We sat huddled together against the trunk of the great mother tree, Gabi and I, between two huge smooth buttresses that curved like waves. The bark against our backs was cold and lumpy from the twining growths that made up the tree, but Gabi’s side against mine was warm, her head on my shoulder, her fingers entwined with mine. We were both so weary. This tree was dangerous, and the witch coming to destroy it was dangerous, and many other things about all this were dangerous- but we were simply so exhausted. Gabi had not spoken a word since she had curled up against my side, and neither had I. But there was a silent agreement between the two of us, I felt, that there could be no more running.
The air at the base of the great tree was strangely warm and heavy in my lungs, and it was making me even sleepier. Every muscle inside my skin felt like mush, and my eyelids drooped. Gabi had already closed hers, her mouth tucked into a sleepy frown against my shoulder. But I did not think that she was asleep yet, for her breathing was still rapid, and slightly uneven, as though something rasped in her throat.
Slowly, as though swimming through jelly, I raised my other hand and lightly cupped her cheek. Her eyes opened into thin slits.
“Are you alright, Gabi? Your breath is…”
“Tired,” was her cross response, and she shut her eyes again. After a moment she added, “Throat hurts.”
I could sympathize. My throat felt a sticky kind of ache as well, like it was too dry, which made no sense because the air was so wet. My head also bore the same sore throb that had begun building up just as I had entered the clearing. But neither discomfort was so pressing that it interfered with my desire to sleep- in fact, it seemed to me that both headache and sore throat might go away with a little rest.
My eyes had nearly drifted shut, but I forced them back open. It was not a good idea to sleep now, was it? After all, it was not as though Gabi and I were alone in this clearing. Some ways away I could still see the nameless golem, the one with the sticks and leaves on its arms, standing still as though it had been ordered to be a statue. It cradled Vasilisa in its arms, and for a moment a prick of concern pierced my sleepy veil. Was she still alive? I thought that I could see her chest moving just slightly, though nothing else was. The poison might make it so that she never opened her eyes again. It was a sorrowful thought, but not one that I could do anything about. I wondered what had caused the poor golem to become so attached to her.
Adamina was not within sight, or at least her facsimile was not. I had to remember that the whole ground around here was a part of her body, and she could be watching from anywhere. Even right underneath our feet. My thighs tensed somewhat at the thought and I looked down in the space between my crossed legs, half-expecting to see a pair of empty eyes looking back up at me. But there was only dirt.
Nonetheless I let my free hand slide from Gabi’s cheek to brush the ground with my palm. If it was all her flesh, then I should be making contact with her right now. But the dirt felt like only dirt to me, and it occurred to me that it would be very tiring to control a forest-sized body all of the time. Indeed, when I hazily tried to imagine it, it seemed so vast and exhausting- so much to think about, so much to feel- that I might lose my mind, lose the ability to sense the edges of where my body ended. In fact, I had felt like that before, when I sank into the earth and ‘died’ on my way to becoming a fadua, and I had nearly lost myself. Adamina had more will than I had yet acknowledged, to keep herself together.
But even with all that strength, she had still gotten frightened by me. The thought was pleasing and spiteful. Spite lay more in Gabi’s area of expertise than mine. Though I could see why she seemed to enjoy feeling it, for it was terribly satisfying to finally intimidate someone else, for a change. Ever since I had stopped being a golem I had spent most of my time being afraid.
And not enough time resting… I leaned my head on Gabi’s and lightly squeezed her hand. She did not respond, her raspy breathing slow. My eyes were drifting shut again, pulled by an irresistible force. Was it really worth the struggle of trying to stay awake? Everything had come to a strange standstill, the witch, the tree, the golem, and Gabi and I… it seemed that if anything important started, it would wake us up with the noise. No need to bother keeping watch, truly. I could not stifle a slow yawn, nuzzling my cheek into Gabi’s springy curls.
Something soft touched my leg, and I cracked an eye, and saw a foggy dark shape. It meowed. Noroc? He winked his green eye at me and started to crawl into my lap, purring. I closed my eye again, feeling the comforting weight and warmth of him settling against my stomach. I would have stroked him if I had the strength. But the dull pounding of my headache felt as though it were inching closer and closer to the backs of my eyelids, like the throbbing of distant drums, and it was hard to concentrate even on simple movements. Even breathing was a great effort… It felt as though it had when I first came out of the fadua-flower, when I had not yet known how lungs and a chest worked. Everything was so heavy, and I was grateful to finally feel the edge of sleep creeping up on me, soothing away the pain in my head and throat.
