Connected again, with him, with Taavi, I knew that I had been a fool. We were brother and sister, he and I. I should never have thought that he might wish harm on me.
But it was all right to be afraid. I was so small, and he was so strong. And he did not know everything there was to know.
Well, I did not either.
If we had not been connected so intimately, he might have grown angry with me for what happened. But we had been. And he had seen. He had seen the things that our mother had done.
She could have been saved. I saw that as well. I could have tried harder to save her. There was a great love inside of her.
It was not as though he felt no sorrow, no grief. Perhaps his love had been forced by magic. But it was still love. She was his mother and creator. He grieved.
I wished I had not done what I had.
He knew why I did it, and he was not angry. Maybe she could have been saved. Or maybe she would have killed us both. He grieved. But he also rejoiced that his sister was here. That he could speak to her. It was both. Grief, and happiness.
His thoughts, his emotions were so clean. Pure. I felt that I was tainting him by our connection.
Perhaps he was being shaped. But I had been shaped, too, from the very beginning. And I had still become a ‘Kezia’ who was unlike the one who had given me my voice.
It was a profound thought. I had to hold on to it, to mull it over later. But it also made me wonder if there were any other golems left behind, others that Mother had made that were now without a master.
No. She had destroyed them all, some time after he had gained his free will for the first time. He had only survived because of that.
Neither of us knew why she had destroyed them. He had a memory of it, vaguely, of watching them all crowd together and remove the silver letters from their foreheads. Destroying themselves. She had done to them what I had done to her. Taavi had not comprehended it at the time, because he did not know what destruction meant.
Perhaps she had destroyed them all because of me. Because of her mistake. She did not want another child like me who would defy her.
He was feeling wistful. Remembering: before he had knowledge, before I had given him the words to use, he would have been so pleased to obey the order to kill himself as well.
A fearful surge of emotions rose from me as he had this thought, and he hastened to soothe me. He had gained true free will. He would not do anything to harm himself, even if someone ordered it. Because it was valuable- his existence. He valued himself. He looked upon the world, listened to it, felt it, and it was good. And he communicated with others, and felt that he could change how they reacted, and they could change him, and it was strange, and wonderful. The feeling of affection was a good one, desirable, and he felt it for me, and for Vasilisa. It had all been frightening at first, but now, it was very important to him.
I felt the warmth of his emotions, where we were connected, him to me between clay and flesh, hollow and filled; grief and rejoicing alike. And he was so calm, and I felt finally relieved. I could not undo the things I had done. But I could move on.
I wondered, though, with a tinge of sadness: did he wish that he could experience the world with a body of flesh and blood instead of clay? Because once I had done so, everything had changed for me, especially my relationship with Gabi, but also with the world, and I…
Perhaps he would become more curious about it someday. But right now, he would rather stay as he was. Especially when he read the memories of pain and weakness.
It was not all so bad! I thought that it was worth it.
Perhaps. But now, he would rather do something to help me. Flesh arms could not be remade. So he wanted me to have one of his own.
But that was impossible.
But we were connected right now, were we not? There was just a little bit of hollow space left, just a little bit of the golem.
There were good things about having flesh. Not just the sensations of the world around me, not just the positive ones. Pain and weakness were also good. If I had never felt them, I… I would have been different. They were an obstacle that a golem did not have. And it seemed to me that since I had been forced to struggle against them, everything had become so much more vivid. Every good sensation was sharper and brighter and I cherished it more. As an immortal, untouchable golem, it was no wonder everything had seemed dull by comparison.
Taavi took in my thoughts very quietly, without offering his own; my mind turned to our mother. Then he seemed to grasp it. I thought that was why she had turned the way she did.
But I was not quite right. Because she had the memories left to her by the other Adamina. If she had chosen, she could have used them to know suffering, and she could have lived a better life.
What about Taavi…?
He had no master. A golem without a master was not something that was supposed to exist. Still inside of him was that thrumming anxiety, that perhaps all would be better if he put himself under the sway of someone else. Someone like Kezia…
He stopped me when I tried to draw away, in alarm. It would not be so. Even though he knew I could do it, and make him my servant. It would not be so. It was frightening, but he would walk the earth under his own power for now. And if he began to doubt… he could come back and speak to me, could he not?
Of course. Of course he could!
I felt the warmth of his surge of happiness, as if he had clasped my hand in his own, and he thought, Sister, let me give you this gift.
The big golem put his hand on Kezia’s bare navel, and the two of them were utterly silent for a long moment. Kezia’s eyes were hazy, and her breathing slow, and she had slumped forward in her trance. Vasilisa and I were left to wait it out as they communicated in whatever silent way they did.
