So at the beginning of The Shadow Aspect I'd originally written a Prologue titled "The Clarion Call." As my team worked on this novel, we decided it needed to go. Many thanks to Becky Stephens and Naomi Clewett for helping me make that call.
"The Clarion Call" was the backstory on Grandma Petrovich (still one of my favorite characters) and WHY she'd come to America in the first place. It's an interesting tale, but not one that needed to be part of The Shadow Aspect.
I released a version of this story more than a year ago, but I thought it was time for an update. While "The Clarion Call" isn't in The Shadow Aspect as I originally planned, you can read it here! Enjoy.
The Clarion Call
Soviet Russia, 1957
Vasilisa walked down The same path from her family’s farm to town every day for as long as she could remember. She was barely strong enough to carry the packs of freshly harvested roots and herbs when her mother tasked her with the job. But Vasilisa never complained. What was the use? Now that she was a young woman, her daily routine seemed as automated as breathing: wake, wash her face, dress, feed her younger siblings, comb out her wheat-colored tresses, and then harvest herbs to take to the distillery. Only now she could carry more. Only now her mother was dead.
With her eyes on the pebbly path below her feet, Vasilisa walked from her farm, through the field, and into the woods. It was a ten-minute walk to the road. If she was lucky, someone would give her a ride to town. If she wasn’t, it would take thirty minutes to walk there. If she was really lucky, Sasha Petrovich would drive by in his rusted truck and give her a ride. Vasilisa’s heart picked up a pace when she thought of him.
Sunlight shone through the canopy of green. Vasilisa stopped beside the old spring and took off her packs. Long ago someone had shifted the rocks to make a natural basin. She dipped her hands in the water and took a drink. The fresh spring water had a sharp, metallic taste. Vasilisa splashed water onto her face. That year the Soviets had sent a satellite into space, yet Vasilisa walked the same path her ancestors had followed for hundreds of years. She performed the same work they did in the exact same way. She knew this because they told her so. The spirits of her ancestors sometimes clustered around her so closely in the family home that she felt claustrophobic. They were a noisy bunch. Vasilisa’s grandmother, the stubborn matriarch who’d passed on her psychic gift to Vasilisa, was always the loudest. Sometimes Vasilisa felt like she was lost in time. As she dug in her pack to leave three cubes of sugar at the side of the spring, a gift for the forest spirits, she felt the crush of her discordant world: ancient and modern in one jumbled mess.
She picked up her packs and headed back toward the road. To her luck, a truck was passing just as she emerged from the woods. But it was not Sasha. Vasilisa waved, and the truck slowed. With a nod to the driver, she crawled into the back of the pickup and sat with the family dog. She dangled her feet off the back of the truck, smelling the exhaust, as the truck rumbled toward town. It didn’t take long.
Vasilisa hopped off the back of the truck as the driver slowed to let her out. She waved in thanks as the truck sped away. Vasilisa turned toward the town square but first stopped, dug into her pocket, and pulled out the only tube of lipstick she owned; it was cherry red. She twisted the gold casing, carefully applied the lipstick, and then trudged to the distillery.
The distillery was on the far end of the market square. The square was bustling in its grim, drab way. There were no longer any breadlines. That was a thing of the past, but the townspeople still looked miserable. They carried their baskets and sacks of produce, their faces blank, their feet scurrying.
The sign above the distillery door squeaked as it rocked in the wind. Its sound carried on the wind. Vasilisa pushed the door open. As usual, Yuri was in the front office laboring over heaps of papers, the room a blue haze of cigarette smoke. Crates of vodka bottles were stacked to the ceiling. The clear glass bottles twinkled in the morning light.
“Good morning,” Vasilisa said.
“Good morning,” Yuri replied absently. He didn’t even look up. Why would he? The routine had become mundane.
Vasilisa took her packs to the scale on the other side of the room. She set them down, noted the weight, and picked up the empty bags from yesterday’s delivery. The unbleached cotton bags still smelled like the anise, mint, lavender, and basil they’d carried.
