Nastasiya’s husband had told her he’d be home by midnight. Now eighteen and one half minutes past midnight, she began to wonder if she should worry. Or rather, not that she should worry, but precisely what she should worry about. If she should worry about the women at the bar where he played on Friday nights. If she should worry about the man in the front yard that looked like her husband, but wasn’t. If she should worry about the kikimora who hid in the darkness behind the stove and whispered vile thoughts that traveled on air, that slid right into her ears on the grease-laden ether.
Or if she should worry that he was simply run over when jay-walking as he insisted on doing nearly every single day since the day they’d met, just some short weeks after they’d promised to wed. As he had done earlier this week when he ran toward her, when he had fetched her from the dock like any other cargo unloaded by the longshoremen.
In his emails, he’d told her that his name was Daystar. That he was a jazz musician. That he had a home by the sea. And while the rotten aroma of low tide wafting through the windows confirmed he had not completely lied, he had not been entirely truthful either. It was a home, two stories with a single-car garage and a driveway, no less. More than she’d had in her homeland, but less than he’d promised her here.
And his name was Kevin.
“Give me time,” he said once they’d dropped her bags at the house and gotten back in the car for the courthouse. The seatbelt threatened to choke her every time he slammed the brake in the congested Los Angeles traffic. She tugged at the sleeves of the white dress that fulfilled the measurements she’d sent him, but not the measurements of herself that were true. The fabric bit into her armpits.
“I’m sorry the air conditioning doesn’t work,” he said as he aimed all the vents toward her. Drops of sweat rolled across his dark cheek, zig-zagging along its pock-marked texture. Cigarette smoke and old cologne percolated from his dreadlocks. Life at the edge of the Arctic Circle had made her tolerant to humidity, but not so much heat.
“Kevin?” she asked, as if testing his name.
“Yes,” he replied with a smile. “It’s going to be okay,” he said, squeezing her hand. “Breathe.”
She tried, but the bodice of her dress gripped her ribs and she was afraid if she insisted on filling her lungs that the threads that held it all together would burst. He might turn around and drive her right back to the longshoremen. He might leave her there on the docks. Or right here on the street, naked against the remnants of white fabric she held so tight to her chest.
When they arrived at the courthouse it was closed. Kevin swore at the traffic. Her breathing grew faster against the stitches of her dress.
“I’m sorry,” Kevin said. He gripped her shoulder, but his hand only added weight to her already challenged inhalations. They hadn’t even hugged yet. “We’ll come back tomorrow,” he said.
Had he not checked? Had he not scheduled a time? Did he not want to marry her? Why had she come so far? Was this some sort of trick?
“I haven’t stopped wanting to marry you,” he said.
She stared at him and waited.
“I do want to marry you,” he said and the fleeting thought that he was a sex trafficker, an Internet-prowling pimp, a man who might have spent the last twelve months messaging her no less than a half dozen times each day just to lure her to the shores of America passed from her mind.
Still, she said: “No.”
Not a question. Not a response. Just no.
“No?” he asked.
“In my country, it’s bad luck to set a wedding and then marry on a different day.” She patted at the fabric of her skirt, hoping to straighten it, but the sweat of her palms wrinkled it more.
“So?” he asked.
“If we can’t be married today, we shouldn’t marry at all.”
“They’ll send you back to Europe,” he said.
She crossed her arms although it made the fabric pinch more harshly. Standing in front of the courthouse was almost like standing in church, where the babushkas had eyed her upon entrance, waiting for the tiniest thing she might forget, might do wrong. She remembered the first time, as a slightly hormonal twelve-year-old, that she’d kicked out her hip and crossed her arms and the babushkas’ palms had come down upon her cheek. Descending like vultures upon the bare flesh of her innocence, her imprudence.
