DO YOU believe in fairy tales?
Vasilisa Petrovna Nikolayeva did not. Loved them? Most certainly. Needed them? Quite probably. But believed? Not at the age of thirteen, and not in the year 1919 with the dust barely settled over the rubble of the Great War, and definitely not in the small steel town of Edenfall, Pennsylvania, where Vasilisa lived with her mama and grandmother, long miles from the Russian homeland.
“Come, Pigeon,” grandmother would say. Her name was Vasilisa too, though she went by Babka. “Let us talk of Old Rus,” she would say, and then the words would come, and Vasilisa would disappear—into the forests of the northern wastes where witches and ogres lay in wait, or across the steppes of the Mongol Hordes, or down the Volkov River to Constantinople on a barge heaped high with furs and wax, honey and wood.
Best of all were the tales of the old witch Baba Yaga who lived in a hut on chicken legs, and who ate children when she could and helped them when she could not, and best of these was the story of how Vasilisa the Brave outwitted her and lived to tell. Both Vasilisa and her grandmother were named for this girl of lore, who had a bogatyr heart, fearless and true, and a mind for riddles, and a face to melt a prince’s heart.
But never in her wildest dreams would Vasilisa have believed that such a girl had ever existed, or perhaps still did, or that even someone ordinary, like herself, might someday be called to the strangeness of impossible horizons. No, she never would have dreamt such a thing.
Until, one night, she did.
Now, that was still some days distant when the letter came announcing the beginning of the end of hope. It was hand delivered by a messenger and bore a seal, which meant it was bound to be bad news. Mama read it on the stoop with shaking hands while Vasilisa dug in the garden bed beside the door, watching from the corner of her eye. And when Mama had gone inside, still Vasilisa dug, even when Babka stumped down the stairs with her walking stick to put a hand upon her shoulder.
“Pigeon, shhh,” she soothed, “there is nothing to be gained by such foolishness. Only the durachok buries his heart with the potatoes.” Always, Babka pitied the ways of the durachok, the Russian fool, but this time Vasilisa did not laugh.
“Papa’s not dead,” she said, stabbing her spade into the dirt, again and again. “He’s just missing, that’s what the letter says.”
And no one could say anything against this because it was exactly true that Peter Nikolayev had been declared missing in action, having last fought in the trenches near Flanders. But still Mama wept as if he were dead, and nothing Vasilisa or Babka said made any difference, for when Mama got something into her head, there was no getting it out.
* * * *
So it was that later that day, Vasilisa was sent to Miss Meredith’s house for some soothing herbs. For a while, Vasilisa forgot her troubles as she trod steeply downward, past the houses of the mill workers, planted side by side like stalks of corn in a victory garden. The air was sweet with the turning of leaves, even over the reek of the mill, acrid like smoke gone to rot, but so familiar that even it inspired a kind of hope. Papa would return, perhaps with the snows, and then everything would be as it was, with Papa in his favorite chair, the hearth fire burning, and Mama full of smiles for her beloved Peter.
Vasilisa could picture the homecoming clearly as she turned onto Main Street. Just down what remained of the hill, the steel mill smoked and glowed in the half-light like a dragon out of the old tales, reclining in the mists. The shopkeepers were shuttering their wares for the night—Lowell’s Hardware and Fleishman’s Meats, and of course Edenfall General Store where Mr. Bickham sold penny candy in big, glass jars with a smile to match.
It was a scene that never failed to comfort Vasilisa, though Babka would say it lacked prostor, that feeling of space and freedom that every Russian craved. Prostor was the sweep of fields and broad rivers, horizons vanishing into sky. It was why the low huts of the village were scattered so widely, yet also why Russians praised a warm heart over a tidy home and had at least twenty words for kinship instead of just one. In the face of vastness, one craved company. Vasilisa would point out that she was not Russian but American, and Babka would counter that no Russian could escape her fate, even one born upon a steamer on the high Atlantic seas.
These thoughts had just brought Vasilisa to the old Moravian cemetery when a skeletal form materialized from the mists.
“If it is not the lovely Miss Nikolayeva,” Mr. Goladyen said, doffing his hat. “Is it not late for you to be abroad, and so near to the wood?”
Mr. Goladyen always spoke like the starch in his shirts, and his eyes did not match what he said. Vasilisa did not like him. He had emigrated from Russia only last year, shortly after the October Revolution when many of the aristocracy had fled, and his name, though surely Russian, was not one any honest kinsman knew. It meant hunger. It meant starving. And it was this one could see glimmering in his eyes.
“Yes, it is late, sir, so you will forgive my hurrying on,” Vasilisa replied, not bothering to hide her distaste.
He replaced his hat with a tug and a smile so humorless that Vasilisa felt the brush of dread. “But of course. Do not let me detain you. We will see each other soon enough.”
And then he was off, vanishing into the mists as quickly as he’d appeared.
We will see each other soon enough.
What was that supposed to mean? Vasilisa redoubled her pace, for Meredith lived not much farther on in a cottage at the end of Willow Lane. There it was now, amid the tangled herbs and flowers that were Meredith’s trade. The Welsh were the best sort of healers, versed not just in the mysteries of leaf and root, but in other things too. Meredith had a way of knowing things.
A lantern was burning in the window as Vasilisa hurried up to rap on the door. She heard a clatter of pots, and a moment later the door was thrust wide.
“Vasilisa,” the herbalist said with that vague air she often wore. She tucked a lock of steely hair into her bun. “Dear me, but it’s late. Your mother is poorly?”
