I wept in front of the gate until the sun went down, and long into the night. I had never felt the loss of my land so fully. In the past, the pain was tempered by the assumption that I should soon be allowed back in, and the fact that time flowed so differently for my people that I should scarce notice its passing.
But perhaps I had been too long amongst the peoples of the earth, for time was slow, and life had become long, and I could not bear to be left outside any longer. But no matter how I wept and pleaded, the Gate remained closed to me.
I slept in front of it that night, shivering in the snow. When morning came, I knew that I must move along. It had been unwise to spend so much time here, perhaps foolish to come at all. I still remembered the words of the madman in the forest, and knew that the enemies of my people still searched for me. I did not want to think of what might happen if they ever found a way through the Gate.
The village that had been nearest when I was exiled was no longer there, fallen into disuse and ruin centuries ago and even the ruins lost under mud and snow now. It was a long journey to the next village, but I came to it in time.
The village was a small one, scarce large enough to have a market, but there was something of a town square, with a few ragged booths there. I was able to barter some small items for a warm winter cloak, which I wrapped around myself. I could not die from the cold, as men could, but I still felt it.
After inquiring about land on the edge of town, I found a small spot that had gone unclaimed by anyone. The land was hard and poor, but it would do. I ventured into the wood and began to gather fallen trees and sticks with which to build a house when spring came. When night fell, I went back to the village, and made my way to the small building near the center of town. It stood apart from the others, and was topped with a rough dome and a carved cross.
Knocking on the door, I waited until a man appeared. He was short and swarthy, and his beard was somewhat unkempt. But he had kind eyes, and a good demeanor.
“Please, sir, I am without a home until spring when I can build my cottage. I will keep your church clean for you, only let me sleep there while it is cold, that I may live through the winter.”
He looked worried. “It is not seemly for a woman to sleep in the church. Perhaps one of the other homes could offer you space?”
I shook my head. “They will not hear me, and this is my refuge. Did your god not tell you to care for the widow and the orphan? I am outcast from my people, and have nowhere else to go.”
he pulled at his beard for a moment, lost in thought. “Please, wait here. I will discuss this with my brothers.” The door closed, and I was alone again on the doorstep.
I knew little about the faith of men, but in my travels, I had seen these black-robed men take in many travelers and orphans, and I knew that they were my best hope for shelter in the coming months. I heard the sound of voices inside, and a heated discussion. Finally the door reopened, and the first man returned with another, this one with hair red as a fox, bald on top, but also sporting a long beard.
“I have discussed matters with my abbot, and it is agreed that you may stay here until spring, but only in the places where I shall show you.” I quickly agreed, and stepped inside.
It was not exactly warm inside the small stone building, but it was at least shielded from the biting wind, and dry.
There was a large room just inside, unlike anything I had ever seen in the world of men. A large painted screen was drawn across the front, and hundreds of faces painted in gold looked at me from the screen. The floor was covered in rugs, and candles stood in boxes of sand along the walls. The air was rich with the scent of incense, and the top of the room was a dome. In the crown of the dome was painted the fierce figure of a man holding a book of law and looking down with wide eyes. Surrounding him were winged figures of all kinds, and for a moment I remembered the wings of the Lawkeepers, and shivered. I wanted to leave this room, as soon as possible.
The man with the red beard pointed to a small room off to the side of the main one. “Over there is where the women prepare for baptism and marriage, and you may sleep there. It is all we have to offer. The women who come in the morning to clean the sanctuary will show you their work, and you may join them if you like. Now, we must return to our work. God be with you.” they disappeared into another part of the building, and I was left alone.
Wanting no more of the large room with the strange faces, I quickly walked into the small room the man had indicated. It was scarcely large enough to lie down in, but it was warm and dry, and would be fine for sleeping. I suddenly felt very tired, and lay down on a rug to sleep, my cloak spread over me.
As I drifted into the realm of dreams, I felt a momentary panic: if the Baba Yaga should pursue me in my dreams as she had done so often? But it was too late, and sleep over took me.
It was not until morning that I realized I had slept without dreams for the first time in many months.
When I woke, I could see thin beams of sunlight on the floor outside the tiny room where I had slept. I could hear voices as well, so I pulled my cloak around me and rebraided my hair to appear proper by the standards of the women of the village. Quietly, I stepped out into the hallway, and saw three women working and talking. Two were old women, long past the age of child rearing, but one was younger, perhaps no more than thirty human years. Her hair was blond and her eyes were brown and she laughed easily. They knelt on the hard stone floor, scrubbing it with rough brushes of hog's hair. The stones that had already been scrubbed were drying quickly in the sun, and shone dully.
“So Anyanka said that the child could eat as much mud as he liked, it would only make him stronger in the end!” One of the women finished the tale she had been telling, and the others laughed.
Then one of the older women noticed me standing in the doorway, and motioned to the others, who quickly fell silent.
“So you'll be the one that Brother Kristos told us of,” said one of the elder women. Her face was guarded, but not unpleasant. “He said you're sleeping in the women's preparation room until the winter is over and you can build your cottage. We're to show you the work we do so that you can help.”
I nodded silently, and stepped into the cold hallway. The younger woman pointed to the stone floor. “These are scrubbed down every week, on Saturday, so that they will be clean for the services on Sunday. Make sure to scrub up any mud that gets in the cracks between the stones.”
They moved into the sanctuary itself, and began gathering up the rugs and carrying them out into the daylight. The rugs were draped over the lower limbs of the trees that surrounded the building, and I was handed a large metal rod.
