“Vedma” means witch, and there are still those who think they can control, silence, or intimidate a witch no matter how many wonders she creates.
They are fools and frightened children.
Honor the witches.
They protect us.
They teach us that the core of all magic is hope.
John Picklin, Neozon’s Official Tidier, was in the act of picking up and mentally noting each piece of dandelion fluff on the black ooze of Neozon’s lakefront, when he came upon the thing, half snared in the bubbling muck.
It seemed intimidating enough, like a red umbrella—but this was far more scary, for this thing was a new beast altogether. Picklin examined it without, of course, touching it or getting too close. It looked as if it smelt bad, and unruly pipes stuck out from a bag the size of his stomach, but obscenely flabby yet bloated, and the same plaid as his flannel shirt. He wanted to scream. Suddenly Neozon, with all its promises, might have let him down, because this thing had got in. It looked like something caught in No Man’s Land in the 1915 Front. He’d never been in the trenches, mind you, but he’d sent and read enough reports. He’d been betrayed, but by whom? or What? If something can get to Neozon, is there any escape?
He could feel Death blowing the hairs on the back of his head. But he had his civic duty. And Neozon hadn’t failed him yet.
He swooped on the thing and grabbed it up, clamping it fast between his arm and side. At that it gave out a deathly squeal that frightened him so much, he dropped it.
His nerves were so shot, he wanted to burrow into the mud. He couldn’t, so he ran home to his wife. By the time he got home to the last cabin halfway round the lake, his socks oozed black stuff and his pants were spattered with mud and sopping wet from the rampant leg-swiping ferns, unruly grasses and sodden groundcover.
His description of the thing was so predictably useless that Mab put up her left finger, jotted PAPYRUS onto a sheet of almost filled graph paper in front of her, and put her pencil down. “Just nod or shake your head,” she said. “Want me to kill it?”
“Too risky. Reprisals.”
“Good point.” She pushed her chair back, shoved a hairpin back in place, and gave her husband a slap on the back. “That’s why we live in Neozon. You’ve got nothing to fear.”
He tried to smile.
“The Certainty Principal, dear,” she said. “Once he has it, he’ll take care of it.”
“But how will he get it?”
“You’ll see,” she said, pushing him gently. They marched back together, he holding her elbow to keep her shoes from being pulled off into the foreshore. She held her cane under her other arm like some marching stick, and her bad knee crackled like popcorn.
The thing was neither on its back nor side but grotesquely between both, its pipes hideously splayed. Mab took one look and snared one of the pipe necks with her cane, then she pulled the thing up from the muck and held it out.
John Picklin’s heart soared. “You look exactly like Boadicea when she snatched the vicious Emboldened Goose from the great Pig-wallow.”
Mab wondered yet again, what she’d done in life to deserve this. She’d never leave John, but it was a cruel torture that he couldn’t recognize a bagpipe, he who had serenaded her during the war with the sound of the rampant goose. Not only had he mastered the bagpipes but he was then a top man in ciphers, almost as good as she. But for some reason, within months of becoming a civilian, he just—fell apart.
Neozon was her last resort. This place looked like it could have been a thieves’ hideout, so out-of-the-way it was, this small patch of civilization semi-cleared in the wet wilds of Oregon, its fetid artificial lake forever burping, like some 500-hundred-yard-wide cauldron of witch’s soup.
Yet the reassurances of no electric shocks and no ice treatments, and the look of capability in Dr. V’s eyes had clinched the decision for Mab.
The first few years, when he was seeing Dr. V, John had seemed to be getting better, then worse, and then he lit on that kid being some know-all. And now he ran from a bagpipe. And came running to her—to her apron strings. So in his eyes, she had been transformed from his love, to his mommy, to . . . how long before he sees me as a thing? She wished she’d never seen that ad, but since she wrote puzzles for the blasted magazine, she was bound to.
She glanced back at him, standing at her elbow, exuding trust, and she couldn’t repress a strong wish to kill somebody and put perhaps a couple of others out of their misery. If only he weren’t happy.
As they walked to the House, John pulled at Mab’s arm in his need to get rid of the thing and get back to his dandelion-fluff picking—that state of diligence, of peace.
Finally they arrived. Mab knocked twice on the door, the metal end of her cane producing a crisp, no-nonsense demand.
No-one could go to the Cert’s door without everyone noticing and wanting to know why. His pronouncements ran Neozon. He knew everything, could banish any worry or possible cause for concern. He must suffer, but that was part of what made him the Cert. He was so sensitive, it was said that he got headaches over the silent ‘p’ in words that start out with the sound of sigh. All so you wouldn’t have that pain.
He embodied Neozon, as the advertisement had promised:
“Burdened with cares? Harassed by worries? They’ll get lost on the road to Neozon, where you will live life in as it was meant to be, with Certainty taking care of you. Apply now. Only a few very exceptionals accepted.”
As they’d walked to the House—the thing flopping helplessly from Mab’s firm grip—they’d passed pretty much all of Neozon. So behind them now on the verandah, down the steps, and out—a silent aww stretched back, like the sound the tail of a comet makes in Space.
“That’ll be the door,” said the Cert’s mother.
“Which door?” said the Cert.
“Only you would know, Nikolai,” she said. “And that’s for sure,” she added, those words hidden by the sound of her interminable knitting, adding for the boy, “Would you like me to get the door?”
“You know I must,” he said. His mother didn’t turn her head, but she knew he’d already put his thick gloves on, and now the wooden floor groaned under the wheels of a tipping trolley.
A second, rather impatient knock was cut short when Nikolai opened the door.
“Good morning, young ’un,” said Mab. The comet’s tail sputtered at her familiarity. “This thing must have floated up from the lake depths,” she said, holding it out to the boy. Beyond him, she tried to catch the eye of his mother, that witch. Lake depths, my coccyx, she dearly wished she could say. And as for you, Doctor V.
“I accept your offering,” said the Cert, taking it from her.
“Wonderful that it’s not heavier,” he pronounced. “Or covered in spikes.”
“Mighty wonderful,” said Mab.
The Cert mightn’t have heard, such were his labors. “One day I won’t be strong enough,” he said as he laid it on the trolley.
“Make way,” ordered Mab.
The Cert rolled it into his House and Snap! Mab pulled the door shut.
“Whew!” said John, wiping his brow. Now he could go back to living. Already this morning he had picked 789 dandelion seeds out of the lakefront muck. And say 789 degrees centigrade times X pecks of corn divided by an evening’s flight of starlings . . . must allow for thirty-six letters and fifteen characters including root vegetables . . .
Nikolai rolled the trolley to a crowded back room, where he maneuvered it with difficulty but after moving some stuff around—a necklace of dolls’ heads, a chair with its seat cut out, a sack of wigs, a glued-together clump of sharpened pencils, a hairy coconut sporting three glass eyes, a stepladder with a few steps missing—he found a spot where he unloaded the trolley.
“Cream of Wheat?” called his mother.
“Just a bit.”
Five minutes later she called him to the kitchen table where his bowl of hot cereal (Add Cream of Wheat and one tablespoon of powdered milk to water. boil. serve.) sat ready for his spoon. He would talk after he ate, so she settled herself in the other kitchen chair.
Getting doors always made him hungry, but it was hard to tell if he actually enjoyed that bowl of tasteless glue. How, anyway, can a person enjoy eating the same thing every meal? Vida had once wondered about this triviality. With his anemia and brittle bones , this truly was a triviality. She was happy to have been able to sneak in the powdered milk. His only other food was apples when the moon was full. He couldn’t hide his spotty hearing, but she still couldn’t tell how much he could really see. He had a sixth sense about her tests.
He’d barely swallowed the last spoonful when he said, “The Lion of Slanosy.”
His mother poised her needles. “This one has a name?”
He pursed his lips in a manner she had tried to teach him to keep to the two of them. His superiority could be so irritating that sometimes she found herself reacting to him with fantasies of him as some king under a guillotine. One day that reaction might catch on.
“I thought you knew history,” he said.
“Why don’t you fill me in?”
He needed no encouragement. As he told her of the life history and features of this singular and history-making door, she thought again of her Bible. Picking up her copy, she turned to a passage that always gave her a certain solace.
“It is helpful when thinking about insanity to remember that it is separated from sanity, not by an imaginary line but by a comparatively broad belt of borderland. This belt is comparable to twilight, which divides day from night. At the center of the belt it is difficult to say whether one is in the field of sanity or insanity. Imperceptibly at first there is a shading out towards the border in both directions, one passing into more pronounced evidences of insanity, and the other into clearer signs of sanity.”
Many another woman would view Nikolai as her wage of sin. Ten years ago Nikolai was formed, to the great surprise of her previously undisturbed womb.
She’d set off for adventure on the other side of the world, getting caught up in history itself in Moscow in 1914, when she became a Sister of the Red Cross. Within months her Red Cross Detachment was swept up by the wont of war, and landed at the Russian Front—and from then on for the next few years, she was picked up and jerked around like a piece of fluff, landing in field after field, only to be snatched up and dropped again by the mad crosswinds. She slept on pine needles, in roofless bivouacs, elegant looted dachas. Ate what and when war let her.
And yet she felt so alive, so in her element. On an autumn night in the village of Yurzhiski, while resting in an abandoned orchard blanketed with yellow leaves, it occurred to her that where she grew up back in Kansas, they’d be all het up now about their broom corn harvest, their ticket to prosperity and ‘getting somewhere’. They’d even had a festival to it, with the obligatory queen, and an ugly-witch contest.
The stark simplicity of her uniform—plain grey dress, belted white apron, and long white head-veil of the Red Cross nursing sister—all set off the clean lushness of her figure, the clarity of her long grey eyes.
She also had a long black leather coat. In the tents and makeshift field hospitals she worked in you could see your breath, so she’d have to walk in all wrapped up. She’d take off the heavy coat, then shed her thick sheepskin waistcoat. No wonder the name for the waistcoat was dushegreychka—‘soul warmer.’ It warmed the soul to see her in it, as plump as a hairy peach. But when she shed it, you’d want to eat her right up. She was medicine itself to the dying.
From 1914 to 1917 she moved many times, yet felt like the air in the eye of the storm—an unmoving constant as everything is flung apart. She learned more about men than a prostitute. And they weren’t only Russians. Restless men, passionate men, men with nothing to lose, and everything —they came as they always do—from the most surprising places, so it was lucky languages came easy to her. She heard curses caused by anguish, in many tongues. She learned to crack rude jokes. To down a herring head first and down vodka in a gulp—her red cheeks chapped with the cold, streaming with tears of laughter and sobs—the Russian salad inseparable mix of joy and tragedy in being alive. Her fellow Russian Sisters and Russian patients made fun of her accent even as they praised the Sestritsa’s Russian soul.
The men in her care who tried not to make a sound were the most painful to her. One died having cut through his bottom lip in agony rather than let her think she hadn’t done any good. Of drugs, she had such short supply that she found out things the Red Cross wouldn’t have approved of. In Nosov, she traded her food ration for a lump of hashish the size of a walnut. She mashed it up with kasha into tiny balls that she would put on a soldier’s tongue.
For a dying man whose pain-induced hallucinations were so extreme, his screams made the other patients scream, she offered a small cigar she made—a few pinches of strong Turkish shred, wrapped in dried datura leaves. She was told it would give him a delirium that would end in death, but one of supreme auto-erotic thrill. She almost envied him as he lay on his cot, drawing in the medicinal smoke. He took three puffs and dropped it. His eyes rolled back, his Adam’s apple vibrated in a long shuddering gasp, and his back arched in the ultimate paroxysm. It was all so violent, so full of a mixed release of fluids, that she debated with herself afterwards: was his final orgasm of unbearable pain, or pleasure? She hoped the latter, but never took the chance again.
