THROUGH THE WOODS

BRIAN FELLER

I

It’s Friday, noon, and our parents leave for the village. They warn us not to set out on one of our contrived adventures. They say, “Ava, Luka, lock the door and set the candles. Keep the Sabbath, and keep each other safe, and wipe that strawberry from your lips. Leave vanity for the goyim. We’ll be back tomorrow night.”

I nod, feeling the phantom sting of stick against hind, as does my younger brother Luka, I’m sure. Father leaves me the key and I place it in the pocket of my skirt, waving them out the door. Our father says, with tired humor and wink, “And steer clear the witch, the hag, Baba Yaga.”

II

Sabbath is close, an hour at bay, and Luka sits by the fire with his wooden dreidel, making it spin and spin, and fall, and spin again. I hear thunder in the distance, past the woods, and I wonder a moment if our aunt, Bayla—who’s old and senile—remembers the day. I think she might not, that in her lapse she may leave wick without fire and work against leisure. But she is there, and we here—myself now joining my brother on the floor for spin and gambled play, and what can we do? So I pray for Aunt Bayla’s mind to hold firm. Luka asks, with whimsical curiosity, if the hag, the witch—if so dangerous—can be guard and friend. Then, with a crack of thunder and a flashing of light against approaching night, I think I see a figure beyond the window, a wretch. I’m ashamed at my childish inklings, at the fear of the one our father calls Baba Yaga.

III

The minutes tick by in our cabin, and I set the candles before the low-hanging sun—light the stems and sing a praise—and Luka still sits and plays. I place candles throughout the cabin, a few for each room, and set a menorah before the mantle. And after the last is lit, I hear a cracking at the back door. I think it’s the wind, a swinging branch or rolling rock, tricks on the mind that have me jumping, though confined for my brother’s sake. But then it sounds again, and again, and then…the smell of burning wood. “Luka!” I pull my brother from the floor as a lit curtain catches, and falls. “Water, now,” I mean to say, but my voice is cracking as the blaze is smacking the window panes. And now, too late, the fire spreads wide, blocking the way, save for out the front door.

There’s only one thing to do.

So, against my brother’s whining, I quickly pack a satchel with what I can reach—bread and berries—and tell Luka that we have no choice but to go to our aunt’s for shelter and aid. Out the door and down the dirt path, I warn him to stay at my side. I look back, see our cabin aflame, and feel the need to still my nerves. I lean close to Luka and joke, as though I were our father, to watch for the toothless one, Baba Yaga.

IV

The sun falls lower as we take our shortcut through the woods, for this will save us precious minutes—to arrive before nightfall, by Sabbath’s presence at Aunt Bayla’s door. To ease my brother’s troubled mind, and mine, I conjure up a familiar game. “I hear,” I say with a distorted voice, the way our mother sometimes mimics ancient fabled fairies or goblins or more, “the toothless one lives far from here, in a house of stone, surrounded by swamp.”

Luka shakes his head, and says, “No. She lives nearby.” He smiles now, determined to win this game we often play, this contest of greater oddities. He continues, “She lives in a cabin, like ours. But…” He pauses and cocks his head as we push through the wilderness, the sun threatening an early descent. “Her home rests on chicken legs, and she’s tall as a giant, with ravens’ skulls like charms round her neck.”

I clap, impressed by his tale of tales. From surrounding bushes, I hear skittering critters, and force my mind to task. “And,” I add, “She has three offspring, angels distorted in vision and form, who seek out young children to haunt and taunt. But remember, she’s far.”

He giggles at this; I’ve forfeited this round of our game, for close rhymes we don’t allow. “And now,” he chimes, “she waits for one to call her name. Though you must mean it, and need it. You must call with full heart, like this… Baba Yaga.”

V

The sun’s well into its downward path; shadows dance and play. We’re only partly through the woods—Aunt Bayla, still far away. It’s getting cold, and I hear my brother’s stomach begin to grumble, so I fetch for him a roll of bread and he eats as we quicken our pace.