“Okay,” she told Kevin. They would return and marry tomorrow. What else could she do? She could see them—the old women of her village shaking their heads. Their large noses and jowled cheeks scorned her. The yards of fabric around their square heads and their round babushka bellies. Getting married tomorrow would curse her. The women of her village knew as much and had said so often about similar bad choices by similarly foolish young women. Do not carry an empty bucket. Do not take anything out of the house at night. Do not put an empty bottle on the table. Do not lick a knife. If a rooster crows three time before noon, someone will die.
She had abided by these rules for all her nineteen years and so far things had gone mostly well. Not the best, but not the worst either. She’d not lost her leg like Anatoli. She’d not lost her mind like Agnieszka.
But perhaps she could afford to take a risk just this once.
When they arrived back at his house, Kevin tried to cook her dinner. She shooed him from the kitchen.
“You don’t know where anything is,” he said.
She opened and closed the cupboards one after another.
“Do you have a step-stool?” she asked. “I’m going to fix all this.”
He pulled the step-stool from the closet. He unfolded it with a flourish of his hands, as if inviting her to step across the threshold.
She laughed, but then stopped short of the top step. He waited for her to continue, but she couldn’t. From her vantage on the second of three steps, she had noticed the darkness behind the oven. It was too deep. Too dark for an oven of regular size. Too dense for a house with adequate lighting. As if the light simply couldn’t reach around the trendy bisque-colored edges of the too-clean Kenmore it was likely he’d only recently purchased for her.
“What?” he asked as her foot hovered in the air above the third step, as her hand hung in the air in front of the cupboard handle, as the air in front of his lungs waited to be invited back in.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” she lied, though the inky fingerprints of the oven’s blackness already gripped her heart. Why hadn’t the courthouse been open today? Why did the women of her village always have to be right? She’d show them. For once, someone would.
Kevin nodded and went into the living room, seating himself on the couch as she’d heard every good American husband did, though he glanced over to her often as if to check she was still there, as if to make sure she was real.
Later that night, she tucked the sheets around her like she was a mummy and also the archaeologist. Seeking knowledge, but also seeking to protect, to preserve a precious relic. His hand brushed across her cheek. His knuckles against her orbital bone. His fingertips against her temple.
“We’re not married yet,” he whispered. Not a question. Not a threat.
She nodded and closed her eyes, used her hands to tuck the sheets deeper beneath her hips. A warmth bloomed inside her. Her instinct for him was strong. He seemed kind. Harmless. But transgressing one forbidden line was enough for one day.
In the middle of the night: the sound of chimes, the sound of wings against the windows, the sound of nothing. What was that? Nastasiya awoke. She withdrew herself from the bed and tiptoed to the kitchen. She turned the faucet and filled her glass. The water quenched her throat while she admired the two ends of the pointy moon through the window, somehow visible through the marine mist, through the urban smog. She sat at the dinette table and folded her hands. She had come too far, some part of her already loved this man—no man, god, or babushka would stop her now.
But would it be freedom or another burden?
She whispered, softly, slowly, as if testing her own mouth, “Neveh ni sih tih za thre no nud eeb liw eyth muck modngik eyth main eyth eeb dewollah neveh ni tra chioo, rethaf rua...”
She glanced to the kitchen where the darkness behind the stove hued even darker than the night. She gripped her fingers tighter around her knuckles and continued her prayer. A moth beat itself against the glowing numbers on the microwave.
Another omen. Her fears confirmed.
She shivered and pulled her arms tight despite the latent summer heat. She bowed her head and began her prayer again.
The next morning the courthouse was open. The ceremony quick.
“I couldn’t get the whole day off,” Kevin said as he handed her the dozen roses he’d hidden in the trunk of the car. Slightly wilted, but well intended. He dropped her at home, but first he held her hand as they walked to the front door. He carried her inside. He kissed her, on the lips, softly, but not slowly. She smiled and he did it again and did not hurry this time.
That night he brought her a cat. A black cat. And two rib-eye steaks, a bottle of wine, and a box of chocolates. They were not the most expensive chocolates, but better than could be found at the grocery store.
