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       Chernevog, p.5

           C. J. Cherryh
 

  So much the world knew of their doings: the old man felt safe from wizards and their doings, and had no notion what had happened up here in the woods, except herbs grew in the woods again.

  That was all it meant, all that they had ever done, wizards had changed, the dreadful rusalka was gone, and herbs helped an old man's cough.

  River water, dark and deep... Eveshka's ghost drifting above the waves, part of them...

  Eveshka had so much skill with growing things, she always had had: she could wish a garden to perfection, protect the seeds they planted, the creatures that ventured back into this woods She had all this love of life—even when foxes by their nature preyed on rabbits and on fieldmice. And she was wise about nature. He got attached to the mouse, he thought about foxes and he wanted it safe—because it was one particular mouse. But Eveshka had said to him, quite soberly, If you do that, he won't be free.

  He thought about that. He told himself he should have listened to Eveshka long since, that she had given him good advice, over all, much of which counseled him plainly to want as little as possible and to ignore her father.

  He heard voices from the bedroom, people he loved, people who did truly, in differing degrees and to their own capabilities love him: “Tie that, will you, Pyetr?”

  We'll be all right, he had argued with Uulamets. We'll manage; Pyetr can make the difference for us, because neither of us would ever hurt him.

  To which Uulamets' ghostly voice still said: Fools.

  Fool, Uulamets whispered again, plain as plain, while he was sitting on the hearth, stirring up the cakes and heating up the griddle. It was never Uulamets' advice that had brought them to live under one roof. In very fact, if one thought honestly about it, it was Chernevog who had thought wizards could live in the company of other folk. Chernevog had argued that a wizard could use wealth, rule cities—a wizard can do more good in the world, Chernevog had written in his youth, than tsars can ever do; and work far less harm than tsars have ever done.

  But at the very time Chernevog had been writing that, he had been deeply under the spell of Uulamets' wife: had become boy that he had been, Draga's student and very soon after that her lover—

  Draga ate him alive, Uulamets had said when he had found out.

  Uulamets had written: Two people can't have the same interests. They can't have the same wishes, not a man and his wife not a father and his daughter—not a teacher and his student.

  And the end of Chernevog's book said: Generations of cattle...

  “Up early?” Pyetr hailed him, opening the door beside the fireplace. Sasha rocked in startlement and spilled a big splash of batter off the griddle, making the fire throw ash.

  “Thinking,” Sasha said, rising, dusting ash off his knees as Eveshka followed Pyetr into the kitchen. “Breakfast is almost ready.”

  “God,” Eveshka said, “how many berries did you put in those cakes?”

  “A fistful.” Eveshka had her ways in the kitchen, her very precise ways, and he was instantly concerned about the things he had not yet cleared from the counter, wanting no offense, god, no quarrel in the house this morning.

  Pyetr said, sharply, “They're just fine, Eveshka.”

  “It's quite all right,” Sasha began to protest, in Eveshka's defense; but Eveshka was already stacking the spice-pots and the berry-cannister back the way she wanted them, rearranging things he had disarranged, saying, “God, Sasha, you must have used half the stores. Let a man in the kitchen—”

  “For the god's sake, Eveshka!” Pyetr cried, turning around; and Sasha quickly said, handing Pyetr the spatula: “Pyetr, watch those, will you?” The shelf Eveshka wanted the berries on was too high for her convenience: Sasha hurried over and put them up himself.

  “Thank you,” she said quite pleasantly, and smiled at him, seeming not to have noticed any upset in her wake, perfectly cheerful and intending to put her kitchen and both of them in the order she liked, too.

  Which left him standing there numb, wondering if he were the one losing his senses. Of course he could talk to Eveshka, he talked about a great number of things every day with Eveshka, they worked together to make their medicines and do simple householder things that Pyetr, not having grown up doing un aunt's various chores, had no notion how to do.

  He was Eveshka's friend, dammit, he trusted her; he did not know why he had suddenly begun to fear dealing with her, or how he had ever started thinking he could not make her understand his concerns.

