Home > Spinning Silver(9)

Spinning Silver(9)
Author: Naomi Novik

Wanda carried the basket with all the small trinkets I had bought in Vysnia to sell, and also the two dresses I had bought myself in a defiant extravagance, because my mother wouldn’t let me buy one for her. They were warm dresses and also beautiful, woolen with large flowers glowing out along the hem, deep green and blue colors on red cloth. I went straight to the dressmaker Marya’s stall and pulled out the hems to show her and said, “Look at the new pattern they have in Vysnia this year.”

A group of women gathered round me to look at them at once, a wall of safety against any other gossip that might be going on. A new pattern was more important to them than the Staryk road, which no one wanted to think about too much anyway. In the market square you couldn’t see it. Of course Marya asked me what I wanted for the dresses. I didn’t answer her at once. There were six women standing round me, their eyes on my face like crows ready to peck. For a single sharp moment I thought of letting the dresses go cheap, to leave a friendly feeling behind me, a feeling that might argue for me if someone began to speak of the Staryk road and how near it was to our house. Suddenly I understood my father better.

I took a breath and said, “I don’t know if I can sell them right away. You can see how much work went into them, and from the finest hand in Vysnia. They were made for wedding clothes, and I paid high to get them and bring them all this way. I can’t sell them for less than a zlotek, each.”

I spent the whole day at market standing in one place, while women came and looked at the dresses worth a zlotek, murmuring to each other about the embroidery, the cut, the bright colors. They examined the seams and nodded in agreement when I solemnly pointed out how careful and perfect the small stitches were, and how you could tell they had used very fine thread. I sold them all the other goods in between, the other things I had brought from Vysnia. All of them went for more than I had hoped, as if they also had acquired a luxurious glow. And at the end of the day, the tax collector came by, who liked to stop in at the market now and again even though he had a servant who did his shopping for him, and he paid me two zlotek and took the dresses for his daughter’s wedding chest.

I came back to the house with my heart pounding, a kind of ferocious triumph in my throat, half afraid: I didn’t know what to do with myself. I had only paid a kopek for each dress. My mother and father didn’t say anything when I put the two zlotek on the table, with all the pennies and the three kopeks I had also earned, selling. My father sighed a little, almost without noise. “Well, my daughter really can turn silver to gold,” he said, almost helplessly, and he put his hand on my head and stroked it, as if he was sorry instead of proud.

Hot angry tears came prickling into my eyes, but I set my teeth and put the gold away into my purse, and then I gave my mother the jar of preserved cherries I had bought for us as a treat. After dinner, she made strong tea and put out the cherries in a glass dish with a tiny silver spoon, the last part of the tea service she had brought with her when she was married. The rest of it had gone in the market over the years, when we had been hungry. We put the sweet cherries into the tea and drank up the hot sweet liquid and then ate each soft warmed-through cherry and let the pits out onto our spoons from our lips very delicately.

Wanda cleared the table and put her kerchief on her head, making ready to go, and then she stopped and looked up as the whole room grew dark. Outside the windows snow was coming down suddenly, and when we opened the door, it was falling so strong already that we couldn’t see the next house over in the village. In the other direction, the Staryk road was still visible, gleaming somehow brighter through the snow, and for a moment I almost thought I saw something moving in the trees upon it.

My mother said, “You can’t go in this weather. You’ll stay until it stops.” Wanda stepped back and pushed the door shut against the wind with an effort.

The snow didn’t stop, though, all the rest of the afternoon. It didn’t even slacken. As the night came on, Wanda and my father went out and knocked snow off the top of the chicken coop and from around the sides, so the hens wouldn’t smother. We huddled back inside the house like chickens in a coop ourselves. The smell of the stew had vanished, even though the rest of it was still in the back of the fire, keeping warm, and my mother had put potatoes into the ashes to roast for our supper. The air was full of a bitter cold that left a sharp biting feeling in my nostrils with nothing warm or alive in it, not even any smell of earth or rotting leaves. I tried to see to go over my books, and then to sew, and had to give all of it up. It was too dark, and the candlelight didn’t seem to be able to spread far over the table.

“Come, we shouldn’t sit here so dull,” my father said finally, as we all sat in silent lumps under fur coats and shawls and blankets. “Let’s sing together.”

Wanda listened to us sing and asked abruptly, when we had a pause for breath, “Is that magic?”

My father stopped singing; my mother said firmly, “No, Wanda, of course not. It is a hymn to God.”

