Pure, white snow crunched under his foot as Ilyasha stepped out of his wooden house on the edge of the village. His breath cascaded out of his mouth as his eyes adjusted to the sun’s last rays on the edge of the woods bordering his home. He had risen too late to do anything of value—the previous night of drinking in the center of the village with the rest of his friends from the Black Hundreds had seen to that. He was up now because his wife kicked him awake with a curse and told him that if he didn’t leave the house to gather firewood, she would rip out his liver before they froze to death. The threat was enough (barely, the cold really was unbearable this time of year) to make Ilyasha Dubrovin stagger to his feet, put on his black-dyed wool coat and cap and walked through the front door.
He made a semi-circle in the snow with his foot and stamped on the ground a few times. The cold, relentless, came at him in a gust. Ilyasha rubbed his hands togehter. Maybe if he went back in and said he couldn’t find an axe, Anna would forgive him and the two could relive their earlier married days. But no, drinking last night left his chances of that happening slim to none. Anna had become religious and, since talking to the old, waxy-skinned, soft-voiced priest recently arrived from St. Petersburg, had looked down on Ilyasha’s companions. Whenever he returned from associating with anyone from the organization, in any context, he slept on the floor.
Ilyasha coughed and decided that it would be better if he got the job done fast. They only needed a little wood for the fire, just enough to keep it going for a few hours. He walked further out to the chopping stump and pulled out the axe. He rested it on his shoulder and trudged through the snow to the woods, squinting his eyes against the wind and flakes falling from the sky.
Very few things were as ominous as the woods at sunset. It went dead silent for a couple of hours before all of the night creatures started moving. The only sounds were the wind howling through the trees and the occasional bird screeching up high.
When Ilyasha first started going into the woods to cut trees, after his father died and long before his marriage, he was frightened by the silence. Something should have been there; even if the sound weren’t welcoming, it would have been better than the silence. But as time went on, Ilyasha gained courage. He learned to look at the silence as the absence of things that, if present, would kill him. But when he married Anna and the two finished their home at the edge of the village, the fears returned.
He could not stop them, even with the highest preparation of will before leaving the home. The woods hadn’t changed since childhood, but they now broadcasted an aura of maliciousness. The axe was no protection against these feelings—or what Ilyasha imagined. Still, they needed firewood for the house and, as the man, it was his duty to do gather wood until he and Anna had children of their own that they could set to work while relaxed in the cottage, wrapped in blankets.
All that was in the future, though. Now there were no blankets for warmth, nor money to buy them. There were no children, despite their best efforts. Ilyasha and Anna fell to depression with each passing day. Ilyasha turned to vodka and his friends in the Hundreds and Anna turned to religion. From time to time, Ilyasha thought about walking around the edge of the village and taking one of the sheep that Leonid had at the other end. But the feeling would pass, and Ilyasha would feel guilty for thinking of such a thing. Time would turn in his favor, but for now, Ilyasha crunched through the snow into the silent woods, looking for a small tree that could provide kindling.
Ten or so minutes into his journey, Ilyasha found a tree and swung the axe. The blade buried into the trunk and Ilyasha pulled it out. As he reared back for another swing, he heard something on the breeze behind him.
Ilyasha turned. Nothing was there. The wind waxed a bit and the falling snow slowed. He grunted and turned back to the tree. As he pulled at the axe, he heard a chuckle from behind. He stood bolt upright, dropped the axe from his hands and turned around.
An old woman sat on what looked like an upturned mortar. She stood up to a full four and a half feet tall. She had dark skin and a shock of white hair pulled back under a red babushka. She wore what looked like a burlap sack decorated with the moon and stars over a forest and held a giant pestle at her side. Her skin was folded and wrinkled, turning her face into a series of mazes. Ilyasha half expected her long nose to be crowned by a wart, but saw no such thing. She looked at him with gray eyes and a nearly toothless smile. “Hello, young one,” she said.
“It is cold outside and the sun is setting. I admire you for braving the cold to come and chop wood, but you are on my land.” Her voice cracked like dry twigs. Ilyasha had known older people—the leader of his chapter of the Black Hundreds looked even older than this woman—but hers seemed a different sort of old.
Ilyasha looked around him and saw no fence. “I am sorry, mother. I did not see a fence or any marker on my way from my home. You’ll forgive me, I hope, since I’ve done no damage save for making a slight mark in this tree,” Ilyasha gestured jerked his thumb at the tree and laughed. “I guess I’m a bit weak. Too weak to chop down a dying tree!”
The woman grinned.
