by Robert E. Stutts
“The further in you go, the bigger it gets….”
~John Crowley, Little, Big
The Old Woman
I came here from Mother Russia, carrying my house on my back, carrying winter inside the house on my back. The way was sometimes tedious and sometimes treacherous, as such journeys often are, but here I am in this new world, finally and at long last.
But I am old and I am tired, and I must have a daughter to receive my silver birch broom, who will sweep away all traces of me when I am gone from this world.
The House That Ate the End of the World
On the corner of two slow streets sits the brownstone, drinking the sun each morning and washing in the dust each evening. The building has three stories plus a basement of secrets. Mr. Nettles lives on the first floor, a solitary, sharp-faced man who dreams of glass and reads mystery novels. The second story belongs to a family of four: a mother, a father, and their twin daughters. They live a comfortable life, but they dream of more than this middle-class brownstone. The third story houses an old woman, a foreigner recently arrived but who has settled into her rooms as if she was born in the place. Indeed, the other tenants have to remind themselves that they lived here long before Mrs. Koldunya. The girls smell bread and apples in the morning and October fire in the evening.
Amber and Aisha are twins, sisters all their breathing lives, but enemies even longer. They love and hate each other with the same beating heart, would kill anyone who tried to harm the other, but sometimes, in the dark and heavy belly of the night, would like to see the other lying dead and broken nonetheless. When they were eight and in the third grade, the sisters were bullied by a white boy who lived next door; he taunted them, teased them, tricked them. One day he shoved Amber into a mud puddle. Aisha laughed and laughed, then she seized the neighbor boy with a dark look that would have made a wolf bashful and beat him so hard with her small fists that the boy bled and howled and cried for his mother, but Aisha wouldn’t stop beating him until her own mother came outside and pulled her off of him.
The two girls are not quite identical: Amber is shorter, curvier, her skin brown as chocolate and freckled over the nose, a pretty girl, kind-hearted and even-tempered. The good sister, though her twin points out that she is only good because she’s afraid of getting caught. Aisha is tall and slender as a slap, regal and demanding; if her sister is cocoa then Aisha is wrapped in dark chocolate and is sometimes as bitter and biting, but that doesn’t keep the boys from chasing her. Everyone knows Aisha is more beautiful, more ambitious, than her sister or, for that matter, her parents; Aisha is going places, is going to be someone, someday.
Amber and Aisha glance at each other when their mama tells them they need to go upstairs to help out the Russian woman who only last week moved into the top floor of the brownstone. Amber and Aisha have seen this woman—with her prominent nose, her gray hair piled haphazardly on her head, but mostly her big teeth—only from her window, shaking her blanket into the air, the specks glinting in the morning air like diamond dust.
“She’s an old woman,” their mother tells the twins. “She needs some help around the house, and, God love her, she doesn’t speak much English. She’s all alone here, and it will do you girls some good to help out someone else.”
The twins look at each other and Aisha rolls her eyes; Amber looks back at their mother, but she kind of wants to roll her eyes, too.
“Besides,” Mama says, leaning against the doorframe, blowing smoke into the hallway, “Mrs. Koldunya’s loaded. Bet you two will get some reward for your work. That is, if doing something for someone else out of the kindness of your hearts doesn’t suit your fancy.”
“Huh. The rich don’t stay rich by spending their money, Mama,” Aisha says, tossing her head to the side.
“Don’t sass me, girl. Get off your lazy ass and do as I tell you.”
So the girls do just that. Upstairs they go, to the third story.
The door creaks open to reveal a dark room, and Amber and Aisha think the same thing at the same time: we’ve seen this before in bad horror movies, but we’re not so stupid as those fools. Aisha has already turned on her heel and stepped down the first stair when Amber clutches her hand and Aisha looks back. Mrs. Koldunya stands in the doorway, a babushka on her head, of course, and a pestle in one hand and a large mortar in the other; the old woman’s been grounding something into powder. Amber thinks the substance looks like flour, but Aisha thinks it looks like ash.
“Hi,” Amber says, bowing her head slightly. “We’re from downstairs. Our mother said you could use some help settling in.”
“Come,” says the old woman, her accent blooming like ice crystals in their ears. She nods over her shoulder at the dimly lit apartment behind her before retreating into it. The sisters look at one another; Amber shrugs, Aisha raises an eyebrow, and then they step inside.
The sisters are not surprised that the room is filled with strange and exotic items, not entirely visible, not entirely veiled from their eyes. Opened and unopened boxes create a maze of the living room. Aisha looks intently at whatever her glance catches, studies it, wonders at it. Here is the whole world in these boxes, crowns of kings made from bone and branches, skeins of gold spun from plain straw, large eggs studded with diamonds and rubies.
Along one wall, floor to ceiling, hang dark wooden shelves. On each shelf are rows and rows of snow globes, all with their snow falling as if a troop of shakers had just come through and forced winter on each tiny scene. And each one is labeled. Petersburg. Berlin. Paris. London. Madrid. Some snow globes hold people or beasts. Here is Takahashi Keiko, a newborn girl in Japan. Here is Epesi, a gazelle running through the snow on a Kenyan grassland. And here an open grave meant for Davi Azevedo in Ribeirão Preto. Aisha picks up a globe with her name on it and sees her own brownstone made small. Through a tiny third-floor window sees herself looking at herself looking at herself.
Amber is less curious. She purses her lips, sniffs at the air, catches the smell of baking bread, follows it into the kitchen.
“Take the bread out of the oven, doorak!” someone yells at her, but Amber doesn’t see whom. Grabbing a pair of oven mitts, Amber opens the oven door and pulls out two golden loaves of bread. She sets them on the counter, pauses to sniff deeply. “Take the bread out of the oven, idiot!” the voice cries again, and so once more Amber puts on the mitts and pulls two more loaves out of the oven. Three more times she frees bread from the oven, until all of the counter space in the small kitchen is covered with loaves.
Aisha wanders into the kitchen at this point. “I’ll have a slice of that with some butter,” she tells her twin, and Amber doesn’t even glance askance at her sister, just goes to the refrigerator, pulls out a crock of butter, cuts off a thick slice of the warm bread, butters it heavily, and hands it to her sister.
“That’s good bread,” she says after swallowing the first bite. Amber slices another piece of bread and begins to butter it, too.
Wandering into the next room, still eating her third slice of the thick bread, Aisha sees in the hallway a huge stack of apples, their skins bright ruby in the gloom. A voice cries out, “Sort the best apples into a basket, doorak!” Aisha picks up an apple, holds it close to her eye. “My grandmother used to carve up apples to make dolls, you know? She’d take her knife, make these quick and deep little incisions, and damn if she didn’t have a face.”
Again the voice cries out, “Sort the best apples into a basket, idiot!”
“Huh,” Aisha says, kicking the basket and then taking another apple from the middle of the stack, causing all the fruit to tumble into the dark. She takes a bite of the first apple and then of the second, and tosses the fruit into the corner. “That’s how I like them apples.”
The Bed of Light and Feathers
At last, Mrs. Koldunya beckons the sisters into the room at the end of the hallway, smiling broadly with her huge teeth. She chomps them together and it sounds like bones laughing. In the middle of the room is a large bed covered in an even larger quilt. Amber is sure it is handmade, while Aisha just wants to take a nap.
“Make bed,” says the old woman. So Amber grabs hold of the quilt to pull it higher on the bed, but her tugs release a flurry of feathers that float lazily around the room. She pulls again: more feathers.
“No, make bed,” the old woman repeats, sounding angry. Amber keeps trying, keeps failing; she begins to weep a little.
Aisha, who until this point has been leaning against the wall, arms crossed against her breasts, sighs with great exasperation. She walks over, grabs the quilt, and tosses it out the window. “No!” gasps her twin, but Aisha has held onto the edge of the quilt, and she shakes the quilt until the feathers fly into the air, drifting down to the street below in slow white waves.
The old woman says nothing, but she nods.
The Promise of Gold, the Patience of Pitch
The sisters feel as if they have been in Mrs. Koldunya’s apartment for years. “I want to go home,” says Amber, her eyes dew-damp in the flickering candlelight.
“Shut up,” her sister says. “Don’t cry, not now, not here.”
Across the room, the old Russian woman chomps her teeth. “You stay,” she says. “If good, I give gold all over. If bad, I give pitch all over. Stay and work, work, work.”
“Hell no,” says Aisha, grabbing her sister by the shoulder. “She’s lying. There’s no way she’s gonna cover me with pitch if I don’t do her bidding. I am nobody’s slave, no way no how. Huh. I’d like to see her try it, ‘cause I’d slap her old, wrinkly ass all the way back to the Old Country and then some.” She looks Mrs. Koldunya right in the eye.
Amber has to laugh a little at that image; she has no doubt her twin will keep her promise. She dries her eyes. “I’d like to go home, please.”
A minute passes, then two, as Mrs. Koldunya studies the faces of the girls in front of her. Then she nods. “If you must.”
The front door of the apartment swings open, and Amber steps through. No gold covers her, no birds sing her praises, but she is outside of that place where she has felt so very small. Mrs. Koldunya looks at her from across the threshold. “You are a good girl. Go home. Stay good. Be happy.”
Amber turns and skips down the staircase; she doesn’t look back.
Mrs. Koldunya turns to Aisha, who is leaning against the shelves of snow globes. “You are not so good girl.”
“I know.” Aisha tilts her chin up a little.
“You are rude and lazy.”
“If there’s nothing in it for me, sure am,” Aisha says, studying her nails like she’s bored. But she’s not bored.
“You are strong. Proud.”
“Yes, I am.” Stepping forward, Aisha stands on the edge of the threshold to face Mrs. Koldunya. The two women regard each other in silence, and the air around them itches.
“I have much to teach a girl like you.” She holds out toward Aisha a broom made of silver wood.
As she takes the broom and closes the door, Aisha smiles. “Yeah, I thought you might.”
Robert E. Stutts works at a small private liberal arts college in South Carolina, where he teaches courses in fairy tales, creative writing, and adolescent literature. He has just completed his MFA degree through Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine.