These trees are gravestones.
She woke in the autumn and her hair was red…
And all around her there lay the dead…
I woke with a shiver.
At some point it had started to rain, and all around me the leaves drip-dripped, and the old man’s meager little fire was giving off more smoke than heat. He had stopped around midday to pull a bit of bread and dried meat out of the little satchel he was carrying, and I had watched, fox-shaped, as he vainly tried to get a spark from his tinder. Then when he did, he sat down very slowly on a log and very slowly began to eat.
At some point I had tucked my nose into my tail, safely hidden from sight within a clump of ferns, and dozed off. But not for very long; laughing maidens and bear skulls haunted my dreams.
For whatever reason, the verses of the song that they had sung had stayed in my head, the merry tune belying the grim words. I could not seem to shut it out; it was like a malignant, mocking whisper in my pointed ear. Was the song about me? I had to wonder. Some things seemed to fit… but how could they know anything? No, it could not be about me.
The old man was still sitting by his hopeless campfire, slowly carving off yet another paper-thin slice of bread with his dull knife. I stretched, shaking little droplets of water from the ferns. If Mother Forest (or whatever she called herself) did not show her face during this expedition, it was going to make for an agonizingly dull time. Perhaps I could conk the old thing on the head and carry him to the abandoned village myself; it would spare me a lot of fretting.
As I turned this rather malicious thought over in my head, the man turned his head and looked at me from the corner of his eye. I froze stiff.
He carefully laid the slice of bread behind himself, behind his seat on the log, and turned back around.
I did nothing, though I observed his soaked, shivering back, and the way the dampness from the wood had seeped into his trousers. His hair, though faded, still showed a bit of black. I could not honestly tell if this man was really old or if he had just been aged by something aside from time.
The man peeked over his shoulder, then, seeing me unmoved, carefully laid a small sliver of jerky atop the bread.
I stared at the little offering, flummoxed, as the man made a show of looking away again. Soggy bread and a bit of jerky; was he senile? Even an ordinary fox would turn her nose up at that.
The man peeked again and seemed to positively deflate at the sight of me still lying still within the ferns. Slowly he began to get up and collect his articles. He stamped out what was left of his fire, though he really needn’t have wasted the effort.
I, meanwhile, was in the grip of a small internal struggle; the less wise and more soppy part of me unfortunately won out. As the man began to take one of his slow, slow steps away from his picnic area, I got to my feet and made a show of sniffing my way over to the food that he had left.
He did not react much, though I am sure he saw me: he had a little smile on his face. As I did not want to eat the stuff, I took it in my mouth and dug in the muddy earth, pretending to bury it as foxes do. Meanwhile the man continued taking very slow steps away, though again he would not have fooled the stupidest of vixens. Every line in his body was positively begging me to follow him.
Well, why not? I could play the dumb beast for a time. And staying within his sight might make other denizens of this forest less likely to approach me- not unless they wanted to reveal themselves to his eyes as well.
So when the man next looked down, he saw me slinking beside him through the undergrowth. His graying old face lit up.
“Oh,” he said, “someone must have tamed you once, eh? But I don’t have any more food for you.”
I, being a fox, did not reply.
“Well, I can only offer you my company, friend. I would be glad for someone to travel with, even a fox.”
He lapsed into silence then, the traces of happiness fading from his expression. He looked out into the trees with unfocused eyes, apparently missing the beauty of the place: for the Starving Forest was beautiful, even in the rain. It dripped and pattered on the leaves, spilling down onto emerald moss and pale blue lichens. The last of the spring narcissus bowed as raindrops filled their blossoms, and spider webs everywhere gleamed as their silk got strung with liquid pearls.
It was all deception to me, of course. Or perhaps I was just a fool for assuming beauty equaled goodness.
But the old man did not seem to notice any of it, other than the way the undergrowth would snag his feet and trip him up, his fragile old skin scored by thorns. His breath came rapid, and the red weal on his neck stood out in sharp relief. I wondered if it was not quite fully healed yet.
The man stopped to rest, leaning an elbow on a tree trunk, breathing heavily. I walked over and sat near his feet, and he looked down at me.