“This part is more fun than some of the others,” the younger woman whispered to me, then stepped forward and struck the rug a blow with the rod, sending dust billowing outward. Soon the air was full of dust, the sound of dull blows, and the occasional sneeze.
My arms ached, but the repetitive action felt good, and I struck the rug again and again until no more dust rose, then moved on to the next one. Within an hour, the rugs were clean, and sunbeams lanced their way through the dust motes that choked the air. They looked like lines of solid gold, and the clearing was full of them.
We carried the rugs back into the sanctuary and spread them on the floor again. This meant that the weekly tasks were done, I was told, and it was time to move on to the daily tasks. I learned to check the candles, replacing the ones that had burned down, scooping lumps of wax out of the sand to make sure it was clean, trimming wicks, and scrubbing soot marks off the walls. There were wine vessels to be filled, plates to be scrubbed, linens to be cleaned, and more. The work was not finished until the winter sun was high in the sky.
I was already tired, but it felt good to do this work. There was something in the sheer simplicity of repeated action, and seeing the results being made clear before me. It lacked the grandeur of magic, but there was a solid virtue in it.
I turned to leave the building; my stomach growled from the labor of the morning, and I hoped to find something in the woods that I could eat. I knew the pickings would be bare, but I knew many of the secrets of the forest that the humans in the village did not know, and I could find something. If nothing else, there were certain plants that lay dormant under the snow that could sustain me for some time.
But one of the women caught me as I turned to go. “Don't go. We had food enough to share, and Kristos thought you might be in need. It's not much, but there is enough for all of us to have our fill. We had a good harvest this year, and we are required to set aside a little for anyone who may find themselves in need.”
We went to the house of the oldest woman, which was spare but clean and warm. The table was soon set with rough earthenware plates. A loaf of bread was quickly brought steaming from the oven, and a plate of plain butter set on the table. Potatoes were rolled in the hot coals of the oven to roast, and dried fish was shared among us. The food was simple and rough, but solid, and far better than the pickings I had expected to find in the forest. The potatoes were done by the time we finished the rest of the meal, and we carefully rolled them from the coals with long sticks and let them sit on the hearth, steaming away, until they were cool enough to handle.
The outsides were burnt all black, but inside that coal-like shell was a large helping of hot white potato, still steaming in the cool air, and tasting better than anything I had had in months.
I still did not feel comfortable enough to join in the conversation of the other women, which was mostly about women I did not know, men of the village, and the state of each one's kitchen. I had never spent much time in the company of women. Since my exile I had either avoided cities alltogether, or spent my time with armies. In the Summer Realm, things were different, and we did not tend to gather in groups as these women did. There were no chores to be done there, and each of us went her own way to do her own work. This would take some getting used to, but it was not unpleasant.
The younger woman suddenly turned to me. “I am so sorry, it did not occur to me until just now, but Brother Kristos did not tell us your name, and I did not think to tell you mine. I am Katya.”
I nodded to her, and quietly said, “I am...I am Vasilissa.”
“Ah!” said the eldest woman. “I used to tell my daughters stories about the princess Vasilissa, who was exiled from her kingdom, fell in love with a man, and defeated Koschei the deathless. One of my favorite stories, and a lovely name. I am Hana.” I looked into her eyes, which were a startling shade of green, to see if she had meant anything by mentioning that old story, but there was nothing there except friendliness and a hint of concern.
“And I am Stasia,” said the woman who was between Katya and Hana in age. She had a scar that crossed her forehead just above her right eye, and it gave her a surprised look. I wondered what had happened to cause such a scar.
“thank you all for the wonderful meal,” I said, keeping my voice low. “But I must not impose on your hospitality any longer. I mean to find some way to pay for my keep in this village until spring comes and I can do my own planting. I must go out to look in the woods to see what I can find.”
katya stood quickly. “You are welcome to share our meals. We are charged with keeping the church clean, and the brothers have given us extra food from their own pantry to allow for one more. It will keep you through the winter.” She smiled again, and I noticed that her face was already beginning to wrinkle, though she was young. How hard her life must be to age her so young, I thought, and yet she smiles.
In one quick motion, she wrapped up the heel of the bread in a clean cloth, and handed it to me. “Take this bread; it's not much, but it will make a decent dinner. You don't have to go to the woods: they are not safe. There are wolves in winter, and some have even spoken of witches that roam through the trees, seeking to prey on the unwary.” Stasia made a derisive sound, and Katya looked slightly embarrassed. “It's not to say I believe in such things, and I know that the angels will protect me, but...well, there are stories...”
“Don't listen to such nonsense, Vasilissa,” Hana said with a smile. “the women here tell some wild stories, but it's a simple village, and there are no dangers more than the usual. Our tsar is strong, and he keeps the borders well defended. I do not know what you came here to escape, but you can make a good life here.”
I felt as though the walls were closing in around me; though the women were pleasant and the village a welcome change from the woods, the thought of living among them for decades seemed like a prison. My breath quickened and I could feel my heart pounding in my chest.
I swallowed the swelling sense of panic, and tried to smile. “Thank you. I do not know if I will make my home here for long, but I do intend to spend the spring and summer here at least. Long enough to supply myself for a long journey, if I choose to go elsewhere. I thank you for your hospitality.” with those words, I excused myself, and left the cottage quickly. Stepping into the sunlit afternoon, I breathed the cold air in large draughts, tasting freedom again. It would be a long winter.
