Vilnius, Lithuania, September 2012
On the third floor of the library, they heard running water.
Kes slung his messenger bag into the sunlight on the table Al had led him to. The table stood near a window. He had thought of Al, until today, as the girl who sits by the window, where she always sat in the history class they shared. It had been his only association with her: when he looked up for some sky in a long lecture, he would see her profile inclined toward her notebook, with light against the short hair at the back of her neck.
He was a tall, lean, angular young man in a high-necked sweater and navy wool jacket, and two weeks into his third fall semester at Vilnius University — where, he thought, the waterways did not run close enough to hear from here, even if they could have opened the window.
She looked out — leaning on her knuckles to see down three stories to the sand-colored courtyard and the arcade of the building across it. He glanced round for a wash room. At the edge of hearing, water shifted in a swift tilt down an uneven channel.
"Pipes in the walls?" she said, consulting a scrap of paper and shrugging. "Jadwiga's this way. You said we could start with her."
She strode into the aisles to hunt for the 14th-century queen of Poland and Lithuania, and he smiled to himself, quirking an eyebrow as he caught her up. With her hair blown into spikes, and the sleeves of her dark red tunic-shirt falling back as she reached up for a book, she looked like a young Kahn. He thought she would be formidable on horseback.
She pulled at the book, two shelves above her head, and pushed off the lowest shelf with a boot to get purchase with her fingers. Pressed flat against a wall of books, she levered with her fingertips. The volume she wanted prized upward a crack.
The sound of running water redoubled.
She turned her head to meet his eyes, over her shoulder. They could have been standing knee deep in a current mad enough to knock them over. This was not the broad confluence of the Vilnia and the Neris — they had each walked paths along the banks where the traffic and the children made more noise than the rivers. This water raced and banked and skidded over shoals.
It no longer sounded like the building ruminating. The pipes would have to run through the bookshelves.
She seized a corner of the book and tugged. He stepped forward to catch it as it came free and overbalanced. And they both stood still, staring upwards, with their hands still raised and the book in the air. In the space where the book had been, against what should have been the plain metal back of the book case, a willow tree was growing.
It stood no taller than the book, as high as the length of Kes's hand. Now with the sound came the smells of the river — wet earth and steeping willow leaves, insect egg cases and musk.
He held the book over their heads, and she gripped the shelf, swaying on her toes. For longer than they could count, they stood without knowing where they were. She felt wet sneakers and wet rolled pants and a field trip in the name of ecology. The class had dissolved, once the water samples stood corked in the van. They had leapt half-submerged rocks — shivered and reeled — giddy with cold.
He splashed down into the August day when he and his father had walked three miles in the middle of the stream through the pine woods behind his grandparents' fields. The water teased, now ankle deep and now waist-high. He stumbled over smooth cobbles and heard frogs jumping off the bank. His father lifted their dripping dog over a fallen tree.
When she drew in breath, and he became aware of her back against his chest and drew gently away, They looked at each other with the beginnings of smiles, more a brightness of bearing, that grew as they each stood there without speaking. It was like waking to the first snow of the winter. Something had transformed.
She said "I wish I could see —" softly and moved back as far as the shelves would let her.
He said "If you would like," as softly, with a gesture of hands, and as she leaned into him he gave her the book, took her carefully about the waist and lifted her.
The tree stirred lightly, as though a breeze blew through the books. Unmistakeable sunlight touched it, unfiltered by books or leaves.
She whispered, and he felt her breath on his cheek:
"I'll explain as best I can, just ask me:
what seeing with two eyes is like,
what my heart beats for,
why my body isn't rooted down..."
"What —" he breathed, inaudible over the rush of water if she had not felt the movement in his throat.
She began to explain in an undervoice, "Wislawa Szymborska. She said it in 'Silence of Plants.' We read her poetry in Polish literature, and I found her —"
"But how to answer unasked questions —" said a woman's voice beside them, and like Szymborska, she said it in Polish.
"Yes, that's it!" Al said eagerly, answering in Polish as her feet touched the floor, and she swung round.
The woman who stood at her shoulder wore a long, loose terra-cotta-colored gown and thick, dark hair bound back to fall over her shoulders. Exhaustion shadowed her eyes under straight, dark eyebrows. She was heavily pregnant.
