She began to breathe easier. Numb, she rocked back and forth on her narrow cot, empty of all thought and feeling, except for the greatest of sadnesses. They were all gone! She couldn't save them!
Days and nights passed. She didn't eat, but a small well behind the house often saw her reflection in it's waters. Her, once full and tidy, blond hair stood in a wild tangle around her head and the eyes went deeper and deeper into her skull.
Finally, the hunger pangs became unbearable. She ventured outside, into an empty street. The marauders killed or took everyone in the Jewish village, driving the cattle with them. They killed all the dogs too, so only the craws greeted a lonely woman.
She couldn't stay there! The stench of the dead was in her nostrils. Yadviga rashed back to the house, tied a few possessions in a large kerchief and set off to a small hutor - a stead - which used to belong to her mother.
It was better in the forest. She calmed down, but the cold inside of her seemed to radiate out, and soon she was freezing. She looked around for something to eat and found a tiny clearing, with many wild strawberries, red in the grass. For a few minutes she just sat there, stuffing her mouth with tangy sweetness. Suddenly the guilt overwhelmed her: what right did she have to be alive, to feel and taste, when they were no longer living?
The juice of the berries squeezed through her fists. The earth met and comforted her, but her grief would not be consoled. She felt, it was going to rend her in two! The forest has gone quiet. Heavy, acrid smell assailed her nostrils and she looked about her.
A circle of grass around her was singed, as if by fire, and a cloud of fine dust first hung in the air and then fell to the ground. She smudged her finger in it and tasted: it was bitter salt.
Yadviga ran in panic the rest of the way. This happened a few times before in her life, when the emotions she felt were too strong for her to control, but she never expected her "powers" to show up so violently. And the salt?! Is that what happened during the attack?
The stead rose among a dark grove in the middle of the woods. Her mother inherited it from her family and took Yadviga there sometimes, just to make sure, the buildings still stood, and the forest didn't overgrow them. Yadviga spent a few days looking after things. She kept a small stove lit all the time, because the cold wouldn't leave her bones. Behind the stead was a small lake, fed by a stream, so there was always plenty of fresh water, fish, and vegetation she could gather for food, but that was the last thing on her mind. In the days before she came to the stead, she pushed the children's faces out of her mind, afraid, she'd go crazy from despair, but now she lay awake at night, recalling every touch, every freckle or a smile on their lost, beloved faces.
On the fourth evening the weather took turn for the worse. Trees around the house creaked and bent in the wind, snagging their branches in each other's crowns. Clouds hid the moon and the stars, and the darkness kept pushing through the little windows into Yadviga's soul.
She stoked the fire in a stove before laying down to sleep. Instead, she soon heard a huge commotion outside. Something was crashing through the underwood. She heard desperate mooing and then - growling and the sounds of a straggle. The young woman tried to see from her porch, what was going on, but it was hopeless: the night was impenetrable. She made a torch, lit it and went out.
Yadviga was afraid. Red points of the wolves' eyes milled about in the trees. The wind tore the threats she shouted at them. Then she felt the familiar tension in her whole being, before a small explosion shook the air. The wolves disappeared, but something was still there. Yadviga tried to move closer. She tripped over a big, warm body, then sprawled on top of it, smelling and feeling the cooling blood. The torch showed her a calf, laying dead on the ground, it's stomach ripped open. The calf's mother was standing nearby, mooing, shaking her head and loudly blowing air out of her nose. When Yadviga reached her, the animal lowered her horns in warning, but, in some time and with a lot of the cajoling, Yadviga managed to lead her to the barn.
She let the cow eat some old hay. The animal was well taken care of. Yadviga thought, she recognized it from one of her neighbors' pair. The cow laid down then, exhausted, and the woman sat by her, singing softly and touching, checking it for wounds. The cow slowly calmed down, although, time to time, she lowed mournfully. As Yadviga's inner feelings, the love and compassion she had for the bovine, overtook her; she felt the familiar tensing in her core again, but now, instead of a violent outcome, the warmth flooded her whole self. She laid by her new companion, hugging it with one arm. The cow turned and nuzzled her with fuzzy, wet nose. "Poor thing, you lost your young one too!" - Yadviga whispered. In a while both of them were asleep.
