The air was bitter cold, but she didn’t feel a thing. Though the frigid night bit at her thin skin, she moved with ease, as though she was comforted by the misery of the black sky.
She hovered silently through the dark forest, her rancid, hot breath pushing into the black before her, and cutting through the stillness. Her stick thin legs moved readily and, despite her haggard and wretched appearance, she moved without any sign of difficulty.
She reached the small, wooden house nestled in between the withered branches of the trees and whispered the words over pursed lips. Her voice sounded hollow, like that of death when he lingers over one ready to meet him.
At the sound, a door materialized before her and she pushed inside, closing the door noiselessly behind her where it immediately disappeared again. She laid the sack on her stiff bed and pulled open the top. Inside, the little one trembled, her blonde hair a tangle of knots hanging over her shoulders. The girl shrank against the scratchy velvet bag and began to cry, softly at first, and then louder as the horrifying sight of her captor stood over her.
“Don’t cry, little one,” the old woman rasped. “Let us have some dinner together. I’ll do the cooking.” Her lips stretched tight over a mouth full of crooked, black teeth. The girl wailed in horror as the woman reached in and grabbed her under the arms, lifting her from the sack and sitting her on top of the table next to the bed.
Grabbing a pot, the old witch set it atop the stove and filled it with dirty water from a pitcher standing next to it. She then reached beneath and struck a match against the floor. Tossing it into the furnace, she stoked the flames for a moment before turning back to the little girl.
“Dinner won’t take long, my dear,” she hissed. The girl looked around and, seeing no food in the small, square hut, let out a scream of terror.
“Papa, stop! Stop!” Sveta jumped into her father’s lap and wrapped her arms around his neck, her nose pressed tight against his cheek. She trembled from head to toe as her father chuckled softly.
“I don’t want to hear anymore about Baba Yaga,” Sveta cried. Ivan engulfed his daughter in his arms and kissed her forehead.
“It’s just a story, my darling,” he said with a smile.
“I told you to stop telling her those stories, Papa!”
Ivan turned to see his older daughter, Lena, standing in the doorway, her hands on her hips. She looked so much like her mother standing there like that. A deep sadness pressed against Ivan’s heart as he thought of his wife and son. Lena saw the familiar look pass over Papa’s face, and she quickly dropped her hands to her side. With a sigh, she crossed the room and sat down in front of the fire across from Sveta and her father.
“She can’t handle the stories of Baba Yaga, Papa,” Lena said softly. “You think it’s funny to tell her those stories, but then she doesn’t sleep for a week, and I have to deal with her!”
Ivan offered a smile of apology. “You used to love it when I told you of Baba Yaga,” he said gently to his nearly grown daughter. “You begged me to tell you of the witch with the magical house.”
Lena shook her head and, despite her annoyance, smiled back at her father. “Papa, you terrified me when I was that age, too. I suffered the same nightmares after you told me the stories. Mama spent many nights awake with me, trying to convince me that Baba Yaga didn’t really exist.”
Looking thoughtfully into the fire, Lena contemplated silently for a moment before speaking again. “I’m still not sure, though,” she said softly.
“Not sure of what?” Ivan asked. He shifted Sveta in his lap so that he could look more closely at Lena.
“I’m not sure she isn’t real,” Lena whispered.
Sveta pushed away from her father and turned toward her sister, her eyes wide with terror. “What did you say?” she asked.
Lena shook her head and offered a pitiful smile. “Nothing, little one,” she crooned. “Of course Baba Yaga is a myth.”
Ivan sighed and pushed Sveta off his lap, onto her feet. She continued to cling to his neck, and he had to reach up and pry her hands off of him so that he could look her in the eye.
“I’m sorry I scared you, dochka,” he said, smoothing her wispy hair back off her sweaty forehead. “It was just a story. Go with Lena now, and get ready for bed.”
Sveta turned to her sister who stood up and grabbed her hand. “Will you lay with me until I fall asleep?” Sveta asked as Lena led her from the room.
“Of course I will,” Lena answered gently. She tossed a weary look at her father, who returned her gaze apologetically. Then the two left the room, and Ivan was alone with his memories.
Standing up slowly, Ivan crossed to the cupboard and pull out a bottle of vodka and a glass. Pouring a small glass, he took a sip and let the liquid burn down his throat and into his stomach, numbing for just a brief moment the ache that seemed to always squeeze tight at his heart.
Turning to look at the small bed in the corner, Ivan sighed. Lying over the back of the bed was his finest suit, shirt and tie. Every night, he looked at this outfit and wondered if this would be the night he was forced to put it on. The time would come soon, he was certain. And the fear this thought brought to his chest was the only thing that outweighed the sadness left by the loss of Anya and Max to the flu.
His friend Evgeny disappeared last week. They sat together the evening before it happened, talking about life and politics, about their unwanted status of “kulak” – wealthy peasant. And always, they lamented their deep dissatisfaction with the collectivization of their farming village. They had lost everything in this political move, and the loss caused a great deal of disillusionment with their leader, Josef Stalin, and his new communist regime.
