Home > Spinning Silver(5)

Spinning Silver(5)
Author: Naomi Novik

Sergey could have eaten three times his share. He was starting to get big himself. I thought he was hunting sometimes, even though he knew he would be hanged for poaching, or worse if he was taking them from the forest. The only animals we could take from the forest were the marked ones, the ones with some spot of black or brown. But there were almost none like that left, and the white animals, all white, belonged to the Staryk. I did not know what they would do to someone who hunted their animals, because nobody did it, but I knew they would do something. You could not take anything from the Staryk that was theirs. They came and stole from people, but they did not like it when anyone stole from them.

But sometimes Sergey came in and ate without looking up, without stopping, his full share, the same way I ate mine. As if he knew he had eaten more than the others at the table. So I thought he was hunting where no one else saw. I did not tell him not to do it: he knew. Anyway it was not the same in my house as the moneylender’s house. I did not think the word love. Love was buried with my mother. Sergey and Stepon were only more of the babies who made my mother sick. They had not died, but so they had made even more work for her and now me. They ate some of the food, and I had to spin the goats’ wool and knit and wash their clothes. So I did not worry very much about what if the Staryk did something to Sergey. I did think maybe I should tell him to bring me the bones to make soup, but then I thought, if we all ate, we would all be in trouble, and not worth it just for some cracked bones he had already sucked clean.

But Stepon did love Sergey. I had made Sergey take care of him, when my mother died. I was eleven and I could spin, and Sergey was only seven years old, so Da let me. By the time Sergey was big enough to go to the fields, he had gotten used to putting up with Stepon and didn’t push him back on me. Stepon would follow him and keep out of the way and bring them water. He helped with the goats, and together they could sleep warm out of the house if my father was angry, even in winter. Sergey would cuff him sometimes but not very hard.

So Stepon came to me the day Sergey got sick. It was not yet noon. I was working in the moneylender’s garden, cutting off the heads of their cabbages. They were not really ready yet, but that night it had frozen a little, even though it was still early in autumn, and Miryem had said better to bring them in for what good they would be. I kept an eye on the door. Soon it would open and the moneylender’s wife would call me inside for dinner. That morning there had been a crust of stale bread in among the grain to go to the hens, and I had taken it myself and gnawed it up bit by bit, making it soft in my mouth with swallows of water out of the rain barrel, cold from under a crust of ice, but my belly was still pinched tight. I was looking at the door again when Stepon cried, “Wanda!” He was leaning on the fence breathing in big gulps. “Wanda!”

When he shouted my name I jerked as though Da had come down on my back with a switch. “What is it?” I was angry with Stepon for coming. I didn’t want him there.

“Wanda, come,” he said, beckoning me. He never talked much. Sergey understood him without talking, most of the time, and when my father filled our house with his voice, he got out of it if he could. “Wanda, come.”

“Is something wrong at home?” The moneylender’s wife was standing in the doorway, with a shawl around her for the cold. “Go on, Wanda. I will tell Miryem I sent you home.”

I didn’t want to go. I guessed something had happened to Sergey, because that was why Stepon would come. I didn’t want to give up my dinner to go help Sergey, who had never helped me. But I couldn’t say so to the moneylender’s wife. I got up and went silently out of the gate, and after we were down the road and into the trees I shook Stepon and said, angry, “Don’t ever come for me again.” He was only ten, still small enough for me to shake.

But he only grabbed my hand and pulled me on. I went with him. There was nothing else for me to do but go home and tell Da that Sergey had gotten himself into trouble, and that I wouldn’t do. Sergey was not someone I loved, but he would not tell Da on me, and I would not tell on him. Stepon kept trying to run. I began to catch the haste from him, so I would run a little way without thinking, and then I would stop running, and he would stop to catch his breath, and then he would start us going again. We went the six miles in only an hour. A little way before we reached our house, he started to lead me off the road, into the forest. Then I began to be wary. “What has happened to him?” I demanded.

“He won’t get up,” Stepon said.

Sergey was at the creek where sometimes we had to go for water in the summer, if the stream closer went dry. He was lying on his side on the bank. He did not look asleep. His eyes were open, and when I put my finger on his lips I could feel that he was breathing, but there was nothing stirring in him. His arms were heavy and limp when I tried to lift one. I looked around. Half in the water next to him there was a white rabbit dead, with a string of rough twisted goat-hair around its leg. It did not have any markings. There was frost all over the paths and ice creeping out of the edges of the creek. So then I knew the Staryk had caught him hunting and taken his soul away.

