A mound of disturbed earth showed raw against the patchy snow, just at the edge of the harvested rye-field. It had not been there the day before. Vasya went to investigate. She smelled the wind as she scampered and knew it would snow in the night. The clouds lay like wet wool above the trees.
A small boy, nine years old and Pyotr Vladimirovich in miniature, stood at the bottom of a respectable hole, digging at the frosty earth. Vasya came to the edge and peered down.
“What’s that, Lyoshka?” she said, around a mouthful.
Her brother leaned on his spade, squinting up at her. “What’s it to you?” Alyosha quite liked Vasya, who was up for anything—nearly as good as a younger brother—but he was almost three years older and had to keep her in her place.
“Don’t know,” said Vasya, chewing. “Cake?” She held out half of her last one with a little regret; it was the fattest and least ashy.
“Give,” said Alyosha, dropping his shovel and holding out a filthy hand. But Vasya put herself out of range.
“Tell me what you’re doing,” she said. Alyosha glared, but Vasya narrowed her eyes and made to eat the cake. Her brother relented.
“It’s a fort to live in,” he said. “For when the Tatars come. So I can hide in here and shoot them full of arrows.”
Vasya had never seen a Tatar, and she did not have a clear notion of what size fort would be required to protect oneself from one. Nonetheless she looked doubtfully at the hole. “It’s not very big.”
Alyosha rolled his eyes. “That’s why I’m digging, you rabbit,” he said. “To make it bigger. Now will you give?”
Vasya started to hold out the honeycake but then she hesitated. “I want to dig the hole and shoot the Tatars, too.”
“Well, you can’t. You don’t have a bow or a shovel.”
Vasya scowled. Alyosha had gotten his own knife and a bow for his seventh name-day, but a year’s worth of pleading had borne no fruit as far as weapons for her were concerned. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “I can dig with a stick, and Father will give me a bow later.”
“No, he won’t.” But Alyosha made no objection when Vasya handed over half the cake and went to find a stick. They worked for some minutes in companionable silence.
But digging with a stick soon palls, even if one is jumping up every few moments to look about for the wicked Tatars. Vasya was beginning to wonder whether Alyosha might be persuaded to leave off fort-building and go climb trees, when suddenly a shadow loomed over them both: their sister, Olga, breathless and furious, roused from a place by the fire to uncover her truant siblings. She glared down at them. “Mud to the eyebrows, what will Dunya say? And Father—” Here Olga broke off to make a fortuitous lunge, seizing the clumsier Alyosha by the back of his jacket just as the children broke cover like a pair of frightened quail.
Vasilisa was long-limbed for a girl, quick in her movements, and it was well worth a scolding to eat her last crumbs in peace. So she did not look back but ran like a hare over the empty field, dodging stumps with whoops of glee, until she was swallowed by the afternoon forest. Olga was left panting, holding on to Alyosha by his collar.
“Why don’t you ever catch her?” said Alyosha, with some resentment, as Olga towed him back to the house. “She’s only six.”
“Because I am not Kaschei the Deathless,” said Olga with some asperity. “And I have no horse to outrun the wind.”
They stepped into the kitchen. Olga deposited Alyosha beside the oven. “I couldn’t catch Vasya,” she said to Dunya. The old lady raised her eyes heavenward. Vasya was extremely hard to catch when she did not wish to be caught. Only Sasha could do it with any regularity. Dunya turned her wrath on a shrinking Alyosha. She stripped the child beside the oven, sponged him with a cloth that, thought Alyosha, must have been made of nettles, and dressed him in a clean shirt.
“Such goings-on,” muttered Dunya while she scrubbed. “I’ll tell your father, you know, next time. He’ll have you carting and chopping and mucking for the rest of the winter. Such goings-on. Filth and digging holes—”
But she was interrupted in her tirade. Alyosha’s two tall brothers came stamping into the winter kitchen, smelling of smoke and livestock. Unlike Vasya, they did not resort to subterfuge; they made straight for the cakes, and each shoved one whole into his mouth. “A wind from the south,” said Nikolai Petrovich—called Kolya—the eldest, to his sister, his voice indistinct from chewing. Olga had regained her wonted composure and sat knitting beside the oven. “It will snow in the night. A good job the beasts are in and the roof is finished.” Kolya dropped his sopping winter boots near the fire and flung himself onto a stool, seizing another cake in passing.
Olga and Dunya eyed the boots with identical expressions of disapproval. Frozen mud had spattered the clean hearth. Olga crossed herself. “If the weather is changing, then half the village will be ill tomorrow,” she said. “I hope Father comes in before the snow.” She frowned as she counted stitches.
The second young man did not speak, but deposited his armload of firewood, swallowed his cake, and went to kneel before the icons in the corner opposite the door. Now he crossed himself, stood, and kissed the image of the Virgin. “Praying again, Sasha?” said Kolya with cheerful malice. “Pray the snow comes gently, and Father not catch cold.”
The young man shrugged slim shoulders. He had wide, grave eyes, thick-lashed as a girl’s. “I do pray, Kolya,” he said. “You might try it yourself.” He padded to the oven and peeled off his damp stockings. The pungent stink of wet wool joined the general smell of mud and cabbage and animals. Sasha had spent his day with the horses. Olga wrinkled her nose.
Kolya did not rise to the jab. He was examining one of his sopping winter boots, where the fur had separated at the stitching. He grunted with disgust and let it drop next to its fellow. Both boots began to steam. The oven towered over the four of them. Dunya had already put in the stew for dinner, and Alyosha watched the pot like a cat at a mouse-hole.
“What goings-on, Dunya?” Sasha inquired. He had come into the kitchen in time to hear the tirade.
“Vasya,” said Olga succinctly, and told the story of the honeycakes and her sister’s escape into the forest. As she talked, she knitted. The faintest of rueful smiles dimpled her mouth. She was still fat with summer’s bounty, round-faced and lovely.