June 2008 Volume Two Issue Four
Balalaika - Jennifer Loring
Stasya peered out of her window into the roiling fog on the fields beyond her cottage. It swirled through the pine trees of the forest, where the Baba Yaga dwelled and the evil spirits of the wood had led countless travelers astray. She heard the voices of the women, stripped down to their underclothes and their hair loose and wild around their faces. Some howled and struck pans as they circled the village, while others pulled the plough along, digging the furrow that would set free the earth's healing power and drive away the illness.
She also heard the rats, hordes of them, scratching at the outer walls of the cottage. She heard the moans of the dying stricken by a sudden outbreak of the plague. Two dozen had died already and many more certain to follow, and if the rats weren't more intent on decimating the population than the village's stores of grain, the survivors might have starved this winter.
Stasya felt under the pillow for her crucifix. It was the witching hour and though the women, her mother included, endeavored to protect them all, she was no less frightened. She crawled beneath three quilts spun by her grandmother and pulled them up to her chin, then pressed the crucifix to her chest and closed her eyes. She tried to dream of happier times, so distant now, but rats invaded even her sleep.
Pavlushenka lay quite some distance southeast of Moscow, in the shadow of the Ural Mountains. A lonely outpost of central European Russia, it was surrounded by dense forest and a small amount of farmland. The town's population surge surprised the man who approached on horseback, for he had spent lifetimes away from here. Only the state demand for fur exports could draw so many to such a desolate region, where settlements were easy targets for the rampaging horsemen of the northern steppes. The climate was slightly less harsh than in the rest of the country, but the infamous Russian winter did not take pity upon this place.
He had never minded the cold. He loved the mystery of winter, when Father Frost kissed the earth with his frozen lips and brought death to the world. It was coming soon. Every window aglow with firelight, every woman at her spinning wheel for the season. Late September already. The days and years bled into one another after so much time alone.
Hedeon's horse reared up when several rats swarmed about its hooves. He reached for a low-hanging branch on an old oak and lifted his legs from the saddle. The beast galloped off into the misty forest, a feast for the wolves. Hedeon dropped to the ground. The rats skittered away from him in a half-circle, seeming to bow their little rodent heads in deference. He dusted off his black overcoat and began walking the last few yards toward Pavlushenka.
Chimneys puffed thick gray smoke into the crisp air, but many houses were dark, cold, empty. Dead rats littered the streets. The tiny cemetery on the outskirts of the village grew ever larger. Even now men struck at the hardening earth with picks and shovels, while others fashioned anonymous wooden crosses to mark the graves.
"What a lovely place to die," Hedeon sighed. He clasped his long white fingers together and stepped inside the village gates.
Stasya gazed out the window at the dreary sky, pendulous and dark with clouds. Heavy snow splattered onto the frozen ground, rolled off the roof and down the windowpanes. In the distance, beyond the graveyard and at the edge of the forest, what had been little more than a foundation a week ago now rose from a white carpet into what resembled a mausoleum.
A squall began to drive snow slantwise into the ground and obscured the building from view. Stasya gathered her pencils and a few sheets of paper and spread her tools out on the floor. You're getting too old for such childish pursuits, her mother often said. In another year she would be ready to look for a husband, and what man wanted a wife whose only skill was drawing pictures?
A draft from the window crawled down her back, encouraging her to find something to stuff along the sill. Stasya grabbed an old dress she'd outgrown from her closet and glanced out the window. A tall, thin figure in a black coat that flapped around him, wing-like, vanished into the omnipresent white.
Stasya rushed out of her room. "Mama, Papa, who was that?"
Papa, sitting at the kitchen table, turned from his cup of tea. "Who?"
"The man standing outside our house."
"You imagined it," said her mother. "No one in their right mind would be outside in this weather. Now help me make dinner, you've spent enough time on those silly pictures."
"Yes, Mama." Stasya joined her mother at the stove. She stole a glance at Papa, hoping he would come to her defense. He had long supported her childish whims and peculiarity, but he grew tired of arguing with Mama, and assumed a woman would know better than he how to properly raise a girl. He slurped the last of his tea and retreated to the family room, leaving the women to prepare their meal in silence.
