So… why Treacle?

Treacle  ˈtriːk(ə)l

noun: treacle; plural noun: treacles

  1. a. British: a thick, sticky dark syrup made from partly refined sugar; molasses.

         b. syrup of a golden-yellow colour; golden syrup.

  1.  cloying sentimentality or flattery.

“enough of this treacle—let’s get back to business”

Origin: Middle English (originally denoting an antidote against venom): from Old French triacle, via Latin from Greek thēriakē ‘antidote against venom’, feminine of thēriakos (adjective), from thērion ‘wild beast’. Current senses date from the late 17th century.

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According to various online sources, the word treacle goes back to a borrowing from Old French triacle, a word referring to the sugar-syrup base into which apothecaries would decant whatever nasty-tasting cures they wished their patient to take. The word derives ultimately from a Greek word thēriakē, meaning an antidote against venom, which suggests that its early applications were topical (i.e. slather it on the outside, rather than apply it to the inside).

This dark, viscous product of sugar refining thus gained its name due to its association with apothecaries and their products. All the syrupy by-products of sugar refinement were known as treacle, but later the British firm Lyle perfected the refining process to produce that other, more popular, sugar syrup known as golden syrup. You can still buy treacle – these days it’s often called black treacle (or, in the US, molasses), to distinguish it from its golden cousin.

While sugar can be produced from beets as well as sugar cane, only the latter produces a pleasant tasting treacle.

The 17th century seems to mark the time when treacle made the jump from a medicine to a foodstuff. https://britishfoodhistory.wordpress.com/tag/treacle/ suggests ‘bread tart’ and ‘sweetmeat cake’ as early recipes using treacle, and the earliest recipes for ‘treacle tart’ in the 1870s precede Lyle’s development of golden syrup, even though most modern recipes call for golden syrup rather than black treacle. Gingerbread, which has been around at least since the 1400s, switched to using treacle as an ingredient during the 18th century. But the popularity of ‘Mary Poppins’ suggests that the association of sugar syrup with medicines remains as strong as ever.

I’m rather drawn to the idea that a substance famed for being sickly sweet (as in the famous treacle tart of my story – the favourite dessert of Harry Potter – and the treacle wells mentioned by the dormouse in Alice in Wonderland) ultimately derives its name from medicines which were so bitter that they required a sweet coating. That seems a good metaphor for this story collection.

In Treacle and Other Twisted Tales I take some well-known tales and retell them with a twist, a difference, or a wee flicker of darkness. There are new stories, too, some drawn from imagination and others from experience. There are no entirely happy endings – I don’t really believe in them – but some at least come to satisfactory conclusions. If there’s a moral in the story, it’s that beneath sweetness there is always a small, sharp tang of bitterness, and sometimes the sugar coating is very thin indeed. Life isn’t fair, and nothing ever turns out exactly the way we want it to. These aren’t fairy stories, you know.

As for the second meaning – sentimentality or flattery – isn’t that the business of we fiction writers? I employ my words as the appetising coating to encourage some unpalatable suggestions to go down. Did I sweeten the mixture enough?

And am I genuinely channelling my East End ancestors, or merely mocking Eastenders the soap, when I say to you, “Don’t worry, treacle* – if you don’t like this story, maybe the next one’ll suit you better”?

*Treacle (tart) = sweetheart

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Maryika’s Christmas

palekh-troika-for-christmas-2016

Today’s story for https://www.facebook.com/christmaswithcrookedcats is full of magic and wonder – with a modern twist.

Maryika’s Christmas

Christmas Eve, 2016.

“It’s not fair.” Andre ran from the room, slamming the door as he went. Maryika followed, more slowly. At twenty-two she should be above her brother’s adolescent rages. She agreed with him, though. It wasn’t fair.

Their mother had made it all sound so reasonable. “We have so much. All our needs are met. Christmas is just one more occasion to give each other gifts that we can give at any time of the year. And it’s such a worthy cause.”

It was. That was what made it so hard to object. Their parents’ decision to donate to the charity War Child all the money that they would usually have spent on Christmas gifts was a harsh surprise for their children. But their mother was also right: they had so much, and it wasn’t a terrible idea to give some of what they could spare to help children to go to school, or get the medicines they needed, or keep themselves warm and safe in this winter season.

Christmas was a time for giving. Of course they should give as well as receive. Even Andre had to admit it was selfish to argue otherwise. He hadn’t lost the plot until Mama had told them she had asked all their relatives to donate the money they would have spent on gifts to the charity. This Christmas no-one would be giving any gifts at all.