Many soldiers fell in love with her, not just superficially admiring her eyes and figure, but loving her with the fervor of any captive who is helpless but treated with care. Many of these men—if they lived, suffered no more bad luck and the war ever ended—would have a future with a whole face, enough limbs to get by, and the personality and standing of war heroes.
But she had morals and didn’t want to take advantage of them, she thought at the time. It was too shameful to think of her true reason why. She couldn’t have lived through the embarrassment, shame, revulsion and fear, sight of their eyes, at her. She smiled sweetly at them all, her eyes showing compassion and regret. That only drove them madder with desire—but she was obdurate.
Love threatened to capture her, but she knew how that would end. It pained her to reply sweetly but firmly to the vows of love, the letters, the proposals. She accepted a flower that had somehow lived through devastation, but she wouldn’t take anything that could be traded for bread or life itself. The only thing she couldn’t refuse were those sacred requests at death—the final loving, lonely declaration, a picture of a loved one, that sort of thing.
Such as in one hellish camp beset with the prolific flies of muddy spring—when five men in her care died in a sort of epidemic over the course of two days—all of dysentery. That was too normal to be considered an epidemic.
What caught was that each left her his all. From the first man, a book of Pushkin’s poems. From the second, a fine gold watch whose crown was clotted with blood and hair. The third man gave her a promise of eternal devotion if he was blessed enough to meet her in heaven. The pig-faced peasant corporal was painfully shy as he handed her a wooden ladle he’d carved. The handle was her, standing, looking down. He’d even managed to capture her sweet smile of respect and yet, denial.
As she was toweling the brow of the fifth man, a handsome captain, he broke into a sudden low and jagged torrent of French. When she’d first arrived in Moscow and joined the Red Cross, some Russians of his class had been friendly to her because, she supposed, she amused them as a curiosity. Russian was only the language of their wet nurses and their nursery years, but as soon as they began proper schooling, the language of the peasants was regarded in the same category as eating your snot. His parents only spoke to him in French. His mind was now creeping back to home, so she turned to give him the dignity of privacy. He reached out and pulled her toward him so violently, she fell against him on the cot. “Vous êtes mon ange dans la mort,” he rasped. ”Je vous donne mon cœur, mon tout. Mon tout.” Then he died like the others, in as disgraceful a manner as God has ever invented.
But as Sofiya Stepanovna, her first nursing teacher warned her, “Murderer and saint smell the same when dead.” And it was also Sestritsa Sofiya who told her, “Only the mad ask a butterfly its name.”
In her healthy imagination many of her patients had experiences they wouldn’t think women could dream of. Her fingers would play with the thick, springy, gloriously glossy curls of her bush. Thinking of this man or that, everything would disappear but making love. She’d lick her fingers and they’d taste like wild strawberries and pepper. And she’d drive them in again, and then her forefinger and pinkie would touch those things. And the world would rush in. Reality cold as a witch’s teats.
Sometimes her self-disgust added to her flush as she clamped her hand between her legs and felt the things sticking out—two big moles, one on each side of her lips. Each as big as an old hag’s nipple.
As a child, she hadn’t known she was different. But one day when Vida was thirteen, and against anyone’s knowledge, going through the trash left in one of the many abandoned buildings in that failed-promise-of-a-town that was ‘home,’ El Dorado, Kansas, she found an old storybook that had lost its cover but not its pages. There were many pictures, all old-fashioned engravings, strange and frightening.
She couldn’t stop looking, and then she read, in “The Beautiful Girl Who Wasn’t”—
“Her smile was sweet as honey, but they caught her nonetheless. And when they undressed her, they felt her all over and she had two extra nipples hidden, sticking out ready for the evil ones to suck.”
Allies, enemies, causes, men and women—combatants, civilians—soldiers—men in her care. Who didn’t and did break into bread shops and take every loaf there? Kill people who have nothing because they have nothing to steal? Burn green fields, sweep through creating wakes such as maddened abandoned cows and suckling babies welded to their mothers by fire. What were they fighting for? Who wasn’t the enemy?
Nothing made sense, but had anything made sense in El Dorado, where to enjoy life was a sin, to make something beautiful for no purpose was the devil’s work?
She loved the look of Russia. Even the meanest wooden hut had its finely cut decorations—its gingerbread. Often the house would be unpainted but that only made it look more fairytale. Thick brown slabs, lacy white icing dripping from the eaves, tiny windows like soulful deepset eyes fringed so usefully, yet with such enticement. She saw so many gingerbread houses in her travels—so often hollow-eyed with grief—burnt out as a real gingerbread house clapped into an oven.
By the time the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed, and considered a defeat, Russia was so roiling that Vida herself, needed to be looked after. She—that foreigner who had to be a spy—had to be sheltered, transported in secret, smuggled through. Alliances changed so fast. She had to be afraid—of former prisoners, of former concentration camp victims, of gangs singing songs glorifying the People. She had to be afraid of everyone, and yet she couldn’t survive without trusting.
Traveling under cover and living on charity and the bravery of others, she finally reached Vladivostok where she was sheltered in a coal cellar until something might happen. The cellar felt more unsafe than fleeing in the open. General Semenov had collected a motley army—seasoned Cossacks, Mongols, and ex-officers of the Tsarist Imperial Army. All were marching toward Vladivostok to seize it from the Bolsheviki to make the city the center of command over all of Eastern Siberia. In the cellar, the Bolsheviki could be heard drinking themselves, dancing themselves, ready. They shot volleys like they were ringing wedding bells.
In the overcrowded shelter of the coal cellar, this former Red Cross Sister could only cower while the streets of the city teemed with people from around the globe. Putting her head to the air slit, she could recognize twelve different languages. No walking amongst them as the angel in grey. No tending wounded soldiers. She was ashamed of herself for her fear, but all she could think of was how her adventure and her altruism—as she had thought when she was only three years younger but still a child—would end in being gang-raped and slit up the belly as soldiers do in the joyous release of finding themselves still living after all-out war.
