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“Vera, get away from the window vnuchka!” Vera sighed and turned her gaze from the window to find her grandmother gawking at her in horror. The old woman hurried forward and snatched at the curtains, nearly tearing them down in her haste to close them. She turned to the girl slowly. “You must never let in the night,” she whispered hoarsely, sliding down into the seat of her favorite leather armchair. Vera frowned.
“Why not, Grandma?” the girl asked, settling down on the floor in front of the old woman. “What's wrong with the night time?” She expected a story about straining her eyes in the dark or attracting moths with the light from the window, little things old people usually warned their children and grandchildren about. Vera's grandmother was a short, stocky woman who wore long wool skirts and heavy coats, keeping her hair covered with a scarf at all times. She was from the “Old Country,” had a thick Russian accent, and was chock full of little superstitions, like not shaking hands over a threshold and being extra careful not to spill the salt at dinnertime.
Vera asked her father about the old woman's superstitions on several occasions, but she would always get answers like, “She's old, Vera,” or “Just let her be. Her mind isn't what it used to be.” Of course no answer like that is ever good enough for a thirteen-year-old, but she stayed quiet. Now she looked up at her grandmother, waiting for an explanation that would satisfy her gnawing curiosity.
“Vnuchka,” her grandmother said seriously, “If nothing else you listen to, listen to this. Not just hear. Listen.” Her voice was low and her yellowing eyes, one of them milky with cataracts, seemed to pierce deep into Vera's soul.
“I'm listening, Grandma,” the young girl said quietly.
“When you take interest in the night,” her grandmother murmured, her voice hard and forbidding, “the night takes interest in you.” She leaned forward in her seat, ignoring the pain in her lower back. “When I was little, I used to have brother,” she said, “Few years older than me, maybe same age you are now. He was wild, always running and climbing, never slowing down. When I was your age, girls were expected to sit still and be quiet unless doing chores. I would watch him through window, plowing field with Papa then running off to play while I sat inside folding laundry or washing dishes.” Vera saw her grandmother smile faintly, the corners of her mouth turning up almost unnoticeably, and realized that she had never seen the old woman smile before now.
“One day my grandfather come to visit,” the old woman continued, “He always brings presents, this time small wooden soldier for Charlie and for me a beautiful silver bracelet. I put it on, never want to take it off. Of course, Charlie runs off to play but I sit with Grandfather and we talk. He says, 'Sasha, now is time for you to learn about the night.' I am confused. I try to tell him what they tell us in school but he says is different from what he must teach me. He says, 'Night is living thing, Sasha. You must never let it in. Never go outside at night without baby or grownup. Night will not harm baby because baby does not understand fear, nor will night harm grownup because grownup is too serious to acknowledge fear. Never go out alone.' I say, 'No, Dedushka, I won't, but how could night harm anyone? Is only darkness.' He looks at me like I look at you now Vnuchka and leans very close. He smells of tobacco and new dirt. He says quiet, very quiet, 'All living things must feed. Do not forget.'”
Vera shuddered and glanced quickly at the curtains. She realized she had been holding her breath and forced herself to let it out slowly. She watched her grandmother lean back in her chair and scratch absentmindedly at her forearm. They sat in silence for a few moments, then the old woman continued.
“I tell Charlie same thing after Grandfather leaves but he laughs at me. 'You shouldn't listen to his stories,' Charlie says, 'Papa says he's crazy, says he was attacked by bear when he was small. Says it broke his mind.' That was that. No matter how many times I tell him, he always laughs and calls me glupyy. Stupid. Stupid for believing an old man and monster stories. Stupid for trying to make him believe in monsters. Finally, one night I yell at him. I tell him he must be myagkiv v golove. Soft in the head. He laughs and asks why. I say because he is too stupid to be afraid. He gets angry, grabs my arm. He drags me over to the door.”
Vera gripped the rug tightly in her hands, her heart pounding.
“I fight him but I don't scream, I don't want to wake Papa. Charlie opens door and goes out. He tries to take me but I hold onto door frame and won't go.” The old woman leaned forward again. “When person is angry, they become strong. Determined to make things right through force. When person is afraid, Vnuchka, they are determined not to die and they become stronger than even the largest bull. I rip my arm away so hard, his nails bite into my flesh. His fingers catch my bracelet, pull it off as he loses his balance. He falls off porch, beyond the light of the house. I don't hear him scream or cry out. Only thing I hear is wet sucking noise, like slurping soup.”
The girl cringed as her grandmother mimicked the sound by sucking against her tongue.
“I call him over and over,” the old woman said quietly, “No answer. I want to see if he is okay, but I don't leave the doorway. I wait for long time. Seems like forever. Then I hear shuffling, like he is standing up. I hear his footsteps on the cold hard ground. Right on the edge of darkness I see movement. He stands there, swaying back and forth like p'yanyy, but he doesn't come any closer. I say, 'Charlie, come, let Papa take a look at you. You might be hurt.' He doesn't move. I feel the urge, overwhelming urge, to go down to him. He holds his hand out to me, wants me to come down. I move to go to him, hit my arm on the doorway. Pain distracts me and I cry out. Charlie opens his mouth wide, too wide to be natural. Darkness comes out, gushing out like fountain. It wraps him head to toe and then…” Vera sat there gaping at her grandmother, waiting for her to finish.
“Then?” she prompted timidly.
“He's gone,” her grandmother whispered, “Papa comes running, asks what's wrong. I say, 'Charlie is gone.' He looks out into darkness but I beg him not to go. He sees my blood, cleans me up. While he wraps my arm he says, 'Sasha, where is your bracelet?' I tell him Charlie took it. We sit up all night. When morning comes, he takes his axe and goes looking for my brother. I know he will not find him.” Vera swallowed hard and reached out to pat her grandmother's leg, not knowing what else to do. “Did you ever see him again?” Vera asked. Her grandmother nodded.
“When your father was just a baby,” she said, “After I move to America and marry Alexander, your grandfather. We had small house with lights in front and backyard. I was taking out trash. There was fence around yard so I didn't mind going out alone. I lifted lid, dumped bag into trash can, closed lid and there he was right on the other side of fence. He was thin, like paper. His eyes were runny eggs spilling down his cheeks and his mouth hung open down to his chest like it was when I saw him in Russia. This time he was this close to me.” Vera watched her grandmother put her hand up only six inches from her face. She felt sick.
“Again he reached for me, still clinging to edge of darkness. I was too shocked to even breathe, but your father, moy rebenok, started crying in the house. I screamed very loud, so loud your grandfather came running outside calling my name. Charlie dropped down to the ground, bending his body in such a way that his legs bent like dog's. I heard the bones snap like dry sticks and he galloped away in an unnatural way. Alexander only saw movement, didn't see Charlie's face, and started to open fence to chase person away, but I stopped him. In the morning he searched for tracks, but found nothing. I took little Abram outside with me that morning too, but I found this.”
The old woman rolled up her sleeve to the elbow. Her forearm was scarred with long jagged lines all the way down to the wrist. On her wrist was an old silver bracelet. Vera hugged her knees to her chest and bit her lip.
“Do you listen, Vnuchka?” the old woman inquired sternly. Vera nodded.
“I listen very well, Grandma,” she replied, glancing at the curtains once more. The old woman leaned back and closed her eyes.
“Good girl,” she murmured, “Do not forget.”
“All living things must feed,” Vera said to herself, “All living things must feed.”