What does indolent mean?
I was baking a pie.
I had the table powdered in flour, and I was rolling out the dough for the crust; the filling would be some unidentifiable (but edible) berries my brother Elan had collected for me that morning. I was alone in the house, and I should have been sweeping or scrubbing, so I was making a pie.
Pies make everything forgivable.
In any case, rolling out the dough was more satisfying than cleaning the floors, especially as I pushed and pummeled the dough out into a thin layer with my pin, and sliced the edges off in a perfect circle with my knife. Into the pan went the unbaked crust, and I laid it onto the stone hearth by the fire to set, and picked up the scraps to roll into a new ball for the top of the pie.
The door to our little house opened, and in came my sister Ayla, carrying something- I think it was a bag of carrots, of all things. She looked around and caught sight of me.
I smiled at her, for baking always made me feel rather ethereal, like something descended from the heavens in order to bestow sweets upon the people. She did not smile back. In retrospect, it should have struck me as odd. At the time, I only continued rolling out my pie crust.
Ayla came to stand by the stove and put her bag down, so that the green, leafy tops of the carrots peeped out. The clay bowl with Elan’s berries and sugar for the pie filling was on the shelf, and she stuck her finger in it.
“Don’t ruin my pie,” I said, voice light, and Ayla, who was always quick to parry back with a sharp retort, didn’t say anything.
The door opened again, and in came my other sister Hadassah, the eldest of all of us. She looked at Ayla and I, then at the floor.
“You haven’t cleaned, have you, Kezia?”
“No, but I am making a pie,” I said, grinning. “Doesn’t that make it better?”
Hadassah merely sighed and made her way up to the loft. But that was normal for her.
Ayla stuck her finger into my pie filling again.
“Ayla, stop that,” I said, rubbing more flour into my dough, which had gotten sticky. “Where’s Elan?”
“I don’t know,” said Ayla, putting her darkened finger to her lips.
“Where’s Father, then?”
“I don’t know,” she repeated, and flicked her eyes towards me.
I hesitated, my fingers coated in powder. She was still staring.
“What’s the matter?”
“I’m just wondering,” she said, dragging out the last syllable, and my heart sank, because I knew this tone of voice intimately. Frantically I tried to think of anything I might have done recently to make her angry, but the only thing I could think of that was when I’d accidentally let her favorite goat escape, and we’d already had our row over that.
“Wondering what?” I said, very cautiously.
Cold, her eyes were very cold.
“How could you do this to father?”
I rubbed my pasty fingers together, bewildered. “What… what have-”
“How could you?” She cut over me, her hands clenching at her sides. “You think father hasn’t enough to worry about? With another man refusing to pay his debts? With the constable refusing to carry the case? And now you!”
“Ayla, I’ve no idea what you’re talking about!” I snapped. I could feel my cheeks heating up with rage. “What have I possibly done to hurt father?”
Ayla glared at me, her eyes red-rimmed, and kicked over the broom that was leaning against the wall.
“You know what you’ve done.”
And then all the blood that had been in my cheeks seemed to drain away again. My sister watched, and kicked the broom once more, so that it slid towards me with a clatter.
“A Christian woman saw you. She called out to father today. In front of everyone. Do you want to know what she said? Do you want to know what she-”
“Stop it!” I cried, my fingers digging into the dough, feeling it pressing in underneath my fingernails. “I- I haven’t done anything!”
“You’d better own up and you’d better stop, Kezia,” said Ayla. “You’re making things worse for everyone- you’re disgusting.”
It was as though I had left my body, and was watching some kind of play; was this really me, by my house, by my hearth? With my sister? I could not fathom how this could be happening. Ayla was crying, but she always cried when she was very angry, and she never lost her sharp tongue even if tears were dripping down her cheeks.
“Apologize to father,” she said. “Apologize to all of us!”
I just stood there, my hands in my dough, unable to move, speak, or think. Ayla came over and slapped my cheek.
In my state of numbness, I could faintly smell something burning: the pie crust I’d left on the hearth.
