A little bit frightening.
Something was caught inside my belly.
I could feel it. It was heavy and thick but not quite solid. It was as though my belly were full of syrup. No- it was not just my belly. All my hollow spaces, they were all filled up with that heavy something. It was too heavy to move. I felt suspended in it, immobilized. It was dark, very dark; I could see nothing at all.
Where was I?
My mind was foggy. I knew who I was- that I was Kezia. I was a golem made of clay. I was very strong and nothing should have been able to hold me down.
But I could not move, and I could not see.
Whatever was filling up my belly must have been covering my eye holes as well. I tried to move my head, but it was so heavy… What had happened to my strength?
Do not be frightened, I told myself sternly. All I had to do was pour out the stuff inside myself that was making me feel so heavy. If my eye holes were plugged, then my mouth… ah, my mouth was not even opened. It must have gotten pressed shut. Slowly, painstakingly, I pulled my lips apart.
Air rushed inside my chest so fast I felt myself swell. Oh! I had never felt anything like it- it was wonderful! It was like a good feeling that dashed outwards from my chest all the way to my fingertips. And there was a hollow space inside my chest again- I felt it- a big, stretched-out hollow space!
But then my chest seemed to collapse, and all the air flew back out of my mouth.
Desperately I tried to pull it back in. Inside my throat, something seemed to unstick. And my chest expanded once more. In came the air! Oh, it felt just as lovely the second time! Every bit of me seemed to refresh in an instant. This time I did not mind so much when my chest deflated again. I pulled the air back in, and let it out. In, out, in, out…
A distant throbbing sounded in my ears, in time with the air rushing from my lips. It sounded like liquid swirling through a pump. Was it from whatever was inside me? It was still there. I still felt terribly filled up, even though I was able to open a little space for air in my chest. That thick, heavy stuff, thicker than water but not quite solid: it was pulsing. It was alive.
I should have been more frightened, with some strange foreign entity lurking within, but for the moment I was only mildly concerned. I was foggy-headed still, and distracted. The air felt very good when I pulled it inside. But now I was feeling something else as well, on the outside of my body. Something like a tingling, a prickling, with an undertone of numbness. Unlike the air, this did not feel so good. I wished it would stop.
Suddenly, there was light.
Reddish light, with dimly flickering particles, but still light. And my skin pricked and tingled worse than ever. For some reason my body was vibrating.
The light: it was as though I was only seeing it through some thick screen. I could not make my eyes focus and find the source of it. And now, sharp little stabs fell against my skin- tiny cold needles- needles that melted and slithered down my sides. And noise. There was noise. Thunder? Voices? I could resolve the fuzzy sounds no more than I could resolve the strange reddish light. It was too much. And my skin felt- it felt very- very- wrong. And I could not seem to stop myself from shaking.
The pounding in my head was growing louder. I felt as though I were slowly getting heavier. Something felt strange at the base of my stomach. If the color red had been a feeling, that was how it would have felt. I longed to move away from it, but I could not. And then- something indescribable. I think that something touched me.
My clay flesh had always given me a sense of what I assumed was touch- an approximate level of pressure, of heat, of penetration. But this was not like that. There was nothing approximate about this. It was not there. It was THERE. It was not right now. It was RIGHT NOW. THERE, RIGHT NOW.
It was on my sides, THERE, RIGHT NOW, a thousand little electric sputters and tingles, a squeezing like nothing I had ever felt. The air whooshed out of me, the throbbing came louder in my ears. The inside of my head fizzed and sparked. The solid stuff inside of me seemed to lurch. For a moment everything seemed too taut and tight for me to get any air back into the hollow space and a wild sense of fear spiraled through me. I forced the air in with a great gasp. Then the thing that had held me stopped touching me and everything lurched back into the other direction and smacked against something hard. In my rattled head I managed to gather that somehow, I had moved up and then dropped back down.
And the feeling I had now, on my face- it was like that maddening TOUCH again, only- only- it was not only THERE, RIGHT NOW but also VERY BAD. It was like my skin was a lake of clear water, undisturbed, but someone had dropped a stone in and send ripples of badness rolling slowly outwards from the spot.
Something solid was blocking my eye holes. No- that was not quite right. Something was different. Something was very different. Eye holes? No. There were none. I had to open them-
A sliding sensation. Prickles and shafts of light. And then, hazy shapes. I could see. Something was still filling up my eye holes, but I could see.
