The Help of a Witch

by Sasha Krugosvetov
The Help of a Witch

David Teniers the Younger, “Witch scene” (1635)

For most Westerners, witches exist only in fiction or in medieval history. But in the Soviet Union in 1980s and in Russia till the middle of 2000s, many people believed that magic and psychics are some phenomena that were just forbidden by the authorities. Anatoly Kashpirovsky, a Russian psychotherapist of Ukrainian origin who claims to be a hypnotist and a psychic healer, was one of the most popular persons of that time. Even world famous neuroscientist and psychologist Natalia Bekhtereva, an academician of the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union, insisted that science should not reject the extraordinary abilities of people like Kashpirovsky.

I would like to tell about that, basing on my own experience from the early 2000s and using an excerpt from the book of my fictionalized but truthful memoir “Try living in Russia.”

* * *

During the most difficult period of my life, I accidentally made the acquaintance of a certain Elena Aksoldovna, a close acquaintance of a friend of mine. She was about forty and heavily built, very corpulent. Her figure wasn’t very womanly, and she had hairs growing on her chin. At first sight a very kind person, gabbling incessantly. “We come from a well-known aristocratic family. My great-grandfather served at the Emperor’s Court”. When she was about to leave she would patter “goodbyebyebye”. She liked to tell the story of how she renounced her personal life for the sake of her work. That a certain somebody used to love her so, so much. Each day he’d bring her an armful of roses. He cried, he pleaded, he kneeled before her and asked her to accept his proposal. Somehow I found that hard to believe. OK, if he had asked her to abandon her job. But she did it for nothing. What job? Very mysterious.

“Sasha, people say that you are in serious trouble. Tell me.” I didn’t really feel like telling her. “Well, I see what it is anyway. Your problem is this and that.” But she was right. So maybe I should tell her? How did you find out all this? “I didn’t do it myself. It is given to me from above. That’s how I see. I’ve had this ability ever since suffering clinical death. I meet with Natalia Petrovna Bekhtereva. She understands these matters very well.”

There can be no doubt that Bekhtereva is an authority on these questions.

“OK, it is given to you from above. Can you tell me what a certain person is thinking at this moment? His name is Vladimir.”

I didn’t tell her anything else about Vladimir, just his name. Elena immediately started talking about his character. What he was, what occupied his mind, what bothered him. Her description was astonishingly accurate. Elena and Vladimir had no acquaintances in common. None of the people known to both Elena and me knew anything about Elena. I gave a few more names. The result was the same.

A sudden flash of insight? This is what Bekhtereva says about insight: “Can it be the result of cerebral activity? Yes. It’s just that I can’t imagine how that could work. That’s because the wording we receive from beyond is so incredibly beautiful and perfect.”

Come to me, said Elena, we’ll sort out your problems. So we met up. We had an interesting conversation. After a while I began to understand her technique. She would listen attentively and somehow add her comments, all of them vague and nebulous. The only specific thing she said was “It’s all your own fault.” I was prepared to agree with her in principle. “That’s your fault, and that is, too. You’re trying to extricate yourself, your behaviour is all wrong.” A familiar approach, just like in a totalitarian sect. The desire to blame, crush and subjugate. All of a sudden my interlocutor started yelling at me. She tried to provoke me, tried to get her “client” to object. She insulted me with a gypsy’s knack for finding the sorest spot. A dangerous woman. While I found the whole thing interesting, idiot that I was. As always, my curiosity was killing me. I played her game, pretending I was willing to do anything she asked, as if I wasn’t Sasha Krugosvetov, who’d lived a long and complicated life, but a meek lamb going to the slaughter. I was sure that I wouldn’t give in to her hypnotic suggestions. But why did I need to play at all? For the risk, the competition?

“I can help you solve your main problems”, Elena said. “I love helping people.” “But Lena, I don’t believe in magic.” “You should try it.” But I’m indeed sceptical of sorcery. Oh to hell with what may happen, it never hurts to try. “Bear in mind that this will cost you money.” “Well, let’s go for it, your convinced me with your talk. I hope it won’t bankrupt me.” “Ok, in that case I’ll pour wax into water for you.” (Pouring melted wax into water and reading the resulting shapes is an old Slavonic fortune telling rite. It is usually accompanied by chanting prayers.) “But the church disapproves of fortune telling”, I said. “I have a priest’s blessing.” I thought to myself that no priest would bless sorcery. But I agreed, thoughtless as I was. Clearly I hadn’t yet grown firm in the Christian faith. I drank some sort of water. Elena was reading prayers. Praying to icons. Then she fiddled with some candles. Started pouring out wax. What was she pouring, how was she pouring? “A woman saved my life in this manner when I was already dead”, she said. And why shouldn’t I believe her – all kinds of things can happen in life.

