At the unassuming corner of Sheppard and Wilson Heights, in a ground-floor unit of a new condominium, is an establishment with the curious name of Speleocenter Harmony. It is here that one can find Nateliya Frolova, self-described as "The Human X-Ray." Born in Ukraine, Ms. Frolova is one of an untold number of Russian paranormal practitioners in Toronto. Like all other mystics who ply their gnomic trade in the city, Ms. Frolova holds no licence, and, like the others, she also deals in fates and fortunes. But what distinguishes Ms. Frolova and many of her Russian counterparts from the regular Western clairvoyants are the Russians' claims to supernatural healing abilities.
For instance, there is Madame Barinova, who purports to cure cancer by manipulating her patients' auras; there is the stern-faced Madame Aida, known from her ubiquitous, full-page ads in the Russian press, who specializes in warding off hexes - particularly those of the medical and financial persuasion; and there are various others who profess to wield uncommon powers, and who are frequently consulted by members of the city's Russian community. These faith healers' existence points to another failure of the great Communist experiment: not 20 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, superstition and religion are as resurgent as materialism in the lands of the former Soviet Union. Russia is, after all, the country that recently opened a government ministry to test and certify its faith healers.
Enter Ms. Frolova. Much about her runs counter to the stereotypes of her particular occupation. To begin with, Speleocenter Harmony offers no outward signs of being the address of someone who traffics in the dark arts. Its reception area is clinically white and brightly illuminated. On one wall are displayed jars and tablets of exotic salts - from the Dead Sea, the Himalayas, and Soltovino, a Ukrainian salt-mining town. Mounted from the ceiling is a flat-screen television that broadcasts grainy surveillance images of a room that resembles a big sandbox. And if one arrives after a certain hour, one is likely to be greeted by a gaunt, intellectual-looking man, wearing blue, disposable, surgical overshoes. This man is Alexandr Usatenko, Ms. Frolova's husband - by day a federal government employee; by night, an attendant at the Speleocenter. Ms. Frolova herself works out of a clean, sparsely furnished office just to the right of the salt display.
A door opens onto a room containing a dark-brown leather couch with two matching armchairs - of the generically stylish variety one encounters in the home-decor aisle at Costco; between the armchairs is a square coffee table; and on the walls are gilded icons, framed diplomas, and three old Russian handbills of some vaguely religious derivation. One sees no candles, crystal balls, or other conventional implements of the trade - only one single laminated page on the coffee table depicting a group of tarot-like figures. Then there is Ms. Frolova herself. Whereas other Russian mediums cultivate an image that blends sultry, truculent and secretive - as if they might just as easily spank you as tell your fortune - Ms. Frolova is their antithesis. Plump, apple-cheeked, with small twinkling eyes behind large eyeglasses, she could be mistaken for a kindergarten teacher or some jolly peasant maid in a Russian children's tale.
Ms. Frolova, who believes herself to have inherited her powers, was always conscious that she was different from other people. Her grandmother, a renowned faith healer, drew patients to her home from every corner of the Soviet Union. "I could study the geography of the country," Ms. Frolova says, "by the licence plates of the cars." When she was still a little girl, she remembers seeing a man with a fishing rod walking in the direction of the river. She said, "Uncle Vasya, don't go fishing, or you will drown." Uncle Vasya ignored her. He drowned.
"Towards ones like me, people behave in two ways," Ms. Frolova laments in her clear girlish voice, "when people are in trouble, they come to you; but when there is no trouble, people keep their distance." Growing up, she suffered from this ostracism. She wished to be like everyone else. Attending parties at the House of Culture, she waited in vain for the boys to ask her to dance.
When Ms. Frolova was fifteen, she started to see people's internal organs. Suddenly, one day, as she was walking down a pedestrian thoroughfare, the people before her became transparent, with all their organs exposed. "Can you imagine how terrible this was?" she asks. "Anecdotally, this might sound fascinating, but for me it was terrible."
A period of rebellion followed. Ms. Frolova tried to deny her powers and distance herself from her family. She went to medical school, but flunked out after a bizarre incident involving a stethoscope: Absentmindedly, she diagnosed a patient without putting the device in her ears. Not long after that, she accepted her calling.
Ms. Frolova and Alexandr have been in Canada for seven years. He has acquired English; she has not. Before they settled in Toronto, they lived for three years in Montreal. They arrived with some means and were able to open the Speleocenter. The "speleo" in Speleocenter alludes to the room they have converted into a peculiar sort of cave.
It is this room that is seen in the infrared video surveillance. Its ceiling, walls, and floor are entirely covered in salt, and it is meant to mimic the conditions in a naturally occurring salt cavern - whose atmosphere is believed to be beneficial to people suffering from respiratory diseases. Part of Ms. Frolova's time is dedicated to overseeing the salt cavern - for instance, she blesses all the salt - the remainder of her time she reserves for her other work.
When Ms. Frolova arrived in Canada, she had already firmly established her mystical credentials. In Ukraine, she had run a school where she taught people how to develop extra-sensory powers.
In 1993, she published her first book on folk medicine. On the strength of this reputation, she still receives requests from abroad.
People send photographs of themselves and their loved ones for her to analyze and treat. Her local clients also bring images of estranged or ailing family members. Occasionally, they bring water, over which Ms. Frolova casts spells. This water, infused with therapeutic properties, is then administered to the sick. There are people who come to her because they suspect that they have fallen prey to the evil eye. Ms. Frolova treats them by cleansing their auras - a procedure which involves her standing at her patients' backs, intoning Christian prayers, and hurling their negative energy into a virtual bonfire at her feet. Three such sessions - not two and not four - are required to deliver a client from the evil eye. A session costs $100. A different procedure is used for the elimination of hexes.
Though Ms. Frolova believes herself to have attained a considerable level of mastery over her craft, there are still aspects of it that remain enigmatic even to her. She can diagnose and treat a person from a photograph, but she cannot do so from a computer printout or from an image on a cell phone. A further mystery is why she inherited powers while her mother did not, and why her sister's powers extend only to animals. (Her sister remains in the Ukraine where she treats livestock. When someone puts the evil eye on a cow, her sister makes it so that the cow can produce milk again.) But perhaps the greatest mystery is why she can neither diagnose nor heal cancer. "I can see a tumour," Ms. Frolova demures, "but I cannot tell if it is malignant or benign. I don't know why. It's a shame."