No one will ever understand what made me this way, as even I don’t understand it. One day, I was a pure maiden, sitting by the window in my parents’ house, staring down the dirt path, waiting for my beloved Ivan, and the next, I was what I am now. Ugly. Wretched. Cursed. I loved Ivan more than anything, and yet whenever I saw him, a dark veil fell over my mind, and I would scream, cry, shout, stomp my feet. I blamed Ivan, because he wouldn’t ask for my hand in marriage when I wanted him to. He kept postponing it, saying he needed to save more money before he asked my father for my hand. It wasn’t the explanation I wanted. I wanted marriage. And I wanted it now. But, Ivan—oh, that man!—he swore that despite my ranting and crying and shouting and stomping that he still loved me, would still marry me. “I promise! I promise!” Ivan would yell, and then he’d storm through my parents’ garden, snapping one or two of the heads from my mother’s sunflowers as he left me standing alone, weeping into my hands, crushed that he wouldn’t—maybe perhaps couldn’t—fulfill his promise in a timely manner. What I forgot to tell you is that he’d already been courting me seven years. Finally, after a few more days of reaching my tether’s end and feeling like I’d be better off hanging myself when I reached it, I consulted a friend in my village, a young, swarthy woman who secretly specialized in spells. “But love spells are so boring,” my friend noted. I agreed. “Then what do you suggest?” I asked. “A variation on the Ukrainian haunting spell,” my friend answered. “Typically, it is to grant the dead the ability to return to their living form and haunt the still living, but in this case, a few minor adjustments, and your loneliness and hurt will haunt Ivan so that he’ll repent of his laxity and marry you tomorrow!” My friend and I laughed together, and if only I had thought about what I was doing, but I didn’t. So I let me friend cast the variation of the Ukrainian haunting spell, and though the hurt from neglect and angst blossomed in my already black heart, though I felt guilty at having my friend cast such a spell on my beloved Ivan, a demonic voice in my head muttered “He gets what he deserves for making you wait this long!” The next day, Ivan’s brother found Ivan drowned in the river. When I heard the news from my father, I screamed, and I crossed myself and blamed the rusalka. My poor Ivan! Why had he gone to the river? Why had he succumbed to such a temptation? Was I not good enough, not beautiful or swarthy enough? I threw myself onto the dirt path from my parents’ home, and I screamed into the earth, begging any spirits listening to please return my Ivan to me, that I would act better, that I wouldn’t be so selfish, that I would love Ivan more than he imagined I could. I eyed the tallest oak standing on my father’s property and begged my ancestors to forgive me, to return my Ivan to me. Most of all, I hoped that what I was living was actually a nightmare, brought on by an elusive spirit who’d slipped into the house and covered me in the night. However, when my father jerked me up from the ground, ashamed at my weeping (but he always was ashamed of my weeping!), I knew it was no nightmare. “You stupid girl! Why weep now? You’re probably the reason the poor boy drowned himself! With your incessant demands! Your screaming! And your stomping and your crying!” my father screamed, and I trembled as I stared into my father’s blue eyes, those eyes which were my eyes, and then I did the unimaginable. I spit in my father’s face. I remember the sun, how it loomed yellow and glaring and accusatory in the sky, and I remember the shadow of my father’s hand, swooping like a falcon until it crashed its talons into my face, and I remember thinking I should have been the one to die, not poor Ivan. Not my Ivan! No! No! No! Not him. And, now as I think about that day, I remember recalling the spell, that manipulation of an ages-old hex that perhaps my friend and I shouldn’t have tampered with, and from far off in the village, I thought I heard my friend laughing. The grief I felt regarding Ivan’s death plagued me mercilessly. I wouldn’t eat. I wouldn’t drink. My mother crossed herself when she saw me. Whenever a slight breeze blew, a chill filled me, and again I heard my friend’s laughter, subtle at first, then blatant as the wind moved forward away from me. My friend had tricked me. Maybe she’d wanted Ivan for herself. Maybe she was jealous because people claimed I was more beautiful—despite my dark moods and wild emotions—than she. Maybe my friend was just pure evil, and I had never seen it before because I’d been so wrapped in my own cloak of needs, wants, desires—so much so that it had driven me to gloom’s deepest pits, pits so deep that I could not return from them, and in the end, had cost me my Ivan. A few nights after Ivan’s death, as I lay awake in my bed, tossing and turning, replaying all the times I’d screamed and cried at Ivan in my head. I heard a slight rustle outside. The moon filtered through my bedroom window, whitewashing it with the purest light, a light I detested because it kept me awake. Too bright. And, truth be told, brightness frightened me. I preferred the dark. At least in the darkness I could not see. I listened to the rustling outside the window, and I shivered, though the night wasn’t cold or chilly. What was out there? My cat? I didn’t think so, because I thought the cat had been in the house earlier. In fact, I’d seen it curled in the