Ilyasha coughed. “I haven’t had my dinner, yet, you see and—”
The woman tutted. “No dinner? A young man like you needs to eat! Have you no to cook for you at home?”
“My wife—Anna—is waiting on some firewood so she can make stew.”
She spat—green—on the ground. “Stew is peasant food. Come, my boy, follow me and I will provide food and wood for you.”
“I really shouldn’t,” Ilyasha said. “The sun is setting and if I don’t return soon, my wife will worry.”
The grin came back. “Nonsense, you won’t be gone long. Just long enough to fill your belly and carry some wood back to your home.”
“That’s a good boy. Now, follow this old woman of the woods back to her home and protect her from the evil beasts that stalk the night.” She cackled. Ilyasha had never met anyone who cackled. “If you’re smart enough to compliment my food, I may be good enough to give you a gift.”
“Well, I don’t have a lot of time.”
The woman shuffled through the snow past the tree and said, “You shouldn’t have a care in the world. Carry my mortar, would you, my boy?”
The old woman’s cottage sat in the middle of a clearing. It stood on eight tall stumps and had no windows and only one door. Ilyasha, initially struck by the oddity of seeing a cottage mounted on stilts, shivered. Then he remembered hearing one of the older men in the Black Hundreds talking about how, in Siberia, the pagans used to build some structures on stilts. He relaxed a little, until he remembered that the structures on stilts were crematoriums. The chill hit him again and he dropped the mortar in the snow.
The old woman stopped her trundle and faced Ilyahsa. “Almost there. Don’t lose strength yet.” She walked towards the stilted cottage.
Ilyasha picked the mortar back up. How the woman carried such a thing without making noise confounded him.
Ilyasha and the woman walked up the staircase and into the cottage. There was one room. In the center was a small gray wooden table with two chairs around it. Off to the side was a blanket and pillow. On the opposite end of the room was a fireplace with a pot boiling over. Around the edges of the walls there were various cupboards and an empty bird cage.
“Sit down,” said the old woman. She stamped her feet on the mat woven from twigs and went over to the pot. She picked up the black iron lid, was enveloped in steam, and said, “Almost done,” she said, replacing the lid. Opening one of the cupboards on her right and drawing out two bowls and spoons, she asked, “Why haven’t you sat yet? Are you afraid you’ll be carried away to death? My dear, you are much too heavy for me to carry you away to anything, especially death.”
Ilyasha sat down in one of the chairs and, right as he was pricked with a splinter in his rear, realized where he was. “Baba Yaga,” he thought. No, that was stupid. Baba Yaga was a childhood story told by parents who were tired of looking for their children who kept wandering off right before dinner.
The old woman took a ladle from the side of the pot and poured a stew—apparently she was not above peasant food—with chunky bits of meat and some green vegetables into one of the bowls. She did the same for the other bowl and carried both of them to the table.
The contents of the stew unsettled Ilyasha. It smelled like a nice stew, but the meat made it questionable. It was lumpy and fatty like no other meat he’d eaten. Its smell nauseated him. The color, too—it was pink like uncooked pork. The woman watched him with her glittering eyes and Ilyasha scooped up some of the stew and tasted it.
Whatever it was, it was delicious. He took another spoonful in his mouth. Soon, the stew was gone.
The old woman cackled again. “Your appetite is compliment enough. Tell me your name.”
“My name is Ilyasha Dubrovin. I live in the village near here and have worked as a blacksmith. Times are hard now though, mother, and my wife and I are in poverty.”
“The times are difficult all around, boy.”
Ilyasha nodded. Perhaps it was true. His scope of life didn’t range much further than his village. “What is your name, mother?”
The old woman cackled. “I assumed you were smarter than that, having to ask who I am. You know who I am. You knew when I first arrived behind you riding a mortar and pestle. You surely knew when you saw my cottage.”
Ilyasha gulped. “Baba Yaga?”
She cackled. “That’s right! Welcome to my house!” Her face fell. “You’re too old for me to seriously consider eating or repairing my cottage with. My cottage desperately needs repairs, you see.”
Ilyasha looked down at the empty bowl and the spoon. “What did I just eat?”
Baba Yaga waved away the question. “It doesn’t concern you. Now, I made you a deal, my boy. You complimented me and showed excellent manners in carrying my means of transportation, so I shall better your life.”
“I do not wish the meddlings of a sorceress.”
Baba Yaga reared back her head and cackled. “You modern Russians are so full of Christian zeal that you won’t accept charity. Russian, you will accept my help. Otherwise, you face the very real possibility of starving out both your wife—whom you’ve abandoned for a sorceress, might I add—and yourself.”