“I’ll be all right,” he said, as though I’d asked. “I must catch my breath. I used to be much stronger than this. Time will change a man…”
I was distracted, as he mumbled on, for I had heard something moving in the canopy. I raised my long nose to scan the leaves- and there. A white face with red eyes was staring back at me. A Blajini.
I had met this particular one before, come to think of it, in Muma Balaur’s territory. Now what was it doing here? And what sort of nuisance was it going to make of itself?
The Blajini withdrew back into the leaves without answering any of those questions, and I felt discomfited. Well, I hadn’t expected to go undetected forever, and a Blajini was better than a golem.
Best of all would be Noroc, though I hated to be in that position. But the sooner he got freed from the witch’s grasp, the sooner he would show me how to free myself as well… I hoped.
The old man caught my attention again as he stooped to pick up a rotten old branch near his feet, disturbing a myriad of small creatures who had been nestled underneath. He prodded it against the ground, but it broke apart at once.
“Well,” he said, dropping the remainder and rubbing his hand against his trousers, “it seems that God does not want this old man to have a walking stick. That’s all right. This journey was meant to be difficult.”
I chose to ignore this and hopped up onto a stump to look around. If I remembered correctly, we were getting nearer to the ruined village- though perhaps we would miss it by a few hairs if we continued going in the present direction. I looked back at the old man.
“Do you know,” he said, clutching the tree again for support, “maybe God sent you to me, instead.”
God has nothing to do with me, I thought, but only impatiently jerked my head in the right direction. The old man frowned. Er, perhaps that had been a little too obvious.
I got off the stump and wagged my fluffy tail a little, playing the dumb, tame fox, and then looked towards the ruined village again. The man took a long time to respond, but when he did, it was to push himself away from the tree and quietly follow me.
On we went, still agonizingly slow, but at least the rain was starting to let up. My fox nose detected a bit of a rat-smell; more Blajini, probably, keeping watch from somewhere out of sight. One of them was bound to tip off Mother Forest, I just knew it. Would she guess what I was up to? I didn’t believe for a minute that I could convince her I’d come back into the forest just for a jaunt with an old man.
“It’s all changed,” he mumbled, from behind me, and I glanced back. He had grown even more old and haggard, somehow, and his face was etched with weariness.
“It’s all changed,” he repeated, his eyes darting around. “Oh, God, these trees are gravestones.”
I looked at the trees. They were tall and quiet; oak, cedar, spruce, birch. But those were their trunks; I could not see what lay within their roots. For a moment the pretty green light seemed poisonous.
“God, I cannot do this,” muttered the old man, looking upwards. “What is the point? What will it change?”
The sky gave him no answer, and he kept on trudging- passed, me, in fact, so that I had to shake myself and catch up with him.
It was not long before I saw the sight I had begun to sort of dread: the rude interruption of the forest’s gentle asymmetry with the corroded square shell of a house. Branches thrust through its glassless windows, and ivy crawled over its rotten siding.
The man stopped and stared up at the lonely house. His eyes seemed to grow clouded. The thought that he might remember the place as it once was rather chilling to me, somehow. The trees were gravestones.
He went to the doorway, fingering the ivy’s leaves as he passed. I went to follow him, but was stopped by a sudden twinge of pain in my abdomen.
Ignore it. It was not that bad, it was nothing, just a trick of my mind. I moved faster, the spell of the dead place broken. I just wanted the old man to find Noroc now. I had to get him to Noroc…
The twinge passed. I tried to relax my jaw, which had clenched tight, the sharp points of my fox’s teeth digging into my tongue. The old man still stood in the doorway of the first house, quietly staring. I stole away, back into the trees. Not far- just far enough me to yet again catch the scent of rat.
Blajini, I called, in the speech of animals. Come down. I know you are there!
There was a rustle, and then the white-headed Blajini emerged from the undergrowth. He had a little swagger to his walk, which made the fur on my back prickle, but now was not the time to get fussy.
I let you know I was there! You come now with a human? Give us a share of blood, or-
This human is not to be touched, I growled, my fur rising. Not a drop of his blood will be spilt!
The Blajini seemed taken aback, and for a moment he trembled, his pink nose twitching madly. I heard the leaves rustling with whispers above me; there were many ears listening in. Word must have spread that I was a strigoi that gave Blajini blood. The mangy little gossipers.
