Home > Spinning Silver(10)

Spinning Silver(10)
Author: Naomi Novik

So we knew that the Staryk had not given us a purse of silver to be kind. I couldn’t think why they had left it, yet there it was on our table, shining like a message we couldn’t understand. And then my mother drew a sharp breath and looked at me and said, low, “They want you to turn it into gold.”

My father sat down at the table and covered his face, but I knew it was my own fault, talking in the deep woods, in a sleigh driving over the snow, about turning silver to gold. The Staryk always wanted gold.

“We’ll take the money from the vault,” my mother said. “At least we have it.”

What I said was, “I’ll go back to the city tomorrow.” But I went outside and stood in the yard of our house on the fresh-fallen snow with my hands squeezed into fists. The crust was already frozen hard and solid: it would make for good traveling, fast traveling. There were six silver coins in the bag, and I had put fourteen gold coins away, just this last visit. I could hire Oleg’s sleigh and drive back to Vysnia and take six gold coins out of my grandfather’s bank vault and give them to the Staryk, six gold coins I had worked for, and use them to buy my safety.

Wanda came out in her shawl, to go and feed the new goat we had brought home from market. Sergey hadn’t come, of course, in the storm, and it was late for her to walk home now. She looked at me and silently went into the barn, and when she came back out, she asked me abruptly, “Will you give them your gold?”

“No,” I said, speaking as much to the Staryk in the forest as to her. “No, I won’t give them a thing. They want silver turned to gold, so that’s what I’ll do.”

Chapter 6

The next morning, Miryem took the Staryk’s purse and went to Oleg’s house and asked him to take her back to Vysnia. She did not ask me to keep the books. She did not even remind me to go get the payments. Her mother saw her off at the gate and stood there a long time, holding her shawl around her shoulders, even after the sleigh was gone.

But I did not need to be reminded. I took the basket and went on my rounds. It was the sixth day of the month, so I was collecting in town today. Nobody liked to see me coming, but Kajus always smiled at me anyway, like we were friendly, even though we were not. When I had first begun to work for Miryem, he would always pay in jugs of krupnik. Miryem did not like that, because he sold the same krupnik in the market every week, hot from a kettle in winter, and everyone would buy it from him and not her. She had found a guesthouse down the road where they would buy it, when she had ten jugs to sell, but that was more trouble than she liked, and she had to pay to send it to them.

But then he had given me a bad bottle, which looked all right from the outside, but Miryem sniffed the top near the seal, and then she opened it, and a smell like rotten leaves came out. She looked at it with an angry mouth, but then she told me to put the bottle apart from the rest, in a corner of the house, and say nothing to him. He gave me two more bad bottles in a row, the next two months. After the third one, she gave me all three corks and sent me back with them to tell him three times was too many to go bad, and she would not take any more krupnik from him in payment. So now he had to pay in pennies. That time, he did not smile at me.

But today he smiled. “Come in and keep warm!” he said, although it was not so very cold anymore today. “You will have to wait a little while. My oldest boy has gone to take Panova Lyudmila my new batch. He will bring back the money.” He even gave me a glass of krupnik to drink. Usually he had the money waiting, so he would not need to invite me in at all. “So Miryem is going back to Vysnia for more dresses? She is doing a good business! And she is lucky to have you here at home to mind the store for her.”

“Thank you,” I said politely, putting down the glass. “It is good krupnik.” I wondered if he meant to try and bribe me to take less. Some other people had tried. I did not understand why they thought I would do it. If I took less back to Miryem, and lied and told her they had no more, she would put down the smaller number in her book, and they would keep owing whatever they hadn’t paid. It would only save them money if they meant to say that I had stolen the money when the time came to claim their debt was paid, and why shouldn’t they cheat me, if I had helped them cheat.

“Yes, she knows what she is about,” Kajus continued. “Trust her to find a hardworking girl to help her. You aren’t just a pretty face! Ah, here is Lukas.”

His son came back into the house, with a box of empty jugs. He was a little older than Sergey, not as tall as him or me, but his face was round, and there was meat on his bones. He did not go hungry. He looked at me, up and down, and his father said, “Lukas, give her seven pennies for the moneylender.” Lukas counted out the seven pennies into my hand. It was more than they needed to pay. “I have been doing a good business, too,” Kajus said to me, with a friendly wink. “All this cold weather! A man needs something to put heat in his belly. It must be especially bad, out on your farm,” he added. “I haven’t seen your father in town in a while.”

“Yes,” I said, wary. My father didn’t come because we didn’t have anything to spare for liquor.

