, that wishes to feed the child in me by eating the child.
Oh, yes, it all makes sense, you see? There’s a reason for all the strange things we do, the thoughts our minds have. Yes, always a reason, although it may not be apparent at the time. Our brains are always trying to make sure our needs are met, one way or another. We get our buckets filled up, one way or another. Filled with guts and livers and hearts—
I should check her stitches. Or that she’s waking up properly. Anesthesia has been clumsy lately, slow to answer me, incompetent, really, the patients fluttering their eyes or jerking their arms during my surgeries.
It’s an excuse. Of course it’s an excuse. Addicts like me will always find an excuse.
I’ll only check the stitches, and nothing else.
Maybe a finger. Oh, they won’t know it’s missing, not right away.
If I take the finger, might as well eat all of her. I can’t eat a finger and explain it away tomorrow. Might as well, might as well.
I already know I’m going to eat the girl before I arrive at her bedside. I won’t be able to stop myself. I’m counting on it. It won’t be my fault. I will lose control in the wrong moment, a moment I created. There is not much in this world stronger than me, except me.
This part of me.
All of me.
An orderly in the hallway gives me an odd look, unsure of what to make of my smile.
My smile says I will eat human flesh today.
“Dr. Yaga? Dr. Yaga?” A woman stops me outside the operating room. She’s in street clothes, not scrubs. What is she doing here? She hugs me. “You saved her life. Thank you.”
Ah. This teary-eyed person must be her mother, who grew her and bore her and raised her for the last twelve years, who sacrificed years of her life and miles of her body for this child. And I’m going to take it for no other reason than I want it.
Hurt people hurt people.
My stomach growls again. No, it’s a little different. Is that indigestion?
Whatever it is, it isn’t enough. Not nearly enough, in the howling vacuum of hunger. I shove away the mother. “Stay in the waiting room.”
“I’m sorry. Thank you. She’s my only child—”
I disappear into the operating room and leave the mother outside.
—didn’t get the love you needed as a child.
Ridiculous! Twenty-first century claptrap.
I think this is a very old part of you, Baba Yaga.
I have always been this part. The evil witch woman in the forest who eats children. It’s who I am.
No Baba, it’s only a part of you. A very old part. A part formed when you were a child.
I was never a child. I was hatched from the third egg of a chicken, laid three minutes after its head was chopped off. My egg rolled through the blood into a river that dried up into mud, where I emerged and survived eating worms until the nearby villagers saw cut off my chicken legs with an ax and beat me to death with their sticks. I dragged myself through the woods until I found an abandoned cottage who healed me and housed me in return for my chicken legs, because she wanted to see the world.
I don’t need a childhood. I’m Baba Yaga.
I am Baba Yaga and I will not—
I will eat human flesh today.
The wheels are set in motion, churning through my stomach. My jaw unhooks and saliva pours from my tongue and my nose grows long, high as the ceiling. I can’t enjoy her like I want to. I’m going to swallow her whole—a starving heron gulping down a fish—pick her up and toss her down my gullet.
“Dr. Yaga?” Anesthesia pauses with a syringe and vial in hand.
“Anesthesia?” My beak retreats and my jaw snaps shut. I didn’t even see him, so focused on her smell. Why is he still here? The syringe is empty. There’s a mark on his hand where he just injected the contents. More than that, I can smell his own hunger.
That’s why my patients have been waking up during surgery. He’s been injecting himself with their sedatives. He knows that I know. Look how he snivels like a coward, eyes red-rimmed with shame, the addict caught in the act, an animal, repulsive.
No. No. I am not like him. I am not that person. I am better than him, better than all of them. I didn’t come here, hunger a hook through my nose pulling me to the child’s beside, no, I am better, I am strong, I am—
I am Baba Yaga and I will not eat human flesh today.
I think this as my jaw clamps around his throat and hot blood gushes into my mouth. Ecstasy. Joy. Rapture.
And deep down, as I pop his vertebrae into my mouth like peanut brittle, a part of me, a very new part of me, is glad I’m not eating the child, even with her delicious scent of first loves spurned. This is progress. This is what doing the work means. This is me bettering myself. This is growth, oh, and it feels like a revelation.
Like all epiphanies, it’s over too soon. The blood cools on my chin. The only bits of Anesthesia left are smeared on me, my fingers, and the girls’ hospital gown. I lean over and give her a tender bite on her wrist. To be marked by Baba Yaga’s mercy is a rare gift, indeed. Because of my gift, she will strike true with an icepick when a man tries to kidnap her seven years from now.
There will be too many questions, of course, even with Anesthesia’s body gone. I can’t stay here. I’ll move again, change my name, forge new medical credentials, find a new therapist, and start over. The work is never truly done. We are always changing. We are always striving to better ourselves. Oh, but with my belly full of blood and flesh, my heart sings I can do anything. All things are possible, even the redemption of an evil witch who likes to eat children. All things are possible. I can do anything.
I am Baba Yaga and I will not eat human flesh.