There were walls all around me, and the walls were shivering.
Terror came seeping up through the bare concrete floor. It shook my legs until they would no longer hold me; it closed like jaws around my chest. The cell stank of cheap disinfectant but even the sickly chemicals couldn’t cover up the other smells: old piss, damp bedding, my own sweat. I sank to the cold concrete, my arms wrapped around my knees, my body rocking back and forth. The cement floor hurt the base of my spine and with each rock, I told myself: you’re still alive, you’re still alive.
I never could handle small spaces, and now I was trapped in one, tossed inside by two guards while I screamed and swore and begged. And it was dark in here, too. Even in the daytime the sun couldn’t have made it far through the small, filthy window which was high up in the wall where no one could see in or out. And now it was night.
‘Oh god, oh god…’ I dragged myself onto my knees, crawled to the door and hammered on it with my fists and feet. I couldn’t catch my breath to call out, and knew it would make no difference if I did. The world outside had vanished. The only sound was the dull drumming of my fists against the metal, my pulse in the sides of my head. The air tasted stale in here – how much oxygen was there? My throat was closing over; my chest was on fire.
Then, out of nowhere, a new sound came drifting through the sour air. At first just a wisp of humming, one soft note, then another. Then the humming formed itself into words, a trail of song that drifted up from the floor by my feet. A woman’s voice, deep and pure. The words were foreign to me, but I would have known that voice anywhere.
‘Joan?’ The name forced its way out of my chest. My panicked gasps gave way to a coughing fit, but when it cleared I could breathe again. I scrambled across to the wall and ran my hands over the scratched, peeling bricks until I touched metal mesh: the grille to the next cell. ‘Are you in there?’
The song stopped, and the voice murmured ‘No, zolotse, this is your conscience speaking….’
‘Fuck off!’ I had never been so happy. Never mind the nervous tingles I always felt when I was around this other prisoner who (people said) used to be the governor. Never mind that she was weird and intense and rumoured to have killed one woman and driven another one out of her mind – or that she called me that nickname which she said meant ‘golden’ and which gave me a funny ticklish feeling whenever I heard it. Never mind any of that. I wasn’t alone in here.
‘Joan, what are you doing in the slot?’
She took a moment to reply, and I could hear the slow smile in her voice.
‘Our governor,’ she said, ‘is a nervous woman.’
‘Oh yeah? What did you do to make Ms Bennett nervous?’ I shuffled closer until I was leaning against the wall, my fingertips curled around the grille that separated us. Joan gave a throaty chuckle.
‘My dear, I don’t need to do anything. My existence is enough. That woman – ’ She lingered over each crisp syllable ‘ – is nothing more than the sum total of her insecurities.’
‘Oh yeah? What are you the sum total of, then?’
I blurted it out, then covered my mouth too late. Back in General, I’d learned never to ask Joan personal questions or she would freeze me out for days.
But this time she just chuckled again. I imagined her low laughter shaking the grille, vibrating its way up through my fingertips and into my chest.
‘Righteousness,’ she said.
The concrete space fell silent. I wondered if Joan was sitting on the floor like I was. She sounded too close to be standing up and I couldn’t imagine someone as clean as her lying on that stinking bed. I shut my eyes and tried to remember the way she’d smelled when we passed each other in the yard – me sneaking little sideways looks at her, Joan meeting my eyes with her mocking black stare. She’d smelled of pine soap. I couldn’t smell it from here, but maybe if I could get her to move closer to the grille…?
‘But zolotse, are you all right? You sounded distressed before.’
I winced and tried to breathe deep.
‘I can’t stand being locked in.’ Just saying the words made my throat close again. ‘It makes me crazy.’
‘Oh, don’t be afraid of crazy, my dear. It’s possible to survive crazy, trust me.’ She paused. ‘Still… a claustrophobic inmate thrown into solitary while in the throes of a panic attack – that’s a clear breach of duty of care. When you’re back in General, you could make an official complaint. I’ll help you.’
‘Is this you trying to make Ms Bennett nervous again?’
‘So cynical for one so young! But you’re sounding better now.’
‘It’s easier while you’re… while we’re talking.’ I swallowed. ‘Can you keep talking to me, please?’
‘It’s good to hear my voice has such an effect on you, my dear,’ she purred, making my insides quiver. ‘What shall we talk about?’
‘Anything. I don’t know. Tell me a story.’
Joan paused a moment and I imagined her sitting a foot away from me on the other side of the wall. Probably she wouldn’t be leaning against anything, but sitting upright and cross-legged, gazing straight ahead. She was a monster, people said. But if she was a monster, then she would not be afraid of the dark.
She said ‘I’ll tell you a child’s story. But it’s Russian, so it will still be bloodthirsty and grim. Are you sure you want to hear it?’
