In the quiet and lonesome darkness, Danuta Czerniak breathed shallow and didn’t blink once, knowing the man with the soot-covered face stood at the end of her bed, waiting to steal her soul. He came through a crack in the reality of her bedroom, which was situated in a small, cramped house in the poor district of Kolomyia; a town where cracks in reality formed often, and where residents did little to stop them.
He started appearing after they cut off her hair, as if coming to punish her indiscretion. The lasting torment put beads of sweat on Danuta’s temples that trickled along her bald head. She kept her eyes on the ceiling—up past the ceiling, up towards Heaven—avoiding his own gleaming orbs at her feet. She thought of the advice her father gave her near the old pine forest on the edge of town: The secret to keep a wolf at bay was to remain perfectly still and make herself loom large.
Danuta never had a problem keeping still. She could breathe without lifting her shoulders and win any staring contest. But she was a small girl for fifteen, bone-thin, and throwing out her arms or puffing out her chest only made her appear like a scarecrow coming apart. The bed she slept in was the same one she’d always had; a doll’s bed really, which helped even less.
And so, lying in her tiny bed, in her tiny room that smelled of poppies to hide the dust, Danuta felt the man closer to her than ever. She thought she might even hear him breathing, though it could’ve been the drafts that rattled in the cracks of her walls, both real and imaginary.
Amidst her whimpering, another sound came to her. Is it his bones, crying out after being still so long? she wondered. Is it his teeth, grinding with hunger?
The creaking came again, stretching longer, overpowering the silence. But because Danuta couldn’t look down, she didn’t see that it was her bedroom door, opening wider. She didn’t see the two sets of eyes that looked in and found her frozen beneath her blanket. And she didn’t realize she’d been saved until she was heaved like a sack over her father’s shoulder, listening to her mother’s crying. “Oh Leo! Oh Leo!” she blubbered. “Oh Leo, not again! My poor Danka! Not again!”
The crooked streets of Kolomyia were quiet, and for that Agnieszka Czerniak was thankful. She walked briskly alongside her husband, holding a scarf around her haggard face to hide her wailing prayers from the sideways looks and mumbled chatter. “Look, there goes Jagna and Leo Czerniak, running to the priest again,” she’d hear men say, sitting at open tavern windows after a long day on the railroad. “And what does their superstition do for them?”
But the Czerniaks were hardly the only ones in Kolomyia who considered it a cursed day when the intellectuals from Krakow came to lop off their hair, leaving half the district with clean-shaven heads. It was another reason Agnieszka wore the scarf. And it was another reason she cried for her poor “Danka”. Her daughter’s thick, licorice-black plait had been her protection—that’s what the professors from Krakow didn’t understand. She’d lost her last line of defense from the spirits that brought pestilence upon them in the first place.
Father Maciej opened the door to the parish church cautiously, his eyes puffy and dry from little sleep, as though he’d been anticipating another of the Czerniaks’ late-night crises. He led them into his tiny one-room apartment, kept warm by a wood-burning stove in the center, and brought them stools as Leo laid Danuta on the priest’s bed. He moved methodically to calm the Czerniaks’ anxieties and spoke quietly to them over steaming cups of black tea about Danuta’s night paralysis.
“We could perform an exorcism, yes,” he responded to Leo’s newest idea. “But tell me first, how else is she behaving?”
Danuta was sitting up by then, drinking her tea. Her trembling had stopped, though her gaze remained distant. Agnieszka watched her daughter fall beneath the flickering shadows of the apartment, and turned, unsettled, back to the priest. “She’s behind in her education, Father. Sister Martyna tells us she’s lost focus—”
“She does not heed me,” Leo interrupted. “I am the only man in her life. She should respect me more.”
Danuta gazed at her father darkly. While her relationship with him had changed after the men from Krakow came, it was her fear that had driven a wedge between them, not a lack of respect. She blamed his stubborn traditionalism for her vulnerability. If he would only listen to her, he might understand that. Instead, he’d begun speaking about her as if she wasn’t in the room.
