Mail Order Witch
By Mike Reeves-McMillan
You got to understand, Bill and me was friends. Well, neighbors. I wouldn’t have lent him my rifle, but I’d have lent him, say, an axe.
Maybe not my best axe.
In the Alaskan bush, “neighbors” means both a bit more and a bit less than it does outside, where people live closer. More, because you might end up relying on one another for your lives, but less, because you don’t pass each other on the street when you go out for pizza. Ain’t no street. Ain’t no pizza. If you see each other, it’s because you plan to.
This is why, when Bill comes to my door, I says to him, “What can I do for ya, Billy?”
“Just wanted to let you know,” he says, when he’s come in the warm and I’ve given him a brew of coffee. “I’ll be off out to the far trapline this season.”
“Why’s that, Bill?” I says. Out past the hills is tougher country, but the pelts are better.
“Gettin’ married,” says Bill. “This’ll be my last chance for a while.”
“No! Bill, really? Congratulations. Who’s the girl?” Weren’t no women nearby us, save old Miss Ongtowasruk down to the trading post, and nobody’d marry that old cow even if she wanted them to. But I thought maybe Bill had someone from back home, like a childhood sweetheart or somethin’. He come up from the States when he was a young feller.
“Russian girl. Yelena, her name is. Mail-order bride.”
That made more sense. “When’s she gettin’ here?”
“February twelfth. Gives me time to get some good pelts, and fix up the cabin a bit.”
“Well, good, Billy. I’m happy fer ya,” I says, and I was, I swear.
Bill had been gone just a couple days when I was down to the trading post picking up some flour and what-have-you. I’m dickering with Ongtowasruk, trying to make her smile--it’s kind of a bet me and Bill had, though if I succeeded when he wasn’t there he’d never believe my word--when the door opens and in comes this woman.
She wears a fur hat that didn’t come from round here, and her cheekbones are high, supporting big cheeks under dark eyes. She strides up to the counter and announces, in a heavy accent, “I am Yelena.”
“Yelena?” I say. “You ain’t due here for months.”
She shakes her head. “No,” she says, “here it says, 02-12.” She pulls out a letter, and I recognize Bill’s handwriting. He always writes dates in numbers like that, kind of a quirk of his. I think it’s because he can’t spell some of the months. He leaves out the year, too. Maybe he ain’t sure what it is.
“That’s February,” I say.
“No,” she says, “is December. How can 02-12 be February? February is second month, not twelfth month.”
“But in America, we write the month first,” I say.
She looks startled. “Truly?” she says. “Is stupid. Small, medium, large. Day, month, year. Is proper way.”
“You’re probably right,” I say, trying to be tactful, “but that’s not how we do it. Anyway, let me just finish up here and I’ll take you out to the cabin.” Time enough later to break the news to her about Bill being gone. I don’t want to get into it in front of Ongtowasruk. None of her business, sour-faced old bat.
My cabin is closer, so I go there first, to drop off the flour and such. I don’t say nothing to her about it. I’m kind of out of the habit of conversation, and besides, the muffler on the snowmachine is busted, and I’d have to shout. She comes in with me, because it’s rude to leave a person out in the snow, and I stoke the fire and help her off with her coat. And then she turns to me, and says, “Bill!” and before I can say anything, she’s kissing me.
It’s been a while, but from what I can piece together out of odds and ends of memory, it’s one hell of a kiss, maybe the best I’ve had, and I’m not in any great hurry to clear the matter up. And then one thing kind of leads to another, and the next opportunity I get to really say anything is, well, afterwards, if you know what I mean, and by that time we’re on the bearskin in front of the fire, and Yelena is wound round me like the leather binding round my best knife. And it’s difficult to raise the topic of me not being exactly Bill in all respects.
So we eat dinner, and we go to bed, and, well, you can fill in the details for yourself, at least, I assume you can, and if you can’t I won’t be the one to help you.
And next morning I go out and check the traps, and I think all day--because you think a lot out on the trapline, or I do--about how it’s not right and how I’m betraying Bill and deceiving Yelena. (In between, of course, thinking about the previous night and how amazing it was.) I come home planning to tell her, but she greets me with another sizzling kiss at the door and, long story short, I don’t, and that evening is pretty much a repeat of the previous evening.
So things kind of go on from day to day, and I answer to the name Bill, but every time I do, especially under certain circumstances which, again, I’m not telling that kind of story, well, I kind of wince a little, and she starts to notice.
“Bill,” she says, one night, when we’re together in bed and we’ve kind of wound down activities for the time being. I twitch.
“Why is it,” she says, “that you move so when I say your name?”
