1998

LOOKING FOR MOTHER OLGA

When I returned to Russia that September, the financial crash had only just happened. I was seriously worried for my friends, whose lives were just starting to sort themselves out. Would this catastrophic blow have sent them flying?

In the event, Anna, Natasha, and Igor had no money to lose, as they reminded me wryly. All three were unaffected. As for Misha, the last time I saw him he had been complaining how desperate he was for capital, how no one would give him a loan. But he had come through the crisis precisely because he had no capital, and had borrowed no money.

In Moscow, however, the lives of Ira and her new husband, Sasha, had been shattered. Since they started working together, their production company had been expanding fast, employing ever more people, turning out a stream of documentaries. The couple were a familiar sight on the Moscow social scene, at film premières and chic restaurants. They were successful and glamorous: tall Sasha, his Nordic good looks set off by a tailored Nehru jacket; Ira, slim and swan-necked, flamboyant in a miniskirt and thigh-high boots. They spent their summers in their house in Hungary, on the shores of Lake Baloton, and they were building a fine house in Moscow, in a gated community on the city limits. Sasha was just about to buy his own regional television channel, and had borrowed the money to do so.

The collapse of the market in August left Sasha with colossal debts. Both houses were instantly sold off to pay their creditors, as were all but the couple’s most basic possessions. When I stayed with them in the small, dark basement boiler room where they had found shelter Ira was the one comforting me: “Look, don’t worry—it’s only money! We’ll pay it back, however long it takes. We’re lucky—we love our work.” Her chief concern was clearly for Sasha’s health. I marveled at Ira’s stoicism. But Sasha’s gaunt face told its own story. It was not just his health that worried me. He was no longer young, and his creditors were threatening him, intimating that they would get their money by fair means or foul.

The country was back on its knees again. Now that Chechnya had won de facto independence in the first round of its war with Russia, people were worried about the possibility of Russia breaking up. What if other ethnic minority enclaves, like Tatarstan, were encouraged to secede from the Federation, they fretted? What if Siberia, with all that mineral wealth, decided to make a break for it?

Back in London, I had been reading about the emergence of a different manifestation of regional identity. A Keston Institute report suggested that paganism had survived as a coherent faith in parts of Russia; indeed, that one Finno-Ugric ethnic minority on the Volga near Kazan had even considered adopting it as their official religion after the fall of communism. I wondered whether Anna, who was a journalist in a Volga city to the south, knew anything about this. When we met up, I asked her. She burst out laughing: “Paganism! What a load of nonsense!”

I was not so sure. I wanted to go there and see for myself. For a start, Russia’s peasantry was well known to have clung on to its pagan beliefs for centuries after Christianization, practicing what they called dvoeverie, or “double faith.” Besides, when it came to Russia, I had given up believing that because something was implausible, it was necessarily untrue. No one traveling in Russia since the fall of communism could have failed to notice how, once ordinary people could no longer afford Russia’s health service, they had turned back to their traditional healers, the old peasant women, for help. The pages of Russia’s newspapers were peppered with small ads which offered to see off your rivals in love or business by means of a good, old-fashioned curse.

•  •  •

However, in the light of Anna’s reaction, I told Ira of my plan rather tentatively. Her response was different. Earlier in the year, she had been filming among one of those Finno-Ugric Volga minorities, the Mordvins, and she was amazed to find people so deeply in thrall to the old peasant healers. She even remembered the name of one of the wise women, Mother Olga, whom the locals talked about with particular reverence. Indeed, if I really wanted to go, she would be happy to come with me.

So off we went, in search of Mother Olga. We took the overnight sleeper east from Moscow, heading for Saransk, the main city of the autonomous republic of Mordovia. The Finno-Ugric Mordvins were one of a group of non-Slav ethnic minorities that had been living on the Volga since long before the Slavs came to the steppes. Over the centuries, most of these minorities had eventually converted to Christianity. The Mordvins had held out longer than most, until the seventeenth century or later.

