A creaking sound, like thick glass cracking, came from the half-frozen stream below us. Terèsa’s pole had broken through. My cousin lay on her stomach on the bank, where the willow’s dead fronds swayed over her body and down to the water like a curtain of whips.
“I did it!” she called. Her voice carried down the hard trough of the stream, cracking the icy night with its ring. We were not supposed to be out in the dark, clambering over the banks at the edge of the deep woods.
“Sssh!” I whispered. “Someone will hear.”
“They won’t,” said Terèsa, pulling herself up. She turned her flushed face toward me, and I could see the bits of dry leaves tangled in her hair.
“You can go first,” she offered appeasingly. “Just lay on your cloak, and you won’t get dirty.”
I handed Terèsa the burning lamp. Everything nearby went suddenly dark, with only Terèsa’s face glowing in the night beside me like a small familiar moon.
“Go on, Lenka,” she said impatiently.
I lay down on my thick wool cloak on the bank, shivering, feeling bare without it. Then on my hands I crawled carefully to the edge, where the frozen soil made a sharp drop and the willow fronds brushed gently over my body. I could just glimpse the black water beneath its cloudy skin of ice and see the small hole that Terèsa had made, glinting like a wet mirror in the starlight.
The grandmothers in our village said that anyone who went at night to a place where a willow tree touched running water could see his fate reflected there, in the spot where the willow’s shadow fell. It was Terèsa who had made the plan, urged me out of my bed after Christmas dinner when everyone else was deep asleep, heavy and tired with sausage and potatoes, wine and cake.
“Don’t you want to know?” she had asked me, while uncles and aunts started to snore in their seats. “Grandma Neva says she did it as a girl, and saw the face of a handsome young horseman, so she recognized Grandpa Lukas the first time she met him, and she knew he was the husband for her.”
But I was not sure. What if I should see horrible things in my future, things I could not prevent or delay – sickness, slow and painful death, our family’s home spouting with white fire while tethered animals shrieked from the barn and my brothers sobbed and hid in the house? What if I saw nothing at all?
As I lay on my stomach on the frozen bank, my hair falling down with the willow fronds, I could see only a wet black hole. Then Terèsa stepped closer, and the fire of the lamp turned the broken sheen to gold. The fire flickered, the water stilled. I saw my own face, my pointed chin and dark eyebrows, the reflected lamp bobbing like a lure above me. Then the lamplight tightened and changed. It became a warm fire in a brick fireplace. I saw a cozy room around it, bits of crockery, needlepoint over the mantlepiece. Instead of my reflected face, I looked down and saw my own hands, and they were the creased, knobby hands of a very old woman, busily knitting a bit of pink wool.
I sat up so suddenly that one of my palms nearly slipped over the edge of the bank. I pulled my cloak tight around me.
“What did you see?” asked Terèsa, crouching down so that her bright round face was level with mine. “Did it work? Could you see something?”
I took a deep breath, forcing my heart to slow. Then I gave Terèsa the calmest smile that I could manage.
“Yes, I saw,” I told my cousin. “I am going to live to be a very old woman, and I will have a cozy little cottage of my own. I was knitting something next to a fireplace – probably something for my dozens of grandchildren.”
Terèsa’s eyes looked like wet beads in the dark.
“My turn,” she said. “You hold the lantern. And stand back – it won’t work if you’re looking in as well.”
Terèsa crawled eagerly under the willow. Her hair looked almost white in the starlight, though her body was mostly hidden from me by the willow’s rippling branches. I held up the lamp so that its beam fell over the ridge of the quietly rustling stream.
For several moments Terèsa lay still. Then she sat up with such a gasp that I nearly dropped the lamp, making its wick bounce and recover. She would not meet my eyes when I knelt on the cold dirt beside her.
“What is it, Terèsa? Tell me.”
“My God, Lenka, my God…” Terèsa’s pale eyes darted over my shoulder, through the trees, toward the moon, like panicking birds.
“What did you see?”
