The Baba Yaga Garden Club
By Lisa Ahn
The Baba Yagas had a garden club for as long as anyone remembered. Its origins were murky. After all, none of them had lawns, not inside that city where the buildings pressed together like palms upheld in prayer. They had fire escapes and window boxes, a few porches shared between them. Their name—the Baba Yagas—was equally mystifying. None of them spoke Russian, though a few could trace their lineage to the Volga or the Neva. All six of them could cook, use a mortar and a pestle. They all had streaks of gray and crow's-feet. When they laughed, sometimes they cackled. In ages past, the cry of "witches" might have snared them, fire licking at their heels.
But in a modern, crowded city, they were the resident grandmothers. The Baba Yagas watched young children. They sent hot meals to invalids. They brought remedies for stomach aches, insomnia and cold sores. "I'll ask the Baba Yagas," was a popular refrain.
"Do you have a few aspirin?"
"An extra fuse?"
"A hot plate?"
"An hour to watch the baby?"
The Baba Yagas always did.
The young men sometimes whispered, trying to scare a sibling, "Don't annoy the Baba Yagas or they'll eat you." But nobody believed them.
It was generally assumed there was no problem, big or small, that the Baba Yagas couldn't fix. Their garden club confirmed it, bringing greenery and lushness to an asphalt, concrete forest. Without traditional lawns, the Baba Yagas got creative. Their clay pots sprouted lettuce, plum tomatoes, carrots, squash and beans. Their hanging baskets swelled with ripe with strawberries in June. Window boxes filled with herbs and peppers, cucumbers and geraniums. They all shared what they grew, swapping bunches of cilantro for cuttings of jasmine, trading eggplants for sweet pansies.
And every Sunday, all year long, the Baba Yagas met for garden club. They gathered in their own homes, with the stray cats they adopted, dogs who followed them like shadows and birds they kept as pets—though always with the cage doors open. The Baba Yagas drank strong coffee mixed with homemade cherry cordial. They exchanged recipes and seedlings. They dipped their fingers in cool soil. And they discussed the neighborhood. When a new family moved in, the Baba Yagas made a welcome basket full of produce and fresh blossoms. If a parent got laid off, they prepared a hearty soup with bread and chocolate cake. They brewed tinctures for arthritis, rheumatism and heartache. Always, they delivered hope, disguised as living things.
For thirty years, the Baba Yagas kept the neighborhood together with bit and bobs and blossoms. But when a blazing fire swept through Mercer Street one winter afternoon, the problems it created nearly wrecked the neighborhood.
"It's an eyesore," Miss Hazel said, as they stood beside the burned-out lot.
"Piece of shit," Miss Tressa grumbled.
The Baba Yagas shook their heads. At one point or another, they'd all paid visits to that apartment house, now gone, and to its badly-damage twin. Neither residence had been lovely—three stories of dingy brick with noisy pipes and rattling windows. Still, they had been something.
"All those families," Miss Connie sighed. She missed the hairdresser in No. 1845's 3E, the plumber who baked macaroons and the twins who called her Nana.
Twenty families, gone. Then the landlord quit—collected his insurance and sold out. The new landlord, well, he was the reason the Baba Yagas stood there in a drizzling rain, wearing boots and rubber gloves and wielded brooms.
"Tolliver's an ass," Miss Tressa said.
No one argued. When Tolliver bought the damaged building and the ruined ground beside it, he'd made a lot of promises. He sent a demolition crew to clear the rubble, more or less, but there were still charred planks and hunks of concrete, one year later. Weeds poked through the rubble. A sagging floral couch, a dining set and lamps—remnants from evictions—stood like urban trees inside an undergrowth of empty beer cans, take-out cups and glass. Rat made nests in wind-blown trash. The Baba Yagas came with brooms each day, but the rubbish bloomed in darkness, a mix of chip bags, candy wrappers, hypodermic needles and used condoms.
Next door, at 1825, the new landlord made enough repairs to pass inspection (with a bit of bribery). The Baba Yagas saw the shoddy paint jobs, jimmied wires and cracked windows. Tolliver did no maintenance. The heat failed regularly. The pipes backed up. No one ever moved in if they had another choice. And not many people stayed. Tolliver evicted anyone who annoyed him, anyone who complained or fell a little short on rent.
But if his tenants paid on time and kept their mouths shut, Tolliver turned a blind eye to whatever else they did. The Baba Yagas didn't'; they kept their eyes wide open.
