<em>Deathless</em> (Excerpt)
Thu
Jan 20 2011 12:06pm
Deathless (Excerpt)
Catherynne M. Valente

Deathless is the highly-anticipated new standalone novel by award-winning speculative fiction author Catherynne M. Valente, due out from Tor Books on March 29, 2011. Deathless re-envisions the story of Russian folk figures Koschei the Deathless and Marya Morevna: a collision of magical history and actual history, of revolution and mythology, of love and death, which will bring Russian myth to life in a stunning new incarnation.

You can read about the cover art here. Keep an eye on Tor.com for more special previews of this spectacular book.

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Prologue: Don’t Look Behind You

Woodsmoke hung heavy and golden on the shorn wheat, the earth bristling like an old, bald woman. The apple trees had long ago been stripped for kindling; the cherry roots long since dug up and boiled into meal. The sky sagged cold and wan, coughing spatters of phlegmatic sunlight onto the grey and empty farms. The birds had gone, arrows flung forth in invisible skirmishes, always south, always away. Yet three skinny, molting creatures clapped a withered pear branch in their claws, peering down with eyes like rosary beads: a gold-speckled plover, a sharp-billed shrike, and a bony, black-faced rook clutched the greenbark trunk. A wind picked up; it smelled of clover growing through the roof, rust, and old, dry marrow.

The boy stood sniffling, snot and tears dripping down his chin.

He tried to knuckle it away, rubbing his nose red and scratching his belly with the other scuffed-up hand. His hair was colorless, his age vague, though no fuzz showed on his face, no squareness set his jaw, and his ribs would have been narrow even if they had meat on them. His eyes drooped, too tired to squint in the autumnal light. The sun slashed through his pupils, stirring shadows there.

“Comrade Tkachuk!” A young woman’s voice cut through the brisk, ashy wind like scissors. “You have been accused of desertion, gross cowardice in the face of the enemy. Do you deny this?”

The boy stared at the pair of officers and their polished tribunal bench, dragged from a truck into this wasted field for the purpose of punishing him, as though the army were a terrible stern mother, and he a child who had not come to dinner when called. His nose dribbled.

“On the eighteenth of June,” continued the staff sergeant, her pen scratching against her notepad like a bird in the dust, “did you report for service when Lieutenant-General Tereshenko opened his books to the village of Mikhaylovka so that all might know glory on earth through the gift of their bodies to the People?”

“N-no . . .” mumbled the boy, his voice thick and slurred, an illiterate voice, a field hand’s lazy vowels. The officer’s nose wrinkled in distaste.

“Why not?” she barked, the buttons on her olive uniform blinking like eyes in the sun.

“I . . . I’m . . . eleven, ma’am.” The sergeant frowned, but did not open her arms to him, did not gather him up or smooth his hair or feed him bread. He hurried on. “And I got this bad leg. Broke when I were six. I...I falled out a cherry tree. The man come with his big book, and I run and hidded with the pigs. Don’t want t’be in the army. Wouldn’t be no good soldier anyhow.”

The staff sergeant’s gaze sharpened itself on the boy’s fumbling speech. “The service of your body is not yours to give as you please. It belongs to the People, and you have stolen from us by means of your weakness. However, the People are not unkind. Just as you chose to hide among pigs rather than serve among lions, you may now choose your reprimand: execution by firing squad, which is no more than you deserve, or service in a penalty battalion.”

The boy stared, his eyes glassy and mute.

“That will be the front lines, son,” said the senior officer, her rough voice honey-full of infinite mercy. The rook ruffled her feathers; the shrike clacked her beak. The plover called, mournful and high. A wind kicked at the grasses, then, sudden and brief, neither warm nor sweet. The senior officer’s thick, dark hair was plaited around her head like a corona, her stare hard and tired. “You probably won’t survive. But you might. You’re small; we all were, once. You could be missed in the ranks. It has been known to happen.”

The staff sergeant looked bored. She made a note on her pad. “Comrade Tkachuk, what is it you want?”

The boy said nothing for a moment, his gaze moving between the two officers, seeking mercy like a boar snuffling for mushrooms in the loam. Finding nothing, he simply started to cry: thin, dry, starved tears cutting through the dirt on his face. His little chest heaved jerkily; his shoulders shook as though snow was already falling. He rubbed his nose furiously on a bare arm. Blood showed pinkish in the mucus.

“I want t’go home,” he sobbed.

The plover shrieked as though pierced with long thorns. The shrike hid her face. The rook could not bear witness—she opened her black wings to the air.

Major-General Marya Morevna sat impassively and watched the child weep. The staff sergeant tapped her pen impatiently.

“Go,” Morevna whispered. “Run. Don’t look behind you.” The boy looked at her dumbly. “Run, boy,” the major-general whispered. The boy ran. Flecks of dead earth flew up behind him. The wind caught them, and carried them away towards the sea.

 

PART 1: A Long, Thin House

And you will arrive under a soldier’s black mantle
With the fearful greenish candle
And will not show your face to me.
But the riddle cannot torment me for long:
Whose hand is here, under that white glove
Who sent this wanderer, who comes in darkness?

—Anna Akhmatova

 

Chapter 1: Three Husbands Come to Gorokhovaya Street

In a city by the sea which was once called St. Petersburg, then Petrograd, then Leningrad, then, much later, St. Petersburg again, there stood a long, thin house on a long, thin street. By

a long, thin window, a child in a pale blue dress and pale green slippers waited for a bird to marry her.

This would be cause for most girls to be very gently closed up in their rooms until they ceased to think such alarming things, but Marya Morevna had seen all three of her sisters’ husbands from her window before they knocked at the great cherrywood door, and thus she was as certain of her own fate as she was certain of the color of the moon.

