“I am owed this death.” All that is around Viktoriya halts as the words exhale into whiteness against the winter-bleached sky. She squeezes the chilly trigger between steady beats of her sturdy heart. The rifle, held tight to her shoulder, kicks like a storm. The five-legged deer crumples into the brush. Scrub snaps like a young girl’s ribs impacted by a stranger’s metal-toed boots, and the crooked-knit bones in her side ache in awful sympathy. She holds her breath a beat longer and watches steam curl up from the killing wound. The deer does not move again. In the following silence, Viktoriya sips cold air through her teeth and repeats: “I am owed.”
A coil of smoke escapes as she levers the breechblock down to reveal the empty chamber. Spent brass warms the six cold-stiffened fingers on her left hand, her good hand, the hand that pulls the trigger and keeps her alive. She pockets the gleaming case for later reloading. Nothing can go to waste, not in the wilds. Not where no certainty exists that anything lost or discarded can ever be replaced.
The obsidian hooves of a wilding deer are precious. The relics of a creature made more by the wilds are said by some to be sacred. Sometimes, too, they are said to be unholy. Viktoriya no longer believes in anything sacred, but she does believe in the value of whatever people worship. She believes as well in the value of what they fear. A single hoof is a year’s supply of powder, primers, and lead. A second hoof is three months of flour and salt. Hooves three and four will go toward her debt, and the fifth will remain in the strongbox under the hearth. No one who wants to keep living gives everything away.
The other parts of the animal are equally precious. She will scrape, treat, and cure the hide until it becomes thin leather soft enough to sew into a new shirt. The meat, salted and smoked, will sustain her for months. Sun-bleached bones, shaved into needles and knife handles. The dried intestines, twined into supple cord. Nothing can ever be wasted, not in the wilds.
The fenced-in hulk of Mr. Drakon’s store is another place where nothing goes to waste. Viktoriya’s steps slow as she approaches his door, her feet betraying the unease she prefers not to feel. The ceiling of his cavernous showroom is hung with hooks that hold the goods he prefers to keep out of easy reach. The walls and floor are obscured by shelves and tables stuffed with everything a body could need this far from the world. Insulated by his comfortable hoard, Drakon wastes little gentleness in dealing with those who depend on his imported wares.
“Things change fast these days.” He shakes his head in a mockery of dismay as he locks Viktoriya’s hooves in his safe. “Wildings can’t command the price they used to. With all these goods, my girl, it will be a while yet till your contract is fulfilled. Here, though. I’ll throw in an extra bag of salt. My little gift.”
Drakon is a collector. Viktoriya has been part of his collection for as long as she can remember, along with everyone else who straggled unknowing from the wilds to meet his rapacious welcome. His collecting begins with a life, offered back to its owner in circumstances beyond their control, and ends with him owning everything else they are. Viktoriya’s soul resides in the bloody ink on a piece of paper in Drakon’s safe. It was all she had to offer as collateral when, years ago, he declared that the life he saved her from losing must be paid for. He is all too aware that his debtors have no choice but to abide by his decrees. He smiles at Viktoriya like a generous saint while informing her that her debt has not shrunk, at all.
“Thank you, Mr. Drakon.” The smile hurts her teeth, but she pulls it across her mouth like a shield. She knows too well that Drakon prefers grace to sullenness. Only the careless are fully honest in dealing with such a man. “I’ll be back soon,” she says, instead of saying she dreams each night of warming her frost-chapped hands over the burning wreckage of everything he owns. These are the dreams of a fool, and Viktoriya aspires to become something other than a fool. After all, she is one of the things Drakon owns. She cannot burn him down until she is free.
“Of course you will,” he says. “Maybe next time you’ll earn some sugar to go with your salt.”
Her mouth floods with acid at the suggestiveness in his tone. Only recently has the tenor of their interactions shifted toward something she finds so distasteful she will not name it even to herself. Drakon knew her as a helpless child, but now he seems to see her as a woman. She resists the urge to spit on the floor or the crowded counter or this man who leers behind it. Her debt may not have shrunk, but she’ll be damned again before she lets him bait her into growing it.
