Three hundred years ago, in the provinces of a kingdom that bordered Romania, a girl named Christiana put a paddle in a river called the Vestjău and pushed off, heading north. Her canoe, a trim one-person craft less than five feet long and at most sixteen inches wide, moved quickly and directly through the water. After all, Christiana, at fifteen, had a stout back, well-developed shoulders, and muscular forearms, conditioned from years of propelling the canoe back and forth along the Vestjău. At least once a day, she would untie the canoe from a tree bordering her tiny landing spot—a flat beige stone that acted as a natural stepping off point— in order to check on a series of crab pots that the man who called himself her father had strewn along a mile square segment of the river. The man who called himself her father, along with the boy who called himself her brother, lived not far from that beige stone in a crumbling house that neither looked after. While they slept, or ate, or drank, or read, Christiana would travel from crab pot to crab pot, hoisting up the lopsided weight of the metal contraptions to see if any prey were caged inside. If she found that a pot contained even one crab she would then heave the pot all the way into the canoe, open its door, and shake it so hard that the clinging crustaceans caught inside could not hold any longer and fell into the straw basket she’d brought with her.
Some days, if she had trouble with the pots, it might take her as long as two hours to complete her task. Other days, many in fact, after she completed her assigned rounds of checking and emptying, and after she’d carried the teeming full basket the sixty or seventy yards from the landing to the house, her father instructed her to go straight on to the central road a mile away, where people knew they could buy products of all kind from the string of vendors there: chairs with woven seats, leather work boots, fresh eggs, goose-feather mattresses, nails, sleeping caps. Or her father might tell her to just set down the crab basket and head back out on the water to paddle south to Marușani, the nearest village of any size. In Marușani a man named Cojocaru made and sold an especially delectable variety of gin, better than any other local manufacturer. At least this is what her father claimed. And Christiana always prayed that Cojocaru was selling because if he turned her away she would be forced to walk to the home of a man named Yonescu who also sold gin but a much more disappointing kind. Yonescu’s product was so disappointing, in fact, that her father yelled at her if she brought back a bottle of it. (He yelled worse if she brought back no gin at all.)
Her father knew exactly how much Cojocaru charged for his product and always gave her enough to cover the cost of three bottles. He then proceeded to count the change she gave him with a testy exactitude that he never mustered in any other aspect of his life. She knew not to withhold a single aspri from him, as she had tried that once when she was thirteen and received a whipping as a result. Even now her father remembered that incident and forced her to turn her pockets inside out, to take off her shoes, to shake out her hair and open her mouth. If he decided—with a great show of resentment and skepticism—that she had not in fact cheated him, he would only grunt, nod, and say for probably the fifteen-hundreth time, “A good thing too. You know what happens if you steal from me.”
The boy who called himself her brother, Decebal, though two years older than Christiana, was forgiven these thankless tasks. As the only male offspring, it was Decebal’s duty to get himself educated, so that later he could take his place among the promising up-and-comers in Bisstanța, the shiny capital city so far away, the locus of every young man’s dreams and every father’s aspirations. The odd thing is that the man who called himself Christiana’s father had no use for the city himself; he never traveled there or talked as if he wanted to—yet even so he expected his son to follow the prescribed path; he would not tolerate the possibility that even one of his neighbors might hint that Decebal had not made the most of his opportunities, had dishonored his family by pursuing a merely ordinary, merely happy life.
Her brother would not be held back, would not be told there was no room in the classroom or hours in the day or money in the pot. No, rather it was Christiana who had been designated to stay behind, get turned down, ask no questions, and raise no complaints. It was for Christiana to learn where the crab pots were set and how to empty them and where the spots were along the central road where locals knew to come to buy live food. When Christiana’s mother had been alive she used to say, “He can’t go on forever, you know. Not the way he lives. And one of us will need to know what to do with those crabs.” Christiana used to hope it was her mother who might be made to learn to raise crab pots out of the water and spill their contents into a straw basket. In Christiana’s mind, after all, the woman was destined to outlive her husband: an unhappy, hard living man who Christiana could not remember ever liking or ever feeling with the slightest shiver of communion. But of course this did not happen. Her mother had died from a frightening illness years before, a virus that had no name but turned her mother’s skin a blotchy red before making her break out in mustard colored bumps.