The huge Russian stunk of hooch and onions. His callous fingers groped and pinched her breasts. She kicked, scratched and bit, but he smacked her over the face so hard, she went limp. The door flung open. Her youngest, Yasha, ran into the room, dodged the intruders and went for the man, who was pushing his mother against the wall. Yasha waved around a small knife. He managed to nick the Russian, before the man struck him on the head. The boy fell.
Yadviga woke up from the nightmare on the floor in the stead. Her bed simply disintegrated, and she lay amid the timbers, straw and clothes that she used as a blanket. The tears still ran from her eyes, just as bitter, as a circle of fine salt powder surrounding her!
The rest of the night Yadviga slept in the barn with the cow. In the late morning she took her to the lake. The animal enjoyed sweet grass growing there, and Yadviga went to the water. As she took off her garments, she noticed for the first time, how bony she became.
It was already the beginning of autumn. Cold water sliced through her like a knife, but the woman waded further in. She bent over to splash her face and was startled to see an old hag looking back at her from the lake! She brought some of her hair in front of her eyes: it was pure white! Yadviga sat right there, into the silt of the lake's bottom. Half a month ago she looked healthy and young for her age. Was it the loss that turned her into an old crone? Or did the use of the powers demand too much from a mind and a body?
If she was to survive her gift, she has to learn, how to use it! There must be something else she could do with it, except blowing things up!
It was more difficult than she thought. A simple exercise, trying to make a cup move toward her, left her gasping for breath and the floor of the little room - covered in broken crockery. Still, there was a lot of time to practice. She probed at the edges of her ability; was cautious, yet didn't shy away from the exhaustion that accompanied her best attempts. The salt appeared only when she used her powers in fear or pain, so Yadviga decided, she first had to learn to control her emotions.
She soon had a chance to test her resolve. The wolves came out of nowhere. She was in the barn, cleaning after Blubell, the cow, when a gray animal appeared in the doorway. Terrified, she menaced it with the hayfork, then pushed the barn doors shut, all the while remembering the arrogant, calculating look on the wolf's face. Soft footfalls around the shelter told her, there were more than one of them and they did not give up.
Yadviga stilled her heart. She opened the doors again. Blubell thought, it was a terrible idea. She huddled by the wall, shaking her head and mooing. As Yadviga saw her first enemy in the bright light of the doorway, she got a hold of some unnamed thing inside and in her mind saw, what she wanted to do with it. A big gob of manure hit the wolf smack in the nose! The animal yipped, jumped back, then forgot all about the attack and desperately scratched at his muzzle. The pack rushed in, but Yadviga kept on a steady barrage of the squishy, stinky missiles. They tried to encircle the young woman and the cow, but she raised the whole twister of hay and cow droppings around herself and Blubell. The wolves soon gave up. They suddenly turned tail and ran.
All, except one. It somehow got inside the whirlwind. Yadviga was already too tired to use her powers. She grabbed the fork again and blindly struck at the wolf. Silently, it collapsed.
It was over. Yadviga poked the fallen predator with the butt of the fork. It didn't move. Sharp prong hit it in the head, and it lay bleeding on the dirty floor. Using the same fork butt, Yadviga pushed the body to the wall and, sighing, started to clean up.
The wolf wasn't dead. Yadviga carefully put her hand on the animal's side. The fur was rough, but surprisingly deep and pleasant to a touch. The ribs lifted with regular breaths, the bleeding stopped. Yadviga thought, she should just slit its throat, but she noticed the tits on the wolf's belly. It was a female, and somewhere there were cubs, waiting for their mother's return.
She took the wolf to the house. Blubell would have stomped her to death, if she left her in the barn. The she-beast slept for two days, then, checking on her on the third morning, Yadviga was startled to hear a faint growl. The wolf's upper lip trembled, then lifted to show terrible teeth. After that, she opened her one good eye and glared at her captor. Yadviga jumped back in a hurry. The animal tried to get up, but fell back to the floor: the blow to the head and two days without food or water left her helpless. The eye was red and swollen, like raw meat. The woman filled a small earthen bowl with water and pushed it to the wolf. The beast began to drink cautiously only after she was left alone.
In all her time in the stead Yadviga didn't set traps or fished in the lake. Fortunately, she managed to save and smoke some of the slaughtered calf's meat and stored it in a tiny shed that stood on thin stilts by the barn. People used such structures to keep the food away from the animals. The wolf didn't take meat from her at first, but, eventually, the hunger got the best of her.
As soon as she was strong enough to walk, the wolf ran away. Yadviga never saw her again, but she felt eyes watching her in the forest, and thought, it was "her" beast.
The winter was coming. She didn't have enough time to prepare. Blubell needed hay and seed for the months, when everything would get frozen. Yadviga had no choice, but to go back to the village.
Fortunately, the wild animals took care of the bodies, left on the streets by the marauders. The woman went from house to house, gathering everything she might need; she dug up vegetables from her neighbors' gardens, caught a few hens, who managed to hide from the wolves and the foxes, and lugged huge parcels of hay back to the stead with a help of a wheelbarrow she found in the street. She then cut and brought back with her as much wheat from the fields, as she could. She had to make many such grueling trips. It was good to numb herself with hard work though and feel cool breeze on her face instead of the close air of her hut.
In preparation for the winter Yadviga thrashed the wheat and stored grain and hay in the barn. She'll have to think later of the ways to keep the mice from getting into it. In the weeks before, she found a small cellar under the house to store Blubell's milk. The hens felt happier in a warm barn near Blubell, and right away got to the business of laying eggs.
Her snares caught some birds and rabbits. She plucked and skinned them, taking care to gather all the usable feathers and not to damage the furs. The meat she smoked or cooked right away, to be kept for later. The furs needed to be scraped. She then treated them with some manure, to keep them supple. It took many weeks for the smell to become at least bearable!
She thought, they could survive now.
The first snowfall lasted all night. She couldn't open the door in the morning to go milk Blubell. Fed up, she used her powers to just shove the snow out of the way, making a clear path from the house to the barn.
Yadviga spent her days weaving straw mats, which she hung on the walls, to insulate the hut and barn from cold. She made some other preparations for the winter and took care of herself, the cow and the rest of her household. At night she was so tired , that the nightmares rarely bothered her anymore, but all through the day her children's faces swam in front of her mind's eye.
In the last days before the frost, Yadviga gathered some more herbs, which, as her mother taught her, were good for what ails a person or a beast. Now she cooked or ground them, thinking back on their usage.
****the warm breeze on her face, Yadviga lay by the lake, chewing on a sour end of the buttercup. She heard a splash and turned to her side to look at the lake. A long ripple ran through the water close to the shore, as if an impossibly large body passed beneath it. Then a snout with a hooked up lower jaw appeared; the fish-lips grasped for air and the gnats, that swarmed over the water. Cold, ancient eyes scanned the shore and stopped on Yadviga. She scrambled away from the water, unmindful of the mud. The pike was at least eight feet long, the scales and sharp fins grown thick with molluscs and the crud from the lake's bottom.
Yadviga couldn't take her eyes from the fish. It regarded her with faint curiosity, then the head disappeared under water. Yadviga saw, though, that the monster was moving towards her. She tried to run, but something made her turn back and look: the pike now lay on its side on the bottom of the lake's shallow, moving its fins and smacking lips in a hypnotic pattern.
The words appeared in the woman's mind, although she didn't hear the sound.
- "What are you, human? You are not like the others."
The unblinking stare held her in its power. She could not move or speak. Her own lips opened and shut without a sound.
- "Never mind, I'm bored already. How disappointing."
The great pike swished tail and... couldn't go anywhere! The silt sucked it in, and it thrashed convulsively, but only got more and more mired.
Yadviga watched the animal's attempts to free itself and felt it's fear and anger to be so humiliated in front of an inferior creature. She then reached inside of herself, found the center of her power and pushed at it, extending herself to the monster.