“I will talk with the diocese about the exorcism,” said Father Maciej. “In the meantime, you will monitor Danuta during school and at home. If these conditions worsen—”
“Tell us, Father,” Agnieszka pleaded, “is she possessed?”
The priest bristled at the word. “She seems alright. Danuta, how do you feel?”
Danuta, tiring of the subject, looked down at her tea and recoiled. The man from her dreams peered out from beneath the surface, his knotted hair swirling in the dark, leafy water. His voice rang in her ears in a layered echo, raspy and delirious, telling her she would pay for the sins of her people.
“I am fine,” she said, between the heavy beats of her heart. It seemed there was no boundary the man wouldn’t cross to find her. He’d even followed her into the priest’s miniature apartment, where holy tinctures couldn’t hold him out. “I will be fine,” she repeated, though Father Maciej, even with his blurry, post-midnight eyes, had to have seen how the tea cup trembled in Danuta’s tiny hands.
The next morning brought in a glum sky and cold weather, and Danuta, wanting to leave her home, escape her worries, and meet her classmates for a game of kapela, swept ineffectively at the cracked and uneven pine floor that never came clean. Her mother noticed her daydreaming, and said, tenderly, “Go, Danka. Play with your friends. You shouldn’t be stuck indoors.”
Danuta paused and smiled, then set the broom and dustbin aside and ran to the door. “Don’t forget your cap!” her mother called.
A wave of panic rushed into Danuta. To that point, she’d been able to hide her new appearance from the ridicule of her classmates, exhausted enough by the effort to consider hiding forever. But then again, where could she hide? The one person who might hurt her for her nakedness had already seen her bared. Perhaps she’d find, in her friends, the strength in numbers she was missing. But she’d have to be careful.
She plucked her hat off the hook by the door and ran out into the bustling streets of Kolomyia. Along the way, the enormous manufacturing buildings that had come to define their district reduced her to tiny Danka once more. In the many nights she’d passed by them alone, the windows seemed to peer out at her like eyes in the darkness. Even then, on her way to find her classmates, she was certain that the man with the matted black hair was behind one of them, following her with his jaundiced stare.
The construction of the railroad had moved outside of town, leaving the children of Kolomyia to gather around the cracked bricks, stacked timber, and twisted, rusty iron of the abandoned rail yard to play the game of kapela. Danuta was the last to arrive, finding her closest friend, Krystiana, near a group of boys, her mouth turned up in a sheepish smile. Krystiana still had her hair, a rare strawberry blonde, along with fair skin and round, crystal blue eyes that, to Danuta, seemed unfair in their beauty.
Before Danuta could finish her approach, Krystiana turned from her and shouted, “Danka is first guard!” and the children quickly broke out into a circle around her. As guard, Danuta’s duty was to stand over a pyramid of rocks as other players threw balls to topple it. After the rocks fell, the thrower would need to retrieve the ball before Danuta could rebuild the pyramid and tag the thrower with her hat.
She knelt and began construction on her rock pyramid. An impatient boy shouted, “You ready yet?” Danuta stood and nodded, and the boy immediately assaulted her rocks. She rebuilt quickly as the boy ran off to retrieve his ball and turned just as he was finding his position outside the circle. Fast as she could, Danuta removed her hat and lobbed it at him, missing him wide.
Her classmates burst out in laughter. Even Krystiana giggled, holding her hand over her mouth. Danuta tried to hide her baldness, knowing there weren’t hands big enough in the world to cover her.
Why did they laugh? They were like her, most of them, weren’t they? And that was good, wasn’t it? They were cleansed now. They could start life over. Yet none of these thoughts calmed Danuta as her classmates did what classmates everywhere had always done and laughed at her shame. All she could do then was run back home with it.
Halfway to her house, she heard a voice calling to her—familiar, though with a different intent. It was Krystiana. “Danka! Danka! Your cap—” She ran up alongside Danuta. “Danka, please. We’re all sorry. That wasn’t right for us to do.”
“Then why?” said Danuta, keeping to her quick pace.
