“Shhh.” The monster returned, his breath reeking of pickled fish. His calloused fingers touched her legs.
The monster had praised her during lessons. He wore shiny boots and the kind of ironed shirt that boasted authority.
Natalia held her breath. Fear shivered off of her in waves. “My matryoshka.” He murmured, prying her legs open. He pressed himself against her, forcing his fingers into her body.
Natalia felt her body and mind separate. She considered matryoshkas. They had painted faces, smiles and colorful clothes. Her mother had a set displayed on the fireplace. No one was allowed to touch them, not even her father.
The monster kissed her neck. He moaned, sounding like her grandmother when she received a ration of sugar. Smells of her family’s kitchen descended over her like a comforting blanket. The fire crackled in the hearth, a venison stew bubbled. Her mother’s treasured dolls watched over the family.
The dolls swallowed each other. Natalia envied their ability to hide in plain sight. The smallest matryoshka was invisible to all who did not know the secret. Dolls are round, bloated by one of the seven deadly sins. They begged for attention, gluttonous for it. Natalia would not be weakened by those needs.
Warmth coated her back. Shame brought a full body blush to Natalia’s skin. Madam did not tolerate accidents. They were to keep themselves clean, maintain laundry, clean the dormitory from top to bottom and were held accountable for each other’s actions.
Madam burned their clothes, dolls and blankets. All tokens of their previous lives were reduced to ash in a bonfire. Some girls cried and protested. Natalia remained a statue. Crying meant punishment. She did not want to be weak. Anne cried and screamed. She refused to eat and sleep. Anne disappeared. Another girl took her bed, her food, her place at the barre in the studio.
Big girls did not soil linens. The first night the monster visited left Natalia curled against the cold metal bedframe. Blood, urine and semen coated the linens.
The sting of her teacher’s slap in the morning had nearly brought her to tears. What had she expected? Madam was not her parent. Natalia did not need a mother. She needed nothing.
Rough skin scraped against her cheek. “Until next time.” He promised. The smell of anise eventually coaxed her mind back to her body.
She does not eat the candy the monster leaves on her pillow. She will not become a matryoshka.
Natalia will make herself still enough to disappear. Hours tick by until dawn, when the scent of urine finally overpowers the cloying smell of the monster’s candy.
Her nightgown adheres to her torso and is uncomfortable as she slides off the bed. A flash of blond hair startles Natalia. A younger girl sobs without making a sound on a neighboring bed.
She knows that a monster has visited her. It must be her first time. Natalia remembers crying so hard, she bit into her arm to stifle the sound. She has learned how to make herself numb.
Madam’s words reverberate in her head, if one of them fail, they all fail. Natalia helps the girl gather the stained sheets and tuck them under a loose floorboard. They remake both beds in record time.
They clean themselves and are dressed just as their sestras begin to wake. Measured footsteps began at the bottom of their prison.
“Yelena.” The girl points to herself her eyes bright, but puffy from tears.
The key is in the lock, metal grating on metal when Natalia impulsively thrusts the monster’s candy into Yelena’s hand.
She pops it into her mouth and swallows just as the witches enter their dormitory.
Their sestras assemble in a single file line and descend the spiral staircase. Natalia recedes into her mind. Yelena knits her fingers with Natalia’s.
Wordlessly she tethers Natalia for the rest of the day. She prompts her through their exercises and hides her in the back of the studio during ballet lessons.
Her positions are uncharacteristically sloppy. Natalia dances like a shadow of herself.
Natalia refuses all meals. She sips water only after Yelena pinches her nose to force her mouth open. Natalia cannot rationalize rewarding her body for betraying her, night after night.
That night, Yelena wriggles out of her handcuffs and curls herself into Natalia’s side until the monsters return.