Laïsha and Davnoy
Kiev and Pinea
The lady ignored me for the rest of that morning following Turgey’s departure, except to complain of the cold or the heat or the light or the darkness. But after noon, she reminded me of her intention to sit. The sitting was utter torture for her, however, and we would not have attempted it at all were it not for the fact that I also had to get her to her feet, after a fashion, and help her to use the pot.
Back in her bed, my lady cried openly through the rest of that day. During one outburst, she moaned that she had offended Obemyn-Chuv, who, strangely enough, I knew to be an eastern god and protector of slaves and prisoners. From that I concluded that she regarded herself a prisoner in my home, which offended me a little. She avoided any but the briefest conversation with me, and, even though we ate together, she ignored my other movements about the room. I made use of the time to put my house in order.
Before she arrived to interrupt what had been truly an uninteresting existence, I had been making some preparations for a change in my life. The delay she would cause might not be significant, I reasoned, but I felt I needed to carry on with my plans. Chiefly, I intended to leave the master’s house and make my way to a city, any convenient city, somewhere in the south, preferably one where he had been known and where, with some luck for me, he might have spoken well of me also. I would have been gone long before the carriage accident that brought this trouble upon me but for the flaw in me that, ever since my eyesight began to deteriorate, I have been a procrastinator, and so, by the time of the vernal equinox I was still not ready to depart.
I believed that I could explain to the local people the master’s absence only for so long. Then they would become suspicious, although I could suggest that he had met trouble somewhere on his journey. But people who are not vagabonds do not travel alone. In fact, whereas most suppose the woods to be full of spirits and mysteries, seldom does anyone travel alone even on a day’s journey.
I am not so awed by the forest, having been a hunter and a student of my Uncle Zhukin. Hunters venture away for a season, merchants for a time, and a few, like my master and like Gonashi, live out their lives in remote sylvan cottages, beyond the comprehension of most villagers, who, inscrutably to me, prefer to huddle in tiny huts or to forego all privacy and make a den inside a community house of from two to ten entire families. (And some community houses, occupied by a dozen or more people, are no larger than the cottage I shared with Sadruk.)
Even so, if some tragedy truly had befallen Sadruk, word would reach Pinea eventually. Yes, they would suspect me, because such word would never come. And they would suspect the more because I was from a distant, northern region and not one whose honor was assured by familiar lineage.
So I gambled that there would be no immediate confrontation with the local people. That could only come later. It was, rather, the master’s son who made me uneasy. He had gone to Greece, there to study medicine and mathematics. He could easily suspend his studies and return for a visit in the early summer. Or else, should he not be faring well in that austere seat of learning, he would have little choice but to return even sooner. This confrontation I hastened to avoid.
I had determined to leave no word of my destination once I would finally leave, but to take what I could of my wares and strike out, like a wanderer. I marveled, with my penchant for making inappropriate choices, that I had not become a brick maker. Then, to travel and take my wares, I’d have had to fill my sack with brick samples. In contrast, dried leaves, vials of rare oils, and small metal implements were light in weight. Cooking pots were available wherever on my travels my services might be needed, and to replenish my supplies I would need to tarry somewhere only long enough to gather or distill or ferment some native ingredients.
I had left my narrow sleeping loft, which opened directly over the master’s bed, as it had been the day my master died, but now, with my lady sometimes watching but without interest, I climbed the cleats on the cottage’s center post and cleaned it out. I burned much at the stove, and small things which I wished to keep I began loading into a kotomka, a birch-bark sack, which I retained in the loft.
I sharpened arrows late into the evening of my lady’s second day with me, and contemplated my pending departure. Certainly I would stay until she was ready to fend for herself. I was sure that I would eventually learn her name and origin, so I could, as one option, escort her to Pinea and, with her nobleman’s money, secure her a homeward passage. That was not a good idea, though. That would draw much attention my way, and surely she would learn from people in the village that no nobleman with a carriage in need of repair had ever arrived from my house.