“We’re not going to make it,” he warns, his eyes large with worry. I know he could be right, but I insist we keep our aim. Perhaps it’s my age—fifteen and stubborn—or it’s my not wanting to admit fault, but persist I do; we have no choice but follow through. With each moment, it seems, the sun loses favor of sky, and Luka, ever the annoyance, pesters for retreat.

“No,” I say, “We can make it, okay?” But he whines and cries, and throws down his food. It’s here that I snap, grasping his arm and yanking him so that he must look at me. I say, “Will you behave? We will get there, I swear! And so what if we miss Sabbath when home is gone? What more harm will it do? Will there be bears and wolves, or lurking things any different than in the light?”

But he shouts, “We won’t make it! We’ll be lost in here, and die in here, and Mama and Papa will find us in here, covered in dust!” I’m shocked to hear these things from his mouth. And I find my temper being quickly lost. Then he says, “We should have stayed home. It’s all your fault, you stupid fopdoodle!” Useless? Me? But before the thought crosses my mind, my hand is crossing his cheek.

His eyes, oh, his eyes. They grow wide and wet with subtle streams, and the redness on his jaw, the shock on his face, they mark my betrayal. How could I? I reach for him, to restrain or embrace or…I’m not sure. But he flinches, trips over his own feet, and falls. The crack of his elbow against stone or root or some other hard thing makes my gut turn in on itself, but it’s his words that make me ache. “I hate you,” he says, soft and calm, so that I know he means it. Then he runs.

“Stop, come back!” I give chase, down the path as fast as I can, but he’s too quick and nimble and I’m too blind with tears—warm and salty, they coat my trembling lips. Ahead, he deviates from the trail, into the thickets and through the trees, so I do, too. But I lose sight of him shortly, resorting to following the sounds of his steps. And now, with the sun eclipsed by drowning night, even his echo is gone. I panic, hunting round trees for any hint of my brother. My heart aflutter, my thighs aching and tired, and my satchel long since abandoned, laying somewhere in some mound of grass and dirt.

The sky opens its mouth—my hair and dress grow heavy in its loathsome shower. I search and search but have no luck, and it’s impenetrably dark before I must stop to catch my breath. “Luka?” I call out. “Luka! I’m sorry!”

My only reply is the wind. With hope lost, and no idea of what to do, I fall to my knees in the sopping mud and hold my head in my hands, crying. “Please, God, tell me what to do!”

But there’s no answer. Again, I pray and pray, and say, “I’d do anything. If you’re listening, hear me!” My mind races to potential horrible fates, a hundred possible deaths my brother could find for himself alone in the woods, surrounded by night and hungry creatures. And—perhaps this, too, is for my foolish age—without knowing why, I look about the forest and give forth the faintest of whispers, “Please help me, Baba Yaga.”

VI

The forest, now still, holds silent and cold—shifting treetops the only sound. I’m desperate and hungry, and exhausted from fright; I climb to my sore feet. Off in the distance, I think I see a figure. Luka? No, too tall…and so far, yet somehow near enough to see such languid limbs, like tendrils held out, as though asking for wildering tithes. It holds its ground, and I find myself pulled toward its pulsing form. I want to run away and call out all at once, to say, “Do you know where my brother has gone? Have you found my Luka?” and “Will you eat me?” But still stays my tongue, held back by clenched jaw.

Closer I go, against my own senses, and off, in the distance behind this strange stranger, I see a hut or home—some reclusive abode—and, for a moment, I think I see prongs holding its four corners, like posts of chicken’s feet. Oh, why couldn’t I just stay home? I want desperately now to clamp my eyes tight, to shut this world away and open them again to find Luka and I safe and sound in our cabin beyond the woods. But my eyes won’t close, frozen open as I stare, and now I stand before this figure, clouded and dark, as if a living tapestry of life and death. And it grows, oh, how it grows large as an oak! I feel lost and small as a pebble at its cloaked feet—this god of the forest. Is this my only course? Am I now to choose, to follow or flee? The figure tilts its towering head, a skull with bird’s beak dangling from its hooded frame, and it says, “What will it be?” I waver, just a moment, and ask, “Are you friend or foe?” It doesn’t answer, doesn’t have to. Savior or butcher, both end my despair. To Luka, or to death, so I reach out my hand and follow my Baba Yaga.