18 July 1918
My name is Maria Nikolaevna, Grand Duchess of Russia, third daughter of the great Tsar Nicholas II and his beloved Alexandra, true child of the Empire, and this is the end of my story.
Two hours ago, the execution of my family began. Gunshots shattered the quiet night, and the screams of my father and mother echoed throughout the halls of this cursed place. They were followed closely by those of my three sisters and my brother.
It has been over a year since my father was forced to abdicate his throne. Those that participated in overthrowing him have called their deeds a revolution, of course. Revolution is a much finer sounding word than treason. They wrap themselves in a cloak of righteousness to avoid having to admit that they have caused the downfall of a good and loving Tsar.
We were moved between a number of places, no doubt to keep us hidden from those still loyal to my father. At one time we were even separated, my father, mother, and I being sent to Yekaterinburg while my three sisters and little Alexei remained at Tobolsk. That was the most difficult time of our wrongful imprisonment. Like all true families we were at our strongest together, and at our weakest apart.
It had to be done, however. The Bolsheviks insisted on Father and Mother being moved, and my siblings and I couldn’t bear the thought of them having to be away from all of us. I was the only logical choice to accompany them. Anastasia was too young for such a journey, Tatiana’s medical training was required to tend to Alexei’s illness, and Olga, dear sweet Olga, was too fragile.
I was only allowed to take one personal item with me. I chose an old music box that my father had given to me on my tenth birthday. Turning the gold key and opening the lid would cause it to play a lovely melody. I had loved it from the moment that I had been given it.
Eventually we were reunited here, in this den of horrors. I believe that a part of me knew that this place would be where we would spend the last of our days from the moment I first saw it.
It is known as Ipatiev House, but the servants and guards call this place “The House of Special Purpose.” I originally assumed that this was because it was now the home to royalty rather than a simple merchant’s home. Over the past year, however, I’ve come to understand that it has a different meaning. There has been someone else imprisoned behind these walls, and not only has she been here longer than we have, she was under much tighter guard than any of us as well.
When my family was first brought here, we were given four rooms on the top floor to use. While this was far from the comfortable confines of Peterhof Palace, I must admit that they were pleasant enough. There was room for all seven of us to spread out comfortably, and after the separation that we had recently gone through I saw it as a blessing that we were all back together again. The rooms, while more cramped now, were filled with much more joy with my sisters and brother having arrived.
I was allowed to walk the halls and grounds as long as a guard accompanied me. I did not like or approve of most of the guards that were assigned to my family. They were boorish and uncivilized, their language unfit for the presence of ladies and their crude advances most unwelcomed by myself and by my sisters.
There was one, however, that somehow managed to rise above the others. His name was Ivan, a simple name for a most complicated young man. I found our conversations to be pleasant, and his quick wit never failed to surprise me. He became my constant companion during my walks. I grew quite fond of him, and he of me.
The only place that I was not allowed was in the cellar below the house. Even Ivan, who allowed me things that were against his orders simply to please me, would not let me down onto the lower level. Whenever I would ask why this one place was kept closed to me, his face would become hard like stone and he would refuse to answer me.
This, of course, only made my curiosity stronger. One of the worst parts of captivity is the boredom that creeps into your life. Your days are filled with the same activities over and over again. There is precious little that is new to experience. You begin to crave excitement, any excitement. Even something as simple as finding out what is kept in a cellar.
During the winter, on a crisp and clear day, one of the neighboring houses caught fire. I learned later that part of the old fireplace had broken apart, and a burning log had fallen out onto clothes that were drying in front of it. The flames had quickly spread from there, and soon the entire house was ablaze. Everyone in town hurried out to help extinguish the fire before it could spread to other homes, including the guards stationed at Ipatiev House.
This was my chance. While the other members of my family were distracted watching the fire from the windows, I crept out of the room and down to the first floor. I made sure that I was alone before opening the old wooden door leading down into the cellar. Feeling the same impish glee that I would get as a small child when I would steal tiny cakes from the kitchen, I quickly descended the stairs.
The stone hallway at the bottom was lit by candles, but there weren’t many of them and shadows covered most of the path. I slipped one out of its holder and made my way down the tunnel. It was longer than I had expected it to be, and I was just considering that it might be time to turn back when I finally reached the end.
I was standing before a large wooden door. It was covered in heavy iron chains with strong locks affixed at various places. I had never seen anything quite like it. In the center of the door was a small rectangular opening with bars spaced across it. Forcing aside my trepidation, I stepped up to the door and peered into the opening.
The room beyond was dark. There were no windows, and the pitiful light from my candle didn’t penetrate very far. From inside, however, I could hear the shifting of chains.
“Ah, a daughter of an emperor, down where she is forbidden to be,” an old woman’s voice came from inside of the cell.
“Maria!” someone shouted from behind.
