Ah the holidays! A time for warmth, a time for joy... A time for sorcery, superstition, darkness and oh yeah, boredom. At least - it is in Russia.
It was December at last in the far eastern Russian territory of Primorsky and I was VERY keen to experience a "Christmas" (or whatever they called it) now that I had friends, and a girlfriend to share it with. I knew we'd be expected to spend time with Babushka but that was a sacrifice I was willing to make. The "Feast of Saint Nicholas" came and went relatively well. A sort of Russian "Thanksgiving" where family and friends gathered at a massive feast and talked about good times, bad times, and Babushka's neighbor got drunk, naked and passed out in her sauna. Thankfully we found him in time before he got too dehydrated. Ah the holidays... It turns out the holiday season in Russia only starts with the feast of St. Nick. Then, there's "New Christmas" (Novoye Rozhdestvo), which Catholics and some other western religions celebrate on Dec 25th. Then, there's New Years which during the Soviet Union was the biggest winter celebration of the year. Since Christmas was banned as a religious holiday (religion was illegal) the Russians celebrated exactly as they would at Christmas, but on Jan 1 instead. Then of course there's "Old Christmas" still celebrated on January 6th, as it was on the old calendar. All these dates confused me. "Did we get gifts on all 3 days?" "Could I get gifts on all 3 days, even if no one else did?" These were critical questions which must be answered!
The Christmas holiday breaks are so long, and so many people are off work during the entire period on paid vacations, many many Russians get bored about half way through and long for returning to work... Really, really long for it. I also discovered that Christmas time, or New Years time, was a traditionally superstitious period on the calendar. Party games popular during these festive, family filled times of the year included: fortune telling, unique rituals designed to keep evil spirits away, and of course one of the favorite holiday pastimes - the Ouija Board! Now, don't worry - this won't be another Ouija Board story. Though every December to January tens of thousands of Russians do partake. Babushka even had one at her house, a traditionally round one that looked very old and had seen many many seances over the years. It was around this festive time of year, that I had my own Christmas Horror...
Although Ludya and I were swamped, trying to move into our new apartment building, we spent as much time with Babushka as we could. Pretty much every weekend we spent up at her dacha, going over the different holidays and how we'd arrange and schedule each one. In Babushka's household, they traditionally gave gifts in January, as they were an old and established Russian Orthodox family. We ended up working out a compromise where Ludya and I would celebrate on Dec 25th, and we would have another celebration in January with her grandmother.
Around January 2nd, we gathered our gifts and hired a taxi to take us out to the village. There was so much to transport, the train wasn't really realistic. Babushka greeted us at the door and "supervised" as we brought everything in. She was her typical forward self, lingering after kissing me in welcome and grabbing at me as I passed by her... She'd make comments like "...silney" (oh, how strong) and I'd respond by calling her "terpkey" (slang for tart or... Other things). She'd laugh and her beady little eyes would twinkle. She loved every moment of it. When we were done, I set myself up in one of the downstairs bedrooms. I've always been terrible at wrapping gifts, they end up looking like I had used my feet, with tape everywhere and seams exposed, revealing the items within. Dreading that prospect, I waited until the last minute and now had to finish wrapping everything for Babushka and Ludya's other immediate family. After a few minutes of focused failure, I heard a knock at the door. Ludya and her grandmother were going into the village center to pick up dinner. I let her know what I wanted and shortly after, I heard the front door to the dacha close.
It didn't sink in at first, but this was the only time I'd been alone in Babushka's house. I'd stayed there many many times over the last couple months, but there had always been at least one other person there with me. I worked steadily for 15 or so minutes before I was disturbed again by a tapping sound. I stopped and looked up, trying to work out where the noise might be coming from. The room wasn't very large, and the windows were sealed tightly, so it couldn't be a draft... A few seconds later it resumed... Tap, tap, tap... I stood and walked over to the large picture window across the room from me and slid back the curtains. The windows were mostly iced over, but there didn't appear to be any movement. Testing the latches on each of the three windows, I verified they were securely latched. I had just slid the curtains back into their original position when I heard the tapping again... Tap, tap, tap. The sound definitely seemed as though it were coming from somewhere behind me - the door perhaps? I exited the small bedroom and looked down the hall, at first I assumed it was Babushka playing a trick on me. Tap, tap, tap...
Leaving the hallway that lead to the bedroom, I stepped out into the large living room where Babushka liked to entertain her guests. Every wall of the room was covered in a lifetime's worth of small trinkets, photos, religious icons, and the like. No fire was going, so the large room was quite cold and I remember shivering a bit and rubbing my arms. Suddenly, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. A form, dark against the color of the light coming from the bedroom's open door down the hallway. I snapped my head around, but could see nothing. Only the long, narrow hallway and the glow of the lamps in the room where I had been working. The house was pretty disturbing all alone, so many odd angles and objects covering every surface, the shadows played strange tricks... Moving while you were looking away, and snapping to perfect stillness when I turned my attention to them. I walked in a circle around the living room, turning on lamps as I went. Even with all of them lit, the room only had a slight glow to it, not even enough light to read in. Babushka did like things dark...
Tap, tap tap... The sound had returned, I made my way out of the living room and toward the house's front door. The door was not locked (as is typical out in these villages) and I could make out the halo of a street lamp through the iced over glass in the center of the door. Turning the knob very slowly, I pulled it open in an instant - expecting to catch some neighbor kid playing a trick... The outer world was entirely still. Light snow was falling, soft and dry as talcum powder drifting down from the inky black sky above. No moon or stars, only the snow, and the amber glow of the village's sodium street lights reflecting off the powder, giving everything a sharp golden aura. The only footsteps in the snow belonged to Ludya and her grandmother, moving from the front steps and down the street toward the center of town. Even those foot prints were quickly filling up, being erased by the night's winter storm... I searched around the perimeter of the house, no other footprints were visible. There were no birds, no animals around that I could see, only perfect stillness.
My limbs were getting quite numb by the time I made it back to the front door of the house, I hadn't put on a jacket or anything prior to going out and I was now feeling the results. Stepping back into the entry hall, I closed the door behind me and took a few steps back toward the living room. From this position in the house I could tell the tapping sounds were not tapping after all, they were the sound of footsteps. It sounded as though there were someone in the room directly above the front entry hallway. The steps started and stopped, like someone was pacing, or possibly swaying/dancing to a rhythm. I moved very quietly back to the first floor bedroom and collected my cell phone as quietly as I could. If there was an intruder in the house, I wasn't going to let them know I was there... Taking each step very cautiously, I made my way up to the second floor and down the hall toward Babushka's bedroom (the room directly over the front entry). Her door was wide open, and her curtains were all pulled back, allowing plenty of light from the street to enter the room. The first thing I noticed was a moving shadow, crossing back and forth in front of the wall across from the door way. Back and forth, in a steady rhythm it flowed over the surface of the wall directly across from me. Taking a few more cautious steps, I lifted my phone and tapped "102" (police emergency) into the touch surface, ready to place the call if necessary. Moving closer to the doorway of her room, I changed my position so I could see further around the corner. The source of the shadow was coming from some kind of blanket, or shawl, or something that was hanging over the arm of a chair, swaying back and forth as if a steady wind was blowing on it, but all the windows were sealed.
That was about enough for me. I turned immediately, rushed down the stairs and out the front door, following what was left of the footprints to meet up with Ludya and her grandmother. When I explained what had happened, she sighed, rolled her eyes and scoffed... "Ya zhe skazall, chito dom PRESLEDUVYETT." (I TOLD you the house was HAUNTED...)