Mom used to say I possessed magic.
I never knew exactly if she meant the real magic or not. But she used to say I did magic with flowers and gardens and stuff: that I brought them to life. I liked to plant flowers everywhere, even in winter. I was the only one who could find flowers that could prevail in any season of the year: in the summer, when the heat was stifling, the sun was shining high and the fields were bright; in the spring, when the trees were lush and strong with fruit, the flowers were full of life and radiant; in the autumn, when the leaves began to fall withered from the trees and formed piles of autumn colors; and in the winter, when a huge, thick white layer covered everything in its path.
I had the fearsome ability to go completely clean and come back as if I had rolled on the floor for the sake of it. I would entertain myself on any sidewalk, road, or place where there were plants or animals. Most people knew me for my gardening skills, which I didn't consider to be entirely good, but I was happy when some, if not all, people asked for my help in planting flowers or picking fruit.
Dad used to say that I was a wild and beautiful flower, "the most beautiful flower in the field," he once said. Maybe he said it because of how rebellious I was, or because I couldn't stay calm, without wanting to run away to the forest and walk all its passages and roads, as if I didn't already know them and as if it was the first time I was going.
I knew the forest upside down and straight. I'd gotten lost and found my way a thousand times. I had seen hundreds of animals I didn't think it was possible to see... I considered the forest more as my home than the real one, not far from here.
However, not everything was rosy for me. I had heard the countless myths of Smert' , or Death, and I could never tell if they were all true stories or not. Since I was a child I had loved to hear how Death lurked at the doors of every home he walked through, that he was vigilant of the wounded and the elderly, but also of regular people.
I'd also heard them call him Winter. According to many myths, he came with the coldest season in Anselaan and took many lives in the coldest months, as if it were a collection.
"He comes as if it were his own house" said the widows of the village, who had the most incredible stories that made one lose oneself in them, "and takes as many souls as he wants, claiming them as his own."
Since I was a child I had wondered why someone like Death would claim so many souls, ripping them from their loved ones or in the worst ways. I also heard that he was being worshipped, as if that would make him no longer want to take lives, but would it really work?
Would there be Death after all?
I knew that there were witches, beasts half man and half wolf, dragons that roamed the skies, sea serpents and many, many other things. They were not just stories, however, I had never seen any of these creatures with my own eyes, so it was a little hard for me to digest all these myths.
Although, I believed them, with every fibre of my being. I did.
Sometimes in the winter, my family deliberately forbade me to go into the woods, because they knew precisely that I lost track of time and used to get out of there very late. I didn't take it badly, but sometimes I didn't feel very comfortable in my home.
Winter was approaching and with it, my beautiful illusion of being able to walk through the woods in complete freedom and fullness, but I knew what could happen too if I didn't obey my mother. Moreover, I heard about how dangerous the forest was in winter because the wolves that lived in the Livenskaya mountains came down to hunt and be hunted as well. However, I never told anyone that once a couple of winters ago I had seen a small pack of wolves up close, devouring a deer they had hunted down with fury.
I had learned my lesson, but I had also seen the majestic beasts that many hunters used to kill for their skins. Once, I managed to scare away a group of hunters and a few others from eating hallucinogens because I planted them there in the summer.
I looked at the forest around me and did not feel small at all, even knowing that the forest of Nosovaya was larger than anyone could imagine. The huge trees stretched out beyond what my sight could reach, getting lost in a small blurred and opaque spot, which continued for miles beyond, unwinding like a rug.
The leaves were falling from the trees, with their beautiful autumn colours, forming very beautiful and enormous piles. Some flowers were still standing, while others had already withered completely.
I thanked the gods that hardly anyone came from the north side of the forest, which overlooked the mountains and a river that connected our town and several others, extending for miles downstream. In some seasons, such as in spring and summer, some hunters would appear to look for fun with the poor animals. In winter, it was sometimes worse. I would see the poor foxes, wolves and bears perish in their fury, so every late fall and early winter, I would set traps.
I knew perfectly well the kind of poisonous plants that looked beautiful and radiant, as if they could not harm anyone, that looked edible. I would plant them many months before the harsh winter, near where the ruthless and arrogant hunters would stop to rest and eat, and so when they sought sustenance in something sweet, they would fall into my trap. I had never killed anyone that I knew of, and if so, I counted on the animals to take care of them.
I was doing my best to escape from my home and avoid being there in the presence of everyone.
The afternoon they told us that Dad died, I ran into the woods: I ran as if there was no tomorrow, as if someone was chasing me and as if I wanted to escape from the world in which I lived.
