“Yay! High time!” A smile sneaks across my chapped lips. I gawk at the wooden cabin perched atop the silvery mountain peak, sheathed by a pine thicket.
Soaked to the bone, I’m tromping through the frozen earth scored with endless stripes of skeleton trees for hours. Dejected, desperate, and adrift.
Besides the cottage, I haven’t seen a beacon of hope in a long time.
So much for the long-coveted job! My lips curl with bitter irony.
It hadn’t been too many days back when I was deemed the crown jewel of the Global Wanderer, a leading international travel magazine.
“This story will put us on the map,” the senior editor had gloated.
“Imagine exploring the endless taiga for the entire year at the expense of company money,” the HR head had snickered.
“All the vodka, wine, and foamy beer! Sheer ecstasy…” My colleagues had babbled in a mixture of jealousy and admiration.
“Only if you could look at me now!” I cuss, dodging the wind’s icy talons, raking through my damp clothes, stabbing my skin, and scraping at my flesh.
How I prided myself on being the gutsiest travel writer amongst the current crop! Trekking on the windswept plains of Bolivia, conforming to the old ways of South America, and crossing the Himalayas on foot is no bloody joke!
“You are nothing but an imbecile,” I berate myself, booting the tip of my snowshoe into the slope to form a step.
Only a halfwit like me could let the whimsical notion of engaging with the isolated communities hidden from the world in the depths of the Siberian taiga seduce them. Nobody but a moron would put their head on the block for touching forgotten history, unsullied culture, and primitive lifestyle!
“Look where those insane pursuits landed you!” My throbbing legs drag me back to the present, yelping as if crushed under the weight of a thousand dead elks.
“Maximum thirty minutes hike,” I psyche myself, staring at the narrow looping trail across the broad paws of snow-crested birches and sleeping pine. Hunger pangs shoot through my belly. The wet clothes crackle as I trudge into deep snow, and the fringe of my yellow quilted jacket hangs in thin, jagged icicles.
A long stretch of river whooshes behind me, a black blur under its frozen face. I scowl back at the cabin. Though it seems to face the other side, with no visible windows or doors, it is hard to miss. The gigantic crimson light bulbs, the size of crystal balls, bedecking its rustic-looking rail fence, make it shine above the bleak backdrop. Like a lighthouse—lone, lit, and leading the way.
I huff a cloud of warmth on my clammy palms and recall the hours preceding my present wretched state.
Earlier this morning, my local guide, Dmitri, was driving me on the perilous-looking ice bridge connecting the river’s banks with practiced ease. How he gushed with unsolicited wisdom! “The taiga is hardy, harsh, and huge. You could walk every day, for years, and yet never reach the end,” he said. “Hope you are ready for a long Siberian holiday.”
“Ready! My foot!” I swear, my words sputtering between labored breaths. How could one prepare for the guide abandoning them? Dmitri deserted me midway, despite me keeping a beady eye on his black wool coat and brown cedar slacks.
Left with no other option, I had trekked along the Yenisei banks, slogged in the shifting hues of snow, and stumbled between scraggly pines, sharp-smelling spruces, and fir. Despite hours of search, I had failed to cajole the moody forest into coughing out either Dmitri or another human being.
The violent blush of the setting sun swallows the horizon, jolting me out of my misery; the wind grows ruthless, lashing its fury with a vengeance. I hasten, skirting a knotty aspen trunk.
Snap! The twigs break! Leaves rustle, and then a low rumble!
Dark shadows crouch over me. I shudder. And look up.
My eyes jump out of their sockets, and my heart misses a beat. The cabin flanked by tall spruces is standing right before me.
Cowering in fear, I swivel back and forth. The river is close behind, and the mountains are still distant; they haven’t shifted. I probably haven’t walked more than a few meters. Yet I’ve reached the cottage.
Stupefied, I gawk at the tall squares of amber windows, carving gold pools in the snow. Wispy plumes of smoke escape the chimney like muted spirits leaving the earth.
How is the cabin facing me now? Didn’t I see its back wall earlier?