  Of course she would give him good advice. He had just failed to listen to it, since it mostly said, Do nothing; stop worrying over things; let things take their own course. He found that very hard to do.

  She said, mercifully shoving plates into his hands: “Set the table.”

  He did that, while Pyetr started to turn the cakes, but Pyetr tended to miss his mark and sometimes even the griddle. Eveshka shooed him to the table and took over her fire and her hearth, thank you, bidding the two of them make tea, do something useful this morning and stay out from underfoot.

  Pyetr gave him an apologetic look, a shake of his head, as glum as Sasha had seen him in months.

  Which was not at all what he wanted, if he dared wish anything at all without upsetting the house.

  “God,” he said to Pyetr, “it's all right, it's her kitchen, don't worry about it, Pyetr. Please.”

  Pyetr gave him a second distressed look.

  Sasha bit his lip till it took his mind off wishing, while the domovoi made the timbers creak under the floor. He poured the tea and Eveshka slipped the cakes onto their plates. “They do smell wonderful,” she said brightly, a peace offering to one or the other of them—now that she had her way, Sasha thought; and sternly chided himself not to be so contrary-minded.

  We fight about things like that, we fight about cakes, but that's not what we really fight about, it's never what we should fight about so we can ever really settle things. She scolds Pyetr about her kitchen, but that doesn't matter to him—nothing like that matters to him, he really is an awful cook. It's when she does it to me that bothers him, and she knows that, absolutely she does. Why does she do that?

  Charred timbers against gray sky. Chernevog's house. Rain washing half-burned beams...

  “Sasha?”

  He blinked, his heart skipping a beat, realized she had sat down and said something about the honey in front of him. “Excuse me,” he said, and pushed it into her reach.

  She put honey on her cakes and passed it to Pyetr, who wondered whether it was the new pot or the old-God, Sasha thought, what's the matter with me?

  Is it my doing?

  “Isn't it?” Pyetr asked him about something, he had no idea what. He became aware of Eveshka and Pyetr both looking at him, aware of Eveshka wishing him to get his wits about him, not to upset Pyetr with his foolishness.

  “Did you get any sleep last night?” Pyetr asked.

  Sasha took a breath, trying to recollect what the two of them had been saying most recently, mumbled, “Some.”

  “Liar. Eveshka, —” Pyetr laid his hand flat on the table. “Sasha. Both of you. Answer me, a simple question: do we send the horse back or not?”

  “No,” Eveshka said firmly.

  “Sasha?” Pyetr asked.

  “No,” Sasha said, because it was too late for any such thing.

  Pyetr just stared at one and the other of them, as if he was sure it was conspiracy.

  “It's done,” Eveshka said. “It's all right, Pyetr. Done's done. Nothing's wrong. Believe me, nothing's wrong.”

  Another moment of silence. “God,” Pyetr said.

  “It's all right,” Sasha said earnestly. “It really is, Pyetr. We'll take care of it, I promise you. There's no chance of anybody coming after him, nobody in his right mind would come in here looking for him, would they? We'll make a stable shed, put up a solid pen, we'll be sure he stays out of Eveshka's garden...”

  “There's nothing to worry about,” Eveshka said, got up, walked around the end of the
table and kissed Pyetr on the forehead. Kissed him twice more—not on the forehead. “No, Babi's just sulking, just jealous. He'll get over it.”

  Sasha saw Pyetr's little hesitation, then, the little frown before Pyetr said, as smoothly as if he had said aloud what Eveshka had just answered, ’‘Well, dammit, still, it's not like him to take off this long.”

  Maybe she answered Pyetr then without a word, too, pressing some point about her privileges with him. Sasha found distraction in his plate, in the reflection of firelight on gold. Their plates, spoils of Chernevog, were mostly gold, the platter silver, with jewels, but the teacups they used at breakfast were the old ones, Uulamets' plain pottery...

  His had a crack which Uulamets' casual wish probably still kept from breaking.

  All these years.

  Sasha murmured, getting up as Eveshka started taking the dishes away: “I'll help you clean up.”

  Pyetr caught his arm. “Too much thinking going on here. Forget the dishes. Let's see if there's a carrot left, see if the rascal got out last night. Both of you. —Veshka? Come on. It'll do everybody good.”