On Lake Sinovia the eerie cry of a loon drifted through the lashing winds. Stasya jumped, and a chill tickled her spine. Mama glanced over at her.
"What is it, Stasya?"
"Just the loon. It startled me."
"Strange, they're usually further north." Mama's nimble fingers never left the spinning wheel as she spoke. She was making a new quilt for Papa. Mama produced a great number of things during the summer and fall that she sold both in town and beyond, when Papa took a season's worth of furs to Moscow. The journey kept him away for most of the winter, and only days remained before his departure.
The fireplace crackled, bathing the room in a comforting orange light, and oil lamps blazed in the windows. For now they banished the plague, the rats, and the frightening darkness. Stasya and her mother had been at the wheel all evening, taking a break only for a light meal of tea and salted fish.
"I think it's your bedtime, Stasya."
"But I want to wait until Papa comes home." Once a week Papa played cards with his fellow trappers in the local tavern. This near to his journey, Stasya did not want to miss a single moment with him.
"Yes, Mama." Stasya gave her a peck on the cheek.
Inside her room she massaged her aching fingers before stripping down to her dressing gown. Her room was cold despite the hearth. Goose pimples broke out on her arms as she buried herself beneath her quilts, and trembled herself into sleep.
By the seventh toll of the midnight bell Stasya rubbed her eyes and, drawing a quilt tightly around her shoulders, parted the curtains. The snow was at least ankle-deep by now, and in that snow the screeching rats struggled toward a figure in black plucking a balalaika. They fell into line like a military regiment, two by two, and followed him down the snowy road as more and more joined the rodent army. Stasya watched them march through Pavlushenka and toward Lake Sinovia until they were out of sight.
She crossed herself and took shelter again beneath her blankets.
In the morning Stasya awoke to a chorus of voices raised in an emotion she feared no one would ever again feel--joy.
"The rats are gone! Praise God!"
Stasya threw aside her blankets and, flinging her bedroom door open, dashed into the kitchen. "Mama! Papa! Is it true? Are the rats gone?"
"Yes, it's true," Mama said. She flipped the buckwheat pancakes cooking on the stove. Stasya made a cup of tea as Papa, smiling, glanced out the window.
"It's finally over."
"I saw him last night, taking the rats away."
"Saw who?" Papa cocked an eyebrow nearly as heavy as his moustache.
"The man in the black coat, the one I saw before. He played the balalaika, and the rats followed him away. They went toward the lake."
"Stasya," Mama sighed, "no one else has seen this man. And no one heard a balalaika. You must stop making up stories, you're much too old!"
"Either way," Papa said, "Pavlushenka is free. It will be a good winter after all. Praise God!" He tousled Stasya's hair and laughed as loudly as the ecstatic villagers outside.
Hedeon spat on the frigid stone floor. The rats, knowing his fury, scampered off to darker corners of their new home. The very word infuriated him, though he expected nothing less of these pious idiots who gave thanks to the invisible spirit that remained indifferent to their existence. All day long the voices had drifted in from a high window where moonlight glimmered on the snow, turning it into millions of precious jewels.
"God. Fools." Hedeon threw off his overcoat and stormed through the corridor to the basement door. He did not bother to ask for payment; none of these backwaters ever had anything to give. Not that money or goods provided the sustenance he required, though the trade of such to some indigent with too many mouths to feed had in the past proven fruitful. He always managed to collect compensation one way or another.
Hedeon flung open the door and walked down torchlit stairs toward the dripping sound. Rope held the bodies by their ankles to the rafters, arms dangling so that the fingertips reached for the floor. Slit from groin to chest, their blood flowed into buckets beneath them. One a boy, the other a girl, both around seven or eight years old.
Hedeon reached into the boy's abdominal cavity first. Their guts were cool now, but still wet, just right. He placed the bloody gray intestines in two separate piles on the floor and knelt between them, then began to cut them into sections slightly longer than the strings on his balalaika, to allow for shrinkage. These sections he cut into strips and laid out on the floor, dozens and dozens of new strings for his lute. Children's insides made the very best music, the sweetest songs. Their own kind lured more of the little rats away without ever knowing it.
The townspeople, however, would know in the morning. They had all gone to sleep after an entire day of celebration, and tucked their children safely into bed. Only children could hear his gentle plucking, and so he came to their windows, luring them outside with the promise that he would teach them the magic of his balalaika.
