Check out Toby Barlow’s Babayaga, available August 6th from Farrar, Straus and Giroux! If you’re in NYC, be sure to check out Toby Barlow in conversation with Sean McDonald at McNally Jackson Books on August 7th.
Will is a young American ad executive in Paris. Except his agency is a front for the CIA. It’s 1959 and the cold war is going strong. Zoya is a beautiful young woman wandering les boulevards, sad-eyed, coming off a bad breakup. In fact, she impaled her ex on a spike… Inspector Vidot is a hardworking Paris police detective who finds himself turned into a flea. Oliver is a patrician, fun-loving American who has come to Paris to start a literary journal with the help of friends in D.C.
Add a few chance encounters, a chorus of angry witches, a strung-out jazzman or two, a weaponized LSD program, and a cache of rifles buried in the Bois de Bologne—and that’s a novel! But while Toby Barlow’s Babayaga may start as just a joyful romp though the City of Light, it quickly grows into a daring, moving exploration of love, mortality, and responsibility.
Although it had been almost two months since they had last seen or spoken to one another, neither had said much when the younger one showed up at the door. Elga had let her in and then put a kettle on the stove. Zoya dropped her bags and limped over to the couch. Before the water was even boiling, the younger one was fast asleep. Over the next few days the old one said little, cooking for them both and going out every so often to get stock for the soup and ice chips for Zoya’s black eye. Elga only asked a few questions.
“He beat you?”
Zoya shook her head. “No. He would never. The words made him kick, his shoe caught me as he was going up.”
“He went up?”
“The spell went wrong. There were spikes above me I didn’t see. The words pulled him there. I was aiming for a gate on the corner. It happened fast and he kicked as he flew.”
“Who can blame him for kicking? Nobody wants to go.” Elga nodded.
“Did you empty your place?”
“Mostly, there was too much to take it all. But do not worry, I was thorough enough. I tagged one trunk and shipped it to the Luxembourg Station, the taxi dropped another at the North. I’ll send for them when I have a place to stay.” Zoya felt the exhaustion of her breath crawling out of her body. Perhaps this was the end. That would be fine, her bones were so tired. Her stomach felt as if there were rotting weeds stewing at the bottom. Here she was again, counting on the patience and tolerance of this stooped and ancient creature who tended to be neither.
She realized that over the course of the years, the length of her stays with the old woman had shrunk to fit Elga’s vanishing patience. Perhaps, after so much time, they had finally outgrown one another. But she also knew that she still needed and even wanted the old woman in her life. They were, as far as she knew, the only two left.
There had been many more of them once, and not only the women they had traveled with but still others, sighted and acknowledged in glances and knowing nods caught amid early- morning markets and in the busy, bustling streets, but the ones she had known by name had vanished long ago, and no new faces had stepped out from the crowd. So it seemed there were only the two of them, now too ill fitted to one another’s company, and so after this small pause she would be off on her own again, probably before she had even wholly caught her breath.
Over the next few days, Zoya lay on the couch, listening as a tone deaf accordionist practiced bal musette somewhere in the floors above. She did not know how Elga paid for her small basement flat, it certainly was not with money, the old woman was too tight to ever part with a coin when a trick would do. Perhaps she was dangling a sordid secret over her landlord’s conscience. Or maybe she had convinced him that she did not even exist, though that would be an ambitious spell, even for Elga. This woman was hard to hide. The room brimmed over with stacks of dusty papers, piles of dried herbs, and long rows of packed bookshelves all lined with discolored jars stuffed with pickled organs, hoof and snout. A dank, permeating odor of mildew mixed with burnt ginger and soured cheese leaked from the walls, and there were constant rustling, scratching, and scraping sounds off in the shadowed corners.
Elga brought out another kettle and poured the tea. Zoya looked down at the old woman’s spotted, knotted hands; the veins reminded her of the gnarled tree roots that clung tenaciously to the lichened boulders up in the northern forests.
“I have a present for you,” Zoya told the old woman. Digging into her bag, she pulled out a large object wrapped up in a sheet. Placing it on the couch, she carefully peeled off the fabric and held it up for Elga to admire.
The old woman gave it a blank look. “What do I want with a clock?”
Zoya shrugged. “I thought you’d like it. Look . . .” She pointed to the small golden swan perched on the top. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Like the treasures from the palace.”
Elga said nothing but took the clock out of Zoya’s hands and shoved it atop a cockeyed stack on the shelf. The old woman had always been impossible to predict—Zoya had seen her cackle and hop with joy at the gift of a simple sugar cube—but these past few days her mood seemed even more erratic and dark.