I turned to find Ivan there, concern and panic in his eyes. When he saw that I was unharmed, however, his expression turned to anger. He demanded to know why I had gone against his order not to trespass in the cellar. I could give him no good answer, and a flush of embarrassment stained my cheeks. Ivan was one of the only people during this whole ordeal that had been truly kind to me. In return, I had betrayed his trust.
He had been the first of the guards to return to the house, and he was able to escort me back upstairs before any of the others found out what I had been doing. Before returning me to my family’s rooms, however, he led me down a side corridor so that he could have a private word with me.
“Please, Maria, you must not go back down there,” he pleaded with me. “It is for your own safety.”
“She is just an old woman,” I replied. “Why do you have such a poor creature kept locked away in such a wretched place? Ivan, you must tell me, and speak truthfully.”
He was silent for a long moment. “Because she is Baba Yaga. Now go, return to your family before the others return. Hurry.”
That night, long after the rest of my family had retired to their beds, I remained in the sitting room listening to my music box as I pondered what Ivan had said. Surely I had misheard him, or he was mistaken. Baba Yaga was just a myth, a story told to young children to thrill and frighten them.
I had heard the stories myself as a child. Baba Yaga was said to be a hideous old woman who devoured those who wandered into her forest. According to the tales she was a powerful witch with no equal. She would fly on a mortar to scoop up her victims before taking them back to her house, which according to legend walked through the woods on giant chicken legs.
The notes from the music box became slower. I absently wound the key to keep it playing.
It was impossible that Baba Yaga was real, and even more impossible that she would be locked up here if she was. Still, even the tiniest possibility that it was really her in the cellar was an intriguing one. Perhaps a bargain could be made, her freedom for the freedom of my family. It was a pleasant thought, one that kept going through my head until I eventually fell asleep in my chair.
I resolved to find out the truth about the old woman. Over the next few weeks, I stayed on my very best behavior as I waited for another opportunity to sneak into the cellar. During this time I was both kind and apologetic to poor sweet Ivan. I disliked lying to him, but I had no choice. The safety of my family had to come first.
My next chance came at a very unfortunate time. My young brother that we all happily doted on suffered from the condition of hemophilia. Because of this, any bleeding could become severe, and it threatened his life a number of times as he grew up.
Alexei developed a severe cough one evening, and by the next morning there was blood coming up from inside of him. Doctors were summoned at once, and there was a flurry of activity throughout Ipatiev House. During the commotion I was able to slip down into the cellar once again and go to the chained door.
“Elder,” I asked politely, “is it true that you are Baba Yaga?”
The unseen woman didn’t answer immediately. Again I heard the sound of rattling chains as she moved in the darkness. When she finally spoke, her voice was filled with amusement.
“I am indeed known as Baba Yaga,” she told me. “I have been called many other names as well. Jezibaba. Jedza. Many others. The name that you call me is of no importance to me.”
“Is it also true that you possess great power?” I questioned. “That you are a witch without equal?”
There was another pause. “When I am not shackled in iron, I am indeed powerful. Powerful enough to free your entire family, Grand Duchess of Russia. Powerful enough to restore your father to his throne.”
We spoke many times over the months to come. The number of guards at Ipatiev House was reduced over time, and those that remained were replaced by others. My wonderful Ivan was one of these, and I missed him dearly after he was gone. These new soldiers didn’t seem to know exactly who was being kept in the cellar, and they allowed me to visit the old woman freely. I even overheard one of them say that he was touched by my desire to provide companionship to the elderly prisoner.
Baba Yaga told me much about herself. She was not the first woman to carry the name. She was the latest in a long line of Baba Yagas. When one would approach her time of death, she would find an apprentice to pass along her dark powers. This had gone on for centuries, far longer than recorded history. There had always been a Baba Yaga, and there always would be one.
She took an interest in me as well. She seemed fascinated by the various activities of royalty. While I was far too guarded around her to consider her a friend, I did come to see her as a pleasant companion. I would even bring my precious music box down into the cellar and play it for her. She once remarked that she had never heard anything so beautiful.
Everything came crashing down around me yesterday evening. The day started the same as any other. As the hours passed, however, I began to feel that something was different. The guards in the hallways spoke to one another less frequently than usual. When I went for a walk in the gardens with my father and sisters, the soldiers refused to make eye contact. It was such an uncomfortable situation that we ended our walk early.
At dinner we were informed that our kitchen boy Leonid had been sent to visit a family member. No reason for the visit was given. This greatly saddened Alexei, who had considered the boy a friend. My father and mother had exchanged a long look, and although I did not know what private thought it was that they were sharing, their expressions made me feel cold.
When the guards awakened us after midnight, we thought that we were once again being moved to another location. That was how the other relocations had taken place, after all. My sisters and I gathered the dogs while my brother and parents collected our bags and belongings. I made sure that I took my music box before we left the rooms.
Instead of leaving the house, we were gathered together in the entryway. Standing there in full uniform with a smug look on his rat-like face was Yakov Yurovsky, a battalion leader that I had previously had the displeasure of meeting multiple times during our stay at Ipatiev House. To our absolute horror, he produced a document from inside of his coat and proceeded to read a sentence of execution for all of us.
