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Bright Black (Feast of Shadows Part 2)
There once was a girl of grace and beauty who lived in a house of marble and gold with an army of servants who dressed her and fed her and shooed her to and fro. She slept on a bed she could roll three times across and bathed in a pool under a blue dome at the end of a long hall that echoed. During the day, she read tall books full of maps and recited numbers for her prickly old tutor. At night, she sang and danced and dazzled her father’s guests with wit and charm, and he looked on her with pride without reason. From his mouth, he poured blessings like a river. From his hands, he cast glints into her eyes with diamonds.
And she had no cares.
And so she was careless.
Until there came a day of laughter and horses and billowing scarves and the thud of hooves on the ground and the steal of a galloping kiss on a lonely road in a forest where a strange boy tended the trees like cattle. There was a cry and whinny and a crack of a skull. There was the rustle of leaves and the caw of a crow, like the cackle of death. There was an old caretaker, with skin like bark and leaves in his beard, who broke from the grove like he was born of it and bent over the lifeless child and glowered at the girl with diamonds in her eyes. There was a knife. And a cry. And a curse in a long tongue. There was the bubbling of breath through blood, which the old man squeezed from his throat, muttering insanities, before casting it wide and collapsing over the pale child in the leaves.
And what was dust became dust.
And an eternity began.
I suppose you want to hear about the Lords of Shadow and the Book of the Nameless and of the greatest spell ever cast. But to tell it right is to tell it well, and for that we must start with a curse, and a grave of secrets, and my first adventure with Etude Étranger, wherein I tried to have him killed. I was living in Romania recovering from my love for a man who didn’t care of my affliction, a great mustachioed Caucasian named Beltran Yeĉg whose Armenian mother had lain with the last of a tribe whose name is not spoken. When I knew him, Beltran was vigorous and feared, with arms like a Kodiak bear and a laugh like a waterfall. But it was his eyes that enchanted me—curious and playful and full of care. Not that anyone saw them but me, hidden as they were under that heavy brow. Beltran could scowl better than Attila, and he looked no less formidable, especially in his high hat of buckles and fur. He would, in his middle years, come to be known as a ruthless magician and cunning warrior, a reputation well earned during the war. But to me his menaces were always gentle, like the mischievous caress of a cat’s tail, and I would spend many nights and mornings with my head on his chest looking into his wide brown eyes, at once soft and indomitable. Beltran was the first to call me Mila, short for the name of my ancestors, and he was the second-to-last in a long line of magicians, sorcerers, charlatans, clerics, thieves, murderers, and spies I accompanied over nearly two and half centuries on my long search for a cure—a cure for life.
The first was a colorful huckster, Baltasar of Gradarius, a man of not quite five feet—but then, you must remember everyone was shorter then—with a soft pink face supporting a tasseled turban that he wore at all times, even when he bathed. In it, he concealed some money and a knife, which were the two means by which he made his way in the world. It was not uncommon in those days for bards and circus players to travel from lord to lord seeking an audience and a modest payment for their talents. This included the odd alchemist and sorcerer. My father liked female tumblers and acrobats and ladies who swallowed swords (I was a grown woman before I understood that), but I liked the old bearded owls in their musty frocks, which they grasped at the lapel and flapped as they lectured on combustion, or the vacuum, or magnetism, all of which were wonderfully new and exciting. I would always go to the parlor early and watch through a crack in the door as they unpacked trunks that clinked with glassware and smelled of the dust of faraway places.
Seeing the happiness it brought me, Father let it be known that such people could always find an audience at his manor. In that way, he never stopped trying to compensate for the death of my mother, who left this world as I entered it. I think it also sprang from his long-neglected desire to travel. Despite his wealth and title, the requirements of his office kept him close to the Czar and his armies near the border with Prussia, so my father lived vicariously through the men, and occasional woman, who visited us from distant lands, both real and imaginary.