The old woman sat down on the floor, shelling sunflower seeds, while Zoya lay back on the couch. A squeaking in the room kept her awake. Zoya opened her eyes and watched the scrawny black rat finally emerge from beneath the couch to chew at the corner of the rug. “Don’t let Max bother you,” grunted Elga. “I will send him out on his errands soon.”
Zoya nodded and shut her eyes again. She felt as if she had been drugged, but she knew it was the spell that had drained her. Also, she always hated being without her own bed and her own room, wherever that might be. Being a guest always left her ill at ease, especially with Elga. Their journeys always brought them together for a handful of days, a full cycle of a moon, or even at times for years, but then they eventually diverged again, Zoya to the arms of another warm patron and Elga back to her busy stews.
When Zoya woke again from her nap the old woman was sitting across the room, her pudgy feet propped up on the cold woodstove, leafing through the pages of Figaro. “There’s nothing in here about your Leon. I guess all they could say is, what? His wife is sad and the policemen are still snooping around.”
Elga balled the newspaper up and threw it into the stove. Trudging over to the couch, she squatted beside Zoya. The old woman lowered her head and nodded, muttering to herself. Zoya waited. The room was silent, even the rat was finally still. When Elga looked up, it was as if she had come to a firm decision.
With one fierce stroke she slapped Zoya across the face so hard that the shriek was torn from the girl’s lips. The old woman grabbed Zoya’s hair, pulled her close, and stuck her red bug eyes up into the girl’s terrified face. “There wasn’t a train he could fall in front of?” she hissed. “Is poison too slow? You have always been too showy, too stupid, such an awful and tiresome creature. Mistakes can be avoided. They must be avoided. My god, you can disgust me.” She slapped her again, harder this time.
Zoya’s words fell out through her tears. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I panicked. He had noticed, Elga. I was frightened.”
Elga let go of her hair and got up. “So what, he notices? Suck a man’s cock and he forgets so much. It’s easier than sticking his head onto a spike.” She went back to her chair, leaving the girl curled up in a weeping ball. “Bah. Fine. Pull yourself together.” She took a box of matches off the shelf and leaned over to light the stove, not even looking at Zoya anymore. “You make things too unsafe. Police sniff-sniffing around. We will have to leave town and begin again. Why do I want to waddle these bones of mine for you? I am fine here alone without you showing up and ruining it all.”
“No, Elga, it’s fine. I’ll go. I won’t bother you.”
“Fine. Go soon. You make it hard for me to think, and the neighbors will notice you. I don’t need their questions. So yes, go.”
A little less than an hour later, Zoya was packed up to leave, relieved to be going. With no kindness in her gesture, the old woman shoved a grocer’s bag filled with carrots, red potatoes, and a handful of leek sprouts into her hands and then tucked a pair of small white eggs into her pockets. Zoya thought Elga might offer a kind word too—not an apology, but perhaps some phrase laced with tenderness—but all the old woman said was, “Don’t come here again. If I move, I’ll let you know, but don’t come back. If you need help, well, keep an eye out for Max. He’ll be close. Now go.” The girl looked down at the rat, which sat watching from the corner. She nodded to herself, her mouth set firm and determined. Elga was right, it was time. She had probably rested enough, and her injured eye’s swelling had receded; there was now only a dark streak, more a smudge than a bruise, that made her look like a sooty chimney waif.
The old woman followed her out to the stoop and then stood watching as Zoya walked off down the cobblestone street. A nausea itched in Elga’s guts. The girl boiled her blood. For so many years she had needed Zoya, leaned on her, used her to find safe harbor as they were pitched about the brutal landscape. It had been a tiresome journey for them both, from the far- off country quiet of long vanished woodlands through the black billowing exhaust and shrill screech of steel railway wheels as they made their way on, station to station, ducking and stepping between the dueling engines of empire wars and burgeoning progress. Civilization was ever encroaching, barreling down upon them, crowding them and clouding their path with the gunpowder haze and steam-engine smoke, pressing and pushing them down narrow lanes toward dead-end corners, forcing tricks from their hands and curses from their lips as they found a way to leap free over and again.
But things were peaceful now, now she did not see the girl for weeks at a time, even months, and never missed her. There was no need. The continent was as quiet as a sleeping lamb, and the two of them had settled down with it. The papers called it a “cold war” but that seemed an odd phrase to Elga, she knew cold wars, they were the ones where hatchets and knives wielded by frostbitten fingers chopped solid meat sides off frozen stallion corpses. Those true cold wars had nothing in common with what she found in the newspapers now, but it was certainly an easier time, and as the din died down, she found the pretty dark- haired girl with the slender hips and the fulsome bosom to be growing tiresome. Each time she saw Zoya it bothered her more, like some silly farmer’s song you hate hearing but are forced to endure a thousand times until it claws at your ears. She could not place a reason for the irritation, but the feeling was so strong it felt almost cystic inside her. Time to cut it out, she thought, and good riddance.
