Baba Yaga's House of Forgotten Things
This is a difficult place to foster a crush. That's for sure. It smells of old moth balls and denture cream and the evening breeze is paper dry. It doesn't so much relieve the heat as it does coat your skin with a fine dusting of baby powder. It blows through open windows, stopping to dip its fingers in jars of rose and lavender scented talcum left sitting out on the sills. Sometimes I wake up with a sore throat that tastes like flowers. Sometimes I hear Frankie sneeze as he dreams.
The grannies don't sleep much. They sit on their porches and rock through the night, setting a hair-raising rhythm with the clickety-clack of their pointed knitting needles and the wet juicy chomping of their toothless gums. It has a way of stopping a teenage libido right in its tracks, just as it is meant to. Girls and boys bunk together here and there has not been any incident yet. Between the old-lady sounds that accompany our every waking moment, and their disappointed and judgmental stares, our hormones are reduced to something mild and distilled. We shrivel back into younger versions of ourselves. Despite our worst intentions, most of us want to please the grannies.
Trieste and I tap messages to each other on the tin roofs that lie over our heads. It is a language we learned from the summer rains. It is pretty innocent even though it gives me a charge.
"I miss cigarettes," Trieste taps.
"I miss my friends," I reply.
"I miss my boyfriend," she taps back.
When she says this I do not respond. I only stare at the corrugated tin in the moonlight and listen to the squeak-clack-chomp of the grannies in the night.
Trieste is here because she stole her parents' car, crashed it into a tree, and hit a pedestrian in the process. She isn't even old enough to drive. The rest of us are only guilty of things like bad grades, drinking underage, being disrespectful to our families, or shit-bombing houses. Small things. Trieste has the most serious record of any of us delinquents, and she wears it all over her movements. There is a certain bad ass pride in the way that she walks, saunters more like, or the way that she flips her hair, sending it honey-buzzing in the sunlight. It is hard not to be impressed with her.
When Granny Nickel rounds us up to put us in the chain gangs, I always try to position myself so that I am linked to Trieste. It is not only because her voice is surprisingly sweet when she sings, it is also because I like to watch her work. She is strong and sinewy and her golden-brown shoulders gleam with sweat and muscle as she hoes. It combats the helpless child feeling that settles across my insides. Sometimes she smiles back at me as she works. It always makes me misstep. If Nickel is watching she whacks me good with her steel tipped cane.
We have all kinds of chores here, but right now we are doing the planting for the grannies' gardens. It is a relief to me to replace the old-lady smells with something living; the vibrant scent of hot tomato vines and ripe strawberry fields. Insects hum in the grass and clouds graze up in the sky. Except for the iron shackle on my foot I could almost imagine this is something that I like to do.
"Rutabagas, cabbages, turnips," Frankie says in a low voice that rumbles like thunder. "Who eats this shit?"
"The grannies do," Trieste answers tartly. "It keeps them regular."
Frankie wrinkles his nose. He does not like the thought of granny body functions. He is the newest delinquent. His face still blanches at liver spots and pickled beets. He eyes the knitting needles suspiciously and blows raspberries whenever Granny Nickel turns her back to us. Frankie is a hard shell.
"Disgusting," he says, and Trieste shrugs and continues to hoe.
Granny Nickel is drinking a glass of gin and lemonade and smoking a grape cigar. She is the toughest granny by far. She looks like a starving greyhound, but swells of rock muscle pop out of her dress sleeves. She loves having arm wrestling contests in the evenings. She can still beat the strongest of us boys. Her rocking chair is set up in the shade and her pile of knitting spills out across the grass beside her. Even her yarn looks steely. Rumor has it that she spins the barbwire fences that surround the camp.
"Quit yapping!" she yells at Frankie, without dropping a stitch. Her knitting needles flash in the sunlight. "Unless you want to start singing in rounds again."
This shuts Frankie up. It's hard being new here. Singing children's songs and taking lashings from the grannies requires some getting used to. Frankie lives with his older sister in the suburbs of Philly. She sent him to The Old Crone's Boot Camp because he was having a lot of behavioral problems at school. Myself, I'm here for duct-taping a boy up to the wall of the gymnasium. I wasn't alone, but I was the only one he ratted out. After getting caught smoking behind the garage, and sticking bananas in the principal's tailpipes, it was the last straw for my parents. As soon as the school year ended, they robbed me of my summer freedoms and shipped me off to the crones.
