By Karen Fox-Edwards
It was late September now and the air had begun to take on the weight of an early winter. Already in the mornings a frost sat on the low branches of the pines. Irina’s body ached in winter, and she had, in these degrading late years, dreaded the season's coming. It heralded more abasement, and the wolves were always fierce in the winter. Chickens, cattle, and children went missing.
Irina, her own chickens and goat, had been safe here on her island. But recently, perhaps it was old age, she had begun to think she saw wolves in the mist. She thought death was coming for her. She had begun to dream of death.
But she could still row her scull to and from the island in the river. Aleks had chosen the spot. He had come here logging and loved the Germanic land. But Aleks was gone many years by, and there had been no children to keep her comforted in her old age. Now those German eyes looked on her with suspicion, the way neighbours did fever victims a house or two down, a narrow slit of a look that warned you away.
Irina sat at her bedroom window and looked into the unseen depths of the water. She envisaged all the dead children of this land that was not her own. Their watery-green faces looked up at her, some detached from their bodies, their eyes, milky white and vacant, rolling around the sockets loosely, like imperfect marbles in a scull-bowl. The water was clear, fixed in its stillness, and a mist had bloomed whitely as though from another world. She thought she could see the wolves spinning in the mists that swelled and birthed around the water.
She felt those wolves were coming for her, advancing like a white army across the water, sleek and ominous and persistent, stalking with a relentlessness that made a soul foresee its own summons. Perhaps she was simply a lonely old woman who had moved far away, too young, from her own mother, and now felt out of place and out of time.
But this morning there was a figure in the haze, a man. He was in the bigger boat, kept at the other side of the lake. A lonely urchin-boat, Irina always thought, like a hollowed out cork, bobbing up and down gently in the wind on the other side of the lake that never seemed to reach the island. Like her own little scull, Aleks had made it. She saw his beautiful Russian hands in that boat.
The figure was real this time; his features were solid. The wolves in the mists had the look of time taken away, a purposeful-nothingness in their movements that made you wake in the night when you remembered it. And when you did, you lay there, sweating and shaking, hoping that the moon would peek through the clouds and give you some Godly light, let you know you were not alone in the universe with only those mist-phantoms rising and falling towards you across the water.
Irina watched now as the boat slid up the embankment, and she hobbled down the stairs of the cottage, leaving her bedroom window vigil. She liked to sit there most days now in case the figures in the fog were real. She wanted to be ready for them.
On her way to the door she grabbed her ministering bag. These calls always had only one meaning. The man needed to say little as he stood, looking grave, on her clean, polished doorstep, and he and Irina got in their separate boats and rowed to the other side of the lake.
He was not a village man. He was the woodcutter, and he made uncomfortable attempts at conversation on the cart-ride from the boats. The winter wolves, the real wolves, were out already. Children had gone missing.
Despite Irina’s best efforts the baby died. Its head was too big and misshapen. It was destined, from conception, to join the others in the waters of the lake. The two other children looked on emptily as she hobbled about the mother's bedroom; they weren't ghosts. But Irina's eyes were tried, and it was now difficult to tell the difference between the living children she saw and the dead.
A boy and a girl, their cheeks were sunken and grey like the rest of the children in this land. Irina thought there was relief in the mother's eyes when she wrapped the dead baby in rags and put it in the coalscuttle to burn. The girl, looking through the open door, saw Irina's movement and her eyes had the flat look that only starving children's eyes have. Irina though the girl didn't look sorry either.
Men did not know or care if babies were born, year after year, into starvation and misery. But young girls knew, and so did the women they grew up into. Their bodies wore the pain.
She took some gingerbread out of her bag, giving it to them. They were small pieces and going stale, but the young one's faces looked like those of happy angels about to dance on a pin when the pieces of brown gold were placed into their hands.
There was a groan from the bedroom and the mother was up on her elbows, calling at the children to take only a small piece and leave the rest for later. Never waste food. Irina nodded at the woman, understanding the poverty and hunger so lately besieging this place. She handed the woodcutter the ointment she made for the tears and rips that sometimes happened. He gave her a chicken and promised to come out to the island-cottage and cut firewood. As she left, Irina noticed the girl preparing the fire, her hands working with the ease of a child who had known hard labour almost from birth. The coalscuttle lay beside the fireplace.