“I saw– ” she began, “I saw the church, and the procession walking in, all the girls in white, and the flowers everywhere. It was very dim, like candlelight. And then, I saw – oh, God! – I saw myself lying on a bier on the altar. And I didn’t look old, I didn’t look any different. Lenka, I’m frightened! What should we do?”
Then Terèsa hid her face in her hands and made an awful sobbing sound. I stood up, wanting to run away from this black knife wound of a river until I was back between four walls, near a fire that chased away the dark from every corner. But as I stood there, I noticed that that between her fingers, Terèsa’s face was dry.
An iciness crept up inside of me, like the cold of the night had finally reached my heart.
When we were small, only seven or eight years old, Terèsa terrified the whole family by pretending to be horribly ill. She and I had been eating wild mushrooms in the forest, and when we came home, Terèsa told her mother that she had eaten something that tasted strange, a funny kind of kozàr with a white cap and yellow ridges, and that now her stomach hurt, her throat was closing, she could barely breathe. For a week Terèsa writhed in her bed while her mother rushed around in a frenzy, never eating, sleeping in the chair beside Terèsa’s pillow only when her puffy eyes sealed shut by themselves. When Terèsa recovered, just in time for the summer festival, Aunt Mària gave lavish gifts of thanks to our church of Saint Vaclav, and Uncle Jan sent for colored silk ribbons from the city to tie the braids of his precious little girl.
Two years passed before Terèsa told me the truth, giggling, as we sat together in the hayloft. Her parents went on believing the story of her narrow escape, but I never quite believed her again.
A few years later, Terèsa told all of the cousins about a víla woman whom she often visited in the forest, and about how she had once been rescued from a wolf pack by a prince hunting in the frozen meadows.
Now I looked down at my cousin, shivering on the bank, still making the harsh rasping sound of sobs. My heart was like a garnet.
“Are you sure of what you saw? You said that the light was dim.”
“It was, but the candles were all around the bier, so the light was brighter there. I could see my face.”
“Maybe you weren’t dead, only sick or sleeping.”
“Then why was I on the altar? Why were priests praying over me?”
“Did you see your mother or father, or anyone else you knew? If it was really your funeral, you would have recognized other people there. Maybe it was just someone who looked like you.”
Terèsa dropped her hands from her face. Her cheeks were still dry, but her eyes had a wild look. She stared at me, her mouth hanging open, taking hard, shallow breaths that made her shoulders shake.
“Lenka, I know what I saw. Help me. What should I do?”
I looked down at my cousin’s face, pale as carved bone under the moon. She was nothing like me. I felt the ice around my heart melting, ever so slightly, and knelt down again on the frozen bank.
“Don’t be afraid, Terèsa. Maybe it was only a trick of the water, and it will never come true at all. We can pray that it be wrong. We could even go to Father Krocek tomorrow and ask for his help.”
“No, we can’t.” Terèsa shook her head rapidly. “He would say it was a sin, scrying in the water like witches.” She sighed. “Let’s go home. I am frozen through.”
Terèsa stood up, her shoulders limp. She felt very small as I wrapped my arm around her, pulling my own cloak over her shoulder.
“It will be all right,” I promised.
Terèsa was silent, but nodded very slightly. We walked without speaking along the dark bank. The moon limned the bare trees and dead grass with silver, shrubs rattled bony twigs in the faint chill wind.
I wondered what Terèsa’s death would mean for our family, if it would truly come. There would be the surge of visits, the friends and relatives stretching the walls of our houses, the sharp excitement of a change in our routine. Guiltily, I realized that I was looking forward to it, like the fractional moment before pain comes, when the leather is still zinging through the air.
We came to the narrow place along the riverbed where we crossed back and forth from the village side. A path was trampled through the copse, and by the dim light we could find it only by spotting a darker trench through the shadows.
Terèsa pulled away from my arm, took three running steps, and leapt over the stream. The edge of her cloak swirled playfully in the wind. She turned to smile back over the bank at me.
