Home > Spinning Silver(11)

Spinning Silver(11)
Author: Naomi Novik

Once he paused and shouted for me. “Stupid girl, went too far,” he said, grumbling, when I didn’t answer. “Now the fire is dying.” It was a long time before he went to bed and began to snore. Stepon and I were very cold by then. We crept into the house as quiet as we could and banked the fire, so it would not be dead before morning, and I put on the kasha to cook for breakfast. I showed Stepon how to do it so he would know next time. Then we crawled into bed and went to sleep. In the morning, my father beat me six hard wallops with his belt for having gone too far, even though the fire was all right and breakfast was ready. I think he was mostly hitting me because I hadn’t been there to hit last night. But he had a bad headache and he was hungry, so when Stepon put a big bowl of steaming kasha on the table, he stopped hitting me and sat down to eat. I wiped my face and swallowed and sat down next to him.

* * *

It was late when I reached Vysnia in Oleg’s sleigh. I slept that night in my grandfather’s house, and early the next morning I went down to the market in our quarter and asked around until I found the stall of Isaac the jeweler, the one my cousin Basia meant to marry. He was a young man with spectacles and stubby but careful fingers, handsome, with good teeth and nice brown eyes and his beard trimmed short to stay out of his work. He was bent over an anvil in miniature, hammering out a disk of silver with his tiny tools, enormously precise. I stood watching him work for maybe ten minutes before he sighed and said, “Yes?” with a faint hint of resignation, as though he’d hoped I would go away instead of troubling him to do any business. I brought out my white pouch and spilled the six silver coins onto the black cloth he worked upon.

“That’s not enough to buy anything here,” he said, matter-of-fact, with barely a glance; he started to go back to his work, but then he frowned a little and turned around again. He picked one coin up and peered at it closely, and turned it over in his fingers, and rubbed it between them, and then he put it down and stared at me. “Where did you get these?”

“They came from the Staryk, if you want to believe me,” I said. “Can you make them into something? A bracelet or a ring?”

“I’ll buy them from you,” he offered.

“No, thank you,” I said.

“To make them into a ring would cost you two zlotek,” he said. “Or I’ll buy them from you for five.”

My heart leapt: if he would buy them from me for five, that meant he thought he could sell whatever he made for more. But I didn’t try to bargain up his price. “I have to give the Staryk back six gold coins, in exchange,” I said instead. “So I can pay you one zlotek to make a ring for me, or if you like, you can sell whatever you make, and we’ll divide whatever profit there is left after the Staryk is paid off,” which was what I really wanted; I was sure Isaac could sell a piece of jewelry better than I could. “I’m Basia’s cousin, Miryem,” I added, at the end, saving it for the last.

“Oh,” he said, and looked down at the six coins again and stirred them with his fingers; then finally he agreed. I sat down on a stool behind his counter, and he set about the work. He melted the coins in a small hot oven that the jewelers shared, in the middle of their stalls, and then he poured the liquid silver into a mold, a thick one made of iron. When it had half cooled, he took it out with his leathered fingertips and engraved a pattern into the surface, fanciful, full of leaves and branches.

It didn’t take him long: the silver melted easily and cooled easily and took the tiny tip of his engraving knife easily. When he was done, he tipped the ring onto black velvet, and we just looked at it together in silence for a while. The pattern seemed oddly to move and shift: it drew the eye and held it, and shone cold even in the midday sun. Then Isaac said, “The duke will buy it,” and sent his apprentice running into the city. A tall, imperious servant in velvet clothes and gold braid came back with the boy, making clear in every line of his expression how annoyed he was by the interruption of his own important work, whatever that might have been, but even he stopped being annoyed when he saw the ring and held it on his palm.

He bought the ring for ten zlotek on the spot, and carried it away in a closed box that he held carefully with both hands. Isaac had ten golden zlotek in his hand, and even so all he and I did was sit there and watch the duke’s servant until he was all the way out of sight, as if even inside the box the ring was pulling our eyes after it. The man grew more and more distant along the busy market lane, and still I had no trouble finding him in the crowd. But at last he walked through the gates of the quarter and was gone, and we were set free to look down at our reward, the ten gold coins we had made out of Staryk silver.

I put six of them back into the little white pouch. Isaac kept two—it would help pay a good bride price—and then I took the last two back to my grandfather’s house and proudly gave them to him, to go into the vault with the rest of my gold. He smiled a hard little smile at me, full of satisfaction, and tapped my forehead with his forefinger. “There’s my clever girl,” he said, and I smiled back, just as hard, just as satisfied.