I had not liked seeing this form of discussion between them before, and I still did not like it now. To Kezia’s expression go so distant and vacant was unnerving, to say the least: she was there, but not there, gone to some private inner world shared by the two of them. I felt that if I shook her, I would get no response. I hated having to wait silently by, and ponder what it would be like if she never came back from it.
Vasilisa had arranged herself on the brick of the hearth nearby, though not directly beside me, with the skirt of her plain dress arranged demurely around her knees. She looked troubled as well, though her eyes were not on Kezia- they were on the slowly-deforming clay arm on the floor, the one Taavi had ripped off of himself.
I leaned closer to her, and murmured, “You do know he can just make himself another one, don’t you?”
“Of course I do,” was her curt reply.
“Then why have you got your face all screwed up like that? It’s an ugly look for you.”
To my annoyance, she didn’t rise to the bait, and merely chewed her lip for a moment before saying, “I’m just reminded that this is all my fault to begin with.”
“For what- ohh. Because you tore off Kezia’s arm? I thought we had this discussion before, it was going to have to come off one way or another. Nobody holds anything against you for that.”
“It isn’t that,” she said, glancing in my direction. “If I had just… gone with my fate, instead of going to Baba Yaga. Wouldn’t everything be different now? All three of our fates… no, all four of them.”
I took a moment to turn this statement over in my head; there was an undeniable sort of truth to it. If Vasilisa hadn’t gone into the woods that fateful night, I shouldn’t have run afoul of Baba Yaga… Kezia would never have gotten free will, and who knew if Taavi would have even existed?
“Do you know,” I said, “in that case, I suppose if I hadn’t gone to the fair one day and met my husband, none of this would have happened either.”
“You were married?” Vasilisa looked so shocked, clutching both hands against her heart, that I frowned at her.
“That isn’t what you were meant to take from it. The point, the point! Is that you can’t claim all bloody responsibility for yourself, because we were all there too. And so, deciding that Kezia is suffering because of you is just damned rude.”
“That’s one way to think of it, I suppose…” She seemed somewhat placated for a moment, then drew her brows together. “I really can’t believe you were ever married.”
“I wasn’t always a strigoi, you know! Same as you!”
Vasilisa’s face contorted into an indecipherable expression. “You… before you were a vampire… I can’t possibly imagine it! Were you some Queen of the Wanderers?”
“Oh, good God.”
“And your husband… did you make him worship you? And how did you die? Were you betrayed by some sort of insulted political rival? Or were you caught and hanged before a great audience for your crimes-”
“You are quite the little fool! As if I’d tell you anything.” I coughed a little into my fist, trying to hide my expression. What had I done to make her conjure up such grandiose origins, anyway? For twice-a-slave Gabi. “In any case, none of what happened in the past matters to me at all. I’ve got Kezia rather than a husband now, so I should say all the pummeling along the way was worth it.”
“At least you do seem to cherish her,” Vasilisa acknowledged, giving me an appraising look. “You’re blushing up to your ears, you know.”
“It makes me wonder if I might find my humanity again, too,” said Vasilisa, putting her chin in her hand. “I am wrong to begrudge you for it, I think. I’m sorry for my words before.”
I pressed my lips together. “How- how nice of you to say.”
“It would be nice if I found someone who loves me as deeply as your Kezia loves you, as well…”
“Hmph, don’t you dare go making a pass at her…” A thought struck me, and I smothered a chuckle behind my hand. “Why not turn that Taavi into a flesh-and-blood man, then? It certainly worked when I did it with my golem!”
“How crude! Taavi is like a child. I’d never try to corrupt him the way you corrupted Kezia-”
“Eh? She kissed me first, so if anyone was corrupted, it was me!”
Vasilisa’s eyebrows shot up to her hairline, and she covered her mouth with one hand.
“I refuse to believe that…”
I didn’t get the chance to convince her, for just then Taavi gave a sudden lurch, and picked up his arm from the ground, tore it in half, and slapped it against Kezia’s shoulder. I saw blood come flying out of her reopened wound before the clay covered it.
Vasilisa and I were both on our feet in an instant, her to Taavi and I to Kezia. I grabbed around Kezia’s waist to tug her back, gritting my teeth, feeling her body go limp against my chest. Taavi sprouted a smaller arm from his shoulder and used it to swat at me. A tap on the head from his big mitten made me dizzy. Vasilisa was calling out his name, tugging at his clay like a shirtsleeve. Suddenly Kezia’s fingers closed around my wrist.