The first came when Marya was only six, and her sister Olga was tall as she was fair, her golden hair clapped back like a hay-roll in autumn. It was a silvery damp day, and long, thin clouds rolled up onto their roof like neat cigarettes. Marya watched from the upper floor as birds gathered in the oak trees, sniping and snapping at the first and smallest drops of rain, which all winged creatures know are the sweetest, like tiny grapes bursting on the tongue. She laughed to see the rooks skirmish over the rain, and as she did, the flock turned as one to look at her, their eyes like needle points. One of them, a fat black fellow, leaned perilously forward on his green branch and, without taking his gaze from Marya’s window, fell hard—thump, bash!—onto the streetside. But the little bird bounced up, and when he righted himself, he was a handsome young man in a handsome black uniform, his buttons flashing like raindrops, his nose large and cruelly curved.

The young man knocked at the great cherrywood door, and Marya Morevna’s mother blushed under his gaze.

“I have come for the girl in the window,” he said with a clipped, sweet voice. “I am Lieutenant Gratch of the Tsar’s Personal Guard. I have many wonderful houses full of seed, many wonderful fields full of grain, and I have more dresses than she could wear, even if she changed her gown at morning, evening, and midnight each day of her life.”

“You must mean Olga,” said Marya’s mother, her hand fluttering to her throat. “She is the oldest and most beautiful of all my daughters.”

And so Olga, who had indeed sat at the first-floor window, which faced the garden full of fallen apples and not the street, was brought to the door. She was filled like a wineskin with the rich sight of her handsome young man in his handsome black uniform, and kissed him very chastely on the cheeks. They walked together down Gorokhovaya Street, and he bought for her a golden hat with long black feathers tucked into its brim.

When they returned in the evening, Lieutenant Gratch looked up into the violet sky and sighed. “This is not the girl in the window. But I will love her as though she was, for I see now that that one is not meant for me.”

And so Olga went gracefully to the estates of Lieutenant Gratch, and wrote prettily worded letters home to her sisters, in which her verbs built castles and her datives sprung up like well-tended roses.

The second husband came when Marya was nine, and her sister Tatiana was sly and ruddy as a fox, her sharp grey eyes clapping upon every fascinating thing. Marya Morevna sat at her window embroidering the hem of a christening dress for Olga’s second son. It was spring, and the morning rain had left their long, thin street slick and sparkling, jeweled with wet pink petals. Marya watched from the upper floor as once more the birds gathered in the great oak tree, sniping and snapping for the soaked and wrinkled cherry blossoms, which every winged creature knows are the most savory of all blossoms, like spice cakes melting on the tongue. She laughed to see the plovers scuffle over the flowers, and as she did, the flock turned as one to look at her, their eyes like knifepoints. One of them, a little brown fellow, leaned perilously forward on his green branch and, without taking his gaze from Marya’s window, fell hard—thump, bash!—onto the streetside. But the little bird bounced up, and when he righted himself, he was a handsome young man in a handsome brown uniform with a long white sash, his buttons flashing like sunshine, his mouth round and kind.

The young man knocked at the great cherrywood door, and Marya Morevna’s mother smiled under his gaze.

“I am Lieutenant Zuyok of the White Guard,” he said, for the face of the world had changed. “I have come for the girl in the window. I have many wonderful houses full of fruits, many wonderful fields full of worms, and I have more jewels than she could wear, even if she changed her rings at morning, evening, and midnight each day of her life.”

“You must mean Tatiana,” said Marya’s mother, pressing her hand to her breast. “She is the second oldest and second most beautiful of my daughters.”

And so Tatiana, who had indeed sat at the first-floor window, which faced the garden full of apple blossoms and not the street, came to the door. She was filled like a silk balloon with the flaming sight of her handsome young man in his handsome brown uniform, and kissed him, not very chastely at all, on the mouth. They walked together through Gorokhovaya Street, and he bought for her a white hat with long chestnut-colored feathers tucked into its brim.

When they returned in the evening, Lieutenant Zuyok looked up into the turquoise sky and sighed. “This is not the girl in the window. But I will love her as though she was, for I see now that one is not meant for me.”

And so Tatiana went happily to the estates of Lieutenant Zuyok, and wrote sophisticated letters home to her sisters, in which her verbs danced in square patterns and her datives were laid out like tables set for feasting.

The third husband came when Marya was twelve, and her sister Anna was slim and gentle as a fawn, her blush quicker than shadows passing. Marya Morevna sat at her window embroidering the collar of a party dress for Tatiana’s first daughter. It was winter, and the snow on Gorokhovaya Street piled high and mounded, like long frozen barrows. Marya watched from the upper floor as once again the birds gathered in the great oak tree, sniping and snapping for the last autumn nuts, stolen from squirrels and hidden in bark-cracks, which every winged creature knows are the most bitter of all nuts, like old sorrows sitting heavy on the tongue. She laughed to see the shrikes scuffle over the acorns, and as she did, the flock turned as one to look at her, their eyes like bayonet points. One of them, a stately grey fellow with a red stripe at his cheek, leaned perilously forward on his green branch and, without taking his gaze from Marya’s window, fell hard—thump, bash!—onto the streetside. But the little bird bounced up, and when he righted himself, he was a handsome young man in a handsome grey uniform with a long red sash, his buttons flashing like streetlamps, his eyes narrow with a wicked cleverness.

The young man knocked at the great cherrywood door, and Marya Morevna’s mother frowned under his gaze.

“I am Lieutenant Zhulan of the Red Army,” he said, for the face of the world had begun to struggle with itself, unable to decide on its features. “I have come for the girl in the window. I have many wonderful houses which I share equally among my fellows, many wonderful rivers full of fish which are shared equally among all those with nets, and I have more virtuous books than she could read, even if she read a different one at morning, evening, and midnight each day of her life.”