Last summer was a case in point. In the middle of the high heat, men in gold and diamonds rented an apartment in the back of 1825. They lounged on the front stoop, busy with their cell phones, exchanging money for small bags. Fancy cars made hurried stops. Prostitutes stayed longer. A fight broke out and knives flashed, leaving blood flecks on the sidewalk. The Baba Yagas had enough. That very afternoon, as the sun beat down so hot the asphalt nearly melted, they shuffled over dressed as grandmas, wearing housecoats. They brought ice-cold lemonade with twigs of lavender from their gardens. So refreshing.
The gold and diamond men woke up at dawn with vicious headaches. As they rubbed their throbbing temples, they remembered strange events. Had they really flushed their whole stash down the toilets? Had they thrown their money out the windows? A quick search verified it. Everything was gone—drugs and cash, bags and razors. The gold and diamond men packed up their clothes and vanished, before their creditors appeared.
That same day, the Baba Yagas wrote a letter to the landlord, Tolliver. They offered a fair price for both the building and the lot. They had a lawyer and a contract. Tolliver ignored them. He did not return their calls.
Not long after that, a low-riding Cadillac cruised down the block, its windows open, music blaring. A hand extended with a gun. The next day, there were bullets in the empty lot, beside the cigarettes and bottles.
Bullets were the last straw for the Baba Yagas' patience.
On a chilly February Sunday, a year after the fire, the Baba Yagas stood on Mercer, waiting, with a cookie tin between them. The drizzle had just stopped when a commotion rose next door in 1825, a muffled shout, a broken dish.
"Arlene's new boyfriend," Miss Hazel tutted. "We'll have to do something."
But before they reached the stairs, a familiar Audi turned the corner, pulling smoothly to the curb. Tolliver got out in his customary uniform of Armani penny loafers, dark jeans and bomber jacket. His smile hiccupped a fraction when he saw the Baba Yagas.
Tolliver touched his forehead with two fingers.
"Terribly cold out here. Shouldn't you be home beside your stoves, with tea?"
"We'll make do," Miss Becca said. "We'd like to talk about our offer."
"Not interested," he said. "Besides, I'm doing you a favor. This business? It would gut you. Go on home now."
"Hmm," Miss Nancy said. "Well, you know best." She handed him a the cookie tin. "We made you something. From our gardens. Strawberry tarts."
"No hard feelings then?" Tolliver said as he took the gift and tossed it in the backseat.
The Baba Yagas smiled.
They watched him climb the front stairs. First of the month, and rents were due.
"Arlene's in trouble," Miss Connie mumbled.
"Tolliver's in worse," Miss Tressa snorted.
"He'll never eat those cookies," Miss Hazel said. "You can tell, he's got no sweet tooth."
The eviction movers arrived a few days later. They boxed up Arlene's clothes, her baby's toys, and hauled their mattress to the curb. The Baba Yagas called the neighbors and led a small brigade to salvage tea cups, sheets and photos before the rain came down. Arlene and baby Max would stay with Tressa, in her spare room.
"Never mind the cursing," Miss Connie patted Arlene on the arm and hugged the baby. "She's a pushover at heart."
That night, the Baba Yagas cooked lasagna with zucchini, basil, homemade sauce and melted cheese. They baked a rosemary bread that filled the hallway up with sweetness as they knocked on Big Tom's door. His wife, Alice, answered, always pleased to see them. Twelve years ago, when Alice went through radiation and then chemo, Miss Hazel and Miss Deb nursed her. Miss Nancy kept the house running, while Miss Tressa marshaled children over homework. Miss Connie and Miss Becca cooked and told the bedtime stories, though they stayed clear of Russian witches. Back then, the house had its own nightmares, and they saw no need to add to them. Now, the children were all grown and the fairy tales had faded. But Big Tom did not forget.
"I'm guessing you need a bit of help," he told the Baba Yagas at the end of that fine meal.
"We could use a dumpster," Miss Nancy said.
"And some muscles," Tressa added.
And it was. Big Tom ran a small construction company and he was generous at heart. The next morning, there was a dumpster in the burned lot and half a dozen men. In no time, they had cleared the broken furniture and rats. The ground was smooth and ready. The Baba Yagas thanked him.
