She could have ridden a rabbit.
I have never thought of myself as a particularly good person.
The fact of the matter is that when you live your whole childhood being told that you are an unperson, that you- with your hands and your toes, your eyes and ears and teeth and hair- that you are capable of doing things like other people do, but not worthy of them; like a dancing bear you are- mimicking, but not the same, a clumsy attempt at passing for something you’re not- and you’re worse than the dancing bear, because before its master beat it and thrust the hot ring through its nose at least it behaved like a bear, but you- you always tried to pretend that you were a human being-
When that is your life, you tend not to have high aspirations for yourself.
Twice a slave. Ah, yes. There was no ring passed through my septum, but I did feel every yank on it, on that invisible rope. I prayed to God, but I do not know why; God does not listen to the prayers of beasts. I thought that Jesus might listen to me where God did not. But then, much later, I learned that God and Jesus were really one and the same, and felt betrayed: I had wasted so much prayer on uncaring ears.
Why was I thinking this? Oh, right, because I was thinking about not being a good person. It is hard to be a good person when you are not a person at all. Not a Gadjo, not Romanipen, not a Moor. There was no code of ethics that applied to me, no higher power to answer to; so I was free to be wretched. I cheated, I lied, I stole everything I could get my hands on; I used my body in filthy ways. I was not a good person.
Why was I thinking this? I could not recall. Something smelled sweet, like flowers. I think that there was a little bit of green light, too, and my arm was sore. I felt guilty about something. I was not a good person. I still am not a good person.
“So light-skinned,” my grandfather used to say, putting his big, dark hand on my cheek. “So light-skinned.” He’d always say it when my father was around, and my father would turn away: not rise to the bait. My grandfather was a Moor, too. He’d come with my mother when my father married her, but he did not like my father, did not like his kind.
“Blue eyes,” he’d say. “Now where did blue eyes come from? Your Mama has black eyes. Your Papa has black eyes.”
“She has a Gadjo’s eyes,” my sister would always say. When my father wasn’t around, she’d whisper in my ear, “Grandfather thinks you’re the daughter of a Gadjo.”
I don’t remember what my reply was.
But I do remember that I asked my Mother about it; if I was the daughter of a Gadjo. In truth, the thought excited me. The children of Gadjo were free.
“You know your father,” was her reply. “He is Romani. He is Kalderashi. Don’t be silly.”
“But I have a Gadjo’s eyes,” I had said, unwilling to let go of my hope.
“Who said that to you? Did your Grandfather say that? You don’t have a Gadjo’s eyes, you have an Amazigh’s eyes. In our family, every three generations or so, someone is born with blue eyes and red hair and fair skin. Still Amazigh. Your Grandfather knows this, but he likes to…” She mumbled something under her breath.
I was disappointed, which made me angry, which made me say something I knew my mother would not like to hear.
“Amazigh are just Moors.”
My mother’s dark eyes- I remember them, I remember them from within the grey pattern on her headscarf.
“Amazigh are Moors and Romani are tigani,” she said, “only according to other people.”
It was meant to sound wise, and it probably was. But perhaps she did not comprehend that everything I was was defined according to other people. Cages within cages within cages, Romani-tigani-Kalderashi-Moor-Muslim-Amazigh-light skin-Gadjo eyes-mixed race-dancing bear-little girl-slave.
Why was I thinking this?
Three is an important number. Ah, yes, then this is the third time that this has happened. That is why I was thinking about my ungoodly self. Because I felt this way twice before, when I had turned my back on those who loved me.
I was doing it again. Thump-thump, the feel of arrows in my back, as I ran away.
I smelled it now as I had smelled it then: the smell of wet earth, of dead leaves, broken, decomposing, eaten by worms, fibrous roots, small crawling white things, shiny beetle shells, pale green shoots, and a strange, immortal hum.
“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO KEZIA!”
With a crash, I was awake. My left arm was a weal of raw pain, and I clutched it with a wordless gasp, while the glowing thing standing over me shook a fistful of my blood.
“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE!”
I tried to speak, but my mouth worked silently: I had no idea where I was, no idea who was roaring at me, no idea of anything that had happened since I had left the old man in the forest-
Standing over me was a thing that looked like a man, if a man had glowing stripes and a snorting horse’s head. A Moorish man, my mind added hazily, as if that made a difference. His fist was wet with blood, my blood, and there were white flower petals on his fingers. Slowly I turned my head to look at my aching arm: yes, it was bloody, and yes, I could see the stumps where the flowers had once bloomed.
The time between when I had been abandoned by Noroc and now was nothing but a misty, melancholy void in my head; and it must have been from those flowers, the ones the horse-headed man was holding. I did not know who he was, but I had enough wits about me to guess what he was: how many glowing, horse-related spirits could there be?
“You are… the black horseman?”
My voice was strangely clear; I felt that it ought to have been a rasp, from disuse. I could have been asleep for days or years and I would never have known.
The horseman’s nostrils flared, showing me the glowing insides, and he shook his fist again, spraying me with drops of my own blood.
“SHE WANTED TO SAVE YOU!”
I tried to form the word who with my lips, but he was already ranting on.
“SHE LOVED YOU AND YOU BETRAYED HER!”
I shrank back, trying to pin myself further against the ground, for the rage was emanating off of the horseman as a palpable heat, and my bloody arm throbbed with it.
“Where’s Kezia?” I asked, my voice feeble, a twig in the storm of his fury. He glared at me, his eyes greenish coals.
I tried to look around him, looked for the imposing figure of the golem- if she was there, she would protect me; but perhaps she wasn’t there, why should she be there, why had I thought she was there?
Suddenly the black horseman reached out and grabbed me by the chin, his long fingers digging into me; I choked, squirmed, but could not fight against his powerful grasp. He raised me up, turned my head, and I saw… I saw… I saw a pile of earth.
He let me go, for I had thrust back an arm to support myself, sitting up, staring, for that pile of earth- it was like mashed clay, sunken clay, a pot not fired that was collapsing on itself. In the center I could still make out a kind of impression: two circular eyes, and a frowning mouth.
I stared at it for a long moment, and then I said, “That isn’t Kezia.”
The horseman made an awful sound, like a drawn-out dog’s whine, and pointed to my clenched left fist. He moved back and away, becoming smaller in the darkness, until I could see nothing of him but a pale, greenish glow and two flickering eyes.
I looked down at my left fist. My fingers were curled tightly together, and there was mud all over them, deep underneath my fingernails, encrusting my knuckles. Slowly I uncurled my fingers and saw, on my filthy palm, something small that glinted silver.
It was a letter, a silver letter.
And as soon as I saw it I remembered it- remembered where I had seen it before, in the forehead of a golem- how the witch-golem had pulled it out to show me how to destroy her own kind.
“Put it back,” whined the black horseman, from somewhere in the darkness. “Make her come back.”
I looked at the gleaming letter, slowly shook my head.
A growl, now, like thunder in the air.
“Put it BACK!”
“She’s gone!” I shouted, and I flung the silver letter away from myself, into the dirt. “I don’t know the spell to make a golem, do you? Even if I did, I couldn’t bring her back! She’s destroyed!”
“No,” came the whine again. “Fix her…”
“She doesn’t exist anymore,” I said. “Damn it, I- I killed her.”
There came a whoosh, like a great intake of breath, and then the horseman asked, “Why?”
“Because,” I spat, “because the witch laid a trap for her, and I was that trap; because I was her slave. That’s why. I am a fool. She was only a golem.”
The horseman’s voice, which had raised as though he were going to launch into a tirade, stopped short. I turned my face away from his dim glow.
“The witch,” he said, his voice softer, but still growling, “the witch… manipulated you?”
“I don’t know why she wanted to kill Kezia,” I said, wrapping my arms around my chest; squeezing my injuries without really feeling the pain. “Actually, she wasn’t a witch at all- I only just learned this- she was another golem, and she showed me how to kill a golem, and then she put a seed in my throat- but I still don’t know why she wanted to get rid of her! She said something like- her mistress shouldn’t be allowed to know- so maybe making Kezia was really a mistake…”
I realized I was babbling, and stopped myself short.
“Mistake?” hissed the black horseman, as if he detested the word.
“Something about her,” I muttered, “something she didn’t want Mother Forest seeing. I don’t know; why should we care anymore, anyhow? It’s done.”
I reached up and touched my bare neck, then shivered. Any chains I bore now were on the inside, thanks to that damned trickster golem, and I had little way of stopping her if she wanted to control me again.
“I don’t know what you are going to do from here,” I said aloud, “and I don’t care about that, either. I am going to get as far away from this blasted forest as I can.”
Again, he growled, and stepped out of the shadow so that I could see his face again. At some point it had melted from a horse’s into a man’s, a man whose delicate features did not match the wrath in his expression.
“You’re just going to leave?”
“What should I do, then?” I flung back. “Stand here weeping over her remains? Is that helpful?”
“You- you deceitful-”
“Oh, as if I haven’t ever heard that-”
“Don’t you even care?” He was clenching his fists, still glowing here and there in spots on his black skin. “You did this to her!”
“It wasn’t my fault,” I said. “I didn’t want to do it. I was not under my own power. It wasn’t my fault.”
He trembled a little, his shoulders shaking, and then his arm shot out and caught me by the neck.
“YOU DID THIS!”
I choked- his hand was so cold– kicked him in the chest, and staggered back an inch or so until my back hit the wall.
“Go ahead,” I spat, rather hoarsely, rubbing my throat, “kill me, I’m sure it’s what Kezia would have wanted-”
He hesitated, right in the middle of reaching for me again, and his eyes flickered towards that mound of clay.
“And more to the point, why should you grieve over her, horseman?”
He growled and scuffed one foot in the dirt. Absurdly, I wanted to laugh. I did not.
“Step aside,” I said. “I want to leave.”
He locked eyes with me again in a very fierce glare, but otherwise most of the tension seemed to have left his lanky form, and he stepped back, into the entryway of- of wherever it was we were- and seemed to vanish right before my eyes.
I let out a slow breath. My arm ached badly and I could already imagine those damned roots worming their way back through my flesh, preparing to sprout again. I felt dizzy, I felt sick. When I tried to take a step forward I stumbled. I had not noticed that my legs were trembling.
I do not know why I did it, but I chose to look back towards the sad pile of clay then, with the eternally frowning face stretched out over top, like a badly-made mask. Something glinted at the very top of it all: two exposed silver letters.
I looked at them for a long moment, then looked down at the ground, eyes flickering every which way, until another dull glint caught my eye. The letter I had thrown. I scrambled to pick it up, and I went back to that clay mound and pressed it in next to the other letters.
Kezia’s ruined face stared up at me, the three letters shining together again on her forehead. Her lower lip had sagged so much that the expression no longer looked so much like a frown as a gasp, like a gasp for air when one is choking.
The letter I had replaced- the one that looked like א- shone beside the others in a dull way, slightly crooked. The mound of clay did not move.
I snatched back the letter and threw it across the room with a curse. Then I, turned, pressed the heels of my palms against my eyes, and cursed again.
I needed to leave.
Oh, I needed to leave all right- leave and begin yet another useless quest for freedom. Look for a way to get rid of the white tree growing inside of me. Try to keep myself fed in the meantime. Keep scratching out an existence, for whatever it was worth… ah, I was beginning to see why the old strigoi chose to settle down, regardless of the risks.
From behind me there came a sound, like a little pop.
I turned around- fool, why bother– and saw a bubble rising up from the surface of the clay. It burst with another pop.
Air trapped in the clay, from Kezia’s hollow center. I let out a shaky laugh. It was like the last vestiges of her soul escaping, if you could even say that golems had a soul.
Two more bubbles began to rise up, and one popped, but the other grew larger and larger. It had emerged from somewhere to the left of what had been Kezia’s forehead, and as it grew the two remaining letters sank through its surface.
A hole appeared on the surface of the bubble, and there was a slight hiss of escaping air, but though it trembled, it did not collapse.
I clapped both hands over my mouth, and my vision was suddenly split by tears.
“Gabi?” whispered the eyeless mouth.
Unbidden, a muffled sound came from behind my hands, but I was afraid to speak, afraid to move. The little clay lump squirmed, twitching this way and that, and then rose upwards.
As though emerging from quicksand, out came a roughly-shaped arm, reaching outwards, and then another, then a knee. But here the little clay figure seemed to struggle, mud trailing from its back end in long skeins. Within it all I saw another glint of silver, but it was not the letters- no- from the shape of the way the clay was clinging to its surface, it looked like a coin.
The little figure turned around and clumsily wrapped both arms around the coin to push it back within itself. Then it raised a nub of a hand to rub its face, and two pinpricks like eyes emerged.
“It is you, Gabi,” came the familiar voice.
I still stood there, hands over my mouth, and something hot ran down my cheek. The little figure reached towards me.
“Why are you crying?”
At this I coughed behind my hands, put them down, and said in a very thick voice, “I’ve never cried a day in my life.”
“Are you really Kezia?” I knelt down, wrapping my arms around my chest, to look the thing in the eye- eye hole, rather. It was so small it could have sat quite comfortably in my palm, or ridden a rabbit like a horse.
