“Russian Folk Belief: A Fairytale” by Nayantara Nelson

In a certain province, in a certain village on the eastern rise of a sizeable plain sat a wood far enough from the activities of the populous as to not upset the threshold. Grigori’s house lay most detrimental in the circumstance, settled on the down slope of a green and muddy hill leading to the liminal boundary just across where the land flattens out. The house was made of damp wood, darkened and warped, a stain on the green sheet it sat on. It was crooked, either from the angle of the base or the age of its material. Soon after night, the morphed front door thrust open with a heavy, leathered kick. Grigori set out to tend his land and finish the work of the warmer season. The light of the early hours was still sheathed in the morning mist. This was how fall is.

Lonely work for a young man but expected of him, as it had been expected of his father and  father’s father before him. Less isolated for men with wives working nearer the home to trade glances and few, only necessary, words. A young wife had been endowed to Grigori but only for a time. Zoya; she was quiet and thin, her dejected presence hid the extent of her beauty and developed dark lines under her eyes. He did not love her but she did not love anything. Her body was a vacant shell of pale flesh and bone supports. Their wedding was overshadowed with anxiety and anticipation that lingered through the short year of their marriage. Life seemed stale but people got by, they worked and they survived and Grigori and Zoya did the same. Any moment spent between working hours, Zoya would sit on her chair out on the side of the house and stare blankly out towards the woods. In the evening she would be silent, inside, eyes out the window, glued to the still black between the brown barked shafts. She never spoke to him, only responded. The last clear memory of his wife was of the morning she took a moment away from the forest to look at her husband. Her eyes were inexpressive, one iris paralleled the mossy stones she was leaning against, the other hidden behind a lock of dark hair that had slipped from her tight braid. Their marriage stayed like this, consistent for a year, after which she left. Zoya’s body followed in the direction she was always looking and she disappeared into those in between black spaces. She hadn’t been seen since and the atmosphere was left sick with her impression. Warm days kept coming, again and again, and heavy work stayed steady, as it always had. This was during early summer.

Fall was encroaching on west Russia, the tree leaves were wilting and the air burned Grigori’s throat and lungs. His fingertips became more sensitive to the gashes received from the work he did, and the splinters transmitted from his tools. His skin felt thinner, wrapped tight around scarred knuckles. Zoya’s hands were once covered in calluses and the field dirt was permanent in her nails and the crevices of her palms. Her hands contradicted her fragility but revealed her many and strenuous years tending to field work. Grigory’s skin had always been sensitive, but he never complained and he hid his wounds, also hiding the contradiction to his masculinity. The sun had almost set behind the steeper hills in the southwest of the plain, his body cast a shadow over the only light hitting the latch he was ripping from the rusted gate. Its jagged edge cut a centimeter deep into the weak skin between thumb and pointer finger. Grigori shook off the blood and some of the pain, looking over to the trees that were growing darker. He took to staring at the woods now, manning the guard in his wife’s absence.

Upon hearing his sister’s call, he turned to see Eva walking the path to his home, as she usually checked on him once in awhile and cooked some of his dinners. Grigori wiped off his hands with a sweaty handkerchief and went inside, first filling a small washtub at the well pump near his porch. Eva came in and set down the basket she was carrying with her. She picked up a pot heavy with broth that was sitting on the table from the day before and hooked it over the stove. From her basket, she dropped in various cut vegetables and meat and sprinkled the mix with ground pepper. After a few minutes of stirring she knelt down at Grigori’s feet and began washing his hands and cuts with a wet cloth. Drops of watered down blood made ripples in the tub at Grigori’s side, the dirt sank but flecks of dust stayed swimming around at the top as he watched. The fire from the stove burned, warming the room, embers fluttered out and cracked, filling the silence.

Eva took the the tub and poured it out the window near the stove. “It’s quiet, the domovoi must be sleeping, but I’ll leave him some porridge.” She grabbed a covered bowl from her parcel, looked at her brother and smiled. Grigori said nothing.

“I’ll leave the stove to simmer and if you’re hungry later you can reheat the lapsha.” Eva sat on the chair across from Grigori and waited for a response.

When Eva came to visit, Grigori felt as though he was being treated like a child, it made him angry but he could never be angry at her. With a sigh he told her, “Go to your husband, cook his dinner, I’m sleeping” and then threw his cotton shirt to the floor and fell to his bed.