“I’ve never had a sweet tooth,” she says instead. Her metallic smile stays in place until the store’s heavy door and the series of surrounding gates have swung shut and locked themselves behind her. When the crunch of his gravel firebreak has given way to the crisper snap of frozen grasses breaking under the runners of her flour-laden sledge, she lets the shield fall and takes a breath so deep it feels as though the wilds can fill the soulless hollow inside her.
Alma’s homestead lies halfway between Drakon’s compound and Viktoriya’s sod-roofed shanty. The fruit trees she planted decades ago—Alma has been here a long time, though she has never aged in all Viktoriya’s life—surround her squat stone cottage like a regiment of skeletal soldiers, their winter-grey branches bared by wind and weather. Inside, Viktoriya feels the warmth from the hearth wrap around her like the welcome her laconic friend will never speak out loud. She does not need to be welcomed with words or embraces. It is enough to be let in.
Alma scowls as she accepts a sheaf of Viktoriya’s deer bone needles and a spool of gut twine in exchange for a generous sack of dried apples. “What did you expect? You know a man like that will never deal in straight lines.”
Viktoriya shakes her head. A faint fragrance of September-sweet apples rises from the plump sack clutched in her hands. The thin fabric Alma weaves from the thread she spins out of dogbane and nettle stalks is startlingly soft. Viktoriya strokes the bag, anticipating the pleasure of nibbling its contents while she sits by her woodstove and dreams of being whole.
“I didn’t expect much of anything,” she says. “You know I know better than that.” Alma nods her concession of the point and turns to look at the door. Viktoriya knows when she is being dismissed. Sometimes Alma invites her to stay for a bowl of soup, but now the cold wind is singing on the metal roof and Alma’s attention is clearly focused on its music.
“Thanks for the apples. I’ll return the bag when it’s empty.”
“Keep it. You never know when you’ll need a good bag.”
As Viktoriya leaves, she hears Alma’s voice raise to blend with the piercing wind. Viktoriya understands few of the words—that language was lost to her long ago, along with whatever brief life she lived before Drakon collected her broken body and preserved what was left of her so that he might one day make use of it—but she thinks it might be something about a bear. The cadence of the verses is painfully foreign, but Alma’s songs sound like the songs Viktoriya thinks she remembers another woman singing long ago. She does not know if she ever truly knew them, but they sound like home. The wind’s song softens to blend with Alma’s, and Viktoriya walks quietly until she has covered too much distance to hear them anymore.
Alma, unlike Viktoriya, owns both her memory and her soul. Alma knows how to build a life through the gifts of things that regrow from season to season, things that live and know how to share life without first being killed. Alma collects plants and music and beauty and comfort. Viktoriya can only live through collecting deaths.
Viktoriya’s shanty is built of sod blocks stacked around a frame of thin alder trunks tied together with the long coarse stalks of the same plants Alma spins into thread. The shanty is a poor substitute for the grander house that Drakon has told her once stood in its place, but she built it by herself and it belongs to her, as much as anything can. The light of the reluctant winter sun is long gone by the time she stumbles across her crooked threshold. She lights the stove with a handful of yellow grass and a bundle of dry twigs from the persistent shrubs that overtake her land no matter how she cuts them back. The smoke that curls in the wake of the hungry sparks reminds her of the life she watched evaporate from the crumpled deer. The wind whisks by to moan into her roof, making her think of Alma’s house, where it will return to sing nocturnal love songs when it tires of troubling Viktoriya. The sound insinuates itself into her memory, unearthing stories better left forgotten.
Viktoriya’s memories are shreds and scraps, so far from complete they might as well belong to someone else. She remembers screaming, flames, the smell of charring lath and lives becoming smoke. Faces, voices, the language foreign to this place—the language of Alma’s songs—that must have been spoken to the girl she no longer knows how to be, all things forgotten in the aftermath of the fire. All that remained when the flames died was the stone cellar sunk into the soil. All she has left of her people is paper, preserved in the strongbox hidden down in that deep hole. She has read the precious document so many times it has worn soft; the names that never feel familiar no matter how many times she labels them mother, father, brother, cousin, aunt.