Something was holding me again. The touch was maddening. I tried to move away, to escape the overwhelming sensation, but the best I could manage were a few weak twitches. I was still shaking uncontrollably, the beating noise throb, throb, throbbing in my chest. My vision was slow to focus. It had never been slow like this before, or blurry. Indistinct shapes in wildly bright colors swam back and forth. I saw them, I felt touch, I still felt pain, I still somehow managed to draw air in and out of my chest.
I heard sounds, too. They were as bright as the colors, too loud, to difficult to resolve. They jabbered and pricked at the sides of my heads like flies. Were they voices? They must have been voices. What were they saying? Where was I? What was I?
My throat was growing tight. It was harder to take in air. My eyes pricked and stung and felt strangely damp. My mouth closed on its own, but I still was able to draw breath through my…
Scents came in like a flood. Copper. Embers. Sweat. Horse. Clay. Flower. Death. Blood. Spice.
The confusing shapes that swam and merged before my eyes finally settled as I breathed in the scents. I knew them all. They were so familiar. I knew them.
And the person holding on to me, holding on to me with hands supporting my back, the person with red hair, and blue eyes, and freckles like stars across her nose.
“What is it?” she said, and I knew the voice. I knew.
The taut fear ran out of me like water. Oh, I was still afraid, but- it was Gabi.
Another voice- not Gabi’s- was saying something. I was barely able to grasp the words. I knew that voice, too. It was deeper than Gabi’s. It was coming from a great brown blurry thing behind her. With great effort, I focused on it, and it resolved into the head of a horse.
“Shut up,” said Gabi, in response to whatever the horse had said. “She can barely move.”
“Yet,” said the horse. Pascha, it was Pascha. “You just wait…”
Gabi’s face moved. I pulled my gaze back onto it. She had turned her mouth down into a frown. Were they talking about me? Not being able to move? I moved my hand out towards Gabi. Then I realized I had moved my hand, without even thinking about it. I looked down. I did not see my hand. But I did see someone else’s hand, sticking out of a blanket. It was very small, with thin fingers, and very white. When I curled my fingers, the hand moved, too.
I looked back up, away from the hand. It frightened me, that little hand. I looked into Gabi’s eyes for some sign of reassurance. It was Gabi, was it not? Why was she so quiet now? I tried to say her name. But no sound came out.
But she must have understood me, for her expression changed into something very strange. With my fuzzy vision, I could not piece together what it was. It was complicated.
“Kezia,” she said, and I felt her fingers move against my waist. “It’s you, right? Kezia?”
It was hard to concentrate with the jittery waves of touch passing through me. Again I tried to speak, to say yes, but no sound came out. Gabi’s eyebrows came together. Was she not convinced that it was me? Well, even I could barely figure out what I was… It was like the time when the ghost of the other Kezia had taken my voice, and I had been trapped in my own self. Except then I had known myself. I did not feel like I knew myself now…
“She’s only just woken up,” said Pascha. His voice dipped up and down; I thought he sounded unnerved. “Let her pull herself together. Er- or something like that. I’ll dry out a spot on the ground, so get her out of that thing.”
“I don’t know if I should move her,” said Gabi. She was quieter than him. Also unsure. She really did not know it was me. I struggled, fighting against the wrongness of my body. My arms twitched. Something slid against my shoulders with a tickling sensation.
“That’s meant to keep you warm, you know,” said Gabi, and she pulled the thing back on. A blanket, it was the blanket I had seen when I looked down. But why would I need to be kept warm? She was not making sense. She really must not know it was me. I had to show her, somehow. But no sounds would come out of my mouth. Only air whooshed in and out when I moved my lips.
“I think she wants to get down,” said Pascha. He was bouncing up and down, moving his forelegs with a scuffling noise. “If you ask me, the poor thing has a cold bum from sitting in that puddle.”
“I’ll thank you to leave her bum out of things,” snapped Gabi, which for some reason made Pascha giggle like a little girl. “What makes you think you know what she’s trying to say? A minute ago you were convinced she’d try to eat me!”
“I haven’t given up on that,” said Pascha. Gabi glared at him. Neither of them noticed how desperately I was moving my mouth, working my throat to ask them why on earth they thought I would eat anyone, much less Gabi.
Gabi put her back to Pascha’s snickering and set her hands onto my shoulder, looking me in the eyes.
“Kezia. If you can understand me, nod your head, all right? No- don’t try to speak- just nod.”
Nod? I closed my mouth. I could nod, I could do that. All I needed to do was to move my head up and down. Nod. Nod.