“You must mean Anna,” said Marya’s mother, her hand firmly at her hip. “She is the third oldest and third most beautiful of my daughters.”

And so Anna, who had indeed sat at the first-floor window, which faced the garden full of bare branches and not the street, was brought to the door. She was filled like a pail of water with the sweet sight of her handsome young man in his handsome grey uniform, and with a terrible shyness allowed him to kiss only her hand. They walked together through the newly named Kommissarskaya Street, and he bought for her a plain grey cap with a red star on the brim.

When they returned in the evening, Lieutenant Zhulan looked up into the black sky and sighed. “This is not the girl in the window. But I will love her as though she was, for I see now that that one is not meant for me.”

And so Anna went dutifully to the estates of Lieutenant Zhulan, and wrote properly worded letters home to her sisters, in which her verbs were distributed fairly among the nouns, and her datives asked for no more than they required.

 

Chapter 2: The Red Scarf

In that city by the sea which was now firmly called Petrograd and did not even remember, under pain of punishment, having been called St. Petersburg, in that long, thin house on that long, thin street, Marya Morevna sat by her window, knitting a little coat for Anna’s first son. She was fifteen years, fifteen days, and fifteen hours of age, the fourth oldest and fourth prettiest. She waited calmly for the birds to gather in the summer trees, waited for them to do battle over thick crimson cherries, and for one of them to lean perilously forward on his branch, so very far forward— but no bird came, and she began to worry for herself.

She let her long black hair hang unbraided. She walked barefoot over the floorboards of the house on Gorokhovaya Street to preserve her only shoes for the long walk to school—and Marya, like a child whose widowed mother has married again, could never remember to call the long, thin street by its new name, having known it as Gorokhovaya for all her youth. There were other families in the house now, of course, for no fine roof such as this should be kept to one selfish patronym.

It was obscene to do so, Marya’s father agreed. It is surely better this way, Marya’s mother said, nodding. Twelve mothers and twelve fathers were stacked into the long, thin house, each with four children, drawing the old cobalt-andsilver curtains down the center of rooms to make labyrinths of twelve dining rooms, twelve sitting rooms, twelve bedrooms. It could be said, and was, that Marya Morevna had twelve mothers and twelve fathers, and so did all the children of that long, thin house. But all of Marya’s mothers laughed at her aimless manner. All her fathers looked troubled at her wild, loose hair. All their children stole her biscuits from the communal table. They did not like her, and she did not like them. They were in her house, in her things, and though it was surely virtuous to share, her stomach had not marched in any demonstration, and did not understand its patriotic duty. And if they thought her aimless, if they thought her a bit mad, let them. It meant they left her alone. Marya was not aimless, anyway. She was thinking.

It takes a very long time to think through something as peculiar as the birds. One cannot simply leave it to the usual bash and bustle of memory and its underhanded tactics. And so, as it became clear that no shrike would come and take her away from her overcrowded house, the incessant noise of all those Blodnieks cooking or Dyachenkos fixing up the staircase; away from her hair growing thinner and more brittle as the communal table had to stretch further and further, from Comrade Piakovsky’s sweaty staring in her direction; Marya’s mind marshaled itself to the task of sorting out the whole business. No matter what she appeared to do—sweeping out the leaves or studying her history or helping one of her mothers sew a shirt—her heart raced with problem of the birds, trying to outrun it into someplace where everything could make sense again.

Marya pinned out her childhood like a butterfly. She considered it the way a mathematician considers an equation. Given: the world is ordered in such a way that birds may be expected to turn into husbands at a moment’s notice and no one may comment upon it all. What conclusions can be drawn? That everyone already knows this, and it is only unusual to me. Or else only I saw it happen, and no one else knows that the world is like that. Since neither her mother nor her father nor Svetlana Tikhonovna nor Yelena Grigorievna had ever made reference to their husbands having been birds, Marya rejected the first conclusion. However, the second conclusion led only to more delicate and upsetting hypotheses.

First resolution: Perhaps one was not meant to see what a husband looked like before he made himself more or less presentable. Perhaps the republic of husbands was a strange and frightening place full of not only birds, but bats too, and lizards, and bears, and worms, and other beasts waiting to fall out of a tree and into a wedding ring. Perhaps Marya had broken a rule of some sort, and visited that country without papers. Were all husbands like that? Marya shuddered. Was her father like that? Was Comrade Piakovsky like that, following her with his wolfish eyes? What of wives, then? Would she turn into something else when she married, the way a bird could turn into a handsome young man?

Second resolution: Rules or no rules, it was certainly better to see these things than not to see them. Marya felt that she had a secret, a very good secret, and that if she took care of it, the secret would take care of her. She had seen the world naked, caught out. Her sisters had been rescued from the city as beautiful girls are often rescued from unpleasant things, but they did not know what their husbands really were. They were missing vital information. Marya saw right away that this made a tilted kind of marriage, and she wanted no part of that. I will never be without information, she determined. I will do better than my sisters. If a bird or any other beast comes out of that uncanny republic where husbands are grown, I will see him with his skin off before I agree to fall in love. For this was how Marya Morevna surmised that love was shaped: an agreement, a treaty between two nations that one could either sign or not as they pleased.

When Marya saw something extraordinary again, she would be ready. She would be clever. She would not let it rule her or trick her. She would do the tricking, if tricking was called for.

But for a long while she did not see anything but the winter coming on and folk squabbling over bread, and her own arms growing so skinny. Marya tried not to come to the third resolution, but it hung there in her heart until she could not ignore it. Birds did not come for her because she was not as good as her sisters. Fourth prettiest, too lost in her own thoughts to steal back bread from the horrible little twins with their matching, cruel laughters. They did not come for her because she had seen them without their costumes on. Perhaps marriage was meant to be tilted, and she was spoiled for everything now, all because she had spied where she ought not to have. Still, she was not sorry. If the world is divided into seeing and not seeing, Marya thought, I shall always choose to see.