Alma has told her a little of their story. It is the same story told of most who came to the wilds. An unwanted family fleeing the country that made them in search of a new world, a new life, a safe place where their children could grow without being punished for their heritage. Too desperate to own a piece of their new country to ask where its government intended to set newcomers like them aside. Too much in need of a home to ask why the land made available to them was uninhabited, why their new country’s existing citizens did not want to live in such an unsettled and unsettling landscape.
Viktoriya’s paper deeds the land where her shanty now stands to her parents. In their absence, the land belongs to the one surviving name inked on the deed. She does not truly feel she owns it—the wilds do not seem like a thing that can be partitioned and owned—but she feels more connected to it than she does to the names of the dead it took from her. She sometimes wonders if Drakon would have accepted a transfer of the deed in place of her soul, but she could not truly imagine giving it up. The wilds owe her for what they took, but they also own her heart in a way that someone like Drakon would not understand. He would not love the land in the way Viktoriya does.
The sixth finger on Viktoriya’s left hand is the mark of a human child born to inhuman surroundings. Viktoriya is as much a wilding as the animals she shoots. No doubt Mr. Drakon could sell her in pieces, commanding a greater price by far than he does for hooves. Perhaps one day he will. She has no idea what happens to those who never find a way to repay him and reclaim their souls. She has no intention of learning, either, but she knows better than to assume she will always maintain her tenuous grip on her own fate and future.
The woodstove that warms Viktoriya’s shanty was purchased against her contract with Mr. Drakon. The stovepipe came from Drakon’s store, too, and the wool blankets on her bed, and the iron pot in which she now warms leftover stew to chase away the chill of a winter day spent walking. Even the rifle she uses to harvest the animals she trades to reclaim herself came from him. The bed at least is her own, bent from the same green alders as the shanty’s frame. She sewed the mattress and pillows from soft-tanned hides and stuffed them with dried grass that smells of summer. She heats a pair of stones now—gathered from the land behind her shanty—on the stove beside the stew and slips them under the blankets to prepare a pocket of warmth. She hangs Alma’s bag of dried apples from a roof beam and descends through the trap door into the cellar. She places her precious flour and salt in the comfortingly cold embrace of the stone chamber that someone who she cannot remember must have built by hand.
A month of tracking and a moment’s violence bring Viktoriya back to the store. Even Drakon does not pretend there is no longer value in the claws, teeth, and skulls of a two-headed bear. Viktoriya arranges her harvest along his counter and thinks of the thick pelt that now lies on her bed, waiting for her to return and crawl under its warmth. She stacks the blankets it will replace on the end of the counter. He will give her a fraction of what she paid for them, but then she has used them for years and, though they are clean, they smell of brushwood smoke and desperation.
“More flour?” Drakon waves a hand at his wares. “Bullets? Soap?”
She shakes her head. She does not smile, because she does not think she can pretend to show him any sweetness today. “I’d like to put it all against my contract.”
He holds up a bear tooth to see how the sunlight streaming in his enormous glass window sparks against the faint, distinct sheen that unmistakably and inimitably marks a wilding.
“It’s likely to be a long winter,” he says. “Might be wise to stock up for getting snowed in. I’d imagine you could starve all alone in that hut and no one would ever be the wiser.”
She can hear the pull in his words, but she shakes her head again, dispelling the allure. Her cellar is filled with smoked bear meat. She will not starve. “The contract,” she says, then adds, because she knows he wants it: “Please.” She tells herself she does not mind the way his cheeks tighten and lift with satisfaction. It will not destroy her to keep playing along for however many more kills it takes to earn her freedom. She distracts herself with shallow breaths until the deal is done and she can escape the stuffy store to breathe clean winter air.
Tucked under the bearskin that night, in a stone-warmed bed that holds nothing to remind her of what she has lost, she thinks of Alma. Alma’s story is the same as the story of Viktoriya’s family, up to the point where their house burned down but hers still stands, the point where they lost their lives to their new country but she found a way to make time and age stand still. Viktoriya wonders if Alma was ever tempted by anything Mr. Drakon had to offer. She wonders if even Drakon knew better than to make advances, threats, or sugar-veneered poison promises to someone loved by the wilds’ wind. She wonders if sunlight-haired Alma ever lies in bed and thinks about Viktoriya in the chilly darkness, or if the wind is too jealous a lover for Alma’s thoughts to ever stray to anyone else.
