Making Friends With Monsters: An Afternoon With Auntie Yaga

(At long last, the first installment of “Auntie Yaga’s Home For Wayward Monsters” is completed and ready to be shared.  I think I even tracked down all of the typoes, which of course means there are egregious ones hiding in plain site.  I hope you like it!)

A magazine page. At the top, a photo of a middle-aged woman with greying dark hair, sitting on a mildly worn clawfoot couch. She is somewhat heavy-set, dressed in a long batik-printed skirt and lightweight sage colored sweater, and is looking down at the floor toward her left boot.  The room is a typical old New England farmhouse; exposed beams and scuffed wooden floor covered with a large, multi-colored braided rug, modern pellet stove set into the old brick fireplace, floral print curtains that offset the faded blue-grey painted walls.  It’s a comfortable looking room, at first glance.

The lighting is somewhat dim, and the longer you look, the more you begin to notice that things aren’t quite what you initially thought.  The far corner beside the built-in bookcase has oddly distorted shadows, and something in the back of your mind nervously whispers that it is occupied, though you can see nothing definable.  The points of light on the evening-darkened window panes that you had dismissed as lamplight reflections look unnervingly like eyes looking back at you the more you look at them.  Your gaze is drawn back to the woman on the couch, or rather, to the shadows beneath it.

They are too thick for the amount of light in the room and as you try to see into them the darkness begins to resolve into something that sends a chill down your spine.  Deep in the shadow, you can just make out a pair of eyes shining a deep red and, worse, the faint glitter of too many barely concealed needle-sharp teeth.  An unnaturally long-fingered hand the color of lampblack and ending in stiletto-like claws is reaching out from underneath that couch and rests lightly on the woman’s foot and ankle, at which she is smiling fondly.  The scene is, overall, a blend of homey tranquility and deeply unsettling shadows in perfect balance with one another.  Something about it makes you sure that there are no camera or clever editing tricks involved.

Below the photo, in bold, black font, the headline reads:

Making Friends With Monsters: An Afternoon With Auntie Yaga, The Woman Behind The World’s Only Monster Outreach Program.written by R. Morganson

{Disclaimer: I’ll be straight; when I first set out to do this interview, I honestly thought that the whole thing was some kind of immersive performance art or something along those lines.  I was not expecting to find it to be exactly what it was presented as being. ~RM}

It was late in the September afternoon when I arrived at the entrance to Auntie Yaga’s Home For Wayward Monsters.  I had more than half expected it would be a grand and spooky Victorian mansion, perhaps with an ominous wrought iron gate covered in a bat motif, so it was  pleasant surprise to find a perfectly ordinary New England farmhouse, complete with a picturesque old horse pond in the large front yard and fenced around with neatly maintained fieldstone walls.  There was no gate at all, in fact, just a modest sign proclaiming the name of the organization, beneath which were hung two smaller signs.  The first stated that visitors are welcome by appointment only, the second that one should “Beware of Graswolves”.  The house itself was set back roughly an acre from the road, behind which the land slopes down toward the neighboring conservation forest.

There was a middle-aged woman sitting on a wooden patio chair on the wrap-around porch as I pulled up in front of the white and black-trimmed house.  Like the house, she looked nothing like my expectations. I was beginning to get the feeling that this was something I should get used to.  As I got out of my car, she came down the wide porch steps to meet me, and I got my first full look at the woman known as Auntie Yaga.

She’s about average height and looks to be in her mid-40s, with grey-green eyes and long grey-streaked dark hair that she was wearing pulled back into a simple braid.  She was dressed simply in an ankle length batik-printed skirt, lightweight sage green sweater, and laced-up brown boots.  What little jewelry she wore was equally simple.

“Not what you were picturing, huh” she said by way of greeting.  Sheepishly, I acknowledged that this was true.  She laughed, a warm, friendly sound.  “Don’t worry.  Almost everyone has the same thought the first time they come here.  It’s partly intentional” she explained.  “Since the majority of our residents tend to be a bit…intimidating…Glatis and I decided that it was best to make the rest of surroundings as comfortable and calming as we could.”

“Glatis is the co-founder, right?”  I asked as we walked up the stairs.

“He is.  He’s what we refer to as a Lurk.  He was originally the not-so-proverbial monster under the bed when I was young, but I got tired of being on the menu one day and decided to try and make friends with him.  It surprised him so much that it actually worked.  A couple of decades later, here we are, running a business together!” she laughed.

We were now at the front door, but instead of opening it, she stopped and her demeanor became very serious.

“Before I open this door, I need to ask you to be sure that you are okay with this interview being done the way you requested when we spoke on the phone.  If you aren’t, that’s fine, and we can stay out here on the porch, or we can reschedule and meet someplace that you feel more comfortable.  There’s no shame or judgment if you’ve changed your mind and would prefer not to.”

I told her that I was fine. (I was sure this was performance art, and I live for haunted houses at Halloween and all that, and so was eager to see what would happen when we got inside.  I was wildly incorrect in my assumptions.)  She looked at me appraisingly, with a hint of amusement, for a moment, then shrugged, opened the door, and went in.