One of the bunks in our compartment was taken by a pale, hollow-chested young lieutenant returning home on leave from Murmansk. As luck would have it, he lived not far from Mother Olga’s village. “Not my scene,” he said condescendingly. Of course, when he joined the army he left all that behind; became part of modern Russia. But Ira persisted. “Ma’s into all that,” he conceded. “But you can forget about her—Mother Olga’s given up seeing people. Her son was killed in a motorcycle accident—well, they called it an accident.” It happened right after she used her mysterious powers of divination to help the police identify a murderer belonging to one of the local mafias. Before we even arrived, our one fragile lead had broken off.

Did he have any other suggestions? “Dunno,” he said, turning his back on us. “But Ma did mention some woman in Chamzhinka.” When the train arrived in Saransk next morning we looked for a taxi. “Woman in Chamzhinka?” the driver on the platform pondered. “Must be Alla Stepanovna. Been there with the wife.” Was he playing us along? There was no knowing. As he headed out of town he reminded us that the Finno-Ugric Mordvins belonged to two tribes, the Moksha and the Erzya. Chamzhinka was Erzya country.

After driving through rolling countryside of fields and woods, we reached the outskirts of a small town. The car slewed off the road on to a mud track flanked by half-built houses, each sporting a comical array of architectural features, expressive of their owners’ long-thwarted individuality. The building outside which we stopped was different. It was cobbled together out of bricks and concrete, festooned with trailing cables. There was no placard, nothing to suggest that this was the house of a well-established folk healer. In fact, the place seemed deserted. We rang the doorbell long and hard, but there was no reply. Still, it was only breakfast time.

Exploring the building, we opened a door at the side. The dark basement was full of people. They were packed around two trestle tables, dressed as if for church. We waited outside. It promised to be one of those golden September days which often come just before the Russian winter sets in. “Women’s summer,” they call it; when it arrives, it is like a consolation, a promise to hold on to through the dark months. In the gardens around us, the boughs of the trees were heavy with apples and cherries. We had come to the chernozyem, the belt of fertile black earth which runs up from southern Russia in a broad northeasterly belt.

People were busy harvesting potatoes and fruit. But in the healer’s garden there was nothing but weeds, rubbish, and a rusting generator. A mongrel bitch and her puppy came and sniffed our legs. Presently a middle-aged man with a cherubic face framed by gray curls came out, peered at us through the tinted glasses on the end of his nose, and went back in.

As the sun moved higher, the people in the basement started to join us, settling on planks, stumps of wood, and upturned buckets. We swapped symptoms and troubles, shared food and fizzy drinks from the local store. Some were clearly seriously ill, people on whom the doctors had given up. A sad-eyed woman called Masha, who had brought her tearful daughter, told us about her previous visit. She had slept overnight in the basement with a group of people, waiting for a session. But next morning, Nina Stepanovna chucked them all out: during the night someone crapped on the healer’s front doorstep. “Who’d have done that?” I asked. “A sorcerer,” whispered a frail old man who was kneading bits of bread into balls and popping them into his mouth.

“They’re always trying to get Nina Stepanovna,” Masha volunteered. “She’s white, they’re black,” she said, spelling out the obvious for these outsiders who understood nothing.

“It’s war!” said a babushka in a red headscarf. “Always was—always will be. There’s one near me keeps devils under her floorboards!”

The sun was high by the time the healer’s cherubic emissary appeared again. Briefly, he sawed at a piece of wood, then lost interest and stood in the sunshine, enjoying his status as “her” husband: “Hang on. She’s having a cuppa. My advice is—don’t cross her. The tongue on her!”

Finally, the healer appeared. She was short and shapeless and wore a flowered housecoat. She had an enormous frog-like mouth. “Whadda you think?” she said, nodding proudly toward her man. “Not bad-looking is he, my Yura?” Then she returned to the house. Clutching his gray curls, as if to say “I’ve done what I can,” the cherub followed her.