But even as that dull ache faded, I felt a sudden sharp stab in my navel. I jolted, my eyes popping open. Noroc gave a mrrowl, and the pain stabbed at me a second time, and with it the headache came back savagely. It was so bad that I pushed him away, off of my lap, ignoring his protests. Had he dug his claws into my stomach? How could he? Sharp twinges were spreading from my navel, making me wince and squirm. Gabi’s head slid down my shoulder and onto my chest from all my movement, but somehow she did not wake up.
I saw Noroc’s small white teeth when he opened his mouth again, but could not hear the sound he made. The pounding in my head was too loud, and I feebly clutched at one ear, as if that could block it out. No! It was coming from inside me. Something had gotten inside me…
An especially sharp stab from my stomach made me curl up slightly, away from Gabi, who slumped without me on the buttress. Noroc watched, tail lashing from side to side, as I writhed and moaned. Why- why was I in so much pain? Why did my head feel like it was being constricted by an iron band? And why did my chest feel heavier and heavier with each breath? With shaking hands I tried to pull open the vest that Gabi had given me, to relieve any little bit of pressure that I could. I only succeeded in pulling it slightly up my stomach, and then I stopped at the sight of my navel.
I had forgotten… There, instead of the small dimple that any human would have, was a hole, a flattened pit, the place where the stem had once attached me to the ground. Green streaks still radiated from it, looking unnatural on human-seeming skin, the marks of a fruit not yet wholly ripened. And as I cringed from another sharp pain, I realized that it was these areas of my skin that were hurting me. The plant parts.
I gripped the high buttress beside me with one hand to pull myself upright, trembling all over. Gabi was still limp on my other side, her chest moving with slow, shallow breaths that held a thin gurgle of fluid. I reached out, shook her shoulder, rasped:
But she did not wake.
“Calm yourself, Kezia.”
The voice of Crina suddenly thrummed up from the ground beneath me, and at once I felt the pain in my stomach ease. I took deep gulps of air out of relief, though my chest still felt like it was made of clay again.
“What- is happening? Are you- doing this?”
Her remorseless reply stunned me, and again I clutched my aching head.
“My breath is heavy with rot,” she said, the twisted trunk humming against my back. “I have warned you before, I am like a poison. To breathe my air is to fall ill.”
I kept one hand pressed against my temple, trying to understand her words.
“You- did not warn us-”
“You- mean for us- to be poisoned here?” As soon as I said it, I realized the answer was obvious. Of course she did. She had never disguised her intent to kill us, after all. She was the one who had poisoned Vasilisa, and now she had managed to lure Gabi and I into her trap. If I had fallen asleep, would I have been able to wake up again? Would Gabi and I have slipped silently into death, without a fight at all? O, Gabi! I turned and shook her again, this time by both her shoulders, but her head flopped and she did not rouse.
“She has lost her resistance to it,” Crina told me. “She is already mine. But you… You seem to carry some immunity, from the manner of your birth. Trees take longer to die from my presence than animals do, after all. But death will come.”
“You want our souls…?”
My thoughts were dizzy, scattered. I pulled Gabi’s limp body against mine again, gritting my teeth. She was too cold. We were both getting too cold.
“I thought that… we had to give them to you… in order for you to take them? Is that not why you gave… Vasilisa the choice?”
“But you did make the choice, Kezia. You and Gabi chose to come here to escape Baba Yaga. And I am protecting you from her. Adamina will divert the paths in order to frustrate her just long enough for you both to die.”
“That is not protection!”
“I cannot help but be poisonous,” Crina said, her voice too gentle for my seething skull. “And you cannot help but have a short life. So vivid, but so small. You would not live long at all even without my interference.”
“You do not know… that…”
“Unless you have more tree in you than I think, I do. I have felt the memories of a thousand thousand men and women since the time that the great forest covered the land. So quick, they are. All of that wondrous thought and emotion and desire wasted! Please… Let me save you.”
She must have known, through whatever senses she possessed, that I was making an expression of horror, of disgust. She said, “I can preserve your love for Gabi forever. I can hold on to her love for you. The things you have felt in your new body, the feats you have achieved. It won’t mean anything if you let your soul fade away.”
