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Under the Maddening Roof

Written by carla joy bergman. Art by Jamie-Leigh Gonzales

Baba placed an overflowing bowl of blueberries on the table next to the blue lotus tea as
though she were expecting me. When I asked why she liked blue so much she said,

“Blue is the color of hope. Of healing” 

“I like that.” I said nervously as I picked up a blueberry….

“No way, Clara!”

Jesse interrupted my retelling of the time my auntie met Baba Yaga in a trance-like state. I hated when they did that. I don’t know why this story incited such a response by them.  
“Talk to you later, Jesse.” I said, trying not to sound charged. They had moved on to play with the dog and just grunted at me.

 I decided it was best for me to stop telling them, telling anyone really, and instead write my auntie’s story down once and for all. Maybe this way I could finally finish the telling… Jesse wasn’t the only non-believer after all. I suppose this was part of what auntie Bess wanted me to do: share her wildly unbelievable story through my writing.  

February 1, 2030

Dear reader,

This is a story that was told to me at least a dozen times throughout my life by my auntie Bess (may she rest in love and magic). Any exaggerations or misrepresentations are due to my misremembering. I take full ownership of this rendition of her story. As well, for protection, I do not mention the city where she worked and lived.

It was 1975 and at 28 years old, Bess was just starting her practice as a Midwife. During this time, and well into the 1990s, in many places in North America, midwifery was illegal at worst, or seen as outdated at best. Doctors and the likes enforced these lies and the rhetoric that it was an unsafe practice and women were expected to birth their babies in hospitals. The mistrust of midwifery was palpable and the only women reaching out to Bess were radicals, hippies, unfree women, and witches. 

But Bess didn’t mind. She always said “these are my kind of people”. She didn’t advertise for fear of harassment by the state, so it was all based on word of mouth and a few social spaces where radical women hung out. She had to take on other work to make her rent, mostly because she did a lot of her work through a gift economy, or in solidarity with folks who couldn’t pay, or undocumented folks. But she didn't mind too much about that either, better than living at home with her abusive father and doped up mother. She felt solid about her path, even though it was rugged and filled with precarity. There was beauty everywhere, and she had community and love. And she was the bravest woman I had ever known.  

Auntie Bess was my aunt through marriage (although long divorced) so she was the only Russian relative I had, and she was full of stories and myths from her homeland. At times it was hard to tell which ones were make-believe tall tales and which ones were hers or her kin’s lived experiences (if she were here right now she’d laugh at that line and tell me,
“everything is both, always, dear Clara!”). I loved going to her place, especially when I was a young teen in the late 90s. But I continued to visit well into the 2000s; her place was home for me, where I felt held, and seen. We sipped blue lotus tea, and ate foods from her homeland. We would sit cuddled up together on her big ancient couch, while Kate Bush sang about the land and witches in the background, Bess would weave together stories about her life, folklore, and wild histories into beautiful tapestries — mostly to satisfy my keen, (sometimes insatiable) curious mind. Even though she and her home was a kind of social space for her billowing community, she always created a sacred space for the two of us. I didn’t know at the time how special and generous this was…  Bess’ house was a mix of serene and wildly bohemian. It was ordained with strange and exciting talismans everywhere you looked, large prints of wild art by her favorite artist, Hilma af Klint, and always smelled of cloves and cinnamon, verging on pungent, yet welcoming. But most impressive was that she had this long hallway wall with thousands of thank you cards and photos of parents with their newborn babies. I would spend hours reading them, and imagining who these babies were… Bess never had kids of her own. I wasn’t sure if she ever had lovers or companions that moved beyond platonic love. She was this wild alchemy of mystery and boldly open, kinda like her home. I think her love affair was with the cosmos, or in another timeline. She had this deep melancholy behind her eyes, a longing. And so I always imagined her off in another time, walking through portals that only she could see, caught in the astral stream (she didn’t think it was a plane!). She transitioned completely out of this timeline in 2024 at the age of 77. I miss her every day, but I know she’s free.  

But back to the story of Bess meeting Baba Yaga.

It was the early 90s and Bess was busier those days because of the growth of harmful policies under neoliberalism. The ongoing centralizing of health within the medical industrial complex, and alongside a patriarchal backlash against feminism, was affecting women's health in terrible, often deadly ways. Over the years, she was instrumental in growing a dynamic, larger, multigenerational, diverse community and together with her community support, she was providing care beyond supporting bringing babies into the world.   