The patience of the waiting group amazed me. No one even ventured to ask the healer why we were waiting. By midafternoon one young couple started looking restless; their daughter would be on her own at home. “Don’t leave—you can stay the night in the basement,” said Masha. They were not convinced. The basement was a damp concrete box with a tiny window, trestle tables, and a few narrow benches. We were sad to see them go; after the hours of waiting they were no longer strangers. No sooner had they left than the healer beckoned us all into the basement. “Sorry you had to wait. No way I could see you while they were here.” A frisson passed through the group. “Meaning?” I asked Masha. “A spell. They’d come to put a spell on her!” she whispered. Ira and I exchanged amused glances: this woman understood about power.

In the basement people were sitting pressed shoulder to shoulder around the table. The room was lit by a single bare bulb. A row of paper icons was fixed around the wall. The atmosphere was charged. The three of us sat on benches at the side with other latecomers.

Half an hour later Nina Stepanovna made her operatic entrance. Gone was the country baba; carrying a huge leather-bound book, the silver threads of her headscarf catching the light, a large brass crucifix around her neck, she circled the tables like a diva. Now and then she stopped to feel someone’s head, neck, or breast. “Don’t be shy now—pretend you’re on the beach!” she clucked, putting people at their ease.

At the end of the table sat Borya. Six months ago he’d been carried in here, unable to walk. The healer had been working on him ever since. She’d taken a curse off him, he said. Now she made him parade up and down the room; he was still limping, but only slightly. They beamed at one another in triumph.

Opposite Borya sat a woman with a corkscrew perm called Valya. All day she was groaning, restless from the pain in her back. Her blond, virile husband had taken her from one hospital to the next, but no one could tell her what was wrong. We were longing for the healer to put Valya out of her agony. But Nina Stepanovna’s progress around the table was slow. She would move on, then turn back, as if weaving a web around us.

“Which of your folk was killed by lightning?” the healer asked the red-scarfed baba, after putting her hand on the woman’s head. The baba’s mouth dropped open. “That was Uncle Fedya—but how did you …?” she gasped. Nina Stepanovna moved on, feeling people here and there, using her cross like a stethoscope. “Wow, you steal a ton of stuff!” she commented, rummaging in one woman’s hair as if she could feel the booty. The woman hotly denied it. Nina Stepanovna smiled and patted her fondly: “Can’t kid me. I’ve worked on a farm, too. But I never took more than I needed—don’t get greedy.…” Tears welled up in the woman’s eyes: how well Nina Stepanovna understood her!

She might have been reading from some invisible printout of their lives. When she reached Masha’s tearful daughter she put her mouth to the girl’s back, walked to the corner of the room, and bent over, her body wracked with coughing. The girl started sobbing. “Cry, doll. Go on, let it all out. You’ll feel better soon,” said Nina Stepanovna kindly. “And when the first frost comes go out in your nightie and lie in a puddle at the nearest crossroads. Don’t worry, no one’ll see—and you won’t catch cold.” The girl hugged Natasha Stepanovna as if her life depended on it.

Next came a well-dressed woman from a long way away. Nina Stepanovna dealt with her briefly: “As for you, my china doll, why did you sell your wedding dress? Ai, ai, ai—you can’t sell wedding things. You can’t give ’em away and you can’t borrow ’em! You’re body’s cold all the way down the right side—go to church and confess.”

“It’s your thyroid,” she said to the next woman. “When you get home, take a knife and go like this”—passing the cross over her throat. Then she muttered: “Leave this white body, leave these yellow bones, amen, amen, amen. And avoid mushrooms.”

Next she came to the old man with the fearful eyes. “How old are you?” she asked. “Sixty-five? You look ten years older. Don’t worry, it’ll be all right—where were you in the army? It’s the radiation that done it. Oats and hops—three spoonfuls to a liter of water, strain and drink with fifty grams of honey. And what were you up in court for? I know. You didn’t mean it. You were drunk.”

