Iron Baba by Shelly Jones

“With teeth of iron and metal gears, she lurks in the woods, mechanic of fears.” —Victorian children’s nursery rhyme 

The men are afraid of these woods. They refuse to log here, claiming they are haunted, cursed. The last men who crested this hill, saws in hand, have returned, pale as pulp, their mouths twisted in fear. The foreman laughs when I tell him that I will go in the men’s place. He looks me up and down, scoffs at my thick skirt, not noticing the sap stains. He does not know that I have seen what this forest can do, how it can consume its own, that it no longer frightens me. The foreman shrugs, waves me away.

“Go on, Gray. Perhaps she won’t notice you—a girl alone in the woods.”

I pick up my father’s axe, salt and pepper braid swinging behind me, and head toward the woods.

I am stealthier in the woods than my brother was, his riotous laughter spilling over the leaves, drowning in the stream. My leather boots pad silently along the pine needles as I examine the trees, noting which are in need of hewing, which have long been dead, the ground stubbornly holding their roots in place. I pass through a copse of larch, jaundiced and drooping, until the branches recede, opening onto a field of goldenrod undulating in the breeze. I begin to step forward when I hear a faint click, then a metallic croak. A pewter-colored raven tilts its head down at me. It caws again, flaps its riveted wings and soars over the field. I stand gaping at the metal bird, my axe slack in my grip. A swell of whirling like the thrum of swarming cicadas crescendos across the field as the goldenrod unfolds: a curtain drawn, revealing a hut in the distance.

I have seen the many dangers these woods hold, but am unsure what to do when the hut—all scales of interlocking metal—rotates on an unseen axis, stands up on chicken legs, and begins to lurch toward me. I am about to run, when an old woman in a blackened shawl shouts at me from the field.

“Don’t be afraid. He’s territorial when I’m not inside. He’ll calm down in a minute. Stand your ground,” she instructs, straightening artificially straight and placing a hand on her hip.

“To a house?”

She nods, eyes fixed on me. I hold my axe, stained with my father’s sweat, loosely at my side, blade pointed away. I straighten my back and wait as the armored hut lopes toward me. “Da, good,” she approves. “Dovol’no. Enough.” And with her words, the house collapses onto its legs like a roosting hen. She turns to me and it is now that I see her iron teeth jutting out from her mouth like saw blades, thick dark goggles covering her eyes. She scans me up and down and asks, “You come to cut trees?”

“I, uh,” I sputter, my tongue swollen, dry in my mouth. I watch the hut, expecting to see its walls breathing heavily from its sprint. “Yes, the mill sent me,” I manage. “They want me to continue the work that they started here.”

She shifts idly, like a waxwing bristling in the cedars, waiting for the snow to settle. “And you? Do you want to cut down these woods?” She raises her arms expansively, gesturing toward the trees around us, who seem to bow in the wind at her presence.

I know these woods; its bark: my skin, its leaves: my breath. We used to sit beneath a witch hazel tree, looking up through its thin, black branches that burst into flame, copper, and rust. We would sit, eating the last of the blackberries we had found in the forest, a cache we had secreted away from papa and his new wife. The blackberries were soft, over-ripened, and some had triangular punctures where starlings and jays had tested thin flesh, ripping at the fruit with their eager beaks. We ate the berries, not commenting when we came across ones full of mold or an errant beetle, until we were stuffed.

We knew not to try to sneak the sweet fruit into the house, for they would smell them out of our hiding places: the space beneath the loose floorboard, the knot in the wall, the arm of my doll whose stuffing fell out years ago. They could always tell when we had brought food into the house. They would make us turn out our coat pockets, inspect Hans’s hat and my apron before we could sit down at the table. And even when we announced that we had brought them food, coming into the kitchen with a mushy apple or a few mushrooms from the forest floor, they would scowl at us.

“What’s that? That’s nothing. How will we survive on that split between the four of us?”

Hans would want to shout, to tell them to find their own food, but I would pull him back outside to collect firewood, to fetch water from the spring.

“We’ll make bread,” I’d suggest. “There’s always flour and water for a fine loaf.” But when we would return to the hut, the sack of flour would be nearly empty and they would snatch the water jug from me before I could begin to measure out what little we’d need for dough. Hans’s stomach would growl and I would wince at what would come next.

“My brother died in these woods,” I say suddenly, the words spilling from me, scattering to the ground like spilt seeds. “I should have died in these woods.” I cleave mud from my boot with the blunt edge of the axe, watch it fall in clumps to the ground, refusing to meet the baba’s gaze.

“But you didn’t,” the iron baba states, an eyebrow unfurling above her dark goggles. She flips the goggles up, rests them on her forehead, and steps closer to me. Her gaze is unbearable, like standing next to the fire for too long. I squirm a little, but refuse to step back. “Perhaps you are like moss, made thicker, stronger, by these woods. Protected.”

I grip my axe reflexively, compulsively, imagining myself sidling up to a log at the lumberyard and rending it in two as fast as the others. The men’s respect is shown in nods, in work assigned to me without begging, in silent acquiesce—a mutual understanding that I am capable. They ignore my braid, hair turned prematurely gray, my skirts twisting about me with each chop. But despite this, I do not feel strong, as this woman before me claims. These woods have not strengthened me, only hardened me: a family broken, a brother dead, a childhood lost.

