by Silent Draco
Hilda and the old woman sat near the hut door, enjoying the sunlight and more tea. The old woman insisted on serving them both, bringing out her treasured pot of wild honey. “Is right to share with family, grandson and granddaughter, and fine, sweet children.” Hilda glanced sharply at that phrase, but the old woman merely sat, enjoying her tea, and waiting as only the old can wait. Presently, Hilda stirred as asked “Madam, I …” Raising a hand, the old woman said flatly “Babushka, please, my dear. He calls me that, and as family I grant privilege to call on me.”
Hilda now looked carefully, and her hand and cup trembled. The old woman sat in her chair; but instead of a placid, peasant face, her features changed to something more predatory. Then the hut itself shifted subtly, back and forth, as if something was … oh, no. “Pe-, no, Ba- …“ she jumped like a startled hare. “In the nam…” “SILENCE! SIT!!” rasped the old woman, with authority. Hilda sat meekly, crowding as far away as possible. In a moment came mildly, “More tea, dear? You look pale.” A shaking hand held out the dropped cup for more, and some disjointed sips ensued. Another period of silence followed, with only the sound of wind in the birches and pines.
“We ladies have our own circles and secrets from the boys. Is our way; your mother taught you that.” One more long swallow came. “Ahh, good. And dear boy brought Caravan, just the thing for autumn days. But …” eyeing Hilda, “first I make you special tisane, for strengthening.” Bustling to an overlooked cupboard by the fireplace, the old woman made a cup of sweet-spicy, herbal tea, and told Hilda, “Drink this, finish the entire cup please. In a little while, we shall have Caravan.” She repeated, distinctly in good German and in a deeper tone: “You will please to drink tisane, or Granny becomes unhappy.” The clearing darkened, although no other clouds wafted over. “And we talk of family. Where did you meet my grandson?”
Hilda told her story, slowly and then filling in more, not noticing that she steadily drank the oddly spicy tisane. The old woman nodded her head and clucked in sympathy, “yes, he is a good man but can be foolish, but that’s one of the things we like best, da?” Hilda laughed now, and continued with the cares of raising two boys and a partially housebroken husband, while helping him with some parts of the family business. Suddenly it dawned on her. “You, you are the special customer! No invoice, just a sealed note in the package … no customs, no papers.” Her eyes got very wide for a moment. “Tch, my dear, I am old woman, and what would I know of customs and borders, and all that? My grandson is good boy and remembers to send me tea. Is all I need.”
Leaning over, the old woman inhaled slowly with the look of a mother wolf. “No, I am not her; only – distant kin, maybe. I will not eat you,” she grinned, showing slightly pointed teeth. As Hilda flinched, the vision of teeth faded. She slowly reached over, patted Hilda’s hand, and then touched Hilda’s abdomen gently, nodding in thought. “I give family privilege, and for those of your line. He is good man, kindness and bravery for a simple peasant woman.” The old woman sighed, sat for a moment, then nodded, saying “More I know, some of which I may say. The twins, girl and boy, you will bear to Johannes. Granny knows, a hero merits his reward.” Her eyes twinkled as Hilda blushed deep scarlet. “Granny knows all here, but you tell him; is your joy to share. Now … will not say the name I am known by. You will please to not speak nor think it. As family, it pleases me to be called Babushka. An old woman grows lonely and savage in the taiga, and your young man charmed me of all beings, with good manners and bravery. Foolish, to risk his life for an old woman he just met! But handsome and brave, and a good boy! And finds good woman!” She paused for more tea, and sat back in thought.
“I fight not now with the White Christ, is truce, and good boy is precious. Father Grigor, whom I miss, young Istvan, and old Piotr – we talk at bounds, fight those who want to erase all of us. Better to share wisdom and use strengths to defend Homeland. These woods, their chapel and land, forgotten from maps. Hunt like wolves, do we, protect those dear to us, have hidden dens. One day we succeed, we hope. And then? Maybe truce, maybe something else. Cannot see.”
Reaching into her pocket, the old woman brought out a necklace. The stone was similar to the one that Johannes wore on occasion. “Granddaughter,” she now said soberly, “wear this as mark of my favor and protection. I do not call soul to me.” Hilda held the stone up, feeling its weight and an additional unspoken burden. She caught her breath, and slowly answered, stumbling, “Babushka, I thank for the gift. I wear this for husband’s honor. Good memories too of you, I know not words, but babies and family, and family needs kind and stern Uma with wooden spoon to keep them honest. Uma needs family to remember fondly, tell us more stories?”
The old one beamed; the new granddaughter stumbled toward a deeper truth, one she couldn’t, wouldn’t tell her husband, not even when she guessed it. Women’s secrets must be kept. And if her daughters to come grew up a touch wild, all the better. Other evils were loosed, and the wild could help them fight. She had difficulty going west, unless war and chaos abounded. Perhaps, this would help more than expected.
After this they spoke more of family and of cleaning up after young men, and the hut lightened.
The creak of the cart warned them. “Ah, so you have brought share of the naughty one for us! We shall feast this evening.” Calling Hilda for help, the old woman cut a small roast for the pot, and set it to braise slowly by the fire with some treasured bacon and onions. She then sent the boys out with orders, “follow those withered green tops, and dig out about ten of the turnips. You scrub them, set to roast, and mash with honey.” Hilda sighed quietly; well, I will soak out and scrub their trouser knees. Boys. The old woman laughed quietly and murmured, “and if they did not make mess, we worry more, da?”
That evening they sat at her table and benches, enjoying a moderate feast of venison and turnips, with new apples to follow. Afterwards, Babushka insisted on herb tea for the family. “Go, drink up, special time, is good for health and good after feasting! Keeps eyes bright and arms strong!” The boys’ eyes grew heavy, after a long day of walking and of helping. The old woman tousled their hair and sent them off to bed, wanting to speak for a while with their parents, “… and take Granny’s good wishes with you.”
Sitting down to tea, the old woman sighed and said, “Very good you come to visit, my boy, and bring family. Good to have tea and remember with family. You come again when able, bring other children, introduce to Granny. Bring more tea?” Hilda started and flushed, “ah, yes Babushka. When time is right we come again.” Johannes looked at her, puzzled. The old woman laughed. “I said we have ladies’ time! We talk of many things, men and your messes. You men, go make things, sell things, make money. Spend on women, on trip, come visit again! Make Granny happy!” He looked even more puzzled as Hilda giggled. “Tomorrow, you go home, made good visit. Come again, will please Granny.”
Shortly after sunrise and a light breakfast, Granny sent them back through the woods. “And thank you boys, for bringing so many big branches. Will stay warm for long time! Go with Granny’s favor, and be well!” She waved once more, and walked back into her hut. Walking out to the main track, they found the older man waiting with his horse cart. “As a favor for Her, I carry you back to Yaroslavl. Also need to get supplies, and some treats for Her too. Winter comes, but cold and snow charge early. Best be prepared.” An hour and a half later, on hard, cold roads, they recovered their large baggage at the station. Large snowflakes drifted from a leaden sky, diffidently, as though contemplating a skirmish. Johannes shivered as he unpacked their heavier coats, gloves, and boots, thinking of his first October here. Another 90 minutes until their train arrived. Hilda shivered too, not from the sky but from a final conversation while the boys were stacking more wood.
“Here, dear, granddaughter,” giving her a large packet of herbs to stow with her toiletries. In one year, then in two more years at this time, then at two years as herbs allow, make tisane, two of your spoons to this much hot water, not at boil. All in family drink one cup, this much,” gesturing at the side of the cup Hilda held. “You will remember. Make and drink tea to remember Granny and delight of visits. It will comfort old babushka, to know. Cup is my gift to you, with herbs.” The old woman wiped down the table, then continued, “two more come, and then more as you wish. You have time, but do not waste Granny’s gift. Come, bring children to meet, maybe grandchildren too.” Hilda looked up, amazed. “A gift, Granny?” “Tisane is herbs from my garden, my woods. My strength in them. Will strengthen fibers, let you remain strong and vital … longer. You and Johannes may look different; claim good health and family; you will know what to do at time: one of woman’s gifts. When he notices, unless visit comes first, you will tell him my words: I gift sentence of life plus years His choice to use gift wisely.” The old woman grinned briefly, showing a fierce visage, then softened. “I care for those dear to me. Remember me as … Babushka.”