BABA YAGA IN THE GERIATRICS WARD

Baba Yaga could remember no mother. Watching her chicks hatch she was gripped by a strange nostalgia, but she’d wriggled free of the memory. She knew birth, she knew mothers and the warmth of inside-closeness. See, her chiseled black eyes knew everything before they set on them. 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.

She knew the names for every star she ate and found no use for them. She was God. She believed in nothing and saw everything. Had she eaten her own children? Had she bled her own milk from them? Everything was too vast and fleeting for memory. Sometimes there were Oceans at her eyes. Sometimes she wrapped her own frail bones around herself and rocked into some forgotten memory.

She was always hungry, always demanding of her surroundings. The coal that scolded the pit of her fireplace as heavy as the absence in her chest. The fuel it took to keep on. To keep those huge chicken legs pacing her precariously balanced hut onwards. The fire teased her with flickerings of what were always almost, but never quite, faces. The wind howled almost like voices. She coughed up nebulas and watched them shrivel like flies 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.

She sings to the chickens she rears from fluffy dependence, she gobbles to them as if language can reach their amber set eyes. Their trust imprinted so deeply into their biology they can’t imagine the nights she becomes a bored old cat and releases her teeth and claws on them. That witch, she is her own black cat.

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.

—*—

You are my mother Baba Yaga, you taught me how to love. Not just the greed of trying to fit a fat piece of string through a fine needles eye. But the infinity of the thing. A human from screaming birth to crippled end; a moment from atom to atom, the great vastness of experience. You taught me it kills to try and trap it all within you. It owns you, you do not own it. The mercy of gratitude. You taught me little of mercy. You are more than my patient, Baba Yaga. My bones are still piled beside the fireplace where chicks huddle between them. I can’t remember if I too once had wings that you plucked? I can’t remember if you wrung my neck or gobbled me up. Neither of us do. It was as though your gaze had hooks in it, which reeled me into your entrapment, your immortal loneliness. I can’t remember if it matters. Still, I watch and love you, a devoted nurse for your senility.

You are everything and you are nothing. You are everywhere and nowhere. You do not know the ground where your hut now plants its worn feet. You know it used to be forest, it used to be soil. But you can smell smoke so frequently now. How many Cities? Do you wonder if your hut is not a room in hospital ward and your chickens pills that get stuck in your throat? Why does the fire sometimes spit static at you? Sometimes feathers grow from your skin that need plucking. No one knows if you have always been in this constant state of metamorphosis, if your wiry chicken legs will ever rest. You feel so very mortal and so unobatinably not.

Did you see the moon and Earth kiss? She thinks she remembers they did, once. Tell us about the tide, Baba Yaga. Tell us about the sky mapped out on the Ocean’s water. The cold distant compass we all drum towards. Eggs washed up on the shore. Blood and birth. Rhythms rising within us like tides, the echoed pulses of drums we beat against before we learnt more scientific language. Just pulse and lungs and… Can you not feel your blood Baba Yaga? Can you not hear the machines beeping out your heart-beat? No, not that. Can you not see the blue of your hungry veins?

The things you have made me believe, Baba Yaga. She can feel gravity, the same strength that holds the moon to us still. How loose the bonds everything depends upon. She snaps her white hair sometimes, just to remind herself how easy. Everything held taught on fine little strings. Tendons. How many teeth have you lost Baba Yaga? Do they regrow like a sharks? Look at those soft gums, how can they hold intentions so sharp? Granny and the wolf and the little girl with her red-hood. You were saying Babayaga. Yaga Uh Baba, gurgling over your own name. You were saying about being flung into the dark. I sometimes count the hairs in my drain and I see galaxies spiraling away down it. Have you vomited in a sink and watched it swirl and bubble like cells splitting into life, like stars catapulting themselves from nebulas into black holes? Why is everything about crawling out of and back into holes?

This is why we will never really be filled and whole. In one hole and out the other. She knows it is not that static. She knows the fatty energy ripped clean off bones and shat back out. She knows about squatting in a bush. She knows about mushrooms and maggots and starfish suckers. Everything is a mouth. Everything wants to rip you clean and rebirth you. Re-fertilized soil. Or at least she remembers there was soil. There’s that burning smell again. Sterilized. Good girl, swallow that pill, that’s it, all the way down. There is a putrid light that is licked from fingers at midnight. Groceries wrapped in plastic, and the bin bags. Stagnant. How many ribs can you count Baba Yaga? What was that about sick in the sink? Why do they dye their skin and pluck it free of strings? Feathers and gravitational pulls shed for ideals that look like: The children we aren’t mothering. Baba Yaga knows nothing of this.

Nothing of bombs, nothing of men in suits trying to thrust metal where it doesn’t belong. She knows only of the vultures that come for the scraps and the children those men were. Didn’t she once hold them suckling to her sagging breasts? She cares nothing for politics. A meal is a meal, a life is a life. She knows nothing and everything of justice.

Baba Yaga, I’m sorry. They cry at visiting hours. She can’t remember. They are all secretly resentful of her senility, of her indifferent dependency. She draws a circle with nail against palm. Over and over and over. Part of her longs for the end while the other, other just keeps drawing it out. Round and round.

“Barbara? Time for your wash. Barbara?” No reply just circles and circles.

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