Home > Spinning Silver(8)

Spinning Silver(8)
Author: Naomi Novik

“Yes,” Miryem said. “Every day you and he will earn two pennies. Half will go to the debt until it is paid, and I will give you half in coin. And here is the first, for today.”

She took out a round clean penny and put it shining in my hand, like a reward for thinking yes instead of no. I stared down at it, and then I closed my hand around it in a fist. “I will talk to Sergey,” I said.

But when I told him, in a whisper, in the woods, far from where Da might be to overhear, he asked, “They only want me to stay in the house? They will give me money, just to stay in the house, and feed their goats? Why?”

I said, “They’re afraid of burglars,” but as soon as the words came, I remembered that it wasn’t true. But I couldn’t remember what the truth was.

I had to stand up and pretend to be holding the basket for the chickens, and walk around, before the memory of that morning would even come back into my head. I had gone outside and quietly eaten some of the stale bread, standing at the corner of the house where they wouldn’t see me, and neither would the chickens, and then I had gone around the corner and I had seen the footprints—

“The Staryk,” I said. The word was cold in my mouth. “The Staryk were there.”

If Miryem hadn’t given me the penny, I don’t know what we would have done. I knew my father’s debt didn’t matter anymore. No law would make me go to a house where the Staryk were coming and looking in the windows. But Sergey looked at the penny in my hand, and I looked at it, and he said, “A penny each, every day?”

“Half of it goes to the debt, for now,” I said. “One penny each day.”

“You will keep this one,” he said after a moment, “and I will keep the next.”

I didn’t say, Let us go to the white tree and ask for advice. I was like Da then. I didn’t want to hear Mama’s voice saying, Don’t go, it’ll be trouble. I knew there would be trouble. But I also knew what would happen if I stopped working. If I told Da, he would say I didn’t have to go back another minute to a house of devils, and then he would sell me in the market for two goats, to someone who wanted a wife with a strong back and no numbers in her head. I would not even be worth as much as six kopeks.

So instead I told my father that the moneylender wanted someone to help tend goats, and it would pay his debt quicker if he let Sergey go to them at night. He scowled and said to Sergey, “Be back an hour after sunrise. When will the debt be paid?”

Sergey looked at me. I opened my mouth and said, “In three years.”

I expected him to hit me, to shout I was a fool who couldn’t do my sums. But Da only growled, “Bloodsuckers and leeches,” and then he added to Sergey, “You will tell them they must give you breakfast there! We will have no more taking milk from the goats.”

So we had three years now. First there would be a penny every other day, and then a penny every day. Sergey and I clutched hands together behind the house. He said in a whisper, “What will we buy with it?”

I didn’t know how to answer him. I hadn’t thought of buying anything with the money. I only thought of having it, real in my hands. Then Sergey said, “If we spend any of it, he’ll find out. He’ll make us give it to him.”

First I thought, at least Da would not want to take me to the market. If I brought home a penny every day, he would be glad to let me keep working for the moneylender. But then I thought of him taking my pennies, of having to put each shining one into his hand. I thought of him going to town and drinking them up, gambling, never working anymore. He would be happy every day. “I won’t,” I said. My stomach burned. “I won’t let him have any of it.”

But we didn’t know what to do. Then I said, “We’ll hide it. We’ll hide it all. If we work for three years, and don’t spend it, we will have ten kopeks, each. Together that will be one zlotek. A coin of gold. And we’ll take Stepon and go away.”

Where could we go? I didn’t know. But I was sure that when we had so much money, we could go anywhere. We could do anything. And Sergey nodded; he thought so too. “Where can we hide it?” he asked.

So we went to the white tree, after all, and beneath the stone on my mother’s grave we dug a hollow and we put the penny into it, and covered it again with the stone. “Mama,” I said, “please keep it safe for us.” Then we hurried away and didn’t wait to see if anything would happen. Sergey didn’t want to hear Mama tell us not to do it, either.

That night after dinner he went to town, with a cap I tied together from rags around his head to keep his ears warm. I stood in the front yard watching him go. The Staryk road was still lingering near in the forest, shining. It wasn’t like a lamp, but like stars on a cloudy night. If you tried to look right at it, you couldn’t see it. If you looked away, it was there gleaming in the corner of your eye. Sergey had been staying away from it as much as he could. He didn’t like to go to the forest anymore. He stayed all the way on the shoulder of the village road, along the opposite edge across from the trees, even though he had to stamp through the snow there, and the road was packed hard by now. But soon he was gone into the dark.