‘Yeah. Anything. Please.’ I could feel the walls tightening again and forced myself to concentrate on her voice instead.
‘Are you sitting comfortably?’ Joan asked. ‘Then I’ll begin.
‘Once upon a time, in a hut at the edge of a vast forest, there lived a widower. He had one child whom he loved very much, a daughter called Vasilisa, who was so kind and gentle you’d want to smack her, and so beautiful she caused birds to bash into trees like idiots when they flew past her.’
I got the feeling Joan might be altering this story a bit.
‘But the widower couldn’t manage to keep it in his pants for long, so he married again. And alas his second wife and her two daughter hated Vasilisa, for they were jealous of her beauty and sweet nature. They forced her to dress in rags, eat scraps and work outside in the fields, hoping in vain that the harsh icy winds would batter her pretty face out of recognition.’
‘You might be wondering where Vasilisa’s loving father was while all this was happening. Working late at the office, maybe?’
‘It sounds like Cinderella.’
‘Hm, wait till you meet the fairy godmother,’ said Joan.
‘Hey…’ I snuggled closer to the wall. ‘Are you Russian too? Is that what the song was?’
‘Are you interrupting me, my dear?’
‘I’m just curious.’
‘Hm.’ She sniffed. ‘You should be careful with that in here.’ She fell silent for so long I wondered if our conversation was over. I was on the brink of apologising when she said ‘But as for your question… I couldn’t tell you where I’m from, my dear. When I was three, my parents took me from an orphanage in a place called Korsakov, on the eastern border of the Soviet Union. The place hadn’t been part of the empire all that long, maybe a hundred years. And when the Russians first settled Korsakov, do you know what it was?’
Joan chuckled. ‘A prison.’
‘Jeez.’ I looked around me into the darkness. The cell was almost totally black now, the bed and the toilet crouching shapes in the corners.
Joan said ‘Back in the orphanage, they had all sorts of unwanted brats. Russians, Koreans, Japanese, sundry Slavic types… So as to my origins, who can say?’
‘Wow.’ It sounded exotic to me. ‘So you never found your real parents?’
‘The ones I had were real enough, believe me.’ Her voice did not sound tender or affectionate. ‘Ivan told me later that Maria was desperate for a child. Years of miscarriages, two stillbirths – maybe that was what broke her in the end. That, and my own failure to be an adequate substitute.’ Joan’s voice was light and ruthless. ‘Maria must have been keen on the idea of me at first, though. She ignored the warnings of her neighbours who told her “don’t adopt the children of sluts”, and her husband’s secret service colleagues who recalled the children orphaned in Stalin’s purges and warned her that she might be harbouring an enemy of the people.’ Joan paused. ‘Isn’t that something? Three years old, and already an enemy of the people.’
‘That’s awful,’ I said. ‘Who talks about a kid like that?’
‘Oh, zolotse, you must try to see the lighter side of things. Anyhow, Dad told me later that when he and Maria went into the orphanage they were looking for a newborn that they could pass off as their own. But then this little child ran towards them, her arms outstretched and smiling so sweetly that Maria could not resist. When she held the child in her arms, she knew she could not bear to let her go.’
‘Zolotse, it’s the purest of bullshit.’ Joan snorted. ‘Can you really imagine me smiling sweetly and hugging a stranger, even when I was three? And who on earth goes out to adopt an infant and comes home with a half-grown child? Why would you, if there were babies available who were younger, more appealing, less … affected by their circumstances?’ I imagined her shaking her head. ‘And where was Ivan in this story, hm? I barely knew Maria; she wasn’t … around when I was growing up. Ivan raised me, but in his tale of my origins he is nowhere to be seen. He made it sound like it was all Mama’s idea.’ She paused. ‘All Mama’s fault.’
‘Oh.’ I blinked. ‘What do you think really happened, then?’
‘My dear, I couldn’t say.’ Joan cleared her throat. ‘But where was I, in the story? Oh yes, Vasilisa and her dysfunctional stepfamily.
‘So, jealous and resentful of her lovely stepdaughter, one night the evil stepmother hatched a plan to get rid of Vasilisa for good. She crept around the house and extinguished all the candles, then said “We cannot work if we cannot see. Vasilisa, go out into the forest and ask the witch Baba Yaga to give you light.” The girl was frightened and begged not to go, but her stepmother threw her out of the house and into the forest in the dead of winter.
‘For hours, the girl trudged through the darkness and the ice. Twice, a strange horseman flew past her at incredible speed: one dressed in white on a white horse, the other in red on a red horse. These were Baba Yaga’s servants, the Bright Day and the Red Sun, for the elements themselves did the witch’s bidding.
