On Saturdays, smoke drifts over the village. The banyas are being heated. The bitter haze, from birch or aspen, floats everywhere. The old folks have the black banyas, the ones without a chimney and just a pile of stones in the middle, to serve as a stove that’s heated until the stones glow red, and you mustn’t go in then because the air’s so bad you can’t even breathe. Then they open it up, but the fumes stick around so the darn place is like a smoke-house. They get going bright and early, and that’s the only way to do it. There’s a teensy little window, so you can’t see a thing in there, not even in broad daylight.
The oldest in the family – which would be granddad or even great-granddad – always gets to enjoy the first steam. And when mystical, magical Ivan Kupala Day is coming up, in early June, he’ll gather herbs to dry too, muttering his spells over them. He’ll collect potentilla root, rowanberry leaves, cocklebur, the sticky catchfly that makes your fingers all gummy, and angelica root that’s sweetish to the taste, so for sharpness he’ll grind some juniper needles in a pestle. The women do their bit as well, for the hair-washing part of it, collecting soapwort, whose pale, whitish little flowers sort of lather when you rub them between your fingers. In the villages, people use potash to wash their hair, by sifting out the ashes and boiling up what’s left. And there’s your shampoo, there’s your soap. As for rinsing, well, it varies – some like to steep a birch-twig switch in the rinse water, others prefer oak. But everyone steams with burdock, because no one has ever found anything better than burdock, better than its soft leaves and beetroot-colored burrs. It’s all floated in a basin, and the pale water turns brownish. And the fibrous bark is torn off linden trees and plaited, and that takes some tearing, believe you me. But then again, the work makes you sweat like mad, which is a load off the body…
The steaming is a lengthy process. Before his first steam, granddad, with a towel wound around his hips, goes in for a moment, squinting from the fumes, to splash some strong home-brewed beer from a wooden scoop onto the stones. That sends a hearty, yeasty, heady aroma all through the banya… In the dressing room, the women are setting out the clean linens, stacking them in even piles – this one pa’s, that one grandpa’s. Clean underpants and outer pants, side-collar shirts… Before going in, everyone wearing a cross takes it off so as not to get burned, wrapping it in a scrap of cloth and putting it somewhere special.
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