But when she stepped inside the house, Karina was waiting, her face pale with fury. She seized Nadya, tore the rabbit from her hands, and shoved her into her room. Nadya heard the bolt slide home. For a long while, she pounded at the door, shouting to be let free. But who was there to hear her?
Finally, weak with hunger and frustration, she let her tears come. She curled on her bed, shaken by sobs, kept awake by the growling of her empty stomach. She missed Havel. She missed her mother. All she’d had to eat was a piece of turnip at breakfast, and she knew that if Karina hadn’t taken the hare from her, she would have torn it open and eaten it raw.
Later, she heard the door to the house bang open, heard her father’s unsteady footsteps coming down the hall, the tentative scratch of his fingers at her door. Before she could answer she heard Karina’s voice, crooning, crooning. Silence, the rustle of fabric, a thump followed by a groan, then the steady thud of bodies against the wall. Nadya clutched her pillow to her ears, trying to drown out their pants and moans, sure that Karina knew she could hear and that this was some kind of punishment. She buried her head beneath the covers, but could not escape that shaming, frantic rhythm. She could hear Karina’s voice that night at the dance: I will warn you just this once. Go. Go. Go.
The next day, Nadya’s father did not rise until after noon. When he entered the kitchen and Nadya handed him his tea, he flinched away from her, eyes skittering across the floor. Karina stood at the basin, face pinched, mixing up a batch of lye.
“I’m going to Anton’s,” Maxim said.
Nadya wanted to beg him not to leave her, but even in her own head, the plea sounded foolish. In the next moment, he was gone.
This time, when Karina took hold of her and said, “Go check the traps,” Nadya did not argue.
She had braved the woods once and she would do it again. This time, she would clean and cook the rabbit herself and return home with a full belly, strong enough to face Karina with or without her father’s help.
Hope made her stubborn, and when the first flurries of snow fell, Nadya pushed on, moving from one empty trap to the next. It was only when the light began to fade that she realized she could no longer make out Havel’s white stone markers.
Nadya stood in the falling snow and turned in a slow circle, searching for some familiar sign that would lead her back to the path. The trees were black slashes of shadow. The ground rose and fell in soft, billowing drifts. The light had gone dull and diffused. There was no way of knowing which way home might be. All around her there was silence, broken only by the howl of the rising wind and her own rough breathing, as the woods slid into darkness.
And then she smelled it, hot and sweet, a fragrant cloud so dense with scent it singed the edges of her nostrils: burning sugar.
Nadya’s breath came in frantic little gasps, and even as her terror grew, her mouth began to water. She thought of the rabbit, plucked from the trap, the rapid beat of its heart, the rolling whites of its eyes. Something brushed against her in the dark. Nadya did not pause to think; she ran.
She crashed blindly through the wood, branches slashing at her cheeks, her feet tangling in snow-laden brambles, unsure if she heard her own clumsy footfalls or something slavering behind her, something with crowded teeth and long white fingers that clutched at the hem of her coat.
When she saw the glow of light filtering through the trees ahead, for one delirious moment she thought she’d somehow made it home. But as she burst into the clearing, she saw that the hut silhouetted before her was all wrong. It was lean and crooked, with lights that glowed in every window. No one in her village would ever waste candles that way.
The hut seemed to shift, almost as if it were turning to welcome her. She hesitated, took a step back. A twig snapped behind her. She bolted for the hut’s painted door.
Nadya rattled the handle, a lantern swaying above her.
“Help me!” she cried. And the door swung open. She slipped inside, slamming it behind her. Was that a thump she heard? The frustrated scrabble of paws? It was hard to tell over the hoarse sobs wheezing from her chest. She stood with her forehead pressed to the door, waiting for her heart to stop hammering, and only then, when she could take a full breath, did she turn.
The room was warm and golden, like the inside of a currant bun, thick with the smells of browning meat and fresh-baked bread. Every surface gleamed like new, cheerfully painted with leaves and flowers, animals and tiny people, the paint so fresh and bright it hurt her eyes to look at it after the dull gray surfaces of Duva.
At the far wall, a woman stood at a vast black cookstove that stretched the length of the room. Twenty different pots boiled atop it, some small and covered, some large and near to bubbling over. The oven beneath had two hinged iron doors that opened from the center and was so large that a man might have laid lengthwise in it. Or at least a child.
The woman lifted the lid of one of the pots and a cloud of fragrant steam drifted toward Nadya. Onions. Sorrel. Chicken stock. Hunger came upon her, more piercing and consuming than her fear. A low growl escaped her lips and she clapped a hand to her mouth.
The woman glanced over her shoulder.
She was old but not ugly, her long gray braid tied with a red ribbon. Nadya stared at that ribbon and hesitated, thinking of Genetchka Lukin. The smells of sugar and lamb and garlic and butter, all layered upon one another, made her shake with longing.
A dog lay curled in a basket, gnawing on a bone, but when Nadya looked closer she saw it was not a dog at all, but a little bear wearing a golden collar.
“You like Vladchek?”
The woman set a heaping plate of stew down on the table.
“Sit,” said the woman as she returned to the stove. “Eat.”
Nadya removed her coat and hung it by the door. She pulled her damp mittens from her hands and sat down carefully at the table. She lifted her spoon, but still she hesitated. She knew from stories that you must not eat at a witch’s table.
But in the end, she could not resist. She ate the stew, every hot and savory bite of it, then flaky rolls, plums in syrup, egg pudding, and a rum cake thick with raisins and brown sugar. Nadya ate and ate while the woman tended to the pots on the stove, sometimes humming a little as she worked.
She’s fattening me up,thought Nadya, her lids growing heavy. She’ll wait for me to fall asleep, then stuff me in the oven and cook me up to make more stew. But Nadya found she didn’t care. The woman set a blanket by the stove, next to Vladchek’s basket, and Nadya fell off to sleep, glad that at least she would die with a full belly.
But when she woke the next morning, she was still in one piece and the table was set with a hot bowl of porridge, stacks of rye toast slathered with butter, and plates of shiny little herring swimming in oil.
The old woman introduced herself as Magda, then sat silent, sucking on a sugared plum, watching Nadya eat her breakfast.
Nadya ate till her stomach ached while outside the snow continued to fall. When she was done, she set her empty bowl down on the floor where Vladchek licked it clean. Only then did Magda spit the plum pit into her palm and say, “What is it you want?”
“I want to go home,” Nadya replied.
Nadya looked outside to where the snow was still falling heavy. “I can’t.”
“Well then,” said Magda. “Come help me stir the pot.”
For the rest of the day, Nadya darned socks, scrubbed pans, chopped herbs, and strained syrups. She stood at the stove for long hours, her hair curling from the heat and steam, stirring the many little pots, and wondering all the while what might become of her. That night they ate stuffed cabbage leaves, crispy roast goose, little dishes of apricot custard.READ MORE >>