She was a witch, I swear, she was a real witch!
When my novella, which I was writing obsessively all my senior year at the Academy and a year after that, was accepted by a publisher and I was given a modest advance, I decided to buy myself an apartment. I, of course, didn’t have the money for a big or expensive place, so I bought a small, one-room flat in a cheap, prefabricated building on the outskirts of Moscow.
I moved from my mother’s and began settling down. Only three or four apartments had been sold so far in the whole building, and on my floor, except for me, there was nobody. This was my first apartment, I was happy, and I walked around it, touching the smooth white walls, pasting up something here, nailing something there. One morning I was standing on a stool, drilling a hole in the ceiling in order to put in a hook for a lamp, when I saw a large ambulance pulling into the courtyard.
What’s that for? I thought.
The ambulance made a circle in the yard and stopped in front of my entrance. Its doors burst open and a small bearded man in a sweater and checkered pants jumped to the ground. The man went to the other door and helped out a bony young woman in a long red skirt. The woman was barefoot. A thick flaxen braid reached her waist.
The man and the woman climbed back into the ambulance and in a second a flowered loveseat emerged from it, accompanied by a rocking chair. Then the man pulled something by a rope and at the door, to my surprise, appeared the head of a pitch-black goat with large horns. The woman pushed the goat from behind, the goat jumped down, and she tied it to the ambulance door.
After that the man took a stretcher from the ambulance, laid it on the ground, and with the woman began piling on it paper bags filled with pots and pans. Both of them picked up the stretcher and went into the building entrance. Shortly the elevator rumbled on my floor. The sound of footsteps rustled past my door and faded down the corridor.
Ah, they’re moving into one of those two-room flats; a medic, probably, I thought and started drilling again. Those arriving in the ambulance, meanwhile, made another trip to the yard and returned, leading the goat on a rope and carrying the boxes with dishes.
The ceiling of my apartment was reinforced concrete and it didn’t give in. I pressed harder. Crack—the drill bit snapped in my hands. Devil! I changed the bit and with maddened effort pierced the ceiling. A wild crash and clatter of crockery rang out from the corridor. I stopped drilling and listened. Someone was knocking quietly at my door.
“Yes,” I shouted, “come in.”
The bearded man was standing in my doorway. Closer up I got a better look at him. He was about 40. His wiry hair bristled out in all directions. Streaks of gray broke here and there in it. He apparently had weak eyes, for the glass in his rimless spectacles was quite thick.
“Excuse me,” he said, tugging at his beard, “do you, by any chance, have a broom? I just, devil take it, flipped the whole box of dishes out on the floor over there.”
I got off the chair and gave him a broom and a dustpan.
“Thanks. I guess we’re neighbors,” he said, taking the broom in one hand and extending to me the other. “Doctor Wunderkind. The first name is Samson.”
“Glad to meet you,” I said.
This was how I made the acquaintance of the man. The next day I had an opportunity to meet the woman.
I went into the elevator and was about to push the button, when I heard footsteps. I looked out. My new neighbor was coming into the entrance. I held the elevator door for her. She came in and stood across from me. Her face was wide and splattered with freckles, her eyes were colorless. She looked at me without blinking.
She’s barefoot again, I thought. And her feet are quite rough, evidently used to going barefoot. Probably one of those natural food freaks . . . Her braid is unusual, though. Nobody wears hair like that anymore.
“Why nobody? In my village everybody wears it this way,” she said suddenly. Her voice was low and she spoke with a drawl like people from the North.
“You from a village?”
“Bityugovo, Archangel region.”
The elevator stopped on our floor and the door opened.
“Are you the doctor’s . . . ” I wanted to say “maid.”
“Wife,” she blurted and walked down the corridor.
“Everybody wears it this way,” I mumbled, unlocking my door. Wait a second, I didn’t say anything about her hair . . . or did I? hm . . . well, I bet this Bityugovo is a tiny village up there in the woods.
And so I was not much surprised when a rope was stretched across their balcony and clumps of dry grass hung on it, swinging in the breeze.