living room, asleep, as I sat sewing with my mother. Of course, she could have let the cat outside after I went to bed, but that was doubtful. Again, a chill went through me, and I again heard the breeze. “Katya.” I gasped and drew the covers around me. I crossed myself fiercely. The breeze kept rustling the bushes, the trees, the flowers outside. “Katya.” I froze. I stared at the moonlight filling the room, and now its luminescence enhanced, grew deeper, then a dark shadow crossed in front of the moonlight’s path. “I-I-Ivan?” I choked and closed my eyes. “Katya, what have you done?” My jaw clenched, and the acrid salt grew in my mouth. Suddenly, tears spilled down the apples of my cheeks in a rush. A nightmare! Another! Some spirit must have snuck into my room and cast a spell on me, and now I was hallucinating. “You’re not real,” I said, opening my eyes. But the figure remained stalwart in the moonlight. “Katya, why? I loved you,” Ivan said. The shadow’s right hand lifted and pointed. “I loved you despite everything,” Ivan reaffirmed. I swallowed, stifling a scream. If I screamed, my mother and father would come running to my room, aggravated at another of my outbursts. “I-I-I d-didn’t know what to do, Ivan. I wanted to marry you. You kept putting it off.” “I was working to make sure we had a house, some land.” At that, my heart cracked. I felt the black divide my chest from bottom to top, and I moaned. “But you were so impatient,” Ivan continued. “I could never explain because you were always yelling at me, crying, stomping. I thought you hated me. But I loved you fiercely, Katya. Despite it all…” My chest heaved, and I clenched the blankets until my knuckles whitened. “Wha-wha-what c-can I d-do to repent?” I uttered. For a moment, I thought Ivan had left, but then I noticed the shadow, still lingering in the moonlight, unmoving, somewhat taller than it had first appeared. “Ivan! What can I do?” I cried. But Ivan’s shadow remained silent, and I stared at it through tears that burned like fire in my eyes, and I noticed how doughy my face felt. “Was it the rusalka, Ivan? Please tell me it was! Please! You didn’t…” I whispered. “My time is short, Katya,” Ivan stated. “When the moon dips, I’ll disappear. Come here.” I didn’t want to move from the bed. I didn’t want to see Ivan, but yet I did. I owed him it, I thought. After my tantrums. After my screaming. After my crying. I remembered how so often in our relationship I was a woman unhinged, a woman driven by invisible specters who propelled me into crying and screaming fits so violent that my family crossed themselves and Ivan looked at me in disbelief. No one ever talked about my fits. Not even to the village priest. I left the bed and wandered to the window. The moonlight burned hot like a candle’s wax that drips down the candle’s sides. I shielded my eyes, and I smelled something burning—my nightgown! The fabric browned and smoked, but there was no flame! I felt a quiet warmth, and my skin felt like it was falling, stretching. “Ivan!” I cried. “Ivan! Wha-What’s h-happening?” I screamed. When I looked down at my chest, I saw it split open. I saw my heart beating despite the jagged blackness splitting it bottom to top, and I watched as it beat faster, faster, faster, faster, until a million little lightning bolts seized it, stopped it. I clutched my throat. The breeze sang again, but this time, instead of Ivan’s voice, I heard my friend’s hysterical laughter. I watched as my beautiful, youthful skin sloughed to the floor; Ivan’s shadow fell to its knees, clutching its head, and then the breeze whirled and whorled and sang with my friend’s maniacal laughter, and it sucked me through the window into the night! I couldn’t move! I couldn’t scream! I could only clutch my throat, the new skin beneath my hands wrinkled and dry, like that of a serpent. The breeze ceased, and the laughter in the wind silenced; I fell to the ground, my face in the dirt, the dust riddling my tongue. When I had enough wits about me, I stood, and I looked down at myself. I wore a thick wool coat, torn at the elbows, and I had on thick stockings, stitched and patched; my shoes were of the poorest leather, each with one hole at the toe. I thought “This must be part of another nightmare.” But it wasn’t. I looked at my hands. My once beautiful and elegant hands. And what I saw made me scream in fear. My hands were gnarled like the branches of an oak which had stood more than a century. Then, I felt my face. My once beautiful, smooth face—a face that had been the envy of many other young women in my village—was spotted with growths and deep wrinkles. I began crying, because I didn’t know what else to do, and then I realized that I stood alone in a black forest, its trees skeletal and bare, its ground hollow and as gray as a corpse. Somewhere, I heard a hissing, and I breathed the forest’s air—dank, moss-like, heavy, and weeping fog. “Katya.” I froze. Where was the voice coming from? Where was I? “Katya, answer me.” I looked around, saw sad drops of moisture blossoming downward from the skeletal tree limbs. I let my eyes adjust to the gray, and I scanned the ground, the sky, the trees. And then I saw it. Him. I knew instantly from the red eyes, the massive black head. Zirnitra. The black magic god, who appeared in dragon form. “How can I answer you if I don’t know you?” I asked, scared at my own audacity. Who knew what Zirnitra would do to me for my boldness! Apparently, I was already enveloped in some nightmare, some