Granny camp is the newest fad in the treatment of delinquents, especially those of us who come from broken homes or have problems respecting authority. The grannies get one summer to whip us into shape and instill values into us that they believe are lacking in these god-less times. They are mean and vindictive. Angry from years of being mistreated and forgotten about. Ornery with the toil of growing old.
Baba Yaga is the supreme matriarch of this geriatric hell. She is the resident bogeyman. She is the biggest, the oldest, and the ugliest of the grannies and her name flies from their dried lips as the most severe threat that they can muster. It is enough to make the bravest boy blanche and quiver. Part of the terror comes from the fact that she is rarely seen, aside from a misshapen, hulking shadow through the lacy curtains of her windows, or a monstrous silhouette of her riding her pet pig through the forest at night. She lives separate from the other grannies, in a stilted house of her own, with laminated playing cards for roof shingles and a pathway made of hockey pucks, scrabble tiles, and old dentures. The other grannies revere her. That puts her right at the top of our horror hierarchy.
"It is not enough to just respect your elders," Granny Melon tells us fairly often. "You must always remember to fear them as well."
She's not kidding either. Granny Nickel likes to sneak up on us in the middle of the night with her teeth out, sit on our chests, and let her silver hair tickle our faces until we open our eyes. This is called boo-hagging. You don't know fear until you have a warty deflated bag of skin hanging over you in the dark, and the lonely smell of dying crawling up your nose. It is harrowing. It gives you bad dreams for weeks. The more you scream, the more she stalks you. She won't leave you alone until you learn to quake silently with respect.
On hot days, like today, the grannies skinny dip in the pond behind their cottages. You can tell this is what they are doing when you see the ducks come streaming out of the water in a steady line. None of us ever try to sneak up on them. Rather, we hide in the scrub pines that surround our tin shacks and pretend not to hear them calling for us to help them peel the leeches from their vein-ribboned legs. We watch through the trees as Granny Melon comes out in the nude and grabs two of the younger kids by their ears, leading them back to help with the leech removal.
"Jesus," Frankie says, shaking his head and looking pale. "This is hell on earth."
Trieste pulls out a grape cigar she pilfered from Granny Nickel's knitting bag and we all take turns dragging on it in our little shelter of trees. With each black fruiting inhale, a little piece of my former self returns. I untuck my shirt from my waistband and push my hair into my eyes, feeling as if I have been in a daze.
Trieste pulls out a pad of the paper the grannies provide for us to write letters home on. It is always stationary with puppies or kittens. "I am making a map," she says proudly.
"For what?" Frankie and I both ask at the same time.
"To escape, of course," she says. She shows us how she has been recording the boundaries of the grannies' property. "And right here," she says, pointing to a line of hedges behind the silk flower gardens and granny cemetery. "Right beside Baba Yaga's house? I think there might be a road of some sort."
Just the idea of it makes me feel queasy. Rutabaga-beet stew threatens to repeat on me. Frankie's eyes are fervent, lit up like candles of swooping hope. His cheeks are as pink as the insides of watermelons.
"Escape?" He seems to have latched onto that word.
"Baba Yaga," I say.
Trieste picks junebugs from the hem of her skirt and looks completely calm. This is what I mean when I say she is impressive. To keep a poker face while suggesting we defy these hell-witches means that she is either a complete sociopath or the bravest person I know. In the distance we can hear the shrieks of the kids who are pulling the leeches. Frankie is no longer shuddering. He is staring at Trieste as if she is the only way out of here. Lately Granny Nickel has taken to boo-hagging him relentlessly. He is full of desperation.
"You have to promise," she says, eyeing me particularly. "You can't breathe a word of this to anyone. Nickel would have us plucking chickens and massaging bunions for the rest of the summer."
I nod. My adam's apple sticks in my throat, stabbing my larynx, so I can hardly breathe. I will do anything for Trieste. Even if it means agitating the grannies. I don't really think there is a possibility that we will get away.
After supper, Granny Melon calls me aside. It is as if they can hear my traitor thoughts echoing through the mess hall. Melon, is as soft and round as Nickel is thin and hard. She really looks like a grandma too. She smells like butterscotch and lilacs, and her white hair poofs out into summertime cumulus clouds. It is deceptive. She is quick and has a fiery temper. She is not above chasing you through the fields with a cement filled rolling pin when you do wrong.