To familiarize Christiana with the Vestjău, the man who called himself her father sent her out in a canoe by age eight. By age ten, he had showed her the location of every crab pot and had her try out emptying one and putting it back. By age twelve, she was doing the rounds on the river all by herself almost every day. The only trouble she ever had was on her third day checking the pots by herself. It was a bumper catch, with each pot holding at least one crab and several holding many more. As she was shaking loose the contents of a particular pot, one holding six feisty, clacking fighters, a crab bounced off the side of her baskets and clattered to the floor of the canoe. Frightened, she dropped the cage with its trap door wide open; so now it was more like six crabs loose in the canoe, an inadequate space for their angry, scurrying, miserly bodies. Christiana was so terrified she leaped into the river. She’d sunk two feet beneath the surface before she thought to move her arms in a cleaning motion and push the water down. When her face peaked above the surface she saw that, ironically, the crabs were imitating her: clamoring over the rim of the canoe and falling voluntarily beneath the surface of the river. They plummeted so fast to the bottom that she saw them for perhaps half a second before they blinked out of sight. Christiana struggled to tread water, her arms thrashing wildly and her legs whipkicking in an attempt to stay balanced and even, an effort she quickly realized could pull a person apart piece by piece and leave them flattened, utterly spent. Then she managed to get a grip on the canoe and hoist herself on board. She could do nothing but rest unmoving for twenty-five minutes, the whole time realizing how badly her father would yell when she returned late. After that no crab she ever emptied from a trap missed the straw basket.
By the time she turned fifteen—in early June, less than a month before she pushed her paddle into the water and headed north—Christiana had been checking the pots without any help for three years and on top of that had been sent countless times by herself to Marușani to fetch gin. Her shoulders were broader and her upper arms more dense than her brother’s, her stomach flatter than his, and her heart and lungs much better able to withstand punishing exertion. In truth, the boy who called himself her brother stood for no exertion at all, save what it took for him to lift a book onto his lap, a crust of bread or a tankard of beer to his lips or his head back in a mocking laugh. It was around this time that she took stock of her life and of the man who called himself her father, who seemed not to want to work in any capacity, not even so much as to make his family a meal, but only to pursue his feverish fascination with gin.
Where did I come from, Christiana asked herself, over and over; how can he be related to me? Even his appearance wasn’t right: a small, oval-shaped head with foggy green eyes and dark brows knit coarsely above; thinning hair on a nearly bald head; an olive complexion; arms as thin as kindling; a whiskery face. Christiana—with her head full of curling red hair, her wide freckled cheeks, her glinting blue eyes, and her square chin—looked nothing like the man at all, although the boy who called himself her brother certainly did; in fact, she did not even look like her deceased mother, who’d had a narrow face and chestnut eyes and tired blonde hair that depending on the day looked either wan gray or dirty brown. The afternoon that her father, high on gin and nonsense, swung at her with his miserly little fist and made solid enough contact that her eye began to swell, Christiana made the decision to leave. Not just because she was unhappy, but because it came home to her all at once that she was living a pretend life in a household of frauds. With a man who had to know he wasn’t her real father but wouldn’t say so, and a brother who she suspected knew the truth but didn’t speak it in order to maintain the sweet setup of their situation, one in which he had no earthly responsibilities except to become fancy and swaggering and impossible.
The morning Christiana took her escape was an ordinary one for July. Though the silvery promise of the coming day was apparent in the air, it was long enough before the full sunrise that she need not fear either her father or brother were awake. Along the river, the vestiges of last night’s fog lingered, waiting to get chased away by the sun. Between Christiana’s legs sat her satchel, partially filled with some bread and apples she’d stolen from the house. The load was not heavy enough to afford her any ballast, but the knowledge it was there calmed her in ways that were finally more important. She was not, after all, empty-handed, and she was open to receive whatever her journey presented. Within minutes she was far enough upriver that glancing back over her shoulder through the fog she could not even make out the spot where she’d departed. The place, if it even existed in the blurry of rough greens and shadowy browns and musky dawn rouge, existed only as an illusion.
It occurred to Christiana as she rowed that if she heard of anyone else—male or female—doing what she was doing now, escaping their home by means of a canoe, carrying a hurriedly stuffed satchel, she would scoff. “Running away from home,” she would have spat, “a good way to get killed; a great way to break your parents’ hearts; an excellent way to make sure you never feel at home again, anywhere in the world for the rest of your life.” She felt that none of these reservations applied to her, however. She was not escaping her life but running toward it, meeting the future there where it waited like a slouching sentinel who held secret messages for her. Besides, her taut back and broad shoulders, her strong forearms and lean, sinewy legs gave her the physical courage she needed. If she encountered any actual danger on this journey—a wild dog, or a boar, or a wolf—she was confident she could avoid it or overcome it. It was her spoiled brother who feared the animal world, who hesitated before daddy longlegs and moths, who stopped as if stricken at the sight of a hedgehog in the grass, who held his head up with startled, nervous scrutiny at the different calls and barks and footfalls that played outside their windows on any given night. Stupid boy, she thought to herself, it’s only an Eagle owl; it’s only a polecat; it’s only a scurrying lizard.
The only danger Christiana counted on was from men: those drifting, discontented ones she saw so frequently these days. Men without hope, without a home, with no one willing to give them either coins or bread for work; sleeping on the sides of roads or in the tall weeds or even in treetops like some long ago man-species; stealing and foraging and even killing when they had to; dressed in rags and battered boots and overcoats, even in the hot summer weather. If the boy who called himself her brother had tried to escape—and why would he—Christiana would have gone after him to bring him back. Or at least she would have trailed him close enough to be able to step in before he got mugged or beaten or bitten or simply lost, whatever happened before enough sense returned to him to realize he had made a mistake and turned back. But her brother, she was all but certain, would not risk the energy to come after her.
