Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Bones in It

Besides the vedma who lived behind the stove in steam room three, the banya in Grand Lake Plaza was the same as any other budget day spa on Chicago’s West Side. It had deep-tissue massages and signature facials, plus day passes for the communal baths and steam rooms. There was a cucumber water dispenser in the lobby, and a little sign on the front desk that invited guests to “nama-stay a while.” The robes and slippers were cheap, scratchy polyester, but enough people tried to steal them that the owners figured they couldn’t be that bad. Mother’s Day specials, wind-chime music through the speakers, punch cards to get your tenth foot rub free. Yes, the banya in Grand Lake Plaza was the same as any other day spa—except for the vedma who lived there, of course.

The vedma had long black hair and two wide mouths: one for talking, cackling, snoring, singing, and casting spells, and the other exclusively for eating. The first mouth had a wet, gray tongue that flopped wildly like a caught fish. The other had countless teeth, tall and pointed, which stretched in every direction like a dense forest. She crouched behind the stove, her many breasts sagging to the floor, pinked by the warmth of the burning coals, until it was time for dinner.

The former owners, Pavel Korneliev and Masha Kornelieva, had opened the banya in Oak Park on the last snowless day before the longest, coldest winter on record. The vedma moved in that very night.

Pavel and Masha knew what to do about vedmas. It wasn’t uncommon for banyas to have them. They were attracted to the tangy stench of perspiration, the small curled hairs that gathered on the tile, the masses of plump, vulnerable flesh bobbing in bubbling water. All that filth and ugliness made clean, then unclean, then clean again as guests worked their way through the traditional banya circuit: bathing, sweating, then dousing themselves in ice. It was paradise for a vedma, and could be paradise for them all, so long as the owners were wise enough to strike a deal.

Which Pavel and Masha did, that very first night. They promised the vedma they would prepare meals for her twice a day, before open and again after close: the most scrumptious meats from their spa cafe menu. They would leave a plush cot for her to sleep on, keep fresh coals in her stove, make sure the cloying smell of bergamot that wafted through the rest of the banya never reached her. In fact, steam room three would be all hers. They’d put an “out of order” sign on the door so no one would bother her. All this in exchange for one thing—their guests’ safety—and another thing, if she would see fit to grant it: good fortune and prosperity for their new business.

To this the vedma agreed, and they all lived peacefully for nearly thirty years. In that time, the banya saw a number of pests: mice and ants, spiders and drywood termites, all looking for refuge from the lake-effect cold. All a far greater nuisance, Pavel and Masha concurred, than the reasonably amicable vedma.

Then the Kornelievs died unexpectedly when their small walk-up south of O’Hare caught fire. Their three children, grown by then and living out of state, bickered for months over what to do with the banya. None of them had wanted to go into the family business; they didn’t know the first thing about massage oil suppliers or how to clean a jetted tub. Eventually, they sold the place to the highest bidders: a middle-aged American couple with Silicon Valley startup money who thought the concept sounded “simply charming” and vowed to keep it as it was—save for one minor change.

Which was how Russian Baths of Oak Park—a practical name chosen by the practical Kornelievs—became B*Well Banya: a full-service day spa under new management with, to the vedma’s dismay, an entirely refreshed, entirely vegan menu.

The new owners didn’t know about the vedma or the agreement the former owners had made with her. They read an internet article about Russian banya customs, swapped the bergamot candles for white sage incense sticks, and put a “grand reopening” banner on rush order at the local print shop. As for steam room three, they couldn’t figure out why it would be out of order. Everything—the smooth red cedar benches, the birch brooms hanging on wooden pegs—looked just fine. It was only a matter of removing the strange, musty cot rolled up in the corner and they were ready to open their doors to the public, fully operational. More rooms meant more capacity meant more profit. Everything was going according to their plan.

The vedma, on the other hand, despaired. After clearing out the kitchen, she had put herself into a hibernation to wait out the Kornelievs’ absence. Now that she had risen, she was frail and full of questions: Where was Masha to turn the coals before bedtime? Where was Pavel with the platters full of fat sausage and pickled herring rollmops? Who were these loud strangers crowding into her steam room? And what on the seven continents and seven seas was a kale-chickpea energy bite?

The vedma cowered behind the stove during business hours, chewing her once long, gnarled nails to the quick. At night, after the new owners had locked up and gone, she crawled out warily and searched the supply room for food and rasped and wailed.

She screeched, “Kosti! Gde moi kosti?”

She shrieked, “Give me something with bones in it!”

• • • •

The tenured professor’s name was Jeremy, but he preferred everyone to call him tenured professor.

“Jer, you’re working too hard,” his mother told him one day on the phone. “You don’t make time to talk to your mother. How am I to know what’s going on in your life? Since you passed your tenure review, I thought you might relax a little. Get yourself a girlfriend, visit your parents once in a while . . .”

“Mom, I’m fine,” he said. “I’m relaxed, I’m relaxed. And please, call me ‘tenured professor.’”

Even though tenured professor insisted he was fine, and promised to call more often and even visit sometimes, his mother still got him a spa certificate for his birthday, thinking he could put it toward a nice hot soak or a massage.

“To loosen up some of that tension,” she explained.

Tenured professor had never heard of the place—B*Well Banya all the way out in Oak Park—but his mother said her nail lady’s friend’s sister swore by it. And besides, it was totally vegan, so she thought it would be perfect for him.

“You remembered?” He was surprised. It was a new thing he was trying, one of those New Year’s resolutions, and he couldn’t have brought it up more than once.

“Of course I remembered. My sweet Jer—I mean, tenured professor. Won’t eat animals. Won’t even eat the eggs of animals. So kind. Wouldn’t hurt a fly.” He could hear his mother beaming on the other end of the line.

Tenured professor worked in the creative writing program at the big university north of the city. He was especially proud to work there because when he had applied for undergraduate all that time ago, they had denied him admission. They had denied him admission! It felt impossible then and was truly unthinkable now—now that he’d gritted his teeth through four years at the community college, fled to Berlin to write his novel, and come home to bestseller lists, a six-figure book deal, and whisperings about a sequel. “Hotly anticipated.” That’s what they said in all the important literary circles. Once, it had been “we’re sorry to inform you.” Now, it was “hotly anticipated.”

The two-book deal had grown to three, then four, and now tenured professor was writing his fifth novel while sculpting the malleable young minds of tomorrow’s writers. Tomorrow’s writers, ha, he thought. Writers of product descriptions for clothing catalogs, maybe. Or ergonomic chair advertisements, or little notes in their children’s lunchboxes. His students didn’t have much promise, if he was being honest, but he couldn’t tell them that. And, oh, how him not telling them that was enough for them to latch onto. How moon-eyed and long-eyelashed they got. How fidgety-fingered. It was really quite endearing.

Still, he was a busy man. Overworked? Certainly. Stressed? Often. His mother was right after all, he decided. A trip to Oak Park couldn’t hurt.

• • • •

No one fed the vedma, so she grew even thinner. No one turned the coals in her stove, so she shivered through the night as the lips on her two mouths went blue. With her cot gone, she slept directly on the cedar floor—or on a threadbare towel if a guest had left one behind—her spine rattling against the wooden boards. All the while, she cried, “Kosti, kosti! I beg you, give me something with bones in it!”

When the banya still belonged to Pavel and Masha, the vedma feasted nightly on grilled lamb shashlik, chicken rolls, and her favorite, kholodets: pork legs and beef tails in a rectangle of brown jelly. In the mornings, there was fried smelt with onion and lemon and all manner of fish, brined, smoked, and cured. Ukha with whole pike heads. Salmon kulebyaka. Beef and cabbage pirozhki. Stroganina with Arctic muksun or raw reindeer meat on ice. There was always rye bread and horseradish sauce on the side, kvass and sbiten to wash it down with. But the meat was the centerpiece. And the meat was what, under the new owners, the vedma missed most.

The vegan cafe was a depressing affair. The new owners had brought in a retired restaurateur to consult: a tan, bright-toothed man who had made a killing with his nationwide chain of counter-service restaurants specializing in gourmet grain bowls. The banya’s new menu featured carrot-pistachio gazpacho and blackberry soygurt parfaits alongside tofu wraps, lentil salads, cashew milk smoothies, and four different kinds of hummus plates. The fridge was piled high with broccolini and vegan cheese.

One night, not long after the grand reopening, the vedma crept weakly into the kitchen and pulled out of the dishwasher a bowl that held the sparse remnants of green pea and mint soup. Starving and desperate, she licked it frantically with her eating mouth, her sharp teeth champing against the curved porcelain. Afterwards, she retched onto the floor of steam room three, her stomach insistent on ridding itself of this waste. Since then, she had been fooled by jackfruit skewers, with their stringy likeness to meat, and blood orange salads, with their promise of gore. But each was more horrid than the last, bloodless and boneless, and she spat them all out in disgust.

All the while, the vedma howled, the vedma moaned: “I long for something with bones in it . . .”

• • • •

Just as the tenure review board had suspected, tenured professor proved to be brilliant, ambitious, and productive. He put the university in his author bio, and many students applied and paid good money to study under him. But tenured professor was not a kind man, was not a sweet or would-not-hurt-a-fly man, no matter what his mother thought.

He encouraged students to come to office hours, and when they did, he shut the door behind them. The offices were drafty as it was, he explained as he drew the blinds. Then he told the young writers, each of them, one by one, that they showed exceptional raw talent. As they sat on the edge of his armchair and blinked nervously and fingered the hems of their skirts, he told them they had that “it” factor. He said it the same way every time, in a hushed voice like it’s our little secret.

Only making a success of oneself took more than talent, he said, took more than that “it” factor. It took discipline. And discipline was exactly what they lacked. No matter, a lack of discipline was a privilege of the young. But should they like to not lack discipline, he could be the one to teach them. Would they like that? he asked. Would they like to learn?

And the students, flushed with embarrassment and feeling special, said yes. Yes, of course. They went to parties where he showed them off to his friends and poured them dark, bitter drinks and teased them lightly about misunderstanding the Deleuzian theory of becoming. They nodded when he called their favorite films derivative. They met him behind the humanities building after dark. They sent him the photos he asked for, taut skin against spotless bathroom tile. They stayed up nights writing and rewriting to impress him, then pretended not to mind when in class he forgot their names.

Then, suddenly, his office-hour slots would be full before they could sign up, and when they passed by, another girl—chewing her lip, clutching a notebook—would be waiting outside the frosted door. And should any of his students actually go on to write a book, and think to reach out and ask him for a jacket blurb, good luck to them. They so valued his mentorship, they reminded him. If he would be so kind, they implored.

But he would not be so kind. He did not once reply.

• • • •

A month into the new owners’ tenancy, the vedma was wasting away. She had been making do with what she could. When the banya’s lights went out, she came out from her hiding spot, her legs sore from squatting all day and her hair heavy with ash. Then she went hunting for something to eat.

She chugged the golden massage oils and fruit-scented lotions from the supply room, and scooped sugar scrubs out of their jars with her fingers. She gnawed the business cards on the front desk, pulled the chewy felt layers from the banya hats. The banny veniki were not so bad—at least they had a pleasant salty taste from being thwacked against guests’ backs all day. The hot stones were a special treat: When she held them in her mouth, they had a solid, reassuring weight that felt almost, but not quite, like a craving sated. If the new owners noticed anything missing, they made no mention of it. They were too busy designing an appointment-booking app to bother taking inventory.

The vedma sucked the ink from pens, extracted the filament from light bulbs—anything she could find, however unsatisfactory a replacement. But it was never enough. Paper, plastic, dye, glycerin, stone: These were insubstantial things. They did little to nourish her.

Inside steam room three, her temptations were becoming harder to control. She sat hunched behind the stove as guests came and went, sweat rolling off their chests into the folds of their bellies, pooling at the bends in their elbows and the backs of their knees. Both the vedma’s mouths watered, even the one not meant for eating. But she remembered her promise to Pavel and Masha, and she hoped still that they would soon return. Masha with her arms full of pillows for the vedma to sleep on. Pavel with his cubes of eel and glass bowls of black and orange ikra. Their glances always respectfully downturned. Reverent, but unafraid.

One day, just before the banya was scheduled to open, the vedma heard a small voice coming from the direction of the lobby. It said, “She told me I need to add bones to it.”

Quickly, the vedma skulked into the hallway.

Peering from behind an artificial plant, she saw the new owners standing behind the front desk, and a teenage girl who looked like a cross between the two of them sitting in one of the lobby chairs. She had a stack of books on her lap.

“Did your teacher say what she meant by that?” the mother asked her daughter.

The girl kicked the base of the chair with her heels. An inch of skin flashed where her pants didn’t quite meet the tops of her shoes.

“Yeah,” the girl sighed. “She said I was missing an argumentative structure. She said that’s like the skeleton of the essay, and without it, the points I’m trying to make aren’t adequately supported. They just flop around.” She demonstrated by dropping her arms and flailing them loosely at her sides.

“Hm,” her father said, checking the clock over the door. “Well, it’s nice that she’s helping you rewrite it. College admissions essays are no joke. You can hang out here today and work on it. It’s going to be cacophonous at the house with the remodel.”

“I can’t believe the contractors are this behind schedule,” her mother added.

Her father nodded. “Tell me about it. What a welcome, huh? Next time, we’re calling Mark’s guys. Everyone around here runs on midwestern time.”

The new owners disappeared into the office, leaving the vedma alone in the lobby with the girl, who opened her notebook to a clean page and began filling it with neat, slanted lines. The vedma watched the notebook carefully, licking the lips on one mouth and then the other. Guests filed past her, carrying robes and slippers, making for the locker rooms or the cafe down the hall. But she never took her eyes off the notebook. This was it, she thought. At long last, something hearty. Something that had bones in it.

Hours passed before the girl finally stood up, stretched, and made her way toward the bathroom, setting the notebook down on the chair as she went. The vedma almost yelped in excitement. Instead, she waited until she was sure the lobby was empty, then scuttled on all fours to the notebook, yanked out the pages, and devoured them in a single bite.

When the bewildered girl returned, she found only a strand of long black hair caught in the spiral binding.

Later, safely behind the stove in steam room three, the vedma’s stomach grumbled and churned as the pages formed a disappointing gluey paste in her gut. This was the last time, she vowed angrily, baring her forest of teeth. She would not be deceived again.

• • • •

It was tenured professor’s job to provide constructive feedback. This essay lacked structure, or that story lacked emotional resonance, or this poem lacked bite. Or the research was iffy, or the grammar was bad. It was what they paid him for, his ability to turn a critical eye. It was a service he provided.

So when a freshman creative writing major named Lauren, who wrote mostly about her parents and deciduous trees, came over, he had to be honest. It was his scholastic duty. When she came over to his house in Wilmette on the weekend, and ran a bath for him like he’d asked, and poured him wine, and sprinkled in flower petals, he had to be direct with her. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be doing justice to the institution of higher learning, would he? When she undressed, and stood in front of the bathroom mirror as she undressed him, so he could watch her do it, when she helped him gingerly into the tub, he had to tell her the water was too hot.

He had to tell her the water was too hot, and leap out of the tub with exaggerated yowls so she would grasp the magnitude of the situation, and he had to splash her with the too-hot water, and he had to push her down onto the cotton bath mat. He had to grab her cheeks hard with his whole hand until she looked like a fish. He had to shake her. He had to hold her face so close to the water that if she breathed she would ripple the surface. Only she wouldn’t breathe, wouldn’t dare to.

“So hot, I felt like I was soup!” he had to growl at her. “Is that what you want? You want me to be soup? You want to cook me?”

He had to let her cry, let her choke on her spit as she blubbered apologies, spill the glass of wine into the tub as she tried to get away. The water swirled vermillion and the bottom of the shower curtain was stained before he finally gripped her shoulders and said, “Hey.”

“Hey, hey, hey.”

It was a hard job, this. A hard, hard job. No wonder he was always wound so tight.

“Everybody makes mistakes, right?”

No wonder he was so tense. Could really use a day to kick back and just relax.

“I said, everybody makes mistakes, right?”

She met his gaze timidly, her eyes ringed in black.

“That’s it,” he said. “That’s better. So, you made a mistake. It’s about embracing the learning process, that’s all. Being open to improvement.”

Later, he would make her a vegan dinner and read passages from Nabokov aloud, pointing out where the plotting and wordplay were just right. First, though, she would have to drain and clean the tub.

• • • •

B*Well Banya in Grand Lake Plaza, formerly known as Russian Baths of Oak Park, had a fairly standard layout. The lobby led to a pair of locker rooms, which opened onto the communal baths and cold plunge pool, which broke off into a long hallway lined with doors to the steam rooms and massage rooms. At the end of the hall were the break room and vegan cafe, where guests could replenish themselves between circuits. The circuit—the repeated transitions between hot and cold—was what guests came for. It was said the extremes were good for one’s health.

Which was why, of all the budget day spas in Greater Chicagoland, tenured professor arrived at B*Well Banya one morning, his mother’s gift certificate folded in his wallet. And of all the steam rooms in B*Well Banya, he stepped into steam room three.

By then, the vedma’s long black hair had grown hay-brittle. Her knees were bruised from knocking together as she crouched, and the teeth in her eating mouth had begun to fall out.

Tenured professor, on the other hand, was the picture of vigor. The hair on his chest rose up toward his throat, and his cheeks had a rosy glow behind his thick-rimmed glasses. He wore a robe but carried his tweed jacket draped over one arm, having refused to leave it hanging in the locker room with the other guests’ clothes.

He sank down onto the cedar bench. Immediately, his glasses started to fog. He smelled of sweat, yes, but also something else: a particular kind of ugliness, one that wouldn’t wash off in the bath. It was enough to raise the vedma from her famished stupor.

She had been scouring for inedible scraps. She had been pleading through the night: Kosti, pozhaluysta, kosti, kosti. No one had heard her or answered her calls. Now she was days from the end, she was certain, and it was time to face the truth. The Kornelievs were not coming back, no matter how fervently she wished it or how well she kept up her side of the bargain. The vows of the banya were broken. Theirs by absence and hers by hunger.

In the sealed steam room, tenured professor was little more than a smudge of pink in the mist. Still, from behind the stove, the vedma could see him. Oh, she could see him. Her powers were weakened, but she could tell, could always tell when something was a dead, dumb animal. When something was all meat and bones, no brains or heart or guts to speak of.

There was an emptiness to him. People usually didn’t like other people like that, she had observed over the years. But to a vedma, he sounded delicious. Just meat and bones, this one. Her favorite parts.

No guts like Pavel, or heart like Masha, or brains like the girl rewriting her essay from scratch that day in the lobby. The girl who was a senior at the local high school, working hard on her college admissions essays. Her first choice was the big university just north of the city, with its old stone buildings and vast green quad and top-ranking creative writing program, helmed by her favorite author.

It was something the vedma couldn’t possibly have known, except vedmas have a way of knowing those things exactly.

Suddenly, tenured professor became acutely aware of his nakedness. He took his glasses off and rubbed the fog away with a towel.

When he put them back on, he could see everything clearly: Her wild eyes. Her many breasts. Her two mouths upturned in matching smiles—close, then closer. Each of the dozens of pointed teeth in terrifying detail.

He could see his right hand, its faded ink stains, the callus on the first joint of the middle finger from so many hours spent grading in pen. One minute, it was at the end of his arm. The next, it was on the floor.

The vedma marveled at how easily he came apart, fat from sinew. Just meat and bones. Nothing else to hold him together.

Later, the new owners would stumble in screaming.

Later, there would be sirens and yellow crime-scene tape, and an escape from the plaza, across the highway and into the woods.

Later, a letter would come to tenured professor’s inbox asking for his honest feedback about his recent experience at B*Well Banya. One of those automatic emails. It would receive, as was customary with him, no reply.

Later, an obituary would publish the nice things, while others would publish the truth.

But for now, there was only the vedma—sitting on the floor of the steam room, sucking out the last of the marrow—and the pile of bones grown tall beside her. She wiped her eating mouth with what was left of his tweed jacket, finally satisfied.

Kristina Ten

Kristina Ten is a Russian-American writer of short fiction and poetry with work in Lightspeed, Black Static, Weird Horror, AE Science Fiction, and elsewhere. She is a 2019 graduate of Clarion West Writers Workshop and a current MFA candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder. You can find her at kristinaten.com and on Twitter as @kristina_ten.