There was no judgment, and no condescension. Like children, her patients showed her their bruises and let her kiss them better again. “What about kids?” she asked the old man. “Did you leave it too late? … There’s an adder hiding under your house. Go home and find it. Kill it, put it on the crossroads, and say: ‘Snake, dear little snake, wherever you came from, whoever put you in my house, I leave you at this crossroads. This is your family, and to me amen, healing, and grace’—that’s what you must do, dearie!”

Valya’s turn was next. Twisted over in pain, she could hardly wait, and nor could we. But Nina Stepanovna returned to the old man again. “Are your legs tired?” she said. “That’s the arthritis—is there a birch in your garden? Take the one that buds earliest, cut it down, and give away the wood to lonely old women—whatever you do, don’t take it into the house. And say this: ‘John the Baptist, John the Healer, take my darkness, give me your light. Cure my ills, my pains, my nerves, and my veins.’ ”

At last she reached Valya. She walked straight past the suffering woman and stood behind her handsome husband. He scowled as if to say: “Don’t look at me, I’m only here for her.” “Who’s Lyuda then?” she asked sternly. Ivan said nothing, but the blood rose to his cheeks. So did our collective anger—the cheat, the bastard! “Don’t go thinking your wife’s the one with the problem. It’s you, mister! Tell us about the crash then?” she murmured conspiratorially. “What crash?” Ivan bluffed. “Come on now,” she said, a complicit smile on her frog-like face. We hardly breathed. “You mean on the bike.” He sounded like a boy caught stealing apples. “The motorbike. You were drunk, weren’t you?” Valya was looking on astonished. The healer held up a warning finger: “Come back and I’ll cure you. Till then—keep those flies buttoned up!”

As the healer walked around the room, her mood lifted and so did ours. She touched one person with her hand, another with the crucifix. She blessed jars of honey, tea, towels, and photographs which people had heaped onto the table. She muttered prayers and recipes: “Save me from the Evil One, from war, from thunder and from lightning, heavenly host, despite my unworthiness. Cut up pine needles finely, add water, boil for five minutes, cover and leave till morning. Take with a spoonful of honey three times a day.” She was moving lightly as a girl, gaily, wrapping us in her protection as she went through her own ritual dance.

As she passed Valya, the sick woman grabbed her hand. “Don’t abandon me!” Nina Stepanovna sighed, tipped the woman over her knee, and worked her lower back like a skilled chiropractor. Valya howled, but it was relief we heard in her voice now.

Then the diva was gone. As people filed out into the dusk, leaving offerings of money, we sat stunned by the drama we had witnessed.

THE GODDESS AND BABA YAGA

Those of us staying overnight were considering our options for sleeping (a mattress, the table, a concrete floor, some narrow benches) when the healer reappeared: “You, doll,” she said to me sternly, “need help. Come upstairs with your friend.” Back in her quarters, Nina Stepanovna gave us blankets and unlocked a door on a fine room, unfurnished except for a chandelier and a few pot palms.

We were fast asleep on the carpet when the light flashed on and off a few hours later: “Wakey wakey!” Nina Stepanovna was standing in the doorway, frog face lit up by a grin. “You can sleep when you get back home! Here, I’m the boss!” It was four in the morning. In the kitchen, where dirty dishes were stacked on the side, the cherubic Yura was waiting, bottle in hand. “Hey, is there really a tunnel under the sea joining England to Europe? Glug! Glug! What’s it like going under the sea?”

“You can hear the fishes talk,” I answered, half asleep.

“Hey Nin—let’s go visit her under the sea!”

“She can have her England, fishes and all. I’ve got my love,” she answered, kissing Yura tenderly. “He was done for when we met. Tell ’em, Yur!”

