“Don’t misbehave or the gypsy woman will snatch you” was quite a common way of disciplining unruly kids in public when I was little. In more PC households the gypsy woman would be replaced by an uncle policeman. I don’t recall either variant being used in my family, but I knew that there were nefarious actors out there that could separate you from your loved ones for being bad. In a world without God, the proverbial stranger was the one to be feared the most.
I wasn’t particularly afraid of those archetypal, featureless strangers, probably no kid genuinely was. As children, we craved evidence, juice, gore, and proof. These were the components of our fears and anxieties. A scary story had to be visceral and real to scare anyone past the age of, let’s say, seven. And there was never a shortage of such stories, which all fell into the category of “The world is a dangerous place filled with adults wishing you ill”.
There were stories of “shakers” – guys in trench coats ready to expose themselves in the forest you’d be playing Cops’n’Robbers in. Shakers were relatively harmless beings, always keeping their distance, as fearful as a doe - a more pleasant animal to spot in the forest. I don’t think I ever saw a shaker as a kid, maybe they became more prevalent or noticeable in my teens.
Then there was the organ mafia. Waking up in an ice bath without at least one kidney was a fear instilled in us by older kids and trashy Mexican dramas, where that sort of plot was as common as those revolving around evil twins and bouts of amnesia. Listening to the stories circulating in my classroom, told not just by kids but also by impressionable teachers, I could feel the two (hopefully, still intact) kidneys pulsating, doing their kidney thing inside me.
Other tales of evil doers involved regular thugs, Satan worshipers, serial killers (every kid on the block knew who Chikatilo was) and sadists. There was little paranormal in those stories, as the danger came from men and women of all ages and creeds, not ghosts or aliens. You could choose to believe in otherworldly things but you couldn’t deny the fact that every second grown-up was out there to get you.
Of course, every story suffered from being retold, Chinese Whispers style, recontextualised and localised. There was probably a moniker of truth to each of the stories we shared. The seeds of these stories were found in tabloids, which had dedicated true crime sections, and in suspenseful shows that occupied long blocks on Russian-language channels.
I can only hope that the most absurd, yet most impactful tale of my childhood was complete poppycock. Even if it was, it changed the way I viewed the elderly. Perhaps it is because of this story I still find myself looking at them differently, with a certain level of distrust. Especially if it’s an old lady with a big grocery bag, tacitly, with her look alone, asking passersby to help her take that bag (always opaque, no way of telling what’s inside) up the stairs.
The story featured two girls. Early teens. Sisters or classmates. Maybe one was older and slightly wiser. For added contrast, I’d imagine one as a blonde, and the other as a brunette. The story was set in summer, as summer was a particularly good season for urban horror, simply because way more could happen to you in a world unrestricted by the authoritarian schedule of school.
Here's how the story goes. The two girls spotted an old lady, struggling with a heavy bag. It was market day and the poor woman probably bought enough potatoes and carrots to last her a full week. This was before the ubiquity of convenience stores, in times when going to the market was a serious affair. The girls could easily empathise, as they had many times seen their own grandmothers in a similar predicament. When asked to help, they obliged without a second thought.
The woman lived just a few streets away, in one of those grey Soviet-built apartment blocks that were, and still are, virtually indistinguishable from one another (getting lost in an unknown neighbourhood was a common fear for a reason). It took the girls just five minutes to complete their mission. Or so they thought.
As it so happened, the woman lived on the fifth floor, and five-storey buildings rarely if ever had elevators. It was only natural for the lady to kindly ask the girls to help her on the final leg of her journey home. And it was as natural for the girls to agree, taking turns with the heavy bag that changed hands every flight of stairs. When they reached the faux leather upholstered door, both of the girls looked tired and thirsty.
“A glass of water?” the old woman asked. “That’s the least I can offer you girls”.
The offer was met with polite nods. The woman opened the door, inviting the girls to step inside. Right after the girls stepped over the threshold, the door was shut after them. One of them would never leave that flat again.
In the version of the story that I remember best, and I can assure you I’ve heard it told many different ways, the girls were tackled by the old lady’s grown-up son. In his 40s, the shut-in rarely left the crammy apartment, and his requests provided everything he required. The rather short list of requests included young victims.
The girls were separated, and one of them (the brunette in my imagination) got chained to the towel radiator in the bathroom. Weeping in the dark, she could only guess the fate that had befallen her companion. She didn’t hear any screams or shrieks of pain. Other than the muffled voices of the old lady and her son, the drip-drip-drip of the kitchen faucet, and the persistent hum of kitchen appliances, no outside sounds reached her confinement.
She had no way of telling how much time had passed. A few times, one of the horrific duo would bring her a plate of food. Meat, nothing but meat. Crudely chopped, broiled pieces, unseasoned yet tender, like veal. Deaf to her pleas, they would quickly shut the door, leaving her to gnaw at the meat.
After what must have been a few days, the kitchen noises stopped and the voices of the two captors grew louder. Something broke and the pair bickered about it, blaming one another in the childish way family members argue when no one hears them, and oftentimes even when someone does. The shouting halted as abruptly as it started, and one of the captors opened the bathroom door.
They brought in a huge, heavy contraption, its dimensions matching the size of the old lady’s bag. It was a shiny meat grinder with a long handle attached. Then came two green enameled buckets, covered with lids. Those looked familiar. The girl’s grandmother used to pickle cabbage for her signature shchi soup in a bucket just like that. The lids were lifted to reveal large chunks of meat still clinging to the bone.
The man took a large piece that looked like a leg cut right at the knee, put it in the mouth of the meat grinder, and growled at the girl, numb with fear:
“Grind your friend nicely, it’s almost time for supper!”
That’s basically the whole story. The moral of it was, of course, don’t trust strangers, don’t follow them home, no matter how innocent and frail they look. Years have passed since I heard the story, but I know it’s still living in my head, firing up some synapses every time I see an old lady struggling with her grocery bag (I live near my neighbourhood's outdoor market, so the occasion is quite common). And even when I help one of them, I can’t dismiss the possibility of crossing paths with a cannibal.