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by Sinéad McCabe

There is snow, of course. Silent snow which drifts in improbable volume. It piles up on her hood, on her shoulders, coats her face and brings pain which brings tears. The pain burns into numbness, the tears freeze into sparkling slush. As she runs, branches loom shadow-dim, grasping fingers black and gnarled slip by her and into the white. Her feet slip and stumble among the hidden black roots. She glances back – it still follows, the woods witch, inexorable and slow – her feet tangle and she falls into a cold drift – but she can see the church now, its white dome lost in the snowstorm but the windows aglow with gold – she staggers to her feet, she runs for her life to the church. Bless the church, for without it they are all lost, in the winter darkness. In the long snow.

Dascha came back to her own life, blinking in the bright sun, and smiled. That was a hell of a life she lived just there.

The guide continued, “So where a village in Europe might put their church in the centre of the houses, the church in the Russian forest is always at the head of the village. As protection against whatever might come, out from the forest. In the winter, which was very long and hard. The country people most feared Baba Yaga, the witch of the forest.”

The guide was interrupted by the sound of rippling laughter and cheers, and yet another bridal party was running in procession down the green slope behind their little group, waving champagne bottles and singing luck to the bride and groom. The freezing sunshine beamed bright, the grass was green, the forest was bright gold and milk white. The guide was dressed in national costume, gloriously and colourfully embroidered and beribboned; Dascha's own coat was a vibrant red. The bride was pretty; the groom was happy. Laughter was everywhere and the birds were singing their hearts out.

It was beautiful here. Dascha soaked it in, feeling pride, feeling excitement. Finding her roots at last.

“Now you will please come this way,” ordered the guide, “we will go into the church.”

Dascha smiled, and followed her Russian colleagues, who followed the guide.

“The church was built in 1472,” the guide was saying, and Dascha was fed up of thinking of this frowning blonde woman only as The Guide but she wasn't listening when the guide introduced herself and it was too embarrassingly late to ask for her name now; Dascha decided to name her Baba Yaga. Baba for short. “Even in a very poor village,” Baba continued, her accent thick and choppy, “in the church could be found great treasures, such as here, which are icons of the Mother and Son.”

Dascha smiled politely, and caught Iuliia's eye. It was blue and amused. For a moment, Dascha tried on Iuliia's life; she got up in the howling black midwinter morning and made coffee with her tall, unshaven husband, she watched the pink chill sunrise from her classroom window, she sipped coffee in the evening and leaned her head against the window, looked out at the great circle of brutalist Soviet tower blocks where she lived, solitary windows lit up here and there, and dreamed of …. What the hell did Iuliia dream of, with her shallow, hard blue eyes that were so open and so hard to read? Dascha sighed and came back to the here and now. The little dark wooden church echoed to the mournful sound of their respectful footfalls; the icons were richly painted and their faces were familiar to Dascha, they were the same faces that stared out from the living room wall of her mother's Morden house. She had come all this way to fabulous Arctic Russia, only to be reminded of suburban London.

“Now we will go to the house,” Baba ushered them before her, out of the dim cave of the church and into the startling sunlight. Dascha, Iuliia and little Nastya hurried along behind Guide Baba, tugging at their gloves and whispering to each other; now and then Nastya and Iuliia slipped into Russian, and back again.

“… are you feeling hungry yet? I'm hungry,” Nastya giggled under her breath as though she'd said something very naughty, and in fact there was a noticeable tightening of Iuliia's lips.

“I never feel hungry,” she announced. “I eat when it's time to eat.” She cast stern glances at Nastya and Dascha both. It was true, Dascha had noticed on her whirlwind tour of the district schools, named by number (Iuliia and Nastya worked at School 126); Iuliia was fire, tireless energy itself, and she never seemed to need to eat. “Well I'm often hungry,” Dascha counter-announced, raising her voice so that her cut-glass English tones projected to Baba Yaga's ears, “and just now, in fact, I'm starving. This is a long tour, isn't it?”

