When the sun is sinking toward the mountains behind you, you begin to count things. You count the steps it takes to carry you the length of your shadow. You count the number of days since your last shave. You try to calculate the number of coins in your satchel as it smacks against your thigh—you know, of course, down to the kopeck, money being far too precious in the last few months to leave your mind even while you sleep. Then the horrors of the night the war found you rush back, the stench of fire, the sound of children crying, the way her eyes would not reflect the flames. But you shake your head, throw your weight against the door, shout down the crowd, and resume your counting, like an idiot, out loud.
Fourteen cedars anchored in the outcrop of rock a mile to the north. Seven birds flying small and silent against the clouds. Fifty-three stones large enough to stumble over since you last stopped to piss.
The wind is in your face, sullen and cold, howling across the emptiness—or is it wolves? The sun is nearly sunken, like a treasure ship on fire, beneath the shoulders of the mountains. The ground is beginning to frost, sparkling faintly in the gloaming. When the sun is gone, you will be able to see the glow of his fire through the trees, as soon as the road rounds these hills. You will make out the contours of his house through the darkness, but you will never imagine that it is him within, secure as Esau in his hate. The wind will whip through your bones, and you will feel a sudden quiver, like an echo of old sin, and you will go to him, the man from whom you stole everything, and beg for shelter.
A narrow path leads down from the road into a forest of pines. Firelight burns among them. I hitch up my satchel and descend into the trees as the last glow of evening perishes at my back. The light of the fire burnishes the trunks of the trees and the tangled weave of roots covering the path, casting everything else into darkness. Snow begins to fall.
The house stands before me, simple and poor, but warm. A small horse cart piled with wooden carvings sits beneath the window, the shapes of crucifixes and icons solid in the flickering light. A vague tremor of memory stirs inside me. The wind has grown fiercer, torturing the pine branches, snatching the hood from my head and blowing through my hair.
I go to the door and listen. The crackle of flame cuts through the wind and nothing else. I knock. For a moment there is no response. Then I hear a man's cough and the sound of booted feet coming over the wood floor. The door opens inward. My eyes strain in the sudden flood of light to make out the figure in the doorway. A thin man, his hair cropped closely and clumsily, his face soft and honest, his eyes blue as stars seen by a drowning man.
"My God," I gasp. "It's you."
He looks down at me from the door step, appraising me as a good-hearted, but weary man might appraise an imbecile peddling candle wax. His eyes move over me, the sodden legs of my fine cotton trousers, the ragged mink lining of my cloak. I can almost see the mud and scab splashed across it, a desolate stream running down from the wound on my jaw. The look of starvation in my eyes, blackened from lack of sleep and weeks of exposure. He looks at me, his hand still on the door handle, his face expressionless.
At last, he holds the door open. "Gospodin Abramov. Please come in, sir."
By 1555, Andrei Abramov's silk trade was flourishing. The profits from the previous year had enabled him to expand into teas and painted china and furnished him with a new house near the center of town. After three glasses of wine, he was known to boast that when he woke up in the morning, he could look out the window and see Mayor Kozlov shaving. His wealth seemed to multiply naturally. "My cash box is full of rabbits," he claimed. There was a rumor circulating among the other merchants of Suzdal that he had made a deal with the provincial governor and was being overlooked at tax time. Among the general populace though, Andrei was well-liked, owing largely to the notorious parties he held at his house twice a month, to which nearly all the town were invited, with the deliberate exception of the merchants and aristocrats.
It was an idiosyncrasy that made him popular with the commoners. He respected them and sincerely enjoyed their company. He would drink with them long into the night until one by one, men and women, Tatars and Slavs, Cossacks and Jews, beggars and journeymen, had passed out in sweet oblivion on his couches and rugs. The Sunday afternoon exodus of Abramov's guests was something talked about in all the taverns of Zalesye.
As Abramov's trade grew in the following years, so did his reputation. His sudden and wicked sense of humor was feared by his enemies and praised by his friends. Following a particularly raucous evening at his house, he was publicly denounced as a profligate by the abbot of Saint Euthymius. The following night, he sent a young "Emissary from the Reverend Mother of the Convent of Saint Alexander" to the monastery with the words "From One to Another" written on her chest. He received no more criticism from the abbot.
