Crooked fingers of thick grey fog moan over the birch forest. The sky looks heavy. My nose is pressed up against the window, breath hot on the frosty pane.
“Come away from there,” Mama says to me in Russian, “you’ll freeze.”
“Mama,” I turn to her. She’s dark and bundled in the cold light. “Can me and Kolya go out and play?”
She draws in a sharp breath, and eyes the edge of the forest. “Why do you want to play? It will rain later, look. Better to stay inside. Talk to your family you haven’t seen.”
She looks down her long, thin nose at me. Hands on hips, heart beating. I’ve been trapped inside the dacha, summer cottage, for days as Karelia pours bucket after bucket of rain down on us. We don’t usually come in the autumn, but my grandmother wanted to spirit us away from the city before my mother and I go back to New Jersey. My heart is pounding against my chest, itching to breathe the open air.
“Maybe,” Mama acquiesces. “After you eat your lunch.”
She drags me back into the kitchen, where my grandmother and two aunts are gathered around a small table. Kolya sits in the corner, his book of Russian skazki, fairy tales, propped open on his knees under the table.
“Tell us about America, Katya,” one of my aunts says to Mama. “Tell us what you can buy in the stores there.”
Mama sits, and picks up her teacup. I don’t care to listen, and they don’t care to see me. I’m in the kitchen, and that’s enough. I sidle up to Kolya, who is no more noticed than I am.
“I see your book,” I whisper in his ear in English.
“What book?” he mumbles back to me. Kolya is two years my junior, a skinny thing with ghostly skin and mussy auburn hair. He wears glasses, his head always down, always serious in one book or another. Kolya lives in Moscow, but his father is British, so he speaks better English than my Russian could ever be. My grandmother likes him better. “So smart Kolya, what a little umnitsa we have in the family,” she says to him. “He will be like Dostoevsky one day.” I loathe him for it.
“Let’s go outside and play.” My cousin raises his head and looks out the window, his eyes on the thick fog. He shakes it.
“Come on,” I whine. “Your stupid book will be here when we get back.”
“It’s too foggy,” he replies. “Dangerous.” He slides the book out from under the table and shows me what he’s reading. Vasilissa the Beautiful. I know it, of course – every Russian child knows it, regardless of whether they live in Russia or not.
Vasilissa’s stepmother and stepsisters hate her, so they work her to the bone. But the wooden doll Vasilissa’s mother has left for her upon her death is charmed, and does all the work for her. This comes in handy when Vasilissa is sent to Baba Yaga’s house to fetch a light on a dark, dreary night. She uses the doll to fulfill Baba Yaga’s commands and eventually escapes unscathed.
I like Cinderella better. There’s a fairy and a prince at the end of that one.
“You think Baba Yaga lives out there?” I snort at Kolya. “It’s just made-up stories, stupid.”
The room falls silent. I look around at my family. Mama’s face has gone white, and my grandmother is staring at me with fear. Her great wrinkled eyes are watery and pale.
“Natasha,” Grandmother whispers, “we don’t say that name.”
“What name?” I reply. I bristle at the nickname they use. I much prefer to be called Natalie, and only Natalie, but they do not listen or care. I like seeing the adults shaken.They think they know so much more than me. “Baba —“
Before I can get the second half of my taunt out of my mouth, a hand claps over it, rather painfully. Aunt Sveta has crossed the kitchen in one stride, her lips taut, knuckles clenched white.
“Listen to your grandmother, Natasha,” Aunt Sveta hisses at me in Russian, her eyes wide like a cat about to pounce. “Little girls shouldn’t talk about things they don’t know.”
I rip my hand away from her. My fingers float to the phantom of pain where she’s released me. I look to Mama for comfort, but her eyes are trained on my grandmother, whose hands cover her eyes. I open my mouth to tell Aunt Sveta that I am almost ten years old and so not a little girl.
We all jump as Kolya shuts his book. His eyes calm, he looks up at Aunt Nadia.