This was not one of Meredith’s prophecies. Gossip followed Mama like smoke followed beauty, and for the same reasons. Her recent fragility had only made her more beautiful—and more hated. But Meredith was not like that.
“She’s fine, thank you,” Vasilisa lied.
“Is she, now,” the healer said wryly.
Vasilisa felt her cheeks flame. The healer couldn’t find the glasses perched atop her head, but she always found the truth.
“Well don’t just stand there!” She turned and waved Vasilisa in. “Come, sit by the fire. Mr. Perkins has been missing your company.”
The last of Mr. Goladyen’s shadow slipped from Vasilisa’s heart as she closed the door and wiped her boots on the mat. How could anyone feel gloomy at Willow End? There sat Mr. Perkins on the stuffed chair before the fire, licking his fur and purring like Mr. Brown’s brand-new Model T.
Vasilisa settled the cat on her lap, where he set to work, making a nest of her calico skirts. “We’ve run out of chamomile and St. John’s wort—oh, and tulsi,” she called after the herbalist, who was already muttering as she passed through to the tiny kitchen.
“Holy basil, yes,” Meredith said above the sounds of rummaging. “Now where did I see that?”
Mr. Perkins settled into a ball as Vasilisa stroked his fur, thinking of nothing in particular for the first time that day. Meredith bustled in with a mug of tea, muttering about the state of her kitchen and the house elves and such a lot of other nonsense that Vasilisa laughed. Then, the healer was off to do battle with the cupboards, and Vasilisa was left to gaze into the flames, ponder the titles of old books, and breathe in the smell of herbs drying on the rack—marjoram and thyme, lavender and mint, sunlight and earth. For no reason at all, her eyes filled with tears.
“Tut, what’s the matter?” a soft voice said, and there was the blurred form of Meredith in her frumpy skirts.
Vasilisa took a shaky breath and wiped her eyes. Somehow, she felt better, both happy and sad, as if her heart had a language all its own that she had only just understood.
“Is it your Papa? Have you had more news, pet?”
Vasilisa found it all pouring out, how Papa must still be alive, because otherwise Vasilisa would know, and why couldn’t Mama see that, and shame on her for just giving up. The words hardly seemed to make sense as they tumbled out, but Meredith just cooed and tutted and put them all back together in a way that made sense, and finally said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, “I imagine you’ll bump into him when you least expect it.” This prediction sounded strange, even silly, and they gazed at each other, startled, then burst into laughter.
“My, the things I do say!” Meredith cried.
And yet, Vasilisa felt a thrill. What if Miss Meredith was right? Hadn’t she found old Mrs. Boxer’s heirloom brooch when everyone else had given it up for lost? And in the ice box, of all places, where it had fallen from the widow’s scarf. As the tale went, Miss Meredith was sitting in the parlor when her eyes popped wide, and she said, “Well, bless me, if it isn’t right next to the Christmas ham!”
The herbalist wiped her eyes, gazing at Vasilisa fondly. “You’re a beauty like your mother, but cat’s whiskers, you don’t seem to have any use for it, do you. You mustn’t make it too hard for them, Vasilisa. Why, when I was a lass—”
This last word hung in the air as Meredith’s hand flinched back from Vasilisa’s cheek. Her ruddy face blanched white beneath its freckles, and her eyes glazed over as she began to murmur in a lilting whisper.
“Gall pechod maur thu-fod troy throos buh-chan…”
What could it mean? Meredith’s lips moved quickly, two fingers raised while she repeatedly made the sign of the cross over her heart.
“Miss Meredith! Oh, stop!” Vasilisa cried, gripping the healer’s hands to still the awful gesture.
The words died away, and the gray eyes closed. When they opened again, the old woman blinked twice.
“I do believe I’ve taken a turn.” She placed the back of her hand against her forehead. “I wasn’t speaking more nonsense, was I?”
“You said all sorts of things,” Vasilisa cried with relief, seeing the healer’s eyes search hers with all the muddled curiosity she knew so well. “But I couldn’t understand.” She tried to approximate the first sounds she had heard.
The herbalist’s eyes darted away. “Did I now? Well, isn’t that odd. That would be Welsh, the language of my youth. It does sound pretty, doesn’t it?”
“But what did it mean?” Vasilisa pressed, but still Meredith evaded her questions until finally, in a muted voice, she gave her reply.
“Just an old proverb, dear. Something along the lines of a great evil can enter through a small door. Must be all these late nights I’ve been putting in. Did I tell you I’m writing a book on herb lore?” And on she rambled until, rising, she said in a shaking voice, “Now, it’s late. Best you were getting home.”
And despite all of Vasilisa’s protestations, she was soon bustled to the door, unseating Mr. Perkins who complained loudly as he leapt to the floor. The linen bundle of herbs was thrust into her hands, and the coins she had taken from the kitchen tin were refused. Miss Meredith would only accept a promise that Vasilisa would return within the week to help harvest the herbs.
“Tell your grandmother, a visit before the last leaf falls, or sooner, yes sooner,” she urged, for Babka and she were thick as thieves. Her hand trembled as she placed it on Vasilisa’s arm, just before the girl was let out into the night.
The forest behind the shack seemed to whisper with many voices, but it was only the wind.
“Hurry, now,” the healer said with a laugh like a sob. “There’s a lass. I’m an old fool, but my heart says you’ll be needed, and before the hour is out.”