An even trade by weight gives Alma a winter’s supply of bear lard and Viktoriya another sack of dried apples and a wheel of sharp crumbling goat’s cheese aged from the milk Alma collected from wild goats two summers past. Again, Alma tells her to keep the nettle-cloth bag. “Sit,” she says, when Viktoriya starts to leave. “Eat.” She places an apple turnover and a thick slice of cheese on a green clay plate and hands it over. “You’ll sleep by my fire tonight. It’s too far to go back in this snow.” The flavours of summer melt into Viktoriya’s tongue, and that night, obedient, she curls up in Alma’s spare blanket. She dreams of following an eight-legged August-brown hare through the endless sea of grass that drowns the rock of the wilds every spring. In the morning the snow has let up, and Alma lets her go.
The spider-bodied hares are winter-white now that August is the province of dreams. The shining black of their eyes stands out against the snow like drops of wet ink or polished pearls of coal. Viktoriya finds thirteen before she tires of the weeks spent tracking their muddled trails. A pebble cast from a deerskin sling suffices to make the harvest; their compact bodies would only be wasted by a bullet. The furs are so soft she thinks she might make a pair of them into mittens to give to Alma. A gift, not a trade. A token of friendship and whatever else Alma might one day welcome. When she wonders aloud if her friend might like this, the wind shrieks and rakes the hat from her head. She spends an hour following the hat as it tumbles ever forward over snowdrifts and the ice of frozen streams. When at last she catches it, her ears have gone numb.
The feet of a wilding hare are considered at least three times as lucky as those belonging to an ordinary rabbit. Viktoriya lays a hundred and one preserved paws along Drakon’s long counter in neat, ceremonious rows. The last three lie under her hearthstone, just in case.
“Well, well,” Drakon says. “You have been a busy girl, Viktoriya. A busy girl indeed. All toward your contract again? Perhaps some flour, or some candles to keep back the dark?”
“The contract, please.”
“If you’re sure.”
He marks the trade ceremoniously on the paper. She fists her hands in her pockets to prevent herself from snatching it to check the tally he briefly shows her. He places the feet in his safe, one at a time, while Viktoriya looks out the great glass window. The wind is swirling diamond-dust snow in vertiginous patterns. Viktoriya wonders if it will allow her to visit Alma on her way home, or if today she had best keep herself to herself and trouble no one save the land.
In February, the wind blows so hard it clears the snow from the land around Viktoriya’s shanty. She sorts through the newly bared stones and piles the flattest and most even against the back wall of her home. Spring will surely return, as always, even if winter seems eternal now. Warm muddy clay will plaster the stones into a chimney and vaulted hearth to hold the fire she cannot learn to live without. The weight of the iron stove and its black steel pipe will torment Viktoriya as she hauls them back to the store on her wooden sledge, but she looks forward to the lightness she will feel once nothing of Drakon’s claims a place in her home.
When Viktoriya asks Alma to make a cooking pot out of the iron-strong clay from the stream that runs through the apple orchard, her friend asks: “What will you do without the rifle?”
Viktoriya shows her the sling. “It won’t take a deer or a bear, of course. I’ve been curing dogwood splits for arrows.”
She has no illusions that hunting will be as easy without the rifle, but then she will not need to take so many lives once hers has been returned. Once her debt has been paid, once her soul is her own, once the wilds have helped her reclaim her own life in return for the lives this place took from her, then she will take only what she needs to survive. What Drakon demands will no longer shape her days. The elder branches she shaves by the stove when the wind keeps her trapped indoors are taking shape as flexible bowstaves. Flat bones from the shoulders of deer carve easily into keen-edged broadheads. She will not be able to count on successful hunting even with weapons so lovingly crafted, but that is as it should be. Ending a life—even to sustain another life—should not be as easy as Drakon’s rifle makes it feel.