I kept Gabi’s head tilted up towards mine, watched her breathe.
“The bad things will stay too, if that is true…”
“What is bad about a memory? What is good? All are part of existence.”
“So… when you said you wanted to save Adamina… you meant… this?”
The tenderness in Crina’s voice made me want to choke.
“I love her dearly. She saved me, but even a golem fades faster than I do. If she acquiesces and takes on a body of flesh, I can finally, truly, save her as well.”
I was wracked by sudden shudders, clutching Gabi’s limp body to myself. Even for Adamina- even for her- I was sickened. No, there was no way I could not be sickened; I had seen inside her mind. She had already been destroyed by the Rabbi, whom she had loved, regardless of why he had done such a thing… I did not know how deeply she felt for Crina, but this would surely come as a betrayal to her as well. I felt certain she did not know of Crina’s intent beyond her desire to get her into a body of flesh and blood. But it was only so that she could die!
“You do not understand,” Crina whispered to me, but there was no trace of anything like spite to her tone, only a faint sorrow. “But perhaps your lover might have…”
Desperately I covered Gabi’s mouth with my hand, as though that weak gesture might stop the poison from flowing into her lungs, or stop Mother Forest’s words from reaching her.
“Gabi wants to be alive… she is alive, now! If she were awake… she would be so…”
“Humans become strigoi for a reason, Kezia. They are not born that way. Neither was I born as what I am now. Ah… but it does not matter.”
She went silent, and in my head I cursed her, cursed her with words that Gabi would use- Gabi who was dying in my arms right now. No! I refused to let us die like this- not when we had just gotten hope again- my head was spitting and my throat was burning but I would not, I would not close my eyes and fall asleep- no! The green matter woven through my navel was a blessing, in the end. It seemed to me that it was another living part of this flesh body, this body that did not want to die. And I could not betray that- could not just give up here-
I coughed hoarsely. My thoughts were growing jumbled, flooding over themselves in my mind, like an ant’s nest that had been stepped on. The pain was making me lose focus. So I would not die- but how would I stop the poison? We were breathing it in with every breath- Gabi was still breathing through her nose despite my fingers- and we could not stop breathing, that would kill us too, I knew that. I took my hand off of her mouth and weakly tried to lift her. My muscles burned with protest, and I collapsed back against the tree. Not enough strength! I could not do it by myself…
My eyes fell upon the golem, the golem that had stood there holding Vasilisa in its arms, watching silently the entire time.
“Help…” I croaked, reaching around Gabi to extend a hand towards it. “Please… We cannot get out, the air is bad…”
The golem merely stared, hollow eyes a mockery of the strength I once had.
“Please…” It had free will, and surely it could understand? What had it been pondering this entire time, standing stock-still? When I had first gotten free will, I had never wanted to stand still like that again… What did it want?
“Help,” I croaked again, feeble. Desperate. “Sister… brother… I was like you once. And Gabi gave you free will! Please!”
Now, finally, it moved very slightly, pulling Vasilisa’s limp body closer to its chest. Slowly it turned its head so that it was looking away from me. A refusal. I collapsed hopelessly back against the tree, what little energy I had mustered draining just as quickly as it had come.
The golem was still moving, though. It tilted its head down, shifting Vasilisa to the crook of one massive arm, as though she were an infant, and running a hand down its massive clay belly. Twigs and stones fell as it pushed them out of its clay. Then it lowered Vasilisa and began to push her through the cleared space and into its stomach.
I watched, wide-eyed, bewildered. This golem was bigger than I had been, big enough to engulf a grown woman easily, as it was doing now. But why…? To keep her safe? But…
Vasilisa slipped through the clay with little resistance, as though it were nothing more than milk, one last audible sigh escaping from her lips before her head and shoulders were swallowed up, taken in. And then she was gone, tucked inside that hollow space. Compulsively I held Gabi tight against myself, as if I, too, could press her safe within me.
The golem, its arms empty, took one step towards me. And then another. The face was impassive- without even a clear mouth- but I felt that there was hesitation in that slow movement, for it could have covered the ground in an instant if it chose to. It was uncertain. Or was it afraid? But of what?