The door flew open, and Elan flew in, noisy as ever, stomping his boots at the door to get the dirt off of them, calling out cheerfully, “Hullo, Kezia?”
Then he saw the two of us standing by the fire- Ayla with her tears, me with my stinging cheek, and his expression dropped like a stone.
“You get back out,” hissed Ayla. “You get back out right-”
Elan threw himself forward, grabbed her hand, which she had raised again, and cried, ” I told you not to say anything! I said-”
“Don’t touch me!” Ayla pulled away, shoving at his chest, spitting like a cat. “You think we should pretend we don’t know what she’s done? She’s foul!”
“You say something like that about Kezia and again and I’ll bloody your nose,” said Elan, and his normally light voice had gotten deep, furious. “I don’t care if you are my sister.”
Ayla yanked her hand away, and slapped him hard; he didn’t flinch.
“You might as well be just like her!” she snarled.
The ladder to the loft creaked, and Hadassah poked her head down, and called, “Be quiet, all of you! You’re fighting like animals, and how is that going to help father?”
“Have you said something to Kezia, too?” demanded Elan, turning to glare at her. “How can you stand by and let Ayla speak to her like that?”
“I said be quiet,” said Hadassah, and her head vanished back up the loft. I found my voice and pulled it out from where it had gotten crumpled and stuck in my throat.
“Come with me,” said Elan, and he grabbed my wrist and towed me to the door, shooting furious glances over his shoulder. I looked back, and wished I hadn’t, for I met Ayla’s eyes.
Elan took me outside the house and around the back, near where the chickens were clucking and scratching by the garden. He kept going until he stumbled over one of them, and it ran away, flapping and scolding. Then he let go of my hand and stood still.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and though his back was to me I knew at once that he was crying.
“You don’t have anything to be sorry for,” I said. I wondered why I wasn’t crying as well. Perhaps it was because I still felt like I was floating. Maybe this was a nightmare. I had had them about things like this happening before.
“I just- I should’ve got home before them,” he said, his voice shaking. “I don’t know if she told you, but when we were fetching our things, an old woman- an old Christian bat– she started shouting things to Father. Half of them weren’t even true.”
It was perverse of me, but I wanted to ask him what all of them were, what terrible things I stood accused of. Perhaps Ayla was mistaken. Perhaps the things that I had really done wouldn’t make her so angry…
“I thought they’d be better than this,” said Elan, echoing my thoughts. “I really… I don’t know what’s got into them.”
That was what finally made my lower lip tremble, but I swallowed it all down and managed to ask, “What about father?”
Elan hesitated. There was a skinny stray cat slinking along the edge of the garden, eyeing our chickens; one of a hundred strays that we saw every day. And Elan, my gentle brother Elan, picked up a stone.
I grabbed his hand.
He dropped the stone and turned and hugged me tight, my brother, my twin brother.
“I won’t stand for them saying bad things about you, Kezia,” he said, his voice thick. “I won’t do it.”
I hugged him back, and loved him fiercely in that moment. But even in his arms I felt as though I was slipping and fading away. My father. My father… what would my father do when he came home to us?
What had he done?
What had he done to Kezia?
I was not that Kezia. These were not my memories.
I was Kezia the golem, and I was sitting on a tree branch, and I was remembering them on purpose. The other Kezia’s memories.
It was near dawn. Gabi had turned off the road some time ago and gone into a little copse where a few skinny trees stood out against the grassy fields. She was lying down with her back against the base of the tree I was sitting in, resting, her eyes closed. I was not sure what we were going to do once the sun rose. She could not transform, and there was no shelter to hide underneath out here.
At least she still had the clothes- those were some protection.
I had climbed from her shoulder into the branches of this tree because I wanted to be a little alone- not completely alone, just a little bit away. The vision of her drinking the woman’s blood was still fresh in my mind, of her rising with that face I now knew- the one where her eyes were staring and blank, her mouth smeared red and dripping dark, dark from the corners… I think that the other Kezia, if she were still with me, would have called it the face of a monster.
