We move silently through the forest. I can’t see anything, and hear only the sound of her ragged breathing. Pulling my knees to my chest, I try to fight the panic that wells up in my chest. I swallow hard against the lump in my throat. I won’t cry. I can’t cry.
She moves soundlessly, and I don’t understand. Why do the leaves not crunch beneath her feet? Where is the crack of the stick? It seems as though she cuts a path through the night air without disturbing anything around her.
Under her breath she murmurs two words, so soft I cannot make out what she said. I wouldn’t have understood it anyway.
A short second later, we’re inside a building. I know we’re in a building because I can see light breaking through the frayed patches of the sack. And it’s warmer. But despite the light and the warmth, I feel a chill run down my spine.
Something is going to happen.
The darkness is split in two when she yanks open the top of the sack. She peers down at me, her small eyes dark and beady. A long, crooked nose stretches over her mouth, which she opens into a wicked smile. Rancid breath snakes its way past yellow teeth, and I shrink back as far as I can.
“Come, child,” she says. Her voice is a hiss, soft and terrifying. “Let’s have supper.”
She pulls me up and sets me on the side of a long, wooden table. My legs hang over the side. I look at the room. It’s small, made entirely of wood. There is no door, no window, no chimney. We’re in a box. A grave.
“I’m hungry, child. It’s time to eat.”
It’s then that I notice the large pot sitting on top of a stove. It’s full of water. She grabs a match from a small cup next to the stove and strikes it against the wooden table. Flame leaps from the stick and dancing steadily as she leans forward and tosses it into the furnace beneath the stove. She turns back to look at me, and my blood runs cold.
“It’s time to eat.”
Lena shoots up in bed. She hears the scream before realizing that it’s coming from her throat. Tearing at the thin blanket, she swings her feet to the side and gulps at the air.
“My darling, what is it?”
Andrei’s hand runs down her back and she yanks away from him, his touch hot like the water that waited in her dream.
“It’s nothing,” she murmurs. She pulls herself up and wraps her arms around her waist. “Just a dream. Just a dream.”
Andrei lies back against the pillow with a sigh.
“These dreams have been coming more frequently, Lenochka,” he answers. “I wish you’d tell me what’s bothering you.”
Lena sighs and shakes her head. “Nothing is bothering me. I’ve told you. I just have a lot on my mind with work.”
Andrei rolls over with a huff of frustration. Lena looks at him and opens her mouth, longing to tell him more, to tell him the truth, but she snaps it back shut before she does anything stupid. Looking up and around their small flat self-consciously, she takes in a ragged breath and shuffles to the other room to prepare a cup of tea.
It was Baba Yaga again. The witch of the forest has been chasing her for weeks. Sitting down slowly at the small table she shares with her husband, Lena lets her mind drift.
It’s been fifteen years since she was sent to Siberia – fifteen years since she last saw her father. The war has come and gone, and now she is a grown woman of thirty-two. She is a teacher at the university in Kiev, and she has been married to Andrei for five years.
He still does not know who she is. He doesn’t know that she is a kulak, a peasant hated by Stalin and his regime.
He doesn’t know that she’s lived the last fifteen years in the shadows, speaking in whispers because that’s the safest way to communicate.
He doesn’t know that she had a sister, that she buried Sveta in a shallow grave in Siberia because the ground was too frozen to dig a proper grave.
He doesn’t know that she believes the stories of Baba Yaga that her father used to tell them at night.
Closing her eyes, Lena tries to think of the good things that have happened in the years since Siberia. Somehow the coldness of that time always seeps its way into her, though. It seems that every memory she has, from her very earliest days of sitting on the floor listening to her mother read, to the day she married Andrei in a small ceremony at a courthouse, is veiled in a curtain of ice. Siberia dug its clenches into her heart, and she cannot free herself.
Opening her eyes, Lena finds Andrei standing in the doorway. His hair stands up in pieces around his head, and a fine stubble covers his face. He is so handsome, and he loves her so much. Lena pushes her mouth into a soft smile.
“I’m sorry I woke you,” she murmurs. Glancing out the window, she takes in the dark sky. It’s very early…perhaps it’s still night. She can’t be sure entirely. “Would you like some chai?” she asks.
