The next day, Nadya breakfasted on butter-soaked blini stuffed with cherries and cream. When she finished, the witch asked her, “What is it you want?”
“I want to go home,” said Nadya, glancing at the snow still falling outside. “But I can’t. ”
“Well then,” said Magda. “Come help me stir the pot. ”
This was how it went, day after day, as the snow fell and filled the clearing, rising up around the hut in great white waves.
On the morning the snow finally stopped, the witch fed Nadya potato pie and sausages and asked her, “What is it you want?”
“I want to go home,” said Nadya.
“Well then,” said Magda. “You’d better start shoveling. ”
So Nadya took up the shovel and cleared a path around the hut, accompanied by Vladchek snuffling in the snow beside her and an eyeless crow that Magda fed on rye crumbs, and that sometimes perched upon the witch’s shoulder. In the afternoon, Nadya ate a slab of black bread spread with soft cheese and a dish of baked apples. Magda gave her a mug of hot tea laced with sugar, and back out she went.
When she finally reached the edge of the clearing, she wondered just where she was supposed to go. The frost had come. The woods were a frozen mass of snow and tangled branches. What might be waiting for her in there? And even if she could make it through the deep snow and find her way back to Duva, what then? A tentative embrace from her weak-willed father? Far worse from his hungry-eyed wife? No path could lead her back to the home she had known. The thought opened a bleak crack inside of her, a fissure where the cold seeped through. For a terrifying moment, she was nothing but a lost girl, nameless and unwanted. She might stand there forever, a shovel in her hand, with no one to call her home. Nadya turned on her heel and scurried back to the warm confines of the hut, whispering her name beneath her breath as if she might forget it.
Each day, Nadya worked. She cleaned floors, dusted shelves, mended clothes, shoveled snow, and scraped the ice away from the windows. But mostly, she helped Magda with her cooking. It was not all food. There were tonics and ointments, bitter smelling pastes, jewel-colored powders packed in small enamel boxes, tinctures in brown glass bottles. There was always something strange brewing on that stove.
Soon she learned why.
They came late at night, when the moon was waxing, slogging through miles of ice and snow, on sledges and shaggy ponies, even on foot. They brought eggs, jars of preserves, sacks of flour, bales of wheat. They brought smoked fish, blocks of salt, wheels of cheese, bottles of wine, tins of tea, and bag after bag of sugar, for there was no denying Magda’s sweet tooth. They cried out for love potions and untraceable poisons. They begged to be made beautiful, healthy, rich.
Always, Nadya stayed hidden. On Magda’s orders, she climbed high into the shelves of the larder.
“Stay there and keep quiet,” Magda said. “I don’t need rumors starting that I’ve been taking girls. ”
So Nadya sat with Vladchek, nibbling on a spice cookie or sucking on a hunk of black licorice, watching Magda work. She might have announced herself to these strangers at any time, pleaded to be taken home or given shelter, shouted that she’d been trapped by a witch. Instead, she sat silent, sugar melting on her tongue, watching as they came to this old woman, how they turned to her with desperation, with resentment, but always with respect.
Magda gave them drops for their eyes, tonics for the scalp. She ran her hands over their wrinkles, tapped a man’s chest till he hacked up black bile. Nadya was never sure how much was real and how much was show until the night the wax-skinned woman came.
She was gaunt, as they all were, her face a skull of hard-carved hollows. Magda asked the question she asked anyone who came to her door: “What is it you want?” The woman collapsed in her arms, weeping, as Magda murmured soothing words, patted her hand, dried her tears. They conferred in voices too low for Nadya to decipher, and before the woman left, she took a tiny pouch from her pocket and shook the contents into Magda’s palm. Nadya craned her neck to get a better look, but Magda’s hand clamped shut too quickly.
The next day, Magda sent Nadya out of the house to shovel snow. When she returned at lunchtime, she was shooed back out with a cup of codfish stew. Dusk came, and as Nadya finished sprinkling salt along the edges of the path, the scent of gingerbread drifted to her across the clearing, rich and spicy, filling her nose until she felt nearly drunk.
All through dinner, she waited for Magda to open the oven, but when the meal was finished, the old woman set a piece of yesterday’s lemon cake before her. Nadya shrugged. As she reached for the cream, she heard a soft sound, a gurgle. She looked at Vladchek, but the bear was fast asleep, snoring softly.
And then she heard it again, a gurgle followed by a plaintive coo. From inside the oven.
Nadya pushed back from the table, nearly knocking her chair over, and stared at Magda, horrified, but the witch did not flinch.
A knock sounded at the door.
“Go into the larder, Nadya. ”
For a moment, Nadya hovered between the table and the door. Then she backed away, pausing only to grab hold of Vladchek’s collar and drag him with her onto the top shelf of the larder, comforted by his drowsy snuffling and the warm feel of his fur beneath her hands.
Magda opened the door. The wax-faced woman stood waiting at the threshold, almost as if she were afraid to move. Magda wrapped her hands in towels and pulled open the oven’s iron doors. A squalling cry filled the room. The woman grabbed at the doorposts as her knees buckled, then pressed her hands to her mouth, her chest heaving, tears streaming over her sallow cheeks. Magda swaddled the gingerbaby in a red kerchief and handed it, squirming and mewling, into the woman’s trembling, outstretched arms.
“Milaya,” the woman crooned. Sweet girl. She turned her back on Magda and disappeared into the night, not bothering to close the door behind her.
The next day, Nadya left her breakfast untouched, placing her cold bowl of porridge on the floor for Vladchek. He turned up his nose at it until Magda put it back on the stove to warm.
Before Magda could ask her question, Nadya said, “That wasn’t a real child. Why did she take it?”
“It was real enough. ”
“What will happen to it? What will happen to her?” Nadya asked, a wild edge to her voice.
“Eventually it will be nothing but crumbs,” said Magda.
“And then what? Will you just make her another?”
“The mother will be dead long before that. She has the same fever that took her infant. ”
“Then cure her!” Nadya shouted, smacking the table with her unused spoon.
“She didn’t ask to be cured. She asked for a child. ”
Nadya put on her mittens and stomped out into the yard. She did not go inside for lunch. She meant to skip dinner too, to show what she thought of Magda and her terrible magic. But by the time night came her stomach was growling, and when Magda put down a plate of sliced duck with hunter’s sauce, Nadya picked up her fork and knife.
“I want to go home,” she muttered to her plate.
“So go,” said Magda.
Winter dragged on with frost and cold, but the lamps always burned golden in the little hut. Nadya’s cheeks grew rosy and her clothes grew snug. She learned how to mix up Magda’s tonics without looking at the recipes and how to bake an almond cake in the shape of a crown. She learned which herbs were valuable and which were dangerous, and which herbs were valuable because they were dangerous.