By now the bodies had stopped bleeding. He had no more use for the pests, for they were only good to eat when fresh. Hedeon cut them down, and the corpses collapsed to the floor with a loud thud. He kicked them into a corner for now. Once he brought them to the forest, the witch known as the Baba Yaga would devour the remnants.
He licked and sucked at the crimson stains on his fingers, the taste too great to resist any longer. He plunged his face into the nearest bucket to suck its contents dry. Such a meal would keep him full for days. The blood in the other bucket, remaining in the cold, dry basement, would serve as his next.
Hedeon wiped his mouth on his sleeve. Pavlushenka would be free of the rats, all right. And he would see who was praising God then, now that he had come home.
Stasya sat up in bed, her limbs frozen with fear. The silence. She could not bear it.
A shadow fell across her window.
She almost lit her oil lamp to ward off the impenetrable darkness, but that would only draw more attention from whatever lurked just outside.
There was a scratching at the glass, a sound like the rats used to make when they tore at the hard earth to tunnel beneath and into the house. Stasya held her breath, hoping it would pass. But the scraping sound only grew louder, faster, and more determined as she watched the silhouette of a hand shaped like a claw attack her window.
"Stop!" Stasya shouted, and while the scratching, to her surprise, did just that, the human figure behind the curtains lingered.
"Open your window, child," said a voice that was at once like the falling snow and the scrape of his nails at the window.
"What do you want?"
"I do not like to shout. Open the window."
"Who are you?"
"Such a stubborn girl. I am the killer of the rats."
Stasya wrapped a blanket around her shoulders, groped for the crucifix beneath her pillow, and slipped out of bed. The floor felt like ice on the soles of her feet. She pulled back one curtain, then the other, and the scream that rose in her throat died instantly from the very same fright.
What stared at her was more a skull than a human head. It was hairless, completely smooth, with sunken eyes and a long, thin nose. Against skin as white as fresh cream and stretched like the bedsheets when Mama hung them to dry, his full red lips seemed an obscenity.
"What do you want?" Stasya asked again. The man smiled but did not show his teeth.
"Only to say hello. I love children."
She did not know why such an innocuous statement should make her skin crawl so. "Why do you not come in the day?"
"I have an...illness. I am sensitive to sunlight."
"Why do we not see you in church? There are evening masses."
"So many questions from one who would fear the answers."
Stasya lifted the crucifix. The man recoiled, shielding his face with his hands before peering between his fingers as her. And what horrible hands they were, long and thin like talons.
"Does your faith hinge on that trinket? It is a false image."
"It is our Lord, suffering on the cross."
"It is false!" With a feral hiss he banged his fist on the windowsill. Stasya studied the silver crucifix. The stranger spoke blasphemy. Perhaps the women had performed the rite incorrectly; perhaps, in their desperation to cure the sick, they had conjured a demon.
"Where do you come from?" Stasya whispered.
"Why, here, little one. I was gone for many years, but now I am home."
Stasya shut the curtains against his hideous smile. With the crucifix pressed into her hand she huddled beneath the blankets, but sleep did not return.
Stasya walked into the kitchen where her mother, preparing bread and tea for breakfast, peeked out the window every few moments at the house across from theirs.
"Poor thing," she said, and shook her head. A red kerchief hid the top of her dark hair.
"What is it, Mama?"
"Her son is gone. Vanished from his bed. And they say a little girl is gone too. Stasya--" Mama, her face stern, wagged a finger at her. "Don't you dare go anywhere alone. The Devil is afoot in Pavlushenka. Do you understand me?"
"Yes, Mama," Stasya said, knowing exactly what was afoot in their little village. Her elders attributed every evil to the Devil himself, only he had begun to send others to do his bidding.
The men organized search parties, but the children were never seen again. After a few days the town held a funeral for them. The mothers wailed and tore at their hair while their husbands, stone-faced, held them so they would not collapse.
Stasya wanted to tell all that she suspected, but the demon had been at her window. He knew her face. And worst of all, Mama would be humiliated by her accusations when no one else had seen him.
Days passed, growing colder and shorter. Every fortnight validated the dread that preceded each sunset, when another family awakened to find a child had been snatched from its bed.
