Batyushka opened her eyes, and she wished she never did.
The dim light of the fire was almost too much to bear. She couldn’t think, and even when she tried to remember how she wound up in a bed that wasn’t her own, it made her headache that much worse. She would have turned to the side, away from the light, if it weren’t for the stabbing pain in her left shoulder.
“You’re awake!” An old voice emerged from the only other room in the cottage, and Batyushka visibly cringed, covering her eyes with her arm. That was a mistake. She hissed when a sharp pain emerged from her elbow, and went all the way to her right shoulder, then to her left, then to her neck and head.
“You must be in a lot of pain… You are badly hurt, so don’t move.”
She quickly realised everything hurt.
“Why am I here, babushka…?” At this point, Batyushka realised she was at her Ilyusha’s grandmother’s house. She noticed from the Slavic and protestant décor, and how she was one of the rare village women to still have her shelves filled with religious icons. It may have been the smallest frame, but Batyushka’s chest tightened at the sight of mother Marie with her baby Christ.
“I…” The elderly woman’s hands were shaking. Batyushka wanted to comfort her, for it pained her to see the mother of her husband so distraught. But she noticed that her hands were shaking too. She barely had the strength to support herself on her good elbow.
“I’m so sorry Batyushka…” Babushka took hold of her hand and squeezed.
The door of the cottage opened, revealing a large figure of another elderly person, his hand holding a finely polished axe.
“It’s not looking good, Balalaika.” He grumbled, his voice rough from age and hoarse from sorrow. “Our men had looked all over for his body, but we couldn’t find it even with the dogs-“ he froze in place at the sight of Batyushka’s conscious form. “You’re awake?!”
“Be quieter you fool, can’t you see the state she’s in?” Babushka hissed at the man, her hand squeezing Batyushka’s own tighter.
“Body…?” With her heavy headache, Batyushka struggled to even speak well. Her speech was slurred, and she could tell she was suffering from a heavy blow to her temple. But she had to wonder whose body the two were talking about.
“Poor soul, oh…!” Babushka hugged her. “It will be alright, please, just stay strong Batyushka.”
What was she saying? Stay strong for whom? And why did she feel so weak and sick? Why was she so hurt?
“I’ll keep searching for Ilyusha… keep her safe until I get back, Balalaika.” said the man, she realised it was Ilyusha’s father, Igor. At the mention of her son’s name, babushka’s hand squeezed tighter. The door closed, leaving the two women alone.
“How much do you…” the elder woman coughed, trying to wipe away her tears. “How much do you remember? Of last night?”
“I…” Batyushka’s mind had never been so blank before. She stared at her mother in law, blinking rapidly and unable to process the usually tough woman crying like she did. “I don’t…”
“You must be in shock… I should not ask you these things right now. Here, try and drink this.” She offered her a wooden bowl of warm soup, it must have been her specialty because it brought a pleasant feeling to Batyushka’s growling stomach.
“Thank you… but I can’t.” she remembered she left her soup in the pan to heat yesterday. She’d hate for it to get spoiled. “I still have some left at home. Besides, Ilyusha and Bok must be worried for my wellbeing…”
Batyushka was shocked when babushka hugged her again, this time much tighter.
“No, no, you cannot go back, not now…!”
Why was she keeping her away from her baby and husband? Batyushka didn’t like this at all.
“If it’s because I’m hurt, I will manage-“ She rubbed her throbbing temple and slowly got out of bed, making sure not to move her shoulder too much, wobbling to her bare feet. She noticed one foot was a tad redder than the other… and where was her other boot? “May I borrow your shoes? I seem to have lost one… I promise I’ll return them to you shortly, I do have another spare at home…”
“I can’t-“ Babushka’s voice cracked, and she leaned against her table for support. Her wrinkly face was shiny from tears and all of her tough exterior was replaced by a broken sob. She gasped between her words, and each word made Batyushka’s heart sink further and further.
She wondered why she felt so lost and confused.
“Your home had been attacked – Last night, you sought help, you were so bloodied and beaten, and Bok-“ babushka was catching her breath, but Batyushka could hardly breathe. “I-I placed him in a safe place, and cleaned his body while you were unconscious-“
Batyushka limped into the other room. She didn’t know where else to find her baby boy, if he wasn’t in this room, he had to be in the other one.
In the makeshift crib of a box, the one Bok slept in whenever she and Ilyusha would visit babushka, lay a lacy white bundle of cloth. Batyushka came closer and barely stopped the shaking of her hand enough to pull down the blanket. The first thing she noticed was the resting face of her adorable boy. It was too pale. She pulled the blanket further down.
“-he doesn’t even have a heart!”
Bok didn’t have a heart.
The tragic events of last night hit Batyushka like an avalanche. She knew she was screaming, she could tell it apart from the loud ringing in her ears, but all she really felt and heard were the screams of Ilyusha, and the monster eating out the life of her baby boy. What she saw now was the empty shell of her love.
Her baby was dead.
Batyushka ran out of the house and followed the pink droplets of her and Bok’s blood back to her home. She didn’t hear babushka’s begs to come back. Unlike yesterday, when the urge to protect her baby was so grave she was willing to run over mountains to keep him safe and was able to ignore the pain, Batyushka felt every nerve of her body stabbed. Her throat hurt from breathing in so much cold air, and her shoulder cracked under the stress of the sprint.
The sight of her shambled house surrounded by hunters and guards was enough to make her topple over.
“Batyushka! You… you shouldn’t be here.” Said another man, throwing his shovel aside to place his coat over her shivering form. She knew he was her friend, she could tell from the familiar pitch of his voice. She just wasn’t able to tell his face from her blurred vision.
She was bare-footed, and although her whole body was absolutely aching, she’d welcome that pain over the one in her chest. It hurt so much.
“W-where is he… Ilyusha!” She already lost her precious baby. She knew she was the most wretched example of a mother, to let her boy slip so easily out of this world. How could she? How could she let such an innocent life die so easily? “Where is my husband!?”
‘Don’t take Ilyusha away too.’ But Batyushka feared that the images of her beheaded husband were not just hallucinations.
The men looked at each other, then at the man with the black fur cap. He walked to Batyushka, and offered her his hand.
“I will show you.” It was Cossack Dragomir, Ilyusha’s best companion. Even his rough face and thick eyebrows couldn’t hide his teary eyes.
Batyushka followed him behind her home, and he stopped her from proceeding.
“I’ll be frank. Ilyusha… is dead. If you wish to see his remains, I will show you the way.”
Batyushka didn’t know how else to respond than to sob uncontrollably.
She accepted Cossack’s help, because she knew she didn’t have the strength to walk by herself anymore.
In a hole, dug like a mutt digs its new marking place, lay her lover’s head. Ilyusha’s dead eyes stared into her own.
‘Why did you leave me and your baby? Look at us now. We are dead, and you are alive. You could not protect us. You cannot protect anything.’