Several times before dawn I recognized the slap of her bare feet walking up and down the corridor. And once, well after midnight, when I was sitting at my desk working—inspired by the accepted novella, I decided to create a novel, and spent nights writing—I suddenly heard somebody puffing heavily outside my door. I rushed to the door and threw it open. The black horned goat was rubbing itself against my door, sniffing my lock.
“How are you? Finished fixing up your place?” Doctor Wunderkind asked me when I ran into him in the courtyard.
“More or less. And you?”
“Almost. Have you signed up for a phone?”
“I’ve got one already.”
“So quickly? They told me I had to wait for ten months.”
“Well, the wife of their chief engineer’s nephew is my mother’s friend.”
“That’s always useful, to know someone’s nephew,” he grinned.
“Of course. Listen, if you have to make an urgent call or something, you’re welcome to use it.”
“You better beware, I might take you up on that,” he said.
And, indeed, soon one evening he took advantage of my invitation.
“The public phone is ripped out . . . and you were kind enough. . . . ” he said, pulling at his beard.
Having called, he glanced at the manuscript pages scattered over my desk. “What is it you’re writing, may I ask?” He cocked his head a bit to one side.
“A novel, hopefully.”
“Are you a fiction writer?”
“Not really. I just had a piece accepted.”
“Wonderful. I also wrote at one time, poetry though. Used to write a lot of poems while in medical school. Submitted them to quite a few magazines. All were rejected. They said they were too murky.”
“Your wife is an unusual woman; what does she do?”
“She doesn’t do anything. She’s a psychic.”
“You mean she predicts?”
“And also charms pain away, tells fortunes, the whole bit.”
“Can she tell my fortune?”
“Sure, why not.”
“Whenever you want.”
“What about now?” “We can try.”
In the Wunderkinds’ living room, next to the flowered loveseat and in front of the overfilled bookcase, there stood a wooden cage, in which I noticed several motley hens and a big brown rooster. The hens were sleeping, huddled in a corner of the cage. The rooster sat on a perch and from under a drooping comb squinted gloomily at me with one eye.
“Sasha!” the Doctor shouted. “Saashaa!”
From behind the closed door of the next room some sort of cooing was heard.
“She’s putting Baba to bed,” he said. “Baba can’t fall asleep without her.”
“The goat. Have a seat,” he pointed to the rocking chair.
I sat down. The chair creaked under me. Wunderkind sat on the loveseat across from me.
“How about some tea?”
“No, thanks. You know,” I said, “a few days ago, when I met your wife in the elevator, I had a kind of weird feeling that she read my thoughts. I wasn’t really sure, though . . . “
“No doubt she did!” he chuckled. “Reading thoughts is easy as pie for her. She read mine, for example, even before they appeared in my own head.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you see, I met her just a few weeks ago when I went into the Archangel region for my summer vacation . . . you know, walking through the woods with the backpack, spending nights in some tiny villages . . . I’m a psychiatrist and for me after all this tension it’s just divine . . . Anyway, this time an unpleasant thing happened. My jaw suddenly bloated up. Terrible pain, nothing helped, and the nearest dentist two hundred and fifty miles away. And then, the old woman I had stayed overnight with said to me: ‘There’s a girl in our village who can charm it away. Go to her!’ Sasha was that girl. She put a twig to my cheek, mumbled something and in a flash the pain vanished. Then she looked at me and said: ‘You’ll take me with you to Moscow. She said it just like that, and then added: ‘You’ll take me as your wife with you to Moscow.’ Can you imagine? And, you see,. that’s exactly what happened.” Wunderkind became silent for a while and then continued, “I stayed with her in that Bityugovo village till the end of my vacation, and when I was about to leave, I realized that I couldn’t live without her . . . “
While he said that, the door of the next room opened and Sasha appeared. Her flaxen hair now fell free over her shoulders. Looking past me as if I weren’t in the room, she tiptoed to the chicken cage. The brown rooster, seeing her, fluttered, hopped off his perch, and fanning his tail, walked to the bars of the cage. She stuck her hand through the bars.
“Yiieh!” she exclaimed suddenly, turning to me and thrusting a big white egg almost under my nose. I flinched.