Eva laughed whole heartedly, “Aleksei will be fine, he’s a better cook than I am you know?” She sat at the edge of the mattress, “At least take off your boots. You’ll dirty the sheets and I don’t have the time to clean them again.” Grigori looked at her but said nothing, just thinking and keeping those thoughts to himself. Eva was a bright but modest-looking girl. However, between her constant smile and big brown eyes she could fool anyone into thinking she was beautiful.

She went on trying to make conversation, “You wouldn’t think that Aleksei would find joy in that sort of thing, he always looks serious and tries to act so tough,” she said giggling. Eva was kind, which separated her from the other women her age, the bored and bitter barely twenty-year olds that looked thirty and drained from their loveless marriages. Eva was only slightly younger than Zoya was but they looked to be a generation apart.

Grigori kicked his boots to the floor and shut his eyes, sighing again, “I’m sleeping.”

“Alright. I won’t be coming tomorrow or the day after, I’m seeing Aleksei’s mother up north.” Her voice was soft, “Don’t forget to cover the stew. Lapsha thickens if left out too long.” Grigori listened to her carrying herself on light steps to the door and she left without waiting for his response.

The next morning, Grigori could feel his heartbeat in his hand as it pulsed with the dull throbbing of his half-heeled gash. Morning passed, then midday, no work was done, the day was lazy. Later, after a slight headache, Grigori went and walked over the edges of his field barefoot, stepping on saturated blades of grass, the evening dew seeping up between his toes. Another step forward and the texture of the field changed, the ground seemed to reclaim the moisture, the dew was sucked back down leaving his feet dry and the earth too. He looked up and found himself only meters away from the edge of the woods, the liminal space. Grigori looked down and everything was still and the patch of grass he stood on was yellow. A slight breeze lifted up his chin and brought from behind a tree a few wispy locks of auburn hair. Four pink fingers curled over the rough bark, fingernails buried in a dirt coating. A dark eyebrow came into view, then a plump shoulder leaned out, exposing her chest. Grigori heard an airy titter and she was gone.

With heavy breath and wide eyes, Grigori found himself on the floor resting against the damp door inside his house, shut tight, trying to absorb the experience. He started to forget if it was real or not. He thought: a strange woman alone in such a dangerous place? He shook his head in disbelief and tried to convince himself of the “hallucination” and crawled back to bed. No work was done the next day, or the next. That naked shoulder visited him in every dream. When Eva returned on the third day, she mentioned the weeds that had started to grow again, the stalks that were still untrimmed, and the gate latch that hung crooked by a single nail.

“For months the crop has been dry, but now it seems you aren’t doing much to try to save it. It will come back twice as healthy if you finish pruning the stalks before snow fall and next season will be better.” Eva was attempting to be reassuring.

Grigori didn’t want to talk about his work, his mind was engaged with the only disturbance in his routine since Zoya. “I’ve seen a woman.”

“A woman?” Eva sounded intrigued, assuming he had meant a natural encounter with a young woman of his interest.

At the sound of her excitement his face tensed and his eyes darted back to her twice before starring at the floor. To clarify the situation, Grigory became serious and his voice got deeper. “She has kept me from my work,” He looked quickly to see Eva’s reaction, only to notice her confusion. He blew a puff of air, “I think she’s killing my crop.”

His sister was now worried. “Where! Where did you see her? Was she familiar? A foreigner?

“No,” Grigori paused. “In the woods.”

Eva firmly cupped his face, she looked scared. “You stay away! You hear me? Are you listening?” she said, exasperated. “She’s a bad omen and so are those woods, don’t let your grief blind you from that!”

Grigori shed off her hands. “Calm down! Don’t let those old stories scare you, they are meant to scare children. to keep them from running off.”

“They aren’t just stories, Grigori, they are a warning for those who dare take lightly the matters beyond that of peasants and field hands,” she cried.

Grigori felt like a child again, like having his hand slapped by their grandmother for cursing. “You don’t need to tell me, Eva! What would you know, you’re still a child yourself, so go on, I don’t need your help today. Go!”

He stood on the porch propping open the door with an extended arm and she walked toward him while using the edge of her skirt to dry her face. Before she left she laid her hand just above his elbow. “Please just try and be careful, don’t get too close to what we can’t understand.” Eva stepped down and Grigori shut the door behind her.

