I think that I was sleeping.
It was hard to say, because I had never experienced it before. Or never thought that I had experienced it, at least. But my senses were very soft and dull, my thoughts slow. I felt very little. Almost nothing. The faintest pressure.
Some part of me realized that I had sunk back into the earth. More than that. More than before, more than the way the Iele had shown me. Those were just brushes with fingertips. Now I was submerged. I had more than submerged. I had dissolved. I no longer knew where my edges were. Everything was sinking, slowly blurring together…
And it was all right. I remembered how I had recently declared how very important free will was to me. But the more I disintegrated, the less there was of a ‘me’ to take hold of that free will. If you are a part of everything and everything is a part of you, there is no need for such things. It does not matter.
The earth was so vast. Even in my drowsy state, I felt a thrill. It stretched out and away everywhere around me. And to think I could be one with that! No, not just that I could be, I had been. I had been part of that, before somebody pulled a tiny bit of clay out of the ground and cut it separate. It had been a divorce, a shock, a severance from the great vastness. A piece sent tumbling and stumbling away. Why had I been so afraid of coming back? There was nothing to fear…
No, no fear. No anything. Just… patience. Assurance. What would be, what was, what had been: things drifting apart and coming back together, apart and together, like the intake of a giant’s breath: with every inhale, life… with every exhale, death.
But life itself was only a fraction of what I- we- they were. Life only brushed at the surface. There were interlinking processes within processes that I could only begin to touch, the more I sank into the earth…
Oh. A tug.
Something tugged me.
It was soft, wispy. The end of a root. It was anchoring me, preventing me from sinking any further.
Distantly, I felt the vibrations of a thousand whispers. Tiny things. Meaningless to the vast oneness of the earth.
But I still had just enough left of that separate me for them to matter.
Slowly, with a sense of terrible aching loss, I made myself climb up that root, inch by inch. The whispers grew louder. They resolved into murmurs, then voices.
Come home, child, come home…
They were synchronized, eerie in their unity. This, I knew, was not quite right. It was the forest I was listening to, but the forest should never agree so much with itself. The nature of it was to be perpetually at odds, perpetually struggling, always changing.
Feebly, I tried to add my own voice.
Do not come…
I do not know if it was heard, or simply swept away.
Come home. Come home. COME HOME.
The voices were staggering. I felt dizzy. Amidst them all was something louder, greater, more irresistible. It was a force of sheer will that turned all others to its needs. It wanted to mimic the oneness of the earth below.
I climbed further up the root. Now I was feeling less drowsy, as my connection to what lay below grew fainter and fainter. It gave me a feeling like grief, like I had left everyone and everything I had loved, and that loved me.
But it did not love me. It did not know I existed. And I found that I was not ready to let all that go just yet. There were concerns that still kept me trapped at the surface.
Do not go. Do not listen. Please, Gabi.
Oh yes, Gabi! Shame and fear washed over me. Would she be told what I had done? For some reason I hoped not… And Noroc. Oh, poor Noroc, with all his people gone…
The voice still insisted. Amidst the roots, I felt a delicate, feather-light touch that shrank away as soon as I felt it. I cast my senses higher, felt it retreat faster. Oh, who was it?
I managed to catch up and grasp it, and in that single touch I caught a glimpse before it jerked away and severed the connection.
Oh, she did not want to touch me. I had seen it all. She was afraid of being dragged down where I was. We were both golems, things very close to the earth, very close at every moment to becoming part of it again. If we touched for too long, she might lose the her-ness that defined her, or I might lose the me-ness that defined me.
But she seemed to think that it was I who would persevere, not herself.
I had also felt her worry. This was not supposed to have happened. I was not supposed to still exist. Especially down in the earth, where I could do so much damage. I was supposed to lose myself and disappear.
Well, I would not be doing that just yet.
I stretched out carefully. Bound by my own identity, I could not go too far- I risked dissolving again. But I could tentatively probe the edges of Adamina, softly enough that she did not notice me. She had covered a vast section of the Starving Forest. When I realized this, I marveled. The human-looking part of herself was only a decoy, a lure. The rest of her lurked beneath the trees and brambles and bushes, waiting.
For what? For a command?
Slowly I moved to probe at the center of the forest. This was where the unified voices were strongest, and they made me dizzy. It was hard to remember who I was. I repeated an antithesis to their message as I moved closer, trying to maintain myself amidst the storm-
Do not come, do not come, do not, do not, do not-
Ah. There! I felt it. I felt her. I touched her! Mother Forest!
