There was a time when the woods near Duva ate girls.
It’s been many years since any child was taken. But still, on nights like these, when the wind comes cold from Tsibeya, mothers hold their daughters tight and warn them not to stray too far from home. “Be back before dark,” they whisper. “The trees are hungry tonight.”
In those black days, on the edge of these very woods, there lived a girl named Nadya and her brother Havel, the children of Maxim Grushov, a carpenter and woodcutter. Maxim was a good man, well liked in the village. He made roofs that did not leak or bend, sturdy chairs, toys when they were called for, and his clever hands could fashion edges so smooth and fasten joints so neatly you might never find the seam. He traveled all over the countryside seeking work, to towns as far as Ryevost. He went by foot and by hay cart when the weather was kind, and in the winter, he hitched his two black horses to a sledge, kissed his children, and set out in the snow. Always he returned home to them, carrying bags of grain or a new bolt of wool, his pockets stuffed with candy for Nadya and her brother.
But when the famine came, people had no coin and nothing to trade for a prettily carved table or a wooden duck. They used their furniture for kindling and prayed they would make it through to spring. Maxim was forced to sell his horses, and then the sledge they’d once pulled over the snow-blanketed roads.
As Maxim’s luck faded, so did his wife. Soon she was more ghost than woman, drifting silently from room to room. Nadya tried to get her mother to eat what little food they had, giving up portions of turnip and potato, bundling her mother’s frail body in shawls and seating her on the porch in the hope that the fresh air might return some appetite to her. The only thing she seemed to crave were little cakes made by the widow Karina Stoyanova, scented with orange blossom and thick with icing. Where Karina got the sugar, no one knew—though the old women had their theories, most of which involved a rich and lonely tradesman from the river cities. But eventually, even Karina’s supplies dwindled, and when the little cakes were gone Nadya’s mother would touch neither food nor drink, not even the smallest sip of tea.
Nadya’s mother died on the first real day of winter, when the last bit of autumn fled from the air, and any hope of a mild year went with it. But the poor woman’s death went largely unremarked upon, because two days before she finally breathed her last ghostly sigh, another girl went missing.
Her name was Lara Deniken, a shy girl with a nervous laugh, the type to stand at the edges of village dances watching the fun. All they found of her was a single leather shoe, its heel thick with crusted blood. She was the second girl lost in as many months, after Shura Yeshevsky went out to hang the wash on the line and never came back in, leaving nothing but a pile of clothespins and sodden sheets lying in the mud.
Real fear came upon the town. In the past, girls had vanished every few years. True, there were rumors of girls being taken from other villages from time to time, but those children hardly seemed real. Now, as the famine deepened and the people of Duva went without, it was as if whatever waited in the woods had grown greedier and more desperate, too.
Lara. Shura. All those who had gone before: Betya. Ludmilla. Raiza. Nikolena. Other names now forgotten. In those days, they were whispered like an incantation. Parents sent up prayers to their Saints, girls walked in pairs, people watched their neighbors with suspicious eyes. On the edge of the woods, the townspeople built crooked altars—careful stacks of painted icons, burnt-down prayer candles, little piles of flowers and beads.
Men grumbled about bears and wolves. They organized hunting parties, talked about burning sections of the forest. Poor simple-minded Uri Pankin was nearly stoned to death when he was found in possession of one of the missing girls’ dolls, and only his mother’s weeping and her insistence that she had found the sorry thing on the Vestopol Road saved him.
Some wondered if the girls might have just walked into the wood, lured there by their hunger. There were smells that wafted off the trees when the wind blew a certain way, impossible scents of lamb dumplings or sour cherry babka. Nadya had smelled them herself, sitting on the porch beside her mother, trying to get her to take another spoonful of broth. She would smell roasting pumpkin, walnuts, brown sugar, and find her feet carrying her down the stairs toward the waiting shadows, where the trees shuffled and sighed as if ready to part for her.
Stupid girls, you think. I would never be so foolish. But you’ve never known real hunger. The crops have been good these last years and people forget what the lean times are like. They forget the way mothers smothered infants in their cribs to stop their hungry howls, or how the trapper Leonid Gemka was found gnawing on the muscle of his slain brother’s calf when their hut was iced in for two long months.
Sitting on the porch of Baba Olya’s house, the old women peered into the forest and muttered, khitka. The word raised the hairs on Nadya’s arms, but she was no longer a child, so she laughed with her brother at such silly talk. The khitkii were spiteful forest spirits, bloodthirsty and vengeful. But in stories, they were known to hunger after newborns, not full-grown girls near old enough to marry.
‘Who can say what shapes an appetite?’ Baba Olya said with a dismissive wave of her gnarled hand. “Maybe this one is jealous. Or angry.”
“Maybe it just likes the taste of our girls,” said Anton Kozar, limping by on his one good leg and waggling his tongue obscenely. The old women squawked like geese and Baba Olya hurled a rock at him. War veteran or no, the man was disgusting.
When Nadya’s father heard the old women muttering that Duva was cursed and demanding that the priest say blessings in the town square, he simply shook his head.
“An animal,” he insisted. “A wolf mad with hunger.”
He knew every path and corner of the forest, so he and his friends took up their rifles and headed back into the woods, full of grim determination. But again they found nothing, and the old women grumbled louder. What animal left no tracks, no trail, no trace of a body?
Suspicion crept through the town. That lecherous Anton Kozar had returned from the northern front much changed, had he not? Peli Yerokin had always been a violent boy. And Bela Pankin was a most peculiar woman, living out on that farm with her strange son, Uri. A khitka could take any form. Perhaps she had not “found” that missing girl’s doll at all.
Standing at the lip of her mother’s grave, Nadya noted Anton’s seeping stump and lewd grin, Bela Pankin’s worried frown, wiry Peli Yerokin with his tangled hair and balled fists, and the sympathetic smile of the widow Karina Stoyanova, the way her lovely black eyes stayed on Nadya’s father as the coffin he’d carved with such care was lowered into the hard ground.
The khitka might take any form, but the shape it favored most was that of a beautiful woman.
Soon Karina seemed to be everywhere, bringing Nadya’s father food and gifts of kvas, whispering in his ear that someone was needed to take care of him and his children. Havel would be gone for the draft soon, off to train in Poliznaya and begin his military service, but Nadya would still need minding.
“After all,” said Karina in her warm honey voice. “You do not want her to disgrace you.”
Later that night, Nadya went to her father as he sat drinking kvas by the fire. Maxim was whittling. When he had nothing to do, he sometimes made dolls for Nadya, though she’d long since outgrown them. His sharp knife moved in restless sweeps, leaving curls of soft wood on the floor. He’d been too long at home. The summer and fall that he might have spent seeking out work had been lost to his wife’s illness, and the winter snows would soon close the roads. As his family went hungry, his wooden dolls gathered on the mantel, like a silent, useless choir. He cursed when he cut into his thumb, and only then did he notice Nadya standing nervously by his chair.READ MORE >>