Baba’s ancient articulated finger rapped on the phone screen listlessly. Her withered old heart was indifferent to the glossy lifestyles of the equally lifeless, as they flickered like an old movie before her one functioning eyeball. With the force of a bicep curl, she squinted the other eye closed awkwardly, puppeteering her dull grey top lip, tightly upwards on that side, until only a small crescent of eye remained.
Remnants of scarlet and purple nail polish, chipped and abandoned, bounced into view as she scrolled. With her mouth open to squeeze her corrugated face together, she was caught completely off guard, and a large glob of spittle plopped from her contorted lips onto the screen. It landed as a fettered bubble puddle on the acid yellow bonnet of cute-underscore-anushka’s latest post. Her first Mercedes CLA250.
“You’ll do then,” she rattled, wheezing onto the back of her wrist in an outward breath so laboured that even the cat did a double take in case she never inflated again. Her hand fell back down to her lap as she threw her head back, mouth lolling open to inhale the sweet russkim dukhom, or Russian sweat that all old people seemed to exude. She stared at the rough wooden planks, which served as her ceiling, and touched her bony rigid hand to the side of her shrunken skull. Her long nails caught in her pathetic threads of white hair, which tugged out as her wizened talons pulled away.
“Ugh, not again!” she exasperated, looking at the web of time past in her palm. “I need some new life!”
The cat, unusually nut brown, as if he belonged to the very timbers of the house, leapt up onto the narrow windowsill, his soft paws placed with intent between Baba’s carefully curated crystal tool box. His back was arched, creating a silhouette against the tiny squares of greasy smoked glass, beyond which, the Sosnovy Bor pine forest stood in repetitive columns, keeping Baba hidden from the city beyond.
“Don’t even think about it!” she squawked, as the cat regarded a smooth weg of purple banded amethyst with a hole bored through it, eroded by water which had exploited a crack in the crystal. He lifted his front paw defiantly, and brought it’s full might down on the blue-violet rock, just hooking a sharpened nail into the hole at the last minute for maximum effect, and flung it off the ledge.
In a fly’s heartbeat, Baba’s outstretched claw caught the precious stone centimetres from the threadbare Turkish rug on the floor. In the same moment she was standing to her full height of eight feet, and with one scrawny hand wrapped around the amethyst, she backhanded the cat into the centre of the room with the other, before his feline senses could react.
“Miiiiaaaaaooooowwww,” he yowled.
“Don’t think you can outsmart me, S-a-t-a-n-a.” She said, labouring the syllables of his name, while she pushed her hips forward with her bony hands in the small of her back.
In one stride she was back at the armchair, and crumpled heavily into it, grabbing her phone as she sat down. Satana sashayed his scrawny midriff past her shins, and she absent-mindedly used the motion of his moving pelt as a miniature car wash to get rid of the muck on the screen. Her clenched skeletal fingers opened smoothly, like the petals on a flower, and she regarded the amethyst hag stone. She flipped it between her thumb and index finger, bringing it to her keen red veined eye and stroked Anushka’s name on the glassy screen. As the profile slid into view, she drilled down into the life that was Anushka Sokalov.
Cute-anushka. Where are you?
The room was doused in orange and her concentration burned with bittersweet flames in the hearth. Scouting embers whistled and cracked up, up and out of the chimney seeking to find their mark, while a distorted flesh face hung, stretched above the fireplace, it’s Frankenstein features played by the dancing firelight. There was a bold ‘pop’ of yellow flame in the grate, and Baba’s lips curled in triumph, as the grotesque mask unwittingly grinned back.
Anushka Sokalov lived in Sosnovy Bor, just the other side of the forest.
Anushka was aware of the slightest warning spark of hot embers as she left her modern build student apartment. She briefly wondered if there was a fire in the forest, but in soaking up the new greens of the pine trees which flanked her apartment block, she thought instead of the vivid yellow presence of her beautiful new car and stretched her imagination to believe it was still there. She didn’t own it, of course. Just rented it for a few hours for the insta pics, but it was 1395 rubles worth of likes, and counting.
