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Elizabeth Pearl


Bialowieza Forest, Poland
26 October 2005

Esfir stood under the great yew, rain dripping from the hood of her parka.  She peered out at the grey landscape, trees looming black and spindly, criss-crossing the sky like fingers drawn across the eyes of the earth.  They used to meet here, stealing moments with a sense of being naughty children.  It was their place, their secret.  She placed her hand on the trunk of the great tree, smiling in remembrance.
     It seemed a long time since she had visited, though she returned whenever she could.  It was always raining when she waited here.  Perhaps, this time, Dobrogost would come.  She thought she heard him call, imagined him hurrying towards her, emerging from the trees.  Or perhaps he would be there already, hiding behind the curving bark, teasing her.  She would search anxiously, wait as he stood so silently, barely breathing.  He would circle the massive trunk as she chased him, both circling and circling until she thought he was gone.  Then he would pop his head around the side with that cheeky grin.  She would snap at him, but not in anger.  It was fear - fear of losing him; fear of one day circling the tree forever, never finding him.  His smile would make her forgive him everything; his smile would bring out the sun even on a day like this.
    She listened to the steady patter of the rain, watching droplets fall staccato on the puddled ground.  He would not be here today.  She felt it in her bones.  They had not arranged to meet.  She had come alone, to remember.  She smoothed her hand against the rough bark of the tree.  It would be raining where he was, too.  She always knew.
    The forest stretched out around her, vast and tall, clawing at the sky.  The trees had no power to escape.  They would stand and wait for change to fall from the sky.  Esfir would find him.  She had a little time left.  The path stretched out before her, a trail of troubled pools.  Black branches spread overhead, brooding above her.  Esfir walked on.  It would be good to see him, good to see where he was now.
    He had come to visit her once.  His face white, he thought her a dream, but she had wrapped her arms around him, drawn him to her.  They could have stayed together, but he was snatched away, lost to her.  She watched the fragmented puddles pensively, feeling her face fall into mournful lines.  Onwards she walked, drifting over the puddles, leaving neither a splash nor a ripple to mark her passing.

*     *     *

Extract from the diary of Lucy Wright:

28 October 2005

We were supposed to leave Budapest two days ago, but the rain finally caught up with us.  Maybe traveling in October wasn’t such a great idea.  There was fear of flooding on the 25th, so we decided to put off the next leg of our journey for a few days.  This has actually been a good thing, because it’s given us the chance to see Buda Castle, which we would otherwise have missed.  It’s really spectacular!  Maddy got some fantastic photos of the Danube Promenade.
    The most striking event of our stay here has been that encounter with Dobrogost.  I don’t really know how to put it into words - the fear that struck me that night.  It was like walking into another world, one of ghouls and fairytales; a world in which we didn’t belong.
    But I’m getting ahead of myself.  I should lay down the facts, just as they happened, and hope that helps make sense of something I may never in my life understand.
    Dobrogost (yes, it is a wonderful name, isn’t it?) was one of the other guests here at our hotel until yesterday morning.  He was a rather sad-looking man, with dark hair and heavy features.  Maddy and I passed him in the lobby when we arrived.  He didn’t even look at us, just swept on by with an air of preoccupation.  When I saw him in the local bar, later, I was intrigued.  He was a mysterious kind of figure.  Maddy didn’t agree, of course.  She never does.  I suppose it comes of being the older sister.  She thought Dobrogost looked like a highly suspicious character - maybe an arms dealer or drug-smuggler.  She told me she was sure she’d seen his face on ‘America’s Most Wanted’.  Ha! 
    As soon as Maddy was distracted with the barman, I sidled over and tried to talk to our mysterious ‘arms-dealer’.  He was fluent in English, but it was difficult to get anything more than monosyllables out of the man.  Drawing him out became a challenge.  While I’d love to take credit for finally breaking the ice, it was probably the five vodkas he downed that did it.  We talked.  It turned out he was from some remote village in Poland; somewhere near the Bialowieza forest.  Like us, he was just passing through.  I told him about our travels in Europe - about Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin… all the stuff I’ve already covered in this journal.  He gradually thawed, even laughed.  He had a great smile.  Funny, at that point, I was sorry we wouldn’t be staying longer.  Now, I can’t wait to leave.
    It happened then, when the bar was closing up.  We were sitting at the end of the bar nearest these big bay windows, when the rain started up again, abruptly, pattering loud against the glass.  Maddy groaned and said something about forgetting her umbrella, but Dobrogost… he turned pale and tensed, turning toward the window.  I must have stared, because his eyes flicked back to my face and he forced a smile - a very unconvincing one. 
    ‘It’s late,’ he mumbled.  ‘I should -’, his eyes slid back to the window and remained fixed on the heavy curtains, as though riveted there against his will.  I thought he must have had too much to drink.  Maddy obviously had.  We all agreed to walk back to the hotel together, Dobrogost still watching the window with that strangely intent expression. 
    Maddy and I had to practically drag him out of the bar.  He said he wanted to wait for the rain to stop.  Fat chance of that - it had been raining on and off all day.  Outside on the dark street, he did a complete turnaround and strode on ahead of us.  The tension in his back was palpable.  Maddy giggled a bit and whispered about him as we picked our way over the cobblestones.  I swear he would have dashed on ahead and disappeared from view, if some outdated sense of gallantry hadn’t held him back.  Hilarious as it was, I was strangely touched.  Until, that is, he stopped abruptly, spun around and snapped: ‘What?’
    I stared, taken aback.  We had been walking in silence for some minutes, with just the patter of rain and the echo of our footsteps sounding on the cobbled street.
    ‘I didn’t say anything -’ I began, first surprised and then irate.
    Dobrogost was staring at something behind me.  I glanced over my shoulder, reflexively, and was somehow relieved to see just an empty street.  Under the curving row of street lamps, the rain had slicked the cobbles into a kind of fractured mirror, streams of light trickling down the narrow road like paint bleeding out of a film noir shot.  At the other end of the street, a set of traffic lights changed from green to red, bringing invisible cars to a halt.  Red trailed garishly across the cobbles.  
Maddy laughed wildly, breaking the tension.
    ‘What are you both like?  Your face!’ she chuckled at me.  ‘And you!’ she laughed at Dobrogost, ‘Like you’d seen a ghost.  Whooo!’
    ‘Shut up!’ he snapped back at her, with a vehemence that struck us both silent.  I wondered, for the first time, whether he could be dangerous.  Only then did I think how vulnerable we were - just the two of us, and Maddy far gone, alone with him on an empty street.  The drumming of rain seemed very loud in my ears.  I wondered whether anyone was awake in the flats above the street’s shops.  Would they wake if we cried out?  Would we be able to outdistance him if we had to?  Whip around the corner and down the street? 
    In the middle of these reflections, I heard a voice behind me.  It sounded like someone calling out in an unfamiliar language - maybe Hungarian, possibly Russian.  I was turning to look when a hand pulled me back, roughly.  Dobrogost was there, grabbing me by the arm and lifting a stumbling Maddy off her feet in a fireman’s grip. 
    ‘Run!’ he ordered tersely, in that strange-accented English.  ‘I don’t have time to explain - just run!’
    I wanted to protest, did protest, but didn’t resist as he hauled us forward, running helter-skelter over the cobbles, splashing through puddles, all the time the rain coming down thick and fast.  The fear in his eyes - the terror - was genuine.  Cold water splashed up all around us, seeping into my shoes, creeping up the legs of my jeans.  I slipped and fell forward, but he pulled hard on my arm, dragging me upright, still running.  His grip was so hard it hurt.  I could hear Maddy’s slurred protests spluttering from his shoulder.
    ‘Don’t fall in the water,’ I thought he said, but it seemed like a bizarre thing to say.  ‘Don’t fall in the water.  Don’t stop.  Just run.’
    Behind me I heard it again - that voice calling after us.  It was a woman’s cry, and seemed to be keeping pace, though we were running so fast I could barely breathe. 
I was suddenly angry.  Why were we running?  Was our pursuer chasing this guy?  Was she his ex-girlfriend or something?  He might have a problem with her, but why did we have to run?
    Dobrogost never once relinquished his grasp on my arm.  He saw something up ahead, swerved and dragged me to the side.  I slipped and skidded again, but we were up and running to the end of the alley.  I wondered how he could still be carrying Maddy after all this time.  She wasn’t exactly light and it sounded like she was struggling.
    Suddenly, we were there, outside the hotel.  Dobrogost punched in the door code like the devil was on his heels and hurled us through.  I could have sworn that, in the moment we paused, I felt a grip on my arm, cold and wet, and a woman’s voice in my ear speaking urgently… but it was lost in the chaos as we tumbled through.  Dobrogost slammed the door hard.  The glass reverberated.  It was one of those big glass doors you find in hotel lobbies.  Through it, we could see the pouring rain, and then…
    She appeared without warning.  One minute there was just night and rain blurring the streetlamps, then there she was, just inches away on the other side of the glass.  I could see her eyes, green as bottle glass.  She wore a dark hooded parka, long black hair spilling down from the hood in saturated waves.  One white palm pressed against the glass of the door.  Her eyes were fixed on Dobrogost and her expression… I will never forget her expression.  It was one of profound and terrible sadness.
    Maddy obviously saw her too, because she began to yell like anything.  I had been too startled to open my mouth, but could understand the feeling.  You could tell, just by looking at this woman, that she wasn’t human.  Before I could draw a decent breath, Dobrogost swore and shouted: ‘Back!’ pulling us both away from the door.  I followed his gaze and saw water seeping in under the doorsill, soaking wetly into doormat and carpet.  The dark stain edged closer and closer. 
There was a reverberation, as though something heavy had struck the glass doors.  I looked up, but saw nothing.  The figure had vanished.  Yet, still the darkness of the carpet seeped toward us and the rain fell in torrents outside.
    ‘Upstairs,’ Dobrogost muttered tersely.  Maddy pointed open-mouthed at the door. 
    ‘But I saw…’ she protested, uncomprehending.
    Dobrogost moved to push her toward the stairs.  She flinched away from him.
    ‘No!  Don’t touch me!  Running and then… That.  What was that?  I know I saw it!’
    I exchanged a glance with our very pale friend.
    ‘Upstairs, Maddy,’ I said quietly, taking her by the arm.  She began another protest, but was unsteady enough to allow herself to be propelled up the staircase.  As we reached the first landing, I glanced back.  The water seeping in had spread a dark stain across the centre of the hallway.  Dobrogost, following a few stairs down, eyed it with the air of assessing an impending threat.  We mounted the stairs in silence.  Our room was on the second floor, but at the first landing, I hesitated, glancing back downstairs.  The thought of sitting in my room with a semi-conscious Maddy, wondering what that was and whether it would be able to get in, suddenly seemed unappealing. 
    Dobrrogost didn’t give me the chance to think further.  He took my elbow as he passed and propelled both Maddy and I down the corridor without a word or glance, away from the sight of that spreading stain.  Before I knew it, we had piled into his spartan little room and the door was locked behind us.  As soon as I stepped over the threshold, every horror movie I’d ever seen flashed through my brain and branded me an idiot.  I remember thinking something along the lines of: ‘He’s insane/we’re going to die/it’s all my fault’.
    Maddy, oblivious to my torment, muttered something and lay down on the bed, where she promptly fell asleep.  I think this may have been the most unbelievable event of the evening.  In contrast, Dobrogost, the would-be-killer of my worst nightmares, lost his composure completely once the door was closed.  There was a clink.  I turned to see he was shaking so badly, he’d dropped his keys.  He rested his forehead against the door and breathed deeply like a man in the grip of a panic attack.  I sidled to a safe distance and watched him cautiously.
    I was sure I’d seen a woman out there.  Almost sure.  It could have been a trick of the light, or the alcohol, or the tense atmosphere, or all three.  In fact, it was probably nothing at all, but…
    ‘What was that?’ I demanded, against all reason. 
Dobrogost, who was still standing with his head pressed against the door, face twisted in pain, ignored me.  His breathing was irregular and he was shaking badly.  He turned and did a slow slide to the ground.  Thinking he might be in shock, I edged closer, trying to dredge up any useful first aid stuff from memory.  I got a towel from the bathroom and put it over his shoulders, pulled the hip-flask out of Maddy’s not-so-secret handbag stash and handed it over without a word.  He took it, still shaking.  I hugged him and mumbled something comforting.  He didn’t seem to hear me, but downed some of the vodka and seemed to calm a little.
    Rising to my feet, I glanced toward the window and found myself looking right out into that pair of bottle-green eyes. 