“At least we know I won’t be dying here,” she laughed, running her hand through a tangle in her hair.
I did not answer. I ran and leaped from a few practiced paces, pointing my mind at the jump, and nothing else.
“You should have seen your face!” Terèsa said when I had landed and fallen into step behind her. “Oh, Lenka, you are so dramatic, so serious. Always believing the worst.”
“So you didn’t see any of what you said?”
“No, not truly. I’m sorry. I just wondered what you would do. And you were so funny!” Terèsa began to giggle again. Her laughter sounded like the little icicles that fell from our roof and broke on the stone stoop.
“If it was a lie, then what did you really see?” I asked.
“It wasn’t a lie, I was just pretending. What I actually saw was so dull, it wasn’t even worth telling.”
“What did you really see?” I repeated.
Terèsa sighed sulkily, brushing away a long twig that hung over our path.
“Just a meadow, full of flowers. It could have been anywhere. I could have been anywhere, or anyone. I’m not even sure that I was there. It was only a meadow, and the sun, and the grass. Such dull visions for both of us!” she sighed. “Oh well. At least sneaking out here at night was an adventure.”
The lights in the village were dim and few. Painted shutters were sealed tight, and snow muffled the empty roads.
The garden behind Uncle Jan’s house was thick with color in summertime, but now it looked like an unused room, with white sheets draped over the furnishings. Terèsa jumped from the garden wall onto the sloping roof of the kitchen, then climbed up to the peak where she could reach the ledge of her own bedroom window.
Safely inside, she turned and waved down at me from between the shutters. “Good night!” she whispered. “Have beautiful dreams!”
During the short walk to my own home, and even after, when I lay in my warm bed, I thought of Terèsa’s story, the lie she made from that broken pool under the willow. I knew that by morning my anger would cool, like an ember pulled out of the heart of a fire, but just then I hated my cousin and the way she played with our hearts and our fears. At the same time, it was a relief to know that her fate was no more exciting than mine – that our realities were much the same, and it was only Terèsa’s imagination that left mine behind.
Spring came to our country like a quiet breath, the first that one hears on awaking from sleep. Goslings hatched, the first lambs were born, fruits showed their pale heads between unfurling leaves. Terèsa and I went often to the woods when the morning chores were done, though we never went back to the willow bank. We believed there was nothing more to see.
We brought our baskets and gathered mushrooms or fallen nuts from the damp forest moss. Terèsa never let the task grow dull; sometimes we were treasure-seekers, and the nutshells were rubies from the hoard of Frumuşeaua, or we were soldiers under siege on Bíla Hora, finding food to survive while we held the holy ground.
One warm morning, we were playing fairy maidens, gathering berries to make our sacred wine. I was afraid we were growing too old for the violet crowns Terèsa wove while I diligently searched for blackberries, but the wreaths did look lovely against our hair, and the faint scent of the flowers was sweet.
“I’m going just a bit farther,” Terèsa called from the other side of a thorny patch. “I think I see a bed of wood lilies.”
Terèsa scampered off, leaving her empty basket rocking on the grass beside me.
If Terèsa had been born an animal, and not an ordinary village girl, she would have been a starling. I watched her hair glint and vanish between the mossy trees. I think I would have been a horse; sturdy, strong, four hooves planted firmly in the earth. I went on picking the blackberries, my sleeves rolled up and my bare forearms growing scraped and raw between the thick thorns.
I had known Terèsa since my earliest memories. Our houses were only two streets apart; our fathers the only sons of Papa Lukas. She seemed to have existed before my life began, even though I was the older by three months. She was a part of myself, of my body, like a climbing vine, or the knobby growths that sprout and swell under the bark of trees.
There was a sudden crash from the bracken. My first sensation was fear for Terèsa, picturing her falling, a rotten branch cracked beneath her, or dropping into a hollow hidden in the growth. I froze, listening for her scream. Instead a flood of black sheep came barreling through the copse behind me. They surged around me, knocking over my basket. I watched helplessly as their hooves trampled my berries into a shiny paste.
