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Spinning Silver(3)
Author: Naomi Novik

After Da came back in angry and sweating from burying the new dead baby, he said loudly, “Your mother needs medicine. I am going to the moneylender.” We looked at each other, me and Sergey and Stepon. They were only little, too scared to say anything, and Mama was too sick to say anything. I didn’t say anything either. Mama was still lying in the bed and there was blood and she was hot and red. She did not say anything when I talked to her. She only coughed. I wanted Da to bring back magic and make her get out of bed and be well again.

So he went. He drank up two kopeks in town and lost two gambling before he came home with the doctor. The doctor took the last two kopeks and gave me some powder to mix with hot water and give to Mama. It didn’t stop the fever. Three days later I was trying to give her some water to drink. She was coughing again. “Mama, I have some water,” I said. She did not open her eyes. She put her big hand on my head, strange and loose and heavy, and then she died. I sat with her the rest of the day until Da came home from the fields. He looked down at her silently, and then he told me, “Change the straw.” He took her body over his shoulder like potatoes and carried her out to the white tree and buried her next to the dead babies.

The moneylender came a few months after that and asked for the money back. I let him in when he came. I knew he was a servant of the devil but I wasn’t afraid of him. He was very narrow, hands and body and face. Mama had an icon nailed to the wall that was carved out of a skinny branch. He looked like that. His voice was quiet. I gave him a cup of tea and a piece of bread because I remembered Mama always gave people something to eat if they came to the house.

When Da came home he shouted the moneylender out of the house. Then he beat me five big wallops with his belt for letting him in at all, much less giving him food. “What business has he got coming here? You can’t get blood from a stone,” he said, putting his belt back on. I kept my face in my mother’s apron until I stopped crying.

He said the same thing when the tax collector came to our house, but he only said it under his breath. The tax collector always came the day we brought in the last of the grain harvest, winter and spring. I didn’t know how he always knew, but he knew. After he left, the tax was paid. Whatever he did not take, that was for us to live on. There was never very much. In winter, Mama used to say to Da, “We will eat that in November, and that in December,” and point to this and that until everything was divided up until spring. But Mama was not there anymore. So Da took one of the kid goats away to town. That night he came back very late and drunk. We were sleeping in the house next to the oven and he tripped over Stepon when he came in. Stepon cried and then Da got angry and took off his belt and hit us all until we ran out of the house. The mama goat stopped giving milk, and we ran out of food at the end of winter. We had to dig under the snow for old acorns until spring.

But the next winter when the tax collector came, Da took a sack of grain to town anyway. We all went to sleep in the shed with the goats. Sergey and Stepon were all right, but Da beat me the next day anyway when he was sober, because his dinner was not ready when he came home. So the next year I waited in the house until I saw Da coming down the road. Da had a lantern with him that was swaying in big circles because he was so drunk. I put the hot food in a bowl on the table and ran out. It was already dark but I did not take a candle because I did not want Da to see me leaving.

I meant to go to the shed, but I kept looking behind me to see if Da was coming after me. His lantern was swinging inside the house, making eyes of the windows, looking for me. But then it stopped moving, so he had put it onto the table. Then I thought I was safe. I started to look where I was walking, but I could not see in the dark, because I had been looking at the bright windows, and I was not on the path to the shed. I was in the deep snow. There was no sound of the goats or even the pigs. It was a dark night.

I thought I would come to the fence or the road sooner or later. I kept walking with my hands held out to catch the fence but I didn’t come to it. It was dark and first I was afraid, and then I was only cold, and then I was also getting sleepy. My toes were numb. Snow was getting into the cracks between the woven bark of my shoes.

Then ahead of me there was a light. I went towards it. I was near the white tree. Its branches were narrow and all the white leaves were still on it even though it was winter. The wind blew them and they made a noise like someone whispering too quiet to hear. On the other side of the tree there was a broad road, very smooth like ice and shining. I knew it was the Staryk road. But it was so beautiful, and I still felt very strange and cold and sleepy. I did not remember to be afraid. I went to walk onto it.

The graves were in a row under the tree. There was one flat stone at the top of each one. Mama had gotten them out of the river for the others. I had gotten one for her, and the last baby. Theirs were smaller than the others because I could not carry as big a stone as Mama yet. When I stepped over the row of stones to go to the road, a branch of the tree hit me on my shoulders. I fell down hard. All my breath was knocked out. The wind blew the white leaves and I heard them say, Run home, Wanda! Then I was not sleepy anymore, and I was so afraid I got up and I ran all the way back to the house. I could see it a long way off because the lantern was still in the windows. Da was already snoring on his bed.

