Vasya, my main character, is a serf who has been abused and imprisoned by her sadistic owner. In captivity, but faced with the first real prospect of escape, she falls into a restless sleep:
She dreamed of her childhood. Her grandmother’s face, peering down at the cluster of cowering children–Vasya and her cousins–hollow cheeks and knobby features deeply shadowed in the winter lamplight.
“Be good, little children,” the old woman hissed. “Don’t make a peep, or Baba Yaga will hear and she’ll take you away with her forever.”
Vasya and her cousins nodded solemnly, suitably cowed by the threat of Baba Yaga, the evil witch, who travelled on a flying mortar. She lived in a house with tall chicken legs that walked about the countryside, collecting up children, who were never heard from again. Baba Yaga would eat the children for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Then, for dessert, she’d save the sweetest, tiniest, most succulent little babies–or at least, that’s what Vasya’s cousin claimed.
Baba Yaga aside, Vasya’s grandmother alone seemed terror enough. Tall, thin and knotted as a hollow old tree whose branches remained bare and bleak even in midsummer, the old woman moved with a creaky inexorability that made her all the more frightening to the cluster of grandchildren she regularly terrorized with harsh words and beatings. Vasya had, as a result, concluded that anyone that fearsome old woman invoked for the purposes of further intimidation had to be horrifying indeed.
There were other things to worry about as well, like the water rusalka that lived in the pond near one of the fields Vasya’s family farmed. They said that more than one of the villagers had been lost to the creature’s seductive song. Vasya had always believed that she would be able to resist–after all, what could be so compelling about a song, no matter how lovely?
And then, one day, as she and her cousin Nadezhda, who at eight, was two years her senior, were walking back from delivering lunch to the menfolk, she heard it. Nadezhda, who always began singing loudly as soon as they entered the haunted wood, began singing even more loudly. Her voice was far from sweet, and her sense of pitch was the most imaginative thing about her. She sang an old lullaby,
“One day soon
You’ll be a warrior
You’ll ride off on your proud stallion
I will cry for you.
You’ll protect us
From the Vilnyets
I’ll give you a holy ikon
For to guard you too.”
It helped, but only a little, because still, there was the other singing underneath it. It was sad, but so beautiful that it made Vasya feel warm and tingly inside. Surely, if she just paused a moment and listened, it would carry her away to a safe place, where her grandmother would never smack her with the wooden spoon or pull her about by the ear or pinch her because she had spilled precious flour or over-carded the wool.
But Nadhezhda pulled her along, ever rushing, and singing loudly to drown out the water rusalka’s song… except that she lost her grip on Vasya’s hand. Vasya’s steps slowed, even as her cousin’s momentum kept her moving forward. As Nadhezhda broke away, the sound of her voice faltered, and the rusalka’s signing flooded Vasya’s ears, suffusing her body in moments. Before she even realised what she was doing, she had started towards the pond.
Nadhezhda started singing louder than ever.
“Sleep my child, my lovely baby
I will tell you tales of
Fairies, gods and princes too.
Songs of heroes,
Songs of sadness
While you slumber, I will guard you
She kept repeating the same refrain in her loud, unmelodious singsong voice as she threw herself at Vasya, knocking her against the trunk of a tree, then seized her wrist and dragged her back to the path, while Vasya struggled furiously and tried to pull free.
But her cousin wouldn’t let go–she continued singing, even though by now, the sound of the rusalka’s song throbbed through Vasya’s blood, whispering to her soul, telling her she had to follow the voice, the ethereal music, wherever it might lead. But still her cousin dragged her along, until finally, they stepped out of the dappled forest and into the bright sunshine of the fields. The song cut off abruptly, as if a thick door had been closed, silencing it.
But Vasilisa never forgot that sound, and even all these years later, it haunted her restless dreams.
She woke to the lingering, ethereal touch of the rusalka’s voice teasing the edge of her consciousness, with sunlight streaming across her bed, and the sound of someone fumbling at the latch.