“Hie, hie!” called a voice nearby, and a young man came leaping over the berry hedge, vaulting with the long oak rod he held in one hand. Seeing me, he stopped abruptly but breathing hard from his run. He was quite tall and broad-shouldered, with curling brown hair that fell over his forehead like wild grapevine.
I was acutely aware of myself as he stared back at me, of my rolled up sleeves and berry-stained arms, my loose hair and my ridiculous wreath of violets. I pulled the crown from my head hurriedly, and felt pink heat starting to rise in my cheeks. A small smile float over the shepherd’s sharp-featured face just before he noticed my overturned basket and the mound of trampled blackberries.
“I am so sorry,” he said, and his voice was deep. “I’ve ruined all of your work. I let my mind wander for a moment, and by the time I realized it, my flock had run into the woods.”
“It’s all right,” I said, reaching for the basket at the same moment as he, so that his rough palm brushed my hand. We both jerked back, embarrassed. Then the shepherd reached again for the basket and handed it to me.
“Thank you,” I said. “They are only wild blackberries – not so great a loss as a whole herd of sheep.”
“Yes…” The shepherd hesitated, looking off where the sheep had gone. I could see that he wanted to chase after them, but felt that he should not leave me in the same sudden way that we had met.
“Let me help you gather them,” I said, looking up into his eyes. They were a shade of greenish-gold, and they met my gaze directly.
“No, I could not ask that,” he began, but I bolted out of the wood’s edge after the flock, and I heard the shepherd laugh behind me as he tried to match my speed.
Soon, both panting, laughing, my basket dropped somewhere in the long grass, we came together behind the collected sheep, who quieted, returning to their grazing.
“You run like no girl I’ve ever seen,” said the shepherd, smiling at me. “Are you really some forest spirit, here to help irresponsible shepherds?”
I laughed again. “No, just a village girl covered in blackberry juice. My name is Lenka.”
“Mine’s Jiri,” said the shepherd. “My family has a farm over that hill. I don’t usually let the sheep wander so far from home. But today I am glad that I did.”
I felt the flush burning my cheeks again, and had to turn away from his bright eyes in his sun-darkened skin, his sharp square jaw, his smile.
“Lenka!” came a shout from the woods.
I saw Terèsa appear, stumbling out of the shadows with her empty basket, several white lilies added to the violet crown that had slipped crookedly down over one ear. Her desperate expression made me smile. She was out of place, ridiculous.
“I’m here,” I called, waving one arm.
Jiri turned to squint in her direction. I saw Terèsa pause for a moment as she noticed the young man beside me, but the moment was short, and she rushed toward us again, not smiling.
“Terèsa, this is Jiri,” I said as she approached. Terèsa was panting and smudged with dirt; for once she did not seem lovely to me. “His family lives on a farm near here. Terèsa is my cousin from the village.”
“Hello,” said Jiri. Terèsa stared and did not answer.
Jiri turned his green eyes back to mine. “You must let me walk you part way home,” he said. “My sheep are so quiet and obedient with you. You’ve cast some forest-spirit spell on them.”
We set off together over the curve of the hillside. A sweet smell rose from the warm flower tops. The sun flashed on the rippling grass, and its glint seemed to me to be the same color of golden-green as Jiri’s eyes.
Jiri and I walked ahead, our eyes fixed on the horizon when they were not on each other. I could not feel my feet on the ground; I was light as milkweed held in the breeze.
“My father would like me to go to the city and study to become a lawyer or a magistrate, but I don’t want to leave the farm,” Jiri was saying. “I love the work, the sun, the soil, even the winter when the barn is warm and the cold stays outside. I think my father is beginning to see that I am meant to follow after him. I can’t leave this for some stuffy office.” He spread his arm out over the field that rolled to our feet like a spun gold sea.
“Lenka,” panted Terèsa behind us. “I am so glad that I found you. I nearly got lost in the wood and couldn’t see you or hear you anywhere. I almost stumbled into a bear’s den, I think, before I found my way out.”
