Can’t rush food.
I came into the muzzy semiconsciousness one does after a half-remembered dream- or perhaps a memory, in this case, of the creaking wood of a wagon, of sitting up in my crude truckle bed and watching my mother tease one of my older sisters, tickling her ribs until she burst into peals of giggles. It was a queer moment, because it was soon after my sixth sister had fallen into the river and drowned, making her the fourth daughter lost between me and the others, and even though I was very young at the time my older sister was still much too grown-up to be cuddled and tickled in such a way, at such a time.
In my dream my mother wrapped her arms around my sister and stroked her hair, and they both closed their eyes and swayed in time with the rocking of the wagon, and the wood creaked, and the clop-clop of the horses outside, the soft groan of the bear tied to the back, the low mutter of men’s voices, the first pit-pat of rain against the roof. The smell of straw and spice.
The memory and the dream ended, all of the strange sensations of my childhood bundled back away in cottony fog, and I felt a warm arm over my back, a warm chest pressed against me, and breath against my ear. My heart pitter-pattered with a quick burst of anxiety, even with heat filling up my stomach, and through the haze I heard myself whisper:
“You should go. Someone will see us.”
Viorel stirred, and so did my fear, because I never knew what he might do; he might want to make love again in the morning before he left, or he might want to sleep more with me in his arms while I fretted, or he might want to leave… Each option was as exquisitely awful as the next, because it mattered not at all to me. I could not go against anything he chose. I could not even stop loving him without his permission.
The sound of my voice made my captor stir, and the arm tightened around me, and my heart wanted to burst out of my chest and flee. I forced my eyes open a crack and was confused when I saw not Viorel’s pale hair over the coarse grey blanket on the barn floor, but soft brown hair over an unfamiliar quilt, with firelight behind. And her eyes opened: they had solidified into dark, warm brown over time, like her hair.
“What did you say, Gabi?” Kezia mumbled sleepily.
I swallowed down the queer emotions pressing at my throat, and murmured back, “Never mind, my dear, I was half asleep.”
Kezia made a terribly endearing and sleepy noise, peering at me with her eyes half-lidded, and then drew her arm from my back to press it against my chest, over my left breast.
“Your heart is beating very fast… Did you have a bad dream?”
“No, no… don’t worry about my heart. You can go back to sleep.”
“I think that I had a dream as well,” she drowsed. “But it was not my own dream. It was somebody else’s memories…”
I took her hand away from my chest, held it loosely in my own.
“Your ghost, again?”
“Hmm… it is all mixed together…”
She trailed off, her eyelids fluttering, and leaned closer into me. I was growing more and more awake and more aware of how we were both still naked; we’d found clothes for ourselves in the abandoned village, but by then we were both so cold that the warmest option had been to huddle together on the floor in a quilt before the fireplace. The house we had chosen was mostly intact; I thought I even recognized it, as the place where I’d been taken and mistaken for a witch. It was eerie to think about the empty rooms, once cris-crossed by the padded feet of generations of Romani servants and slaves, so I tried not to. There had been wood ready in the fireplace, and flint and tinder on the hearth, as though the master had just stepped out for a moment. I wondered which of the white trees he’d become.
It was gloomy stuff, but for the moment the depth of it was not my main concern. There was light coming in through the window, so that meant we’d managed to spend the night together undisturbed. No dark shadows were stalking us; all seemed peaceful. That was the most nerve-wracking thing of all. Here I was, cuddled up with Kezia, her head tucked under my chin, her hand in mine, her warm breath on my neck, with absolutely nothing pressing to distract me. The damned fire had even managed to stay lit through the evening somehow, so I couldn’t even detach myself with the excuse of stoking it.
The situation felt extremely dangerous, to my mind.
Ever-so-gently, I tried to push Kezia away, easing out of her one-armed embrace. Her eyes fluttered open, but she did not protest, simply watched as I wormed my way out from our warm nest with a shiver. The pile of clothing we’d gathered the night before was on the floor nearby- blessedly we’d found things to match both our statures- and I quickly got dressed.
Kezia peered up at me from beneath the blanket, pulling it tighter around herself.
“What is the matter? Are you going somewhere?”
“No, just checking the fire,” I lied. “And I needed a stretch. How is your arm?”
“This one is fine,” said Kezia, drawing her remaining arm over the covers. “The other one, I do not know, because it is gone.”
I mock-frowned at her. “Perhaps I ought to take this one, too, for your impudence. Is it hurting you at all?”
“Hmm.” She thought on this a bit longer than I would have liked. “No.”
“Roll over and let me see.”
She obeyed, though slowly, pulling down the blanket awkwardly with her one hand. The sight of the dirty bandage made me wince. I would have to hunt out some cleaner-looking linens for it later, but for the moment, I crouched next to her and gingerly undid the mess of it, sending flakes of dried blood tumbling to the floor. Kezia made a soft noise.