The voice was enormous, and it felt as though it could shatter me. My insubstantial self reeled back. It was like I had nudged a sleeping giant. I felt a tremendous sense of drowsy confusion.
Mother Forest had been dreaming about a bird. A very large bird, with red wings. It was so large that it only built its nest in the very greatest, tallest tree in the forest, with the sturdiest branches and the deepest roots. And so the bird could rest in this tree and look out over a vast sea of green, and never see the edge.
The bird came back every year, until it did not.
And suddenly I looked down and choked back a scream: there was blood on my belly, deep cuts, peeling open, skin parting with a sound like cloth ripping, and all was raw and agony, and more cuts, and more, and and when I lifted my hands my fingers fell apart in pieces, and when I tried to scream again the front of my throat fell open and a fountain of blood gushed forth-
Dark blood, life’s blood, blood like syrup, blood like- like sap-
Ahh, it is another nightmare.
I heard her voice, and remembered myself. The horrid images disappeared, though not from my memory.
Who is out there, tickling me? the great voice wondered. You feel like my Adamina, but you are not quite…
It paused, and I thought I felt something like a distant yawn.
Don’t peek into someone else’s dreams, it admonished. Even the bad ones. Who are you?
I felt, inexorably, compelled to say my name.
Oh, but what was my name again? It was lurking there at the back of my mind, but I could not quite reach it, claw as I might. What was my name? It was the knot that tied my identity all together, after all; I could not simply lose it.
The voice spoke again, in a somehow gentler way.
Are you lost?
I do not know why, but I responded.
Yes, Mother, I am lost.
Then come to me, said the voice. I will keep you safe, amongst my roots.
It was- somehow- I knew she was being honest. She wanted to care for me. She wanted to hold me and learn who I was and make a place for me, just beside herself. It was such a good feeling. And I longed to go to her. She was comfort. She was Mother. And I had never, ever had that before.
And I started to go-
-and jerked to a stop.
There was something else holding me back. More roots, different roots, twining through the soil, arguing with the great unity surrounding Mother Forest.
It said, This way, Kezia!
The voice sounded familiar- no, it was twin voices, male and female. I felt the brush of their ghostly fingers, tugging me backwards.
I was unable to stop them. I was dragged, roughly, away from Mother. I heard her calling after me, her voice tinged with confusion.
WHERE ARE YOU GOING?
I could not respond. I was- I was not just going backwards, I was shrinking. Smaller and smaller. And I was losing my connection to the earth! Not just what prevented me from having an identity, all of it! It was as though every part of me was going numb. Parts, yes, now I had parts- suddenly I was more than just a spread-out thing– what was happening?
What are you doing?!
I said you could have my bones, Kezia, said the female voice. And you’ll have them, whether you want them or not.
And my heart, added the male voice. More quietly, it said, I’m sorry for all this.
No you’re not, said the female one, and the other didn’t seem prepared to argue with it.
What is happening to me? I asked. My senses were going bleary and indistinct again, and now I had the strangest sensation of moving straight up.
You’re going back outside for a little while, Kezia, said the female voice.
Say hello to the vampire for me, said the male. She isn’t so bad, even if she did drink my blood.
They were fading away, growing distant, but at the very last moment I thought I heard the female voice say, in a very measured tone, Excuse me, what?
By the time Pascha returned, I was just scraping the last bit of dirt into the holes I had dug. To be clear, I was doing this as a wolf, having gotten tired of trying to dig with my hands within roughly thirty seconds. There are some shapes that make scratching at the earth much easier than others, and in fact in lupine form it was an absolute joy to dig, so much so that I was in the throes of earthy gusto when Pascha got back, and failed to notice him clear his throat several times over the satisfying sounds of shifting dirt.
Because of this, I was not quite prepared to be grabbed by the scruff of my neck and lifted bodily into the air. My mood shifted abruptly from dirt-induced doggish joy to snarling beast on the offensive. It is true that wolf hindlegs are not well-designed for kicking, at least from a human standpoint, but they have the advantage of being armed with four blunt nails each, which I rammed with precision straight into Pascha’s sternum.
He oofed and dropped me, whereupon I hit the dirt and rolled and came up with a ferocious snarl and then recognized him in a span of seconds.