But thoughts are not food. Alone and birdless, Marya Morevna wept for her sisters who had gone, for her empty stomach, for the overfull house, which she could hear groaning at night like a woman laboring to bring twelve children into the world all at once.

Only once did Marya Morevna try to share her secret. If it was wrong to hoard a house, surely it was wrong to hoard knowledge. She was younger then, only thirteen, past the plovers and the shrikes. It was at thirteen years old that Marya Morevna learned how to keep a secret, and that secrets are jealous things, permitting no fraternization.

In those days, Marya Morevna walked to school with her red scarf tied around her neck, like all the other children. She loved her scarf—in the midst of the dreary house, turning grey with so many people scrubbing their laundry in it and sweating in it and boiling potatoes in it, her scarf was bright and gorgeous—and it meant that she belonged. It marked her as part of the young workers’ committee, one of the loyal, one of the true. It meant she was one of the good children at school, the children of the revolution, handing out pamphlets or flowers with her classmates on street corners, adults smiling at her scarf, at her goodness.

Besides her scarf, the great love of Marya’s young life was books. By extension, she loved her lessons, since they meant discussing books and the wonderful things inside them. The one miracle of the twelve families in her house was that they had each brought at least one suitcase of books with them, and all those new books with all their new treasures were meant to be shared among all. Having once seen the world naked, the engine which drove Marya Morevna through the long, thin streets of Petrograd was a terrible hunger for knowing things, for knowing everything.

Particularly, Marya Morevna loved the dashing Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin, who wrote about that naked world she knew, where anything at all might happen and a girl had to be ready, had to be ready for that anything to bash onto the streetside once more. When she read the great poet, she would say softly to herself, Yes, that is true because I saw it with my own eyes. Or, No, it’s not like that, when magic comes. She measured Pushkin against the birds, against herself, and believed the poor dead man to be on her side, the two of them steadfast, shoulder to shoulder.

That morning when Marya was thirteen, she had been reading Pushkin while walking to school down the endless cobbled streets, deftly avoiding men in long black jackets, women in heavy boots, newspaper boys with gaunt cheeks. She had become quite good at keeping her face hidden in a book while never faltering in her steps, never swerving from her path. Besides, a book kept the wind out. Pushkin’s coppery words rang in her heart, warm and bright, almost as sweet as bread:

There, weeping, a tsarevna lies locked in a cell.
And Master Grey Wolf serves her very well.
There, in her mortar, sweeping beneath the skies,
the demon Baba Yaga flies.
There Tsar Koschei,
he wastes away,
poring over his pale gold.

Yes, Marya thought, the smell of woodsmoke and old snow pushing back her long black hair. Magic does that. It wastes you away. Once it grips you by the ear, the real world gets quieter and quieter, until you can hardly hear it at all.

Bolstered by her comrade Pushkin, who surely understood her, Marya broke her usual rapt classroom silence. Her teacher—a young and pretty woman with large, nervous blue eyes—led the class in a discussion of the virtues of Comrade Lenin’s wife, Comrade Krupskaya, who was neither young nor pretty. Marya found herself speaking without meaning to.

“I wonder what sort of bird Comrade Lenin was before he bounced up to become Lenin? I wonder if Comrade Krupskaya saw him fall out of his tree. If she said, That is a beautiful hawk, and I will let him put his claws into my heart. I think he must have been something like a hawk. Something that hunts and gobbles things up.”

All the other children were staring at Marya. She flushed, realizing she had spoken all that aloud. She touched her red scarf nervously, as if it would keep off the staring.

“Well, you know,” she stammered. But she could not say what they should know. Could not bring herself to say, I saw a bird once that turned into a man and married my sister, and the sight of it bruised my heart so that I cannot think about anything else. If you had seen it, what would you think about? Not laundry, or whether it will rain, or how your mother or father is getting on, or Lenin or Krupskaya.

After school the others were waiting for her. A throng of her classmates with narrowed eyes and angry expressions. One of them, a tall blonde girl Marya thought especially beautiful, walked up to her and slapped her hard across the face.

“You’re a crazy girl,” she hissed. “How can you talk about Comrade Lenin like that? Like he’s some kind of animal?”

The rest of them took their turns slapping her, pulling at her dress, yanking on her hair. They didn’t speak; they did it all as solemnly and severely as if it were a court-martial. When Marya fell to her knees, crying, bleeding from her cheek, the beautiful blonde girl shoved her chin up and tore Marya’s red scarf from her neck.

“No!” Marya gasped. She snatched at it, but they held it out of her reach.

“You’re not one of us,” the girl sneered. “What does the revolution need with crazy girls? Go home to your mansion and your bourgeois parents.”

“Please, no,” wept Marya Morevna. “It’s my scarf, mine; it’s the only thing I don’t have to share. Please, please, I’ll be quiet, I’ll be so quiet. I’ll never talk again. Give it back. It’s mine.”

The blonde girl sniffed. “It belongs to the People. And that’s us, and not you.”

And they left her there, scarfless, her nose running, sobbing and shuddering, shame flooding her skin like scalding water. One by one they spat on her as they went to their suppers. Some called her bourgeois, a traitor; some called her worse, a kulak, a whore—though she could not be all those things at once. It didn’t matter. She was a person, but she was not one of the People. Not to her old friends, not anymore. The last of them, a boy with glasses, his own scarf voluminous and thick against his neck, pulled her book of Pushkin’s poems from her hands and tossed it far into the snowdrifts.

After that, Marya Morevna understood that she belonged to her secret and it belonged to her. They had struck a bloody bargain between them. Keep me and obey me, the secret said to her, for I am your husband and I can destroy you.

