“Of course, it is often the case with girls that they must make their own way out into the world and from there find their own way back. The more organized ones draft maps or make hatch marks in the trunks of trees, bend branches, leave a patter of crumbs. Sometimes a girl will tie a thread to something she wants to come back to and dole the thread out behind—a raveling hem of her cloak or the loose end of a golden ball, very precious, she was previously using to string the geese in a row to and from the lake.”
– Sarah Blackman, “A Beautiful Girl, a Well Loved One”
As if escaping Russian mobsters and Ukrainian rebels wasn’t enough, Liliya now faced a choice: the nuclear hot zone before her, or mutant wolves behind.
No choice, really. The thought of being torn to bloody bits in the silent woods around Pripyat, as much as it appealed as the ultimate escape from mobsters and rebels, also meant her daughter would never see her mother again. Besides, you could be treated for radiation poisoning nowadays, couldn’t you? And thirty years on, the radiation wasn’t even that bad any longer, was it? Liliya ran on, right past the yellow-and-red warning sign.
Several hundred yards beyond the sign, though, Liliya’s lungs began to burn. Oh, God, this was what the start of radiation sickness felt like, wasn’t it? How silly of her to put such blind trust in those who said the radiation no longer lurked in the ground as much as many wanted to think. She slowed to a jog, then a walk. If she was to die now after all, a serene, calm-inducing woods was probably the best place for it. She trudged through the thinner snow underneath the pines and birches, whose boughs shielded all but the center of the pathway. If she sat here underneath one of the birches, would Jack Frost, Morozko himself, crackle and snap along to ask if she were warm and comfortable?
Before long her breathing returned to normal, the pain in her lungs and her side vanished, and Liliya could think clearly once again. Only a lack of oxygen, then, not radiation, not that she could feel. If only this walk in the woods could help clear her mind of all her troubles! But rustlings in the shrubs to her right gave away some small animal; perhaps a mutant rabbit, or worse, the wolves still stalked her. She shuddered. The misshapen hulks had lurked in the shadows between her and her vehicle while she relieved herself on the side of the road. It would have been nice to think they had done her a favor, helping her escape the mobsters and rebels. In reality, like any good predator, they had successfully isolated her from the rest of her herd.
Liliya glanced to her right. In the center of the path she spied the tracks of a medium to large animal, boars perhaps. She quickened her step, but resisted the impulse to break into another run. That felt too panicky, a good way to step in a concealed hole and twist her ankle, or to trip over a root and fall face first into the poisoned snow. Nightfall was still several hours away, but she didn’t want to be in the exclusion zone by then. She had nothing to sleep on or in, no way to protect herself from the elements or anything else out here. At least she had left tracks that would help her avoid walking in circles.
Finally she came to what appeared to be a path, or a narrow road. Perhaps a poachers’ trail, or a smugglers’ route for illegal pieces of Reactor 4. Still, on a pathway she could move faster. Even though the snow here was thicker, perhaps she could find—
The mind she had clearly lost. How else could she explain the hut in the pathway before her? It rose above her on two chicken legs, took up the width of the path so that she couldn’t move around it.
She’d just have to go back into the woods, just briefly. That was all.
She turned. The two mutant wolves skulked at the woods’ boundary. Their misshapen heads bobbed and swayed. Low snarls filled the silence.
Shaking now, Liliya turned back to face the hut. It was ridiculous, this child’s myth now before her. A mind-bender, a prank.
A strong wind blew through the treetops, so that limbs groaned against one another and smaller branches shrieked with friction. Before Liliya could register what was happening, an old woman climbed out of a human-sized mortar, gripping the pestle in her hands for leverage.
“Well?” the woman demanded. “Did you forget the phrase to get my house to open its door to you?” She clucked her tongue, sniffed the air with a nose as wrinkled as if she had smelled something foul. “Russians.”
Liliya’s knees buckled. She fainted, crumpled into a heap in the radioactive snow.
Coming to was like waking: warm yet disorienting, disoriented yet safe. The smell of freshly baked bread hung in the air. Liliya’s stomach growled.
Then she remembered: mobsters. Rebels. Mutant wolves. And an old woman out of her childhood nightmares. She sat up with a little shriek.
Banged her head on a wooden shelf above her.
