An account by Theodore Miro, as provided by Zach Bartlett
Art by Leigh Legler
I understand that TV audiences want to see a little more showmanship than I’m used to providing on the line back at Lilette, but this is ridiculous. They trucked in a six-foot tall burlap sack with “HOUSE FEED” painted on the side, and we had to spend two hours getting shots of me and some crew pouring it out onto a giant plate. They kept having to refill the bag between takes, and I had nothing to do but sit around in the freezing-ass Russian afternoon. The only wifi reception out here is a 1980-looking suitcase laptop with one of those inch-thick rubber antennas. I think all it does is let Chaz keep in touch with the producers through some kinda HAM radio satellite or whatever. No apps or anything. I’d tried making small talk with him in between takes, but I think the only thing he’s ever actually read is liner notes from Smash Mouth albums. Album, singular? I don’t even know. He sure would though.
All I want to do is go with Benny [Dr. Benjamin Havener, the show’s cryptozoology consultant. -ed.] and trap the damn hut so I can figure out if it’s even going to have some edible meat on or in it. He already let it slip that my first round is going to be against a guy who’s serving Sasquatch. The longest pork! I’m going to have to do a lot more than toss those legs in Buffalo sauce if I want to advance to the next bracket. But can I just plate it and be done? No, I’m contractually obligated to cheese it up with a bag of fake house feed and have tedious interviews with Chaz where he keeps trying to work a handful of sponsors into the conversation.
Benny, at the very least, is as frustrated with the reality TV junk as I am. Dude is all business, and his business is hunting down things most people don’t think exist for a few people who have more money than most people. During breaks, he hangs with the crew and tells us stories about tracking Mothmen who were messing with fracking sites in Virginia, or throwing back Loch Ness Monster fry that weren’t regulation size. One guy during dinner asked him if he’d ever hunted vampires, and Benny started laughing. Like, a chest-heaving face-turning-red giggle fit at the idea that someone would ask him that. The guy felt embarrassed and went back to his trailer after like thirty seconds of it, and Benny recovered maybe another ten seconds after that. He apologized and just picked up in the story he was telling before. I didn’t realize until we’d all turned in for the night that he never actually answered the guy’s question.
I’m drinking tonight from a bottle of … something wet. All the words on the label have those make-believe letters with dots and little arrows on top of them. Any grappa in a storm!
Chaz can quit calling me “my man,” or I’m gonna keep flubbing lines and making him restart scenes until he does. We only have like six hours of sunlight a day up here. Hostbro gotta learn, this teddy bear’s got the subtle claws.
Today, they shot footage of me and Benny walking through a sporting goods store looking at hunting equipment and making exaggerated frowny faces, then they had him take a compound bow up to the counter and ask the clerk if they had “anything bigger” while I held my arms out wide. The clerk refused to let the cameraman get reaction shots of him making a corny surprised face, and apparently the crew hadn’t actually gotten written permission to film in the store, because a guy who I swear to God was the model for the Heavy in TF2 came out of a back room and started shouting at us. I don’t speak Russian, but I knew to beat feet because the body language for my-foot-comma-your-ass is universal. Benny said the guy might even have had some ‘squatch in him.
There are two days left until the hunt, and I still haven’t figured out what to do with the hut’s legs. I could easily scale up my usual fried chicken recipe and maybe brine ’em in an inground pool, but there’s no way frying in oil would cook through something that size before the outside was completely burned. I could cut them up and make hundreds of tenders out of them if that’s how it needs to go, but damn, that will hurt the professional pride.
I did not even know orphans were a thing you could just go out and get, but I guess when you’re raking in that streaming TV money, it opens up a lot of doors. Orphanage doors.
Somebody in a suit showed earlier up looking for Chaz with a five-year-old kid handcuffed to one arm and a briefcase to the other. He had Chaz sign some paperwork then uncuffed the kid and left. Even for Russia’s reputation, it seemed shady as all hell, and I say that as a guy who’s worked back-of-house at an Emeril restaurant. Benny didn’t know any details about how they … leased? … the kid, but said that he wouldn’t let him come to harm under any circumstances. They just needed him for bait. Apparently the Baba Yaga can tell if a kid is an actual orphan, so they couldn’t have hired an actor.
We also got one of those giant back-hoe cranes delivered, which four-year-old Teddy would have thought was awesome, but it seems pretty tame in comparison to some of the stuff that’s gone down in the last week.
‘BOUT THAT FOLKLORE LIFE! [this was written in block letters across the upper half of the entry’s first page. -ed.]
