It was the cackle that jolted her from slumber. The high pitched peal of wicked laughter broke through the silent night, piercing the frozen air.
“She’s coming,” Sveta whispered, her chest heaving. She glanced across the room and blinked hard against the tears that burned her eyes. If Valentina Gregorevna heard her cry, she would whip her. And then she would whip Lena, who was sure to come to Sveta’s defense.
Hands shaking, Sveta slipped back beneath the thin, scratchy sheet and nestled close to her sister. Lena stirred and rolled on her side. She opened her eyes and squinted through the dim light.
“You okay, Svetochka?” she asked. Lena reached up and stroked Sveta’s hair, pushing it back from her forehead. Sveta shook her head and bit her lip, fighting off the whimpers.
“Bad dream?” Lena asked. Again, Sveta shook her head.
“What is it then?” Lena pulled Sveta in tight against her chest, trying to sooth away the terror. Sveta drew in long, ragged breaths. Her entire body shook as Lena held her tight, humming softly in her ear.
“It was Baba Yaga,” Sveta finally breathed, her words a vapor drifting up into the frigid room.
“Oh, my darling,” Lena whispered, turning Sveta’s face toward hers. “We’ve talked about this. Baba Yaga is a myth. She isn’t real.”
Sveta shook her head. “I heard her,” she answered, and a fresh wave of tears filled her eyes. “She laughed. I heard her laugh.”
Lena sighed and kissed her sister’s forehead as Sveta buried her face against Lena’s chest. A little more than a year had passed since she and Sveta had last seen their Papa. Shortly after he disappeared into the night air, the men came quietly to collect Sveta and Lena. Without even a goodbye to the home they had loved and cherished their entire lives, they were whisked away, swallowed by the night, sent by train to Siberia to live in exile while their disgraced Papa served time in one of the surrounding prison camps.
This is where all the families were sent. Lena and Sveta were placed in a home with four other families, if home is the word you used to describe such living quarters. The wooden house was hastily built, cracked and creaky, barely withstanding the violent Siberian winds.
Even with a fire constantly burning, the inhabitants of these homes lived with a constant chill. They were mostly women and children, though there were a few teenage boys mixed in. Lena felt her cheeks warm at the thought of Pasha, the boy who lived in one of the other community houses, and who had become more than just a friend. Every time she thought of him, her heart raced, and she’d have to stave off a girlish giggle. The harsh reality of their lives made such emotions feel trivial and foolish,so Lena fought hard against them.
Feeling Sveta relax into her side, Lena pushed back slightly and turned to face the glowing embers of the fire. The sun would push up over the horizon soon, and nighttime would fade into another long, cold day. A new year was on the horizon. New Years Eve meant the promise of good things. At least, that’s what Mama always told her.
“The new year is always the new beginning,” Mama said reverently every year as she prepared the new year’s feast. “And a new beginning brings new hope. You remember that Lenochka.”
With a sigh, Lena closed her eyes and replayed the sound of her mother’s voice over and over, savoring the memory like a treasured gift.
Lena opened her eyes and shot up from bed. Sveta pushed up on her elbows with a gasp, then bit her lip hard against the whimper that threatened to escape.
“You lazy little oafs, get out of bed and help us get ready for the day!”
Valentina Gregorevna stood over the girls, her hands pushed tight against her wide hips. Her hair stood up on her head in wild tufts of grey and brown, and her eyes flashed in heated indignation. She was mean and spiteful, having taken an instant disliking to the girls when they were placed in the home. With a huff, she spun around and spoke loudly so the rest of the people in the small room could hear her.
“These two little brats think they can just sleep all day while the rest of us prepare the food and gather the supplies. Spoiled and selfish. They could both use a good whipping.” She turned back and glared hard at Lena, and then Sveta who shrank further down beneath the sheets. One time, two months ago, Valentina Gregorevna followed through on her threat and whipped Sveta harshly with her husband’s belt for not making her bed properly. When Lena tried to stop her, she whipped her, too.
The others in the house looked scornfully at the girls, annoyed at the strife they caused more than their apparent laziness. Everyone was afraid of Valentina Gregorevna. Lena pushed the covers back and grabbed Sveta’s hand. They rushed to the corner of the room where they splashed water on their faces and smoothed out their wrinkled skirts.
“Here.” Lena jumped as a bucket was shoved in her face. “Since you two insist on being difficult, you can go gather the snow for today’s water supply. We’ll need no less than ten bucketfuls by noon.” Valentina Gregorevna sneered as Lena pulled the bucket from her hand.
“Better bundle up tight, little ones,” she said, mouth stretched taut over blackened teeth. “It’s cold today.”