“She’s awake,” said an old voice from somewhere to her left. “Mind the shelf, devochka. Sorry I couldn’t put you someplace more comfortable. I don’t get too many guests these days.”
Laughter burst out, then resolved into the cackle of crones. Liliya ducked underneath the shelf so that she could sit up and look across the room.
A little group of babushki sat in a knot around a old but sturdy square wooden table. They held cards in their hands and sipped clear liquid—Liliya guessed vodka—from chipped drinking glasses. The rest of the home was modest, wood and plaster, the walls hung with religious ikons and embroidered towels, pictures of flowers and nature. Such a contrast to the heavy Oriental carpets that had adorned Sergei’s flat in Moscow. “I don’t mean to trouble you,” Liliya called to them. “If I could ask for a little bread and tea, then I can be on my way.”
“On your way? Where could you possibly go that would bring you through the Zone of Alienation?” a different babushka, her voice higher pitched, asked.
Liliya struggled to get first one leg, then the other, off the little bed and onto the wooden floor. They had taken off her boots, and cold laced its way up around her socks. “I have to get to Moscow.”
The women lapsed into silence. One of them drained her vodka glass, banged it down on the table. “Why?” she asked finally. “What business have you in Moscow? There’s only death there.”
“You live in the Zone of Alienation,” Liliya retorted. “There’s plenty of death here, too.”
“She’s right about that, Galina.” A third babushka spoke up. “You remember how Pyotr died fighting the fires in the power plant.” Her rheumy bloodshot eyes met Liliya’s. Liliya tried to project as much sympathy as she could at the woman.
“Death is everywhere, Varvara,” Galina shot back. “But especially in the cities. Didn’t we see it with our own eyes when they tried to move us to Kyiv?”
The other women all nodded, murmured names. “Vadim.Vera. Mikhail. Lyuda. Nadezhda.”
“So you see,” Galina told Liliya. “There is death here. But also life. In the animals we keep, even the ones we scare away. In the spirits of our ancestors and of the land itself. They guide us and nurture us until it’s time for us to join them.”
“It’s like my sister Marina used to say,” her friend added. “How can the spirits guide you in the cities? Everything is artificial, there are no points of reference. No. You leave, you die.”
Liliya sat up straighter. “You said Marina. I have a Marina. She is why I must get to Moscow. To rescue her.”
The women went silent again. “Rescue from what?” Galina asked.
“Her father.” Liliya couldn’t help but spit the word. “He’s a mobster. He sent me to Donetsk. To service the—the Russian forces.” She hung her head, stared at her hands in her lap, the ragged nails, the beginnings of deep wrinkles. There wasn’t much worse than admitting to sweet old babushki that you were a whore.
But Marina’s sister was on her feet. She bustled over to the bed. “There, there,” she said, “no need to cry. No shame. You know my aunt, Zinaida, was forced to go to Germany during the war. To serve as forced labor to Gestapo. Can you imagine? Seeing her father and little brothers killed, her mother raped, then to have to go and serve those animals. And after she survived the Holodomar starvation! Tell me, how old is your Marina?”
“Seven.” Liliya sniffled. “Too young to stay for long with her father and his gopnik friends.”
“Yes.” The fourth woman spoke at last. “And what is it you ask? Bread and some tea? No, my dear. You will need much more than that. We will help. If you will help us.”
Liliya glanced around the small house. “I’ve never hauled water or slaughtered chickens,” she whispered. “I’m afraid I would be useless.”
“That isn’t what I mean.” The woman stood.
The air changed. It took Liliya a moment to realize that the ambient sounds—birds calling outside, wind rustling branches—had stopped. So had the old women. They sat frozen, one in mid-card-shuffle, another with her glass raised partway to her mouth.
Only the woman who had spoken about her little Marinka remained. She blinked, waiting for Liliya to catch up. When she did at last, she couldn’t help but scramble backward on the bed. “Baba Yaga,” she breathed.
Then it hadn’t been a dream. She had seen Baba Yaga’s house, where Baba Yaga was said to sleep on the stove she used to bake little children alive. Thank God, Liliya thought, that Marina wasn’t with her. She fell back on the pillows. Tried to think of a way out.
“Don’t be daft,” the babushka said. “I brought you here, and I will let you leave in my own time.”