She did not reply, but she had shut her eyes. I was as careful as I could be, but there was no getting around it. At least the bleeding seemed to have good and stopped, sealed by the dark clotted mass that covered her stump. I was at a loss for what to do with it; ought I to try to clean it, or leave it be and hope it was nothing more than a gigantic scab? I inhaled, and detected no foul smell of infection, but one could still be festering away under there for all I knew. In fact I knew nothing at all, really, about what to do with a severed limb.
“Stay still for a moment,” I told her, with all the false confidence I could muster. I backed away from the wound before me, stumbling back to my feet. “Let me fetch something clean to bind it with.”
Again she did not respond, and I retreated like a coward, padding over into one of the other rooms.
When I had composed myself and returned with torn bedsheet in my hands, Kezia was sitting up, bare-breasted still, and had turned her upper body towards the fire. It gave me a start to see her that way, the changed shape of her back, the asymmetry framed by the firelight. It was as though someone had begun a carving of a woman, but never finished it.
I looked at the makeshift bandage in my hands, considered how her back was to me, her attention fixed on the fire, and wondered if I could slip away without her hearing. A horrible thought. She would be helpless without me, she was badly wounded, she needed me. Why did I have to think such things even now? But I was frightened. The thought of watching her slowly succumb to some infection, of having to care for her for weeks hence even if she survived, it terrified me.
Coward, coward. I would do it all anyway. I swallowed it all back down where it belonged.
She turned and blinked at me. Her cheeks were over-rosy, her eyes hazy. I was at her side at once, pressing my hand against her forehead.
“You silly girl, you’ve got a fever,” I scolded, pushing her back down by her good shoulder.
“Have I?” She licked her lips and let me fuss over her without protesting. “I have not had one before. I do feel strange…”
My hands were at her stump again, gingerly binding it with clean linen. “Strange in what manner?”
“Hm…” She shut her eyes briefly as I tied the final knot. “Like… a sort of hollow in my belly, like I am missing something.”
“Hollow?” I kissed her bandage for luck, and then pulled the blanket up over her, tucking it snugly under her chin. “That doesn’t sound like any fever I’ve had.”
“If I were a fire, I think I would need more wood,” said Kezia, blinking slowly at me.
“I’m not quite sure I under-” Then it hit me, all at once. “Kezia, are you hungry?”
Blink, blink. “I have not felt that before, either.”
I slapped a hand on my forehead. “My god, you must be hungry! You’ve never eaten a single thing in your life! I’m shocked you haven’t already starved to death! Oh, why didn’t you say anything earlier!”
“I did not feel like this until recently. Gabi, you are smiling.”
“Am I?” I felt my face, pushed the corners of my mouth back down. “Well- I’ll have to find something for you to eat, I suppose!”
“Will it make the fever go away?”
“No, it won’t- you’d better stay lying down. This house has a larder; I’ll rummage through it and see if anything’s still good. Now don’t move.”
She peered owlishly at me from beneath her blanket. “Will you be gone for long?”
“I’m not even leaving the house. Try to go back to sleep.”
I made a show of poking at the fire- which needed none of my assistance- and then left her again, but this time with quite a different feeling than before. Something tight and warm had pressed up beneath my breastbone. I hadn’t even thought… I had thought the body of a fadua might never need nourishment, or something, because she had never complained before. But if she needed to eat… Oh, her first meal would not be very good, that was for certain; I wished we were in a better place for it! I wanted her to love it. I wanted her to taste all the wonderful things, the sweet and the savory and the salty, and to never go hungry.
Were my eyes getting damp? I paused, one hand on the door to the pantry. There was no reason for that.
I opened the pantry door, blinking rapidly and rubbing my eyes with my wrist. As it creaked, I heard a sudden scratching, and looked down to see a large rat scrambling over my toes.
I strangled the shriek that threatened to burst out of me with a hand; Kezia would come running if she heard. Only a rat! A large one- oh, no, I saw a second, scrambling to slip under the door that led back to the kitchen, its fat haunches heaving to fit through the gap. More skittering sounds were a tell-tale sign that its rodent ilk had made themselves quite comfortable here, in the absence of humans. Indeed, there was evidence of it all over the floor, not only in brown turds but in spilled flour from sacks torn by greedy teeth.
“Shoo!” I hissed, swatting at another of the little thieves as it made a frantic leap off a shelf. “Vermin! Drat you, get out!”
This rat made for a little hole in the corner, which I promptly plugged with a bit of torn sackcloth, fingers itching for a good broom. When I rose, I got my second fright of the day: squatting on one of the low shelves behind me was a rat the size of a child.
I froze, and the rat moved, kicking out one rather humanlike foot, and then I breathed. It was only a Blajini.
“You get out too,” I snapped. “Honestly! There are plenty of other larders around for you to raid, so leave this one be!”
The little Blajini peered up at me, its liquid black eyes bulging and its pink nose aquiver.
“You get out! This is my house!”
I scowled, never having wanted a broom more. “Just because you squat somewhere doesn’t make it yours, you brat.”
“‘Tisn’t yours either, though, and I was here first!”