“Jakub, he—” Krystiana paused, perhaps to roll the truth around in her mouth. Jakub was the boy who threw the ball, and Danuta knew Krystiana had something of a crush on him. “He made a bet with Piotr that he could get us all to see you without your cap.”
“You all were part of it?”
Krystiana’s cheeks grew pink. “I’m sorry, Danka. But you know I can’t—” She stopped dead in the street. Danuta turned to find her crying.
“What is it?”
“We know you’re sick, Danka,” she said, her throat choked. “We see your parents carrying you to Father Maciej all the time. The evil—is it getting in?”
Danuta observed Krystiana and the thoughts of what she could say passed from her mind. All that remained was rage towards a vague sense of unfairness. They’d all suffered the same fate as her. Why was it her who the man visited at night? Why was it her who was singled out at kapela? Why was she born to a poor mother and father in the first place?
“I don’t know,” said Danuta.
“I wanted to stay away from you. I didn’t want to catch it. But now I know that isn’t right. You need help.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“You don’t know what this evil can do.”
“And you do?”
“No, I don’t. But Jan does.”
Janusz, Krystiana’s brother, was a railroad worker. He was also a shy, smart boy, though his intelligence and potential had been cut off by their father’s insistence that he work. Danuta always hoped Janusz might’ve fancied her back when she visited Krystiana, though it’d been some time since she’d seen him. She was surprised, then, at how the mere mention of his name made her heart dance again.
“What does he know?” Danuta asked.
“I’m not sure,” said Krystiana. “But I know it would be a great risk for him to share it.”
Fear shifted across Krystiana’s face, leaving creases of worry around her bright blue eyes. “Because it would not be only Jan at risk. It would be all of us.”
Janusz walked the edge of the railroad with his brother workers, hammers and picks over their shoulders. They joked and laughed, paying no mind to the dirt smeared across their faces and collected in their noses. Up along that crest of rock and iron, they looked like men who’d conquered a mountain, and the thin, cold air that misted from their mouths only added to the effect.
Krystiana lamented the workers’ fates on their way to meet Janusz. “They could’ve been important people. But then everyone saw how the men from Krakow treated us. Nobody likes an intellectual here.”
Janusz wasn’t the tallest or brawniest of the boys, though he was the best-looking, being of the same blood as Krystiana. He had fair skin like his sister, his hair a shade darker. Danuta saw it in his thick, bristly eyebrows that framed his blue eyes and his smile lines where the dirt caked. She cast away thoughts of the man from her dreams when she saw Janusz’s grimy face, knowing his uncleanliness came from a place more spiritual. He was a hard worker, building connections from the outside to their homes in Kolomyia.
“Look who it is! Krystiana and the crazy Czerniak girl, come to cover our shifts,” one of the workers joked.
“Maybe she’ll drive out the spirits that make us so hungry,” said another, to a smattering of laughter.
“What do you need, Krystiana?” Janusz said, annoyed.
“Danka needs to talk to you.”
“Danka? What for?” A curious smile grew on his face. For a moment Danuta forgot her nightly torment and resumed one of a different kind—that of a normal, lovelorn fifteen-year-old.
“You should know what it is about,” said Krystiana.
Janusz slid his hammer from his shoulder and pressed it into the rocky earth. His brother workers stopped a few steps ahead and turned back.
“We’re not talking about that,” he said quietly.
“Not right here, no. But we—”
“I said we won’t talk about it. Ever.” Janusz looked down the length of his hammer handle. “I’ve said too much already.”
“But Danka is in trouble.” Krystiana used her body to hide them from the workers and whispered, “She may be next. She threw off her hat today, Jan. People saw her scalp. Surely he’s seen it as well.”
Janusz clenched his jaw muscles and turned to Danuta. In a gruff whisper, he asked, “So he comes to you?”
She had wanted to say yes; a man visits her, hides at the end of the bed, feeds off her with his glowing yellow eyes. But she knew admitting anything made it real, so she kept silent.
“Enough of this!” Janusz hoisted his hammer over his shoulder and rejoined his brother workers. “I’ve said too much already.”
The girls walked together in uncomfortable silence. Everything that’d been tormenting Danuta since the men from Krakow came bubbled up to the surface after the kapela incident. There was the loss of her hair; the nightly visits; the way her parents spoke of exorcism like she was a raving lunatic. It all weighed so heavily on her that she felt she could collapse at any moment between the looming industrial buildings that always watched, even then.
Nearing home, Danuta looked up and saw a silhouette walking with a familiar gait in their direction. It was Janusz, sans hammer and brother workers, washed clean and wearing freshly-ironed clothing. The stones in the empty street cracked apart beneath his boots, and it seemed to Danuta he was carrying a kinder energy that buzzed between the buildings where they stood.
He came close enough to speak low, muttering, “Zygmunt Zmora.”
Danuta looked to Krystiana, unsure of what she’d just heard.
“Zygmunt Zmora,” he repeated, calling Danuta’s attention back. “Your visitor’s name.”
The fog between them cleared in a burst.
“You’re not supposed to say it out loud, Jan!” cried Krystiana.
“She needs to know it.” Janusz kept his gaze on Danuta, though any lasting affection was gone. “Even though it may be too late.”
“Too late?” said Danuta.
“There’s only one thing you can do,” he said plainly, as if describing a task to one of the new railroad workers. “You must cut off part of his hair.”
Danuta looked between the siblings and kept guarded, knowing Krystiana was no longer past a practical joke. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Zmora was a poor man, like us. His plait was regarded as both the most offensive and impressive anyone had seen.” Janusz was talking about the type of hair, matted with natural oils and dead skin, that the poor, superstitious residents of Kolomyia wore as an amulet to ward off evil spirits and draw sickness from the body. “When they sent their butchers to cut off our hair, Zmora was the only one to resist, warning them what might come of their ignorant mistake. They laughed at him and called him The Bard of Kolomyia, recalling the Three Bards who wrote of our people’s fight for sovereignty to mock his noble struggle.”
Danuta vaguely remembered stories of a peasant, poorer and more unclean than most of them, living in the packed soil ruts between those enormous manufacturing plants and only coming out at night to terrify stray children. “What happened to him?” she asked.
“The butchers gathered up the police and a few righteous citizens and they stoned Zmora in the center of town.”
Danuta was shaken by a notion that The Bard might be nearby, listening. They stood alone in the empty street, void of the familiar ambience of machinery in the plants or people rushing home to dinner. The wind, often howling in the narrow alleys, wouldn’t even whisper. It was as if the whole world had gone still to eavesdrop on them.
Janusz moved in close enough for Danuta to smell the pumice covering his sweat. He took a hold of her arm. She felt no affection in it. It was the stern hold of her father.
“You must take off a part of his hair,” he said. “It’s the only way for him to know you’re not weak.” He turned quickly to his sister, then spoke lower. “I’ve taken great risk in telling you this. If you fail, he will return with a vengeance.”
“How do you know?” said Danuta, her voice hardly above a whisper.
“Because of this—” Janusz directed her gaze to something he held just outside his trouser pocket; a wad of snarled, black hair that couldn’t have belonged to anyone else but the man who haunted her.
At dinner that evening, Danuta slid a knife into the cuff of her stocking. She’d been taking her time finishing her meal, not wanting her parents to catch her thievery, though their dining area was so small that any illicit movement would be noticed. Her father sat across from her, stabbing two or three turnips at a time. The broad shoulders he used to carry her seemed to spread the entire width of the table. Danuta noticed he was growing a beard again despite warmer weather coming, and in it she could see crumbles of bread and drippings from their stew. The men from Krakow had said nothing of beards, though she knew he wasn’t growing it for the aesthetic.
Her mother, meanwhile, sat around the corner of the table from her, still wearing her apron and poking dispassionately at the food she’d made. Every so often she’d cut into a carrot or tear a hunk of bread, though never without taking her eyes off her daughter. Over her shoulder a kettle steamed, though Danuta couldn’t be sure it wasn’t coming from her mother’s own ears.