Which somehow made the generous gift to the charity feel like robbery. Especially to Andre. At sixteen he was still half a child, and the thought of Christmas without mounds of presents under the tree, and cupboards full of treats to raid when he thought Mama wasn’t looking – well, it wasn’t surprising he’d lost his temper.

Maryika wandered into the kitchen, where Baba was making vatrushka, one of Maryika’s favourites. “I thought there weren’t going to be any treats this year,” she said.

Baba glowered. “Simple peasant bread,” she said, folding the delicious doughy mass over and over with her hands, kneading it gently until smooth and ready to rise. Once cooked, the sweet, soft bread rolls would be perfect with stewed fruit and cream, or just as pleasurable to eat by themselves with a cup of coffee. The old lady sniffed. “Nobody told me we were not to eat,” she said, covering the rounded shapes with a muslin cloth. “No point everybody dying of hunger to save some children we don’t even know.”

“Baba!” Maryika was shocked. “There are children who can’t even go to school, or buy medicines if they have conditions like diabetes. Their families have lost everything. We’re just trying to help them as much as we can.”

Baba looked her over, black eyes shining in the heat of the kitchen. She poked Maryika in the arm and made her yelp. “I thought you didn’t like the idea?”

“It’s a good idea. There’s a real need. It’s just… I think Andre’s afraid it won’t feel like Christmas. And so am I, really.”

Baba’s face softened. “It will still feel like Christmas,” she said. “I can promise you that.”

She turned back to the stove. Maryika sat down at the table and watched her grandmother bustle around the kitchen. Upstairs there was a muffled concussion as Andre banged another door.

Baba turned back and pushed a mug across the table towards her. Maryika sipped the hot milk, smelling of nutmeg and cinnamon. It tasted like childhood. She closed her eyes, lulled by the sound of Baba’s voice. “Tonight you will dream a wonderful dream. You will be part of the miracle of Christmas.”

Maryika opened her eyes again to see Baba gazing at her, al the wrinkles of her face deepening as she smiled. “Now go talk some sense into your brother, before he knocks the whole house down in a rage.”

Maxim Lyotov stood at the window, looking out over the landscape but seeing nothing. Sonya was crying again. He couldn’t bear it. He had to bear it.

She had received the news yet again of her failure to conceive. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. The doctors had done their best, but for no particular reason it seemed that she could not bear a child, or he could not engender one. Their bodies produced sperm and egg as required, and the two seemed perfectly happy to merge and produce embryos, but one by one each implanted pregnancy failed.

Worst were the attempts which seemed to be working. Sonya would begin to bloom, trying all the while to deter conversation about the baby, superstitiously behaving as if talking about the pregnancy could be fatal, only for it to end in blood and pain, long before the child began to properly grow. This time had been easier – no sooner begun than ended – but she was still devastated. She was exhausted with the process, and he couldn’t stand to see her distressed any longer.

Today he’d told her that there would be no more attempts. He forbade it. They were not meant to have children, and that was an end to it. Now she was crying over his cruelty. Maxim clenched his fists in his pockets, by long habit concealing his emotions. He’d learned from experience that success came more readily to a man who seemed steady and controlled, free from passion.

He was the last, and now anonymous, prince of a tiny principality once swallowed up by the great Soviet, and now released into the grasp of one of the new countries: shaky, half-imaginary nations invented by Stalin, peopled with incompatible tribes and ethnicities, struggling to find cultural identities of their own. There was no room for princes, or titles, in the new reality.

Old blood still counted for something, though. It had got him into a good English-speaking school. He’d worked hard at the school, where the other pupils knew him as Max Winterson. They’d guessed, some of them, that he was from somewhere to the east of the European continent, but he’d never discussed his roots. ‘High born family fallen on hard times’ was a label that could have been applied to many of the boarders, and it didn’t make him stand out.

Brains and hard work had got him into Oxford, and out again, with a double first: into the diplomatic service and eventually to the post of UN Special Envoy to S___. The post was not without its rewards, including a generous salary which paid for the flat in Vienna with its floor-to-ceiling windows, and for the repair and upkeep of his family’s dacha.

Maxim peered out of the window of the dacha at the forest edge a few metres away. Winter wasn’t the best time to be here, despite the comforts of a roaring fire and a bed heaped with furs, but Sonya had wanted to get away for Christmas. Somewhere they could be alone. He understood it, he supposed. Her emotions were too raw to expose to Vienna’s party season, and the night of the Christ Child’s birth was bound to be difficult for her, with its extra reminder of a baby, both loved and unloved all at once, crying out in a need that Sonya yearned to meet.

The stars were blurring as cloud blew in. At some point tonight there was going to be snow. Maxim turned away from the window and went to comfort his wife.

The night wind was cool off the water and Zander shivered, drawing his thin cardigan around his shoulders. Zoe crouched at his feet, feeding the baby. Hana was a tiny child, hardly strong enough to bear the weight of such a portentous name. Hope. The flower of their happiness, if they could only escape. The foundation stone of their new life, or so he told himself, straightening his spine and squaring his shoulders as befitted the head of a household.

Father had given the last of his money to the traffickers, staying behind to face his own likely death at the hands of the fighters of one side or the other; they were all as bad as each other. Why they were fighting, no-one knew any more. Only that each side believed they had God on their side, and were therefore ultimately unbeatable.

Life everywhere had degenerated into survival, and then incarceration in a prison the size of a city. Getting out of the country, getting to Europe, was the only way to ever escape the violence. The family’s life savings had paid for their freedom.

It had only got them as far as the border, though. There the traffickers dumped them into a locked room in a small house; two dozen or more children, thrown together by their common fear of the men to whom they had been sold. The traffickers said they needed more money. They let the children use a mobile phone, to contact their families. Some must have paid, because those children were removed from the house and not seen again.

Often it was the older girls who were taken, and, once, one of them was brought back. She hid in the corner until the traffickers left, and the younger girls went to her. Zander could not hear the story she whispered to Zoe, and when he asked his sister told him it was not for boys to know. The daily mobile phone calls continued. Zander’s father was trying to raise the money. He asked Zander to tell the traffickers that he would get it; they were to be patient.

The next day the men took Zoe. When they brought her back, Zander could see a terrible thing had happened, but Zoe turned her face to the wall and refused to speak to him. One of the traffickers had formed an attachment to her, and took her out again and again for a few weeks. One day, however, he pushed her back into the room with her face cut and bruised, and he did not come for her again. By summer it was obvious she was with child.

Zander knew he was supposed to reject her. She was unclean. She had lain with those men, those monsters. But it was clear that she had not had a choice. And besides, she was his sister, and he was responsible. At last his father had provided the money – borrowed or begged or stolen, Zander did not know – but it was enough for the next stage of the journey. They waited, on the darkest night of winter, for the boat that was to take them at last to safety and a new home.

Maryika lay snuggled into the warm depths of her bed, sinking slowly into sleep. She sighed, and burrowed deeper, as she closed her eyes.

She opened them on a vista of fields and forest, under a sky sprinkled with stars. Everything was dark except, with true dream-logic, the thing she was looking at. To begin with, it was three horses, grazing at the far edge of the field. It was night, and she couldn’t make them out clearly, but somehow she knew that one was white, one a fiery bay, and one golden as the sun with flaxen mane and tail. As she watched, Flaxen Mane lifted his head and came trotting towards her.

A movement caught her eye, and Maryika glanced to the left, into the face of a boy… a man… no, definitely a boy. He had the kind of ageless face that could belong to a male of twelve, or twenty-two, but surely no older. His eyes were brown, deep as peat bogs, and looking into them Maryika somehow knew that here was the oldest person she had ever met. “I am Nikolai,” he said, nodding to her. “Your grandmother told me you would come.”

Behind him was something that glimmered. Maryika focused on it, and saw that the boy was standing in front of a troika, harness in hand. Flaxen Mane trotted up to Maryika and pressed his nose into her palm, then moved towards the boy and stood before the troika. The boy fastened the harness, and the horse stood quietly until he was finished, whereupon he shook his head and a merry tinkling of bells rang out.

The boy whistled, and the white and bay horses came in their turn to be tied into the harness, either side of Flaxen Mane. The bay shook his red mane and snorted at Maryika, in a not-altogether-friendly fashion. The white stood calmly, its eyes fixed firmly on Flaxen Mane, taking no notice of the harness or the boy. Nikolai removed a scarf from around his neck and held it out to her. He wore another, identical – beautifully woven in patterns of multicoloured snowflakes out of some fine, silky material.

Maryika took it, expecting it to feel cool, but it warmed immediately in her hands. Only when she wrapped its warmth around herself did she realised how cold the wind had become. Its strength was rising, and there was ice in it.

The boy clambered aboard the troika and held out his hand to her. “Please,” he said. “I have a difficult task ahead of me, and I cannot complete it without you.” Maryika climbed up beside him, and he pulled a fur wrap over their knees and flicked the reins. She gripped the seat tightly, not expecting such a burst of speed, as they galloped over the frozen ground and into the air, over the trees, the fields, the tiny, scattered houses, far below, and out over a vast expanse of black water.

Up here the air must have been icy, and fat flakes of snow whipped towards them like a blizzard, but the wind was drawn aside as the three horses shouldered into it, leaving the boy and girl sitting comfortably in a calm, sheltered space. The troika dipped lower, and Maryika began to see movement in the dark waters below. The boy leaned his head towards her.

“There is a boat on the winter sea tonight,” he said. “A poorly made boat, owned by evil men whose only thought is to milk their victims for all that they can give before disposing of them. There are children on the boat; children who believe they are going to a safe haven, who do not know they are going to die.” Nikolai frowned, and for a moment an ageless light shone out of his eyes. “It is in my nature to want to change such things, if I can. Are you with me, Maryushka lisichka?”

Maryika ignored the endearment (he wasn’t the first to comment on the hint of red in her hair, and being called a fox by a stranger of indeterminant age was not something she wanted to draw attention to). But the thought of children, in danger, in the middle of the vast cold sea below them filled her with horrors. “Let’s do it,” she said, before she could change her mind.

She gasped as the troika dropped, hauled in the wake of the three straining bodies before them. In the inky darkness above the water the three horses shone with an inner light, white and red and gold, like a sudden sunrise. Below she could see a little boat, half swamped by the waves. There were already people in the water.

Nikolai snapped the reins and they went lower still, until they hung in the air just above the sinking boat. He leaned out and hauled a man into the troika. Maryika got down on the floor and reached towards a woman who was in the water. Their hands touched, but instead of grasping her, the woman thrust a bundle into Maryika’s hands and fell back, her head going under. The bundle wriggled, and a small child climbed out and disappeared into the back of the troika, which seemed larger than she’d first thought. There were already a half dozen or so people back there, and they were hauling others up to join them.

The woman who had sunk under the water suddenly shot up again, and Maryika grabbed her. She could see that the woman was being pushed aloft by hands and arms made of water. As the woman scrambled past her, Maryika saw that the water was alive with the bodies of women, all dark, all beautiful… all made of the same black water as the sea. Rusalkas. In Baba’s stories, they were figures of sorrow (drowned maidens) or fear (they would drag a traveller beneath the surface of their watery homes and keep him forever). She had never heard of them rescuing drowning people before.

Before her, some of the older and more able-bodied passengers were clambering onto the backs of the horses. Strangely, the horses’ bodies were growing, elongating, like the troika. No matter how many climbed up, there was always room for one more. With a frisson of fear, Maryika recognised another of her childhood nightmares: the water horse, able to carry its prey upon its back deep into the dark tarns and pools of the steppes, there to suck the flesh from their bones. As she thought this, the fire-coloured horse turned and grinned at her, pinpoints of red deep in its eyes.

She screamed, but the white horse glowed suddenly brighter, and Flaxen Mane shouldered the bay and bit its flank. The bay stood still in the air, its skin shivering, but tolerating the people on its back, who looked as frightened as Maryika felt. Those on the back of the white horse seemed to have fallen asleep.

Maryika reached again, to a young man whose white face was turned up to hers. The arms of the watery women were already around him, but instead of lifting, they were pulling him down. He struggled in the water, fear etched on his face. “No,” Maryika shouted, and reached again. Her fingertips touched his – they were warm, and very human.

One of the fluid forms drew up to the troika and hissed, “My sisters have claimed him.” Maryika shook her head and reached again. One shapely arm reached up and caressed her cheek. “This one has done great evil. He is ours now. Let him go.” The troika rose suddenly, and the young man’s form dropped away.

Maryika curled up around her distress as Nikolai snapped the reins and they began to move. She stayed that way as they galloped over the deep waters and up onto the shore. All she could see was that pale, terrified face sinking below the water, drawn ever deeper as the rusalkas put their hands on him, and she wondered what would have happened if only she had reached further, tried harder. They said he was a bad man, but perhaps he might have done some good, someday, if only she’d been able to hold on to him.

They landed as lightly as a feather, on a field adjacent to a great array of tents. The place didn’t smell very nice, but the people seemed glad to be back on solid ground, and stumbled away towards shelter. Nikolai held the reins in one hand and wrapped the other around her, pulled her into a hug. “The rusalkas saved many, tonight,” he said, “but they have the right. They will always take some.”

Maryika gulped and wiped her tears on her sleeve. The horses had returned to normal, trotting delicately across the air, glowing only slightly, and the troika had almost returned to its original size as well. But when she turned and looked she realised that there were still two children, clinging together and staring at her with huge eyes. Three children… she noticed that the girl was clutching a tiny baby, which had begun to wail.