“Come back when the streams have melted,” Alma says. “I’ll have your pot.” She hands Viktoriya a pouch of glossy black feathers. “The crows and I have an agreement. They bring me their sheds, and I feed them cheese and tell the wind to treat them gently. Maybe you can use these to fletch your arrows.”
Viktoriya’s eyes water. The wind must be subtly teasing her, though the day is uncommonly still. She cannot remember the last time anyone gave her something without attaching a price.
After three triple-winged hawks have fallen to Viktoriya’s crow-feathered arrows, she knows she is ready. A late snow has buried the rock of the wilds again, and Viktoriya’s boots sink with every step. The overloaded sledge is almost unbearably heavy. The rifle slung over her shoulder is too much more weight, but she hopes this will be the last time she lays eyes on Mr. Drakon. Suffering this trip is a small price to pay for never taking another trip this way.
“I see,” Drakon says, after the accounts have been made. The talons and wings are locked in his safe, and the last things Viktoriya took from him have been returned. “Quite the coup for you, my girl. All grown up, in need of no one’s help.”
She cannot help thinking of Alma, but she does not correct him. Alma’s name does not belong in this place. She gestures at the marks on her contract. “That looks to me like it adds up.”
Something bright leaps in his pupils, more like consuming flame than like the wilding sheen she knows appears in her own eyes when the light hits them right. He reminds her what she owes him for, still and always.
Viktoriya’s fractured memory refuses her clear access to the moments, hours, days before she woke to find herself wrapped in unfamiliar blankets. The childhood she remembers began with that waking, the sensation of being tightly bound in warm wool. Something felt wrong in her side, but there was no pain, only the fuzz and haze of what she later learned was tincture of poppy.
“You’re safe now.” The unfamiliar voice sounded warm and concerned. “Don’t move—those ribs will take time to heal. A brutal thing to do to a child. You’ll be all right with me.”
The stranger’s eyes lit up the darkened room as he smiled. The oddly scaly hands offered a mug of rich steaming broth that smelled like comfort and healing and home. A child, hurt and alone, could not know better. She took what was offered. Only too late did she think to ask the price.
“I picked up the life you lost in the wilds,” Mr. Drakon explained. “I returned it to you at no little trouble to myself. You’re a strong girl, aren’t you? I’m sure we’ll be able to work out a suitable form of repayment in time.”
By the time she learned to recognize the light in his eyes as the same hungry flame that ate most of what she had been before him—by the time she recognized the metal tips of his boots—the contract was signed. All she could do after that was what she was told.
Viktoriya stumbles away from the store, toward a shanty emptied of everything that came from Drakon except the one thing she cannot return. The wind blows blinding snow into her eyes. This, perhaps, is the reason the door she finds herself at is Alma’s and not her own.
If Viktoriya expects sympathy, her hopes—if not dashed—are confused. “But I have nothing,” Viktoriya cries in response to Alma’s seeming lack of concern. “My family is gone. I don’t even have our language. My soul was the only thing that could have been mine.”
“You wouldn’t be the first to live your life without a soul,” Alma points out when Viktoriya’s torrent of words slows to a trickle. “Why are you so certain you need yours back?”
There seems no reasonable response to such a question. Viktoriya sits on the floor by Alma’s fire in sullen silence, water pooling as her frozen hair slowly thaws in the flickering heat. The wind reaches down the chimney to play with the flames, rearranging their patterns into pictures. Alma returns to the loft to finish whatever she was doing before her peace was interrupted by Viktoriya’s chaos. Viktoriya tries to see what the wind is showing her.
In the wind-stirred fire, the triple-winged hawks soar above a parade of earthbound shapes. She flinches as the bear’s second head turns away from the gamboling hares and snaps at her before it is consumed by a lick of flame. The procession of deaths progresses backwards through Viktoriya’s kills. She would have said they were countless, but she learns now that each and every one was seen and counted. She does not look away as the wind shows her what she has done, all that she has taken because she felt that she was owed; because she never wondered if she had any other choice. She watches her life in reverse as a series of deaths. When it ends, when she sees herself as the wind has seen her since she became what she let Drakon make her, she knows that she cannot stay in Alma’s cottage for another second.