Ignoring Katya's protestations, I went to the forest that afternoon, if for nothing else than to stay away from the village for a time. The woods were quiet and cold, and well-lit on the borders. My shoddy boots crunched through the thin crust of ice on the surface of the snow, and I made good time. I picked up small pieces of wood, thinking to carve them into something useful, or perhaps weave strips of bark into baskets. My thoughts were scattered, drifting between the task at hand, the thought of surviving the winter on the hospitality of the village, and simply joy at being in the woods again. They had begun to feel like home, for better or ill, and I enjoyed the walk.
I should have kept my guard up. Katya was perhaps superstitious, but that did not mean that the stories she had heard were untrue. It took a while for the sound to make its way into my awareness, but when it did, I froze.
Scrape. Scrape. Brush. Scrape.
I would have known the sound anywhere, but hearing it after talking to the women this afternoon sent an extra chill down my spine. Had she followed me here? How had she known to follow the trail of a common grey wolf? No matter: she was the grandmother of witches, and she must have had her way. Now to find a way to evade her, if she had not seen me yet.
I tucked the wrapped loaf into my belt, and scattered the sticks I'd gathered. I leaped into a tree, pulling myself up branch by branch until I found a hawk's nest. I clambered above it, shielding myself from any prying eyes below. The branches swayed ominously, but held.
Soon, I saw her, as I had so often seen her in my dreams since that day at the Gate. She came on like the wind, driving her mortar with the iron pestle, and sweeping her path clean with the broom. She stopped for a moment, the mortar crunching heavily into the snow, and looked around. She sniffed the air, like some hunting creature, and I held my breath lest she heard the wind rushing into my lungs.
The ancient creature prodded a stick on the ground; was it one I had dropped? I could not tell from this height. The witch looked up, and I held as still as I could, hoping that the nest would shield me from her gaze. She scanned the treetops for a moment, then with a huff, moved on, sweeping the spot clean. In a few moments, she had moved out of sight, back into the depths of the wood. But it was not until I was safe in the shelter of the church again that I let myself breathe deeply.
I told no one about my encounter with the Baba Yaga. What good would it do to stir up the emotions of those who were credulous, and invite the scorn of those who were not. I kept the story to myself. I did not rest easy until I had lit all of the candles I could find in the sanctuary. I did not know if the brothers there would notice the lights burning, but at that moment, I did not care. I simply needed the light. Once I had lit the candles, I stepped back into the preparation room, and looked into the sanctuary. It looked much better by the flickering candlelight than I had expected. The eyes of the painted saints with gold faces were much less harsh, and I almost thought that some of them looked at me with kindness.
I knew the stories of the faith of these people, of course. One could not spend centuries around men and not come to know something of what they thought and what they worshiped. The dying god on the cruel tree made no sense to me, but it seemed to comfort them, and I had no wish to deny them anything that made their difficult lives easier. It often seemed to me that the gold on their painting and church domes could have been better used to feed their poor, but even their poor did not seem to mind,. And neither did I, I realized.
It came to me with a shock that I was now one of their poor. They had no idea of my true being, my homeland, or my story. To them I was simply another mouth to feed, one with no home, no family, no ties anywhere. Not fundamentally different from the madwoman who drooled and raved in the market square every day. It was a sobering thought. I had been a horse, a fish, a warrior queen, and a wolf, all respected for my magical abilities and what I had been able to do for men. But when I was quiet, when I kept my own counsel and relied on others for my sustenance, I was simply thus: one of the poor.
“So why is it that you draw the imagination of men,” I wondered aloud, looking up at the golden face of the god in the dome. He looked down with an expression so complex that even I could not fully interpret it. Judgment, yes, but kindness, and something else, something that escaped me entirely. No, not entirely, I realized. It was something like the look in Ivan's eyes when he spoke to me just before his borrowed life was over. The knowledge fo this made me uncomfortable, and I pushed it to the back of my mind. I turned my attention to the screen of saints' faces that separated the front of the sanctuary from the place where the people stood. I had seen behind it earlier, when we were cleaning the room, and instead of grand mysteries, I found only a simple stone block, engraved with many symbols that I did not recognize. It was such a simple thing, and I did not understand why it was hidden so carefully., I intended to watch their rituals the following day: perhaps it was some form of magic that I had not encountered yet.
I found myself speaking to the gilded saints in their screen. “you could not know of such things, but I feel so far from my home. This world is so dark and cold, and even summer here is a pale imitation of every day in the Summer Realm. I miss the warm nights under the shimmering sky. I long for the taste of honeysuckle on my lips, and the scent of jasmine in my nose. I want to feel those long grasses under my feet again, but I do not know if I can ever go back. The Lawkeepers did not tell me that I was banished forever, but sometimes I wonder.”
I felt myself babbling, and forced myself to stop. There was no point to it, this baring of my heart to an empty room. It did not matter that the room no longer felt empty; I was alone.
In silence, I pulled my cloak over myself to sleep, but I could not bear to put out the candles. When I woke in the morning, they had all burned down to melted puddles. I hurried to replace them, but Brother Kristos caught me as I placed the last of the new candles and gave me a curious look. I opened my mouth to explain why I had needed to replace every taper in the room, but he had gone without a word and without asking for an explanation.
I sat in the small room, with a curtain drawn across the entrance. Katya sat just on the other side, whispering to me, explaining the rituals. It all seemed to strange to me; my words could raise castles from bare earth, create a glamor of such beauty that no mortal man might resist. These words did nothing that I could see; just murmuring and gestures. At one point, a call went out: “the doors, the doors!” Katya looked almost frightened, and hurriedly whispered to me that I should go out by the back door of the preperation room, and wait outside. I did as she asked, though I did not know why she asked it.
