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Under The Willow Root

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What do you do when the line between reality and madness disappears? How do you ask for help with no voice, and whom do you ask when no one knows you're there? I never thought I'd need to know.

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Chapter 1

“It is only through mystery and madness that the soul is revealed.”--Thomas Moore

My name is Sasha. I struggle to hold onto even this small bit of knowledge as I try to force my eyes open. A dull but intense pain hammers against my temples and makes my stomach churn. Finally, I succeed in pulling my gummy eyelids apart and squint, trying to make sense of the strange pattern of blue and gray and black that shifts and sways above me.

I can hear others stirring. Some are coughing and gagging, some gasping and scrabbling in the leaves. The sound of other people being sick triggers my own gag reflex and I turn my head to vomit, unable to move my whole body.

I lie gasping and trembling, naked except for a small, cold weight on my neck. A necklace, I realize, and it feels important, but I can't seem to grasp exactly why. I put that aside for the moment and return to what I do know. My name is Sasha. I breathe slowly, carefully, as if I can coax the memories from my spinning, drunken mind like I would a shy animal out of hiding.

Is that it? Am I drunk? Or hungover, maybe? But no, that's not right, I've never been drunk in my life. I'm a dancer, I don't drink. I seize on this, relieved beyond measure to have something more than a name to cling to. I'm a dancer. It's enough for now. It has to be, because I think I'm going to be sick again.

I force myself to roll over, only to find myself staring into the empty eyes of a little boy. I reach out and prod his chest, confirming what I already knew but didn't want to believe. The boy is dead. I heave, but nothing comes up except a thin dribble of bile. I find a clean patch of leaves and press my face into it. It's cold and clammy, and it smells like rotting things—like death.

A hand roughly grasps my shoulder and turns me over. I try to cry out, but nothing happens. A large man dressed in leather and metal looks me over, then barks a few words in a language I don't know. I try to speak, to ask him what's happening, who he is—anything. Again, nothing happens. I cough, trying to clear my throat. I try again. Nothing. I can't speak. It’s as if in the microsecond before my vocal chords engage, I forget how.

The man in leather moves on and another, smaller man takes his place, helping me to my feet. His hands are gentle but strangely impersonal on my waist, on my back. He doesn't seem to notice or care that I'm completely naked. I look closer and see that he doesn't seem to notice much of anything. His eyes have a strangely vacant quality, almost like the dead boy's. He’s just...empty.

For the first time, I look around. There are bodies all around me. Some are being helped along, as I am. Others are still wiggling like worms on the ground, remembering how to use their limbs. But many—so many—are completely still.

I quickly look away from the twisted limbs and blank, staring eyes and take in our surroundings. We're in a forest of broken, dead-looking trees. A blue-white fog shifts and flows around them, making trunks and branches appear and disappear and appear again so that it feels like the whole forest is moving. It makes my stomach hurt.

Recognition tickles my mind. I know this place. I've been dreaming of this very forest for days. Or has it been weeks? My mind stalls, unable to answer, so I focus on the new addition to my pathetically small hoard of facts: my dream, my nightmare forest. My heart speeds up and my breath comes fast. Spots dance in front of my eyes, my neck bends under an invisible weight. I slump against the man guiding me and close my eyes against the spinning in my head.

There’s a ringing in my ears which digs its way into my brain until I realize that it’s not just ringing but a melody. Images of wolves and cradles float to the front of my mind and I realize that I’m whispering--more like gasping--the words to a song. To myself, or to the Empty Man, I don’t know.

“Bayu, bayushki bayu

Nye lozhisya na krayu,

Pridyot serenkiy volchok…”

I open my eyes. I’m lying in bed with the covers pulled up to my chin. My teeth are chattering, but my face is flushed with fever. My grandmother sits at my bedside, gently sponging my forehead with warm water while she sings a lullaby. I toss my head and shift restlessly, mumbling incoherently. Baba Nadia settles my teddy bear more firmly in my arms before tucking the covers around me again.

“You’re alright, kitten,” she murmurs. “Sing with me a little.”

I swallow and whisper the words along with her.