Babies, dead out of the womb, had not been unknown to Irina's own body. An old women with blackened nails and calloused hands who had mined her own coal had visited Irina seven times, and helped her birth dead babies or let her bleed out a pitiful human mess. That midwife was now as dead as Irina's own dead babies.
The old woman had suggested that birthing other women’s children might be a more successful endeavour than trying to quicken her own. Now Irina was the old woman. Now Irina helped other women birth their living and dead children. Her own womb had long ago sprouted cobwebs; she saw it like a dilapidated church or the catholic monasteries Luther had torn down in these lands; shrubs started growing out of the walls, while the ghosts of the monks look on mournfully. Only she felt the brushwood growing in her womb would look blackened and cloudy if she could see it, not the vivid green of the pines and oaks.
Rowing the oars of her tiny boat, back to her lake-cottage, Irina saw the ropes of her hands as they strained. Her back was singing in pained unison with the effort, and she felt like her body was made of dust and chalk, which rubbed together and made cat-screams when she moved. The shell-like boat slid quickly up the bank, the pulse of the water propelling it for one last stretch. For a short moment the boat would always think it was still on water, even though weedy dirt was sliding into its cracks like fish guts under your nails.
She saw the children in the lake now, as she stood at its edges, and she could only assume their recent appearance was her punishment for not being able to save them. She did not know which ones were her own and which were other women's, so many children in various states of decomposition. She even found herself calling to them, for she had named them, her seven. Three had been girls, and she had known this from their sucked in bodies, three girls from three pregnancies that had endured long enough to give them girl parts. Two had been boys, living in the underwater of her womb long enough to look like baby boys. Tanniya, Marisha, Taisha, Alik and Orell. Two were bloody messes on the old woman with the blackened fingers' apron. Irina had named them after the trees in Russia, Silva and Groosha. In the end it didn't really matter that she didn't know their sex. They were just as dead as the rest.
But their names stayed with her, precious and vital. Only she knew these names now. When Aleks had joined them in their water-afterword he had taken his part in naming them with him. When she glanced a face in the water, she found herself trying to warn them against the phantom wolves, because the mist-wolves lay upon the children in the water, flowering up from their corpses in the deep weeds, taking what life had once been there and turning it to heavy, wet air that swirled and eddied in the atmosphere. The mist looked harmless and the children frightening, but Irina knew the difference.
Irina boiled herself some nettle tea. She had had drank this since a girl, and it made her think of her own mother, dead now also, who wasted nothing. That sense of thriftiness was Russian. Like the Russians of history, her Germanic neighbours were now truly suffering. But for them it was after a long period of wealth. She felt for them and gave what little advice they would take. She didn’t know how much good it did. She felt their resentment of her, of her goat and her chickens, given in payment for birthing dead babies, or bringing more mouths to feed into a world without enough to go round.
Sitting down at her seat by the window Irina glanced towards the bed. Big and wide and comfy. Another product of Aleks, its polished oak chopped from trees just outside their own door and carved, with love and pride, into a place for weary bones to lie. The quilt, a patchwork of reds, greens and whites, Irina had made herself, and the combination of these two things in the sunlight of the near-winter’s afternoon brought grievous tears to Irina’s eyes. It had been a place of love where hopes of children had whispered. She was ready to be with Aleks wherever he was. She hoped he was with their dead babies. She hoped she would be with them all too, even if it was in a watery afterlife.
She slid into the early evening sleep of the old and dreamed of all those dead children and the two in the house looking so grave and stoic. Dreaming, she saw the hands of the little girl lighting the fire around her dead sibling’s shrouded body. In her dream, the wolves, both of mist and flesh, broke through the windows and doors of the woodcutter's house. The dead children of the lake screamed in warning but they could not be heard from so far away, and the wolves torn the two children to shreds, making them indiscernible from the bloody messes her own womb had produced.
The night was truly upon the island and the forest around it, and Irina awoke with a start. As she rose from the bedroom window chair she felt the sluggish feeling of one who has napped too long during the day. An old lady feeling.
But as she started to turn away from the window she saw the spark of a fire lit in the forest. Big and bold and true. And she saw in her mind the little hands that had made that fire, little girl hands, and she knew that only she stood between the woodcutter’s children and the wolves.
She looked towards her boat, which, it seemed, would be making another trip today.
Death would have to wait.
© Karen Fox-Edwards, unless we say otherwise
In January 2013, this story was shortlisted in the Hansel and Gretel adult creative writing competition by the National Library of Scotland and Scottish Ballet.