It slipped through the silt into the deep water and disappeared without a splash. Yadviga stood by the lakeside for a while, marvelling at what just happened.
*****How long does winter last? It seemed to Yadviga, the world was always covered in snow! Most of the time she stayed in a barn, tending to her animals. Spending time with the creatures, who didn't demand anything from her, except food and company, removed the bitter taste from her thoughts. She milked the cow, cleaned after it, fed chickens and collected their eggs.
The problem with mice getting into the grain storage was resolved, when an extremely pregnant cat turned up by the barn's door. Yadviga gave it some milk, but warned it: if she wanted to stay, she must catch most of her food. The cat, scrawny and black as night, seemed to understand, what was required of her. She hunted until the babies came. The kittens grew up over the winter months and stayed in the warm barn, learning to hunt.
Yadviga enjoyed watching them play. One morning, though, she found her favorite kitten lying still and blooded on the barn's floor. It seemed, the small animal got trampled by Blubel. Yadviga took it to her hut.The kitten's back leg was broken, and, despite the woman's attempts to keep it immobilized, the limb never grew straight, as it should. That didn't seem to slow down Blaze. He was just as nimble as his siblings.
They weathered the winter the best they could. By the time the snow started to melt, Yadviga's stores began to ran out. She was happy to get out into the forest to set more traps and gather wilted, wet grass from the lake's shore for Blubell's feed. Some chickens succumbed to cold and hunger, but others survived. Encouraged by the warmth of the sun, they began to lay eggs again.
***** The forest opened its depths to her. It was cold there, despite the summer, and Yadviga wore her coat. In the winter she has sewn furs and bird feathers to it to make it warmer. Now she looked and felt like one of the wood's creatures: gray, black and brown, except for the tangle of her white hair.
She knew, what she wanted: the raspberry bushes grew thick among the trees to the north of the stead. She starved for the freshness of the tangy, sweet fruit and spent a good half an hour indulging herself.
As she ate, Yadviga murmured the names of her children, half forgotten prayers for them and the lullabies she used to sing to lay them to bed. She was quite lost in the dream world, when the snap of a branch behind her brought her back. She whirled around, hands outstretched to meet any threat, and then the basket fell from her fingers.
Children: a boy and a girl!
- "Anya, Yasha!" - she mumbled, still lost in dreams of her own children. She was so hoarse! The months she spent alone robbed her of real voice.
The girl was older.
- "Who are you?" - she challenged Yadviga, hugging her brother to her side. The boy sucked his thumb and gazed at the woman from bottomless, gray eyes.
She tried to squeeze out her name.
- "Yaga?!" - the girl pointed at the coat. Too late the hermit remembered that, that's what the folk in those parts called feathers.
The girl pulled her brother away and ran, forgetting their baskets on the ground.
Returning the baskets to the house, now occupied by the children's family, was just the beginning. Yadviga spent many hours watching the kids play at the forest's edge. She would not show herself, remembering the girl's reaction to her appearance.
The family was, most likely, some refugees from the war in Poland. Both, children and parents, bore the Nordic or Slavic' look: they were tall and fair. They chose one of the abandoned huts, and parents worked day and night to clear the field and a small garden from the winter's debris, as well as glean some vegetables from the other village plots.
Yadviga sat, watching children. Their bright voices and innocent faces were like water to a person, dying of thirst! She'd sit quietly behind the bushes, afraid to scare them.
One day she was at her place in a thicket, avidly following the small figures and games with her eyes and only allowing herself a little cackle time to time, when the boy and girl's antics were too funny. She became aware that, the forest has gone too silent around her. Alert, she scanned the bushes at the edge of a clearing. A dark shape hid inside one of them. A wolf was too skinny and old, but he would be strong enough to hurt or even kill a child.
In horror, Yadviga saw the animal cautiously walk into the clearing. She rushed out then too, hoping that, just by doing it she'll scare the wolf away. It worked: he melted back into the woods, but the kids, who didn't see the beast, were startled by Yadviga's sudden appearance. They screamed the bloody murder.