Later, Mama would tell me that my screaming this word repeatedly like an intonation woke up half the village, who then woke up the other half.
I had no memory of screaming, or of whatever happened after that. Mama told me that the whole village had gathered around me. Some had held me. Some wielded fire torches to beat the cold and the darkness of the early morning. Some had gossiped about what had happened. Others had rushed inside the dacha to find Mama.
However, all I could remember was what I saw hanging from the barren branches of the oak tree.
Papa’s body, flayed, dessicated, bloodied, and eviscerated. His eyes missing from their sockets, only black hollows left behind. His tongue sticking out of his mouth like an obscene pink appendage, his mouth open in a horrible rictus, his teeth bared. His limbs sticking in obscene directions, one arm wrapped around a tree branch, one leg around the tree trunk. And, on his bare chest, visible clearly among the cuts, bruises, and burns, carved out with something sharp, a symbol:
Mama said that there were horrified gasps, murmurings, and mutterings in the crowd around me, as many crossed themselves, huddled amongst themselves for a quick gossip, or quietly pondered the significance of the symbol appearing. I, however, was deaf to all that; because, after I had taken in the utter destruction of Papa’s body and its reduction to a lifeless, grotesque ragdoll, I noticed it: each of his fingers and toes were missing their fingernails and toenails, respectively, reducing them to bloody stumps.
What none of the villagers knew what that there was symbolism in that too.
“Eat your borscht, Irina,” Mama says, putting the bowl of hot, steaming soup right under my nose, as I sit near the window, watching the barren trees outside, their branches extending like long, gnarly fingers, swaying in the winds from the North. The evening was slowly stealing over the skies, making them inky blue from the usual grey.
“I’m not hungry, Mama,” I reply, as my stomach grumbles with hunger. Mama makes her borscht with shredded chicken, and she kills the animals herself from our own poultry. Every time she kills another hen, I am reminded of Papa’s body, and my insides rumble and turn in revulsion.
“You need to eat, malyshka. You already look pale and starved…we cannot have these villagers suspect a thing.”
“Why would they suspect us, Mama? We are just two women in the countryside, left without a man in their lives! If anything, I think I look positively grieving!”
“Don’t argue with your Mama, Irina Romanovna! We have to be careful till we are living in this house, amongst these people!”
“I am not a Romanovna, mamachka! I am a Voroshin, through and through! From today, I am Irina Voroshinovna!” I protest, nearly upsetting the bowl of borscht in my agitation.
Mama’s face, usually pinched and stern, suddenly softens on hearing these words.
“Yes, yes, malyshka, you are a Voroshin, through and through! And soon, you shall have the title and the rights! You will live like a true Voroshin!” she says, cupping my face with her hands, chapped from years of cooking and cleaning, her eyes watering up. Only then I realize how beautiful my mother, Ludmilla Voroshina, is, with her large blue eyes, her high cheekbones, her full mouth, and her strong, definitive jawline.
A true Voroshin.
As if on cue, the fireplace bursts into flames with a large pop and whoosh. Even though the last of the wood from the Red Forest was exhausted when Mama brewed the borscht and the rice stew, which is still sitting in the brass pot hanging from the ceiling of the fireplace.
The flames, though, are a mixture of Prussian blue and brilliant golden yellow.
“She has come. She has come to claim her price,” Mama whispers, her head turning to look at the fire, her face hardening again.
“No, Mama. She hasn’t come to claim her price,” I say, instantly getting up from my place on the hardwood floor and walking towards the fire.
She came to me in a dream.
But not before the hands did.
Large hands, with dirty fingernails bitten to the quick and stubby fingers. Hands with chapped skin. Manly hands.
Hands that seemed to be reaching out for me before they suddenly stopped, wavered as if in indecision, and then withdrew into the all-consuming darkness.
He will kill Mama first. Then he will come for you.
He won’t kill me.
No. He has plans for you that are worse than murder.
He is my Papa.
He is also a man. A terrible one, at that. Whom your mother made the mistake of falling in love with.
Papa loves me.
No, he doesn’t. He only loves one thing about women. Especially after they reach a certain age.
He is my Papa.
You are thirteen, Irina. How familiar exactly do you want to get with those hands, malyshka?
What would you have me do?
It’s not very hard, Irina. I will give you a simple task. All you have to do is fulfil it without anyone seeing or suspecting you. Once you are done, leave everything to me.
What will you do?
I will take care of your father before he can touch your mother or you.
How? What will you do to take care of him?
Leave that to me, malyshka. You are too young to know the details.
Why are you helping me?
Let’s just say I know what your Papa does some nights, when he has had a little too much vodka at the local tavern.
He sneaks into your room, Irina. He is not a father but a common monster who doesn’t deserve to live. Do you really want him to take away your mamachka, who is the only one protecting you?