I remembered Baltasar of Gradarius because he performed the greatest spectacle of my youth. His home, he claimed, was a grand country of crystals and colonnades on the far side of the Black Sea where the trees had red leaves that turned blue in the fall, where the men all spoke in poetry and the women were as beautiful as Aphrodite. He had to leave, he explained, because as a young academic fellow studying the ancient mystic arts, he fell in love with the Sultan’s daughter, and being discovered with her in a secret garden, was banished—saved from execution only by her mournful pleas. It was his hope that, by spreading the word and wonders of his homeland in the lands to the West, the Sultan would eventually come to forgive Baltasar and allow him to return home, where his beloved still waited for him.
It was a tired tale even then, but a comfortable one, and I recall a tinge of sadness in his telling, as if not all of it was a lie.
He then proceeded to demonstrate the tools and technology of Gradarius, which included flashes of phosphorus and a menagerie of contraptions, each of which introduced by a lengthy disposition on its origins and use in the distant land. There was a standing wooden box, like a long wardrobe, covered in various levers on pivots. Each lever supported a painted magnet that repelled its neighbor such that a hard twist of the first triggered a chain reaction whose sole purpose was the ostentatious striking of bells and rattling of noisemakers. When the machine ceased its conniptions, its owner pulled a large inflatable sac from one of the trunks. It was heavy and ornately embroidered with various scenes from Gradarian mythology, which Baltasar, in his tasseled turban, described to us solemnly as he inflated it with a bellows that sounded like farts. In his country, he said, men did not eat the egg of the chicken, which was unknown there, but instead of a peacock-like bird called a “welchikin” which would only give up its eggs when scared. It was customary, then, for farmers to plant the red-leaved “poplaudicus” tree, of which the welchikin was very fond, in their front yards, and that after a number of welchikin had roosted, to scare them with the noisemaker, causing them to scatter with a fright, releasing their green-and-purple-speckled eggs in midair. The delicacies were only kept from breaking on the ground by the very inflatable sac before him, on which children were allowed to jump—as a demonstration, he assured my father, of an industrious and scientific process. It was, I think, the only time I was ever allowed to jump on anything.
Alas, by the time I grew to womanhood and found the aged Baltasar, he was imprisoned in Prussia, having been accused of touching the daughter of the prince when she came on her own to observe him unpacking, as I had done. I did what I could to alleviate his predicament—not because such an act didn’t deserve to be punished, but because in those days, guilt was often ascertained by accusation, and because prisons could be so very, very cruel. I was certain he would die there, emaciated and chained to a wall, covered in his own filth, with not even a rag to wipe himself or window to see the sun. I knew he was a quack, of course, but I had hoped that in his many travels—he was, in truth, from Damascus, I believe—that he might have met someone who was not, someone with true knowledge of the occult powers that everyone then believed acted in concert with physical law. I had little hope of returning home, where there were growing whispers. Any woman, noble or not, who did not appear to age was said to be in league with the devil. Thus, in return for my intercession on his behalf, whereby he was allowed to see the sky once a fortnight for fifteen minutes, Baltasar told me of a man with whom he had occasion to travel and from whom he had stolen a bulbous green stone of some significance—a necromancer’s stone. Baltasar said shortly after he acquired it, he began hearing the voices of the dead in his sleep, including that of the man he had swindled out of the small fortune that financed his traveling contraptions, and as such, the rock was now at the bottom of the Danube.
The owner of the rock, the man Baltasar had robbed, was Wilm Castleby, red-haired and furious. Castleby was a vigorous, ostentatious young man who was very fond of top hats, tailored coats, and large audiences through which he would walk, cane in one hand and a large white owl in the other. When I found him, he had been hired by the electors of a small Alsatian town to remove a witch who vexed them from the hills beyond. The townspeople had mildly resisted her pranks and thievery for several years but weren’t moved to act in earnest until a young man was found strangled at the bottom of a well. On my understanding, an alternate culprit was never contemplated. The electors levied a mill fee and used it to pay for Wilm’s services, although in truth I suspect he would’ve done it for food and lodging if they’d promised a crowd. I caught him as he was making his rounds—he suspected the witch traveled there in disguise—and he made public and obvious sexual advances. Thereafter he snared the witch, first by trapping her familiar, a black marten, as it raided the communal grain larder through a hole that Wilm himself had opened. The owl snatched it, and it was caged as bait. A few days later, the witch was hung in the square. She looked to be all of sixteen—although in truth one can never tell: for it’s true that those in league with evil often do not age.
Castleby found me in the hustle after the hanging, which he had turned to spectacle with the tenor and fury of the best tent-pole preacher. He apologized for his earlier behavior genuinely but succinctly—as if one could be forgiven anything if it were done in the name of showmanship. With an air of earnestness I had not yet seen, he admitted he had recently lost his assistant and suggested I take her place. In return, he said, he would make every attempt to break my curse. I knew very well that he wanted our relationship to turn carnal, but I was certain that gave me the upper hand. Still, I admit to being surprised some months later when I caught him wearing my underwear and bonnet and speaking to himself in the mirror in a high falsetto—for which he acted not the least bit ashamed.
Predilections aside, he was true to his word. Amid his other adventures, he made many attempts to sever that which bound me—each less on the hope that it would be successful, I think, than that it would cause me to fall backward with gratitude, legs apart. He was unsuccessful on both accounts, and although I must admit he did have some genuine skill—and a talented tongue—I could never distinguish the man from his work: he was paid to lead women to the gallows, and at the urging of the woman I had replaced, who bore him a grudge and a child, I left Wilm for a rival, a round Bavarian thaumaturge named Gründel, who hid his ruddy, infantile face under a long but wispy beard. My time with Gründel was short. It soon became apparent that he was no less of a narcissist, just a poorer showman. His achievements, which he was sure should have earned him the greater fame, were at best arcane and academic, and he loathed everyone who failed to appreciate their brilliance. It seemed he had only agreed to our arrangement on the hopes that it would infuriate Castleby, which it did.
Wilm had no shortage of enemies, of course, just as he had no shortage of fans, but he praised and scorned them all with charm and equanimity. What he could not abide, however, was what he called a “disloyalist,” into whose ranks I had fallen. A duel was called. The two men met on the dew-bright bank of the Elbe—Gründel with his Moorish manservant, Castleby with his still-drunk retinue. I took no side but observed from the shade of a distant tree. The men paced as a count was called. They turned and fired. Wilm was not only vigorous and athletic but also a crack shot and Gründel died instantly of a musket ball through the heart. The fat man clutched his chest with a look of shock and fell backward to the turf. Cheers arose from the crowd, whose anticipatory revels had lasted through the night. As such, they didn’t immediately notice that their hero had been grazed deeply across the arm. It wasn’t until he collapsed at his victory celebration—wherein his guests dined on the suckling pig that had previously been Gründel’s familiar—that all of us realized the truth. The fat German had known his weakness and had made for himself a fragmenting bullet, like buckshot, dipped in poison. It took Wilm six agonizing days to die—the worser fate, to be sure. As his face grew pale and he started coughing blood, his admirers and hangers-on abandoned him, bored or embarrassed, until I alone remained, which he both loathed and needed: one last audience before the final curtain, which he faced in bed, stammering lines from Faust.
“You’ll sit forever, gluing things together,” he cursed in Goethe’s verse. “Cooking up a stew from other’s scraps.”
With his dying hand, Wilm left me all his worldly possessions. I protested, but it was useless.
“God help me,” he whispered as the quill fell. “For art is long and life so very, very short.”