The crew spent the afternoon getting things set up at an abandoned construction site near the edge of a forest. I didn’t really have the skillset to contribute to what was going down, but Benny let me sit in one of those little camouflage deer tents the camera crew were using to hide.
Costuming put the kid in a raggedy Newsies-looking outfit because they didn’t want the orphan bit to go over the audience’s heads, but at least he had a couple coats to keep him warm and a scarf wrapped around his head to hide the earpiece.
Everybody got into position around the site and, once night fell, Benny radioed to the kid. Our rented orphan began wandering around the site, calling out for help and wailing. After several minutes of that, we all heard stomping coming from the forest. Huge stomping–like, if I had a glass of water it would have been making Jurassic Park ripples. Out of the trees came a wooden hut, walking on two twenty-foot-tall and hopefully meaty chicken legs.
The kid froze up and gawped at the improbable thing that was walking out of the woods toward him, backed up against the treads of the back-hoe, and crouched down with his hands over his face. Really selling it. The hut came to about one step away from the kid and stopped. I was like at a ninety-degree angle from the scene, so I got to see everything happen like it was a side-scrolling video game.
The silhouette of the Baba Yaga came out onto the hut’s porch. She leaned over and said something to the kid that I couldn’t make out. The kid started to wail. The hut leaned down on its backwards knees so the porch was only about ten feet off the ground, and the Baba Yaga got on her big wooden cup and floated down the rest of the way to the kid.
That’s when I heard Benny shout “GO NOW,” into the radio and saw him barreling out from behind an unfinished section of wall. My dude got airborne off a cement block lying in the way and flying tackled Baba Yaga off her cup! In mid-air! That’s when the crew in the back-hoe made it grunt to life.
The hut stood back up slowly, and I think the sashes on the front windows were angled like furious eyebrows, but before it could do anything, the crewman brought the shovel down on onto the roof and dragged straight through it like an older brother ruining a sand castle. The roof’s timbers all cracked and split as the shovel pulled a ragged gash out through the side wall. The front door fell open like a slack jaw, and it wavered for a moment, then its left knee gave and it collapsed to the ground, the walls buckling with the force and sagging off from the floorboards/hips.
Fortunately it fell away from Baba Yaga, Benny, and the orphan. Baba Yaga got up and started hobbling off back to the woods, shouting what had to have been a stream of Russian cuss words on her way. Benny grabbed her wooden cup by the base and hammer-threw it off into the woods, probably just to show off. He went over to hug the kid and calm him down, then signaled on the radio for them to bring in the freezer truck and saws. A Jeep pulled up and Chaz hopped out, all cargo shorts and frosted tips, to strike poses with the dead house like an #instagram #super #star.
I legit got to watch them pull off an Ocean’s Eleven plan and straight-up dome a monster I read about in books as a kid! I don’t even care if Tom Colicchio likes what I wind up serving to him on the air at this point, I got a story that will win me free drinks for life if the NDA allows me to tell it. Goddamn, y’all.
Headed back from the frigid wilderness to the studio. We’re stopped for the night in something called Motel Three. Didn’t even know they went that low.
I was worried that they might wind up being magical wood or something, but I can confirm that the chicken legs of Baba Yaga’s hut are, in fact, made out of regular chicken meat. I carved a chunk off one to make a precautionary stir-fry for some of the douchier crew at lunch, and Chaz is still as ruddy as ever seven hours later, so it looks like the meat is totally edible.
I think I’m going to go with a Cajun gumbo for the cook-off. Cut a bunch of the chicken up–it feels weird calling it “chicken,” but I figure I’m still at the phase where I need mechanisms to cope with all this–into little pieces, find some way to improvise a giant pan, and make a massive roux using a boat oar, because if nothing else, I’m gonna win on style points. Maybe get a marketing deal with Ivan Chachere’s.
Do they even have filé powder up here?
May 11th or maybe 12th, the time zones here aren’t even funny
Sitting in an airport that looks like a bus station after an early-morning high-speed chase, and the producers aren’t willing to go forward with the show changing hosts midseason, so they’re just going to scrap the whole thing. I can’t wait to see what kind of backstage drama storyline they spin in order to cover for this.
Here’s what actually went down, regardless of what you hear.
Motel Three wasn’t a regular style motel, not big building with separate rooms inside. It was pretty much just a field with a dozen rows of prefab plexiglass tool sheds that they’d put single beds into to use as rooms. I was sleeping in my bedshed when there was a giant thundering sound from outside, like a husky kid going off a diving board. I looked out my door, and from a couple sheds down, I saw Benny leaning out of his too. He put a finger over his lips when he noticed me.