“Mama,” he addresses her in Russian, with all his scholarly wisdom. “Can Natasha and I go out? I want to show her where the mushrooms grow.” She stares him down. I look at Kolya. The fear only a mother can inspire is laid out plainly on his face, from the slight tense of his brows to curl of his toes in his slippers. “Before the rain comes,” he adds.
Aunt Nadia throws a questioning glance in Mama’s direction, and Mama shrugs.
“It’s safe if they stay by the house,” Mama says to her sister. Aunt Nadia turns back to us.
“All right,” she says heavily. “But stay where we can see you.”
It’s all Mama can do to stop me from running to the front door. I throw my coat and hat on without a thought as to how they’ll land. Kolya takes more time with his, lacing up his boots with care.
Our shoes squelch in the mud as we step off the porch. The rain has made a mess of the ground. The grass, already brown and dying from the cold, sinks into the ground as we step. The wind bites sharp at my nose. Just a few steps from the dacha, the birch forest Iies in a thin line, ghost trees with black space in between them. I turn my attention back to the small field outside the dacha and breathe in deeply. Freedom, at last.
“Hey!” Kolya exclaims as I kick water from a leftover rain puddle. “You’re getting mud on my coat!”
“Why do you care, book boy?” I shriek, giddy. “You’re inside all the time!”
Kolya narrows his eyes at me. “I go outside,” he says in protest. “I’m outside right now!”
I stomp in another puddle. Grey rainwater splashes up at my cousin. He shields his face. “Hey, Book Boy is outside!” I’m gleeful in my taunts. I’ve devised a perfect plan. The raincoats were precious gifts from my grandmother. In one short week, I will go back to America, and she’ll remember me as the best grandchild, the one without mud on her raincoat.
“Stop it, Natasha!”
I do stop, sharply. I suck my cheeks in. Kolya has committed the cardinal sin in the book of Natalie.
“That’s not my name,” I growl under my breath.
“Yes, it is.” Kolya looks back at me, his hazel eyes hard.
“No. My name is Natalie.”
“Your name is Natalie in America. This is Russia. You’re Natalia. Natasha.”
Kolya’s small frame shivers in the cold. A gust of wind sends leaves up around his hair. His pale skin is almost luminescent in the grey. My body aches with hate for him. I feel like I might burst with it. I imagine how good it would feel to use my fingers to push in his eyes until they bled, to scratch that ghostly skin off until I felt veins and flesh beneath. Nobody could love him then.
A deep rumble booms across the pregnant sky. Kolya and I stare each other down. Any minute now, Aunt Nadia will come out and tell us it’s time to go back inside. Time to go back to the place where book boy is so adored. Where I am the freak child who can’t speak Russian.
“My name is Natalie!” I shriek, and turn on my heels toward the never-ending barricade of birch trees. The ground is soft, and gives way as my boots pound on the ground. I nearly stumble several times. I hear Kolya’s small voice in the distance, but I’m too far now. Almost to the edge.
“DON’T!” he yells. It only makes me crave the darkness more. If my family comes looking for me, that’s how I’ll know they really love me.
I break through the edge of the forest. My heart pounds, equal parts fear and excitement. I don’t stop at the edge. I run deeper. The world around me is a sea of pale, skinny trees with dark marks climbing up their trunks. They stick out from the mud like skeletal hands from a grave. I run until I can’t hear Kolya anymore, until I have a splinter in my side and if I take one more step I’ll burst open at the seams.
I crash to a halt, and double over, my hands on my knees. When my breath comes back, I stand up, and release a cackle into the forest. It echoes back to me. Let them find me now.
I’m in a small clearing. On either side of me birch trees go on for as long as I can see. Their leaves are already falling. Branches stretch out like bones, casting long shadows over the ground. It’s colder here than it is by our dacha. My heavy breath makes little shivering clouds.