In the morning, I could see his tracks still in the snow as I walked to town myself. I half wished he had walked in the road so I wouldn’t see them, because I was afraid that they would just stop somewhere along the way. But they didn’t. I followed them all the way to Miryem’s house, and Sergey was there at the table eating a bowl of nut-smelling hot kasha. It made my stomach hungry, too. We didn’t eat breakfast at our house anymore. There wasn’t enough food.

“Everything was quiet all night,” he said to me, and I took the basket and went out to the hens. There was a whole heel of bread in the basket, the middle of it still soft. I ate it and then I went to the hens, but they didn’t come out to meet me.

Slowly, I went closer. There were tracks all around the coop. The hoof like a deer, but big, with claws. The little window at the top, that I had closed yesterday when I left, was opened wide as if something had put its nose in. I bent down and put my hand inside the coop. The hens were there, sitting all together, crouched with their feathers all fluffed big. There were only three small eggs, and when I brought them out, one of them had a grey shell, pale whitish grey like ash in a fireplace.

I threw the grey one away into the forest as hard as I could and thought of brushing away the tracks and pretending I had not seen them. What if the moneylender told Sergey not to come again, because he had not kept away the Staryk? Maybe they would send me away, too. And if I brushed the snow clean, I would forget the tracks myself, just like I had yesterday. It would almost be as though they hadn’t been there at all. I went and got the broom that I used to sweep the yard. But it was leaning against the side of the house, and when I went to take it, I saw the boot marks. There were many of them. The Staryk had come to the back of the house, the same one with the pointed boots, and he had walked back and forth along the wall three times, right there where they slept.

Chapter 5

Wanda’s brother wasn’t much more than a boy: tall and broad and raw, a half-starved horse with his big bones poking out at elbows and wrists. When he arrived for the first time that evening, he said without looking up that his father would let him come if we gave him supper and breakfast, and when he sat down at the table, I could see Gorek was no fool to set those terms: he ate like a wolf. We might as well have doubled his wages, with the price of food going as it was. But I didn’t say anything, even when my mother gave him another piece of bread and butter. My parents had moved my bed into their room, and they gave Sergey a pair of blankets to sleep on in its place.

I woke up in the dark middle hours. My father was going into the living room, and the door was creaking open, letting in a gust of biting air. I heard Sergey stamping snow off his boots, and he said to my father briefly, “Everything is quiet.”

“Go back to sleep, Miryem,” my mother said softly. “Sergey was only looking around outside.”

I opened my eyes twice more at night to the sound of him going out and the sharp lick of the cold air, but I closed them again right away afterwards. Nothing happened. We rose in the morning and began cooking the kasha for breakfast. Sergey was outside hammering posts into the ground, to make a pen that would keep goats in. The Staryk road was still there in the trees, but when I peered at it from the window I thought maybe it was a little farther away. It was a grey cold day, and the sun did not come out, but the road glittered anyway. Some of the village boys were outside the village past our house, daring each other to try and throw a rock onto the Staryk road, or to touch it; I could hear their gleeful high voices taunting each other.

Wanda came while her brother was still at the table eating, and went out with the basket for the hens. She came back with the basket almost empty, only two eggs, though we had nine laying hens now. She set it on the table and we all looked at them. The eggs were small, the shells very white, and then she said abruptly, “There are more tracks behind the house.”

We went and looked at them. I recognized them when I saw them, although I had already forgotten what they looked like: until Wanda said anything, I had half forgotten they had ever been there at all. The long-toed boots had prowled round the back wall of the bedroom, back and forth three times, and the cloven-hooved animal had been standing beside the coop, leaving marks all over the snow around it like a fox sniffing round to find a hole to get in. The hens were all huddled together inside in a single feathery heap.

“I looked, I swear!” Sergey said, but my father said, “Never mind, Sergey.” Wanda brushed the yard, and we threw the two eggs into the midden. My mother’s arm was tight around my shoulders as we went back into the house.

Sergey went back to his father’s farm, and Wanda did the cleaning and went for water. I didn’t forget about the footprints again, even though I wanted to, but when Wanda came in, I stood up and said, “Come, we’re going to market,” and went for my shawl, as if there hadn’t been anything strange or out of the ordinary about the day. When we went out, I kept my back turned to the woods. The wind at my heels was cold, curling fingers up under the long hem of my dress. I didn’t turn to look and see if the silver glimmer of the Staryk road was still there.

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