The church behind the house is deserted, neglected, and has been for some time. It’s made of wood that is bowed and splintered, silvered by the elements. Truth be told, thinks Dina, the one a little way down the road near Yolkov’s farm isn’t in much better repair nowadays, even though it’s newer. Mind you, no one much uses that one anymore either, only occasional tramps, scouting parties and the like.
It’s simpler than the great ones across the border, with their bright colours and cupola-topped towers. This one is an immigrants’ church, made without much money, but much devotion, three levels and a tall spire, the onion dome unadorned. Uncle Abram said it used to be covered in gold, once, when it was first raised, but Uncle Abram also used to keep pigeons in there before he died; after he died too. Dina sometimes still sees him or what’s left of him, tending to the birds that have stayed, the ones that are getting old, have lost their sense of direction, or simply can’t be bothered going anywhere else. He’s a kind of silver-grey now, Uncle Abram, as he flits around the disused machinery and the rusting truck bodies that gradually replaced the pews; he’s less substantial than he was in life, which is some achievement since he was as thin as a twig then. Aunt Varvara used to say, when she still had the wherewithal to say anything, that he’d end up in the next town over if a strong wind blew through.
Of course she’s gone too, Aunt Varvara, carried off by the sickness that swept through the Valley, one of the first to go despite the deal she’d struck, thinking to ward if off. They’d found no hope in the light, been offered no deliverance despite all their prayers, all that wasted time spent on their knees in the church, all the tiny bloody sacrifices that brought them nothing.
In the end salvation of a sort had come from the very darkness itself.
Dina can hear the distant growl of tanks as she washes her lonely cup and bowl; the coffee and porridge were unsatisfying, even tinged red as they were with the last of her supplies. The soldiers are coming because they’re always coming, crossing borders that shift from one day to the next, taking and losing countries that have their names changed without warning. Dina’s not sure what her nation’s called anymore. The soldiers are coming, but they’re still far off. Dina can tell by the sound, the echoes and rumbles, the way the air trembles only a little. They’ll be searching, no doubt, for the others. She has time.
She climbs the stairs to the attic room she used to share with her cousins. It’s been all hers for a while now. The dress is laid out on the bed that once accommodated four girls of various heights and girths. Irina and Klara were no trouble, but Zoya took up a lot of space, farted a lot too. Were she to be truthful, Dina would say she wasn’t entirely unhappy to see the back of Zoya when her time came, to see her buried in her own white dress with the tiny purple flowers she’d insisted on embroidering along the hem. She had a fine hand, Zoya, for such things. The other girls had begged her help and she’d agreed in return for their share of dessert—when there were still such luxuries to go around—for six months. Irina and Klara had readily agreed; they were used to such bargains with their sister.
As her daughters disappeared one by one, Aunt Varvara drew closer to Dina; she’d always been fond of her niece, her dead brother’s orphaned child. When it came time for Dina’s white dress, Aunt Varvara had done most of the sewing, though tradition decreed a girl should make her own wedding gown. She’d done it in spite of Dina’s illness, in spite of all the predictions that the girl would not live past her sixteenth birthday, that no man would have such a sickling to wife. She wouldn’t be able to provide children—sons—wouldn’t be able to keep a house. Any man who married Dina would find himself tending her as if she were a sick child, be unmanned by nursing.
No husband would choose that.
Dina didn’t care about the dress, indeed had no skills for such a thing even if she desired it. But Varvara would not have a bar of her protests, nor anyone’s naysaying. She constructed the gown at night, sat Dina beside her, made her sew the seams, the parts inside where no one would look, so that the girl’s hands at least touched the frock, made some contribution to its birth. But all the fancy work, all the complicated frilling and shirring, embroidery and fitting—all of that was Varvara’s genius. Once upon a time, there would have been so many bright colours, so much embroidery in so many hues, an outfit of festive wedding wealth with a headdress to bend a bride’s neck, but Western bridal magazines—stolen, traded, fought over—had brought new ideas, encouraged that custom be put aside. The gown is entirely white, even the hand-stitched flowers, picked out in expensive silk thread that Dina’s mother had set by so many years ago, and which Varvara had rescued from the burning house along with Dina—after ascertaining her brother and sister-in-law were beyond help—and kept secure for her niece.
Dina stares at it affectionately, remembering the nights by the fire with her aunt—remembering, with a fondness she did not feel at the time, each pinprick, each hand slap for her carelessness. She recalls instead that her aunt believed she, Dina, would live. Would survive and thrive and need just such a dress. She reaches out, but her fingers don’t make contact with the fabric, not yet.
Instead, she looks to the window with its diamond-shaped panes, again towards the old church; its unhealthy slant has become worse if she’s not very badly mistaken. It was a beautiful thing, even with glass gone from the frames, and the endless trailing lace of bird shit streaking from the onion dome down the spire and the walls. The wooden tiles look like dragon scales or aggressive nettle leaves; either way, they bristle, defensive about their parlous state. But it is old, past its time, and not everything gets to live on, become something new.