She pet the cat and it purred.
“They have a lot of black cats at the shelter,” he said. “I felt bad because nobody wants them.”
The cat jumped from her lap. They watched as it sat and washed its face.
“I think it’s comfortable here,” he said.
“We should expect guests soon,” she replied.
“What?” he asked. “Who?”
She shrugged. “That’s what it means when a cat sits and washes its face.”
Kevin sat silently on the couch. Nastasiya understood.
How could he know what to say to the old women of her village?
They spent the evening licking the fat of the meat, the tartness of the wine, and the slick trail of melted chocolate from their lips. Later, in bed, she made sure the sheets were loose against her body. She let her ankle dangle in the ambient light that drifted in from the street. Neither of them whispered anything at all as he stroked her temple, her cheek, his fingertip along her lips as if tracing the edge of her brought her into this world, as if creating her outline made everything inside her real.
Outside the wind rose and whistled.
Later, as she kissed his sleeping forehead and then the cat’s, and tiptoed to the bathroom, a sound like tiny feet crinkled in the foyer. Like mice. Like leaves. Like the feet of mice on dry leaves.
Why was the cat asleep? Already useless.
She eyeballed the foyer—nothing.
The sound came again from outside. She opened the front door.
Nobody. Not even on the street. As she stepped back into the house, a leaf drifted in. She quickly shut the door and waited.
“Eto moy dom,” she whispered. “This is my home.”
She hurried to the hall closet and felt against the back wall and then the sides.
She ran into the kitchen and groped the interior of the pantry.
She palpated the contents of the coat closet to no avail.
She carried a chair from the kitchenette and set it in the foyer. She crossed her arms and sat. She stared at the door until the sun rose, until Kevin’s alarm sounded, until it made sense that she might have gone to the kitchen to start the coffee and cook him breakfast.
“Why don’t we have a broom?” she asked as she stabbed at the eggs in the pan.
“Do you want to clean?” he asked.
“I can buy you a broom,” he said as he pecked her on the cheek. She followed him to the door and handed him a grocery bag. Inside, a collection of Tupperware she’d found in the cupboard filled with remnants of food she’d found in the refrigerator.
“You’re amazing,” he said.
His yellow polo shirt blurred like acrylic paints dragged across a canvas as he ambled down the short driveway, got into his sedan, and drove away. She rubbed at her eyes and the back of her hand grew wet, though his brightness still stained her vision.
She’d waited so long to find him. Don’t let this happen now.
By lunchtime, she had reorganized every shelf, every closet, and every drawer in Kevin’s modest home. She surmised which underwear were his favorites and she disposed of the shirts she did not favor. She was standing on a chair in the kitchenette, dusting at the ceiling fan when the cat scurried from the front of the stove, where it had spent the better part of the day staring at the broiler, and ran into the living room. A scratching sound prompted her to follow.
The cat sat on the picture window sill, meowing and pawing at the glass.
“Chto s toboy ne tak?” she asked, attempting to catch the cat’s swishing tail as she glanced out the window.
Kevin stood in the center of the lawn staring at the house.
In his right hand, a double-bladed weed cutter.
Nastasiya gasped and crossed herself.
But Kevin didn’t appear to be staring at her. She looked around the living room behind her, as if she might see what he saw.
She knocked on the window and called his name. He turned away and began swinging the weed cutter back and forth, flinging bits of grass into the air. She knocked harder, but his swinging picked up speed. The sharp blade beheading dandelions and shearing seed heads at will.
She went to the front door. As she stepped outside to call his name—he wasn’t there.
The green lawn glistened in the mid-day sun. In the picture window, the cat sat silent and still.
She tiptoed into the grass and reached down to run her hands through it. Her palms filled with fresh cuttings.
When he returned home that night, Kevin held a broom in his right hand. In his left, a bag filled with a half-dozen hanks of yarn.
“Your online profile said you like to knit,” he said.
