We set out for the witch’s house in the still-grey morning. Babushka drove, squeezed tight behind the steering wheel of the boxy yellow Zhiguli. Mama sat in the front, fumbling with my migraine notebook. Over the last year the doctors had failed to establish any correlation between the pain and what and how much I ate, when and how much I slept, what I did, the season, the weather, my geographical location. No medication had helped. The witch was our last chance.
Although Babushka, who was a nurse, had assured me that this good witch, a healer, had cured her friend’s heart disease, I was scared. I kept picturing the fairy-tale Baba Yaga, who lived in a cabin that stood on chicken legs, surrounded by a fence of human bones and lanterns made from skulls. She flew in a giant pestle and mortar, on the hunt for children to cook in her oven and eat. Were these two witches sisters? Were all witches sisters? And how often did they visit each other for tea?
The car smelled of gasoline, and a familiar cauldron of nausea was already brewing in my stomach. I didn’t need the migraine diary to predict another cursed day. Soon the world would be ruined by blobs, like a fresh watercolour smudged with rain. Everything familiar would shed its skin to reveal a secret monstrous core. And after a tug-of-war between blackness and fire, the invisible UFO would land on my head. The tiny aliens would drill holes in my skull, excavate deep tunnels inside my brain, and perform their terrible electric experiments. I’d rather be eaten by Baba Yaga.
We took the same road out of the town as for the mushroom-picking trips we’d been on and kept going. The trees grew in two solid walls, the leaves silvering like coins in the windy sun. Mama stared out the window. After whispering late into the night, she and Babushka hadn’t said a word to each other all morning. This was a strange summer: instead of remaining home with Papa, Mama came to Babushka’s with me. In fact, she hadn’t been herself all year: always awake, eyes and cheeks burning, always telling me to remember that she loved me most of all in the world, as if she was about to die or go away somewhere.
‘If you decide on it, at least make sure you don’t bring them the same gift, like your brilliant stepfather Lev Davidovich. Twice,’ Babushka suddenly said in a brash, joking tone. ‘Did I already tell you this story?’
Mama ignored her.
‘Goes to Sweden, brings me a watch,’ Babushka went on. ‘I look at the receipt in the box, says two ladies’ watches. Gets all nervous, says they made a mistake at the register. Right – a mistake at a Swiss register. One of the best criminal defence lawyers in town, and a complete idiot in life. A few months later I’m unpacking his suitcase from another business trip – two nighties. One small, one big. I leave them, see what happens. Lo and behold, he gives me the bigger one, the small one disappears. Says, he wasn’t sure what size I wore, so he got two. After sixteen years of marriage he wasn’t sure!’
‘Quit it,’ Mama said and turned back to me. ‘How are you feeling, kitten?’
‘Another one’s coming,’ I said. I missed my old illnesses – precocious coughs and stuffed noses, lazy ear infections. I missed the game-like remedies: mustard chest compresses, an orchestra of little glass cups tinkling and tingling on my back, a night in a headscarf soaked in vodka.
‘Of course, I later gave him and that witch such a beating they took turns writing complaints to the regional Ministry of Health. Fools,’ Babushka cried out. ‘I always had more friends than him because I’m a good person.’
‘The witch?’ I said.
‘Another witch, Alinochka,’ Babushka said. ‘A bad witch.’
‘Mama, enough. This is not helping. And you’re scaring Alina.’
‘I just don’t want you to do something you might regret for the rest of your life.’
‘Don’t you think I know that? Why do you keep torturing me?’ Mama yelled. My heart jumped. ‘Stop it now. If it passes, you’ll be the first one to know, I promise. For now, please let’s focus on Alina.’
‘Precisely,’ Babushka said.
Mama climbed over into the back seat and curled up next to me, her head on my lap.
‘Don’t listen to us getting worked up over trifles, Alinochka. The most important thing is for you to get better.’ She kissed my hand and put it under her cheek, which was flushed and covered in fine hairs, like a peach.
We stopped for a picnic lunch. A sea churned inside my stomach. My ears burned – two red signal flags for the incoming UFO. I couldn’t swallow.
After lunch Mama returned to the front seat and I lay down in the back. From time to time she looked at me with worry, circling her lips with her finger. She and Babushka kept arguing, but I no longer heard them.
Soon we reached the witch’s house. It wasn’t a cabin on two chicken legs but a regular izba, a one-storied timber cottage, on the edge of a small village. The airport inside my brain throbbed with light. As usual, to disorientate me further, the UFO beamed its invisible radioactive rays and turned Mama into a grey rabbit and Babushka into a brown bear.
Babushka the Bear got out the plastic bag for the witch, and Mama took my hand in her soft paw. The three of us went up to the witch’s doorstep. Babushka crossed herself and knocked. My skull vibrated under the UFO’s landing gear. I closed my eyes.