Iuliia frowned and pinched Dascha's arm as Baba stood poker-faced, shivering so her ribbons shimmied about her, her stiff arm pointing the way into the dark belly of the medieval house.

“The doors and windows and rooms are small not because the people were small. That is a mistake. It is to keep the warmth in the house. Here is where they would stay, in the summer. Here is the place where the women would cook. Here is the place where tea would be made. The samovar is very important in this old Russian life, you may read of its importance in the many classics of Russian rural literature. Here is the place where the women would sew and make the clothes for the family.”

Dascha's eyes flicked from wall to wall. All these places were the same place. Baba was reciting her litany as though she were walking them around an airy mansion, but she was repeatedly pointing at the same dark 2x5 space as she droned each activity's name. For a moment, Dascha's eyes unfocused and she stepped into the guide's life; stripping off those hated ribbons at the end of the day, throwing them to the dingy green lino of the locker room, lighting a cigarette, struggling into her tight boots, complaining for the hundredth time that they were not even allowed a coat in this witch's-tit weather; cursing all tourists, especially that rude stuck-up bitch from London, thinking about nothing but her belly. Trying on Baba's life, stripping off that awful bloody costume and loosening the stupid beribboned do, shaking out the messy blonde hair and pulling on those tight boots, Dascha realised that Baba Yaga was sexy, and came back to herself to find heat blossoming in her crotch, sending a wave to her cold fingertips.

She smiled. Finding her roots was a good idea. Her roots were hot.

She followed Baba's prim footsteps with new interest. She sought for a question and found one. “Why is the wood of these buildings so dark? Is it age? It can't be birchwood, that's light.”

Baba Yaga turned and put her hand, which was long-fingered and white, on a beam of wood. “It is smoke,” she said precisely. “Ah yes,” said Iuliia, “yes of course.”

“The fire,” continued Baba, “would be lit throughout the winter, burning birch from the forest, and it gave off much smoke, turning the wood dark as you can see it, and keeping worm from the wood. The smoke would preserve. Also you can see here, in the winter all the family would stay in this room upstairs, with all animals; here they would sit and sleep, because of the need of warmth, and I'm afraid the smoke would be heavy, they would cough very much.”

“Terrible,” said Iuliia, with feeling.

Dascha glanced around the upper floor; the space was smaller than the living room of her central London flat. There were no windows; the beams of the roof were less than five feet above the black wood of the floor. For eight months of the year, you would be trapped in here, a whole family in this space. A father, probably vodka-soaked, certainly taciturn at the least; rat-bite mean at the worst. Then Mama, or maybe Grandma, world the size of a samovar; and you would come here as a fourteen-year-old bride, this clearing in the icy forest your whole world, no notion of anything outside it. You'd never read a book because you couldn't read; never heard a song that wasn't folk; never seen a ballet or a play. Married off to the grunting son, probably raped by the grunting dad while the family pretended to sleep and not hear the wood creaking and your crying, while outside these black walls the endless storm raged through the endless woods.

“Ugh,” and Dascha shivered, pulling back from even thinking about living that life, pulling her bright wool coat tighter.

“Yes,” and Baba Yaga was staring straight at her, looking into her eyes in a way she hadn't before, “a hard life I think.”

“One of the worst,” said Dascha, teeth chattering a little, “that I have ever contemplated living.”

“Do you often contemplate living lives when they are not yours?” Baba's eyes were of course blue, and they were still staring right into Dascha's own. It was half-hot and half-unsettling. Another flush of heat rushed through Dascha's body and now she loosened the coat. The walls were so close, the roof so low.

It was something she did, all day, every day, with every person that she met or noticed or heard of, even if only for a nano-second, she would jump into their skin and live their life. A thousand years dead or striding past her in the street, she wanted to know how it felt to live their life.

“Not instead of my own,” she hastened to add, explaining, “in addition to my own.”

God, that sounded greedy, greedy and grasping and arrogant, like she thought all lives belonged to her, which she didn't. She just – the three women were looking at her oddly, listening to her spill her guts, why had she said anything?