“Don’t scare people, honey,” Wunderkind said.
“Just joking,” she smirked, showing her widely spaced teeth. “Did you buy millet for Vasily?” She went up to Wunderkind and put her palm on his crown.
“Yes, I did. Honey, do you think you might tell his fortune now?”
“I might, I might,” with her colorless eyes she looked straight into mine. “You spread the millet,” she said to her husband. He got up, took a small paper bag from the shelf and began strewing the grains on the floor of the cage. The rooster flicked his comb, looked askance at the millet and then began methodically hammering the floor, picking it up. The hens crawled from their corner, nodded, and joined him.
Sasha, meanwhile, took an old newspaper from somewhere behind the loveseat and laid it out on the floor near my feet.
“How do you tell fortunes, with cards?” I asked.
“With grass,” she said solemnly.
She walked onto the balcony and took from the rope several clumps of dry grass.
“Put your feet on the paper,” she said to me. “No, no, take off your shoes and socks. I need bare feet.” I obeyed. “Roll your pants up higher.” She squatted near my legs. “Umbala, bumbala, umbala, bumbala,” she mumbled quietly, then faster, and faster, and louder. “BUMBALA!” she shouted and flung a clump of grass onto the newspaper. “BUMBALA-BEY!!” a few more clumps lay next to the first.
Doctor Wunderkind was back on the loveseat now, watching her with rapt attention.
“You’re 22 years and four months old,” she said, her eyes flashing at me.
“Is it right?” Wunderkind asked eagerly.
“Correct,” I said.
“Your father abandoned you when you were three,” she continued tossing more grass. “And after that you lived just with your mother.”
“Absolutely accurate,” I said, astonished.
“Recently you got some luck,” she said raising herself up, “and because of that you’re working now like a mule, but it’ll be a waste of time.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Shh, don’t interrupt her,” Wunderkind whispered.
“I’ll tell you,” she walked around me and then, her face sweating, and breathing heavily, she began jumping around me in a wild dance. “Because you should beware of false expectations!” she howled and threw dry grass on my head.
My novel was doomed! flashed through my head. I wanted to ask her more, but I didn’t have a chance to. The door of the next room burst open, and the black goat, lowering her horns and stamping her hooves, charged at me.
“Baba, stop!” Wunderkind shouted.
I leapt from the chair just in time as it, knocked over by the horns, tumbled onto the floor. Wunderkind fell flat on the goat, trying to grab her horns. Sasha stopped dancing and watched them. Finally, he managed to get hold of the horns, and dragged the goat back to her room. Sasha followed them.
“Gosh,” Wunderkind said, returning and shutting the door behind him, “she really hates it when Sasha goes into a trance, I’ve noticed that.” From the next room a muffled grumble and Sasha’s babbling could be heard.
“She definitely does,” I said, picking up the chair and settling back into it. “I’d like your wife to tell me more . . . I can comprehend her reading my past, since my past, presumably, exists somewhere in my head. But the future? It doesn’t exist yet. And it’s just beyond me how one can read something which does not exist, which is yet to be! Or does it mean that the future is existing now?”
“Maybe it is, you see, maybe it is!” Doctor Wunderkind exclaimed, pacing back and forth about the room and tugging at his beard. “Maybe the present, and the past and the future exist simultaneously, maybe it’s just one thing, one tangle, and we all are like blind men groping in the fog unable to see it! . . . ” He stopped before me, the small, puny man, his thick glasses glistening. “But there are some people among us, exceptional people, who are linked to Nature’s primordial force, who can penetrate this tangle! And Sasha is one of them!”
“Samsoon!” Sasha’s voice came from behind the closed door. Wunderkind rushed there. In a second he came back. “I don’t know what happened,” he said, looking at me embarrassedly, “but it’s absolutely impossible to calm Baba down while you’re here. Sasha’ll tell your fortune tomorrow. I’ll get back to you. Is it okay?”
“Yes, of course, of course,” I said, slipping my bare feet into my shoes and picking up my socks from the floor.
I went back to my apartment, tried to do something, but I couldn’t. Again and again I returned to Wunderkind’s words . . . the oneness of the present, the past and the future. But then, what connects them all? Death . . . Is it possible to foretell when and how it will happen to us? Is it possible to foresee what is there beyond that boundary? Or should we just wait till each of us learns it for himself?
I desperately wanted Sasha to continue telling my fortune, but for the next few days I didn’t hear from the Wunderkinds. Finally, by the end of the week, unable to wait any longer, I went to them myself.
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry for not getting back to you,” Doctor Wunderkind said, opening the door.
“That’s okay. How’s Baba?” I said, not really knowing what to say.
“Well, she’s strange, to say the least. In a kind of apathy, very unusual for her. And what’s more, Sasha is the same way. Doesn’t talk. Totally noncommunicative. So I couldn’t really ask her about you . . . She’s not home now, but come in, I’ll show you something.” And through the first room, he led me to the second, which I hadn’t seen.
In the corner of the room, Baba the black goat was curled up next to a strange tall structure. Seeing me, she raised her head, then turned away. The structure was assembled from old, dirty boards and tree branches, and smeared with clay. On the floor in front of it lay the mound of dry grass.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Well, she wouldn’t say, but I figured it out,” Wunderkind said delightedly. “It’s a symbol of the woods, her native environment, but mainly it’s a link—it’s her link to Nature’s primeval force!”
After I left the Wunderkinds’ apartment, I had to go downtown. So it was quite late when I came home that evening. I got out of the elevator and noticed, near the Wunderkinds’ door, a figure in white. Sasha, in a long white gown and something white wound on her head, stood by the door, holding in one hand a jar of water, and in the other a brush. Babbling something, she would dip the brush into the water and draw circles and squares on the door. “Sasha! How’re you?” I said. But she didn’t answer, glanced at me wickedly and disappeared into the apartment. An odd bird, really, I thought. In olden times, they would have burned her at the stake in a second. I was too tired to do more than make it to my bed and collapse into slumber.
Thunder awakened me at 3:00 A.M. Somebody was pounding madly at my door. I rushed to open it. There, in the doorway, stood Doctor Wunderkind. His beard was bloody. Dark bloodstains were on the bedsheet he was wrapped in.
“I was wrong,” he said hoarsely. “It was Yarila!”
“What?” I asked, gaping at him. “What Yarila?”
“That structure . . . it was not a link to Nature, it was a pagan idol, Yarila . . . ” he gasped, “and she . . . wanted . . . to sacrifice me to him . . . telephone, I need . . . an ambulance, quick . . . “
I leapt to the phone and started dialing.
“Yes, tighten it here,” Doctor Wunderkind said. He X and I were standing in my bathroom, the bloody sheet lying on the floor. I was trying to bind two long deep slashes in his chest.
“Good thing she didn’t hit the jugular. Now, bring the bandage under my arm, this way. Devil!” he winced. “Lucky I woke up in time.”
“Why a sacrifice?” I mumbled. I was half-awake and couldn’t quite figure out what was going on.
“She said that. Pull it tighter . . . right . . . when I knocked the razor away from her, she started begging me to let myself be sacrificed to this idol, Yarila . . . Devil, so much blood,” he bit his lip.
“Where’s she now?”
“In shock.” He suddenly went pale and began sliding down to my feet.
A few minutes later, a siren of a huge white ambulance wailed in the courtyard below. Wunderkind regained consciousness but was very weak from loss of blood and could not walk. The orderlies put him on a stretcher. On another stretcher from the Wunderkinds’ apartment they carried out Sasha. She lay still, like a stone, but her eyes were wide open. The pair of stretchers was shoved into the ambulance and, wailing and drowning everything around it in blue light, it tore out of the courtyard.
Sasha was not prosecuted. Doctor Wunderkind, in order to save her, declared that he attempted suicide because of exhaustion and work pressure. They didn’t, however, return to their apartment. They divorced. She went back to the North, to her village of Bityugovo. He moved to, the South, to the small town of Chistopol.
I abandoned the novel and began writing a play.
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