The door creaked open. ‘Hello. Come in, come in.’ The witch’s voice was low and kindly. I felt a light touch on my head and opened my eyes. Instead of an old hag with rotten teeth and eyes like live coals, before us stood an orange fox in a blue floral housecoat. Dainty metal-framed glasses perched on her long, thin nose. ‘So, this is Alinochka, our little patient. Does your head hurt now?’ I nodded. ‘Nu, don’t be so gloomy. We’ll cure you.’
We went in. The room was dominated by a giant, old-fashioned stove, on top of which Ivan the Fool, the youngest and laziest of the three fairy-tale brothers, usually snored away his days. And where Baba Yaga cooked naughty children! Dark, oily icons hung on the walls in one corner, lit up by a church candle. Yellow halos around the stern faces of the saints shimmered with gold. An episode of The Rich Also Cry, Babushka’s favourite Mexican serial, played on a small black-and-white TV on a bookshelf in front of the bed. Multicoloured carpets covered the walls and the floor. A disappointingly ordinary home for a healer-witch.
‘Welcome. Please sit down.’ The Fox turned down the volume on the TV and motioned to the table, on which stood a gold samovar, several white teacups and a plate laden with honey-cakes. Mama nervously smoothed her denim skirt. She looked so slight and grey next to the lustrous fox.
‘Thank you. This is for you.’ Babushka offered her the bag. I’d seen her pack a bottle of vodka and a box of chocolates in addition to the money.
The Fox waved it away. ‘Afterwards, afterwards. Alinochka, why don’t you sit on the bed while I talk with your mother and grandma?’
As I settled on the scratchy plaid throw, the Fox poured some tea and added a coffee-coloured liquid from a brown bottle. The black label was covered with ornate golden designs and lettering, some of which was not in Russian. At once a sharp, herbal smell filled the room. ‘Now, tell me about your daughter from the beginning, from birth.’
Mama laid out the migraine diary in front of her, then hesitated for a moment, looking around the room and at the Fox with vague suspicion, as though she’d forgotten how we got here and why. ‘All right, from the beginning then. Alina was born in the winter and at two weeks caught pneumonia. She completely skipped the crawling stage and began talking at six months, walking at seven. Chronic sinus infections.’
She enumerated the dates and durations of all my colds, flus and childhood illnesses. The Fox listened attentively, wrinkling her nose after each sip of tea. From the shadow of the corner her fur appeared almost flat, like freckled human skin. Her little paw, clad in a high-heeled slipper, danced under the table. Babushka took a big bite from a honey-cake.
‘Soloist in her music school choir. Popular.’ Mama listed the names of my first-grade and neighbourhood friends. ‘As a toddler, prone to tantrums. Often in a bad mood. The migraines started a year ago, but Alina still managed to finish first grade at the top of her class. I’ve kept the diary, like the doctors advised. Here, take a look. The average episode lasts four hours, the auras before are …’
I tuned out. The aliens had begun their working day, drilling on the right side of my skull. I took off my shoes and wound into a kitten-ball. The Fox’s pillow was uncomfortable: hard, cold and pierced with stems of goose feathers. The holes in my vision were like smears on the glass of a diving mask. I recognized the two-tone spines of the World Literature series on the shelf. A low choral humming emanated from the icons’ corner. I squinted to see whether the saints were moving their mouths, but their dark, mournful faces only stared, flickering in and out of the candlelight’s golden fog.
Flashes of white light began to pulsate in my eyes, and a relentless countdown began. Ten, nine … I jumped off the bed and stumbled towards the table, hoping to reach someone before the explosion. Babushka caught me. Eight, seven … She sat me on her sturdy knees and held me tight.
‘You’re forgetting Chernobyl, Vika,’ she said.
‘I need to know everything before I can start the healing,’ the Fox said.
‘Let me explain,’ Mama addressed the Fox apologetically. ‘Alina was in Kiev when it happened. With her grandparents, on her father’s … my husband’s side. But the cloud didn’t go over Kiev. There was no direct radiation. She wore that radiation meter for months.
I’d been only four then, but I remembered that day at the zoo. Or thought I did. I’d looked so many times at a picture we had taken: me sitting astride a big stuffed bear; Grandpa Sasha and Baba Zoya, who’d been recently diagnosed with cancer, on either side. A donkey flanked her, and he had a live monkey in a red vest and a purple skullcap on his shoulder.
Suddenly, the migraine lifted. The countdown stilled to a whisper, then died. The aliens retreated in disappointment. I saw them all clearly now: Babushka, Mama, and the red-haired woman in glasses and a blue floral housecoat. She was much too beautiful and young to be a witch. Her pink lips were lined with maroon; a small golden cross twinkled on her freckly chest. She didn’t seem to have noticed the change.