The sky was clear, and an incredible shade of blue that it only seemed to take on during the winter season. I walked around the building, trying to listen in to the rituals that were still happening, but I could hear nothing save the occasional off-key song. Before long, the people came out of the building, shuffling and stamping their feet to keep warm. None of them appeared any different, though they were all smiling. It was a mystery to me, and I wondered what it was about this strange rite that meant so much to them. No matter, I thought. I would not intrude upon their worship again.
Katya found me after the ritual had ended, and slipped me a small basket, full of bread and cheese, and even a simple ewer of fresh milk. I tried to refuse, but she pressed it on me, and I relented. I found a large rock a few yards away from the edge of the forest. I was leery of going so near the woods again, but the rock was in full sunlight, and warm with the heat of the day. I opened the basket and began to eat. I saved as much of the meal as I could, but I was hungrier than I had thought, and there was little left. The milk was sweet and cold, and I drank it all, since it would not keep.
I sat there in the sun for a long time, feeling the heat sink into my hair and turning my face into the breeze that blew lightly across the town. I was calm in the moment, and did not want to move; in moments like these, I almost thought that living in the village for a span might not be such a terrible thing. But always I heard a misgiving voice in my heart, warning me that I was not free to make such choices. Koschei and the Baba Yaga still chased me, and they were determined to force their way into the Summer Realms by means of their foul arts. I sighed, and slipped off the rock, and made my way back toward the village.
I had thought to slip back into the church and spend the rest of the day in the small preparation room. I was used to being alone with my thoughts, and this would be welcome.
But as I reached the edge of the village, I was met by the red-bearded Brother Kristos. I nodded to him, thinking to pass by, but he stopped me.
“I wish to apologize. I had not thought that you might not be of our faith, and did not think to explain the service before. The Church has a long memory, and we guard our most important ritual carefully, from memory of persecution in times past. Katya tells me that there were no difficulties; I humbly apologize.”
I was silent for a long moment, unsure of what to say. Should I tell him about the candles? About my long speech to the gold-faced saints on the screen in the dark of the night? But no, such things were not to be spoken of.
“do not apologize, Brother Kristos, there was no harm done.”
He looked at me carefully, and I wondered if these priests had the ability to sense magic, to understand when they were near a creature that differed fundamentally from them. Would he know me for what I was?
But if he saw anything that gave him pause, he gave no sign of it, and bid me good day and walked out into the woods.
That winter was one of the longest of my life. I am not accustomed to depending upon others for my need, but I did not want to be alone in the woods when the Baba Yaga was searching for me. I needed to become one of the simple village women, and so I held myself down, and used none of my magic, and became as simple as I could. Accepting hospitality grated on my pride, but accept it I did, and I survived the winter.
When the snows thawed, I walked out to the place where I had chosen to place my cottage. Through the winter, I had made a large stack of logs and trees that had fallen under the weight of the ice on their branches. I placed the logs in a circle, and began to build a wooden frame.
The men of the village sometimes stopped to watch me, as they made their way to their farms, or a distant town, or to the forest to chop wood for their fires. Several of the younger men offered to help me build the cottage, but I refused, always politely. I needed something that I myself had made: though I could not use any obvious charms that might attract attention, I whispered little ones, tiny streams of words that would shield and cloak the cottage, hiding it from the eyes of those who would do me harm.
Slowly, the cottage took shape. I scooped up mud from the ground, and daubed it in the space where I had been able to weave no branches, and by the time the stream thawed, I could no longer hear the wind whistling through the walls of my home.
The floor slowly dried and I swept out the interior of the cottage until it was clean hard packed earth. I planted seeds in the mud of the walls, and soon the whole cottage was sprouted with flowers and vines. I hoped it would help hold the walls together, and it reminded me of my flowery hammock in the Summer Realm.
The nights grew warmer, and thanking the brothers for their hospitality, I left the church and began to sleep in my own home. In some ways, I missed the little room. I liked the smell of incense that had seeped into the walls over the years, and the dripping of the candle wax, and the screen of gold painted saints. Katya had told me many of their stories, while we cleaned the sanctuary, and some of them were beautiful, though many of them were incomprehensible to me.
The cottage smelled of earth and flowers, and a hint of the bread that I had began baking in a small oven that was set into the wall. I had to walk to the next house over any time the fire went out,to get more embers, but it was worth it to be able to cook my own food.
Spring came slowly but surely, and the green grass spread. The forest came alive with the songs of birds, and rabbits ran wild through the village, chased by the occasional dog that escaped its fence.
I found that I enjoyed life in the little village, when I no longer relied on the hospitality of others. It was pleasant, and though the work was often hard, it was always something worth doing. And sometimes there were dances and feasts, when the music would last long into the night. I never stayed long at such events, for the young men of the village would often take it into their minds to try to woo me, but I always went for at least one dance. I loved whirling to and fro across the lawn, spinning myself around and around under the stars.
That summer, the old woman who knew medicine died. She had been their nurse for many years, and knew many of the herbs that grew in the woods, and how to use them. When Katya worried over the health of her newborn daughter, I brewed her a draught that cooled fever. Soon after that, others came to me for cures and poultices. I was careful to use no magic in any of them, only the natural properties of the plants that might be found. But it could not be denied that I had a great deal of skill in this field, and soon I became the new medicine woman.
