Seedy brooms and hairy bunches of herbs are hanging over my head. Dust is dancing around my face in the dim bronzed air in the witch’s shack. The witch has a tiny shack of her own; she does not live with the rest of her family. The walls smell of bugs and wet wool. Everything is made of weathered wood, saved faded cotton scraps and crumbling dill weed. There is a trunk with layers of time and cloth dense inside it.
The witch points her hook nose at me and says: “Give me your shirt.”
She turns away and starts rooting in her trunk. I am not sure what to do.
I love my shirt, which is really a sweater. My papa brought it for me from Japan. It is the only pretty one I have. It is knit in red, white and blue stripe, and the best thing is the buttons. The buttons are small red plastic hearts. Why does the witch want my sweater, and what I am supposed to do with the orders of this clearly half-mad woman who is my great-grandmother? I know I am supposed to love her, and I am supposed to listen to all adults, even those I do not really know, and always do what they say. On the other hand, she is mad, scary, witchy, and wants my lovely sweater – and I am supposed to be careful with my clothes. For what would my parents sooner yell at me?
She takes gray felt boots out of the trunk. They are scratchy, dirty and as big as I am. She thrusts them at me.
“See?”she says. “They will be yours. I’m giving them to your mother before you leave. They are for you only. Feel them, they are good. See? No holes.”
I do not want to touch the felt boots. I want to run away. This old lady’s lips have sunk into the toothless cavern of her mouth. She wears a big tan woolen shawl all the time, even today, this blazing July noon.
“They are only yours. Wear them,” she repeats. “Do not give them to your sister!”
She turns around and puts the boots back into the pile of old woman things.
“Now, give me your shirt.”
Without my sweater, bereft, yet relieved, I run out of the Baba Yaga’s hut onto the sun-fried porch. The dog under the boards growls in a serious baritone. I try to be the lightest and the fastest on my feet so he does not get offended by me stomping above his shaggy wolfy head. He bit me two summers ago because I touched his bowl. They say he is a good smart guard dog and that I should love him because he did not really bite me, he just took my hand out of his bowl with his teeth as a polite warning. They said if he had really bitten me the damage would be far beyond the two skin-deep tears over which they poured green antiseptic which always burns though they say it really doesn’t.
No one notices that I am not wearing my sweater.
I am rounded up to go the banya with all the women.
The street is baking. My great-grandmother is carrying her own washbasin. No one else is bringing their own washbasins, not my grandma, not my mom, not me. I think we are just going to use the ones they have at the village banya.
At first I thought we were going to wash in our house banya, but turns out we are walking the three hundred millions steps to the village banya and we are going to wash all together with other people. My mom and grandma are walking in front of me, talking-talking, a babbling brook of women’s words, boring, flowing, not separable, not understandable. My mother looks concerned, her eyebrows are together and her mouth is in a small knot. She nods often. He said she said what are you gonna do that is not a very good thing what is she going to do now uh-huh uh-huh what are the degrees today barometric pressure forty rubles is not a joke.
The banya is unexpectedly big. I thought it would be a withered weathered wooden building. Instead it is yellow-painted brick. It looks like something from the city, not the village.
Inside it is hot, wet, naked and shloppy. There are slapping and pouring and rinsing and soaping sounds, backs are rubbed with rags and loofahs, slippery thighs and breasts slide around, wet skin in folds. I have to sit naked in the washbasin and they scrub me raw. All sorts of women are naked but many are naked with hats on. I am so hot hot hot. My mother tells me it is not hot; the steam room is hotter but she will not take me there. She always takes me to hot and cold places, she puts me in hot scratchy clothes and felt boots in which I cannot bend my legs or move my feet, and I wait and I wait by the front door, my ears folded inside the hat which she pulled down on my head in a hurry. My ears are very large and soft. My family tease me about them. She puts hot itchy tights on me, and I am hot, and then she takes me to the woods where she skis with her friends, and I am freezing. I sit inside the unheated car while they ski and I am so cold cold cold. My mother pops her head in the door, tells me sternly that it is not cold, that I am not cold, that I am a wuss; she yells at me to stop crying and brings me a glass of warm sugary tea from the thermos. These are my un-favorite things: to be hot, to be cold, to be hot and itchy, to be hot and naked and embarrassed in front of everyone, to be shoved into things.
My great-gran washes in her separate basin and my mother rubs her back.
We go back home and then I do not remember what. Did I sleep?
It is evening and the witch takes me back to her witch house across the backyard. I think she is going to give me the hot felt boots, again.
She gives me my beautiful red-blue-white heart button sweater. She says: “I sewed on secret pockets.”
The sweater is turned inside out. On either side there is a large square of unbleached linen, sewn on by hand. The stitches, in rough white cotton thread, are large and uneven.
I am about to cry. My little sweater, my little sweater love, is ruined. Foul, ugly things, holes poked through the pretty sweater with ugly pokey needles. Thread here and there.
“See, if I turn it right side out, you cannot see them. They are secret pockets. They are only for you, to put bread in. You put bread in, you put sugar in, and you do not show your sister! The bread is not for your sister! The pockets are only for you!”
She puts her leathery face close to mine.
“The pockets are for your bread. Do not give anything to your sister.”
My sister is one and a half, and I am five years old. I am the big sister. They teach me to love her. I am supposed to share everything with her, and never be greedy. I don’t carry bread in my pockets, nor sugar. Why would I eat sugar from my pockets? I do not understand. I feel filthy.
My mother says I must love my sister. I get in trouble if my mother thinks I don’t. I don’t see the point of my sister, she does not do anything with me or that’s interesting for me, most of the time she cries, or is in bed sleeping, or is sitting on the tall chair, her blond hair sticking up like a small bird’s tail, with both her small feet in a pot of hot mustard water, to cure the chest colds she has all the time.
When they leave my sister in her crib with just me to watch her, my sister cries and then I am in trouble. I have to find a way to entertain her, or I am bad. I fall on my butt on purpose and say “Ouch!” many times over, and then she laughs, but as soon as I stop she cries again, and I have to keep falling on my butt to keep her entertained.
One time she was sick, she cried and cried in my mother’s arms, and my mother stomped her feet and yelled at me: “I see it! I see that you don’t feel bad for your sister!”
Now I have to have pockets in which to keep bread which not to give my sister?
Great-grandmother makes me put the sweater on and pats down my front, satisfied that my white shameful pockets are hidden.
In the big house, I take off my bad sad broken sweater and fold it pockets-in.
My grandmother has made cookies. They look like twigs of golden crunch drowned in powdered sugar.
The dog is away under the porch, the felt boots are away across the big yard. Great-gran is away in her shack and I will stay away from confusion and fright right here in the kitchen next to the small orange washbasin where the absolutely-no-questions-asked-good twig cookies swim among a million tiny crystals of sweet.