  “I've notes to make,” Eveshka said, over a clatter of plates in the washing pan. “Too many changes yesterday. It's all right, go on, go on, off with you.” Pyetr looked at Sasha.

  “Later I will,” Sasha said, ducking his head, gathering up the teacups, sure that he had to pursue what he had started with Eveshka. Now. It was all getting too strange and felt too unreasonable.

  “Later. Later. God. —You spend too much time with that damn book, boy.” Pyetr was put out with him: he was put out with both of them, with reason, Sasha was sure. Pyetr said, again: “Come on. Clear the cobwebs out of your thinking. Get your hands on a horse again. It'll do you good.”

  Volkhi muddled his thinking even without his touching him. “I can't,” Sasha said unhappily, to which Pyetr flung up his hands and said to Eveshka: “You reason with him.”

  Eveshka only looked back over her shoulder with a sober, enigmatic: “Don't you know? You can't argue with him.”

  “God,” Pyetr said, “I'm going to talk to my horse. Books make you crazy, you know.” A motion at his head. “Thinking all those little crooked marks mean real things, that's not sane, you know.” He waved the same hand toward the front door. “Out there is real. Don't lose track of that.” “Don't forget your coat,” Eveshka said. “I don't need a coat. I plan to work. Like honest, ordinary folk. It's sit-abouts that need coats on a day like this.” Pyetr took the bucket they had put the honeyed grain in, opened the door on daylight, went back to take a remainder of last night's honey-cakes, and went back a third time to pick up the vodka jug from off the kitchen counter. “Bribes,” he explained. “The whole world works on sufficient bribes.” “Don't trample the garden!” Eveshka called out to him. Pyetr made a face, swept his cap off the peg, gathered up his bucket from beside the door, the vodka jug in the other hand, and pulled the door to behind him with his foot, Sasha started dipping water into the pan to wash the dishes. Eveshka said not a word to him, wished him nothing. - Sasha said, aloud, “I didn't sleep at all last night. Eveshka, I keep thinking something's wrong.”

  “Let's not talk about it. Done's done. It's all right.”

  “It's not about the horse. It's about us fighting.”

  “We don't fight.”

  “We're fighting now.”

  “ I 'm not fighting. I don't know what you're doing, but I certainly don't intend to fight.” Eveshka went back to the fireplace after the griddle, then took a cloth, got down on her hands and knees and started cleaning up the ash he had gotten on her floor.

  “Let me do that.”

  “ I 'm perfectly fine. Everything's perfectly fine. I 'm not mad, dammit!”

  “ Listen to me.” He got down on his knees and took the cloth away from her, but she would not look at him. She got up and wont away to the counter, so he scrubbed the boards and the stone where the ash had landed, and got up to hang the rag on an empty peg to dry.

  Stop, she wished him, so violently he looked at her. “Not with the good ones,” she said. “Hang it by the fire. I'll get it later.”

  He hung the offending rag where she wanted it, on the spare pothook, anxious to keep the peace any way he could. Aunt Ilenka had been that way about her kitchen. One supposed it came with marriage.

  He did not want to think that, either. Eveshka eavesdropped; he was doing it now, he felt it plain as plain. She knew he felt it and wished he would go outside with Pyetr and leave her be.

  “I think,” he said aloud, standing his ground, “I think our not getting a bannik must have been my fault. I think with what happened yesterday—we need one, badly, and we ought to try. Hut I don't want to be wishing it on my own, I don't want to be wishing things about the house that you don't want.”

  “What does a bannik have to do with anything? Or with the horse? That's done, that's all. We don't need anything else mudying the waters. Just stop worrying about it, Sasha!”

  “It might stop things we haven't done yet. It might tell us—”

  “It won't.”

  “It might stop things from going wrong.”

  “Who said they were going wrong?”

  “They're not going exactly right, are they?”

  “Banniks don't like wizards. They don't talk, any more than Babi, any more than the domovoi: they show you things, and they never make sense.”

