Seeds trickled from Lushka's fingers into furrows of black broken earth. Time was running out. A waxing moon was growing bright at her back. Lushka had spent the day bartering with lady sun. Slower, stroll with me, give me your time, I'll give you grain and meat, fine wine and song. But Lady Sun was not listening and the moon was coming.
On the final night of Rusalki week the full moon would rise. The first of spring. The land would be at its fullest pitch of fertility. In the day that followed Lushka Vorya would be married. She was to be married to a fool of a man who cared nothing for this land but what fortune it might bring.
She drank deeply from her water flask and bent back into her labour, racing again with the dwindling sun. Lushka's mind was not tranquil in her work, and this too was a concern in her thoughts. That she might poison this land by sowing ill will deep into its soil. She had grown into a woman knowing these fields were to be hers. And had worked them from youth, knowing always that this was for her. Time had fertilised her land in sweat and prayer, and she was bound. To sow a tar of discontent into the land would breed it back threefold into her heart, thence to be given back to the soil. It would be nurtured back and forth over seasons until they both, her and the land were black with it.
Lushka looked over to the eastern horizon. The house was there. John Brown and his father and brothers had built it, fulfilling their part of the marriage contract. It was broad and squat, with two fine barns and a bathhouse. It was a good sturdy building. Lushka hated it. Pine sap hung heavy in the air and the rooms felt empty to walk through. The furniture was sparse, but made with love by her brothers and father. The house was not bare. The emptiness was not natural. Lushka felt it every time she walked through the hollow rooms. John laughed at her. He called her his little fool and thought himself an affectionate husband already. Lushka's thoughts of John seethed deep bloody red.
The house of Lushka's parents was full of the energy of the many spirits who protected its hearth. Lushka was a friend to them all, and in return they did not often play their mischievous tricks on her. What Domovoi would come to this place, with its stink of new pine? It would be a lonely house indeed without the little spirits to protect and amuse her.
The light was gone. Lushka let a last trickle of seeds fall through her fingers. Time to go home.
The men had gathered to eat seedcake and drink spiced wine. The circle of the hearth collected the assembled patriarchs within its glow of comfort. They talked of the world and matters of importance.
'Where is that girl of yours?' Brown asked.
The men had been waiting long hours for Lushka to return from the fields. Brown and his son, John, had come to meet with Vorya in the week before their families were joined. Lushka should have been there to see to the comfort of her father's guests. She was embarrassing her family and she offered insult by avoiding Brown and his son. The match was a good one for both families and much honour was to be gained in the transaction.
Lushka had always been a good and dutiful daughter. Her behaviour surprised her father, who had rarely had to discipline her with more than harsh words.
'She works in the fields,' Vorya said with pride for his hard-working daughter.
Brown narrowed his watery eyes and spread his lips in a thin smile. 'She seems to be terribly eager to work outside the house. Such a hearty girl.'
Vorya knew that he was being insulted. There was nothing to be done against a charge so apt, when the blame lay with his Lushka.
'Is there a problem?' Brown asked.
'I thought you had enough labourers. Are you so short of workers that you have to send your daughters into the fields?'
'That is a foolish thought. My Lushka works because she wants to, and because she has pride in her family. She could be as idle as she wants. It is to her credit that she chooses to help in the working of our land.'
Brown let his face show surprise at Vorya's irritation. 'I'm sorry. I didn't mean to offend you. I'm just surprised. I would have thought she'd be too cautious to tempt fate.'
'What do you mean? I'm sure I do not understand.'
'Your Lushka honours the spirits, yes?'
'She is a dutiful and proper daughter. There is no shame in respecting the beliefs and customs of our fathers. Do you now call my daughter superstitious?'
'No, no, not at all. I must apologise again. It's good to find such a respectful girl. I was referring to the legend of the Rusalka. My understanding was that it tempts the anger of the Rusalka to work the land in the week of her festival. I just thought it was a bit odd for her to ignore such a threat.'
'My daughter does not need to fear the Rusalka. She works the land with a pure heart. No spirit would think her disrespectful. I had not thought you so concerned about the spirits.'
'I think I should be honest with you, Vorya. I don't care that much about the old spirits. My concern is for your daughter. It seems to me that she must be distressed somehow to be spending so much time in the fields when there are so many reasons for her to be here. She should want to spend time here, getting to know John. Does your daughter want this marriage? I would not force this union if she has already given herself elsewhere.'
Vorya banged the arm of his chair and the room seemed darker with his anger upon the air. John Brown jumped. 'Do you question my daughter's purity?' Vorya bellowed. 'I have invited you as a guest in my home.' He glared at Brown, and dropped his voice to a hoarse whisper, full of threat. 'You would be wise not to insult my hospitality with such a suggestion.'
Brown smiled slickly, and gestured his distress. 'You mistake my meaning. I was speaking about her heart.'
Vorya was not calmed, but he did not want to lose this marriage pact. 'My daughter's closest friends are her cousins and sisters, all female.' Brown smiled wider, and let the subject drop. Vorya shouted for his second eldest to bring more spiced wine.
It was night and all the world was asleep. Long ago the lights went out in the farmhouse; each window's warm glow was snuffed as people made their way to bed. Cold light from the gravid moon filtered down to the thick of the forest where something was moving. On the bank of a lake, where the water was dark and deep, black velvet leaves shifted where there was no wind. Something was rising in the moonlight.
The still water drank in the light and did not reflect it back. It was drawn deep down to where the layers of slime and silt had lain undisturbed since the summer had turned. Rusalka was rising to walk the land in the moonlight.
Rusalka shook herself free from her nest of rotten vegetation. Her eyes burned green as she swam up through her watery death. She was rising to walk through fields of new life and she brought a gift of love to bestow while the moon shone.
The water broke around her and she smiled as the air touched her skin. She stood on the land and life seeped in through her toes. Rusalka quickened under the moon. Her body flushed green and rich and her hair curled into verdant life. She raided her luminous eyes to heaven and touched the moon.
Rusalka ran through the forest with steps that left only drops of water in her wake. Soon she reached the fields and stopped, swaying. The land and the moon grew and resolved and met, and Rusalka danced.
The soil drank in her gift greedily. It gave her joy and she made it grow. Under her feet the seeds which Lushka had sown sprouted into life. Peace soaked into Rusalka but with it came a note of darkness. Someone had been here where no one should have been. Someone else had drawn from the earth and given back to it. Rusalka danced till she knew everything that the land did.
Silver light shone into the flecked glass of Lushka's reflection. Her double looked back at the hand that brushed her hair. The brush made long slow strokes over her head. Lushka was brushing her hair by the light of the moon. She had not lit the lamps. The littles were sharing her room while theirs was used for Vorya's guests. The babies were asleep with nightlights to guard them. They scented the air with innocent dreams.
The guests were going to their beds. Lushka could hear their voices, loud and polite, rattling along the stairs. The moon caught in her eyes and flickered. She put the brush down and ran her hand over her hair. The strands clung to her fingers and settled reluctantly. There was a knock at the door and a voice came through the wood 'Father wants to see you Lusha. He's in the kitchen.' It was Yana; Lushka's nearest sister. She left without waiting for an answer and Lushka listened to her move away down the hall. She would not stay in the house. She would go immediately to join the group of young people in the barn. Lushka herself was only just now too old. None of them would come in tonight. Yana would tell them that Vorya had called her to see him. They would not get in their father's way.
Lushka sat a moment longer, calm, bathed in the gentle radiance reflecting from her mirrored self. Vorya would be angry. The woman in the mirror looked into Lushka with black depthless eyes. Today had been important. Her future had been made real and solid. She would join this family. Her children would be theirs. They would have his name . . . her future was here. Yana knew it too. She knew that it would one-day be her own. She would not get in Vorya's way.
Lushka went to Vorya where he sat by the hearth. The fire was banked down, but its glow reached his face. 'Sit child,' he said. She sat beyond the fire where the darkness pooled. 'I will not have such insolence from you.' He looked at her and shadows stirred on the broad plane of his cheek. 'Everything done here has been in good faith. I know that you can have no objections to this match or the manner of its government.' Firelight burned on his lips. 'Take this opportunity to learn the ways of your husband. You will not have such a luxury once you are married. I tell you this for your happiness and for the happiness of your children.'
The gleam of embers caught on Vorya's hair, in his eyes, flushing over his skin. . . burning on his lips . . . brightening and dying with his breath.
'I expect you to spend the rest of this week getting to know John Brown. I will not see you undermine what is best for you.'
All the next day Lushka did as her father had bid her.
She walked out with John Brown in the morning. They took the romantic walk, through the edge of the forest where it bordered the fields, down to the river. The sun fell on John Brown. Lushka walked a little way apart from him, close to the edge of the path, where the shade of the trees stretched over her. She had grown on the good flat land of her father's farm, and the forest was dark and wild and foreign to her. It frightened and thrilled her soul to walk so near.
The house was out of sight when John Brown started to talk to her. 'I remember the first time we met,' he said. Lushka could not remember when John Brown and his family had become part of her life. They had moved here not so many years ago, but Lushka could not have said exactly when. 'I don't suppose you would remember.' He looked out over Lushka's fields. A few men were out, sowing laboriously along the fresh earth.
'It was over there,' he said, pointing, 'where our house is now.' He blushed and the sun caught the glow of his skin and made him flare bright. The house stood on Lushka's land, where her boundary met the border of John Brown's token acres. 'I had my father build the house there special . . . I thought you might remember too,' he said.
'I remember the first time my father ever told me this land was for me. I was very young. He brought me out here and sat me up on his horse so I could see all the land that would be mine.' Lushka was not looking at the men who worked her fields. She knew them all. She had hired the same seasonal hands for many years now. She knew their tempers and their paces and they worked well for her. They would make a good job of the sowing. Instead she looked into the dark paths of the forest and wondered what it would be like to walk them alone at night. Anything could happen under the moon among the dense knotted boughs of the trees. The spirits that walked in the dark had lived longer than time. They knew no fear.
'You were out walking in the field after dusk. I stopped at the stile and asked you what you were doing alone at night.' John Brown looked at Lushka with an unbearable hope. There was nothing she could say. There was nothing for her to remember. 'You told me you were out for a walk. You wouldn't let me take you back to your house. I watched you walk away.' John Brown looked at Lushka, walking beside him in the shadows. 'You were very beautiful.'
She had been beautiful and pale in the moonlight. Walking alone over the empty fields. Such a romantic image. And he had fallen in love with her, as young men do in the moonlight. Her future had been decided then, and she had not noticed it arrive.
'I used to walk often at night,' Lushka said. 'Just to feel the earth and the wind and the moon shining on me was such bliss. I never felt so vivid as when I was alone on my land.'
'When we are married we shall walk out on our land every night if you like. I always thought about you. I wondered what it would be like to walk with you, holding your hand,' he said. Lushka's hands twined deeper into her pockets. 'Have you ever walked out with anyone?' John Brown blushed. His question was rude. Lushka did not notice.
'No. There has never been anyone.' The conversation died. They walked on, listening to the wind in the trees and the men in the fields. Soon they arrived at the bank of the river. John Brown spread his coat over a large rock. Lushka sat at one corner and John Brown at the other. The sun glinted like a knife on the currents of the river. It was bright, but it did not reach far into the trees. A veil of twilight hung a few feet from where Lushka sat. She could almost have reached into it. There was a silver birch a little way back in the shade. It glowed. John Brown had not noticed. He would not have know what it meant if he had. He was trying to think of something to say.