“Bayu, bayushki, bayu

On the edge you mustn't lie

Or the little gray wolf will come

And bite you on the side

Tug you off into the wood

Underneath the willow-root.”

“Babulya,” I croak. “The wolf...the wolf will come and eat me...”

“No it won’t,” Baba Nadia says firmly. “Mishka will protect you, won’t he?”

I hug my teddy bear to my chest and nod, feeling a little better. Mishka has always kept away scary things while I sleep. But as my head and stomach spin around each other, the images from the lullaby seem to take root and grow until all I can see is shadowy trees obscured by mist. Wolves pop in and out of the fog, snapping at me with long, distorted fangs. As I run, Mishka becomes heavier and heavier until I’m dragging him through the wet leaves. Soon I can’t move him at all. I sob, tugging uselessly at my bear as the wolves approach.

I stumble as the Empty Man pushes me into a wagon that looks like a cage on wheels. Other women and girls are huddled in the back, looking as scared and sick as I feel. I try to ask them what has happened, but my voice is gone again. Another girl is shoved into the wagon and she stumbles against me, knocking me down. I pick myself up from the slatted wooden floor and move to the back, trying to ignore the bare skin of the other women pressing against me. I put my hand to my neck and realize that my necklace is gone, if it was ever really there to begin with.

When the cage is full, the wagon starts moving with a jerk. Someone toward the front—or I guess it's the back, now—is sick. I'm too numb to feel anything but a vague sense of relief that it wasn't anyone near me. I try not to think of what else the floor must have been designed to let out. Instead, I take stock of the facts that slowly accumulate in my mind.

My name is Sasha. I'm a dancer. I have a grandmother who speaks Russian—I speak Russian, and English too. I can't understand the language the guards speak, and I can't even identify it. Of course I can't be sure, given the sorry state of affairs in my head, but I don't think it's a language I've ever heard before.

I don't know what language or languages my companions speak, because I can't ask them and no one has said anything. I can only assume that their voices are gone as well. I think we must have all gone mute from the trauma of...whatever happened. I've heard of things like that, but I never imagined it would happen to me.

Eventually what little energy I had runs out completely, and I slip over the edge into unconsciousness despite the fear and physical pain which had been keeping me awake. I surrender gratefully, eager to escape into painless, thoughtless nothing. But instead of oblivion, I find memories.

I slouch in my chair, sipping a latte and trying to act like I'm having a good time. The band playing is terrible, but that isn't what's bothering me—you can only expect so much from a coffeehouse open mic night. What's really ruining my already dismal mood is the carefully gentle way my friends talk to me, as if I'm an invalid or a child. I'm exhausted, and their hushed tones grate on my nerves.

I haven't slept in days because of the nightmares...nightmare, singular. The same one, every night, the same dream that terrified me night after night as a child. I thought I’d grown out of it, but it’s come back. I don't dare tell anyone for fear they'll think me unstable. Everyone already thinks I'm incapable of taking care of myself simply because I'm sixteen years old even though, thanks to my grandmother's foresight, I'm an emancipated minor. Legally an adult.

But if anyone finds out about the nightmares—never mind the black-outs and hallucinations—I'm afraid they'll place me in foster care or worse. I fiddle nervously with my necklace, rubbing the small moonstone in the center.

“Sasha,” Melanie asks tentatively, “are you okay? You look....not that good.”

“Fine,” I mutter. “Just tired.”

“Are you sure?” Melanie asks. “We could go back to my house, watch a movie or something--”

“Actually, I think I'm just going to go home,” I say, standing up abruptly and pushing my way between the crowded tables.

Melanie calls after me, but I pretend not to hear. I have to get outside. I can feel the slight nausea that signals an impending hallucination, and the lights hurt my eyes. Colors suddenly seem unbearably bright. I hardly notice hitting the cold pavement of the parking lot. I swallow and push myself to my feet, determined to at least have my meltdown in the safety of my car. But I can't. I'm on the ground again, sweating and breathing in short, painful gasps as the parking lot melts away, replaced by the forest I've been dreaming of for weeks.

