Across thrice-nine lands, in the thrice-ninth kingdom, in the thrice-tenth country there lived an old witch.
That’s how Lisa started her story as we lay tangled together on her sagging corduroy couch. We’d run out of wine and were glutted on kisses. I was just drunk enough to believe in chicken-legged huts and transport via mortar-and-pestle.
“We put her in a home when we moved to America, after my mother died,” she finished, stretching under me. Her accent is heavier at night, after wine. She looked up at me through her eyelashes.
“Papa’s been at her to find me a prince to marry ever since he caught me with Kate. It’s heartless of him.”
“Well,” I drawled. “If you’d rather marry a prince …” I made as if to roll off the couch.
Lisa giggled. “Don’t be silly. There are no princes here anyway.” Before I could even feign indignation, she pulled me back, reached around to unhook my bra strap. “I’ll take you to meet her tomorrow. She’ll find Papa’s heart.”
I must’ve agreed, because here it is nine a.m., my head is pounding, but I’m pulling into the Birchwood parking lot. Lisa slips off the motorcycle first. The sudden absence of her arms around my waist is like the sun dipping behind the trees, like evening come early. It makes me sigh.
“Don’t worry,” she says, rising up on her toes to peck my lips. “She’ll like you. I promise.”
I’m not so sure.
Birchwood’s lawn is impeccably maintained, not a blade of grass taller than another. I let Lisa lead me through automatic doors, across a lobby and into a large hall. Residents in folding chairs and wheelchairs are scattered at card tables or watching television. A tarnished disco ball hangs above the bow window where a very old woman is dozing on a divan in the sun.
“Good morning, Babushka.” Lisa kisses the old woman’s cheek.
The old woman starts. “Well, well,” she says. “Vassilisa. It has been long and longer. Are you looking for something, my dear, or running away from it?”
Lisa rolls her eyes. “Both. Neither. I just came for a visit. And to ask for a favor.”
“Ach, it is good to see young people. All the time, I am surrounded by old people. A fence of living bones.” The old woman grins. Her false teeth are dark and stained. Bony legs protrude from her housecoat like withered sticks. I can’t help but wonder how a girl as beautiful as Lisa can possibly be related to such a singularly ugly woman.
Lisa pulls me forward. “Babushka, this is Max. I need you to talk to Papa for me.”
The old woman squints at me. “Ah,” she says softly, turning to her granddaughter. “No princes for you, then, my beauty?”
“I’ve always said so,” Lisa answers, just as softly.
“Pleased to meet you,” I say, unsure whether to kiss the old woman’s cheek or shake her hand.
She just grunts. “We’ll see.” Her eyes glitter like black beetles. “I will intercede with my son-in-law, perhaps. For now there is the washing, and lunch to cook. The meals here—faugh!” She gnashes her teeth.
“She’s right,” Lisa says. “Look, you keep her company and I’ll throw her things in the washer. We can order Chinese..” She squeezes my hand and disappears down the corridor.
I sit gingerly on the divan next to the old woman. She watches me with those black-beetle eyes, sucking on her teeth.
“Thanks for, uh, talking to Lisa’s dad for us,” I venture after a long silence.
“I know where his heart resides. And so should Vassilisa.”
I’m not sure how to respond to that.
Lisa comes back in. “That’s done. You should really send your laundry out. What next?”
The old woman clacks her teeth and rolls her eyes. Her glance falls on a Rubbermaid tote. “Sort those puzzles,” she says. “And find all the missing pieces.”
“I can help,” I offer.
“Don’t bother.” Lisa pulls her laptop out. “Amazon has next-day delivery. It’s like magic.”
“Ach, always you take the easy way, you modern girls. Here. The garden wants watering,” the old woman says and produces – of all things – a sieve.
“Really, Babushka?” But Lisa takes the sieve and heads for a side door. Through the bow window I see her walking towards the communal vegetable garden.
We sit in awkward silence for two or three minutes, Lisa’s grandmother and me. I pick at the seam on my jacket.
“You like it here?” I ask finally. I’m not sure if I mean here, Birchwood, or here, America.
She answers both questions, and neither. “Once, I kept my own house. Cooked my own meals. Here,” she waves her arm, “here things are easier. Not so much for me to do.”
I can’t tell if this pleases or irritates her. Her gaze unsettles me; I turn my face to the window, pretending to be lost in the manicured view.
“I ran the hose through the sieve,” Lisa confesses to me twenty minutes later. “It worked rather well, actually.”
“What’s with the chores?” I ask.
“It’s just her way.” Lisa tucks a flower behind my ear. “It’s about proving my cleverness, or dedication, or something. Old Country rules. Well, Babushka?”
Her grandmother crosses her arms and cocks her head. “Bring me rainbows without rain, stars without night.”
“Oh, for the love of… Fine.” Lisa scans the room. Her voice changes. “Oh. I see. Can you get that down?”
I clamber onto the window seat and lift the disco ball off its hook. It’s covered in dust and grime and something loose rattles inside. Lisa digs in her bag, pulling out a microfiber cloth printed with tiny hearts.
We sit together on the window seat. I hold the ball in my lap while Lisa polishes, her face reflecting from every facet.
“It used to be an egg,” she says, as if to herself. “An egg, hidden inside a duck which was hidden inside a hare which was locked in a chest buried under an oak tree. To keep it safe.” She shrugs. “Times have changed, and this isn’t the Old Country. He made do.”
“What’s inside?” I turn the ball in my hands, listening to the thing inside clatter.
“A needle. And my father’s heart.”
Heartless, she had called him. I hadn’t realized she meant it literally. Her heart, though--I know where that resides.
“I love you,” I murmur in her ear. She looks up at me, flushing. Inside the ball, the loose thing shifts.
A dark-haired man walks into the room carrying a plastic bag and a wine bottle. “Chinese again, Matushka? You know it’s…” He catches sight of Lisa and me and freezes.
“These modern girls, they will do what they will.” Lisa’s grandmother spreads her gnarled hands. “Let her be.”
Lisa lays her own hands flat on the disco ball. “It’s been three years, Papa. I never wanted to break your heart. I only wanted to give mine away as I pleased.”
Her father looks from his daughter to his mother-in-law and back. Sunlight sparkles on the mirrored ball, sending flecks of light crawling across his face. “Well. You are both determined to break it one way or another. This, too, I will learn to live with.” He holds his hand out. “Kostya,” he introduces himself.
“Max,” I say. “Wait, let me hang this up where it’ll be safe.”
And I was there, and I drank the wine and ate my fill and all lived long and happily.
Christine Hanolsy is a science fiction and fantasy writer who cannot resist a love story. She serves on the editorial staff of the online writing community YeahWrite, where her primary portfolio includes microprose, flash fiction, and poetry. She was a 2015 BlogHer Voices of the Year recipient and community keynote speaker for her essay Rights and Privileges. Her short story, Afterimage, appears in the anthology Crush: Stories about Love (MidnightSun Publishing, September 2017). Christine lives in Portland, Oregon, USA, with her wife and their two sons.