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Advice from Baba Yaga

 

Although Baba has been gone for ten years, her wisdom lives on, and it has helped her granddaughter, Lissa, to preserve Swan House, their family’s ancestral mansion. Compensating for her lack of formal education with thirteen-hour work days, Lissa has managed to keep her enormous home maintained by turning it into a bakery and tearoom business.

But there are secrets hiding behind the idyllic facade of Swan House.

An accidental discovery in the old stables sets in motion a chain of events that reveal Baba may not have been the perfect grandmother Lissa thought she was. Over the course of one chaotic summer—while coping with her failing business, her stepmother’s latest romance, and her own midlife crisis—Lissa unravels the mystery of Baba’s secret past, discovering a decades-long deception that causes her to question how well she knew her beloved Baba, and ultimately, how well she knows herself.  

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Chapter One: Bad Dreamer

May 25th, 4:05 a.m.

The house in this dream belonged to the woman I read about in yesterdays paper. Catharine’s fur hat was floating above an armchair. When I picked it up and put it on my head, I realized it was a cat. I reached up to take the cat off my head, but its claws were tangled in my hair. It started yowling, and that woke me up.

The yowling noise was my alarm clock. At least I didn’t lose any sleep this time.

When Baba taught me to play poker, the first lesson was this: It’s not about the cards, it’s about the players. Everyone has a tell. I’m not as good at spotting tells as Baba was, but some of them are obvious.

Dr. Gillian Tallmadge, for example, appears to be fascinated by everything I say during our sessions, but I know this can’t always be true, because when something really catches her attention, her left eyebrow twitches upward. It is her equivalent of saying “very interesting” in a Viennese accent. Her eyebrow is twitching now as she reads through the newspaper article that triggered my latest dream, so I know something in it has intrigued her.

I am in therapy because I have nightmares. They started last year; just one or two a month at first, then one or two a week, and finally, four months ago, they began happening every night. At the time, I thought the meaning of dreams was the same for everyone. I bought a book on interpreting dream symbols and spent a frustrating month trying to squeeze mine into the definitions in the book. When that didn’t work, I gave up on the idea of a home remedy and asked my doctor to recommend a therapist.

In our first session, Gillian explained why the book didn’t help me. The images and ideas in dreams, she told me, are specific to the dreamer. Any correlation between a symbol in my dream and its explanation in the book is probably a coincidence, with one possible exception: in dreams, a house most often represents the dreamer. I don’t see how that applies to me, though, because my dreams are all about stealing things from other people’s houses.

Therapy has been somewhat helpful. The nightmares happen less frequently now and they aren’t as disturbing. But I’m not cured yet. Sometimes I wish I had a condition there are medications for, like bipolar disorder or depression. But until the pharmaceutical industry comes up with a pill for bad dreams, all I can do is talk about them.

Gillian finishes reading the newspaper article and says, “What a sad story. Why do you think you dreamed about it, Lissa?”

I kick off my shoes and assume the therapeutic position, back pressed into the corner of her office couch, feet tucked beneath my body. “I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about it for two days now. I can’t come up with anything.”

“Well then, let’s start with the old woman. What do you think about her?”

“She lived alone. She must have been dead for days before she was found, and no one knew she was gone. I live alone. Maybe I’m afraid of dying and not being found?” I test this idea with a mental image of my putrefying corpse sprawled face down on the kitchen floor. “No. That could never happen. Corey would find me when he came in to work.”

“Maybe it’s not about similarities. Maybe it’s about differences. Let’s try turning it around. Pretend you’re the woman. Is there anything she wants to tell you?”

I imagine myself as a dead octogenarian giving advice from beyond the grave. The only thing that comes to mind is embarrassingly flippant, but Gillian says I use humor to deflect emotion, so it might be important. “She says, ‘Don’t own cats.’”

Gillian momentarily breaks the therapy barrier with a chuckle, then asks, “Do you own a cat?”

“No. But the cat was in my dream, and I remember feeling sorry for it when I read the article.”

“Okay, let’s see what the cat has to say.”

I don’t have to think about this one. “The cat says, ‘I was hungry. She was already dead. What’s the big deal?’ Cats always seem pragmatic to me.”

“Mine certainly are.” Gillian scans the newspaper article again. “I guess that leaves us with the neighbors.”

“The neighbors. Yes. There was something weird about them. Can I see that again?”