“You don’t mean to leave so late!” my grandmother said a little reproachfully when I meant to put on my wraps after dinner: it was Friday.

“I’ll get there before sundown, if we go fast,” I said. “And Oleg will be driving, not me.” I had gotten him to wait for me a night, in exchange for forgiving him his next payment; it was cheaper than paying a carter from Vysnia to take me home. He had slept in my grandfather’s stable with his horse, but he wouldn’t want to stay longer, not without more payment, and we couldn’t have left until after sundown tomorrow. Anyway, the Staryk didn’t keep Shabbat, and I wasn’t sure how I was meant to get them back their changed money. I thought perhaps I would have to leave it on the doorstep of my house, for them to come and take away.

“She will get there in time,” my grandfather said with finality, making it all right. So I climbed back into Oleg’s sleigh.

We made good time over the hard frozen snow, the horse trotting quickly with only my weight in back. It grew dark under the trees, but the sun had not quite gone down yet, and we were close to home. I hoped we would make it, but then the horse slowed, and then dropped to a walk, and then halted entirely. She stood there unmoving with her ears pricked up anxiously, warm breath gusting out of her nostrils. I thought perhaps she needed a little rest, but Oleg hadn’t said anything to her, and he didn’t move to make her start jogging again.

“Why are we stopping?” I asked finally. Oleg didn’t answer me: he slumped in his seat as though he slept. A chill wind rose, murmuring against my back, creeping over the edges of the sledge and wriggling its way through the covers to get to my skin. Blue shadows stretched out over the snow, cast by a pale thin light shining somewhere behind me, and as my breath rose in quick clouds around my face, the snow crunched: some large creature, picking its way towards the sleigh. I swallowed and drew my cloak around me, and then I summoned up all the winter-cold courage I’d ever found and turned.

The Staryk didn’t look so terribly strange at first; that was what made him truly terrible. But as I kept looking slowly his face became something inhuman, shaped out of ice and glass, and his eyes like silver knives. He was beardless like a boy, but his face was a grown man’s, and he was tall, too tall when he drew near and loomed over me like the marble statue in the square of Vysnia, carved larger than life. He wore his white hair in long braids. His clothes, just like his purse, were all in that same unnatural white leather, and he was riding a stag, larger than a draft horse, with antlers branched twelve times and hung with clear glass drops, and when it put out its red tongue to lick its muzzle, its teeth were sharp as a wolf’s.

I wanted to quail, to cower. Instead I held my fur cloak tight at the throat with one hand against the chill that rolled off him, and with my other I held out the purse to him as he came close to the sleigh.

He paused, surveying me out of one silver-blue eye with his head turned sideways, like a bird looking me over. He put out his gloved hand and took the bag, and he opened it and poured the six gold coins out into the cup of his hand, the faint jingle loud in the silence around us. The coins looked different in his hand, warm and sun-bright, shining against the unnatural cold white of his glove. He looked down at them and seemed surprised and also vaguely disappointed, as though he was sorry I’d managed it. He poured them back into the bag and pulled the drawstring tight around the golden light, like closing away a sunbeam, and the bag vanished beneath his long cloak.

The Staryk road was a wide shining lane behind him, just through the trees. He turned his steed towards it without saying a word, taking those six gold coins I had gotten with my work and fear as though they were only his due, and anger rose up in me. “I’ll need longer next time, if you want more of them changed,” I called after him, throwing my words against the hard icy silence like a shell around us.

He turned his head round and stared at me, as though surprised I’d dared to speak to him, and then the sharp-antlered deer took a step onto the road, and he wasn’t there anymore; Oleg shook himself all over and chirruped to the horse, and we were trotting again. I fell back into the blankets shivering as though the air had grown suddenly much colder; the tips of my fingers where I’d held out the purse were numbed. I pulled off my glove and tucked them underneath my arm to warm them up, wincing as they touched my skin. A feathery snowfall began to come down around us as we drove the rest of the way.

* * *

I noticed the silver ring on my father’s hand that night as his finger beat out his irritation against the side of his goblet, in steady clinks. He commanded me to a formal dinner at his table one night a week; to improve my manner in polite company, he said. My manners did not need improving—Magreta had seen to that—but whatever my father’s real reason, it was certainly not for his own pleasure. He was dissatisfied every time he saw me, as though he’d hoped I might have become more beautiful, more witty, more charming. Alas, no. But I was his only child old enough to bother with yet, as my half brothers were still in the nursery, and my father disliked for anything he owned to be idle.

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