"Clive," she says, beckoning me over with a pruned fingertip. "You barely touched your food tonight. Is something wrong?"
She really knows how to read me.
"No," I say. I feel Trieste's eyes on me. "Nothing really. I guess I just miss home."
Granny Melon pats my head and looks pleased. "That's good. You should miss your home." She digs around in the pockets of her faded house dress until she produces some puppy stationary. "Write your parents a letter tonight," she says. Before I can finish exhaling she shatters my relief. "When you finish, bring it out to the veranda and read it to us so we can check your progress."
She shoos me off with a swat that nearly knocks me off my feet and begins fiercely directing the group of kids who are supposed to be cleaning up the mess hall. One unfortunate boy gets clobbered on the head with the rolling pin before I make it outside to meet Trieste.
"Well," Trieste demands immediately.
Outside the sun is just setting. The long grasses are lit up with blinking fireflies. A few of the younger kids are trying to catch them in order to smoosh them up into a glowing paste.
"That's juvenile," Trieste says as we walk past. It is enough to make them all look ashamed and guilty. I am proud to be at her side.
"I have to write a letter," I tell her. "A letter home and present it to the grannies tonight on the veranda. I told Melon I was homesick."
"That's perfect!" Trieste's eyes are twin beacons of delighted freedom. Her hair swings around her shoulders scooping up the summer moonlight. It is all I can do to keep myself from professing my love right then and there.
"You can provide the distraction," she says. "Frankie and I will do recon on the silk flower gardens. I know there has to be a way out through there."
"Provide a distraction? What can I write in a letter home to my parents that will distract them for that long?"
"Listen Clive," she says leaning in to me so close that I can smell the parsnip casserole that we had for dinner on her breath. "I picked you because you're smart. You'll figure it out."
I can't help myself. I have to ask. "What did you pick Frankie for?"
"Because he will do whatever I tell him to do."
She smiles at me like we are alone together in our secret. Behind her the fireflies look like they're blinking out SOS messages.
My letter home is a masterpiece in its own right. In it, I praise the grannies for their commitment to terrorizing us kids. I describe the long talcum-y nights, the sounds of bullfrogs and the relentless clickety-clack of steel knitting needles…the whimpering of the other delinquents. I reflect back odiously over my previous wrong doings. I pontificate about the value of good hard work, respect, discipline, and above all, fear. The fear part is no exaggeration. My voice quakes as I begin reading it out loud to the assembled line of grannies sitting in their rocking chairs and eyeing me with wet, slurpy stares.
They are all present except for Baba Yaga. There are grannies here that I have never seen before. Flaccid skinned, boiled-chicken looking grannies whom I am sure must slither around at night and keep watch on us. It stuns me to think that Melon and Nickel are the belles of the granny camp ball. I wind up my letter with a genuinely heartfelt appeal to return home to my family. I get so caught up in my own gusto there are even tears in my eyes as I finish.
Around me is silence. I am caught suspended in the opaque stares of thick-rimmed bifocals and squinty, cataract clouded eyes. It is impossible to gauge their reactions. I am adrift in a sea of macular degeneration and wrinkly, puckered up expressions. I wait for somebody to clap or say something.
"Sissyboy," hisses one of the pale, fleshy, boiled-chicken grannies. Melon whaps her with the rolling pin. She's partial to me. I can tell.
"You did a nice job Clive," she says. "Even if you have a tendency to wax poetic."
There is a smattering of bored and brittle applause and then some grannies disappear into the recesses of the dark while others pick up their knitting needles and continue on with their evening routines.
"Okay," Melon says. "I think you're ready."
"For what?" I ask. I'm thinking about Trieste and Frankie crawling through the disintegrating scraps of silk flowers together. I hope it's muddy out there. I know how seductive she can be in the moonlight.
Granny Melon leads me with one ear. I follow her crumbling footsteps to the part of the camp where the night is deepest. Just ahead of us, hockey pucks and old scrabble tiles are gleaming bleakly in the pale moonlight. The outline of a house sitting up high on stilts that look like clean-picked chicken legs becomes visible. An owl hoots out some haunting and insidious warning. A pig snorts in the darkness. The crickets seem un-tuned and frantic. The cicadas click of old bones.