    Three stories up, I thought, as I screamed my lungs out.  Three stories up and there she was, hood down, hair swirling around her pale face in the pouring rain as though she were floating underwater.  Her lips were moving. 
       Dobrogost was up and across the room with astonishing speed.  He drew the curtains with a violent movement and stepped away.  I realised I was still screaming and stopped with a horrible little whimper.  We both stared or tried not to stare at the curtains.  There came a tap from behind them, something tapping the glass gently, insistently.  It came again, and again. 
I stood, frozen, heart thumping too loudly.  Maddy stirred on the bed with an agitated moan.  Lucky cow, sleeping through a living nightmare.
    ‘Don’t open the curtains,’ Dobrogost said softly, and very, very clearly.  ‘Don’t open the door.’  He looked speculatively over at the bathroom, then strode over and closed it.  Oh God.  Water.  Could she get in through tap water?  Shower water?  What was she?
    The whole time, a part of me was insisting: this is insane.  This can’t be happening.  It isn’t real.  You must be dreaming or unconscious or something.  Every time the tapping stopped, I thought - it’s okay, I was just imagining it; it’s okay now… And then it would start again. 
    Dobrogost sat, tense, silent, knees drawn up, back against the wall.  I crouched beside him, Maddy and the bed on my left.  This was about as far from the window as we could get.
    At last, after a long silence, I whispered: 
    ‘Who is she?’
    Dobrogost gave no sign he’d heard.  He continued to stare blankly into space.  Suddenly angry at him, whoever he was, for dragging me into this, I grabbed his shoulders and began to shake him.  Not gently, either.
    ‘Who is she?  Tell me!  What does she want?  I know you know!’  It was right there, behind his closed expression, behind his silence.  It was there in the way he looked at her with something more than fear - something like pity or regret.
    He turned his head, acknowledging at least that I was still there.
    ‘She wants me to die,’ he said at last, quite matter-of-factly.
    ‘She wants to kill you?  Why?  What did you do to her?’
    That hit a nerve.  He flinched and rallied fiercely.
    ‘Nothing!’ he hissed.  Then the fire seemed to go out of him.  He sagged. 
    ‘It was a long time ago, in Gruszki, a little village near Bialowieza -’ he began, like a storyteller reciting a narrative to a child.
    ‘Is this a long story?’ I interrupted irritably.
    He just looked at me.
    ‘We have all night,’ he said.  ‘Or until the rain stops.  She will not be able to enter -’ there came another knock from the window, ‘but she will try.  Perhaps she will succeed.’
    ‘And then?’
    He met my stare with another long, fathomless look.
    ‘She’ll kill us,’ I whispered aloud.
    ‘That is her nature,’ he responded emotionlessly.  He leaned back again, world-weary.  I sat, very still and tense, trying hard not to look at the window.  I flinched every time the tapping came around again.  I wanted to scream, tear open the curtains, yell at that floating face…
    No, actually, I really didn’t.  I hugged my knees closer. 
    Tap… Tap… Tap…
    Dobrogost tilted his head, rolling his eyes toward me. 
    ‘A long time ago,’ he began, in a strangely calm, soothing tone.  ‘A long time ago, I loved a girl named Esfir.’  He spoke the name as though it were a scent, a touch, a taste.  The knocking paused, as though the thing behind the curtains was listening along with me.  How strange to think of all of us together, flesh and spirit, bound by a single story; Maddy quietly sleeping through it all, oblivious. 
    ‘She was kind.  Clever.  Very beautiful,’ Dobrogost seemed to speak to himself rather than to me.  ‘We were just sixteen.  Too young to marry, but we were in love.  We used to meet under a great yew tree in Bialowieza.  It was the tallest tree for miles around.  Maybe the oldest, too.  We used to wonder how long it had stood there, what it had seen…  Esfir came to me.  She told me she was carrying my child.’  He paused.  ‘I was very young.  I was not ready to be a father.  We argued…  I told her I would not support her.  I told her I did not love her.  I was afraid, terribly afraid.  It seemed as though my future was being stolen from me.  I resented it.  I said many things… hurt her terribly…’ 
    There was a long silence, broken only by the sound of rain falling relentlessly to the cobbles below.  Dobrogost took a deep breath.
