Home > Spinning Silver(6)

Spinning Silver(6)
Author: Naomi Novik

When I came home at midday, Sergey had brought out the washing-tub and Stepon had filled it from the creek. They had even boiled some water to make it hot, so the clothes would wash easily. I looked at it, and then out of my pocket I showed them the three eggs I had gotten from the moneylender’s wife. She had asked me what had happened. When I told her my brother had been sick with something he ate, she said that the best for a bad stomach was fresh raw eggs and gave me three. I ate one, Sergey one and a half, and Stepon the last half. Then they cut our own small cabbages for me while I washed my clothes, and when I was done, I made dinner.

Chapter 4

All that cold year, I sowed my silver. The spring had come late again, and the summer was short, and even the vegetable gardens grew slowly. The snow kept falling well into April. People came to me from far off, dozens of villages around, and borrowed money to carry them through. When we went back to Vysnia the next spring, I brought my grandfather’s purse back with me full of kopeks rolled and ready to be changed into gold zlotek and put into the bank, safe from Staryk raiders behind the thick walls of the vault and the thicker city walls outside. My grandfather said nothing, only held the purse a little while, balanced on his palm, weighing it, but I saw he was proud of me.

My grandparents hadn’t usually had guests over when we were visiting, except my mother’s sisters. I hadn’t noticed before, but I noticed now, because suddenly the house was full of people coming to drink tea, to stay to dinner, lights and bustling dresses and laughing voices. I met more city people in those two weeks than I had in all the visits before. I had always vaguely thought of my grandfather as an important man, but now I saw it ten times over: people addressed him formally as Panov Moshel, even the rabbi, and at the table he and several other men discussed seriously the politics of the quarter, and often settled arguments there, among themselves, as though they had a right to do it.

I didn’t understand why the guests hadn’t come before. All of them were kind, and pleased to see me. “Can this be little Miryem?” Panova Idin said, smiling at me and touching my cheeks: she was the wife of one of my grandfather’s friends. I didn’t remember ever meeting her before, it had been so long. “So grown-up already! Surely we will be dancing at your wedding soon.” My grandmother, hearing her, kept her mouth pursed; my mother looked still unhappier. She kept to a corner of the sitting room when the guests came, bent over a shirt of plain linen she was sewing for my father, and said only enough to all the visitors to be not-quite-polite: my mother, who was kind to people in our village who had taken food out of her mouth, and who would not have her in their houses.

“I don’t believe in selling a sow’s ear for a silk purse,” my grandfather told me bluntly, when I finally asked him about the guests. “Your father couldn’t dower you as the guests who come to this house would expect of my granddaughter, and I swore to your mother when she married him that I would never put more money in his pocket, to fall back out again.”

I understood then why he hadn’t invited his rich guests, and why he hadn’t wanted my grandmother buying dresses for me, as he’d thought, with fur and gold buttons on them. He wouldn’t try to make a princess out of a miller’s daughter with borrowed finery, and snare her a husband fool enough to be tricked by it, or one who’d slip out of the bargain when he learned the truth.

It didn’t make me angry. I liked him better for that cold hard honesty, and it made me proud that now he did invite guests, and even boasted of me to them, how I’d taken away a purse of silver and brought back one of gold. I liked to feel their eyes on me, weighing me like a purse, and being able to hold my head up when they did it, feeling my own worth.

I found myself getting angry at my mother instead. Her sisters came to dinner again, the last night before we left, twelve of us around the table and many little ones yelling and noisy in the courtyard. My cousin Basia sat next to me: a year older, beautiful with plump arms and sleek shining brown hair and a necklace and earrings of pearls, self-possessed and graceful. She had visited the matchmaker a month ago, and she looked down with a smile in her eyes and the corners of her mouth when her mother spoke about one young man they were considering: Isaac, a jeweler like her father and skillful, although my grandfather shook his head a bit skeptically and asked many questions about his business. Her hands were smooth and soft. She had never had to do hard work, and her clothing was finely stitched, embroidered beautifully with flowers and birds singing.

I didn’t envy her, not now when I could buy myself an embroidered apron, if I wanted to spend my money so. I was glad to have my work. But I felt my mother drawn tight near me, as if she would have put out a hand to bar me from seeing Basia’s life and wanting anything of it. The next day we flew home in the sleigh over the frozen crust of snow, cutting through the dark forest. It was a bitter cold for spring, but I had my own fur cloak, and three petticoats underneath my dress, and there were three blankets tucked around us, snug and comfortable. But my mother’s face was full of misery. We didn’t speak. “Would you rather we were still poor and hungry?” I burst out to her finally, the silence between us heavy in the midst of the dark woods, and she put her arms around me and kissed me and said, “My darling, my darling, I’m sorry,” weeping a little.

