Sofia was distant from her maternal Grandmother, by over sixty years and a thousand miles. She loved coming to the old woman’s house. The smell of dill and earthy vegetables made each annual trip something exotic and strange. Nothing like the way Mummy and Daddy lived. It reminded her innocent mind of one of the picture books at Nursery, the one with the old woman and the house made of gingerbread.
Her Grandma smiled, the glasses perching perfectly on the end of her nose. She stirred a pot of something and rested the spoon on the edge of it. The batter for the kartupelu pankukas was ready, she placed it in the fridge. Sofia looked at the used carrier bags next to the sink. They contained things that she did not normally get at home.
She and Grandma had walked into the forest, a sea of green moss and speckles of light. They picked the yellow mushrooms, delicate and fine. She would find some and Grandma would come with her small wickedly sharp knife and put them in a basket. An actual wicker basket. They also picked strawberries, these were not the ones in plastic-like at the shops back in England, but small and sweet and white in places. Delicate and delicious. Sofia loved coming to Latvia. The town, Ezernieki, was full of beautiful guest houses and fruit orchards. A land of trees and forests, lakes, and rivers. Last visit it had been a land of white and snow the likes of which she never saw back home.
Sofia had been learning her Latvian extra hard so Grandma could tell her more stories. Shuffling one foot in front of the other she asked Grandma for a tale.
Grandma glanced out of the window, Sofia had never noticed, but Grandma only told stories when it was daytime, never in the dark of the evening when she went to bed. Her Grandmother stole a look at the painting of the pretty lady in blue who lived in a frame above the old fridge, the cross above the door, her little shrine and finally settled her eyes on Sofia.
“Of course little one, what shall it be?”
“Rurik, that’s my favourite.” She pipped up.
“If you’re sure, we can read one from the book.” Almost in a voice trying to dissuade Sofija (she always called her in the Latvian way).
“No Rurik,” then remembering her manners, “please.”
“Very well, but you must listen and not interrupt.” She looked at her audience, Sofia had nestled herself onto the floor, legs crossed on top of the old goatskin, the warmest part of the kitchen. She nodded and nestled herself into a chair by the oven, stick resting in one hand. She told an old story, the one her Grandmother had whispered to her, a warning about strangers and water and drowning. The names of the creatures in the stories gave them power. Still, even though her Granddaughter was removed from the old ways, they were safely stuck in tales.
“Once upon a time there was a creature, this creature thought he had lived a long and happy life. He smiled, oh ever such a lot. He had white teeth and was very tall. His name was Rurik and he stayed in the dark corners of the forests, looking after the lost children. He always liked to help the lost children. He travelled the wooded ways day in and out trying to make the world a better place for all the lost little girls and boys. They stopped growing old, feeling fear and pain, yes Rurik knew how to help the lost children. Most would call him evil but this was his nature and he did not know. Sometimes he would lead hungry children into the forest to a spot where blackberries grew. They would no longer be hungry, they would also no longer remember the way home. By this time Rurik would have gone onto help other children.
One day, Rurik had been travelling through the wilds of a great forest called Rumbula.” Sofia fidgeted excitedly; she had been there. “He had grown tired and hungry. As he slept, he had dreams, terrible dreams. He dreamt of a future of fire and iron and suffering. Of, to him, evil men dressed in white who worshipped a strange symbol. A symbol that burned his eyes to look at. A symbol that had scared him away from many places.
Rurik was awoken by the fearsome growl of one of his many stomachs. On the breeze he could smell Something frying. His stomachs rumbled again. He walked in the shade of the forest till he felt the ground change to cobbles, the city with horse hooves and the sound of people greeting friends and buying food.
Rurik knew that people would be scared of him, despite being a happy creature he knew he was ugly. As he stood there, not knowing what to do, he saw a small boy alone by the edge of the marketplace.”
Sofia’s Grandma was watching her Granddaughter listen to the old story, a small smile of excitement twitching at the corner of her lips. She was so enthralled in the story and her Grandmother in the telling they had not noticed the shadows had lengthened into twilight.
“The small boy noticed Rurik, and as small boys do, he decided to explore that which he should not. He confidently walked to the creature. The creature who by now was very hungry.
“Who are you and what are you doing in this village?” The boy demanded.
“I am a simple creature,” he replied, “I am called Rurik, and I would dearly like to have something to eat.”