Her father, on the other hand, would want to come after her, but not out of a desire to protect her. Not at all. For this reason, Christiana had decided to paddle north, the opposite direction from where she traveled to check on the crab pots. A direction she had never headed, for all the years she paddled the Vestjău. The man who called himself her father would assume she’d gone south to Marușani, where people might know her and take her in and watch out for her. In fact, Marușani is exactly where she would have liked to go save for the fact that her father could track her down there so easily. So instead she paddled north where, if what she had been told was correct, after three or four days she would spy on her right a gathering of large, red-faced rocks. At that spot an inlet curved in to meet the river. She would enter that inlet, keep paddling and in only half a day reach the outskirts of Bisstanța.
There she would ditch her canoe and then head off on foot to the city proper to deliberately lose herself among the dozens of streets and back alleys, taverns and shops and printing offices and outdoor markets and government buildings. It would be so much harder for her illiterate, impatient faux-father to find her in a city of sixty thousand than in a village of four hundred and fifty. In Bisstanța she would establish herself in her own trade, whatever that might be, and if her brother ever indeed found his way there, which she doubted given the boy’s lack of ambition, and if she ever happened to see him on a city street, she would greet him respectfully and openly: not as a relative but as a colleague. The man who called herself her father she would never greet again, anywhere, in any context.
Christiana leaned into another stroke and the canoe shot further ahead. She switched the paddle to the other side and leaned in again, proud that her craft had not swerved on either stroke. It proceeded as if on a rope set between where she was and where she wanted to be. This was no accident but simply a talent culled from year after year of powering the boat by herself. She would miss this canoe, the physical sensation of moving it. She hoped that in Bisstanța she could simply store the craft in a hideaway spot and use it—somehow, some way—in her later life. But she knew that was unrealistic. In her father’s mind she was so connected with the craft that the only way to completely break from the man was to break from the craft.
She rowed for another thirty minutes or so before the fog atop the water began to separate and move in wings toward the banks. The whole time she’d been able to see far enough ahead of her to keep going, but now she could see much farther, far enough that she recognized a sharp bend coming in the body of the river, the first yet. She assumed that beyond the bend the river would be the same as if had been so far, gray and placid and wide, and that the bank would look the same: acres of gnarly, uneven woodland overgrown with weeds and scrubby trees and decapitated saplings, ribbed by occasional tongues of shore, tiny grottoes where boats might land or take off barely noticed. So far, though, she’d seen no other boat and no other people. It was early, true, but not too early for fishermen. It was a little unnerving actually: the morning’s hushed quality, as if the river was holding its breath, waiting for her to travel a little bit further, to come a little bit closer before it let out a squeal and its face changed.
She slowed as she entered the bend, feeling better now that her launch point—and her father’s property—were far behind her, lazy with the knowledge that in a current as placid as this one—there was barely a ripple on the surface—she needn’t worry about drifting off course. She could rest her shoulders for a few minutes, a practice than in the long run would allow her to do what she set out to do. Christiana knew from all her years of rowing that pacing was the secret to endurance; only with pacing could she hope to paddle as far as to reach the red-faced rocks where the inlet met the Vestjău. She could hurry now, but it would cost her strength later when, still more than a day from reaching her goal, midpoint exhaustion would clobber her. Midpoint exhaustion was the worst part of any canoe trip and could only be much worse on this one, the longest she had ever attempted. When faced with midpoint exhaustion one had only one choice: to press on relentlessly, until the end of the journey is close enough to seem more actual than theoretical. At that point, she knew, paddling always became easy again. But until then she would need every sliver of her strength.
Midway into the bend, Christiana rested the paddle across her knee, closed her eyes, and let the newborn sun strike her across the face. Behind her lids she saw not black but a clotted yellowy orange with patches of rotating, soggy green. She listened to the sound of her own steady breath inside her chest and her heart as it moved calmly; this moment in which she felt entirely alone and safe. She had escaped. The man who called himself her father could not know where she was or what she was doing. He would not suspect she had fled, not right away. In her mind’s eye she saw the moment when he realized the truth. Would he run to his neighbors’ houses and arrange a search party? Would he borrow a boat and paddle the river himself? Would he give his son money and tell him to go and not return until he retrieved her? Let him, she thought. I won’t be anywhere he expects to find me. Then she had another thought. The man who called himself her father might do exactly nothing. The man who called himself her father might stay exactly where he was, fixed in a chair in his crumbling house, sipping on last of his supply of Cojocaru’s gin, talking himself into a bigger bitterness than he actually felt—how bitter could he actually be seeing how she was not even his natural born daughter?—imagining her disgraced eventual return, imagining how she would beg for forgiveness, planning for how hard he would hit her. Eager for that blow. Except, Christiana knew, the idea was a fantasy, an illusion. It would never come. She had escaped; she was alone; she was free. Under no circumstances would she ever paddle back to that man’s house. Not even if she lost her mind. Not even if she lost her way. She knew that in her heart, and her heart felt calm.