She reached the NailBrite salon for her weekly manicure, and was picked up with the smoothness of a conveyer belt, the minute she swiped right over the stainless steel button on the doorframe. She knew all the technicians, and her Instagram presence had meant that NailBrite was hot gossip in Sosnovy Bor, and beyond. She always picked a Wednesday. Not only were there no squawking teenagers, but it was also Dobroe Delo, or kind deed day. Customers paid a bit more for their manicures so senior citizens could get free or subsidised nail treatments. The majority of the elderly received a tiny state pension and not much else, and boy did they love their Wednesday mornings! There was chatter and apple cake, and creepy tales of the old Baba Yaga who lived in the forest and ate people, all filed and lacquered to perfection. The usual Euro techno beats were replaced with a more traditional soft folksy sound. Anushka felt warm and snuggled in a blanket of nostalgia, and she could be more incognito than her Instagram persona generally allowed.
“Hi Nush – how’s our favourite celebrity?”
She was greeted in a high pitched voice by Cassandra, who emphasised the ‘-ebrityyy?’ at the end of the sentence, with sustain and a genuinely excited smile. Cassandra was a little mouse of a girl from Vietnam, whose hair was pulled back into a professional ponytail. Mouse-like because she skittled around the salon, keeping everything just so and not getting in anyone else’s way. But when it came to her manicures, she was firm and dedicated to the task in hand, and woe betide any other technician who took a gel to use without checking with her first.
“Like a lion, baby, like a lion!” Said Anushka, clawing the air in front of her. “But a lion with a terrible set of talons!” She said, over acting the despair in her voice with a tremolo, and holding her hand pitifully in front of her sulking lips.
“Aoaoaoaoao…” Cassandra came running over, absolutely alarmed at the nail crisis in her salon. “Sit down! Sit down! Here you go, your favourite soda Miss Anush – I call you over, two seconds!”
She motioned for Anushka to sit on a velvet upholstered pink chair, with vertical cerise candy stripes on the back and arm rests. There were six identical chairs next to each other, in front of a highly instagrammable wall of fake silk flowers, in every shade of pink imaginable, from the softest peach to the most decadent violet. Spotlights hung from the ceiling, illuminating each chair, ready to capture any moment in life that required it, and the words ‘# LUV MY NAILS’ pulsed across the vertical carpet of flowers in bright pink neon.
Anushka breathed in the counterfeit lifestyle, understanding its trickery, yet nevertheless devoted to it. She barely noticed the door slide open beside her. Neither did she feel the witch’s gaze as Baba shot her a glance on entering the salon.
Baba nearly vomited as she took in her surroundings. What was it with pink? And the lacquered air seemed to coat her old lungs with a heaviness she hadn’t known since her pipe smoking days. At least it was wrinklies Wednesday, so if she was to be seen, she’d fit in quite well. She walked slowly down the line of chairs, with her right hand wrapped around her left, leading the way in front of her. Her mind was still, and she moved smoothly, keeping her head bowed, so as not to draw attention to herself. She reached the furthest chair and sat down, silently, under the designated spotlight. She wanted to click her fingers and turn the damn thing off, but that would have broken her carefully controlled spell. Instead she looked at her own time-ravaged manicure, and again wished she could snap off the spotlight.
It hadn’t taken much to map out the movements of cute_anushka. Her life was literally an open Instagram account and she’d even broadcast the fact that she’d be at NailBrite at 10am, Wednesday morning. Baba had to work fast. She’d hung mandrake root in front of the indignant eyes of Mr flesh face back at home, which she knew would give her a certain level of invisibility. But it was a fragile fix. She needed to get in and out of that salon without drawing unnecessary attention to herself. She also carried a small mirror in her coat pocket, facing out; to further deflect any unwanted scrutiny, and project whatever was behind her into the eyes of her beholder. This was currently a multi-pink wall of flowers, and she was understandably distressed at this portrayal of herself.
“Ready for you now, Mees Anush!” Cassandra announced excitedly. “Come sit, sit please!”
Anushka’s Lev like mane bounced in a tumbling wonder with it’s own momentum as she walked. It was her hair that really got her noticed as an influencer. Shades ranging from fine alabaster through bleached sand, flaxen golds, and toffee yellows spiralled together. It incorporated the bounteousness of summer and the harsh tones of winter, all caught in exotic bubbles of champagne. She was over six feet tall, and even Baba looked up to take in her full height, almost ruining the veil of her disguise.
She settled opposite Cassandra who expertly wrapped her expired acrylics in cotton doused in acetone, and then pressed little foil cones around each nail to help lift last month’s lifestyle choices. This time she was going for her signature lion claw, starting with a rich metallic bronze at the cuticle, fading through to a white gold at the tip.