“She saved my life! I was boss of the kolkhoz here. It was December. Terrible frost there was. I skidded. Got stuck in snow. Turned off the engine and went to sleep. When I woke I couldn’t move. It was dark. I could see lights out there—it was our guys, stealing bricks in a truck. Couldn’t budge, couldn’t shout. By the time they got to me my face was black. Hellish pain. Fingernails came off. Doctors were going to take my arms and legs off. The wife walked out.”

“I took him in,” Nina Stepanovna threw in.

“Do you remember?” Yura asked gently. “I reached over and took off your scarf. Turned you into a woman again. After eighteen years.” Nina Stepanovna tilted her frog face and batted her pale eyelids.

“Be a crime not to drink to that!” Yura bellowed.

“How did you save him?” I asked.

“By using God’s gifts. My mother had the gift, too. When it was dark she’d drop around and treat a sick kid.” Yura was nodding off again. “It wasn’t allowed then. You got prison for it. I knew nothing. But she must’ve passed it on. After she died, Pa gave me her book. Just a little exercise book. I chucked it in the corner. But later on, well …”

“Was Yura your first husband?”

“Oh no! We had four kids when Vasya died. He was a forest guard. Came on a group of ’em stealing wood. They beat him to death. God bless my enemies!” She crossed herself. “I was just a pig girl. Sometimes I amaze myself. How do I know that someone’s fifth vertebrae’s smashed. Huh?”

She paused to refill our glasses. What made Yura drunk only tuned her higher. “I get it from Him.” She threw a glance upward. “I was in Sergiev Posad.” The complex of monasteries at the heart of the Russian Orthodox Church was near Moscow, a long way away. “This priest, Father Naum—he tore into me! ‘You’re a bad girl,’ he said. ‘Stop doing spells—start curing people!’ So that’s what I do. I help people, and it makes me happy.” Yura surfaced from sleep: “A crime not to drink to that!” he mumbled, and we drank. So that was it—while we were waiting out there all day, she and Yura were sleeping off the night before.

She recalled the day she’d found a handsome young couple sitting in the basement: “I told ’em straight out: ‘You’re brother and sister.’ ‘Oh no we’re not,’ they said. ‘We’re both orphans, but we’re husband and wife!’ ‘Go away and find out about your parents,’ I said. A few weeks later they were back. Turned out I was right. There’d been six of them. Pa’d gone to jail, Ma’d died. Kids shoved in different orphanages. What should they do, they ask me? They already had kids. ‘Go to your priest. If he blesses the marriage, well and good,’ I said. A few months later they were back, with all the brothers and sisters they’d tracked down. ‘Now we’ve got a family, thanks to you. You’re our mother now.’ ”

“Crime not to drink to that!” Yura surfaced in time for the punchline. Soon he was asleep again. But was he really? A thought was stirring in his troubled brain, pushing through the slights, the needles of jealousy, foggy lumps of love. He looked across at his wife, sober suddenly: “I’m a wreck.” He spoke as if the two were alone. “I’m in the way, aren’t I?” “Shut it, fuck face,” she said, unconvincingly, and put her hand on my head. “As for you, Zina, someone’s put a curse on you—kicked sand in your eyes. You probably thought it was a joke. But that was no joke. You were wearing a swimsuit—white with red spots. Remember?” What could I say? She was magnificent.

We had entered a different reality. Here, the air was teeming with good and bad spirits. “Where’s your cross?” were the first words Nina Stepanovna addressed to me. To walk around unprotected, a prey to every piece of passing malevolence, was as stupid as going out in snow without boots.

