Excerpt from ‘The Bone Mother’


By David Demchuk


I am the girl in the water. I am the rusalka.

One day when I was thirteen, I woke up very ill, so tired that I could not get out of my bed to go to school. Mama felt my head, listened to my chest. I had no fever, no cough, my heart was strong. I was a good student and rarely unwell, so she kept me home, but I could see she was concerned. At lunch I could eat very little, the smell of everything was overpowering to me. I was sick all over myself and again in the sink. Finally she warmed some clear broth for me and brought it to my bed.

“Mama,” I said. “I have a fish in me.”

It was as if she didn’t hear me, so I said it again, and louder. “Mama. I have a fish in me. The fish is making me sick.” And I took her hand and pressed it to my belly. The little fish quivered and curled under her hand, and she pulled it away as if she had burned herself.

“How did this happen?” she asked, frightened and furious. “Who has done this to you?”

I was confused, I didn’t know what she meant. “I don’t know, I don’t know,” I insisted, now as afraid as she was.

She slapped me across the face. “Have you let any boys touch you or kiss you?”

My cheek was stinging, my eyes were wincing with tears. I didn’t like boys, never played with them at school or after, ran and hid and waited for them to pass whenever I could. And then I had a thought, not knowing it was the worst thought of all.

“Mama,” I said. “Could a woman have put the fish in me?”

She became very still. “What do you mean?” she whispered.

“When Papa was out in the field,” I said, “and you were at the church with Mrs. Derhak, a woman I didn’t know came to the door, an old woman, and she wanted to play a game with me, and she said I shouldn’t tell you or we would all get into trouble. She said it would be a game but—all I remember was she held my hands up with one hand and tickled my belly with the other, and I laughed and I laughed until I fell asleep, and then when I woke up she was gone.”

After a long moment, with her face turned away from me, she said “I see.”

I waited and waited. The little fish was whirling around inside me, as fearful as I was. But she sat and sat on the edge of my bed and then finally asked, “Have you ever seen this woman before? In the village? On someone’s farm?”

“No,” I said.

“Only this once?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

She turned to me, and somehow her face was so dark that I could barely see it, even though the sun had yet to slip down and out of the sky. “Come then,” she said, “you must get dressed. I know how we will make you feel better.”

She bundled me out of the house while I was still wrapping my cloth coat around me. The fish was frantic now, swimming in tight wild circles, and the sickness and weakness were like heavy hands pulling at my shoulders, my legs, my hair.

“Please, can we go tomorrow?” I asked, but it was like shouting into the wind. She led me through the field to the path into the woods, which I knew eventually would lead to the lake. I knew there were plants you could eat, herbs and flowers and mushrooms that could take your sickness away. I had heard many stories of Baba Yaga, and the children at school often said that such witches still lived among us. Perhaps that was where she was taking me. Or perhaps she was a witch herself.

I struggled to keep up with my mother, whose stride had become broader and more purposeful as we emerged from the woods. The large cold lake stretched out before us. Soon we were at the water’s edge. She pulled the coat from me, pushed me towards the water and said, “Go in.”

“But it’s so cold,” I cried, and it was true—I could see my breath between us and knew the lake would be liquid ice.

“Good,” she said. “The cold water will tighten around you and the fish will swim out, and you will feel much better. Go in.”

Sick and cold and tired and sore, I obeyed her and stepped into the water. “Come over here where it’s deeper,” she said, “and put your hands up here on this edge.” Soon the cold clear water was up to my chest, my neck, I held on to the edge and looked up at her.

“How long?” I asked. “How long?” I was shivering so hard I could barely hold on, my teeth were chattering.

“Not long,” she said, kneeling down to me; then she reached out and grabbed a fistful of my hair and pushed me under the water. I tried to fight, I tried to struggle, but I could not. My final breath bubbled out of me, and soon even the little fish was quiet and still. Mama gently let go of my hair, and I sank to the lake’s dark floor.

Then she screamed.

“Noooooo!” she screamed. “Noooooo!” And soon some men ran from the church, which was not far away.

“Mrs. Malyk!” they shouted. “What is it?”

“My baby, my Krizstina—she ran in the water and threw herself in—she was too fast, I tried to catch her!”

I looked up and saw the men peering over the edge, but I was too deep for them to see me. Suddenly, I felt the little fish quiver and curl inside me again, felt it flicker and warm me like a tiny red flame. The heat spread through me to the tips of my fingers and the ends of my toes. My body grew long and lithe, my breasts full and rounded. My hair, now long and lush and red like oxblood, eddied and swirled around me.

I swam out into the centre of the lake, then spiralled up to the surface—looked across to where the cluster of men now poked at the water with long sticks and hooks. Even though it was impossibly far, I saw Mama, saw her face, and I fancied she saw me.

And then I turned and I dove down

down and



Excerpt from The Bone Mother copyright 2017 by David Demchuk. Reprinted by permission of ChiZine Publications, Toronto. http://chizinepub.com/

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David Demchuk

David Demchuk was born and raised in Winnipeg and now lives in Toronto. A playwright, independent filmmaker, screenwriter, essayist, critic and journalist, he has been writing for theatre, film, television, radio and other media for more than thirty years. The Bone Mother was published by ChiZine Publications in July 2017.