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Rain (Working Title)

By @KatherineCirwin

Two

TWO

 

           Supper was quiet that night. The air felt about to crackle, like it did before a hard frost—at least to Minka. Mother and Papa had decided her sixteen-year-old brother Breon could make their evening soup, something to warm their spirits while winter settled in. Breon sat motionless next to his sister at the dark-knotted table, trying to act grown up as he waited for their reactions.

That could have been the only reason for the tension, but Minka wasn’t sure. She kept her attention on her soup, hunting chunks of mutton and carrots hidden in the barley, and listened.

The Belajics’ cabin was mostly pine turned golden brown with time. Its front half formed a sitting room inside the door: the fat iron stove; a chair and benches stacked with blankets in shreds of spring colors. The loft where Minka and her brother slept and the ladder that stretched down to the floor. In the back half, the kitchen: the table, benches, sideboard, all with brown veins adorning the wood. The walls bustled with shelves that showed off jars of pickled vegetables, a basket of eggs, grain and bundled herbs.

Mother buzzed back and forth between the table and the sideboard. She was always buzzing, the way bees raced between flowers in the summer. She wore loose-cut peasant trousers like her daughter and most of her neighbors, but they were paired with a pale tunic blouse instead of knit or roughspun. Her collar floated open at the side of her neck like she hadn’t made the time to fasten the loops. After twenty years, her husband knew better than to try to persuade her to sit down.

Papa knew the loom and spinning tools the way a musician’s fingers know their strings, but it was Mother who grew up with sheep and wool goats and who sorted the good wool from the better. And she had the head for numbers. Mother’s back and shoulders were straight as a wall, proud of how she had stitched herself into the business—and, perhaps, now thought herself the seam that held it together.

“Ola Perek came by with the paper,” she announced. She hovered over the table in her usual spot.

“Skipped Brasho?” asked Papa. Behind the parted buttons of his woven gray work shirt, he was built of flat muscle, with a short brown beard that hid his expression. But his voice was as soft as water. He was a craftsman—he knew his worth. He had no need to raise his voice.

“That was nice of him,” he went on. He scooped up some barley and broth. “I always thought he liked my brother better.”

Mother didn’t joke back. “He said there’s something we need to see.” Her blue-bead earrings swung around her face. Her expression had hardened. “It’s about Guardian Rana,” she said. “And Minka.”

Minka’s spoon went dead in her bowl.

Breon sat up straighter, half-leaning over the edge of the table. Minka watched the stitching at his shoulder reach to hold the seam together. “What is it?” he urged. His eyes were gray-blue and fierce with interest under a cap of brown hair just like Papa’s.

“Not you,” Mother told him. “Your sister.” She turned to Minka. “Did you hear anything while you were out today?”

Yes. Minka shook her head. “No.”

Papa looked up from his soup. “I take it Rana’s not after our vote on something.”

Minka hadn’t noticed the newspaper folded up on the thick pine table. It got lost among the tea mugs and chunks of rough-crusted bread. The paper rustled in Mother’s hand as she picked it up, like branches in the wind, in a way that made you want to look twice over your shoulder.

Papa inspected it with a curious frown. He peeled the pages apart and gave the paper a shake. He laid the paper on the table so that it spanned the corner between them. “Here, Little Fox,” he said to Minka. That was his nickname for her, for her red-brown hair.

Minka had to **** her head, but she could make out the notice. A Royal Invitation, it proclaimed at the top. Then: Rana to invite select group for son’s matchmaking. The notice was printed on an insert, almost like an afterthought.

One of Papa’s eyebrows peaked upward. “He wants daughters from—”

“I know, Daran,” said Mother. “Keep reading.”

Minka read along as best as she could going sideways. Everything Zina had told them was there, printed in ink. The notice used the word “retreat,” and it was to be held at some estate in a town Minka had never heard of. It specified “young women close to marriageable age” and then, more exactly, ages eighteen through twenty. Only, it was to last a month—at least—and, sure enough, they’d printed a list of names.

“My fifth-great-grandmother didn’t get Whitewater’s name,” Papa was saying. “He never married her mother.” He muttered an addition, “The son of a—”

“It doesn’t matter.” With one hand, Mother reached over Papa’s shoulder and pointed. Streams of wavy black hair swayed in front of her. Her other hand slipped to Minka’s shoulder and squeezed. “Look,” she said. “She was a Biela, wasn’t she?”