When I come to, there's an oxygen mask on my face and I'm on a stretcher. A paramedic asks me questions that I can't understand—his voice sounds slow and muddled, like it's underwater. A crowd of onlookers has gathered outside the coffee house. Everyone gawks at me like I'm some kind of exotic animal. They're just fascinated. Some asshole middle-schooler is even recording it on his phone. While Melanie wrings her hands and talks to another paramedic, Tara snatches the phone and flings it to the ground, telling the kid where to shove it.

I try to sit up, mumbling that I'm fine, I just got a little dizzy, but the medic pushes me back down. I rip the mask away and try to roll off the stretcher. I know I'm just making a bigger scene, but I can't help it. I can't stand the stares, the strange people touching me, the headache, any of it. I need to get away before the nightmare claims me again.

Already I can hear the melody which has haunted my dreams and waking hours for so long. Repetitive and simple, just five notes, it was once comforting and familiar. Now I dread it. I’m afraid I’m going insane. But at the same time I want to hear the music because it comes to me in my grandmother's voice.

The paramedics push me down again and this time I'm too disoriented to resist. I'm distantly aware that I'm hyperventilating. The oxygen mask goes back over my face, but it's too late. I'm gone, lost in the wood.

I blink in confusion, turning over this new memory--or was it a vision? I was having hallucinations. Am I hallucinating now? My heart leaps at the thought that this might not be real, that I might wake up at any moment, then sinks. What if this is what's real and that other life, that other Sasha—what if that's the hallucination? What if none of it's real? What would that even mean? Am I dead?

I consider this with an odd sort of detachment. While it's not impossible, I'm probably not dead. Death--actual death, as opposed to the act of dying--can't possibly be this uncomfortable. Even if I believed in Hell, this all seems too...I don't know, specific. And weird. So that leaves madness of some kind. Not exactly ideal, but better than being dead, at least in theory.

I wonder how long I was asleep, or dreaming, or whatever. We're still in the dead forest, but the sunlight filtering through the leafless branches does look a little stronger. It seems unlikely that I could have slept standing up for more than a full day, so I have to assume I've only been out for a few hours at the most.

My stomach growls and clenches painfully, but the discomfort pales in comparison to the dry ache in my throat. I have no idea how long I've gone without water. The minute I consciously think of it, my thirst becomes unbearable. By now I know better than to try to call out, so I try reaching over someone's head to knock on the bars of our cage. The others notice and start doing it too. It's weak and clumsy, but there's no way the guards don't hear. They're ignoring us.

I tilt my head back against someone's shoulder, ignoring the owner's irritable twitch. As if she won't be doing the same thing to someone else in five minutes. I close my eyes and try to ignore the sore muscles of my legs, my feet, my back. The pain in my mouth and throat is impossible to ignore, so I let it take over. I even take a kind of perverse pleasure in it until that, too, becomes boring and the thirst moves to the back of my mind. I drift in and out of consciousness, never quite asleep but not really awake, either. Snippets of memory tease me, little flashes of people and places that I can never focus on long enough to place.

I don't know if there's a schedule or if they were ignoring us just to make a point, but the guards relent after a few hours. A bottle made of some kind of clay is passed around. We're only allowed a few sips before the bottle gets passed on. Anyone who tries to keep it longer gets jabbed with a guard's spear. When it's my turn, I try to hold my throat open and pour in as much of the tepid liquid as I can before I have to give it up. It's not nearly enough. I lick my lips, hoping to find a stray drop of of water, but all I find is salt and grime.

I stare at the door knob, torn between exhaustion and dread. The house seems so big now that there’s only me, but at the same time it feels crowded. Everywhere I turn there’s a memory waiting to jab pointy little claws into my chest. The dance studio, once my safe haven, is no better. There, I’m surrounded by overbearingly compassionate parents and tiny ballerinas asking me repeatedly where Madame is and when she’s coming back.

Ruthlessly forcing down tears, I turn the knob and step inside. Emily, the studio manager, waves me into the office just inside the front door. She sits surrounded by charts representing teacher availability, apparently scheduling classes for the next month. I walk in and drop onto the floor next to her, rubbing my eyes tiredly. Emily peers worriedly over her glasses at me with pursed lips, clearly trying to resist commenting.

“I was thinking you could try giving this a shot,” she says instead, indicating the schedules. “Get some practice.”