I was not sure what I wanted to call it.
Of course Gabi had been right that the woman would not survive like that for very much longer. It was a horrible way to be stuck, and I had not had any idea how to help her get better. I was not sure that it was possible to get better when there was a big open hole in your stomach like that. Maybe it had been silly for me to try and stop Gabi from killing her. Maybe Gabi really was being kind.
I had been scared when I saw the woman. With the tree growing out of her stomach. Had Gabi thought of it? Had Gabi thought of how that might happen to her? I could not stop thinking about it! And there had really been no way to help her?
But Gabi was a strigoi- she could heal herself better- and maybe, maybe the seeds that came from Crina’s eyes were different from the one that had infected Gabi. Maybe, maybe, maybe…
What happened when a strigoi died? Was it different from when a person died?
What happened when a golem died?
I recalled that horrible blankness, that horrible sense of yawning emptiness that had brushed me when Gabi had pulled the silver letter from my forehead, and wrapped my arms around myself. The coin shifted in the clay in my back.
I had started picking through the memories that the other Kezia had left me with, up there in the tree, because I wondered if there was any kind of answer I could use. Or maybe I just wanted to distract myself. But either way, what I had replayed for myself was unhappy and disturbing. I could not claim to understand all of it, but most everything about it was awful.
There were still some pieces missing that I did not have, though. I did not know what happened when Kezia’s father returned home… It seemed that I only had the memories of Kezia’s that were very strong and emotional, so maybe nothing bad had happened after all?
I did remember a scene of a street on fire that came after that, and of running barefoot away from the flames, and coming to the church, and seeing the man with the bag, and-
I did not want to relive that memory right now.
Beneath my tree, Gabi stirred, drawing her knees closer to her chest. I saw her eyes flickering under their lids. There were still smears of blood on her cheeks and on her neck, and her shirt was stained with it.
I had not thought about it before, but I wondered: to survive, how many people had Gabi had to kill?
Perhaps I really should have thought about it before.
In her sleep, Gabi frowned, as if agreeing with my thoughts. I stood up from my tree branch and made my way back down the trunk, clinging to handholds in the bark, to drop back down onto her shoulder. She jumped at the impact.
“Gabi, the sun will rise soon,” I said softly into her ear. “We should find somewhere with better shelter while it is still dark.”
“Mm,” said Gabi, rolling her head away from me.
“Mm, shush, ‘m trying to sleep,” she muttered. “Have had a long day.”
“Gabi, if you stay here, the sun will hurt you.”
“‘S all right. Helps the flowers grow.”
She was, I realized, in the condition she always got in when she drank blood: utterly inebriated. I wondered why that was. It seemed very inconvenient, especially right now, for me.
“Gabi, if you do not get up right now, I will… I will…”
At this she opened her eyes, and turned her head, so that her giant grinning face was inches away from me.
“What? What’re you going to do?”
“I am going to drag you there by your ankle,” I declared, and she giggled.
“Ooh, try it!”
It was hard to see her as Kezia’s monster when she was laughing.
“Come on… it is time to go.”
“Oh, all right,” she said, suddenly relaxed and placid, and stood up all at once. I grabbed the collar of her shirt to stay on, as she staggered slightly and laughed again.
“Ah! What a terrible night, Kezia! I wish I wasn’t wearing clothes.”
“You had better keep those on,” I said. “I need something to hold on to.”
“All right, for you,” she said, and took a step forwards, grabbing a high branch for support. “Don’t tell me I said this when I’m not blood-drunk, but I’m awfully fond of you, Kezia.”
“So surprised! Don’t be surprised.” She wavered, took another unsteady step forward, letting go of her branch. The leaves rustled over our heads. I kept a tight grip on her shirt.
“You know, tonight, I thought you wouldn’t come back,” she said, in the tone of one discussing a minor setback. “And then what would I have done?”
“What… what would you have done?”
“Mm, something stupid. I would have gone back to the place. ‘Cause I would’ve been lonely. It’s all your fault, you know.”
