Home > Spinning Silver(4)

Spinning Silver(4)
Author: Naomi Novik

And then we drove to my grandfather’s house, but this time I hired Oleg to take us all the way with his good horses and his comfortable wagon, heaped with straw and blankets and jingling bells on the harness, with the fur cloak spread over all against the wind. My grandmother came out surprised to meet us when we drew up to the house, and my mother went into her arms, silent and hiding her face. “Well, come in and warm up,” my grandmother said, looking at the sledge and our good new dresses of red wool, trimmed with rabbit fur, and a golden button at the neck on mine that had come out of the weaver’s chest.

She sent me to take my grandfather fresh hot water in his study, so she could talk to my mother alone. My grandfather had rarely done more than grunt at me and look me up and down disapprovingly in the dresses my grandmother had bought. I don’t know how I knew what he thought of my father, because I don’t remember him ever having said a word about it, but I did know.

He looked me over this time, out from under his bristling eyebrows, and frowned. “Fur, now? And gold?”

I should say that I was properly brought up, and I knew better than to talk back to my own grandfather, but I was already angry that my mother was upset, and that my grandmother wasn’t pleased, and now to have him pick at me, him of all people. “Why shouldn’t I have it, instead of someone who bought it with my father’s money?” I said.

My grandfather was as surprised as you would expect to be spoken to like this by his granddaughter, but then he heard what I had said and frowned at me again. “Your father bought it for you, then?”

Loyalty and love stopped my mouth there, and I dropped my eyes and silently finished pouring the hot water into the samovar and changing out the tea. My grandfather didn’t stop me going away, but by the next morning he knew the whole story somehow, that I’d taken over my father’s work, and suddenly he was pleased with me, as he never had been before, and as no one else was.

His other two daughters had married better than my mother, to rich city men with good trades, but none of them had given him a grandson who wanted to take up his business. In the city, there were enough of my people that we could be something other than a banker, or a farmer who grew his own food. City people were more willing to buy our goods, and there was a thriving market in our quarter behind our wall.

“It’s not seemly for a girl,” my grandmother tried, but my grandfather snorted.

“Gold doesn’t know the hand that holds it,” he said, and frowned at me, but in a pleased way. “You’ll need servants,” he told me. “One to start with, a good strong simple man or woman who won’t mind working for a Jew: can you find one?”

“Yes,” I said, thinking of Wanda: she was already used to coming, and in our town there wasn’t much other chance for a poor farmer’s daughter to earn a wage.

“Good. Don’t go yourself to get the money anymore,” he said. “Send the servant, and if the customers want to argue, they have to come to your house. Get a desk, so you can sit behind it while they stand.”

I nodded, and when we went home, he gave me a purse full of pennies, five kopeks’ worth, to lend out to towns near ours that hadn’t any moneylender of their own. When we came home, I asked my father if Wanda had come while I was gone. He looked at me sadly, his eyes deep-set and sorrowful even though we hadn’t gone hungry for months now, and he said quietly, “Yes. I told her she need not, but she came every day.”

Satisfied, I spoke to her that day after she finished her work. Her father was a big man, and she too was tall and broad-shouldered, big square hands made red with work, the nails close-trimmed, her face dirty and her long yellow hair hidden away under a kerchief, dull and silent and oxlike. “I want more time to spend on keeping the accounts,” I said. “I need someone to go round and collect money for me. If you will take the work, I will pay you a penny a day, instead of half.”

She stood there a long moment, as though she was not sure she understood me. “My father’s debt would be cleared sooner,” she said finally, as if making sure.

“When it is clear, I will keep paying you,” I said, half recklessly. But if Wanda did my collecting, I could do a circuit round the neighboring villages and make new loans. I wanted to loan out that little lake of silver my grandfather had given me, and set a river-flow of pennies coming back.

Wanda was silent again, then said, “You will give me coin?”

“Yes,” I said. “Well?”

She nodded, and I nodded back. I didn’t offer to shake hands; no one would shake hands with a Jew, and anyway I knew it would have been a lie if they had. If Wanda didn’t keep to the bargain, I would stop paying her; that was a better guarantee than any other I could have.

* * *

Da had been angry and sullen ever since I went to work in the moneylender’s house. He couldn’t sell me to anyone, and I wasn’t home to work, and still we didn’t have much to eat. He shouted more and swung his hand harder. Stepon and Sergey spent most of their time with the goats. I ducked as much as I could and took the rest in silence. I closed my mouth with counting. If four years would have cleared my father’s debt, at half a penny, then two years would do it now. So two years was six kopeks. And I could work for two years more before my father would think the debt was paid. I would have six kopeks. Six silver kopeks of my own.