I went into the woods and it seemed totally alien to me. I repeated my feat when Mom took who would be her new husband. From the beginning I hated him and he seemed to have the same aberration towards me, so I avoided him at all costs, but the bastard kept appearing everywhere.
Isaak got used to calling him "Dad", while I called him, or tried to call him, by his name. Kasen. He tried to order me around, but I wouldn't give in, ignoring him and saying he wasn't my father enough to listen to him. Mom, by not objecting, or not objecting strongly, ended up agreeing with me, which made Kasen angry.
Somehow, our house had lost its usual glow: Mom. Since Dad had died, she looked dull, smiled less and no longer looked happy; I doubted that she was happy with Kasen's bastard pig.
To avoid being under the same roof as him, I managed to get out of the house when he was there. Clearly, I spent my time hiding in the woods, running around, playing in the clearing, climbing trees, or resting in the grass while watching the animals come and go.
Pasha, an old friend from the village, told me extraordinary stories about the various myths of Anselaan, many of which I did not know, the most famous being those of Smert'. But that was when I was ten years old and visiting Pasha in her home on the cool hill in the village, where she herded her sheep, cows and chickens with her son, Kolya.
I stopped going to Praskovya Khoklova's house when Dad died. Not exactly because I felt detached from her. No. In Pasha, my oldest and most trusted friend, I found a refuge that no one else could give me: comfort. I used to listen to her when she told me that she asked her old gods and saints, because they were very different from ours, for my father's soul and that we could be at peace. I stopped seeing her when the pig of Kasen appeared at our door with his round and filthy face, telling us that she was a pagan woman with no trade who lived by deceiving others with her tales full of lies and Satanism.
To be honest, I didn't mind when I saw his disgusting face angry at my rebellion and the way I defended Pasha. What's more, I felt triumphant and victorious. Nor was I hurt by Mother's slap, not knowing that I had defended myself as the gods commanded.
Getting out of the forest, as well as getting in, was not difficult either. I was always sneaking among the cherry trees, or the acacias, the oaks, pines, or among the thorn or flower-filled bushes. I never stayed beyond sunset because it would be late for me to get home. I would leave my slippers under a bush with roses, very close to the clearing, and I would run around like a little girl.
I would walk along the winding, worn-out roads that this place offered towards the village, meeting up with the odd farm, like ours, with the cattle on the loose and their owners herding them, greeting me and going back to their business.
I cut off a few wild flowers and tied them to a pretty bracelet that I tied on my right wrist. In my apron I carried enough money to buy black bread, a ration of meat for tomorrow, and perhaps some cheese.
"Darya!" Engrr Jotten, owner of his bakery, greeted me once and I entered the warm shop, where there was a delicious and familiar smell of bread. "It is always a pleasure to see you here. How is your mother?"
"She's still married to the beast," I buffet, handing him the money and taking the old basket of bread, covered with a blanket.
Old Engrr laughed, making the corners of his eyes take on little wrinkles. "Always so wild. When will you come back with your honey cakes? Angelete was delighted the last time you brought us. No one makes cakes as good as you, Dasha."
"I'll bring them as soon as I do," I promised and said goodbye, noticing that on the porch of the bakery there was a boy sweeping, looking at me out of the corner of his eye. "Hello, Walaric."
Engrr's second son, my age too, was getting nervous around me, and everyone seemed to notice. As children, we had been friends, but as time passed, he drifted away from me. I never bothered or blamed him, and I never asked him about it.
"Hello, Daryana" He greeted me, cleared his throat and bowed his head, letting his dark hair fall over his grey eyes.
I did not say or do anything else, and I walked away, heading for the butcher's shop. It was amazing and normal how these people had known me all my life and I knew them.
Ushkovo was a small town located east of Anselaan, in Livenskaya province, near the border with Rusakovo and Aleksandrovskaya. We were not a very popular village, nor were we as crowded as those in the capital or other provinces, but we did have one of the largest and most extensive forests; I only knew the southern part, as I was not allowed to go to the north and I was not very convinced to go there.
Kyen Guth was popular because his butcher shop was always receiving hunters who filled his sales tables with meat from wild boar, rabbits, squirrels and more animals found there just for their skins.
"The little wildflower is back" Kyen announced, slashing a piece of meat with his knife that almost startled me, but I just smiled broadly.
"You must admit that I am one of your favorite customers, Kyen" I boasted, moving to the counter, gracefully. Plus, you love my blueberry pies.
