I think that Baba Yaga realized that I would not be interested in making a deal with her if Gabi bled to death in my arms, so as soon as she brought up the offer she snapped her fingers and Kazimir appeared. Quick as a flash, before I could react, he slid his cold hands beneath my arms and covered Gabi’s neck with them.
“I’ll stop the bleeding,” he whispered, tugging her away. I was loathe to let her out of my grasp, but at the same time utterly helpless. I could do nothing for her on my own now.
“Now,” said the witch, as Kazimir pulled Gabi into his own embrace, one dark hand obscuring her neck, “let us discuss the terms of our agreement.”
I did not protest, or say that I had not agreed to anything yet. We both knew that I was going to agree to anything that she said.
“Do you want me to serve you?” I asked. “I have served a witch before.”
To my surprise, she gave a hearty guffaw at this, and smacked Kazimir on the cheek with the back of her hand.
“As if you would make a better servant than this! No, thank you, dearie. Your clay flesh is strong, but there is a wild scent lurking at your core, and I do not know the magic that animates you. To use what I do not understand is worse than not using anything at all. Trust me!” She cackled, and struck Kazimir again, though not very hard. He did not appear to feel it. His green eyes were on me, his expression strange.
I refused to catch his eye. He could have helped Gabi, but he had wanted to let her suffer. I would not forgive him. His long, splayed fingers were covered in her blood.
“There is only one simple task I want from you,” Baba Yaga continued. She snapped her fingers and something small, round, and red appeared in her hand.
“I want you to take this fruit,” she said, “deep into the realm of the one called Mother Forest, and I want you to bury it in the earth there. That is all.”
She opened her fingers, and I looked at her palm, perplexed. The fruit was cherry-red and looked something like an apple, except that it was a little smaller and had a translucent quality to its peel that apples lacked. I could see the shadow of its dark inner core.
“Is that really all?”
“It is really all,” said Baba Yaga, but her grin told me that it really was not. In any case, returning to the Starving Forest was bad enough. I did not want to meet with the other golem again. But it seemed that I would have to.
“You will save Gabi- and get the white tree out of her for good?”
“I believe I shall. It has served its purpose well.” She looked at the fruit in her hand with a secretive smile. “Of course, if you do not do what I have asked, I shall need that white tree intact once more…”
“I will take it,” I said, reaching out for the fruit, but Baba Yaga snatched her hand back.
“Hsst! Not so fast! This fruit longs for earth. If you touch it with your clay flesh, the seed shall root itself within you and you will never get it out.”
I withdrew my arm very quickly. “Then how will I carry it?”
Baba Yaga narrowed her eyes, her long fingers pinching tight around the fruit’s flesh, and then suddenly struck out. In a flash, before I had even realized what had happened, she had scraped a handful of clay from my chest with her sharp claws.
“How strange,” she said, holding the clay and the fruit side-by-side, comparing them. “How very strange.”
I heard Noroc growl from somewhere behind me; I had not even realized he was still there. I glanced over at Gabi, still limp in Kazimir’s arms, his hands staunching her blood.
“Please, Baba, tell me what to do so that I may save her!”
“That is just what I mean,” she croaked out, her voice suddenly a few shades deeper. She closed her hand around the clay and worked her fingers over it. When she opened it again, I saw that she had fashioned it into a crude human figure.
Baba Yaga put her palm to her mouth and swallowed it.
“Oh ho,” she said, smacking her lips, as I watched in shock, “it does not taste as good as it smells. It only tastes like earth.”
“I am only earth,” I emphasized, putting one hand over the dent she had made in my chest.
“No, my dear. You are much more than that; I can smell it.” She chuckled and tapped the side of her nose. “If only your spirit was bound to flesh! I would eat you up and make you part of me. What a dreadful waste.” She tutted, shaking her head, and then seemed to notice that she was still holding the fruit. “Eh, I shall have to prepare a box for this. Vasilisa!”
The name cracked out of her in a startling change of volume. Kazimir flinched. I stood very still.
The door to Baba Yaga’s hut banged open, and out came Vasilisa, half-tripping down the stairs as she ran to stand beside us, her face pale and drawn. She was holding a very large wooden box in her arms.
“Didn’t I tell you to use the small one, you stupid girl?” snapped Baba Yaga, flicking her fingers hard against Vasilisa’s cheek. “I suppose it doesn’t matter. Here!”
She sat the red fruit onto the closed lid of the box, just under Vasilisa’s chin, with a careless gesture.
“Put that in the box, and give it to the clay creature! And don’t dawdle, girl. The sooner this task is complete, the sooner shall that poor stryzga’s hearts begin beating again.”