Before I mull further, the rusty door flings open. The aroma of freshly baked bread tugs at me.
“You’re here. A bit early, I’d say,” a girl steps out.
Would the wonders never cease? How could she be expecting me? Are these people my local host—a part of my itinerary?
A single look inside, and my questions fly away, leaping out of sight like a snow hare bolting at the whiff of a fox.
The table in the living room is crammed with creamy grub—fluffy stuffed pancakes, black bread, pots full of mushroom dumplings, jam-filled cakes, cabbage, and fish rolls, plus the works!
“It’s for you,” the girl beams, following my gaze. “By the way, I am Masha.”
Of course, I needn’t be told twice.
Soon, I’m sitting across the low birch table, tucking into the sumptuous food and gabbing with the girl like old friends. Soothing music, like a murmuring stream, flows around us. The dishes get added, shuffled, and replaced every other moment, but I am too focused on my plate to care.
I scan my surroundings between quaffing tender meat and downing Sbiten, a sugary drink.
A rickety carved cabinet is overflowing with amulets, fishing gear, figurines of birds, animals, and fishes, tons of books, and many bottles of vodka. Enough to keep me entertained till Dmitri comes looking for me! I smirk.
The air is snug, brimming with luscious flavors. And sure enough, I notice enormous cast-iron pots bubbling away and a cauldron plonked atop a roaring fire.
Somehow, I can’t wave aside the eerie sensation of someone watching me, following my movements, and tuning into my chatter.
Almost like an answer, my gaze flits to a motley of menacing-looking dolls propped on a surface. While Masha puts tiny cups of tea before the ghoulish figurines, I ogle at their hand-sewn, fur-lined robes made of animal skins. Some sport tawny leather belts or colorful scarves, while others don long braids, embroidered headbands festooned with beads, pendants, and deer hair.
Their unearthly faces rob some of my previous ease. A mint of candles flickering against the birch barks escalates my edginess further.
“Would you like to leave tonight?” Masha says.
Leave? Tonight? Why?
“Of course not! I’d like to stay if that’s possible,” I blurt. My thoughts, teeming with visions of damp, penetrating cold, betraying snow, and the forest abuzz with night creatures, further bolster the decision.
I nod my head several times in affirmation.
“Then let’s move; Mother will be here soon.” Masha squeaks, her eyes fastened on a smoking pipe with forked motifs and black etching.
As Masha yanks my yellow jacket towards another hinged door, the planks under my feet grunt and grumble. The next moment, I am airborne. Only to jolt back to the ground with a thud!
“Please!” Masha begs.
A surge of confusion sweeps through me.
Who is Masha talking to? I couldn’t see anyone except her. But I’m enormously exhausted and too full from my feast to care.
A dull boom reverberates across the cabin, and the door opens.
“Whatever happens, don’t come out,” Masha hisses in my ears, tucking me under layers of rugs and felt.
A deep slumber drops over me like the debris of an avalanche, and I buckle under.
The din of crashing music jerks me awake: the wild clashing of cymbals, pounding drums, and high-pitched rapid strumming of the balalaika.
A song in a sinuous, husky voice breaks the rising and falling wall of sound, its lyrics raw and strange.
The harmonious chants, the multi-track hymns, and the pulsing tempo are hypnotic.
My feet tap in tandem, my body sways, and my fingers rap as if commanded by the strings of a puppet master.
A chink appears in the wall beams; it yawns wider with the beats and sneaks a brilliant orange triangle inside.
I almost jump out of my skin. It takes me a few minutes to steady my breath and peer outside.
A hunchback woman is singing and twirling—a ghoulish romp on one leg that looks like bare bones fettered with metal screws.
Then, she halts and waddles to the center, only to take hold of the tambourines decorated with bells, ribbons, feathers, and coin rattlers and pounds them with gusto. The ornaments jangle, complementing the thunderous beat imitative of galloping horses.
A smoking pipe is clinched in her mouth, unfurling a sting of fresh tobacco.
Is she Masha’s mother?