“That doesn’t matter one bit, as I’m bigger and meaner than you, and I’ve got half a mind to get myself a cleaver and chop your ears off.”
The Blajini squealed at this, putting its wrinkled little hands up to cover its mousy ears. Bravely, it whimpered, “Go away! This is my food!”
“Don’t be stupid, you can’t even eat it. All you can drink is blood. And there’s none for you here.” I leered at it menacingly. “Unless you want to try and take a bite out of me…? Go on, have a try.”
“Stupid old bat!” To my surprise, the Blajini took its hands down and ground its teeth at me. “I don’t want your nasty blood! The village is gone and there’s nowhere left for us to play! Nothing but trees and mean old witches! My pals were all affrighted and they disappeared one by one down into the other side.”
“Watch your tongue,” I said, but with a bit less venom. “They’ve disappeared, eh? I suppose these woods are already becoming less wicked and wild without the Treewitch. Why don’t you go and follow your little friends and vanish too?”
“I hate you,” it sniveled, wiping the end of its long snout. “I already died one time, I don’t wanna do it again! If I go outside the sun hurts my back and the wind feels like it might blow me ‘part into a hundred pieces.” It curled further back into the shadow of the shelf, turning aside from me, and I saw that it was female, and it only had a stump of a tail.
I paused a moment- arguing with myself- then growled, “Fine! Stay here on the shelf if you please. All the food in this larder’s gone to the rats anyway.”
“Nuh-uh,” said the little Blajini, and after a bit of shuffling pushed a little sack out towards the edge of the shelf. “These dried peas is all right.”
I snatched the bag and inspected it; it seemed she was right, there were no holes or black bits to be seen.
“I’ll allow you to stay,” I said magnanimously, weighing the little sack of peas in my hands. “But don’t you dare come out to the common area and bother us. I tore off the arm of the last girl who bothered me.”
“What’s a vampire want with split peas?” asked the Blajini, her whiskers quivering and brushing against the wall.
“A vampire wants peace and quiet,” I replied. “Else she shall brain you with this.”
“You don’t smell the same anymore,” said the rat-girl. “You don’t smell like blood.”
“We could change that,” I replied, giving her one final glare so that she shrank out of sight completely behind two ruined bags of flour.
I cast a glance around the larder one last time, all filthy and patterned with splashes of white and rat prints, a small monster on the shelf, and allowed myself a sigh. Peas it was, for my dearest Kezia.
“I haven’t cooked in an age, so it won’t be very good,” I warned her, as soon as I walked back into the room. She rolled over to look at me in a fuzzy way.
“Were you talking to somebody?”
“Not at all. You must be getting delirious.” If she learned about the Blajini in the larder, she’d probably want to keep it as a pet or something. “I’ve got to go find a pot and some water. I’ll leave these with you for the moment.” I set the sack down on the floor near her head. She perked up, groping around for the top of it, and pulled it closer to herself like a child given candy.
“What is it?”
“Food, that’s what.” I had never been much partial to peas myself. “It isn’t ready yet- don’t go putting any in your mouth!”
Kezia lowered her hand and let the dried peas fall back into the bag, chastened. “How much longer? If this is hunger, I think that I am feeling a lot of it.”
“You can’t rush food, or you’ll regret it. Be patient a little while longer.”
To her credit, she was patient, as I stumbled about looking for things. The pot and spoon I found in the kitchen, a bit bunged up but useable, the water I found at a pump just outside, and there was an unexpected bonus- a few hazelnuts for me to throw on the fire to roast in their shells. It gave the room a much more homely scent, and Kezia sat up and leaned on me in her eagerness as I squatted and stirred our miserable little pot of peas over the fire.
“It isn’t going to be very good,” I felt the need to keep warning her. “But you must eat it anyway. You’ve got to keep up your strength.”
“I do not care how good it is,” was her reply, nearly word for word each time. “I only want it very much right now.”
The final time she said it with a certain inflection, and I found myself blushing for some reason, and didn’t ask any more.
It was past noon by the time I got the peas looking somewhat edible, and the nuts ready to be cracked, with a stone against the hearth for lack of more elegant instruments. I gave the first one to Kezia once it was cool enough to eat, though not without a stern warning:
“You’d better not try to swallow this whole! And don’t burn yourself if it’s too hot- spit it out!”
“Gabi,” she said, looking at me with pleading eyes, her hand cupped before herself in supplication. “I know how eating works. Please let me have it.”
I could not refuse a request like that. My cheeks a bit warm again, I planted the little nut in her palm, and eagerly it went into her mouth at once.
She did chew it, which I was grateful for, and she did seem to know all the proper motions of eating after all- I watched her like a hawk, watched her throat move as she finally swallowed.
“How is it, then?”
She looked at me, but did not answer; instead she unstuck her lips and ran her tongue across the roof of her mouth, and pointed to the nuts still lying uncracked on the hearth.
I had to smile. “It’s good, then.”
Kezia nodded, and held her hand out for more.