She cackled, looking at Vasilisa in a particular ugly way, and then whirled around to Kazimir.
“So! Away, you! Baba Yaga always fulfills her promises. Take the creature to the healing place!”
“Wait!” I grabbed Kazimir’s arm before he could begin to move. The cold from his flesh seeped into my fingers. “I do not trust you. You do not always keep your promises! Let me see that you are really going to help her!”
The witch did not seem to like this: her eyes thinned, and the tattered edges of the robe began flapping in a new breeze.
“There is no time for that. The two of you have separate paths to take. As I said, Baba Yaga always-”
“I know that you do not,” I repeated. “Gabi caught the white horseman for you a long time ago, like she was supposed to, but you never acknowledged it! Her ribbon stayed white!”
For the very first time, I saw Baba Yaga taken by surprise: her eyes got very wide, and then very black. The breeze pulled free strands of her grey hair and tangled them around her face.
“Yes,” I said, faltering, because now the trees over us were creaking ominously, sending leaves flying and whirling over our heads.
“Hmmm,” said the witch, and then, much to my own surprise, the wind died down, and she tucked her robe more tightly about herself. It was as though she had shrunk.
“I will do as I have said,” she told me, her eyes glittering like beetle shells. “And you had better take my word for it, because you have no choice, dearie.”
Her gaze burned into me, until I slowly released my grip on Kazimir’s arm.
Something warm brushed my ankles. I looked down and saw Noroc winding his way through my legs.
“Ah!” said Baba Yaga, stabbing a finger at him. “There you have it. Send that creature with my servant, to ensure that your wish is fulfilled.”
I hesitated, then knelt down and put my hand on Noroc’s soft head.
“Will you go with her and make sure she is safe?”
His single eye was very round, and he made a noise I thought was rather sorrowful. Then he pressed the side of his face close against my palm before walking over to stand beside Kazimir.
“It is done,” said Baba Yaga. “When you have planted that seed into the heart of the Starving Forest, the white tree will be made to wither and die.”
I nodded once.
“What will the seed…?”
The witch grinned, all of her diminished savagery returning full force, like a palpable heat in the air.
“How I wish that I could eat you! But not yet, my dear, not yet.”
She snapped her fingers, and in a flurry of dead leaves, she had vanished. Kazimir and Noroc and Gabi were all gone too. But Vasilisa, still holding the box and the fruit balanced on top, had stayed.
“Kezia!” she said, all in a gasp.
Slowly I turned to face her. She was dreadfully pale, and there were sickly red roses blooming on her cheeks. Her hair hung lank and filthy in a messy braid. Her wrists were like twigs.
“Give me the box,” I said.
“Please, forgive me,” she burst out, her lower lip trembling, and put the box down on the ground. The fruit wobbled precariously on the wooden top. “Kezia- I’m sorry! I would never have hurt anyone, even that- I heard her saying she was going to destroy you! I was trying to protect you!”
I looked at the fruit, which I could not touch, and took a moment to settle my thoughts.
“I understand. I am glad that you wanted to help me.”
“Oh!” said Vasilisa, and ran forward to grasp my hand. “Kezia, why did you make that dreadful bargain with her? Something awful will happen to you, I know it!”
I covered our joined hands with my other one.
“Gabi is not wicked,” I said. “She is under a curse. That was why she said she wanted to destroy me. She does not really want to. She is my dear friend.”
Vasilisa drew away from me, her eyes downcast.
“Kezia… you do know what she is, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do. She is a-”
“She’s a murderer!” Vasilisa burst out. “She isn’t human, Kezia!”
“I am not human either.”
“But you’re not a killer!”
“I am not. I wish that she did not have to be, either.”
“Have to be…” Vasilisa shook her head, her brows drawn tight together. “What binds you to a demon like that? You’re so gentle, and she- she isn’t.”
“She helped me,” I said. “She helped me many times. She gave me free will. I wish to help her as well.”
“Free will…” Her gaze turned distant. “I suppose… I suppose I can understand that.”
She took a step back, away from me, and rubbed her bare forearms.
“I put something in the box for you,” she said, and picked up the fruit from the top. “It was selfish of me, I’m afraid.”
I wondered what this could mean, and went over to slowly lift the lid. Inside, quite in contrast with the dark wood, sat a snowy-white duck.
I had not been expecting that.
“I didn’t want her to eat it!” Vasilisa burst out, as I just stood there and stared. “I found it several days ago, and I’ve been keeping it hidden, and it’s been such a comfort to me to have it around… But the witch has started smelling it, and I just want it to get away from here!” She clasped her hands together, pleading. “Won’t you take it with you and put it somewhere safe after you leave? That’s all I ask!”