Minka pulled the page out of Papa’s hand so the paper was flat on the table. There, by Mother’s fingertip, was the name.

“She was from Tsarvosa district,” Papa muttered, “every other clan around there’s a Biela.” But his mouth twitched. That was about the only clue you saw when he was surprised.

“If there are soldiers coming,” Mother murmured, “we’ll hear about it from a news rider before they reach us. I don’t believe it, not yet.”

“Neither do I,” Papa muttered as he took a scrap of bread, “and I won’t until we have one come.” He lifted his gaze to his daughter. “But perhaps you and Janis ought to talk.”

Until then, Minka had felt nothing. But when Papa said that, her throat closed up. She carried her bowl and spoon to the wash basin. Breon had taken you to mean him, too, and trailed behind her.

Most nights, once chores were done, Mother and Papa spent the evening in the sitting room. They would read, talk, scratch in the ledger book, cluck over business. But tonight they slipped into their bedroom off to the side. Breon dashed out to the shed to pick out the horses’ stalls and give hay and water.

Most nights, Minka would be there with him, breathing in the soft dust smell. But tonight, she was more interested in what she wasn’t supposed to hear. She caught murmurs here and there through her splashing and scrubbing.

 “What is he doing…” Papa wondered. His voice through the pine door made him sound like he was moaning. “…Just take them?”

“…Shouldn’t worry so much.” Mother’s voice moved closer. “Not an official invite…” A pause. Then: “How many bolts—”

Minka knew what her mother meant. Besides Sarain, she was the only one out of school and working full days. For now, she was the only one who mattered—at least in the ledger book.

Their voices faded to a burble Minka couldn’t make out. Then Mother’s voice grew again. “…Anyway, she and Janis are about to…” There was a pause. “If they…”

Minka froze. She knew the question on her mother’s lips. She just didn’t want to consider it. The notion was like trying to eat something she knew she couldn’t, a thread or a chip of wood. Foreign, tasteless, refusing to soften in her mouth. She wished Mother wouldn’t talk like that.

***

The next day came and went, and no one knocked on the door to take her. She was still trying to swallow the possibility of leaving and hadn’t even considered packing. That, and she had to tell Janis.

He finally called on her that evening. To be fair, he had said maybe tomorrow. So he had kept his word. But that did little to sweeten the taste in Minka’s mouth.

Mother had retreated to the workshop after supper—she wanted to mark inventory, she said. Papa and Breon were clearing dishes away when there was a knock on the door.

Minka eased the door open. There stood Janis in his flared kafto coat of brown wool down to his knees, with leather closures. Its high collar was wrapped around his face against the chill.

It felt as if someone had been standing on her chest and stepped off again. “Come in,” she breathed. She tried to kiss him but missed as he shrugged out of his kafto. “How was your work? Did you finish what you needed?”

“Most of it.” Janis’s voice was still tired. Empty. He shook the rain from his light hair while she hung his coat on a hook, right next to hers.

Papa gave a nod, one sharp down-up, and clasped the young man’s hand. “Good to see you,” he said. His voice was blanket-soft. “Mistress wanted to work late, so forgive us if we’re not lively.” He twitched his bearded chin toward the table. “There’s tea still. Sausage and cabbage if you’re hungry.” The scent still hung in the air, sweet on top of the wood smoke.

“Thank you.” Janis kept his voice low to match. “But—” He was fighting to peel his boots off. “I need to talk with Minka.”

Her heart leaped into the air at his words.

Janis gestured toward the ladder. It stretched between the worn wooden floor and the loft tucked under the dark roof beams, where Minka and her brother slept. It was the most private place the cabin had to offer a courting couple.

He was waiting for her to climb first. He always did. Minka felt safe knowing he put himself between her and the floor. Not that she hadn’t been climbing that ladder most of her life. She just liked it.

But her legs wobbled as she started up. She wanted him to ask about asking. That meant for him to sit down with Mother and Papa, drinking tea—always drinking tea—and ask their blessing for a marriage. Maybe give her a length of ribbon to tie on her wrist. That was common in the villages of the hill country, where rings were precious and hard to come by. She would be nineteen in April, he in June. They were happy together. And all the sooner they’d be settled. So why wait?