“How do you know I’m strong? That is not what the others think of me.”

“Perhaps they see what they want to see, what fits best into what they think they already know. They see an old woman in the forest, I must be a witch. But look at my house. They ignore the gears, the mechanisms—all this melts away from their memory, too complicated to fit what already exists.”

It is then I notice the glass and ironwork that festoons the armor-legged hut, a porthole window that matches her spectacles. I look once more at the baba in the morning sunlight. Only her shadow is similar to the other in the woods, the one who tried to eat us so long ago. Though this one, with her iron teeth and mechanical trappings, looks just as lethal, she is different, I decide.

“You are no witch,” I announce finally.

The iron baba tick-tocks her head, staring at me as if pondering whether or not she can trust me. She nods, mutters to herself, seems to have decided something. She turns and walks back toward her hut. “Are you coming?” she asks as she pulls herself up across the threshold.

“Where are we going?” I ask, my feet rooted to the edge of the woods.

“There is something you must see, if you are to continue this work for your mill. It isn’t far. The house will take us there. Unless you would prefer to fly?”

“Fly?” I can’t help myself but exclaim. I wonder if the hut has wings in addition to its mechanical legs, but I do not ask any questions. As I walk toward her, I think I see Hans’s cloak flap ahead of me, then tuck behind a tree as if taunting me to come and play in the woods once more.

The air changes as we fly through the woods in her mortar and pestle, toward something desiccated, barren. The treeline grows sparse as we descend and my chest grows heavy. She lands the vehicle and a plume of dust and wood pulp billows in the parched air. We stand overlooking the cavern, hollow like an oven, where a lush forest used to be. Stumps scatter across the hillside like the breadcrumbs Hans tossed behind us as we trudged through the woods, our stomachs knotted with hunger. Ash and smoke overwhelm me as dried leaves crumble beneath my boots with a sickening crunch.

“This is not what they said,” I murmur, taking in the emptiness, the expanse of nothing. No birds sing here, no shrews or voles peep in alarm and dart into their holes. “This cannot be real.”

“Do you hate this forest, these trees, so much that you would see them all cut down? Disappear?” She asks the question, but does not look at me, still staring out at the carnage. The forest is a husk, a mere outline of what a forest should be. Her pointed words prick me, my back straightening at her arrogance.

“Don’t you use the trees for your fires, for your metal works?” I ask, pointing toward the metal mortar, remembering the armored legs. I can almost feel the heat of the witch’s oven as I imagine the baba’s bellows, her arm swinging a hammer to shape the iron. It is only when I imagine her bent over an avail, sweat wrinkling her skin, that I realize she may be the one in the woods the men are afraid of, that she might know more than merely blacksmithing. I blush at the delayed recognition, feel foolish for being so naive. Again.

She looks at me, head cocked, her thick glasses hiding her eyes, but I can see her cheeks pucker as though she is squinting. “Come,” she croaks finally, heading back toward the flying mortar and pestle.

“Come where? Isn’t this what you wanted to show me?” I gaze back at the desolate hillside, the acrid air singeing my nostrils.

“You’ve seen what they can do. Now you must see what I can do.”

She leads me into the hut, tugging on levers with rote precision. I can hear rope twisting through metal pulleys as wooden panels unfurl and sunlight radiates through panes of glass along the walls, on the ceiling. My eyes, unadorned by the baba’s goggles, blink and shutter, adjusting to the brilliant light. There before me: rows and rows of saplings, potted trees budding, their soft, verdant flesh delicately sprouting. The smell of damp earth, new growth, lingers in the hut, curls under my tongue; I hold it in my mouth, let it fill my senses before I speak.

“You did this?”

“Da. I will plant them. The hut will help dig the holes. Those legs are good for more than scaring away loggers.”

I can’t help but snicker, imagining the foreman fleeing from the armored legs, screaming to the other men to run. I nod and move along the green and growing aisles. The sunlight filters through the glass walls, embracing us in its warmth. I can feel the sweat trickling down my arms as though I have spent hours chopping wood on a humid autumn day. I knead the dirt, pushing my fingers through the black soil, feeling it soak in under my nailbed.

“So?”

“So what?” I ask, suddenly feeling exposed. I wipe my hand on my skirt.

“Do you plan on begging each day to enter these woods only to spend hours hacking away at them, to prove something to the others? To yourself? How many trees will it take? To bring him back?”

I stiffen at her words, and think of Hans’s face slipping beneath the waters, the river swelling over him. I grip the wooden handle of the axe, remembering the branch I used to try to reach him, straining across the rapids. He had gurgled and sputtered, a sound more haunting than the dying witch’s cackle, a sound I drowned out with every strike of my axe.

“You think about it for a little while. Let me know which path you will choose,” she says, turning and leaving the greenhouse.

I stand in the still silence, feel it overwhelm me, and wait for the iron baba to return. Bathing in the sunshine of her glass room, I imagine myself once more safe beneath the witch hazel tree. I begin to scatter seeds over the loam and wonder what will grow.


Shelly Jones, PhD is an Associate Professor of English at SUNY Delhi, where she teaches classes in mythology, literature, and writing. Her speculative fiction has been published in Podcastle, New Myths, The Future Fire, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter.