It’s a bad day. My black leather furniture has been pushed against the walls, powdered with streaks and handprints of flour. She is at the centre. I hitch up my pencil skirt to clamber over the flanking sofas to the kitchen. I’m getting a glass of water. I ignore her, and the scene. The sink is full of milk, whole egg yolks floating on its surface like fat yellow planets or cartoon suns. Clumps of her black hair rise like the back-bristles of some half-engulfed cosmic beast swimming through the sticky translucent whites of planetary orbits. I hold the glass neatly away from this liquid scene and pour the water straight into it before tipping it down my throat and placing it beside the cracked egg shells on the draining board. The mother of all this mess, a flour bag, is torn open on the kitchen surface, nearly emptied. A fine film of white dust lies on everything.
I’ve seen haunted houses in horror films, hand-held cameras catching wide green eyes cataract in night-vision, but they don’t know the half of it. I climb back over the sofa to greet her. Her freshly shorn hair sticks up from her head at mad angles, loose limbs hang out of her T-shirt and shorts, all shocked white by flour, her dark eyes like rips in cream cloth. I can’t quite make out the human under her skin.
“What did I say about-?” She looks up at me with such a ridiculous grin all pity is swept from me.
“You gotta see this” she reaches up for me leaving a hand print on my work skirt, I step back but she refuses to recoil at the look I deal her.
“Where did you get my laptop? Look at this mess!”
“Mess?” She looks around as if it only just occurs to her. I hate her in those shorts and that oversized T-shirt, she looks much younger than she is, big eyes raised in all too innocent concern. She is unreal, a ghost or shadow- so how can she cause such corporeal mess?
“Go back to your room.” She leaves, her footprints cloud in white behind her. I hear a clatter in the bathroom, a sudden smash followed by apprehensive silence. I pretend I don’t hear.
I snatch my laptop from where she left it on the floor, it’s open on a muted youtube video. Two men in lab coats place grenades into jars of paint the size and shape of nail polish bottles. As the red pellets sink in, their wicks stick up like pretty candles. It seems careful enough, scientific. One man disappears while the other aims a fire torch at the neat little row of faux-candles. They catch light and fizz with shooting sparks of smoke. Then all at once, leap from their neat arrangement and one by one burst from existence. Just pop. Explode. Mess everywhere. Then plays the slow-motion – the jump looks co-ordinated, purposeful, until they land in their new scattered formation. The red is the first to go. Destruction so fast and entire. It is beautiful, firework scale of obscene destructive beauty. The burst of red spreads outwards, a reach from the centre of nothingness until suddenly it disappears out of shot, flung in and out of sudden existence. The blue is next, on its side, sparks fly from its opening, propelling it calmly forwards leaving only a streak of blue to mark its path. Then the green explodes from the bottles sides rather than centre, the effect of which is two great liquid wings rising in green from the glass, a mighty bird pulls itself apart in its attempt at escape from the glass which now studs the empty spaces being torn into its chest by its own motion of expanse. They are like ghosts, spirits, invisible to our perception, live in time-frames we can’t quite reach.
I realise I’m shaking and put the laptop down before I drop it. I clamber over the sofa and back to the kitchen for my handbag. I fumble around the loose to-do lists and receipts to find my bottle of pills. I take three dry and start to get my cleaning stuff out of the cupboards. I have no idea how I’m going to get rid of all that flour. I start sweeping first, dusting the broom end with white and cleaving the cream tile clean. I use an old sponge for the milky surfaces, watching the flour stick in thick clags. The pills kick in with the usual grogginess. I feel as if I am in slow motion, every movement requires such a huge heave of effort and the room, the mess, remains mainly unaltered by my attempts. I am so minutely aware of the space around me, it suddenly seems vast. Gravity feels different.
Then I notice a flash of black hair dart over the sofa and to the door, everything snaps back into real time, hurtling me forwards to catch her. I succeed but she wriggles, all sharp bone and my grip starts to feel like it’s melting into her, like if I didn’t pull away we would merge. I release her in disgust and she reaches the front door, panting, she grips the handle firmly and flashes me a look of pride before flinging it open. I rush out to catch her. Thinking of the neighbours, their crowded breath against the windows, shame- the both of us covered in flour, hair all a mess. What we dashed into, however, was not the neat suburban row of houses, it was nothingness, which I confuse at first with night, until I realise my feet aren’t resting on ground.
It was a nothing like I’ve never felt before, sheer uncompromising emptiness of space. I’m blind in a vacuum. I am everywhere in a vacuum. I cannot tell whether I have expanded to fill the space of nothingness, or if I still exist here. I feel like paint exploded from its glass bottle, spaces growing in my centre as I stretch across this absence. I know she is here too. I can feel her, in the in between parts of me. She feels like chasms. She feels like death, like fear, twinkling splinters of glass.
“Wh- where’s the door?” Chaos live and dead, a deadness that makes shapes, silhouettes printed in blue and red. These make me think of space, or the deep of the Ocean, both of which I’ve seen on TV and imagine to move like this, to feel both heavy and stretched thin like this. I imagine movement even though I’m almost sure all is stillness. No reply. “I wish you were dead.” It is nervous systems, aliens or jellyfish, which drift blue and red through the expanse, existing only as squiggles of remembered light.
I lose her. I cannot sense her and the terror of this shrinks me back into my body, I can feel bone and muscle again curled tight into the limit of my skin. Numb fear. I start walking, or rather floating, or maybe swimming? With my hands stretched ahead of me, I feel for walls, door, floor. Anything.
Streaks of sudden light shock through darkness as though in reaction to my aimless panic. I feel sure they are stars shooting past me with limbs of light, fast running legs and flailing arms. All rushing to the centre of the point I’m struggling towards. I shut my eyes against the power of them and feel their force reeling me into their streaking orbit, which soon releases me and again I float, but this time gently downwards towards the gravity of a different darkness – through which I think I see, for some reason, a hut sprinting like a chicken through the expanse – until the soles of my work shoes hit ground.
The floor-boards on which I am now standing are wooden and creaking, unsteady beneath me. I am in a small hut-like room, wooden floors and walls, a rusted metal fireplace to my left and beside it an armchair. Everything is swaying. Against the walls huddle chickens, their smell, breath and warmth that of a primal lair.
I look up to try and comprehend my path through space to this peculiar rocking hut. There is a hole in the ceiling where darkness pools. A fishing line hangs from this upside-down well of blackness to an armchair set beside the fire. The worn back is to me but I can see a crop of white hair and know this is where Baba Yaga sits, and I know it is Baba Yaga without question. The dried herbs hanging from the wall, the black cat curled by the fire at her feet, the fire itself has a flickering so like the skittering of stars, coal scolding its pit. Bones piled around it, a skeletal muddle of chicken and human and cat. I creep around to catch full sight of Baba Yaga plucking a chicken on her lap, she holds it with such fierce tenderness, I almost feel each tear of feather from pore.
I see my mother’s face in hers, somewhere under all the wrinkles, behind the giant hooked nose. Baba Yaga, my mother told me your stories. We slept in the same bed with a sheet hung over us, the yellow light of bare bulb would shine through the tapestry of suns and moons and stars. With my head on her chest as she played with my hair, I couldn’t help fearing the proximity of her long nails to my eyes. She told me of brave little girls proving themselves to you. You were their god and judge; pass and they would be aided on their quest, fail and become your dinner. Her chest rising and falling with the tide of words. You will help me get home Baba Yaga, you will help me go back to my house where I can carry on pretending bits of me don’t exist. Maybe she is gone forever, my little ghost, my shadow, maybe she is waiting for me, I daren’t hope. I need to regather every word my mother spoke of you Baba Yaga – She is a snake that only lives because she sheds her skin like the fine filament of egg shells. She spends whole days counting her wrinkles. Trying to map out the geography of her history. So many trenches. Someone burned all her books and this skin, this skin doesn’t speak in any language she has the patience to learn. She can smell it from this worn armchair: the pages all in flame. Or maybe that was the stars she hooked in for breakfast, still sizzling in her sagging stomach? Or maybe the sheer size of her nostrils smelt the smoke of some far off city. My mother in her care home, gurgling over her own name “Baba-uGaba” Barabara. Barbara. She’s forgotten everything, motherhood, our stories. Age does this. How old are you Baba Yaga?
“Mother Yaga.” I address her and try to curtsy but my skirt is too tight and I remember my body; crumpled suit, streaked in flour, hair loose from its bun, sweat on my shirt ridden up around my arm-pits. She surveys me. Those eyes so like a bird’s, so sharp in their precise understanding and indifference; eyes that have picked flesh from children’s bones and stars from the sky. The shadows cast by the fire in the dark nooks of that pile of bones look like shy spirits considering venturing out. Live little ghosts of lost shadows. Seemingly in reply, Baba Yaga coughs and nebulas smoke from her lips, she watches them shrivel like flies dying on the window panes. When she could coax her old knees she would stand and, cursing, open the creaking window to let the poor creatures out. Let the wind claw kisses into her wrinkles and the clouds tangle themselves in her hair. She would scream to the outside, that wrenching ancient sound split, so like a wolf’s howl, between a celebration of freedom and a fathomless grief. I’m starting to lose grasp of what is happening and what my mother told me. Now, and for some reason, only now. I begin to question where it is I really am. Did I rush out the house and get knocked out by a speeding car, did I take one too many pills, or am I wrapped up in the comfort of my own bed? Am I too in a care home bed, deluded out of my own head?
“Ghost.” She spat at my feet and I watch her spit slip through the cracks in the floorboard. I flinch away, trying to clamour for a way to make this proper. To grasp it in my hands and compress it somehow into a form I can understand.
“You’ve come for your body, little shadow.”
“For my what?”
She hisses at me from her chair, her muzzle hung loose like a cats’ over her remaining fangs. She heaves up from her armchair, her bones creaky as the house. Chickens scatter in almost headless panic as she flings the half-plucked hen at me and makes her way to a nest in the corner. I look down at the chicken and it has such expression in its amber eyes that I refuse to believe it is dead. Baba Yaga gobbles something at her chickens that seems to settle them into their fluffy imprinted dependence. How small and hunched she seems, I’m almost certain she has no shadow. She shuffles back to me with an egg.
It looks no different to me than any of the other eggs piled in the nested corners of the hut. She snatches the hen off me by its neck and places this egg in my hands, before sloping off back to her chair.
“She’s in there.” My first assumption is my mother. My real mother, not her remains gurgling in a care home. Then I realise, and know who she means- my little ghost, not exorcised just waiting.
“Did she bring me here?” Baba Yaga only tuts in response. I settle down beside her armchair and hold the egg in my palms at my lap and stare into the fire. The little black faces of shadows stare out at me from the pile of bones. “What quest am I on?” Baba Yaga makes no response, consumed in the flurry of feathers falling to her feet beside me. Her black cat yawns and uncurls itself to creep towards me, its eyes huge moons, its limbs barely tangible. I am surprised at its warmth as it rubs up against me. The cold presence of its nose on my closed fingers around the egg. It licks my fingers with rough wet warmth and I begin to cry. I don’t know why. I haven’t cried since I was a child. I guess it is the limbo of this hut. Nothing and everything feels real all at once, nothing and everything is present here. I haven’t felt this much since I killed her as a child. My imaginary friend, I buried her in my back garden under the plum tree. Since mum went downhill she’s been back to haunt me. Stubborn little ghost. I have to break the cycle. I can’t let her birth again, haunt me forever. Death is good, a mercy. A lot of things can’t survive in the present climate. My mum would love a pillow over her face, she’d told me that much. With a sudden shriek I thought beyond me I hurl the egg to the floor beside the fireplace.
The splatter is more satisfying than I thought breaking would ever be. Splinters of shell lie over the translucent splatter, and coiled in its centre is a black yolky foetus. It wriggles inside its own stickiness and squirms up to lift a splinter of shell from over it. It’s her. I know it is. The shadows slink free from their death nooks and tenderly help my own from its splatter and begin to carry it off to the fire.
“You’ll lose it.” Baba Yaga warns in a vague uninterested way from her chicken. I don’t feel the loss. But the cat jumps from my side and into the pile of bones, shadows disperse and scatter at its foot falls. It re-emerges with the sodden tiny thing in its mouth and drops it back into my lap. I want to feel pity but all that reaches me is disgust.
“You’ve got to take it to a seamstress. Grandmother Spider will stitch it back onto you.”
“What if I don’t want it?” I wilfully ignore the insinuation of yet another favourite childhood story told to me by my mother.
Baba Yaga points to the wheezing door “Go outside, if you don’t want it you’ll be back home and everything will be separated, yolkless.”
“Really?” She only sighs and dumps her fully plucked chicken into the pot at her feet.
I stare out at the fire, the curious shadows, and content fat chickens. Grandmother spider, I should have guessed it was her web, she spun space and caught the dewy stars themselves. I must have been caught in it, before Baba Yaga tried to reel me in for dinner. Well, maybe she’ll gobble this little fly larvae up for me? Baba Yaga seems to have decided I no longer exist to her, so with no other option, I journey to the door. Such howling, the huts motion seems much faster here. I cling the sticky shadow to my chest, fling open the door and stumble onto the next threshold.