She can see the luminous flicker that is Uncle Abram, passing back and forth in front of the empty casements, somehow with birdseed held in his ephemeral hands. No point in saying goodbye; he won’t hear her, or see her . . . or he’ll pretend he doesn’t, much as it was when he breathed. Dina misses Aunt Varvara, though, and wonders why of the two she wasn’t the one to come back. Even if only to nag Dina about brushing her hair and making sure her shirt was properly pressed and tucked into her skirt.
Beside the building is the graveyard, so small it seems hard to believe how many bodies it swallowed. Dina had nursed Abram and Varvara, her cousins, and more than a dozen of their nearest neighbours. At first she’d had help but eventually there was no one else left. People had come to the Kozlov farm in search of aid—at one point there’d been ten invalids on makeshift beds in the living room and the kitchen—but they grew sicker still. They’d found not a cure, just a kind hand to tend them as they died. Surely not a thing to be sniffed at, thought Dina.
As with the nursing, there’d been aid to start with when the cycle turned to burying, but as folk sickened they lost both the will and the ability to swing a shovel, and she was left alone to do the interments. The last couple, Dina had to admit, weren’t too deep under the sparse new grass. She was healthier, stronger by then, and her hands had toughened, the palms no longer blistering from the spade’s handle; however, she just didn’t have the energy to go down the six feet Father Gribov had insisted on before he got too ill to do anything but shit in his sheets. He’d been the last one she’d planted—had encouraged him on his way with a pillow over the face when he was too weak to protest, too weak to do anything but tell her that she was a bad person, evil, damned; that her aunt had been the same. He wasn’t a pleasant man. There was nothing kindly or generous or forgiving about him. She used to think he wasn’t a good churchman, dominating the Valley folk from the tiny church down the road, the one where the walls didn’t bow, the ceiling didn’t house pigeons, where the windows were still intact, but nowadays Dina suspected he was precisely that: a good churchman. Just not a good human being. Maybe that was why his religion failed him, failed all of them.
Or perhaps his flock had simply been trained to believe kindness wasn’t to be expected of God. Perhaps that was why, when Varvara brought them her solution, they took the hand that was offered, no matter that it was blackened and bore nails that might be mistaken for talons. Perhaps, when you can see death coming, you’ll do anything to avoid it and not be too picky about the details.
Dina’s eyes drift to the other grave, the one that’s just outside the graveyard’s low iron fence. This one was buried well; Dina had not taken part in this inhumation. She had still been recovering, lying in the bed in the attic, though she propped herself up that night, watched through the window as they interred the old woman by torchlight. As they dug deep, deep down to make sure she stayed where she was put.
Dina’s fingers are thin, the nails sharper than they used to be, her skin rougher. As she undoes her blouse, the cicatrix on her chest is exposed. One button at a time, seemingly such a small action to show such a dreadful trauma. Red, thick, raised, almost new enough that she can see the thin line where the cut was made. So fine a slice to have produced such a large scar! She’d been given some of Aunt Varvara’s poppy milk to make her sleep that night, but sometimes she’s sure she remembers the sensation of that incision, of the creaking farm implements repurposed to spread her ribs wider and wider—some days they still ache—the feeling of Aunt’s small fingers, tiny palm, closing around her heart . . .
The old woman had come to them, wandered out of the forest that backed onto the Kozlov’s farm. She’d knocked at the door, begged food, drink, eyed Dina, who’d risen from bed only to recline on the threadbare sofa by the fire, pale and wasting as her heart unhurriedly betrayed her. The old baba ate slowly, mostly gumming the fresh bread Aunt Varvara gave her, dipping it into the warm milk as if it wasn’t soft enough; as if it wasn’t the only thing they had to offer. Food was scarce by then, everywhere, yet they gave of what they had. Dina could see that the old woman’s distaste annoyed her aunt, but Varvara was smart enough not to make complaint. No good ever came of upsetting forest wives, which was why they’d welcomed her into their home even as tales of the sickness coming closer swept in on the breath of travellers and traders. Even though their friends and family had already begun to decrease in number.
The baba’s skin was a mass of crevices, as if she’d been the site of some dreadful geological event. Her hair was black but wiry and bushy beneath the red scarf, and her eyes were also black but sometimes in the light of the fire Dina thought there might be an undercurrent of yellow, like piss or spite. She wore so many skirts and shawls it was impossible to know what shape she was beneath them all—a riot of colours once, now faded and muted by time and dirt.
When Aunt Varvara went outside to hang the washing, the old woman sidled over to Dina, sat at her feet, felt the toes beneath the blanket to see how cold they were.
“How long do you have, girl?” she croaked.
Dina shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“How long have you been dying?”