She hands me the clipping, and I read through it until I come to the part I’m looking for. “Here it is. When the police talked to her neighbors, not one of them recognized her picture. Think about it. She lived on that street for fifteen years, and no one knew what she looked like. It’s like she was invisible.” Inside my head, something falls into place with an almost audible click. “That’s it! The cat wasn’t floating in my dream. It was sitting on the woman’s head like a hat. She was invisible.”

Gillian’s eyes are the rich brown of chestnuts, exactly the same color as her hair. They look at me now with an expression halfway between approval for my insight and relief that we’re finally getting somewhere. I’m glad she thinks we are, because after three months of therapy, I’m still totally lost.

“Do you want to be invisible?” she asks.

“No. Why did you say that?”

“I was thinking of the way you present yourself, as though you don’t want to be noticed. It’s just a hunch. I could be wrong.”

I swing my feet to the floor and sit up straight. “You’re definitely wrong. I’m not hiding myself. I can’t imagine why you’d think I am.”

“Well, there’s your hair.”

“What’s wrong with my hair?”

“Nothing. It’s beautiful. But braiding it back so severely makes you look older than you are.”

“This is tidy. I’m a baker. No one wants to find a two-foot hair in their cream puff.”

“Okay, what about makeup? Why you don’t wear that?”

“I am wearing makeup.”

Gillian says nothing.

“I’m wearing lipstick.”

Still silent, Gillian stretches her neck forward and pretends to squint at my mouth.

“Okay. I was wearing lipstick. Maybe it’s worn off by now.”

“Just lipstick? Nothing else?”

“I’m not really a makeup kind of person. Besides, I don’t see what my appearance has to do with any of my other nightmares.”

“Nothing as far as I can tell. But this dream seems to be about invisibility and I think we should explore it. What about your clothes? I’ve only ever seen you in dull colors like beige and gray. Everything you wear is too large for you. It makes you look…” she lets the sentence trail off, clearly unable to find a neutral word to describe my appearance.

I help her out. “Frumpy? You’re not the first person to point that out.”

“Actually, I was thinking that you’re an attractive woman in your forties, and you dress like a woman twice your age.”

“That’s because these aren’t my clothes.” I lift the fabric of the gray tweed skirt I’m wearing. “These are my grandmother’s clothes.”

This time both eyebrows disappear under Gillian’s bangs. Her surprise pleases me, as though I’ve achieved some sort of therapy distinction. “Why are you wearing your grandmother’s clothes?”

“Because I gained weight. Remember I told you my son is in the Peace Corps?”

“I remember you telling me you worry about him working in Africa.”

“Well, I got a bit depressed after he left home.”

Gillian reaches for her notepad. “You didn’t tell me that. When was this?”

“Two years ago. But it only lasted a few months and it ended long before the nightmares started. I don’t think it has anything to do with them. I just went through what every mother feels when her child leaves home.”

“You’re probably right,” Gillian says, but she makes a note anyway. “So how does this tie in to your weight gain?”

“I’m the kind of person who eats when I’m unhappy. I put on a few pounds. There’s no point in spending money on new clothes when these are perfectly good.” I spread my arms to give her the full effect of Baba’s chunky-knit tan cardigan.

Gillian does not believe my explanation. “You’re saying saving money is the only reason you wear your grandmother’s clothes?”

I should never have told her about the clothes. Now we’ll spend weeks talking about Baba, and it will turn out to be the same dead end that talking about my parents was. I sigh and slump against the back of the couch to show her I think we’re wasting our time. “I guess I don’t miss her as much when I’m wearing her things.”

“Did you love her very much?”

I pick at a fuzz ball on the sleeve of the cardigan while thinking about how to answer this. “Yes. But it wasn’t always easy. She was… complicated.”

Gillian nudges the box of tissues on the table beside the couch, positioning it closer to my elbow. She does this every once in a while, as though reminding me it is okay to cry. I haven’t used a tissue yet. If she expects me to need one today, she’s going to be disappointed. “Tell me about your relationship. What was it like?”

“We had a close relationship. Not when I first came to live with her, of course. It took me a while to get used to her. People thought she was eccentric, but she wasn’t really. She just didn’t always follow the rules.”

Chapter Two: Rules Are For People Who Don’t Know Any Better

My father divorced my stepmother when I was twelve. At first I didn’t think it would affect me much, since I saw so little of my parents anyway. I’d spent the last six years at a convent school in the south of France, punctuated by summers at the embassy and awkward Christmas vacations in Wales with my father’s family. Other than the absence of my stepmother, I expected this pattern to continue regardless of my father’s marital status, and it probably would have if not for the media circus surrounding their divorce.