    ‘One night, Esfir disappeared.  We thought she had run away.  I searched for her.  I waited for her at the old yew.  Night after night, I waited.  I regretted - bitterly, bitterly regretted the things I had said to her.  I told my parents the truth.  Hers, too.  I did not know it was already too late.’
    There was a boom as something slapped the window, punctuating his tale.  Both of us flinched and glanced toward the curtains, but all was silence again.   
    ‘In the old stories,’ Dob continued, ‘they tell of the ‘rusalka’.  Have you heard this name?’
    He tilted his head toward me.  I shook my head.
    ‘It is a bad name, an evil name.  They say the souls of women who leave this world too soon or die by their own hand; women who drown; children who die unbaptised - they may not lie at rest, but must walk out the remainder of their lives, neither living nor dead.’
    ‘Ghosts,’ I murmured involuntarily.
    ‘No…’ Dobrogost shook his head, still propped against the wall.  ‘A ghost is a spirit; a rusalka is… Water.  Living water.  As though the water takes on the life the spirit lost.  It is more like… a demon, perhaps.  The stories tell that they are vengeful, despairing.  They wander the forests, begging for absolution.’  He lapsed into a brooding silence, before continuing.
    ‘A convenient story invented by the Church; a children’s tale - this is what I believed.’  His smile was wry and bitter. 
    ‘I waited at the old yew, but, as time passed, I went less often.  One day, two years after Esfir left, I was standing under the tree in the pouring rain… and she came to me.  Through the darkness of the forest, walking between the trees… I half-saw her and thought it must be someone else.  But it was her, just as she was the last time we met.  She was soaked through with the rain - I thought it was the rain - and she came to me, smiling.  They had said she must be dead or lost, but there she was, standing right before me. 
    ‘I thought she was, as you say, a ghost.  I was afraid, but would not run from her again.  She smiled and reached out her hand and touched my face, and she said:
    ‘I have missed you, beloved guest’
    ‘This is my name,’ Dobrogost explained, turning to me.  For all the steadiness of his voice, I saw, on his cheeks, the trail of tears.  ‘‘Dobrogost’ means ‘kindly guest’. 
    ‘She was solid.  She was real - as real as you are now, I swear to you.’
    The thought sent a shiver down my spine.
    ‘She took my hand.  She kissed it.  She was warm, solid, alive.  She said I must come and see our child.’  His voice cracked and he struggled to steady it. 
    There had long been silence from the window.  It seemed his narrative, his confessional, soothed the troubled ghost. 
    ‘She took my hand,’ he continued, seemingly with a great effort, ‘and led me through the forest.  The rain poured down all around us in torrents, streaming through the mud, from branches, from her hair.  I slipped and slid as I followed her, wondering how she kept her balance in such a deluge.  She walked so gracefully.  We came to a clearing and walked out onto a smooth, grassy lawn.  Esfir stopped there, at its centre.  She took me in her arms and told me she loved me.  She kissed me and… and...’  Dobrogost was forced to break off again.
    ‘When I opened my eyes,’ he continued grimly, ‘I saw before me the perfect likeness of my lover, as though carved from glass.  Her lips, her arms, her eyes were all clear as water and her hair a floating halo of pond weed.  She dissolved in my arms, melting away into foam, lost in the rain. 
    ‘I cried out, tried to grasp her, hold her to me, but as she vanished, the ground gave way beneath me.  You see, the green grass was only pond scum floating on a hidden lake and whatever force had kept me on the surface melted away with Esfir.  I fell down into water pounded by the rain.  I felt her arms around me still, pulling me into the depths and when I closed my eyes, she was there, her face inches from mine.      ‘The priests lied.  There was no trace of vengeance, only sorrow. 
    ‘Over the roaring of water and the pounding of blood in my brain, I heard the cry of a child echo through the water.  Esfir whispered in my ear, cheek pressed to mine, hair floating around us both, wrapping us round: ‘This is your son’.  As my final breath was dragged from me, staring blankly into the void, I saw them, held them both in my arms, my lover and my child.’
    There was a very long silence. 
    ‘‘Final breath’?  But…’ 
    But he was alive, wasn’t he? 