The wind kicked up and she sniffed at it. Coal soot, sea salt, ham, yeast, and dog hair, nothing new, nothing to worry about. She stood there, distracted, random words tumbling round in her mind, until a neighbor noisily emerged with a crate of empty milk bottles. Broken from her daydream, Elga waddled back into her flat, shutting the door hard behind her.
The old woman did not look surprised when she answered their knock at her door, and her eyes showed little concern or interest as they introduced themselves. Vidot felt as though they could have been electricians or plumbers she had been expecting. “Fine, yes, hello, come in,” she said, shutting the door tightly behind them.
Vidot was immediately intrigued by the contents of the small, packed apartment. The light streaming in was tinted yellow and the air was heavy and mote-laden. Every nook was stuffed and filled. Stacks of books labeled in Cyrillic script were packed and shoved roughly into the uneven shelves, and more were piled crookedly in the corners, all topped and lined with tied bundles of dried herbs, jars of pickled roots, and bole- colored soils. Small growths of mushrooms cropped from mildewed cracks in the windowsill, and as Vidot peered into an open copper pot, he saw tiny orange minnow creatures swimming about in a brackish brown- and- mustard- colored liquid. The creatures seemed to glow.
“Bah, don’t touch that pot. That’s dinner,” the old woman said, trundling off into her kitchen. “I was about to put a kettle on, would you like tea? Who did you say you are again?”
“I am Inspector Vidot and this is my colleague, Officer Bemm,” he said, now trying to decipher the titles of the books on the shelves. “We have a few questions regarding the clock you offered the shop owner down the street.”
“Mmmn,” she said. “Did you say you want tea or no?”
“We do not need anything to drink, madame, but thank you for your kind offer.”
Vidot and Bemm listened to the banging about of cabinets, dishes, and pots before the old woman emerged again from the kitchen. Now clutching a steaming mug, she brushed by them and sat herself down on a threadbare upholstered chair in the corner. “The clock? The clock? Mmmn. Oh, yes, that clock”—she shook her head with a scowl—“a girl gave it to me yesterday.”
“May we ask who this girl is?”
“A girl, she is a girl, she is trouble, she is bad news. Her name is Zoya Fominitchna Polyakov. She was moving, leaving town, and she did not need the clock. I certainly did not want it either, look at this stupid place. Where would I put such a pretty thing?” She kicked the beat- up ottoman in front of her. “No room. Nothing pretty here. Ha. Plus, at my age, staring at a clock is worse than a dagger in the eye. It’s like kissing the enemy. Ugh, I don’t have to tell you about that. But as I say, this girl, Zoya, she owed me money, so I took this clock. You want to sit down? You two make me nervous.”
Vidot and Bemm both sat awkwardly on the couch. Vidot tried to suppress his smile. “This is all very useful information. And can I get your name?”
The old woman leaned forward and pronounced her name very clearly, “My name is Elga Sossoka.”
“You are Russian?”
“Yes, but I left there in, what, ah”— she counted in the air with her fingers—“1917.”
“You’ve been here since then?” asked Vidot.
“I’ve been all over.” She went back to sipping her tea, and then stopped. “Why are you grinning like such an idiot?”
“To be honest, madame, I have been working on this case for a little while now and we have had no real leads. So it is very refreshing to receive even this small bit of information.”
“Ah! I see, I see. Ha ha.” Her eyes lit up, suddenly she seemed bright and lucid, almost young. “So you’re that sort, you like to hop about and think on puzzles, yes, of course, of course, hmmm, yes, then you should see it, a problem, a strange troubling problem you can help me with. You certainly look like a man who can figure things out, so this will be easy for you, I am sure.” The old woman balanced her tea precariously on the ottoman and, stiffly pulling herself up, waddled over to the bookshelf. Watching her reaching up to dig through the shelves, Vidot again sympathized with the woman’s aches. He found himself wondering at the strange ratio between pain and age, how when we are young and without suffering we lead such careless lives, physically risking all without the slightest thought, and it is only when we’re older, when we’re given such misery in bone, joint, and tooth, when our sense of smell and taste are long gone, our eyes have clouded over, and our ears have waxed shut, it is then that we cling to life so fiercely, struggling to continue on when we are only little more than a compendium of agonies.
“Ah, there it is,” she said. The ancient woman was up on her tiptoes now, grunting and reaching toward a dusty, thick tome perched high on the shelf. “I think I can reach it.” Vidot was about to rise up to help when, in her clumsiness, the old woman knocked two jars down onto the floor. They both fell with a loud crack as the glass shattered and a dark, red dirt spilled out onto the rug. “Ah, forgive me, such an ass,” she said, leaning over.