“Isn't that what we pay you for?” I ask wearily, then immediately feel terrible. “I'm sorry, that came out wrong. But seriously, you do a great job. Why mess with it?”

“Because I might not always be here to do it, sweetie,” she says. “And may I remind you that I was also paid to change your diapers once upon a time. I did a great job at that, too. That didn’t stop you from learning to wipe your own ass.”

“Are you—you're not quitting, are you?” I sit up straighter in surprise.

“Of course not,” Emily assures me, patting my knee. “But this is your business now, and you need to know how to run it.”

“Okay,” I sigh. “Let me just go take a shower and change. Can we eat while we work?”

“Girl, please. This is, like, my fourth plate of lasagna.”

I smile in spite of myself. “Keep it up. There are two more mystery casseroles in the fridge.”

“Bring it on,” Emily says cheerfully. “And hurry up. I gotta be out of here by six.”

I stare dully at the creepy, gnarled forest, letting my eyes drift over the bare, twisted branches and bracken obscured by mist. Everything looks dead. Everything feels dead. There's no sound but that of the wagons rumbling along and the clop-clop of the horses’ feet. There are no birds singing, no squirrels rustling in the brush. Even the guards are silent.

Everything is muted and empty and lonely. As far as I can remember, I'm not exactly a nature expert, but even I can tell it isn't right. Something should be alive and making noise. I wonder if it has something to do with the clearing where I woke up.

Maybe it's some kind of experiment, maybe something chemical, that's screwing with the ecology of the forest. I remember gruesome stories my grandmother told me of the medical experiments performed by Nazis and wonder if I've been kidnapped to be some kind of test subject. If that's the case, surely someone will come looking. The police, the FBI...someone. But if this is all some sick experiment, who are the experimenters and what are they hoping to accomplish? What do they want from me?

I lie curled on my side like a shrimp with the thin hospital sheets pulled over my head to keep out the light. It hurts my eyes. I can hear Emily arguing with the doctor. He tells her he wants to test for neurosyphilis. Emily says it’s impossible, that there’s no way I could have been exposed to it--I would have been a little kid, for God’s sake.The doctor says that it would explain my symptoms. What symptoms? I don’t understand. I’m confused. Now they’re talking about abuse--Abuse, with a capital “A.” Why? I wish the doctor would leave. I need to talk to Emily. I need to tell her that they’re trying to hurt me.

It seems like every time I close my eyes, I’m bombarded by memories. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason or pattern. Some are from childhood, most are more recent. Only a few are actually useful in terms of figuring out how I came to be here.

I want so badly to ask the others if they're trying to piece their memories together, too. What if one of them knows what's happened? What if someone could tell me if only I had a voice to ask? The thought drives me wild.

I prod the woman next to me and mouth words, gesticulating as expressively as I can in the cramped quarters. She stares at me and shrugs helplessly. I try again. This time she rolls her eyes and looks away. Across the wagon, a girl catches my eye then looks away quickly, like she's embarrassed for me. Most just stare, some sympathetically, some pityingly. Many look annoyed, especially those within range of my flailing hands.

Exhausted by my efforts, I withdraw into myself, slipping back into the hazy half-consciousness that seems to be more the rule than the exception. I don't know how much time passes, but it's full night and the moon is up by the time I become aware again. We've stopped and the guards have started a fire. In the dim light I can see all the faces in the wagon turned longingly toward it. I'm sure it's nowhere near freezing, but without clothes and suffering from nausea and dehydration and hunger and whatever strange sickness has stolen my voice and memory, it certainly feels that way.

We huddle against each other, all sense of modesty long forgotten. It could be worse, I tell myself. Those up against the bars are exposed to the cold and probably in real danger of getting hypothermia. Not that I have any idea at all how cold you have to be to get hypothermia, child of suburbia that I am—or was, or imagine myself to be.

I picture myself burrowing into a small but comfortable bed with the patchwork blanket pulled up to my ears, and the image is so vivid, I think it might be a memory. I try to hold onto it, but all I get for my trouble is an even keener awareness of how cold I am. I shiver in short bursts: I shake violently, then stop, my muscles locked as if in protest against the cold, then start again. Every once in a while—usually just as I've convinced myself that it definitely can't get any worse—the wind kicks up and we all press closer together to escape its bite.