I glanced over my shoulder, but did not answer. Jiri looked at Terèsa and then at me, and then resumed his speech.
“All that I need to make me happy is a home of my own near here and someday a family of my own to fill it.”
Jiri smiled at me again. My heart was like a bird trapped inside my ribs. I stole a quick glance at Terèsa. She looked angry, her face pinched and pale.
“I love this land, too,” I said to Jiri. “My father’s house is in the village, but my Grandfather was a farmer. His farm was the most beautiful place in the world. It was always full of lambs and ducklings and growing things.”
One black sheep darted to the right and Jiri drove her back to the flock. I watched his graceful, sturdy movements.
Then there was a sharp shriek behind us.
Jiri and I turned, startled. Terèsa lay crumpled on the ground, her face twisted in pain, her white skirts spread artfully out around her.
“I’ve twisted my ankle!” she gasped. “I wasn’t watching, and I stepped into a hole, maybe an animal’s burrow.” She reached cautiously toward her ankle and winced.
Jiri was at her side in a moment. “Can you stand?” he asked, pulling her gently to her feet, one arm wrapped around her shoulders to steady her. I watched his arms press against her skin. A hot coal rose and stuck in my throat.
“I’m not sure,” whispered Terèsa, and gave a whimper as she set her foot delicately on the ground.
“Don’t try to walk,” said Jiri, looking with concern at Terèsa. “That could make it worse. I think I should carry you as far as the village.”
“Oh, no – I couldn’t….” protested Terèsa weakly, but Jiri had already swooped one arm behind Terèsa’s knees, and with the other around her shoulders, had quickly lifted her up.
“Lenka – would you mind watching the flock?” asked Jiri, darting a distracted look at me over Terèsa’s head. There was nothing I could do but take the long stick from his hand and dash back and forth, chasing the wandering ewes back into a clump while Jiri moved ahead with long straight strides.
I struggled to keep close behind, where I could catch strands of their conversation, but then a ewe would veer off course, and I had to follow. Still, the scraps of talk that I could hear made my blood turn to steam inside of me.
“I’m sure I must be too heavy for you to carry all the way to the village.” Terèsa’s voice was higher than usual, and breathier, coy as an unfolding rosebud.
“Not at all,” said Jiri. “I carry a hurt sheep for miles sometimes, and you can’t weigh much more than one of my ewes.”
Over Jiri’s shoulder, Terèsa’s blond hair glinted in the sunlight. She shook her head, and her hair sparkled like dewy grass. I could hear her gratified giggle.
“Of course, I wouldn’t carry you slung around my shoulders.” I could see just the edge of Jiri’s smile as he turned to look down at Terèsa’s face.
“It must be hard work to be a shepherd – you are so sturdy and strong.”
Terèsa’s words choked me like a mouthful of sugar. But Jiri only settled his shoulders a bit farther back and raised my cousin higher in his arms. Her left hand, wrapped around his neck, toyed gently with the rolled sleeve of his shirt.
That was all of their talk that I could grasp. Jiri walked fast, without looking back. Now and then Terèsa’s laugh would trail toward me like a string of jingling silver bells as I plodded along behind the sheep.
Her hand on his shoulder. Her weight in his arms. Her face close enough to feel the breath that rose up warm from his body. Worst of all, the surety I felt that Terèsa’s ankle was no more hurt than mine, but that by the time we reached the village, her ploy in Jiri’s eyes would be a turn of fate, a story to tell to their children’s children.
When I came to the village edge, Jiri and Terèsa were so far beyond me that I could not even hear the distant hum of their voices. I watched from the slope of the bridge, surrounded by his restive sheep, as Jiri turned toward Uncle Jan’s house and moved through the garden to the stoop. The front door was opened from inside; Jiri, with Terèsa still in his arms, stepped through and was swallowed by shadow.