“You told me to come here!”
“You were on my land. Out of the kindness of my heart, I offered assistance as much as I could.”
“You said I wouldn’t be gone long.”
“You won’t be. You’re about to leave and it’s only been an hour since you left your house. What you should have done, though, is asked for some food to bring your wife. Russian, you are a bad husband.”
Ilyasha leapt out of the chair and threw the spoon to the floor. “Do not accuse me of being a bad husband! I am a good husband and a good man!”
“Oh!” Baba Yaga laughed. She laughed some more and when she finally stopped, tears still coming from her eyes, she ate a little more stew. “A good man, are you? Well, we shall definitely see about that. I keep my word, even to those who are bad husbands. You will shortly find a small fortune coming your way, and you’ll also get some firewood.”
“I don’t need your help, witch.”
“You need all of the help you can get.” Her face soured. “You are no longer welcome. You’ll find a pile of wood at the foot of the cottage and if you walk straight ahead thirty-three paces, you’ll find yourself in front of your home. We will speak in the future, boy, when you have matured.”
Ilyasha did not need further invitation to leave the house. He left the table, overturning his chair, and walked out door. Down the stairs there was a pile of wood. Behind him, the door swung shut of its own accord and a gust of wind nearly knocked Ilyasha tumbling down the twenty foot drop to the ground.
Baba Yaga hadn’t lied. When Ilyasha managed to work his way down the steps, he scooped up the pile of wood and walked for a little until he found himself at the edge of the forest, looking directly at his house.
Anna stood at the front door, hands wrapped around her bosom and breath billowing out of her mouth. “Anna!” Ilyasha shouted. “I brought the wood!” He ran up to the house, so glad to see his wife.
Anna shook her head. “And forgot the axe. My worthless husband comes with a pile of wood and forgets the axe. Tell me Ilya, why should I be happy? We have nothing but scraps from our last meal to cook. What are you going to hunt next? The squirrels? You’ve chased away the rest of the game and we can’t afford anything at the market.”
Ilyasha suddenly thought that he should have stayed with the witch. “I brought the wood…”
Anna shook her head and hugged Ilyasha. “You were gone too long, you know.” She pulled back and looked at him. “Where were you? It doesn’t take that long to find wood. Look,” she said, pointing at the trees, “I found some.”
Ilyasha grinned. “I was at a witch’s home.”
Anna responded by slapping him outside of his head. “Fool. Well, come in so I can make you the scrap stew. It’s an old tradition of my family when the husband is worthless.”
Ilyasha stepped into the home behind her
Valentin, the older man who led Ilyasha’s Black Hundreds chapter, sat down at the table of ten men in a tavern and said, “The peasants are rallying in Petrograd.”
The men at the table perked up. “What?”
Valentin nodded. “I heard from my cousin that they were meeting in large groups in the squares. My brothers, this reminds me of 1905.”
Ilyasha was too young to remember the Failed Revolution, but his companions in the Hundreds talked about it enough to give him an education: After the peasants organized, the Tsar crashed down on them with an iron fist. Rightfully so. Who did they think they were, questioning the Tsar’s policies? The movements were crushed, although the Tsar was forced into passing reforms to give the peasants a democracy. It was in this setting that loyal Russians decided that they would lend their strength to the Tsar. They spread their message through the cities and countryside and crushed whoever they found questioning the Tsar or threatening to rally the masses against him. The Hundreds’ leadership found that one of the most destructive groups were the Jews, and, as such, it was the duty of a Black Hundreds member to attack and harass the Jews in the name of Tsar Nicholas II and Christ. Ilyasha hadn’t been party to pogroms and had only heard about them his friends’ drunken ramblings. For him, the Hundreds was a social club that preached the survival of tradition. The idea of revolutionaries this far out seemed absurd to Ilyasha. Why should the Bolsheviks look this way? All of their power was to be found in the factories and the cities—with the in-the-gutter workers and the court.
“Come, Valentin, you cannot be serious. The peasants were given what they wanted, why would the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks bother?” Ivan, the man who asked, was a longtime member, who had somehow managed to avoid conscription in the army in the war with Germany. “The times are completely different.”
Valentin, predatory and threatening despite his small, wiry stature, leered at Ivan. “Times don’t change.” He turned to Ilyasha, by far the youngest of the group. “Ilyasha, why are you not in the war?”
“I guess the recruiters overlooked this village when my time came.”
“Then why are you not a volunteer?”
“I’m doing my part to keep peace at home.”
Valentin snorted. “Cowardice.”
