It took several weeks to terminate our lease at the apartment complex. We only returned to the flat for brief visits to collect belongings. As neither of us had really provided any furniture, that wasn't a big deal. Clothing, electronics, some decorative "junk" we had collected together to enhance the space was all we needed. While we fought with the apartment manager over our last month's rent we were staying at a small hotel by the waterfront. It was off-season for tourists so the prices were reasonable, but still taking their toll as the time we spent there dragged on and on. As the fall season arrived, we were invited up to the dacha (summer house) of my girlfriend's grandmother. It was in a medium sized village north of the city and easily reachable by train. We both figured it would be a great escape from the stresses of the city and our prior apartment, so we accepted the invitation and by the third week in September we were off to "grandma's house".
I'd stayed in a Dacha before, and they're usually pretty similar... A small wooden cabin or cottage, often with a thatched roof, really intricate carved wood work, and dense ancient forests sprawling all around. Ludya's grandmother didn't have a dacha, she had a mansion. It was obviously built in the same style, but it was 3 stories tall and had at least 15 rooms. Imagine a log cabin on steroids, with hand carved posts and massive, beveled glass windows and you'll have some idea. The first thing I noticed about babushka (grandma) was that she LOVED American music. She talked about it for hours on end, Elvis in particular was one of her favorites. Next, was that she liked to flirt with her grand-daughter's boyfriend a little too much. She was grabby, and spouted off weird innuendos and dirty jokes like no 78 year old I'd ever met before. The first night we were there in her home, we told her about our experiences in the apartment building. She didn't seem phased by it, nodding and smiling and agreeing with a lot of our comments. When we had relayed most of the story, she stopped us, pausing to look deeply into the fireplace like she was examining the flames for some deeper meaning...
"You know, this house is haunted." She said to us... I'm not really sure what Ludya was thinking, but I was thinking... Whaaaat? Why would she SAY that to us after what we had been through.
Babushka began to tell us a story about the weeks just before her husband died. She had a small collapsible tray over-loaded in medications necessary to keep her husband alive. The tray was set up near the head of the bed on her side, so she could quickly access them if needed. Often, before she would go to sleep, a figure would come into the room from the door just past the foot of her bed and stop, staring at her. She said the figures were always children and they wore traditional Cossack costumes, probably dating from the late 1800's. One, two, sometimes three of them would come in standing side by side and cautiously approach the foot of the bed, sometimes stopping and placing their hands on the top of the footboard while they stared intently at her and her husband. She would call out to them, asking what they wanted, how she could help them but they would never respond. She said the encounter always ended the same way, with her trying to wake her ailing husband, and when she turned back to the foot of the bed, they were gone. One night, they came again, and she was so frustrated and frightened by their regular appearance that she shouted out at them... "Leave me alone". "Be gone from here" she shouted to us while she told the story, gesturing with her hands. The tray, overloaded with medications then slid across the floor half a meter and came crashing to the ground, pills and bottles flying everywhere. That was the last time she saw the children, and her husband died less than a week later.
She had several more stories as well, slowly recounting them as she tended the fire and occasionally took a photo from amongst the many that sit on the shelves around the living room. She would point to one and explain how this relative, or that relative, had returned to speak to her. Or, how they themselves had witnessed something strange in the dark Siberian forest. She told us about her own brother (Ludya's great uncle) who had been working for the Civil Militia (police) in the 1960's guarding train depots. He would come home almost nightly with strange tales of various things he would see while alone in the dark station houses. Phantoms of long dead passengers, queuing up in line to take their tickets or move across the platform to their train. He would hear the whistles of steam engines that hadn't run for 30 years, hear people whispering, and even said he would suddenly fall ill during his watch. Babushka told us how he would find belongings, artifacts along the train lines... Watches, eyeglasses, rings, lighters. At first he would bring them home, but after a while runs of bad luck would "convince" him to return the items back to where he had found them. When he had finally been removed from train duty he had sworn he would never step foot in a depot again.
The stories were frightening, mysterious, and even more so the way they were told. I looked around the large living room of her dacha, at all the objects on the walls and in the cupboards, dancing in the firelight with large, over sized shadows and I admit I was terrified. Throughout the 1800's Siberia was a favored place for the Russian government to send its "undesirables" such as minorities, illegitimate children (even with royal blood), and vagrants. She said once the trans-Siberian railroad was completed, the trains ran day and night, carrying poor souls exiled to this region. Ludya interrupted her grandmother, scolding her for "making up stories" and trying to scare us. Her grandmother just smiled back, fluffing up her blanket and rolling her eyes. "Tak molod" she said a couple times while shaking her head... Tak molod... Tak molod... (so young).
It was my first real introduction to the dark, Gothic, superstitious way of thinking that most Russians in this part of the world held. Babushka then continued, saying "be careful" and that the "dead are envious of the living" that they will do almost anything they can to "feel warm" again. The scene was pretty surreal, but so very, very Russian. If I had grown up in this region I probably would have been taught from an early age about how to ward against "evil spirits" and phantoms. I would have been told that they were all around me and that every ancient forest throughout the country was a place where they gathered.
I was just about sick to my stomach when Ludya's grandmother stopped and stood up, going into the kitchen and returning with a freshly baked pumpkin, stuffed with fruits and nuts. "You want some dessert?" She chuckled as she offered us some.
I wasn't very hungry, and sufficed to say, I didn't sleep well that night. Strangely though, Ludya got an excellent nights sleep. Odd what people can take comfort in.