His creditors took the bulk of his estate, including everything of any real value, although I understand it covered less than one tenth of his balance. I was allowed to keep a small sum, which I passed to his child, and some of his personal effects, which I kept for myself. These included a number of books and letters stuffed into a large wooden stationery box that folded out to make a traveling desk, complete with shelves, drawers, quills, ink, blotters, wax, seals, paper, envelopes, and so forth, none of which were easy to come by. While waiting for Wilm’s estate to close, I continued to receive his mail and used the contents of the box to inform both his irate creditors and those seeking his assistance of his unfortunate yet heroic demise. One letter in particular struck me. It was from a man of some importance, an Austrian noble. I recognized in his oblique words a genuine desperation. In those days, in society at least, one rarely said what one meant outright. One demonstrated wit and grace—superiority, even—by the light touch of one’s euphemisms. This was especially true of anything unseemly. Young women did not have abortions, although we most certainly had sex. If the untoward resulted, we “went to the country” for a season, or to “take the waters” at some out-of-the-way hot spring, only to return rosy and rejuvenated months later. The problem, of course, was that meant one could not actually take the waters without someone supposing the worst. Hence the obsession with appearances, and on being seen. One’s only defense against rumor and innuendo was to act as openly and ostentatiously as possible so as to leave the smallest margin for supposition—to invite an entire train of followers to take the waters as well, for instance, and to finance their participation. Invitations thus flew hither and thither among the idle class as they each sought escape from the very eyes on whom they nevertheless depended.
Wilm had been invited to winter at the nobleman’s ancestral home, which was described at length as a sportsman’s paradise. In fact, a full two-thirds of the four-leafed letter was devoted to its “sylvan slopes dappled with fishing ponds and forest groves, each thick with winter game.” Only at the end did the author mention that, while he was there, Wilm might perhaps also attend to “certain other matters of which you are an acknowledged expert”—meaning the occult. I responded with the news, as I had all the others, but added that I had “worked as Mr. Castleby’s assistant for several years” and that I was in possession of his notes and artifacts, and although I had not his skill and experience “in the matters of which you speak,” that my services were available, had his lordship need of them. The reply was swift, which is to say came within a matter of weeks. A carriage had been dispatched and would arrive within days of the letter, which had traveled ahead by mounted messenger. And just like that, I was employed as a dabbler, the first ever work for which I would receive a salary.
I made no attempt to conceal my gender, but neither did I expressly reveal it, which caused considerable consternation upon my arrival. I had hoped to be saved by the grandeur of the white owl, which had taken to perching on my arm as it had with Wilm, but to no avail. My lord announced after tea that I was to be sent away first thing the following morning, and he would have done so if not for a heavy snowfall that obliged the better part of a week’s stay, during which time the facts of the case became known to me. It was a mild haunting, as they go, but harrowing all the same—full of the usual patent terrors: doors that wouldn’t remain closed, ghastly sounds emanating from inside the walls, and of course the knocking. Knocking, knocking, interminable knocking. It woke you at all hours, rising in intensity with each unanswered bout until at last it was like a hammer on the door, rattling the hinges and echoing through the house, louder and louder until someone had the strength to answer it—and were greeted by the wind. Some nights it would start again an hour after you returned to bed. At other times it would resume before you crossed the foyer, or even the very moment the door was shut, immediately angry, immediately pounding, as if the door that had just been opened was not the correct one.
And that was the clue. I suspect Wilm would’ve gotten it right away. It took me a fortnight of frustration and study. Before the snows abated, I suggested to my lord that I be allowed to stay, at least until he found a suitable replacement. I would draw no salary, I said, unless my interventions were successful. He agreed, reluctantly, eyes haggard from lack of sleep, and I set to work. Some weeks later, after a terrible night that saw his wife and children huddling in a corner, I asked my lord and his family to leave the house and mentioned, as they packed into a covered sled, that I might do it quite a bit of damage in their absence, but that in the end, I would either drive the apparition away or be taken by it. I think by then they had lost all faith in me, as the owl had when it flew off several days before. I suspect my lord intended to have me arrested as a charlatan upon his return. But just then, he had little choice.
I watched until they were out of sight, then turned to face the house alone.
It was a mistake. The truth was that I did not, in fact, know what I was doing, and the flight of the occupants turned the haunting from insistent to wrathful. Never had I seen such things: eyes in the dark, hands reaching in desperation from under blankets. Several times, I was frightened to complete catatonia, curled and unable to move. Hoping to escape, I removed myself to the servants’ cottage, where the apparition found me on the second night. It pounded on the door, all the angrier for being ignored. I shrieked as it rapped on my window and scraped the pane with unseen claws. I thought of running many times. It was only the deep snow and my knowledge that I could not die that held me. In the end, I took a sledgehammer to the walls of the manor. Somewhere, I was sure, there was a door that needed opening. I found it in the nursery, boarded on two sides. Sweaty, panting, and covered in dust, I opened it without ceremony. It creaked on its hinges as it swung wide. Instantly, a lighter air settled over the roof. Within moments, a songbird alighted the branch of a tree near the window. My lord had mentioned earlier that he hadn’t seen one on his estate in months.