My father stepped forward to argue with Yurovsky, and at that moment all of the soldiers were focused on the two of them. Thinking quickly, I slipped away from the group and hurried down to the door leading to the cellar. Before I reached it, however, I went into a small room to my left. I had learned that this was the room where the guards kept the heavy sets of keys for the house’s many locks. As I had hoped, the room was empty. All the men were gathered in the entryway.
It wasn’t hard to locate the keys that I was looking for. They were larger than the rest, and they were made of the same heavy iron as the chains that bound the door downstairs. I took them from their hook and descended into the cellar.
I ran as fast as I could down the long stone hallway. My absence would be discovered shortly, and when it was the guards would search the entire house for me. I would be found within minutes.
When I reached the door, Baba Yaga demanded to know what was happening as I struggled to unlock the chains. I told her about the execution order as I removed the locks one by one. She listened to me silently. The final lock fell to the floor with a loud clang, and I pulled off the chains and opened the door.
I could just barely see the old woman in the corner of the cell. She was bent over and contorted, the heavy chains wrapped tightly around her weighing her down. I hurried to her and tried to release the lock that kept her bound, going through the keys one at a time. I started to panic as I heard voices approaching from behind me.
When I turned the last key, the lock released with a loud click. Baba Yaga smiled broadly, exposing her rotting teeth, and the chains slid off of her as she stood up straight. Her long black hair fell down over her back as she stretched.
The guards arrived at the cell door, their guns clenched in their hands. Before any of them could raise their weapons, Baba Yaga extended her hand and rotated it like she was turning a doorknob. The three men’s necks twisted to one side as they snapped, and they fell lifelessly to the ground.
Without a word spoken between us we marched down the hallway towards the stairs. There was an ugly fire burning in Baba Yaga’s eyes, like a starving wolf staring at its prey. I knew that she was my family’s only chance of salvation, but I felt a great fear of her.
We had just started up the stairs when the sound of guns being fired began. They were followed by screams, the screams of my family. They were full of terror and agony. I cried out in despair.
Baba Yaga snatched the music box from me and opened the lid. It hadn’t been wound, and no sound came out of it. She placed her long thin fingers inside and spoke a few words that I didn’t understand. With a nod, she handed it back to me.
“Your family is dead,” she told me in a flat voice. “Never forget their screams, child. Let their deaths fill you with strength and rage so that you may destroy those that brought them to this fate. Every month, when the moon is as it is this night, their cries shall ring out from your music box to remind you of how you felt in this moment.”
The soldiers were dragging the bodies of my family towards the front door when we came to the entryway. I collapsed down to my knees next to my lifeless sister Anastasia and cradled her head in my lap. We had been so close that we had begged our parents to purchase the same dresses for us when we were little so that we would match. Nearby was Tatiana, and I reached out to take her hand in mine. I was the last of my family, and I wept alone.
I was so deep in my sorrow that I did not see the guards approaching, their guns drawn and pointed at me. When I felt the barrel of one of the terrible weapons press against the back of my head, a part of me welcomed it.
The cold metal was suddenly gone, and in its place was something warm. I reached back tentatively with my free hand and pressed my fingers against the back of my neck for a moment. When I looked at them, I found that they were covered in blood.
Forgetting my grief for just a moment, I looked up and stared in awe at what I saw. The soldiers were suspended in the air before me. Their bodies were torn in half, and their blood and internal organs hung above the ground around them. Something stirred within me. There was beauty in the carnage.
Baba Yaga put her hand on my shoulder as she looked upon her work.
“Come, child,” she said. “Say your goodbyes to your family, and to your old life also. Then we will go from this place so that you may find your vengeance.”
She waits for me now as I write this. She doesn’t understand why I am leaving this letter, but I do not wish to leave without giving a record of my family’s final days. There is precious little left to remember them by, just my words and the screams from my music box during the half moon.
If this letter is found by true sons and daughters of the Empire, know that your Tsar remained loyal to you until the end. He loved his people, and he worked tirelessly for you. He and his beloved instilled this sense of duty in their children. It was the greatest honor to be your servants.
If instead this letter is found by enemies of the Empire, by those who claim to be revolutionaries but are in truth only seekers of personal power and gain, let it serve as a warning. Before tonight I was but a woman of royal birth that had been kept from her people. Now, though, I shed the name of Maria Nikolaevna. I lay down the title of Grand Duchess of Russia.
When next you see me I shall be known only as Baba Yaga, and I will exact my vengeance for what you have taken from me.
2 thoughts on “The Music Box”
YES!!! This was a gorgeous tale, lavishly written and what would be known as a “Weepypasta” on CP, minus the section detailing Baba Yaga’s vengeance. I speak some Russian, having learned it up to an intermediate level in the 2000s. Bravo, and thank you for indulging my request. 🙂
I loved it. Not only the Russian history but adding the folklore Baba Yaga to it 🙂