She held one hand over her belly, and a paler line showed where a ring had gone from her finger.
"What questions?" Al said. Her instinctive movement of recognition faltered, and her voice was husky. This woman, slightly taller and barely older than she was, did not look like a graduate student — and still less like a Vilnian mother on an errand.
"Mother of Grace," the woman said, and her Polish had an accent the falling water seemed to transmute. "You are of my husband's people. It is not one of my tongues in all these years."
They had no time to acknowledge that she had heard them speaking to each other in Lithuanian before they had changed to her language. She flinched, looking behind her as though at a sudden noise. Fear showed naked on her face, and her recoil upset her balance. Kes caught her, offering his arm for her to steady herself. They heard her breathing.
He said, "What is it? Would you like a place to sit?"
"They are coming, and she will break." Her hands tightened on his arm. She had square, strong hands, not holding him for balance now but calling his attention. "Your country. She will break. She is a place of music. They will cut down the glades and leave them to die. The women will burn alive. They must not come."
Al clamped the book in her hands, and Kes stood braced to take the swaying weight of the woman and child, who said "will you help?"
They talked about it often afterward and could only say in the end that they answered her as instinctively as he had reached out to stop her from falling and injuring the baby. Aloud or not, they made the oath and knew it.
The water ran, and the sunlight from the minute willow tree picked out details on the woman's one ornament: a wooden cross on a necklace of wooden beads. They had a dark honey finish and a grain that asked to be stroked, and each bead — a flattened disk — showed a carved image: a running horse, an ear of wheat, a piper, and a willow tree with a suggestion of water in the burl about its roots.
"Open the portals," she said. "They will call you."
She stood back, holding a shelf. Then her eyes cleared, like an actor who has suddenly given up the strain of hunting for a line, and for a moment Al was sure they saw each other. For a moment they could have gone out together to the coffee shop and cut lectures to read their favorite Szymborska poems out loud, and tell the would-be folksingers from the real ones, and borrow a ukulele from the exchange student who always carried hers around campus, even in thunderstorms. And the woman in the red dress smiled out of her exhaustion — insistent with mischief, alone in a new country and married to a man whose language she did not speak. She pulled the necklace over her head abruptly, knocking her hair awry, and their foreheads were close together.
"Take it, Aldona," said the low voice in Al's ear, and she felt a warmth against her cheek and temple and heard the amused and gentle last word, only for her.
And she and Kes were standing in a library carrel on a September afternoon with a book held between them and the need as clear as a question that has to be answered, no matter what it breaks into, or a story that gets in the way of everything until it is written or read. Open the portals. Find them.
She stared down at the cover of the book in her hands, and the tears came. Kes looked from her to the book.
"Don't you understand," she said, and she was shaking uncontrollably as she wept. Her fingers slid on the smooth plastic over the portrait of the woman on the cover. "There she is. Jadwiga of Poland. Who led campaigns and protected artists and sold her signet ring to help the poor. She was twelve years old when she married Jogaila of Lithuania. That's who she was. Here talking to us. And she was only twenty five, Kes. She was carrying the baby that killed her."
They walked down to the river, Kes with his recovered book bag, now holding the few other sources he could find about the 14th century and Lithuania's Pagan empire, and Al still holding the book about Jadwiga in her arms.
"I just want to bring her here," she said. "We had her. You had your arms around her. She was alive and breathing and — she could sing us songs she knew, she could tell us about the court painters and the priestesses in the sacred groves and state dinners in Hungary — she could just be here. We could get her to a hospital, maybe she wouldn't have to bleed to death —"
He put a silent arm around her shoulders, and she felt him listening and shaken. She said into his shoulder,
"'For me the tragedy's most important act is the sixth:
the raising of the dead from the stage's battlegrounds,
the straightening of wigs and fancy gowns,
removing knives from stricken breasts,
taking the nooses from lifeless necks,
lining up among the living
to face the audience.'
That's Szymborska too. It's all I can think of. That maybe we can find her again."
"What was she asking us to do?" He rested his head against hers, and she thought how good. I'm not sure either of us believes this, but something has happened to crack me like a nut, and he has accepted that it is important. He hasn't walked away.