“Stop, Valentin,” Ivan said. “Ilyasha is no coward. He just needs to prove himself. You will see.”
Ilyasha nodded at Ivan.
Ivan raised his vodka to the younger man. “I know that your father, were he not dead, would say the same. I remember your effort to save your brother when he fell in the river so many years ago.”
Even though Ilyasha had indeed dove into a river, his brother died a day later.
“Past actions count for nothing, boy. Now,” Valentin said, standing up, “I must prepare the speech for church tonight. I will see all of you there, yes?”
The table nodded their assent.
“Good. Long live the Tsar,” said Valentin, draining his glass.
About three hours later, Valetin took the priest’s place behind the pulpit. He looked out over the congregation. They sat silent in their stiff wooden pews, looking up. The church was lit with a yellow glow from the two chandeliers, which hung from the ceiling above the maroon carpet that separated the two sections of pews. Behind Valentin, Christ hung on the cross, giving the congregation a weary stare. Valentin, never a man to enjoy church, was here on orders—he would be damned if he had to seem like he enjoyed this.
The priest in the seat behind him shifted a bit and cleared his throat. Valentin began. “Some of you will hear rumblings in the coming weeks. You will hear that the Tsar has been overthrown. You will hear claims that he is weak and damages Russia by being in control, that he is responsible for the suffering in our country. You will hear nothing but lies coming from the liberals and the Jews. Both of them despise Christ and country. They steal our children and force them to join their armies; if they refuse, they are drained of blood to make Jewish bread. They see the Tsar, our beloved leader, as a threat, for he sees through their words and his only desire is to protect his people.
“My brothers and sisters, I will not lie to you and pour golden honey in your ears. Mother Russia is in danger. The Jew Bolsheviks have chosen to fight only when our sons and fathers struggle against the Germans. They do not have the honor to speak in the Duma, even though our beloved Tsar has provided such an establishment for them. These Jew Bolsheviks fight because they know that such an organization, based on justice and the common good, will only show them for the monsters and demons they are.
“What is their talk of equality? There is no equality. God has made us all, but he has placed some of us above others for a reason,” he turned and pointed at the priest. “I say to you, would any of you dare to take the Father’s role in this church? No, of course you wouldn’t. You do not have the ability to preach God’s Word as he does, and that serves the natural order of things. The Jew Bolsheviks say that they want everyone to have an equal share in government. What is their precious Communism but the reign of chaos? Imagine, brothers and sisters, the result of something like Communism. Nothing would be done with a government so big! The Jew Bolsheviks know this, too. They want this to happen so that they may sweep upon you good Christians, you good Russians in the dead of night, as their flames rage against the black sky, so that they can take all of our wealth and have it for themselves. You cannot trust them, brothers and sisters.
“I was alerted by my superior that there has been unrest in Petrograd. The Jews’ golden tongues have led the innocent Russians there astray. It saddens me when I hear of such things happening because of the Christian, good nature of the Russian people. But here, we will not be led astray.
“We are a village that knows better. We know that the Tsar is the reason that Russia is strong, that there is no more serfdom in Russia. I assure you, brothers and sisters, that my fellows and I will be a blanket upon you, giving you comfort in the face of this annoyance. That is what it is: an annoyance. Never lose sight of your real problems: how to feed yourselves, how to protect yourselves from the liberal Jew Bolsheviks, how to keep warm. Never forget who is the real strength of this country. The Tsar cares about us all, brothers and sisters, and he will not abandon us to the wolves.
“Before I leave the, I would ask you all to pray for a swift victory in the West. God bless us all on this day and all others.” Valentin crossed himself and watched the congregation follow suit before he left the pulpit.
The service resumed as he walked back to the Hundreds, and the soft voice of the priest carried through the building. Ilyasha leaned towards Valentin as the man sat and whispered, “Do you think that there will be a problem with the revolt in Petrograd?”
Valentin shook his head. “The workers are too concerned with feeding themselves to bother with politics. Still, when you address those who do not know the truth, it is best to inject fear into them. Tell them lies, make them afraid that their life as they know it will end and give way to a ravenous beast. Then you tell them that you have the solution and the only opportunity to stay safe is to stay the course. People fear change for many reasons. Chief among them is the possibility that change may lead to a worse life.”
Ilyasha thought for a moment before speaking again. “But you do not believe that there will be a change?”
“Of course not. My loyalties lie to the Tsar and the Church. It was the same for your father and has been for everyone in this village. The only people capable of changing it all would be the Jews with their money. But that is why we exist, Ilyasha: to keep people like them down. I meant it up there when I said the Jews and the Bolsheviks were the greatest danger to the Russian people. They are demons in their own rights, and they will do everything in their power to end our comfort if we are not continously on our toes. It is our duty to keep Russia as it is.”