Nikolai guided the troika down to a gravelled driveway beside a large house. There were still one or two lights lit, and there was smoke coming from the chimney. He jumped down and lifted the children onto the porch, leaning forwards to rap loudly on the door, before turning away. He leapt back into the troika and with a jingle of harness bells they were away, sweeping to the treetops as he gave the horses their heads.

“What is it?” Sonya crept down the stairs behind Maxim, who had lifted his old gun down from its stand behind the door. “Who would come at this hour?”

The front door creaked open and her hands went to her mouth. “Oh, the darlings.” She reached out and swept the boy into her arms. He was thin, and trembling with the cold. “Who are you?” she asked.

The boy spoke, and she did not understand a word, but her husband twitched in recognition. He spoke back, musical syllables falling from his lips. Then he turned to her.

“The boy is Zander,” he said. “He speaks Arabic – they are refugees, from across the water. He says their boat sank. There is more, but I don’t understand it.”

“Oh, hurry, get them inside. It’s too cold for a child to be out.”

Zander stumbled into the warmth of the hallway and sank to the floor. Behind him, Zoe flinched as Sonya reached for her, clutching her bundle tightly in her arms. The baby began to cry. It was cold, and hungry, and wet and, unable to decide which was the most distressing, decided to wail in earnest about all its miseries at once. Zoe deigned to allow Sonya to place her dressing gown around her thin shoulders, and walked on her own into the house, where she stood, clutching her daughter and looking around herself in wonder.

Maxim hung up the gun and went to poke the fire. Sonya paused for a moment, looking up at the sky, snowflakes melting on her face as she listened to the very far, very faint sound of harness bells. “Thank you,” she whispered, putting her hand over her mouth to quell her words as she closed the door and went in, but her heart went on saying it, silently. “Thank you.”

There was a flurry of wind in her face, and a soft rush of snowflakes brushed across her cheek like a windblown mane which was, perhaps, the pale gold of dawn that now brightened the sky. A single warm huff of breath redolent of straw and stables warmed her ear, and was gone. Maryika became conscious that she was standing on her own back doorstep, barefoot in the snow. The warm, bright scarf was still around her neck, and she held another in her hands.

The door opened, and Baba stood there, both hands wearing oven mitts, holding a steaming tray. Maryika slipped gratefully into the warmth. It didn’t seem strange that Baba was not at all surprised to see her. She lifted the scarf in her hands. “Look, I have a present for Andre.”

Baba nodded and turned away, to lift the next tray from the oven. She spoke over her shoulder to Maryika. “I told you it would feel like Christmas when it came. Now, put your apron on, babushka. You can crush the walnuts for the korolevsky cake.”

The End

The picture is a palekh-style illustration of a Russian troika (winter carriage drawn by three horses). You can get news about my writing at https://www.facebook.com/TheCalgaryChessman/

or follow me @alayanabeth on Twitter.

Palekh Painting

For me, as a child growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, the Palekh painting style was as synonymous with Russia as Cossack dancing and Matryoshka dolls. It’s been a pleasure to come back to it as an adult and understand a little more about it, from an adult’s point of view.

Palekh is a little town about 200 miles east of Moscow, which was famous as long ago as the 17th Century as a centre for the painting of religious ikons. Ikons were a characteristic part of Eastern Orthodox Christianity; and the church at the time was at the heart of the cultural and political life of Mother Russia.

With the October Revolution in 1917, suddenly there was no market for religious iconography, and Palekh’s painters turned to the decorative arts to make their living.

According to http://www.russianlacquerart.com/cnt/Palekh the painter Ivan Golikov saw a black lacquered box in Moscow, and developed a technique for producing lacquered papier-mache which could be decorated in bright, enamel-like colours. This painting style has become synonymous with the town. Artists used the technique on a variety of objects, from flat panels to boxes, brooches and jars, and the Palekh Art School was opened to teach the techniques.

I remember some gorgeous books from my childhood (I bought the one illustrated here recently on the second-hand market, although it’s not one I’ve read before) and the Palekh painters thrived by illustrating well-known stories (The Firebird, The Swan-Geese, Vasilisa the Wise), folk wisdoms, and  revolutionary themes.

The technique, and the town that shares its name, saw a renaissance during the second half of the twentieth century, and there are still workshops producing Palekh paintings to this day.