I wondered, as well, whether she would be well enough to travel homeward by summer. Often an injury such as hers left the sufferer a permanent cripple. So my second thought was that I would simply nurse her to the condition that would allow her to tend to her own needs in this house, and then I would leave her here. I wasn’t sure whether I would openly leave or secretly, but I could work that out later.
The next day she again arose, used the pot, and cleaned herself, with enough assistance from me that her humiliation was prolonged, although I encouraged her to try it alone. From then on, though, she did manage alone and I took pains to assure her some privacy.
This day she insisted upon sitting up in bed for several hours. She watched me replenish some of my more complicated medicines and listened as I explained their uses.
First there was ordinary soot, scraped from a certain part of the interior of the stove where it formed tight mounds of the finest, blackest powder. In this form, steeped in water and the water drained and mixed with vinegar, it settled many cases of fever and jaundice.
Spread dry upon a narrow wound, this powder also assured rapid dissipation of the pain, so that sloughing and final healing could get under way more quickly.
Next, there was the hard black material resembling pottery shards that could be chipped from anywhere inside the stove. This too could be steeped in a brew and the brown broth used as a substitute for weak urine in making poultices.
One of my favorites, and I used it often on myself, was capsicum — finely-ground dried pepper imported from the south. Mixed with honey, thyme, and some coarse meal, this flummery has cured many sore throats and other complaints from deep in the chest.
The idea, as with numerous other remedies both for internal and external complaints, is that there is a quantity of pain that must be extracted from the area of an injury. It may be a cut in the skin or a burn or a stomach ailment or an earache. Certain preparations have been shown to hasten the release of all the pain to be extracted, thereby clearing the way for a quicker resolution. With open wounds, such preparations could permit healing before blackening of the flesh sets in. With internal fevers given to paroxysms, such a pain-releasing preparation causes the outbursts to come all together — violently, of course, and very painfully for a brief period. But once past, the recovery is assuredly rapid.
The trick of it is to determine a minute quantity for every ailment, using the correct pain releasers, so that a release is realized, but not so great a release all at once that the sufferer’s body cannot tolerate the convulsions, or else death will follow.
All this time I dwelt in agitation concerning what treatment to use on the lady’s pain, which was both inside her body and on her skin. I had already given her a flummery softened with spiræa. I would gradually increase the capsicum until she could no longer tolerate its sensation in her mouth, and we would set the strength of the mixture by this test. Thus her surcease of discomfort would be hastened.
As my lady watched, or dozed, sometimes deliriously, I finished the sad task of cataloging Sadruk’s medicines, combining his with my own, and augmenting my shelves with those he possessed but which I did not. I had found a sack of vials, some labeled and some not, that I spent considerable time testing in order to determine their identity and efficacy. Among these I discovered cypress, frankincense, parsley, anise, a minute quantity of laudanum, which suppresses suffering, powdered bodies of thousand-legged worms, and powders made from the aromatic bark of certain exotic trees. These latter two have many uses in curing skin diseases, especially the nasty kinds that derive not from an injury but from their own insidious causes — rashes, creeping flesh, and tiny spreading blisters. Sadruk was a pioneer of salves for treating what he called erisypelas, or skin irritations.
I drained the pig’s eyes of their eye water and set this aside for treating my lady’s sadness. I ground some parts of insects that I had dried over the winter: ants’ tails, locusts’ heads, and whole dragonflies. I also ground some dried bones to a powder, and also ground minute quantities of certain crystals: chiefly garnet and white rock, but also some tiny fragments in green, lavender, and pink. Sadruk was fond of crystals, and while he accepted that princes should have the large ones for their vanity, he guarded the right of physicians to possess the smaller, poorer-quality stones for use in medicine.
+ + +
Before the end of this the third day, the lady again quizzed me about the man who had brought her here. I answered plainly enough about his dress, the color of his hair, and described his sword and his boots.
“Tell me about his mannerisms and his voice,” she bade me. “And how well did he speak your dialect?” I sensed that, in spite of her constant and obvious discomfort, she was teasing me, and that she knew I was hiding behind a lie, but until now she had to be satisfied that I had met him, or else how could I have described him?
“How well did he speak it? Impressively well!” I exclaimed. “But you see, due to the hour and perhaps due as well to his worry over your condition, he made haste, and there was little I could learn from him.”
“What did he wear about his neck?” she asked with a serious expression.
I had to think. “Nothing that I recall, Miss.”
“I cannot conceive that someone could have overlooked such a gaudy neck piece!” she said accusingly.
“I only know that I am an addled and insensitive person who cannot see well, but please, let me think on it. I too cannot imagine how I missed it.”
Think! How else? He had lost his neck decoration in the accident, and I had either burned it with the debris, or it lay somewhere under the snow between the road and my brush pile.
Next morning I was out at first light. I scraped first in the road itself, then began to tromp and sweep the snow from the path to my house. This path I widened until it looked like an invitation to a Varangian horde. And at last, of course, I found it. It was a large medal, probably of solid silver, in an oblong shape, and clamped in its center was a large, clear, yellowish to grayish crystal resembling amethyst but for its color. It would have hung from his neck by a leather thong, now missing except for a knot of leather that remained caught in a hole through the top of the ornament.
I returned to the house with my find, but could not place it with the nobleman’s other belongings in the lintel, since to do so would be to work right over my lady’s head. Instead, I retreated to a corner and used the stub of a broken knife to pry at the stiff hooks gripping the rock in the center. This pretty stone, if powdered, might prove to have some medicinal value of which I was yet unaware. Nonchalantly I hid the silver portion in the bottom of a small clay pot that held other metals for use in my preparations, and the crystal I dropped into my jar of sorrel.
On the morning of this the fourth day the lady said that, since she now knew the extremity of her pain, for short periods she could tolerate it. No more did she fear standing stooped, for example, for she knew it would hurt only so much and not more. She longed for a deep breath, though, and proposed that we should roast a bird on the day that she would draw her first full and satisfying breath. This became a joke for us, for while she raced to achieve that benchmark, I worried whether, with my weak eyes, I would be able to pierce a bird with an arrow in time for the celebration.
Late that morning I told her that the nobleman’s neck piece had indeed returned to my memory, and I described it approximately. She said that I astounded her, and not by my brilliance but by my lapses of the same.
She wanted this day to study her wound, so I exposed it to view and explained the process I had gone through to repair it. This impressed her, and so to impress her the more I powdered it with a mixture to draw out much of the residual pain. She howled and twitched so that I feared I had accidentally overdone it. From the crock where they were soaking I brought out some strips of the pig’s intestine then and stretched them over the wound. She remained wide-eyed after the pain treatment’s effects subsided. Then I bandaged it again, and at her insistence I helped her to wash herself, her hair as well, and to put on the gray dress.
By mid-day she was growing irritable once more, until sleep overtook her. From time to time, awake or asleep, she would weep, grimace, stiffen in spasm, cough, and speak of tearing the bandage off in order to scratch. She was convinced that there were insects in the bandage, which must be biting and causing the itching, but usually when we checked there were none. And often she moaned: “If only I could draw a breath!”
The fifth day was a good one, this in spite of the fact that her wound opened a little. I admitted to her that I didn’t know whether it would be better to sew it again or let it close on its own. She examined it closely and regarded me critically and begged me not to sew it, and so we left it alone.
By this time she had begun to take an interest in her appearance. I helped her pick scabs from her face, and I packed snow into a pouch for her to place against a slightly swollen cheekbone. I found her a bristly piece of dried pig hide which I fastened around a piece of wood, and with this she could brush out her hair. Since our relationship had permitted me regular scrutiny of her, she was not at all self-conscious whenever I looked at her long, as it had been necessary for me to do when tending her face. In fact, she seemed boldly to present herself for my gaze, and I often found myself taking advantage of my license to study her frankly. She sat before me now, prettying herself, although not necessarily for me, and I regarded her freely.
I had never before given thought to beauty. While to me she was regal and elegant, I suspected that experts on beauty would not apply that description to this lady. But she was totally feminine, and, as I contemplated her now, was also strikingly pretty, especially when she smiled. And her smile revealed one of her charms, that being two top center teeth grown in at slightly different lengths. She hadn’t smiled often in my presence, but because of her trauma I could forgive her for that.
Her brushed hair was wavy, nearly black, and although coarse, also shiny. It was long enough in back to reach her shoulder blades, now that it was untangled. I hadn’t often seen hair that long on a woman or on a man. She had wide eyes of swamp-water green that flicked constantly over her surroundings. Her cheekbones were high and may have been made more prominent by their bruises. I was most fascinated with her eyebrows: dark and thick near her nose, tapering to ends that turned slightly upward and faded to points. Her nose, as I often remarked inside myself, could boldly cleave the space before her and could have fit a much larger face. And yet, where is there a beautiful face that isn’t made more attractive by a feature that is out of proportion to the rest? I wondered whether her sense of smell were proportionally more acute. I resolved to test this idea eventually, since I also have a large nose and seem to smell better than most other people can. She had the look of a girl who was confident and wise, but also able to laugh and play, and yet truly not one to be crossed.
Against this observation of her I regarded myself as a modestly pleasant-looking man, strong and lithe, but clumsy and often unsure of myself in small matters. My hair and beard are light brown and curly. Both are kept short for ease of care. I darken readily in the sun and retain the brownness well into the winter. My shoulders are broad and I can puff out my chest to a considerable expanse. In the presence of this lady I was acutely self-conscious about my eyesight, as I was in anyone else’s presence. Many would assume me accursed to be deserving of such an affliction. I knew that in prowess or agility, if not in grace, I was a match for most men, that I was also perceived as courteous with all, but for wits and charm most people might prefer the company of fleas.
After an indulgence of hair-grooming, interrupted by weak coughing and light gasping and occasional glances toward me, my lady laid down her things and boldly regarded me as I held my gaze on her.
Bluntly I said to her: “Today you must tell me your name.”
“If you do not know it, then I have no name. You must give me a name.”
“Then I shall,” I agreed. “But you have not asked me mine.”
My lady shrugged lightly, barely managed to say: “Your friend called you Kolyar or some such nonsense,” and then grimaced at the response from her aching, burning, itching, stabbing side.
I noticed her distress, but continued as on a mission. “I am Kolyek, also called Kolyek-the-blind. Yet, I am not blind, as you have observed, just sorely limited in what I can see at a distance. You have heard me called Kolyei, and you would honor me to address me by that diminutive.” I smiled at her, prepared for a response. She appeared to roll her eyes and to shake her head almost imperceptibly, still stiffened by pain, which I boldly ignored. After a moment’s pause, I went on: “I know. I will call you Laïsha. It is a name I have known and have remembered with great…” — I wanted to say “fondness,” but I feared that I would seem too affectionate — “…warmth.”
“Warmth?” said the lady in a derisive tone, but she followed the word with a short sigh as she looked at me squarely and braced for another surge of pain.
I ignored the brief sarcasm. “But why will you not tell me the name you have already been given?”
“Perhaps I would forget my past,” she said quietly, turning away. “And easily I could, but that he comes for me.” She had been sitting up in bed again, but now, cautiously, she lowered her feet to the floor and talked with me while perched stiffly on the edge.
“But who comes?” I asked, hoping to trip her up for the nobleman’s name.
“I will tell you. But if he did not tell you, then you must not repeat his name in his presence when he returns for me. He detests familiarity in those beneath his station.”
“That is a promise I can make and keep,” I said with uncommon assurance.
“He is Davnoy. He is nothing more than the son of Abru, a wealthy merchant of Sambatas or as you may know it, Dneprokiev, but he fails — to understand that he is only that and not a prince.” She spoke with the pain that accompanied all of her speech, but this time it was haughty as well.
I was close to believing that she held the man in some disdain, but dared not proceed on that assumption. And she herself apparently was not a daughter of this same wealthy merchant, or else she might well have said that Davnoy was yer brother. Dneprokiev was a name I had heard, sometimes shortened as Kiev. It was a large town, I knew, and on my migration southward with a party of hunters, some years before, I passed within a day’s journey of its gates, if it had gates.