After that, they traveled up and down the streets, knocking on old doors. They delivered yellow crocus bulbs in small clay pots, bits of rosemary, canned tomatoes, and Miss Deb's famous pickles. They came with stories bound to memories. All the neighborhood recalled the times the Baba Yagas left a bit of money in the cash jars, knowing when the rent was short. The clothes that they had mended. The dishes washed, the meals prepared. For as long as anyone could remember, the Baba Yagas had been there. Nobody turned them down now.
The next time Tolliver showed up, collecting rents, he discovered two dozen people of various ages spreading soil across his lot. Big Tom had delivered an enormous pile of dirt, and they were whittling it with shovels, moving it with rakes.
"What the hell are you folks doing?" Tolliver barked.
"Tut tut, Mr. Tolliver. Watch your language. There are children present," Tressa scolded. The fifth-grade girls in question smirked and rolled their eyes. They knew Tressa well enough.
"This is private property!"
"But you've made it clear you have no plans to build, so what's the harm?" Miss Becca answered.
"What's the harm? What's the harm is that I own this!" A bit of spit flew from his lips. He smacked a palm against the bricks of 1825.
"Now, now," Miss Connie stepped forward. "Try a bit of sweetness, perhaps some lavender shortbread?" She held out a platter filled with goodies.
Tolliver checked his watch. "I've got no time for this bull—"
"Eh, eh," Miss Tressa wagged a finger.
Tolliver fumed, ran a hand through his gelled hair. Why today, of all days? He still had three more buildings to visit before he caught his flight to the Bahamas. Let them waste their time and money, he decided. It's just a load of dirt.
He practice his calm breaths. "When I come back," he said evenly, "you'll all be gone, unless you'd like to be arrested." Then he noticed Arlene, holding tight to baby Max. "And you," he pointed a thick, hairy finger, "I had better see your backside, pronto!"
A few of the teen boys snickered. Miss Becca cuffed them lightly.
"Well, you heard him," Miss Hazel said. "Let's pack up."
In a half hour, they were gone, no sign of shovels or rakes, just the lonely mounds of soil. When Tolliver came down, he walked through the lot, inspecting. He had just about decided that he had won a covert victory—the place looked better, after all—when he stepped in dirt that wasn't dirt. The Baba Yagas knew their gardening; they used manure to fertilize. Cursing at his ruined shoes, Tolliver pulled the Audi out so fast he clipped a passing garbage truck and dented his front fender.
He stayed an extra few days on vacation, to sooth his temper, calm his nerves. Tolliver felt that he deserved this, deserved the sweet rum and the sunlight. His tenants were a nuisance even when he tried to help them. Take Arlene, for one. She drove him crazy, always broke, the rent late, with that sniveling kid she couldn't feed. Then she hooked up with a damn ex-con so violent the neighbors called the police three times in a month. The police complained to Tolliver, threatening to fine him. So, he'd fixed it, kicked her out. Sure, he felt a little sorry. He'd even offered her some cash if she'd give him a hand-job, but the bitch had turned him down. And they were all like that, his tenants. Stupid, poor, ungrateful. Sometimes he wondered if the rents were even worth it. He couldn't understand them.
"They live like animals," he complained to his masseuse in the cabana. "I mean, 3D's plumbing is so backed-up they can't use the sink. They're washing dishes in the bathtub. Cockroaches everywhere. They clog the drains and then want me to fix them."
The masseuse dug her thumbs in his tight shoulders. He doubted she spoke English. Tolliver closed his eyes. He let the sound of waves entrance him.
He did not return to Mercer Street right after the Bahamas. He had a few court dates, mostly for evictions, late rents or damaged properties. He owned a dozen places in the city, on blocks that made the Baba Yagas' neighborhood look wealthy. By the time he checked on 1825, he didn't recognize the lot.
Fine soil and fertilizer covered every inch. A wrought-iron fence enclosed the space and, though the finials looked like flowers at first glance, when Tolliver looked again, they resembled skulls on stakes. Behind the gate, it seemed as if the entire neighborhood was plotting out new gardens using wooden poles and twine. The whole scene had a festive air, with the bodega on the corner selling sodas, candy and coffee. Three large tables sagged with food from local restaurants—falafels, gyros, spicy chicken wings and pizza. The Baba Yagas had supplied tomato cheese pie, onion quiche, stuffed peppers and gazpacho. They supervised with trowels and seeds. Music poured out of an open window in his building, and Tolliver recognized his own tenants—those slobs from 3D—helping transplant tree saplings.
"You!" Tolliver shouted, pointing at the Baba Yagas, scattered through the crowd. "You did this!"