Who knew how long that could be? Liliya contemplated a lifetime of servitude to the old woman. Never mind fetching water or slaughtering chickens; she’d be stuck separating white millet from black millet, peas from poppy seeds, day after day until Baba Yaga tired of her and decided to eat her. If she tried to escape, the cat would scratch, the dog would bite, the birch would lash out her eyes, the gates would fail to open for her. Not unlike what she’d left behind, and besides, it wasn’t as if she had any sort of family to return home to with a torchlit skull.
Except Marina. Marina, who was her own illumination.
Liliya choked down a laugh or a sob—she couldn’t be sure which. Clearly she was going mad.
“I said, don’t be daft.” Baba Yaga’s voice was brusque. “You aren’t mad. You seek help. I seek help. We are of mutual benefit.”
That was not the Baba Yaga from the folk tales Liliya had grown up with. She sat up once more, mindful this time of the shelf, and regarded the old woman. No wonder she had mistaken Baba Yaga for one of the ordinary babushki; the old witch could, she had to admit, be anyone’s grandmother. Her long gray hair fell in soft waves around her shoulders; her wiry frame gave the impression of nimble, if tired, strength. She hugged a bright red fringed shawl to herself.
“How can we help each other,” Liliya whispered. You weren’t supposed to question Baba Yaga. You were supposed to trust.
“Yes, trust,” Baba Yaga told her. “You have my word. Your daughter will be saved. But you must do as I say.”
“I’m listening.” Of course Baba Yaga could read her mind. Liliya didn’t even question it.
“It will not be easy.” Baba Yaga waited.
“Please, tell me. Anything for Marina.”
Baba Yaga nodded once, firmly, and time and space resumed.
Galina glanced up at Liliya. “Three spirits we once relied on for protection are trapped on this land. We’re too old to go and free them for ourselves. Without them, we fear the incursion to our south will come north, and we will lose our land to development.”
Baba Yaga sniffed, again as if she smelled something vile. “Always push where they don’t belong, those people.” She eyed Liliya. “You smell of Russian blood, but also of escape. Desire to live as you wish, to raise your daughter as you wish.” Her lip curled. “But also doubt that it can ever happen. You Russians. Never happy without the yoke of serfdom.” With that she rose, went to the stove. Opened the door, used one of the brightly embroidered cloths to pull out two pans of the bread Liliya had smelled.
Now wait just a minute, Liliya wanted to cry, but held her tongue. You couldn’t change an old woman’s mind. Besides, it was true. Liliya had a lot of doubts. About Marina’s father, Sergei, and his notions of good ways to make money; about what he might be up to with Marina, now that she was away; and only recently, whether the Ukrainian government was really all that fascist. Only a few weeks ago she had spent a night with a pair of Russian rebels, who had not wanted to be serviced at all but wanted only for her to listen to what they had to tell her: that they were double agents, that the masses of trucks, the Grad rocket launchers with their deadly hail, the troops all were designed to invade, and most of all, that she and Marina both could have a better life in a European Ukraine.
And hadn’t one of them laughed as he told her, in the context of Russian use of other fictions to serve their own purposes, that the Baba Yaga legend had really originated with a Sami shaman woman from northern Finland? “Think about it,” he’d chuckled over his beer. “She hates to smell Russian blood. Why else but if we tried to invade her land, too?”
By the end of the night Liliya had known with certainty that to return to Sergei was to return to certain slavery, as if she had predicted the words she would hear weeks later about the woman’s aunt Zinaida, enslaved by Nazis. It was in a fit of panic that she had stolen the car to make the drive back to Moscow; and hadn’t her body finally screamed at her to stop, here outside of Pripyat, as she began to realize that neither she nor Marina may ever be able to escape his thrall?
“Please.” Liliya projected her voice stronger. “Tell me what to do to get Marina back.”
Baba Yaga set the bread on the table. “Help free the spirits,” she said, “and I’ll guide you back to your Marina.”
Later, as she stumbled away from the house with the chicken legs—for that was exactly where she’d been, not simply in a farmhouse—Liliya reflected that she really should have paid closer attention to the old fairy tales. Baba Yaga’s tasks always sounded simple until the heroine got a sense of their breadth. Then they seemed impossible in the time frame that was given. And unlike Vasilisa, Liliya had no wooden doll to help her. Still, the bread and tea Varvara had given her helped; a reminder that she wasn’t alone, that women had persisted and thrived through worse, that she could, too.