The priest ended the service with a benediction and blessed all those in the congregation. As they stood to take their leave, Valentin said to Ilyasha: “Tell the rest that we will meet in the tavern in half an hour.”
“Where are you going?”
Valentin shot a predatory look at Ilyasha and kept silent. He stood and walked out of the church through the one door, jostling in position with the other congregants along the way.
Ivan elbowed Ilyasha. “Where is he going?”
“I don’t know.”
The members of the Black Hundreds waited until the rest of the congregation filed out and then stood up, walked towards the door, and each dropped some money into the collection box.
An hour later, they were drunk in the tavern. Valentin had not yet arrived. Ilyasha worried, but was silenced when Josef shoved some vodka under his nose. Obliging, Ilyasha drank. This continued for another half an hour until he and a couple others stood to go outside for a piss.
It was another cold, dark, and snowing night outside. The three oil lamps in the middle of the town center gave off yellow light that created a flickering ring, illuminating the rapidly disappearing boot and horse tracks in the snow. “One day I’d like to leave this piss poor town,” said Besarion.
Ilyasha grinned and said, “Go to St. Petersburg where the real fun is?”
Ivan and Besarion laughed. “Ilyasha,” said Ivan, “one day you will have a wider view of the world. I swear, you of the young generation have the least concerns out of any group I know. Tell me, do you know what is going on in the West right now?”
“Look at that, Besarion. He isn’t so stupid after all!”
The two older men laughed and Ilyasha glared.
“No no, I’m joking, my friend. No offense was meant.”
“Yes,” said Besarion, “but it was funny. Thinking that St. Petersburg is where anyone would truly wish to go if they had the chance.”
“Well where would you go?”
“Paris, of course! The women alone would be worth the journey.”
Ivan puffed from his pipe and said, “Do you remember that French woman we saw in the capital a few years ago?”
“The one with the gorgeous blonde hair and the gigantic breasts?”
Ivan groaned. “Woe for the language barrier!”
“Bring out the rest of our comrades!” shouted a booming voice from the opposite end of the town square. Ilyasha squinted into the night and saw Valentin. He was dragging what looked like either a black sack of meal or a man.
“Bah. There goes a calm evening.” Ivan walked back into the tavern and called in the rest of the group.
Ilyasha turned back around and watched as Valentin tossed a bleeding man down at his feet. He was a Jew. His hair was matted in blood. His eye was blackened. He gurgled through his injured mouth. He was missing an ear. His right arm was bent the wrong way, and his nose was in worse shape than that. Despite all this, he stared at Ilyasha. The Russian quickly turned away from the brown bloodshot eyes staring up at him.
“Do not turn away,” said Valentin. “This is your test.”
The rest of the men, twelve in total, filed out and formed a circle around the Jew. Valentin spoke: “Earlier we spoke about Ilyasha and his courage. I do not doubt that at one time he had the heart of a lion, but I fear that rural life and unemployment may have doused the previously raging fire. We know the troubles that face our country and this animal Jew represents them. Thus, like each of us before, Ilyasha must prove that his heart is strong and lies in the right place. Besarion, go fetch a poker from inside the tavern.”
“You couldn’t have asked me to do that before?”
“Idiot! Why are you delaying? Go get a poker from the fire!”
Besarion walked back inside the tavern.
The Jew groaned on the ground. Valentin stomped on his ribcage a few times, and the Jew coughed up blood. Ilyasha was surprised at Valentin’s strength. The man was old but had caused so much pain and injury to the man at his feet. Ilyasha felt a spark of pity well up inside of him and quickly smothered it. The thing at his feet was not a man, it was a Jew. It was the cause for the ills in society.
Besarion returned with the poker and handed it to Valentin, who shook his head and pointed to Ilyasha. The big man turned and held out the poker.
Ilyasha looked at the bronze thing in front of him. He looked at the Jew on the ground and reached for the poker. The Jew gurgled up more blood and Ilyasha fought back some bile. The pity was gone now. Any people who did not have the decency and manliness to defend themselves when they were attacked—yet still time and time again engineered the downfall of Christian society from the dark—were not worth a second thought, and this Jew at his feet was a prime example of everything Valentin said. He raised the poker above his hands and took a deep breath.
During the poker’s long travel down from the apex of its journey to its eventual connection with the Jew’s skull—and then the repeating trips—Ilyasha began to think he made a mistake in his previous line of thought. But as the blood and bone splattered on the front of his clothes, he found that he could not control himself. The act of bashing in the Jew’s skull became a mechanical process. His mind reeled at what he was doing, but his arms continued bringing up and down the poker.