I was not completely following all that she was saying, but I kept very quiet, for I felt that I would never get her to be so frank with me ever again.
“Didn’t expect you to be so talkative. Nor so funny. And so, when I thought you were gone… three times now. Why’s it always in threes?”
She was quiet for a little while after this, but perhaps it was because she was picking her way through the thick grass in the dimness, fumbling back towards the road. The sky was two shades short of grey, and a thin mist was beginning to form around us.
When her bare feet touched the road, Gabi gave a long sigh, and stood up straight to look around.
“It’s that way,” she said, pointing somewhere into the mist.
“Where I left him behind.”
Something about her voice warned me, but I could not do anything but ask the next question.
“Viorel,” she said, and the name was like a sigh, a waning breath. “My husband.”
“If he’s still alive, that is,” said Gabi. “If he’s dead, I suppose I still might find him.” She gave an odd little laugh.
I gripped her shirt collar wordlessly. I had never expected to hear something like that from her. But why not? Why would she not be married when she was alive? She was young and lovely…
“I left him behind,” Gabi murmured, “and I’ve been afraid to go back… But if you had really left me, Kezia, I might have gone back.”
It was a struggle to speak again, but I had to.
“Don’t ask me,” said Gabi, her voice suddenly dropping into its normal growl. “I spent a lot of time and effort trying not to think about him ever again. Now it’s all wasted thanks to you.”
It was my compulsion to apologize to her, but I held the words back, for once. Something else was on my mind.
“Do you still-”
Gabi shrugged, jostling me, and laughed.
“Ai, Kezia, be careful there.”
Neither her laugh nor her tone were pleasant. I stopped talking. Perhaps she was sobering up.
She looked around at the road and the mist again, blinking, as if she were seeing it for the first time. All around us, the grass swayed and rippled in the slight breeze. I heard the first, hesitant chirp of the morning chorus.
“Better get on,” Gabi muttered, shuddering as if it had been the growl of a bear. “There is a place to hide near here. Just a burrow, but better than nothing. Though…”
She trailed off, and began walking, her shoulders rather set.
“What is the matter?” I asked, timid.
“Nothing,” said Gabi, speeding up her walk. “Nothing to worry about. I don’t think anybody’s using it now.”
She did not clarify what she meant, just kept moving, occasionally scowling up at the lightening sky. The birds were gaining confidence, and I saw a few of them fluttering up from between the long stalks. Gabi was nearly running now.
“How far is it?” I asked, holding on tight as I was bounced around.
She merely grunted in response, and suddenly turned off the road, sprinting pell-mell through grass, trampling down on the flowers. Bees and other sleepy insects flew out of her way as she charged. I had never seen her move so quick on two legs.
“Gabi, we still have some time before the sun rises-”
She ducked down into the long grass. Stalks poked into my clay and through my eye holes. When I raised my arm to push them away she grabbed me to keep me still.
After a terse moment of waiting, my vision filled with fluffy grass chaff, I heard the sound of something heavy moving. Gabi cocked her head to listen, her pupils wide and dark. Her nostrils flared.
Suddenly she laughed, and stood up again, releasing her grip on me. I steadied myself and looked around.
Moving towards us from the east at a sedate rate was some sort of large animal. Gabi started walking towards it.
“What is it?” I asked, still somewhat spooked.
“It’s nothing to be frightened of,” she said, with a shrug. “I thought it was something else. But still…”
She stopped. The creature had approached us as well, and now we were a few feet from it. It was a small cow, switching her tail from side to side, her big, wet eyes happily blank.
Gabi reached out and stroked her nose, and the cow allowed it.
“Tame, aren’t you,” said Gabi, prodding the cow’s forehead between the horns. I leaned forward- I would have liked to pet the cow too. “You must be a milking pet that’s broken free of somebody’s pasture. You’d better not stay out here too long, or you’ll die and become a samca.”
“What is a samca?” I asked, withdrawing my hand.
“Yet another wicked sort of spirit. It needn’t worry us; it only goes after children.”