I felt a sudden shock of dread.  What if the real terror had been in here with me all along?  What if he were the ghost, the vengeful spirit?  I sat frozen, terrified to shatter a reality in which I was still safe and well.  Maddy breathed slowly, regularly beside me.  Good, I thought.  Stay like that.
    ‘The next thing I heard,’ Dobrogost said, after far, far too long, ‘Was my name; my sister’s voice screaming in my ear.  I had been away too long.  My family knew it was the anniversary of her death, knew where I would be.  My sister and her husband came to find me.  Joasia told me they saw me meet her under the yew.  They followed us.  Joasia dived into the lake after me and Iwo after her.  But, when they pulled me out, I was already dead.’
    There was a horrible silence.  No sound broke the stillness.  I stared at the figure beside me, afraid to blink, afraid to breathe.
    Dobrogost looked up.
    ‘Is your sister still sleeping?’  He made as if to rise.
    I reached out unwillingly, grabbed his arm, looked the question I daren’t ask.  He met my gaze, eyes dark and unfathomable as the bottom of a well.
    ‘The rain has stopped,’ he said.
    It was true.  There was no sound - not even the patter of raindrops on cobblestones.  I glanced toward the window.  Dobrogost gently removed my hand from his arm, and walked over to the curtains.  He drew them in a single movement. 
    I cried out.
    Beyond the window… there was nothing; nothing but dawn breaking over the city.  Our spectre of the night had passed with the rain. 
    ‘You see?’ he said, quietly regarding the view.  I stared at him, still wanting to know.
    ‘When Joasia pulled me out, I was already dead.  She and Iwo breathed air into my lungs, pumped out the water, restarted my heart.  Sometimes I wonder whether it would have been better if they had left me sleeping, down there at the bottom of the lake with my family.’ 
    The dawn lit his expression in pink and gold.  His face was furrowed with lines of sadness. 
    ‘When they trawled the lake,’ he continued quietly, ‘the police found Esfir.  They said she must have gone there, the night she disappeared. 
       ‘But she is not gone.  She will follow me always. 
    ‘She is waiting.’
    ‘For what?’  My words held only the shadow of sound, but he heard them.
    ‘To take me to my son,’ he responded simply.
    There we were, a tableau in the light of dawn: Dobrogost, standing gold in the sunlight, I uncurling at the base of the wall and Madeline sleeping through it all. 
    After the stillness, I woke her.  I led her, murmuring drowsily, back to our room. 
    Dobrogost held the door for us, silent, impassive.  Looking at his face, I felt as though, when the door closed on it, it would close on him forever.  I would never see this man again.  I looked back several times, saw him watching.  Then, as we reached the stairs, there was the soft thud of a closing door. 
       That was it.  The story ended.

I knocked on his door later, of course, but there was no answer.  The hotel manager said he had left early that morning.
    ‘Did he say where he was going?’  I asked.
    ‘He told me he had to meet his wife,’ the manager replied and shrugged.
    I turned cold.  Walking away from the desk, I wondered, did Dobrogost have a living wife?  Or would he return to a drowned embrace? 
    In my imagination, he steps out of a car onto the drive of a neat suburban house.  He has been imagining returning to Bialowieza Forest.  He hesitates a moment, shakes off a lingering melancholy and opens the door.  His wife hurries down the stairs to greet him, brown hair flying.  Their daughter calls out from the floor of the living room, where she’s playing with building blocks.  She greets him with an enormous smile and he sweeps her up in his arms.  As he does so, he is confronted with his reflection in the window.  For a moment, just a moment, his smile slips as he sees in the empty glass something that has been, will be and his daughter is saying:
    ‘Daddy!  Did you see the rain?’
    In my imagination, he steps out of a car on the outskirts of a remote village in Poland.  He has been imagining a life in which he had a wife and family, but could not escape his past.  He hesitates a moment, drawn to houses and people and the place he was raised.  He recollects himself, turns away.  He strides purposefully into the forest, branches cracking under his heavy shoes, leaves crunching and falling to dust.
       For hours, he wanders, searching. 
       Finally, he arrives. 
    There - the old yew and there - the narrow trail, half-hidden.  He follows it, slowing as he reaches the end, but never stopping.  He almost pauses at the edge of a wide, green open space, but continues forward, unswerving.  Cold arms reach up from the water to welcome him home.








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