Still, she had no idea where to find the trapped spirits, what form they had taken. “You’ll know when you see them,” was all Baba Yaga had told her, but what did that mean exactly?
Liliya halted in a clearing for a moment, to catch her breath and her emotions. If she wasn’t careful she’d stumble through the woods in circles for hours. It was too cold for that, and besides, there were the wolves and the boar tracks she’d seen earlier. Her chest heaved with exertion and with the sobs she didn’t want to allow to the surface. If she did, she might never leave this clearing. Her body would join the countless others that had fallen here, throughout the battles fought on this land.
Above her a bird fluttered to a low branch with a twitter. Liliya glanced up. It was a thrush, and in its beak it carried a large roll of yellow yarn.
Liliya let out a laugh that could have been a sob. Of course, the animals always helped the heroines in the Baba Yaga tales.
The thrush dropped the yarn to the ground. Liliya snatched it up. “Thank you, thrush,” she called, just like Vasilisa might have. Then, her hand shaking, she pulled a thread from the yarn. She tied it to a sapling, oriented herself to the sun and set off.
She had walked for nearly half an hour when something tinkled in the distance off to her left. A piano? No, that couldn’t be right. She had to be nearby some abandoned home with a leftover wind chime. She kept on. The thread spooled out behind her. What would happen when she ran out? Another thrush perhaps? She choked down a raspy chuckle.
The tinkling sound grew louder. A piano, unmistakably. Could a hermit have taken up residence in one of the abandoned houses? But thirty years after the Chernobyl disaster, how could a left-behind piano remain so in tune?
Up ahead she could see glimpses of its wooden structure, but instead of the earthen tone walnut or maple one might expect a piano to be built in, it was garishly painted, blood red and grays and blacks. She couldn’t make out the designs. She crept closer.
Someone had painted the piano with skulls of all shapes and colors. They grinned out at her from the piano’s side panels like it was a party, such a great time, wished she could join them.
Then these were the trapped spirits. Had to be. As soon as she thought it, though, Liliya contradicted herself: what if they weren’t? What if they had once been human like her, that they had done something to displease Baba Yaga so that she had condemned them to live in this two-dimensional space out here in the quiet Pripyat woods, never to be heard from again? Was it possible that Liliya could join them?
She froze, hesitant to take a single step further. Then she noticed the soldier who played the piano.
At least, she thought it was a soldier. He was dressed in green, had a rifle slung over his shoulder, but it was no uniform she recognized. Was he Ukrainian? Russian? Why was he here, so far from the fighting? Military action hadn’t begun in Belarus, had it? Or had he deserted?
“Come out from behind the trees,” he called, his voice as clear and bright as his playing, “and I will answer some of your questions.”
Liliya emerged into the clearing. Stopped when she noticed: no footprints were present to give her any sense of how he had gotten here, what direction he had come from. When had it snowed last? Two days? Three? He had no rucksack that she could see, so he should have looked anxious, stressed, about dwindling rations. Yet his face was serene as he picked out the strange tune she couldn’t place. The skulls grinned appreciatively.
“You are on a mission,” he announced. “I am here to help. But you must help me first.”
Liliya circled around to where she could better see his face. He was young, but also old.
“I am cursed,” he told her. “A wizard trapped these souls inside this piano and cursed me to keep watch over them. As long as I play, they remain in their prison. If I stop playing, they cry out in pain, and that I cannot bear. Help me escape the spell, and I will help you with your task.”
“What do I do,” Liliya whispered.
“Your yarn,” he said. “It leads its carrier to their chosen destination. Give it to me and allow me to follow it to my home.”
“But how will I find my way?”
“You can go back the way you came.” Was that impatience in his tone? If Liliya was honest with herself, it felt like the times in school when a tit for tat always ended up with her receiving the short end of the stick. Or in adulthood, when the mobster said your daughter would be safe with him while you went to eastern Ukraine and serviced the Russian-backed rebels to make him money. For all she knew, she’d end up playing this piano herself, never to see Marina again.
She asked, “What will happen to the trapped souls if you leave?”
The soldier’s tune soured, sharps and flats in the still air, and the skulls grimaced. “The curse binds us to one another,” he said. “You release us from the curse, and we all go free.”
