I went to a small liberal arts college in North Carolina. Often I took a path that cut through the woods, a path that connected our small campus to a street of high end shops in town. In the heart of the woods there was a little bridge arching over a small brook. Beside it there was a stone cherub. When I was unhappy senior year, I often sat beside the brook to quiet my mind. Changes would be happening soon upon graduation. Life would no longer be as simple as cramming for tests or writing papers. I had to find work. And I did not know where I might find work. And I didn’t want to go home.
Over my college years, I had become distant from my parents, my father and stepmother. They didn’t often visit at school, not even when other parents came. And they didn’t always help me get home when I didn’t have a ride for holidays, except for Christmas. When I was younger there had been other problems as well though I hadn’t remembered them until I spent long quiet hours in dorm rooms, empty, echoing halls. Was I a young woman with a bad attitude? Or had I encountered neglect, even abuse? I couldn’t know. I just felt home was dark and unknowable.
Thanksgiving my senior year I walked through the woods alone. I was a Halloween baby which means I had turned 21 and since I was alone I felt I owed it to myself to buy a drink. Not even Max was here with me, my boyfriend since freshman year. He also lived in Florida and often found himself on campus over holidays. But he went to Myrtle Beach with a friend. On Friday of the break, I sat on my bridge having had a white Russian at the bar. I felt the moss on the brick, soft to the touch and under my stockinged legs. The time between the pink sky and utter darkness had become my favorite time and in these woods there was always a dove to serenade me, or an owl or whippoorwill. I wished the cherub was real, but still, I was glad for its stone presence. Something about it comforted me.
I sensed a pre-mature encroaching darkness but when I looked into the woods I noticed it was only a darkness limited to a particular shape. As it neared I could hear clinking and clattering, like a wooden windchime. I made out skirts which swished among the leaves. And a very high pitch of hair, a nimbus surrounding the face above which floated a high ruff accentuated with clattering ornaments. The woman held a long staff of a particular shape. When she neared it looked vaguely like a giant pestle. She wore circlets of bones and skulls on her neck, wrists, and waist.
“Waste of time,” she said, “waste of a girl.”
“What?” I said, hoping I didn’t hear what I thought I heard.
“Don’t waste my time. I was going to say something helpful to you. I know you’ve been loitering around here, but I resent wasting my breath.”
She walked past, her skirts dragging on the footpath. She smelled of roasted meat, dirt and damp leaves, unwashed skin, tallow, smoke. Likely one of the crazed homeless like we have in Florida.
“I remember your babcia, your sweet little Polish grandma” she said, “And you. I remember you when you were a girl and your babcia cared for you.”
I said nothing. I let the whippoorwill speak. It was getting cooler. I had a strange taste in my mouth, like something was deeply wrong. Of course there was: How could she know me? Yet somehow I felt I was also expecting someone dark to show familiarity with me, a stalker, a murderess. I felt my blood coursing.
“You don’t know me,” I said, in defiance of the bones which clattered on her frame.
“You babcia made huge batches of pierogis every summer and took care of you and your brother and sister. She taught you about plants and flowers and placing plant offerings on the alter for the ceremony for the Feast of the Assumption. Remember? You have abandoned your ways with the Virgin Mary.”
“A waste,” she said. “You will never be your babcia.”
“She’s dead, I don’t want to go home. Mother is dead too, long ago.”
“You are spoiled. I should have boiled you up in the pot when I had the chance. I should have taken you and chopped you up and eaten you.”
“The red ribbons tripled on my wrists for the Feast were my babcia’s protection against the likes of you.” I said, practically shouting now, so much louder than she was being with me. I shivered. The cream of the white Russian was not resting easy on my stomach.
“But you forget, I also eat adults. You appear to be sweet meat. I’ll bet your flesh tastes bitter.” She ran the black tips of her fingers along her tongue. “You’re a bitter, stupid girl. Who cares if your step mother abused you? Who cares if she only cares about her own birth children? Go home and pray I don’t find you or I will take away one more waste of a life and be nourished. Be glad you’re even alive. Be glad every day I allow it.”
I stepped away. I backed away not taking my eyes from her. Then I turned and ran.
When I got back into my dorm, the dark empty, echoing halls, I checked behind me before closing the door. There was no one.
I didn’t mind the rest of my holiday alone in my room. The food in my minifridge was a comfort. I made soup and tea with my kettle.
After graduation, I took a menial job shelving books at the library. It was all I could find. I lived with my father, stepmother, and stepsisters.
It was a while before I went to graduate school. Eventually, I found a job as a librarian.
I had my child baptized in the Polish Catholic church and made a beautiful offering of hawthorn, wheat, and roses at the Feast of the Assumption. I promised Mary I would not forget my faith and tied red ribbons around my child’s wrist to protect her from boginki, forest spirits who would take her away or hurt her.
At thirty I was diagnosed with bipolar depression. The faith of my childhood and reawakened faith of my young adult years became extinct with the medications. I felt I had lost some critical link to my mother and my babcia. My life was no longer as sad, scary, and uncertain. But it also was no longer as interesting. It was flat and strange, a foreign territory.
With my diagnosis, I had to assume my encounter with a cannibal witch was some delusion of my illness.
And yet, I don’t feel I would be the person I am had this thing not happened.
One week when my child was away with my husband’s family, I stayed off my medications to see how I would feel. All I felt was deeply confused. I could not accomplish a thing and I did not sense the witch of my babcia’s bedtime stories or the Virgin of her faith.
Nevertheless, I remembered Baba Yaga’s lesson to be grateful.
I returned to my medications and never strayed from them again.