Bialowieza Forest, Poland
26 October 2005
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
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
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
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!
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.
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.
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?’
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
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
‘Run!’ he ordered tersely, in that strange-accented
English. ‘I don’t have time to explain - just
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
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
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.
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.
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
‘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.
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
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,
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?
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.’
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…’
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
was a boom as something slapped the window, punctuating his tale.
Both of us flinched and glanced toward the curtains, but all was
‘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
‘A convenient story invented by the Church; a children’s
tale - this is what I believed.’ His smile was wry and
‘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
‘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
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
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.
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.
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
‘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
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.
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.
turned cold. Walking away from the desk, I wondered, did
Dobrogost have a living wife? Or would he return to a drowned
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?’
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.
- 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