I decided not to comment on this. “What did you think it was when you did not know it was a cow?”
Gabi pursed her lips and shrugged, thrusting me up and down with her shoulders. “Who knows? I haven’t gone this way in a long time. I seem to recall there being another strigoi around here, but perhaps he’s long moved on.”
“Oh! Another like you? Then why did you hide?”
“My dear Kezia, you shouldn’t expect every strigoi to be as sweet-tempered as I am. We don’t like to hang about with our own kind- it can lead to complications with feeding.”
“I see,” I said, feeling pricked by the word ‘feeding.’ The image of her bloody face surfaced in my mind again.
Gabi patted the cow, who had put her head down to work on some grass, and began to move again.
“The other issue that might arise,” she said, her voice low, “is that the burrow I plan to rest in is one of his hiding spots. But it should be all right- it’s a rough place, and I think he would only use it in an emergency. He seemed to me a very indolent fellow.”
“What does indolent mean?”
“It means someone who prefers not to sleep on dirt.”
When we did finally reach the burrow- a sliver of sun was just peeping over the horizon- I saw what she meant. It was, truly, a burrow: a narrow tunnel that somebody had dug that led down into a small earthen chamber. For once I was glad for my new size: my old self would never have fit. Gabi herself could not stand up nor stretch out, but she did not seem to mind in the slightest, and promptly went to sleep. When I saw that she was settled I crawled back up to the entrance.
For all that it was rough, it was a very good hiding place: in the thick grass it was very hard to see the hole until you stumbled onto it. In fact when Gabi and I had reached it, it had been overgrown with a thick mat of plant matter, which seemed to satisfy her that it had not been used in a long time. I was less sure. Strigoi could change their shapes to get into tight spaces, after all; she should know that.
I clambered up through the crumbling dirt, interlaced with roots, and peeped out into the sunlight. All I could see was grass and a tiny bit of sky above the grass. No way to keep a lookout. It did not help take the other strigoi off my mind.
Gabi had disturbed a nest of ants when she had ripped away at the vegetation, and some of them began crawling up my legs. I watched them, raising my arm when one crawled to my hand: I could see every detail of them now. I had not known that ants had little hairs, or that their antennae were segmented!
The ant itself worked its sharp jaws into my skin, trying to pull out a bit of clay to bring back to the nest. I brushed it off and it fell to the ground, righting itself and scurrying frantically this way and that. I brushed my other hangers-on off too and moved away from the nest. As far as an ant was concerned, I was just an extension of the earth itself.
The realization made me quite moody, and I quit entertaining thoughts of harboring a nest of ants in my stomach. I did not seem to have good luck with such pets anyway. My poor bats… I had not thought about their fate in some time. Perhaps they had made it out of the cave where Muma Balaur’s dragon lived… more likely they had not.
I pushed over a small rock with my toe, disgruntled, and jumped. Tiny white creatures scurried every which way to escape the sunlight. I replaced the rock but it was rather too late. I was not very good at protecting things, was I! Even Gabi was barely scraping through for all my effort, and I had lost poor Kazimir, and now Crina… What would the cat-spirit do to Crina?
It was a thought that had been lurking in the back of my mind ever since we had left the village, and now that Gabi was quite safe for the moment I had little choice but to address it. Poor Crina! I could not imagine that she wanted to hurt anyone on purpose like that. And yet that woman had been in such terrible pain… We did not know, did we, for sure? That the tree-sickness had come from Crina? Did we really know?
No, we knew.
I kicked the rock again, now that it was not covering anybody up. Then maybe we should have gone back and taken her out of there, to protect everyone! But no… Gabi already had one awful thing growing within her, I could not ask her to expose herself to another one. Who would be safe around Crina, really?
Kazimir! Oh, perhaps Kazimir, or Pascha; they were not creatures made of flesh and blood, after all. Surely a tree could not root itself in mere light. If only they were here. Even Zakhar. Even he might be interested in the plight of the little girl without eyes, if it was told to him the right way. If only he and Pascha were free… If only I knew where Kazimir had gone.