Not this one, I continued, trying to make my words more soothing, but others, later. And if you do a task for me, I will give you as much blood as you like.
Another Blajini swung down from the branches, her whiskers thrust forward, and called, What task?
I recognized her as well. She had been in Muma Balaur’s forest; one of the ones that had guided me to this old man in the first place. I had stolen her headscarf.
The task is not hard, I said. Only to find the witch’s black cat and tell him to come here.
Chitter-chitter-chitter; this had sent them into a nervous frenzy, and the white one clutched at his big ears.
The cat! No, he will not listen to us!
He will listen, I said. Tell him that I have brought the survivor. But tell only him. If the witch catches me, none of you will get any blood.
If the witch catches us, we will disappear, said the female.
I cocked my head. Then I suppose it depends upon which is more tempting: a bit of risk and a lot of blood, or neither?
That set them off again, but I was satisfied: at least one of them would be tempted by my offer. And I might even fulfill my end, too.
I’ll get the cat first! squeaked the white one, clambering back up a tree trunk. Blood for me, none for you!
Several of the Blajini sprang out of their hiding places to follow him, squealing. A few others stayed put, though, and I saw their black-licorice eyes watching me from within the leaves.
The little female had stayed, and as I started to turn to leave, she asked, What happens if we disappear?
You disappear, I said, and started to trot away. And then the twinge returned to my stomach and I curled up with a silent grimace.
The little Blajini climbed down from her tree and scampered over to me.
If we disappear, do we die again?
Ah, wretched pain. It was like a stabbing in my gut, so bad I could hardly move.
Find the cat! I begged.
Now it was she who tilted her head.
Are you afraid of dying again? I am too.
Be quiet, I said, with a little vulpine moan.
But I’m frightened, said the Blajini, and she put both hands over her rat’s nose. If we make the witch angry, will she kill us? And if she kills us, will we die again?
I could not respond; the pain was making me see floating patches of white. I could feel the branches digging into my flesh, rooting themselves, strengthening their grasp on me…
Another Blajini came to stand beside the first, and put his shriveled hand on her arm.
If we tell the witch what the strigoi said, maybe she will not be angry with us!
I writhed, gave a little bark; no good. I could see the idea dawning in both their eyes.
Tell her! We should tell her!
Don’t tell her! I managed to say. But they were already scampering off; the little female glanced back once and hissed at me, like a cat. I tried to unclench myself, cringing from the sharp pains, but I had no chance of catching them as I was.
Leaving the forest seemed like a better idea, now, because I did not know who would hear first, the witch or the cat. But I could not get small enough to fly- I would have to move swift- wolf or deer. I wracked my brains, tried to focus on the memory of the blood, of either one- change- change-
It was no good. I had not the strength to grow large. And if I let go of my grip on myself for just a moment, I would lose the fox, too, and be worse off than ever…
I forced myself to my feet and limped back towards the abandoned village. If I could but hide in one of the houses and take my normal shape, I might recover enough to flee. The pain was growing inside of me, reaching new places within my flesh- was it accelerating? Was it because I had entered the Starving Forest again? What a fool I was!
I staggered to a stop. I had all but forgotten about the old man. He’d emerged from a doorway, and now he hobbled urgently towards me and knelt down.
“What happened to you? What’s the matter?”
I tried to show him my teeth as he reached towards me, but to no avail. He stroked down the length of me, feeling for wounds: of course there were none, not on the outside. I trembled at the touch.
“I won’t hurt you,” said the man, and stroked between my ears. “Are you sick? Did you eat something bad? Or…”
He glanced up, suddenly, towards the leafy canopy, and his expression changed into one of suspicion.
“This place is wicked,” he said, and picked me up. I gave a little scream- the pain wracked through me- and I did not hear what he said next, though his hands were gentle. It did not matter, it was all pain, and in another moment I was going to lose it- and things would be terribly bad.
He carried me into the house, where he had set down his little satchel, and pulled out a little blanket to lay me down on. I was writhing, and I tried to drag myself away- he caught me, murmuring meaningless words, and looked at my feet, my belly, my neck.
“I don’t understand,” he said, stroking me again- I’d gone limp, given up, and was only focusing on maintaining my shape. “What went wrong?”
Dimly, through my agony, I saw that he was weeping. His craggy face seemed to collapse, and he put a hand to his mouth.
“I don’t understand… Why am I left behind?”
He continued stroking me, murmuring words I did not understand- some other language. It sounded like a prayer, though his voice shook with sobs.
“God,” he choked, “please, do not let it happen again.”
The wind picked up outside the crumbling house, and the branches poking through the broken windows gently waved their leaves. I thought I heard whispers.
“It was so long ago,” the man murmured, his eyes vacant. “It started with a sickness… no, it started with the white child… They blamed us for it, did you know? But it was always that way.”
The leaves rustled, and I turned my cloudy eyes upwards. Sitting in the branches that were poking into the house were several Blajini, their gazes upon the two of us.
“Everybody got sick,” whispered one.
The old man could not hear their tiny voices; he was lost in his own mind. “They thought it was the water… always, with wells, they were suspicious of Jews and wells. They set fire to the houses…”
“There was smoke,” whispered another Blajini. “A lot of smoke. It was choking me up. The dog was barking but I couldn’t find him. It was very hot.”
“I remember… I saw it from my window. The lights. Mama told me to go back to sleep. She was sick then…”
“We tried to run away,” said the man. “But they got to my father and sister- they killed my sister!” His voice broke.
“It was the Jews and the Gypsies,” hissed a Blajini. “They hate us! They’re wicked! It hurt my throat and my stomach was bleedin’-”
“Papa, he had white fingers growing out of his cheek-”
“No, no, it was sticks, like sticks- they grew out everywhere- they poked out all over my arms and when I bent them they snapped-”
“My gramma, she was bent over- she looked like a hedgehog. All white sticks pokin’ out of her back- poke, poke, poke-”
“They tried to bury my brother when he died, but there was so many sticks in him they couldn’t get him to lie down straight-”
“I grew into the ground and Mama cried about it, and it was real scary- I couldn’t move- I just watched her cryin’-”
“I don’t like this place! I’m scared!”
The Blajini were suddenly all squeaking, clutching at each other; I saw their rat faces twist and contort for a moment, like a shimmer of haze in the air.
“I’m sorry!” whimpered one. “I dunno what I did wrong, but I’m sorry! I must’ve been bad, because I died!”
He sprang from the branches very loudly, and I heard his little feet land heavily on the half that remained of the roof. The rest of them followed, scattering like frightened birds, squealing and fleeing. The old man’s head jerked up, and he stared upwards, openmouthed, and rubbed the tears from his eyes.
“What was that?” He stared, his eyes still red and moist, scanning the empty branches. “Ghosts…?”
I tensed up, gave a little howl from the fresh wave of pain it caused, and the man quickly put his hands on me.
“Shh, be still! The dead cannot harm us…”
Oh, how wrong he was. I quivered under his grasp, for I thought I knew what sort of creature had made that heavy footstep.
The man heard it too now, for he frowned, looked up from tending to me.
“The dead are only shadows,” he said, as though he were trying to convince himself. “What makes a sound like that…?”
He rose, grasping for the doorway, and peeped out- that was when I lost the fox’s shape.
He whirled back around; beheld me lying naked and contorted on his blanket, and blanched white.
My pain was lessening now that I had finally gotten larger, and I pulled a bit of the blanket up over my waist, and wished desperately that I hadn’t said anything. The blood was coming back to his face, and his mouth turned down: he recognized me.
“You! The- the vampiress!”
“Perhaps so! But I am not your enemy now,” I said, rather desperately, for he seemed to be casting about for something he could use as a weapon. “If you do not get quiet and hide, something worse than me is going to find us!”
He shook his head and glared, backing out of the doorway. I tried to push myself to my feet, but my hand slipped on the rotten floorboards, and I fell back. He winced visibly and turned half away from the naked sight of me.
“Look,” I said, and got myself back up into a sitting position, blanket clutched against my chest, “I led you here- someone wants to meet you. Someone else who lived in this place!”