Any day now. . . could be tonight. She looked like a sack of coal, huddled on the floor, hugging her knees. Listless as a starved beast. She had stopped hoping.
That night the cellar was pitch black with no light coming through the slit. The city was eerily quiet. Vida could smell the communal bucket, the unwashed bodies, and thought back to when that would have made her gag. Now she was seasoned. So much for experience. If she could have slit her wrists now, to not have to meet tomorrow and its inevitable end, oh, she would have. But she’d bitten her nails to the quick. Someone was crying softly. One American woman started singing “Jesus loves me,” but someone must’ve poked her quiet.
Vida pulled her knees up and laid her head on them. She felt something touch her neck and flicked it off in revulsion. Rats!
“Shh,” someone said into her ear, and she felt her neck being touched again, and lightly stroked. The fingers were skilled, sensitive and caring, needing yet giving.
She leaned back into them. It progressed slowly, and her own hand was shoved away and placed at her side. At first she couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman, but it was wonderful. She wasn’t unfolded as such, but she opened up. It was a man. She leaned back into him, moved herself up onto him. Then they hardly moved as they, yes, made love.
They made no noise, but in this close space with its stench of filth and fear, their smell of love seeped out, and suddenly from the side, a timid hand crept into her bodice. A soft woman’s hand. It hesitated, so she stroked it through the cloth. It stroked her breasts and she heard a little sigh. She fell asleep ready for tomorrow
The town woke with the same ugly shouts and brags as usual. The cellar gradually lightened to the color of filth, and the trapdoor opened. Word flashed through in whispers.
American transport was speeding north from the Philippines under order from President Wilson, to pick up refugees like her and take them to San Francisco. “So we are not forgotten!”
The spirit in the cellar changed to one of hope—and with that, the piggishness that some have when they expect they’ll be valued at their worth again.
People who knew each other before chatted irrepressibly, but in hushed tones, while those who came alone were as alone as ever. No-one said a word to Vida or glanced her way. There weren’t many men in the cellar, but of the ones that were, she reckoned, None of them are soldiers, that’s for sure. For them to get sheltered here, they all must be important somebodies. Of course he couldn’t approach me now. We both snatched love from death. He would be ashamed of the squalor, of taking advantage of me. And she? Vida had refused many occasions with other Sisters, because of her witch’s teats.
But I forgot all about it. He felt them, didn’t he? She couldn’t remember. But he must have, and he didn’t pull away. Her two moles that had poisoned her life must not only have been touched, but touched with love. In all her self-love / hate-making, she had never imagined a setting as disgusting as the one in which it had actually happened. In the stinking sewer of that cellar, an act of love had occurred that remade her—from a witch, into a woman.
Hours later, they all boarded the escape vessel. She had to climb a rope to come aboard, and a sailor took her hand as if she were a princess, though she hadn’t been able to bathe in a month and was wearing a jumble of Chinese and Russian rags.
At that touch, like the prince kissing Snow White, he ended her war.
She supposed that she and her fellow refugees were inconvenient cargo, and should stay where they’d been stowed below, but she couldn’t stand it, couldn’t bear her filth. As soon as the ship was on its way she climbed on deck. The galley door was open and there was a sailor sitting on an upended bucket, peeling potatoes.
“Excuse me,” she said. “Do you think you could spare a rag and a basin of water? And is there a private corner somewhere, where I could wash myself?”
He was only a boy really, couldn’t have been much older than eighteen, but his eyes couldn’t help caressing her. She couldn’t help smiling which only made him blush a deeper shade of purple. “Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Please wait right here.”
Moments later he came back with a grizzled old man, an officer, behind. The officer looked her over, too, and consulted a clipboard. “You must be . . .” his pencil hovered.
She had only told him her first name when he stopped her with “I thought so. The brave nurse.”
“I was a nurse.” She wrinkled her nose. “Though you’d never guess.”
“Good thing you didn’t treat your soldiers like that,” he said. “Follow me.” He mumbled some orders to the boy and led off as briskly as his bowlegs could, to his own small cabin. He showed her how his shower worked, and handed her a neat pile—everything to get her clean and brushed, and a folded set of clothes with his apologies that they were only pants and such, and he hoped they’d fit.
She was flabbergasted. There were important people the ship had picked up, and who was she? A filthy nobody. “Thank you for treating me like a princess.”
“Like hell I am,” he barked. “And I know you’ve heard worse words. Princesses! If I’m ever half-dead in some battlefield tent, I can just imagine how I’ll scream for a princess.”
That night she could hardly sleep. She kept reliving, hoping. Is he close? Will he come? He didn’t but she understood why. She would keep his secret. If only he knew she understood, that she forgave him, that in that place of death, he had given her something precious. They had truly made love. For the woman, Vida felt a peculiar tenderness. Something made her think the woman was a widow.
The next day, many of the passengers came up top and walked the deck. Vida couldn’t help but look at every man. None of them approached her. That was alright with her. She smiled at some. If it was, he would know she was saying, Don’t worry. I will keep your secret.
That night, she stood out on deck way past when others had gone to bed. She was looking at the vast night but feeling, feeling, when a hand lightly gripped her shoulder.
A shiver ran down her back as she felt his lips breathe into her ear. She leaned back into his arms.
“Vedma!” he whispered. And in American, “You whore.”
She wrenched herself away, but he grabbed her by her hair. There was no one in sight and the sounds of the ship at sea would have drowned her scream.
He pulled her away from the rail, her hair wrapped in his hand but he managed to make it look like they were lovers. He led them to some closet with pipes, where he pushed her in before him and pulled the door to. She couldn’t see his face. It couldn’t have been him.
“What do you want?” she demanded, trying to get the upper hand. She had learned in nursing that the best way to gain control is to pretend you already have it.
“I want the deeds. And the keys. You must have bewitched him.” He felt her all around her waist, slid his fingers into her pocket.
“Don’t touch me!” She tried to slap him but he snatched her wrist and squeezed.