There was another huge thud accompanied by a crack, and that time I could tell it was coming from a couple rows behind us. I dropped to my elbows and did a military crawl over to Benny, since that seemed like the kind of thing he’d do, but when I got there and looked up at him, he was facepalming as politely as one could.
A couple more crew were up and looking around, and Benny motioned for them to go back indoors. We walked a couple rows down toward where the last sound had come from and had to take quick cover when the Baba Yaga staggered out into the walkway two sheds in front of us.
I peered around the corner after we realized she hadn’t noticed us. In the washed-out yellow light, it looked like she was carrying a bag full of firewood. Then I realized the bag was a silk button-up with flames on it, and one of the logs was wearing a New Balance.
She knelt and placed Chaz’s legs at the bottom edge of his shed, one on either side of the door. Then she took a smaller bag off her belt, scattered some kind of dust around the legs, then produced a bottle from somewhere inside her tattered cloak and began splashing the shed with it as she chanted something that sounded like a Gogol Bordello B-side. Benny’s eyes grew wide as platters when he recognized what she was doing. He pulled me back around the corner, turned my face to his, and mouthed parking lot.
As we stood, there was an enormous wet grinding sound from around the corner. There was another enormous thundering sound behind us–I looked back, and one shed’s roof was raised several feet higher than the others. It dipped back down then rose again with the Baba Yaga standing in its doorway. She was looking right at us.
Benny grabbed me by the forearm, and we started booking it past sheds, crewmembers, and probably some really disappointed tourists. He was shouting “go, go,” as we went, but I think most of them were too distracted by the sight of a shed stomping after us on giant cargo-shorted legs with a Russian Bea Arthur leaning out the door cursing at us.
We made it to Benny’s truck and didn’t fumble with the keys or have trouble starting it like some trite movie. He unlocked it with the remote as we ran, we piled in and peeled out in reverse, narrowly missing Chaz’s gargantuated legs as we did so. Benny did a couple donuts around the monstrous thing to try and confuse it, but it practically pirouetted along with us right there in the parking lot, so Benny gave up and sped off down the highway. I was almost expecting the Baba Yaga to be crouched in the truck bed ready to ruin us, but when I looked back, she was still in the hut doing her thing, stomping around Motel Three using our former host’s hijacked kicks.
We drove in silence. I was still mired in the shock of what had happened, and processing my own guilt over the possible fates of the crew we had to leave behind in our hasty exit. I mean, I didn’t like Chaz as a person or anything, but I definitely wouldn’t have wished that grisly end on him. Benny was still as a statue, aside from his hands shifting slightly to keep us on the uneven road.
We eventually made it back to Somethinggrad, and Benny managed to get in touch with the producers using the payphone at a gas station. I kept having to run in and break bills for him so he could continue the call.
After over an hour of that, Benny hung up and summarized for me. We each had emergency plane tickets and a lot of paperwork to sign once we got back. I’ll be compensated for my time and probably some token mental-health-don’t-sue-us hush money. I don’t care about any kind of gag order they try making me sign, I’m going to warn anybody I know going to Russia that there’s a tool shed stomping around the country on doughy legs with “All Star” tattooed on one calf. Stay outta the woods if you got bad music taste, or the Baba Yaga might hut you too.
Theodore “Teddy” Miro is a chef, dancer, and poet. He’s worked the line at Lilette, Quenelle’s, Emeril’s Delmonico, and has strutted the length of the Big Easy several times over with his marching krewe. His first chapbook Wisdom from the Marrow is forthcoming from Next Left Press. He is legally barred from discussing any time he may or may not have spent in Russia, but he doesn’t usually drink with lawyers.
Zach Bartlett is an editor and former Masshole living in New Orleans. His fiction has appeared in Gallery of Curiosities, The J.J. Outre Review, and Mad Scientist Journal, and is performed regularly at the local reading series Esoterotica. A collection of his comedic stage work, Northern Dandy, was published in 2016. You can find more of him online at http://zachbistall.wordpress.com.
Leigh’s professional title is “illustrator,” but that’s just a nice word for “monster-maker,” in this case. More information about them can be found at http://leighlegler.carbonmade.com/.
“Excerpts from the Diary of Theodore Miro, Competitor on CryptoChefs Season 2” is Copyright 2017 Zach Bartlett
Art accompanying story is © 2017 Leigh Legler