Sometimes you make the obvious mistake and you consider her to be just a girl, barely as old as Buffy. Though sometimes, she thinks the same thing.
I’m blonde again, she tells you in the devastated magic shop, as innocently as a child might.
But mostly you recognize the truth. Behind the acerbic, off-putting creature with disarming capitalist zeal and encyclopedic knowledge of demonology is someone so old that she claims not to remember her original name. Anyanka, you think, is Russian. Or possibly Egyptian. She doesn’t precisely look Russian–though the story of Olaf the Troll reminds you that Russia was founded by Vikings (Varangians)–or perhaps she is one of those border states where Russia and Germany and a million other forgotten powers violent games.
You realize that while you may know a great deal about Anya, you know nothing of any importance.
You decide to learn. It becomes a game you play with her in the letters and emails that have flowed back and forth ever since Xander left her humiliated, lachrymose, and vengeful at the altar.
Tell me about the village where you grew up, you ask one week.
Why? she replies. It was like every village. Poor, dirty, and stinking of barnyard animals everywhere. We were peasants. There’s nothing to tell.
You think perhaps she is ashamed of being an illiterate peasant girl or regretful about forgetting during her demon centuries. Later, you discover this is willful naivete. You never considered that Anya has never forgotten anything important in her life, and so of course she remembers her own name, her own village, her own history.
But you keep asking questions every week, consciously trying to jog her memory of the past, so you might learn more.
Do you remember where your village was?
It wasn’t a world with maps, Giles, she replies in her next email. The cities of the world were so far away their names were almost unknown. Rome was a fairy tale traveling beggars might tell us. Mamma’s brother had been taken to Odessos by the lord or possibly the Varangians. The priest had once gone to Constantinople to kiss the hand of John the Baptist. Kiev, I was told, was a month away in good weather. I don’t know where it was. The Ukraine? Bulgaria? Poland? Romania? Hungary, even? I don’t know. I never dreamed beyond the village. There was nowhere else to go.
Your game has become an obsession, slowly but surely. You have taken to calling her and asking these questions in outrageously expensive international voice conversations. Anya is always surprised to hear you on the other end of the line, sometimes exasperated, but usually quite pleased that it’s you. Every time, you ask harder questions and you can’t explain why.
Did you eat well? Was there adequate clean water and clothing?
I lived, didn’t I? I was twenty when I went with D’Hoffryn.
Twenty? How did you become a twenty-year-old peasant girl without a husband?
She laughs. She always laughs. I was a witch, Rupert, she says. Not one of these hippie chic, woman-identified, love the earth, feel the seasons neo-pagan types. I considered the Yaga my patron–or whatever we called her in the village. She was smarter than the Virgin and more powerful than Christ. So I followed her ways. They worked.
But–Olaf? You seemed to have been involved with him.
Olaf wasn’t from the village, she says with a sharp intake of breath. I liked him. He seemed amazing. He was so big! The Varangians I knew weren’t so big–they’d become blond Slavs. Never mind that was me, too. Olaf was one generation from pure Rus’ and it showed. The way he moved, the amount of mead he drank. He was a giant! He was a powerful man! If I married him, I would be safe and comfortable and too good to do my own cleaning. We would have had a servant girl. It could have been a good life–
What about childbearing? Surely that was dangerous, you say, feeling like a particularly overbearing child sure that he knew more than the world-weary expert.
I had herbs and potions, she replies. My mamma was the midwife. She taught me her secrets–and knowing them kept me safe. I don’t understand you people, sometimes. I kept alive with herbs and superstition. I thought the Devil or the Yaga preserved me for their purpose. You people know the real reasons why people die and you still can’t stop them from doing it.
After this outburst, you wait to call three days, considering things. You never discuss Buffy, Xander, the shop, Willow, the Devon coven, or anything that would be a pretext for a call. Instead, it is all early Russian history as presented you by an impatient, increasingly passionate woman.
One particular July day, she tells you casually, just so you know, I slept with Spike once.
My word, you say irritably. All of those vampire charms, I suppose.
Drunken rebound intercourse, she replies snappishly. Don’t pretend you’ve never had it. It’s been around since the beginning of time and men have always blamed women for it and expect to be let off scot-free in return. Olaf was so damned annoying about it. He said it was May Day, he said it didn’t matter. I was his wench, wasn’t I? I was still his Ia’nka, so I should stop crying.
Ia’nka? you say.
I was baptized Anna Olanka, she says without being too patronizing. They called me Ia’nka. Anyanka’s a bastardized demon version of a pet name for me.