She opened her eyes. She did not actually know how long she had had them closed. But she immediately noticed something odd. The bank to her right was different, drastically so. When her eyes were closed she must have completed her circuit through the bend, because the bank here looked not at all like what she had seen only minutes before, when she approached the bend from the other side. Indeed, it was as if nature had changed out one landscape for another: whole, en masse. The trees and saplings and tall weeds—all that scruffy riverside growth—were disappeared, as were the occasionally rocky tufts of mustardy rubble, little curling thumbs of land stretching into and disappearing beneath the water. What she saw now was an endless strip of shiny white sand, not broad, but in perfect order, mathematically identical in width and continuing as far as she could see. And, more astonishing, this sand was without rocks at all. It was soft, full, gathered in lovely bright inviting heaps. Setting her feet in that sand, Christiana thought, must feel like putting them in a warm, delicious bath. Even more striking than this newfound beach, however, was the land that sat above it. In place of virgin forest, what lay on that side of the river now was acres of flat peat fields, loamy green and fibrous. She stared and stared at these fields, trying to spy the end of them on that side of the horizon. But she saw no end. How a forest could disappear in an instant to make way for a peat field Christiana didn’t know, but that is what happened.
She supposed that whoever lived here, if anyone did, must be a peat farmer. Which again was odd. As she had formulated her plan of escape weeks ago, she had asked—with coy. seeming-innocence—about the Vestjău when one headed north. One man had told her about the red rocks and the way to get to Bisstanța; another man commented on how bright the river became when you rowed with the sun overhead; a third man said he thought the river became bluer the further north you went. What about the land, she had asked, genuinely curious; the terrain of our country? Oh, they all said, it stays the same. Trees and more trees. No one had said a word about peat farms.
She saw another new feature on the landscape: a pen, a crude one, built from split trees and cleverly arranged to form a more or less even rectangle of enclosed space. Almost the same instant she saw the pen she heard the unmistakable mewling of a goat. Then she realized she was staring at one: an animal with dull short orangey-brown fur and long patches of white on its legs. It was sticking its nose through the rails of the pen, as if to get a sniff of her. Then she saw not one but six or seven of the bearded, goggle-eyed quadrupeds, with different coloring and markings, leaning their necks over and under the rails, watching her. Why hadn’t she noticed them all at once?
She was about to begin paddling again when she saw one goat step back from the edge of the pen, lift its hoof, and tap loudly on a piece of rail. The other goats stopped their crying and faced the first goat with guilty expressions on their faces. What would goats have to feel guilty about? And they kept staring at the first goat, as if they expected some further explanation. Some communication. Listen to yourself, she thought. Communication. But then she witnessed something inexplicable. The first goat leaned heavily on its back haunches, so heavily it was almost reclining, but then with an abrupt hop managed to pull its front hooves off the ground. It then began to flail with those hooves wildly, as if trying to dig into the air, to carve an image there. The other goats did not seem particularly surprised by this behavior. Instead they contemplated the first goat seriously, as if it were a danger not to. When the leader goat brought his hooves down, two or three of the other goats shared glances; then the whole pack wheeled and as one headed to the other end of the pen.
Quickly this journey was becoming a series of surprises. Not only had a forested landscape become something quite different, something no one had warned her about, but now it turned out the land was inhabited by goats—and if by goats then most certainly by people. Christiana strokes a few listless, casual strokes, knowing that she needed to get along but not sure how eager she was to do so. It wasn’t hard to keep the craft going in a straight line, especially now that she’d completed the bend in the river and the course looked straight for a long, visible stretch. Only then did she notice the shack to her right: her next surprise. It was an orderly little house, but one that had clearly aged and weathered. It’s clapboard siding and shingles had rusted down to a dark, dispirited gray, almost black. A red brick chimney stuck out of the house’s side, and it featured two small windows that faced the river. This struck Christiana as being badly planned. Instead of receiving the full warmth of the rising sun—what could be especially useful in the winter—the house only saw the sun when it was drained of power and going down. Worse, those two windows would feel the wrath of the western wind. They were a long way from the colder months, but even so Christiana shivered at the idea of the wind’s bite, what she felt all too often in that dilapidated ruin her father and brother existed in.
She wondered who would have made the choice to set windows against the wind, but she didn’t care at all to stop and find out. Now that she had taken her spate of rest, she needed to get moving on her journey. Just as she was set to paddle down hard again, the door to the shack opened and a woman stepped out. She looked hard at Christiana and at the same time, in one simultaneous motion, brought both hands up. A signal: Wait. Wait. Stop. Christiana was astonished; more astonished than afraid. She’d never seen this woman in her life. Never even imagined her. What could the woman want? An errant thought struck her—maybe the woman knew her father—but she dismissed it as merely a scared girl’s agitation. The man who called herself her father hardly knew anyone, and why would this woman have assumed Christiana was escaping? For all the woman knew, Christiana’s father had sent her this way.