It was a pleasant life, and I began to lose track of time. When I went out to gather herbs in the wood, I always kept an ear open for the scraping sound of the Baba Yaga's mortar, but heard nothing. Once I thought I heard the cold jangling iron of Koschei's bit and bridle, but it was nothing. In any case, the children of the village often brought me bundles of herbs that they had gathered in the wood, and I did not always have to venture out into the forest for myself.
Years passed in quiet. Hana died one fall, and I wept for her. We laid her to rest in the ground, with a wreath of flowers in her hair, and the colorful leaves blowing into the open grave. I asked Katya, later, why the wreath was placed on her head. The only other time I had seen such a thing was the wreath that Elenya wore on her marriage day. Katya gave a small smile through her tears. “She has gone to Heaven, to her reward, and the Bridegroom is there to meet her. Should she not wear her best to greet Him?” this answer was no answer to me, but I did not ask again.
The children who had been young when I came to the village grew, and married each other, and had children of their own. The new children also brought me bundles of herbs and flowers, and so the cycle continued. I was careful to change my face every few years, to appear more aged. It would not do for me to still appear as a young woman after four decades had passed. Those times were a shock to me; sometimes I almost forgot that I was not, after all,human.
But the memories were always there: sometimes a whiff of fragrance in the night would bring me to tears, or the sight of one of the pale curtains of light would remind me of my true home. In those moments, I felt utterly alone in the world, and thought my heart would break with the grief of separation.
But these times did not come often, and the village continued on, growing old and always bringing forth new life.
Then one year, when winter was upon the land and the ground was hard, I heard a knocking on my door. I opened it to find Katya's grandchild standing there with a burning taper, a look of fear on his young face. “If you please, Vasilissa, my grandmother is taken ill, and needs your help. She burns with a fever and cannot rest. Please come quickly.”
I gathered the herbs I thought I might need, and tucked them into a basket. Hurrying through the snow, I made my way to the house Katya shared with her husband. They were both quite old now, and I knew that she could not live much longer, but I was determined to give her more years if I could.
I stepped through the doorway, shaking snowflakes from my cloak and hair. Katya was lying on the bed, her white hair spread on the pillow around her. She was very still, though she burned with fever, and I knew there was little I could do save to ease her passing.
Tears sprung to my eyes, and the words to call the raven sprung to my lips, but I hesitated. I remembered his parting words to me, and looked at Katya lying so still and pale. I knew, deep in my heart, that her time had come. To bring her back would do no good, for she would die soon in any case. Her work was done, and I almost hated her for it.
I asked for a bowl of water to be heated, and it was brought to me. I crumbled a selection of herbs into the water, and dipped a cloth into it. I wiped down Katya's face and hands with the fragrant water, and felt her breathing ease. Her heart was beating slowly now, and I felt her slipping away from me.
“Katya, it is Vasilissa. Your family is here with you, and you are safe in our love.”
Quietly, I heard the door open, and turned to see one of the priests from the church slip in. I hurried to finish my work that he might give her the rituals that would send her spirit on in peace. “Katya, we love you, and we wish you well. Go in peace.” My tears dropped into the bowl of water, and I turned away.
The priest finished his work, and we all stood around Katya's bed, waiting. It would not be long now, and my herbs had done their work, helping her rest and find calm.
Within the hour, her breathing grew very shallow, and with one last gasp, her heart was stilled and she lay dead in the little cottage. Her family began to weep, and I left them to their grief. Friends can be a comfort in times of loss, but I had learned that some moments must be experienced alone.
I went out into the cold night, and saw the stars shining clear and bright. I hated them in that moment. How dare the world go on, when my friend was gone,and I would never see her again? It was strange, that I should live so many centuries among men, and not until now learn to rage against death. But until that moment, I had never been so close to any of the human race, nor had anyone that I cared about so much been taken from me. I wanted to tear the whole earth asunder, ripping apart the threads of existence until all of creation went down to join Katya in the grave.
Of course, I did no such thing. I knew that such was the way of mankind: to live a little while, build a small life, and then pass into darkness again. I felt as though I was two people. The first was the native Hyperborean, who could weather the flow of centuries with ease and scarcely notice. But the second was the woman I had been trying so hard to become, to escape from the prying gaze of my enemies. This new woman was human, and knew age and death and time. And I was both women, and my friend was dead.
It was a hard winter that year. The crops had not done well, and we all tightened our belts for the season. I waited to hear when Katya's burial service would be, but word did not come. Finally, a week after her death, I knocked on the door of her house. Her husband answered, the marks of tears still staining his face.
He had been a handsome man, once; young and strong, with a fine brown beard, he had been a woodcutter. But he was now old and stooped, and his once-muscled arms trembled.
“God be with you during this time, Sacha,” I said, offering the traditional greeting in times of loss. “I wished to ask you about when Katya's burial has been planned.”
Sacha looked stricken, and I regretted asking the question, though I did not know why it should have such an effect on him.
“Please, come in,” he said quietly, gaining control of himself. “It is a long story, and I would not have you standing out in the cold. You have a reputation for wisdom, perhaps you can advise me.”
When we were both seated at the rough kitchen table, he began to tell his story.
“I wanted to bury my Katya with all the full rites, but such things require money. There is the coffin to be had, gifts to lay down with the dead, and the undertaker to pay. The ground is hard, frozen solid, and I cannot dig her grave myself. I went to the undertake, to ask what I should do. The price he asked, for seeing that all was done well, was too much for me. I had to leave the body of my dear wife in the charnel house, to wait out the winter until the ground is softer and I can dig her grave myself, or perhaps get one of our children to help.”