He grabbed a splintered piece of wood from the windowsill and advanced upon me. I shrank back, my mind buzzing- could I manage a wolf? Something? No chance of getting small anymore-
“I don’t believe you,” he said, waving the wood threateningly near my face, “but tell me the name of the one you say wants to meet me.”
My mind went blank for a moment. If I said ‘Noroc,’ he would accuse me of lying, because he wouldn’t have known the Domovoi, if Noroc had even gone by that name then.
“I don’t know the name,” I said.
He snorted, raised his splinter higher. I heard the crunching noises getting closer.
“Listen to me,” I hissed, pushing myself backwards along the floorboards, “if that thing catches us- you remember what happened to the people who lived here? It’s a servant of the witch that did that to this place!”
That made him pause.
“A witch! She’s been doing it ever since, you know- putting trees in people-”
“Trees? White ones?”
“Yes! I’ve seen it, and they hurt to touch you- believe me-” I grabbed at my own chest, and the blanket dropped down, making him grimace and turn away. Hastily I resettled myself.
“How do I know you’re not her servant yourself?” he asked, gaze trained on the wall.
“Ha! Her servant!” I wanted to spit. “I’d like to burn down this forest and everything in it!”
The splinter wavered in front of my face, and I tensed- perhaps that had come out a bit too strong…?
But much to my surprise, after a moment, he lowered his weapon.
“You attacked me before,” he said, touching the side of his neck.
“And I am quite sorry,” I replied, voice soft. “It was not at all personal. You shouldn’t travel in the woods alone, you know.”
What could have been the smallest of smiles graced his face.
“I had no trouble before that.”
Before I could reply, the sound of heavy footsteps came again, and the man turned. I lunged to grab his arm.
“Hsst, be still! If it-”
He shoved me off, his face going white again, the jagged splinter in his hand raking a red line along my arm. I fell on my back with a gasp, biting back a cry of pain.
At the sight of me down there, the man seemed taken aback, and looked at the bloody piece of wood in his hand.
“I- I am sorry! You startled me-”
I shook my head and put a finger to my lips.
“It’s getting closer,” I hissed.
The man hesitated, looked between me and the doorway, and then squatted down beside me.
“Shh.” I raised my arm to show him the scratch, which was already closing up. “Don’t forget what I am.”
He gave me a lingering look at this, then peeped out the doorway.
“I don’t see anything,” he whispered. “What does it look like?”
“It’ll be a clay golem,” I said. “The witch-”
“A golem?” he cried, rather too loudly. I heard the footsteps hesitate.
Crunch, crunch. They were speeding up and heading in our direction. My head was buzzing- perhaps I could flee from it, but the old man was sundered- shouldn’t I go now? Hadn’t he got not hope left?
“Golems are not wicked,” the old man murmured.
“That depends on who controls them,” I replied. “And this witch…”
“They could not be made by a witch,” the man insisted, his brow wrinkling. “They are made to protect…”
“Not these ones,” I said.
He finally fell silent, biting his lip, an action which made him look quite a bit younger.
The footsteps slowed again. I wondered what exactly the golem would do if it caught us. Surely it would not kill me- after all, the witch (or whoever she was) had wanted me to carry out a task- but I still did not feel as though I would get a warm welcome. And the old man; well, what would his life be worth to the witch?
Drat those Blajini! This was their fault, I was certain of it. They must have told the witch instead of Noroc…
“I see it!” murmured the man, and quickly ducked back inside the doorway. His face was pale. “It really is a golem… it’s getting closer…”
As if drawn by his words, the golem’s footsteps sped up, and started aiming directly for our hiding place. I sprang to my feet, and the man did the same. Before we could do anything, the looming figure of a golem appeared in the doorway.
It was not Kezia. I had not even known that I’d harbored the hope until it had vanished. It was larger than Kezia, and didn’t even have a mouth: only two eyes, huge and vacant. Its hands were like vast clay mittens, with only thumbs, and its body looked hasty and misshapen. The witch didn’t even seem to care what they looked like anymore.
The old man began babbling in his other language, the words hoarse and wistful, winding something invisible around his arm. The golem turned its thick head very slightly towards him, then tried to push forward through the doorway. Its body was far too big to fit, and the entire decrepit house shuddered. In a moment it would collapse against that strength.