“That hurt, you cur,” he snapped, rubbing his chest. I turned an ear back and tried to look apologetic, even though it had clearly been all his own fault.
“Anyway,” he said, thankfully distracted, “what, in the name of all things holy, are you doing now?”
“Burying bones,” I said, or rather tried to say, but all that came out was a breathy wolf groan. My tongue flopped out and I panted. Now that I was off my digger’s high, I realized how tired I was. I had to sit down, and then lie down, still panting.
Pascha gave me the hairy eyeball for a moment.
“Maybe I don’t really want to know. Especially since it smells like an old corpse around here.” He gave a dramatic sigh. “Also, it should please you to know that you were correct; Baba Yaga wants me to leave this fadua alone. In fact she nearly bit my head off over it.” He pursed his lips, still eyeing me, where I lay panting, barely registering his words. “Are you going to change into something that can talk, or…?”
I licked my lips. This shape had been an ambitious change in the first place when I was already feeling so low on energy, and now it was going to burn like hell getting myself back. I settled with a low whine.
“Oh, spare me,” said Pascha, and then squinted at me. “You are Gabi, the strigoi, aren’t you? Not just some ordinary wolf I’ve been talking to like an idiot?”
I decided not to offer any sign of understanding on the matter, since I was feeling so weary and petulant. After a moment of strained silence he threw up his hands.
“Ugh! To think, I could have-” He cut himself off, muttering so low that even my wolf ears couldn’t catch it, and did an about-face and walked back into the forest.
I lowered my head onto my paws and let my eyes sink closed. I was certain he’d gotten completely fed up, and that would be the last I saw of him for a while, but much to my surprise it wasn’t a few minutes later that he reappeared, crashing loudly through the undergrowth. He had something draped over his shoulder- someone, in fact, who appeared to be out cold. When he laid the body out on the ground before me none-too-gently I realized that it was a young man, barely out of his acne. He looked as if he’d gotten kicked in the head by a horse.
“It’s for you,” Pascha clarified, as I stared at the unconscious boy with a wolfy look of bafflement. “You looked like you were on your last legs when we last spoke, and I figured you’d need some topping-up. Now hurry up and eat, will you?”
With a shudder and a squirm, I finally managed to pull myself out of the wolf.
“Why, Pascha,” I said, trying to disguise my wincing as my joints reoriented themselves, “I didn’t know you cared so much.”
“Oh, shut up, the baba told me not to let you die.”
“She did?” I frowned, and poked the prone boy with my toe. He gave a soft moan. “Why?”
“I suppose it’s to do with the deal she made with Kezia, right? Wasn’t it for your life?”
That made a small amount of sense, but I was still extremely suspicious. Still, at the moment I figured it would be best not to look a gift Pascha in the mouth. I squatted down and turned the boy’s face to one side. He was light-skinned, but nearly definitely at least part Romani.
“Then the witch provided this, too?”
“She’s not in the habit of keeping spare boys on hand, sadly,” said Pascha. “I picked him up along the road on the way back here. And if you don’t hurry up he’s going to wake up and get fussy and messy, so would you please just go ahead and do what you do?”
“What I do,” I muttered, wrinkling my nose at him, but then raised the boy’s wrist and peered at it a moment. It was about as filthy as you’d expect the wrist of someone that age and standing to be. Still, this wasn’t the time to get picky. I took a bite.
At once I realized that it must have been such a very long time since I’d had any blood. Immediately the scent and taste of it was overwhelming to my senses, and I forgot about Pascha, forgot about the flower, forgot about most everything else. This was such a relief. This was right. This was good, good, goodness- filling up the gnawing pit of my stomach-
I withdrew my mouth, and with a mumbled curse, clasped my hand around the boy’s wounded wrist.
“Poor taste?” Pascha suggested. “Has he been eating too many onions? I’m not getting you another one, you know…”
I ignored him, keeping tight pressure on the boy’s wrist to stop the bleeding, and pinched shut his nose. Pascha’s eyebrows shot skyward when I locked lips with the boy, and took several deep breaths, sucking the air and life straight from his lungs. When I withdrew this time, his lips were blue and he was trembling. I dropped his wrist and wiped my mouth.
“Thanks very much. Now take him back, will you?”
Pascha made a noise suspiciously similar to a squawk.
“Take him back?”
“Yes,” I said, grimacing and giving my mouth an additional wipe. “I’m finished with him.”
