An old man in a red paid lumberjack's shirt stood up. He was of average height, and had frizzy white hair and a frizzy white beard that played strong counterpoint to his soot-lined features and the deeply-set eyes that held within them their own special passion. He had the eyes of a fanatic or a martyr, born of passionate conviction. And when he spoke, he spoke with a commanding presence.
"I will tell a story." He said. "Most do not believe. I think some of you will."
Maggie-May-I glanced back and forth between Scupper McGee and the Franklin. Scupper didn't respond and the Franklin just shrugged.
"Vodka." the man in the lumberjack shirt said. "I am Michael. And this is for Zoya."
The Franklin poured two glasses, three-fingers worth each, and passed them along, as Michael started his story.
"When I was a young man, I was not so confident as I am now.
Now, my brother Boris was a handsome man. So, my brother is to be married. She is tall and blonde and when she smiles, her cheeks blush. I think she is beautiful. I am proud of my brother, but also resentful, for I am not so handsome. Women do not look upon me as they do him.
One day, I am in the forest near our home and I hear laughter mingling with the river nearby. I see a woman bathing in the shallows. She wears a transparent green dress that clings to her. There is no one else around, so I approach from down-stream so she will see me coming.
"Are you not afraid of the Spring?" I ask as I approached, knowing that many of the people still believe in the old tales.
The girl laughs, sending sparkles shimmering from her hair to the water. "What should Zoya fear from the trees and the river" I want to tell her of the Rusalki and the Vodyanoi, but I am entranced by her deep blue eyes and I find I could not speak.
"Do you think I am in danger?" She asks, arching her back subtly, drawing my eyes to her other features. "Should I leave now? Perhaps I am not safe and need protection on my way home..."
She must have known the effect she had on me, for she laughs and splashes more water over her shoulder, then gazes at me, her lips pursed, and nods once as if she'd made a decision.
Zoya steps from the water on the far side of the river and my thoughts went the way most young mens' thoughts would go. She motioned for me to follow and I, of course, follow. She leads me to a small hut within the forest, where we can hear the river but cannto see it. It sits in a small clearing surrounded by seven birch trees.
Inside, there are but two rooms. One holds a simple hearth and a table with a wooden plate and wooden spoon beside an empty bucket. The other holds a bed and a small shelf with several candles on it. The bed is pushed up against a small closet with hooks on the outside, where she hangs her dress.
I touch her hearth; she tells me the hearth must never go cold. I run a finger along the shelf; she tells me the candles must never leave the shelf. I trace the outline of the closet and she told me I must never open this door. By then, we are on her bed, and there are other matters to take care of.
When we lay together, there are no declarations of passion or exclamations of glee. There is only the slow unfolding of desire and the gentle caress of motion. I fall asleep to the faint scent of her joy.
I wake in the middle of the night to a terrible thumping.
I sit upright in her bed, disoriented.
"It is just the wind." She says. "The trees bow to protect us." She wraps her arms around my shoulders. "Please, Come back to bed..."
And as the thumping stops, I do as she asks. One by one the candles go out until there is only darkness and warmth and the inexorable swell of springtime floods.
In the morning my clothes are clean and folded upon the little chair by the hearth. The little wooden plate holds breakfast and a written note. "Come back as you wish, but never open the closet."
I spend many nights with Zoya, and always it was the same. I find her bathing in the river and follow her to her hut. The current of our passion carries the night away. Wind and the trees make a terrible noise and Zoya coaxes me back to bed and sometimes back to sleep.
In the morning, there is always breakfast.
One night, near the end of summer, I wake to find Zoya already gone. Dawn is some time off and the thumping is fading to only occasional bumps. When I listen very close, I hear a thin voice crying, "I'd sell the earth for some water!"
The voice sounds real. So, I move the bed away from the closet and opened it a crack.
Within is an ugly smell. I bring one of the candles closer. The twisted form of a naked man is there, his body is bent double so his butt is on the floor and his feet and arms are up near the top, chained by shackles of silver. He is so thin I can count his ribs. He has a white beard and milky white eyes that look about sightlessly.
"Thank-you." he croaks, and I nearly choke on the smell of his breath. "Thank-you and thank-you times three. Please. I have been here so long, and I am so very thirsty... A drink. Or two. Or three! I haven't had water for so very long... It's been the death of me."
I am shocked and don't know what to do. All this time we've been on the bed, while this man suffered...
Well, I go to the river and fill up the bucket. I return and lower the cup to the man's parched lips. He drinks like an animal, all lips and tongue, spilling more of the water than he takes in. He moans as he drinks, sounding like the wind in the trees.
When the cup is done, he wanted more. So, I fill the cup a second time and lower it to his lips. He drinks more like a man, and his hands shake and tremble. He moans as he drinks, sounding like the wind in the trees.
When the cup is done, he smacks his lips and asks for one more drink I fill the cup one more time and pass it to him. The water is gone before it even reaches his lips.
With a cry of triumph, He leaps forward, breaking his bonds and knocking me against the shelf where the remaining candles fall to the floor.
Before I knew it, the whole hut is on fire and the shackled man runs out into the night. I am forced to flee before the entire hut catches fire. I try to return home, but I get lost in the forest. In my own backyard! I wandered naked for three days before Boris found me.
I tell him of my story, but I do not think he believes me. I go back and back and back to the river. Several times. But I do not find Zoya's hut again. Not even a circle of seven Birch trees.
"Though I never find my Zoya again, I feel the pull and stir of the river within me. Always" Michael took a long pull from his vodka then lifted the other one and gazed at it for a long time.
"I should never have opened the closet." he said, and threw the other glass into the hearth. "For Zoya."
An instant, the flames burnt blue.