The duck blinked at me. It seemed quite comfortable and placid there at the bottom of the box. I saw that Vasilisa had left it a worn handkerchief with some poppy seeds tucked inside.
“Of course I will take it,” I said. “I think it will be safe if I let it go outside the forest. I could take you as well, you know.”
“No!” Vasilisa exclaimed, shaking her head with vehemence. “No, you mustn’t; Baba Yaga will be furious with you, and you are already in trouble as it is. I can do well for myself. In fact, I am very close to solving her third task.” She attempted to hold up her arms in a sorry show of strength.
“What is the third task?”
“No, no! I won’t use your help this time, I can figure it out on my own. You’ve done enough, and all I’ve done is hurt somebody you love. I’m so sorry, Kezia.”
“I forgive you,” I told her. “You were only doing what you thought was right.”
Though it was very hard for me to forget the sight of that silver knifetip protruding from Gabi’s throat.
Vasilisa gave me a watery smile and knelt beside the box.
“Do not eat this,” she warned the duck, as she set the fruit inside. “I can’t imagine what would happen to you if you did, poor thing.”
The duck blinked, but at least it did not seem to have any interest in the fruit. Vasilisa closed the box and laid a hand on the lid.
“Truly,” she said, looking up at me, “thank you for all the help you’ve given me. I hope someday we meet again and I can repay you.”
“Of course we will,” I said, and she smiled. We both knew that it was very uncertain.
I reached out with one hand and pressed it to her shoulder, then picked up the box. It was very light- duck and fruit together weighed barely anything at all. I tucked it under one arm.
“Be careful!” said Vasilisa. “Even if it is only a spell making her act so wicked, don’t let her hurt you, Kezia.”
“I am stronger than I look,” I reassured her, which made her laugh.
Our farewell seemed to drag on too long, but finally Vasilisa said that she had chores to finish, and retreated inside the witch’s house, which was in the midst of shaking the leaves off of its roof. Truthfully, I was glad to part. Not that I minded talking to Vasilisa, especially when she seemed so lonely. But I had to go. I could feel time passing far too keenly.
As I tramped my way back through thick forest, box in hand, I pondered on what I had let her believe about Gabi. Was it only a spell making her act wicked? Well, that was not quite a lie. She had tried to destroy me because of the white tree. But even without it, she sometimes did wicked things, like drinking the blood of a little girl and trying to trick Kazimir. Though I still was not sure if those were truly wicked things. She had done them for her own survival. Perhaps it was because she had not seemed sorry to do them that it seemed wicked to me. But I wondered if Kazimir would have felt any better if Gabi had acted sorry for trying to tie the ribbon around his neck.
I was frightened to leave her in his care. Not that I thought he could disobey Baba Yaga and hurt her further. But I was certain he did not like her at all. At least Noroc was with them! Oh, if only I had some way of knowing for sure that she was going to be all right… What if I never saw her again?
Around me, the trees were shivering. A mild breeze was pushing the morning mist between their trunks, making them dark and wet. Through the branches above, the sky seemed stippled and cracked. Orange light shone through the gaps like patches of fire. I thought I could hear whispers.
“Go,” murmured unseen voices, “go, go, go, back to the hungry place, back to your home.”
It sounded like the Iele speaking. I ignored them, kept walking. I felt that they were rearranging the shape of the forest around me, just out of my field of vision; it was fine, as long as they took me to my destination. They seemed excited about it.
“She waits for you,” hissed one, that seemed to come from no direction in particular. “She will welcome you home, and what was made will be unmade.”
What was made would be unmade. I suspected that meant I was going to be destroyed. The fear settled on my shoulders like a wet blanket. If it was going to happen, there was nothing I could do. I would… stop. No silver coin, no whispering ghost would save me this time if my silver letters were parted from each other. I would go back into some dreadful nothing.
Perhaps that would not happen. Perhaps the Iele were only toying with me. I could hope so. I did not want to stop existing. There were, I felt, a multitude of things I could do with my fragile consciousness that I had never gotten a chance to. I could not think of any, but there had to be many. I had barely lived at all.
I wondered if Gabi would ever choose to end her existence for my sake. No, I decided, she would not. And I was not angry over the thought. Rather, I felt a little jealous of her. I doubted she would ever ask me to do what I was doing, either. Gabi would do what kept herself intact, always; those wicked things- yet I admired them! I was forced to admit this to myself. Because if I had a stronger love for my own self, I would never have risked it this way.