I dropped the sledgehammer and wiped the sweat from my brow.
I had done it.
I was a wreck—mentally, spiritually, physically—as was the house. I had put a hole in nearly every wall. I didn’t wait for my lord to return to inspect the damage but at the thaw found immediate lodgings in Vienna, where I advertised my services as a governess. I’d decided that I’d had enough of occult matters. But employment proved difficult. You must remember that in those days life was significantly determined by birth, a right I could no longer claim. Paper was expensive and literacy rare, which made the letter of recommendation one’s passport through the ports of commerce and employment. It was only by my lord’s recommendation, which came unexpectedly by evening post, that I finally found work. Of the damage to his ancestral home, he said only that the door which had been boarded by his uncle would remain open and that his wife, once depleted by the affair, was rejuvenated by the opportunity to do some redecorating. He went on to mention that a wealthy but untitled family of his acquaintance had need of a governess.
It is a position for which you are singularly qualified, he wrote, for the youngest of this gentleman’s two children is, to put it gently, most unusual.
It was the truth. The boy was most unusual indeed. He was also a darling, and I am proud that I helped him find means of hiding his fantastical secret, and so to enter society. When he and his siblings were grown, I took another position further north under equally unusual but entirely different circumstances, and so it was an entire adult life passed. I took several lovers, had two proposals of marriage, and made an enemy of a wise old woman, the grandmother of one of my charges, who rightly surmised I had much to hide.
The last of my appointments was to a Transylvanian diplomat, a widower with seven children whose drafty Saxon chateau had a different bird painted on every door. Storks nested in the eaves and house martins in the stables. I used to watch them swoop and dive over the manure fields, catching their supper amid the wheat-gold reflection of the evening sun. After it set, the wolves howled. They never lost hope that one of the chateau’s residents might join them. My lord’s son-in-law by his eldest daughter had been bitten by a werewolf, but since it had occurred during an act of infidelity, the fool had hidden his condition until it was too late. Being the son of a well-connected Austrian family, he could neither be arrested nor sent away. Instead, he was locked in a tower, from which he would occasionally return the calls of the wild. Unfortunately, in the time between the bite and its discovery, during which his condition worsened, the couple conceived. I was hired to tend to the young wife during her convalescence, and to provide an education to her younger siblings, whose prior governess had been placed with a different family at the onset of the difficulty. Although it was never spoken, as a so-called expert in such affairs, I was also expected to make a recommendation as to the fate of the creature in her womb, should it turn out to be anything other than human.
Five months later, the diplomat’s round, meek, nineteen-year-old daughter gave birth to the worst possible outcome: an uncertain one. While the child was not without quirks—I had never seen such a snarling little thing—it was an otherwise gorgeous baby girl, and I saw no reason why it couldn’t be raised. My lord, however, felt differently and gave it to the Romani, whose cylindrical wooden house-carts were sometimes clustered at the edge of his estate. On a walk through the forest some weeks before, I had seen my lord and his manservant with several Romani men exchanging papers for a purse. When I noted that his tolerance of them was highly unusual, intending it as a compliment, I was told sharply to mind my own affairs. What the Romani did with the child, I couldn’t say, but with the affair concluded, I was asked to stay on as governess for at least one more season. Making another change so quickly would’ve looked suspicious. And anyway, rumors of war had fallen on the countryside, which made it difficult to hire a respectable replacement from Austria or France. I was furious over the handling of the baby, but I stayed, if only because I cared for my young wards and feared what would happen to them if I left. Their father was a cruel, feckless man who bullied those around him out of a deep hatred of himself. Even the fiercely independent Romani seemed cowed. I alone stood up to him, which made me an even greater prize. Within the year, he snuck into my room, which I had always kept locked after dark (if only for fear of what lived in the tower). There was a master key, it seemed.