The ground had long since frozen, making the task of burial that much more difficult. Soon, Stasya thought, Pavlushenka will be known as the town of graves. All that will remain will be the forest of crosses. No names, and no one to remember them.
The awful isolation of this place suddenly overwhelmed her. Encircled by miles of treacherous forest, the nearest village thirteen kilometers away, they were trapped by whatever had taken up residence with them in the strange building beyond the graveyard.
What had they done that God would visit so much misery upon them?
But, she chastised herself, she mustn't let the stranger's words poison her mind, though she knew that the darkest of winters had settled upon Pavlushenka.
On a bleak, gray morning in November, the demon left a body for the first time.
Over the course of two and a half months, the disappearances had occurred every other week. The seven days of respite between each never failed to lull the villagers with a false sense of hope that the monster had at last tired of them and moved on. Yet six children were missing, always two at a time, and the graveyard now pushed against what had been the original town limits. Thus the trappers did not go to Moscow this year, but sent by wagon their goods and a petition to the czar for help.
The parents, of course, retained a spark of optimism that their children were still alive, however impossible the odds. Here lay confirmation that doused the spark forever. A group of men huddled over the body, trying to block the view of the women and children gathered behind them. Stasya strained to see over shoulders, and what she witnessed churned her stomach to the point that she thought she might be sick right there.
The child had been no more than six judging from her size. A black-haired little girl, kerchief still tied around her bloodied head. Little more than that left behind. Her upper arms, thighs and belly had been defleshed almost completely, the organs also gone and only the smallest amount of blood allowed to flower red upon the snow. Tongue smears of red on her cheeks, lapped in haste as the demon tried to outrun the dawn.
Bits of clothing clung to her, and a small doll lay beside her, face down.
Her mother fainted upon seeing the dead girl. Her husband swept her up into his arms and carried her home.
Stasya let out her breath in slow puffs to calm her nausea. She was much older than the children who had vanished, nearly thirteen now, but she still could not fathom that the demon would visit her for any other purpose.
"What is it?" one of the women asked. "Is it a werewolf?"
"No." The man who answered rose from the ground, crystalline snow glittering in his thick dark beard. "A werewolf would've left even less than this. It is upir."
The panic that had been simmering for all these weeks now burst forth like steam from a screeching teakettle. "Upir!" rose the cry, and Stasya shrank back against her father, who clutched her so tightly she could barely breathe.
She almost wished the rats would return.
Early the next morning men knocked on the door of each house, asking for ashes from the fire. They scattered them around the graves, and the following day would look for the telltale footprints of a body leaving its resting place.
The ash in the cemetery remained undisturbed.
Stasya wanted to tell them who it was. Yet she had not seen him herself since his visit, and couldn't be entirely certain he still lived in the village at all. More than one villager did indeed cast a suspicious eye toward the gray stone crypt on the edge of town, but no one assumed that someone--something--lived there. Inquiries into its construction met with confused silence, and those who attempted to enter found it impenetrable. In fear that somehow he was always listening, always watching, terror held Stasya's tongue captive, and left her village under his control.
In the middle of the night she heard the distant sound of a balalaika, like a ghost drifting on the air. The haunting melody chilled her blood as it drew nearer, driving her to seek safety beneath her blankets. It grew louder still, perfectly played though the temperature outside would make quick work of anything human.
Stasya tried to scream, only to find that her voice had been stolen. A long shadow fell across her bed, and she began to cry.
One hand snatched the quilts away and threw them on the floor. In the darkness she could see little of him--a gleam of moonlight on his naked, skull-like head, in his cavernous eyes, and on his teeth. She imagined him on all fours in the snow, like a wild dog, rending the meat of children from their bones.
But those were not the teeth of a dog that he possessed. The rats might have taken him for a larger specimen of their own kind.
"I am...not afraid of you," she whispered. Hedeon cackled, though his eyes betrayed no amusement.
"You are a wretched liar. You cower beneath your blankets like an infant. I have other plans for you, little Stasya. There is no point in killing you--you're too old to be of use to me." Stasya saw him leering at the small buds of her breasts pushing against the fabric of her nightgown, and crossed her arms. "But you're not far off from marrying age, are you? Not long before you are deaf to my song."