It was only when she got up to remove the kettle that Danuta took her chance with the utensil. Her father turned to her a moment later. “You should finish your dinner, Danka. Your mother works hard on her cooking.”
“Do you not like it?”
“Then why aren’t you eating it? Is something wrong?”
“No. Everything’s fine.”
Her father eyed her as she eased the food into her mouth. Every bite tasted cold and bitter. Danuta had no way of telling if it was her mother’s cooking or her nerves.
Agnieszka returned and stood near the table. She looked down on Danuta, and said, “If you can’t finish it, you can leave.”
“But I can!” Danuta protested. Her mother remained stoic. She looked to Leo, who’d turned away to light a freshly-rolled cigarette.
“Just go to your room.” She took Danuta’s plate and walked away from the table.
“But I can finish it!” Danuta shouted. “I will!” She stood and followed her mother, pleading, coming close to tugging at her apron like a child.
“Go to your room, Danka,” Leo called from the table, his voice exhaling in a long stream of smoke.
“Did I do something wrong? Am I being punished?”
“No, darling,” her mother said. “We’re only looking out for your well-being. Go lie down and you’ll feel better.”
“But I’m fine! Really!”
“Listen to your mother.” Leo’s thick voice rang against the cramped walls of their home. He sat with his hands folded, looking away from his daughter.
“Fine,” Danuta said, and left. The knife in her stocking poked at her leg, causing her to walk with light, awkward steps while her mother and father only gazed across the room at one another, a sickened, gloomy pall drawing across their faces.
For many hours, Danuta lied in bed with eyes that wouldn’t close and a quickened heart that wouldn’t slow. How could she possibly mount her defenses against The Bard, she thought, when her own body revolted against her like this? She considered going to the window to wait for the railroad workers to pass by after their second shift, on their way to warm meals and soft, ironed clothing at home. She thought she might see Janusz among them and her heart quickened again. How brave he must have been to not only fight with The Bard, but to steal his hair as well. She only wished she could’ve seen how he did it. What did he use to lure Zmora in? How long did he wait before he sprang his trap? Yes, she would’ve liked to have seen how he did it, and maybe afterward she’d kneel next to his bed and tell him how brave he’d been.
But Janusz had no time to tell her how he did it. He’d only uttered the same words to her as before, telling her that he’d “said too much already” before running away like he feared something nearby, never turning to look back at her. Then Danuta thought of her mother as she left the room. She hadn’t looked her way, either. Same with her father, smoking his cigarette.
Did they all really think she was what they said she was? Did they really think she was possessed?
The air suddenly cooled around her. It felt like she was descending into a deep valley. She knew then that he’d entered the room. Like always, his arrival came with a quick drop in the temperature and the smell of leather tanning over a flame. She kept her body still. It was only her hand that moved, sliding beneath her blanket towards the knife in her stocking.
She heard Zmora before she saw him; or rather, she heard the absence of sound, with his form eclipsing the static air that existed between her and her bedroom walls. Something moved at the foot of her bed. Her blanket tightened around her feet and the smell of singed hair oppressed her nostrils. Soon her lower body was smothered with the weight of a man, heavier, perhaps, than her father, carrying with it the burden of years. She heard a new sound, then; The Bard’s breathing, long and labored, as he readied himself to pounce.
She closed her eyes. It was no blacker behind her eyelids than in her room, yet she thought she could feel his movements better, understand his methods, learn his exact location. He was crawling over her legs and up past her hips. Soon she felt his weight on her chest, emptying her of enough air so that, even if she’d wanted to, she couldn’t scream.
Then, he stopped.
His breathing had gone silent.
Danuta thought it might be another terrifying dream; that soon she’d be hoisted up over her father’s shoulder and on her way to another visit with Father Maciej. She considered opening her eyes when she heard a sound, deep and guttural, just above her face, like she’d strayed past a hidden cave in a hill. It was The Bard sucking in deep, trying, it seemed, to steal her breath. She struggled and fought as the air was pulled from her lungs, but nothing worked. Her own breath was being seized from her and she could only lie idle and helpless.