I would like to say I was able to repel him, but I was not.
War, like politics, is always local. The campaigns of Napoleon, which had consumed the continent several decades earlier, never touched me directly, although I’m told they erased my ancestral home. The Hungarian Revolution of 1848, however, which nearly broke the back of the Austrian Empire, altered the course of my life forever. The day before my intended departure, I awoke to find our household rapt with fear. Men had come in the night and dug seven graves in the yard, one for each member of my lord’s family in residence, including himself and the son in the tower. It was a warning, and the family, who were vassals of the Hapsburgs, took flight immediately, discharging most of the staff with a small purse, myself included. Within a month of wandering, I became a soldier, quite unexpectedly, when the fighting fell upon the town where I had taken refuge. But my companions and I failed and fled to the thickly forested hills, where a small community of resistors was hiding.
From the forest, we sent bands to scavenge for food and supplies. It was on one such excursion that I killed a countryman, a Russian, for by then the Czar had sent a large army to support the Hapsburgs, to whom he was allied—including by marriage to some of my distant relatives. It was ironic that, in some vague way, my own family was trying to kill me. The soldier in question was assaulting a locked door from which panicked cries emanated in Hungarian. He did not see me and I shot him in the back with a rifle I had confiscated from a dead mercenary. I expected to find a villager hiding within, as I had many times before. Instead, it was the very gentleman who had raped me, bearded and disheveled and cowering barefoot in a pantry. I don’t know what had befallen his family nor how long he had been hiding, but I understood later that he had been accused of spying and that his tolerance of the Romani, who roamed freely across national borders, was not due to benevolence but espionage. It seems the barter I had witnessed that day was not about the baby but the very events that precipitated the war. The gypsies had simply done him an added favor by ridding him of the child.
He crept from the larder on all fours, so gaunt that I scarcely recognized him. I don’t think he’d had eaten anything in quite some time and was scrounging for crumbs. I shall never forget the look on his face when he saw me, his savior. He threw himself at my feet and with shaking fingers pushed the dirt under my shoes into his mouth as if cherishing the very ground on which I walked. I left him there over his cries for help. He tried to follow me and I threatened to shoot him. I do not expect he survived long.
Fighting continued into the following year, during which time the Hungarian resistance collapsed under the combined weight of titans and the Austrians asserted a brutal martial law. Roving gangs hunted known revolutionaries, whom they blamed for the calamity, and eventually I was cornered and stabbed with a bayonet—an act I forced in lieu of the alternative, which I promised myself I would never experience again. I awoke in a shallow grave amid a tangle of arms and legs, many of which were no longer attached to their owners. I panicked but was immediately calmed by the tiniest voice, like the song of a bird. Delicate hands coaxed me from the ditch. We had to hurry, she told me, for they would return soon to burn the bodies. She was a frail thing—not exceptionally short, merely fragile and plain, like a porcelain cup made too thin and abandoned without glaze or adornment. She was filthy, her teeth were uneven, and her dark, greasy hair hung in strings past her shoulders. She said her name was Anya. On our flight, I gathered what I could of her history. She claimed to have been exiled from her home. I admitted the same, and, sensing something kindred in her manner, admitted of my curse. In return, she hesitantly revealed she was “sensitive,” which is to say a medium, and that she had sensed rather than seen me among the tangle of bodies. She told she had been expelled from her village by her father because of the visions that plagued her, which were assumed to come from the devil, visions that she neither asked for nor wanted. In that way, we had much in common and decided to travel west together as “sisters of the strange.”
