The Real Werewolf Encounter in Siberia
Before anything I am going to warn you. This isn't a story of how a werewolf fell in love with me. This isn't a tale of modern day sacred legends living in the woods. This isn't Twilight fan-fiction. In fact, they drove to the city just to see a translation of Twilight in a Omsk cinema. They laughed and spit and drank beer right in the theatre, disturbing anyone around them had anyone else gone to the midday show months after the movie came out in the United States. They cackled and left the theater talking about hunting and the merits of Hollywood.
I'm their granddaughter. I live in the United States with my mother. My grandpa is a logger, and my whole side of the family on my deceased fathers side lives in the nearly unpopulated tundra of Siberia, about eleven hours away from the nearest urban area. Malotobirsk. Translated "too little of." You can't even call it a town really. It's a community of about four hundred. They have a school that teaches grades pre-through eleven. And they have a little supplies store that is always out of something you need and it takes three months to restock. They love it and embrace a lifestyle that here in the modern world would be called CRAZY. Like some sort of an extremist group of rednecks that don't think electricity is a necessity. I don't visit often. Or ever for that matter. About once every two years my mother rents an apartment in Omsk, population one and a half million people, for a month in the summer and sends me there. It's like a family reunion. But only my grandpa attends from my fathers side. My mom didn't like my father very much. He was a bad man who made very good money doing very illegal things. He was shot by a business partner when I was eight.
My mother never tried to shield me from how scary Russian had been in the 90s. She wanted me to love my home land but know how dangerous it was for anyone – rich or poor. And she escaped it as soon as my father died. We both moved to the United States and she got married to a very nice American man that I began to call "Father" shortly after arrival. I love him as a father to this day.
It has been ten years since we moved. In those ten years I had been back five times in the summer. It was again my year to go, but this year I turned nineteen and conditions changed a little bit. I was already in college studying for an accounting degree with a minor in paralegal studies. I had a great boyfriend that was just the right amount of sweet. And I had my best friends that constantly dragged me out on the town when I wasn't studying, or bringing over movies and ice cream when I was. I had an ipod and more music on it than I care to remember. And a laptop. I was as Americanized as any other teenager.
That is why it came as such a shock to me when my mother announced that I would not be going to Omsk this summer, and instead I would be going to stay with my grandpa.
Okay I lied. When I said I never visited I might have been talking ahead of myself. I actually had been there with my mother and father when he was still alive and I was four or five years old. Granted I don't remember it hardly at all. My great-grandmother was dying and father wanted to see her one last time over the holidays. So we spent New Years in their cabin in the woods.
But I was just not thrilled to know that this is where I was going. I had friends I had made in Omsk. And I wanted to see my other grandmother. Malotobirsk was the last place on earth I wanted to be. But my mother explained that there was a very big family tradition that depended on me.
"Every other generation of female since before Tsar Nicolai I in your father's family has been handed down a family relic. Your great-aunt has held it for the past seventy years. You're the next female in life to receive it." My mother told me when she sat me down to tea and revealed the news, "I don't like the idea either. But in his memory I will always respect his family and their traditions."
"So why now? I have to go and get it? Can they not mail it to me or something?" I asked with that tone of an annoyed teenager that I was so convinced I had grown out of.
"There is dispute in the family as to who gets it. Two of your second cousins are reaching the same age. And their mother wants the relic. She raised the issue that you are not an active part of the family and since you moved away to America you no longer hold the title for the trinket."
Even though I couldn't care less for family traditions, I found myself on a plane to Los Angeles, then Moscow, then Omsk. As I sat in those cramped uncomfortable seats for twenty-four hours, I dreaded the next month to come. Why a month? Because my mother cheaped out on tickets and decided to not bring me back until fares went down after Christmas. Why was I there even though I hated the idea of going? Because of my competitive nature. As soon as I heard that Russian bitches were trying to cheat me out of a family honor, I raged on the spot. My one big problem. I have a temper. At least when it comes to girls. You could call me catty.
So what does this all have to do with werewolves? In Russian culture there are several types of werewolf. Of course this is all silly legend as far as majority of the country is concerned. There is no room for superstition in the high skyscrapers of Moscow, where fashion runways are as plentiful as traffic and cell phone companies. Only old ladies sitting on their benches in villages will grumble and tell you that they have seen werewolves with their own eyes. In their stories, the werewolf, called "wawkalak" is a cursed man. He is a nomad soul, begging for scraps of food at each different house in the village. He never attacks, and licks the hands of his loved ones to show affection, but cowers away from strangers. This is a form of punishment, said to be from the Devil.
The "oboroten" is another type of werewolf. This is a man that has the will to turn into a beast at any given moment. To transform, is the Russian term. He lives among people, and can very well hide his oddity. But this is a violent creature. When an animal, he kills and commits crimes. In literature, this kind of werewolf was very much known for stealing infants out of cribs in Russian homesteads. These creatures are also believed to feel remorse only when in human form, and therefore do not make very emotionally stable individuals.
Once again though, any of this should have been just fairytales for me. And in a sense they were. If it wasn't for my grandfather.
I was always close to Grandfather Dima. He loved me and always tried to make the most time to come visit me. I was the only one of his grandchildren that he thought the world of. And growing up, he would always tell me stories of his youth. And they were terrible stories of war and poverty, redeemable only by the soft way he spoke about Siberia. He was a man that had always loved his country. Loved the land, loved the history, loved every bead of sweat and blood poured into his life's labor. He was a very educated man. Although he never had the opportunity to go to school, he read a lot of books and knew everything I could ever imagine about Russia. And he loved the wasteland that is the tundra. The only thing he didn't love about the country were the people. He was very anti-social, and kept to himself. Except when it came to me. He would talk to me for hours. On his visits, he would spent all of his time showing me pictures, telling me stories, talking about the majesty of literature. I respected him more than I have anyone else. And was always convinced that he had more wit and knowledge about him than any of my college professors.
That is what made it so difficult for me to understand when he would speak about werewolves. As if it was fact and not legend, he would casually say that they'd caught a werewolf and skinned it alive with the boys when he lived in Tara by the Black Sea. A thick forested area, it was natural for him to re-tell stories of hunts and fishing. For a while I thought he was just confused as to what werewolves are. And when at the age of six I tried to correct him, he simply slapped his knee in that friendly fashion that he did, and would tell me, "No, little lady. We caught wolves and used their pelts for hats and blankets. Werewolves you can't use for hats and blankets. Werewolves are no good for anybody. They turn right back to thin leather when they die. If the critters stayed hairy we might have been able to at least use 'em to line the storage cellars. But that's how we could always tell a wolf from a werewolf. A werewolf always went back to being a gyppie."
"Gyppie" was old slang for a Gypsy. Looked down upon in all of Russia, they lived everywhere and were always treated like second class citizens. But that was because hardly ever did Gypsies own houses. They traveled. To this day there are caravans, although horses and carriages were long replaced by trucks and old run down cars. They plague modern open air markets with black market goods and poorly pirated DVDs. Not known for honesty or integrity, the only good character trait that could be given to them was a strong sense of family. It was the world against the Russian Gypsies. And it was them against us.
Forty years ago, which is when Grandpa Dima would be referring to, the discrimination was even greater. They would be run out of towns and villages. They were called scum, swine, and witches. No wonder in his mind the Gypsy stuck as a vile magical creature.
But still. Knowing what I knew, I'd joke with the family that I thought Grandpa Dima was a little off on his facts. By the reaction I got from my family, it seemed he did not repeat those stories to anyone but me. In time I started thinking he was making them all up. But I always felt uneasy. I think on some level I believed him. After all, the legends had to come from somewhere. And he was so convincing. He never let on that he thought it was fiction at all.
And then there was the incident that my father told me about. He said when he was eighteen (five years before I was born) Malotobirsk suffered from a wolf infestation. The wolves would attack people unprovoked and even in open crowded places. And then a gypsy caravan came through Malotobirsk. They were looking for food as a road got them off course and they nearly got lost in the tundra. Many of them were sick and starving. The village store had not been in stock for months, as no trucks could get through from a major city. There was nothing to sell, and there was nothing to give. My father recalled that one of the gypsy women was so sick, the caravan leader who was her husband begged Grandfather Dima to take her in. She was hot with fever, and swollen with child. He had pity on her, and even though his own family was scarce on food, he spared a few potatoes for her. But she kept getting worse, and the caravan had no choice but to move on so that they could survive the winter and make it to a large city. Her name was Tsura. And she had the child that winter, but before spring came he died of pneumonia. She was allowed to stay, with nowhere to do and the grief of a dead son heavy on her heart, but she was infinitely thankful to Grandfather Dima for his kindness. Wolves never entered the village again since the day Tsura arrived. The villagers feared her because of this and the strong superstitions of the Russians soon forced her into a tiny log house on the outskirts of the village. But when spring arrived followed by a hard summer, labor and personal survival concerns soon pushed Tsura out of everyone's mind. She became a shut in, and hardly more than a memory to anyone in the community. The gypsy caravan never came back.
All this I remembered as I dragged my large suitcase behind me through the Omsk airport. By this time I was very used to traveling, but something about this trip was just so different. I had been nervous for weeks. Everything surrounding the situation seemed almost unreal. Family secrets, relics, legends, and a hole in the frozen ground that my uncivilized part of the family called a restroom. It was hard to imagine in such a modern setting as an airport. A "Duty-Free" store caught my eye. All the make-up and perfume and prettily wrapped chocolates… shopping seemed far more appealing than riding in a car for twelve more hours to get to god knows where with god knows who. I did not even know my great aunt or cousins. I did not even know my grandmother. The only one that seemed to fain any interest in me was my grandfather, ever.
As the thought crossed my mind I saw him standing behind the glass customs doors.
"Dedushka!" I yelped as I hurried out and dropped my suitcase next to him and extended the old man a hug. Even at the age of nineteen I could not reach his towering height. Grandpa Dima was a big man well into his seventies. His face reflected an age greater than that, but his body was so accustomed to manual labor that it showed no signs of aging. He never smiled, unless it was a very special occasion and no one but me was around to see it. And of course, he didn't really speak at first at all. He just nodded towards my bags.
"This is all you brought?"
But I was so thrilled to see him I knew he had been in his own way waiting for this as much as I have.
We hurried out to the car, my eyelashes frosting over within seconds of being outside. The car was a Lada made in the eighties no doubt, although it looked three times its actual age. This was something that would not be street legal in the United States, but here it trecked on half a foot of ice for hundreds of miles at a time. No seatbelts, and a heater that smelled like burning oil, I could not even hear myself think. But there we were, riding at top speeds through the dark highways of Omsk after my midnight arrival. Our destination hundreds of miles out of town. Grandpa Dima handed me a thermos full of hot soup.
"Your mother said you'd be hungry."
And so, where I would have otherwise bought a Subway sandwich or a greasy Burger King burger, here I was, drinking soup in more than freezing weather. I was definitely in Russia. I was definitely in my homeland.