Nastasiya took the broom and set it upside down in the small space to the right of the front door.
“Is that where you want to keep it?” he asked.
“It’s good luck,” she lied, though it wasn’t totally a lie. The upside-down broom would keep the kikimora away.
But the women of her village had never said if it would work on a kikimora already inside—she had her own plan for dealing with that.
That night, after Kevin’s kisses were done, she tiptoed back to the kitchenette.
She sat at the table, in front of her basket of new yarn. The silence before her prayer was shorter than it had been the night before. “Neveh ni sih tih za thre no nud eeb liw eyth muck modngik eyth main eyth eeb dewollah neveh ni tra chioo, rethaf rua…”
“Why don’t you stop with your stupid backward words.”
The voice cracked through the night air like electricity, leaving a metallic taste on Nastasiya’s tongue.
The kikimora crouched in the corner, the outline of her long beak illuminated by the streetlights. She leaned forward, revealing jowled cheeks that hung heavily off her narrow face. Her dark, iris-less eyes comprised of the substance of the night. A swath of fabric gripped her forehead and hung behind her large, pointed ears. Despite the length and boniness of her arms draping from her sides, her belly was round and barely seemed part of her. It rested on her knees, and all of this propped up on over-sized feet adorned with long claws. As the hag-like creature rose and stepped out from the corner, the mites scurried out from under the scales of her skin and spread across the floor.
Once standing, though her back still hunched, she was surprisingly tall. She seemed to fill not just the corner of the room, but the room itself, as if she were made of a slow dark matter that worked to absorb any light.
“Your little broom can’t keep me out if I’m already in,” she hissed. “And neither can your prayers to the unholy. Your mother would be ashamed.”
“Why don’t you go back behind the stove?” Nastasiya said, her hands clasped so firmly her fingertips grew numb.
“You can’t make me,” the kikimora said. “Nor can your friend in the front yard.”
As the kikimora said it, Nastasiya knew it was true. Her counterpart, the domovoi—Kevin’s doppelganger—was useless. Kind-hearted, well-intentioned, but no match for human or inhuman transgression. He hadn’t even done a proper job of cutting the lawn.
Maybe she could help the domovoi. Maybe they could work together.
The creature picked up a hank of yarn and began to unravel it, yanking a length and then tossing it into the air.
“No, that’s mine!” Nastasiya cried.
She grabbed at the airborne threads, trying to gather them, to pull them together, to hug them to her heart. But no matter how much yarn she grabbed in her palms, the kikimora somehow had more, somehow undid everything she had brought together. The old witch laughed the strange cough of a raven as the strands of yarn flew. Her laugh grew louder with each iteration, but down the hall Kevin’s snore droned unaware.
Nastasiya ran from corner to corner, catching a strand, sprinting for the next. As the yarn rained down, she fell to her knees, crawling and gathering until she was so weighed down with the fibers she could barely move forward, could barely breathe in the air so filled with matter, in a room so filled with beliefs.
Nastasiya was still on her hands and knees when Kevin discovered her in the morning. The yarn festooned every edge and surface of the kitchenette. The endless chatter of the sparrows that weighed down the jacaranda poured in through the window.
“You have to undo it first,” she said in response to Kevin’s gape.
“What?” he asked as his eyes followed the string across the table, around the chair, over the cupboard handles, behind the stove, as mesmerized as the cat.
“You have to undo the yarn and then wind it back up,” she said as she continued to pull the strands toward her.
Kevin knelt on the ground and held still her furious hands.
“Is it okay I got you the yarn?” he asked. “You don’t have to knit if you don’t want to.”
“It’s fine,” she said. “I want to make you something.”
He packed his own lunch as she continued to pack up the yarn and let himself out the front door.
That afternoon, the cat scratched at the picture window again.
When Nastasiya looked out, the domovoi-Kevin leaned on his weed cutter. Maybe talking with someone over the fence.
She would talk to him. They would come up with a plan. A powerful domovoi could counteract the kikimora. The old women told her so.
But as Nastasiya glanced out the window again, she saw Kevin’s doppelganger speaking with the teen-aged girl from down the street. Her navel ring twinkled in the sunshine.
By the time Nastasiya ran out into the yard, he was once again gone.
“You can’t run away!” she yelled. “You have to protect us!”
A woman watering her lawn across the street set down her hose and went inside.
The sparrows in the jacaranda raised their voices and in the distance the ravens coughed.
Once again, Nastasiya stood alone, fearing love was not enough.
That night, when the real Kevin got home she had no dinner prepared.
She and the cat stood in front of the broiler.
“Is the oven not working?” Kevin asked.
“It works fine,” she replied.
“What’s for dinner?” he asked, and she shrugged. He went into the living room, seating himself on the couch, but glanced over to her often as if to check she was still all right, in one piece, not completely unhinged.
Why couldn’t the courthouse have been open?
“I told you it’s bad luck to set a wedding and then marry on a different day,” she told the kitchenette.
“What?” Kevin called from the living room.
“Nothing,” she lied.
That night, Nastasiya set out a plate with two slices of bread and a glass of milk. She set a pack of cigarettes alongside.
“Where did you get those?” Kevin asked.
“I walked to the corner store,” she replied.
“What is this for?”
“In case you get hungry in the middle of the night,” she lied.
He picked up a piece of bread and chewed at the over-processed fluff. “But I don’t smoke,” he said between bites.
She shrugged and walked to the bedroom.
They had sex again and it was slightly less painful than the night before. With each of Kevin’s thrusts she prayed harder that the domovoi would find his way inside, that he would eat the bread and become stronger. That she could stop saying the prayers that would bring her family shame.
That night, she tiptoed back out to the kitchenette. The milk was undisturbed, the bread missing only Kevin’s bites. The cigarettes were strewn across the table. The pack shredded as if by something very sharp.
She clasped her hands and sat at the table. “Neveh ni sih tih za thre no nud…” This time louder, a summoning, a calling to—
“Seriously.” The kikimora‘s voice hissed from behind the stove, from inside the cupboards, from between the wires that carried electricity to the ceiling fan.
When Nastasiya looked up the kikimora sat across the table combing her threadbare hair. With each stroke, more strands of silver caught in comb, gathering against the base of its teeth like a feral skein.
“You can’t feed that fat yard man enough milk and bread to make a difference,” the kikimora said. “He has wandering eyes, as soon your husband will, too.”
“That’s not true,” Nastasiya said. “He loves me.”
“Love is not enough,” the kikimora replied. “You know that, or you wouldn’t be saying such prayers.” She rolled her eyes on the final word, then stood, a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth, ashes dripping on the table, and Nastasiya knew it was true. She had witnessed the incapacity of love many times in her life already.
She turned away from the kikimora and tip-toed back into the bedroom. She pulled the door shut behind her and set the upside-down broom beside it. She checked the locks on the bedroom windows.
Eto moy dom. This is my home. This room. This man. This is mine.
The old women shook their heads. Two wrongs do not make a right.
In the morning, it was Friday.
“Don’t you remember what I told you? On Fridays, I’m Daystar,” Kevin said.
Nastasiya remembered in the days before she boarded the boat, the days before she was here, how she dreamed of her jazz-playing husband, her home by the sea, her modern existence free of the old village women, her old language, her old life.
“Voz’mi menya s soboy,” she said.
“What?” Kevin asked as he checked his guitar case for his strap and his pick. “Why is it so stuffy in here?” he asked as he pulled at his shirt collar.
“Take me with you,” she repeated. “Can you pick me up after work?”
“It’s not really on the way,” he said.
“But I’ve never seen you play,” she replied.
The tightness around his eyes softened. He glanced at his watch. “I can play for you now.”