“I don’t think she understands,” said Pascha, as Gabi frowned again, taking her hands from my shoulders. “Better just-”
Air whooshed out of my mouth, and my head flopped forwards. Gabi had to grab my shoulders again to keep me steady.
“Er, was that a nod?” she said, her voice a soft buzz very close to my head. I trembled a little, but I managed to jerk my head again in an affirmative.
“I think that’s what we’ll call it, then,” said Gabi, a triumphant note in her voice, and for a moment her fingers squeezed my shoulders. “No smart comments from the horse?”
I looked at Pascha, who was rotating his ears back and forth. I had never noticed how delicate the little hairs in them looked.
“Is it really Kezia?” he asked. “It… it is, isn’t it? How is that possible?”
“It’s clearly very possible, since she’s sitting right here,” said Gabi, in a firm tone. “Kezia, my dear, if you don’t mind, I’d like to pull you out of this wet now. Can you get your arms around me?”
I tried. Really, I did. After a moment, Gabi reached out and I felt the tingling warmth of her touch on my forearms. The blanket slid down, off of my shoulders. My exposed skin felt that prickling unpleasant numbness again- cold. Gabi pulled my arms forward and set them around her waist.
No. That was not right. What came into view was not my arm. It was a pale, skinny, human arm. Gabi was putting a human arm around her waist. I could feel her waist under my fingers; the fibers of the cloth of her magic clothes, the calloused warmth of her fingertips. But it was not my arm.
It was not my arm… was it not?
“There we are,” said Gabi, and there was a tiny hitch in her voice at the end. I tried to focus back on her face, but abruptly we were moving. My arms suddenly gripped Gabi tight of their own accord, making her grunt as she dragged me backwards. My head lolled back and my eyes went skyward. It was a gray, cloudy sky framed by red leaves. I could see each individual leaf, and the veins going through each leaf, and the way the light changed color as it passed through each leaf. I could see dark spots on some of them, like the freckles on Gabi’s face.
“You’re heavy,” came Gabi’s voice at my ear, making me shiver with surprise. “But I suppose you’re lighter than you used to be.”
I opened my mouth to try to say… to say… I could not speak, so it did not matter.
Gabi eased me back down to the ground, and my head tilted forward. Now I looked outwards, past Pascha’s big brown bulk and twitching tail. There were many trees, white ones with red leaves. There was some grass on the ground that looked singed, but mostly trampled mud. There was a kind of stink in the air, too, like something rotten.
Gabi rotated me around, and I saw, in the center of the open, muddy space, a gigantic flower. It was coming out of a bush that seemed ludicrously small beneath it. The petals were dark red, and wide open. Some looked a bit crumpled. From the center of the flower protruded a vine, and the vine trailed out over the ground towards me. My eyes followed the path of it irresistibly. Past two pale, human legs it ran- not mine, surely not mine- looping over one bare thigh, and up to… up to…
My chin touched my chest as I looked straight down at myself. My chin, my chest. My legs. My stomach. My breasts. And from the center of my navel, my vine. My lifeline.
The memory returned to me with a jolt. A vine, just like this, wrapped around my clay arm; the red flower, the woman connected to it, coming closer, hand over hand, flowers for eyes. Adamina’s words: the fadua.
For the first time, a sound emerged from my throat: a wordless, frightened, cry.
“Kezia!” exclaimed Gabi, sounding a little out of breath: I had squeezed my arms around her unconsciously. “What’s the matter?”
“Oi, get her off you, maybe she’s gone wicked,” said Pascha, and I felt his snorting breath on my bare shoulders.
“It’s Kezia,” Gabi replied, voice scornful, as if that was all the explaination needed as to why that was a silly idea. “Kezia, my dear, do ease up on me just a little, though…”
Ease up! My arms were not listening to me again. My arms? I was a fadua! How could this be? Where was my real body? My clay body? How had- What had-
Gabi’s hands gripped mine and forcefully took them away from her waist. I was shaking all over again, and managed to raise my head enough to look into her eyes.
“What are you so frightened of?” she wondered. How did she know I was frightened?
“Maybe it’s just waking up and seeing your face,” said Pascha, and his hot breath puffed out over my back again and made me squirm helplessly from the sensation.
“Shut up and stop breathing on her!” Gabi ordered, batting his big nose away. “Do something useful! Go get the blanket!”
“Useful!” Pascha snorted, but withdrew. Gabi rubbed her hands over mine.
