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Death Lives In The Water – Snippet 29

“Of course. Jennie will stay with you.”

The little girl squealed in delight, unaware of the women’s concern. She loved her Babusya.

“Go inside, Jennie. Mowr has had kittens, and you can play with them. Be gentle.”

Kateryna quickly made up a list of all the women she knew. Surely some of them would know others. Maria went to the woodshed where Maksym was busy sawing planks for an addition to Maria’s tiny house.

“Mama needs you,” she said.

He immediately put his tools down, gave her brief hug, and headed toward the house.

“She’s out front,” called Maria. “Jennie is in the house playing with the kittens.”

He waved in acknowledgement and headed for the front porch. Maria consulted her list and decided riding would be best. She quickly saddled up Poppa’s new mare, who was the gentlest of the five horses in the paddock next to the woodshed, and probably the quickest.

First, she rode home to find Yuri. She assumed he would be chopping trees in the forest to the south to take to her father for more planks. She was correct. She pulled up just as the tree he was working on crashed to the ground. He turned toward her, and his smile grew large as his eyes sparkled. He never ceased to be in awe of her beauty. Yuri loved Maria with all-encompassing joy. She asked if he could go to her father’s home. He immediately shouldered his axe, kissed her gently but deeply, and headed off to hang the tool in the shed and go to his in-laws’ cabin.

Maria headed toward the small village that lay upriver about two miles. She recognized at least three of the names on her list as women who lived there. As she rode she tried not to think of what she had seen. She had never heard of a bolotnik, but the look of shock and horror on her mother’s face was enough to convince her they were in mortal danger. She rode swiftly and pulled up to the large water trough in the center of the village. The mare sank her soft lips into the water and drank slowly.

Midwood was a tidy little village, with a dry goods store, a blacksmith, a school, and a church, all surrounding the center park. There were several small cottages, each with its own neat garden and a small well in the front yard. The blacksmith was also a wainwright, and one of the cottages had a neat little sign in the window offering (in Ukrainian) “New Clothing & Repairs” with a clumsy drawing of a treadle sewing machine. Another cottage had a sign that simply displayed a small quilt with the word “заняття.” Maria had learned to make quilts from her mother and grandmother but thought she would someday bring Jennie here, since she lacked her mother’s patience for teaching.

The quilt teacher’s name was first on her list, so she walked up the path and knocked softly on the door. It was opened by the roundest, happiest-looking woman she had ever seen. Natasha Bondar was plump, pink, and covered in flour. It was hard to tell where the grey in her hair ended and the flour began.

“Come in, come in,” she said. “Have you come to sign up for classes?”

“My mother has sent me,” replied Maria. “Kateryna. She said to tell you it’s about a bolotnik.”

Natasha carefully put down the large bowl of bread dough she had just picked up. She covered it with a towel, and then moved to the table, motioning Maria to sit also.

“Tell me,” she said.

“I don’t know much,” replied Maria. “Some of our animals have been going missing, but that’s to be expected out here in the wilderness. However, last year we lost so many lambs that Yuri, my husband, bought a dog to help guard the sheep. He’s a good dog, won’t let them go near the pond, and the number of losses went way down. Then, just yesterday our newborn bull calf went missing. Yuri was upset but assumed it was wolves or perhaps someone stole him. But I found his hoofprints leading to the pond when I went looking. Then I heard quacking, so I reached into the bulrushes to see if there were baby ducks. That was when I saw the eyes coming toward me.”

Maria sat back, panting as the terror began rising in her again.

“There was something about them, about . . . I don’t know. I just felt evil heading for me.”

“When and where does Kateryna want me?” asked Natasha.”

At Mama and Poppa’s house. Tonight please.”

“I will be there. Let me see your list of names.” She looked it over carefully.

“These four live just above the mill, just over the top of the hill. You’ll find a small group of cottages in the woods. Please be careful you aren’t seen. They like to keep to themselves.”

Maria mounted the mare after wiping her down a bit and once again set out, this time north along the Martins Way River toward the textile mill. She didn’t like the mill, didn’t want to encounter any of its owners or supervisors, wanted nothing to do with it. She knew they used Negro slaves as workers. The word Negro had no counterpart in Ukrainian; the closest they came was nehrytyansʹka osoba. She felt a kinship to these people who labored long, hard hours with their children beside them. In Ukraine they had been treated little better than these slaves by the ethnic Russians, who, like the white slave owners, considered themselves to be superior beings. She wondered if any of the slave women possessed the powers she and her mother and grandmother so carefully nurtured.

Soon she reached the clearing, about a mile north of the mill. Four cottages sat side by side, with a large well centered in front of them, surrounded by bright colored flowers. The cottages were all made of stone, each with its own garden. A very tall man, skinny but muscular, was working on a vegetable garden in the side yard of the first house. He heard the mare snuffling as she rode up and straightened to greet her.

“You’ll be Maria, daughter of Kateryna Molovna,” he said.

“No, no magic involved,” he laughed when he saw the look on her face. “You’re the spitting image of your mother, and you have her hair too, or at least what her hair used to look like.”

He walked over and offered her a hand down.

“My name’s Michael Farmington,” said the man. “Welcome to our little community.”

Maria saw that three more people had come out of the other houses without her realizing it and were all gathered waiting for her to speak.

“Mother wants you all to come to her house,” she blurted out.

She started to apologize but was waived into silence.

“With that hair,” one of the women said, “you’ll be Kateryna’s daughter, Maria.”

“Who are you people?” she blurted out, and then blushed at her rudeness.

They all laughed.

“Don’t worry,” said a tall rangy blonde woman. “We tend to do that to people. I’m Katya. This is Mikhail, that woman with the apron who’s been making apple pie is Jane, and this long drink of water”–she pointed at the tall young man standing in the back of the group–“is our eldest. . . .” She paused, searching for the word. “He’s the one who ‘knows things.’ His name is Stephan.”

The young man dipped his head, the others smiled as they were introduced.

Stephan stepped forward.

“What has you so upset, sister?” he asked.

“Mother says, well, she thinks, that we have a bolotnik.”

A hissing intake of breath went through all four.

“A bolotnik. That’s what she said?” asked Mikhail.

“Yes. I’ve never heard of one. But I can tell you what I saw.”

Swiftly she retold the same story she had told Natasha Bonda. They all listened silently and then began to converse amongst themselves. Finally, they once again addressed Maria.

“I’m sure you have tons of questions,” said Katya. “And in good time we will answer them. For now, you go home as swiftly as you safely can. Make sure your animals are safely penned, far away from the pond. Keep yourself, your daughter and your husband at your parents’ house. And stay away from any wells. We will meet with Natasha, be at your parents’ house just before sundown. Please tell Kateryna that we will bring white candles. Have her gather rosemary from her garden. And flowers, any that you have.”

With that they waved her out of the clearing and on her way home. Mikhail went into his house and brought out a large round slab of wood. Stephan got a hammer and nails. The two men nailed the cover to the well, making certain it was tight and flush. All the while the two women chanted in Ukrainian, circling the well and pouring salt in front of themselves until the well was completely encircled. The men were careful not to step on or smudge the salt as they stepped back.

They were correct. Maria had a bushel of questions, most of them about who these people were, what were they, why did they keep their existence secret? So many questions. And she doubted she would get many answers, despite Katya’s promise. She rode home, oblivious to the beauty of the early spring woods, worried for the safety of her new and precious family.