He plucked at the strings and as she knelt in front of him, his fingertips pulled on her arteries, on her veins. Her heartbeat rose with the tempo of his song. Her breath fell with the shifting pitch of his voice.
“Daystar?” she said, as if testing his name. The image of him on the dock, in the yard, across from her swearing to the judge to honor her until eternity. Running in the street toward her, not bothering to look either way.
“Moya zhena,” he replied.
Her eyes opened and his smile widened.
“I’ve been practicing for you, my wife,” he said as he kissed her forehead.
Outside the kitchen window, the crows coughed amid the purple petals of the flowering tree.
“Please, don’t jay-walk today,” Nastasiya said, as their lips met again.
Nastasiya and the cat sat on the floor in front of the broiler. Neither they nor the air had moved in hours. Kevin had told her he’d be home by midnight. Now eighteen and one half minutes past midnight, she began to wonder if she should worry. If she should worry about the women at the bar. If she should hold any hope for the domovoi in the yard. If the kikimora had already snuck out from the darkness behind the stove and was testing the bedroom door. If the powers she’d summoned to bolster her love had done anything at all.
When Kevin’s car pulled in not ten minutes later, she was still unsure if he had arrived.
She asked him what he brought home for her, and he said nothing.
“Is there dinner?” he asked.
She shook her head, and when he slammed the bedroom door she heard the broom slide against the wall and then smack against the floor.
She knelt in front of the stove and stroked the cat.
“I would rather he be mad at me than not here at all,” she confided.
Just then she felt the cool air on the thin hairs of her neck. The tiny breeze shimmered down the hallway, like the yarn cast from the clawed hands of the kikimora.
Nastasiya ran to the bedroom and burst through the door.
Kevin lay in the bed—next to the open window.
The window he must have opened himself.
The kikimora crouched on his chest.
Her hands around his neck. The many circles of fabric she wore hanging over him, entwining him, drowning the bed. Only his dreadlocks visible from within her folds.
A popping sound. His ribs under the weight of the old hag, cracking, breaking, one by one.
Nastasiya screamed and ran forward, a river of red-hot words bubbling from her mouth. “Neveh ni sih tih za thre no nud eeb liw eyth muck modngik eyth main eyth eeb dewollah neveh ni tra chioo, rethaf rua…” The flow of her prayer crusted in the cold air, molten lava with iron skin. Her metallic fire flew across the room and into the heart of the kikimora.
The wicked creature shrieked and rose into the air. Her outstretched arms and the fabric that hung from them transformed into giant black wings. Behind her, Nastasiya too felt the rush of wings. Long fingers crept into the corners of her vision. The shadow of horns stretched across the ceiling.
“Ty d’yavol,” the kikimora cried, pointing at Nastasiya. “You stupid girl!”
Somewhere the old women wiped tears from their eyes.
Then, as if made of liquid, the old hag melded into the ceiling shadows and squeezed back out into the night through small space at the bottom of the bedroom window. The jacaranda branches scratched at the glass. The crows faded into the hush of freeway traffic. The fingers at the corner of Nastasiya’s vision receded, but not before tickling her shoulders and traipsing their way down her spine.
“What’s happened?” Kevin whispered, wincing as he tried to breathe, feeling for his throat.
“Nothing, my love,” Nastasiya replied, sitting on the bed beside him, pulling his hands into hers. “The beginnings of a chest cold, maybe.”
“I’m sorry I was angry about there being no dinner,” he said. The light of the street pooled in his eyes.
She straightened his dreadlocks on the pillow and shook her head. “It’s the tiniest of the things we will overcome.”
– Becca Borawski Jenkins
Becca Borawski Jenkins holds an MFA in Cinema-Television Production from USC and has short stories in The Forge, Cotton Xenomorph, Gone Lawn, Menacing Hedge, and others. She made the wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions longlist in both 2017 and 2018 and received three Pushcart Prize nominations and a Best of the Net nomination in 2018. She and her husband are full-time RVers.