Of course, I’m primarily a painter with words, and as usual opening up a new box in my mind produced a new story. This one will appear in my upcoming book of stories, Treacle, and Other Twisted Tales, which I hope will come out in the summer, but here it is for your enjoyment. I’d love to hear what you think of it. https://www.facebook.com/TheCalgaryChessman/?ref=bookmarks https://twitter.com/Alayanabeth

Maryika’s Journey

She’d promised herself the trip of a lifetime. While waiting for her visa to be granted she’d brushed up on her schoolgirl Russian, pored over travel brochures and websites, and scoured the internet for information on the museums and historic buildings she wanted to visit. With her itinerary and accommodation booked, all that remained was to board the Aeroflot flight and give in to the pleasure of anticipation.

The only reading she’d brought with her was a battered copy of Russian Folk Tales, a present from her grandmother. Baba had filled her childhood with firebirds and cossacks, matryoshka dolls and waterwitches, the dark, smoky interiors of yurts, and the wide, cold spaces of the Siberian wastes. But Maryika had been more interested in Tolstoy’s Napoleonic shenanigans than the adventures of Beautiful Yelena and she’d forgotten most of it. She’d dozed off with the book on her lap, open to a Palekh style illustration of the Swan Maiden, the plane droning its way across a continent and into a different time. She was looking forward to it so much.

***

Now things were very different. It was getting darker. The sky had completely clouded over and the wind was beginning to pick up. Maryika whimpered to herself. She might have to spend the night outside, and she still didn’t have any idea how she’d managed to get here, wherever ‘here’ was.

She’d got off the train along with all the other travellers, hundreds of them streaming along the platform and out into the intricate series of tunnels that linked Moscow’s Metro stations with the outside world. Being in the Metro was a frankly hallucinatory experience, the screech and roar of the trains and gunmetal scent of the track vying with the gorgeous, over-embellished eighteenth-century-ballroom vibe of the décor. If she looked up at the ceilings, she could fantasize that at any moment her comfortable tee shirt and trousers would metamorphose into a sumptuous silk-and-satin gown, and some minor dvoryane would be bending his lips over her hand and sweeping her into the mazurka. A moment later, another train would come rushing into the station, its hot breath swirling across the platform like the wind under the Firebird’s wings, conjuring a completely different flurry of images.

For a little while, in the Metro, she could pretend that her dream of Imperial Russia was still alive, but the reality was that the much anticipated trip had been a disappointment. Moscow was cold, grey and monumental – admittedly, as advertised – but the expectation that she would be able to dig beneath its intimidating surface and find the colourful, exhilarating Russia of her grandmother’s stories had turned out to be a childish fantasy.

If she hadn’t been convinced by the miserable faces at the airport, the grey sleet blowing across the streets and the taciturn grumpiness of the cab drivers, this morning’s mugging had done it in spades. Her flight home was tomorrow. She only needed to get through one more night, and then she could go to the airport and let modern technology whisk her home, safe and a little more worldly-wise. But the mugger had taken more than her self-confidence; he had taken her wallet, her tickets, her passport – she was lost in the middle of Moscow with nothing but the clothes she stood up in and her inadequate Russian to fall back on.

There was enough cash in her trouser pocket to pay for a cab ride back to the run-down hotel she’d been staying in. There she intended to take refuge in her room (already paid for) and somehow find out how to phone the embassy and ask for their help. But the counter staff at the hotel had changed shift, and the new floor manager didn’t know her. She tried to explain about the mugging, but he wasn’t interested. No ID – no passport – no room. She had the feeling he might respond to a bribe as she stumbled, with increasing desperation, through her stock of Russian phrases, but unfortunately the mugger had the rest of her money. In the end, she backed out of the hotel and wandered the streets, frozen and miserable, until at last the cold forced her into the Metro, where at least she could keep warm for a while.

She looked up. The crowd off the last train had rushed past her, a small island in a sea of commuters, but then the corridor had fallen quiet. The pedestrian tunnel branched ahead, and she had to choose between two exits. One smelled fresher than the other: a whiff of snow and, oddly enough, pine needles. All right, then. She’d go up to street level and try to find a police station. Sooner or later, surely someone would understand what she was saying?

Instead, she’d stumbled out of the tunnel into a forest. And, turning, she found that the tunnel entrance was no longer behind her. She was truly lost, somewhere in the middle of a forest of conifers with lichen-coated trunks and dense, aromatic foliage, and she’d been stumbling across the mossy ground for hours.

There was light ahead, a break in the canopy, and Maryika pushed towards it. The trees thinned and she saw that she was on the edge of a clearing. The late afternoon sun glinted off a field of grass and wild flowers, and there were horses grazing. Beautiful horses; one white, one dark bay, glowing in the sun, one pale chestnut with flaxen mane and tail. Their limbs were slim and elegant, their manes long and flowing, their haunches well-muscled and their conformation perfect. Maryika had never been one of those girls who go through a horsy stage, but she knew pretty when she saw it. The closest horse (Flaxen Mane) lifted its head from grazing and looked at her. Its enormous eyes glowed with intelligence.