'I've been thinking. You should fix the house up however you like. I'm sure I would be quite a hindrance. I don't have a clue what would make the house look homely, and I'm sure you have dozens of ideas already. My sisters all have such a knack for prettying rooms. Perhaps they could help you. They really want to get to know you.'
'I'm sure we'll get along fine,' she said.
'And I have so many ideas for the farm. I thought after the next harvest we could look into different crops. Maybe even cattle. I'm sure your father is a competent farmer but I just don't think the land has had its full potential exploited.' The bark of the silver birch flickered and shone blue like lichen.
'I'm sure it hasn't,' she said. John Brown beamed as though she had blessed him.
There was a cold wind rising off the water. It got colder with each long silence. They did not stay long by the river.
And still Lushka could not help but yearn for the night and the moon and the cool ripe fields. Each moment's passing drew the night closer, but also, with each moment, the end of Rusalki week approached.
Through the day she behaved exactly as her father would have wished. She was present and sociable. John Brown came to know a Lushka who was flattering and pleasing to him. Lushka spent the day drowning and losing herself.
When the dark came Lushka crept into it. She went from the house, and John Brown, and Vorya. She ran to the fields, blinded in the dark. Her body knew where it was and moved with perfect vision where she wanted it to be.
In the clearing, where Lushka and John Brown had sat, the silver birch was shining like moonlight. The water of the lake boiled and the grass about the tree grew wild and ragged and clung to the bark. Rusalka was emerging. Her body shimmered green in the silver of the tree. The birch flared and died, and Rusalka stepped out.
Everything stilled. The water calmed to glass and the clouds stopped in their passage through the sky. Rusalka curled her toes into the grass and was, for a moment, still with absence. The earth on which she had danced gave up its secrets for her again. She moved and the clouds moved with her.
Lushka found herself in her fields. Everywhere was dark. The sky was opaque and there was no moon. She buried her hands desperately into the earth and knew that the other had been there, as every year before. The earth was lonely: its darkness froze her.
It was here that the future pulled most cruelly at Lushka. She could feel, through the soil, the shape of what it should be. The future that rushed to meet her at the close of Rusalki week sounded wrongness through her, and the earth grew hot at the thought. She yearned for possibilities that would be true in her heart. Nothing came. There was no future for her, and nothing to dream of. Soon there would not be even the hope to dream.
Rusalka was drawn through the forest. She hesitated where the trees met the fields. Lushka was there. She stood and turned to Rusalka.
From the darkness she moved. Her smile lit her eyes with fire. She came to Lushka and Lushka to her. They met on the land where Lushka had sown, and Rusalka had danced. They were met and connected. The land fed them each into the other. Lushka looked into the green of Rusalka and saw possibilities sprawl away. They were twined about with what the future might be.
Lushka looked into what the Rusalka was and her fears melted. Everything but her was forgotten. Here, then, was the future she had longed for. Rusalka knew Lushka's thoughts. She felt her longing, and the same yearning arose in her own body.
Their hands lifted at the same time, and their fingers crept towards each other in a perfect mirroring. They touched, dark green skin to pale white. The clouds overhead parted and the moon appeared. It blessed and bathed them.
Rusalka swept Lushka close. She could feel the rush of Lushka's heart all through her still green body. She drank in her life and let it quicken her as the earth did. She filled herself with Lushka and let Lushka be filled in return. Beneath them the earth shifted, worms burrowed away, stones fractured deep in the soil and twigs, long dead, budded. And the seeds burst as though Rusalka danced over them.
As the seeds in the field, Lushka grew. The force of Rusalka's being filled her and she was changed. They parted and Lushka took Rusalka's hand and was led towards the forest. As Rusalka stepped into the trees Lushka's hand slid from hers. They looked at each other and Rusalka knew Lushka's heart. She smiled, stepped from the trees and hugged Lushka tightly to her. Then she was gone.
Lushka went back to her father's house. With each step that took her away from Rusalka her eyes shed hot tears. With each step the future that Rusalka offered faded and her fate returned to her and broke her heart. From the forest a pair of burning green eyes watched her leave. They faded to embers as she dwindled in the darkness.