“And why would you call me Laïsha?” she asked.
I thought of a girl I had known in my home village when I was young, a severely crippled girl with a twisted spine. Even so, she was a joyful and stoic person, and I had played with her when very young, until her own pain had deprived her of that freedom. When she died, at about ten years of age, slowly starved and tortured by her father and mother, I felt my first deep personal loss. Her name had been Laïsha, and I had not known another by that name since.
I told my lady all of this, and added that it was my wish to invest in her the hope for recovery that could not have been possible for that crippled child.
Perhaps my explanation touched her in some way I did not anticipate, for after that she became more cooperative and less plaintive or demanding.
That evening she spoke of the time that had passed since her companion, Davnoy, had left to have his carriage fixed — five days. “A half day’s journey by foot, three or four hours by carriage…” she pondered. “He would be back by now, I am certain.” She looked at me as if to ask for more information, for her look told me she was convinced that I knew more than I would tell. But she fixed me with the look only for a moment.
“He’ll not be returning, then, will he?” she asked, more as a statement. “Did he think me dead? Did you — could you, the physician, possibly have persuaded him that I could not be kept alive? Has he given me up to the gods?”
“My Lady, perhaps he would think you dead, but not due to my persuasion. If he has drawn that conclusion and will not come for you, then we must send you to him once you can travel. Indeed, in the meantime, we could send word.” The more I spoke as if he had left my house alive, the more likely I might persuade even myself.
“Ha!” She uttered it so loudly that I looked about the room to see whether someone else had provided the voice.
This was my opportunity to test her for the answer to another question that trouble me. “If, I dread to think, some serious misfortune has befallen him alone, what then?”
“His family will seek him. They will learn what has become of him.” She looked at me steadily, and said: “If misfortune caught up with him near here, then they will be here some day to trace him.”
“And I will tell them of my encounter with him, and you will have your passage homeward.”
She shuddered slightly and then said: “If he does not return, then I am in your debt with no way to pay. What then do you say?”
I wanted to end my lie that very moment, but my tongue stumbled on the first words of truth. “My Lady, I have told you things — things that… that are as they are. I must believe, just as you, that he will return and that I will be paid in some kind. But if he does not come,” I smiled at her, “I have had the benefit of a new experience.” Staring at me, she blushed quickly. “For I have never… ah, treated a wound such as yours. Therefore I am in your debt, since you have aided me. I perceive, also, that you will not be an idle sufferer under my care. Let us leave the account at that for now.”
Laïsha paused. “Then let me sleep upon the straw — on the floor and return your bed to you, and let me tend some small chores. I might not have chosen — to become your burden, but you are so accommodating that I could be tempted — to use your hospitality to unfair advantage. Others must do that to you.”
I declined to exchange sleeping arrangements just yet, and busied myself with small tasks in the house. My mind was busy too, and so I could not initiate small talk. My lady occupied herself with her person and clothing, and eventually lay back to rest. Presently she began to speak of something, but cut herself short and dismissed my attention before I understood the subject.
Maybe owing to her discomfort, or else because we were, after all, truly strangers, or because I was not high-born as she, or for some other reason, she did not go on at the mouth as many women do. Even though I welcomed her conversation and was warmed by her interest and familiarity, even by her mild insults, I was grateful for her usual silence. For it seems a form of thought control that some women exercise over men: They speak incessantly; words flow and flow. Surely they cannot also think at the same time, so they must be thinking aloud. And a man must suspend his thoughts in order to listen. So a man who talks little, joined with a woman who talks much, is forced to think her thoughts most of the time and she none of his. If he listens to his thoughts instead, he misses what the woman is saying, and that may not be wise. If he puts words to all his thoughts, as does she, then there would probably not be enough time in a day for both of them to think, silently or aloud. I did not have a wife, and Sadruk’s had died in a long-ago blizzard, so my mother was the last woman with whom I had lived. Since then I had observed it long and often among the women who accompanied their men to Sadruk and me for healing.