I jerk my head around at the noise. It dawns on me that I am a small girl, alone and lost in the Russian forest. There could be bears. It’s no matter. I square my shoulders. I’ve given my family enough of a scare. I can just turn around and follow my path back. I turn, look for my footsteps, but the ground is smooth. I turn my head back to the direction I heard the twig. I watch for brown fur in the trees, but I only see fog.
The trees look less friendly by the second. Their skinny white trunks offer no place to hide.
I turn, quickly this time. It doesn’t matter that my footsteps are gone. I’ll just go back the way I came. I do my best to step quietly, but my rain boots send loud squelches up from the soft ground. The trees seem to bend toward me with every step. They’re too bare. Too alike. I could be miles from home and I would never know.
I whip back in the other direction. The air feels colder than it did before. I do my best to steady my breathing. A bear could hear me.
The earthy smell of rotting leaves fills my nose, strong after the rain washed them all up and down the ground. The smell of dying things. I pull my coat closer to myself, eyes shifting. I see nothing. I hear nothing. There is only cold wind and silence blowing in my ears.
“Little girls shouldn’t run in the wood by themselves,” says a forceful voice in my ear.
I shriek and jump back. I turn to face my silent stalker. An old woman stands hunched, long skirt and a basket of brown-topped mushrooms on her arm. Her face is so wrinkled I can’t tell where her skin ends and her lips begin. Her hair is wrapped in a red platok, the head covering of peasant women, but a few long, white tendrils sway in the wind.
“Are you lost?” she asks me.
I stare at her. I’ve been told in America that if I’m lost I should look for a woman, especially one with children. But nobody’s told me anything about getting lost in Russia.
The old woman sees my fear, and smiles. I step back further, and the hard trunk of a birch tree rises up to meet me. The force sends a shake through my whole body. The old woman lets out a laugh, a wild sound that rips through the silence.
“I’m not going to hurt you.” The statement does nothing to reassure me. She leans down closer. “What’s your name?”
The birch tree is cold against my back. “Vasilissa,” I tell the woman. She gives me an appraising look.
“A pretty name.”
“Well, Vasilissa.” She pauses on the name. “Do you remember which way your house is?”
I look around at the birch forest, mile upon mile of the same white and grey and shadows. The air is chilling by the minute. I have no idea where I am.
“Your family must be worried,” she says. The deep, sharp part of me rares. They have Kolya. They won’t even care that I’m gone. I shrug.
“I don’t live far from here. I have a phone at home. Would you like to use it to call your family?”
I stare at the woman. Her white teeth and sun-wrinkled face make my skin crawl, but I don’t know why. I should not go with the woman. This I know. I should ask her to escort me back to the edge of the birch forest, to the edge of where I came. But the forest is looming over me, and the wind bites at my face.
“Yes,” I say in my best Russian. “Please.”
“Will you hold my basket, Vasilissa?” She hands it to me without waiting for an answer. “And let me lean on you?”
I extend my arm, and the woman takes it up. My nose fills with the smell of her, like rainwater and dirt. She’s heavier than I expect, and the basket sits awkwardly on my small arm.
“Why are you in the forest alone, Vasilissa?” The woman breaks the silence.
“My family is at the dacha,” I say. I scrunch up my face while I grasp for Russian words. “I was playing with my cousin.” The old woman turns toward me with interest.
“Yes,” I nod.
“And why isn’t your cousin here?”
“He says that Baba Yaga lives in these woods.” I look up at the old woman. Her expression is blank. “Does she?” I ask, daring.
“Oh,” the old woman says, “not for a very long time.”
She slows. We emerge into a clearing. To my relief, no chicken leg house stands. Instead we come on a low, comfortable cottage straight from the page of a fairytale, complete with smoke drifting lazily from a red brick chimney.
“Well,” says the old woman, “let’s go inside.”
I follow her. The woman and I are making our way across the clearing when I hear a distant voice.