“I think so. But I have gotten smaller,” said Kezia, looking down at her shapeless little arms. She took a few steps down the side of the clay mound- to her, it must have been a mountain. Behind her was the collapsed face, her old face, with a mouth that could have swallowed her now.
Kezia reached the ground and tested it with a little foot, like a child dipping her toes in the water, then gingerly hopped down. I saw her form squash visibly when she landed, and a few trailing lines of clay still connected her to the greater mass. She wriggled to dislodge them and nearly tripped. I held out my hand and she grabbed my index finger for support.
“Out of curiosity,” I said, “do you happen to know why you got smaller? And how, as a matter of fact, you managed to survive?”
Kezia did not answer right away, for she was gently patting my skin, looking fascinated by the ridges on my knuckle, the tiny hairs.
“I do not really know why I got smaller,” she said, at length. “But it seems like I can only make this much clay move right now.” She looked up at me, both arms anchored to my finger. “And I do not know why I survived. What you took out of my head was supposed to kill me, was it not?”
At this I tried to draw my hand back, stunned, but her small arms were surprisingly strong and kept me firmly in her grasp.
“I heard you talking to Kazimir,” she explained. “And it is all right! I know that you did not do it on purpose. You do not have to feel bad.” She patted my knuckle.
I said nothing. She continued.
“Maybe Mother Forest will leave you alone if she thinks that I am gone now, though. We should not let her see that I am still able to move.”
“I suppose that is logical,” I managed to say. My voice was thick again, and Kezia patted me even more gently.
“We should go find Kazimir, too. I want to speak to him. He was not very kind to you.”
“Oh- as if that matters!”
“It matters to me,” she insisted, and then crawled up onto the back of my hand, clinging to my wrist. “Will you carry me? I do not think that I can move very fast when I am this small.”
I could not help but glance at my bloody left arm.
“If the flowers grow back, I will pull them out, Gabi,” said Kezia. “I do not think you can get me again, now that I know how it is done. I can move the pieces anywhere inside my body and you will not know where to find them.”
“You’re very small now, though,” I said, turning my hand over slowly, so that she had to scramble onto my palm. “Any number of things could…”
“I will be all right! I am more worried about you,” said Kezia. “We must try to get the rest of the flowers out of your body before they grow and hurt you.”
I gave a weak little snort at this, but couldn’t think of anything to say, so I merely curled my fingers around Kezia’s middle, holding her like a doll. She put her elbows out to rest them on my thumb and index finger where they circled her.
“I don’t know what I am supposed to do with you like this,” I said, rising back to my feet. “I suppose there’s enough of you left to sculpt into a vase.”
“I do not think that is a very kind thing to say, Gabi,” Kezia said, her clay brow acquiring a little wrinkle. “Though I suppose I am not very useful to you anymore-”
“Didn’t I just say you could hold some flowers?” I shook her gently. “At the very least you make a good purse for that coin you’re holding on to.”
“Oh,” said Kezia, “I do not think you should take that coin out of me. I think that it is standing in for whatever you took out.”
I raised her to my face level. “Really? But what I took out was a letter!”
“Coins have letters on them,” she said, and then blinked her tiny eyes. “I think.”
“They do- but likely not Hebrew letters. It was a ten ban coin, wasn’t it? Is that enough to price your life with?”
“Maybe the letter does not have to be Hebrew,” said Kezia. “If there are two letters that mean the same thing, maybe they can be in different writing and it will not matter. I do not know. But I am very happy that you gave it to me as a gift, Gabi.”
I hesitated. I had nearly forgotten about that.
“Well,” I said, and then, “Well, we had better go find the black horseman.”
“Yes,” said Kezia, waving one arm. “He has a very bad temper, but he is actually a kind person when you get to know him. I am sure he will like you.”
“Doubtful,” I muttered, moving towards the exit. Kezia swung with my hand. “I am going to have to get clothes with pockets to put you into.”
I stepped outside and tilted my head back. The stars were gleaming in the cloudless night sky, and the moon hung low and round. Last I remembered, it had been daytime and raining, and I had been in the Starving Forest.
“How did you come across me, anyhow, Kezia? I can’t recall a thing.”
“We found you at the edge of the starving forest,” she said. “A golem was carrying you.”
I frowned, tapped my chin. “Was anyone else there? Did you see, perhaps- well, did you see anyone else?”
“No, Gabi, only you and the golem. And it left as soon as it put you down. I wonder why it did that?”