They always sounded so pitiful. Liliya weighed her options. The yarn, he said, took its carrier to their destination. Baba Yaga had said she would recognize the trapped spirits when she saw them. Put together, it seemed these were the spirits. But why had they been trapped? What might she unleash if she did as the soldier asked?
In the fairy tales the heroine was rewarded for her politeness and trust. Liliya stepped forward. She handed the soldier the yarn.
He smiled so wide she thought his face was lengthening. She blinked. Indeed it was; and he grew taller. Fur sprouted from the pores in his skin. With fingers shortening and nails lengthening before her eyes he played a quick, sprightly tune that sounded like rushing water. “You don’t have to remember it,” he said. “The thrush will sing it for you.” With that, he finished his transformation into a large bear, turned and bounded back through the trees. The yellow yarn streamed out behind him.
Liliya gaped after him. When she turned back to face the piano, the skulls’ faces had twisted into grimaces as, with effort, they began to push their way out of the wood.
Liliya didn’t wait to find out what they would look like when they escaped. She ran.
The thrush flew overhead, pacing her. This time it carried nothing in its beak. When she slowed, it slowed too, beating its wings in the air above her. When she stopped, gasping for air, the thrush rested on a nearby branch.
After what seemed like an eternity, Liliya broke free of the treeline; or at least, one part of the treeline. She balanced herself on a freshly felled birch still with a beaver’s teeth marks at its base, and took a few minutes to reorient. She’d come out on a railroad track. More woods stretched before her. The thought of sustained physical activity made her feel weak, as if she had run for days. She pulled out the bread and the small thermos of tea, still warm as if Varvara had just given them to her, and ate and drank. “So how’s this work?” she asked the thrush, which rested on a low branch on the other side of the track. “We run and fly until the third horseman brings night?” She chuckled at her own joke. Come to think of it, she had yet to see either of the other two horsemen signaling to the sun. She wondered what that meant.
For its part, the thrush didn’t answer her. As soon as she had polished off the last bite of bread, though, the bird lifted off its branch. It fluttered in front of her for a moment, then flew straight down the track, south, she thought. “All right, all right,” she muttered. She finished the last drop of tea, then followed the thrush, as she now knew she had done all along.
Nature had, predictably, taken over not just the tracks and ties themselves, but also the structures that had once supported the railroad. Liliya thought she recalled something about a railway station that had served Pripyat. Now, trees grew straight up through the guard shack, and a signal tower; shrubs had laced their branches through the wheels of the abandoned locomotives and passenger cars. A thick blanket of snow shrouded all of it, tucking the vehicles into an eternal slumber.
Here were more signs, though, of human incursion than had been in the woods. Intact and broken glass bottles littered a tamped-down circle of snow alongside the ties. In the circle’s center were the charred remains of a campfire; it was as if someone had held a winter party here in the Zone. In some parts glass and doll parts appeared to have been staged for photographs, propped in unnatural tableaux alongside Cyrillic initials and curse words. Impulsively Liliya rubbed out the swear words. Just because others had seen a place of mystery to leave their mark upon, to conquer and own, didn’t mean it couldn’t and didn’t need to retain some dignity.
The thrush fluttered above one of the abandoned trains, a set of passenger cars. Why on earth should she make a second pit stop here, in this metal graveyard? But the fluttering seemed insistent. She had become frightfully used to all this, she thought, as the thrush beat its wings to stay in one spot. She stepped carefully over where she thought the tracks must lie, so that she wouldn’t trip and fall into the snow.
The train car’s door crashed open as if flung. A new figure appeared in the doorway. It was human, slight, male. And it wore a gas mask.
Panic rose in Liliya. She didn’t have a dosimeter, she had no way to tell how poisonous the air was, if he was only able to survive because of this mask—
“I don’t want visitors!” the figure bellowed from behind its mask. “Go away!”
Liliya advanced. “Please, I need your help,” she began, though she couldn’t quite figure out how to say that a thrush had told her to ask.
“What didn’t you understand? Fuck off!” The figure vanished from the doorway.
In some strange way he reminded her of Nikolai, the youngest of Sergei’s gopnik protectors, not much more than a boy who had lost his family to vodka and despair. She’d always had a soft spot for Nikolai, who she felt had wanted for a mother. Perhaps that was why she followed this strange figure; then again, what choice did she have? The thrush had pointed her this way. If this gas-masked figure was also under a spell, perhaps she could help him, too.