Christiana quickly covered the distance to the shore. Running the canoe up and onto the soft sand was an easy maneuver. She hopped out and pulled the boat a few feet further in, so that it was completely out of the water. She saw then that a set of steps had been built into the bank to get one from the soft sandy shore up to the flat peat field. The woman stood now at the top of the steps. The woman was unremarkable looking for that country at that time. She wore a cream-colored blouse—dirt stained in places and evidencing a slight tear at the left shoulder line—with sleeves that went as far as mid-forearm—and a dark blue skirt of the sort that was seen everywhere, albeit hers was heavier and longer than Christiana would expect, given the warm July temperatures. It reached down and swallowed the woman’s ankles. She might have been forty—a peasant’s hard scrabble forty—and wore her hair about average long—just past the shoulders. They were tired brown locks speckled liberally with gray and noticeably not clean, twining across her forehead, beside her ears, near her chin. She had a blunt nose and a fleshy vice of a jaw that would have given her a battler’s appearance, except for the eerie phosphorescent look in her eyes: a green underscored by yellow that in the burgeoning sunlight of the new morning glinted like underwater rocks.
Christiana wanted to speak, but in the moment she realized she had nothing to say. She had no idea why she had been called to shore. It seemed to her it was up to the woman to offer an explanation. Instead of speaking, the woman made a signal that told Christiana to stay where she was.
“You want me to stand here?” she said.
The woman frowned and repeated the gesture.
The woman shook her head, turned, and started across the peat. In twelve steps or so she reached the door of the shack and pushed open the door. But she did not enter. Instead, Christiana saw her make a frantic series of motions with her hands, as if to get the attention of someone inside. The woman paused, stared into the shack, then signaled some more, but not as long. She nodded, then turned on her heel and started across the peat; but she certainly did not seem in any hurry to get back to Christiana. In fact, she merely looked at her feet as she ambled across the distance. She tells me to stop, but she doesn’t say why. Christiana wondered if she should just push the canoe back into the river and hop in. She had so much paddling to do before she could feel good about stopping for the night.
At that instant, a boy came out of the shack. He looked younger than Christiana by a few years, but he wasn’t really young. He was sloppily dressed in ill-fitting black trousers and a white shirt he had buttoned incorrectly, so that the fabric bent in erratic angles across his chest. Apparently he had just that moment thrown his clothes on. His curling black hair was as sloppy as the rest of him, maybe more so, twisting over his head like writhing snakes. He walked in a fast, almost skipping step and caught up with the woman easily. When the pair of them reached the top of the steps, the woman made a different but obvious gesture with her hand. She signaled to the boy: Go ahead.
“You don’t want to go any further on this river,” the boy said to Christiana. “It’s rough ahead.”
Christiana examined the stretch of river that lay ahead. It was as placid as the stretch she’d just paddled through.
“Looks fine to me,” she said.
“It’s not. Not up ahead.”
“Ahead.” He stared at her as if to say that she should expect no further details.
Christiana tried a smile. “I’ve rowed in all kinds of water.”
“Not this kind,” the boy said. He did something with his face, closer to a smirk than a smile, but Christiana thought that might be her imagination. In truth, he was quite closed-mouthed for a boy. This irritated her. Who was he to tell her what water she could or could not handle? Did he and the woman think they could just command her without offering a real explanation?
“I’ve talked to several people about this river. No one told me about any rough waters.”
The boy blinked. “Well, they’re there.” He started to turn around, but the woman grabbed his arm, fixing him in place. “Don’t do it,” he added, “or you’ll regret it. That’s a fact.”
There was something newly dire in his tone that Christiana could not ignore. “So what should I do?”
“Where are you going?”
She told him.
“That’s a long way from here,” he said.
She nodded, but said nothing. Maybe he wanted her to explain why she had to go such a long way, but she didn’t owe that explanation to anyone.
“You’ll need to take the land route,” the boy said.
“I don’t know anything about a land route.”
Now he looked at her as if she were a nincompoop. “I’ll tell it to you.”
“Okay,” she replied, but the boy and the woman just stood there staring at her. “When?” she said.
“When you come in.” He pointed to the shack. It was only then that Christiana realized he was offering her an invitation.
“Is she your mother?” Christiana said.
The boy nodded.
“Can she talk?”
“With her hands.”
“Oh,” Christiana said. She understood that she already understood that, but it was still startling to hear the boy say it out loud.
“You obviously can’t,” the boy added, “so she called me out here to talk to you.”
“Can she hear?” At this, the woman’s sulky frown turned to a brimming glare.
“Sorry,” Christiana muttered. She reached back and pulled her satchel out of the canoe. “I guess I should follow you.”