Ivan and his neighbors were now considered a threat to society or, perhaps more accurately, to Stalin. They were too wealthy to be called peasants, but not wealthy enough to be seen as full citizens. This made them a risk to their so-called leader, or so he seemed to believe. One by one, the men from his village were disappearing, just like Evgeny. The morning after their last talk, Evgeny’s wife came to the door and said the secret police took him in the night.
“It happened so fast,” she whispered. “It was as though he simply disappeared.” Two days later, she and her children disappeared just as quickly, exiled to Siberia, snuffed out like the flame of a fire.
Ivan sat down heavily on his bed and listened to the pure sound of Lena’s voice in the next room as she sang to her sister. That was the song Anya sang to Lena as a child. Why did Anya never tell him how deeply he scared his daughter with those stories of Baba Yaga?
As a child, he had loved the stories of the witch of the forest. His mother would tell him of Baba Yaga’s magical movements through the forest, her house that moved about on chicken legs, and the door that only appeared if you knew the right password. But that was a different time. His children grew up in an age of unsettled fear – never knowing when life would be forever and irreparably altered. He should have known better.
Moving to the bed, Ivan set his cup down on the floor by his feet and rested his head in his hands. How desperately he wished Anya were still here. And his son…Ivan whispered Max’s name into the still room, and remembered the last time his boy was well. It had been the week before he died, before the flu had swept through his little body, and he’d hopped around the room on two legs, pretending to be a rabbit of the forest.
Even then, the stories of Stalin and his cleansing of all suspected radicals were washing through the village. Fear had settled inside every household, and on that night as Max hopped through the house, his youth and innocence protecting him from the weight of the day, Ivan remembered not joy, but annoyance. He was frustrated with Max’s energy and joy, and he ordered the boy to bed early. The next morning, Max awoke with a wretched fever. He would never jump again.
Two weeks later, Anya died of the same flu. By some miracle, or perhaps it was a curse, Ivan and the girls never got sick.
For a long time, Ivan sat silently on his bed, head in his hands. He only looked up when he heard her shuffle across the floor. Leaning over the fire, Lena pushed the wood around, stoking the flames higher. She glanced over, and saw her father watching her.
“Did she go to sleep?” Ivan asked. Lena nodded, brushing her hands on her skirt and sitting down in front of the fire. She wrapped her arms tightly around her chest.
“Papa?” Her voice cut through the still room.
“What do I do when they come for you?”
The question hung in the air as the shadows from the fire danced across the walls. It was as though the bare room mocked him for his inability to protect his family, and Ivan felt the weight of all his failures heavy over his shoulders.
“You do what they tell you to do,” he said. He stood up and crossed the room. Kneeling in front of his daughter, he grabbed her hands and kissed them both. “Don’t fight them, my dear. Do you understand?”
Lena nodded, tears glinting in her eyes. At seventeen, Lena was tall and beautiful, but the freckles that dotted her smooth nose and cheeks gave her a much more youthful appearance.
“You’re strong, like your Mama,” Ivan continued, his voice breaking. “You remember that. And take care of your sister. She’s not as strong as you. She’ll need special attention.”
“Where will they send us?” Lena asked.
Ivan sighed, and turned to look at the fire. “I don’t know, my darling,” he said. “I’ve heard rumors that they’re sending family members of those arrested to Siberia. I imagine you will receive the same fate.” Turning back to his daughter, he looked hard into her eyes.
“I’m sorry for all the times that I frightened you, Lenochka,” he choked. “I didn’t know the stories of Baba Yaga scared you.” His eyes burn as hot tears spill onto his cheeks.
Lena leaned forward and kissed his forehead. “It’s okay, Papa,” she said, and he heard the smile in her voice. “Somehow, I think those stories prepared me for this time. They made me brave. I was so terrified of the darkness – so frightened of Baba Yaga coming to steal me away, and eat me for supper. But I learned to operate in that fear.” Ivan leaned back, and looked close at her as she continued.
“I’m ready for what’s next, Papa,” she said. “I’m not scared of Baba Yaga anymore.”
Ivan pushed himself to his feet, and kissed his daughter on top of the head. He turned to retrieve his glass of vodka when the knock cut through the room. Lena stood with a gasp, and her eyes flew to her father. He straightened up, his eyes narrowing.
“Lena, please go into the room with Sveta,” he said, voice even and unwavering. Lena nodded and turned slowly. Looking at him over her shoulder, tears spilling onto her cheeks she gave him a brave smile.
“I love you, Papa,” she whispered, then hurried from the room. Ivan quickly changed his clothes, putting on his fine suit and smoothing his hair. He tossed the remaining vodka in his mouth as the knock pierced the night again, this time more insistent.
With a deep breath, Ivan raised his head high and walked to the door, pulling it open, and stepping into the dark, hollow night. Then, he disappeared.
To be continued…