I glanced behind myself, back down the dark tunnel. I knew that Gabi would never agree to go back, or to free the light spirits from Baba Yaga. It was a selfish part of her nature I was now recognizing. She did not do good deeds for their own sake. The witch’s gate, which had so liked Vasilisa, would never have opened for her.
But what Gabi did was Gabi’s own decision, and I did not think that everything worked the same way as the witch’s gate.
Perhaps, once I was sure that Gabi would be safe for a while, I could go back and try to help all of the others. It was hard for me to ever imagine a situation where I would feel that Gabi was completely safe- given everything that had already happened- but perhaps. But then, even if it was so, what would Gabi think? It seemed to me, though perhaps it was especially prideful to think so, that she would not want me to go.
No, not prideful; Gabi herself had said so just earlier. It gave me such a strange feeling to think of it! She truly did not want to be apart from me. Realizing this felt very good, as it should have, very good, but also- also frightening. Why? I was not sure. I had never felt that someone wanted to be near me before. No, that was not true; Kazimir had made me feel that way. But he was different than Gabi. It was a calm and good feeling then. Gabi made me feel both excited and frightened.
Maybe she would not ever want me to go.
Maybe it was something about the way her eyes had looked when she had seen me, behind the wheel of the cart- I could not deny, could not, that an unkind part of me really had wanted her to think me gone for the moment, a terrible thing- but when she had seen me her face had crumpled up behind the bloody mask for a moment and it was terrifying.
I thought I wanted to know more about Gabi, but maybe not, maybe not… I had seen terrible things within the other Kezia’s past. I could not imagine what Gabi’s might look like.
An ant crawled over my wrist; I had not even felt its little legs scaling me. Too soft of a touch to sense. I plucked it off and set the squirming thing back onto the ground, where it scampered round and round in an insect panic.
Something thudded past me, and I jerked my head up just in time to see a black blur.
I scrambled forward, a little ways away from the entrance to the burrow, looking frantically all around. All I could see were the waving stalks of grass. Field mice scampered up them as I blundered forward, pushing them away, but I was too heavy to try the same.
Somewhere in front of me the grass rustled, and I heard the mooing of a cow.
I came to a large rock, looming from between the stalks like a mountain, still slick and wet from the morning do. I climbed it with some difficulty, my clay hands slipping and growing muddy from the moisture. The cow was still mooing, and I could hear something else that could never have come from a cow: a guttural growl.
When I reached the top of the rock I saw- I saw the little brown cow Gabi and I had met earlier, with her head down, shaking her horns. Circling her was- well, it looked like a wolf, a huge black wolf, so dark in color it looked like a void or a shadow on the grass. But its teeth, when it showed them, were white.
The cow lowed and jerked her head, her little horns scything the air, and I marveled at her bravery. The wolf was nearly as large as she was. It circled and circled her, silent as the night, and she circled and circled with it, puffing and stamping.
I could not bear to watch. I slip-scrambled back down the rock and ran blindly forward, shoving through grass, following the sounds. The animals had trampled down a broad expanse of grass with all their circling, and as I broke into it I was nearly crushed by the sharp point of a hoof coming down.
I moved quickly out of the way, and then had to move again as the shaggy belly of the wolf passed overhead. It was much bigger than I had even realized! Gabi as a wolf would have barely reached the chin of this behemoth. And it did not even look at me, offer me so much as a sniff as it passed; I suppose that is how things go when you are tiny.
The cow was puffing hard, and her stamps and threats were beginning to lack in vigor. She was getting tired. And the tireless beast stalking around and around her was not. I cast around desperately- my soft clay hands would not help here- and spotted a small flat rock the size of Gabi’s palm.
When the black creature came slinking around yet again, I stood squarely in its path and slammed the edge of my little rock down hard onto its toes.
It got the wolf’s attention. In fact, the wolf gave something like a scream, and tried to jerk away, but I was using all of my strength to push down and hold it in place, and I might have been tiny but I was still a golem. The wolf could not break my hold.