The old woman grunted. Nodded. She put her hand against the girl’s chest and Dina was too weak to shake her off, too tired to shout for Varvara’s help. But the crabbed digits with their swollen knuckles and sharp nails went no further, did nothing but lay against the place where Dina’s heart gave its lethargic lub-dubs. Then the old woman nodded again, grunted again, and took her fingers away.
“My heart,” she crackled. “My heart is strong. So strong. It’s my body that’s giving up. Now you, the body is sound, but that treacherous heart is going to kill you.”
Dina hadn’t answered, just stared into the flames of the hearth.
When Aunt Varvara returned, the old woman rose and went to her. Spoke low, coaxed her to a corner of the kitchen where Dina could not hear them. Her aunt’s voice never rose in either anger or fear or hope, but when Varvara came to her a few hours later, having done the rounds of the Valley with the old woman in tow, she was pale and exhausted-looking, lines drawn on her face that had never been there before.
And then she told Dina what the old woman, the baba—the Baba—had proposed. What the folk of the Valley had agreed.
Dina touches the scar; the raised red flesh still feels hot, but perhaps that’s because she was so used to bad circulation all her life, to the cold. The new heart pushes blood around her body as the old never did. Varvara had taken the old woman’s offer, thinking to save her niece and all those who starved and sickened around them. That the Baba’s gift might stop their crops from failing, their children from dying, the soldiers from marauding and taking whatever tiny scraps of value might be left to them. Varvara had sought some kind of safety, although Dina didn’t think her aunt truly knew—or properly bargained for—what shape that might take. Death, Dina had thought at the time, was a form of safety, yet she didn’t know if the idea was hers or the Baba’s.
But there was a greater price to be paid than just the body of a sick girl, of course there was. Though the crops began to revive, the sickness kept eating away at the Valley folk, and by the time they realised it, the old woman was dead and gone, beyond any kind of retribution. Soon Varvara was gone too, wondering with her last breath what she’d done. Ultimately, it took them all.
All except Dina, the girl with the Baba’s heart.
When Dina was at last alone, the soldiers came. A big group that time, not just one or two strays, deserters or scouts. Whatever had been happening in the world beyond the Valley had at last seen fit to pour into it. When those men came and saw there was no one but Dina, they thought she was easy meat.
She wasn’t fully healed, she was tired and hungry. But the Baba’s appetites were strong and growing stronger; there was Dina’s body, the Baba’s heart, and a ruthless pragmatism binding them together. Her nails had grown long and sharp like the old woman’s had been, so sharp that she’d sliced open Dina’s chest and her own with one of those talons so Aunt Varvara could pull the heart from each and swap them over. No clever surgery necessary, the Baba’s magic ensured her heart took to the new body; it didn’t matter what Dina’s cold organ did in the Baba’s worn-out corpse.
The soldiers had thought to chase her, hunt her through the woods, but she led them a merry dance. Picked them off one by one. She drew the game out, then hung them in her larder when she’d done, knowing they’d stay fine and fresh in the cold air. What she took from those men old and young had helped to sustain her, helped to heal her, helped make the raw cut in her chest close over faster.
She knew more would come, but she knew she had some time.
Today they have come.
Dina dresses in her white gown, thinks of Aunt Varvara’s kind hands pulling it together, making it so very lovely. It’s not a wedding dress, no, but something so much better: a coronation gown.
Dina walks through the forest, beneath the trees festooned with crimson flesh and white bones. The red drip-drops onto her snowy dress, hitting with strange precision only the embroidered silken flowers, so it appears as though they are blossoming on the skirt, the bodice, the sleeves.
The blood from the soldiers who came before—blood that should not run any longer—liquefies and falls like a benediction. It makes a plink as it hits, softer on the fabric than on skin or rock, or the puddles of water where the winter fall has melted. It’s not the only sound. Behind her comes the cacophony of more men, more soldiers, many more than last time. She’s not strong enough to face them all, not yet, but she’s cunning and she’s fast; she knows these trails better than any living being. She’ll leave them far behind, find the spot deep in the Red Forest where a tiny house waits, made of wood, its legs those of chickens so it can rise and walk if required. She’ll know it—if the chicken legs aren’t enough—by the skulls that hang on its porch, their eyes bright with flame as they watch who comes, and scream warnings to Baba Yaga.
The mortar and pestle are just down this path, hidden, waiting. She’ll hike up her skirts and climb aboard, take hold of the pestle in her thin, strong hands. The vessel-vehicle will know which way to go.
Dina will warm her new home, kindle fire in its hearth. She’ll rest, grow strong, become better acquainted with who she is now, with both of her selves. Then, when she is ready, she’ll venture out. She’ll find more soldiers and others like them. She’ll find all she needs, out in the world that’s just waiting for a new god.
Originally published in Winter Children and Other Chilling Tales (collection).