“Still cold… I suppose you’ve never felt cold before, have you? What do you think of it?”
She chuckled, not seeming to expect an answer. I kept my eyes on her face. My… heart, it was beating rapidly, and my- my- breath, it came very fast. Heart. Breath. Touch.
“I don’t like it much myself,” Gabi confided in me, still rubbing my hands, so that shivers of warmth rippled through them. “Of course, it won’t really harm me, only slow me down, but it’s a curst unpleasant thing to feel all the same.”
Every little minute movement of her face fascinated me. When she spoke, some of her freckles disappeared into little creases. The corners of her mouth twitched and quirked. Her eyes slid half-shut, watching me back…
Very slowly, I managed to nod.
She smiled, and my heart, which had been slowing down a little, abruptly sped up again.
“I’m glad to have you back,” she murmured, lowering her voice. “I hate to say it in front of the horse, but I did miss you.”
I missed you as well, I tried to say, though I had no idea where I had gone, or for how long.
Something heavy fell upon my shoulders, making me jump. Pascha had dropped the blanket on my back. Gabi muttered some unpleasant words and tucked the edges around my chest and over my legs.
“We’ll have to get her some clothes,” she said.
“Ooh, so it’s we,” replied Pascha. “How are we going to find clothes for a lass which accommodate such a large, er, umbilical cord?”
That sent an uneasy jolt through me. The thick vine was trailing over my leg and beneath the blanket. I could not feel the place where it was connected to me, but just knowing…
“Well, hopefully,” said Gabi, her hands fluttering over my sides to readjust the blanket in minute ways, “hopefully that won’t be permanent. Crina wasn’t attached to anything, after all…”
“Who’s that?” asked Pascha. But I remembered. Crina- the little blind girl- the one who had come out of the white grove! So she had been a fadua?
“And,” Gabi was saying, over Pascha’s confusion, “I think… I believe that witch, Sorina, had something like this as well. She had colorless blood. You remember, Kezia?”
I looked back to her face. I did remember: the sight of Sorina cutting her hand, showing us a wound that dripped water. Did that mean, I, too, had that flowing through my veins? I had never even had veins at all before…
“You’ve got a bit of color coming into your cheeks, though,” mused Gabi, and she reached out and ran her hand along the side of my face. I went rigid, hardly able to process the sensation. She did not seem to notice this; she was tugging lightly at something on my head, something that sent even more overwhelming prickles down through my skin.
“And I feel as though the hair is getting a shade darker, thank goodness; you’re not going to look like an old woman.”
Was she suggesting that I had… hair? My hand rose a few inches of its own accord, but dropped back as soon as I noticed it. Tricky thing. It seemed the harder that I tried to order my body to move, the worse it resisted me. I had to sneak up on it, pretend that I was not paying attention.
So I tried not to think about moving my arm. Instead I thought about touching my head. Herky-jerky, up came my arm, before Gabi’s wide eyes.
“Where are you going with that?”
I did not answer. I was concentrating on not concentrating. In fits and starts, my arm rose up, and eventually my fingers touched the top of my head.
Despite Gabi’s earlier words, I had still somehow been expecting to touch bare skin. But instead, I felt something soft. It brushed against my fingertips in a most pleasant way when I moved my hand. I was mystified. When I had been clay, grass and fur and hair had not felt very much different to me. But this… my other hand was touching the coarse woven fibers of the blanket at the same time as I touched my hair (my hair!) and I could feel that they were completely different, alien feelings; grass must feel different too, Pascha’s fur must feel different, Gabi’s hair must feel different…!
“Is she-” Pascha started to say, but Gabi shushed him.
I turned my head. I turned my head, and felt not the simple twisting of clay, but the movement of many things in tandem: skin stretching, flesh sliding, veins, tendons, bones… No wonder I had felt so strange and full. All my existence I had been hollow and empty, and now I was stuffed with the mechanisms of life. It had not occurred to me how much it took to keep a body going! Breaths that I had forgotten I was taking filled and emptied my lungs, and my heart beat industriously, pumping whatever lay within my veins with tireless dedication. I took my hand from my head and slowly pushed it against my chest over the blanket. It was a little frightening. As a golem, I had always known where I was. I was the thing inside the clay. But in this human body, so solid with busy moving and sliding and twitching wet and interlocking parts, where was the space where I was?