Baba shifted in her seat slightly so she could keep an eye on the proceedings. The foils were off, and after a hand smoothing treatment and massage, Cassandra was expertly pushing cuticles, trimming off excess and smoothing to perfection. Baba saw her opportunity. She moved out of her chair, like a stalking huntress, her head and line of vision perfectly still, her limbs propelling her silently forward. Her face was directly behind Anushka’s mane, and she had to stop herself gagging on the warm coconut aroma. In a duel assault, Baba wrapped a couple of silky strands of hair around her warty finger and tugged. In the same split second as she briefly captured Anushka’s attention, she reached round with the other thieving hand, and pinched up a nail clipping from the fluffy white towel on the table. Cassandra noticed this slight anomaly and looked from the towel and then to Anushka’s distracted gaze. The salon hung in a temporary time lapse, without even a breath, until the door slid smoothly shut, and Baba left the building.
“Oh, I think my hair caught in something,” said Anushka, shaking her head left, then right.
“You just want me to notice your hair – cheeky lady!” Cassandra mimicked Anushka’s movements, smiling broadly, and began applying the sculpting forms to Anushka’s fingertips.
Back in the forest, Baba was holding her head remarkably high when she reached the edge of the trees where her cottage stood. It was the first time she’d had human contact in quite a while, and she couldn’t help smiling at her successful mission of mischief. She hitched up her raggedy green skirt, and made her way purposefully through the skull topped fence posts that intermittently marked out her territory.
She got to the wide steps that led up to her front door, and rested her elbow on the wooden worn handrail. She put a foot up onto the first step, and looked up at the shabby little house with it’s rickety timbered panels, and undulating roofline, the odd tile missing and the resulting leaks re-directed to those who had wronged her. Again, she cackled inside.
“I’ve got a nice treat for you!” she said, slapping her hand on the wooden rail.
Imperceptibly, the house shifted with the weight of a bear disturbed during a long winter sleep.
“I said I’ve go a treat for ya!” she bellowed, flapping her old ankle at the bottom step in an attempt to wake her sleeping abode. The house creaked, and the windows looked a little less closed.
“That’s better,” she said. “Let’s get things ready for little Anushka!”
With a certain joi de vie, she climbed the uneven stairs. It was a few years since she’d done an actual spell, and she was properly buzzing. She danced round the kitchen with lightness and ease, plucking coloured leaves from small jars and scooping measures of pungent potions, while softly humming and spinning in a clockwise direction. She dragged her sizeable granite pestle and mortar next to the table, and began pounding the constituents together. She worked vigorously, again in a clockwise motion, holding the pestle in both hands to guide its weight as it crushed and mashed, and ground and pulverised.
Her arms and hips worked together rhythmically to the beat of the pestle and mortar, and all the while she muttered:
“Cute Anushka, come to me, your life to give, my life to live!
Cute Anushka, come to me, your life to give, my life to live!
Like the turn of the tide, she felt the ingredients surrender their original potencies and agree to join forces in a new direction. She grabbed the mortar and carried it into the living room, setting it down and flinging back the Turkish rug on the floor.
An array of bright sigils in the floorboards twitched as the removal of the enchanted carpet broke the seal, and they were connected to all things once again. Baba knew they were lively and open to intent, so she padded round softly to soothe each one. With her palms down she made circular clockwise motions, one hand crossing over the other, whilst exhaling soothingly as she coerced them to her will. Ultimately, much like bambinos, they were all eager to please. She crossed to the north side of the room and plunged her grappling hand into a large cauldron shaped wooden bowl of salt. It was a dark, dark wood; smoothed over centuries by the attrition of the fine rocks it held. With the grains spilling through her cramped fingers like an hourglass, she worked quickly, again, following the path of the sun, and prowled around the idents, sketching a large circle on the floor, and not taking her eyes off any one of them for a second.
Happy that she now had the undivided attention of the energies in her care, Baba unhooked a large metal ladle from beside the fireplace, and scooped out the blended contents from the granite mortar. In the middle of the circle was a small burnt hollow in the floorboards, which she carefully poured the spellbound particles into. She squeezed some saliva into her pursed lips, and did a small directed spit into the centre of the mound, then reached into her pocket to retrieve Anushka’s strands of hair and nail clippings.