But then she remembered she wasn’t helpless, not at all. She had her secret weapon, and with it she’d fight to seize something of her own. She slid the knife out from her stocking, then reached up and grabbed a healthy chunk of The Bard’s oily, matted hair. She began sawing at it. Zmora, still in his trance, didn’t fight back at first, and Danuta managed to get a good portion of it off before he grabbed her wrist and bellowed.
Danuta twisted her body, but The Bard’s grip was strong. She screamed at him, trying to match his pitch and volume and loom as large as she could, though Zmora only sat there, unfazed. He squeezed her arm tight enough to snap it. With his other hand, he went for the knife. Danuta waved it out of his reach, slicing him multiple times before she grew tired from the struggle. He forced the knife out and it fell to the floor with a dull clang.
It was in that moment, so suddenly, that Danuta had lost all hope. She heard Janusz’s voice in her ears telling her she couldn’t fail; saw the image of herself standing triumphant, holding The Bard’s hair, quickly wiped away. She’d lost in an instant. There’d never been much of a chance to begin with. How could she have been so naive? Had her classmates been right to laugh at her? Was she really so weak?
But then there were footsteps lumbering down the hall. Soon her bedroom door was thrown open. There was her father, with her mother right behind, calling her name. Seeing The Bard distracted, Danuta freed herself from his grip, reached up with both hands, and tore the loose clump of hair from his head. Zmora shrieked and fell off the bed, out of the glow of her parents’ candlelight. In an instant it seemed he’d vanished from the room.
Leo and Agnieszka moved closer. Their eyes never left their daughter, who sat up in bed, holding out the lock of Zmora’s hair. It looked different than the hair from Janusz’s pocket, she thought, there in the candlelight. This was the slick, oil-ridden hair of not a man, but perhaps a demon.
She turned to her parents and relief washed over her. They were looking at the hair! They saw it, there in her hands! She’d been telling the truth all along!
“Look, Papa,” she said, her voice shaking with pride, “Look what I took from him! It’s his hair, the man from my dreams!”
Leo and Agnieszka strode through the streets of Kolomyia close to midnight, stone-faced and silent, while Danuta beat at her father’s shoulder blades and demanded to be put down. They passed by an open window of a tavern in the center of town, where Janusz and two other workers looked out, their shoulders weary from the day’s work.
“There goes the crazy Czerniaks again,” said a heavier-set, dusty blonde named Aleksander.
“Off to get that exorcism,” said Janusz’s other friend, the dark-haired and bitter-faced Marek, who laughed along.
Janusz’s drink soured in his mouth at the thought of little Danka undergoing an exorcism. He’d known her nearly as long as he’d known his own sister, though he’d be lying if he said his affection for her hadn’t begun to change into something else. She was growing into a woman, smart and beautiful, not some crone who needed holy water tossed on her. He only wished he could’ve done more than tell her a simple tall tale to help her feel that way about herself.
He watched the family closely as they fled into the night, when an object caught his eye—something dark, like a wolf’s tail, hanging from Danuta’s fingers.
Janusz fingered the threads of hair in his pocket, hair that he’d stolen from one of Krystiana’s dolls earlier that day. Could it really be? he thought, snapping out of it only when Marek spoke again.
“These superstitious families keep poisoning our town. I won’t hold my breath hoping they save her soul,” he said, bitterly.
Janusz watched as the Czerniaks were swallowed slowly by Kolomyia’s darkness, falling into a deep trance. He nearly thought it was someone else talking until he recognized his own voice, saying, “It seems The Bard will have her soul, yet.”
Erik Bergstrom lives in Minneapolis, MN. His stories have appeared in Déraciné Magazine and Chantwood Magazine. He has also been published as a finalist in the STORGY: Exit Earth anthology. Follow him on Twitter @erikbbergstrom for tips on attracting pollinators and crows to your yard.