"Who do you think she meant," she said, "when she told us to keep them away?"
"The Teutonic Knights? We always seemed to be beating them off, when she was alive." He spread his free hand in frustration. "I feel we have to know more, to follow their stories."
Then she straightened and looked up at him, visibly squaring her shoulders.
"It would answer all your questions," she said. "Wouldn't it?"
They had come boiling out of class that morning, a group of them carrying on the class discussion down the sidewalk and into the dining hall. He had been among the loudest. The professor had slung them back and forth among dates all that period, until Kes had been tempted to stand up in front of the whole class and demand: why?
Jogaila succeeded his father, Algirdas. Jogaila treated with the Teutonic Knights against his uncle, Kestutis. Kestutis imprisoned Jogaila. Jogaila imprisoned Kestutis — and Kestutis' son, Vytautas. Jogaila and Vytautas allied. Jogaila and Vytautas fought. Jogaila and Vytautas allied. Jogaila and Vytautas fought. Kes wanted to grab his professor's bow-tie and say, "What did they think they were doing? Did they really hate each other? Did one of Kestutis' brothers really murder him in prison?"
"I don't know what to think," he'd said over his lunch tray. "Were they a bunch of bastards, breaking treaties and assassinating each other, or were they trying to hold together in an impossible situation? He's not telling us who they are."
When someone said we know what they did, and historians aren't supposed to decide what people thought, he'd answered with his arms waving and beet soup splattered on his shirt, "No, we don't know! Look at Vytautas. He kept allying with the Teutonic knights — but he never seemed to fight any battles for them, and every time they'd give him fortresses, and he'd burn the fortresses before he broke the alliance. Is that a coincidence?"
Al was still there when the rest had taken off to homework and cartoons, and he was going on about what he wanted to know.
"When he told us about Kestutis and the bull, when he had to say he'd be baptized, but he gave that ceremony with the bull's blood, then you could see him saying to the Lithuanians, look, I've got to recognize the Christians, I'm doing it as a Pagan. Then you could see him, not some Christian chronicler talking about a faith he didn’t understand. Why can’t we get more of that?"
She was the only one to ask him why he wanted to know. He thought about it, dabbing at his shirt with a crumpled napkin.
"They were Lithuanian," he said. "It meant something to be Lithuanian then. They had their own way of thinking. They were the last pagan empire in Europe. People wrote about them and wondered about them. They were so important this order of knights started a crusade just to wipe them out. I want to know what they were like. I mean," he balled up the napkin and launched it into a bin,"I was born the year Lithuania left the Soviet Union. My parents, my grandparents, they weren't allowed to ask these questions. So what is Lithuanian?"
He would have smiled at his own fervor, but she looked at him as seriously as he felt, and she suggested they find out.
So they had gone to library and come down to the river, and they stood on the bank under a red oak tree with the channels of bark at their backs.
"Where do we look?" he said, hefting the books in his bag. "Something the size of our willow tree could be anywhere."
He touched the running horse on the necklace, which she wore now, briefly and soberly.
"I wonder how I'd feel," he said, "if I had to marry a twelve-year-old girl I'd never met, and my uncle threw me in prison."
"I want to know Jadwiga ... and you want to know Jogaila. We could try their house," she said.
The Palace of the Grand Dukes had reopened just that summer, and neither of them had yet seen its new inside. Devastated in the 17th century and torn down in the 19th, it had resurfaced as a museum and a testament to independence.
"Does it look anything like their palace," Kes wondered aloud as they scrambled off the tram.
The bell tower, the equestrian statue, the three stories of arcades and the rotunda looked new and clean-lined as a hillside in the snow.
"Maybe not the outside," she said.
They collected a brochure from a desk where the waist-coated cashier looked at them sharply, then smiled and complimented Al on her necklace. They walked down the pale, arched entrance hall, looking at the fold-out map. Guards kept directing them to rooms that said "Baroque." Down public hallways, airy and empty on a weekday afternoon, blank-faced men in blue blazers seemed to materialize in the doorways of the smaller galleries, all courteously pointing to the second-floor stairway.