It was about the twelfth or so time that Besarion caught Ilyasha’s arm and put a stop to the violence. “That’s enough, Ilyasha.”
Ilyasha panted and nodded, slowly lowered the poker.
“Good. Brothers, we now know that Ilyasha has his heart in the right place. Come, let us drink to his health and the life of the Tsar.”
Ilyasha stayed back while his friends walked into the tavern. He looked at the corpse and glimpsed a black velvet bag. Ilyasha bent down and grabbed it from the inside of the Jew’s jacket. He undid the cord and saw gold coins and a couple jewels inside. “Well,” Ilyasha thought, “here’s the wealth Baba Yaga promised me.” He chuckled at the brief, superstitious thought and pocketed the bag.
A week after he washed the Jew’s blood off of his boots, Ilyasha’s wife sopped acknowledging him. At first, it was an increase in the silence that came with a lack of food, but soon, Ilyasha noticed that she didn’t even look at him. At the start of the silence, Ilyasha was distraught because he truly did love her. Soon, mostly with the help of his friends, he felt the distress pass and took an optimistic approach to his new bed on the floor of the cabin. (Not to say that he told his friends that he slept on the floor. When questioned, he told them that he forced the woman to sleep on the floor without covers.) By the time Valentin was buried in the ground a fortnight later, Ilyasha was apathetic.
It was publicly said that Valentin passed quietly and peacefully in the night. Ilyasha and the others knew better. Valentin had been with one of the women in the village when her husband walked in, saw them, crushed Valentin’s head in, and spat on his wife. The men in the organization knew this was the truth because the husband approached them with Valentin’s severed penis in a box that night. Valentin was buried soon after and the Black Hundreds leadership passed to the Georgian Besarion.
In next two weeks, no news came from the West, and the entire village had little knowledge that the Tsar had abdicated the day after Valentin died, and the Duma passed into the control of the Provisional Government. Ignorant of the outside, life in the village carried on.
Under Besarion, the chapter of the Black Hundreds attacked the nearby Jews twice a month. When they didn’t physically harm them, the Russians extorted money in exchange from protection from the Cossacks who were rumored to be in the area, burning whatever Jewish villages they came across. (Of course, this was only fear mongering. The majority of the Cossacks were, at this time, far away.) With each raid, Ilyasha found his fortune increasing. He found that about half of every batch of money he came across went straight to the money chest under the tavern’s bar. Aside from Anna, life was good.
Despite this, he still acted as if he were a poor man. One day, after he nodded to Anna in the morning, Ilyasha walked outside, took the axe from the stump, and crunched through the snow to the woods.
It was quiet again. Unbidden, his encounter with Baba Yaga came into his mind and he began to think. He soon dismissed it as a fiction. It was most likely that he had eaten some bad bread and hallucinated. But wait, he caught himself, where did the wood come from? Easy, another part of his head reasoned, while he was hallucinating, he had been cutting the wood. He bellowed a song as he walked deeper into the woods.
He walked until he came to a clearing with a very familiar house on very familiar wooden stalks. The axe fell from his hand as the song became a prayer.
A chilly, old voice said from behind him, “You should keep singing. It was very beautiful, though I’ve never been very good at deciphering meaning from songs. Can you tell me what it was about?”
Ilyasha turned around and saw the ancient woman sitting on the mortar, holding the wooden pestle. “Baba Yaga.”
The woman cocked her head to the side. “That certainly didn’t sound like it was about me. It was entirely too pleasant. Tell me what it was about.”
Ilyasha cleared his throat. “It was about riding on the steppes, owning the wind.”
“Riding? You don’t own a horse. Why should you be singing about riding? You should be singing about cutting off the heads of children and throwing them at their mothers.” Baba Yaga tossed her head back and cackled. The loose skin on her neck jerked back and forth.
“I do not need to ride on a horse to sing good songs,” Ilyasha said.
The woman stopped cackling, looked at Ilyasha, and her eyes glittered. “Very true, but you should stick to what you know, otherwise you’re apt to come across as a charlatan. Now the important question is what is wealthy Ilyasha Dubrovin doing cutting his own timber like a poor man?”
“How would you know what I do and do not need?”
