“Papa,” Nadya said. “Please do not marry Karina. ”
She hoped that he would deny that he had been contemplating such a thing. Instead, he sucked his wounded thumb and said, “Why not? Don’t you like Karina?”
“No,” said Nadya honestly. “And she doesn’t like me. ”
Maxim laughed and ran his rough knuckles over her cheek. “Sweet Nadya, who could not love you?”
“Karina is a good woman,” Maxim said. His knuckles brushed her cheek again. “It would be better if …” Abruptly, he dropped his hand and turned his face back to the fire. His eyes were distant, and when he spoke, his voice was cold and strange, as if rising from the bottom of a well. “Karina is a good woman,” he repeated. His fingers gripped the arms of his chair. “Now leave me be. ”
She has him already, thought Nadya. He is under her spell.
The night before Havel left for the south, a dance was held in the barn by the Pankin farm. In better years, it might have been a raucous night, the tables piled high with plates of nuts and apples, pots of honey, and jars of bitter kvas. The men still drank and the fiddle played, but even pine boughs and the high shine of Baba Olya’s treasured samovar could not hide the fact that now the tables were empty. And though people stomped and clapped their hands, they could not chase away the gloom that seemed to hang over the room.
Genetchka Lukin was chosen Dros Koroleva, Queen of the Thaw, and made to dance with all who asked her, in the hope that it would bring about a short winter, but only Havel looked truly happy. He was off to the army, to carry a gun and eat hot meals from the King’s pocket. He might die or come back wounded as so many had before him, but on this night, his face glowed with the relief of leaving Duva behind.
Nadya danced once with her brother, once with Victor Yeronoff, then took a seat with the widows and wives and children. Her eyes fell on Karina, standing close to her father. Her limbs were white birch branches; her eyes were ice over black water. Maxim looked unsteady on his feet.
Khitka. The word drifted down to Nadya from the barn’s shadowed eaves as she watched Karina weave her arm through Maxim’s like the pale stalk of a climbing vine. Nadya pushed her foolish thoughts away and turned to watch Genetchka Lukin dance, her long golden hair braided with bright red ribbons. Nadya was ashamed to feel a pang of envy. Silly, she told herself, watching Genetchka struggle through a dance with Anton Kozar. He simply stood and swayed, one arm keeping balance on his crutch, the other clutching tightly to poor Gentchka’s waist. Silly, but she felt it just the same.
“Go with Havel,” said a voice at her shoulder.
Nadya nearly jumped. She hadn’t noticed Karina standing beside her. She looked up at the slender woman, her dark hair lying in coils around her white neck.
She turned her gaze back to the dance. “I can’t and you know it. I’m not old enough. ” It would be two more years before Nadya was called to the draft.
“So lie. ”
“This is my home,” Nadya whispered furiously, embarrassed by the tears that rose behind her eyes. “You can’t just send me away. ” My father won’t let you, she added silently. But somehow, she did not have the courage to speak the words aloud.
Karina leaned in close to Nadya. When she smiled, her lips split wet and red around what seemed like far too many teeth.
“Havel could at least work and hunt,” she whispered. “You’re just another mouth. ” She reached out and tugged one of Nadya’s curls, hard. Nadya knew that if her father happened to look over he would just see a beautiful woman, grinning and talking to his daughter, perhaps encouraging her to dance.
“I will warn you just this once,” hissed Karina Stoyanova. “Go. ”
The next day Genetchka Lukin’s mother discovered that her daughter’s bed had not been slept in. The Queen of the Thaw had never made it home from the dance. At the edge of the wood, a red ribbon fluttered from the branches of a narrow birch, a few golden hairs trailing from the knot, as if it had been torn from her head.
Nadya stood silent as Genetchka’s mother fell to her knees and began to wail, calling out to her Saints and pressing the red ribbon to her lips as she wept. Across the road, Nadya saw Karina watching, her eyes black, her lips turned down like peeling bark, her long, slender fingers like raw spokes of branches, stripped bare by a hard wind.
When Havel said his goodbyes, he drew Nadya close. “Be safe,” he whispered in her ear.
“How?” Nadya replied, but Havel had no answer.
A week later, Maxim Grushov and Karina Stoyanova were wed in the little whitewashed chapel at the center of town. There was no food for a wedding feast, and there were no flowers for the bride’s hair, but she wore her grandmother’s pearl kokochnik. andand all agreed that, though the pearls were most likely fake, she was lovely just the same.
That night, Nadya slept in Baba Olya’s front room so the bride and groom could be alone. In the morning, when she returned home, she found the house silent, the couple still abed. On the kitchen table lay an overturned bottle of wine and the remnants of what must have been a cake, the crumbs still scented with orange blossom. It seemed Karina had still had some sugar to spare after all.
Nadya couldn’t help herself. She licked the plate.
Despite Havel’s absence, the house felt crowded now. Maxim prowled the rooms, unable to sit still for more than a few minutes. He’d seemed calm after the wedding, nearly happy, but with every passing day, he grew more restless. He drank and cursed his lack of work, his lost sledge, his empty belly. He snapped at Nadya and turned away when she came too near, as if he could barely stand the sight of her.
On the rare occasions Maxim showed Nadya any affection, Karina would appear, hovering in the doorway, her black eyes greedy, a rag twisting in her narrow hands. She would order Nadya into the kitchen and burden her with some ridiculous chore, commanding her to stay out of her father’s way.
At meals, Karina watched Nadya eat as if her every bite of watered-down broth was an offense, as if every scrape of Nadya’s spoon hollowed out Karina’s belly a little more, widening the hole inside her.
Little more than a week had passed before Karina took hold of Nadya’s arm and nodded toward the woods. “Go check the traps,” she said.
“It’s almost dark,” Nadya protested.
“Don’t be foolish. There’s plenty of light. Now go and make yourself useful and don’t come back without a rabbit for our supper. ”
“Where’s my father?” Nadya demanded.
“He is with Anton Kozar, playing cards and drinking kvas,and trying to forget that he was cursed with a useless daughter. ” Karina gave Nadya a hard push out the door. “Go, or I’ll tell him that I caught you with Victor Yeronoff. ”
Nadya longed to march to Anton Kozar’s shabby rooms, knock the kvas from her father’s hands, tell him that she wanted her home back from this dangerous dark-eyed stranger. And if she’d been sure that her father would take her side, she might have done just that. Instead, Nadya walked into the woods.
She did not bother with quiet or stealth, and when the first two snares were empty, she ignored her pounding heart and the lengthening shadows and walked on, following the white stones that Havel had used to mark the path. In the third trap she found a brown hare, trembling with fright. She ignored the panicked whistle from its lungs as she snapped its neck with a single determined twist and felt its warm body go limp. As she walked home with her prize, she let herself imagine her father’s pleasure at the evening meal. He would tell her she was brave and foolish to go into the wood alone, and when she told him what his new wife had done, he would send Karina from the house forever.