Oh, but Kazimir had been right. He had warned me that I should not be so close to only one person. And now Gabi was the only one I really knew. It was almost as though if she were gone, I would have no self anymore. That was nearly as frightening as the thought of being destroyed. She- her thoughts, her wishes, her desires- was the only thing motivating me to move anywhere. Without her, I would… what would I do?
Perhaps, if I was not destroyed, and I found out that she was all right, I should leave her behind and seek out my own real self. Perhaps that would be best. It was a frightening thought, but one that filled me with a queer optimism. Perhaps that was the only way for me to really know what having free will was like!
But it all depended on whether I could get in and out of the Starving Forest unscathed.
I walked, and made good time. My connection with the earth before had left me with an unerring sense of direction, all the way to the edges of the forest. It was not long before I reached one. The hissing voices which had followed me all the way faded as I stepped out from the trees and into the pale morning light.
I had emerged from the wild wood at a point very near the river, a ways south from where the village lay. A thin line of smoke was rising on the horizon; for some reason the people there had made a large fire. I could not help but compare the sight of the grassy meadows before me with those I had seen in the other Kezia’s memory. On the side I was on, the forest had been closer, and had gotten slightly farther away since Kezia had died. But on the other side of the river, the forest had advanced- advanced very far, in fact, until it was merely a hundred meters or so away from the village. I had no idea how long ago the other Kezia had lived, so perhaps that was enough time for so many trees to have grown… but I felt that there was not.
If I searched, I could probably have found the very hill that Kezia had recalled burying a dead black cat with her brother, but there was no time for that. I went towards the river in a straight line, trudging across the thick grass. The wet earth below my feet squelched with each step, but did not sink beneath me- it was bound tightly together by a lattice of winding grassroots. I could not help but feel a twinge of curiosity, seeing these roots, and dug one of my toes into a muddy gap, and tried to touch the earth as the Iele had showed me in the forest.
My touch did not yield anything that I could sense, and I continued on my way, somewhat disappointed, close to the river. Then, as I put my heavy foot down on yet another patch, I felt… something. A tickling feeling, a giddy looseness, a pliant sensation. The earth was wound up in little roots all close to the surface, and little dry anthills, and rocks where beetles hid, and worms struggling to burrow their way down, away from the light. There was a web, like the one I had felt in the forest, but here it was light and shallow, full of brief and bright things. The pulse of it was quick and sudden, like droplets sliding together on a spider’s web.
Trample on, ripper, chewer, tearer, trample on!
Eat the stalks and leave us dung!
Crush the saplings that would steal our light! We’ll survive, trample on!
There was such a merry cadence to the meadow, unlike the slow, sonorous, and doleful feeling of the forest, that I could not help feeling my mood lifted, and I walked more quickly. I wondered why I had felt guilty for crushing grass beneath my feet before.
With each step I felt another brush with the earth, a tenuous connection to that thrumming web. If I had been in the forest, I might have tried to break my connection completely, for it was too overwhelming and deep a feeling- one I could lose myself in. The roots of the trees spread too wide, and wound through so much earth; and so many things lived and died and were consumed and grew and fell apart all at once there. I felt that I was beginning to understand what drew witches to them, but I thought I might prefer the airy feeling of the fields.
I was very nearly on the riverbank when the earth shuddered beneath my feet, and my sense of connection dissipated. Over a hill thundered a small herd of cows, snorting out gusts of steam and crushing the grass beneath their hooves. They were coming straight for me, deceptively slowly, for I had only just taken several steps back by the time they were standing on the riverbank right where I had been previously.
There they milled for a moment, mooing and regarding this new obstacle of water with bovine bewilderment. I watched the great smelly mass of them in a kind of stupor- some were even coming over to me, and one gave my arm a great wet lick before thrusting her considerable bulk past me. Where had they all come from, and what were they running for?
The answer came to me over the hill a moment later. Two stragglers emerged, a cow with a flapping udder and a stumbling calf, broken rope dangling from its frail neck. On their heels was a black darting shape- a wolf. No, not a wolf, a pricolici.
The pricolici lunged for the shoulder of the calf, but its mother turned and shook her small horns threateningly at him. I was already on my way over, the pitiful bleats of the calf making me step faster. The other cows let out great moos of surprise as I pushed through them. Halfway into another strike, the pricolici looked up and saw me and with a twisting motion reversed its direction and sped back up the muddy hill.
The cow and calf were already trotting to rejoin the rest of the herd, as the wolf and I regarded one another from a safe distance. It stood on the hilltop with its head raised and ears pricked, more alert than I had ever seen the skulking thing look. The eyes were like two tiny blue rings in the blackness of the face. I wondered if it remembered that I had pulled Radu’s head from its neck. I wondered if the head still lived, whispering Murderer by the starry lake.