Baba Yaga chuckled and hopped down from her mortar. She shuffled over to Ilyasha. “Boy,” she said, her breath reeking of the foul meat he remembered from before, “even if my magic didn’t work, I’d still have the ability to follow you around without you knowing. I’ve seen what you do, I’ve seen what you take, and I’ve seen what you do with your money. Not the most Christian of actions. You and your friends have made quite the names for yourselves, killing and robbing. You might even outdo the Cossacks from ten years ago, at the rate you’re going.
“Well,” she said, after a pause, “if your future didn’t have anything to do with it.”
“What do you mean?”
Baba Yaga waved away his question. “As I asked before: What are you doing in my woods when you do not need to harm them?”
“It…” Ilyasha composed himself. Her rotting breath clouded his mind. “It is a habit. Something I enjoy doing.”
“You enjoy unnecessarily killing my friends? Has life grown so dark for you that you must destroy it wherever you find it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Self-deception is the worst thing you can do to yourself. It is the death of kings and serfs—sorry, peasants alike. You are in danger of losing what little humanity you had because of pride and greed.”
“If that is true, then you put me on this path, witch. You forced me to get this gold.”
“You would have had the gold and wealth one way or another. Do not ascribe to me the follies of your people. It would be a most idiotic thing to do. You chose to ally yourself with that lecherous scoundrel.”
“How dare you judge anyone!”
Baba Yaga shrugged. “I am today because of my choices yesterday. We are nothing but our past, and at any time we are free to form ourselves anew. I do not because I have grown to like the taste of children. Why do you not change yourself?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
A raven cawed overhead. Baba Yaga looked up and nodded. “Time grows short. You know why you do not break free. It is because of your cowardice. If you do not break free of your past, you are damned. I say this because I liked your song. It pleased me to hear of those whose will is free. Change where you are headed, reclaim your wife, and there will be hope for you yet. If you do not, then you will perish alongside your friends. Now leave.”
Ilyasha blinked and he found himself at the edge of the woods with another handful of wood and no axe. He turned around and saw his home. Sighing, he walked inside.
Anna prepared a stew over a fire. She looked up and Ilyasha saw the streaks of tears on her cheeks. He stood in the doorway, not breaking the fragile gaze, the first they’d truly had in a week. Her light blue eyes and the little blonde curl slipping out of her babushka were amplified to transcendent beauty by their split. He cleared his throat and broke the gaze, walking over to the stack of wood next to the fire pit.
No one would say he was weak. She would break first before they reconciled. What kind of man would he be if someone accused him of bowing down before a woman? He slammed the door shut behind him and walked out towards the tavern. He stopped. From inside the home, the sound of a weeping woman drifted out on the still air and her weakness reinforced his decision. Yes, it was only a matter of time until she broke, leaving him the strong one. The man.
The priest was in the tavern. Judging from the color of his face, a deep red which nicely contrasted his black cassock, he was quite drunk. Ilyasha walked over to his friends sitting around a table alongside one of the walls. “Why is he here?”
“He’s been screaming about how Russia has sinned and is being punished by God,” said Ivan. “Apparently, the Tsar is out of the Almighty’s favor for sending so many young, good Russians to die by the hands of the Germans.”
Besarion said, “The Tsar abdicated the throne some time ago, and the Duma has passed into the control of some group known as the Russian Provisional Government.”
“Really?” asked Ilyasha, shocked.
“That’s what the madman says. I would not pay it any attention. He is drunk and out of his head. The Tsar’s abdication is impossible.” His eyes shifted and he swallowed.
The priest took up a drunken mixture of Greek, Latin, and Russian, drowning out all other conversation in the tavern. Besarion stood and walked towards the priest. “What do you think Besarion will do?” Ilyasha asked.
Ivan shrugged. “He is much harder to predict than Valentin. Valentin would have strung the priest up and flayed him, but Besarion usually lets his actions be fueled by the amount he has drank that day. The priest is lucky, because Besarion is stone-cold sober.”
“Do you think Besarion would hurt the priest?”
“As I said, I would not bet one way or the other, but the priest is standing on shaky ground. Come,” Ivan pulled up a chess board from an adjoining table, “play me.”
“You’ll beat me in six moves, Ivan. I’m terrible.”
Ivan laughed. “Then we’ll make a bet on it!”
Throughout the night, the priest screamed and drank. The more he drank, the louder he screamed and the less Russian he used. (For his part, the bartender would have tossed the priest out, but he thought that it would be a sin to eject a priest from a place of business.) The one unchanging factor was that Besarion drank more. Each tankard he drained left the priest that much closer to his demise, and the poor clergyman was clueless.