* * * * *
With the sun not positioned yet to shine in the windows, the cabin was thoroughly dim inside, cast in dark cutting shadows. Christiana thought she spied a layer of dust on the floor but she hoped that was just the effect of the color of the boards and the age of the house. It was surprisingly cool, however, the sign of a solidly built structure: securely sealed planks, no leaks, no cracks. In the shadowy well at the rear of the cabin two narrow beds were established and a single chest pushed against the right side wall. At the front of the space, just to the left, stood the hearth, currently unlit and empty. In the middle of the cabin, closer to where Christiana stood, was a heavy rectangular wooden table, easily the biggest item this family owned, big enough for a family of six. Why would two short people need such a looming piece? Perhaps they made a habit of taking in and feeding strays like her, a thought she knew should comfort her but instead made her feel like a mark. When she looked more carefully at the table, Christiana saw what looked like food stains or perhaps spilled pepper at the edges. It was unusual for anyone in this part of the country, and of modest means, to have spices, much less to be so openly wasteful of them, letting them spoil and get dirty. Then Christiana noted that the stains or pepper, or whatever they might be, were moving, in various directions: behind, around, on top of each other: a stream of movement: continuous as water.
Her breath and her words caught in her throat when she realized she was looking at spiders, dozens of them surging across the body of the eating space.
“You’re scared,” the boy said.
She startled. She had forgotten he was here, so focused was she on the table. The woman stood behind the boy, impassive and bored.
“It’s not everyday I see dozen of spiders of spiders on a table.”
The boy clucked. “Try hundreds.” He paused with a leering smile. “I counted.”
She wanted to know why, but she didn’t think the boy would appreciate the question, or he might misunderstand. She didn’t mean “Why count?” but why have so spiders here at all. Most people she knew reacted one of only two ways when they saw a spider: they pushed it out of the house or they crushed it. Then there was her brother, who even now hid from them and hoped she would take care of it.
“338 spiders,” the boy said, and as the number struck her and began to sink in she felt nausea grow in her stomach. She looked down at the floor; she looked at her feet; she looked at her legs.
The boy laughed. “They won’t walk on you,” he said. “They don’t want to.” Christiana tried to think if this was true to her experience, and then she realized it was. “They don’t like the feeling of human skin against their claws. It makes it harder for them to gain a secure perch. It frightens them actually. They’d much rather walk across wood.” He gestured to the table. “And that’s what we’ve provided them.” She glanced around the house again and realized that she saw spiders moving everywhere: across the ceiling, along the roof beams, out the doorway. They must have been there, moving, the whole time.
“And since they know they can’t digest us,” the boy added, “they don’t even try.”
Christiana nodded. She realized he had just answered the question brimming in her mind, for if anything was frightening to her about spiders it was not their hairy legs, their arachnid mobility, their stealth and ability to hide, even their gummy webs. What made them scary was the idea of spider jaws and fangs and mouths. Their legendary predatory natures “But spiders bite,” she countered.
“Almost never,” the boy said breezily. “And only in defense. They might bite if they think you are about to crush them. But if you can find your way not to do that, you’ll be all right.”
“And you can sit at that table, with hundreds of spiders walking around?”
The boy smiled. “All the time.”
“They let you eat your food?”
He seemed surprised by the question. “Spiders have no interest in the things we eat. It’s too heavy for them. Spiders are only able to ingest liquids.”
“But—” She was about to say that that couldn’t be true; that everyone had seen spiders eat grasshoppers and moths and flies. But then she realized that wasn’t quite right. All she knew was that spiders captured the flies and moths and grasshoppers. She didn’t know what they did with their prey exactly. “So—” she started.
“They drink their food,” the boy said, grinning as the image settled so concretely in her mind it made her shudder. “They turn the guts of their prey into juice and drink it down. But don’t worry. They can’t drink you. You’re too big. Besides, they’d never want to. People smell bad. Really bad.”
“Oh, you think so, do you?” Of all the people to complain about human smells she thought it shouldn’t be this slovenly, curly haired boy who lived his whole life surrounded by dirt and spiders.
“No, I don’t think so. They think so.”
Christiana heard a clatter at the front door. She turned and saw a goat standing there, halfway in and halfway out: a tall gray goat with black streaks of fur crossing its cheeks, silver-white horns, and glowing yellow eyes. Somehow it must have escaped from the pen. Christiana expected that the boy or his mother would hurry to lead the goat back to its assigned place. But neither of them reacted. They just waited as the goat stood there and gazed at the humans with that characteristic soulless expression that Christiana had always found so off-putting. Various neighbors of the man who called himself her father kept goats—Mr. Cinca and Mrs. Nastase were the two most committed to the idea—so Christiana tended to give their houses a wide berth. She was immune to fear of most animals, from wild boar to snakes to the worms that live inside warm, rotted logs—but for some reason goats brought her up short. It seemed to Christiana that at all times, and around any human, goats acted like they would like nothing better than to take a knife to your throat. But of course they couldn’t, which only mad them angrier at you. The revulsion to humans was palpable on their faces. But this goat did something Christiana couldn’t have expected. It leaned its weight far onto its back hip while simultaneously bending the joints in its back knees. It kept leaning and leaning backward until its front legs began to rise; then it pushed itself into an off-balance, almost-standing position and began moving its front hooves rapidly, as if swatting at flies, before gravity and its quadruped spinal structure forced it to drop back to all fours. Was this some kind of trick? A form of begging?