I felt fury at the coldness of the undertaker's heart, but kept my feelings to myself. “Is there nothing that can be done? Katya was loved by the whole village, surely there are those who would be willing to give a little to help send her away as is proper.”
He shook his head. “I thought of it, but the price the undertaker asks is far too high. None of our friends have anything to spare, for the winter has hit us all unprepared, and it will be difficult to make it through to spring with what we have. No, there is nothing to be done, except to leave her in the charnel house until spring, and then I can give her the burial that she deserves. It just breaks my heart to think of her lying there on the hard stone, in the cold.” His voice broke, and a stream of tears flowed over his beard.
I left the small house in a rage, furious with those who sought to make profit from the misery of others, and furious at the world for allowing it. When I went back to my cottage, I began to look for the herbs I would need in the preparations to perform some of my magics. I had not done so in many years, but the memories were strong, and I knew that I could make the undertaker wish that he had never been born.
But as I reached for a handful of salt from my jar, I stopped to think more carefully. To put the undertaker in pain might satisfy the dark hunger in my heart for vengeance and destruction, but it would not bury Katya any faster. Pain for pain was no payment, when all was said and done. With a heavy heart, I undid my preparations, and sat down to think. When the sun set that day, I knew what must be done. As the moon rose, I slipped out of the cottage to do my work.
It was simply done, the work of a few moments, then I quickly returned. There was nothing more to be done now, except to wait for morning. Then, everything would be set in motion.
When morning came, I took care of all of my ordinary morning duties, then I took my simple spade, and made my way to Katya's house again. Knocking on the door, I called to Sacha. “Sacha, it is Vasilissa! Come out. We are going to bury Katya, even if we have to do it ourselves.”
In a moment, he opened the door, wide-eyed. “Vasilissa, the ground is cold and hard. I do not think I can dig a grave for her until spring.”
I held up my spade. “You will not be digging alone. Come, we can do it together. I will not see my friend lying in the charnel house one day longer.” Without a word, he joined me, and we walked to the spot where he had chosen to bury his beloved wife, under a tree in the cemetery.
I struck my spade into the ground; it only entered the soil for a few inches before stopping, but I overturned that bit of earth and kept going. Sacha joined my efforts. It was hard work, and my arms burned with the effort. The morning wore away, and still we dug.
Finally, when the sun had passed its peak and begun to journey toward the west, Sacha's shovel struck something harder than the ground. “A rock,” he groaned, and knelt at the edge of the hole to see if he could pull it free. But as his fingers brushed the dirt away, our eyes caught the gleam of metal. In a moment, he had cleared the soil off, and pulled out a small iron box. The lock it bore was easily broken, and when Sacha opened it, I feared his heart might give out. For inside the box was a small pile of pure gold nuggets, more than enough to pay for Katya's burial rites.
“Oh dear God in Heaven,” he prayed, clutching the box, “I thank You! Saint Nicholas, thank you! You have answered the prayers of my heart, and my Katya will no longer have to rest on cold stone!” He wept openly, and I turned away to give him a moment of privacy.
It had been a tricky thing, getting the box into the ground without disturbing the earth and snow on top. I had spent at least an hour searching my memory for the charms to accomplish such a thing. Conjuring the gold had been simple, by comparison. It was risky; surely the story of a treasure suddenly found would be told and retold for miles around, but it was the best I could do. I had given no-one any reason to think that magic was involved, and I hoped it would be enough not to draw the attention of the Baba Yaga.
By that evening, all of the funeral rites had been arranged. Several young men of the village had even been paid to finish digging the grave. The undertaker was now obsequiously helpful, though it only made me hate him more.
Though during my first years in the village I had not joined in the religious rituals, I found myself drawn to the small church more and more over the course of my life there. There was a comfort in the repeated motions, the familiar words, the rites that changed with the seasons. I still left before the final rite, since I was unbaptized, but over the years we had all become comfortable with this state of affairs. Once or twice some overly curious villager had asked me why I did not join their faith, and a few had speculated that I withheld myself out of devotion to another rite, but in time all the questions had simply been left unanswered and no-one asked anymore.
I had attended many funerals in the incense-steeped sanctuary, but none that wrung my heart like Katya's. When the priests had spoken of a life that the dead entered after passing from this world, it had always seemed like a cruel pretense, a lie told to keep children from crying in the dark. Why could men not just put aside the stories and face death with bravery and honesty? But now, for the first time, I understood, though the understanding was bitter. I could not help feeling the desperate hope that I might see Katya again, somehow, somewhere. Even if it was not true, it helped to think that it was true. I could no longer fault them for it.
The funeral was over before the sun went down, and I made my way to my cold little cottage. The fire had almost died, but I found a few living embers and slowly coaxed it back to life. I lit a few small candles, and lay down upon the stack of cloths and furs that served as my bed.
There were decisions to be made. I could not stay in the village much longer, I knew; even if I kept up my appearance of age, sooner or later they would begin to wonder why I did not die. I had to leave sometime, and now that my friend was dead, I did not see why it should not be sooner rather than later. I could easily go to another village as soon as spring came, and begin again. But things here must be completed first. I had no intention of leaving the undertaker to prey on the villagers. Surely the large sum of money that Sacha had been able to produce so suddenly must have caught his attention, and his curiousity would be piqued.
I decided to risk a little magic, and quickly donned my cloak; casting a small charm to make myself invisible to the eye and silent to the ear, I went out into the night.
The undertaker lived in a fine wooden house off the main road through the village, and kept several servants. He was not the richest man in the village, but he was close. I edged my way close to a window, trying to keep myself out of the light. I peered inside.