How to describe that first moment inside the house?  Visually it is pure, cozy, New England charm; all wood accenting and warm, comfortable looking furnishings, the faint smell of freshly baked bread and dried lavender scenting the air.  It is the epitome of welcoming tranquility, and I was completely unprepared for the oppressive and almost overwhelming sense that something very, very dangerous was watching me from far too close by as soon as the door closed behind me.  Something was breathing, a soft, rasping sound that I hadn’t heard since childhood and had long-since forgotten, and I froze in panic.  I could feel my chest tightening as I instinctively started to hold my breath so as not to let the thing know I was there.  As I did so, I saw the large, misshapen figures in the too-solid shadows of the hallway and behind the doors.  A flicker of motion in the corner of my eye caught my attention, and as my eyes darted to look at it, an all-too-real tail of black fog slithered past the doorway of a room to my right. I felt my hands and feet flash cold with fear and go numb.  Every instinct was telling me to run screaming, and I started to wonder if I had made a terrible mistake in coming to this house alone.  I felt like I was a little kid again, afraid of the shadows in the closet and begging my parents to leave the light on because Something Was In There.

Just when I thought I couldn’t control the urge to run, I heard Auntie Yaga say to no one that I could see “That’s enough, I think. I don’t think he’s quite as ready to see you all fully as he thought he was, and we do want him to actually like us, after all.  Thank you.”

Immediately, the shadowed figures receded, the feeling of being watched faded to almost, but not quite, nothing, and I was left feeling more than a little shaky.  It had only been seconds, but I felt like I had just run a marathon, and was exhausted.

“Looks like you’re a bit less prepared than you thought you’d be,” she said, handing me a warm mug of tea.  “Chamomile and mint, with a little bit of meadowfoam honey.  It tastes like marshmallows, a bit, and it’ll help your nerves.”  I’m not ashamed to admit that I was deeply grateful for that tea and swallowed almost half of it in one go.  She was right, it tasted like apples and marshmallows, and I felt better for its sweetness.

“What was that?” I asked, my voice only shaking a little as I shoved the voice that was still gibbering about the shapes in the shadows into the back of my mind.  It could freak out later. Right now, I had an interview to conduct.

“That, my dear, was a couple of million years of evolution informing you that several large predators that you couldn’t see or hear were standing near you, staring, reminding you that you are not the apex predator civilization has told you you are.  Congratulations!  You have a healthy survival instinct!  Surprising, given your decision to go into journalism”, she replied, her tone light and teasing on that last part.

Despite myself I laughed at that and, in doing so, felt almost normal again.

“Now, if you’re feeling better, shall we move out of the entryway and into the living room where the chairs are much more comfortable, and get to this interview you came here after?”

I followed her through a doorway into the next room, and sat in the chair she indicated.  I glanced around nervously, expecting more too-solid shadows, but it was a perfectly pleasant, unoccupied room, as far as I could tell.  I took out my recorder, took a deep breath and another sip of tea, and started recording.

So, the monsters under the bed are, in fact, real and your business partner is actually one of them.  Isn’t this dangerous?”

That’s not really the question you wanted to ask, is it?  No, now that you’ve discovered that this isn’t the Halloween Haunted House attraction that you assumed it was, nor am I just some crazy lady in the woods making up wild stories for attention, what you really want to know is if this is all a set-up for some horror movie-esque deal where I turn out to be a villain who unleashes a horde of mindless, ravenous beasts on the world.

The answer is yes, it is dangerous, but no more so than it is for folks who work with, say, wolves or sharks.  They’re monsters, true, but no, they are not mindless, and we have no plans to terrorize small towns in the night.  Our goal is simply to facilitate a better understanding between our various species for those who wish to learn other ways to coexist.

“My apologies.  I made assumptions I shouldn’t have, and that was rude.  So, how does this work? How did you decide to start a boarding house and outreach program for the monsters of childhood?”

In order to answer that, you need to know a few things;  First, the world really is much larger and a whole lot weirder than our “civilized” society has conditioned us to believe it is.  Yes, monsters are real, and yes, they do hunt us and eat us, if they can catch us.  Second, they are just as intelligent as you or I.  They are not the mindless beasts that horror movies have led us to believe them to be.  Third, that most of the types of monsters who come here don’t typically eat humans.  It’s not unheard of, mind you, but it’s not as common as people think.  What they do eat, is fear.  This is important to know because I was one of those kids who was afraid of pretty much everything in existence.  Don’t laugh!  I’m not kidding.  Scooby-do cartoons were too scary and gave me nightmares.  It was ridiculous.