‘We never know the whole story. No one can be trusted,’ she said in a doctorly tone, the way Babushka spoke to her patients. ‘These days we have to take all matters into our own hands.’
‘That’s what I’ve been telling her,’ Babushka said. ‘But she doesn’t listen to anyone’s sensible advice. About anything.’
Mama sighed and shook her head with exasperation.
‘There are many causes for ailments. But besides a few microbial and viral infections,’ – the Witch nodded at Babushka – ‘the causes are rarely biological. For one, Russia… Well, what am I saying, the whole world, the whole world is full of spirits thirsty for revenge,’ the Witch said. ‘Wars, revolutions, genocide. The crafty ones find their way into a new life. But most are too broken. They linger around, haunt the streets, haunt our homes, contaminate the minds and bodies of the most innocent. They hide in the hollows of the heart, warming themselves in the downy scarf of the child’s soul, leaking poisons of old hurt.’
‘Well, this philosophy seems rather –’ Mama began.
‘Listen carefully, Vika, and try to think,’ Babushka interrupted her harshly, as though Mama was a disobedient child. ‘She is very sensitive.’
I was about to say that it didn’t hurt anymore when the Witch called me over. She took out a measuring tape from her pocket and wrapped it around my head. With a magician’s flourish she showed Mama and Babushka a thumbed number.
Then she dug her cold fingers into my scalp. ‘Ah yes, I can see the pain now. You poor child,’ she chanted in a low voice. ‘The pain is like black ink, filling your head and your head is a giant inkwell. All those spirits are floundering in the ink – I see them so clearly. They want to express their pain through you. But we will banish them out of your head, tell them to go and cry elsewhere.’
The Witch encircled my head with her hands and rubbed it, singing something folky under her breath. She smelled not like a witch at all, but like Mama – of dishwater and borsch and Lancôme perfume. She massaged her song into my head, hard and fast, now building my hair up into a crown, now letting it fall to my shoulders. ‘Into the forest they go! Into the forest!’ she yelled. Her breath was loud and uneven.
It felt good, but so what: the Witch didn’t know what she was doing. She was wrong in her diagnosis of my pain. I was doomed.
Finally, she lifted off her hands and blew hot breath on my nape.
‘How do you feel?’ Mama said. She was pale, her big, grey eyes shining with fever. I so wished that I could, when I grew up, shrink her into a little doll and always carry her in my pocket like Vasilisa the Wise.
‘It’s doesn’t hurt anymore,’ I said and smiled. ‘She stopped the pain.’
Mama jumped from her chair and clutched me to her chest. ‘Oh, God, thank you, thank God. Thank you, Galina Kirillovna.’
The witch’s name turned out to be just an ordinary Russian name. ‘You’re welcome. This one wasn’t too hard because she’s so young,’ she said a bit too excitedly. ‘May your daughter grow up healthy and happy. And remember that the child’s health depends on the mother’s.’
She measured my head again and showed the mark to Mama and Babushka. My head had shrunk two centimetres. I felt it with my hands. Ears, mouth, nose, eyes – everything seemed intact. Maybe something had happened after all. Maybe she’d somehow altered the surface of my skull to make it impossible for the UFO to land there in the future.
‘Galina Kirillovna, do you by any chance do card readings?’ Mama asked.
‘Card readings? Of course. I do everything,’ Galina Kirillovna said gamely.
‘I wouldn’t trust the cards with such matters,’ Babushka snapped, but didn’t make a move from the table. She handed Galina Kirillovna the payment and took another honey-cake.
‘Alinochka, drink this. You need to rest now. Go lie on my bed,’ Galina Kirillovna said and gave me a cup of tea. Its bitter, herbal smell made me sneeze.
My eyelids became heavy as soon as I lay down. The bed didn’t feel as uncomfortable anymore. Through the syrup of sleep I heard the familiar incantations: For you, for the home, for the soul. What was. What will be. What will calm the heart.
I woke up in the back of the Zhiguli on the way home, nauseous again, but this time with hunger. Babushka drove, occasionally dropping her head forward to stretch her neck. Beneath the neckline of her green floral dress she had a small fatty hump. Mama was asleep in the front seat, her face turned to me. A slight smile hovered about her chapped lips. But whatever had calmed her heart was probably a lie or a mistake. This Galina Kirillovna could be a healer-witch or an evil witch, like the one Babushka beat up in her story. Or not a witch at all.
It will be clear soon enough. And if the doctors can’t help and the witches can’t help, and Papa and Babushka can’t – who else is left?
The ink of the night leaked from the corners of the sky on to the day’s bright canvas, as Galina Kirillovna would have said. She liked talking about the ink; maybe she’d make a better poet than a healer.
Birches, birches, birches forever. The notches on their white trunks looked like sad black eyes. They had long tired of staring at the world without blinking, but they could never close and go to sleep.
Artwork © Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin