My daughter, Velvet, no longer needs a Nanny, but back in the day, I did everything I could to keep mine happy. Once I had to dig deep into my dwindling reserves of cross-cultural tolerance to put an incident behind us: the day I found Velvet cowering in the kitchen, clutching her stuffed dog and sobbing as Nanny and the housekeeper, Lydia Stepanovna, tried to calm her down.
“Mommy, Nadezhda Rotislavovna is a witch!” Velvet cried when she saw me. Our neighbor certainly resembled the Russian folklore witch Baba Yaga, and there were those who felt she occasionally got into the vodka earlier in the day than she should have, but she was a good neighbor as far as these things go in Moscow.
“What in the world makes you say a thing like that?” I asked, baffled.
“She never comes through the door of our flat, and Nanny and Lydia Stepanovna say they stuck a needle in the doorjamb and witches can’t come through the door when there is a needle…” Velvet swung around desperately for confirmation.Lydia Stepanovna crossed her arms defensively.
“We stuck it there about a year ago,” said Nanny, “just to be on the safe side.”
“The doorway…” said Lydia Stepanovna, flinging her arms wide as if this explained everything, “and a young child in the house…you can’t be too careful with the evil spirits,” she spat over her left shoulder three times.
I was flabbergasted, as I confessed to HRH (my Handsome Russian Husband) after I’d finally got Velvet to sleep and we were preparing dinner, “these grown women e_SEmD well-educated, brought up in the best anti-religious/Marxist/Leninist traditions e_SEmD really believe in witches and needles…and tell all this to a child of four!”
“Well,” he said, “I remember my Babushka telling me I always had to look out for the doorway when I was about Velvet’s age.”
“Whatever for?” I asked. “I know you can’t shake hands across the doorway…”
“That’s right, because that is where the Domovoy lives,” said HRH as calmly as if he had just double-checked the address off his BlackBerry.
“You don’t actually believe in the ‘Domovoy,’” I asked. “That’s like believing in the tooth fairy.”
“Best to be on the safe side,” said HRH rapping his knuckles three times on the kitchen chair.
The Domovoy, I knew from my pre-Christian Rus lectures and picture books, is a tetchy house spirit, like Dobby the House Elf from Harry Potter, but far more powerful. He lives in the threshold, and so greeting someone or shaking hands across the threshold is forbidden, because it would offend the Domovoy.
It was then I realized all the things I’d started to do in Moscow without thinking: I go crazy trying to get HRH and Velvet out the door when we go on a trip, but I insist we all sit down quietly for a moment, which apparently fools the evil spirits into thinking that nothing is going to happen, so they get bored and wander off and don’t accompany us to the airport. I never use my own hands or body to describe an injury or disfigurement. I don’t let Velvet sit on the corner of the table, lest she never marry.
“I’ve become a total pagan believer!” I shouted to HRH and, in my haste, dropped the spoon I was using to toss the salad.
“That’ll be Mama,” said HRH knowingly: dropping a spoon indicates a female visitor, whereas a knife signals the imminent arrival of a male guest. “I’ll go downstairs and meet her.”
“I’ll get the needle out of the doorjamb,” I said sotto voce.Jennifer Eremeeva is a long-time resident of Moscow, about which she blogs at www.rbth.ru/blogs/ and www.dividingmytime.typepad.com. She is currently working on her first book
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