On reflex, he reached into his backseat and wrapped his fist around a baseball bat. The young men of the neighborhood—boys who had been tutored, scolded, fed and clothed by Baba Yagas—exchanged a look among themselves. They sauntered closer to the fence, brushing dirt off of their hands. Before they could go further, the Baba Yagas reached the gate.
"Mr. Tolliver," Miss Nancy said, "you sound so overworked and peckish. Try a chicken wing. We made the sauce ourselves, with herbs and peppers from our gardens."
Tolliver caught the rising scents of cumin, coriander and something that he couldn't name. His stomach growled. He turned away and grabbed his phone. He wouldn't bother with the police. Instead, he'd call his own guys—hypes who lived on dimes and worked for nothing. He punched some numbers and then swore. His phone had no reception, just dead space in a silence.
"What. The. Hell. Is. Going. On." Tolliver spat.
"Tut, tut," Miss Tressa said.
"It's a community garden, Mr. Tolliver," Miss Deb broke in.
"We'll buy the land," Big Tom interjected. "Fair market price. And the building there, as well." He gestured toward the next door place.
Tolliver ground his teeth. "As I said before, it's not for sale."
"But it gives you such a headache, doesn't it?" Miss Connie asked.
Tolliver rubbed his temples. His head was really pounding. His stomach growled again. Those damn chicken wings smelled so good. He leaned against the fence and gripped the finials on the gate.
"My guys will be here in the morning," he said in a strained voice, "to tear this whole place up. And you," he pointed at the Baba Yagas, "can pay the fucking bill."
"Watch yourself," Big Tom said.
A few clouds scuttled overhead. A flock of starlings swooped low in a wave before they settled on the fence.
"Chicken?" Miss Hazel offered once again.
He meant to grab a wing, to take a bite, to spit it out. To make his point. But the savory meat just melted from the bone, so tender and delicious. Tolliver groaned with pleasure. He ate another and another. Sauce dripped down his chin. He had never felt so hungry, swallowing more and more. Then the starlings on the fence took flight—and a bone lodged in his throat.
Tolliver gasped. He tried to swear, but couldn't speak. He wrapped his hands around his neck, tongue swelling, eyes watering, sweat beading on his forehead.
"Oh dear, I think he's choking."
"Is there a doctor in the garden?"
Arlene appeared beside them. "I've been training as a nurse."
Tolliver looked up, eyes pleading.
She laced her arms around his chest, thrust up with her fist. The bone wedged deeper. She tried again. His knees give way. Cool hands touched his face.
"Maybe it's his heart, too."
Their voices sounded garbled, tinny. The Baba Yagas circled round him. Tolliver felt a sudden wave of grief mixed with nostalgia. Swept back to his childhood, he remembered ancient stories of old women, Russian witches in a forest. A moving house with chicken legs. Witches flying in a mortar, with a pestle. No one dared defy them. No one who loved life.
He tried to hold on tightly to a waning thread of air, but the finials on the black gate loomed. They weren't skulls, he realized. They'd been blossoms all along.
Three months later, the first crops of the garden were ready for a harvest. Big Tom threw a block party. He roasted ears of corn and hot dogs. Alice made fresh pesto. Others came with spinach salad, salsa, grilled zucchini and honeyed carrots. Arlene baked lemon cupcakes to celebrate baby Max's birthday. The Baba Yagas mixed up pitchers of mint juleps and the mint, of course, was theirs.
The lot was theirs as well, along with 1825 Mercer. In a strange turn of events, Tolliver's last will named the six old women as his heirs.
"Funny 'bout that," Big Tom gave them the side-eye.
Miss Tressa shrugged. Miss Connie smiled sweetly. "You never can tell," she said, "what lodges in a heart."
They'd already fixed the plumbing and the heat next door, replaced the broken stove in 2C and repainted all the rooms. They kept the rents low in exchange for labor, time spent weeding in the garden. Nobody complained.
In the far left corner of the lot, they'd set two iron benches in a small alcove of lilacs. The fresh scent of those blossoms suffused the neighborhood. On mild-weather Sundays, the Baba Yagas held their garden club outside beneath those trees. They drank strong coffee laced with homemade cherry cordial. They swapped recipes and seedlings. They dipped their fingers in cool soil. They discussed the neighborhood and, when the children gathered round them, the Baba Yagas told old stories where the wolves wore bomber jackets inside a forest made of bricks. Sometimes they cackled. And their garden grew like wonders in a witch's fairy tale.