It was several weeks before I realized she was pregnant. She never said it, but I expect she had been kept by a garrison as a scullery maid—and toy. It may seem tedious, so much wayward conception, but sadly, it was all too common, especially in war, when the worst of men is loosed—and also the best. She never mentioned which side had kept her. It hardly mattered. War was reason enough for any of them. One morning, I found her prone on her back, shaking, with blood both between her legs and covering the hay underneath her. She had tried to end the pregnancy with a farm implement, which still protruded from her, and I had to remove it and nurse her back to health. We never reached Paris. It was seven months before she could even get out of bed. She was weak and sickly and, as it happened, had failed in her aim. The metal was quite sharp and moved through her too easily. Knowing nothing of her own anatomy, she had thrust too far to the back. Of course, her subsequent ill health precluded another try, even by a midwife, and at the end of her term, she gave birth to an undersized baby boy, whom she named Jakub.
Whether due to his mother’s botched attempt, to her subsequent illness, or to other factors entirely, Jakub was born with one leg significantly atrophied and remained weak his entire life. Otherwise, he was a bright boy, if a little melancholy. But then, by his intelligence, I’m sure he appreciated how his difficulties were magnified compared to other children. Anya remained in poor health—all the poorer for childbirth—and her once-frequent visions became rare, which she took for a blessing. But they did not stop and seemed to become all the more violent for their rarity. Without warning, she would drop in apoplexy, and I would tend her. Most of them were completely strange, full of obvious but unknown portent. A few became clear to me in retrospect. Although she would never know it, Anya predicted the use of the atomic bomb on Japan. That haunted her for months. She saw its effects as if strolling through the streets of Hiroshima in the moments before the attack. She described an alien world, for she knew nothing of Japanese customs and appearance, and a flash, as if the sun itself had exploded. Children, the lucky ones, turned to dust before her. The rest, covered in burns and sores, destined to die early of painful cancers, wailed amid the fallen bodies of their parents and loved ones.
Anya saw also that men would land on the moon and even reach distant, as-yet unnamed worlds. But of her visions, there was only one that mattered. I did not witness it. I only learned of it later, at the end. She was scrubbing a pot at the drain in the floor, for we had no sink. She dipped a rag in a tub of water and scraped bits of food free and glanced at me once, then twice.
“What?” I asked. I was mending clothes at the table.
She shook her head. It took several minutes of gentle coaxing before she explained. Anya never wanted her gift and didn’t enjoy the conversation it invited. I’m honestly not sure which was worse: when people believed her or when they didn’t.
“You must go with him,” she said meekly and without meeting eyes. She was so shy. “You won’t want to,” she said. “Because you’re stubborn. You’ll want to go home to your garden. But you must.”
“My garden?” I scoffed with amusement. “You must be confused, my darling. I have never tended the earth in my life and shouldn’t want to start.”
She shook her head slowly as she went on scrubbing. “You have to,” she said. “Promise me.”
I was annoyed. I didn’t like the suggestion that unseen powers had sway over me. That was for other people. Lesser people. I was in many ways still the aristocrat I was born. And I particularly didn’t like the suggestion that I would become the kind of lady who kept a garden—partly because working the land was indelibly associated with peasantry in my mind, but mostly because it suggested a frailty of character that I, someone who had never done such a thing, could be so inconstant as to change my habits entirely. Since leaving home, I’d had so little solid to grasp and was by then the poorest of the poor. Just then, it seemed Anya wanted to take away even what little was left.
It took a moment for me to realize how my rejection had hurt her. She had opened up to me—me, who knew what a difficulty it was for her to speak of such things—and I had treated her the same as the others.
“Who am I to go with?” I asked finally.
When she didn’t answer, I got up and sat near her. “I’m sorry, my darling. Truly. Please tell me. Who must I accompany?”
She hesitated. Then she looked to me as if to make sure I was in a mood to listen.
“The man with no hair,” she explained.
She looked away then as if there were more to say but she couldn’t find the words.
“You have to stop him,” she said in a whisper. “Or he’ll destroy everything.”
Anya died the next morning. I think she knew it was coming. That’s why she had told me. She couldn’t put it off any longer. I sat by her bed for the longest time after she passed thinking about how she must have known the date of her death and how that made us, as in so many other things, perfect opposites. She had been poor. I had been wealthy. She was quite awkward and ugly. I was beautiful. She knew exactly when she would die. I knew not that I ever would. Jakub was then a tender boy of four, and I faced a choice: leave him with the church, where he would eventually be taken to a work house—in effect, a prison—or else raise him on my own. I pity anyone that decision.
