Afterwards, she couldn’t remember how she came to be hiding. Did someone tell her to, or did she think of it herself? That piece of the past was missing. She was inside the walls of the house, a secret place her father had showed her when she was very young. No one knew about it, he had told her, not even her mother. She had seen it as a game until she looked into his face. His eyes as still as well water, his usual easy smile gone. It was only to be used in special circumstances, he went on, but he didn’t say what those circumstances might be. She peered through a crack in the paneling and took in the rough floorboards and the half-open door that led out to the kitchen. It was a simple wooden house. Four rooms. A low window revealed the flat land to the west, the grass ruffled by a summer wind, the blue sky free of clouds. The roof above her creaked. The walls were creaking too. As a child, that rushing noise had made her glad. Even now, she would often run outside with her arms spread wide, her blonde hair wrapping round her face. She would feel caught up in something generous and wild, and she would lose all sense of time, and of herself. That day, though, she was older. Already in her twenties. She huddled in the dark and barely moved.
She might have slept because the world seemed to give beneath her. Some kind of slippage happened. The next thing she knew there were other sounds under the wind. Horses’ hooves, men’s voices. She couldn’t think who might be visiting. They almost never had visitors. They lived too far from the village, and miles from the nearest thoroughfare. She thought about pushing the loose panel aside and stepping out into the room, but something prevented her. There was shouting, then coarse laughter. She couldn’t hear her father. She couldn’t hear her mother either, or her aunt. Footsteps crashed across the wooden boards. A pair of legs appeared. Boots that were damp and muddy. The man’s hand had a club in it, which he swung and twirled, as if to entertain her. He cleared his throat and spat. When he moved to the window, she saw her mother’s foot in the kitchen doorway, pointing at the ceiling. Her heart went still. She couldn’t think why her mother might be lying on the floor. She couldn’t come up with a single explanation. The man in the mud-stained boots had gone, but she could hear voices outside, at the back of the house, and a smell crept into the small space where she was, the smell of roasted meat. It wasn’t enough to be crouching in the dark. She had to do something that would help her to deal with what was happening, something that would fix her in the moment but also lift her out of it. Raising her left arm towards her face, she bit into the inside of her elbow. The skin broke, and the flash of pain was like sheet lightning in an evening sky. Then the warm metallic taste of blood. An emptiness flowed into her, steady and remorseless, and she sank back, the crack in the panel no more than a long thin rip of light that showed her nothing.
More time passed.
It was the silence that woke her. The middle of the afternoon. She crawled out into the room and stood up. The wind was still blowing, though it had weakened. It would be hours before it drained out of the world. She crossed to the window and swung her legs over the sill and dropped lightly to the ground. She walked away from the house in a straight line, through grass that was calf-deep. On the horizon was a row of poplars. A fly buzzed past her ear and was gone. Summer in North Karelia.
At last, she turned and looked back. Smoke rose in a greasy column from the rear of the house, where the animals were kept. She could see a group of men on horses. They appeared to be riding east, towards the river. This was a place she loved, its water running calm and blue between low banks lined with orange reeds. She watched the men for a long time to make sure they were leaving. They would have come from Novgorod, she thought. The language she had heard had almost certainly been Russian. She waited where she was until they dissolved in the heat haze, melting to nothing, then she started back. This time she walked slowly, covering the distance with her eyes lowered. She came round the northwest corner of the house and stopped near the front steps. A man lay facedown on the ground, one arm beneath his body, the other flung out to one side. Only his hair was moving.
When she knelt beside him, she saw that the back of his head had been split open. Blood clogged his ear and ran in trickles down his neck. Blood soaked the grass.
The men had killed him.
They had also killed her aunt, who they had strung up on the edge of the property. Her wrists had been lashed together and tied to the lowest branch of a cherry tree. Her head hung forwards, her brown hair falling over her face. Her clothes had been torn from her body, and there was dried blood on her legs.
Inside the house she found her mother, still lying on the kitchen floor, her bare feet pointing at the ceiling. Most of her clothes were gone as well, and part of her ripped skirt had been used as a gag. She took the rag from her mother’s mouth, then fetched a reindeer skin and laid it over her body, pulling it up to just below her chin. Kneeling on the floor, she kissed her mother’s forehead, which was already cold.
“My darling . . .”
She said the words over and over. There were no others. As she spoke into the quiet of the house, dark circles appeared on her dress and on the floor. The inside of her body felt scraped with a blunt instrument.
She held her mother’s hand and looked away towards the door, where the wind rummaged in the grass and the sky stood still and blue. She smelled the roasted meat again. The men must have killed some of the livestock too.
I’m all that’s left, she thought.
She decided not to fetch help. The nearest neighbors lived half an hour’s walk away, and she didn’t want to leave her loved ones on their own. She stood up and took a knife from the drawer and went outdoors. Cutting the rope that bound her aunt, she half dragged, half carried her back to the house and laid her on the floor next to her mother. Outside again, she gripped her father under the arms. Like her, he was finely made, but it still took all her remaining strength to haul him across the grass and into the house. When her father, her mother, and her aunt were lying side by side, she sat on the steps facing north. She felt short of breath, as if a weight were on her chest. The wind had blown itself out, and the blue of the sky had dimmed. She could hear the flies gathering in the room behind her. Every now and then, she turned her eyes to the east, but there was no sign of the men.