I whip around to see the top of Kolya’s auburn head peek over the slight incline to the cottage. My blood begins to boil again, but at the same time I feel my shoulders relax, and my fists unclench. Kolya has given away my true name, but I’ve never in my life been happier to see him. The woman looks at him with a mixture of surprise and annoyance. It passes over her face quickly. Kolya is breathing heavily as he runs up to me.
“Natalie,” he pants. His cheeks are flushed, the top of his head damp with sweat. There’s more mud on his raincoat, I note with small satisfaction. “Natalie,” he continues, “don’t go in there with her.”
“I take it this must be your cousin?” she asks me. I nod.
“Hello,” she smiles down at Kolya, the wrinkles of her face blending atop one another. “What’s your name?”
Kolya looks up at her with a look of hate that up until this moment, I have never seen on his face.
“Get back, witch.” He spits the words from his small mouth. I look between the two of them, confused. The woman straightens, and laughs.
“Your mothers have probably told you stories about old women who live in the woods and eat children.” I give Kolya a hard look. His face looks desperate. “I won’t eat you.”
“She has a phone,” I quickly say to Kolya, in English. Fog grows darker on the horizon. Rain isn’t far away. “We can use it to call Mama, and she’ll come get us.”
“Come now,” the woman says. “It will rain soon. Let’s wait for your mothers by the fire.”
“Natalie,” Kolya pleads. He looks so weak against the grey sky. Disgust churns in the most violent part of my soul, and I cross to him in a giant stride.
“Don’t be stupid,” I growl, with venom. “Do you even know how to get back from here? It’s going to rain. I’m going inside. Stay out here and die if you want to.”
Tears begin to gather at the corner of Kolya’s eyes, but he reluctantly takes my hand, and we follow the woman into her cottage. I feel positively triumphant.
Kolya shudders when we step over the threshold. The cottage is dark and smells like the old woman, of rainwater and dirt. Something else hangs in the air – something sour, something ancient. Sachets of dried herbs hang from the ceiling over a dirt floor. We emerge into a living space, where a long table and chairs fashioned out of crude wood stand in front of a crackling brick fireplace. In the back of the room is a kitchen, cluttered with all different kinds of dishes and mushrooms laid out to dry. I don’t think about how strange it all is. I think only of the crackling fire.
“Have a seat,” she says to us.
Silent tears are streaming down Kolya’s face. I assume a seat with my back to the fire, relishing in the way it starts to fight the chill that has taken hold in my toes. I turn to it, letting the fire begin its work on my face. My skin tingles as the cold melts away.
“Stop crying,” I mutter to Kolya. He shakes. Suddenly, I remember why we’re here in the first place. “Can we use the phone?” I ask the old woman. “Please,” I add, seeing the disapproving look on her face.
“Of course,” she says, smiling kindly. “But warm up first.” She presses a hand to my face. “You’re freezing.” The silence is interrupted by a loud growl from my stomach. I never did eat my lunch. The old woman laughs and hurries to the kitchen area, and busies herself with pots and pans. “You must be hungry. Would you like some borscht?”
In my forest-fueled fear I’ve forgotten my physical needs, but there’s no denying it. Now that there is calm, my stomach is uneasy in a much different way. I nod.
“Natalie,” Kolya pleads once more.
The old woman rustles in the kitchen before producing a lidded black pot, two bowls, and crude wooden silverware. She sets all of it on the table before Kolya and I, and heaps the bright, maroon soup into the bowls. Kolya stares at the borsht, his eyes wide. My annoyance flashes again, but I’m more preoccupied with the food. It’s somehow hot, and the steam wafts up to my nose. It smells heavenly.
I pick up my spoon, eager.
“Please, eat,” says the old woman. I fill my spoon. A wrangled cry escapes from Kolya’s lips. I give him a strange, searching look. His eyes are wider than I’ve ever seen, water streaking down his face.
“Don’t cry, Kolya,” the old woman says. “It will be alright. Vasilissa is eating her food, and then we’ll call your mothers.”
Something catches in my brain. Kolya never told the old woman his name. I lower my spoon. Unease rises from the pit of my stomach, and I look around the strange house again.