It was the final eve of Rusalki week. Lushka had spent the time between her meeting with Rusalka and this evening in a haze. When she was joined, by her word and the law, to John Brown, she would die. She was dying already and no-one saw. They had seen her change and praised her for it. The death of her heart had made her simple. John Brown felt himself warming to Lushka with every day now. She would make him a good wife. Vorya too was pleased. Lushka was a good and dutiful daughter. Finally he was proud.
Lushka was in the kitchen with her mother. Vorya's wife was making pastries for her daughter's wedding. Lushka glazed each little parcel with egg and milk ready for the oven.
'You have not been but once to see the house your father built,' Vorya's wife said.
'I shall spend enough time there soon, and when I am wed my time with you will be less. It is not that I avoid the home that will be mine, but rather that I gather up time in this place that has always been my home, that I may cling to it when it no longer is.'
'Do you so fear that leaving? It is necessary and good. I would wish that you might meet this change with a glad heart.' Lushka looked at her mother and saw that her words were the truth. 'My heart could be no gladder at any marriage,' she said.
Lushka's mother dusted her hands of flour and came to sit beside her daughter. 'I see that this is not what you wish.' She sighed and squared her shoulders. 'But it is the way that it has to happen for you as it was for me. I was younger even than you . . . but I was different. I shall not tell you that you will come to love your husband, for I cannot know that that is what will happen.'
'Do you offer me no comfort then?' Lushka asked.
'I give all the comfort I may,' she said.
She went back to her work and it seemed that she would say no more. Lushka brushed pastry with egg and thought of the moon on the fields and the green of leaves. She could not go. Her heart was dead and buried in the earth where Rusalka had touched her. It would make her bleed to be near it. She would never go there again.
Rusalka burned dark and shining green in her memory.
'I saw a Rusalka,' she said it but did not feel her lips move to betray her. Her mother turned to her and smiled.
'If you have seen a Rusalka . . .I saw one the night before Vorya married me. She did not take me and I knew that if I were not meant to marry she would have.' She smiled, but her eyes filled with faded green. 'She was lovely. I would have gone but she did not want me. She touched my cheek and I thought that I would be glad to die for her. That is her magic and all who see her feel it . . . I would have gone . . . After I saw her I was glad to marry. I knew that it was right . . . I felt it.' She smiled and was pleased that Lushka had been given such a sign. Vorya had made a new truth for his wife and now she knew no other.
'Do you think . . . I think you are right Ma.' There were no more pastries to glaze and Lushka went to her bed.
In her sleep she let herself hear Rusalka calling. Tears leaked past her eyelids but she smiled even as she cried. She left her bed before she woke and did not stop when she knew that she did not dream. Rusalka was there already. Lushka led the way into the forest. She stopped at the lake. Rusalka waited and she knew that she could still change her mind. There was no time. The moon passed overhead; the water stirred, but was calm. Lushka did not think. She could not think any more. The water was icy. It burned her skin - Rusalka burned her skin. She was cold too. Too cold. Lushka did not shiver. She breathed and breathed and Rusalka held her all around. It was so very green: the moon had turned to green. Vines reached up for her and held her like Rusalka. She twisted and arched into them and was more secure than ever she had been. Everything was so cold . . . everything was . . . Rusalka was bright and the moon was fading . . .
Rusalka smiled and leaves sank from her hair onto Lushka's eyes.
Vorya was furious. He roused everyone to search for Lushka. Vorya's wife refused to search, she knew, and she sat in her kitchen and wept. She was not surprised when they found the body floating at the edge of the lake. Vorya offered Yana, his next eldest, but John Brown said that he would not marry another. In her kitchen Lushka's mother wept for her poor daughter's lost soul.
In the spring they will rise together. Fair and dark green, hand in hand. They will dance and dance and claim all the land for their own. When winter comes they will sink down into the layers of silt and rest in each other's arms.