“Perhaps its mistress wanted you and I to meet,” I said, curling my lip. “You know, I think I am going to really enjoy having you this size; I’ll be the one doing the picking up and shoving around for a change.”
“Whatever you want, Gabi,” said Kezia, in a dubious way.
I laughed, and then took a better look around us. The thatched roofs and mud houses were somewhat familiar to me. Somehow Kezia had taken me to an abandoned satra- a Romani village. My family had overwintered in places like these…
I shook my head at the intrusive thoughts. This place had obviously been in disrepair for some time; the residents must have up and left a long time ago. That explained why there were so few Romani in the village- only migrants and slaves of the rich.
But why had they left in the first place? I frowned, absently rolling Kezia between my palms (“Please stop that, Gabi,”) and found that I could only conclude that they had got wind of something and packed up. Perhaps it was because people had seen what had happened to that other village which was now crumbling in the woods. Supposedly Romani are quite superstitious about the supernatural, but this is mainly because they tend to be the first ones blamed for any negative occurrences.
“Gabi, are you hungry?” asked Kezia, tugging on one of my thumbs. “You are a little pale.”
“Not terribly,” I said, looking down at her. Actually, not very much at all… The last time I had fed had been when I drained that poor drunk fellow on the hill; it had been quite a nourishing meal.
“Oh,” said Kezia. “So you will not need to go back into the village again very soon.”
I gave her a sharp look; she seemed suspiciously disappointed.
“Best to stay away from there for the time being anyway. When I was last there they seemed to have caught wind of my misdeeds.”
“Yes, they have,” said Kezia. “They have men standing guard with torches at night looking for vampires.”
“See, as I said- wait, how exactly do you know that?”
“Oh… well, when you were sick, I thought that you might get hungry, so I went down there to find you something to eat. But when I saw the guards, I got scared and left.” Her voice had dropped to a mumble, and I raised her up to my eye level.
“Who did you speak to in the village, Kezia?”
She squirmed in my hands. “Why do you think that I-”
“Because you wouldn’t guess what those men were looking for on your own. Come on, now. Did someone see you and get the fright of their life?”
“No one saw me,” Kezia insisted. “I did speak to a little girl, but she never saw me. She was blind.”
“Blind…” My grip on her midsection tightened inadvertently. “Did she always keep her eyes closed and have very fair hair- almost white?”
“Yes, how did you-”
“And did her father cough a lot, and was her mother very round?”
“I do not know about the mother, but she did say something like that about her father. Her name was Crina,” added Kezia. “You sound as though you have met her before.”
“I haven’t. But I’ve seen her.” And the old man, telling her parents to have her burned. I chewed on my lip. He certainly wasn’t the type of fellow to say such things without a good reason.
“Gabi?” said Kezia, as I mused. “May I tell you something?”
I was distracted from my thoughts, and a little sharp. “What could stop you?”
“Well,” she said, meekly, “when I met the Iele- I met them, to find out where they had sent you- they said something to me. It was… it was that I could get a body of flesh.”
“You shouldn’t listen to that kind of spirit,” I said at once, scowling. “They feed on heartbreak.”
“Yes… but I think that they might have been telling the truth, because they wanted me to have a body. They said it would make it possible for me to get rid of Baba Yaga.”
This statement was so outrageous that I could do nothing but scoff.
“Well, I do not know if they are right about that, but they told me- they said that the person who could get me a body was someone who lived in the village and could not see.”
I narrowed my eyes. “And you think that’s the little girl? They’re making a mock of you.”
“Maybe you are right,” she said, looking down. “They said some other things which I did not understand. That she was a liar… and that her hair came off with the seasons…”
“What was that last bit?” I asked, so sharply that Kezia seemed taken aback.
“They said… the Iele said that her hair was red, but it fell with the passing of the seasons.”
She woke in the autumn and her hair was red!
“Gabi, are you all right? You are shivering.”
“I am just fine,” I said, rolling my shoulders. “Kezia, perhaps you and I should have a look at this little one after all. I think I would like to meet her.”
“Really?” She, at least, sounded excited. “But will it be safe for you to go there when they are looking for you?”
“Hah! As if the likes of them could get to me,” I said, keeping my tone light, though I was feeling a most dreadful sense of trepidation. “Who knows, perhaps you’ll get a body after all. Though I bet you’d regret it if you did.”
“I do not think I would. Why do you say that?”
I looked down at her, so small in my hands, and smiled.
“My own experience.”