This Russia was new to me. But I would find that scholars like Joanna Hubbs had been piecing together, from legends, folklore and artefacts, fragments of a history of Russia’s wise women. All over the Eurasian landmass the mammoth hunters had left behind statues of Ice Age goddesses. Those with heavy thighs and spilling stomachs might have been portraits of Nina Stepanovna. In the steppes, the hunters’ goddess had ruled over earth, air, and water. But somewhere between the seventh and third millennia B.C., as hunting gave way to agriculture, a shift of power took place. A legend Herodotus records seems to capture that transition: the Scythians who ruled over the Russian steppes in the first millennium B.C. worshipped a goddess, half-maiden, half-serpent, called Tabiti. One day Herakles went to sleep by the River Dneiper when tending his cows. He awoke to find that Tabiti had stolen them. She agreed to release them if he would become her lover. When the three sons she bore him reached manhood, she offered them the bow Herakles had left behind: the one who could bend it would become the first king of the Scythians.

Hubbs points out that when Prince Vladimir of Kiev was baptized by Byzantine missionaries in the tenth century, the prince’s warrior elites adopted Christianity. But the clans they protected held on to their female deity. However, by that time the powers of that female deity were greatly circumscribed by other gods. She evolved into the earth goddess, Mokosh, a word that evokes the dampness of Mother Earth in Russian. Her origin was Finno-Ugric, like Nina Stepanovna’s Eryza people, and Hubbs confirms that her cult remained particularly strong among these Finno-Ugric people. Indeed, in that legend of the golden woman which fascinated European travelers, we catch the image of that goddess. It echoes down to us through the painted wooden matroshkas in every Russian gift shop.

Christianity found ways of dealing with the tenacious culture of that female deity. It incorporated her into the Mother of God. It co-opted her, as the priest did Nina Stepanovna when she visited Sergiev Posad. It also demonized her as Baba Yaga, the witch of Russian fairy tales who kidnaps children and cooks them for her supper. My Baba Yaga had lured me into her house and she was not going to let me go until she had “cooked” me.

In the course of our long drunken night, I learned that the Communist Party had also co-opted the wise women. Back in the 1970s Nina Stepanovna was offered brilliant prospects by the KGB in Saransk if she would work for them. She turned them down. She preferred to work with pigs.

LIFTING ZINA’S CURSE

The operation to remove Zina’s curse took place in a room which Nina Stepanovna kept for chosen patients. The afternoon sun slanted down on Ira and me, two young couples, a bent old man and two babas in headscarves. Nina Stepanovna handed me a massive, leather-bound volume. “You, doll, can read to us.” It was a prayer book in Old Church Slavonic, the written language which missionaries had cobbled together for the Slavs after Prince Vladimir’s conversion to Christianity. Was she joking? One glance was enough to answer that. The carousing dame of the night before was a stern priestess now.

I plowed through the prayers, mutilating the mellifluous sounds as she attended to other patients. “Louder!” she kept saying remorselessly. “Louder!” Only when she finished with all her other patients did she turn to me: “You can stop now. You’re not very good at it, are you?” I heard the judgment behind her jeering: how dare you patronize me in my own house, crediting my showmanship, but not believing in my power?

Putting a hand on my head, she delivered a scathing report on the state of my internal organs. The questions she asked did not fish around, like gypsy fortune tellers and astrologers. They were precise and accurate. “You nearly drowned—when was that? Your house burned down recently? What’s this dog—black, white spot on chin, not yours, seems mighty fond of you?” It was as if, with her hand on my head, she was reading some holographic chronicle of my life, blurred but accurate.

Before Ira and I left to catch the night train, she repeated her warning: the work she had done to lift my “curse” would leave me in a bad state. So by next morning when our sleeper pulled into Moscow’s Kazan Station I was in a cocky mood: despite Nina Stepanovna’s dire predictions I was in the pink of health.

It was still early when I reached the flat where I was staying with Ira’s mother, Elena. I tiptoed in, took a shower, reveling in the luxury of hot water, and regaled Elena with stories over breakfast. Then I lay down for a brief rest. An hour later, I woke to find that I could hardly move. I forced myself to get up, and collapsed, as if every muscle and tendon in my body had been cut. Alarmed, Elena rubbed me down with spirit and plunged my feet in scalding water. But I knew that I was not ill, but jinxed.