“Eat, eat!” the woman urges me. She picks up a spoon and holds it up to Kolya’s mouth. He reluctantly opens it, and she tips the spoon in. I watch, confused. It takes him serious effort to swallow. “See, Kolya, delicious, right?” He tearfully nods.
I look down at my borscht, red and thick. Something is wrong with this soup. Beets stain hands purple. This is too red. Red like spilled blood. Something floats to the top of the soup, and I peer closer. A tiny white shape, with roots and a crown, covered in the thick red broth.
A human tooth.
I kick back from the table immediately. My stomach retches, threatening violent sick. In a few short moments, the old woman’s demeanor has changed from benevolent to large and menacing. She eyes me hungrily, a hard glint in her gaze. Kolya has broken out into a full-on wail. We stare at each other for a few long moments. Then I burst into a run, desperation and adrenaline flowing through me. She is old, she won’t catch up.
“Kolya!” the old woman bellows. I don’t bother to look as I burst through the door and into the surrounding clearing. I don’t care if Kolya is following me. All I know is that I would rather die in the birch forest than here. Rain has started to drop down, light on my head, wet on the ground. I feel fingers grasp at the hood of my jacket. I scream. The sound is indistinguishable from the wind rushing in my ears.
Closer, the fingers wrap around my wrist. But not large, adult hands. Small, delicate fingers. Kolya’s. I falter, and the next moment, Kolya is upon me. The ground hits me hard, the breath going out of me in great, white heaves. I feel a small pair of hands at the base of my scalp, and they yank my head back. I cry out from the weight of Kolya’s body on top of mine. I kick up, hard, and he lets up for a moment before seizing my neck again. We writhe against each other on the ground.
“Kolya!” I shriek. “Kolya, stop!”
Some extraordinary strength lies within his small form.. I kick up again, and his hesitation gives me just enough time to flip over onto my back. Kolya straddles me. He pins my wrists down, nails digging into them. His face is anguished, but I can see the animal fire in his eyes.
Behind Kolya, the old woman approaches, dark against the grey sky. Her platok has flown off, and long white hair streams behind her. She walks without effort, long strides, a face with such plain hunger on it.
“Kolya!,” she shrieks, “keep on!”
Kolya’s hand forms into a claw, and begins to scratch at my face. He moans in terror, in anguish. I kick out, trying to throw Kolya off. The old woman approaches us faster.
“Naughty little girls,” she is saying, with a wilderness in her voice. “Naughty little girls come here to my wood! They bring their precious friends, with their plump cheeks and they run, run, run through my wood and I make my promises and I cannot touch them! Kolya, bite!”
Kolya bares his teeth and comes down on my face. Like rabid animals, we struggle. I managed to throw him off my hips and begin to crawl away. I feel his teeth sink into my ankle, and scream in pain.
“For years, all I get is naughty little girls. Elizaveta! Sveta! Katya! Nadia! They bring their friends once, each one of them, and when the deed is done they never come back again.” The woman is listing off the names of my relatives, one by one, starting with my grandmother. This is what lies in the woods. “They never listen!” Each of them have visited her, have drunk her too-red soup. “And finally,” she says, reaching us, “finally those naughty girls bring me such a beautiful, such a good boy.” She pulls Kolya off of me, and pulls his head into her chest. A perverse, suffocating embrace.
Adrenaline races through me. I am untouched and free. Only for a few moments. The birch trees loom behind me. But Kolya is there. He goes limp in the woman’s embrace.
“My good boy,” she croons to Kolya, “who brings me such —“ She pauses, licking her lips. “Fat and juicy little friends every summer. Who listens.” She turns her attention back to me.
“But now he brings me another naughty little girl! I promised that I would not harm you, and I cannot break my promise. But I have my good Kolya. And I hate naughty little girls.”
She thrusts Kolya away from her. He tumbles into the mud, crying out in pain. I scramble towards him.