wicked spell cast by someone I thought I could trust. “You know me. I have been with you and in you for forever,” hissed Zirnitra. A hard lump rose in my throat. The tantrums. The crying. The screaming. The jagged black lightning bolt that had spread through my heart. “You have always been mine, Katya,” Zirnitra snickered. “Mine.” A great puff of smoke rose from Zirnitra’s nostrils, and his mouth curled in a menacing grin. “Where am I?” I dared ask. Zirnitra’s tale moved, and he lolled his head, side-to-side, then rested his red eyes on me. “You, Katya, are in my forest.” “And what forest is that?” “The evil forest.” “Why?” I asked. Zirnitra ran his forked tongue over his lips. Another great roll of smoke bellowed from his nostrils, and I smelled ash, clogging and puckering, worse than any ash I ever smelled when my father cleaned our woodstove. “What a bold woman you are to question the dragon of black magic,” Zirnitra sneered. I shivered and shoved my hands into my pockets. My aged knuckles rippled with arthritis, and I couldn’t imagine that just yesterday I’d been barely twenty-five, and, suddenly, this morning—or whatever it time it was—I was my babushka’s age: old, wrinkled, a walking history. “But, seeing you’re the only company I have so far,” Zirnitra continued, “I suppose I can explain.” I felt the need to sit, as my legs felt leaden, and I could only imagine what they looked like beneath these stockings—probably dry, creped, veined—not at all slender and shapely as they’d been in my younger years. Or just a few days ago. “You see, Katya, sometimes there are spells that shouldn’t be meddled with. And what did you and your friend do the other day?” Zirnitra posed. I hung my head. “Now, I always knew you were mine,” stated Zirnitra. “I always knew that one day I would have to bring you home, to live here in the evil forest and do my bidding. It was all part of the plan.” “What plan?” I asked. “The plan to bring you home, Katya.” “This isn’t my home,” I challenged. I smelled the dankness rising from Zirnitra’s nostrils again; the puffs rose into the air, settled on the tree limbs or high above the trees, deepened the sky’s mousy fur. “The other world wasn’t your home, Katya,” Zirnitra snapped. “Why do you think you were filled with sadness, torment, despair, unhappiness. You are a child of my blackness, the spawn of my own despair, and now you are home, returned to the Evil Forest to keep me company in my last days.” I began weeping, the tears hot on my cold cheeks. As the tears left my eyes, they scalded my eyes’ corners, my cheeks, my lips. The puffiness of my lids and that place between my eye and cheek grew, and I felt my skin ashen. “What must I do?” escaped my lips. Zirnitra snickered loudly, so loudly the bare branches shook, sending hard drops of moisture down upon me. When one hit my cheek, it sizzled, and when I reached up and touched my face, drew my fingers away, flecks of blood and skin smeared my fingertips and I shuddered, though I felt no pain from the apparently open wound. “I, like many of the other old gods, are dying, Katya. Long ago, I crept into your mother’s bedroom and planted my seed in her, knowing that I, like the other gods, needed to continue. See, no one believes in us anymore. The new ways are taking over, Katya, and humans no longer live in fear of us,” Zirnitra explained. “Why me? Why my mother” I asked. “My mother is the epitome of faith and grace.” Zirnitra curled his mouth into a grin, revealing his yellow fangs, tipped with a dullness I knew was venom. “That’s exactly why. That, and you meddled with the ancient spell,” Zirnitra answered. “But what must I do here?” I begged again. I ceased staring the blood and flesh on my fingertips, and I wiped my fingers on my ragged coat. “You must live here in the forest, in the house with the chicken legs. Soon, I will disappear, and it will be your turn to guard the Evil Forest. Humans will soon pass through here, unafraid, and it is your duty to remind them of the old ways. And, in repentance for your meddling, occasionally, instead of terrorizing a passer-by, you must help him and guide him through the most treacherous paths of my woods.” Many days after that, Zirnitra disappeared. I remember the day, for the black magic dragon closed his eyes, gave a great huff that blew smoke high into the air, and then disappeared. I knew then that the old ways had died, and that my task of guarding the Evil Forest and reminding humans of the old ways had begun. And, so, perhaps you have heard of me. Some call me “Baba Yaga,” and some call me “Baba Jezi,” but no matter how I am referred to by the Slavic peoples, I have been here for centuries, alone, either helping or hindering, recalling how many ages ago I meddled with a spell, a spell which cost me my youth and my freedom, and most of all, my lover—my dear, dear Ivan, who sometimes, when the river is still and frozen by winter’s deadness and the full moon peeks through the wool of a cloudy night, I can faintly hear calling my name— “Katya! Katya! Katya!”.
Nicole Yurcaba, a Ukrainian-American poet and essayist, teaches at Bridgewater College in Bridgewater, Virginia, USA; she also serves as the Assistant Director to the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival. Her poems typically focus on gothic subculture aesthetic, Ukrainian culture and history, and Slavic mythology and folklore. When not dancing to Bauhaus and Wolfsheim, she and her fiancé garden and raise bees in the mountains of West Virginia.