‘At last Vasilisa reached a clearing. In it stood the strangest house the girl had ever seen. Its windows were gigantic eyes and it stood on long, spindly chicken legs, for the house could walk around the forest by itself when it chose. And around it was a fence made of human bones, topped with skulls. These were all that remained of the hapless travellers whom the witch had caught and eaten.
‘There was a lock on the gate made of big, sharp teeth.
‘As Vasilisa stepped closer, a third horseman came galloping by, this time dressed all in black on a pitch-coloured steed. This was Baba Yaga’s third servant: the Black Midnight. Then there came a terrible roaring sound. The bare trees whipped to and fro like dancing skeletons as a whirlwind swept through the forest. It was Baba Yaga, riding through the air in her magical mortar and pestle.
‘She was the ugliest creature Vasilisa had ever seen. Ancient, tall and cadaverously thin, with an abnormally long nose – and inside her shrunken mouth, her teeth were long and pointed and made of iron. In a voice that shook the treetops, Baba Yaga cried “I smell human flesh!”
‘The terrified girl said “Please, Baba Yaga, I have come to ask your help.” The witch laughed: “Come inside, my pretty. If you will do me some favours and serve me loyally, I will reward you. If not, I will gobble you up.” The lock made of teeth flew open at Baba Yaga’s command and the hapless girl followed her in.’
‘Honestly, what a fool. They give us gormless idiots for heroines and expect us to cheer for them?’
‘Well, we’re probably meant to feel sorry for her.’
‘Ah yes, pity. The most pointless of all the emotions. And Vasilisa is a fictional character anyway – what would be the point of feeling bad for her?’
‘Joan…’ I chewed my lip, looking out into the gloom. I wasn’t feeling especially brave, but somehow being here in this awful space made other things seem less scary in comparison. Even asking Joan Ferguson questions. ‘What was it like in the orphanage?’
‘What, we’re back to me again? Is the story not sufficiently interesting?’
‘I’m just – ’
‘Curious. So you said.’ Her voice was curt now; the faint, teasing warmth that I’d sensed before was gone. ‘I don’t remember.’
‘Oh. Sorry – ’
‘I went back once,’ Joan said abruptly, taking me by surprise. ‘When I was twenty. The place I’d been in had closed down, but I was permitted to visit a similar … institution.’
Her voice was cold now. I thought of iron teeth in the snow.
‘And the sights there were … concerning. The place smelled foul and there was nothing much in there except walls and broken furniture. The older children ran in wolf-packs and fought each other for food. Some of them couldn’t seem to speak. The infants lay in rows of cots. Sometimes they were fed and changed – by a different person each time, the workers didn’t last long apparently – but for the rest of the day and night they just lay there. Even at that age… you looked at their faces and they weren’t like other babies.’
‘Jesus.’ I searched in vain for something to say. ‘I’m sorry.’
If Joan heard my words, she didn’t seem interested. Instead she went on ‘A psychiatrist told me once that children that young, when they’re treated like that, their minds develop … differently.’ There was a faint scratching sound and I realised she was scraping her fingernails back and forth against the concrete. ‘Anomalies in the neural pathways, he said. Not that I’d believe a single word those twisted abusive bloodsuckers have to say about anything, but still…’
She cleared her throat. ‘But you’re distracting me, my dear. We were just at the moment when sweet little Vasilisa is entering the witch’s house….
‘Once inside, Baba Yaga told Vasilisa to do all her housework and when she’d finished to go to the huge corn bin and separate, grain by grain, the good corn from the mouldy fragments. “If it’s not done by dinner time”, said Baba Yaga, “you will be my dinner!”
‘Vasilisa wept in fear, but luckily she had in her possession an enchanted doll given to her by her real mother. Vasilisa gave food to the doll and it came to life. Through its magical powers, it completed the impossible task for her. Baba Yaga was surprised, and the next day ordered Vasilisa to go to the barrel of poppyseeds and separate the seeds from the dirt. Again Vasilisa summoned the hungry living doll to complete the job.
‘Baba Yaga was disappointed not to have human flesh for dinner, but she was a woman of her word. She asked “What favour would you have from me, my pretty?”
‘Vasilisa begged her for the gift of light, whereupon Baba Yaga took down a human skull from the fence around her house. She mounted it on the end of a staff, handed it to Vasilisa and said “This will solve your problem. Only get out of here and take that doll with you, for I won’t have blessings under my roof.”
‘Vasilisa journeyed back through the forest to her home. Her stepmother saw her and shouted “Where is the light you were ordered to bring us? Get out of here!” But at the sound of her voice, the skull burst into flames. Fire shot from its eye sockets right towards the wicked stepmother and her two selfish daughters, catching them alight. Screaming in agony and terror, they tried to run, but the flames leapt higher until the women were incinerated, leaving nothing behind but three small piles of ash.