Triumphant, I looked up at it, and saw it staring down at me, and had a wretched shock: the wolf had human eyes.
I only really had a moment to understand this before we both blew sideways, I and the wolf: the cow had lunged and planted her horns into its side. The wolf screamed again, and I and my rock went flying. I landed in the grass some ways away and struggled to get up. But the force of my impact had got grass all stuck through my back, and the hard stems jabbed through my clay, skewering me. As I struggled to free myself, the cow and the wolf passed over me.
It was no longer a game of circle-and-wait. They were struggling in earnest, roaring and snorting and snarling, lunging and snapping and striking, and I cried out as something- a hoof, a paw, I did not know what- clipped my side and mashed it further into the grass. The silver edge of my coin peeped out of my clay. The two of them were working their way back towards me, and I struggled and struggled- I might get torn to pieces and lost for good!
The cow bellowed, and suddenly I saw a massive knee beside my head as she knelt forward, sides heaving. Her moist, vast muzzle swung above me, dripping heated fluid. I could not see the wolf, but I could see the nearby grass trembling.
The wolf then gave a yowl, and I froze, expecting to see the shaggy belly passing over me in an attacking leap. But it did not come- rather, I head the beat of its paws suddenly running further away.
From the grass someone else stood up, wiping their mouth. Someone else? I had not even heard them approaching in the chaos… It was a man, a young man, with red hair and a dirty shirt.
The young man was frowning, scanning the grass like he was looking for something. The cow moved and he did too; I realized that he was standing in her shadow… And then our eyes met and I saw that he had blue eyes.
The other strigoi!
I did not know what to think or what to do, as the man frowned harder and crouched before me, parting the grass with his hands.
“I don’t believe it,” he said, flinching when the edge of the cow’s shadow crossed his cheek. “Look at this mess! Look what you’ve done!”
I fumbled for something to respond with, or whether or not I should even respond at all; in the end what came out was, “Is this your cow?”
At this the strigoi looked as baffled as I felt, and rubbed his chin.
“You’re not going to pieces on me, are you, Kezia?”
“How- how do you know my name?” I demanded, feeling frightened; had he already found Gabi? What had he done to her?! While I was off chasing cows!
“Oh, you addled-” He pushed his red, curly bangs away from his forehead. “It’s me, you goose! It’s Gabi!”
Lying there in the grass, with all my clay squashed and skewered and spread out wrongly, I took a moment to think about this claim. The stains on the shirt were, now that I thought about it, somewhat familiar. But-
“I became a man because it’s a bit easier on the skin in the daytime, that’s all,” he- she snapped, shifting uncomfortably in the cow’s shadow. “The ruckus woke me up and somehow I knew you’d be in the middle of it, you dratted mud pile! And now I find you all squashed and about to be eaten by a pricolici-”
“A wicked man who dies while longing to do more violence, and so becomes a giant wolf- so they say, who knows, it’s not important! Can you get yourself up, or do I have to scrape you?”
By now I was very confident that this was indeed Gabi, and my fear was draining away. It was just very strange to see her in a man’s guise. I supposed that she had changed much more before, but it was the fact that it looked like her and not all at once that was unnerving.
“I think that I might need some he-”
Suddenly Gabi’s strange face and the blue sky were blocked out, and I was engulfed in a kind of moist, hot cave. The glimpse of square teeth made me realize that I was in the mouth of the cow- the mouth of the cow, rather, was closing over me.
“Oi!” I heard Gabi shout, voice muffled, as I felt myself get wrenched upwards- the edge of my silver coin gleamed fearfully in the blackness- and riiiiip, up I came, along with the roots of the grass that was stuck through me. I was still all together, except for a small piece of my left leg.
“Oi! OI!” I heard a slapping sound, possibly Gabi’s hand impacting the side of the cow. “Drop that, you teatbag! Kezia? Kezia?!”
“I am all right!” I cried out, hoping my voice would penetrate past the cow’s teeth. My captor moved suddenly with a lurch, and I tried to grab on to something and wound up with an armful of slimy tongue.