“Gabi,” Pascha said. I heard him stamping one hoof. “You can sit there fascinated anytime, but you really ought to figure out what you’re going to do with her. D’you think it’s wise to wait for Mother Forest or the Baba to drop in?”
Gabi turned her eyes from me- she had been watching me all the while- and said, “You’re Baba Yaga’s servant, aren’t you? Why don’t you tell me what she’d like me to do? Since this all seems to be her orchestration.”
Pascha shook out his mane, and gave a great big snort, so big that a few little sparks came flying out of his nostrils.
“She told me, ‘Be sure to keep the strigoi alive and twitching,’ and slapped me about for a bit, and then sent me back. Have I got any earthly idea what she plans? No! She wanted the seed planted, she wants you in one piece, for whatever reason, and she wants this forest ripped up by the roots. But she hasn’t told me how it all connects. I don’t even know where Zakhar and Kazimir are!”
His voice cracked a little on the last, and several strands of his mane flickered like filament until he turned away for a moment and composed himself.
I was stunned. I had never seen him so visibly upset. No, that was not quite true. He had been very upset the time that I had attacked Zakhar for trying to take Gabi away. And now, that same worry and anger had come out on the behalf of both of his companions. I wanted to reach out to him, but he was too far away; anyway, I suspected he would not want comfort from me.
Gabi, for her part, did not seem to be very sympathetic at all.
“All I’ve seen from you recently is this endless mooning and crying,” she snapped. “Why don’t you go and search for them, instead of standing here piddling over your own toes!”
Pascha gave a very unhorselike hiss.
“Because the witch bound me to this cursed forest!”
“And she didn’t tell you what she wanted you to do in it?”
“No! Only to stay here, under the trees, cut off from daylight…” Again he stamped, making the mud sizzle. “I’m going half mad from it!”
“Hmph,” said Gabi. I noticed one of her hands had snuck over to rest on my knee, and she was leaning forwards in a way that put her upper body between me and Pascha. “Well, it seems clear enough that this is her way of punishing you for being such a bad horse and running off on her. I wish I was punished in such a kind manner.”
“Punishment!” exclaimed Pascha, incredulous, but then stood still a moment, working his lower jaw from side to side. “Punishment… maybe you’re right.”
“It’s exactly her method, making you do all the hard work yourself,” said Gabi. “She’s a conniving old wretch, for sure… Hm. Perhaps we’ve all been thinking about this the wrong way.” She tapped her chin a few times with her thumb. “If Baba Yaga wants something done, she won’t do it directly. That’s not the way of witches. She might nudge things in one way or another, but if she really wants to destroy this forest, she’s waiting on someone else to act.”
Pascha grunted.”I suppose that’s one way of putting it… How is it you’ve suddenly got such a view inside her head?”
“I’ve known my share of manipulators. Easy enough to pick apart their thoughts.”
“And yet you managed to walk into her traps twice,” Pascha noted drily. Gabi’s eyes went slitty, but he kept speaking: “So, then, who is this someone else you believe my mistress is waiting on?”
She trailed off, and no one spoke for a few moments. I felt her fingers putting more and more pressure on the bare skin of my knee, until something felt sharp and angry. I think it was pain. Haltingly I put my hand over top of hers, and she jumped, and looked at me wide-eyed.
“Oh! I’m sorry, Kezia, I didn’t realize…”
I shook my head. If only I could speak! As a golem, I had only had to order the words into being, but in this body it seemed not so simple. Beyond my lips were a dizzying array of parts that I had never had to consider before. Especially the heavy, mobile slab of flesh that rested inside my bottom jaw. I think it was a tongue.
“I wish that you could speak,” said Gabi, repeating my thoughts, and cupped my jaw with one very warm hand. “I wonder why you can’t…? Perhaps it will take a little more time.”
I certainly hoped so.
“Hm, well, speaking or not, it doesn’t matter,” she declared, which I would have liked to respectfully disagree with. “I think we ought to get you moved to a more comfortable spot than this, preferably well away from any trees.”
Slowly, I nodded.
Gabi smiled and patted my cheek, as though I were a child, and Pascha shook his hairy head.
“Aren’t you getting ahead of yourself? How far will we be able to move her while she’s tied up like that?”
Gabi’s pleased expression dropped and went a little green.
“We’ll just have to… cut it or pull it, I suppose.”
Oh. I looked at the vine trailing out from under the blanket. It would have to come off if I wanted to move out of this clearing, would it not? But if I were a really fadua, what would happen if it got severed?