“Oh, no need to clean—” Vidot began to say, when suddenly she bolted upright, letting loose a loud raspy scream and throwing handfuls of the dirt into each of the policemen’s faces. The mixture of dirt flooded his lungs, and immediately Vidot felt immobilized, incapable of even turning to look at Bemm. None of the words shouting out of the woman’s mouth were recognizable, they did not even sound like language, merely a serpentine thread of barks, hisses, shrieks, and throaty rasps. Veins bulged out of her brow and neck as she lunged backward, grabbing another jar off the shelf and fiercely shattering it onto the floor. More dust billowed around them, blotting out everything but the thick streaks of ocher light streaming through the curtains. Vidot felt weighted shadows come crawling in around him; looking down, he was shocked to see his fingernails extending backward, running up his arm, splitting open his flesh. His body shook and his old skin smoked off him, like dry autumn leaves burning in a pile. Then his spine suddenly twisted and contracted as extreme cramps in his thighs and stomach caused him to lurch over and collapse onto the floor. He caught a glimpse of Bemm as he fell down, his partner reeling too, his face covered in a sheet of blood and his mouth open in a silent scream.
Looking up, the last thing he saw before it all went black was the old woman’s pained expression and her hands madly weaving around in the air, as if she were playing some great and terrible harp. Then the pain ceased. He felt as though he slept for months, maybe years, and when he opened his eyes Vidot was stunned at how impossibly large the room had become. Inspector Vidot could not stop hopping up and down. He was wild-eyed, he was exhilarated, he was tiny. It was a tremendous feeling, so much excitement, so much power, in an instant he was halfway across the room. Then, in no time at all, he had hopped back to where he’d begun. He paused to catch his breath. He stared at his strange, bristled legs in dumb wonder. Hearing noises, he looked up and watched the giant old woman as her mighty rat pawed through the cavernous pockets of his limp uniform, which lay like a vast blue mountain range across the floor. He watched her varicose-veined legs, so covered with moles they looked like the barnacled hull of a ship, stumble around the apartment as she packed and cursed and snorted up a blue- green powder before mumbling and belching her way out the front door. In his excitement, he felt the urge to follow her, but the chain of events had been too fantastic and disorienting; he had to stop and assess the situation. Besides, his partner was missing.
Vidot looked around the room for Bemm—where was the poor boy? How would he even recognize him? Vidot looked himself over: yes, no doubt, he was now in the form of some sort of insect. A hopping insect, to be exact. A louse? A flea? This was too shocking to be comprehended. Bemm must have been transformed as well. The simplest solution was that Bemm had been turned into the same kind of insect. And so, that was what Vidot looked for. He leapt up high onto the bookshelf and tried to get some perspective on the room. He scanned every corner, anxious for any sign of his colleague. Where did he last see Bemm? There, yes! Bemm had been sitting in that chair. Vidot aimed his jump well and landed on the stuffed arm. He tried to shout, but no words came out. This was fascinating!
Là-bas! He saw a small bug scurrying through the fabric of the cushion. Vidot hopped, aiming his descent so that he landed eye-to-eye with the creature. The pest froze and stared at him. Was it Bemm? Vidot attempted a small hop as a signal. The bug cocked his head. Vidot hopped again. He could feel his strange heart beating fast with anticipation. Could this be him? Yes! Yes! The bug gave a small hop back. It was Bemm! Poor little thing, he looked so frightened.
Fleas, Vidot decided, they were fleas, not because he could honestly tell the difference, but because the thought of being a louse would be too disgusting for words. However, being a flea, well, that flooded him with inspiration. He actually had a bit of experience with fleas, not entirely negative either, so a flea was definitely a more comforting thing to be. Yes, he thought, we decide what we are and then act appropriately; a man says, “I am a saint,” or “I am a cheat,” and there you have it, these conclusions determine our course through life. Well, thought Vidot, I am a flea, and it appears this other flea is Bemm. He hopped once more, just to be sure. The other insect hopped in mimicry. Yes, he thought, now they could begin.
Vidot leapt a small distance and looked behind him. Bemm followed. Ah, what a good soldier, Vidot thought. He took a more decisive hop toward the door and the little creature was still right there behind him. One more jump and they began to crawl under the doorsill. He was relieved his transformation had come with an innate notion of how to manage his strange, new insect legs, for this was not unlike much of the training he had done in the army, crawling on hands and legs in the mud beneath razor wire. There might not be beer steins and barracks full of singing soldiers at the end of this particular exercise, but at least he knew what to do.
Babayaga © Toby Barlow 2013