A crowd gyrates around her—a mass of wagging heads, spinning bodies, and waving arms sloshed by a shower of silver moonlight.
No fucking way! How could the roof disappear?
My gaze drifts to people scattered along the table; some are gulping down thick red broth with relish.
Is it blood? Do I notice blobs of flesh inside it?
But above all, why can’t I resist the pull?
The rift widens further as if spurred by my thoughts.
I’m ready to leap when suddenly I catch Dmitri pirouetting amidst people.
Ah! The ass is here, at last!
But he is not his assured self; his eyes are glazed, and his face vacant. What’s wrong?
Meanwhile, the drumming rises to a towering crescendo, thrusting the mob into a frenzy. People howl out of tune, thump the floor, and spin in a tizzy, their hair soaring in a circle. Intermittent thrums of the clatter of horses’ hooves, the croaking of frogs, the rattles of snakes, and the yowls of cats further add to the strange atmosphere.
Then, without warning, everything quietens. The delicate hum of the harp replaces the clamor.
Suddenly the floor judders.
My heart slips into my belly, and my legs quiver.
With a colossal tremor, the floor yields, giving way to a giant sinkhole. A pillar of darkness, fringed with crackling flames, leaps out of it, merging into the dark veil of the night overhead.
A ghostly stillness prevails.
The old woman, however, swings into action. She floats from one person to another, whispering in their ears, her hooked nose, crooked teeth, and wrinkled face glimmering in dingy orange.
“Aa-a-rgh!” a scream slices the moment. And someone launches themselves into the interminable depths of the pit.
Soon, others follow suit.
What’s happening? A mass -suicide?
I forget to breathe.
Why is the black hollow drawing me like fire pulling a moth to death?
“Pack up,” Masha splinters the spell. But once again, she is talking to some invisible entity.
Before I interrupt, a low wail rises from the beams, and I am sewn shut in utter darkness and absolute silence.
Strips of dim light steal across the slats.
Trunks and bedding crammed along the sides, bowls of Sbiten, and clothes hung on suspended poles from the ceiling make their presence apparent.
Why does it feel so familiar? As if I’ve been here for at least a million years.
I amble outside; a jumble of raised voices, whimpering, and whining bops around me.
“There was so much he wanted to do! He wasn’t ready!” Masha sobs, standing before the old woman.
Despite being concerned, I bypass them. The lure of the open-hearth stove, hand-held sled, elk-skin drag, birch bark, and wood paintings piled in a corner is too much for me to resist. As I stare at them, a barrage of memories dislodges, cascading down like hailstones from the outraged skies.
A wailing human baby wrapped in pastry dough lying on a bread paddle and pushed inside the oven for baking!
Dashing downhill with Masha on the hand-held sleds!
Playing “Wolf and deer” with Masha and the House, surrounded by a thicket of elms and cedars.
What? Playing with the House? I question my sanity. But the image is indelible. Soon, a vision of the log cabin bounding on its slender tree stump-like legs, ending in massive roots, emerges.
I see myself sitting by the windows and watching the cottage fly past the landscape on its bird-like legs—forests, swamps, bogs, fens, rivers, and lakes with massive claws leaving marks on the earth. The images of the House racing with the greater-spotted eagle, playing tag with fleet-footed elks and reindeer, flit next.
Then, I see Masha, the House, and me, again. We are lingering near the holes on the frozen lakes for salmon to take our bait before raiding deserted chums, the temporary tents shaped out of reindeer hides!
I remember everything: crackling frost, carefree laughter, water dripping from the pine leaves, and the rhythmic canter of the log house.
Did any of those things happen?
Befuddled, I peer outside. A smear of magenta bunches the western sky, and darkness looms overhead.
A fence erecting itself around the cottage catches my eye.
Long bones glide over each other, darn themselves with ribs, vertebrae, and phalanges before propping human skulls on their tips and lighting candles in the eye sockets. The skull crown blazes up like red-hot coal.
What the fuck? Human bones?
It hits me like a punch in the gut. Aren’t these skulls the giant bulbs that enticed me to this horrific cabin in the first place?