She carefully placed these in the oily mix of her saliva and powder that was starting to swirl clockwise in an ever-increasing spiral. She stepped carefully out to the edge of the circle, and placed four small yellow candles, equidistant apart, in the sprinkled salt perimeter. She took her trusted Zippo lighter with a black skull in relief on it’s case, and starting with the candle at the North side, she lit it, saying, “North wind of ice!”
She moved round to the next candle in the East, lighting it in turn and saying, “East wind of hot and cold!”
And so on to the South and West candles, “South wind of searing heat!” And, “West wind of home!”
She stamped her feet loudly and rhythmically on the floor, and one by one the sigils began to jerk and writhe as if absorbing the potency of the flames. The outer symbols caught light first, not with fire, but with a molten heat travelling through them, igniting Baba’s intent and shaping it to her will. These snapped at the heels of the resting middle shapes, which flipped to their reverse forms, reshaping her intent, ready to act in the world. Finally, the inner motifs were ablaze and began to move; vicious and vibrant, chasing each other round and round. Intermingling and interlocking, their dazzling forms eventually impossible to separate. They rose upwards, around the central crucible, creating a powerful and unavoidable vortex, hell-bent on bringing Anushka to the witch’s cabin.
Baba stamped faster and faster as the vortex became it’s own form, and then she stopped, arms outstretched in front of her, one hand against each side of the whirling mass. With a magnificent lunge towards the hearth, and with all her body weight, she willed the mini tornado to move with her. There was a blinding crack of pungent sulphurous yellow as the malignant cloud broke free from its circle of origin, and was sucked straight up the chimney, disappearing on its debauched errand of devilry.
Baba collapsed to the floor, her exhausted heart trembling unevenly against her rib cage like a wasp in a jar. She could have gone into town and simply coshed Anushka out cold and dragged her back. Or persuaded her with small talk. Each option she felt would have left her equally as ragged. Small talk particularly got her so strung out that she’d find herself clutching her arms around her body and clawing at her own elbows with the anxiety. And surely witchcraft demanded a certain amount of showomanship after-all?
With her new claws firmly in place, Anushka had a brunch date with Mila, her BFF since school days. They had absorbed tea and life until they could absorb no more, kissed each other firmly on each cheek, and slapped their right hands together high in the air before turning and going their separate ways. The sun shone brilliantly and yet Anushka could feel the skin on her arms prickling. She crossed them in front of her, hugging up to her shoulders with her warmer hands, and then thought she saw a snowflake whip round in front of her eyes.
She looked up to see a mini tornado towering above her, and momentarily stopped in her tracks. Her science mind was fascinated. She’d heard of ice storms, when warm humid air met with storm clouds and after a brief battle with gravity, generally fell as hailstones. This was really localised though, as in right above her head. She turned back to see Mila, but instead was engulfed in the swirling ice vortex, her champagne curls sticking across her face and her eyes stinging, as she was blinded by the caustic cloud.
She was finding it hard to breathe, but could just about see her feet approaching the pedestrian crossing. If she took it, she could follow the path alongside the pine forest, which would get her home, albeit the long way around. She stumbled along; taking shallower breaths, as the ground beneath her feet became more uneven. Twigs and pinecones cracked, and crunched, as she took ungainly steps forward, and she knew she was heading into the forest. The acrid smell of the cloud was drawing in fresher scents of clean pine and notes of citrus and lime, which turned to oranges and Christmas as she was guided deeper into the trees.
She put her head through her bag strap to keep it securely to her body, and held her arms out in front of her, with no idea where the next tree or hollow might be. Although she noted that although she couldn’t see anything, she hadn’t bumped into anything yet either. And then, just as quickly as the storm had arrived, the ice shroud surrounding her seemed to evaporate. She was left, a little disorientated, looking at a clearing in the forest with a small diamond encrusted house in front of her.
Her mouth fell open as the terror of the ice storm melted away. Her instinct was to use her shiny new nails to comb back the wet hair stuck to her face. But she left the motion half completed, utterly forgetting why she’d lifted her hand in the first place, and her hair being completely dry anyway. Her hand fell instead, to her chest, and she stood, rapt and enchanted.
She was pulled forwards towards the house, the front gate, latticed with metal worked gold feathers swinging open invitingly in front of her. She felt as if she was on a travelator at the airport, aware of walking, but it felt more as if she was pushing the scene behind her with her feet rather than walking through it. She arrived at a sweeping set of white marble steps with two highly polished golden Faberge eggs on either side of the handrail. They were adorned with hand painted winged fantastical creatures, and as she reached out to one of the eggs, the animals began to dance and chase each other around the smooth surface. She let her hand rest on the egg, and flinched slightly at a roughness under her fingertips.