“Look, sestritsa,” he said, and he made it sound obscene. “I don’t beat up women. But you’re a whore and a witch, and I’ll beat it out of you. It should be mine.”
“Please,” she said calmly. “Tell me what your problem is.”
“Don’t pretend you don’t know!” He took his grip off her, she heard a click, and suddenly his face was lit from below by his flashlight.
His face was handsome enough, but with those regular features, he could have been a million men. “We’ve all gone through bad times,” she said. “But you’ve mixed me up with someone you’ve met.”
“I’m his brother! He must have told you. But that must be why you have tried so hard to slip past me. Do you know how hard it was to find you?” He was so angry, she heard him crack his knuckles. He kicked back at a pipe, which thudded uselessly.
“Sir, you don’t know me.” It took all her power to regulate her voice as she would to a patient whose pain was turning to violent delirium.
“I’ll get it out of you,” he yelled, “if I have to choke it out of you!”
He dropped the flashlight, grabbed her neck in both hands, and the door fell open.
“Ma’am,” someone said—the young potato-peeler. “Let’s get you to a cup of cocoa.”
He wasn’t alone. She heard what must have been two other sailors pull the man out and have a brief discussion with him. It didn’t last long because he didn’t know but one word of English. “Whore!”
The two sailors who held him were middle-aged seamen. After he said “Whore!” yet again and spat her way, one of them said, “He’s spud peelins, ain’t he?” She heard the muffled clonk of a rubberized flashlight being used as a cosh.
“Have a good evening, miss,” the other one said. “Don’t you worry. We’re not landing with this garbage.”
As the young sailor led her to the galley, she thought she heard a splash. The rest of the trip, she kept to herself. She couldn’t help feeling that the spell had broken. That she really was a witch . . . the skilled and conniving, evil at heart witch that was really hideous but could hide her true self behind the guise of a woman to fall in love with. I’m a vedma, a witch to terrorize children and make men recoil.
During the last night at sea, she had sunk to deciding she should give herself the old spud peelings treatment—throw herself overboard. But she didn’t have the courage.
San Francisco loomed ahead, waking from dawn like Sleeping Beauty, so full of promise.
She had been excited to start a new life, but that was all before. Now she felt both timid and unable to fit in a world filled with civilians, with peace. She knew no-one in San Francisco, and in her sailor’s uniform, looked quite the freak. She had no money, and that Shining Future she had once expected would be hers, stretched out as a terrifying chasm.
So on landing, she walked straight to the San Francisco branch of the Red Cross. A silly idea, she knew. There must be a million ex-war nurses. But maybe they would find her a job cleaning bedpans. Something she deserved.
They thought her sailor’s pants unbecoming of a Red Cross Nurse. And as the well-dressed young woman pointedly observed, there were no field hospitals within a coot’s call of Fisherman’s Wharf. She asked for Vida’s details with the pained look of a salesgirl to a customer with no dough. Vida spelled out her name patiently, twice, though it isn’t hard to spell VIDA SMITH.
The comfortable young woman’s assumption of superiority was just what Vida needed. “I’ve never been you,” she said. “But I or me. Take your pick.”
Miss Superior left her abruptly and rushed over to a matron who, with that powerful curved nose and the pince-nez lifted to peer at Vida, looked like a powerful but myopic eagle.
She reached into her drawer and pulled out a letter. “Come, child,” she said, patting an upholstered chair.
“It was fortuitous that you happened to come to this office,” she said. “It hasn’t been easy keeping up with you, and we have for you, as you know,” she frowned, “no home address.”
She handed Vida the letter. It had so many forwarding instructions on it that she couldn’t see where it originally came from.
“Well?” said eagle-nose. “Don’t just sit there.”
“Yes. No, ma’am.” Vida stood. They didn’t think enough of her to give her a bedpan-cleaning job. She shoved the letter in her pocket thinking how impossible it would probably be to answer, for most likely it was from Annushka, one of the Russian Sisters who had promised to write to her. But where was she now? Vida feared for them all.
“Thank you,” she said, wondering and discounting in a moment, whether there would be anyone in this office who might help her find some work. She turned to leave.
“You can’t go,” ordered eagle-nose. It seemed the whole office was dying to know if she would ever pitch up, what she looked like, and what was in this letter that had gone from place to place like some honored tattered vagabond.
She was made to sit, and someone made her a cup of tea. Eagle-nose passed her a letter-opener and they all watched her slit open the envelope, pull out the contents. Amazingly, the stiff integrity of the Red Cross had precluded anyone from steaming it.
The letter was pages long and in a mix of languages: the stilted universal language of lawyereze; and an elegantly informal, fatherly French. The gist: the letter-writer, some lawyer in Paris, had always handled the affairs of some guy with one of those interminable Russian names but it included Nikolai (which suddenly struck her as funny. What Russian name doesn’t include Nikolai? She couldn’t help smiling to herself.) who it seems (a convoluted sentence later) had left everything to her. And although the lawyer had the gravest fears for the restoration of the family estate near Brest Litovsk and the dacha near St. Petersburg, he awaited her instructions about the apartment in Paris and the chateau in the Loire valley. As for the box in the Wells Fargo Bank of San Francisco, he trusted that this letter would be sufficient for her to gain immediate access. Furthermore, as he had represented the family’s interests for many years, he hoped to be of the utmost service to her who he had heard so much of from Count interminable name, and who he thought fondly of (though that happy day had been cut short) as the Countess. With many kind regards, etc.
The old bird was fanning herself.
The snooty young woman was regarding Vida with finely honed hate.
Vida’s better half wanted her to get up and leave without saying anything, but that half didn’t win. She folded the pages and put them back in the envelope.
“Paris. A chateau. Oh, could you please tell me where I can find the Wells Fargo Bank?”
The young woman clapped her hands. “I guessed right. She’s a rich widow. While I’m stuck here.”
“Eleanor! I raised you better than that. Do you see a wedding ring?”