After a moment, the pricolici sat down, still staring at me. I was not sure what I should do. Maybe it was waiting for me to leave, so that it could chase the cows again. There was little I could do to prevent that- I had to get myself to the Starving Forest. But I did not like it. I gave the wolf another long look, my grip tightening on the box that was still wedged under my arm. There was no way I could release the duck out here, with a predator like that prowling around.
The cows had churned the riverbank into a sandy, muddy mess by now, their legs dark with it. When I moved to cross it, their heads followed me, and then, all at once- as though I had shown them that it was safe- the mass of them began churning and splashing after me, their snorting noses barely held above the waterline. The mother and her calf were in the center of it all, the calf’s head disappearing under the water every two kicks. I could not help but take pity on it again, and walked over and put the squirming wet creature under my other arm, opposite the box, and took it the rest of the way over.
When we had made it to the other side, I deposited the calf in the sand under the baleful gaze of its mother, and looked back at the hill. The pricolici was gone. Maybe it had not wanted to cross the running water; I knew Gabi did not like to either, for whatever reason.
The cows were thumping onwards, turning in a graceful arc once they reached the treeline, which somehow seemed even closer than I remembered, to walk adjacent to it. Wise cows. I wished I could follow them.
I readjusted the box, which was wet on the bottom, and peeped beneath the lid to check on the duck. It seemed to be sleeping- I was impressed. Slowly I closed the lid again. Now I knew that I was stalling the inevitable. I had to go back into that forest. I had to face the other golem.
A splash made me turn and look back. The pricolici loped out of the river and shook itself, making its shaggy fur stand up in spikes. When it saw me looking, it bared its teeth at me.
“Go away!” I exclaimed. “And leave the cows alone!”
It merely stared. Unnerved, I turned and walked directly towards the trees. If I ignored it, perhaps it would go away.
Something knocked against the wooden box under my arm, and as I whirled, the wolf jumped back, licking its chops.
“This is not for you!” I shouted, waving one fist threateningly. “I will hit you and break all your bones if you go after it again!”
The pricolici growled, but did not move. It was less than a meter away, and again I was struck by how un-wolflike it seemed up close. Like a man in a horrible costume.
When I turned and began walking again, I heard the almost inaudible sound of it walking after me, stepping on the wet grass. I moved the box around to clasp with both hands over my belly. I could try to make good my threat and swing at it, but I felt that it would just jump away again, and anyway it felt mean-spirited to hit it like that when it had not actually disobeyed my warning. It was making little snuffling noises behind me, like it was sniffing, and once I even felt a cold nose touch the back of my leg.
I barely even noticed when we crossed into the Starving Forest, I was so distracted by the creature dogging my heels. We came amongst the damp trees, much lighter and lovelier to look at compared to the ones in the wild wood. The light filtering through the canopy was pleasantly greenish and damp. The wolf seemed to vanish and reemerge as dappled shadows passed over its back. It seemed to be growing bolder, sometimes even circling me completely, always snuffling and sniffling, peppered with the occasional soft growl.
Finally I got tired of it all, and swiped threateningly at the air with my free hand.
“I said go away!”
I had not intended to hit it, but to my surprise the wolf jumped to meet my hand, thrusting its nose against the clay and inhaling deeply. I snatched it back and looked at the noseprint it had left on my palm. I had not realized it, but the clay there was still stained red from when I had tried to seal Gabi’s wound.
The pricolici let out a growl that turned into a deep bass rumble, and paced back and forth in front of me. A thought occurred to me.
“Are you trying to smell Gabi?”
The pricolici jerked back and yelped, as if the name had been a physical blow.
“You know her!” I exclaimed. Perhaps there really was a bit of a man inside the beast after all. “How do you know her? Can you speak?”
The pricolici’s growl rose and fell by degrees, and it trembled for a moment, and then it turned as though it were going to run, and dove headfirst into a thorny bush.
“Wait, I will get you out,” I said, reaching for it as it struggled and yelped, but it snapped furiously at my hand and tore itself free to bound away through the trees. I closed my hand into a fist with frustration.
But then, a few moments later, I heard a hoarse, throaty howl rising from somewhere just out of sight. It was a noise that did not fit at all with the cheery, misty morning in the forest, and the birds that had been chirruping away went utterly silent. The howl went on and on, more a moan than anything, and then, after a pause for breath, started anew. But this time, I thought I heard a word in it.
The word trailed off into a miserable whine, and then I heard no more. After a few seconds of silence, the birds cautiously began twittering once more.