“Oh,” she said, and nothing more, and after that none of us sang anymore for a while, and then she said, “So it would keep them off, wouldn’t it?”

After a moment, my father said quietly, “I don’t know, Wanda. God does not save us from suffering on this Earth. The Staryk afflict the righteous as well as the sinful, just as do illness and sorrow.”

He told us the story of the book of Job, then, from memory. It wasn’t comforting, of course, unless you liked the end, which I didn’t, but my father never reached it that day; he was just where Job was lamenting the injustice of God, his whole family gone, when the blow came on the door, a heavy thump like a hard stick knocking on the door. We all jumped, and my father stopped talking. We all sat in silence staring at the door. Finally, my father said abruptly, “Why, Sergey shouldn’t have tried to come in this.”

He got up and went to the door. I wanted to shout a protest, to tell him to keep back; I saw Wanda draw deep into the knot of her blankets with a wide, wary face. She didn’t think it was her brother, either. Even my father didn’t really think it; he took the poker with him as he went to the door, and then he reached over with his left hand and pulled it open with a swift jerk, the poker raised high.

But there was no one at the door. Not even the wind came in. The snow had stopped as quickly as it had come, and outside it was only the ordinary dark of night, a last few floating flakes catching the firelight as they finished drifting down past our doorway. I stared and turned to look out the barred window, towards the forest: the Staryk road was gone.

“What is it, Josef?” my mother said.

My father was still in the doorway, looking down. I pushed aside my blankets and got up and went to his side. It wasn’t even very cold out anymore; my shawl was enough. But the path from our house had been filled in again as high as my knees, and even under the eaves, snow covered our old stone stoop thickly. A line of the cloven hoofprints came around the house from the back, and a pair of long pointed boot prints was pressed into the fresh snow before our house. In the very center of the stoop, resting lightly on the surface, was a small bag of white leather drawn shut.

My father looked round. We could see our neighbors now: all the houses had become squat white mushrooms with the tops of yellow-lit windows peering out over the snow covering their sills. There was not a soul anywhere in the road, but even as we watched, I saw movement in a window, a child’s hand rubbing a clear circle in the frozen glass. Swiftly my father bent down and took the leather bag. He brought it inside, and I closed the door behind him.

He put the bag down on the table. We all gathered around and stared at it as though it were a live coal that might at any moment set the whole house ablaze. It was made of leather, white leather, but not dyed by any ordinary method I’d ever heard of: it looked as though it had always been white, all the way through. There wasn’t a seam or stitch to be seen on its sides. Finally, when no one else moved to touch it, I tugged open the top, drawn by a white silken cord, and emptied out the coins within. Six small silver coins, thin and flat and perfectly round, slid onto the table in a little heap with a chiming like bells. Our house was full of warm firelight, but they shone coldly, as if they stood under the moon.

“It’s very kind of them to make us such a present,” my father said, dry. Of course, the Staryk would never do such a thing. Sometimes you heard stories of fairies who came with gifts. My own grandmother told a story sometimes that her grandmother had told her, that when her grandmother had been a little girl in Elkurt in the west, she had one day found a fox bleeding on the ledge of the window of her attic bedroom, torn as if by a dog. She brought it inside and tended its wound and gave it some water. It lapped it up and then said to her in a human voice, “You have saved me, and one day I will repay the favor,” and then leapt out the window again. And when she was a grown woman, with children of her own, one day she opened her kitchen door to scratching and the fox was there, and it told her, “Take all your family and any money you have in the house and go hide in the cellar.”

And she did as the fox said, and even as they hid, they heard outside a roaring of angry voices. Men came into their house, knocking over furniture and breaking things above their heads, and there was a smell of smoke thick in the air. But somehow the men did not find the cellar door, and the smoke and fire did not come down.

They crept out again that night at last and found their house and the synagogue and all their neighbors’ houses on every side burned down. They took their few remaining possessions and ran to the edge of the quarter and hired a man with a cart to drive them east, and so came to Vysnia where the duke then had opened the doors to the Jews, if they came with money.

But that was a story from another country. You did not hear stories like that about the Staryk. Here, you heard that once a strange white beast had come to a peasant’s barn with a wounded Staryk knight drooping on its back, and in fear the peasants had taken him into their house and tended his wounds. And when he woke, he took up his sword and killed them, and then dragged himself out to his steed and rode back into the woods still dripping blood, and the only way anyone knew what happened was the mother had sent her two young children to hide in the hayloft of the barn and told them not to stir out of it until the Staryk was gone again.

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