One day in the late summer of 1561, a plague struck the city of Suzdal. Many claimed it was a sign from God Himself, others that it was the work of witches, but Abramov saw it as a business opportunity. Termites, carried on a wind from the east, descended on the city in millions, covering the roofs and filling the gutters. They were large and voracious, pearl-white and with a mark on their backs like a tear of fire. Within a week, the house of the judge's executor had collapsed. At sunset, four more followed. By morning, cattle roamed the streets, having broken through their desiccated pens. The walls around the kreml had been reduced to splinters, and the town crier was in the square, dead insects lying like snow all around him, proclaiming the Saturday evening mass at Pokrovsky cathedral cancelled. Nothing was left of the pews but a little sawdust. As it turned out, not only had the pews been eaten, but the crucifixes and all the wooden icons as well, and not only at Pokrovsky, but in every cathedral, convent, and monastery in Suzdal.
Abramov seized the opportunity and hired the first woodcarver he could find to replace them, an itinerant carpenter named Kiryakov who had been traveling to Moskva when the strange storm arrived. Due to the length of the engagement, Abramov provided one of his guest houses for the woodcarver and his wife to live in until the work was done. Kiryakov was immediately popular with the clergy—Abramov had promised them cruci, but the artist gave them lacquered corpi as well, miraculously subtle works perfectly balanced between anguish and epiphany. The head priest at Rozhdestvensky was so enamored of them that he offered Kiryakov a commission to create a rood for the chancel arch, something that had never been seen east of the Dnieper. Kiryakov accepted. The following day, however, he was nowhere to be found. The night watchman was the last to see him, leaving Suzdal alone, going due east through the driving snow on the small horse cart on which he had come. His wife remained at Abramov's estate, and at the next of his parties, she was seated beside him at the head of the banquet table.
Abramov brought on a replacement as soon as he could, but his work was not nearly as delicate and many of the clergy sent his pieces back two or three times with complaints. Finally, the churches hired their own artists and Kiryakov's replacement was dismissed. It was a full year before all the crucifixes were replaced. Those at Saint Euthymius were done last, of course.
Kiryakov goes to the hearth, takes a wooden ladle from the mantel and begins to stir the pot hanging over the fire. The room is barely large enough for the furniture it contains—a mattress of straw on a cramped wooden frame, a table large enough for two on the opposite wall, and a pair of rough chairs before the hearth. A crucifix hangs over the mantel, the ivory paint on the Christ's hands and feet chipped where the maker had driven actual nails into the wood.
Kiryakov takes a cup from the table and fills it from the pot. He turns halfway toward me, and then drinks the cup to the bottom.
"You must be hungry, Gospodin," he says. "You may help yourself to all I have—" He gestures to the table, where half a loaf of dark bread sits beside a hank of dried meat. "—little that it is."
My hunger overcomes my shame. The bread is hard, but the smell of it, after three days of wandering on the road nearly overcomes me. The grain is coarse, mealy with chaff and husks, but its taste is more blessed than any of the feasts I threw in the days before the war. I lose myself in the rapture of eating. Almost all of the bread and more than half of the meat is gone before I remember Kiryakov seated before the fire.
I can't look at him, the crown of his head as bare now as a monk's, his figure little more than a shadow against the fire. I lay down the morsels of bread and meat and step toward the door.
"It would do me a great honor if you would remain here for the night," Kiryakov says.
I falter and catch myself with a hand against the door. The thought that I could make it to the next village is extinguished—I could hardly make it up the road in this condition.
"Forgive my rudeness. I would be very grateful."
I go to take the empty chair. The walk across the room is long, the space between each step a yawning emptiness. When I reach the hearth, I fall into the chair, feeling as worn out as a wrung rag. Marcus rises and fills his cup again from the pot hanging over the flames. He gives it to me without a word and returns to his chair. The steam curling up from the medovukha is bitter and heady. I drink and wince, my dry throat painfully welcoming the first drink in over two days. When the cup is empty, Marcus holds out his hand. I give it to him and he fills it once more, returning it to me. I'm too weary to make any polite refusals.
"What brings you here, Abramov?"
My eyes are drawn to the gaps between the floor boards, the brittle mortar between the hearthstones, the joint in the center of the mantle. My mind wanders back to the terror of that night—the noise and the violence. Staggering away into the darkness, the city burning on the plain behind me. The bodies of horses frozen stiff along the road in the morning light. Carriages overturned in the thistle, linens and baggage spilled like entrails behind them. None of those who fled—no bodies. Except one—a young girl, no older than seven, lying naked in the road like a cherub struck out of heaven. Her long braid clutched in one small hand. Picking what I could from the few chests left unclaimed, only what I needed to get to Nizhny. No more than I needed. The long days and nights under the sky.