Pushing herself up, Lena turns toward the stove. She stops when she feels Andrei’s hand clamped around her arm.
“I know, Lena,” he says softly.
She turns slowly, meeting her husband’s gaze with trembling lips.
“Know what?” she asks.
Andryi sighs. He tries to pull her in to his chest, but she yanks away, eyes wide with fear and shame.
“What do you know, Andryi?” she asks. Her voice is a whisper, barely a breath. Andryi leans in, putting his mouth close to her ear so that his breath sends a shiver down her spine.
“I know that you were in Siberia,” he breathes.
Lena slowly sinks back down into her seat as Andryi sits across from her. She crosses her arms to hide her shaking hands.
“How do you know?”
Andryi sighs and runs his hand through his hair. “It’s not hard to figure out, my dear,” he says. “You have no family—“
“They died in the war,” Lena intones.
Andryi nods. “Yes, I know you told me that, but you’ve given no details on how. And you’ve told me very little about your childhood. You’re hiding your entire past from me, darling. You know you don’t have to.” Andryi reach his across the table, his palm open, waiting for Lena to put her hand in his, but she doesn’t move.
“I…” Lena tries to find the right words to say to this man she loves – a man who loves her so fiercely in return that he would travel to the end of the earth to fight on her behalf if asked.
With a sigh, Lena shakes her head. The right words won’t come, but she knows she has to give him something or she risks losing him completely.
“Do you know the story of Baba Yaga?” she asks, her voice soft and hoarse.
Andryi nods. “Yes, of course. Who wasn’t scared of the witch of the forest as a child?” He says this with a wry smile. Lena shivers again.
“My father used to tell us stories of her when we were children,” she begins. She looks at him with tears in her eyes. “I had a brother and a sister,” she admits. She’s never spoken of her siblings to him before.
“They were both young when they died. My brother and mother died of the flu. My sister…” she stops. Her heart is racing.
Andryi leans forward. “Go on, my darling,” he breathes. He seems to instinctively know they must speak in whispers.
“My sister was killed by Baba Yaga.” Lena’s eyes fill with tears and she covers her face with her hands. Perhaps Andryi won’t believe her. Perhaps he won’t understand that she met the witch of the forest in the heart of Siberia, when the winter winds swirled and in anger her sister was struck so hard she never again awoke.
She can still hear Valentina Gregorievna’s laughter, snaking and hissing it’s way through her yellowed teeth as Sveta lay limp and unmoving on the floor. Lena can still hear the screech that the witch let forth when she flew at her, digging her nails into the soft, sagging flesh of her face. The rage of that moment is buried in her forever. It wasn’t abated when Valentina Gregorievna was sent to a different Gulag. It will never leave her, as long as breath is in her body.
Andryi cannot know the depth of how this one moment in time affected her. He cannot know that she often lays awake at night wishing she could kill Valentina Gregorievna, how she’d shove a stake through the witch’s heart over and over if given the chance. Such venom fills her chest that she feels poised to spit flames. She cannot tell him. He cannot know any more.
This is the destruction of her marriage.
She gasps when she feels his arms engulf her in a hug. Andryi picks her up and cradles her close, carrying her back to bed where he lays as close to her as he can. She feels his breath warm on her neck. Slowly, her breathing returns to normal, and the tears flow.
“I’m sorry, my dear,” he whispers. Quiet envelops them as the cool night air soothes the pain of her confession. He’s still awake, and she can feel his question hot on his lips. She turns to face him, blinking in the thin stream of moonlight that bathes their small room.
“What happened to your father?” he asks. “Was he also killed by Baba Yaga?”
Looking up, Lena waits a beat before answering. “No,” she murmurs. “He was killed by Joseph Stalin.”
Rolling back to her side, away from her husband, Lena closes her eyes.
“We will never speak of this again,” she says.
She closes her eyes, and falls into a deep, dreamless sleep.
On June 27, 2016, my first full length novel releases. Set in World War II Soviet Ukraine, Like a River From Its Course is a story of heartache, grief, hope and forgiveness. Preorder your copy today! (affiliate link included)