I had only ever caught a glimpse of so much money, my father letting two coins slip gleaming into the doctor’s open hand. Maybe if he hadn’t drunk and gambled up the other four, it would have been enough.

I didn’t mind going to strangers’ houses and knocking and asking them for money. It wasn’t me asking, it was Miryem, and it was her money, and she was going to give some of it to me. Standing on their stoops I could see inside, handsome furniture, warm fires. No one in their houses coughed. “I am here from the moneylender,” I said, and told them how much they owed, and I did not say anything when they tried to tell me the number was wrong. At a few houses, someone said they couldn’t pay, and I told them they needed to go speak to her at her house if they did not want her to send it to the law. Then they gave me something after all, so they had been lying. I minded even less, then.

I carried a big sturdy basket and I put inside it everything they gave me. Miryem was worried I would forget who gave what, but I didn’t forget. I remembered every coin and all the different goods. She wrote it all down in her big black book, the thick goose-feather pen scratching surely in her hand without a pause. On market day, she would sort out any goods she did not want to keep, and I would follow her with the basket into town. She sold and traded until the basket was empty and the purse she carried full, turning cloth and fruit and buttons into coins. Sometimes she took another step first: if a farmer had given her ten skeins of wool, she would take them to a weaver in her debt and have her work off a payment in making it into a cloak; then she would sell the cloak in the market.

And at the end of the day she would pour out a lake of pennies on the floor and roll them in paper to turn them into silver; one roll of pennies the length of my ring finger was the same as a kopek. I knew because when she took that roll into the market the next time, very early in the morning, she would find a merchant who had traveled in from out of the town, still putting up his stand, and she would give him that roll and he would open it and count the pennies and then he would give her one silver kopek back. The silver coins she did not spend or change in the market. She brought them home and rolled them in paper also, and a roll as long as my little finger, that was the same as a coin of gold. She put them away into the leather purse her grandfather had given her. I never saw that purse except on market days, and on market days it was out on the table when I came, and it stayed there until after I had gone for the day. She did not hide it or take it out where I could see, and her father and her mother never touched it.

I didn’t understand how she guessed how much each thing would be worth to someone else, when she didn’t care to keep them herself. But little by little I learned to read the numbers she wrote down in her book when she valued the payments, and when I overheard the prices she got in the market, the two were nearly the same, every time. I wanted to understand how she did it. But I didn’t ask. I knew she only thought of me as a horse or an ox, something dull and silent and strong. I felt so, around her and her family. They talked all the day it seemed to me: talked or sang or even argued. But there was never shouting or raised hands. They were always touching one another. Her mother would put a hand on Miryem’s cheek or her father would kiss her on the head, whenever she passed nearby. Sometimes when I left their house at the end of the day, once I was down the road and into the fields and out of sight, I would put my hand on the back of my head, my hand that had grown big and heavy and strong, and I tried to remember the feeling of my own mother’s hand.

In my house there was only a silence like solid earth. We had gone a little hungry all the winter, even me with my extra dinner. I had a walk of six miles to go with it. Now spring was here, but we were all still hungry. When I walked home I picked up mushrooms and if I was lucky a wild turnip and whatever greens I saw. There were not many. Most of them we could not eat. Those went to the goats. Then in our garden I dug some of the new potatoes, which were too young to be worth eating but we ate them anyway. I would cut off the smallest piece with an eye and bury it again. I went inside and stirred up the coals under the pot that I had put on in the morning with our cabbage. I put the small lumps of potatoes in with whatever else I had found. We ate sitting around the table with our heads bent, never speaking.

Nothing grew well. The ground stayed packed hard and cold into April, and the rye grew sluggishly. When at last Da was able to start planting beans, a week later snow fell again and killed half the plants. That morning when I woke I thought it was still night. But it was stone-grey outside, and snow was coming down so we could not see the neighbor’s fence. Da started cursing and cuffed us out of bed. We all hurried outside to bring in the goats, the five baby goats. One of them was already dead. The rest we brought into the house with their mothers. They brayed and chewed our blankets and nearly got into the fire, but they stayed alive. After the snow stopped, we butchered the dead one and salted what little meat there was. I made soup of the bones and we ate the liver and lungs. For one day we weren’t hungry.

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