Nadya knew there was much that Magda didn’t teach her. She told herself she was glad of it, that she wanted nothing to do with Magda’s abominations. But sometimes she felt her curiosity clawing at her like a different kind of hunger.
And then, one morning, she woke to the tapping of the blind crow’s beak on the sill and the drip, drip, drip of melted snow from the eaves. Bright sun shone through the windows. The thaw had come.
That morning, Magda laid out sweet rolls with prune jam, a plate of boiled eggs, and bitter greens. Nadya ate and ate, afraid to reach the end of her meal, but eventually she could not take another bite.
“What is it you want?” asked Magda.
This time Nadya hesitated, afraid. “If I go, couldn’t I just—”
“You cannot come and go from this place like you’re fetching water from a well. I will not have you bring a monster to my door. ”
Nadya shivered. A monster. So she’d been right about Karina.
“What is it you want?” asked Magda again.
Nadya thought of Genetchka dancing, of nervous Lara, of Betya and Ludmilla, of the others she had never known.
“I want my father to be free of Karina. I want Duva to be free. I want to go home. ”
Gently, Magda reached out and touched Nadya’s left hand—first the ring finger, then the pinkie.
“Think on it,” she said.
The next morning when Magda went to lay out the breakfast, she found the cleaver Nadya had placed there.
For two days, the cleaver lay untouched on the table, as they measured and sifted and mixed, making batch after batch of batter. On the second afternoon, when the hardest of the work was done, Magda turned to Nadya.
“You know that you are welcome to remain here with me,” said the witch.
Nadya stretched out her hand.
Magda sighed. The cleaver flashed once in the afternoon sun, the edge gleaming the dull gray of Grisha steel, then fell with a sound like a gunshot.
At the sight of her fingers lying forlorn on the table, Nadya fainted.
Magda healed the stumps of Nadya’s fingers, bound her hand, let her rest. And while she slept, Magda took the two fingers and ground them down to a wet red meal that she mixed into the batter.
When Nadya revived, they worked side by side, shaping the gingergirl on a damp plank near as big as a door, then shoved her into the blazing oven.
All night the gingergirl baked, filling the hut with a marvelous smell. Nadya knew she was smelling her own bones and blood, but still her mouth watered. She dozed. Near dawn, the oven doors creaked open and the gingergirl crawled out. She crossed the room, opened the window, and lay down on the counter to let herself cool.
In the morning, Nadya and Magda attended the gingergirl, dusted her with sugar, gave her frosted lips and thick ropes of icing for hair.
They dressed her in Nadya’s clothes and boots, and set her on the path toward Duva.
Then Magda sat Nadya down at the table and took a small jar from one of the cabinets. She opened the window and the eyeless black crow came to rest on the table, picking at the crumbs the gingergirl had left behind.
Magda tipped the contents of the jar into her palm and held them out to Nadya. “Open your mouth,” she said.
In Magda’s hand, in a pool of shiny fluid, lay a pair of bright blue eyes. Hatchling’s eyes.
“Do not swallow,” said Magda sternly, “and do not retch. ”
Nadya closed her eyes and forced her lips to part. She tried not to gag as the crow’s eyes slid onto her tongue.
“Open your eyes,” commanded Magda.
Nadya obeyed, and when she did, the whole room had shifted. She saw herself sitting in a chair, eyes still closed, Magda beside her. She tried to raise her hands, but found that her wings rose instead. She hopped on her little crow feet and released a startled squawk of surprise.
Magda shooed her to the window and Nadya, elated from the feeling of her wings and the wind spreading beneath them, did not see the sadness in the old woman’s gaze.
Nadya rose high into the air in a great wheeling arc, dipping her wings, learning the feel of them. She saw the woods spread beneath her, the clearing, and Magda’s hut. She saw the Petrazoi in the distance and, gliding lower, she saw the gingergirl’s path through the woods. She swooped and darted between the trees, unafraid of the forest for the first time since she could remember.
She circled over Duva, saw the main street, the cemetery, two new altars laid out. Two more girls gone during the long winter while she grew fat at the witch’s table. They would be the last. She screeched and dove beside the gingergirl, driving her onward, her soldier, her champion.
Nadya watched from a clothesline as the gingergirl crossed the clearing to her father’s house. Inside, she could hear raised voices arguing. Did he know what Karina had done? Had he begun to suspect what she truly was?
The gingergirl knocked and the voices quieted. When the door swung open, her father squinted into the dusk. Nadya was shocked at the toll the winter had taken on him. His broad shoulders looked hunched and narrow, and, even from a distance, she could see the way the skin hung loose on his frame. She waited for him to cry out in horror at the monster that stood before him.
“Nadya?” Maxim gasped. “Nadya!” He pulled the gingergirl into his arms with a rough cry.
Karina appeared behind him in the door, face pale, eyes wide. Nadya felt a twinge of disappointment. Somehow she’d imagined that Karina would take one look at the gingergirl and crumble to dust, or that the sight of Nadya alive and well on her doorstep would force her to blurt out some ugly confession.
Maxim drew the gingergirl inside and Nadya fluttered down to the windowsill to peer through the glass.
The house looked more cramped and gray than ever after the warmth of Magda’s hut. She saw that the collection of wooden dolls on the mantel had grown.
Nadya’s father caressed the gingergirl’s burnished brown arm, peppering her with questions, but the gingergirl stayed silent, huddling by the fire. Nadya wasn’t even sure that she could speak.
But Maxim did not seem to notice her silence. He babbled on, laughing, crying, shaking his head in wonder. Karina hovered behind him, watching as she always had. There was fear in her eyes, but something else, too, something troubling that looked almost like gratitude.
Then Karina stepped forward, touched the gingergirl’s soft cheek, her frosted hair. Nadya waited, sure Karina would be singed, that she would let out a shriek as the flesh of her hand peeled away like bark, revealing not bones but branches and the monstrous form of the khitka beneath her pretty skin.
Instead, Karina bowed her head and murmured what might have been a prayer. She took her coat from the hook.
“I am going to Baba Olya’s. ”
“Yes, yes,” Maxim said distractedly, unable to pull his gaze from his daughter.
She’s running away, Nadya realized in horror. And the gingergirl was making no move to stop her.
Karina wrapped her head in a scarf, pulled on her gloves, and slipped out the door, shutting it behind her without a backward glance.
Nadya hopped and squawked from the window ledge.
I will follow her, she thought. I will peck out her eyes.
Karina bent down, picked up a pebble from the path, and hurled it at Nadya.
Nadya released an indignant caw.
But when Karina spoke, her voice was gentle. “Fly away now, little bird,” she said. “Some things are better left unseen. ” Then she disappeared into the dusk.
Nadya fluttered her wings, unsure of what to do. She peered back through the window.