Almost at the foot of the stairs, a woman and a stroller engaged a guard’s attention, and Kes and Al walked straight ahead, keeping their footsteps casual with an effort, and then without a word to each other slipped aside into the farthest corner gallery.
A sign overhead welcomed them to a collection of Mughal and Persian paintings.
"I was thinking of the Mongols earlier," Kes said in her ear. "You said Jadwiga was kind to artists. Maybe she knew about these. We had the Golden Horde on our eastern border."
"I'll follow you."
They stepped softly into a thick-carpeted room lined in glass. The miniatures lay in groups, islanded in expanses of bare wall. They came as close as the alarms would allow, to see into each and blot out the room. A woman fed peacocks under luxuriant trees. Two helmeted men pivoted with drawn blades. Banqueters passed platters of fruit. The colors glowed in concentrated hues like the feathers of tropical birds, streaked with movement.
They moved down the room aware of a growing compulsion that made it hard to breathe and impossible to run. Something. Soon. If they could have patience. If they could see.
What came was a smell of horses. Here, in the newly ventilated halls of recycled air, the warm animal smell came to them like cut grass on a summer night.
They turned a corner. There on the wall, with a square bench before it, a horse ran. The grass beneath it was the impossible sun-drenched green of July, the sky a high summer blue without distance, and the horse, smaller than the palm of a hand, was black — a warm, dark-chocolate, animal black, with a deep-down wash of red where the sun touched it.
And it tossed its head.
Kes reached out, ignoring all possible alarms, to stroke its neck. And he felt it under his hand. Instead of a flat, black bench in unmarked leather, the pressure against his shin was the leg of a horse, and under his hand the muscle bunched in its neck. Its head came around, and it lipped at his hair, as the horses at his grandparents' farm used to do when he was a boy begging to ride. He felt the whirl of hair under his hand marking an old scar.
"Andai!" said the man looking at him across the horse's back, with the spontaneous force of swearing. He wore riding riding clothes, visible as he stepped toward the horse's head, as practical as jeans and a hoodie, and his sword scabbard was worn with use.
He looked no more than thirty, his hair tied back in a leather thong, and his right hand was bloody.
"Mother," he said, "what have you called up?" And his mother was and was not like the name Jadwiga had said under her breath. He stared from half-closed eyes, as though they stood in the heart of a fire, and they heard the crack of a dry log in flames.
Firelight fell over his shoulder. Kes and Al, standing under fluorescent lights, felt the chill of night air and the thin warmth of the embers at their feet pushing against a mountainside of cold. They stepped instinctively closer, shivering in their fall city gear. A woman in a long wool robe kilted like a woodsman’s smock appeared on the far side of the fire ring. They could see, now, the piled logs softening the ashy ground in the heat of the fire, and the calf-high stones around them in a ring as wide as Al’s spread arms. The woman set a branch or a bush on the fire. She propped and pushed it with an iron tool, and flame fizzed in the dry tips of branches. The smoke went up with a smell of rosemary.
“See now,” she said, “quickly!”
In the darkness outside the fire ring, the light seemed to fall with a new slant, as though on stone floor and stone walls, and they could see, fainter than tree shadows, figures in robes with hoods pulled over their faces. Those hoods should have been as practical as oilskins to hold the rain off, as the robes should have looked, in their plain, coarse weave, as rugged as fishermen’s jerseys. But the hoods rose in tall peaks and fell to hide the faces, as the robes hid the bodies, and the figures stood eyeless and still at their devotions. Twelve figures knelt in prayer, and the thirteenth spread his hands as though he spoke over them.
Kes and Al watched with the helplessness of nightmare, when a familiar scene suddenly tears itself open and the dreamer cannot move — tries to scream and finds the sound clamped in the throat. They could not hear, but they could feel the rigid force in the kneeling men, who stared past each other with a terrible eagerness, and the command in the man who spoke. They could feel the certainty in that assembly, and it was not the staunchness of faith or reliance — it was the fanatic thrust of men who have been honed and confined to spend their energy in one direction only. Kes and Al, looking into that stone room, could imagine that force in a bunker or in the physics lab that built the atomic bomb.