“No, Mother. But look at her clothes. She lost everything, can’t you see that? She’s lucky to be alive.”
“Eleanor Victoria Besster! Take a look at that girl and tell me what you see. I see a pretty young thing who didn’t nurse our boys, but preferred to flip around foreign places, and when she wanted to come home, hitched a ride on one of our ships.”
“So? So what if she didn’t serve our boys? It was a world war, Mother.”
Vida was warming to the daughter.
The mother’s face mottled and her chins wobbled with some emotion. “I didn’t say she didn’t serve our boys, Eleanor. Just look at her. She’s wearing their clothes. I’m sure she served them too.”
Tears sprang from Vida’s eyes. “You—”
“No, you!” screeched eagle-nose. “You’ve disgraced the sacred mission of the Red Cross. Your type gives nurses a bad name. But your days of masquerading are over. You’re finished. I have contacts. You will never again disgrace the Red Cross, nor the nursing profession. I’ll see to it that you—”
However that sentence ended, Vida Smith didn’t know or care. She had slammed the door behind her.
The Wells Fargo Bank was easy to find. A temple to wealth. She was passed up the chain of command to the manager himself, who had learned as a teller: Never take looks at face value. Within five minutes, he had the contents of the letter confirmed by the one member of staff who could read that convoluted French—an old man polishing the brass.
The manager himself led Vida down to the bank box, where he left her alone to open it, but told her he’d be waiting up top.
The little room soon rang with her laughter. The box could have been an amateur theater prop. She dropped her head to the little table, and poured strings of pearls over it. The box was packed full with necklaces, bracelets, rings and things and trinkets such as an exquisite little egg. Everything sparkled: gold, diamonds, rubies, pearls.
The manager had never met the Count, but he was eager to help the new box owner. Vida had brought up one piece, a string of pearls with a clasp carbuncled with a carved emerald.
Within an hour, the bank manager had been instrumental in Vida selling the necklace to the finest jeweler in town, a man salivating for her other treasures, so, with the manager looking on, he paid an unusually fair price (a small fortune. Luxury goods of the highest quality such as the necklace clearly was, were so in demand in these uncertain times.)
The bank manager also set up a new account for Vida, putting part of the money in. The question of a name for the account came up. And she didn’t really want to take the Count’s name. It was impossible to remember. Her old name ‘Vida Smith’ was ridiculous—so foreign now. They’d all called her Sestritsa. ‘Vida Sestritsa,’ she said. The bank manager didn’t care. She could call herself ‘Cleopatra Carrot’. It was money in the bank. But he did have to ask one thing because it had slipped her mind. “Miss or Missus?”
She looked at him blankly. “Miss?”
“Missus might be preferable.” So Missus it was. At his suggestion she slipped downstairs back to the box, and found a relatively simple ring that fit.
Once that was settled, it was noon. It was clear to him that this young woman, just hours off that boat, was now feeling quite overwhelmed and exhausted. She needed to be installed someplace comfortable and safe. And she needed taking care of. Furthermore, under that sailor’s sweater and the floppy pants, he could tell that she had a figure quite like that of his own little piece of delight. Furthermore, she was an unusually straight-forward, natural young woman he felt he could talk to. “Mrs. Sestritsa,” he said. “You’ve had enough worries. If you would consent, it would be my pleasure to arrange your stay in one of our finest hotels—where you can have lunch in your suite at the moment, and by three o’clock, you’ll have delivered to your door, everything you would wish in the manner of clothing and toiletries. It would of course, come from your funds, but I assure you—”
“Thank you.” she smiled. “Do it.” The biggest luxury to her was having someone else make the decisions. She was certain he’d make good ones.
He walked her to the hotel where he indeed arranged everything with the hotel manager, who was as soothing and problem-solving as he. All Vida had to do was sign the guestbook. As he turned to leave, she put out her hand. He didn’t know whether to shake it or kiss it, so he took it awkwardly in both of his. “Life is such an adventure,” she said, “when you let it do things to you.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
She spent the next week eating well, sleeping, and trying, but not really succeeding, to think. The bank manager, Howard something-or-other (she never could remember names) was so useful that she left everything to him regarding her funds. Between him and the other fatherly man, that lawyer in Paris, she learned how damn rich she was—so rich that she could have started worrying about it, but for them. As the bank manager said, her wealth wasn’t going anywhere, and this was the time to not think at all, but just live until she got bored or was ready to start the next stage of her life.
So she spent that first week walking lazily around the streets. She knew she looked good. The manager had chosen plain lines, grey and white and touches of red. All highest quality, and no frills. On about the twelfth day during a fine lunch, she was just wondering whether to go to Paris, when saliva rushed into her mouth, and she barely made it to the lady’s room.
For two days, she was sick as a dog, not wanting to come out of her room, The hotel chef sent up the most delicate of temptations, but very thought of food was enough to bring on nausea. On the third day the hotel manager knocked with a doctor in tow.
The widow, poor woman, was pregnant.
She could feel the hotel manager’s disapproval, for didn’t the bank manager say her husband had died a year or so ago?
The bank manager didn’t give a fig about anything other than her health, physical and mental. He suggested a change of air. Los Angeles? A small apartment with a woman who’d take care of everything.
Los Angeles it was. The woman was so soothing, so efficient, it was as if she wasn’t there, but it was good she was. Vida could nurse a man with a crushed leg, knew just what to do with gangrene, but had no knowledge of pregnancy. Vida didn’t talk to her, but was sure that the woman banished her nausea. As Vida’s belly grew, the only things that bothered her at all were those two moles. Her swelling belly, swollen thighs, had trapped them, rubbed them, till they changed their soft texture to that of two huge warts.
They would have revolted her in her old life, but they would go back to their normal soft state, she was sure. And he hadn’t run from them. Not at all.
With nothing to worry about and no calls upon her time, Vida spent most of her time drifting in and out of daydreams, or reminiscences. Other than those warts and her somewhat itchy vulva, and her sore back, she felt wonderful—and almost constantly ready to orgasm. She relived those moments with him, time and again.