Amazed she hadn’t thought of it before, she pulled out her ‘phone. She slipped her finger through the faux diamond ring on the back of the case, and lined it up with her other freshly manicured hand, entwined with the animals on the Faberge egg. She moved the phone up beyond the winking diamonds in the pale blue walls of the cottage, to the highly decorated windows, carved in wood and shimmering with gold. Each roof tile looked like a small gold bullion, and the eaves surrounding the upper windows were exquisitely sparkling with softly coloured lights.
The door was open, and she stepped across the threshold.
Baba’s vice like grip locked onto the back of her skull, pulling her into the room like a rag doll. Anushka’s heart beat so hard, and she flailed behind her trying to grab for the doorframe. But Baba was too strong and propelled her forward, kicking her stubborn feet as they tried to friction grip themselves to the uneven floorboards. The enchanted bling was gone in an instant. Now it was dark and menacing, a mouldy stench entered her nostrils and a low sounding frequency engulfed her body. Her shoulders contracted painfully and her stomach flipped in her chest, as she was forced through another doorway, the low frequencies rushing around her as the intensity increased.
As her eyes adjusted to the gloomy horror, she became aware of the origin of the menacing sound waves. A pulsing dark oblong in the corner of the room was emanating a roar of such disquiet, that it engulfed the very essence of everything. But she was picking up shapes in it too – it was her reflection. Dark and distorted, her own horrified face being pushed into the edges of this nothing, and the hideous witch behind her relentlessly forcing her forward.
Baba took the final step, with one last brutal shove to Anushka’s head. At the same time she slammed her shoulder, with the full force of her scrawny yet sizeable body, into Anushka’s back.
In an instant, she knew things had gone horribly wrong.
Anushka had seen the over sized pestle and mortar leaning against the fireplace. In a final fight or flight bid for freedom, she gasped a lung full of the thickened odious air, and flung her two outstretched hands towards the pestle handle, at the exact same moment as the witch had come at her with full force from behind. As Anushka hurled herself out of the way, Baba’s momentum catapulted her directly forward, and her face met that of her reflection in the glassy abyss that she had conjured in her own living room. She clung on desperately to Anushka’s skull, but only managed to lock on to a few strands of hair, which ripped out as she rushed headlong over Anushka’s head.
“Uuuurrrgggghhh not again!” she cursed, and screamed, an ancient visceral scream as the air in the room was torn apart. Anushka’s eardrums were grated with jagged shreds of noise as she grabbed the heavy handle, and swung round in a full circle to slug the remaining few inches of the witch into the dark abyss that had been meant for Anushka.
The vacuum that Baba’s scream had created imploded in on itself with an explosive thunder-crack, and the portal slammed shut. The house gave a huge involuntary shudder, and ornaments and potions crashed around her. Anushka was breathing heavily, still holding the pestle handle, its heavy load resting on the floor, so she looked as if she was ready to take a baseball swipe down a dark corridor which no longer existed.
A noise a bit like a balloon inflating attracted her attention from above the fireplace. The most grotesque fleshy face was stretched flat across a wooden frame, and was freakishly distorting, its eyes seeming to bulge with rage, its mouth ready to spit venom. She leant the pestle back up against the hearth, and although her stomach churned in revulsion, she couldn’t help but look at the monstrously pudgy profile. It’s meaty bottom lip kept bulging out pathetically, while its eyes blinked angrily, and she realised that a ringlet of blonde hair was hanging directly over its left eye, and it was unable to do anything about it. Without breathing or touching the corpse like features, she steadily reached up and tucked the fetching fringe over the top of the frame, causing the meaty cheeks to burn a deep crimson. There was a faint waft of coconut and familiarity – it was her hair that the witch had torn out. Somehow Baba was now trapped in the mask, and Anushka was the one who felt a surge of power as she stepped back from the fireplace.
She had defeated the witch in the forest! The Baba Yaga.
This was gonna be big insta news.
She hung her head down in front of her and whipped it up again, shaking her mass of curls into a triumphant photo shoot finish. The house itself seemed to pull its rafters together as if absorbing this new life force of possibilities. Anushka held up her phone and looked coyly sideways at the convulsing creature on the wall, as Satana brushed past her ankles.
“Come on Baba.” She said. “Smile for the camera!”