As a result, I had the dubious honor of attracting more than one monster to the feast, as it were.  Glatis, who took up residence under my bed, and another Lurk who generally hung out in the closet or behind the doors, primarily, but I’d also regularly encounter others outside of our house.  It was exhausting.  Eventually, though, I got mad about it, and informed Glatis that I wanted to make a deal with him.  I’d done the math, and decided that he lived closer, thus the biggest threat, and so the one that I needed to win over to my cause.  He agreed to my offer.  I think he was so caught off guard that he agreed out of confusion, but he’ll never admit it.  After a while, he decided I was sort of adorable and ended up becoming my guardian monster.  Usually they move on once we start believing the adults that there’s nothing in the dark to be afraid of, since we’re no longer good food sources, but by that point we’d gotten attached to one another and he decided to stay around.

“You said that his kind of monster eats fear.  If you weren’t afraid of him, dare I ask what he was doing about meals?”

Who was he feeding off of, you mean?  Children can be cruel by nature, and a strange, solitary girl who claims to be friends with monsters has no shortage of bullies, nor does she see a problem with having those bullies learn to be afraid to torment her.  It’s a bit brutal, but let’s face it, kids are feral little creatures before we get civilization trained into us and child culture is a fascinating study in human development. Now? There’s still no shortage of terrible people who like to harm others, and fear is fear.

Before you ask, no, they were not feeding on you a few minutes ago.  The ones you encountered are all long-term residents of the Home, and the rules of hospitality are that friends are not food, after all.

“I have nieces and nephews.  I can see your point about little kids and the casual cruelty. Also, I appreciate not being on the lunch menu!  You had originally started the outreach program during college.  How did that happen?”

By accident, really.  It turns out that college campuses have an astonishing number of scared people on them, and so Lurks and other types of monsters are attracted to them.  It also turns out that folklore majors are less likely to freak out than most when they stumble across you outside in your bunny slippers, in the middle of the night, explaining to a monster why it needs to leave your roommate alone, regardless of how her anxiety disorder made her the equivalent of a walking plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.  The Lurk was curious about the human who was under the protection of one of her kind and not afraid, and the other student was desperate to know more about the monsters, and somehow I found myself explaining each of them to the other, and me, and Glatis (who was also standing there, rolling his eyes), at 3 in the morning on the lawn.  It ended up not being the last time.

“Why folklore majors?”

Most already want folklore and fairy tales to be true, so it’s exciting when reality obliges and presents you with an honest-to-Grimm monster straight out of childhood nightmares.  Instinct makes you react like, well, much like you did, but they’re more likely to have their innate curiosity override it significantly faster than other people.

“What does a typical day look like here? I’m guessing it looks quite a bit different than it does elsewhere.”

To an extent, it’s not as different from a normal house as you would think. It starts a bit later than most, due to the majority of the residents being nocturnal, but that’s about it.  Get up, have coffee, take the Runalongs out for their daily run (there’s an old highway nearby that doesn’t get used much since the new one was put in a few decades back that’s good to take them down without causing accidents).  Come back, deal with any paperwork that needs attention, and the rest is mostly spent being available for the residents or host families, and dealing with any issues that may come up.

“Host families?”

Humans who wish to sponsor a resident who is interested in staying with other human families in a guardianship capacity.  Glatis and I accidentally became a kind of ambassadorial template for human/monster interactions spanning both communities.  There have always been a small percentage of monsters who are more inclined to view humans as something other than a mere food source, as well as humans whose fear of monsters is tempered by their curiosity about them.  We provide a way for both groups to interact with one another in a way that’s safe for each of them.  Most of the time, it’s a temporary arrangement, and our residents return here before going to stay with other families or exploring other options on engaging with humans.  It’s also not unheard of for a monster and a family to adopt one another, and the monster takes on the role of generational guardianship.  There are issues with integration, from time to time, but we have a fairly rigorous vetting process to minimize the chances of these occurring.

“One last question before we finish.   On the way in, the sign says “Beware of Graswolves”.  What is a “graswolf”?”

Graswolves are a subspecies of feldgeister.  They originated in central Europe, and live and hunt in fields with tall grass. Their cousins, kornwolves, are the real reason why people are afraid of cornfields, despite what a number of people on the Internet think.  There’s a small pack that lives on the property that ensures we don’t get trespassers. They’re smart enough to differentiate between guests, curiosity seekers, and actual threats, so they make an excellent security system.

                                                                               * * * * * * * * * *

After we wrapped up the formal part of the interview, Auntie Yaga allowed me to investigate the entry hall for theatrical tricks to try and explain what had happened when I had first arrived, and I found nothing.  I’d been too shaken up to remember to do it, initially, but as I could see the hall from where I’d sat, it was clear that no one could have tampered with the room during the interview without being seen.  Once I completed my search, I had the amazing opportunity to actually meet the co-founder, Glatis, and take photos with the residents that I had encountered on my arrival.  This second encounter was much easier on the second introduction, as I was more prepared and also allowed the introduction to follow the standard protocols, which I had originally, in my hubris, insisted be waived.

I could write entire novels about the rest of my experiences at Auntie Yaga’s Home For Wayward Monsters, but those are tales for another day.  If you have the opportunity to do so, however, I highly recommend taking the chance to meet them, and perhaps even sponsor a resident.

(Originally posted on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/riversdaughter.)

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