Siofra O’Donovan: Vaselisa’s War

My mother died of fright the night the first bomb dropped. Under a starry sky, a storm of dust fell through the broken window. But before her last breath, she handed me a doll with two button eyes and a ripped cheek, a thing she said belonged to my Granma, and her Granma, and to her Granma, all the way back.  

My father had only one leg: he set out on his crutches to replace her. On the first day, he came back with a chicken, on the second, with a donkey from the paddocks and on the third, with Mrs. Ravisham the Widow and  her three daughters, the youngest of whom could cook Goulash. I, on the other hand, could not cook an egg. 

Sirens whined, clouds of dust and mortar made the city grow more and more lean. Mother’s gold and pearls were ferreted into the dark streets and taken away by fiendish goblins that make fortunes on peoples misfortunes. Mother’s wedding ring was sacrificed for three stale loaves of bread of which I was given the heels. Our brownstone still stood between clouds of dust and rubble. Refugees huddled in the basements hiding from the steely eyes of the Dictator, who had taken over our perishing city. Maggie and the eldest stepsister grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and said: 

“Go to the forest. There is one who keeps a garden kitchen that would feed ten families. You go to her, and bring us back her pumpkins, and the eggs of her chickens, or we will throw you over to the Dictator.”

“That one? She is Baba Yaga. Everyone knows she devours children. Do not make me go!” 

“Go then, to the Dictator’s Camp.” they smirked and threw each other wicked looks. 

Father lay on the sofa in a delirium, his phantom leg itching wildly. All he had left of Mama was a secret, crumpled photo of their wedding which he kept in his vest. His new wife grew vicious with the rations: she sold herself to a man in a tank for the price of a chicken and roasted it one dark afternoon, while I was locked in the attic staring at the bomber planes in the inky sky,  imagining feasts with my doll: venison, Soufflé, pea mint soup, poppyseed cakes and meringues and trifle.  

When they asked me to leave and beg food from the Yaga, my heart froze with the fear. What would become of my father and his phantom leg? What of me, in the clutches of a evil crone? 

I left, in the middle of the night. They watched me as I trailed down the lane after curfew, clambering over rubble and cracked pipes and broken glass. I walked for many miles until I reached the forest. Clutching my doll,  I went in to the darkness of it, not knowing would I ever come out. Wolves howled over the hill, owls hooted and stared at me.  Three deer led me to a little hut with a plume of smoke sailing through the dark old trees. I walked up the path, and a breeze tickled the air, and the jars hanging from the eves clinked and made a song. The door swung open, and Baba Yaga stood there with her hand on her hip, with a pipe in her mouth, her chin as long as it and her nose bent over to meet its point. 

“Now” she said. “Get in. We have work to do, Vaselisa.” 

The jars grew louder and louder and I wondered, what could that be, that song, because I hear my doll sing it too. 

“Oh, Thank you.” I said. 

“That is good. You are polite. Now, sit on my floor and sort the chaff from the wheat. Do it by sunrise.” 

She whisked up her skirts and jumped into her cauldron and sailed up into the air, scooping it with her ladle, which was the oar for her vessel. Up jumped my doll, and swept through the floors, clearing the chaff from the wheat with a smooth, sure hand, and all the time the song of the clinking jars went on. At sunrise, she came sailing back through the skies. 

“Now. That is good. You work fast. It is time  to spin the cobwebs into curtains. Do this by sunset, so that I may close my windows to the night owls.”

Baba Yaga wheezed around her garden, pulling and polishing her pumpkins. Now the song of the clinking jars grew louder and louder as we worked, and my little doll and I spun the thick cobwebs into silken curtains for her little hut. 

“That is good. “ She said. “And only three o’clock. Very good. Now, you must dust the moon and bring its silver light to my berries, for they are weak and hard this year. It will be the work of the night, and when the moon is pale against the blue morning sky, you will be done. If not, you will never leave my hut again.” 

I did not know how to fly in a cauldron, nor did my doll. We sang together to the jars and as the song grew louder, we rose up  and flew over the dark forest and up to the moon, where we swept the whole night, and cleaned all of its crevices, and carried ladles of its silver light back over the forest. As the first glimpse of dawn came and I saw a knight coming over the hill  on a white horse and in silver armour. 

He put us on his back and we rode back to the hut and offered our ladles of silver moonlight to the Yaga, who grew younger as the light poured over the bushes and gardens. She was so beautiful and radiant and the jars became the most exquisite symphony of music we had ever heard. 

“It is good.” said the Yaga, walking towards the Knight. The berries in the bushes shone. Every leaf on the forest trees gleamed. 

“Listen,” she said, “to the sound of your Grandmothers. We are all refugees.”

The knight nodded. The song grew stronger and stronger. 13 birds brought their mosses and their grasses and wove a crown on my head, as the moon became a silver hook in the morning skies. I never went back to the war, but we brought my father to the dell and made him a leg of oak and he worked in the gardens with us, to the sound of the Grandmothers’ song. Far, far behind us lay the city of dust and rubble. 

*

Biography

Síofra O’Donovan is a published author and an experienced writing workshop facilitator. She was writer in residence in Louth County Libraries and the G.A.A. club in Collon Co Louth under the  Arts Council and Louth County Council from 2004-6. She is on the Writers in Schools Poetry Ireland panel and the Writers in Prisons panel. She  published Malinski,  a novel, (Lilliput Press, Dublin 2000),  and Pema and the Yak, a travelogue (Pilgrims Books, Varanasi and L.A., 2006). ‘She understands those strange and beautiful moments when the metaphors of poetry become literal in our lives, as children face the challenges of the adult world.’ Pr. Declan Kiberd, UCD.

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