I knew that inside Aunt Mària would be exclaiming over her poor injured daughter and the handsome shepherd who had rescued her and rushing to the kitchen to boil coffee, uncover cakes, invite the young hero to stay for supper.
And I, driving Jiri’s sheep into Uncle Jan’s yard, latched the gate and walked down the path to my own house, where the long years unfolded before me, suddenly as blank as a snowy field.
By early summer, everything was prepared.
Terèsa and Aunt Mària had baked twenty-five cakes with gifts of eggs from every neighbor. Uncle Jan had killed the fattest pig, and the gown was ready, made of layered lace sent all the way from Praha. The beer was bought, the tables borrowed; linen canopies flapped over Uncle’s garden like great undulant wings.
On the day before the wedding, Terèsa begged me to come to the meadow and help her gather wildflowers to cover the tables. The afternoon was warm and lovely. A few small clouds drifted over the blue sky, and the long grasses swayed and bowed around us as we dragged our light summer skirts over the fields.
Terèsa was overflowing with excitement; every glowing detail was related and reexamined: the food, her clothes, her handsome bridegroom.
“Papa has hired a quintet from Brno to come and play for the dancing. And we’ll dance and dance and dance until dawn! Jiri is such a good dancer, I love to dance with his arms wrapped around me. And Mama is giving me her garnet brooch to wear on my bodice and to keep as her gift….”
I pulled up a clump of bellflowers with my fist, and its roots came easily free of the dirt, the pale, tuberous ends extending, empty, like arthritic fingers. The air around me was still.
“It is a beautiful brooch,” I said.
Terèsa’s face glowed pink and gold as she smiled upward toward the sun.
“It’s been in Mama’s family for three hundred years, you know. It belonged to the princess Kryspek, who gave it to my great-great-great-grandmother before she died.”
“No, it didn’t,” I said softly, so softly that Terèsa heard nothing, and I could barely hear myself over the quiet rush of the grasses.
Terèsa ran a few steps past me and gave a leap that made her skirt billow like linen on the line. “I am so happy, Lenka! I am going to go and be the mistress of a great farm, and the most handsome man in the world will be my husband, and someday he will be a rich farmer, and we will have ten horses and three hundred sheep and own all the land from here to the horizon!”
Teresa twirled around on one toe. Her skirts surrounded her like petals. The flowers went flying out of her basket and landed limply on the carpet of grass. She did not notice, but bent down to break fresh blossoms from their stems.
“Jiri’s mother has been so kind. She has stitched five tablecloths for us, all with embroidered edges….”
Terèsa’s lips went on moving, a smile still baring her little white teeth, but I could no longer hear her. The air had frozen, become like a rock, and I could barely press my weight through it as I took a step closer to my cousin. A high-pitched drone surrounded me, followed me, as though a great wasp was caught in my hair.
Terèsa’s hands flashed and darted, flitting like wings as they broke the long stems. Her smile was fixed, pinned, permanent. She was still talking. Her cheeks were deep red.
The thick air clung to my skirt like hands. I thought that I would have to crawl that last foot, drag myself by my fingernails. My shadow touched the side of Terèsa’s face, but she did not turn to look at me until my hands were around her throat and my thumbs were pressing down.
Then her eyes fixed on my face. Her smile fell into a croaking gash, a snaking wet tongue between blue lips. Her hands clawed and scraped my wrists.
The windpipe under my thumbs collapsed, denting like fruit. Bird bones, I thought. Hollow, like straw; flimsy and weak and so easily broken.
My family left the village for shame. Many miles away, Papa bought an old farm with a small brick kitchen built behind. They made this my place and locked me in. Twice a day, a stout old woman brings me food on a tray. She used to be a pretty girl with blond hair like straw and little pearl teeth. Sometimes I wonder whether my parents are still alive.
I sit before a cheerful fire and watch my needles loop the wool that they left for me long ago. I knit a shawl. Then I unravel it.
My hands have divots and troughs and bumps that I can read like the face of a slow clock. I am lucky. I am an old horse that they will let die in a comfortable stall. My life has been long.