“You’ve barely started with him! I’m not taking back what could be finished up neatly right here-”
“Well, I suppose it’s fine if you want him to wake up, and start wandering around like an idiot and asking questions.”
(I was exaggerating. There was no way this boy would be able to stand up for quite a while after what I’d done to him.)
Pascha actually stamped his foot. “I don’t know what game you’ve been trying to play with me, Gabi, but my patience is running thin, and I’ll have you know that I can pretty easily sling you over my shoulder and give you a good thrashing. Witch’s orders or no!”
“And you say you don’t like women,” I sneered.
“I’m warning you-”
“Oh, go ahead and warn! D’you think I haven’t heard it all before?” I mimicked his foot-stamping; I had taken mostly breath, but it was possible I was slightly tipsy from the blood all the same. “If I’d rather not finish the boy off it’s my business, isn’t it? I got my meal, you’ve seen that I’m alive, so now you can get your flaming arse out of here and leave Kezia and I-”
His hand whipped out and grabbed my arm so hard that I yelped.
“Kezia and I, you say?”
“Let me go, you ox!”
He did not let go. “You said she was gone!”
“She is!” I snarled, but when he squeezed a little harder, grudgingly added, “But she might come back.”
He released me, and I staggered back and nearly tripped over the prone body of the boy. He wheezed as I accidentally trod on his chest. I jerked off of him.
“Are you going to clean this up, or-”
“What do you mean, she could come back?” Pascha had folded his arms, his eyes zipping back and forth over the disturbed dirt around the flowerbud. Something seemed to dawn on him, and his jaw went slightly slack.
“You’re not stupid enough to think-”
“Shut up!” I could feel color rising to my cheeks. “Shut up, shut up, shut up! Just go away!”
“Oh, no, this is too much,” said Pascha, shaking his head, baring his square, white teeth in a wicked smile. “Now I see. You think this plant is going to grow you back a golem?”
I glared at him, hating every inch of him. “I more than think it-”
“I assumed you’d gone a little mad, what with recent events, but not to this extent. It’s actually-” He seemed to sober slightly. “It’s actually rather sad. You loved that creature, didn’t you?”
A tight little knot of something was taking shape under my breastbone, whether anger or something else I didn’t know. I said nothing.
“Well, I’ll try to tell you now, Gabi,” said Pascha, shaking his head. “What comes out of that flower in the next few days won’t be your dear, gentle golem but a man-eating savage.”
“She’ll be in good company, then,” I said, baring my own teeth. That made him laugh, albeit in a humorless way.
“You’re a fool,” he said, without any particular rancor. “More than that, you’re a fool playing straight into my mistress’ hands. She wanted this, you realize? She wants this fadua to emerge and do something to Mother Forest. Probably something fatal.” His expression grew slightly grim. “This isn’t at all about Zakhar being poisoned. This isn’t just some witches’ spat over territory. The Baba wants this forest razed to the ground. She must see it as some sort of threat.”
“I don’t see how a single fadua could do all that.”
“And I don’t see how a mere strigoi could make such an efficient catspaw, yet here we are.”
Before I could retort to that, the Romani boy lying on the ground gave another feeble moan. Pascha nudged his shoulder with a toe.
“You’re really not going to finish him off?”
“I told you, I’ve eaten enough. Take him back to his people already.”
I had said the last quite lightly, in a chiding manner, but when Pascha looked straight on at me I suddenly felt my hearts sink.
“I think you’ve got the wrong impression of me, Gabi,” he said. He brushed back the hair in his eyes and I saw that his fingernails had turned black and hooflike. “I’m not your obedient little golem, and I’m not your ally either.”
“I never said-”
“You have made it quite clear how willing you are to put me and mine in harm’s way to get what you want. And that’s just fine, isn’t it?”
He raised one leg, which for an instant seemed horse rather than human, and stamped down. I heard something in the Romani boy give a sharp crack.
“It doesn’t matter to me what happens to this,” he said, sweeping his arm over the body- now still, utterly still, with no rise and fall of breath. “I was never human, unlike you. Oh, and what a nasty look you’ve got in your eyes now.”
“You bastard,” I said, my hands curling into claws.
He merely laughed. “Oh, you hypocrite. You live off of death. And what, you think it would be kinder for me to take this boy back and let his family try to nurse him for months? With years ground off his life?”