* * *

A year later old Jakob our neighbor came to the house and asked Da for me. He wanted Da to give him a goat, too, so Da threw him out of the house, saying, “A virgin, healthy, a strong back, and he wants a goat from me!”

I worked very hard after that. I took as much of Da’s work as I could. I didn’t want to make a row of dead babies and die. But I got tall and my hair was yellow and long and my breasts grew. Two more men asked for me over the next two years. The last one I didn’t know at all. He came from the other side of town, six miles away. He even offered a bride price of one pig. But my hard work had made Da greedy by then, and he said three pigs. The man spat on the floor and walked out of the house.

But the harvests were going very bad. The snow melted later every year in spring and came sooner in the fall. After the tax collector took his share, there was not much left for drinking. I had learned to hide food in places so we did not run out so badly in winter as the first year, but Sergey and Stepon and me were all getting bigger. The year I was sixteen, after the spring harvest, Da came back from town only half drunk and sour. He didn’t beat me, but he looked at me like I was one of the pigs, weighing me in his head. “You’ll come to market with me next week,” he told me.

The next day I went out to the white tree. I had stayed away from it ever since that night I saw the Staryk road, but that day I waited until the sun was up high. Then I said I was going for water, but I went to the tree instead. I knelt down under the branches and said, “Help me, Mama.”

Two days later, the moneylender’s daughter came to the house. She was like her father, a skinny branch with dark brown hair and thin cheeks. She was not as high as Da’s shoulder, but she stood in front of the door and threw a long shadow into the house and said she would have the law on him if he did not pay her back the money. He shouted at her, but she was not afraid. When he was done telling her there wasn’t blood to be had from a stone, and showing her the empty cupboard, she said, “Your daughter will come and work for me, then, in payment of your debt.”

When she was gone, I went back to the white tree and said, “Thank you, Mama,” and between the roots I buried an apple, a whole apple, though I was so hungry I could have eaten it with all the seeds. Above my head, the tree put out a very small white flower.

I went to the moneylender’s house the next morning. I was afraid to go to town alone, but it was better than going to the market with Da. I didn’t really have to go into town anyway: their house was the first out of the forest. It was big, with two rooms and a floor of smooth fresh-smelling wood boards. The moneylender’s wife was in bed in the back room. She was sick and coughing. It made my shoulders tight and hard to hear it.

The moneylender’s daughter was named Miryem. That morning she put on a pot of soup, steam filling the cottage with a smell that made my empty stomach tighten like a knot. Then she took the dough rising in the corner with her and went out. She came back in the late afternoon with a hard face and dusty shoes and a loaf of dark brown bread fresh from the baker’s ovens, a pail of milk and a dish of butter, and a sack over her shoulders full of apples. She put out plates on the table, and laid one for me, which I didn’t expect. The moneylender said a magic spell over the bread when we sat down, but I ate it anyway. It tasted good.

I tried to do as much as I could, so they would want me to come back. Before I left the house, the moneylender’s wife said to me in her cough-hoarsened voice, “Will you tell me your name?” After a moment I told her. She said, “Thank you, Wanda. You have been a great help.” After I left the house, I heard her saying I had done so much work, surely the debt would be paid soon. I stopped to listen outside the window.

Miryem said, “He borrowed six kopeks! At half a penny a day she’ll be four years paying it off. Don’t try to tell me that’s not a fair wage when she gets her dinner with us.”

Four years! My heart was glad as birds.

Chapter 3

Flurries of snow and my mother’s cough both kept coming back long into the spring, but at last the days warmed, and the cough finally went away at the same time, drowned in soup and honey and rest. As soon as she could sing again, she said to me, “Miryem, next week, we’ll go see my father.”

I knew it was desperation, trying to break me loose from my work. I didn’t want to leave, but I did want to see my grandmother, and show her that her daughter wasn’t sleeping cold and frozen, that her granddaughter didn’t go like a beggar anymore; I wanted to visit without seeing her weep, for once. I went on my rounds one last time, and told everyone as I did that I was going to the city, and I would have to add on extra interest for the weeks I was gone unless they left their payments at our house while I was away. I told Wanda she still had to come every day, and get my father’s dinner, and feed the chickens and clean the house and yard. She nodded silently and didn’t argue.

   
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