“You have a strong imagination, I think,” and Nastya's grey eyes were smiling, kind and amused. Iuliia was smiling too, turning away, not so interested after all, but Baba's eyes were serious. She walked closer to Dascha, her footfalls sounding dully in this tiny black space, and said, “It is an interesting habit. But it might be absolutely a dangerous one, in some places.”

“Why, for God's sake?” blurted Dascha, and then, disliking that the girl's words were given sinister weight by the sinister moniker Dascha had given her, “Look, what the fuck is your name anyway?”

The guide recoiled, blinking, and the shutter dropped again behind her eyes. “I am Yekaterina,” she said briefly, and from somewhere in the darkness behind her a man's voice snapped, “Katya! Come here, girl!” The sound of it was as blunt and dull as their footsteps, the suffocating black wood allowed for no echo. Dascha jumped out of her skin, but Yekaterina did not flinch or turn at the sound of her nickname; she kept her eyes fixed on Dascha.

“Are you okay?” she asked. “You are really white.”

Dascha took a deep breath, reeling on her feet. Yekaterina had heard nothing. An auditory hallucination, then; they came sometimes when she was falling asleep, shouting voices loud at her ear; they would shout “Stop!” or “Look!” and she would thrill awake, her heart thumping.

As it was now, thudding in her chest like she was leaning on the speaker in the club; throb throb throbbing so her whole body rocked to the beat. She had to get out. She turned and ran. Stumbling down the crude wooden stairs, she could hear Yekaterina's measured footsteps ticking into another mean, hellish little hole, and her spiel begin again, still in English although only Russian women remained in the house. “In here you can see the family kept the farming implements safe from the snow. The house was a house but also functioned as a barn. This was the plough. It would be drawn by two persons.”

Dascha burst through the door and tried to flood the bad feelings out of her heart by flooding her eyes with cold sunlight. Three bridal parties were dancing in the clearing, accordions and stamping feet. The brides looked happy, laughing; this preserved medieval vision of hell was where they came for luck, after all.

Dascha bolted away from the horrible little house, trying to outrun the panic. Scooting around to the blind side of a birch tree, she lit a guilty cigarette, sucking hard and relishing the burn, the dirty ashy taste, trying to taste London in it. She closed her eyes and realised that she wished she hadn't come; she wished she wasn't here, visiting her Mama's old town, old school, old colleagues. Behind their kindness and warmth she thought she could feel a kind of contempt, though an envious contempt, for Dascha's mother because she had gone away, for Dascha because she had been born abroad and never come back here to see her mother country until now. Because she was dressed for fashion and not protection, because she spoke no Russian.

Dascha stared glumly at the wedding parties. Rejecting this one and that one, she didn't want to live their lives. It was brutal here, only the 1st of October and the temperature stood at zero. The towns were Soviet-era citadels against the cold, their great dark blocks clustered low on the horizon, strung out on frozen rivers and icy coasts, and you had to drive for two hours between one and the next, on roads which turned into bloodbath bedlam on a Saturday night; they'd driven past four horrendous smashes on the way back from the restaurant last night. The teachers were all women here; they had explained that the wages were just too low for a man to even consider.

“Dascha!” called a mother and a little girl in a blue coat came laughing and panting across the green. Fully grown, Dascha shuddered, ground out her cigarette beneath the heel of her elegant boot, glared at the innocent, laughing mother as though she might want to drag Dascha back through time and make her grow up here, in this bleak cluster of houses, sitting in a clearing headed by a church, stranded among a thousand miles of forest, buried beneath the snow.

What a life! she thought, and then felt a pulse of somebody's cold resentment prickle through her coat and down her back like ice; shocked, she glanced around and saw nothing but the church, the wooden church with its onion-topped high tent tower, the tall whip-like birch trees which circled it. The church and bare trees were black in the dusk; they lay among snow white as bone; the sky overhead white as old ice; sky and wood full of silence.