The wind helps her open the door without a sound. She steps outside with her damp hair loose around her shoulders. She does not turn back when the cold air bites at her ears and she pictures her warm fur hat and mittens still lying on Alma’s inviting hearth. She does not turn back when the door slams loudly behind her. She does not turn back when the wind’s direction changes in response to the cry that comes from the loft’s single window, when the blowing snow pushes her gently back toward the safety of the cottage. The snow builds quickly on the tops of her boots, her steps growing heavy as she fights to gain more distance from the pictures in the fire.
Past the orchard, the wind’s direction changes once more, pushing Viktoriya away. Her unfastened coat flaps and stiffens like a sail. The wilds become an ocean, with white currents carrying her where they will, and the wind’s voice echoes the cries of every life she has stolen. Adrift, she keens along with Alma’s lover. As it blows her home, its shriek gentles to a lament, and together their voices become something like a song.
The snow slowly melts to reveal brown grass and bare rock. The shanty, bereft of a stove, is more an icebox than a home. For days, weeks, Viktoriya hardly leaves bed save to check how the clay between the stones of her fireplace is drying. If she lights a fire too soon, it will crumble and crack. She dreams of soup and elderflower tisane, of kompot infused with handfuls of apples and berries. She nibbles on venison jerky and the crumbling ends of the hard dry flatbreads she had baked on the iron stove before dragging it away. On the rare days when the sun shines brightly enough to entice her outside, she thinks of lighting a fire in the ring where she used to cook outdoors, but the wind’s moving pictures are still too fresh in her memory.
When the apples are nearly gone, Viktoriya startles awake in the damp spring chill to the unfamiliar sound of a knock at her door. She slithers, shivering, from underneath the bearskin and throws her long doe-leather coat over the nightdress she made from three of Alma’s nettle-cloth sacks.
“It’s me,” Alma says at the door. “Let me in. Let us in.”
The wind lets them in before Viktoriya makes it across the room to unlatch the door. It ruffles her hair with a shock of cold fingers before settling by the fireplace. It wafts kindling into a pyramid and gleefully whisks the flint and steel together in a shower of glittering sparks. The fire ripples to life in response to the soft, slow breaths of the wind. Viktoriya looks away from the flames, not able to let herself see if they have anything to show her. She clutches her coat across her sack-draped chest. “I’m sorry,” she says, “I wasn’t expecting—here, let me put the kettle on—” But the old cooking pot is long gone, and she has nothing to offer a guest.
Alma smiles at Viktoriya’s panic. “That’s why I’m here.”
The clay pot’s sides are etched with delicate lines. Alma fills it with water and sets it on the hearth. As the water comes to a boil, Viktoriya marvels over the beauty of Alma’s work. Apple trees rise from its base, their fruit-laden boughs spread over a parade of familiar shapes. The hawks, the bear, the deer, the hares—and there, in the midst of the wilding animals, a six-fingered woman with a bow in her hand and her loose hair tweaked up by the wind.
They drink elderflower tisane from Viktoriya’s rough-hewn branchwood cups. The sudden heat and unexpected company begin to drive the damp and deep-seated weariness from her bones. The wind whistles cheerily in the stone chimney, and Alma is smiling, and the clay must have had enough time to cure because it does not crack when the fire blazes high.
“I see you found a use for some of my bags,” Alma says, pointing at the hem peeking out from under the edge of Viktoriya’s coat. “Soft, aren’t they?”
Viktoriya nods. “Speaking of things you made,” she says, “what can I trade for the pot?”
“Consider it a gift,” Alma says. “And an apology for never visiting you before. Oh! And you forgot these.” She shows Viktoriya the hat and mittens. The wind, in the chimney, shudders something like a laugh, and Viktoriya remembers how eagerly it had carried her away from Alma’s home that last time, her hands and head bare and her coat unfastened.
Viktoriya reaches for her things, but Alma does not let them go. She holds the mittens up and says their name in the language Viktoriya cannot speak. Once Viktoriya repeats the word right, Alma says the words for hat, pot, fire, and wind. Viktoriya repeats these too. “How do you say friend?” Alma offers a rare smile and pronounces the word until Viktoriya gets it right.