“Then shall I cut it?” asked Pascha, raising his lips to show us his square, white teeth. “It’d only take one-”
“Don’t!” exclaimed Gabi, shooting to her feet. I nearly fell over from startlement, and Pascha turned his ears back.
“You just said-”
“Not yet,” Gabi clarified, putting a fist near her mouth to cough softly into it. “Before we go on to, er, test anything, I’d like to get a- a- a second opinion.”
“A second opinion? From whom?”
“From…” Gabi smacked her fist into her palm, her eyes lighting up. “Of course! From a fadua who’s already gotten off her vine! We must find Crina and ask her how she did it. She’s the one who told me to take care of Kezia, anyhow!”
“Who is Crina?” Pascha demanded. “Twice now you’ve mentioned the name.”
“A little white girl without eyes,” said Gabi, her fingers drumming on her thigh, in the way that they did when she had an idea. “Pascha, you’d better be the one to find her.”
I was not surprised when Pascha turned his ears back.
“I’d better be?”
“Do you want to stay here with Kezia instead?” asked Gabi. “Of course you don’t, that’s my duty. Besides, if I go, I’ll be putting myself in danger, wouldn’t I? Your mistress doesn’t want that.”
“She didn’t say you couldn’t get hurt, just that you couldn’t be dead,” said Pascha. “Dead-er, I suppose.”
“Well, if Kezia is staying here for the time being, so am I, so there’s nobody left to go find Crina but you.” Gabi folded her arms over her chest, as though her argument sounded much more compelling than it actually did. To my surprise, Pascha flared his nostrils, but did not protest any further.
“Small girl, no eyes, and pale, you said?”
“Not just pale; white. Smells of flowers,” said Gabi. “Not such a small girl anymore, actually.” She gave a quick glance in my direction. “She’s grown.”
“Fadua do grow quickly,” said Pasca, in a wry way. “Speaking of which, should I expect her to try and take a bite out of me when I find her?”
“It’s possible, but unlikely,” said Gabi. “She’s a civilized sort of fadua.”
Pascha made a disbelieving noise, but then turned his head sideways to look at me. I wished I did not feel so nervous looking back at him. It made my new heart throb and my new throat tighten.
“Very well,” he said, at length. “I’ll look for the fadua girl, and bring her back to you if I find her. I suppose it isn’t as though I have anything better to do right now.”
“See? That’s the spirit,” said Gabi, curling her lip. Pascha snorted at her in a very slobbery way. Some landed on my skin and made me jump. Gabi wiped off what had landed on her and in a vengeful way made as though she were going to slap Pascha on the flank to get him moving.
“Don’t you do it,” he warned, and kicked out his heels a little. “I’ll be back before the sun sets! If you leave this clearing I shall break your skull!”
“Try it!” spat Gabi, and Pascha shook his head and trotted off between the trees.
From my spot on the ground, I watched him go, then looked at Gabi. She was standing very still, and had not looked down at me. But her hands were opening and closing. I tried to make mine open and close as well, but my fingers only twitched. The blanket was sliding down one of my shoulders. I marveled at the feeling of the fibers on my skin, the way that cold soaked into my flesh as soon as it was exposed to the air. Why did the blanket make me feel warmer? It was not warm by itself- I did not think so, anyway. It had never occurred to me to ponder a question like this before. The other Kezia’s memories had stated things like blankets made people feel warm, and I had accepted them without question.
I wondered if the bare parts of Gabi’s skin got cold as well. Cold was such a strange feeling. It was numb and blank yet very there. It was as though my skin was saying it was missing something.
Gabi finally looked down at me, and then squatted to pull the blanket back up onto my shoulder. At once I felt much warmer.
“Look at you,” she murmured, her eyes flicking over my body. I think it was more to herself than to me. “I can’t believe this…”
I could hardly believe it either. I tried to get my arm to reach out to her. To my surprise, it worked: slowly, my hand emerged from beneath the blanket and inched towards her own.
“Stop that,” said Gabi, and my arm froze. The blanket was sliding down again from my movement. She pushed my hand aside and pulled it back up. “You’re going to give yourself a chill, wet and naked like this.”
I was still frozen (except for my breathing- that seemed automatic. And the beating of my heart, for that matter. It seemed that flesh bodies were never really still) my fingers crooked. How easily she had pushed me aside! It was not as though I was angry about it, but- what a shock. Once she could have pushed and pushed with all her might and I would never have moved. Now, with such little effort, she could bend me how she pleased.