The answer to that became clear just a moment later, as the golem took one more step, and then jerked back as a clay hand burst from the earth and snatched at its ankle.
“Adamina!” I cried, fresh outrage willing me to sit back up. The golem was nearly tripping over itself to back away again, both hands on its belly. The clay hand was slowly melting into the earth again, but it was near, almost close enough for me to touch. I strained for it around Gabi’s heavy weight, and it seemed to pause, still half-formed.
“If you were listening- watching-” I panted, reaching, fingers grasping at the air, “then you must know- you must already know- your mistress wants to destroy you! Why do you still obey her? I know that you have free will!”
With a squelch, the rest of the clay hand shrank back into the earth, even more rapidly than before. I coughed and pounded the ground in frustration with one fist.
“I knew that you were a liar! I knew it! If you ever- if you ever truly thought of yourself as my mother, you would-”
I had to stop, loathing the words that were on the tip of my tongue. But what choice did I have? I had to say them.
“You would save me from her! Mo… mother! Mother, help me!”
Not even a breeze to stir the red leaves that blocked out light and air high above us.
And the nausea building up in my gut now had very little to do with the toxin in the air. Had I… all this time… Had I still believed…
I had thought, without knowing it, that she would still come for me if I called. Called for my mother.
I had been wrong.
Something soft touched my cheek, then a warm, rasping wetness. I turned my head to see Noroc standing on one of the buttresses, nuzzling me, licking me. I reached up a trembling hand to stroke his fur.
I felt numb all over. And I did not understand; how could I be so… I should not have been shocked! I did not have the time, anyway… I looked at the golem, still clutching itself some distance away. That one would be no help, I could see; it was frightened of Mo- of Adamina, curse her, curse her, curse her!
I gritted my teeth, squeezed my eyes shut, and Noroc nosed up against me again, mewling softly. If only Noroc was big and strong enough to carry us, he could help us. If he could take on a larger form, like the Bannik had… But Noroc was weakened too; he had lost most of himself when Elan had died. We had all lost much of our former strength…
My eyes popped open. But Noroc could help us.
“Adamina is changing the paths,” I hissed aloud, staring at the spot where the clay hand had vanished. “Delaying Baba Yaga…”
Noroc meowed again, withdrawing slightly at the name. I struggled to sit up again.
“Noroc! Please- I know you will not want to, but please- find Baba Yaga, and lead her back here!”
At once he flattened his ears back, his eye widening. I did not blame him. But there was nothing else I could think of, though my insides squirmed in protest at the thought of facing her again. She would try to kill us, for certain! But I knew where the needle was… That had been our hope all along, had it not?
“Please, Noroc,” I said, settling back against the tree once more to save my strength, turning Gabi’s face so that it was pressed against my shirt. “Hurry! I do not know how much longer she will be able to breathe…”
Noroc’s gaze flickered, his pupil dilating slightly, then he turned and leapt down from the buttress, dashing low and quick towards the trees, slipping into shadow, vanishing.
I put my fingers over my mouth and took a slow breath, as though that might filter the air somehow. Would Adamina and Mother Forest try to stop him? If Noroc was hurt, too… I trembled, feeling my borrowed heart thud against my ribs. Must I lie here and wait, not knowing?
I felt tree bark stir against my back like a living thing, and tensed.
“Do not touch him!”
“Touch whom?” came Crina’s voice, still calm, gentle. “My former courier? I have no interest.”
It was strange, but… I thought I believed her when she said this, and sagged bonelessly back. No, it was not her way, was it? To move, to act out. I… still did not understand her very much at all.
“I am sorry, Kezia,” she whispered, her voice humming up through the earth, through my bones, like Noroc’s purr.
“It is too late to be sorry for poisoning me,” I bit out. “If you are sorry, you should-”
“I thought that she would come back for you, too.”
Her voice was so gentle that I was furious, and raw, too, angry that I had still held onto some hope, angry that this tremendous, ancient, murderous being had seen what I felt, and was pitying me.
I would not say a word back to her. Instead I pulled Gabi’s face close to mine and kissed her cheeks with trembling lips.
“I will not leave you,” I whispered to her. “I will not leave you.”
Her face was slack, relaxed. Through the heavy air I caught the thin scent of smoke.
Note: Part 74 will return to the regular posting schedule on Monday, August 1. Thanks again everyone for sticking with me during my life upheavals.