Aside from having a duty to the flowers, I was an excellent cook. Mother had taught me her recipes, and so had Grandmother, long before she went to live in one of the endless hills of Ushkovo, very close to the forest. I used to go to her when I didn't want to be at home and also to go and rant my bad mood in the forest. In exchange for company, Grandma would teach me how to prepare her delicious desserts that I made for special occasions, such as Isaak's birthday, Mom, or to be nice to others.
I made my way home with the sun falling behind the mountains, coloring the sky in pastel shades and with the birds moving in small V-shaped silhouettes. I had always kept the path to the house decorated, but once Kasen arrived tremendously drunk and ruined everything: the plants and the lawn, I was about to kill him with the bottle of wine, if not because Isaak told me it was not a good idea... Since then, I stopped doing it and I felt that a part of me died with that garden.
I opened the door and found Mom by the fire, moving a pot on the coals, while taking something I smelled like rosemary and pouring it over the pot.
"Hello, Darina" she spoke, without turning to see me, with her soft, sweet, velvety voice.
"Hello, Mama" I replied, not really noticing her.
I put the basket aside and took out what was in it: the bread, the meat, and a good portion of cheese that I bought outside the butcher's shop from Dienen Aminov. I threw away my slippers and sat on the carpet in front of the fire, trying to warm myself from the icy wind that the last days of autumn brought.
"How's the woods?" she asked, looking at the thin bracelet that was wrapped around my bony wrist.
I stopped looking at the orange fire and looked up at her.
Tatyana Voronova had always been a beautiful woman by nature. From her three sisters, it was my mother who had brought out her mother's talent and beauty as well. She was thin - now she looked like a ghost - with long hair and like a reddish waterfall that looked like copper, which I had always tied in long, thick braids that ended up as crowns on top of her head. When Dad was still alive, he hummed melodies, which I had learned, and slithered around the house, as if she were a princess or a professional dancer, with a delicacy and agility that I always envied, as if she had been born to be in a palace, sheathed in those enormous dresses adorned with metallic colors, and not in this small town of bad luck...
But she didn't fall in love with any handsome prince, any wealthy guy who could give her the magical story life she deserved. She fell in love with the son of a carpenter, Vaslav Markov, an honest, humble, charismatic and also handsome boy, who managed to conquer the girl and give her a much better story, with more magic, and love than anyone would believe.
After Dad's death, Mom went off. I saw how the light that lived inside her slowly died out, how her gray eyes lost their usual loving glow, how she stopped humming her songs and dancing all over the place; I saw how my mother became a ghost, swarming silently and mistakenly around the rooms and everywhere, without smiling, without emitting her happiness. Nothing.
She married Kasen, a lumberjack, for trying to support us, because she did not want to sell her cattle, which she had worked so hard to raise, nor did she want to lose the house that the love of her life once built for her, with a beautiful view of the village and the forest to which I was going.
"I hope this winter will not be as cruel as the others" I replied, looking down again at my pale, naked feet.
I knew that sometimes she did not like to see me in the eyes because they reminded her of our father's eyes: green as emeralds, so lively, full of energy, savagery and love. The first time she avoided my gaze I understood and I didn't need any more clues to know that both Isaak and I managed to be a martyr for her.
"Did you plant Damaskos?" she insisted, in what I heard was a laugh.
"Yes, so did Hallanias" I said. Those were sweets and she made them into some cakes.
Damaskos were more like hallucinogens in the form of small yellow flowers, like dandelions... And I had learned the hard way what they were and what they were for, so planting them nearby was a very good option.
"Blue berry cakes look good with Hallaniases" Mum muttered, perhaps remembering the taste of the delicious little cakes she used to make for her.
"When they're done, I'll make more" was all I said, suppressing a sigh.
Mom looked at me and opened her mouth, but said nothing, as the door opened and Kasen appeared with Isaak behind him. I almost snarled when I saw Kasen, robust and strong as an oak, with dark hair, a black beard and dark eyes; he looked like a bear, but one of those violent ones that think they own the forest.
"We're here!" announced Kasen, with a wide smile.
How happy I thought, in a terrible mood and rolling my eyes without him seeing me.
"Dinner is almost ready" said Mama, in an attempt to smile, but my brother and I knew that he could not smile as he once did.
"The table is not set?" Kasen's question and his voice were specifically directed at me, so I gritted my teeth and snorted, standing up to fix the blessed table. "You don't expect Tanya to do everything, do you?"
I didn't even look at him. I couldn't stand it, let alone look at him. I set the blessed table, spreading out the glossy tablecloth and the plates we would use: I left the plate with a small crack underneath that would make his food spill out little by little.
"You can do it too" I replied, looking at it rhetorically, and came back just to get my slippers. I'll go and put the goats away.
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