"What do you..." Stasya began, but could not finish. Whatever had begun boiling in her stomach now rose up into her throat.
"Be thankful. I make the strings for my balalaika from them. They have the sweetest sound, the sound of innocence."
"Why can the rats hear you?"
"Do you think they come out of malice? They seek out food and shelter. It is instinct; it is how all things are made. They are as blameless as the children." Hedeon leaned closer to her, so that his dead-animal breath wafted over her face. She tried to breathe through her mouth.
"I lived in this miserable town three hundred fifty years ago," he said. "If you think for one instant your plague compared to the plague then..." His lips curled into a snarl. "Droughts in the summer, unbearable cold in the winter--what use is this town to anyone? But some idiot rebuilt it, all the same.
"I died in this pit. The entire town was burned to the ground, with me in it." His thick red lips once again revealed the sharpened teeth of a beast. "Then, as now, I lured away the rats. Too late, perhaps. My thanks? I died, for they would not evacuate anyone already stricken with the plague. They left me to burn, but death did not deliver me. I will make this town suffer as I had. God has never helped the people of Pavlushenka!"
Stasya struggled to scream again but her throat constricted. One of Hedeon's clawed hands snapped shut around her right breast like a trap, and his teeth sank deep into her neck. Stasya heard her blood pumping in her ears as it flowed into the demon's mouth, much like the powerful darkness rushing into the room to drown her.
She did not awaken in her bed. Her nightgown was stiff and crusty with a frightening amount of dried blood. The room appeared cold though she did not feel it, and there was no hearth. A small body dangled upside-down from the rafters, over a bucket. She remembered nothing of how she'd gotten here. A strange fog had descended upon her mind, slowing the movement of her limbs, the blinking of her eyes, the formation of words.
"Let me out," she called weakly at the door. A person would go mad in no time, confined to a prison such as this.
When no answer came Stasya scrabbled against the walls, and snapped several fingernails in the effort. At last the door swung open to reveal a black-coated figure standing in the gloom beyond.
"I know you," she said.
"Such noise you make. You're worse than the rats."
"But...I don't know where I am..."
"Your memories will return shortly. It's merely shock."
She hoped she'd never recall the details of what he'd done to her. Stasya pushed past him into the corridor with the intention of finding her way out, despite her lack of a coat and shoes. He had snatched her from her bed, that much was clear.
"Follow the stairs. You will see the door at the front of the hall."
"You're letting me leave?"
"Of course. You must hunt for yourself, and discover what you are."
Hunt, as if she were some sort of animal. Stasya ran up the stairs, her bare feet slapping against the stones. The only thing she intended to discover was her way home.
Outside, a frenzy of swirling snow shrouded anything that might lie beyond the tomb. She turned to retreat into it for shelter, even with that horrible thing inside, but the door was already sealed tight.
Ignorant of where she was or where to go, she simply stood in the snow, a ghost with black hair blowing like a cloak. It occurred to her again, as it had upon awakening, that she sensed no cold. Her naked feet should have been frostbitten by now, yet she felt absolutely nothing.
After a few more moments the snow died down, and deep within the forest she saw the glow of lamplight, like a single star guiding her into the unknown.
There was a path once, before the snow, where the bones of countless travelers lay tangled amongst ancient tree roots. Stasya moved her hand to the center of her forehead, then the middle of her chest.
She willed herself to complete the cross of protection, but her hand would not obey.
Stasya remembered teeth. Ghastly, sharp rodent teeth, and a burning pain in her throat.
Is that what I am now?
Stasya stepped into the forest. Her feet sank into the snow, all the way up her calves. Yet she moved through it with no resistance, as if it were merely more air surrounding her. Soon she came upon a small cottage standing upon spindly chicken's legs. A fence of bleached human bones bordered the garden.
"The witch," whispered the leschie of the wood. Like the wind they drifted invisibly between the trees, waiting for the next imprudent traveler.
Baba Yaga. Stasya could smell death wafting from the very walls of the hut.
The strange house turned its door toward her. Stasya climbed the steps and found little more inside than a broom, and an enormous mortar and pestle. She peered into the mortar and at the bloody bag of flesh within.
"Get out of my house!"