The undertaker, Basilokov, stood in the middle of the room, shouting at a servant who stood in the doorway. His voice was raised and I could hear every word.
“But how? How did the old man get the gold? He couldn't have been saving it, I know, or he would not have been so distressed at my rates for burying the old hag! But I've not heard news of any thefts or robbery, not that the old man would have it in him anyway.” He paced the floor rapidly.
“Perhaps someone simply gave it to him, melted down an old piece of jewelry or something,” the servant interjected.
“Impossible! I saw that gold, and those were pure nuggets, never seen the heat of fire before. No, something funny is going on here. I need to know where that gold came from, and if perhaps there is more of it there.”
I had heard enough, and slowly slipped through the night back to my own cottage. My hook was firmly set; Basilokov had taken the bait, and he would not escape now.
I closed the cottage door behind me, feeling the welcome warmth of the fire. The night was bitterly cold, and a few snowflakes had begun to fall. I sat in front of the fire for a long time, lost in thought. For the first time in years, I had begun to feel the old strangeness again. I had almost convinced myself that I was human. In my desire to hide from my enemies, I had almost lost myself. But though these years of hiding had been difficult, they had also been some of the happiest times I had known.
And now I knew, somehow, that it was at an end. And even this was something I had taken from my time in the village: nothing lasts forever. This is the ultimate tragedy of mankind, and something that few, if any, of my people ever had to know.
I would leave the village soon, that was already decided. But I wanted to see Katya's story to a close. It wouldn't be long now.
In the morning, I banked the little fire in my stove and went out into the village. A few inches of snow had fallen, and the world was white and smooth, with only a few trails of footprints here and there.
Again, I made my way to Sacha's, but saw the Basilokov was already there. Sacha did not seem eager to let him in the door, and I strove to hear what they said.
“Come now, Sacha,” Basilokov wheedled. “I know you had no money only a few days ago, and now you are tossing away gold nuggets left and right to pay for the most lavish funeral we have had in many years? If you have gotten the gold through any kind of thievery or deceit, you had best go and confess it to the priests right away! After all, you are an old man yourself, you would not want to die with such a thing on your conscience.”
“Oh, give it a rest, Basilokov,” exploded Sacha. “You have taken enough of the gold home with you already, haven't you, without inquiring as to its source? If you must know, I found it in an iron box, while digging a grave for poor Katya with my own hands, because you would not help an old man without two kopeks to rub together. That is the great secret of it; is it everything you expected? Good day to you!” And with those words, he slammed the door, causing a small avalanche of snow to come tumbling down from the roof, which Basilokov barely dodged.
I trailed him all day, trying to keep out of sight of any townspeople who might ask questions about my strange occupation. He would not go to the cemetery, that much I knew: Katya's grave had been thoroughly dug by his men, and he knew that there was no more gold in that hole, so he was restricted to trying to find a way to take more of it from Sacha himself. Though he was greedy through and through, I did not think he would go so far as to murder Sacha: he was deceitful and vain, but not violent. All the same, I kept my watch. When one has a fish on the line, it is best not to leave the pole unattended.
By the time night fell, the undertaker had returned to his house, and everything was quiet, as if the building were waiting for something. When it was dark outside, I saw Basilokov's servant enter the small yard, and make his way out to the stable where the animals were. Then came the quick bleat of a goat, and silence again. Then the servant returned, carrying a bloody bundle wrapped in a sheet, and I feared for a moment that Basilokov had some knowledge of black magic. Quickly moving to the window, I spoke a quick charm that loosened the mortar of the bricks. Pulling a bit of the mortar free, I listened to the conversation through the cracks.
“Quickly now, get that skin off the goat and sew it onto me. These clothes are old, and it does not matter if they get stained with blood. With that gold, I can buy a hundred new wardrobes and never even notice it.”
“Sir, I don't wish to contradict you, but this is not a good idea. It is cold out there, and the skin will soon freeze. Besides, frightening an old man--”
“--is a good way to get the old miser to let go of some of that gold,” the undertaker said harshly. “I'll only be gone for a little while; one glimpse of this costume, and the old fool will think the devil himself has paid him a visit.”
His arrogance stuck in my throat like gall, and almost before I could stop myself, I muttered a curse. It was the sort of curse that any old babushka in the village might pronounce, but mine had the power of my magic behind it. For a moment, I paused, and reached out to draw the sign that would undo the curse. But no. He deserved the words that I had spoken; it was not my original design, but it would do.
When the goat skin was sewn over him, Basilokov went out into the dark, chuckling to himself. I followed at a distance. He went to Sacha's house as straight as an arrow, as if his greed was a rope that pulled him onward. I saw him crouched outside the window, peering in. He was chuckling under his breath as he knocked on the clouded pane.
“Give me my money back, old Sacha,” he called in a throaty rasping voice unlike his own. “I let you find it, thinking that you would just take what you needed for the funeral, but you have kept the whole lot, and I want it back!”
Sacha's voice called from inside the house, and I could tell that he was frightened. “Who is there? I owe no-one any money! Go away!”
“I am the Devil, you foolish man, and if you do not give me back my gold I shall come inside and take it!” The undertaker pressed the dead goat's head up against the glass; the animal's tongue was black and protruding, and it must have been a horrible sight.
The door rattled, and the little iron box came flying out and landed in the snow. Sacha shouted, “I've lived my life without gold until now, I can do it again! Take it all back, and begone in the name of Christ!” The door slammed shut, and I heard the lock slide home. The box lay on its side, half buried. The broken latch had slipped loose, and the gold nuggets spilled out into the snow. Basilokov scrabbled eagerly in the snow, scooping them up with laughter.