Tafsut? Was that what it had said? I did not know that word, even when I tried to pull it from the experiences and memories the other Kezia had left me. Maybe it was not even a word, only the way the howl had sounded. Maybe I was just finding more ways to waste time before the inevitable. But I was in the Starving Forest now; the inevitable was here.
I pulled my shoulders up and tried to square them, making them more broad. The pricolici would have to go out of my head now. I had to try to get to the center of the forest without being stopped or captured. At least Mother Forest did not have Noroc as her eyes (eye) anymore. The other golems would be slow and clumsy servants by comparison. Except for that one.
I felt that the duck would have less and less chance of survival the further I went into the forest, so as soon as I saw a suitably hollow tree I opened the box. My fingers nearly grazed the top of the red fruit and I jerked back. The duck opened one eye.
I settled my nerves, and reached in more carefully to scoop up the duck and place it into the hollow bole of the tree. That was the most protection I could offer it now.
“I am sorry,” I told it, as it blinked and fluffed its feathers. I was saying that to Vasilisa, too. I had failed her this time.
I closed the box and kept walking, leaving the bird behind. The forest was bright and busy, midges swirling in every shaft of sunlight, ferns springy with dew. Small things scampered just out of sight, much more benign-seeming than those around Baba Yaga’s house. Spiderwebs coated the branches of some trees like lace.The birds twittered on incessantly. A delicate, sweetly fragrant scent began to emerge around me.
I heard the fruit in the box rolling around as I walked on. I was not near any of my old haunts- the muddy meadow, the clearing where I had built then crushed a house, the sticky swamp. But I was getting close to the white grove. I could smell it now, a musky undertone of rot beneath that heady sweetness.
All of the sudden, the earth rippled beneath my feet, and I stopped short.
“Child,” said the other golem.
I turned my head. She was standing there, thin and plain, as though she had always been there: but I knew different. Her expression was so blank it could have been serene. Her pupils, I saw, were merely two hollow points, her hair, tiny crafted strands of clay. Every fiber on her shirt was manufactured with an attention to detail I could not fathom. It was a flawless disguise. When I had held her hand, she had even pretended to break her fingers.
She regarded me much as I had regarded the pricolici earlier. For my part, I found myself suddenly struck with perverse curiosity. She must have lived a very long time, to become such an accomplished sculptor. I thought that it would take me years of practice to get so talented. And yet she could disassemble it and reassemble it in moments. When had she been made- and with which Jewish ghost had she been inhabited?
“You came back,” she said. I saw her eyes shift to the box in my arms, no doubt wondering what the contents were. I gripped it more tightly.
“I did come back,” I confirmed, feeling a little foolish. She was so calm, and nonthreatening, that it was hard to imagine how frightened I had been of her a moment ago. “I want to ask you a question.”
Now she met my eyes, cocked her head to one side.
I had not even known it was one I wanted to ask until a moment ago.
“What is your name?”
“My name?” Her voice was so monotonous that I knew I had taken her by surprise. Then she laughed. “I have no name. I am a golem, child.”
This she said as though it should be obvious to anybody, but I did not let her get away with it.
“I am a golem as well. My name is Kezia.”
“Ah, child. That isn’t your-”
“It is my name. The other Kezia let me have it. It was given, not stolen.” Eventually, anyway. “Did you not have a name once? Or is there no ghost inside of you anymore?”
She was silent for a long moment, expressionless. I could not tell whether it was surprised or calculating.
“Ghosts fade over time,” she finally said. “Like spider’s webs. They are shadows of what was, and they get caught in the branches and roots of trees very easily, but eventually they will fall to pieces if not carefully maintained.”
She paused, looked all about us, but I was too afraid to take my eyes off of her to follow her gaze.
“This voice,” she said, putting a hand to her throat, “I took from a ghost, who called herself Adamina. Her spirit is long gone. Perhaps it has gone to wait for Olam Ha-Ba, the world to come; perhaps if it was not deemed righteous enough it has languished in She’ol.” She was chuckling as she said this, a patronising note to her tone that made me feel mortified, though I did not quite know why. “But it can be assumed that it has gone places that you and I will never reach. We don’t have souls, child- nothing of us will linger once we are destroyed.”
Her words made me want to dry out and crack, but they also made me feel a little bit angry. I wanted to struggle against them: how could she know, anyway? I felt childish and foolish, in my big, shapeless form beside her flawless one, but she seemed so certain about her beliefs that I felt even more certain that she was wrong. So I asked her a bold question.
“Why is it that you want to destroy me?”
To my surprise, she reached out, as though she were going to take my hand, and then just as quickly withdrew.
“Did you come here expecting me to destroy you?”