Gabi’s voice was starting to sound alarmingly far away. I tried to push up on the roof of the cow’s mouth, which I was pressed against anyway, but the moisture was making me fall apart even worse, and it was all I could do to keep the coin and my remaining silver letters all assembled… I kicked with my right leg at the teeth to no avail.
It seemed that I was trapped in that dreadful cavern for eons, struggling to keep myself in one piece, not knowing if at any moment the cow would try to swallow me. I was beginning to feel that I should not have tried to save her from the wolf after all. What on earth was she trying to do with me? Was this ordinary cow behavior?
In the wet darkness I sensed movement, both within and without. I could feel the cow’s pulse beating through her tongue, and innumerable swishing, rumbling, rushing sounds from the giant living thing surrounding me…
A voice, muffled but appreciable, finally cut through it all. But it was not Gabi’s.
“What have you got there, Miss?”
Sunlight bloomed before my eyes as the cow opened her mouth and stuck out her tongue.
Soaking wet, entangled in grass, and squashed in every direction, I must have been quite a sight; probably a sight that looked like nothing more than a bunch of muddy grass. A lady in a blue dress leaned down over me, presumably whoever had spoken before, and took me gingerly in one hand.
“What is this?”
Her long fingers began to manipulate me, probing the hard edges of my silver coin. I tried to push her away with one bedraggled arm.
“Please, do not do that…”
She looked surprised at my words, but not as surprised as I would have thought. She was a young-looking woman, perhaps older than Gabi, but not by much. She had hair and eyes the color of chestnuts, and she wore a simple necklace made out of woven hemp. Most everything about her seemed unremarkable, but I had the feeling that she- and maybe her cow- were fooling me.
The cow mooed behind me, and the woman glanced at it, then back down at me.
“Are you perhaps trying to escape from someone?”
She raised me up and turned the matted mess of me so that I could see beyond the cow’s long back. It seemed that we were still in the meadow, for there was long grass and flowers all around, waving in the merry sunlight. But there was a figure encroaching that looked anything but merry; limping and cursing and shuddering towards us was Gabi.
“Oh! Oh, no! She is my companion!”
“She?” repeated the woman, and belatedly I recalled that Gabi was still in the guise of a man. But she did not question it further, just began picking the pieces of grass out of me as Gabi staggered the final few meters. It turned out to be good that I was damp from the cow’s mouth after all, for as the grass went away I was able to reshape my malleable clay very quickly. The woman kept her eyes on me all the while, her red lips pursed.
Gabi got within a few inches of us, and put her hands on her knees, panting.
“What… on… earth…”
“This little one says you are their companion,” said the woman, pulling the last stalk of grass from my shoulder. I sat up in her hand. “Is that so? I have always thought that strigoi were solitary creatures.”
Gabi scowled, raising one arm over her head to try and shield herself from the light. Her skin was quite reddened.
“Give her to me,” she said.
I think it was meant to sound threatening, but it came out mostly exhausted. The woman tilted her head to one side.
“Did you make her?”
Gabi merely glared.
“Perhaps not, then. Would you like to come into the shade? I always enjoy having guests.”
“I don’t plan on being the guest of a witch,” Gabi bit out.
A witch! A witch here? I tilted my head back, suddenly frightened by the long fingers encircling me like bars. The woman was smiling.
“You flatter me. I’m not a witch. Not at the moment. But won’t you come in and rest?”
She turned around, and I had to clutch at her fingers. Behind us was a large house, standing right in the middle of the field; it was painted white and looked very fine, with a fenced-in yard and a garden and a small stable. Pigs snuffled in the dirt beside a stone well, and a grey goose sat on the porch.
I was certain all this had not been there until a moment ago.
To the back of us Gabi growled, but it was a growl of defeat, and she slouched her way past the cow to collapse on the shaded porch. The goose fluttered and honked at the intrusion, and the woman- the witch?- laughed.
“Make yourself at home,” she said. “I do enjoy having guests… Do you like pie? I’ve one in the oven.”