One of the many services she and others offered was helping people transition into death with dignity. Today we might call her a death doula. For centuries Midwives tended to all areas of life, not only the birth of a child, and she was keen on bringing that back to the fore. A lot of this opening up of what a Midwife could be and do was placing her under attack, and she was becoming increasingly scared for her safety. In a neighboring state, a friend and fellow Midwife was surveilled by an undercover FBI agent and arrested. The state was clamping down hard on Midwifery.  

These harmful policies and antiquated regulations only increased Bess’ commitment to creating another more dignified and safe pathway for women and girls. So, along with a few other folks, she created a sanctuary for women who were facing various hardships, and part of what they offered was supporting unfree girls and women with a way to abort an unwanted pregnancy. This last part was the crux of the threats she was beginning to receive. Feeling scared for her life, she began thinking she’d flee to another country or go way underground and move to the countryside, but she was also angry that she might have to leave her beloved community, all because of the fear of a few men.

Bess’ fear hit an apex when someone made a scandalous cartoon of her and posted it all around the city. The image portrayed Bess, but appearing more “evil”, like the kind of images you would see of an old-looking witch who ate kids. (The drawing was for sure Bess because she had signature long dark brown and frizzy hair that she wore in two long braids). In the image there was also a drawing of a baby skull on a staff outside a scary old house. The graphic had big bold letters that said:  


This was of course emblematic of a larger issue about patriarchies' hold on how women can behave and engage in life, and their lack of bodily autonomy amidst these suffocating policies. And Bess was enraged, and scared. But it fueled a fire beneath her to do more.  

Sidenote: Of course, if you are reading this now, you know that, over time, we saw the pendulum swing. Midwifery became fairly mainstream in many places, institutionalized in fact, but the pendulum never swung far enough to knock off patriarchies' hold over women. And in fact, into the 2020s things became even more dire for women and gender nonconforming folks, especially BIPOC folks, which is where the clamp down on Midwifery first began in the early 1900s. The first rush of criminalizing women was the preventing of Black women from tending to the births in their community, cutting them off from offering direct care to their people, and this was ongoing from the early 1900s well into the 2000s.  

During the time of increased FBI infiltration, criminalization, and fear tactics in the1990s, some Midwives remained rogue, trained, but not part of the centralized system of the state, and that’s where Bess remained at this time.

During the early 90s and amidst the ongoing attacks against her, Bess began gathering with a few close friends to figure out how they could push against the growing hatred towards women and the ways that their basic freedoms to make decisions about their bodies continued to be targeted. One of Bess’ friends was a bona fide witch and she suggested they create a spell that could undo patriarchies' hold. Bess wasn’t against this idea, but she was very practical and wanted to spend her time creating safer ways for women to get the care they needed, and to get that care now. She encouraged her friends to continue to meet at her place, work on spells, use her plethora of herbs and tinctures, and do whatever else they came up with. She popped in and out, but mostly started to spend time alone to talk to spirits — or what she called her star family — the Midwives who she weaved time with. And, It was during one of these conversations that she found herself sitting at a table in an old cottage in a forest… where it felt familiar, kind of what she imagined when told a children's story from her homeland. The language was also familiar, that of her childhood days in parts of Ukraine and Russia, and the room was filled with an aroma of cloves and citrus, also familiar.  

Below is Bess’ telling of the story (as best as I can, some of it was luckily written down by Bess).

At first I wasn’t sure where I was. But I felt safe. I wondered if I was dreaming, so I did some of the typical tricks, pinched myself, ouch! Turned on a light (there were no lights, just candles), Tried to smell, and I immediately could smell a mix of cloves and citrus…  I was pretty sure I wasn’t dreaming, and as I continued trying to figure it out, and deep in thought, this sweet older woman was looking at me with a smile on her face. She spoke in my mother’s tongue. I thought for a moment that she was an ancestor…  she came closer and said:

“Would you like some blue lotus tea?”

I just nodded yes. She had served me some blueberries and I asked her about the color blue… (Apparently I am fluent in my mother’s tongue in this space.)

