In every Spanish dictionary before 1994, the digraphs ch and ll are considered separate letters of the alphabet. For example the word cha, instead of following the word cetro, came after cuyo under a new letter heading at the top of its own separate page. I remember in sixth grade the gleeful twist in my stomach when I flipped past those two-letter letters in the classroom dictionary: tongue trumps eye, I thought. Letters derive from sounds, not the other way around.
It was my mother’s tongue I pictured when I thought this–pressing against the front of her palate, flipping and thrumming behind her teeth like a fish against a dock. Even at twelve I could remember a time when she was my only medium to a world I preferred–one where dwarves spun straw into gold, where frozen bears turn into princes and golden fish grant wishes in exchange for throwing them back into the sea. I would press my ear to her shoulder and listen to the words echo through her clavicle. Even when I knew how the story ended, the sound of her voice made me hold my breath.
The Cyrillic alphabet, used across Eurasia, represents many of these sound blends by single letters instead of digraphs. The “ch” sound is indicated by an an upside-down, lower-case h, the blend “zhe” is depicted by a letter that looks like a beetle with four protruding legs, and the sound “ya” is a leaning backwards R whose edges curve like sled blades. These were my favorite letters by far. I wrote them over and over on the special three-lined paper my high school Russian teacher passed out to our class. To practice the looping letter that made a “ya” sound, we copied the name of the popular Slavic folk character Baba Yaga. Баба Яга, I wrote, Баба Яга, Баба Яга.
Drawings of Baba Yaga invariably show a crone with wide eyes and tangled, windblown hair. She is similar to the hag in Hansel and Gretel, except that she is almost always depicted with her torso protruding from the roof of a house, the eaves where her hips should be. The house stands on a pair of giant dancing chicken claws that make the structure nearly impossible to enter.
I hadn’t thought of Baba Yaga in years, but on Father’s Day weekend as I shopped at the Rochester public market, a voice came over the loudspeaker. It was a familiar voice–crackly and playful, deep but with feminine effusiveness like a drag queen’s. I expected the usual warning to the owner of an illegally-parked red Honda or maybe a summons to the relatives of a lost little boy or girl.
“Hapy Day-Before-Father’s day,” the voice crooned. “Remember to pick up something delicious for that special father or grandfather. And don’t forget to honor the babkas–that is, a woman that fills the role of both father and mother in child’s life.” I tried to keep my face impassive as the farmer from Bushart’s hoisted a half-bushel basket of cooking onions into my arms. I tipped the onions into my bag, but my arm shook and one of them rolled under the table and came to rest against the arch of his work boot.
When I got home, I set down my bags and googled “babka.” Nothing. Then, remembering my Russian class, I googled “Baba Yaga.” On Wikipedia I found the following: Baba Yaga is sometimes shown as an antagonist, and sometimes as a source of guidance; there are stories in which she helps people with their quests, and stories in which she kidnaps children and threatens to eat them. Seeking out her aid is usually portrayed as a dangerous act. An emphasis is placed on the need for proper preparation and purity of spirit. The keyhole to her front door is a mouth filled with sharp teeth; the fence outside is made with human bones with skulls on top, often with one pole lacking its skull, leaving space for the seeker. The hut does not reveal the door until it is told a magical phrase.
On Father’s Day Max came home from his dad’s angry and despondent. Watching his reflection in the rearview mirror, I could see him scrunching his face together to keep himself from crying. When we got home he fell apart. “I want to go back to Daddy’s,” he said, tears spilling over. He pushed his forehead hard into my chest and squeezed the cloth of my shirt so hard his knuckles turned white. As I held him, I closed my eyes and imagined myself standing at Baba Yaga’s gate. I listened to the skulls clattering on the fence posts and studied the gambolling chicken legs, but I could not guess the magical phrase.
Max cried for a long time and I did not try to stop him. I waited until the last sob sighed through his lungs and reached for the Captain America comic on the coffee table. “Let’s do the fight scene,” I said.
In our version, I read the dialogue bubbles while he shouted the sound effects that zigzag across the page.
“OK,” I said. “You ready?”
“You owed my father a debt, and I’m here to collect,” I said in my best tough-guy voice.
“KA-RAAASH,” Max shouted, slicing his arm through the air. “KRRNSH! WHAAM! WAPAAW!”