“Five and a half kilos,” she told Yuri.
Yuri never looked at Vasilisa but turned to the till and started counting bills.
As he worked, Vasilisa noticed she was there again. She stood beside Yuri, watching him work. The spirit of Yuri’s sister often came around him, but she rarely spoke. Vasilisa saw her and saw through her all at once. It seemed to Vasilisa her shade seemed cloudier today, her facial figures less distinct than they had been on other days.
The shade looked at Vasilisa. “Tell him to stop smoking,” she said then dissipated back into the ether, her cloudy, spiritual form slowly fading until she was there no more.
With a nod, Yuri handed Vasilisa her pay. He was about to go back to his work when Vasilisa asked, “Can I have a cigarette?”
He shrugged. “Sure,” he said, and quickly rolled a cigarette for her. His tin and papers had been sitting open on his desk.
“I think you smoke too much,” Vasilisa told him as she set the cigarette between her lips.
Yuri leaned in and lit the cigarette.
“You’re probably right,” he replied with a nod. “Drink?” he asked then, looking Vasilisa over as he sometimes did when he stopped long enough to pay attention to her.
Vasilisa waved her hand. “Tu-tu-tu, it’s early.”
“It’s never too early.”
She shrugged. “See you tomorrow.”
Yuri nodded and turned back to his work.
Vasilisa crossed the street to the grocer. In the small, cramped shop, she went to the metal cooler and pulled out a chilled Coca-Cola. The cold glass bottle made her hands throb with chill. She popped the metal lid off the bottle, dropped some coins on the counter, and then headed outside. She leaned against the building. Tapping her heal into the ground, she finished off the cigarette and waited. After thirty minutes, Sasha still had not come. Maybe he had gone to the city. Vasilisa sighed. It was time to go back. She knew the little ones would be waiting. Her father would already be working in the field. She left the town center and headed back to the road.
She’d been walking for ten minutes when she heard the familiar purr of Sasha’s truck. She grinned involuntarily. As the truck pulled alongside her, she dropped her smile and tried to look annoyed.
“I’m late. I know,” Sasha said as he leaned across the truck’s cab and opened the door.
Vasilisa gave him a serious look.
“Come on, beauty. I’m sorry. The truck wouldn’t start.”
Vasilisa sighed and got in, pulling the truck door behind her with a heave. She slid across the seat and nestled under Sasha’s arm.
“I thought maybe your mother had you visiting Irina again.”
“My mother knows I have eyes only for Vasilisa.”
“That doesn’t mean she cares.”
Sasha shrugged. They rode in silence, soaking in each other’s presence, until Sasha pulled the truck into the small alcove at the forest path leading back to Vasilisa’s farm.
“Your father should clear a road. I could drive you all the way to the house.”
“We prefer it like this.”
“We?” Sasha looked closely at Vasilisa. He reached out and touched her pouty lips, the lipstick now faded. He stared deeply into her green eyes. “Well, it does provide privacy, doesn’t it?”
Vasilisa smiled knowingly then turned and slid onto Sasha’s lap. They kissed with desperation. Their time together could only be brief. Most of their moments were stolen. Vasilisa slid her hands around Sasha’s neck and kissed him desperately. His lips were warm and his mouth tasted like raw sugar. The sharp scent of milled soap perfumed his freshly-washed skin. Vasilisa nestled her head into the crook of his neck, inhaling deeply, then sighed.
“I won’t be late tomorrow, my love,” he whispered in her ear.
“Good. Don’t be,” she said with mock firmness then kissed him quickly. She slid off his lap onto the seat, angled the rearview mirror to catch her reflection, and then smoothed her hair. Wordlessly, she kissed Sasha one more time then got out of the truck.
Sasha sighed heavily. “Be careful,” he called, gazing toward the forest.
Vasilisa laughed, waved, and then turned toward home. As she receded into the forest, she heard Sasha’s truck maneuver onto the road. She listened as he drove off.