She said she was expecting me because she watches the other Ember Keepers. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I felt that maybe we talked before during one of my times talking with my star family. As she prepared our tea, I noticed that there was a scary looking mask hanging on a hook. It reminded me of the face of Baba Yaga from the children's book my mom read to me. There were all the signs of a healer everywhere I looked, a rich aroma of tinctures and herbs began to fill the room… I started to get goosebumps. Was I with a descendant of Baba Yaga? Where was I? As she walked towards me I decided to ask.

“Where am I exactly? Or should I ask, when am I?” I tried to sound humorous and light, but my voice was shaking.  

She put down the tea, and placed her hand gently on my shoulder and just smiled. I began to feel very safe.

After a few minutes she sat down and began to talk.

Hi Bess. I am so impressed with your love for your people and the care you give so generously to those in need. My name, or the time I am in doesn't really matter, what matters is that you are part of a long genealogy of healers, of Midwives, who are called the Ember Keepers. Now, you’re probably thinking that you never joined such a group. But it doesn't work that way… it’s your, hmm… how can I say this to make sense? Well I suppose it’s your destiny to be part of the Ember Keepers. Does that make sense?

I just nodded and whispered, “I…I think so…”

Let me explain some more and maybe that will help you feel more certain. Over the past two thousand years (or more in some places), the rulers of our societies have tried to control certain bodies, and their autonomy, by enforcing strict and violent rules upon them. And when those rules were broken, these “rule breakers” —  mostly women in my time — were banished or killed. I was banished. In part, because my healing powers scared them and they were worried that if they killed me I might haunt them and their families. I created some of the lore around me that made them think that. And they also created some stories to attempt to keep those in need away from me, by saying things like I kill babies, etcetera. Of course, all I actually did was help women and girls (and anyone, really) in need of support. From birth support, to cleaning a boil, to sitting with someone as they passed away. I had a desire to end suffering and I had a penchant for understanding herbs and healing modalities. That was all. But it was seen as too much power. Doctors (which were all men in my time) hated and feared me because many of the people in the village trusted me more. And so they started to tell lies about me, and to paint a picture of me as someone who stole women away from their husbands or fathers, killed babies, and put their bones up on staff in my yard.  

I must have looked like I had seen a ghost. I felt dizzy, but wanted to hear more, so I said
“Is that when you came here, to the forest?”

Yes. I have had times when I felt lonely living deep in this forest, but the truth is, people, especially women, still need my help and seek me out. I don’t fly around in a cauldron, and I don’t put spells on people or animals — and, while I like to have fun, I always try to do no harm.   

Bess, the stories our enemies tell about us cause pain and fear, and can undermine us. I know you are hurting and scared. I suppose all I want you to remember from this visit is:

 you are not alone, what you do matters! AND please keep the embers burning!


And Bess, find more women to do this work with, there’s so much more to do… 

I picked up my tea and closed my eyes, the aroma of the blue lotus tea overcame me, and as her words surrounded me like a cozy fog, questions began to rush in; I had so many questions for this incredible woman, who I believed to be Baba Yaga… but when I opened my eyes I was back at my home with my tea in my hands, and a candle flickering...


Every time auntie Bess told me this story I'd say: Is Emma Goldman an Ember Keeper? Who else? bell hooks? (and I would continue to name names. Including less known names of folks who provided concrete care… ).  She’d always respond with a belly laugh and a deep hug.

After Bess’ time with Baba she had a deepening resolve to help even more folks. So, with Imani, the other Midwife in her community, they started a training center for BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ folks to become doulas and work towards becoming Midwives if they chose to.


The entrance into the center had the words of Baba up in bold lettering:

You are not alone, what you do matters!  

During this time, Bess saw that she could do more to break open midwifery in her community for more folks if she succumbed to the state's requirements and received a license to practice midwifery legally. She never regretted that decision and she always said it was because of her times with Ember Keepers, and in particular Baba Yaga. But she also did it because she wanted to stoke the fire and move beyond being an ember, to instead help light many torches in her time.  

Bess and Imani called their training center The Blue Embers, and after Bess left this timeline, Imani decided to pass on her torch to a younger generation of Midwives, and moved to the countryside. I am not sure how the Blue Embers is doing these days, but I do know that women and gender nonconforming folks have more freedoms than ever before. I would like to think that my auntie Bess’ embers (and Imani’s) helped spread the flames of change.  



PS isn’t it neat how the word remember has ember in it?


(written for Baba Yaga: Healer, Seer, Witch zine by Dani Burlison & Alyssa Rose)

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