You believe everything she tells you, unable to imagine that this is only the surface story, the fairy tale she tells you to soothe you. You can live with the image of sturdy but lovely Anna Olanka, little Ia’nka in homespun clothes with dreams of a servant girl and a Varangian husband.
This story is only one version of events. You learn another when you wake up one night with a distraught Anya sitting at the foot of your bed. She is wearing a grey suit out of old movies and her hair is curly, which you think is much more attractive than when it’s straight.
I was a widow when I met Olaf, she begins when you sit up and almost swear at her in shock. I got married when I was fourteen, but it wasn’t much of a marriage. My husband–Aruk Okliahbinin–was forty-five and dying of something–I don’t know what–something that I could catch. Probably tuberculosis. I don’t know. He couldn’t breathe and I caught it from him.
His name was Aruk? you ask, realizing this is an inappropriate question. Perhaps she understands how ridiculous questions are nothing about the question itself and everything about understanding the unsaid, because she smiles at you.
It was before Ivan became so common, she explains. We were Ia’nka and Aruk, like something out of a fairy tale, except he died and I was seventeen and more beautiful than any girl in the village. His family despised me. I started in vengeance because of them.
Really? Aruk’s son from his first marriage, Danilko Arukin, decided I was his until I put some boils on his penis and a fistula on his ass, she says. He claimed I was a witch, and unfortunately it was true. I had to mostly hide out in the forest. That’s probably where all of the ridiculous stories about cannibalism began. I spent all my time farming a miserable piece of land with a fence to keep the damn bunnies from eating my last turnip. If I caught them, I’d kill them and stick their skulls on my fence to keep them away.
Oh, God, you say. Baba Yaga.
A Baba Yaga, she says with a laugh. There was more than one, you know. I stayed near the village for the first year after D’Hoffryn made me a demon. I was thinner than death itself from the sickness Aruk gave me and the child Olaf the Troll gave me that died before it quickened. I couldn’t control the change as well as I can now, so I was a hideous hag witch who had made her lover a troll.
The idea is beyond belief, but you believe it’s true. Probably because no lie could be as outrageous as the tale Anya is trying to tell.
You reach out and touch Anya’s cheek with your hand and she sinks into the contact gratefully.
When were you born, Anna Olanka? you murmur.
The priest said year of our lord 879 at the very end of the year, which means probably March. But that could be any year. We were on a different calendar. Sometime in the 870s. Probably March.
It was 898 when D’Hoffryn came, she says mournfully, and I think I was twenty. Maybe seventeen. She leans against you now with a wordless longing and you realize that she is still so light, even as a demon, that you could pick her up if you wanted.
You realize that she is over a thousand years older than you and that for some reason, you still feel that kissing her would be slightly improper. It would smack of Wesley’s infatuation with Cordelia, which is a position you never wish to get anywhere close to. But you find yourself drawing her lips to yours almost without a second thought.
In a darkened room, nearly in tears, and still a demon, she responds with a passion you would have found overwhelming at nineteen or twenty. The mask slips and you fall. You understand suddenly why Xander could not stay, why Spike responded to her the way he did at the drop of a hat. She’s no child, even with her strangely adolescent responses to some of the commonplaces of life.
For the first time, you consider the fact that you are possibly too young for her.
You let go of her and she gasps, eyes gleaming in the glow of ambient street and moon lighting. Perhaps they’re tears, you don’t know. You don’t even know what name to call her any more. Something in you wants to call her Anna or Ia’nka or even, God help you, Anna Olanka.
What’s wrong? she asks solicitously. It’s all right. I want to kiss you. I didn’t come all the way to England for a little chat, Rupert. I came because I needed to be with you.
I don’t even know your name, you tell her, your fingers tracing her neck and collarbone. The hardness of her necklace gives you a testy feeling in your stomach. I don’t know anything about you.
You know more than enough, Anya says. I’m Anya now. I haven’t been Ia’nka or Baba Yaga or Anna Olanka for a thousand years. You know Anya. Ia’nka’s been dead eleven hundred years. Let her sleep.
But she’s you, you protest, liberating her from the jacket. You were Ia’nka. You are who you are now because you’re always Ia’nka.
Only in the vaguest possible way, she says with a gentle laugh. You’re not Ripper, I’m not Ia’nka. Besides, it’s today that matters. And today I’m Anya and you’re Rupert and we’re wasting time.
You take her in your arms, temporarily persuaded by her belief in now. All of your tomorrows start here.