Do these devils harvest bones from the crowd that jumped into that enormous pit?
In a panic, I recall how I’d savor the succulent meat my hosts offered, sucking on the nutty marrow. Have I been feasting on the corpses all this while, or worse, human babies?
The recollections of roaring music and wild dancing split open next. Night after night, the beams had rifted as if urging me to take part and shut closed after Masha’s pleading. But the yearning and curiosity had only grown stronger.
“It was wrong of you to assist Masha and hide him. She is just a ten-year-old kid, but you know better.” This time, instead of Masha, it is her mother, the crookback, admonishing the air with her face contorted in a stormy temper.
The bone fence smashes in a clatter, the skulls roll hither-thither, and the roof sags, dribbling fat water drops. I watch the spectacle, mouth agape.
Is it in response to Masha’s mother’s rebuke?
“There, there!” She softens and caresses the walls. “Now, don’t delay! My Red Sun is already galloping across the horizon.”
At once, the roof straightens, the fence props back, and I realize with a start that House is very much alive and receptive. All this while, the mother-daughter duo has been talking to nobody but the House.
While I ruminate, Masha’s mother glares deep into my face, as if reading my thoughts.
“No, I wasn’t roasting the baby.” She sighs. “It was born premature and sickly; I healed the baby and passed it to his folks.”
Damn! The hag could tap into my mind!
“I am Baba Yaga. And no, we don’t reap the bones from the guests. The bones belong to the House. And yes, you really did all those things with Masha and the House,” she elaborates, tucking a wispy strand of disheveled hair into her red scarf. Her eyes trace the smudge of the crimson sun sinking behind the elm trees. “The horsemen—Bright Dawn, Red Sun, and Dark Midnight are my sons. Everything has to be ready before Dark Midnight arrives.”
I google at the whirlwind of activity—curtains are dusted, cushions fluffed, mantle wiped, and candles propped. The dinner table is a formless blur—bowls, dishes, pots of dill, and bread baskets emerge from a red checkered cloth. A mellow melody pours from the gusli-samogudy, a self-playing string instrument.
But neither Baba nor Masha moves a muscle; Masha is still sulking, and Baba is smoking her pipe. A few disembodied hands are executing the endless chores.
Baba laughs at my gobsmacked expressions. “The hands are my buddies, and the tablecloth is enchanted; it sets itself.”
Later in the night, when I sit amongst strangers under the starlit sky and sample the red broth, I can’t help but grin at my idiocy.
It isn’t a blood broth, but a beetroot soup called borscht!
Once again, the lull chases the whooping hysteria, and people circle the enormous pit in the floorboards. Standing at the edge of the black hole, gawking into its inky depths, I remember… a faint forgotten memory buried in the seams of my mind busts open.
A slight tremor… A loud groan and a thunderclap! The ice road under our SUV cracks apart, plummeting Dmitri and me into the frigid water several feet below. My eyes clamp at Dmitri’s black wool coat till I can see no more.
The understanding dawns, calming the dredges of my inner turmoil. Yeah! I died the day I crossed the frozen river with Dmitri. And so did Dmitri!
Baba whispers in my ear, “End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path… I, Baba Yaga, the guardian of the threshold, a gatekeeper, guide you to the other realm. My cabin, a gateway to another universe, waits for you to step forward.”
I jump. The blazing pit engulfs me.
Dmitri and I stare at our reflection in the windowpane—two wooden dolls perched next to each other, swathed in a black wool coat and yellow quilted jacket.
Masha places a bowl of Sbiten before me and winks.
Khanty (an ethnic group from Siberia) practices a ritual of death dolls to preserve the deceased’s soul till it is reborn. The dolls are treated like living people, fed, and put to bed.
End? No, the journey doesn’t end here -J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings.
Read more about Baba Yaga here.
Khanty and Mansi ritual dolls-
The Cult of Ancestors. The Power of Our Blood- a book by Viktoriya Raydos
Sacred places and attributes of the northern Khanty at the beginning of the XXI century- here.
Picture Credit-Pixabay/ Public Domain Pictures.