“Here,” Kajus said, handing me a sealed jug, a small one, the kind he sold in the market for a few bits if you brought him back the jug. I only stared at it without taking it. I didn’t know what it was for; he had already paid me. But Kajus pressed it on me again. “A gift for your father,” he said. “You’ll bring back the jug when you have a chance.”

“Thank you, Panov Simonis,” I said, because I had to. I did not want to take my father a jug of krupnik, so he could get drunk at home and beat us, but I didn’t see any way out of it. The next time Da did come to town, Kajus would expect to be thanked, and if it came out I hadn’t given it to him, I would really get a beating then. So I put the jug in my basket.

No one else in the other houses invited me in for krupnik. Marya the dressmaker was the only one who said anything to me, besides handing me the money. “So Miryem is going to get more dresses from Vysnia, is she?” she said abruptly. She had only given me a single penny. “It seems a long way to go, and for very dear goods. Who knows if she will be able to sell anything more.”

“I don’t know if she will bring more dresses, Panova,” I said.

“Well, she will suit herself and no one else, that’s certain,” Marya said, and shut the door hard in my face.

I went back to the house and unpacked the payments. One of the borrowers had given me an old chicken that had stopped laying, ready for the pot. “Will you want it today, Panova Mandelstam?” I asked Miryem’s mother. “I can wring its neck and pluck it if you want.”

She was sewing, and when I asked her, she looked up and turned her head around the room as if she was looking for something she had lost. “Where is Miryem?” she asked me, as if she had forgotten, and then she shook her head and said, “Oh, I am being silly. She went back to Vysnia for more dresses.”

“Yes, she went to Vysnia for dresses,” I said slowly. Something about it sounded wrong to me. But of course, that was why she had gone back. Everyone else thought so.

“Well, there is enough food in the house. We will save the chicken,” Panova Mandelstam said. “Put it with the others for now, and then come back inside. It is time for dinner.”

I took the old hen to the coop and put her inside. Then I stood looking at the snow behind the house, deep-drifted and unmarked now, with the broom leaning half buried against the wall: the broom I had used to sweep away the footprints of the Staryk, who had come to the house last night, and left a purse of silver for Miryem to turn into gold. I shivered all over and went back in so I could forget again.

After dinner, I had to go. My father would already be angry that I had not been home to get his dinner yesterday, because of the storm. But I swept the floor and went to look in at the chickens and wrote down everything in the book before I left. I had slept the night on the pallet they had made for Sergey, warm and cozy in the big room with the oven and the smells of dough and stew and honey and kasha. My house did not smell like that. Miryem’s mother gave me a cup of fresh rich cow’s milk with my dinner, out of a big pail that Panova Gizis had paid with, and two pennies for two days, even though Sergey hadn’t come last night in the storm, and a bundle for my basket with some bread and butter and eggs in it. “Sergey didn’t get supper or breakfast,” she said. I put on my shawl and went, with her kindness heavy on my arm.

I went around through the forest and hid the bundle in among the roots of the white tree, and again I buried the pennies. I put one each in my pile and Sergey’s pile. Then I went on to the house. Stepon was there trying to stir a pot of porridge that had gone solid. There was a strong red mark on his face, and he was wincing when he moved. He looked up at me, unhappy. So our father had told him to get dinner last night and then hit him because he did not know how to do it. “Sit and rest,” I told him. “There’s something for later.”

I thinned the porridge with some water and cooked some cabbage. My father came in angry, shouting even while he took off his boots that I had no business staying in town because of a little snowfall, over so quickly, and the moneylender would take an extra day’s payment off the debt for keeping me. “I will tell them so,” I said, putting the cabbage on the table quickly, before he was even all the way inside the house. “Panov Simonis gave me a present for you, Da.” I put the bottle of krupnik on the table. I thought I might as well use it to avoid a beating now, since he was going to be drunk later anyway.

“What is Kajus giving me presents for?” Da said, and he sniffed the jug suspiciously when he opened it. But soon he was drinking it in big swallows, the whole thing, while he ate half the cabbage and the porridge. The rest of us ate our share quickly, without looking up.

“I will go get wood now, since I wasn’t home,” I said. Da didn’t tell me not to go. Sergey and Stepon slipped out with me, and I took them to the white tree. The bundle was still there where I had left it, and it hadn’t frozen. We shared the food, and afterwards they helped me gather wood. After that, Sergey went down the road to town. Stepon huddled together with me outside against the woodpile, helping me keep warm while we listened through the cracks to Da singing loudly.

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