The speaker stiffened, turning his blank eye-holes, and the woman by the fire clapped on branches still capped with dried red berries. She sang as they sent up a smother of smoke, a low, coaxing music with a mazing beat, a thrumming faster than galloping hooves.
The swordsman turned to her and knelt by the fire ring to lift a small creature — a hare, they saw, and understood the blood on his hand. It was freshly dead. He spoke to it, or to the god he called to through it, through the sacrifice, the giving of life. He laid it gently in the nest of branches above the fire. He and the woman moved around each other with familiar purpose, like a couple cooking dinner in a small kitchen, and he rested his clean hand on her shoulder as he passed by to approach them again.
"Who are you?" Kes barely heard his own voice, and he seized the swordsman by the wrist. A hand gripped his in turn, hard enough to hurt.
Behind them a voice raised. The guard shouted in the hallway. The swordsman jerked toward it.
"Not on on Biruté's hill,” he said, and and his voice held a deep undertone of anguish.
“Gods, not here! My father held them back. That night, when he killed the bull with a stroke, he mocked them in his strength, and they never knew it."
Kes breathed into the horse's mane: "Vytautas."
The longing in the man's voice echoed in his mind — it was Kes's father's, the day Kes’ grandfather had fallen from the roof, repairing shingles, and Kes, still a child, had tried to answer the look in his father's face. Will you miss him? he had said, and his father, who had always dealt with him honestly, had answered, I am losing my best friend.
Kes said, "How did he die?"
"He died of a fevered wound. I was with him." Vytautas' voice held a bitter note. "Ask those who saw his soul ascending. At least he will not live to see them blinded."
The guard was running the length of the gallery, shouting into his pager.
Kes tightened his grip on the hand he held, not having words for the need he felt. Vytautas looked Kes full in the face.
"Kesgaila Valimantas," he said, "don't think — leap!"
The world tilted. Kes felt his heels flung up behind his head, and he was rocking forward, horse hair under his cheek, his ankles scissoring one over the other — and he was sitting up on the horse's back, and between its ears in place of the wall he could count the flashes of Geminids in the night sky.
"Up with you, Aldona Gediminas," he heard, and he felt her swing a leg over the horse's back behind him. "We will hold them — ride now!"
Her arms came around him as the horse leapt through the wall.
The horse wore no gear. They were riding bareback, and the horse's shoulders shifted rhythmically under him. They were swerving down hill in a wooded, open country, and the speed of it took all his concentration.
They had ridden into a colder place than the one they had left. Their breath misted, and snow coasted underfoot. He felt the first tinge of soreness and the cold of winter riding in his feet, and he rubbed her bare hands with his.
He drew in air. It tasted clear, blown through a hundred miles of forest. The snow gave enough light to see the outline of a boulder, the shank of a birch tree, the shadows of leaves or the prints of a hare between frozen delicate branches of undergrowth. Through his fear he ached with the fullness of it.
"Whoever said you can't long for a thing when you have it never rode like this," he said.
They broke out of the trees into winter fields. The ground under the snow changed from rough tussocks to ruts, and the horse clattered through the doorway of a low-slung stone building. They slid down, and Kes dropped the bar on the door behind them.
They stood gasping in the central aisle of a stable. He flung off his coat and wrapped it around her. The horse walked into a stall, stamping and blowing, and rattled the empty manger.
Kes peered into the dark loft that should surely have held hay in this bitter weather. The cold seemed to numb his mind as well as his hands. The wind shook the door and buffeted the shutter over the window, and he knew he could not get out to look for a pump or a bucket.
Al felt her face stiffening until she could not speak. She stamped, and the movement sent pain through her swollen feet without moving the blood in them. She drew the coat around her, trying to jump, to run in place. One of her hands brushed a wooden bead, and she felt the shape under her numb fingers.
She could not call to him, but her grunt and urgent start brought Kes around to face her, and he saw the shape under her rubbing fingers. A single head of wheat.
He opened the grain bin.