“Kolya,” she commands in her cold, booming voice, “kill her.”
Kolya’s eyes darken, his brow lowers, like he’s under a spell. I look to either side of me. Only forest, for miles and miles. I can run. Would it be better to be torn to pieces by a bear, or end up in the borsht?
I turn back to my cousin. “Kolya,” I plead. How many of his friends have met this fate before? The woman stands, watching with a sick glee on her face. She has kept her promise – she has not harmed me. My cousin’s face is torn up in anguish. He is fighting it to his core. His hands tremble. His lips are white with the effort. Kolya breathes heavy like a bull, and breaks into a run, straight for me.
He knocks me to the ground again. He’s all teeth and ripping fingernails and writhing movements. I can’t keep up. A quiet dread shakes me from the bottom of my toes to the top of my head. I will die here.
A foreign thought fills my mind. Without prompt, I remember the ending of the tale of Vasilissa the Beautiful.
The mission that sent Vasilissa to Baba Yaga was to find a light for her stepmother and sisters. She finds it in one of the skulls that line the clearing in which Baba Yaga’s house stands, and takes it back to the village, where her stepmother and sisters have been living in darkness for several years.
I turn over and tear through the dirt. Kolya doesn’t let up, his wailing still sounds, his teeth still gnashing at my ankles. The dirt tears at my fingernails. The rain has made a mess of the ground. I don’t dig long before I hit something, something white and stained. I pull it out. A shard of bone, jagged around the edges.
I waste no time. I kick Kolya in the face, and he staggers back. I rise to my feet. The old woman does not see what I have.
“Kolya!” she shrieks. Her face twists into angry lines. I feel my cousin at my back, but I hold the shard tight in my hand. I run to the woman. The hard and violent part of me is flaring. Fear gives way into primal bloodlust. I get closer, but she does not retreat, only continues to throw her horrible screeches into the sky. Kolya is further away from me now, perhaps on purpose. He knows what I am going to do.
I reach the woman, and without a moment’s hesitation, reach my small arm up to her neck. I drive the pointed end of the shard into it. Her eyes bulge, and she makes a terrible choking sound. My grasp is still tight on the shard, so I draw it out and stab her again. Blood spurts onto my face, all over the ground, hot and salty. I feel her neck give way as I repeat the shard into it a thousand times, each stab harder. The woman finally collapses the ground, writhing, but I don’t stop until her foot has given its last spasm.
When I am well and drenched in hot, thick blood, and her neck is a happy crochet of red, I wipe my face, and cast the shard away from me. The rain is coming down hard now, and blood is falling into my eyes. I turn to face my cousin. He stands staring at the old woman, relief mixed with horror on his face.
I breathe hard, staring at him. His face is covered with red scratches where I attacked him.
“Are you going to hurt me again?” I ask, defiant.
He shakes his head vigorously. Tears have come back to his face. He is returned to human, no longer animal. “She made me,” he sniffles quietly. “She made me do it.”
Kolya sniffles. Another question burns in my throat.
“Is that Baba Yaga?”
Kolya stares at me, long and hard.
“No,” he finally says.
“Do you know how to get back to the dacha from here?”
I know he does. He has been here many times. Done this to many other children. He nods.
I take Kolya’s hand. His hands are clammy, and cold. At the edge of the clearing, I stop. I go back to where I found the bone shard. I lean down, and dig out another for safekeeping. If that woman is magic, she may come back. I don’t know if Kolya will come for me again in the night. I don’t know what I will do. And worst of all, I cannot deny it. I liked the way the woman’s throat felt as I stabbed and stabbed her. As she crippled under my force, as the last breath went out of her. I could do it again, if I had to. I could do it easily.
“Natalie,” Kolya begs. “I want to go.”
“Okay,” I say, and slip the shard into my pocket. I throw a glance back at the cottage, the site of my escape from death. When I look back, the cottage has raised itself, as if preparing to move to another clearing. Underneath, I see the beginnings of chicken legs.