It would be romantic to say it was easy. In truth, I left the boy at the nearest chapel. I consoled myself that I was a poor substitute for a mother and in no position to provide, and that some meals were better than the none that would come from me.
I returned to the church the following spring, by which time Jakub had been taken away. They’d kept and fed him for many days, but when no one came to claim him, they sent him to a work house, just as I’d predicted. I had to purchase him from the fat crone who managed it.
I bought a child as if he were petty livestock.
He was eager to see me, but he was not the same. Whatever had happened to him during my absence had amplified his melancholy, which he dragged forever behind him, like his leg.
We went to Paris, if only to honor his mother’s dream. There, we lived as auntie and nephew. I had been a governess, so I took it upon myself to give the boy an education. In this, I was both assisted and stymied by none other than Anya herself, who appeared to me at odd times looking every bit as real as when she was alive. It is never easy being a surrogate mother. That is doubly true when you are being haunted by the real thing.
For his part, Jakub couldn’t accept that I could see his mother and he could not. It was easier for him to believe I was lying to him, a misguided attempt on my part to ease his loss. But by adolescence, that changed. While walking home one day, Jakub was pushed to the street by boys shouting insults as they ran. Jakub was helped to his feet by the elderly priest of the local church, whom we had met before. The priest told him not to worry, that Christ loved him, limp and all, and after discovering that the boy could read—which was not common—gave him a small printing of the New Testament. Our lives, which had slipped into an awkward but familiar routine, were never the same.
Jakub found solace in the pages of his holy book, which promised a great reckoning whereby the wicked would be punished and the meek rewarded. Religion was not my medicine and never had been. I was deeply suspicious of it, in fact. But it seemed cruel to discourage it, to take away the salve of faith. Or perhaps it was just my guilt over abandoning him. Either way, I should have acted on the warnings of my heart. I didn’t and met a cruel lesson. When Jakub was 16, he began to notice certain facts about my appearance—that it never changed. What I had told him in childhood of his mother, of her visions and afterlife, always left him deeply suspicious. He knew I was harboring secrets—such as why I occasionally spoke Russian in my sleep. On top of that, his juvenile mania whispered fears that I had raised him out of obligation rather than real love, even though I was by then very fond of him. The seed of his fears, planted in the soil of his perpetual melancholy and watered by the natural rebellion of the teenager, blossomed in full after I contracted consumption—tuberculosis, as it’s now called. Jakub was petrified at the thought of losing another mother, even such as I was, and as I lay dying, he fled to the church, where he found exactly what he needed in the Holy Virgin: a mother who would never—who could never—leave him.
But I did. I made him swear not to bury me, not for three days, and he assented. When I rose after the second evening, Jakub ran to the priest out of sheer joy. The Holy Mother had granted him a miracle, he said, dragging the elderly father to see. The old man of course had a different interpretation, and very quickly Jakub’s awe turned to disgust, and from disgust to hate, and I found myself before the court accused of witchcraft and devilry by the very boy I had sacrificed everything to raise. There was, I think, some measure of self-loathing in it for him, for in my delirium before death, I had told him of his paternity. He was old enough, I thought, to carry the burden of the truth. For truth is a burden, always. But it proved too much for him. By my words, he lost a father as well as the rest. He had always imagined his to be a nobleman—a brother of mine, perhaps, which would’ve made us exactly the auntie and nephew we pretended to be. In this fantasy, his father had loved his mother but due to the requirements of his station had been unable to marry her. At other times, he imagined a brave soldier who died in the battle that brought his mother and I together. I revealed the man was not only a nameless foreigner but a coward and a rapist, one of any number of men who’d had their way with his mother while she cooked and cleaned for them in their makeshift barracks.
Jakub testified against me. He repeated words whispered to him by the priest. I was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured for the first time. I was given a series of tests—devised by The Masters, I would discover later—to determine whether the accusations were true, or at least to give the appearance of such. I failed and was hung in accordance with the law.