The man was still speaking, his eyes closing in the ecstatic manner of one who is praying. Perhaps it helped me reach some divine inspiration: as if struck by God’s light, I saw the bloody splinter still in his hand.
The house trembled, the rotted wood splintering, the brick foundation grinding. I lunged forward and snatched the splinter out of the old man’s hand, shoving past his surprised face to plunge it into the wet clay chest of the golem.
The golem went still, and the house stopped shaking, though twigs and dirt were still falling down on us from the roof. I jumped back again.
“What- what have you done?” stammered the man, looking at the impaled golem. The splinter was tiny- a pinprick upon that mountain of clay. It was as though I had stabbed an ox with a needle. Yet it held still.
“Do you have free will now?” I asked it. It did not respond.
“Free will?” repeated the old man.
“The blood,” I explained. “Give them blood, and they attain free will. It worked with Kezia. I don’t know if this one-”
The old man grabbed my shoulder, hard.
“Who is this Kezia?”
I jerked away, but before I could respond, the big golem took a step back and then sat down heavily in the mud.
“I think it’s realized it has free will,” I said, rubbing my shoulder. “Hey, you, can you speak? I suppose if you don’t have a mouth-”
“Tell me who Kezia is! Is she the one who told you to guide me here?”
I looked at the old man, saw the yawning hope and desperation in his eyes. Suddenly I understood it all, like a peg sliding perfectly into a hole. Kezia. Not Kezia the golem.
“She was… your daughter?”
He shook his head.
“My sister. My twin sister. She was killed the night my family tried to flee from this place…”
I saw the pain rise into his face, as though it was still a fresh wound on his heart- but if I had put everything together correctly, it had to have been years and years.
“Yes, she died,” I said, and saw his expression crumple even further. “She…”
“Was hit by a stone,” said the man.
“Drowned,” I said, at the same time.
We both frowned.
“Are you trying to trick me…?” asked the man, suspicion clouding his face once more. “My father saw her die; somebody threw a rock and it struck her head.”
“Well, perhaps there is more than one dead girl by that name lingering here,” I said, feeling rather irritated. “In any case she is not the one who wanted to meet you.”
The old man drew his brows down and opened his mouth, but before he could say anything he was interrupted by a wet slapping noise. The golem, still sitting in front of the door, had just hit itself in the face.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“I don’t think it’s accustomed to having free will,” I said, trying to sound as though I were confident, but in truth I was uneasy. It wasn’t behaving at all like Kezia had.
The golem drew its hand slowly away from its face, trailing a sticky line of mud.
“Before,” the old man said, “you said something like- you said ‘it worked on Kezia.’ What do you mean by that?”
I hesitated, reshuffling my thoughts. “Er- the Kezia I met was a ghost that inhabited a golem.”
A light seemed to shine on the old man’s face. “Oh- of course! She was Jewish, and her ghost would recognize a golem!” Then a cloud passed over. “If you are not lying.”
I raised my eyes heavenward. “The only thing I might want from you, elder, is your blood; I wouldn’t have to trick you to get it.”
Apparently he didn’t find this reassuring, for he took a measured step away from me.
“I don’t know what a vampire might think.”
“Well, I don’t know what an old man might think, having never been one.”
That got the little smile out of him again. I studied his face, wondering: was he really Kezia-the-ghost’s brother? Not that that ghost had made an appearance for a good long while; she might be gone for good. Though I wouldn’t tell him that. But it did make me curious as to what Kezia-the-golem would think of it all.
The golem- the one outside the door- chose that moment to pull the bloody splinter out of its chest with its clumsy hands. Suddenly I realized that I knew how to destroy it. The witch-golem had taught me that- something with the forehead, pulling out a letter- my memory was hazy, but I could figure it out. Why hadn’t I thought of that before?
The golem considered the splinter in its hands for a moment, then stuck it into one of its eye holes.
Well, it wouldn’t make much of a difference whether or not I destroyed it now, anyway. It didn’t appear to be much of a threat.
“If my sister possesses a golem,” the old man was saying, catching my attention, “I want to speak to her. Where is she?”