 

Chapter 3: The House Committee

Marya noticed it first because she paced while she was thinking, and paced while she was reading, and paced while she was speaking. Her body never wanted to sit still, never wanted to be calm or measured. Thus, she had an immaculate knowledge of the dimensions of the upper floors of her house, even as the space that could be called hers had shrunk. Only a month previously it had taken her five steps to walk from the cobaltand-silver curtain to the green-and-gold curtain that marked the beginning of the Dyachenko family and their four boys, each as blond as birchwood. Then, suddenly, without anyone posting a notice of intent or collecting twelve signatures, it took seven steps to get there.

She counted her steps very carefully, both with slippers and without. She kept up her counting for twelve days and nights, though the Abramov twins pounded on their ceiling with brooms and pots, bellowing for peace, and old Yelena Grigoriyevna threatened to report her twice. On the twelfth night, when Marya Morevna was four steps across the floor, poised halfway between cobalt and green with her leg extended like a parade soldier, she heard a little breath beneath her own, so quiet she had to stretch her ears around it, a tiny sound, a faucet hissing in a thunderstorm. She looked down, her black hair spilling over her shoulder like a curious shadow. Thus Marya Morevna first saw the domovoi, and the face of the world changed again.

At her feet stood a little man, frozen in midstep, his leg, like hers, stuck stiffly into the air, his arm caught in a comic martial upswing. He had long, thin hair and a long, thin mustache that was split down the middle and flung over his shoulders, where it was tied to his hair with neat red bows. His white beard was full of dust, yet it did not seem unkempt; rather, he wore the grey dust like an ornament. He had a thick red vest, which looked as though it was made of tiny roof shingles over a work shirt the color of concrete, and his trousers were crisscrossed with black stripes like window sashes. They were also split in the middle to allow a long, thin tail to escape, bald as a possum’s.

Marya and the domovoi stared at each other for a long moment like two wild animals drinking from the same stream, both deciding whether or not to run and hide from the other. This is it, Marya thought, her heart leaping inside her. The world is naked again, the underside of the world, and I wasn’t crazy, I wasn’t. I shall be clever, and I shall not let him go.

Finally, she spoke. “Where are you going to, Comrade?”

“Where are you going to, Comrade?” he repeated snappishly.

His enormous eyes crackled hearth-red, ember-gold.

 “I am measuring the house with my feet.” Marya put her foot down, and the domovoi followed suit, pertly brushing his vest clean. “I was on my way to a meeting of the Domovoi Komityet, the House Committee, which is why I have worn my most marvelous clothes, but I thought there was a military tattoo, and so I hurried

to take my place in the ranks before I was reprimanded.” Marya longed to tug at the little domovoi’s mustache and pinch his cheeks. She wanted to clap him up in her arms and tell him to take her away to whatever country he came from, where no one would slap her for knowing things, where there was enough bread and vodka to give him that round belly. Even if this was her husband come for her, unbounced and untransformed . . . but she did not think that was what the little man was about. She kept her face very grave. Her heart tripped over her breath. “You were right,” she said finally, with what she hoped was stern authority. “And you should immediately take me to your superior officers, for I have discovered discrepancies in the state of the house.” The domovoi saluted. His eyes shone with delight. “Excellent! All house matters must immediately be brought to the attention of the komityet! Come! We will make a report! We will file paperwork! We will make formal complaints!” The domovoi’s voice rose, higher and higher, like a teakettle boiling, until it was little more than an ecstatic squeak. “Follow me! Comrade Chainik shows the way!”

Marya thought she knew the house on Gorokhovaya Street. After all, she had lived there all her life. She had sipped 3,070 bowls of soup in the kitchen with black tile. She had eaten 2,325 entire fish at the cherrywood table with three knots in its center. She had dreamt 5,475 dreams in her little bed with its red blankets. She lived inside the house—she belonged to it. But little Chainik led her past the cobalt-and-silver curtain, past the greenand-gold curtain, down stairs grown rickety with the leaping ministrations of children. He led her creeping, tiptoeing around the rose-printed walls of the parlor (now the Malashenkos’ room, piled high with mirrors, lipsticks, and combs, trophies of Svetlana Tikhonovna’s days as the great beauty of the Kiev stage) and through the ragged linen sheet the Blodnieks had nailed over the kitchen to give their four daughters a kind of rough privacy. Though truly, having the luck to be allocated to the kitchen, where the warm iron stove puffed out ruddy heat, no one pitied the girls in the least.

Chainik scrambled over the sleeping bodies of the Blodniek daughters. The four of them curled together on two mattresses flopped onto the tile, amid a ruin of stumpy candles, saucers, shoes, discarded dresses, and the girls’ prize possession clutched in the youngest sister’s dreaming hands: a London fashion magazine, ten years out of date. Their long hair mingled, brown and rich, flowing back over the bed linens, the color of bread. The domovoi stopped on the shoulders of each to give their ears a little kiss. Marya Morevna held her breath and stepped over each of them, then their mother, her braid tight and severe even in sleep, and finally their father, resting in the position of honor next to the great benevolent stove, its rosy glow dim and delicious. Chainik wedged himself behind the stove and shoved—the stove creaked away from the wall. Papa Blodniek spluttered in his sleep, but did not wake. Chainik shoved again—the little domovoi had a donkey’s strength! The stove scraped forward once more. Mama Blodniek sighed for dreams of days long dead, for rowan berries in her hair and sweet cream on her table. Chainik gritted his yellow teeth and pushed with all his vigor, to let Marya squeeze in between the stove and the wall, for she was so much bigger, and the poor imp was not accustomed to making room for anyone but himself. Four daughters turned over in their sleep, each after the other, like a wave rolling across the sand.