“Yes,” I said, because it was the truth. Was the sorrow that briefly crossed her face only feigned?
“You say that I want to destroy you,” she said, “but I am a golem without free will. Therefore, my only wants are those of my mistress, my only actions those endeavored towards her benefit.”
I thought on this, very carefully, unsure if I was drawing the right conclusion from her words.
“Why am I dangerous to Mother Forest?”
She- maybe I should have begun thinking of her as Adamina- smiled.
“She does not yet know you exist.”
The box creaked in my arms; I had squeezed it as I was taken aback by her words. Her attention flickered and refocused on it.
“What is it that you’re carrying, child?”
“A box,” I said. “What are you going to do with me?”
“A good question.” Her eyes lingered on the box for a long moment, then she said, “Why don’t you come with me? There are places in this forest you have yet to visit.”
She turned and began walking, as though she did not care if I followed or not, but of course I had no real choice but to go with her. At any moment she could swamp me with a wave of earth, tear out my silver letters and render me useless. Why did she wait? What did her strange words mean?
I followed her, unsurprised that she was taking me in the direction of the white grove. But then she paused. Her gaze flicked towards a place where the trees began to grow tall, thin, and pale, where there were no leaves on the ground, where the sickly-sweet stink hung heavy in the air- then she turned, and led me to the left of all that, down to a flat area where thin-bladed grass grew tall between trees with red leaves. It tickled teasingly at my ankles.
“It is nearly autumn,” she said. “In fact, autumn may be here already.”
I was briefly confused; had it not just changed from spring to summer? Then again, I did not know how long I had spent within Sorina’s house.
“Mother Forest,” Adamina continued, “sleeps away the spring and the summer, but stirs in Autumn. She awakens with a terrible pain and hunger, and it is only through my powers that she has been able to heal some of the wounds that were long-ago inflicted upon her. I am her most precious servant.”
“Slave,” I corrected, for it seemed prudent. She spread her hands.
“What you must know,” she said, coming to a halt in the middle of a grassy clearing, “is that I am the only being in existence with these particular skills. For now.”
She cast a look back at me, the last word emerging uncharacteristically sharp. Words I might have said stuck and died in my hollow throat.
“You are, in some ways,” she said, and then suddenly turned her back on me, so that she faced the trees when she said the last words, “dear to me. If you would like, I can take away your free will and allow you to maintain your existence. It seems that you have dispensed with that meddling companion of yours, which makes everything easier.”
It took me a moment to realize what she was talking about- then I recalled the bloodstains on my hands. She thought that I had killed Gabi! Suddenly I pitied her: it seemed that she could never imagine that I was here, risking my own destruction, in order to save someone. She was older, and more skilled, but I wondered if she was really wiser.
Dear to her. What strange words to come from her mouth. Dear to her. I rolled them over and over in my head. Once they would have made me slavishly happy; they would have been the pinnacle of my existence. Now…
“I will never give up my free will again,” I told her. “It is very important to me.”
“Like your name,” she said, without turning around.
“Yes,” I agreed. “Will you not call me by it?”
A pause. I thought I felt the slightest tremor in the earth below my feet, within the grass. Hesitantly I slid my heel over it, trying to gingerly dip into the web, to feel-
“Ah,” said Adamina, her voice filled with sorrow. “If you have learned how to do that, I am afraid I cannot put off destroying you any longer.”
I got a dreadful shock, for I had just then brushed the edge of the great earth-web, and felt- something. Someone. Someone was there.
Then a jut of earth rose rapidly between my feet and struck the wooden box out of my hands.
It fell on its side with a clatter, and the lid smacked open. The fruit rolled out, perilously close to touching the dirt. I reached for it, but the earth shifted and knocked me off my feet.
“It should be easiest if you remove the letters yourself,” said Adamina, as though she had not just pushed me over. “If I touch you as you are now, there will be… consequences. But I will do it if I must. Please do not force my hand.”
I tried to get up, to snatch at the wooden box- I had to plant it, before I was destroyed!- but again the ground roiled and slammed me up against a tree. Adamina advanced towards me slowly, her expression petulant. I used the tree to pull myself to my feet, as the dirt popped and slurred like lava around the roots. It seemed, though, that she was loathe to uproot a tree.
“Come here, child,” she said, almost wearily.
I looked at the box, gauged the distance- and then took off in the other direction, leaping from tree trunk to tree trunk. I must have looked a fool, clinging sideways like that, but she could not overbalance me unless she wanted to destroy the trees. Instead she glided slowly after me, barely picking up her feet.
“Why do you not use my name?” I called back, springing for a particularly unwieldy birch that creaked under my weight. The box was out in the middle of the clearing, unprotected by trees- I had to distract her somehow if I wanted to get to it. “Call me by name and maybe I will go to you!”