I opened my mouth, glanced at his expression- oh, drat, it was so hopeful, so raw- and swallowed.
“I’m afraid she’s far from here.”
“Then you must take me to her,” insisted the man. “I knew there was a reason I wanted to come back here! God was guiding me!”
His eyes were wretchedly bright, and growing moist again. I was beginning to feel like running away.
“I cannot do that.”
Internally, I squirmed. Because the golem-witch planted a seed in me to make me destroy the other golem that happened to at one point possibly house your sister’s spirit? Obviously that would not go over well.
“You have to meet the one who told me to guide you here,” I insisted, shaking my head. “Then- maybe I’ll take you to her.” (Except not.)
“Well.” The man seemed fidgety, his eyes roving all around- on the silent golem, on the ruined walls, on me. He seemed to have entirely forgotten or forgiven my nudity. “Where is this person who wanted to meet me? We’ve been here a long time.”
“I know. Perhaps I should go look for him-”
“No.” Suddenly the old man stretched to his full height, and stepped in front of the doorway. “I won’t let you out of my sight until you take me to Kezia.”
Well. I narrowed my eyes.
“And how should you manage that?”
“I-” He cast around, looking for another weapon, caught sight of the golem with the splinter sticking out of its eye. I followed his gaze and snorted.
“Scratch me again, will you?”
“Don’t take me lightly,” he snapped. “You’re not human. Destroying you would rid the world of a little evil.”
“Why do you find that funny?” he demanded.
I couldn’t tell him that it was something I had been told while I was human. Instead I said, “Move aside. I am going to find Noroc, and then I won’t have to listen to any of your foolishness anymore.”
He tried to grab me, and I shoved him back, hard, so that he banged against the rotten doorframe. He staggered, and fell to the ground, clutching one bony arm.
“You’re lucky to be alive,” I said, poking his side with my toes. He curled away from the touch. “You know why I didn’t kill you before? Kezia asked me to spare you. And the only reason you aren’t dead now is that I need you to live long enough to meet the cat. So please, don’t puff yourself up.”
The man grimaced, and pushed himself up into a sitting position.
“Kezia- Kezia saw me?”
I laughed again. “Yes, and she didn’t recognize you at all! Poor you. Perhaps you’ve grown too old.”
He made a terrible grimace, leaning back against the doorframe, and shut his eyes. I stepped over him, then stopped. The golem was staring at me with big, empty eyes.
“Go away, you,” I growled at it.
The golem looked down at its hands, and then swung one at me.
It was a slow swing, and I dodged it easily, but the golem’s hand kept going and clipped the front wall of the house. The entire frame shuddered, and the old man cringed as splinters rained down on him.
“You want to play, do you?” I snapped, hearts beating quite rapidly. “Perhaps I ought to just get rid of you!”
The golem drew its hand back, very slowly, and got to its feet. Suddenly it was looming over me, its head nearly blocking out the cloudy sun. Suddenly I was not so confident at all.
“I told you,” spat the old man, somewhere behind it. “Golems were made to protect my people!”
I bared my teeth and snarled, and then bent double. Sharp pain had suddenly blossomed in my left shoulder.
It felt like I’d been stabbed, but the golem hadn’t moved at all. I looked at my arm, above the healing scratch the old man had given me, and my blood ran cold. Something was making a raised point on the skin on my upper arm, near my shoulder- as though it were piercing through the other side. As I watched, horrified, a small white point emerged, and a line of fresh blood ran down my arm.
“No! No- augh!”
The pain increased, and I was nearly rendered senseless. As I cried out, the golem reached down and grabbed me by the shoulder. I howled.
That was the old man, kicking feebly at the backs of the golem’s legs as it raised my writhing self into the air. His face had gone white again.
“Stop! Don’t kill her! Do as I command, golem!”
The golem paused, letting me dangle by one shoulder, and then dropped me. I landed hard and choked on mud. My shoulder and neck were blackened by it.
The golem slowly, ponderously, turned around to face the old man, blocking him from my sight again.
“Stop!” he cried again, his voice now filled with fear.
I tried to get myself up- hopeless down there in the mud- and then there rang out a howl that shook my bones.