‘And Vasilisa lived happily ever after.’
‘Bloody hell, Joan.’ I blinked into the darkness. ‘What’s the moral of that story?’
‘Hm…’ I could hear Joan smiling. ‘Be nice to older women and they might help you get away with murder?’ She scratched her fingernails teasingly down the grate. ‘Or maybe the lesson is that heroes need villains more than vice versa. Without the stepmother and the witch, what would Vasilisa have been? Just a bored housewife.’
I puffed out a long breath and pulled my knees up closer to my chest. Now that I wasn’t panicking, my body was cooling down fast and there was no warmth to be had in this cell, unless I felt like wrapping myself in the scungy blanket. I pulled up my hood instead and tucked my hands under my armpits.
‘Hey, Joan, I’m sorry. I guess it wasn’t easy to tell me all that stuff.’
‘It’s only a fairytale.’ She sounded surprised. ‘And Baba Yaga isn’t always evil, you know. In folklore, she also represents truth, nature, rebirth. In the old days peasants would carve little shrines to her and put them out in the forest for good luck, with offerings of food … and maybe blood.’
‘I didn’t mean the story about the witch! I meant the one about you.’
‘Oh.’ Joan hesitated. ‘Well, it was a long time ago. It’s funny, though, talking about it now… I wonder if I might have been too hard on Ivan’s story about how my parents first met me. Maybe it wasn’t entirely false.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Well….’ She sighed and I heard her moving around. She must have been as stiff and sore from the concrete as I was, but somehow the thought of Joan Ferguson trying to get comfortable was weird. ‘Maybe I did smile at Maria and Ivan. Maybe I did run over, and even hug them.’
‘Well, yeah,’ I frowned. ‘Why not? A little kid just wants a family to love her, right?’
‘No, zolotse, you misunderstand me.’
Joan paused. When she spoke again, her voice was quiet but eerily clear, every word pronounced almost too carefully.
‘Imagine a child who is born into – into those circumstances. Not fed or cleaned properly, not played with. Not … touched. Imagine how she would learn to soothe herself because no one else was there to do it – screaming only when it was most likely to get attention, because she couldn’t waste the energy. Learning to distance herself from the hunger and filth that her own body was trapped in, to drift off somewhere else so it wouldn’t matter any more. And when she got bigger, imagine her learning to grab food away from younger children, fight her way towards the heaters, steal things she liked the look of because no one would ever give them to her, keep quiet when she’d done wrong so other children would take a beating instead. Imagine her becoming an expert in all of this when she was too small to know she was learning anything. Can you see how that child might come to see the world in … in a particular way? To approach every situation calculating what she might wring out of it for herself?’
The grubby little square of a window was growing paler. Maybe they’d switched on a new light in the yard, or there was a full moon rising. I held up my hand and realised I could see the shapes of my fingers.
Joan went on: ‘Can you imagine how that girl might have learned to put herself forward, smile sweetly and hug a well-dressed stranger with an eye for an attractive child? Not because she enjoyed it, but because she was already learning the art of – ’ Joan paused, then spat out the word ‘ – manipulation, in order to save her own small life?’
‘Jeez.’ I slumped lower against the brickwork, realising how tired I was. Even the bed didn’t look so disgusting any more. ‘That’s intense, Joan.’
‘Hm.’ But her voice sounded lighter now. Was she relieved to have said it out loud? Or just getting bored with the conversation? ‘Sometimes I think that formative experience was what made me so…’
In my head, I finished her sentence for her: ‘fucked up’.
But what Joan said was ‘Exceptional.’
I stayed there with the concrete freezing my arse through my thin tracksuit, listening to a woman sitting on the same cement floor in a dark, stinking cell, abandoned and hated by pretty much everyone, and telling me how exceptional she was. I wondered if she was the most deluded person I’d ever met, or the bravest.
And I wondered if that ‘exceptional’ part of her – neural pathways or a witch’s spell – could ever change, and what I would think of her if it did.
‘Nothing. Just … thanks for talking.’
‘The first hour’s free, my dear.’ She paused. ‘Was there anything else?’
‘Nup.’ I curled up tighter. My nose was freezing, my feet and fingers aching from the midnight chill. It would be hours before dawn. I wouldn’t sleep, but I knew now I wouldn’t suffocate from fear either. I would make it through.
I said ‘I just wish it wasn’t so bloody cold in here.’
Joan laughed again, and when she spoke her voice sounded so near to me that I wondered if she had put her mouth up right against the grille. I stretched my hand out across the mesh and fancied I could feel her breath warming my palm.
She whispered ‘You want me to give you fire, do you? My dear, you only have to ask. And maybe do me a favour or two….’