Even more astonishing was that the woman, almost from the moment the goat returned to all fours, began gesturing to it with her hands, bursts of finger and palm and knuckle, like fleshy lightning breaking into the air in front of her face. The goat watched attentively, and when the woman was through the goat once more pushed itself up on its hind legs and made gestures with its front hooves. Not for as long, however. When the goat stopped, the woman signaled again: a single gesture. Then the goat turned and headed off, away from the door, back in the direction of the pen. The woman turned to her son and signaled.
“What’s going on?” Christiana asked.
“Anatolie is misbehaving.”
“Does he do that often?”
“What?” The boy whirled at her, his gaze narrow, as if trying to scrutinize the interior of her mind.
“Try to get inside your house.”
“Did I say Anatolie tried to get inside our house?”
“But he did—just now—his hooves crossed the doorway. He was practically all the way inside.”
The boy smirked and signaled to his mother, a slight soft motion with his hands. The woman only nodded, as if not surprised.
“That wasn’t Anatolie,” the boy sneered, “it was Dumitra. I would have thought you’d notice her teats.”
Christiana’s mouth hung open, suspended. No, she hadn’t noticed, and yes she certainly should have. But that’s not what bothered her, or not the most; there was some other problem, some other question forming inside her: a fuzzy, fusty inconsistency that she couldn’t get a grip on, and so hadn’t yet found its way into words. “Who is Anatolie?” she finally asked.
“One of the goats,” the boy said, as if it should be obvious.
“How do you know he’s misbehaving?”
“Dumitra told us.”
Christiana managed to hold fire for only an instant before releasing her next, inevitable question: “How?”
The boy seemed genuinely surprised, his eyebrow arching swiftly and crisply on his forehead: lines of short soft hair so much more delicate that the ropey mess on top. “Didn’t you see her and mother talking to each other?”
“The goat can talk with its hands?”
“Hooves,” the boy said. “And not just Dumitra. They all can.”
“Why not? You see she had something to tell us.”
“No, no, I mean how. How? It’s not like goats are born knowing how to talk with their hands.”
The boy was enjoying her mystification. He was deliberately not telling her what she needed to know.
“Mother taught them,” he said. “As she taught me. Who else do you think could do it?”
“I didn’t think anyone could. I don’t think anyone can. I’ve never heard of it: teaching goats to talk with their hands.”
“Hooves,” he reminded her, in a voice turned sad. “And yes, it’s possible. You saw it yourself, didn’t you?”
“Then it’s possible, I’d say.” The boy turned again to his mother, signaled a short message. The woman responded with a small nod. She stared at Christiana as if wondering how much longer the girl intended to stay with them. Christiana found this ungrateful, if not downright rude. She’d been the one minding her own business on the river.
“And you,” she said peevishly. “What is it with you and spiders? You tell me what they like, what they prefer, what they’re scared of. Are you going to tell me you can talk to spiders with your hands?”
The boy smiled as if this were the most ludicrous suggestion possible. “Of course not.”
“Then how do you know?”
“I watch. I listen. There’s really no mystery.”
Christiana had had enough. She threw down her hands, turned from both of them. “Am I dreaming all this? Am I still on the river in my canoe? Do I need to wake up? Are you two the goats?”
The boy laughed. “What an idea. And how mean. Are you saying I’m not real?”
“Yes,” Christiana said. “That’s what I’m saying.”
He turned his wide, expressive mouth into an upside down U. “How mean.”
“Are you joking? Reading the minds of spiders? Hand signaling to goats? I feel like I’ve left my planet and found a new one.”
The boy smiled quietly. “Actually,” he said, “we haven’t gotten around to talking about your leaving.”
* * * * *
She took off an hour later on foot, a map drawn by the boy in her satchel, and a walking stick in her hand. It was the perfect height—slightly longer than the distance from her right palm to the ground—and she’d found it within seconds of leaving the shack, positioned just to the side of the path, as if put there for her to find. She stranded the canoe where she had docked it on the sand. She could not possibly drag the thing the whole way to Bisstanța, and she would have little use for it there in any case. The boy said he would stow it for her and would keep it for her if she ever came back this way and would like to use it to ride the river southward. Going northward, he reminded her, was impossible due to the rapids: permanent and dangerous.