I lose all sense of time as the night wears on. I’m eaten up by misery, completely unable to think of anything except how cold I am. It isn't until I find myself looking for patterns in the freckles on the shoulders of the lady in front of me that I realize the sun is coming up and the guards who aren't on duty are stirring.

Once awake, the guards move quickly, breaking down their camp and shoving pieces of bread and cheese into their mouths as they go. We all watch intently, eyes fastened on the food. I lick my lips, wondering if maybe today will be the day we're allowed to eat.

As the sun climbs higher in the sky, my muscles gradually loosen and, paradoxically, begin to cramp and twitch. I breathe slowly through clenched teeth until the muscle spasms pass. I’m no stranger to physical pain--no dancer is--but I hate not being able to do anything about it.

I slump against the person next to me. I don't care that one woman's elbow is poking me in the diaphragm or that another one is puffing her warm, stinking breath over my face or that both of them have the worst body odor I've ever encountered. Instead, I count myself lucky. I could be at the edge of the cage, crushed against the bars.

I want so badly to sleep, but physical discomfort and apprehension keep me awake. The crooked branches overhead cast eerie shadows on the road and serve as a constant reminder that I'm not where I'm supposed to be. I inspect the guards as they ride by, wondering at their primitive gear. They wear swords and knives and carry spears, none of which seems to suggest neo-Nazi medical experiments.

What is this, some kind of militant Renaissance Fair? The thought makes me snort in spite of myself, and suddenly the whole situation seems totally ridiculous. I have to be dreaming, or hallucinating. There's no way this is real. No way. I close my eyes.

The elevator dings and the doors slide open, revealing a rumpled middle-aged man with bloodshot eyes and several days' worth of stubble. He looks awful, and I give him a sympathetic look as I step aside to let him off the elevator. I know, I want to say to him, and I'm sorry.

I get in the elevator and check my purse to make sure I have my iPod speakers, which I brought so I could play music for Baba Nadia. I don't know if it helps, but it can't hurt and it makes me feel like I'm doing something. The doors open again before we get to the third floor and two nurses enter, talking to each other in a low murmur.

“It's so sad,” one says. “She was so sweet.”

“Which one?”

“That nice Russian lady on the third floor,” the first says. “You know, she used to be a famous ballerina.”

“What did you say?” I demand. I grab her arm. “What are you talking about?”

The nurse gives me an odd look. “A patient died.”


Of course I know the answer, but I need to be sure. My arms suddenly feel like they weigh a hundred pounds, and I can't breathe. I let go of the nurse’s arm.

“Her name is—was—Nadia,” the nurse says. “She died just a few minutes ago.”

“Are...are you okay, honey?” the other nurse, asks, peering at me.

“That's my grandmother,” I whisper.

They look at each other and then at me, horrified.

“Oh, sweetheart...”

They both rush to apologize, stammering and blushing. I brush it off in a daze, unable to focus. I might throw up. I lean against the doors, pressing my forehead into the cool metal. Aren’t there rules against talking about stuff like that where anyone might hear? Privacy laws or something?

The elevator dings again and the nurses practically sprint into the hallway before the doors even open completely. I step off slowly, feeling like I have to make a conscious effort to move my legs. My muscles feel heavy and somehow gooey, like they’re melting off my bones. I head for the circulation desk, where I'm supposed to sign in each time I visit.

“Name?” the nurse asks without looking up from the forms she's filling out.

“Sasha—Aleksandra,” I tell her. “Aleksandra Nikolayeva. I'm here for my grandmother, Nadia.”

The nurse's head jerks up.

“I'm so sorry,” she says. “Your grandmother--”

“I know,” I say dully. “I heard. Can I see her? Alone?”

“Of course,” the nurse says, looking flustered. “Can I get you anything? I could call your parents...”

“My mother is dead,” I say, more harshly than I intended. “It's...it's just me.”

“Aleksandra, there you are.” I turn to see Donna, the head nurse, striding toward me. “I was just trying to call you. Come on, then.”