When the wilds grow green, Viktoriya ventures out in search of fresh new things to eat. She leaves her bow at home, though she feels incomplete without an implement of killing. She gathers dandelions and sorrel, ramps, wild onions, and the tender cattail shoots from the swampy edges of the gossiping streams. The first time she sees a deer she stops, reaching for an arrow she does not have. All that is around her halts. Nothing moves, and then the wind pulls her hair. She takes a deep breath. There is meat in her cellar still. She has no need to waste this life, or any other.
The wind grows warmer every day, coaxing Viktoriya further and further from home. One day she finds herself by the edge of the fences surrounding Drakon’s store. Some part of her must have wanted to find herself there, but as she walks closer, the pull evaporates. She thinks of the contract still sitting in his safe, its tally marking her in full repayment of a debt he refuses to release. She wonders if there was ever truly anything of her in Drakon’s possession, or if the hollowness she felt was only ever his suggestion, to a gullible child. The wind begins to blow, carrying the scent of blooming apples, and she turns away. Her basket is full of tender greens that will taste better if she shares them with someone who matters.
The orchard is roofed with a canopy of pink and white blossoms. Over green clay bowls of spring salads dressed with crumbled goat’s cheese and crisp white cattail shoots, Viktoriya finds the words she has looked for since she last left Alma’s cottage. “If you knew,” she says, “if you knew, all along, that I didn’t need to buy my soul back, why didn’t you say?”
The blossoms rustle above the great stump and sections of mossy log that serve as table and chairs when the weather is too exhilarating to eat inside. Alma sets her whittled fork aside and rests her chin on her hand, looking down at the rings in the old dead tree. “I didn’t think it my place,” she says at last. “I would never tell anyone how to live.”
The wind is playing in the apple-tree canopy. A shower of petals falls slowly, catching in Alma’s hair and garnishing the bowls of salad like great soft flakes of fragrant snow. Viktoriya stares, transfixed. The wind laughs softly in the leaves as Alma finishes her greens.
When Alma looks up and sees her staring, Viktoriya hastily asks her how to say the word for apple.
“You look flushed,” Alma says. “Are you feeling well?” Viktoriya does not know how to answer until she sees the corner of Alma’s mouth lifting in a smile made of affectionate mischief.
Walking home in the hazy green twilight, Viktoriya spreads out her hands to feel the evening breeze. Something gentle coils around her sixth finger, cool and knowing. “It’s you,” she says. The wind tugs her hair in response. She laughs. “Thank you for walking with me.”
The wind departs when Viktoriya crosses the border of stones that marks the edge of her claim. The dogwood basket strapped to her back is heavy from the afternoon’s foraging, but her steps feel light, detached from the pull of the ground. She fills Alma’s pot with roots and shoots to simmer for a green spring soup while she hangs aromatic flowers and herbs from the rafters to dry. Later, she will stuff them into nettle-cloth bags to protect their brittleness from dust and soot. When winter returns she will steep them in clay-boiled water and drink down the memory of things that grow back.
Viktoriya falls asleep slowly as the wind comes in the open window to sing her a lullaby. The words it is singing sound like the language that may belong to her one day after all. The bearskin is comfortingly heavy. Viktoriya thinks of the bear she saw in the fire. She wonders if Alma will teach her the bear song, the one that someone sang to whoever Viktoriya was in her life before the fire. The nettle-cloth nightgown caresses her limbs, its soothing softness lulling her into stillness. She wonders if words can rebuild a soul as easily as they can remove the idea of one. She wonders who she will become as she learns to believe in life as a thing that cannot be owed. She wonders if a person can find new purpose for herself as easily as stuffing herbs into nettle-cloth bags that, emptied of apples, still hold the scent of sweet fruit and the remembrance of something more enduring than simple desire.
The wind comes to smooth her hair across her grass-scented pillow before it returns home to sing Alma to sleep. “Tell her I said goodnight,” Viktoriya says. “Tell her—”
She stops. Whatever she has to tell Alma will keep until Viktoriya can say the words herself.