It was like a punch to the back, Dascha jerked as it landed. Shrieks of laughter and streaks of flaming colour flew at her face and she was heaving for breath, clutching the peeling bark of a tree trunk, gasping at the grass, on one knee. Knee – knees – there were knees all around her. Chunky above brown leather boots, slender in blue jeans, demurely flashing from behind a fluttering embroidered skirt. Concerned and kindly hands helped her to her feet. “Oh no, you are sick – yes, you are sick -” Her name was Yekaterina, she was not Baba Yaga at all, it was ok to go with her, she was not the witch of the woods “– come with us, come and we will sit down, and drink some tea. Come come, lean on me- no, don't look back, I said don't-”

Yekaterina's voice had sharpened in warning, but it was too late, Dascha had already looked back and seen the snow on the ground, the grey light and the sky like bruises, it was going to snow again soon but she couldn't face the smoky sweaty animal stink of the house another minute, her hands were red raw at the knuckles and large, she smelled of sweat and smoke herself, the stink was deep in her only dress, which was brown. She was full of desperation and hate, which was wicked, the cross on the church chided her and her father-in-law swore her husband would beat it out of her, why had she even been born if this was to be her life? Why?

“Why?” Dascha was calling, and the bridal parties were muttering their dance to a halt to frown at her, the sunlight was blinding, there was a little stall selling souvenirs, the world was full of blessed colour, there was no snow, only the brides were shining in white. “Why, what was I born for? What must I do to escape?”

“Hush,” hissed Yekaterina, “Hush, shut up.”

Dascha was sitting, somehow, on a bench beside the church; the breeze rustled in the trees and the bridal parties were standing, unashamedly staring at the mad British girl. Iuliia was white in the face, clutching Nastya's hand and backing away. “You told us you spoke no Russian,” she said.

“What?” Dascha shook her head, again and again, the world was tilting beneath her like a tipped plate, she was sliding off the face of it. “I don't-”

“You spoke in Russian,” Nastya was trembling, “dialect, local dialect.”

“Shut up,” said Yekaterina, “just for God's sake shut up.” She was using her embroidered sleeve to wipe blooming, sickly sweat from Dascha's forehead. The breeze was so cold on Dascha's fevered skin that it burned. Where it burned, she felt how silky her skin was, how plump and taut with health, how pampered and lotioned and sweetly scented, sick with envy in her belly because at the same time she rubbed her large, red-knuckled hand over a rough, pitted complexion, and felt the roar of her furious, desperate flame grow higher. She would run away! She would run down to the river and steal aboard a barge going to St Petersburg!

“No-one can stop me!” she cried. “In this place, I cannot live!”

She saw Nastya cross herself in horror, saw Yekaterina's tight lips almost disappear, heard the hoarse Russian words coming from her own mouth and cried out again, wordlessly, in terror.

“For Christ's sake!” Yekaterina hissed. “You have to -” she mimed something closing with her gloved hands, “shut her out! You are not the only, not the first one! You shut the door, she cannot get in!”

“God,” sobbed Dascha, “help me.”

“Hmm,” Yekaterina grunted, heaving Dascha to her feet like a sack of potatoes, “God cannot help her. You cannot. I cannot. We can only leave.”

“No!” Dascha wailed. “I cannot leave! I can never leave!”

“Shut the fuck up,” whispered Yekaterina, “or I will hit you really hard.”

Far ahead, Iuliia and Nastya were running to their car; the sunshine blazed and glittered in the treetops as Yekaterina dragged Dascha along, sighing and tutting heavily. Dascha looked down at the path and saw dirty, trodden snow. Heard the squealing of pigs and the rumbling of wooden wheels. Felt a surging hatred for all of it. In the house of Kostya Mikhailov's widow, she had seen a picture book. In it, princes danced all night with fine ladies, clothed in pink silk. Katya's nights were filled with smoke and darkness and hands both violent and groping, the groaning of her husband's grandmother and the howling of the snow wind. Why was I born, if this is my life?