I put his arm down again. Stepon looked at me as if he thought I would do something. But there was nothing to do. The priest wouldn’t come to help us here so far from town, and anyway Sergey had been stealing when he knew better. I did not think God would save you from the Staryk when it was your own fault.

I didn’t say anything. Stepon didn’t say anything, but he kept staring at me, as if he knew I could do something, until I began to feel in my own stomach that I could, too, even though I didn’t want to. I closed my teeth together and tried not to think of anything to try, and then I tried to slap Sergey awake, and then to throw cold water in his face, even though I knew that was no good. And it was no good. He didn’t stir. The water ran down over his face and some drops even slid into his eyes and then ran over them and came out again like tears, but he wasn’t crying, he was only lying there empty as a dead log rotted from inside.

Stepon didn’t look at Sergey. He watched me the whole time almost without blinking. I wanted to slap him, or chase him away with my stick. What good had either of them ever done me that I owed them anything? I stopped trying and stood with my hands made into fists, and then I said, the words tasting like old rotten acorns in my mouth, “Pick up his legs.”

Sergey was not so big yet that we couldn’t carry him together. I pushed him onto his back and I took him under the arms, and Stepon put Sergey’s ankles onto his thin shoulders, and together we carried him slowly out of the forest all the way to the edge of our fields, all the way to the white tree. I was angrier when we got there than when we began. I fell down three times in the forest, walking backwards with his weight dragging at my hands, falling over roots and slipping in half-frozen mud. I bruised myself on a stone, and covered myself in dirt and crushed poison berries I would have to wash out of my clothes. But that was not what made me angry. They had taken her from me, all of them: Sergey and Stepon and the rest of those dead boys in the dirt. They had taken my mother. I had never wanted to share her with them. What right did they have to her?

But I didn’t say anything out loud. I let Sergey’s shoulders drop to the ground by the white tree in a heap, beside our mother’s grave, and I stood there by the tree and I said, “Mama, Sergey is sick.”

The air was still and cold. Beyond us the rye was just barely up in a long half-green field going away, the plants much smaller than they should have been, and I could see the smoke from our house going up in a straight grey line. Our father was not in sight. There was no wind blowing, but the white tree sighed and its branches shivered, and a little piece of its bark sprang off at one end. I took hold of it and peeled it off the trunk, one long strip.

We picked Sergey up and carried him the rest of the way to our creek, and I sent Stepon to the house to bring me back a hot coal and a cup. I pulled dry dead grass and twigs and raked it into a pile, and when Stepon came I lit it into a small fire, and boiled a tea from the bark. The water turned cloudy ash, and a smell like earth came from the cup, and then we held up Sergey’s head and made him swallow some of it. He shuddered all over like a beast shaking off flies in summer. I gave him another swallow, and a third, and then he turned over and began to vomit, again and again, a heap of steaming raw red flesh coming out of him onto the dirt, stinking and awful. I scrambled away not to be sick, too. When at last he stopped he crawled away from the pile himself, crying a little.

I gave him some water to drink, and Stepon buried the heap of raw meat that had come out of him. Sergey wept a little longer, gasping. He looked gaunt and scraped-thin, as if he had been starving, but at least he was there again. He had to lean on me when we stood up. We went along the creek to the rock where the goats drank, and they were there, grazing and mumbling at the leaves along the bank. The oldest goat wandered over to us, ears wagging forward, and Sergey put his arms around her neck and pressed his face against her side while I milked a cup and gave it to him to drink.

He swallowed every drop and licked the cup clean, and then he looked at me, wary. Our father paid attention if one of the goats did not give as much milk as she should, and we would all be beaten for it, if he did not know who had taken it. But I took the cup from Sergey’s hand and milked another for him, and gave it to him again. I don’t know why I did it. But I did, and then in the morning when my father came in from the milking pails and began to shout, I stood up and said to him loudly, “Sergey needs more food!”

My father stared at me, and so did Sergey and Stepon. I would have stared, too, if I were outside myself. After a moment he slapped me and told me to keep my mouth to myself, but then he went back out, and that was the end of it. Sergey and Stepon and I all stood inside the house, half waiting, but he didn’t come back. There was no beating. Sergey looked at me and I looked back at him, and we didn’t say anything. After a minute more, I took my kerchief and my sack and left for work. My clothes were still dirty and hard with mud. I wouldn’t have time to wash them until washing-day.

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