Stasya, gasping, staggered back. A tall, skeletal woman shrouded in white hair glared at her from the doorway of the kitchen.
"Get away from my dinner!"
"Your..." She glanced into the mortar again. Within the crumpled mess she noted the suggestion of arms, and legs, and what was once a head.
The hag stood over her now, her long iron nose protruding from the mass of wrinkles that comprised her face. "He takes what he needs, and when he's finished he leaves them for me," she said. "I have not eaten so well in a long time."
"What will you do when he runs out?"
"The forest is vast, child, and I am deathless. I roam where I please. And believe me, there is never a shortage of naughty children who wander into the wood. You would make a tasty meal yourself, if you did not already walk between life and death. You are his now."
"Then he...he did change me." Stasya's fingers rubbed her neck. She found two small bumps, itchy like insect bites.
"He made you his bride. You will carry out his will, for he has grown weary. You will be Pavlushenka's punishment now."
"Then the town is cursed?"
The Baba Yaga nodded. "From the day they burned it down and trapped the plague victims inside." She grabbed the pestle and began to grind down the meat sack in the mortar. Stasya cringed at the crunch of bones, the wet tearing of flesh. "The curse is why he exists. Now get out of my house." She pointed one bony finger at the front door.
Stasya watched the house rise up on its fowl's legs and strut away. The snow around her glimmered like falling stars. She heard voices in the distance, and though they spoke Russian she did not recognize the dialect. Stasya followed the sound out of the forest, just in time to see the horsemen touching lighted torches to anything that would burn--houses, barns, the church. Women, screaming, fled the flaming buildings with children in tow, while the men leapt onto what horses they could rescue from their stables to give chase.
Stasya ran to the cemetery and snapped off one arm of a cross, marveling at the strength no girl should possess. Though the ash stake burned against her palm, she clenched it as if it meant her life. Stasya hurried along the outskirts of the village toward the sepulcher and saw Hedeon in the doorway.
He smiled but did not try to stop her, only gazed at the destruction before him and opened wide his awful mouth in a laugh that could freeze the mightiest river. She plunged the stake through his maw and out the back of his skull. His vile blood exploded onto the pristine snow from both ends of his head, and he fell twitching onto his side. After another moment he ceased to move at all.
Stasya grabbed one of his arms and dragged him toward Lake Sinovia. She walked just to the edge of the dead reeds, where the ice was thickest, then pulled the corpse up and pushed him out to the middle of the lake. Pale and slender arms punched through the ice. Hedeon's corpse vanished into the frigid depths, a momentary diversion for the lonely rusalki.
She turned back toward the smoldering village as tears formed in her eyes. Where would she go now? He had made her a monster, but even the Baba Yaga had her forest, and the rusalki their lake.
Then, out of the black smoke and the snow, a big man with a full black beard stumbled forward. It seemed an eternity already since she'd laid eyes upon his beloved face.
He squinted, as if she were an illusion. "Stasya?"
"Oh, Stasya! My girl, my girl..."
He ran toward her, a dream from her former life, a fleeting memory of happiness. She reached for his hand.
The horseman galloped up behind him, snow flying out from beneath his beast's hooves, sword drawn. Steel erupted from Papa's stomach. His eyes grew wide, and he gave birth to a bright splash of blood before sinking face-first into the cold white blanket.
"Papa!" Stasya screamed. She dropped to her knees. Riding as fast as he was, the horseman hadn't seen her, her skin stark white, her hair black as the forest. She gathered Papa into her arms.
"I am so glad," he whispered, "that you're safe." His big barrel of a chest heaved once more, and then he was still.
Stasya stared down at him, at the dead open eyes and the dark stain spread across his shirt. A moment before, she might have bestowed upon him the same damnation conferred to her. Eternity might not then seem so cruel a fate. Eternity, now, to ponder why she'd let Papa die in her arms.
She buried her father unmarked in the bloody snow. Stasya found shoe-tracks leading out of the village, but the escapees couldn't possibly get very far, certainly not to the next town. If not slain by the wolves, or the horsemen, then by Father Frost, who longed to embrace warm flesh.
Stasya walked alongside the footprints. Like the spirits of winter, this season of dying, she hungered for unspeakable things.
- END -