Maryika pinched herself. In the midst of the horses, whirling and dancing across the ground, was a house – a hut, really – spinning as if caught in its own miniature whirlwind. It seemed to have legs. The pinching hurt, but the hut was still there. It came nearer, and the branches above her began to move in a wind she couldn’t yet feel. She clung to the trunk of her tree and stared in disbelief. The horse took a step or two closer.

“Are you in need of assistance?”

Maryika felt the last scraps of her sanity shredding away. Her pulse thudded in her ears, as her heart rate rocketed. Her knees shook; only the tree was holding her up. The horse nudged her.

“I said, do you need help? You don’t look very well.”

Ye gods. As hallucinations go, this was a doozie. Maryika gave up. At least the horse didn’t look as though it was going to mug her again.

“I’m cold, tired, and lost, and I haven’t eaten anything all day. Also I’m in a forest in the middle of a Metro station, with a talking horse, looking at a dancing house. I’m not exactly coping here.”

The horse snorted. It sounded surprisingly like a human laugh. “I can help you there,” it said. “I’ll tell you what to say to make the house stop. You have to say it exactly right, though.”

“What?” Maryika’s subconscious mind had decided to take what was in front of her at face value, but her intellect was still struggling to make sense of things.

“I said, repeat these words after me. Say them exactly as I do.” The horse leaned forward and blew into her ear. The sound it made burbled at a very low pitch, just at the edge of Maryika’s hearing, and she could make no sense of it. The horse’s breath whooshed past her face, stirring her hair. It smelled of haybales and buttercups and sunshine.

Maryika stared at it, bemused and silent. The horse shook its head, danced sideways a step, and stood on Maryika’s foot.

“Ow, what the fuck?”

The house abruptly ceased whirling. It turned until its door faced her, then sank down on its legs which, at close quarters, turned out to be rough and scaled. Each ended in a giant, three-toed foot. Maryika glared at the horse.

“I thought I had to repeat what you said, exactly.”

The horse moved its shoulder in what could only be described as a shrug. “Close enough,” it said.

The door creaked open and the horse put its head in. “Good oh,” it said. “Up you go.”

Maryika gingerly approached the hut and put her foot on its bottom step. The wood creaked and the hut vibrated as the chicken-legs shifted a little. Maryika put her hand up to her mouth and backed away. The horse whinnied.

“Oh, all right then.”

Maryika let out an involuntary squeal as the house spoke, in a voice that was a mix of creaking door, shifting roof-tile and a bit of hen’s cackle. It shuffled on the spot, and then the legs bent a little more and the bottom step thumped down squarely on the earth, sending up a puff of dust. The horse edged behind Maryika and nudged her forwards.

A skirl of wind sent snowflakes into her face as the sun vanished into a purple mass of cloud that was rapidly climbing the sky. Maryika took her courage in both hands and climbed into the hut. She had no idea what she was doing, really she didn’t, but that was an iron stove she could see in there, and there was a samovar on it. Fire and coffee spoke a language that went straight to her hind-brain and overrode the screaming whisper of panic that was governing all her higher functions.

The hut was not unoccupied. On a worn rug in front of the stove lay a scrawny cat. It eyed Maryika over its dinner, a piece of greenish fishskin. In the hut’s gloom, Maryika peered at it. The piece of fishskin seemed to have a button attached.

The horse poked its head in through the doorway and made her jump. “That’s a very thin cat,” it remarked, conversationally.

The hut creaked. “That one gets plenty to eat,” it rumbled. “She just never gets any fatter.”

The cat regarded them with baleful yellow eyes, then retrieved its dinner and carried it away into a dark corner. Maryika strained her eyes after it, but either the shadows were darker than they appeared or the corner was deeper than it should be. Either way, the cat had disappeared, and for some odd reason this was reassuring. She stroked the horse’s nose. “Thank you,” she said.

“He didn’t do it for nothing, you know.” She jumped as the house spoke again. It was extremely disconcerting to be inside the thing that was talking to you. Maryika’s Baba had given her a fund of half-remembered Russian folktales from her own childhood, and Maryika recognised the Hut with Fowl’s Legs, though she didn’t remember it talking. Still – this was her hallucination; she could hardly argue with the details. She was only pleased that the hut’s owner did not appear to be in residence.

The house creaked. The horse shuffled its hooves. Maryika looked enquiringly at it. The horse nodded its head, in a reassuringly horsy gesture, then whuffled at her again. “There is something you could do for me,” it said, tentatively.

