Home > Spinning Silver(7)

Spinning Silver(7)
Author: Naomi Novik

I had just settled with myself that I would tell her this afternoon, before she went home, when the door banged open and she rushed back in with the basket clutched against her chest, still full of grain. She said, “They’ve been outside the house!”

I didn’t know who she meant at first, but I stood up in alarm anyway; her face was white and afraid, and she wasn’t given to startling. My father said, “Show me,” and took the iron poker from the fireplace.

“Is it burglars?” my mother said in a low voice: my own first thought, too, as soon as I had one. I was glad I had taken my money away and put it in the bank. But then we followed my father outside, around the back of the house where the chickens were still squawking loudly in disappointment, waiting for their food, and Wanda showed us the marks. It wasn’t burglars at all.

The hoofprints were barely a shallow impression in the top dusting of fresh snow. They hadn’t broken through the ice crust beneath, but they were very large, the size of horse hooves, except cloven like deer, and with spiky indentations at the front ends. They came right to the wall of the house, and then someone had climbed down and looked through our window: someone wearing strange boots with a long pointed toe.

I didn’t quite believe in it, at first. It was certainly something strange, but I thought someone was playing a trick on us, like the village boys who had thrown rocks at me sometimes when I was little. Someone had come creeping over to leave the marks to scare us, or maybe something even more malicious: to make an excuse for a robbery they planned. But before I opened my mouth to say so, I realized no one could have made the marks without breaking the snow themselves, unless they had leaned down somehow with a stick from the roof. But the roof was unmarred, and the cloven hoofprints made a long trail across our yard and all the way back into the forest, where under the trees they vanished. And when I looked in that direction, I saw the silver road gleaming between the trees still there.

I didn’t say anything, and neither my mother or my father said anything either, all of us looking into the woods at the road, and only Wanda said, flatly, “It’s the Staryk. The Staryk came here.”

But the Staryk didn’t belong in the yard with our chickens, peering in through the window into our big room. I bent down to look through myself: there was nothing to see over my narrow bed but the fireplace with its small cooking pot, the cupboard my father had made as a present for my mother, the sacks of grain in our pantry. My home looked so ordinary and so plain it only made the idea more ridiculous, and I straightened up and stared at the prints again, half expecting them to go away and stop making the world untidy and absurd.

And then my father took the poker and stirred it right into the prints, and trudged along the line of them dragging it through, all the way to the forest’s edge, and then he came back walking over them. He came up to us and said, “Let’s not hear any more talk like that. Who knows who made it, probably just some children making a stupid joke. Go back to your chores, Wanda.”

I stared at him. I had never heard my father sound so hard. I didn’t know he could speak so. Wanda hesitated. She looked where the prints had been, but then she slowly stepped over the trampled snow and began to feed the chickens. My mother was standing silently by with her shawl wrapped tight, her lips pressed tight, her hands clenched tight. She said, “Come back in the house, Miryem, I need your help with the potatoes.” I followed my mother back to the house, and as we did, she glanced down the road towards the town. But everyone else had all gone to their chores and into their houses; no one was still outside watching.

When we were inside, my father went to the window over my bed with a narrow stick out of the woodpile and measured its length and width with cuts of his knife, and then he took his coat and his small axe and his hat and went out again, carrying the stick. I watched him go, and then I looked at my mother, who was peering out the back at Wanda already busy sweeping the yard.

“Miryem,” my mother said, “I think it would be good for your father to have a young man’s help. We will ask Wanda’s brother to come stay with us at night, and pay him.”

“Pay someone just to sleep in the house? What good would he even do, if one of the Staryk did come?” I laughed even as I said it out loud: the idea of it was so ridiculous. I couldn’t quite remember why I had ever thought it was anything but a joke. I had a feeling as though I’d just been having a dream, and it was already fading.

But my mother said sharply, “Don’t speak of such things. I don’t want you to say anything like that again. And don’t talk of the Staryk to anyone, anywhere in town.” I understood that even less. Everyone would be talking of the Staryk, with the road there in the woods, and tomorrow was market day. “Then you won’t go,” she said, after I said so, and when I protested I had goods from Vysnia to take and sell, she took me by the shoulders and said, “Miryem. We will pay Wanda’s brother to stay at night, so she won’t say to anyone that the Staryk are visiting our house. And you will not say to anyone that they have come near.”