It was a little bit frightening.
“You’re shaking again,” Gabi noted. “Still cold? When the horse comes back, I’ll have him find clothing. Perhaps Crina will be able to assist us. If she’s still here.”
The last was muttered, and Gabi’s eyes flicked sideways. I wondered what Crina was doing in the Starving Forest at all. If she was truly a fadua, maybe it was her real home. But it had seemed as though she was very fond of her human parents.
I pulled my arm to one side, putting my hand against my knee (what a sensation- to feel the touch in both places!) so that the blanket opened and revealed my navel.
“Don’t do that,” Gabi fussed, reaching to close it again, but I managed to twist my torso away- feeling the rotation of my spine, my inner flesh- and she hesitated.
With some effort, I turned my head down to look again at the spot where the vine connected me to the flower. It occurred to me, as my eyes traveled down my own front, that I had seen a vision like this before: in the other Kezia’s memories. The sight of one’s breasts, and below them, the protruding stomach, and the fine hairs surrounding the navel- but there the similarities ended. For in my navel there was embedded a dark green vine, slender but strong. It entered my body in much the same way that the stem connected to the top of a squash: with many hard creases, and prickles, and narrow lines of green spreading out from the spot. There was something almost violent about the sight. It looked as if it had been jammed in, not grown there.
“Does it-” started Gabi, and I looked at her. She licked her lips. “Can you feel it?”
Slowly I moved one hand and placed it over the vine, just short of where it protruded from my stomach. My fingers felt the prickly texture of it, but no feeling came back from the other direction, like when I had put my hand on my knee. I shook my head.
Gabi made a sound I was not sure how to interpret and put her fingers on the vine as well. Carefully she slid them down along its length, picking up some of the slack, and turning it just slightly in her hands. I saw the faint tension in it as she twisted, testing- for what, I was not sure. Perhaps the strength of it. My life, in her hands once more. I looked away.
In another moment she had dropped the vine and was squatting close to me again, trying to close the blanket.
“You’ve got to keep covered,” she scolded me. “It’s not right for a maiden to be wandering around bare in the middle of the woods.”
I gave her a long look for this, but she did not seem to pick up on the irony. So I tried instead to push her hands away, like she had done to me earlier. It was a terribly weak attempt, for her hands did not so much as waver. Still, she fell still, and let me keep pushing against her palm, with first one, and then both hands, putting in all the force I could muster. There was a strange tug-and-burn feeling in my shoulders and wrists as I did this, and in my jaw my teeth ground together, and suddenly it was a relief to have the blanket sliding off my back to expose my skin to cooler air. Was this what effort felt like? I pushed and pushed, and Gabi’s hand did start to move back, and she chuckled and wrapped her fingers around mine.
“You should see your face- what a look you’ve got on!”
I stopped pushing, feeling a strange airlessness- I had to take in great gulping breaths before I felt better. I did not know what she meant about my face, what look would I have but my own? My fingers felt uncomfortably hot and moist against her smooth palm. But they were, I realized, still longer than hers. She still had small hands.
I got my breath back, and started to push again, to see if I could move her any further, but she quickly dropped my hands. I nearly fell over forward from the loss of support.
“No more of that game,” she said, rolling her shoulder. “Won’t you please settle down? You’ve only just been born, you know, take a rest!”
The corners of my lips pulled down of their own accord as I looked at her. She put one hand over her own mouth to smother a laugh.
“Kezia, when you frown like that-”
I had had enough of her laughing at me and telling me what to do. If I was not a golem anymore, I should have even more free will by nature, should I not? I tested the muscles in my legs- a previously unexplored part of my anatomy- and felt them twitch. Yes- there was no need for me to sit there as if I was helpless. I was not helpless- was I not?
Perhaps because I did not try to force the movement, perhaps from some previously-unheeded memory of the other Kezia’s that told me what to do, perhaps just because I was getting too frustrated: I got to my feet.
Gabi stopped laughing.
I teetered on the soles of my feet for a few moments. I had moved very fast, and now the earth seemed to undulate beneath me. In my gut, there was a not-very-good feeling for a few moments.
But both these things went away quickly, and I was able to still myself and feel the other new sensations. The wind: on my bare skin, air moved and left behind a trail of prickling gooseflesh. The smell: somehow, at this height, I could smell the trees better, sharp sap and sweet-scented leaves, whispers of corpse-rot. Also the tang of sheep’s dung. The cold clay beneath my feet: it was just slightly moist, and deformed and crept between my toes. That was how my own flesh had felt once!