“It is all right! I am all right!”
Taavi stepped back, making the floorboards groan. I was listing to one side, my head throbbing, and Kezia detangled my hands from her waist to turn around and gently ease me back onto the warm hearth.
“I am sorry!” she cried, wrapping me in a one-armed embrace. “We should have warned you!”
“Hmm,” was all the response I could muster, and something cool touched my forehead.
“He did not hurt me, he was helping me,” she said, and I felt the cool something slide to my cheek. “He hit you… I am sorry.”
“I’m used to it,” I managed to say, wincing as I raised my own hand to feel for the bump inevitably forming. My fingers closed over cool clay, and I started. Kezia drew back from me, smiling a little, and I got my first good look at her. She was holding a clay arm in her human hand, a clay arm that was attached to her left shoulder as seamlessly as if it had grown from the flesh.
“Impossible,” I mumbled, staring. Kezia looked down at the arm, and gently flexed it, an elbow joint appearing where there had been none before.
“I thought so too,” she said. “But Taavi seems to know about golems more than I ever did. He gave it to me.”
I levered myself forward to stare at the clay limb, agog. Vasilisa had come to peer over Kezia’s shoulder. It was as yet a rough approximation of an arm, a little too thick and lumpy, with a smaller version of Taavi’s mitten for a hand. My own hands were shaking a bit as I reached out to touch it, felt the clay slide against my skin as it moved, animated somehow by Kezia’s own thoughts.
“Does it… hurt? Can you feel anything?”
Kezia shook her head, her clay palm twitching as though she were trying to make a fist. I caught it and probed the soft clay, feeling my finger sink in; she grasped me and I yelped.
“I am sorry!” she exclaimed, and let me go at once so I could retreat and rub my hand. There had been alarming strength in that grip.
“I’ll be damned,” was all I could say. “I’ve never… conceived of this.”
“Me neither,” she admitted, and reached over with her human hand to work at the clay, shaping it. I saw what she was doing and reached back to take it.
“Let me help you,” I said, pulling and kneading the coarse mitten into stubs, for fingers. It gave me a most familiar feeling.
“Five fingers,” she murmured, and I looked up, and we shared a strange smile. She closed her hand around mine, gentle this time.
“Taavi,” I heard Vasilisa say, and when I looked up she’d thrown her arms around his big torso as far as they would go. “Oh, goodness, thank you! Look what you’ve done!”
The big golem reached out and patted her shoulder in his awkward, mute way.
“Don’t tell me you’re crying,” I said, rather sharply; if she started the waterworks now there would be no end to it.
“I’m not!” was her response, voice muffled where her face was pressed against him. When she drew back, there was a bit of clay on her nose, and her eyes seemed a mite red. Taavi swung his head to look at Kezia in what I felt might have been a silent plea.
“Taavi wishes to keep travelling with you, if you will let him,” she said. “He is interested in seeing many new things.”
“Oh, of course he may,” said Vasilisa, scrubbing at her nose. “I’m glad for the company… I would have been terribly lonely without him, these past days. We shall have to try and find an easier way to communicate, though.”
“You’ll have all the time you’d like for that,” I said, and it came out more sincere-sounding than I’d intended, but I suppose it was a sincere-feeling moment. Kezia’s clay hand was in mine still, and I raised it to my lips. “Thank you, Taavi, for this.”
He oriented his big head towards me, which was all the acknowledgement he could really give. Kezia pulled her clay arm away to cradle it in her other one, her face a bit flushed.
“And now I ought to finally get some help around here,” I added, giving her a severe look. “No more lolling around by the fire for you, my dear.”
“I will still need to sleep,” was her grave response.
What followed was more foolish talk in a similar vein, and a bit of laughter. I dashed back out into the cold to fetch my apples and flour to cook them for Kezia, and Vasilisa convinced Taavi to try sitting down on the floor so he didn’t loom so, and pressed apple pips into his chest and shoulders.
“Maybe they’ll sprout,” she said, half-joking.
Kezia ate and then kissed me with a sweet-tasting mouth, and Vasilisa suddenly remembered some Russian fairy tales, which she fumbled through entertainingly enough, and I chimed in with the tale of the simurgh my father had told me once, and Kezia brought up a most peculiar tale of a boy made of dough who ate everything in sight. Taavi quit the room and came back with more firewood poking out of his stomach. Snow was beginning to fall again outside.
It was an oddly warm moment, the kind of moment I had thought would only ever be half-remembered for me, like the dream I’d had of watching my mother cuddle my sister in the creaking caravan. Fire, and light-hearted talk, and Kezia’s hands both warm and cold pressed into mine, and the knowledge of strong walls between us and the bitter winter outside.
