The chudesnytsia blends a tea of burdock root, raspberry leaves, and honey, then rests in her rocking chair by the wood stove while she sips. Usually the bitter brew eases the pain deep in her bones but today it does little to relieve her suffering. Instead, the pungent odour rising from the steam carries her off to a murky, twilight place where she drifts between wakefulness and dreams.
She is home again in the village at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, the beloved grandmother she left behind trudging slowly up the path to a whitewashed hut, clutching the hem of a crisp white apron. It droops like a hammock with the weight of a cabbage the size of a grown man’s head. And there is her mother, long dead, retching in agony as the SS Bulgaria rocks on an angry, endless sea. She sees herself, a small and frightened child wearing a grimy dress, woollen stockings sagging at the knees, peering up from a wooden bunk in the hull of the ship. She feels the crush of women’s rough skirts against her cheek as soiled babies howl and anxious women fret over their husbands’ decisions while waiting, waiting, at the port of Halifax for papers to be looked at and documents filed.
She wakes with a start to a muffled tapping she thinks might be the barn door, unhooked and flapping in the wind, or perhaps the child upstairs, not yet asleep, bumping her feet against the wall. As she comes fully awake she realizes it is someone knocking at her door. She hoists herself up, shuffles over, and opens it to find on her stoop a young, round-shouldered woman holding the hand of a child. The boy is thin and pale, with hair the colour of acorns and haunted brown eyes she senses he is afraid to close at night. The woman’s face, too, bears the strain of sleepless nights. She takes a step forward as a lone wolf howls in the distant hills, a keening cry that startles the boy. “I was told you could help my child.” She falters over the Ukrainian words and the chudesnytsia thinks for a moment how like her own daughter this young woman is, the words so unforgiving on her tongue.
The chudesnytsia ushers them in and gestures to the table, inviting them to sit. The boy looks around the room with wary eyes, taking in the small jars of garnet-coloured jam lined up on the cupboard, the wooden print of the Last Supper hanging on the wall, the flickering candle on a small side table.
“It’s a’right. You tell to me in English. What it is wrong with this little one?”
The young woman seems relieved she does not have to struggle to explain her son’s condition and she speaks slowly, taking care with each word. “He doesn’t sleep. He can’t go a night without waking, screaming out for me. I rush in to his room and he is so scared he can’t stop shaking, yet when I ask, he says he doesn’t know what scares him.”
In hushed tones, the old woman probes, wanting to know if the boy had been ill before the nightmares began. Had anyone died? A grandparent? A beloved dog? Had he been frightened by something? The boy’s mother tells her how difficult these last months have been, lights blazing in every room throughout the night, the sheets tangled at the foot of his bed. The child has begged his mother not to leave him and cries when she does. The old woman nods, trying to make sense of it. She is familiar with such cases and has had success in the past. A cleansing read with her wax and holy water to determine the source of his buried fear together with a tincture from her wildflowers, berries, or bark should rid the child of whatever torments him.
The boy drifts to the small table with the sputtering candle and fingers a linen cloth, embellished with red and black cross-stitch, draped across a holy icon of the Virgin Mary. The boy leans in, as though for a closer look, and, with a gentle puff, blows out the candle.
“Oh,” his mother says, bringing one hand to her mouth, “I told you not to touch anything.”
“It’s a’right,” the old woman says. “We light again.” She picks up the candle and a small wicker basket from the floor next to the table and holds it out to the boy. “You help me to carry?”
In the basket are a black-rimmed white enamel cup and bowl, a packet of matches, a smooth-edged knife, a small vial of water, and a lump of amber-coloured wax. The boy carries the basket, gently, as though it holds eggs he might break, and places it on the table. From a pail next to the sink, the old woman scoops a dipper of water, hand-drawn from her well, and fills the bowl.
“I ready. We start,” she says, cupping the boy’s chin with her right hand. The sign of Jesus had appeared on the morning of her sixteenth birthday. She had awakened to find three crosses on her palm, pulsing brilliantly red, as though they had been carved there with a pocket knife during the night. Her mother took their appearance as a sign her daughter was ready to learn the incantations for cleansing and healing that she had learned from her own mother — the same rituals handed down through generations of women in her family and brought with them to Canada. The crosses are barely visible now and she wonders if her power has diminished with them, but she reminds herself the healing comes from God’s grace and the unwavering faith of those who come.
“Do you believe?” She must ask the question, but she knows the boy is too young. What does a child of six know of faith or God? He says nothing and averts his gaze so she turns to his mother, whose eyes brim with hope. “And you. Do you believe?” The young woman nods, although the look in her eyes is wary, as though she has come not because she truly believes in the power of the Holy Spirit but out of a deep and troubling desperation. The old woman shifts the boy’s chair, scraping it across the wooden floor, and arranges herself in front of him, facing east to harness the power of the rising sun as the ritual demands, although night has almost fallen. A sudden, heavy rain begins to thrum against the roof as she lights the candle and places a lump of beeswax in the enamel cup. Holding the cup over the candle, she adds a single clove of garlic and a few drops of holy water to the bowl. The scent of the melting wax brings to mind golden honey dripping from a comb and the hum of a hundred buzzing bees.
“Vo im’ia Otsa, I Syna, I Sviatoho dukha, amin.” In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Three times she makes the sign of the cross, preparing herself to receive God’s grace. A whisper of doubt troubles her mind and she steels herself against it, grasping the knife in her left hand. She picks up the bowl and holds it over the boy’s head. He glances up at her and she senses his misgivings, too, but she closes her eyes and begins the ancient Ukrainian incantation. “I take to the head, to the blood, to all the joints, to adjure, to summon this fear of fears; From the north and from the south, I summon you with God’s lips, with God’s words; And the sister-stars …”
The sacred words spill easily from her lips. The power of the Trinity is within her — she feels it pulse with each pounding beat of her heart. The knife glints in the candlelight as she thrusts it toward the heavens, slicing the air and casting out the child’s fear with the same swift strokes she uses when scraping the skin of a butchered hog.
She continues to chant in her mother tongue. “I release you beyond the mountains, beyond the seas … disappear and vanish. I release you where people do not walk, where roosters do not crow, where the wind does not blow. Be gone! May you be buried and disappear.
“Chrevonu krov ne pyi, bile kilo ne sushy, zhovtu kist ne lupai.”
Do not drink red blood, dehydrate a white body, or strip a yellow bone.
The knife clatters to the table as she reaches for the melted wax. The candle flame barely flickers as she pours the thick wax and watches it move like something alive across the surface of the water, spreading until it blooms into shapes she must read. After a few moments, the shapes reveal themselves. Flames. Little greedy tongues of fire. Easy enough to see. But what confounds her is the tendril curling up and away from the heart of the blaze, stretching up toward the ceiling, unlike anything she has ever seen. Neither smoke nor flame, but separate. A tether, she senses, connecting the child to her in some way, to an event yet to happen in the distant future.
There is a sudden loud thump from upstairs and the boy and his mother look up, startled by the sound. The girl has fallen out of bed, the chudesnytsia thinks, and is about to explain the presence of someone else in the house when she notices the boy. His brow is smooth, his eyes clear, free of anguish, as he gazes up at the ceiling, restored.