Some time passed. Some of my problems gradually resolved. “Come to me, Sasha, we’ll have a chat.” I was aware by that time that Elena and I were playing a dangerous game. But I wanted to play to the end. This is how Lena began the conversation: “I resolved all your problems for you. Do you understand that? You probably think you did it all yourself. But you can’t do anything by yourself, not even wiggle your finger. Without me you would have perished long ago. All this self-importance of yours. Listen to me. Listen to what you’re told. Why didn’t it occur to you that you would have to pay? Nothing happens just like that. Energy is exchanged for energy. You can’t just receive without giving anything. Money is energy. I took your problems away, now pay me! Otherwise you’ll be in trouble again, there will be plenty of new problems. It will all come back, just ten times worse.” “But I paid you the sum you asked for.” “You mean those pennies? Is your life worth only those pennies? People bring me entire fortunes. Interesting, how much you think your wellbeing is worth? People come to me and say – there you go, Elena Aksoldovna, please accept these 10,000 dollars from us, because our life is so good now. We are so grateful to you. While you are a sad miser. You meant to go and get baptised… you chose the wrong religion. You should go and look for another god. Which one? One that suits you better. Jehovah or Vaala-Baala. Ok, you don’t want to talk – we won’t talk about it then. Never mind, you’re making a dog’s dinner out of it again. Put me in your office. I will check every step you take. And you’ll pay me a share of your income. What, you don’t owe me anything? Do you know what happens to people who turn against me?” It was time to end the game. Game over. I knew that many people had fallen into the trap of Elena Aksoldovna, the woman “with the huge heart” who “brought people light and deliverance from misfortune.” They’d got caught and then toiled for years. The woman “with the huge heart” hadn’t even spared her own brother – when they’d exchanged their flat for another she’d had his registration annulled, with the result that he was now living at the dacha, probably in order to let “more light” into his life.

Who are you, Elena Aksoldovna? How should I treat you? Your negative sides are immediately obvious. You’re greedy, insatiable, spiteful. Elena reminisced about how, back in the 1990s, she used to be commercial director of some pop group, drive a Mercedes and really live off the fat of the land…Later she was pushed out by the mobsters. She would reminisce, and her greedy eyes would shine. How much she wanted to have more of everything, and for everything to take care of itself. And now she’d found her niche. Yet she’d been granted a special gift, and she was incapable of putting it to proper use. Pride and vanity make people delusional – they believe they know a shortcut that will liberate them from the misfortunes and difficulties of life. They announce that they are the only ones to know the truth, that they are the only ones to have been given “special insight from above”. A witch (in Russian, “ved’ma”, from the Slavonic verb “vedat’”, to know) is a woman who practices magic and sorcery.

People have always venerated and feared those with special knowledge and skills, those who could influence the course of things.

Bekhtereva wrote about people who have “evil fire” in them. Kashpirovsky made fun of those who turned to him for help; one could see how much he enjoyed making them sob and wring their hands in front of others. Like a sadist, he became intoxicated by holding boundless power. Elena wasn’t Kashpirovsky. And her abilities were fewer. She wasn’t really a witch, but something about her was witch-like. A person alien to me. How did she end up among my acquaintances? Was I amazed at her insight? And why did I step into that quicksand? It meant we were similar. It meant that adventurism, pride and self-importance were part of my personality, too. Most likely I wanted to accept the challenge and wrestle with her.

I felt sorry for Elena. Such a talented person. A shame that she loved money first and people second. Just like Kashpirovsky. That is why she wasn’t Natalia Bekhtereva. And not even fully human, but a bit of a witch. A rather weak witch for the time being. But with time she’d likely grow stronger, I feared.

I won’t be a hypocrite – in some ways my conversations with Elena were beneficial to me. “Like attracts like”, she used to say. “If you are surrounded by dark people, you can be sure that there is a dark side in you which attracts them.” And another one. “If you think about someone you’re in conflict with, if you argue with them in your mind, that means you’re taking the lead in the tug-of-war. And the response you get depends on how hard you pull. The more you pull, the stronger the resistance. I understood that I needed to change everything. I had to let go of that rope. Forget about it. Stop pulling. Leave in the past all the unclean energy that had come to dominate me. Forget it as you would a bad dream. And forget you, too, Elena Aksoldovna, none-too-skilful witch. Thank you for telling me. And farewell. How many such miserable half-witches, witches and sorcerers are wandering about my country. May they all make their own way. But I’ll begin afresh.

Like attracts like. Why did all these unkind people who were surrounding me in the early 2000s end up near me? It means I was just like them. Perhaps not always and not in all things. Yet I harboured elements of darkness within me. But maybe the reason lay elsewhere. These people lined up behind me and used me as an icebreaker, using my trust… Anyway, Sasha, you must start with yourself. Understanding the problem is the first and hardest step. Every journey begins with the first step. Don’t be afraid of moving forward slowly, but be afraid of standing in one place, as the Chinese saying goes. You need to walk to follow a path. The Lord will not leave us alone in misfortune. I began walking my new path.

Translated from Russian by Josephine von Zitzewitz.

About the author

Sasha Krugosvetov

Sasha Krugosvetov is the pen name of Lev Lapkin, a Russian writer and scientist. Born in 1941, he worked in science research and began to write fiction in the early 2010s. For his books, he was awarded several prizes at the International Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention, “RosCon” (including 2014 Alisa Award for the best children’s fantasy book, 2015 Silver RosCon Award for the best short story book and 2019 Gold RosCon Award for the best novel), the International Adam Mickiewicz Medal (Moscow/Warsaw, 2015) and other prestigious Russian literary awards. He lives in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

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