I stopped arguing. My mother said softly, “Two years ago, outside Minask, a band of Staryk went through the countryside to three towns, towns not much bigger than this. They burned the churches and the houses of rich men, and took all the little gold they could find. But they rode past Yazuda village, where the Jews lived, and they did not burn their houses. So the people said the Jews had made a pact with the Staryk. And now there are no Jews in Yazuda. Do you understand, Miryem? You will not speak of the Staryk coming to our house.”

That wasn’t elves or magic or absurdity. That was something I understood very well. “I’ll go to market tomorrow,” I said, after a moment, and when my mother would have spoken, I went on, “It would be strange if I didn’t. I’ll go, and sell the two new dresses I bought, and talk of the new fashions in Vysnia.”

My mother nodded after a moment, and stroked my head with her hand, and cupped my cheeks. Then we sat down together at the table and began to peel the rest of the potatoes. Outside I heard Wanda working on chopping wood, the steady thwack-whack of the axe going in even rhythm. My father came back after only a short while with an armful of green boughs, and he spent the rest of the morning by the fire whittling them and fitting them together into small grates that he nailed across our window frames.

“We have been thinking we might hire Wanda’s brother to come stay for the nights,” my mother said without looking up from her knitting, while he worked.

“It would be good to have a young man around,” my father agreed. “I worry whenever we have money in the house. Anyway, I could use the help. I am not as young as I was.”

“Maybe we could keep some goats after all,” I said. “He could look after them for us.”

* * *

That morning after she came back, Miryem said to me, “Wanda, we would like to have a young man staying here at night to help look after the house, and to take care of some goats we are going to get. Would your brother be able to come and help us?”

I didn’t answer her right away. I wanted to say no. I had kept her books, all those two weeks while she was away. Me, alone. Every day I went on my rounds, every day to a different set of houses, and then I came back to the house and set dinner to cook for me and her father the moneylender, and I sat down at the table and with my hands trembling a little I carefully opened the book. The leather was so soft beneath my hands, and inside, every thin fine page was covered with letters and numbers. I turned them one after another to find the houses I had visited that day. She had a different number on the page for each house, and next to it the name of the person who lived there. I dipped my pen, and wiped the nib, and dipped it again, and I wrote very slowly and shaped every number as well as I could. And then I closed the book up again, and cleaned the pen, and put it and the ink away on the shelf. I did all that by myself.

All that summer, when the days were long and I could linger a little, Miryem had taught me how to write the numbers with a pen. She would take me outside after dinner and shape them in the dirt with a stick, over and over. But she didn’t only teach me how to put them down. She taught me how to make them, one new number growing out of two, and how to take one number away from another also. Not just little numbers that I could make on my hands or by counting stones, but big numbers. She taught me how to make a hundred pennies into a kopek and twenty silver kopeks into a golden zlotek, and how to break a piece of silver back into pennies again.

I was afraid at first when she began. It was five days before I picked up the stick and traced the lines she had drawn. She spoke as if it was ordinary, but I knew she was teaching me magic. I was still afraid afterwards, but I couldn’t help myself. I learned to draw the magic shapes in the dirt, and then with an old worn-out pen and ash mixed with water on a smooth flat rock, and finally with her own pen and ink on an old piece of paper, marked up to grey from all the writing that had been done and bleached away. And by the end of the winter, when she went away visiting, I could keep the books for her. I was even starting to be able to read the letters. I knew the names out loud and on each page, I would say them softly to myself and touch the letters with my finger and I could see which letters made each sound. Sometimes when I was wrong Miryem would stop me and tell me the right one. That was how much magic she had given me, and I didn’t want to share.

A year ago, I would have said no to her, to keep it to myself. But that was before I had saved Sergey from the Staryk. Now, when I came home late, he had put the dinner on for me. He and Stepon had gathered me goat-hair from the bushes and the hay, all winter long, enough so I could make a shawl to wear when I walked to town. He was my brother.

Then I almost said no anyway for fear. What if he let the secret out? It was so big that I could hardly keep it inside me anyway. Every night I went to sleep thinking of six silver kopeks tight in my fist, shining and cold. I made them out of adding pennies, one by one, as long as I could before sleep took me.

But after a moment, I said slowly, “Would his work help pay the debt sooner?”

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