The boy estimated she was at least one hundred and fifty miles from Bisstanța as the crow flies, but closer to two hundred taking the route he suggested, which he said was the only one possible. Leaving from the shack she should head eastward across the peat field, following the track that had been worn into the turf from the feet of so many passersby. If she stuck strictly to the path, she would eventually, maybe an hour later, reach the end of the field and the beginning of a narrow, lightly wood forest. She must continue to press eastward without swerving or bending even the slightest. If she managed to keep to a straight course she would be on the other side of the forest after a couple more hours. Soon she would see a cart path running north and south. She should head north on this path and without delay, as she would have to stay on it for a couple of days, at least. Chances are, he said, you will lose hope. You will doubt you are walking in the right direction. But you must press on, because eventually villages will appear and the cart path will become a proper road and, soon after passing through the village of Chimchuși the road will intersect with the highway to Bisstanța. She must turn left on this highway and head west. In fifteen miles or so, she would reach the capital city.
“How will I know the highway,” she had asked the boy.
“It’s impossible not to know it,” he replied. “Everyone knows it. You see it and know it. Because it’s a highway.” She was about to ask him if he had ever seen it, but the connotation seemed obvious from his tone, and she was tired of his scorn, so she only nodded. But she had to wonder why a boy his age—twelve? thirteen?—could have traveled as far as Bisstanța Still, the trip did not sound all that hard—straight east, due north, and then west—only long. She would need to spend a few nights out of doors. But she would have had to do that too if she traveled by canoe. She’d slept outside before and found that the discomfort of hard ground was offset by the peace of being alone; her natural fatigue would be enough to allow her to nod off. As long as she could find a place out of view of the casual glances of through-walkers she would be safe.
At his mother’s command, the boy had provided her a few apples, a wad of cheese, and a hunting knife. Christiana hesitated. She explained that there was food in her satchel already, and she doubted she would need a knife on a trip lasting a few days. The boy gave her a disapproving look and turned to his mother. They shared gazes for a moment; then the boy signaled with his hands. The mother shook her head brusquely and signaled back. When the boy spoke again to Christiana, he told her that if she did not accept the food and the knife she was not welcome to pass through their property again. “And,” he added, “she says not to speak with anyone you encounter on the road. On the road, people are never who they seem to be.”
* * * * *
Now, as Christiana headed eastward across the peat fields, following the childishly obvious track at her feet, she considered the odd instructions. Speak to no one. She’d spoken to them, hadn’t she? She’d entered their house, taken their food, listened to their advice about the river. People are never who they seem to be. She stopped. She turned around. She looked as far as she could across the landscape: rotting peat fields infested with the occasional tree trying to stand up like a patient in a sick ward. She though she should still be able to see the shack of the woman and the boy. And the river. She didn’t think she had walked that far yet. Twenty minutes? Twenty-five? But on the level space, she saw nothing but the mossy green color and cabbagey texture of peat, acre after acre falling away until the horizon line. She could not see the outline of a human structure, nor even the slightest grimace of water moving anywhere. Where had the river gone? Where were the woman and the boy? She closed her eyes and let the blackness descend, although it did not remain blackness for long; it migrated to a moldy green-gray with gold in the middle. She heard her heart beat. She felt herself holding her breath. She heard a dim, muted buzzing noise in her head that felt familiar, although she could not have said when she’d heard it before.
When Christiana opened her eyes the landscape was unchanged: still the peat field, still the occasional tree, still the wide open panorama, but no small house where a woman lived who talked to goats with her hands and a boy lived who could read spiders’ minds. She revolved and looked ahead in the direction she thought she should go in. Was that a forest she saw, the brown mucilage at the end of the horizon? Were those trees standing up—or simply the color of the earth observed from a far distance? She didn’t know. She might walk for several more miles and still not know. Go east, the boy had said. Do not swerve. Do not hesitate. She turned and looked behind her again, to where she should be able to see the shack and the river. It was just more of the same landscape, identical in view in the other direction. She revolved again, and then back, again, and then back. The end of the horizon looked the same both ways. There might be a forest at the end in either direction—or there might be nothing.
She reached into her satchel for the crude drawing the boy had made, a map of her journey. In the moment, she expected it not to be there; or rather she expected it to have disappeared. But then her fingers rubbed against paper. She tickled it out with her fingertips and opened up the folded drawing. She saw again the crude lines and circles and arrows formed in the boy’s hand. When he’d drawn it she was standing right behind him, having just heard the directions he gave her. Then the map seemed to make perfect sense. Now she looked at his shapes and his lines and for the life of her couldn’t imagine what they meant. She remembered thinking that his directions sounded so straightforward that she didn’t even need a map. She had taken the paper resentfully, the same way she had taken the apples and cheese and knife. She had stowed it deep inside her bag, out of sight, out of touch. Now she wished she could understand it, connect it at least with the directions that had sounded so sensible and easy to follow.
No one is ever who they seem to be. She turned around one more time. She wasn’t sure, but she thought she was facing the direction she had come from, the direction of the shack and the river: the waterway she had entered that morning in her reliable, beloved canoe, her heart filled with hope and confidence and assurance, the knowledge that she knew what she was doing. That the river would take her to freedom and a new life. Christiana started to run, toward what she couldn’t see but wished she did, and suddenly needed to. She just needed to see it. She needed to know. What she would do next she could not say, because she could not be sure what she find when she got there.