Lena blinked back tears of frustration and pulled down the hats, gloves, and thick coats that they shared as a community. She first bundled Sveta tight, then herself, and with a deep breath the girls stepped into the white washed morning.
“Make sure you go far away from the cabin and get fresh, white snow, you stupid little brats!” Valentina Gregorevna screeched from behind them. The door shut, and Lena glanced at Sveta. Her nose was already bright red.
“Pull your jacket high up over your face, Svetochka,” she said. She fumbled with her glove-clad hands as she adjusted Sveta’s covering so that there remained only a slit for her eyes. “Let’s go!”
Grabbing Sveta’s hand, Lena led her onto the drifts of the Siberian steppe. The grey sky gave the open land before them a colorless appearance, as though somehow they were trapped inside the black and white facade of a withered photograph. Already chilled to the bone, Lena trembled from head to toe as she and Sveta fought their way through the snow and up the nearby hill.
At the top of the hillside, the girls turned and looked down at the cluster of homes nestled next to one another, smoke billowing from the chimneys, and out of the cracks in the walls. Hundreds of people lived in this small village, all of them lost, unwanted, and considered a threat to their country. Lena shook her head and with a sigh, leaned down and began pushing snow into the bucket. When it was full, she and Sveta worked together to drag the bucket back down the hill, and into their cabin where they dumped it into a waiting pot. This would be the day’s drinking water.
“Only nine more to go,” Valentina Gregorevna said with a laugh as they trudged outside once again.
Back and forth they went, up and down the hill, each step increasingly difficult. On the sixth trip up, Sveta fell to her knees. Despite the whipping winds, Lena could hear her sobs.
“Come on, Svetochka!” she called. “You can do this!”
“I can’t!” Sveta cried. “My body hurts.”Dropping the bucket, Lena leaned forward and pulled her sister to her feet. Sveta slumped in her arms.
“Okay, my dear,” Lena crooned in her ear. “Let’s get you back. I’ll finish gathering the snow myself.”
When Lena pushed open the door, Valentina Gregorevna stood up. “Where’s the bucket of snow, you fool?” she yelled, her voice piercing and high.
“This is too hard for her,” Lena answered, pulling Sveta to the bed they shared and unwrapping her outer garments. “I’ll finish gathering the snow.”
“You will not!”
Lena didn’t even have time to flinch before Valentina Gregorevna’s booted foot kicked her hard in the backside. She fell over on top of Sveta who let out a wail.
“You will both get up this instant and finish your job. The rest of us are willing to work to keep this wretched place functioning. You will not get a pass just because you’re lazy and spoiled!”
Sveta gripped Lena’s shoulders, her cries muffled. “She is Baba Yaga,” she whimpered. “She’s the wicked witch of the forest. She’s going to kill us.”
“Shhh, Sveta,” Lena said, trying to still her hysterical sister.
“What did that little vermin just call me?” Valentina Gregorevna hissed. “What did she say?”
Lena pushed herself up, and spun around to face the woman who’d turned a horrible place into hell. “Get away from me! And stay far away from my sister, do you understand?” Lena took a step forward until her face was inches from Valentina Gregorevna’s.
“If you touch her, I will kill you,” she whispered. Her voice shook with the force of her anger, and she choked back a gag at the rancid smell of the ugly woman’s breath.
Taking a small step back, Valentina Gregorevna narrowed her eyes. She peered down at Lena over her long, crooked nose, then threw her head back and let out a cackle.
“You have five more buckets of snow to bring to the rest of us,” she trilled. “And the bucket has likely been buried beneath a snow drift.” Her lips spread into a sinister smile as her voice dropped. “You won’t come back into this house, and that child will not have a bite to eat until you’ve finished your job.”
Lena bit her lip, then pulled her coat up tight around her mouth and nose. With her head held high, she stepped back out into the winter-grey morning, wincing as the door clicked shut behind her. Glancing up the hill, her heart sank at the smooth, white surface, the bucket nowhere to be seen in the snowy back drop. Inside the house behind her, Valentina Gregorevna’s wicked laughter once more pealed, cutting a path of fear straight into Lena’s heart.
“Baba Yaga isn’t real,” she whispered as she leaned into the icy wind. “Baba Yaga isn’t real.”
With that evil laughter reverberating off the walls of her heart, Lena realized that she wasn’t so sure anymore. Maybe Baba Yaga was more than a myth. Maybe she had been there all along.
Turning to look back at the cabin, Lena let out a gasp. The eyes blinked twice, then disappeared from the crack in the wall. “Baba Yaga,” Lena whispered.
That’s when the fear set in.
To be continued…