I thought, at some point during that hazy day, that perhaps it wasn’t quite real, another dream, a fantasy; there was a part of me, I fear, that would never quite trust such warmth again, that would never fully relax into it. As the shadows grew longer, I pressed into Kezia’s side ever more, and she might have noticed that I was feeling quite strange, for she put her human arm around me and gently squeezed me.
Eventually, Vasilisa’s head began nodding, and Taavi rose to lift her gently to her feet.
“You’re right,” she said, in answer to some silent statement of his. “We’d better go now. It’s getting late.”
Ah, I thought, with a sorrowful relief, it’s ending, we’re going back to how it should be.
Kezia got up as well, and clasped Vasilisa’s hands in her own. “Will you come back tomorrow?”
“Not tomorrow,” said Vasilisa, rubbing her eyes. “I think we will wander around a bit. I want to get well away from here before I get too hungry again. But we’ll come back before too long.”
“Whenever you’d like,” said Kezia, eagerly. “I do not think we will leave here soon. It is not so bad, in this forest now. It is like all the bad spirit has gone out of it. I think it can grow beautiful again.”
“Maybe so,” said Vasilisa, smiling a little, but her eyes were a bit shuttered; I suspected it was the talk of hunger. “Goodbye, Kezia.” She looked over and down at me. “Goodbye.”
I shrugged one shoulder. Kezia moved to take Taavi’s hand in her clay one, and the two of them shared a silent moment, and then separated.
The vampire and the golem left. Kezia became rather downcast, fiddling with her new fingers, and I bundled up again, ostensibly to collect more firewood. In truth, I leaned against the outside wall of the house and watched my breath make clouds in the falling snow.
Taavi had left huge, easy-to-follow footprints on the ground. I suspected that if I followed them, they would lead me straight back to the Romani caravan. I hadn’t asked how large it was; how long might it take before Vasilisa had picked them all off, one by one, in her hunger?
My nose was already aching from the cold, and I pressed it down into the coarse cloth of my stolen scarf. Ahead of me was a white tree, or what once had been a white tree; the bark was slowly starting to turn grey.
I breathed out a long gout of mist, and called up, “Pascha, are you there?”
The snow whirled in a brief flurry from a gust of wind. They sky was clouded over above me; I searched for any shafts of sunlight peeking through.
“There’s a monster coming,” hissed a little voice in my ear.
I jumped, snatched something small by the scruff of its neck before it could spring away from me. The Blajini squeaked and struggled, kicking up snow.
“I thought I saw you lurking about in the rafters,” I warned her, giving her a good shake by the hairy back of her neck. “I think it’s high time you left us be and went your own way, don’t you?”
“‘M not leaving!” She chattered her long teeth at me, the brat. “The one-armed girl said that I could stay!”
“Did she?” I said, through gritted teeth.
“There’s a monster comin’ down the mountain, a big dark shadow with teeth, an’ it’s gonna eat us all if you don’t do something,” she said, snot starting to run down her long nose. I dropped her in disgust.
“Do something? What on earth do you mean? Dark shadow, that’s nonsense. There’s nothing wicked left in these woods, aside from me.”
“You better do something, or else you and that one-arm girl both are gonna get gobbled up,” insisted the Blajini, stamping her foot. “I heard it from the crow-without-eyes, an’ it musta been what ate up all my friends. It’s gonna eat up everything here real soon.”
“Go on with your rat-tales,” I said, shouldering myself up away from the wall. “I’ve got firewood to collect. Piss off, find some cheese or something.”
“You better listen!” whined the Blajini, quivering where she stood in the snow, her stump-tail twitching from side to side. “Too much dead things’re here, an’ they always come back around. You gotta do somethin’!”
“I gotta do nothing,” I muttered, squaring my shoulders. “I’ve got no more that I can do, anyway. If you’re so scared, you run away. Leave us be.”
“I’m staying here,” said the little rat, and darted away when I took a swat at her. “It’s safe here, and the one-arm girl is nicer than you is!”
“Oh, go on!”
She scrambled off through the snow, hopping through Taavi’s paradoxically large footprints, making frog-faces at me. I scowled and grabbed the nearest bit of dead wood I could find before turning my back on her.
But before I could go back into the house, which was snug and warm and had my lover waiting for me, a bit of warm sunlight fell across my neck, the very last of the fading day.
Gabi, murmured Pascha’s voice. I believe something really is coming down the mountain.