Then do as I am saying. I do not visit all girls whose fathers are monsters, please note. You are among the fortunate ones, Irina.
How did I get so fortunate?
You don’t need to know that.
I forgot to ask the most important question of all—who are you?
I have many names, but in these parts, they call me Baba Yaga.
Baba Yaga? What does that mean? Why do they call you that?
It doesn’t matter as of this moment. You will do as I say or not, Irina? Time is running out.
I…I will do it. I love my mamachka.
I did not give in that first night she appeared. Not the second, nor the third.
However, a few more incidents of Papa treating Mama like dirt and feeling the stench of vodka on his breath as I pretended to be asleep while my heart galloped like a frightened horse in my rib cage, I decided to do it.
She hadn’t been lying to me. Making the concoction was quite simple. Two mornings, before Mama woke up to collect firewood and fill the pails with water, I snuck out of the dacha and collected the ingredients.
The flesh of a slaughtered chicken—which I had to do myself. It was a bloody mess, but I had seen Mama do it many times and managed it. The hair of a cat—pretty easy. The feathers of a dove. Birchwood from the Red Forest. An item of Papa’s clothing. A few drops of blood from an adolescent girl—I gave my own.
All these had to be poured in boiling water, mixed, stirred 32 times, and left to cool in the pot early in the morning. Before dawn, the concoction was gone—I knew because Mama didn’t yell in shock when she looked in the brass pot.
Tomorrow. It will be tomorrow.
What are you doing here?
I came to warn you. You must act like it’s a shock.
Of course I would.
No, sometimes we women forget to act like we are expected to when seeing our dead husbands and fathers.
I will not. I will act shocked. These simple villagers won’t suspect a thing.
Good. Don’t leave immediately, though. Wait for a few days.
You will see.
“The thing is, my Irina, that Baba Yaga had been coming in my dreams too for this past week,” Mama said, once she had cried her eyes out, acted like the grieving, disconsolate wife, accepted the food prepared by the villagers, and accepted their condolences as they went back to the business of living. Her eyes were dry as she said this, sitting by the fire, her face perfectly composed. As if the entire morning after Papa’s death had been a show, a farce, for the villagers’ benefit.
“How did you?”
“The symbol, malyshka. And the fact that Ivan’s fingernails had been ripped out. That legend is famous…it’s the most talked-about fable in the village,” Mama said, unconsciously rubbing her neck as she said so. The finger marks there had started to fade, and I knew that they would never reappear.
Turns out she had asked my mother to do the same thing as she had asked me.
“I refused, because I was scared. Not of your father, but because they say that Baba extracts a heavy price from those whom she claims to help…always women, always unlucky enough to be the daughters, wives, sisters, and even mothers of monsters.”
“No, she doesn’t, Mama. She told me she was only here to help,” I protested. I had done what I had because I wanted to live in peace with my Mama. The price for this…no, the woman, or whatever she was, could not do this.
But I couldn’t trust my own father. How could I have trusted a strange woman so easily?
“Don’t go there, Irina!” Mama shrieks, and I sense her rushing behind me, trying to stop me from reaching the fire.
“Nothing will happen, Mama. She is here to help,” I reply, calmly. Suddenly, it’s like the unrest boiling within me for the past weeks has vanished. In its place is a sense of purpose, a confidence that I know what I am doing.
She is right, Ludmilla. I am here to help.
A booming voice fills the room, stopping me and Mama in our tracks. The flames leap even higher, as if announcing the presence of an invisible presence. I feel gooseflesh erupt on my skin despite the heat.
“What…what do you want?” Mama asks, haltingly.
Get Irina to the capital. She deserves to live her destiny…that of a true Voroshin. And you, Ludmilla, you must go back to your life before you married this monster. You two will journey to Moscow, but it is full of dangers. Therefore, I am giving you this.
With a loud clank, a dagger materialises from the fireplace and falls to the ground in front of the fireplace. The blade is shiny and sharp-looking, and the handle of the knife is gleaming ruby encrusted with green gemstones.
I hear Mama gasp behind me, and I know why.
At the bottom of the handle, very distinguishably, is carved out a symbol. It’s the coat of arms for the house of Voroshin.
“Who…who are you?” I ask.
It doesn’t matter, but remember, this belongs to you. It’s very old, and very useful. If any man tries to waylay you or hurt you, do not hesitate to plunge it in his beating heart.
“But how…why…” Mama asks.
Let’s just say I was, once, a girl like Irina, and a woman like you. Till they took that from me. But more important, always remember, blood always comes for blood.
With that, the fire dies out with another whoosh and a pop. All that is left is the dagger—and a deadly silence.
Blood always comes for blood. A true Voroshin.