“Oh, anything you like.” Maryika was beginning to warm up, and as she’d already given up on her sanity there didn’t seem any reason not to be helpful.

“Well, it’s just that…” The horse paused, and gestured with its nose towards a small lidded pot on the edge of the hearth. “See that pot?”

Maryika pulled the pot towards herself and opened the lid. The pot was about half full of poppy seeds. The horse breathed out, and a small cloud of seeds rose into the air. A few of them clung to Maryika’s skin.

“Please scrape up the dust from the floor and put it into the pot.”

The floor shuddered under Maryika’s bottom as the hut let out a grumbling sound. She squeaked in fright, but the hut subsided again. “Are you sure?” it said to the horse.

“Sure as Koschey’s overcoat,” said Flaxen Mane.

The hut grumbled again. “Koschey doesn’t have an overcoat,” it said. “The witch ate it.”

“Do you mean Baba Yaga?” Maryika summoned up a vague childhood memory, but nearly dropped the pot of seeds as the house shuddered. The horse danced backwards from the doorway, but shoved its head back in again as soon as the house calmed down.

“Please don’t say the name,” it said. “She’ll come for her name, and you really don’t want to meet her. Believe me.”

The house groaned. “Don’t even think it,” it muttered. The window shutters opened and banged shut again, letting a cold draught and a flurry of snowflakes into the room.

The horse ignored it. “Please scrape up as much dust as you can. Put it in the pot and stir it in well. Don’t worry. You’re doing the right thing.”

“Why?” Maryika brushed her hand across the floor. Sure enough, there was a layer of dust. It coated her palm and she rubbed it against her trousers.

“One day Vasilisa the Wise is going to come, and when she wins me we will ride like the wind across the great steppe and rescue the prince.” The horse spoke these words with a rhythmic, poetic cadence that gave them great significance. Maryika could almost hear that each word was capitalised. “Ride Like the Wind,” it said again, happily. “The witch will give her three tasks to do. One of them will be to separate poppy seeds from dust. It’s meant to be impossible.”

Maryika tipped the pot, watching the tiny seeds flow from one side to the other. “I can see how it would be,” she said.

“But there’s a problem with his plan.” The hut shifted slightly, and Maryika put out a hand to brace herself against the floor. It let out a henlike squawk, “Boccoc!” and settled down again. “Can’t separate the dust from the seeds without mixing them in the first place.”

The horse bowed its head to her. “And I can’t collect dust without hands,” it pointed out, reasonably. Maryika nodded. It made sense, she supposed.

She swept up the dust with the side of her palm and collected it, a bit at a time. Once she’d started adding it to the pot she got into the swing of the task and scraped dust out of all the corners. When she got to the place where the cat had slunk into the shadows, there was no sign of it. She did pick a greyish mother-of-pearl button out of the dust. She put the button in her pocket.

When she finished, she put the lid back on the pot and set it neatly back in its place. Then she stood up and lifted the samovar, pouring the sweet, strong, black liquid into a cup she took down from a shelf. She sat on the rug in front of the stove, sipping the coffee and slowly warming up, inside and out. The horse nudged her a final time and backed out of the hut, which banged its own door shut, almost catching the horse’s nose. Maryika sank down on the rug, suddenly sleepy, and the last thing she heard as she closed her eyes was the deep, burbly voice of the horse. “Your part in the story is small, Maryushka, but you are more important than you know.”

***

The sun in her eyes woke her. For a moment she felt disoriented, trapped by the seatbelt across her lap, frightened by the strange, white-and-grey plastic world that surrounded her. Then the rushing of wind in her ears resolved itself into the sound of an aircraft’s engines, the glowing heat of the fire transmuted into the ‘Fasten Seatbelts’ sign, and the smell of coffee was the cabin attendant leaning over with an offer to fill her cup.

Maryika took the proffered brew – a thin, watery disappointment after the coffee in the Hut with Fowl’s Legs – along with a poppyseed breakfast roll, and turned to look out of the tiny window of the plane. Beneath her the white-and-grey tops of the clouds rushed past like the rolling backs of running beasts. The sun shot into her eyes again, blinding her, but just as the stewardess reached past her to close the blind Maryika thought she saw, amidst the clouds, a curling, flowing, misty trail of flaxen and gold. It didn’t surprise her at all when she pulled the button from her pocket.

Illustrations: Russian Fairy Tales: Palekh Painting by Alexei Orleansky; Vasilisa the Wise, Palekh lacquered box, seen on http://www.russianlacquerart.com/cnt/Palekh