Well, I’m not much of a guy, but I can’t keep the secret any longer, even if it does mean she hates me. I’ve been feeling more and more guilty, thinking of Bill coming back and finding out I took his bride, and she’s got to know sometime, so I confess. I tell her everything, how my name is Jim, and Bill is my buddy--well, sort of--and how the misunderstanding got underway, and how I didn’t want to give her up, and now I love her, and I’m really, really sorry.
She’s cuddled up to me when I start the story, and I feel her body get stiffer and stiffer as I go, and I’m just waiting for her to roll off and start shouting at me. I finish the story, and she makes a choking noise, and I think she’s starting to sob. I never could stand a crying woman, and I feel lower than an earthworm’s toe fungus.
She rolls off me, onto her back, still making the noise and shaking, and then she really lets go, and I realize: she’s laughing. She’s about splitting a rib. I sit up and watch her, which is a show worth seeing, and I begin to hope it may not be the last performance I get to witness.
Finally, she winds down, and says, “You are bad man.” But she says it with a smile.
“You ain’t angry with me?”
“Not much. You treat me all right, and I like you. Bill, now. He will be angry.”
“Damn straight,” I say. “What are we going to do?”
“You not worry,” she says. “I have cousin. She says to me when I come, see if you can find man for me too, maybe nearby so we can do things together, like when we are little. I write to Cousin Yekaterina, tell her to come in February.” She smiled in triumph.
“But the names. Yelena is the name Bill is expecting.”
“No problem,” she says. “We, how do you say…” she made a gesture, crossing her hands.
“Swap,” I said. “But Ongtowasruk heard you say you were Yelena. If you swap names, she’s going to notice.”
“Ah,” said Yelena, “I can work a little on her. Yelena, Yekaterina, who is to say what she heard? We tell the lie, and we tell it boldly, and we confuse her until she drops it.”
“I like the way you think,” I said, appreciating the way she looked.
“Come here,” she said, “Jeem,” and smiled. It was the first time she had used my real name, even if she said it funny.
But then she whispered into my ear, “I know now how to tell you are lying. If you lie to me again, it will not be good for you. Understand?”
She sounded scary, so I said I understood, and then things got pleasant again.
Now that I didn’t have to hide my real name, we slipped off to town and got married up proper. Wasn’t no big ceremony, but we were happy.
We wanted to have Cousin Yekaterina turn up before Bill did, to distract him so he didn’t get suspicious, so Yelena wrote back and forth to her and they set it up between them. It was a good winter for trapping, and even though I didn’t go far from the cabin--because why would I want to spend the night alone when Yelena was waiting back there for me?--I got some fine furs. I come in one evening in early January, singing to myself, hauling a couple of good foxes and looking forward to Yelena’s usual greeting. But when I opened the door, she was sitting at the table looking worried.
“What is it?” I said. She had a letter in front of her, and I recognized the kind of paper that her cousin wrote on, a different size and color from American paper.
“Yekaterina has met someone,” she said.
“What? In Russia?”
“Yes. The man who helps her with the forms that she needs to come here. They are going to be married. Is not so bad to stay in Russia these days, she thinks. She is not so political as me.”
“She’s not coming?”
Yelena shook her head. I closed my eyes. “What are we going to do?” I asked.
“We could tell Bill that Yelena has decided not to come. He does not read Russian, yes? I read these letters to him and translate, swap the names.”
“No, he’d never go for it. He’d suspect the truth, especially if he talks to Ongtowasruk. Did you get anywhere with her?”
“Hmph,” said Yelena. “She is stubborn, that one. And she has a little power of her own. You are right, Jeem. We must find another plan.”
Well, we talked back and forth, coming up with one crazy plan after another, until Yelena said, “You killed this medved, yes? This bear?” She pointed to the bearskin rug in front of the fire.
“Yes,” I said.
“Could you catch another?”
“You mean, without killing it? That’s against the law. And how would it help?”
“My grandmother, she follow old ways. Taught me some things. You catch bear, I show you.”
I couldn’t get any more out of her, and then our evening took its usual turn and I was distracted.
There weren’t many bears out of hibernation yet, and they ain’t easy to trap. After several days, I was no closer, and Yelena still wouldn’t tell me her plan.
She sighed when I came back again with no bear. “I have to help you,” she said.
“Help me?” I said, stung. “You don’t know nothing about trapping, specially not here.”
“Who spoke of trapping?” she said. “I show you tomorrow.”
The next day, I didn’t go out to the trapline, but watched as she built a thing out of birch twigs. She took my knife and carved one of the thicker ones into the rough shape of a bear, and placed food and drink around it. Then she commenced to chanting.