It's really happening. She's taking me to see Baba Yaga. Every part of my internal anatomy is squeamish and squirming. My stomach is a mass of roiling rancor. I need a Tums. In my time here, I'm afraid I've become dependent on them.
Melon leads me up the demented cobblestone path. I step on a pair of old dentures that hold surprisingly firm beneath the rubber soles of my sneakers, leaving bite marks on the bottoms of my shoes. The fusty smell of roses and church pews settles across us as we walk.
"Come on," Granny Melon says at my halting steps. "We're not getting any younger here." She cackles in such a way that gooseflesh breaks out up and down my arms.
To keep my composure I think of Trieste. Trieste is out here somewhere searching the boundaries of the silk flower gardens for our way to freedom. I think of her cool calm, her incandescent beauty, her infallible fearlessness. I think of her secret messages tapped out to me in the darkness of the cabins. I climb up the rickety stairs and step up onto the front stoop of Baba Yaga's porch and hold steady. I am doing this for the girl that I love.
"Knock," says Melon, before disappearing into the discordant noise of the insects of the night.
I don't have to knock. My hand is lifted halfway when the door swings open. There she is. The ruler of this antediluvian camp for troubled teens. The supreme matriarch in all her girdled glory. The light that frames her enormous body from behind is faded and incomplete, but it is enough for me to see that she is everything we feared and more. Huge and hulking, with sagging pockets of flesh and jewels of soft wrinkles gathered like sad spider webs bowing beneath the weight of ancient cocoons, connecting her pulpy features: eyes to ears, nose to mouth, and so on. She gives me a slow sweep of her shadowy eyes and waves me forward, sending the crickets quiet. Bending an awestruck breeze through the potted plants on the veranda.
Trieste, I think to myself. Trieste. She's out there somewhere navigating bravely. I channel her fearlessness into my jellied knees. One step forward. Two steps. I am following the sweeping moomoo train of Baba Yaga's housecoat. I am following the tattered patterns of polyester peacocks that are lapping up the dust behind her feet.
Her voice sounds like rooms full of dust and danger. "Clive," she says. "I have a job for you."
I have no thoughts of defying her. Whatever the job is, I'm ready. I'm imagining pickling small children or pulling the legs off spiders one by one for a stew.
"Very rarely does anyone see this room," she continues. "But Nickel and Melon see something special in you." She stops and hovers over me as if searching for whatever it is that they see. Her eyes are sloe black and squinched together beneath drooping eyelids. Her eyebrows are spiky tufts of suspicion. She cultivates a mustache and beard that would be the envy of most guys my age. I'm dwarfed by her horrible majesty. I shrivel under her stare.
Trieste, I think. It sends a flash of whiskey warmth through my insides.
Baba Yaga just barely clears the doorway ahead of me. I follow her into the room and blink. Try not to sneeze. And blink.
All around us mountains of dusty hoard are quivering. The room is filled, floor to ceiling, with antiquated odds and ends the likes of which I've never seen before. There are old dresses, broken clothespins, eyeless ragdolls, worn out school desks, dusty photo albums, rusted watering cans, jam jars filled with marbles, paper birds on sticks, and gilded picture frames with glass cracked and smoked opaque from age. I feel as if I am in the treasure den of some magnificent monster.
"Something in here is yours," she says. She lets out a deep, wet cough resplendent with flying spittle. "Your job is to find it."
"I'm sorry?" I say. She can't possibly mean for me to search through all of these heaps of dusty antiquated things by myself without even telling me what I'm looking for.
All of the sudden the house lurches and groans, and the hoard quivers anew. I am terrified at the thought of being buried alive in the mountains of junk.
"Is this house moving?" I ask.
Baba Yaga's face creases into what I think might be a smile. "It smells trouble. Those chicken feet aren't just for looking pretty you know." She cackles a little with another phlegmy cough. "But don't you worry about that, boy. You begin your search."
In my months here at Granny Camp, I have run through a variety of emotions, most of them varying shades of terror, fear, and repulsion. Nothing has come close to being interred in a chicken-footed moving shack with Baba Yaga herself, while my friends are crawling around in the mud somewhere outside unaware. I have done a miserable job at protecting Trieste. I am quite sure that it is her that the house is looking for. I feel faint.