He turned to go, and saw me standing there behind him. I had dropped my appearance of age, and resumed my old form. It must have been a strange sight to him, a young woman with flowing blond hair, standing taller than he in the cold of a winter's night, the fire of anger in her eyes. I quickly stepped back and hid myself in the darkness. The undertaker looked around for a few moments, then hurried back to his house, clutching the iron box all the way. I followed at a distance and took up my spot outside the window.
Basilokov knelt on the rug in the middle of the room, letting the gold nuggets run through his fingers over and over again. His servant stood over him, trying to get the stinking goat skin off of his master, but it had frozen in the cold, and was stiff. Finally, he pulled Basilokov to his feet. “Your pardon, master, but if you do not stand up and hold still, I cannot get the skin off you.”
“Well, be quick about it then,” the undertaker snapped, his eyes reflecting the gleaming metal. “I want to weigh these right away, to see how much they are--” His words dissolved into a shriek of pain. The servant pulled back in shock, a pair of scissors in his hand.
“What have you done, you clumsy oaf,” wailed Basilokov, reaching around to feel where the servant had been trying to cut the seams of the skin. His fingers were covered in blood. “You've gored me, you idiot! Find another seam!”
The servant found another seam, and began to cut, but again a horrible scream came from the undertaker, and another gush of blood. “You're going to have me full of holes! Give me the scissors, I'll do it myself!”
Basilokov reached for a handful of the goat hide, and furiously jabbed the scissors in, but he went pale with pain as a third stream of blood flowed forth.
“It...it can't be...” the servant whispered in horror. “I thought it was simply frozen to your body, but...it seems that it has grown onto your skin. I cannot remove it without skinning you alive.”
“That's impossible,” gasped Basilokov, clutching his side to stop the bleeding. “It's just...frozen on, or some such thing. I shall stay here by the fire until morning, and we can loosen the skin then.” The servant hesitated to leave his master in such a condition, but there was nothing else to be done.
Basilokov spent a long night in that room. I watched as he paced, talking to himself, plotting what he would do with his new-gained treasure. He tried to sleep, but it was difficult for him to find a comfortable position, for the skin did not fit well, and he was bleeding in three places. Finally, he sat on on the rug and propped his head in his hands. But the fire needed frequent stoking, and he did not sleep more than an hour all told.
Morning came to find a very unhappy rich man sitting on a hard wood floor in an ill-fitting goatskin. I wonder, now, whether I would have reversed the curse if he had promised to give up the gold. I think perhaps I might have; but he made no such prayer, and I stood coldly in the snow outside his window, watching.
Just before the sun rose, the servant woke and came in to his master. Basilokov was anxious that no-one see the goatskin that he wore, lest his deceit be uncovered and he lose his ill-gotten treasure.
The room had been kept warm by the fire all night, and I could see that Basilokov had high hopes that the skin would come off easily. The servant dug into the fur until he could see the threads that he himself had used to sew the hide together. He carefully slipped the scissors under one to cut it; Basilokov winced, but said nothing. One by one, the threads were cut, and the undertaker grew more and more pale. After the fifth thread, I saw a trickle of blood begin to run down the fur. The patient servant tried to tease the two sections of goatskin apart, but it was to no avail: they had grown into Basilokov's skin.
I left the window then; I had seen enough. My unplanned, muttered words had done their work, and he would have no more power to extort money from the people of the village. I heard later that he had gone mad, running out screaming into the woods, trying still to rip the goatskin from his back. Sometimes he had been seen in the forest, a mad thing, gibbering and cursing the sky. Even now, the parents in that town tell their children that the Goatman of the Woods will come to them in their sleep if they are not good.
I did not go home that morning, but instead I went to the little church building. New buildings had sprung up around it over the years: new hermit cells in the woods beyond, new sleeping quarters for the monks, amongst others. But the sanctuary itself remained unchanged. Sliding aside the locks with a whisper, I let myself into the gold-domed room, so silently that I knew the brothers would not hear. They would not be in for prayers for another hour or so. I walked across the rugs that still covered the floor, and lit a single candle, sticking the taper into a box of sand. The flickering light gave that strange life to the faces of the saints on the screen, and they seemed to be waiting to see what I would do next.
“I am not one of you,” I whispered to the screen. “You may be so very great now, but you were once simple humans like the people here, and that is something I can never be.”
What was I doing, I thought, talking to a painted screen? I felt foolish, but the words kept pouring out of me; I could not have left without coming to this room even if I had wanted to.
“And You,” I said, looking up at the enigmatic face painted in gold inside the dome, “if their stories of a god become man are true, then You have nothing to do with me. I am neither god nor man, and the only paradise I know is the one that I barred from entering. If You are the king of heaven and earth, as they say, then it is Your Lawkeepers who exiled me from my home. I want nothing more than to return there, to leave this place of grief and passing shadows.”
I spoke thus for a long time before falling silent, but it was all the same words. Years of hearing the stories and seeing the faith of the people in the village, a faith I could not share, had built up to a raging anger, and it must be released before I could go my way in peace.
The room was silent then for a long time; even the candle burned bright and steady without hissing or spitting. The smell of the incense was heady and rich as always, and I knew that I would forever miss the smell of this place. Finally, I heard the brothers stirring in their quarters, and knew that it was time to leave. My heart ached for a few moments more, even as I was eager to run as far away as possible. I put out the candle, which had burned down to a stub, and hurried out while the smoke was still curling into the quiet air.