Neither of my parents was really famous, not in the way movie stars are. My father was Deputy Chief of Mission at the British embassy in Paris, a behind-the-scenes position that rarely put him in the public eye. My stepmother made occasional appearances in the society pages because she had a distant relative who would have had a tenuous claim to the throne if France had still been a monarchy. It was her new lover, the lead singer in a popular rock band, who attracted the attention of the tabloids.

When their divorce made headlines, my father retreated behind the embassy gates and my stepmother fled with her musician to an ashram in India. Robbed of more interesting prey, the paparazzi turned their attention to me. Reporters and cameramen staked out the entrances to the convent, coagulating around anyone who tried to enter or leave, taking pictures and yelling out questions. Outraged by this invasion of their privacy, the nuns closed and barred the iron gates at the front entrance of the convent grounds and hired security guards to prevent anyone from slipping through the back entrance in a delivery van. Saturday trips to the nearby village were canceled, causing my popularity with my fellow students to plummet as candy stashes dwindled and unspent allowances burned holes in school uniform pockets.

But the convent’s security measures were no match for telephoto lenses. Fuzzy pictures of me playing field hockey began appearing on tabloid front pages under headlines like CUSTODY BATTLE RAGES AROUND NEGLECTED HEIRESS. One enterprising reporter interviewed an ex-student and published a story that made the school sound like a concentration camp. None of this was completely true. I wasn’t much of an heiress because by the time I’d inherited my American grandfather’s estate when I was ten, very little was left of the railroad fortune amassed by his grandfather. The nuns were strict, but they weren’t cruel or careless. And there was never any question about who would get custody. Maman and I were very fond of each other, but as a stepmother, she had no claim on me.

About a week after my rise to tabloid stardom, I was in science class listening to my best friend, Marlise, vigorously defend the right-to-life of a terrarium full of frogs. If any other girl in the classroom had tried this, she’d have been given detention for insolence, a deadly sin God had apparently neglected to mention when he gave Moses the stone tablets. But all the nuns adored Marlise, and she consistently got away with the most outrageous behavior.

“But Sister,” Marlise argued, “the bible says ‘thou shalt not kill.’”

Sister Agnes was not the kind of teacher to be bested by a twelve-year-old, even one as charismatic as Marlise. “Are you thinking of becoming a vegetarian, Marlise?”

“No. But we’re not going to eat them. We’re going to dissect them.”

“God put these creatures on earth for our use,” Sister Agnes countered. “We will use these frogs to increase our knowledge.”

Marlise was in the middle of explaining why she would never need firsthand knowledge of frog guts when Sister Conception came into the classroom to announce that Mother Superior wanted to see me. A murmur of sympathy rose up from my classmates. No one went to Mother Superior’s office unless they were in serious trouble. As far as I knew, I hadn’t done anything bad enough to qualify for her personal attention, unless she had somehow found out about the unauthorized experiment Marlise and I were planning to conduct with the pack of Gauloises cigarettes we had liberated from the carton in the janitor’s office.

Marlise gave me a don’t-panic look. I gave her a small brave smile in return, one that I hoped conveyed my willingness to die under torture before revealing our plan. It was a lie, and we both knew it. Mother Superior wore round, wire-framed glasses that enlarged her pale green eyes to the size of ping-pong balls. I’d be lucky to hold out a minute under her x-ray stare.

Instead of taking me across the quadrangle to Mother Superior’s office, Sister Conception led me along the cloister beside the dormitory, then through the kitchen to where a small door opened out into the herb garden. Mother Superior waited for us at the door. She was a tall woman and the only nun at the convent who still wore the traditional long-skirted habit, which added greatly to her aura of authority. Her magnified gaze traveled down my school uniform to my feet, where it remained fixed until I realized one of my knee socks had collapsed around my ankle. I pulled it up.

“Follow me, Miss Cadwallader.” Without bothering to see if her command would be obeyed, Mother Superior pushed open the door and started along the flagstone path toward the center of the garden.

The herb beds were laid out like a clock, in twelve wedges that tapered toward a circular bed of borage and bee balm at the center surrounded by curved stone benches. An old woman sat on one of the benches, her hands resting on the handle of a businesslike metal cane. Against the brightness of the blue and red blossoms, her gray dress gave her stocky body an extra density, as though she were a statue instead of a living woman. At first I thought she was wearing a halo like the one in the painting of the Virgin Mary that hung in the chapel. Then I saw how the effect was created by the way the sun shone on the thick silver braids wrapped around her head. She seemed vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t remember where I’d seen her before.