With the taste of her lover’s mouth still ripe on her lips, Vasilisa walked happily through the woods, planning her chores for the day, savoring her memories of Sasha. She stopped once more at the spring. She took her time washing off the lipstick and drinking the clear water. Vasilisa was so lost in her thoughts that when hear ears started to buzz, her head ring, she was surprised. Dreaming of Sasha, she hadn’t even heard the other person join her at the spring, not as if they ever made any noise. Vasilisa stiffened and looked up. An old woman stood at the side of the spring and was looking intently at Vasilisa. Her clothing, no more than tattered black rags, brushed the ground. Her hair was long, gray, and matted. Her face, however, hinted that she’d once been beautiful, even though she was now very old. Her dark blue eyes studied Vasilisa.
Vasilisa knew she was in trouble. This was not one of the departed. She was one of those from the otherworld. The woman travelled through the thin places, coming from the other realm, to join Vasilisa. Cautiously, Vasilisa leaned toward the spring and lifted the copper cup that dangled there. She dipped the cup into the water and offered the drink to the stranger.
“This spring is older than your town,” the woman commented wryly, taking the cup from Vasilisa’s hand. “But the water is still fresh—unlike the rest of your world.”
Using her peripheral vision, Vasilisa eyed the old woman over. This was no common spirit, rusalka, or leshi. Though she wore the clothes of a beggar, the woman’s stern authority, power, and presence made her identity obvious. There was not one child in Russia who didn’t know the name of the wise woman of the forest, the name of the powerful and terrible Baba Yaga. And Vasilisa knew, without a doubt, that it was this ancient matriarch who was staring at her. What did the ancient one want from her? How many lusty leshi men had Vasilisa turned away since she learned to recognize the other beings in our world? How many near misses had she had with the dark fiends of the night? But Baba Yaga was something different, something rare and powerful.
The old woman took a sip then handed the cup back to Vasilisa.
“You must leave Mother Russia and go to America,” Baba Yaga said then.
The randomness of the directive startled Vasilisa so much that she stared Baba Yaga in the face. The ancient matriarch’s hard gaze told her that this was not a debate. It was a command.
“Why?” Vasilisa asked.
The old woman laughed.
Vasilisa’s cheeks reddened. The moment the word left her mouth she knew she should have taken a more respectful tone. But the United States? She and Sasha had talked about going to America, about starting a new life there, but to leave Soviet Russia was difficult and relations between the United States and the Soviets were not good. She also had her family to consider.
“Because you must,” Baba Yaga said seriously.
“Because you said so?”
“You question me?” Baba Yaga replied, her tone precariously balanced somewhere between warning and amusement.
Vasilisa shrugged. “One should never follow blindly.”
Baba Yaga seemed to like this answer. “If you value life, if you value the heart that beats within you, the blood in your veins, then you will go. You will be needed, and you must go to America to fulfill your role.”
Every hair on the back of Vasilisa’s neck had risen, and her skin chilled. “But, I have a life here, Sasha . . .”
“What matters is that you go to America.”
“For my important role,” Vasilisa replied smartly, but this time she saw that Baba Yaga was losing her patience.
The old woman’s lips curled. “No more questions. If you can really see, you will know I am right.”
Behind them, a flock of crows cawed, fighting one another over the remains of an animal carcass lying on the forest floor. Vasilisa turned to look. When she turned back, Baba Yaga was gone.
Vasilisa sat down on the ground beside the spring. She rested her head on the cool stones. Her heart was beating wildly. Could she trust the word of the ancient matriarch? Could she trust the witch in the forest they had all grown up to fear? Surely Baba Yaga had taken pains to cross the border between the worlds, but why? And why Vasilisa? What could Vasilisa possibly do that would be so important?She turned again to the cawing crows. They pecked and danced as they fought over the bloody carcass. With their sharp beaks, they pulled at the pulpy, blood-covered sinews of meat. Their battle looked more like ballet than argument, but their caws rang loud and long and filled the forest with their clarion call.