Home > Spinning Silver(17)

Spinning Silver(17)
Author: Naomi Novik

And once our father knew we had lied about how much we were being paid, then he would ask how much we had been paid. And then he would know that there was money somewhere, that we had hidden. And for hiding money from him, he would not beat us with the belt or his big hand, he would beat us with the poker, and he might not even stop once we told him where it was.

* * *

The church bells ringing for Oleg, when they buried him three days later, sounded like his sleigh bells, ringing too high in a forest of white trees. They would find me frozen just like him, if I didn’t give the Staryk his gold, but I equally had to fear what would happen if I did. Would he put me on his white stag behind him, and carry me away to that cold white forest, to live there alone forever with a crown of fairy silver of my own? I had never felt sorry for the miller’s daughter before, in the story the villagers told; I’d been sorry for my father, and myself, and angry. But who would really like it, after all, to be married to a king who’d as cheerfully have cut off your head if you didn’t spin his straw into gold? I didn’t want to be the Staryk’s queen any more than I wanted to be his slave, or frozen into ice.

I couldn’t forget him anymore. He was in the corner of my mind all the time now, creeping farther over it every day, a little more like frost on a windowpane. I started up in my bed, gasping every night, shivering with a chill inside me that my mother’s arms couldn’t drive away, and the memory of his silver eyes.

“Can you get him the gold?” Wanda asked me that morning, as abruptly as before.

I did not need to ask whom she meant. We were tending the goats, and my mother was in the yard, only a few feet away, so I couldn’t burst into tears even if I had wanted to; she and my father were already suspicious, watching me with a puzzled and worried look. I pressed the back of my hand to my mouth to keep my noise of protest in. “Yes,” I said shortly. “Yes, I can get the gold.”

Wanda didn’t say anything, only stared at me with her mouth a straight hard line, and my throat tightened. “If,” I said to her, “if something should take me from home for a time—you’ll stay on and help my father? He’ll keep paying you. He’ll make it double,” I added, desperate suddenly. I thought of my mother and my father alone in the village without me, but with all the anger I had brewed in every house turned against them. For a moment I was in the clearing again, floundering in the snow with Oleg’s twisted face above me, not frozen but flushed and red and hateful.

Wanda didn’t answer me for a moment, and then she said slowly, “My father will want to keep me home.” She raised her head from the trough and looked at me sideways. I stared at her in surprise, but I understood, of course. She was not giving her father the money; he would never want her to stay home if she was bringing him a penny a day. She was keeping it herself.

I kept brushing the goat, thinking this over. All this time I had thought I was bargaining with her father, not her, and all I needed to do was give him a little bit of money, more than he could get from a daughter’s work on the farm. It had not occurred to me that she would want the money herself. “Do you want it for a dowry?” I asked her.

“No!” she said, very fiercely.

I couldn’t understand, otherwise, why she would want to keep the money hidden. I had paid her already twelve pennies, for her and her brother, and she still wore her old ragged dress, and her basket-woven shoes, and when I had gone to Gorek’s house, that first time, collecting, the whole farm had looked as poor as dirt. They could have spent twelve pennies ten times over. Slowly I asked, “What did your father do with the six kopeks he borrowed?”

So she told me. Knowing didn’t help much, of course. He was her father. He had the right to borrow money from someone who would lend it to him, and the right to spend it as stupidly as he wanted, and the right to put his daughter to work to pay off his debt, and the right to take any money she earned. If she didn’t want to marry, there was nothing she could do to be free of him. She didn’t say what she had been doing with the money, but she couldn’t have been doing anything with it, except piling it up like a dragon-hoard somewhere. He would have caught her by now, if she had spent it on anything: that was why she hadn’t bought a decent dress, or boots. She was lucky her father hadn’t come to town much lately: if he’d ever said anything to me, if he’d talked loudly of how we were taking advantage of a poor man, I would have answered him in heat, without ever thinking, and he’d have found out then. I didn’t like to think what would have happened. It seemed to me, the kind of man who would gamble away and drink up four kopeks he had no hope of repaying was also the kind of man who would beat his daughter bloody, without ever thinking of the money she’d bring him if he kept her working.

“You can tell him I’ve gone to be married to a rich man,” I told her. It would be true, after all. “Tell him as soon as I come home, I’ll check all the books again.” And that would be true, too. “And…and when the debt’s paid, you can tell him that we offer to pay him a penny a week in hard coin, for the two of you to keep coming. To be paid once a month. And then give him the four pennies right away. Once he’s spent them, he’s back in debt, and he can’t refuse to send you. And the next month, do it again.”