The golem paused in whatever it was doing to the old man, and then something hit it- ripped though it- burst out on the other side, raining wet clay down onto me. I coughed and choked and managed to drag myself backwards.
The thing that had struck the golem rose up onto its hind legs and screamed.
It was long, lean, black- covered in fur spiked up by mud and clay- its single eye was green and wild. Its other eye was a tiny white flower.
The creature screamed, and lashed out with one hand, slicing through the golem’s clay flesh. The golem merely seemed perplexed, tilting its head down to look at the dripping hole in its belly. Through it I could see the old man, down on the ground with his mouth hanging open.
The thing that was Noroc- I couldn’t place what it was, only that it was large, hairy, and had sharp claws, slashed again and again at the golem, screeching all the while.
“Destroy it!” I choked. “The forehead!”
Noroc merely yowled, his green eye rolling, and bent over. Little pink flowers were bursting into bloom on the fur of his back.
I hissed, gripped my aching shoulder with one hand, and staggered towards him. He turned to me, and made a desperate sound: the kind of sound I had heard him make when he’d wandered these desolate streets alone in the nighttime.
“I got you what you wanted,” I growled, and reached out and ripped the white flower from his socket for the final time.
Noroc shrieked, and then the flowers on his back shriveled and burst into dust, and then he struck the golem such a vicious blow that the top half of it went flying into the roof. The legs oozed and collapsed into formless clay.
Noroc got back down on all fours again, his fur still spiked and rising, and became something more closely resembling a cat- if the cat was the size of a bear. He stepped contemptuously over the remains of the golem’s legs to the old man. The old man appeared to have fainted, and I found I couldn’t blame him.
Noroc rumbled, and it took me a moment to realize he was purring.
He laid down next to the man’s ravaged old body and gently licked his forehead, his tongue pink and massive, his purr skull-rattling. One great paw went over the man’s side and drew him into an embrace, so that he nearly disappeared into the black fur.
“Noroc,” I choked, clutching my shoulder. “Noroc, help me.”
The great cat looked over to me: still missing an eye, though the socket was black and empty now, a stark contrast to the vivid green on the other side of his face. In his grasp, the old man stirred.
Noroc looked down at him, and his eye half-closed.
“Do… not… be frightened. I… am your protector.”
The man let out an audible gasp as he took stock of his situation. Clearly it was nothing he’d been prepared for.
“What- what are you?”
Noroc purred, closing his eye for a moment.
“I… belonged… to this village. The Domovoi. You… the survivor… the only survivor… you are… who I belong to.”
“A… a Domovoi? But-” The old man’s voice cracked, and he fisted his hands into Noroc’s fur. “But- I am a Jew! I’m not one of them-”
Noroc lowered his huge forehead and very gently butted it against the man’s.
“You… are… this village.”
The man went quiet, and I saw him swallow, his eyes red.
“Noroc!” I shouted, taking a staggering step forward. “I gave you what you wanted! Help me, now! Look!”
I withdrew my hand from my muddied shoulder. Rivulets of blood were trickling down from where three white buds protruded from my flesh.
The old man sat up at this, his eyes going wide. Noroc’s merely narrowed.
“I… saved you once before, strigoi. I do not… owe… anything.”
Something inside me shattered just then- the old man, curled up with the loving cat, as I stood alone- my shoulder ached- I raked my fingers across the buds, ripping them free, cursing from the pain.
“Damn you! Damn you both! May the witch catch you and kill you, like she killed the rest of this wretched place!”
The old man looked like he wanted to say something, but Noroc hissed, showing me white fangs like scimitars, and picked him up in his mouth. He crouched, leapt, and they were both gone from my sight.
I looked at the empty space where they had been for a moment, and then fell forward, onto my face.
My mind grew hazy and black, and at last I welcomed it, seeking respite from the pain. What did it matter after all? I had been nothing before, was still nothing… A bit of wickedness gone from the world.
Something thumped nearby, and I slowly turned my head sideways, my vision blurry. The top half of the ruined golem was slowly dragging its way out of the house’s doorway with its arms.
Interesting. I watched it get closer to me, mind a vague, misty lake of calm. It was beginning to get taller- little legs were growing underneath it. It reached down to touch my face.
Everything got quiet then.