Behind the stove was a little door. It was a fine, rich door, arched and tapering to a peak, carved over with the flowers of a happy garden, whose polleny centers were stamped in polished brass. It was as tall as a cathedral entrance for a creature of Chainik’s size, but it barely rose to Marya’s shin. Chainik knocked softly—three times, then two, then three again. The door creaked open.

“Comrade Chainik,” Marya whispered. “I am too big! I shall never fit through!”

“We must all tighten our belts!” hissed the domovoi, and yanked on the sash of her nightgown. Marya spun like a spool; she had the peculiar feeling of a huge hand pressing down on the crown of her skull, of her ribs being squeezed as though Chainik were lacing her into one of her mother’s old corsets. When he tucked her sash back into place, Marya faced the carved door once more. She had dwindled down until she was just barely small enough to fit inside the door, if she ducked. Marya fought to keep herself from laughing out loud—magic, Pushkin’s magic, real magic, and done to her!

“Your bones are so stubborn!” snorted Chainik. “It’s almost as though you don’t want to shrink at all! Brazen thing, why do you want to be so tall?”

“I should never reach the top bookshelf otherwise,” she protested, and the domovoi shrugged, as if to say: the ways of girls and other big folk are arcane and incomprehensible.

He led Marya through a dank hall, past three layers of padded wall, a stony escapement, and a loamy passage with bits of worm and grass-root poking through the clayey dirt. Finally, these gave way to floorboards and a curious wallpaper: dozens upon dozens of Party pamphlets, plastered against the earthen wall, holding back stone and mud.

The Workers Have Nothing to Lose but Their Chains! cried a painted earnest man with his fist in the air.

Beware Mensheviks, SR Loyalists, and Tsarist Generals! Bishops and Landlords Follow Closely Behind! warned a child beset by demonfaced soldiers.

Down with Kitchen Slavery! Give Us a New Life Under Socialism! announced a woman in a red kerchief, brandishing her broom.

Elect WORKERS to the Soviet! Do Not Elect Shamans or Rich Men! admonished a group of white-clad young voters.

Marya touched the papery faces of young girls with rosy cheeks. ALL Society Must Transform into a Workers’ Collective! they told her. The hall opened onto a broad room with its own high birch rafters and a cheerful hearth, small rugs on the floor, and a curious, fabulous flotsam jammed into every corner: heavy, gold-rimmed mirrors; polished silver doorknobs; china plates with tiny violets on their rims; copper teakettles; garden shears; thick goose-down pillows; an emerald-colored smoking jacket and a wide assortment of pipes; delicate snuffboxes with enameled lids; a heavy silver hairbrush with boar bristles and combs with tiny glass gems set into their teeth; a phonograph with a great golden bell; a croquet set with bright balls; a black lace fan with a long blue tassel. All this odd treasure surrounded a large table, at which sat twelve little men, all like Chainik in their red vests and split mustaches, except that some of them had black hair and some blond, and some of them were women—though they had fine, thin mustaches as well, but no beards.

“Comrade Chainik, why have you brought this giant with you? She ought to be safe in her bed, dreaming of strawberries and laundry!” cried one of the other domovoi, who had an enormous golden medal on his chest—though when Marya peered closer, she saw it was nothing more than a disassembled pocket watch, made to hang down beautifully like a medal of courage.

“Chairman Venik!” Marya’s guide replied in wounded tones. “She has a report to make! I would not rob the komityet of the opportunity to hear delicious testimony, to make piquant judgments, to carry out policies sweeter than oatcakes!”

The table sighed in relief and nodded vigorously to one another.

A domovaya raised her hand and was recognized by Venik. “I am Comrade Zvonok,” she said in a brash, ringing voice, tugging at her silky blonde mustache. “And I formally invite the giantess emissary from the House Above to deliver her report.”

“Hear, hear!” shouted the komityet, rapping the table with their knuckles.

Marya still towered over most of them—seated, they came to her waist, and she felt it was only polite to sit down on the floor, so that she did not shame them.

“First, you must understand,” she said, suddenly shy, “I did not believe in domoviye before tonight.”

Silence, bricked-up and mortared over, greeted her.

Marya hurried to fill it up, to appear wise and learned so that they would not banish her when she had only just arrived. Her cheek warmed where a child had slapped her once, years before. “I mean to say: I believed that there might be domoviye in the world—there might be anything in the world. But my education was . . . rather specialized, and I did not assume that the presence of birds who turn into husbands indicated domoviye and a door behind the stove.”

“Who,” coughed Zvonok, “do you think broke your favorite teacup last fall? The one with the cherries on the handle?”

“I was careless, Comrade Zvonok. I left the window open and a storm blew through.”

“Incorrect! I broke it, because you left me no cream and no dry biscuits, and when your old boots wore through, you burned them up for heat instead of giving them to me!”

“Hear, hear!” the table erupted in approval once more. “Well done, well done!”

 “I’m surely very sorry—”

“So is your teacup.”

“Comrade, I don’t understand. I have read my books and listened to my grandmother as well as any girl. I know very well that each house is only meant to have one domovoi. How did there come to be a committee of house imps?”

Chairman Venik straightened his beard like a vest, and brushed his vest like a beard. “Before the Party, each house only had one family. We have all had to adjust our thinking towards more correct principles, child. I came with the Abramovs when the White Guard drove them out of Odessa. What was I supposed to do, abandon the twins because our house burned down? They have such sweet little cheeks—they’ve grown so much! I saved the hallway mirror and Marina Nikolayevna’s snuffboxes.” He gestured to the piles of belongings around them.

Another domovoi, with a beard like a chimney brush, stood. “I came with the Ofonasevs from Moscow. Old Papa Kolya was a Menshevik, and his property was confiscated—nothing to be done, he had a big mouth. But they gave me nice old boots every Christmas, and his wife was a Party woman, no blame to her. So I snatched up her fan before they came and hitched a ride to Petrograd on the roof of the train.”