“What happened?” I ask hesitantly as we make our way toward Baba Nadia's room. “Was she...was anyone with her?”

“I sat with her until the end,” Donna assured me. “She wasn't in any pain, and she was ready to go.”

“I wish...” I press my lips tightly together, unable to get the words out.

“Don't. No matter how peaceful, I'm sure she wouldn't have wanted you to see that,” Donna said firmly, patting my back. “Here we are. Take as long as you need. I've contacted the funeral home, but there are some forms you'll need to sign.”

“Oh...okay. Thank you.” I clear my throat and shake my head to clear it. As Donna turns away, I say, “Donna? You know, you don’t have to call me Aleksandra. You can call me Sasha. If you want.”

Donna smiles warmly. “Of course. Come get me when you're ready for those forms and I'll walk you through them.”

I hesitate in the doorway, afraid of what I'll find. I've never seen a dead person before. I flip the light on and move slowly to the side of the bed. Someone has combed her hair and folded her hands over her stomach. I think about how books and movies always make it seem like when someone dies it's obvious that the person is gone and what's left is just an empty shell. I look at my grandmother and I don't see it. Of course it's her, I think, and reach out to touch her face. It's still warm.

Of course she doesn't look like herself. For nearly two months her body slowly deteriorated until there was practically nothing left. Her skin is drawn tightly over her bones, and her body is shrunken and skeletal. But for all that, she looks like she's sleeping. I even think I see her chest rising and falling. I know it's my brain playing tricks on me, seeing what it expects to see, but it's unnerving. I look back at her face instead.

I don't know how long I sit there. I don't know what to do, or how I should feel. I can't seem to feel anything. We said our goodbyes weeks ago, before she slipped into near-constant unconsciousness from the pain medications. It was better that way, Donna had assured me, and I agreed. I didn't want Baba Nadia to be in pain. If she could sleep through to the end, so much the better.

But whatever Donna said, I wish I could have been with her. Anger stirs sluggishly in my stomach. I can't believe I let Emily talk me into going to the beach with Melanie and Tara. I missed my grandmother's last breath by minutes because I was out getting a tan.

After a while, I force myself to get up and gather the little pillows and blankets I'd brought from the house. I reach for the pictures and then decide to come back with a box rather than risk breaking them. These were some of my grandmother's most prized possessions, the only pictures she had of her family.

Fearful for her safety, her parents arranged for her to dance in a distant relative's ballet company in Monte Carlo just weeks before the Nazis attacked. She escaped with hardly more than the clothes on her back and these few pictures...and a necklace. I touch the moonstone necklace my grandmother gave me on my fourteenth birthday. It was given to her on her fourteenth birthday, she told me, by a young soldier named Aleksander--Sasha.

At the time, I thought it was terribly romantic. But now, I imagine what my grandmother must have felt if she loved him even half as much as I loved her. I wonder how it must have torn her apart to leave him behind, knowing what might happen. What did happen. And her parents...she was all alone, just like me.

I examine the picture of my namesake, wondering what he was like, and how my life would have been different if he had lived. Would Baba Nadia have gone back instead of moving on to America? I can only remember her speaking of him that one time.

I never knew my grandfather, but I feel kind of bad for him because I know Baba Nadia can't have loved him the way she loved Sasha, if she loved him at all. The way my grandmother spoke—or rather, didn't speak—of Charles Ashley made me suspect it was something like a marriage of convenience. She never even took his name, although to be fair that probably had more to do with the fact that she was already established in her career as Nadia Nikolayeva.

I wish I had asked her about my grandfather, and about Sasha. I wish I had asked her about her parents, however painful it might have been, because now that she's gone, so are they. For all I know, Baba Nadia was the only one left to remember them. I'm suddenly afraid that I'll end up alone, that there will be no one to remember Baba Nadia when I'm gone.

I turn away abruptly and leave, shutting the door a little more forcefully than necessary, as if I can shut all those painful and entirely unproductive thoughts inside with my grandmother's body. I lean against the door and clutch the pillows against my face, feeling horribly alone.

“Bozhe, pomogi mne,” I whisper, inhaling my grandmother's familiar scent. God help me.

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