She couldn’t have said how long she sat there for. At that time of year there was almost no difference between afternoon and evening. The sky was never entirely dark, not even in the middle of the night. Finally, she rose to her feet and fetched a piece of rough cloth from inside the house and took it round to the back. The fire had burned down low, and the ground was covered with bones that had been stripped of their meat. A few clay jugs of brännvin lay scattered about, all of them empty. The doors to the sheds stood open. The men had cooked one of the goats on a makeshift spit, but the rest of the animals were gone. From the patch where the vegetables were grown, she collected several handfuls of rich dark earth and placed them on the piece of cloth, then she knotted the corners so it formed a kind of bag. Returning to the house, she packed the cloth bag into a knapsack, along with a few clothes and the knife, and set it down on the weathered boards of the porch. Stacked against the back of the house, under a lean-to, was the firewood they kept for the long winter months. She began to carry the logs inside, heaping them on the kitchen floor, then she went through the house opening all the doors and windows. She unscrewed the oil lamp that hung from an iron hook on the wall and poured its contents onto the pile of wood and onto the animal skins and blankets that covered the bodies of her family, then she took a small shovel from next to the stove and walked round to where the fire was and scooped up the last few embers. Back in the house again, she tipped the glowing embers onto the logs. There was a quick rush of sound, like an intake of breath, and the flames snaked across the room, fanned by the draft from the open doors and windows. Her family lay still beneath a shroud of bright dancing orange. Backing out of the house, she picked up the knapsack and ran down the steps and out onto the grass. At first, the flames were only visible through the doorway, but it wasn’t long before they burst through the roof. Thick white smoke poured up into the sky.
She turned away and walked off across the meadow towards the distant line of trees. The inside of her elbow stung, and she still had the taste of her own blood in her mouth. She could hear the house burning behind her. Her past was burning too. Later, she would imagine there had been a happy time, all those years growing up with her family, all that love, but she couldn’t find it in her memory. The happiness wasn’t something that could be proved. It was a matter of belief, or faith. Like God.
She spent the first night in the forest, at the base of a tree, in the sheltered space between two roots. On the second night, she found a woodsman’s hut, a floor of beaten earth, its roof half gone. She had been troubled by the prospect of sleep, fearful of the dreams that might be lying in wait for her, but every morning when she woke the inside of her head was bare, like a room emptied of all its furniture. As she walked, she recited spells and incantations that were part of her heritage, and came naturally to her. There are strangers at every gate, and enemies round every corner, and in the forest there are sorcerers, but I am not alarmed. I am not in the least afraid.
The weather was in her favor, warm and dry.
One evening, after walking for six or seven days, she came to a smallholding. Two children ran out to meet her. They tugged at her skirts, begging her to join in with the game they were playing. One of them brandished a doll made from bleached bones, a torn rag, and a piece of string. Their father stood watching from a darkened doorway. He was a tall man. His left hand lacked a finger. “Have you come far?” he asked. “Where are you from?”
She began to cough, as if smoke from the torched house had forced its way into her lungs. As if she too had been soaked in lamp oil and set on fire.
The man’s wife brought her cool water in a wooden scoop. She drank it all. The taste was of pine needles, fallen leaves.
“Tell us your story,” the man said.
He was only asking what anyone might ask, and his eyes, though narrow, were not suspicious or unkind. A story was a passport, after all. Something that allowed people to place you. Trust you. But her story had been hidden from her, and she found she couldn’t speak. When she looked behind her, there was nothing but trees and more trees, and then perhaps a meadow, and in the distance, at the very limits of her remembering, a house consumed by flames. She seemed, even to herself, to have emerged from nothing. She was like a boat that leaves no wake.
“Don’t pay any attention to him,” the man’s wife said, pushing him away. “You can stay if you like. You’ll be safe here.”
The woman’s promise seemed rash, and born of a profound and dangerous innocence, and she didn’t believe it. She would never be safe again. Nonetheless, she let herself be taken to a woodshed at the back of the house, where there was a simple bed of straw. That evening, she lay down and rested, but she couldn’t sleep. There were things just out of sight inside her head. She had to keep herself from looking.
She was gone before the people woke, while all the stars were still out, dusting the sky like flour spilled from a sack. Once again, she murmured as she moved among the trees. May I pass unnoticed through this world and leave no trace. For if I am not seen, I will not come to any harm. That she might cast off her life like this wasn’t something that had ever occurred to her. Before, she would walk to the river, where she would dream or swim or fish, or to a neighbor’s house, to see Agata, her friend, returning after many hours, but this was movement in one direction only, and it felt hazardous, as if she might outstrip herself, unravel. Cease to be. She wanted the miles to open up behind her, though. She wanted to keep going and never reach the end. She supposed that was impossible, but she couldn’t be sure.
Sometimes at night she bit into her arm, opening the wound. Or sometimes she used the knife she had brought with her. There was the bright flash of pain and the metal taste of blood. There was the calmness that flowed through her afterwards. It became a habit. A necessity. It helped her to remember, and to forget. But there was no sense, in those early days of exile, that she was undergoing a transformation, no sense that she might be changing into somebody who did not change.That came later.