Chainik patted Marya’s hand. “I watched the Blodniek girls grow up in Sebastopol. They were even pretty as babies, and always with salty biscuits for me after supper. Is it their fault there was no work? Those girls had nothing to eat—no turnips, no bread, no fish. In Petrograd, maybe, they thought, there would be fish. I brought their plates, I was so full of hope. But here we are, and ha! No fish.”

“I would have been happy to stay in Kiev,” huffed a shrunken old domovoi, his skin almost blue with age, “but blasted Svetlana Tikhonovna knew the old ritual. She went out into her pumpkin rows in her best black lace-up boots with the sweet little heels, laid out a big round of cheese, and hollered, ‘Grandfather Domovoi! Don’t stay in this place, but come with our family!’ The old bitch.” A groan rose around the table, with much nodding and sympathetic tears wiped away. Each by each, all twelve of the domovoi told their tales, of the lost Dyachenko fortune; of the tragic Piakovsky children, who had lost their older brothers to the war; of the Semeoffs’ disgrace.

“You must see,” chirped Chairman Venik finally, “that a communal house requires communal domoviye, and communal domoviye require a committee. We are happy to do our part! It is a new world, and we do not wish to be left behind.”

“Of course, I’ve been here since before you were a baby,” said Comrade Zvonok. “This house is my husband, and we eat warmth together by the stove.” Her broad face grew sly. “I saw the birds come, too.”

Marya started. In all her life, she had never expected to meet another who had witnessed her sisters’ seductions.

“Deliver your report, girl!” shouted Chairman Venik. “We haven’t got all night to reminisce!”

Marya drew herself up. She tried to calm her little heart. Though they had merry mustaches and very fine vests, when they spoke she could see the domoviye’s long yellow teeth, sharp and jagged.

“I . . . I wish to report that I have examined the . . . the matter carefully, and I think, I am fairly sure . . . I am certain there can be no doubt that the house is at least two steps larger than it was a few months ago, and possibly more. I cannot investigate the Dyachenkos’ room, which adjoins ours.”

“Too right you can’t!” bellowed a domovaya with a glossy brown mustache that had been curled with a tiny iron. “It’s not your business!”

Chairman Venik hushed the Dyachenko domovoi. “Is that all, giantess? Do you really think there is anything about this house we do not know? You have selfishly allocated excessive size to yourself, and forgotten to steal a bigger brain to go with it!” He polished his watch-medal proudly. “We are widening the house! We conferred over a period of six months, and determined that the Revolution requires more from us than mere mischief and teacup-breaking. If such a great number of people must hold the house, the house must hold a great number of people!”

Chainik clapped his hands. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need!” he crowed.

“Well said, Comrade! We have abilities we have hoarded, selfishly, because we did not understand that we owed them to the People, that we had become decadent, lazy, bourgeoisie, in love with wealth and houses and ignoring Great Duties, High Philosophy!” Chairman Venik thumped the table with his little red fist. “No longer! The domoviye belong to the Party!”

“But surely,” protested Marya, “if you widen the house the houses on either side of us shall be crushed.”

“Child,” said Comrade Zvonok in a patient tone, “we are not architects. We are imps. We are goblins. If we could not make a little room on the inside without budging the outside, we would not be worth our tails. After all, we have been making our little homes in the walls for centuries.”

“We will open up the floors like untying a stack of newspapers— pop!—out they will spring! The house on Gorokhovaya Street will be a secret country in the midst of St. Petersburg! They will plant turnips in the kitchen, and grow wheat on the ceiling, and we shall all have biscuits till we are so fat we will roll and never walk!” burst out the Piakovsky domovoi deliriously.

Silence forked across the table like ice cracking.

“It’s Dzerzhinskaya Street now, Comrade Banya,” the chairman said quietly. “It’s Petrograd.”

 “Of . . . of course.” Banya sat down, abashed. His face grew bright red, and he began to tremble.

“Oh, don’t worry!” Marya cried, wanting desperately to save the poor creature from embarrassment. “I can never remember!”

“It is our duty to remember,” said Chainik coldly at her side.

“You must not tell anyone what we have done,” interrupted the chairman. “You understand? We will report you to the House Committee, the other one, the Big Committee, and you’ll be carted away, faster than you can yawn!”

“I won’t, I promise,” Marya said hurriedly. “Though you ought not to report people. It’s not neighborly, and really rather horrid of you.”

Chairman Venik grinned, and all his yellow, jagged teeth showed, like the teeth of a wolf-trap. “Don’t misunderstand us. We are very sweet when you have cream for us, and biscuits, and boots, but you have brought us nothing, and so we owe you nothing. The Party is a wonderful, marvelous invention, and it has taught us wonderful, marvelous things—chiefly, that we can cause more trouble with less effort by filing complaints than by breaking teacups.”

Marya began to tremble herself. Her stomach felt cold. “But a domovoi can’t file a complaint. . . .”

“Who’s a domovoi?” laughed Comrade Banya, her teeth out, too. “I’m Ekaterina Piakovsky.”

“I’m Pyotr Abramov,” chuckled Chairman Venik.

“I’m Gordei Blodniek,” smirked Chainik.

“It takes two of us to hold the pen, but we manage,” giggled the Malashenko domovoi.

All the domoviye were laughing at her; all of their teeth were shining in the candlelight. Marya Morevna buried her face in her hands.

“Stop it, Venik!” snapped Zvonok. “You old stove-snort! You’re frightening her, and she’s mine, so I say stuff your chimneys!” Her mustache quivered with rage. She left her seat to stroke Marya’s nightgown. “There, there, Masha dear,” she cooed, calling her by her old pet name. “If you like I shall mend your teacup. Would that make you feel better?”