“Sorry?” I said. “To be warm instead of cold? To be rich and comfortable? To have a daughter who can turn silver into gold?” I pushed away from her.

“To see you harden yourself to ice, to make it so,” she said. I didn’t answer her, only huddled into my robes. Oleg was speaking urgently to his horses: a silver gleam had appeared between the trees in the distance, the Staryk road peeking out. The horses trotted on more swiftly, but the Staryk road kept pace with us all the way home, shining between the trees. I could feel it on my side, a shimmer of colder wind trying to press against me and pierce through to my skin, but I didn’t care. I was colder inside than out.

* * *

Wanda was late coming to the house the next morning, and when she came in, she was out of breath and her face ruddy with sweating and her stockings and skirt covered in a crust of clumped snow, as though she had come through the fields forcing a new way, instead of walking on the village road. “The Staryk are in the woods,” she said without looking up. When we stepped into the yard in front of our house, we saw the Staryk road still there, glimmering faintly between the trees, not a quarter of a mile distant.

I had never heard of the road coming so near to town. We did not have a wall, but we were not rich enough to tempt them. Our taxes were paid in grain and wool, and the rich men changed their silver for gold behind city walls and left it in banks, just like me. Maybe a woman had a necklace of gold or a ring—I thought belatedly of the button on my own collar—but they could not have harvested even one small chest of golden jewelry if they had smashed into every house along the main lane.

A bitter cold was radiating out of the wood; if you knelt down and put out your bare hand, you could feel the chill creeping along the ground as though breathed out faintly by some distant giant, and the air had a thick strong smell of broken pine branches. The forest was deep in snow, but it felt too cold for nature even so. I looked back at the town and saw other people standing in their yards in the houses nearest ours, looking at the road just as we were. Panova Gavelyte scowled at me when our eyes met, before she went back into her house, as though it was our fault.

But nothing else happened, and the morning work had to be done, so little by little we all went inside, and when we couldn’t see the road, we stopped thinking about it. I sat down with my books to look over everything that Wanda had brought into the house the two weeks we had been gone. She took the basket full of stale bread and grain for the chickens and went out to feed them and gather the eggs. My mother had finally given up trying to do any of the outdoor work, and I was glad: she was sitting at the table paring potatoes for our dinner, warm by the fire, and there was a little color in her cheeks, a little roundness that had been eaten away last winter. I refused to care at the way she looked over at me with my books.

The numbers were all tidy and clean, and all the right amounts had come in. My grandfather had asked me about my servant, and whether she was good; he hadn’t thought I was foolish to have promised to pay Wanda in money. “A servant is easy to make dishonest when they bring you coin and never touch any themselves,” he said. “Let her feel that her fortune rises with yours.”

I was a little wary of my own fortune rising, even with fourteen gold coins in the heavy vault in my grandfather’s bank. I knew that money was not really from my own lending work; it was my mother’s dowry, coming back to us at last. My father had lent it out so quickly after they were married, it was all gone into other pockets almost before I was born, and so little had ever been paid back that every one of our neighbors for miles around was still in our debt. They had fixed their houses and their barns, they had bought cattle and they had bought seed grain, they had married their daughters and started their sons in the world, and meanwhile my mother had gone hungry and my father had been chased out of their yards. I meant to get back every coin and all the interest besides.

But I had already gathered the easy money. Some of it would never come back. Some who had borrowed from my father had died, or gone away so far I did not have their direction. I was already having to take more than half my payments in goods or work or something else, and turning those into coin wasn’t easy. Our house was snug now, and we had a flock of chickens as big as we could manage. People had offered me a sheep or a goat, too, but we didn’t know anything about keeping them. I could sell them on again, but that was difficult, and I knew better than to try and give any of my debtors one penny less in credit than the full amount I got for their goods in the market. They would call it cheating, even though it was my time spent on the work of selling it.

I was lending new money only to those who had some reasonable hope of having it to repay, and in small and cautious amounts, but that only brought in an equally cautious stream of payments, and I didn’t know how many would yet default before their full debt was paid. But even so, looking at my accounts with all the tidy amounts brought in, I decided I would start to pay Wanda now: each day she would clear half a penny of her father’s debt, and take half a penny home, and have real coin to keep, so she and her father would feel that she was earning money; it wouldn’t just be a number written in my books.

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