Home > Spinning Silver(2)

Spinning Silver(2)
Author: Naomi Novik

I pressed my lips together hard, and then I kissed her forehead and told her to rest, and after she fell fitfully asleep, I went to the box next to the fireplace where my father kept his big ledger-book. I took it out and I took his worn pen out of its holder, and I mixed ink out of the ashes in the fireplace and I made a list. A moneylender’s daughter, even a bad moneylender’s daughter, learns her numbers. I wrote and figured and wrote and figured, interest and time broken up by all the little haphazard scattered payments. My father had every one carefully written down, as scrupulous with all of them as no one else ever was with him. And when I had my list finished, I took all the knitting out of my bag, put my shawl on, and went out into the cold morning.

I went to every house that owed us, and I banged on their doors. It was early, very early, still dark, because my mother’s coughing had woken us in the night. Everyone was still at home. So the men opened the doors and stared at me in surprise, and I looked them in their faces and said, cold and hard, “I’ve come to settle your account.”

They tried to put me off, of course; some of them laughed at me. Oleg, the carter with his big hands, closed them into fists and put them on his hips and stared at me while his small squirrelish wife kept her head down over the fire, darting eyes towards me. Kajus, who had borrowed two gold pieces the year before I was born, and did a good custom in the krupnik he brewed in the big copper kettles he’d bought with the money, smiled at me and asked me to come inside and warm myself up, have a hot drink. I refused. I didn’t want to be warmed. I stood on their doorsteps, and I brought out my list, and I told them how much they had borrowed, and what little they had paid, and how much interest they owed besides.

They spluttered and argued and some of them shouted. No one had ever shouted at me in my life: my mother with her quiet voice, my gentle father. But I found something bitter inside myself, something of that winter blown into my heart: the sound of my mother coughing, and the memory of the story the way they’d told it in the village square so many times, about a girl who made herself a queen with someone else’s gold, and never paid her debts. I stayed in their doorways, and I didn’t move. My numbers were true, and they and I knew it, and when they’d shouted themselves out, I said, “Do you have the money?”

They thought it was an opening. They said no, of course not; they didn’t have such a sum.

“Then you’ll pay me a little now, and again every week, until your debt is cleared,” I said, “and pay interest on what you haven’t paid, if you don’t want me to send to my grandfather to bring the law into it.”

None of them traveled very much. They knew my mother’s father was rich, and lived in a great house in Vysnia, and had loaned money to knights and even, rumor had it, to a lord. So they gave me a little, grudgingly; only a few pennies in some houses, but every one of them gave me something. I let them give me goods, too: twelve yards of warm woolen cloth in deep red, a jar of oil, two dozen good tall candles of white beeswax, a new kitchen knife from the blacksmith. I gave them all a fair value—the price they would have charged someone else, not me, buying in the market—and I wrote down the numbers in front of them, and told them I would see them next week.

On my way home, I stopped in at Lyudmila’s house. She didn’t borrow money; she could have lent it herself, but she couldn’t have charged interest, and anyway no one in our town would have been foolish enough to borrow from anyone but my father, who would let them pay as they liked or didn’t. She opened the door with her practiced smile on: she took in travelers overnight. It came off when she saw me. “Well?” she said sharply. She thought I had come to beg.

“My mother is sick, Panova,” I said, politely, so she’d keep thinking it just a little longer, and then be relieved when I went on to say, “I’ve come to buy some food. How much for soup?”

I asked her the price of eggs after, and bread, as though I were trying to fit them to a narrow purse, and because she didn’t know otherwise, she just brusquely told me the prices instead of inflating them twice over. Then she was annoyed when I finally counted out six pennies for a pot of hot soup with half a chicken in it, and three fresh eggs, and a soft loaf, and a bowl of honeycomb covered with a napkin. But she gave them to me grudgingly, and I carried them down the long lane to our house.

My father had come back home before me; he was feeding the fire, and he looked up worried when I shouldered my way in. He stared at my arms full of food and red wool. I put my load all down and I put the rest of the pennies and the one silver kopek into the jar next to our hearth, where there were only a couple of pennies left otherwise, and I gave him the list with the payments written on it, and then I turned to making my mother comfortable.