But Chairman Venik was leaning over the table, his grin wider and wider, until the sides of his mouth met somewhere behind his ears. “Just you wait,” he hissed. “Just you wait. Papa Koschei is coming, coming, coming, over the hills on his red horse, and he’s got bells on his boots and a ring in his pocket, and he knows your name, Marya Morevna.”

Marya could not help it; she screamed. The domoviye’s mustaches were all blown back.

Zvonok whirled on him. “Venichek, you are a hedgehog’s ass. You weren’t supposed to tell! Is it worth it to scare a poor girl?”

“Zvonya, I live to scare poor girls! Their tears smell like the freshest, warmest cakes with cherry jam smeared all round them. Of course it’s worth it!”

“We’ll see, when Papa gets here,” warned Comrade Zvonok.

The domoviye drew away from Venik slightly, as if waiting for him to turn to ash before their eyes.

“You all saw,” quavered Banya, twisting her mustache, eager to make up her fault. “I didn’t tell! It was Venik!”

“It’s been recorded in the minutes,” Zvonok said darkly.

“I don’t understand,” said Marya, her tears drying on her cheeks. “How do you know my name?”

“Don’t worry about it, dear,” said Zvonok brightly. “It’s far past your bedtime. Let’s get you to sleep, shall we?”

All Marya’s fingers and toes were numb. She let herself be led away from the cackling komityet, shaking as though she had been drenched in water dragged in frozen buckets from the Neva. The domovaya pulled her past a grim Lenin demanding: Have YOU Volunteered for the Front Lines? Marya had a moment of panic: What if she could not get big again, and was to be stuck down here forever with the goblins and frowning paper Lenin staring her down? Suddenly she wanted very much to see the front of the stove again, and her own bed.

“What did he mean? Who is Koschei?” she asked softly.

“You know, you’ve been very careless, Masha. I try to watch out for you, even though you’ve never given me boots or cream, and I think that’s a testament to my generous soul, but you insist on drawing attention to yourself.”

“But I don’t! I’m so quiet the Abramov twins tripped over me last week.” Since the affair of the scarf she had tried very hard never to be noticed by anyone.

“Marya Morevna! Don’t you know anything? Girls must be very, very careful to care only for ribbons and magazines and wedding rings. They must sweep their hearts clean of anything but kisses and theater and dancing. They must never read Pushkin; they must never say clever things; they must never have sly eyes or wear their hair loose and wander around barefoot, or they will draw his attention! Safe in a house and a husband, that’s where you belong! But it’s too late now, too late! Fool child, the house and I tried so hard to raise you right!”

“But who is he?” Marya pleaded—yet she did know that name, didn’t she? The name pulled at the back of her mind, bending her toward it.

But Zvonok had gone knuckle-white with fear and anger, and would say nothing. When they passed through the flower-carved door and back into the space between the stove and the wall, she yanked on Marya’s sash once more. Marya spun like a spool, and she felt the peculiar sensation of a great huge hand pulling her up by the crown of her skull, of her bones yawning and stretching. When she stopped spinning, she faced the stove, and was quite her own height again. And she found herself disappointed, only a little. It was over. The extraordinary thing was over and it had taken minutes. She had gotten big again with no trouble, and how long would she have to wait now for some other scrap of the naked world?

“Here,” whispered Zvonok. “This is the best I can do for you.” The little domovaya reached into her red vest and drew out the silver hairbrush Marya had seen in the flotsam at the komityet. It grew larger and larger as she pulled it out, until it was taller than Zvonok, but perfectly sized for Marya’s hand. “It belonged to Svetlana Tikhonovna. Did you know she was a dancer when she was young, with the ballet? Comrade Stoylik calls her names, but when she sleeps, he comes out to curl up in her hair and sleep next to her ear. He says she smells like Kiev.”

“Won’t he know you took it?”

“I’ll slap the bottoms of his feet until he says it was yours all along. But you keep it safe from old Svetlana—she’d love to have it back.”

“I already have a hairbrush, though,” protested Marya.

Zvonok winked, first with one eye, then the other. She put one hand over her left eye and spat.

“You need this one.”

And with that, the domovaya hopped up onto one foot, spun around three times, and vanished.

 

Copyright (c) 2011 by Catherynne M. Valente

9 comments
[da ve]
1. slickhop
Love her prose. Can't wait to read this.
A Reader Moored
2. A Reader Moored
I'm all for lush description, but that's a lot of "like"s in the first page! I find it a little distracting.
Amy Houser
3. amylikestodraw
@Slickhop: This book is so gorgeous. She's really outdone herself, and that's saying something.
A Reader Moored
4. Sergey Galyonkin
I was born in Soviet Union and as someone who was raised on Russian fairy tales and Communist propaganda, I must say - this is AMAZING. Can't wait for book to be released.
A Reader Moored
5. celzmccelz
Oh, I love it. Love love love.
A Reader Moored
6. Random Reader
@A Reader Moored: I'd like to cut out every other simile/metaphor as well, because I think it drowns the writing. Some of them are gorgeous and truly poetic, some of them are the kind of thing where I go back and look at it and it read prettily the first time and then it makes no sense on the second pass. But I like this a lot more than I've liked other writing of hers, so I'm intrigued.
A Reader Moored
7. Margaritria
What an absolutely gorgeous blend of history and folklore! I love Marya already. So excited!
A Reader Moored
8. R.K. Wheadon
Beautiful! CMV writes in a way that makes me want to snuggle down and sink deep into her words (and worlds). I'm eagerly counting down the days...
A Reader Moored
9. hexink
@ Random Reader, the writing style is heavily influenced by the translated syntax of traditional Slavic stories. It reads like a Russian folk tale. Takes some getting used to, but I love it.

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