Music uncoiled as he raised the lid. Fiddles leapt into high runs, buoyed on a piping descant, and a drum rapid as the heartbeat of a hare, and he felt his blood rising and the warmth in his hands as though he had been hiking up a long rise and had stopped, winded, to pull off his jacket and wipe his forehead in the heat of exercise, and his feet moved and he was turning, catching her hands, spinning her down the length of the aisle and back until her hands unclenched, fast in his, and the reel wheeled and gloried in the air. The room seemed to shake with lines of dancing bodies, the drum to thunder like a corps of heels, and the horse kicked its door to the beat of the drum.
They fetched up, panting, against the grain bin, and he plunged his arms into it to the shoulder, burrowing among the sliding prickle of seeds.
He lifted out a stone. It was a plain, grey field stone, the kind dug up in tons, pulled out of the way of ploughs and piled into walls. But though the music grew no louder, it seemed to grow more solid when the stone surfaced — the strings to rasp, the flute to swell and subside with breath — and the tune changed in a wave of clear notes. It was a minor tune now, sweet and questioning, with a lilt in its speed and a long, sliding note that lifted the heart. The flute took up a harmony about the strings, seeking and rocking and deepening. This music held the shadows of the winter wood and the questioning of mated owls.
And a rustling sounded in the empty hayloft, and a man swung onto the rafter. He too wore his hair long and clothes of good leather and wool — in his tunic he looked, in fact, much like Kes in his student sweater and dark jeans.
He said “Who sent you?” looking down from his half darkness.
Al said, "We were on Biruté's hill." She turned to Kes, her hands tight around her beads. "He said it. And she's his mother. It was the way they looked at each other, and he knew what she meant, and she knew what he would do."
Kes moved closer, feeling the strain in her face echoed in his, while the music pulsed warmth into his hands.
“Vytautas sent us,” he said. “Jadwiga sent us. See what she gave Aldona.”
Al slid her hands upward, as though to lift the necklace off again, but slowly, and Jogaila, Grand Duke of Poland and Lithuania, slid off his rafter to land staggering on the flagstones, with hayseed in his hair, and closed her hands firmly over the beads.
Kes said, “They are holding off the hooded men. We’re here to help.”
But Al was holding the wooden cross at the apex of her beads, and her face creased with pain.
“This is theirs, isn’t it?” she said. “Your willow tree, your horse, your piper and your wheat — but the cross is theirs.”
He shook his head, and his eyes were older than his supple body.
“Not that one,” he said. “Do you think no Christian ever danced the harvest dance with us or raced to get the hay in under a thundery sky, no clerics ever debated auguries at my table, no composers ever traded scores —” he slanted her a sudden, tired smile — “no Pagan boy ever loved a Christian girl and danced the night through on their wedding under the new moon?”
“The hooded men are not the boys who come adventuring in the summer because their great-grandfathers berthed at Antioch and fought at Jerusalem. Not the friars in their cells. My father and my grandfather allowed them to practice their faith in their chapels. Some of them befriended our priests and priestesses. It is these new men who will break us into their shape.”
The wind beat against the shutters and tore at the door bars. The music climbed the walls in a defiant shout. Cold air pressed through the windows like the stare of the eyes behind the blank eye-holes, shifting and pinning the three of against the wood.
The door burst and blew in with a resounding slam, and the horse, crashing out of the stall, reared in front of Jogaila, bearing the blast while he jumped for its back.
“They are strong when we are scattered,” Jogaila hallooed over the peak of the noise. “I go to my cousin. Go on!”
Al shouted into the rising winds, in Polish:
“‘Even sight heightened to become all-seeing
will do you no good without a sense of taking part.’”
The glare slackened like sun gone behind a cloud, enough to let Kes catch Al in his arm and lift her bodily into the grain bin. He rolled in behind her with the stone on his arm and yanked the lid down against the wind.
They were falling, rushing with the grain in an avalanche, and the rustling grain sizzled like leaves in a high wind, and the points of light on the husks flashed like windows and they were running down an avenue of beech trees in the September dark and into a solid soaking rain, and the lamps hove up orange on as they passed.
They were running through college quadrangles. The rain pounded behind them, and he grabbed her hand, shouting that his place was close by. They raced up stone steps, half blind in the water, and on panting up the narrow stair and flung the door to.
“Why here,” she said, gasping against a battered arm of the sofa.
He held up one closed fist and said, "I have a fireplace."