For the next three days I lay there, unable to read or talk. Appointments came and went, but there was nothing I could do. I was immobilized. Through the window I watched the sunlight on the plane tree in the courtyard. No wonder Yura was wary of Nina Stepanovna. She was a potent force. She did not like my detachment, and she was right, too: it was monstrous of me to have imagined that I could go and observe a wise woman in Russia, and not be observed myself. Whatever she had done to me, it served its purpose: she had forced me to concede her power.

Lying there, I had a strange dream. The house was full of vermin. I was laying poison down on the floor when a mouse with pink punk fur minced across it. The mouse was followed by a hamster with a gold watch chain. A chipmunk gave a speech of interminable length. I was watching a revolution: self-possessed, unafraid, the animals were taking over. As I woke up, the chipmunk’s speech turned back into the sound of children playing on the rusty swing outside.

Powerless to move, or even read, I had plenty of time to reflect on why Nina Stepanovna had done what she had to me. I had come out here expecting to be able to understand whatever happened to me in Russia. But the chaos of the times had kept subverting my intentions, reminding me of the poet Feodor Tyutchev’s warning: “Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone.”

What had I really learned from my travels? That was what I was forced to consider as I lay there. Still, my way of dealing with my experiences had remained deeply Western. The stranger my journey became, the harder I clung on to my reason, the Western habit of detachment. Nina Stepanovna, the pig girl, had humbled me, forced me to stop, to recognize a power that I did not understand.

The longer I lay there, the more ashamed of myself I started to feel. Yes, I had always been sympathetic to the people I wrote about. But had I really engaged with the challenge of meeting people like the Old Believer Philimon, and the Cosmist Professor Kaznacheev? In their very different ways, both of them and Nina Stepanovna were militant crusaders against rationality, that progressive force which had displaced God and mystery from the center of the world. If asked, I knew they would all agree that we in the West were prisoners of our own achievement.

When St. Stephen of Perm asked the pagans why they were so resistant to Christianity, they explained that they were a hunting people. They said that if they were converted they would lose their connectedness to the natural world, and to the animals they hunted. We had built the modern world on our ability to detach ourselves, to analyze. But in the course of that we had lost any sense of living in an equilibrium with that natural world. Nina Stepanovna’s question hung in the air: was I happy to remain the prisoner of my own detachment? Where did I want to belong now?

When Nina Stepanovna was laying into me during that final session she asked me: “Why did you sell your wedding dress?” The question shored up my skepticism, as my wedding dress was in a trunk in my parents’ attic. But now that I considered it I realized how shrewd it was. Her patients all came from Russia. When hyperinflation was raging, every married woman would have scanned her possessions for anything of value to sell. She gauged the question wrongly only because she had never met a woman who came from a land so far away that her life was not ruined by the post-Soviet collapse. She was not leafing through some holographic image of my wardrobe. She was challenging me on the subject of power, as she did the other women. Hold on to what is important, she was reminding me: do not think that by sacrificing yourself to your men, your children, you can make up for that abuse of power that is visited on everyone, but on women most of all.

“Give me gold,” she asked me harshly at one stage. I was wearing only my gold wedding ring, and I was not going to give her that. During the long pause that followed I could feel my fellow patients looking at me, thinking how rich I was, and how mean. Well, what the hell? It was just a ring. When I tugged at it, stung by the implication, Nina Stepanovna seized my hand and stopped me.

“Give me gold,” she demanded again, more roughly. Again, I pulled at the ring, and again she stopped me.

“Give me gold,” she repeated.

“No,” I said this time, crossly.

At this her pale, frog-like face cracked open in an enormous smile.

“You see?” she said, ruffling my hair. Yes, maybe I was beginning to.

On the fourth day I recovered, as mysteriously as I had collapsed. Only then did Ira admit what Nina Stepanovna had told her in confidence: I would be ill for three days. After that, the curse would be lifted.

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