One afternoon, the woman told her, “No, ma’am, you ain’t having a bout of indigestion. Your baby’s decided to run the show.” The woman held her hand in the taxi and only asked her one question. “What you want me to tell them its name is?”
She hadn’t really thought about it. She didn’t know his name. “Nikolai.” she said. As good a name as any.
The baby shouldn’t have come this early, so it was in a chaotic public hospital that, fifteen hours of labor later, Nikolai emerged, and was immediately rushed away. Vida was exhausted but couldn’t help but notice the tone of the whispered consultation between the doctor and two nurses. Something was very wrong.
It couldn’t be that they were worried about her. She felt ravaged. Not only the brutality of it all, but they’d shaved her, and the razor caught, and caught.
The baby had been taken away with not a scrap of regard to her. Frankly, that was fine with her. Although he had been conceived in the act of love, Vida thought of him as its keepsake.
Eventually the doctor came to the foot of the bed, a nurse at his side
He held a clipboard and looked at it rather than her. “Mrs. Sestritsa, you say you are a widow? Where is your husband?”
“Dead, of course,” she snapped. “What are you getting at?”
“Your baby, Mrs. Sestritsa, poor little mite, has contracted syphilis from you.”
“Your husband must have given it to you,” said the nurse as if that was the last thing she was really thinking.
Six months later Vida Sestritsa was the new owner of a secluded, beautiful but total failure of a resort in western Oregon. Some dreamer had built an artificial lake and ringed it with cabins, a commons building, and a big fine house for himself, thinking that people would pay to fish.
Everything was in perfect condition. The only modification she made was to the big house. She had some old Russian guy fit it out with lots of pretty gingerbread.
Then she advertised, a small notice in two issues of Scientific American. She didn’t agonize over the name of the place. Neozon popped into her head, and it must have been alright. Many suitable people applied. Perhaps her own particulars gave them cause for confidence. Dr. V. Sestritsa, with degrees from Russia and France.
She interviewed all the applicants herself and made all the decisions as to whom she would accept. If she could take away their cares, well and good. If not and someone became a problem, the lake was there and she could give them the old spud-peel jettison, or as a nurse, employ an infinite variety of ends.
She chose people who were broken and whose fears interested her—John Picklin, for instance, who was so highly strung and intelligent that it was a joy thinking of how to help him. His wife was a bit of a nuisance, but that could be managed, too.
The first few years, she almost found happiness. Her charges were completely in her charge. They never left the place. It was to be their home for life. She was the only one who came and went. But this was what they’d sought. Their meals all catered for, their jobs rostered for them. Nothing too difficult, everything decided. Nothing changing.
They relied on, looked forward to, depended on the sessions with her alone where they dumped their cares on her.
Nikolai lived there too, of course, and as soon as he could walk, wandered as he wished. He never wanted anyone telling him what to do. Wouldn’t take direction, but loved to direct.
He had a singular mind. It was hard not to laugh at his nightmares, but Vida knew he was a genius—and that brainpower didn’t come from her. At two, he could think through problems that many an adult could barely grasp. She didn’t love him, but respected him. At three, he got his first ‘door’, dragging in a dead mouse and pronouncing it “the door to the lake’s front”. Then he started making pronouncements. Two years ago, he was anointed, by popular demand, the Certainty Principal.
And suddenly, the people Dr. V. Sestritsa had chosen no longer looked to her. She was just his mother—and her son had done what she never could, even if she’d meant to. Now she honestly couldn’t have told you what she had meant for Neozon. But under Nikolai, they were genuinely happy. Neozon was exactly, to the Neozonans, what her ad in Scientific American had promised.
So she took up knitting, and on dark nights, planted things—things like the bagpipe, that symbol of romance Mab had mentioned as maybe able to bring her John back to life. Things like the necklace of dolls’ heads . . . a bedpan as holed as a colander . . . the hairy coconut with its eyes poked out and artificial eyes inserted. Beribboned packets of letters. Sinister umbrellas. The odd book. Brooms, of course. A gallon jar of whole gold-skinned peaches and whole green-skinned cucumbers, its syrupped vinegar almost too cloudy to see the growing ‘mother’, that tough, slimy amorphous growth that lives on vinegar, enveloping the contents . . .
Nikolai had found or been given so many of the things she had planted—every one of which he saw as a door.
He’d now gone to bed, so Vida went down the hall to the room Nikolai called his ‘door-room’, the one with all that stuff, and more, more, so much more. She opened the door and turned the light on the jungle.
Seeing the bag of red-haired wigs, she looked around, reached but couldn’t find the first thing she’d planted. A false beard she’d made herself—thick and full, shiny black curls. Had it had any effect?
She picked up the bagpipe, looking for inspiration. Slit it up the belly and stuff it with cold Cream of Wheat? No.
But that inspired her to arrange a much more special present—one for all Neozonans.
She dropped the bagpipe, which let out a surprisingly long whimper, like a cat dying in a room in which it thinks somebody cares.
She kicked it aside so she could reach over it, but she overbalanced and would have fallen on a roll of barbed wire if her hands hadn’t stopped her by clamping themselves against the wall. Now she had to gingerly walk them down for she couldn’t push herself off.
“Just where I want you, sister,” said a muffled voice. “Hold it there.”
She tried to turn to look, but felt the end of a pipe shoved into the small of her back.
“Move and I’ll fermitigate yuh.”
“We’ll play cops and robbers tomorrow, if you’d like, Mr. Mitchell.” She laughed indulgently. “But you know it’s past your bedtime, you naughty boy.” Her calves were burning from the unaccustomed strain. “Now be a model copper and help me—”
“I’ll help you, all right.”
A stick flicked around her and caught the barbed wire, flinging it away. Then it hupped against her backside as if she were a mule.
“Sit,” ordered the intruder.
She fell in an undignified heap, facing the wall.
“Hands up, and turn slowly.”