My grandmother was Yupik, and followed the old ways too, so it wasn’t the first time I saw something like that. Something about the way she did it raised the hairs on the back of my neck, though. And then the bear turned up, and lay down next to the pile of twigs, calm as you like. She’d forbidden me from holding my rifle, which was kind of like being naked in the snow as far as I was concerned, with a black bear sitting there looking at me.
“Now,” said Yelena, “I need some blood from you.”
I was too scared by this time to say yes, no, or boo, so I just reached out my arm and let her cut me with the knife. She caught the blood in a basin and took it over by the bear, chanting in a language that sounded nothing like the Russian she’d spoken from time to time.
She poured the blood over the bear’s head, and it commenced to change shape. My eyes was practically out on stalks by this time, and when she plucked some hairs from her own head and draped them on the bear, and it turned into a woman right in front of me, I came that close to fainting, I tell you. Or maybe that was the blood loss. She’d taken a lot.
She led the bear-woman inside. It still kind of shambled, and its hair was black like a bear’s, but it looked like a woman in all other respects, and I mean all other respects. It was naked, of course.
I wouldn’t say a good-looking woman, mind you. But definitely a woman.
She dressed it in some of her clothes, without much cooperation from the bear, and then fed it and made it go to sleep.
I hadn’t said anything for a couple of hours by this time. Didn’t know what to say. But I said, “What the hell was all of that?”
“My grandmother was a vedma, how do you say it? One who knows? She teach me.”
I scratched my head. “You’re going to send that… that to Bill?”
“Yes. It will not live long, though, only a few days. Then we will get him another wife, maybe another of my cousins. This is just so he is distracted, you know?”
I didn’t like it. I very much didn’t like the witchcraft, or whatever it was, and the deception wasn’t my favorite thing, either. But as far as deception went, I had started it, and didn’t have no room to criticize.
And maybe Yelena did know something about trapping, at that. It was my cabin, so I wasn’t going to leave, and even if I could stand to throw her out in the snow… I wasn’t so sure she would, you know, let me.
Well, Bill came home a couple of days later, with a big old bunch of martens and such, and stopped by my cabin on his way down to the trading post. I let him in.
“Now, Bill,” I said, “there’s a couple things I need to tell you, buddy. Firstly, you inspired me.”
“Yep. Went and got myself a mail-order bride of my own, through that same service you used. Yekaterina, her name is. Beautiful girl. But you don’t care about that. The main thing you need to know is, Yelena’s here already.”
“She is?” He looked like a kid at Christmas.
“Yeah, she came early, some mix-up with the dates. But the thing is, Bill, she’s not well. We’ve been looking after her here until you came.”
“Where is she?” said Bill. “Show me.” So I took him into the cabin, and there was the bear thing all wrapped in blankets, and Yelena introduced herself as Yekaterina and the bear by her own name.
Bill was all worried, and wanted to take the beast to his cabin and look after her. There was no convincing him otherwise, so off he went, refusing help from us.
“She can’t talk,” Yelena told him, “her throat is all closed up.”
“I don’t think she’s contagious, but you shouldn’t get too close to her in case,” I said, as we’d rehearsed.
“Yes, yes,” said Bill, and off they went.
Well, next day I went out round the traps, and on my way back I dropped by Bill’s place to see what was doing. I found him there with his neck broke, and what was left of the bear thing, all falling apart like it was crumbling into dust. And I raced back to Yelena straight away.
“Spell has failed,” she said, when I told her what I’d found. “He must have done something, got too close, maybe, and it turned back to a bear and killed him, before it died.”
“He had his pants off,” I said.
“I see,” said Yelena. “With so sick a woman, he would try that? I am glad I ended up with you instead of him.”
“But what do we do?” I asked.
“What would you usually do if you found your friend killed by bear?” she asked.
So I went to the authorities, of course.
And that’s why they found my blood and Yelena’s hair in the cabin, and some of Yelena’s clothes all tore up, Bill dead with his pants off, and my snowshoe tracks coming and going. I know it looks bad, I know you don’t believe me, but I swear, every word of it’s the truth. And if you’re relying on what old Miss Ongtowasruk says, Yelena says she’s a witch, too.
Mike Reeves-McMillan has a black belt, which holds up his trousers. He's not sure why authors make such a big deal of these, but they are certainly convenient, trouserwise.
He lives in Auckland, New Zealand, the setting of his new urban fantasy series; and also in his head, where the weather is more reliable and there are a lot more wizards.
He blogs at http://csidemedia.com/gryphonclerks.
"Mail Order Witch" © 2016 by Mike Reeves-McMillan