Marina pressed her body to his. He picked her up as in the days of their courting and spun her around. She laughed and wound her arms around his neck. But her eyes looked an instant past him, staring into the fire as though she could read the future in the flames.
“GET RID OF IT,” said Dunya the next day. “I don’t care if you’re carrying a girl or a prince or a prophet of old.” The sleet had crept back with the dawn and thundered again without. The two women huddled near the oven, for warmth and for its light on their mending. Dunya stabbed her needle home with particular vehemence. “The sooner the better. You’ve neither the weight nor the strength to carry a child, and if by a miracle you did, the bearing would kill you. You’ve given three sons to your husband, and you have your girl—what need of another?” Dunya had been Marina’s nurse in Moscow, had followed her to her husband’s house and nursed all of her four children in turn. She spoke as she pleased.
Marina smiled with a hint of mockery. “Such talk, Dunyashka,” she said. “What would Father Semyon say?”
“Father Semyon is not likely to die in childbed, is he? Whereas you, Marushka…”
Marina looked down at her work and said nothing. But when she met her nurse’s narrowed eyes, her face was pale as water, so that Dunya fancied she could see the blood creeping down her throat. Dunya felt a chill. “Child, what have you seen?”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Marina.
“Get rid of it,” said Dunya, almost pleading.
“Dunya, I must have this one; she will be like my mother.”
“Your mother! The ragged maiden who rode alone out of the forest? Who faded to a dim shadow of herself because she could not bear to live her life behind Byzantine screens? Have you forgotten that gray crone she became? Stumbling veiled to church? Hiding in her rooms, eating until she was round and greasy with her eyes all blank? Your mother. Would you wish that on any child of yours?”
Dunya’s voice creaked like a calling raven, for she remembered, to her grief, the girl who had come to Ivan Kalita’s halls, lost and frail and achingly beautiful, trailing miracles behind her. Ivan was besotted. The princess—well, perhaps she had found peace with him, at least for a little. But they housed her in the women’s quarters, dressed her in heavy brocades, gave her icons and servants and rich meats. Little by little that fiery glow, the light to take one’s breath, had faded. Dunya had mourned her passing long before they put her in the ground.
Marina smiled bitterly and shook her head. “No. But remember before? You used to tell me stories.”
“A lot of good magic or miracles did her,” growled Dunya.
“I have only a little of her gift,” Marina went on, ignoring her old nurse. Dunya knew her lady well enough to hear the regret. “But my daughter will have more.”
“And that is reason enough to leave the other four motherless?”
Marina looked at her lap. “I—no. Yes. If need be.” Her voice was barely audible. “But I might live.” She raised her head. “You will give me your word to care for them, will you not?”
“Marushka, I am old. I can give my promise, but when I die…”
“They will be all right. They—they will have to be. Dunya, I cannot see the future, but I will live to see her born.”
Dunya crossed herself and said no more.
The first screaming winds of November rattled the bare trees on the day Marina’s pains came on her, and the child’s first cry mingled with their howl. Marina laughed to see her daughter born. “Her name is Vasilisa,” she said to Pyotr. “My Vasya.”
The wind dropped at dawn. In the silence, Marina breathed out once, gently, and died.
The snow hurried down like tears the day a stone-faced Pyotr laid his wife in the earth. His infant daughter screamed all through the funeral: a demon wail like the absent wind.
All that winter, the house echoed with the child’s cries. More than once, Dunya and Olga despaired of her, for she was a scrawny, pallid infant, all eyes and flailing limbs. More than once Kolya threatened, half in earnest, to pitch her out of the house.
But the winter passed and the child lived. She ceased screaming and throve on the milk of peasant women.
The years slipped by like leaves.
On a day much like the one that brought her into the world, on the steely cusp of winter, Marina’s black-haired girl-child crept into the winter kitchen. She put her hands on the hearthstone and craned to see over the edge. Her eyes glistened. Dunya was scooping cakes from the ashes. The whole house smelled of honey. “Are the cakes ready, Dunyashka?” she said, poking her head into the oven.
“Nearly,” said Dunya, hauling the child back before she could set her hair on fire. “If you will sit quiet on your stool, Vasochka, and mend your blouse, then you will have one all to yourself.”
Vasya, thinking of cakes, went meekly to her stool. There was a heap of them already cooling on the table, brown on the outside and flecked with ash. A corner of one cake crumbled as the child watched. Its insides were midsummer-gold, and a little curl of steam rose up. Vasya swallowed. Her morning porridge seemed a year ago.
Dunya shot her a warning look. Vasya pursed her lips virtuously and set to sewing. But the rip in her blouse was large, her hunger vast, and her patience negligible even under better circumstances. Her stitches grew larger and larger, like gaps in an old man’s teeth. At last Vasya could stand it no more. She put the blouse aside and crept nearer that steaming plate, on the table just out of reach. Dunya had her back to it, stooping over the oven.
Closer still the girl crept, stealthy as a kitten after grasshoppers. Then she pounced. Three cakes vanished into her linen sleeve. Dunya spun round, caught a glimpse of the child’s face. “Vasya—” she began sternly, but Vasya, frightened and laughing all at once, was already over the threshold and out into the sullen day.
The season was just turning, the drab fields full of shaved stubble and dusted with snow. Vasya, chewing her honeycake and contemplating hiding-places, ran across the dooryard, down among the peasants’ huts, and thence through the palisade-gate. It was cold, but Vasya did not think of it. She had been born to cold.
Vasilisa Petrovna was an ugly little girl: skinny as a reed-stem with long-fingered hands and enormous feet. Her eyes and mouth were too big for the rest of her. Olga called her frog, and thought nothing of it. But the child’s eyes were the color of the forest during a summer thunderstorm, and her wide mouth was sweet. She could be sensible when she wished—and clever—so much so that her family looked at each other, bewildered, each time she abandoned sense and took yet another madcap idea into her head.