My daughter’s newborn, Lili, sleeps soundly in her arms, pink and milk drunk. I want to remember Svitlana as she was in those quiet, blissful moments. Instead, I remember darkness. We had no words for it then, no pills nor potions, no therapists nor spells. We had only our own mothers to tell us the darkness will pass, with time. How much time, they never said.
I do not tell Lana about my time in the dark as she’s been spared the worst of it. But I see my restlessness in her even as she settles down, settles in, settles.
The ocean breeze blows cool, humid air through the open windows and we reminisce of our days living near the Black Sea.
“Do you remember the VCR?” she says and puts her phone face down on the table between us. The rare gesture tilts me away from the light.
“Do I remember the worst day of my life?” I begin.
Lana knows the story of the VCR. How her father, Pavlo, and I performed magic on weekends for local mobsters and KGB officers. Pavlo cast illusion spells and I sang incantations. The other magicians in our band forged charms and drummed forth enchantments. Our dancers conjured wards of amusement while patrons dined and drank and tipped us in cash, jewels, and, once, a hexed VCR.
The following day, Pavlo had to visit his aunt in the hospital and would not be home until late in the evening.
“Don’t touch the VCR. I’ll remove the hex when I return,” he said.
These parts of the story, Lana knows well. What she doesn’t know is I had been skirting the dark since she was born and when she asked me to play her cartoons for the hundredth time that day, I had prayed for the darkness to take me.
In that moment, I did not see Lana’s elfin nose inherited from Pavlo. I did not see her hazel eyes inherited from me. I saw an anchor, pulling me down into a life I did not want. But I do not say this.
“I was tired, and I didn’t want to bother with the VCR,” I say instead. “I went into the kitchen to call your father at the hospital to see if he could come home earlier.”
The truth is, Lana started crying and I went to the kitchen to get away from her wailing. I have seen Lana do the same when Lili becomes inconsolable from hunger, or exhaustion, or some other mysterious childhood vexation. But Lana never lets the darkness reach inside her, dig its trenches between her ribs.
“You must have tried to do it yourself, put the tape in, and pushed the wrong button,” I say, even as the memory tightens its grip on my throat. “Then you were gone.”
“Gone?” Lana asks, as if she doesn’t know what comes next.
“You disappeared. I looked for you under the beds, in cupboards, behind the fridge,” I say. I yelled for her, at her. I cried to the neighbors. She has gone from this world, the darkness whispered into my heart, inside my head. How would I tell Pavlo? What would happen to our family? The darkness tugged at my neck, at my eyelids, made me twitch and spasm. Wasn’t this what I wanted, it said. Wasn’t it better this way?
“Then the VCR spit the tape out. I picked it up, but it gave off no energy, nothing I could sense, anyway. When I put my hand on the VCR, though, my palm came away wet and hot, covered with a slick of salt water.” It was Lana’s tears. The smell emanating from the VCR’s vents was my daughter’s. “I knew it was you,” I say.
I tried some incantations, tried power cycling, tried to pry open the VCR, and shocked myself in the process, only to find it wouldn’t turn on afterwards.
“Then you took it back to the market, the one in the hangar, where dad bought those haunted Puma sneakers,” Lana says, and we tuck that story away for another day.
“I carried that VCR under my arm up and down the aisles looking for the seller, but he wasn’t there, so I went to the yellow witch’s kiosk and asked her for help.” The woman, not much older than me, placed her hands on the black machine and cooed at it, hushed at it. She shook her head, her yellow hair falling over her yellow eyes.
“’You need a conduit,’ she said. I responded with something like, ‘no shit,’ and then we yelled at each other for a bit. I offered her money, but she wasn’t interested. ‘I can’t leave my table. Find and purchase these items for me and I will tell you where to find your conduit,’ she said and handed me a shopping list. I ran around that stupid market like a beheaded rooster, buying cans of kerosene and condensed milk and catnip, but when I brought everything back, she told me to keep it all.”
“Because what she really wanted was the VCR,” Lana says, skipping ahead.
“The witch told me the hex would become permanent after twelve hours. After that, I would give her the VCR, with or without you in it.”