Trembling with rage and fear, she scooted around, her skirt twisting about her legs till it held them bound. It was caught on something—a floorboard nail standing proud? She dropped one hand and pulled fast, ripping it free.
“Up, I told you. Don’t think I won’t use this.”
The voice was still muffled behind a red bandana, but a gloved hand waggled the pipe at her face.
A short thick pipe, attached to a handle and barrel, held with alarmingly casual panache in the right hand, the left hand being occupied with the stick the outlaw was leaning on.
“Whoever you are!” spat Mab, pulling down the kerchief.
Vida’s face burned. She’d faced desertion and had just been planning how to overcome it. But open revolt? Never.
She had to get the upper hand again, or all was lost
She used her smile that had worked so well in the war, and the voice that had initially made her a success. “You need help,” she said, the ‘h’ with its deep Russian tone, a blanket for the most agitated soul.
“Who doesn’t,” said Mab. “And toss the accent.”
“That’s more like it, sister. Catch this. It’s just like you.”
She tossed the gun so fast that Vida fumbled it with both hands. It landed on the bare boards with a clatter that she could hardly hear over the pounding of her heart.
Mab used her cane to lower herself ponderously down. She arranged herself in front of Vida, her green shirt billowing out around her hips, her wide mouth set not unkindly, her great golden eyes—Vida had never noticed them before—like searchlights, piercing—but also . . . a relief.
“You need help a powerful sight more than I,” said Mab. “But honey, ain’t it a scream that only you and I here in this here Neozon see a cored apple for what it is. John would come mewling, and your son—this is no insult to you. I feel for you. Your son—”
“Would think it another door.” said Vida. “He’s still looking for the key to his belly button.”
“No fault of yours, dear,” said Mab. “And likewise, how’dya think I feel that John and all see something in him just because he’s got a squiggle of goo where his brain should be. You, me. We both have good reason to be insulted. He’s such a powerfully unlovable little cuss. But no matter how frightened we could make our charges, we can’t make them more miserable than us. So how about instead of scary apples, we make apple pie? We mightn’t make any of them well, but we’d all be a damn sight happier.”
“Nikolai will only eat Cream of Wheat.”
“T’won’t matter.” Mab rubbed her hands. “He can bathe in the stuff.”
Vida felt something warm inside her where her loving heart should be, and it felt good—as if the discarded eggbeater that had taken charge some time ago, stirring her emotions as it broke up her capacity to love—had now been defeated, ignominiously, by the assault of Mag’s highpowered x-ray eyes. Those rays melted that sharp and useless instrument down to blood—blood which was starting to pump through Vida’s veins—too rich, dizzying. She started to get up. This was all happening too fast. The back of her neck began to tingle with alarm. A trap. She knew the tricks. Mab Picklin must hate her! She had good enough reason to.
“Unh unh.” Mab hooked one of Vida’s hands and unbalanced her, pulling her forward enough so Mab could take that hand and the other in her firm, surprisingly pleasant rough ones. “You’ve nothing left to lose.” Mab’s touch was like her eyes. Inescapable but strangely, calming.
“Now if you don’t have a cauldron you’re stirring somewhere,” she said, “spill your beans. You’re more mixed up than a 4th of July cole slaw.”
Vida had so obviously never confided in anyone. Neither Vida nor Mab knew whether it was Mab’s skill or just the over-ripeness of affliction, but under Mab’s gentle but no-nonsense prodding, Vida’s life burst like an angry boil—almost all the hideous green pus of it, except the core. But Mab didn’t need to push too much to get that to finally squirt out. The secret of Vida’s evil, her shameful deformities—those netherlip teats that marked her, made her into—a witch.
Up until that revelation, Mab had nodded solemnly, added a question or two. “So you weren’t even a woman when you first thought that.”
“Witches were big in Eldorado,” said Vida. “The bad ones.”
“In the best households,” said Mab. “Scare the child.”
“They kept us good.”
“You bet,” Mab mused. “And here I thought a drunken father—”
“And I was called ‘Vedma’—witch, by a Russian who I’d never—”
“Yes, yes,” said Mab irritably. “I’ve seen rejection bring that on.”
“You little idiot. You don’t even know what a corker you must have been. Once that bitter-taste look drops from your face, you could still knock the eyes out of a pine plank.”
“What does that have to do with it?”
“If it’s not one thing, it’s another, my dear blockhead. No woman escapes being a witch to those who want to burn her. Wadya think of my chiny chin chin hairs? They’ve condemned me to the broom same as women who are too beautiful.”
“But my netherlip teats?”
“My wizzikers, woman. Lessay you was a man and you had those two nestled one each side a yur Geronimo. You’d be famous. Considered touched, in the very best of ways. You’d be The Man with the special sidearms.”
Dawn came up and practically pounded on the front door, it looked as if it tried so hard to get noticed. But all those colors and racing sky were nothing to the two women in that house. They had moved from the floor when Mab announced, “My posterior’s a corpse.”
Vida helped her up, laughing so much that Mab said, “If your mother could see you now.”
“Laughter, liquor, and lust—all the Devil’s works,” Vida said, in her mother’s pure, sure, flat Kansan voice.
“The Devil sure must love alliteration.”
“Proves he can’t be all terrible,” drawled Vida, her ‘r’s as rolled as a Russian cigarette. They’d talked about her accent, whether she could drop it. It was her now, same as her experiences. Speaking El Dorado, Kansan was now a put-on act. Besides, what’s the harm in beauty if it harms no one, and her voice in all its huskiness and hard-boiled eggy vowels was the stuff of fairy tales, the good ones. All moss under the dripping trees and golden plush pillows of fantastically friendly cats.
By the time Day would no longer be denied its sacrifices to the mundane—breakfast and all to begin with—the two women had cooked up a new future for themselves and their charges. It wouldn’t be scary, but it wouldn’t be mundane either. It would be something worthy of two scheming women who were naturally, as all women are, witches.
From THE ROAD TO NEOZON
Text copyright (c) 2018 by Anna Tambour