The strange near-Nikolai had left the door open, and she entered. The car was a standard passenger car, with standard seats. But if she thought the skulls embedded in the piano had been a freakish horror show, anything she might describe from this car would put her over the edge if she thought too much about it.
Illuminated doll’s heads hung on the walls of the car, uncomfortably similar to the glowing skulls that Vasilisa had sought from Baba Yaga in her legend. Their eyes rolled, so that they could watch Liliya as she passed them by.
In one of the seats a pair of wooden dolls—much like the ones Liliya had once imagined Vasilisa’s—knotted faceless motanka dolls using strips of green rubber that appeared to have come from hazardous materials suits. In another, a blind child moved his fingers against the air while the bandura beside him played its own strings, a slow sad Slavic tune. In a third seat a babushka made entirely of her kerchiefs stirred the long handle of a wooden spoon in a big metal pot on the floor. Either borscht or kompot, Liliya couldn’t tell, bubbled inside the pot. The babushka’s fabric eyes squinted up at Liliya with suspicion.
The gas-masked figure was nowhere in sight. Liliya stepped through the door at the end of the car. Briefly, because she couldn’t help it, she turned to scan the strange sights once more. But they had all disappeared. The car, save the glowing heads on the walls, sat empty and silent.
She shook off the weirdness, made her way into the next car. At least it wasn’t creepy, but it was no less weird: storks flew around her head, their white and black feathers replaced entirely by ribbons. A baby bear played violin for a shadow folk dancer in an endless pirouette. A mother fox whose pelt was made entirely of flame nursed four kits, who also burned brightly on the floor of the car. Liliya made her way silently past all of them.
The third car was where she found the gas-masked near-Nikolai. Alone, he hovered a few inches above the floor in the center of the car. His chest heaved as if from exertion. The car had been stripped completely of its furniture. The windows and both walls had been covered with shelves, on which sat still more gas masks of various shapes and sizes and histories. On the far end of the carriage, a large framed picture of Lenin hung from the wall, draped with embroidered towels much like those she had seen in Baba Yaga’s house.
Before she knew what he was about the figure flew at her. He stopped short just a centimeter before he would have sent her tumbling to the floor. “I said,” his muffled voice came from behind the mask, “no visitors.”
Liliya stared back into the cavernous eyeholes. “The thrush told me to come here.”
He sank to the floor then. “That’s how you were able to get past the artifacts,” he muttered. “All right. What is it you want?”
His voice was light; he was shorter than his levitation had made him appear. He must, Liliya thought with a start, be not much older than a boy, perhaps even younger than Nikolai. She opened her mouth to speak, but then thought better of it: how would he take the news that she had come to free his spirit? And what if it wasn’t his spirit at all she was meant to free, but whatever lived inside one of his “artifacts”?
She detected movement beyond the windows. Outside, muffled through the window, the thrush had begun to sing the soldier-bear’s tune.
The boy nodded as if his head were made of lead weights. “You’re to go to Chernobyl,” he told her. “Into the heart of Reactor Four.” He returned to the center of the car, faced one wall of the rest of the gas masks, scanned it. Then he turned and scanned the other wall. He did this three more times. Finally he walked to one and selected it. “You will need this,” he said. “And also be sure to take some kompot. Drink a cup here, and then fill a flask before you leave. It is made from kalyna berries and will protect your blood from the radiation.”
You weren’t supposed to eat food from the exclusion zone, were you? Yet Liliya’s mouth watered with thirst, in spite of the tea she had drunk not long ago, and besides, it was rude to refuse a host. “Thank you,” Liliya said, in Ukrainian, one of the only words she knew.
He paused. “And take this.” He held out a pysanka that was decorated only in red and white. “Place it on the floor when you get into the reactor, and follow where it leads. It isn’t the same as a Firebird’s feather, but it will do.”
Liliya accepted the egg and slipped it delicately into one of her cargo pockets. The boy gestured for her to go ahead of him, back the way she had come, past the bear and the dancer and the burning foxes and the beribboned storks.
When she paused for the fabric babushka to pour the kalyna kompot first into a small flask and then into a china teacup, she saw that the boy had followed her. “When you get to the dolls,” he whispered while she drank from the teacup, “don’t eat their holubsti.”