Over the next few days Grigori slowly worked, accomplishing next to nothing each day. The seconds between working on each stalk turned to minutes of him looking to the woods for a sign of the woman he saw. Every bird that flew from the trees made his heart beat a little faster. One night he thought he had a dream of her so vivid that he woke up in the dark and felt her holding him. Her skin was wet and he was able to feel her breath in his ear, Grigori himself was dripping in a cold sweat. Petrified that the slightest movement would disturb her, he stayed still and awake for hours trying to discern her presence from an illusion. He must have dozed back off for when he awoke again he was alone. There was a damp imprint of a body on the sheets next to him. Grigori changed out of his wet clothes and washed himself of his sticky sweat, while assuring himself that she was only a dream and the imprint was his own.

The nights after that he lost sleep and stayed up waiting for her to come back. Grigori sat at his window as the day went dark and was still sitting there as the black sky turned a dark blue again before dawn. He was expecting to see both Eva and her husband the next morning and with the thought of them, realized the condition that he had left his house and crop in. Not wanting to hear her insistent pleas and concerns, Grigori readied himself to finish the work that needed to get done, putting on his coat and setting out to do so before even the mist had come to meet the early day. For hours he worked tirelessly, work made easier by the weather that seemed out of season. The sky was cloudy and all day the air was warm and thick, in a fog that should have dispersed hours before. The usual cool current of air that would rustle the dry leaves on the ground was absent, making his surroundings eerily noiseless.

Grigori was finishing his last chore, putting in place a new latch on his gate, the old one lying in the soil between his feet. He hammered in a single nail before drifting off to stare at the woods that were mostly covered by the fog. For a moment he thought he could see a woman’s curves shadowed behind the screen but after focusing in his sight, he saw nothing. Grigori grabbed another nail from the tin that was sitting on the gatepost and as soon as he lined it up with the latch a gust of wind came in from south, blowing over the tin and away the misty veil that was shielding her image. A woman, clear as spring water and naked, was resting her cheek against the trunk of a tree, grinning playfully and looking back at Grigori who, after pausing in his shock, took off at a swift sprint in her direction. Before he made half the distance between them, she slowly turned and started off at a trot into the woods. Losing sight of her did not slow Grigori’s pace. He hurdled over the dead trees and broke through sharp branch curtains, collecting scratches on his face and arms. He followed glimpses of her in the direction of the breeze that carried her singing.

When the singing ceased, Grigori turned in confused circles, desperately searching for her. The echo of bird songs grew so loud in his head that he covered his ears with both hands and tripped over a tree root, falling onto his chest a chin. With his fall returned that eerie noiselessness. Grigori saw her, facing away from him, crouching down hugging her knees with her head lowered, her wet wavy hair clinging in strands to her back. Slowly Grigori got to his feet, now hearing only his pulse racing in his ears. He reached out his hand and walked until his fingertips were centimeters from gracing her shoulder blade. Instead of touching her he retracted his hand and walked around to where she was facing him, she did not lift her head or move. After a moment like this she stood up and met his gaze, she stood so calmly and openly, like she was unaware of her being naked and almost immediately she turned sharp and started off again with skip in her step. She kept a shorter distance between them and peered over her shoulder as if she were beckoning Grigori to follow with the turn of her heels.

He walked behind her, feeling drawn to her. Grigori’s pace kept slow and regular until he lost her behind an arm of green leaves that had yet to succumb to the effects of fall. Not seeing her for those few seconds sent a pang of anxiety into his gut and he sprinted through the leafy branch that led him to the small, familiar lake he knew lay less than a mile from his home. Grigori and Eva spent summers playing there as children, guarded over by their parents or grandmother who would watch them wade in shallow pools, splashing each other. The memory and the nostalgia that followed made him feel bitterly alone, but upon seeing the woman again he abandoned all feeling. She was combing through her hair with her fingers and humming to the tune of a well-known lullaby.

A tear slipped from Grigori’s eye and he was unsure if it was a result of the beauty of her voice or the fear that did not stop him from approaching her on trembling legs. Trying to find his own voice, Grigori coughed out the words, “I-I know who you are.”

She was sitting on a large stone with one foot dipping into the water, looking into her wavering reflection. In reply to Grigori’s utterance she rotated her face sideways and shot her eyes up to look at him with a blink that wrinkled her nose and squeezed closed her eyelids for a part of a second. She closed them again, fixing the angle of her head straight before responding, “Hmmm?” in a feminine, sing-songy voice.