The jostling of the room brings a showering of old magazines down over my head. One falls open onto a page of a cigarette ad from decades ago. A Marlboro man leaning up against an old pickup truck. I kick it gently to the side and make my way towards the middle of the room. There are deliberate goat paths made through the mess. I follow them carefully, my heart dropping with every lurch and movement of the house. I trip on the hem of an old communion dress and dislodge a frisky jack in the box that scares me straight into a hillock of junk and sends it toppling to the ground. Then I am swimming in a sea of old remnants, forgotten things stored away for some reason I don't understand.
I paddle around trying to find a footing or a handhold. Brittle fabrics crumble beneath me. Wood splinters. I catch a mason jar filled with buttons, just before it shatters against a cracked mirror. An old mink stole, eyes and teeth intact, pops up in front of me and suddenly a memory is shaken loose from my mind.
An old mink farm. Abandoned cages. A large, two story house at the end of a swirling stretch of dirt driveway framed with Queen Anne's Lace and bluebells. A pond in front with lilypads and water lilies that open and close with the sun. A fishing dock. A log raft. A rose garden full of soft, ripe blossoms as big as my hands. An evergreen forest leading off into acres of spicy, dark, enchanted woods. Polish voices, clipped and sometimes caring.
I stare at the dead mink transfixed. As the house rolls, up comes a plastic cube with pictures stuck on every side. There is the memory. I can see it on the grainy photo paper. An old farm, and a big house, red brick with big bay windows. The cube flips over and I see my father chopping down saplings in a faded afternoon long ago. Another jolt and the picture cube jumps off into the roiling mess and other things pop up in its place. Microscope slides of bugs and leaves. Fried green pepper sandwiches and tumblers of cheap scotch. Old vases and tarnished silver. Hand knit dolls that double as toilet paper coozies.
Still the memories are coming. Riding an old tractor through the enchanted woods. Pulling up eggplants from the moist earth. Catching turtles from the pond and scrubbing their backs with old toothbrushes. Counting stars. Catching air in a glass jar to take home at the end of the summer.
I can see my grandmother's face now. Pruned and bulbous from a life of farm labor. "Why are you doing that? You're such a funny child. Eugene! Come see, Clive is catching air."
They laugh at me, both of them. My grandmother and my grandfather. The summer air is lacy and gold. I don't mind that they laugh. I am trapping a piece of that summer so that I never lose it.
The house lurches again and up it comes, as if it were spewed up by some ancient memory well. A little bottle, meant for strawberry jam, sealed tightly and glittering in the dusty air. I make a flying leap off an old baby carriage, push myself up a broken aquarium and grab it before it disappears. I hold onto it tightly as the house continues to jostle back and forth. I squeeze my eyes shut and brace myself beneath an old canoe. I don't need to see anymore.
When everything stills and the door finally opens, Baba Yaga finds me there, huddled beneath the canoe, clutching on to an old jam jar, my cheeks wet with tears. She doesn't look any less terrible to me.
"Well you found what you were supposed to?" she asks.
I nod. I think I want to thank her, but I don't dare. Trieste and Frankie surface in my mind, slowly, as I brush cobwebs from my hair and step out from under the canoe. The room has rearranged itself. It is still a mess, but there are new goat paths now, curling out in different directions.
"Did you find anything?" I ask.
Baba Yaga grimaces. It is terrible to behold.
"Security breach," she says. "Two campers escaped. Almost never happens. There was a rabbit hole through the fence in the silk flower gardens. You can believe we'll be tightening up security around here."
I nod and follow her back out towards the front door of her house. When I get to the top step, Baba Yaga kicks me down the stairs with the pointed heel of her shoe and cackles. I find myself sitting in a pile of shit face to face with her giant pig. It gives me a disinterested snort.
I start back towards the cabins, still dazed. So Trieste and Frankie made it. Around me the air is filled with the screams of campers and ghostly white figures dart past me in numbers quicker than I can count. The security breach has the ground trembling and the trees shaking. The grannies have abandoned their knitting needles and are boo-hagging in full force. I'm all alone here now. I tap out S.O.S. messages on the jam jar in my pocket.
–Kimberly Lojewski (from Drunken Boat)