Sure enough, Liliya soon saw that the wooden dolls had placed their motanki in a basket and now feasted on cabbage rolls. She passed by before they could offer one to her.
Outside the train gave her the flask. Then he gestured. “You can see the reactor from here. Just follow this track until you get there. You can’t miss it.” He turned as if to head back down the track.
“Wait,” Liliya called. “Won’t you walk with me?”
He half turned. The long mask and large eye-holes gave him a mournful aspect. “I must collect more artifacts,” he said gravely, and with that he turned, levitated once more, and began to fly above the snowdrifts, back the way Liliya had come.
Alone again, Liliya made her way down the tracks into the heart of what had once been the most dangerous region in the country. Trees seemed to shrink away from her as she walked; if the woods she had originally walked into were silent, then those named the Red Forest were preternaturally so. Whatever cottage tourism industry existed around Pripyat, seemed to have the day off.
Unless, of course, she was in a different dimension altogether. It should have been dark hours ago, but she had completed all these tasks in daylight. Perhaps tourists had walked right through her on that same train. She gave a nervous bark of laughter which, in the silence, sounded like a shout.
There were two switches in the tracks. The thrush guided her straight on the first, right on the second. Before long she began to pass more buildings, offices or storage, perhaps. The tracks crossed over roads, under a trestle. And then she was at the main road that led directly to Reactor Four.
Liliya swallowed. It had seemed so simple when she had heard it from the near-Nikolai, but seeing it was a different reality. She faced death itself in that collapsed building, and then what would become of Marina? Even the thrush seemed, like a miner’s canary, to have decided it was too much; the bird was nowhere in sight.
Still, it was the thrush’s song that had told the gas-masked boy where she needed to go and what she would need to survive there. And so Liliya shook off her paralysis advanced slowly down the roadway. The boy hadn’t told her when to drink the protective kompot; was it to be drunk now? After she put the pysanka down on the floor? In small steps along the way? As if in response, the flask in her pocket grew heavier with each step, until near the end of the road, she could no longer move. She removed it and drank, just a sip at first, but the flask seemed to want to empty itself into her mouth and so she let it. The sweet warm liquid pooled in her stomach, then spread outward. When she felt it tingle in her fingers and toes, she moved forward once again.
At last she was at the reactor. Just a building. The 700 or so people who maintained the sarcophagus needed the summertime manicured lawns and modern sculptures to give them a sense of normality, of course, so that they would not think of the poison that crept into their bones, their blood. Still the tableau before her seemed out of place, as if the reactor should still have belched smoke and fire and hell on earth.
She walked towards it. She remembered, of course, not much—she had been only a child—but she could recall news images of the metal girders twisted outward from the explosion, and later, the construction of the sarcophagus whose 100-meter replacement was currently underway. How her father had worried for her health, for all the children of Moscow!
And then, not long after, he had died, and it wasn’t long after that that the streets had beckoned.
Liliya had reached an entrance, though. No time to dwell on the past. She took out the gas mask and wrestled it over her head. The rubber pulled at her hair and stretched unnaturally tight across her skin. Then she reached into her pocket for the pysanka.
She pulled out only shell fragments.
Somehow—she couldn’t tell when, or how—it had broken while she walked. Tears burned. How could she have managed to fail at this one simple thing? Protect the pysanka, that was all she had to do to complete this one task for Baba Yaga. She sank to the floor, the fragments cradled in her hands. Her tears flowed.
The broken shell began to glow with a soft, warm light. Unlike a lantern or nightlight, though, the glow grew in size, hotter too, until finally she had to set it down on the dusty concrete floor. Brighter and bigger it glowed, a small sun, until details—wings, a beak—emerged.
A Firebird had hatched from the pysanka.
Liliya clapped her hands to gas mask filter in awe and delight. The Firebird lifted off the ground so that it could beat its wings, slowly at first, then with greater speed. Before Liliya could reopen the door that had led her inside, the Firebird took off. It sped down a hallway, then whooshed back. Then repeated the cycle until the corridor had grown so insufferably hot, it felt as if the reactor fire had never gone out.
Then, unbelievably, Liliya heard footsteps behind her. One of the workers must have seen her trespass, or a heat sensor had detected the Firebird’s activities. She flattened herself against the wall, prayed it would be enough to conceal her while the Firebird, its feathers still streaming flame, distracted the worker.