  “But if we had the least idea where what we're wishing might take us—”

  “It never helps. We change things, we're constantly changing things and you can't tell, you can't tell anything by what they say and they don't like it. Papa used to say.” Every time Eveshka mentioned her father she would frown guardedly and look at him as if she were looking for echoes. ‘‘And we don't need it.”

  “I still think-”

  “Our bannik didn't help us. I didn't see what was going to happen to me. We didn't see anything about Kavi Chernevog.” She never talked about her dying. She scrubbed furiously at the last dish, bit her lip and said, “I'm sure I'll like the horse. If it makes Pyetr happy, I'm happy.”

  She hardly looked happy. Sasha said: “Is there some reason not?”

  “What?”

  “About the bannik. Is there some reason not to want one?”

  “It doesn't help. It didn't help, I'm telling you! Why don't you go help Pyetr?”

  “Eveshka. Why wouldn't you want it here?”

  “For the god's sake why should I care? Why should I care if we do or if we don't? What's that to do with anything?”

  “Things just aren't right,” he said, thinking of the shelf, thinking of—

  —the stability of everything. Everything in balance. Chernevog, in the leshys' keeping; Uulamets; all the hundreds of wishes that might be loose about this place and all the dangers for as long as they lived and worked magic here.

  “Things have been perfectly right,” she said, drying the bowl. ‘‘Things have been perfectly right for years before this, and what you did is done, and there's not a thing we can do that doesn't make a bigger thing of it than it is, so just let it be, Sasha Vasilyevitch, for the god's sake, just forget about it, you're the one who's making an argument out of it.”

  “I want your help.”

  “If you want a bannik, if you want a horse and a pig and a goat besides, god, I'm sure I don't care. It's your house.”

  “It's not my house.”

  “I 'm sure papa intended it.”

  “Your father gave me the book. Nothing else.”

  A spoon clattered onto the counter. “Papa gave you a lot else.”

  There was long silence.

  “Not as much as you imagine,” he said. He had been wanting to say it for years. He had tried to say it that way for years. But it fell short, he saw the set of her chin. “You don't know what I imagine.”

  “Eveshka,” he said, treading further and further onto dangerous ground, “Eveshka, you don't want me here, do you? Not really.”
/>
  “I never said I didn't want you here. I don't want you here now, that's all, I don't want you in my kitchen and I don't want to talk about that damned horse. I'm sick of talking about the horse!”

  “You’re mad at me.”

  “I 'm not mad at you!” She flung down the dishtowel. ’‘You're being stupid, Sasha Vasilyevitch, I don't know what put this idea of a bannik into your head, but you're acting the fool—you've been acting the fool for a month, and I wish you'd stop it! If you want a bannik, wish up a bannik, wish up whatever you like.”

  “That's what I'm worried about,” he said. He wanted her to know he was confused, and scared, because he was not her father, he was not even sure he knew what her father would have wished except to keep them out from under the same roof, and he did not even know if it was his idea to leave the house and live elsewhere Or if it was Uulamets'.

  That set Eveshka off her balance. She wanted him outside, wanted him to quit bothering her with his wishes and his worries, forbade him to talk about building another house, wanted him not to upset Pyetr with his ideas and never to talk to her about her father—wanted three things and four all at the same time, and stopped wishing at all, folding her arms tightly and biting her lips before something else escaped her.

  “I'm inconvenient,” Sasha said carefully, “and even if none of us wants that to be true, it is, I know it is. It's very hard to get along just with Pyetr—”

  “I’ve no trouble getting along with Pyetr!”

  “But I do,” he said, wishing she would be honest. “At least enough, and I've lived in town with people...”

  “I'm not a fool! Don't treat me like one!”

  “I know you're not.”

  “I'm tired of hearing about that damned horse! I don't want to want anything, I just want peace—”

  She stopped herself and bit her lip, and hoped that wish desperately to safety. He tried to help.

  “Please.”

  “—peace with all of us,” she said firmly. “Leave it at that”

  “Eveshka, I'm not sure about things, I'm not sure about what we're doing.”

  “Leave it alone!” Eveshka said. She turned away from him and started straightening up the counter.

 
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