* * *

After that, I was the moneylender in our town. And I was a good moneylender, and a lot of people owed us money, so very soon the straw of our floor was smooth boards of golden wood, and the cracks in our fireplace were chinked with good clay and our roof was thatched fresh, and my mother had a fur cloak to sleep under or to wear, to keep her chest warm. She didn’t like it at all, and neither did my father, who went outside and wept quietly to himself the day I brought the cloak home. Odeta, the baker’s wife, had offered it to me as payment in full of her family’s debt. It was beautiful, dark and light browns; she’d brought it with her when she married, made of ermines her father had hunted in the boyar’s woods.

That part of the old story turned out to be true: you have to be cruel to be a good moneylender. But I was ready to be as merciless with our neighbors as they’d been with my father. I didn’t take firstborn children exactly, but one week late in the spring, when the roads were finally clear again, I walked out to one of the peasant farmers in the far fields, and he had nothing to pay me with, not even a spare loaf of bread. Gorek had borrowed six silver kopeks, a sum he’d never repay if he made a crop every year of the rest of his life; I didn’t believe he’d ever had more than five pennies in his hand at once. He tried to curse me out of the house at first, casually, as many of them did, but when I held my ground and told him the law would come for him, real desperation came into his voice. “I have four mouths to feed!” he said. “You can’t suck blood from a stone.”

I should have felt sorry for him, I suppose. My father would have, and my mother, but wrapped in my coldness, I only felt the danger of the moment. If I forgave him, took his excuses, next week everyone would have an excuse; I saw everything unraveling again from there.

Then his tall daughter came staggering in, a kerchief over her long yellow braids and a heavy yoke across her shoulders, carrying two buckets of water, twice as much as I could manage when I went for water to the well myself. I said, “Then your daughter will come work in my house to pay off the debt, for half a penny every day,” and I walked home pleased as a cat, and even danced a few steps to myself in the road, alone under the trees.

Her name was Wanda. She came silently to the house at dawn the next morning, worked like an ox until dinner, and left silently after; she kept her head down the entire time. She was very strong, and she took almost all the burden of the housework even in just that half day. She carried water and chopped wood, and tended the small flock of hens we now had scratching in our yard, and scrubbed the floors and our hearth and all our pots, and I was well satisfied with my solution.

After she left, for the first time in my life my mother spoke to my father in anger, in blame, as she hadn’t even when she was most cold and sick. “And you don’t care for what it does to her?” I heard her crying out to him, her voice still hoarse, as I knocked the mud from my boot heels at the gate; without the morning work to do, I had borrowed a donkey and gone all the way to the farthest villages to collect money from people who’d probably thought they’d never see anyone ever come for it again. The winter rye was in, and I had two full sacks of grain, another two of wool, and a big bag of my mother’s favorite hazelnuts that had been kept fresh all winter out in the cold, along with an old but good nutcracker made of iron, so we wouldn’t have to shell them with the hammer anymore.

“What shall I say to her?” he cried back. “What shall I say? No, you shall starve; no, you shall go cold and you will wear rags?”

“If you had the coldness to do it yourself, you could be cold enough to let her do it,” my mother said. “Our daughter, Josef!”

That night, my father tried to say something to me quietly, stumbling over the words: I’d done enough, it wasn’t my work, tomorrow I’d stay home. I didn’t look up from shelling the hazelnuts, and I didn’t answer him, holding the cold knotted under my ribs. I thought of my mother’s hoarse voice, and not the words she’d said. After a little while he trailed off. The coldness in me met him and drove him back, just as it had when he’d met it in the village, asking for what he was owed.

Chapter 2

Da would often say he was going to the moneylender. He would get money for a new plow, or to buy some pigs, or a milch cow. I did not really know what money was. Our cottage was far from town and we paid tax in sacks of grain. Da made it sound like magic, but Mama made it sound dangerous. “Don’t go, Gorek,” she would say. “There’s always trouble where there’s money owed, sooner or later.” Then Da would shout at her to mind her own business and slap her, but he wouldn’t go.

He went when I was eleven. Another baby had come and gone in the night and Mama was sick. We hadn’t needed another baby. We already had Sergey and Stepon and the four dead ones in the ground by the white tree. Da always buried the babies there even though the ground was hard to dig, because he didn’t want to spare planting ground. He could not plant anything too close to the white tree anyway. It would eat up anything around it. The rye seedlings would sprout and then one cold morning they would all be withered and the white tree would have some more white leaves on it. And he could not cut it down. It was all white, so it belonged to the Staryk. If he cut it down, they would come and kill him. So all we could plant there was the dead babies.

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