After a while I saw that my lady was watching me. “I know nothing of your journey,” I said as cheerfully as I could broach conversation. I let it sound as if I were frankly curious.
“Yet you knew we had not come by way of Pinea, for you say you had to give Davnoy directions to the village. Therefore…” she paused to allow me to answer.
“Therefore you would have left Drizha, to our southwest and on the edge of the steppe, on the morning of the day before your accident. And your Davnoy knew of Pinea. I merely had to tell him where to find the cartwright. You yourself have told me that you did not come from the direction of Pinea.” Of course, I knew they had come by way of Drizha, because I had seen the direction in which the carriage was traveling. “But you are from Dneprokiev, so Drizha was only a stopping point on your return journey from somewhere distant.”
“You are good at drawing conclusions. That is called logic, am I right?”
I nodded, but she was having some amusement at my expense. I did not deny her the pleasure, for I wished her spirit to be strengthened as an aid to her healing.
“But I do not come from Dneprokiev, until lately, nor from Drizha except in passing.”
“You would mystify me, but I will not be mystified,” I said to her with a smile, but mystify me she did a little, and I think she knew it.
On the morning of the sixth day I was awakened, where I lay in my loft wrapped in my cloak, by the roaring of the stove fire and the heat that it sent aloft. I peered below. My lady, Laïsha, as I would try now to call her, was stooped by the blaze and into it was stuffing the remaining rich clothes taken from her battered trunk.
I rushed to interfere with this madness.
“Burn the rest, please,” she asked simply, as I began to re-pack the trunk. She looked at me firmly, face-to-face and close-up while I returned her gaze with, I am sure, an expression of utter stupidity. “Please.” Her eyes welled with tears and her voice weakened. She turned to shuffle back to the bed. I took her arm and steadied her, but she resisted receiving any assistance.
“All… all of this?” I asked tentatively, returning to the fire.
She nodded. “The trunk also,” she assured me.
I dragged the tousled box to the stove and hesitantly continued feeding things to the fire. My lady was watching, so I worked at a more natural pace, broke the box into bits, and soon it was all gone.
“If young Davnoy has disappeared without a trace, then so also must I,” she explained after I had finished. I waited, but she would say no more.
As the day wore on her cheerfulness of the day before returned. The sun was brilliant, for the first time since her arrival, and we spent much of the day with the shuttering boards opened at the front of the house to admit the bright light, the spring-greeting insects, and the cool air loaded with the raw earthen fragrances of an approaching growing season.
When we checked her wound, I was able to predict a good recovery of the flesh. The pig-gut covering was loose where it should be and tight where it should be. Some stitches near the ends of her cut were already disintegrating, leaving the skin closed. In the center, the aggravation of the day before seemed minor. Of her ribs and the damage they bore, I could make no prediction of recovery. We physicians do not know which bones can be healed and which cannot, and the ribs, or parts of them, are not always thought of as true bones because they are not connected to others. She explored her wound with her fingers, and at last she shrugged. “You have treated me well,” she reassured me once again. “I will breath and move freely again one day.”
Outside, the snow was shrinking away from rocks and tree trunks, and there were many bare and muddy or wet and icy places.
“A good day for travel,” I said as we were eating. “Perhaps, My Lady, your Davnoy comes for you today.” It was ridiculous of me to talk that way, but I enjoyed the pace of her recovery and wanted to encourage it any way I could.
“It would be well for you to use the name you wished to give me,” she suggested.
“Perhaps he has not disappeared, and therefore you need not do so.”
“I would like to explain some things to you,” she told me. “But as yet I cannot. First, I must know what has happened to him. I know he would not leave me here if he knew I were alive, even if I were near death. If you did not pronounce me dead, then, as difficult as it is for me to believe he left me here, I must believe more strongly that he will return.”
I was listening, but she paused to work at her biscuit.
Then she went on, and I began to understand: “If he has not returned to Dneprokiev by now, or even some days ago, then soon he will be sought. Someone will be here, of this you can be sure.” I understood that she was keeping a secret and that it was causing her some distress. We were both pensive.