But of course through all that, there was Gabi standing in front of me. And slightly downwards. It turned out that standing up, I was still taller than her.
For no particular reason, this made me feel very happy.
Perhaps because she sensed this, Gabi was scowling. “What are you up to?” she demanded. She had turned her head slightly to avert her gaze from me. “Cover yourself up, for goodness’ sake.”
I reached out to take her wrist, to show her- well, to show her something; but then I noticed the way she flinched back from me. Maybe she really did not like seeing me nude. Maybe she did not like that I was taller than her. Come to think of it, when we had first met, she had flinched from me too.
I bent down and picked up the blanket from where it had fallen from the ground. Such an exquisite collection of movements! Suddenly it was very easy to make my body do what I wished it to do, as though something essential had clicked into place. And the stretch of the muscles in my back as I bent forward, though it left a faint ache behind, was strangely invigorating. I had never realized before that it could be pleasurable simply to move. No reward came from clay when it was manipulated, but this body seemed ecstatic whenever I completed a motion. Suddenly I wanted to run, or jump, to snap a tree branch, to hoist a heavy rock over top of my head.
Instead, I picked up the blanket and put it around my shoulders again. Gabi’s eyes flicked toward me.
“That’s better,” she said, but did not stop looking at me sideways.
Emboldened by my recent success, I opened my mouth and tried to say her name. Unfortunately, what came from my throat was not a word at all.
“Eh? Are you trying to speak now?” said Gabi, and to my relief, she finally looked at me directly again. “It doesn’t quite seem to be working, unless you meant to say gibberish.”
I thought she seemed a little too pleased about this. I tried again. She shook her head.
“Not yet, Kezia! You’re going to bite your tongue if you keep that up.”
My mouth turned into a frown again. Did she not want me to figure out how to talk? I attempted to take a step towards her and nearly fell down- my legs were stiff from standing rigid so long. Luckily my body seemed to know how to catch itself, and I only staggered, the blanket flapping around my legs.
Gabi skipped a few feet backwards, a glint in her eye. “So, it’s walking now? Then come over here to me, if you can.”
My frown deepened. She had been so gentle with me just a few minutes ago, when I could hardly move. Why had she changed? I moved one foot forward more carefully and managed a step. The vine rubbed against the outside of my thigh, itching and prickling. I ignored it and focused on shifting my weight from one leg to the other. I knew how to walk. I knew the physical motion of it, the compression and pushing-off. Flesh legs were still legs.
I took another step. Gabi folded her arms over her chest and watched me with an inscrutable expression. For some reason I began to feel even more frustrated. I took another step. Then another, and then I was walking right up to her, walking just fine, within an arm’s reach-
Suddenly, there was a great twisting, stabbing pain in my stomach, and I let loose an involuntary cry and stumbled back. At once the pain eased, though the prickles of it spread slowly outwards from my navel. I looked down at the vine that protruded there and looped over my leg. It was stretched taut. I had reached the end of my tether.
Gabi had uncrossed her arms when I had cried out, but now slowly folded them again, her eyes running up and down my body.
“So,” she said.
I stared back at her, clutching the blanket closed over my chest, with that vine stretched tight.
Something passed over Gabi’s face like a cloud, and in that instant I had the most horrible idea that she was going to run away from me. She would turn around and run away into the trees while I strained and gave wordless cries after her like a forlorn dog on a leash. And I would never see her again.
Gabi took one step backwards. A sound, uncalled for, drifted up through my teeth.
“Stop that,” she said, shading her eyes with one hand to avoid my gaze. “You’re going to hurt yourself again if you don’t move back, Kezia.”
When I did not move back, she dropped her hand and sighed.
Before I had really understood the words, she had placed one hand on my arm and was steering me back towards the flower. I stumbled to keep up with her. My eyes fixed on the top of her head, a sight I had seen so many times walking alongside her as a golem. Suddenly a profound feeling of relief swept through me. It was the same, was it not? Even if I had a body of flesh. Nothing had to change. I could still walk beside her like this. I could help her. I would not be alone again.
My relief was so palpable that my muscles seemed to relax all at once, and my knees buckled, and I fell sideways onto Gabi. Distantly I heard her swearing as her hard fingers dug into my sides. Was this floating-yet-heavy sensation what it felt like to be tired? I was too tired to try to think about it. I leaned onto Gabi’s warm side and closed my eyes.