“Stop talking her words,” growled Yekaterina against her ear, heaving her along, “she won't leave you if you keep talking her words.”

“Who -” Dascha choked on the word, her mouth full of woodsmoke, “who is she?”

“Her name was Yekaterina- Katya- same as mine. It is all written in the church book,” and a blessedly plain, white-painted door was straight-armed open, Dascha was flung onto a bench hard enough to make her teeth rattle, and the door was banged shut again. With the bang, and the smell of cheap perfume, feet and turpentine, Dascha felt something cut, dwindle, and fade; it was not entirely gone, but she could see the present again. She was in a locker room with a dingy green lino and Yekaterina stood over her, stripping ribbons from her hair with a face like thunder.

“I hate fucking ribbons,” she said, shaking her hair from its braids until it fell, weirdly kinked, over her shoulders. “The girl was fourteen and married to a son from that house you just toured in. One day in the middle of winter she stabbed her father-in-law and husband with a knife from the kitchen, took food from the house and put the house on fire. The neighbours came and stopped the fire, but the grandmother died too. They hanged her in the forest. She was stupid,” she continued calmly, “she could never get away in the winter anyway. Where was she going to run, in the forest? She has never left. Sometimes she catches girls, women. She walks them into the forest, into the river, gets them lost, drives them crazy. Why she doesn't just walk a woman into a car and drive to St Petersburg in her body?”

Dascha gaped, speechless. Yekaterina leaned in, her face serious. “I told you already. Because she is stupid.”

Yekaterina's boots were just as tight, and the struggle to get into them just as vicious, as Dascha had hoped. She began to warm up, the cold horror bleeding from her bones. “Do you-” she whispered, “do you hear her too?”

“Sometimes I do,” Yekaterina was pulling on a red sweater over a red bra. “But I don't have to listen. You don't have to listen.”

“But her life was so horrible.” Dascha whispered it, to the ground.

“Yes. Yours is not.” Yekaterina reached down and yanked her upright by an unresisting arm. “Now. There is a bar called Charlie Chaplin over the river. You can buy me a drink there. I will drive you. Your friends have left you because you were possessed by a Russian devil,” she added.

Dascha laughed.

Later, in the bar, when they were holding hands beneath the table, Dascha said, “Thank you. I mean it, thank you.”

“You will come back to your motherland to see the history again?” asked Yekaterina, and she was smirking, then cackling as Dascha smacked her in the ribs: “Oh, my days. Fuck that noise,” and she sank the rest of her iced vodka in one lovely gulp.

The bar had a seventies disco dance floor that lit the little tables all around it with shifting red, yellow, and blue tones that filled Dascha with love for electricity and light bulbs and her life and her time. “I have never been in London,” announced Yekaterina. “I want to go there.”

“Come and see,” said Dascha without hesitation. She was overflowing with the joy of vodka and disco, and Yekaterina's sweating palm rubbing against hers.

“I might.” Yekaterina leaned in, her shoulder heavy against Dascha's. She yawned. “You can call me Katya if you want,” she said. Dascha shuddered. “I think if you don't mind, I'll stick with Baba Yaga. Ow.”

Outside of the cosy little bar ran a wide, wide black river with a streak of yellow moonlight on its broken surface; along the river now there were looming concrete towns and the monstrous plants which made nuclear submarines, but beyond the curve of the river there were still a thousand miles of dark forest, an endlessness of tall thin birches twisting in the night.

Lost in that silent forest, tied forever to its twisted roots, were Katya and all her angry sisters.

* * *
Sinéad McCabe lives in London and teaches English as a second language. Her work has also appeared in Disturbed Digest, Fantastic Horror, The Colored Lens, and Best of Fiction on the Web Anthology.

What do you think is the attraction of the fantasy genre?
I think people are attracted to fantasy in the hope of cracking open the hard surface of things, and finding something deeper and stranger beneath.


Unknown said...

Love this!! Really well written and really brought me into the story... Off to google more from this writer, love the style, thank you