She did not respond, and it gave me a strange kind of frightened and pleased feeling to consider that perhaps she might be getting angry.
I leapt for the next tree, trying to edge back closer to the clearing, when something suddenly struck hard against my shoulder and knocked me off balance. I rolled onto the grass.
Adamina stopped and looked at me. She did not look angry. If anything, she looked disappointed.
“I don’t believe I shall use your letters again,” she said. “Many times I have remade my golems and re-used them, but I shall keep yours aside.”
Was it supposed to sound sentimental when she said it like that? Or threatening? I could not decide, and slowly rolled to my feet. What had struck me?
The grass, I noticed, got abruptly shorter just past where Adamina had stopped- in fact, I was standing in a large area where the grass had been trimmed down in a perfect circle. At the very center was a sort of scrubby bush, with a tall, narrow red bulb growing from it.
“Take it apart,” said Adamina, and I wondered who she was talking to-
Lightning-quick, something wrapped around my left arm, constricted, tugged me down to my knees. It was some sort of vine, or stem, or- there was someone else here with us! I had not even seen them, but now, with shock, I let my eyes follow the trail of the vine to the small body of a woman who had it in her hands.
Beyond where she grasped it, the vine seemed to grow straight out of her navel, which I saw because she was entirely nude. While her form displayed none of the characteristics upon the chest or between the legs that the other Kezia would have thought of as indecent, her eyes did bear the red-tinged buds of two unopened flowers. She had her face blindly turned towards me, her back hunched and her fingers curled around her root in a feral way. With a jolt, I realized that in her fair skin and even fairer hair, she reminded me of Crina.
“Here they have vegetable lambs,” said Adamina, as the strange woman cocked her head and tugged on her vine, as though trying to discern what she had caught, “but in the time that I was created, the Rabbis and other wise men knew of an older, darker variant that was not so gentle: the fadua. My mistress finds them useful, and I garden them for her.”
I tugged my arm, testing the vine- it was startlingly strong. The fadua slowly began working her way down it, hand over hand, and when I squirmed cast another loop around my wrist. For some reason I felt a great sense of dread over what would happen if she reached me at the end of the vine.
“If you break that, she will die,” said Adamina, when she noticed me sharpening the flat of my hand. “Look.”
She nodded towards something, and foolishly I looked, and saw that the other end of the vine protruded from that strange red bud in the center of the grassy circle.
Then my attention was sharply brought forward: the fadua had ripped the thumb from my hand, and now stuffed it in her mouth, and swallowed.
“Good… earth,” she gurgled, reaching for my next finger.
It was the second time that day somebody had eaten part of me, and now I was filled with disgust and a fresh, nearly irrational amount of terror: I would not be consumed like this! As the fadua tore off my struggling forefinger, I jerked against the vine- no yield- she was eating me as I struggled! I had to cut the vine, or-
The thought came to me, and I did not second-guess it: in one quick motion I took my sharpened palm and sliced my arm off at the shoulder.
Adamina went stiff, but how could she not have predicted it? The fadua continued gnawing on my discarded arm, entirely oblivious. I did not wait for her to reach the end of it- I ran, foregoing the trees and making a straight line for the fallen box.
Behind me I heard a shout, and the earth trembled. I rolled, saw the wall rising up to stop me from reaching my goal, and without thinking very much thrust my fingers into the ground and willed it to stop.
It did not stop. Instead, it froze, and then split asunder with a great crack, raining bits of dry dirt onto the grass.
I caught a glimpse of Adamina catching up, looking wide-eyed at the mess I had made. I thought I liked taking her by surprise very much. Then I reached out and snatched up the fruit.
The red surface of it had split of its own accord when my fingers had nearly touched it before, a little greenish stem peeping out eagerly, and now the moment I made contact with it I felt the root pour into my flesh, piercing my hand and winding up my remaining arm. My body shuddered. The silver letters, which I had left near that shoulder, were being forced apart.
Adamina came up at a run, which I had never before seen her do, her face blank, her features slightly blurred. She was very surprised, I realized, with a strange drowsy sensation- the roots were digging into me very fast, with the same delighted gusto as the fadua, absorbing what lay within my clay flesh, slicing it to pieces. It seemed madness that a plant could grow that fast. Perhaps it was just that I was so slow- yes- slow- the roots were winding through my eyes, and I could not see anymore- as long as Gabi was all right, I would be happy- slow- blurry- slow- it was all right.
Loosened by the roots, I felt the silver coin begin to fall from my body; all I could think that it was all right.