Instead she watched a team of rubber-suited men go by. They carried a section of industrial sleeve between them. Their footsteps squelched in puddles of water that had formed on the floor. Nothing the Firebird could possibly have generated; these had to be ghosts, echoes of the firefight it had taken to extinguish the poisonous flames. Liliya forced herself to breathe deeply through the mask that felt as if it meant to suffocate her. She longed to wrench the mask off her face, to swipe at the streams of sweat on her scalp, the tears still on her face. It was so hot, and she could hardly breathe—
The ghost firefighters returned, their hands empty. The last one of them in the line stopped in front of her. “Thank you for being so kind to my mother,” he told her gravely.
But the man vanished, along with his comrades, and then, suddenly, it was over. The air cooled. The Firebird returned. It dripped flame, but no longer generated so much heat.
Liliya went to the door. She held it open long enough for the Firebird to fly through. In the afterglow of its departure she thought she saw shadows of the ghost-firefighters trail in its wake, but she blinked and the shadows were gone. She took one last glance at the dark, dusty sarcophagus. “Rest in peace,” she murmured into the silence. Then she followed the Firebird back outside, out at last into blinding daylight where Baba Yaga’s hut now waited for her in the shadow of the massive sarcophagus.
Liliya tore the mask off her face and gasped until she was at last able to breathe the sweet air normally. Only then did she face the small home. “Little hut,” she said timidly, “turn your back to the trees and your face to me, please.”
The hut creaked and groaned on its elderly chicken legs. At last the door faced her. Baba Yaga stood there. “That’s better,” she said.
Liliya opened her mouth. Before she could ask whether any more could be done, a small figure darted out from behind the old woman in the doorway. “Mama!” the child cried.
Marina hadn’t aged; she looked nearly the same, only a little older, as the day Liliya had left her behind with Sergei. Liliya sank to her knees. “Marinka,” she cried, and then the little body collided with hers and they embraced, a tight hug that felt as if it fused them together so that neither of them would ever be able to let go again.
“Such a sweet child,” Galina said. “A kind and helpful girl.”
“For one so young,” Varvara—Pyotr’s mother—added. “She’ll do you well in life.”
Liliya looked up, over her daughter’s shoulder. Baba Yaga and her hut had vanished. She and Marina had somehow ended up once more in the yard of the old babushka in whose home she had awoken. The situation caught up to Liliya. “But Marinka, your father—”
“Ssh,” Galina soothed. “No need to fuss. You’ve fulfilled what was asked of you. Our protectors are free. And so are you.”
Liliya gazed deep into Marina’s eyes. Her head spun; perhaps the radiation had affected her after all.
Marina stroked her hair. “We can start over, Mama,” she said. “Just like the babushki here. Together.”
“Here.” Varvara pushed a basket at her. “Tea, and bread. The last of the cheese, and some sausage. Get your strength back, devochka. You’ll need it.”
Liliya thanked her, thanked them all. In the woods behind the houses, the bear lumbered, the Firebird flew, Pyotr and his comrades smiled, and far overhead she swore she could see a mortar and pestle, flying away through the Pripyat clouds. She took Marina’s hand, and together they settled down to eat.
Too goody-two-shoes for the rebels and too rebellious for the good girls and boys, Christa Miller writes fiction which, like herself, doesn’t quite fit in. A professional writer for 15+ years, Christa has written in a variety of genres ranging from crime fiction to horror to children’s, but her favorite stories to write — and read — are those which blend genres. Her novella, “Sodom and Gomorrah on a Saturday Night,” was published in the 2017 Running Wild Anthology as well as Running Wild Press’ “Best of 2017” anthology. Her short stories have previously been published in a 2008 anthology called Northern Haunts, in Shroud Magazine, Out of the Gutter Magazine, Spinetingler Magazine, and in a handful of online zines. Her affinity for the dark, psychological, and somewhat bizarre doesn’t stop her from snuggling baby animals as a volunteer at a local wildlife rescue, adventuring with her two sons in rivers, swamps and salt marshes, or relaxing with a good book and a cold beverage in her hammock. A member of the Perley Station Writers’ Colony, Christa is based in Greenville, SC. Learn more at her website, ChristaMMiller.com.