Up until Besarion stood up from his stool, Ilyasha hadn’t paid any attention. He’d lost three games to Ivan and won two, convinced that if he could get his elder drunk enough, he’d stand a chance. When the priest started choking instead of shouting Latin, Ilyasha turned around to see Besarion’s giant hand closed around the priest’s throat. No one made any move to stop him. Besarion lifted the priest up into the air, his legs kicking like a man at the gallows. As Besarion carried him out of the tavern door and into the cold air, the tavern became deathly silent.
A few minutes later, Besarion reentered the tavern. He looked around at those inside and said, “Continue. Nothing has changed. The priest was a Bolshevik spy and has now been dealt with.” The tavern slowly went back to their conversations and Besarian turned his attention to his comrades. “Come outside.” He left the tavern.
The Black Hundreds stood up and filed outside. They saw, outside, the fresh corpse of the priest in a horse-drawn cart. “He was right. Some months ago, the Bolsheviks and their lackeys forced the Tsar to abdicate.”
“What will happen, Besarion?” asked Ivan.
Besarion shrugged. “Probably nothing. I haven’t received much in the way of news. The last I heard, those loyal to the Tsar and his family are fighting against this affront against God. We must not allow word to spread of the horrors of the situation. The priest will remain known as a traitor and a Bolshevik. Those who doubt us will be shown his body swinging from a tree. Do not fear, brothers, the madness will soon end. In the meantime, follow me.”
Anna left him the next day, after she saw the priest’s corpse strung up on the tree.
He had other things to worry about. Besarion’s propaganda failed, and the rest of the village had reacted badly. Even members of the chapter began grumbling at the Georgian’s leadership. On top of this, there were rumors that their neighbors were going to exact vengeance, so Besarion reacted by disappearing for a day and returning with a wagon full of rifles. “If they attack us, you will kill them. There will be no hesitation, for our lives come first,” he said.
A week later, the gunfire exploded from the woods, ripping Besarion apart where he stood, urinating behind the tavern in the middle of the day. Inside the tavern, the war veterans among the group leapt up, grabbed their rifles, and ran out—remembering drills they’d learned long ago. The younger members followed.
They ran past Besarion’s body, now in three bloody parts, through the red snow, and took cover behind some of the lumber stacks sprinkled around the edge of the village. Bullets cascaded around them, chipping away at the wood and sending splinters flying. A man on their right flank caught a splinter in his eye and ran screaming into the crossfire.
Ivan, next to Ilyasha, roared, stood to aim, got two shots to the top of his head, and collapsed on the younger man.
Ilyasha panicked, shoved the body away, and scooted away from cover, attracting fire along the way. His right arm exploded in pain and his mind wandered, oddly, to the question of why they chose to wear distinctive coats, announcing their faction when it would have been so much easier to wear civilian clothes and operate that way. He caught another bullet in his right shoulder and half-ran, half-crawled to the side of a house. Bullets cascaded off of the wall and he wheezed in pain.
“Hello again,” said a familiar voice. “Do you see the ruin that you brought upon yourself?”
Ilyasha turned to his left and looked up. Baba Yaga sat on her mortar.
“I warned you. You had the chance to save yourself. But you chose pride and greed over love and humility.” She let out a resigned sigh. “I tell you, this is the last time I care about a Russian. It brings nothing but heartbreak.”
Ilyasha coughed up some blood on his chest. “Save me.”
“Only you had the chance to save yourself, Ilyasha. You had the chance and neglected it. This is what happens when you ignore the goodness of humanity. I count myself lucky. I’m a witch, but at least I’m not dead.”
Ilyasha fought to keep his eyes open. The pain in his arm was nothing, it felt like the bullet only scratched his arm enough to draw blood, but his shoulder burned and seethed. He looked back out to the lumber piles and the woods beyond them. Most of his comrades lay still in bloody snow, but some fought on.
“But,” said Baba Yaga, “you were led astray. Maybe there will be forgiveness. I know that if I were in charge, I would not give a harsh punishment to those who were pulled to murder and theft by those they loved. Then again, what do I know about goodness? You said it yourself, I kill children.”
Ilyasha looked at her. “Save me.” He whispered.
“You should have saved yourself.”
“I served the greater good,” he said.
“You served nothing but hatred. You should have saved what mattered. Life comes above all, love comes above all. You had the chance to realize that. For what it’s worth, I pity you.”
Ilyasha’s head was too heavy. It bobbed down, and he pulled it back up and had a moment of clear vision. In the place of the ancient woman sitting on the mortar with pestle in hand was a man in thick wool pants, a huge coat, and a flat cap. He held in his hand a pistol leveled at Ilyasha’s head.
In his last moments, he saw Anna’s face and died with a smile.