“And the conduit?” Lana says. Lili sighs in her sleep.
“The conduit was an enchanted video tape full of Tom & Jerry cartoons with the power to soothe and calm any child.”
“I loved that tape,” Lana says as she extracts strands of her straight, sandy hair from her daughter’s grip. On the day she disappeared, Lana’s hair was wavy and white as sea foam.
“By the time I’d set out to find the magical tape, more than four hours had already passed.” I push down the darkness rising through my core and remind myself that day is past. My daughter is safe. She is here, in front of me.
“How did you know where to look? How did you find it?” Lana’s voice is elevated, excited. Her baby stirs and we go still. Lana transfers the girl to the bassinet, where she wriggles until Lana sticks a pacifier in her mouth. Lana is so natural with Lili. I am happy for my daughter, yet I envy her. I wish it had been easier for me. Envy turns to pity turns to anger in my gut. The darkness stole those moments from me, from us.
Yet, my child is here, in front of me.
“First, I called my bandmate, Grisha. Do you remember him? The one who always brought you lollipops?”
“I remember. He was fat and he brought my toys to life with his songs. I used to think he was Grandfather Frost.”
“Yes! He had that white beard even though he was younger than your father.”
His wife had just had a baby less than a month prior, and he was sleep deprived and exhausted, making stupid mistakes on stage, sniping at us during breaks. I had not been kind to him in those days and I was nervous to call him for a favor.
“Grisha’s wife answered the phone when I called, and I could hear their baby crying in the background. I asked him if he had heard about the magical tape and he, thinking I was giving him unsolicited advice, grew irate and began to yell at me. ‘What do you think those stupid cartoons are going to help us with when my wife can’t even feed our baby,’ he said and hung up on me.”
What I don’t tell Lana is how their baby’s cry awakened something in me. Something the darkness had locked away. Lana’s hungry cry was distinct and shrill, and I was one of the lucky ones who never lacked for milk.
“I drove to Grisha’s house. He opened the door, eyes bloodshot, hair frayed. ’What are you doing here,’ he said over the baby’s crying. I pushed past him, went into his kitchen, and made a cup of tea. I mixed in two big tablespoons of the condensed milk I’d bought at the market and gave it to Grisha’s wife.
‘I tried that already,’ she said.
‘Drink,’ I said.”
“It definitely works,” Lana says and points to her swollen chest and the empty cans of condensed milk on the counter.
As the woman drank, I pulled the memory of Lana at my breast, of her big black eyes searching for mine, of her dimpled hand kneading like a cat, her rhythmic suckling as much for comfort as for sustenance. I stripped away the darkness from the memory, the impatience, the numbness, the anger at the numbness, inside and out. I let myself feel the awe of having made a whole person and fed her from my body. Steeped in the memory, in the awe—
“I sang forth an incantation,” I say. “The baby latched and the crying stopped.” I leave out the part where I tried to apologize for how I’d been acting, but Grisha wouldn’t hear it. In his eyes, we were even.
“I asked him about the tape again. He gave me the number of another magician, Serge. We’d worked with him a handful of times.”
“Why didn’t you tell Grisha about me and the VCR?” Lana asks.
“I was embarrassed, proud, stupid. I don’t know,” I say, and it is half true. The full truth is that the darkness told me no one would help me. That I didn’t deserve help. That I deserved to lose Lana if I couldn’t get her back on my own.
“You were so young. It must have been hard,” Lana says, and I lose myself in the wisdom and understanding dripping from her words.
“Serge?” she prompts me.
“Serge was a shrewd, narcissistic, unprofessional asshole, and I worried he wouldn’t give me the tape. First, he denied knowing anything about any tape. In the next breath, he said he didn’t have the tape. I begged, I pleaded, I tried to offer him money, gigs, but he only laughed and said he could not help me.”
“And what did you do?” Lana asks as if she doesn’t know.
“I told him I would tell his wife about all his affairs if he didn’t give me the tape. He laughed at me, and said, ‘fine, go ahead,’ but I could tell he was nervous. I had to find Kalina quickly. She worked at an apothecary as a potions mixer.”
I keep some details for myself and replay them in my mind. The agonizingly slow wait in line behind the babusya with arthritis, the teacher with a sore throat, the whispering man with erectile dysfunction. The remnants of Kalina’s preparations littered the counter. Salves, vials of sea grass nectar, blue beetle wing powder clinging to a pestle. Lana’s counter resembles the same mess. Baby formula, vitamin pipettes, lotions. So many conveniences I never had. But never mind all that.
“When the last customer was gone, Kalina looked at me, annoyed, and told me the shop was closed. I told her I knew her husband and that seemed to get her attention in the worst way possible. She yelled at me, called me names I’d never heard in combinations I’d never imagined. The noise must have woken her little girl, about your age, maybe a year older, who came out of the back room and began to cough.”
She coughed and coughed until she started crying and begged her mother for medicine. The cough sounded like grinding rocks, like growling wolves, and her tears tumbled from her face like falling stars. I felt pity at first, but it wasn’t until I looked into Kalina’s face that I recognized helplessness. She was a master mixer. Her reputation was well known throughout the town, and yet here she was, with a sick child even she couldn’t heal.
“It reminded me of when you were a baby and we had to evacuate after the power plant exploded. You’d developed a similar cough and no matter what your father and I did, we couldn’t get it to stop. We tried all the spells we knew. Sang every incantation we had memorized. Nothing worked,” I say. I would have done anything to make Lana feel better. Anything.
As Kalina wiped the girl’s tears, I remembered the auntie on the train who gave us an old country remedy.
“Is this the part with the kerosene?” Lana asks, and her eyes widen like they used to when I read her fairy tales at bedtime, even when she knew every word by heart.
“’Swab the back of her throat,’ I’d said. The girl opened her mouth wide and said ahhh between coughing fits. Kalina swiped the girl’s throat with a kerosene dipped cotton swab. The girl gagged but stopped coughing.”
“Just like that. No magic,” Lana says.
“No magic,” I say. “I said to her, ‘look, I don’t know your husband intimately or in any capacity and I don’t want to. But he has an enchanted VHS and I need it for my kid. Can you help me?’
“‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘we don’t have the tape.’
“Turned out the bastard taped over it,” I say. “A soccer match or something and the tape lost its enchantment.”
Lana tsks and rocks the bassinet with her foot.
“Serge burst into the apothecary, yelling at me, at her, and she yelled back, and all I could think about was the minute hand on the wall moving faster and faster. Eventually, he left and Kalina gave me the number of the magician who sold it to her.”
“Did you know him, too?”
“No. I don’t even remember his name.” Funny how some details fade over time, while others stick like wet dough.
“I called him. I told him Kalina gave me his number and he said, ‘sure, my wife knows her. They went to school together.’ I told him I was looking for an enchanted VHS. He said ‘sure, sure, can you come over tomorrow?’ ‘I can come now,’ I said.”
I don’t want Lana to know I had expected the man to say “no.” I was preparing a million different arguments, excuses, responses to get him to say yes, but in the end, he simply said, “sure, sure.” In response, the darkness grew louder, trampled over my thoughts and yelled, “He must be lying. He doesn’t have it. He’s trying to trick you.”
“How much time did you have left?” Lana asks.
“Four hours,” I say, and skip this part of the story, as I always do.
As I drove, I rubbed the VCR strapped to the front seat. It exhaled dried, hot air through the side vents and filled the cabin with Lana’s tiny breath. I drove faster.
My thoughts raced alongside my car, circling the drain of darkness, pulling, pulling. My fault, my guilt, dragging me down.
If I had been more patient, more responsible, maybe this would never have happened. Maybe if I had a more traditional job, or never moved away from my hometown. Maybe if I took better care of myself, ate healthier, exercised more. Maybe if I read to Lana more, or played with her more. More.
Maybe the VCR wouldn’t have taken her.
Maybe I should never have been a mother.
I covered the VCR with a sweater and locked the car.
My boots clapped up the stone steps to the magician’s fourth floor apartment, the echoes ricocheting up and down the barren stairwell. I knocked once. No one answered. Scents of fried onions and sounds of yapping dogs filtered into the hallway between door cracks.
“The magician opened the door on the second knock.,” I say. “’Come in,’ he said, and I stepped over the threshold through a powerful ward. Inside, the apartment was bigger than on the outside, a magic way beyond my skill or understanding. All the odors from the hall faded. The magician’s wife was in the kitchen, stirring sage into a stovetop cauldron. A little boy sat at the table, eating dinner. A one-eyed cat rubbed its face against my leg. On the TV, Tom chased Jerry through an animated American dining room,” I say and Lana leans in. This is her favorite part.
Other details bloom and fade from memory. The entire household pulsed strong with magic. I was intimidated and running out of time. I tried to sound cool, nonchalant, but I couldn’t hide my desperation. The magician could smell it, wafting off me in fetid clumps.
“He said he had some other items for sale in a large wooden chest: a mascara from France, imbued with an illusion spell to make you the world’s most beautiful person in the eyes of the beholder; eye cream from Korea, infused with an age reversal spell to make you young; perfume from Japan extracted, from a cherry blossom tree that bloomed once a century and gave you the power to go back in time. There were auto-symmetrical eyeliners and 24-hour lipsticks in every color and lots of other things. He told me I must choose two items before the final transaction could commence.”
“Like a test? Why? What items did you choose?” Lana asks.
“I suppose he was trying to vet me. Back then, selling enchanted items was illegal. Maybe he wanted to make sure I wasn’t an undercover cop or something.”
It was more than that, though I don’t tell Lana. The chest itself was enchanted. Illusion magic rippled out of it. The items inside shimmered and swayed as if sat atop a hot horizon. I picked up a hair dye that promised to disguise me as someone else. The darkness perked up, told me to take it. To run away. Pavlo and Lana would be better off without me anyway.
The hair dye felt heavy in my hand. Tom howled on the TV and I dropped the bottle. The illusion glitched and the bottle transformed into a stuffed cat for a moment before turning back into the dye. For that brief second, I saw a chest full of toys. I saw a glimpse into a world unclouded by darkness.
“I closed my eyes and reached deep into the chest and grabbed two boxes. When I opened my eyes, the boxes contained a singing doll and a plastic tiara that allowed its wearer to turn bread into cake.”
“I wore that tiara everywhere for weeks,” Lana says.
“We all gained five pounds before that thing finally broke,” I say and Lana laughs, nearly waking the baby.
“Then you asked him about the tape,” she says.
“’It’s nothing powerful, just a simple soothing enchantment,’ he said. I asked, ’Will it extract a kid stuck in a hexed VCR?’ and he said, ’Sure, sure.’ I gave him all the cash I had. It was more than most people made in a month. He walked over to the entertainment center, pushed eject on the VCR, and handed me the tape. The wife and kid both had their mouths wide open. Then the kid started screaming. The wife came after me with that big wooden spoon in her hand, beet purple and steaming from whatever poison she was stirring. It could’ve been borscht for all I know, but I wasn’t going to risk it. I still had that bag of catnip and I tossed it at her. The cat went wild and attacked her. I rushed out of there as fast as I could.”
I can still hear the magician laughing and shouting after me to come back anytime.
“I arrived home with thirty minutes to spare. Back in the apartment, I hooked up the VCR the way your dad taught me. I put the tape in and pressed play.”
I don’t know what I expected to happen. Nothing changed. I looked around the room, tried to sense some change in the atmospheric pressure, but there was no discernible difference. The clock in my kitchen ticked, each second louder than the last. I began to panic.
The memory’s tendrils reach for my throat. Lana notices my face darken.
“You okay?” she asks.
I’m not. My heart is on fire. My breath comes in sharp, small gasps. “Yeah,” I say.
“Mama,” Lana says, “what would you have done if you couldn’t get me back?”
This question calms me because I know the answer. Because I turned it over and over in my mind a hundred thousand times that day and millions of times since.
There was a moment when I thought I heard Pavlo’s car door slam. Heard his footsteps, his familiar and comforting gait tap, tap, tap lightly up the stairwell to our apartment. I imagined him coming back to a home without his little Lana. To a life without her in it.
The mind acts strangely when it’s in shock. To protect itself. It’ll invent scenarios in which the thing you fear most suddenly seems fine. That maybe, this, the most horrible thing to ever happen to you, might be alright. That one day you may live your life and survive it, even though, in your heart, you know you won’t.
I do not tell Lana this. It is not what she needs to hear. Not what she needs to know. Not now. Hopefully, not ever.
“I would never give up. I would die before I gave up,” I say.
Lana reaches out and squeezes my arm and I remember how she used to wrap her tiny hand around my finger just as her baby does now.
Time had run out. I took the tape out and turned it over this way and that. I smelled it. I stuck my finger in the reels, and turned them one way, then the other. I flipped up the guard panel and inspected the tape. The darkness was whipping me into a frenzy. I thought for sure the magician must have ripped me off. That the tape didn’t work
“When nothing happened, I checked the wiring. Made sure I had it connected correctly. I unplugged it, plugged it back in, and put my forehead against the video slot. I closed my eyes and pushed the power button. The machine whirred and clicked to life.”
I pressed play.
I watched the episode where Tom and Jerry go on vacation to Naples and a kindly Italian mouse takes them on a tour of the city.
“I thought about what your father would do if he was in my position.”
“He would ask if you followed the directions,” Lana says, and we both laugh.
I wish I’d let Pavlo help me more in those early days, after Lana was born. I wanted to be a good wife, a good mother, but I fell short of both. I let us all down. I had lost Lana. I had lost our only child. I thought, still think, if I could go back in time, I would do so many things differently.
“I rewound the tape to the beginning and hit play. It seized, the first few seconds lost to some defect, and then, the Jekyll and Hyde episode came on,” I say.
“That was my favorite one,” Lana says.
“It was my favorite too.” For many reasons. “It started with a low hum. There was a vibration and, for a moment, it felt like I was on a ship, the ground beneath us swaying and undulating as if I was surfing or riding an earthquake. The feeling and the sound subsided after a few moments and a curtain of silence fell all around me, blurred the rest of the room until only the VCR and the TV were in focus.
“Time seemed to stop completely. The cartoon went on.”
I want to tell Lana more. About how the colors and characters jumped out of the TV and splashed pixels across my face. How, with each frame, I felt lighter and lighter, like a balloon filling with helium and lifting off the floor.
But if I tell her, I’ll also have to admit that it was the only time when I didn’t feel the weight of motherhood standing on my chest, on my shoulders, my back. In those few minutes, I felt like myself. A singer, a magician, a wife.
A woman with a child.
Lana says, “Then as soon as it started, it was over. The room was back to normal?”
I was back to normal. My normal. With the darkness scratching at my periphery, with the dishes stacked in the sink, with spells strewn across the kitchen table waiting to be memorized.
“You were sitting on the couch watching the TV, as if you’d never left. I smothered you with hugs and kisses, and you whined until I started to tickle you and then you giggled.”
“Did I ever say anything about it?” she asks.
Lana puts her arm around me, and I pull her close. Lili spits out the pacifier and wiggles out of her blanket. She stretches her limbs and opens her eyes. Lana asks me to swaddle her again while she runs to the bathroom. I tell Lana to take her time. That she can trust me with her baby. She laughs from the hall and says she’s not sure after the VCR story.
I laugh too, but remnants of the darkness turn her comment from a playful tease to a sharp sting. Her baby whimpers, searches my face looking for Lana.
“Mommy will be right back,” I say. I press Lili tightly into her swaddle and rock her in my arms. I kiss her and breathe her in and remember Lana’s scent. Magic shimmers in the baby’s eyes.
When Lana returns, I pass her the child and ask, “what made you think of the story?”
She shrugs and says, “I don’t know if I could have done what you did.”
Lili touches her mama’s face. The image of them both banishes the darkness. It retreats like the fanning blades in a camera’s aperture and exposes my heart to brand new light.
“You won’t have to,” I say as a promise. A prophecy. Still, I tell her to smell the girl’s head. To commit Lili’s scent to memory.
Just in case.
Lana rolls her eyes, but holds her daughter close and inhales.