She got to her feet as we approached. “You don’t remember me, do you, Lissa?”

I shook my head.

“Hardly surprising. You were three the last time you saw me. I’m your grandmother, your mother’s mother.”

She must have been at my real mother’s funeral, but I had no memories of that time. It seemed rude to admit this, so I said nothing.

Mother Superior poked me hard in the back. “Where are your manners, Miss Cadwallader? Say hello to your grandmother.”

“Hello grandmother,” I said to avoid another poke.

The old woman gave Mother Superior a sharp look, then turned her attention back to me. “I don’t like grandmother. It sounds pretentious. Why don’t you call me Baba? That’s what I called my grandmother. Turn around. Let me look at you.”

My sock slid back down to my ankle again as I turned.

“Well you look healthy. They seem to be feeding you properly. How do you like your classes, here?”

I didn’t like most of them. They made my head hurt, but I wasn’t about to say that in front of Mother Superior. “I like domestic science and physical education very much.”

“And your other classes?”

I spent so long trying to think of a safe reply that Mother Superior answered for me. “Miss Cadwallader is challenged by the more intellectual aspects of our curriculum.”

Baba looked at Mother Superior the way Mother Superior had looked at my socks. “I didn’t ask you.”

The two women glared at each other for a second or so, then Mother Superior shifted her gaze to a point just beyond Baba’s shoulder and said, “Perhaps you would prefer to talk to your granddaughter alone.”

It wasn’t a question, but Baba answered it anyway. “Yes, I would.”

Mother Superior’s habit swirled and swayed as she turned on her heel. Watching her stalk back to the convent, I realized she might no longer be the scariest person I knew.

Baba lowered herself back down onto the bench and patted the stone beside her hip. “Come. Sit by me.”

I sat on the extreme edge of the bench, wondering why my American grandmother had come all the way to France to see me. My father disliked his former in-laws intensely, so my relationship with my maternal grandparents had consisted entirely of bland birthday and Christmas cards with money tucked inside the envelopes, and my stilted notes thanking them for the money even though it was American and I couldn’t spend it.

“You’re wondering why I’m here,” Baba said as though reading my mind. It was a bit spooky. “I’m here because you’re getting too much attention from the media. The convent wants you removed from the school. Your father is being transferred to Singapore, and he doesn’t want to take you with him. He’s going to send you to a boarding school in England. I came to see if you’d prefer to come live with me and learn about your inheritance.”

My heart began to thump with the beginnings of panic. “But I don’t want to leave the convent. This is my home. All my friends are here.”

“The nuns don’t want you here.”

“But I didn’t do anything wrong. Why am I being punished for my parents’ divorce?” Whining was another deadly sin God had neglected to mention to Moses, but I couldn’t stop myself. “It’s not fair!”

Baba placed her hand on my shoulder. “No. It’s not. As you get older, you’ll learn that very little in life is. You’ll also learn that complaining won’t make things any better.” She said this in a flat, calm way; not criticizing, just passing on information.

The thought of going to a new school where I didn’t know anyone terrified me. Baba was obviously not a cuddly cookie-baker like some of my friends’ grandmothers, but her hand, warm and solid on my shoulder, felt like a promise of security in a collapsing world. I knew, somehow, that I could depend on her, and it would be easier to deal with one stranger than a new school full of them.

“I guess I want to go with you, then.”

“Good. We’ll leave now.”

“But I can’t leave yet. Exams start next week.”

“If you’re as challenged by your schoolwork as that fool of a nun thinks you are, there’s no point in taking any exams.” She placed her forefinger beneath my chin and tilted my head back. She seemed sad as she studied my face. “Your mother wasn’t exceptionally bright, but your grandfather was one of the smartest people I ever met. You have his eyes. He was farsighted. You could be too. We’ll have your vision checked when we get back to the States. Maybe reading glasses are all you need.”

I liked the idea of not writing exams, but I still didn’t want to leave right away. “Can we at least stay until dinnertime? I have to say goodbye to Marlise.”

“Who is Marlise?”

“She’s my best friend, and I’m never going to see her again because I’m going to America. It’s against the rules to interrupt lessons, so we have to wait until classes are over.”

Baba got to her feet. “I’m not a student here. Those rules don’t apply to me. You are no longer a student here, so they don’t apply to you either. Come along, Lissa. Let’s go find your friend.”

She waited until I stood up, then turned and limped toward the kitchen door, her cane thumping the flagstones of the path with confident authority. As I followed behind her, it occurred to me that living with Baba might not be completely horrible.