Wanda gave me a nod, a single jerk. I put out my hand to her suddenly without thinking, and felt foolish with it hanging in the air between us as she stared at it, but just before I would have let it drop, she reached back and took it in her own, big and square with red rough fingers. She gripped my hand a little too tightly, but I didn’t mind.

“I’ll go back to Vysnia tomorrow,” I said, calmer. I didn’t think the city walls would keep out the Staryk, but I might as well try. At least I wouldn’t be at home. He wouldn’t leave prints all over my parents’ yard, for the rest of the village to make a vicious story of. “I’ll need to be there, anyway, when he comes,” and I told Wanda about Isaac, and how I was getting the Staryk his gold.

I didn’t tell my mother about it, though; I didn’t remind her of the Staryk at all, even when she said, “You’re going back again so soon?” I was glad she didn’t remember, to be puzzled instead of afraid for me.

“I want to bring back some more aprons,” I said. That afternoon, I made sure the ledger was in good order, and when I finished, I went outside and looked at our house, snug now behind shutters the carpenter had put up for me, with the small flock of chickens and our handful of goats making a clattering mess in the yard, and then I took my basket and walked slowly through town. I don’t know why. It wasn’t a market day, and Wanda had done the rounds. I had nothing to do in town, and nothing had changed, except everyone scowled at me now when I passed, instead of smirking the way they had back in the days when the sight of me in my patched shoes and ragged clothes had been a pleasant reminder of the money in their pockets that they never meant to pay back.

That was why I did it, maybe: I walked all the way to the other end of town and back and when I came home again, I wasn’t sorry to be leaving them. I loved nothing about the town or any of them, even now when it was at least familiar ground. I wasn’t sorry they didn’t like me, I wasn’t sorry I had been hard to them. I was glad, fiercely glad. They had wanted me to bury my mother and leave my father behind to die alone. They had wanted me to go be a beggar in my grandfather’s house, and live the rest of my days a quiet mouse in the kitchen. They would have devoured my family and picked their teeth with the bones, and never been sorry at all. Better to be turned to ice by the Staryk, who didn’t pretend to be a neighbor.

There wasn’t Oleg to hire anymore, so the next morning I went and stood on the market road. When a likely carter came driving past with a big sledge laden with barrels of salt herring from the sea, I waved him down, and offered him five pennies if he would take me all the way to Vysnia. I could have paid more, but I had learned my lesson. This time I had waited for an older man in an older cart, and my good dress with its fur collar and cuffs was hidden: I had put on my father’s old worn-out woolen overcoat, which I had meant to use for rags now that I had bought him a good new one made of fur.

The old carter talked to me as we drove of his granddaughters, and wanted to know my age; he was pleased that his girl a year younger than I was already married when I wasn’t, and asked me if I was going to town to get a husband. “We’ll see,” I said, and then I laughed aloud in sudden real relief, because it was so ridiculous. Me sitting in a fish cart with my muddy boots, scarecrow in my father’s patched overcoat: what would a Staryk lord want with me? I wasn’t a princess, or even a golden-haired peasant girl. I suppose it wouldn’t make any difference to him that I was a Jew, but I was short and bony and sallow, and my nose was humped in the middle and too big for my face. In fact I wasn’t married yet on purpose: my grandfather had told me judiciously to wait another two years to go to the matchmaker, so I would grow a bit fatter, and meanwhile my dowry would plump up alongside me, to help bring me a husband with the good sense to want a wife who brought more to the marriage than beauty, but not so greedy he didn’t care for her appearance at all.

That was the kind of man for me, a clear-eyed sensible man who could want me honestly; I was no prize for an elven lord. Surely the Staryk had only said it as a joke, because he didn’t think I could manage his task at all. He couldn’t mean to marry me really. When I gave him his third sack of gold, he would only stamp himself through the ground in anger—or more likely, I thought, sobering again, he would turn me to ice anyway, for spite that I’d proved him wrong. I rubbed my arms and looked over through the woods: there was no sign of the Staryk road today, only the dark trees and the white snow and the solid ice of the river gliding away under the runners.

I came to my grandfather’s house late, just before sunset. My grandmother said three times how nice it was to see me back again, so soon, and asked a little anxiously after my mother’s health, and whether I had already sold all of my goods. My grandfather didn’t ask any questions at all. He looked at me hard from under his eyebrows and only said, “Well, enough noise. It’s almost time for dinner.”

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