Grigory tried to regain some stability to his speaking but only managed to mutter, “you are a Ru-rusalka, a-a-a being of the liminal spaces, beyond the threshold.” She looked back at him, fluttering her eyelashes and grinning as she placed her chin to rest in her hand. She slightly widened her moss-green eyes staring up at him and nodded. Grigori started shaking less as he sat down beside her, rubbing his thighs, also staring at her reflection that reflected her staring at him. “You are said to live beneath the ice of the lake in the winter months, only to come out in springtime and live throughout the rest of the year in the dew and the drops of water that come through the holes in a peasant’s roof. You are the sinner left on earth that steals the moisture in the soil, killing the crops, and pulling girls’ hair when they bend to plant seeds. The rusalki are not to be underestimated.” Grigori was merely reciting legends at this point, without processing the meaning behind the words that were compiled into the stories which he grew up hearing. “You are the trickster that drowns those you draw to the water. You are the result of women who die bad deaths, before their allotted time here on earth.”

Grigori would have continued on with his empty words if the rusalka had not kicked up the water that splashed him in the face. She was laughing as she leaped from the stone to another a few feet away, crouching to hug her legs and peering at Grigori from behind her knees. She was like a child playing a game with him and it was his turn and she was waiting to see what he would do. Grigori quickly wiped his face with his sleeve and looked at her stunned. She lifted her head to reveal her wide and honest smile and Grigori broke into a fit of laughter with her, interrupted by the sound of thunder from the cloudy sky. The rusalka stood up, her head held back as rain started to hit her face, and she laughed again, sincerely. Grigoro smiled too, tearing up now from the utter relief, he felt a mountain of anger and sadness lifted from him. The rain hit his face and made his tears look like rain and was himself, happy.

He jumped to the rock that the rusalka was standing on and stood close to her. She did not try to run off and did not flinch when Grigori put his coat over her shoulders. They looked to the sky and then back at each other. Grigori grabbed her hand and pulled her off of the stone onto the wet sand and started leading her back into the woods. She ran behind him through the trees clutching his coat around her chest, her feet and flesh impervious to the sharp rocks she ran over and branches they were running through.

When they made it to the open land of his grassy field he turned to her, out of breath. “A rusalka probably isn’t used to being the one following another.” The rusalka just grinned at him sweetly.

They made their way through the puddles in the field and ran under his roof for shelter from the rain. Gusts of wind and water followed behind through his open door extinguishing the fire. The domovoi hid in fear, peering from the flickering embers in the stove, his porridge untouched. Grigori was laughing and spun around to see her. The rusalka’s teasing smile fell serious with the rest of her expression and Grigori’s coat, as if on it’s own, slid from her shoulders, falling around her icy feet. She laid a fragile hand on the nape of his neck, the other on his chest gaining momentum as she pushed him back, both falling onto the bed. The rusalka’s hair fell forward over her shoulders, releasing small drops of rain onto his face and bedding. She pressed her open lips to his mouth. She smelled like soil. The rusalka’s face relaxed and from her core let out a heavy stream of water. The stream filled his lungs, surging through his veins, leaving pools in his chest and skull. Grigori’s last vision of her was of her mossy, vacant eyes staring back, he drowned in them, and again she was gone. Grigori was left alone.

 

*  *  *

Eva’s hands were bloody and the blood froze to her skin. She couldn’t break through to the lake and kept banging on the solid blanket of ice, screaming,  “Come out you witch, you unclean thing! You are the Devil who stole him!” Aleksei stood on the bank with his muscled arms crossed, giving her space. His face brooding, his eyebrows were furrowed, stern and observant. Eva’s whaling was animalistic until she fell silent, other than her muffled choking. Her eyes were closed, afraid to open, she was kneeling on numb legs, her cuts frozen shut. Flakes fell and gathered in Aleksei’s blond hair and melted onto his wool shoulders. He lifted his heavy boot out of the deep snow placing it on the ice, testing it to be sure it could hold the weight of his huge stature. He said nothing as he walked toward his wife, kneeling down, wrapping gentle arms around Eva. She cried harder, “she stole my brother! how could this have happened?” Aleksei’s brow softened and Eva looked like a child in his embrace with her tiny frame weeping against his broad chest. The ice held them both. This winter came early.

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