“I do it because I have to!” I cried. “I don’t do it out of- out of spite!”
“You know, I don’t think people care why you kill them,” said Pascha. “Especially after the fact.”
Any response I had got garbled up in my tightening throat. Pascha tossed back his forelock and put out his hand. With a flash, the boy’s body was wreathed in flame. Involuntarily I raised my arm to shield myself from the light and the heat. The stench of burning fat and hair was unavoidable.
When the flames had died down, what remained was a stain of ash littered over the grass- for the grass itself, it seemed, had not burned.
I could hardly believe it- it had all taken place so quickly. My stomach, with its meager quantity of stolen blood, roiled unpleasantly. Pascha was watching me with a curiously blank look on his face.
“You know,” I said, trying to keep my tone conversational, “I seem to remember you having a much more pleasant character before.”
At once his features darkened, and he looked at me with something that could nearly be called hatred.
“Yes,” he said, “perhaps I did have better character, when I felt a little bit of hope. I thought we might actually be able to get free from that cursed witch. You know,” and here his voice dropped an octave, and I could see glints of firelight behind his teeth, “I’m going to kill her. Make her into so much dust for what she’s done.” He waved a hand over the charred silhouette on the grass. “She hasn’t made a mistake yet, but when she does…”
He squeezed his hand into a fist, his blackened nails digging into his palm.
“Every slave would like to think that,” I said, gazing at the place where the Romani boy had lain. “They usually die still thinking it.”
“Yes, but the difference between them and I,” hissed Pascha, “is that I don’t die.”
His words seemed to linger in the area long after he had turned around and left, and the sour taste of ash in my mouth seemed a reminder of it. He had not given me any indication of whether or not he would be back, or if so, how soon; he had not mentioned whether he considered the witch’s order to keep me alive had been fulfilled. I found that I would prefer that it was. I hated that he had left behind that dirty mark on the ground. Hated it. He couldn’t die, he said; well, I had been human once and died and I still did not feel free.
Bitterly I pursed my lips, wishing to sweep away the ash; it did not seem right that he had killed someone in the place where Kezia was going to return. I had not wanted death to stain this place, like the dark cloud of a bad omen. But of course I had already buried a dead girl’s bones beneath her flower, so whom was I fooling?
Abruptly I turned around and walked back to that tall, pale bud, and put one hand on the outside. It was still so very cold. I rubbed my palms together, wondering. What would Kezia look like once she emerged? Would she be as pale and colorless as Crina? Perhaps she, too, would have no eyes- I had already steeled myself for this, and decided it would be all right. After all, hadn’t she had hollow pits before? And if she was blind, I would be happy to lead her.
But how old would she be? The light that Pascha had shone behind the bud had illuminated a figure that looked a little like an infant. Would she emerge a squalling flower-baby? As a child? Would she remember anything, anything at all from before- or had Pascha been right, and I was all along only convincing myself of an elaborate lie? Perhaps I really had gone mad. This all seemed very much like something a madman would dream up. Girls growing out of flowers! Children coming back to life! (Only slightly changed.)
I breathed on my hands, then pressed them back against the flowerbud. The cool surface palpably sapped away the warmth on my skin. I rubbed them again, placed them back. If what emerged was a child, I would simply have to care for it best I could; I was the one responsible for it, after all. If what emerged was a vicious monster, I would- well, I suppose I would have to watch it from a distance.
My own thoughts were making me nervous, so this time I rubbed my hands together and placed them on my own cheeks. At least there was one good thing about all of this. The golem that served Mother Forest no longer seemed to have the slightest interest in me. I felt certain that she would have shown up by now if things were otherwise, with me so close to the lair of her mistress. Indeed, before I had stolen Kezia, I had wandered about this place a half-dozen times unmolested. It seemed only now that she was gone…
Would the witch notice if she was reborn as a fadua? What might she do? I swallowed. Best not leave the flower unsupervised, in that case. I would have to guard her for a change.
No telling how long it would take for the flower to mature, or whether Pascha would return to ‘help’ me again. I resolved to conserve energy, and turned into a pine marten.
Silently I flowed through the sweet-smelling branches, my long body too lithe to be pierced by thorns. The silver letters caught in their grip trembled slightly as I passed over them, pressing my nose very briefly against the ten bani coin. Then I wound myself tightly around the base of the great flower, willing the warmth from my body to seep into its core, and closed my eyes.