He went on his knees beside it, hauling off his dripping sweater one-handed, and she dropped beside him to wad newspapers out of the wood box. He was arranging kindling one-handed, and she moved him aside to prop logs and strike a light. They blew and shivered, and the rain bore down on the roof. As the kindling began to catch, he opened his hand and poured over the wood a handful of wheat from the grain bin.
Their hands shook, and they dropped sticks and paper and fumbled matches. She wished for a sword, for a weapon against what was coming. They had been pulled along, she thought, and run by instinct; they had done nothing in themselves except to keep looking. Now they were huddling over the bare beginnings of a fire, the first wheat kernels just beginning to blacken, and what would that tendril of smoke do against the pressure of those eyeless eyes — and what would it do here, in a city still trying to emerge from the greyness of men in uniform suits, five centuries later?
And they were here. Chanting stained in the wind in the gutters, a solid impenetrable rumble of voices. Kes fed the palm-sized fire on the hearth with fixed concentration. Al dug into her sodden pocket for her pocket knife and opened the blade. Two inches of steel, she thought, and the voices whined like soap opera stars with the exasperated compulsion that gnawed at thought. She thrust the blade into the fire. Kes blew on the flame. Then she ran the blade swiftly over the ball of her thumb, and handed the knife to him, and he did the same. She held the bead of blood to his forehead, and she felt his hand against her face.
They leaned together over the fire, and each let fall a drop of blood into the flame over the wheat. Against the numbing, repetitive drone of the voices, they wound their arms around each other and bowed their bloody heads. With his mouth against her ear, he said, “what did you see when you saw the willow tree?”
She told him about the class and the water samples. She told him about the unexpected unity of it, the way all the kids had fallen into games and soaked their clothes and joked about it, and about the orphanage where every preoccupied adult ran from task to task, and the classrooms where she sat alone and comforted herself, looking out at the trees in their city cages, and how that day at the river had stood out.
He told her about his grandfather’s farm, about hoisting hay bales onto the hay elevator when he was still small enough that he threw himself along with each bale, about the way it was in haying when everyone worked at their own task in a line of tasks, passing the bales from one to the next, until the sweat plastered hayseeds up their arms and backs and chests. He told her how his grandfather could grab a bale in each hand by the twine and sling them twenty feet up to the stackers in the loft.
He told her about riding through the cut hayfields, cantering bareback, and she told him about singing in coffee shops and about the band she had joined to pay her way through college. He covered her ears from the sniggering voices and thought of other faces, blank or confused or hostile, and of how many times she must have forged through indifferent adults and forms and fears to be here, so much on her own.
“How have you beaten them so long on your own,” he said.
She began to sing in his arms. With the blood still wet on her forehead and one hand tapping time against his shoulder, she sang a soft ululation against the steel voices. She sang river water and hoofbeats, half in words and half in sounds. She was improvising, he understood, singing the warm flank of a horse, singing the trailing willow catkins in brown shallows, singing the farmers leading prayers in their grange halls, singing Jadwiga and the heartbeat of the growing child, singing Jogaila and Vytautas testing their strength, envying and wanting each other.
he had a hand wrapped round her beads and easing kindling onto the fire. They were two people holding a private place, as the priestesses held talked at their sacred springs and husbands talked to wives at night and parents to their children, in whispers against the wind. He kissed her throat. The first log caught in a ring of flame.
And they heard running water.
Behind the flame, in the darkness before the fire brick, they could feel Jadwiga, walking forward with firm, careful steps, and Jogaila settling his arm around her shoulders, and
Vytautas, eyeing his cousin, extending his hand.
The water and the crackling flame swelled into a serene channel of sound.
They held each other, shaken in the sudden silence, remembering the first shock of the willow tree and the unquestioning gladness it brought with it.
She said into his dripping hair, "Why were you thinking of Mongols — that first time?"
"Because of you."
She shifted to look at him, shirtless and up to his elbows in bark fragments, and she grinned. "If I look like a Mongol, you look like a Syrian farmer."
He pushed a sheaf of dark, wet hair out of his eyes.
“There’s a lot to be said for both,” he said, and eased his sodden coat off her shoulders, reaching for a blanket from the couch to wrap around her while the fire built.