"The Crimeans burned Suzdal," I tell him, staring at the floor. "They came at night. Half the garrison had gone to defend Moskva, and those that were left..."
Mayor Kozlov's head on a pike in the city square. Lord Baranov and his family bound in chains.
"They came at night—I was sleeping at the table—I had thrown a party..."
"Where is Ilsa?"
My eyes flicker to his face and quickly away.
"Where is she?"
I rub my forehead, grimacing. The medovukha is boiling now, spilling into the fire, making the flames leap up and lick the stone of the hearth. Out of my senseless dreams I felt my hand gripped tight. In the darkness there were shouts of dismay. The wine was heavy on my eyes, and for some time I could only listen. Sounds like trees bending and cracking, porcelain being crushed on the floor, bodies fumbling against chairs, toppling candle stands. When I managed to open my eyes, I saw Ilsa looking at me. She looked shocked. Her hand was still clasping mine. I couldn't loosen it. "Ilsa," I said, shaking her arm. It was heavy and still. Her eyes were fixed on my face, her disbelief centered on me. I hardly noticed the fire consuming the room around me, only that the flames did not touch her eyes. They were distant as the eyes of saints. A roofbeam from the arched ceiling of my own house, lay across her shoulders, smoldering.
Kiryakov is sobbing quietly into his hands as droplets of gold spill over the pot and into the living flame, making the shadows dance over me. I can feel them, fleshless as wind, heavy as the earth. The eyes of the Christ hung above the mantle are dead and staring. In the smoke, overflowing the chimney hatch and wreathing around it, every wound stands out sharply, as if newly made—blood and water running down from the wound in his ribs, the cracked bone of his legs bulging beneath his skin, the bruises on his face congealed, his lips split from thirst. The smoke and flames rise higher and lick the wood of the cross, raising a stench of burning flesh. Kiryakov falls to his knees and clutches his hands to his chest. "Lord, have mercy," he weeps, "Lord, have mercy." My eyes find those of the Christ once more and a shudder goes through me, as if my chest were opened to the wind. In the smoke they seem alive, steady, silent.
"I don't know," I whisper, and turn my face away.
When I wake, the fire has died, leaving only a shadow of soot on the wall above the hearth. The crucifix is untouched, its ivory lacquer dully shining in the morning light. Kiryakov is gone, only a line of footsteps leading to the door through the thin layer of ash lain over everything.
I gather my coat around me, glancing at the crust of bread and the dried meat still lying on the table. After a moment, I take them up, roll them in a blanket and set off, out of the house and up the path through the pines to the road.
When the money of your enemies was stacked against you, you will say to your brother's children as they gather around your bed, their faces still as the Oka before morning, you set your coat around your shoulders and ran. There is no shame in that, you will say, because a man owes more to the world than his blood. If a man must run, he should run till his lungs burst. Your brother's sons and daughters will feel a stirring in their hearts, because they feel your whole life must have been leading to these words, and now they have arrived. It is the sacredness of age.
When you reach the old stronghold, you have nothing but the clothes on your body. The wound in your jaw has begun to rot, down into the muscle and bone, down past healing. The physician gives you a skin of vodka and orders you to drink, and when you have, the assistant sets his knee on your breastbone while his teacher takes a knife from the fire. After that day, you will let your beard grow long. When your nephew asks about it as the two of you walk along the wall, you will tell him of the Crimean swordsman and how you struggled with him in the dark while the city burned. You will tell him of the month you spent wandering the road, and of how still the air is around a person who has died in the open country. You will say nothing of the woodcarver or his wife whom you loved. Marcus Kiryakov—none remember him now. Even the priests who bear his crucifixes at mass have forgotten his name.
You will tell your nephew of the spice markets of Taprobane and of the great empty steppes of the Mongol horselords, of the Mandarin woman you had on the banks of the Huang He, and of the strange creature you saw while hunting in the Carpathians, black-scaled with eyes like embers. You will recount for him all the wonders of your life, but you will never speak to anyone of Ilsa's face or of Kiryakov's tears or of the cross upon the wall, because all your life you have been running from the thing that is hunting you, a west-wind howling across the plains, or is it wolves?