The boy looked at him and at once felt sorry for him. “I am sorry I have no food; my family is poor. My father is dead, and my mother gone.”
Rurik looked sadly down at his feet, nails sharp as the ends of chisels. “I know a pool where fish live, we could catch some.” Rurik felt sorry for this boy. He must take care of him, like he took care of the others.
The boy smiled and took his hand, for this was a time before little boys and girls were told not to go with strangers and everyone in the village left their door unlocked.
They walked to the stream in the forest at the edge of the village. The shadows were lengthening, and the boy was beginning to worry. “I should go home.” he declared.
“But I am hungry.” Replied Rurik. “Perhaps you could take my hand and help me down to the water?”
The water looked cold and dark and deep. The boy could perfectly see his and Rurik’s reflection in it. He had not noticed how sharp and long Rurik’s teeth were before.
“Grandma, is this the boy he drowns? He drowns to use as bait for fish!” Sofia asked expectantly. Her Grandmother sighed; the spell broken.
“You know the story, yes the boy is drowned and eaten. If you know the tale of the Vadātājs so well, tell it to yourself!” She hated being interrupted. Immediately she knew she had said too much. She glanced outside at the darkness and knew for the first time in sixty years of fear. Her father had warned her, her long-dead and clever father. A man who knew about such things, who, unlike most men, listened to the wisdom of their grandmothers.
“Grandma, what does,” Sofia stumbled over the word, “Vadātājs mean?” Her Grandmother breathed harder. Heart beating, beating too fast. Her vision blurring the fear causing her body to stitch the fine threads of panic throughout her heart. She thanked God that there was at least the cross above the door. Would that be enough?
Sofia wondered why her Grandma did not respond to her name or the gentle shaking of her arm. She had never seen a stroke before.
A cold wind had started to blow in. A figure slumbering in the woods, dreaming of men in white and fire and men who worshipped a strange shape had been woken by one of its many stomachs growling.
Sofia had begun to cry – the creature, with its long teeth and sharp nails cocked its head on one side and grinned. It headed towards the noise, skirting a wide deep lake as it progressed from the forest, it felt the ground change from woodland path to solid road.
Ṯ̛̺͎̼͚̗̝̅̉͌͞͡h̨̭̟̦̣̻͗̔́́̏͂͗͑͒̕͟è̵̫̱͙̣̿͋̅͡ͅy̵͚͉̪̬͖̍́͑̿̒̓̃́͂͘͢ a̛͉̤͓͔͈̣̠͇̼̒̀̋́͢ḽ̴̙̩̲͈̙̮͍̺̱́̀͛͑̌͊͂́͘͝ĺ̸̝͇̩̦̀̋̀̅̑̕͢ ḷ̛̛̰̯̜̦͑̐̕ͅį̝̺͙̺̓͆̀̂̀͐̚͟v̧̡͇̪̯͚̮̤͌̊̒͐̕e̙̫͖̤͔̓̽̽̀̅̚͞d̢͉̮̖̲̬͇̪̩̒̏̅̂̆̌̀͑͢ h̵͖̯̦̦̗̱́́͂̎̉́̽̓̊̕a̷̻̜̹̭͈͕͈̰̹̗͆̅͊̌̈̉̎p̶̢͍͖̯̜͎̫̪̮͋͐͋̉̊͊͟͠p̴̡̨̦̭̖̩̲͖̾͒̓̏͗̎̄̔͜͢ỉ̵̡̱̪̖͖̠̆̇͋̓͋̑͌̍͢͡l̻͍͎̩͖̭̱͑͂̾̃̍̕͟͞ỳ̴̢̧̭̯̹͇̱̿͊̓͒̓̇̚͟ e̵̛̗͍̙͍̳̯͋́̍͜͡ͅͅv̶̡̪͍̗̣̪͉͕̙̋͋̆̎͞͞e̟̳̳̬͒͊͂̽͊͢͞r̦̗̟͇̥̯̤̈́̅̿͒̀͑̎͜͝͡ͅ a̬̘͈̼͎̹͖͑͋͒̅̆̈̿̈̊͢͡ͅf̢̤̜̠̙̝̟̊̀͊̂̇͌̏͘͘͠ț̫͓̜̯̱̂̄̇̆̕ẹ̵̡͓͇̮͎͈̣͓̈̊̑̕͜͡r̷͙͉̼̱͋̌̉̈͟͝?