What she had to do, though, was ask him if he’d read the paper. Minka felt her arms tremble as she pulled herself onto the loft floor, and it wasn’t just his summer-green eyes watching her.

Two mattresses—one for her and one for Breon—sprawled across the floor. Breon’s was tucked against the front wall of the cottage, across from hers, half-disguised by an old sack-cloth curtain. The space was a jumble. Wool blankets, Breon’s fur-brown and Minka’s stony blue; their wooden trunks; Breon’s schoolbooks. But it was cozy and hidden from the rest of the house.

Janis sat on her bed in his usual spot. He wore a soft blue waistcoat over his linen shirt. It was embroidered around its edges with whirls of thread that used to be yellow. Even his clothes looked tired.

 “I don’t really know how to begin,” he started as she sank down beside him.

“I’m not sure, either.” She swallowed. “Did you see the notice in the paper?”

Janis just nodded in answer.

“My grandmother’s name is on the list.” She pulled her shirt cuffs around her hands. The smoky purple color made it one of her favorites, and the closeness of the fabric was a comfort. “They might come for me,” she said. “Soldiers.”

He sighed. “And you’ll leave. I suppose you won’t have need of me much—”

“What do you mean, I’ll leave?” Minka frowned. “I have you. I don’t want the royal son what’s-his-name,” she promised, “and he doesn’t want a mudhead country girl like me. And anyway…” She put a hand over his. The idea was simmering, rising, coming to a boil. “It’s been two years for us. Don’t you think it’s time?”

“Time?” Janis turned to face her. He pulled his hand out from beneath hers.

“Time to…” Minka swallowed. “To think about asking for me.” She was glad he had moved his hand. Her palms were turning slimy. “We’d have to anyway if we want a wedding this year,” she went on. “Or else we’d have to wait til after planting again.” His father and brothers and uncles would be tied up with farm work otherwise. He would be left with no one from his family to escort him.

That was what happened at weddings. He would ride to the center of the village on a borrowed horse, his male relatives flocked around him. She had already daydreamed of him in a white kafto coat with swirling red trim, and maybe new boots. And she would be on the other horse, awash in petticoats and an embroidered robe, with ribbons trailing down her back. And they would be settled, and life would move on.

That, and he would give her a reason to stay where she belonged if soldiers came.

Janis stared down at his lap. “Minka…” There was something in his voice she’d never heard before.

She stared at him. “What is it?”

 “I’ve been… tired lately.” Janis was quiet. “It’s… it’s not just work.” He rubbed the back of his neck.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s…” Janis turned his head, rubbed his neck again.

Minka realized she had never seen him do that before. Something squeezed her heart. “Janis, tell me.”

He was silent for a heartbeat. Two. Three. Finally, he spoke again. “I don’t feel the way I used to,” he explained. “About…”

“About…?”

He sighed. “I’m sorry, Minka.”

More silence. There was a lump of sausage, or fear—realization— fighting its way up her throat. “About me?” she whispered.

 “About… About us.” Janis rubbed his neck for the third time and sighed again. “Fine. I don’t feel the same way about you anymore. I’m sorry.”

Something sank into her chest. It was cold and dry like stone. That explained it. His slumped shoulders, his empty voice. Why he didn’t kiss her the same way. Why he had pulled away when she tried to massage his hands for him.

“I’ve tried to take it back,” Janis continued. “You’re beautiful and smart and kind. But I can’t. It doesn’t feel right anymore.”

She had to ask. It would choke her otherwise. “Is—is there someone else?”

“Minka…” The way Janis said her name made her go cold inside.

 “There is, isn’t there?” It came out a gasp. “Who is it?”

Janis looked her in the eyes for the first time since he’d come. “I’ve done nothing with anyone else, I promise.” But he didn’t deny the rest of it.

“How long has it been like this?” she demanded.

“Minka, I tried to stay true. Remember the festival?”

Oh, she remembered it well—it was barely a month ago. Each time the seasons changed, the whole village stopped work for three days of food, drink, and visiting. It was a way to mark the passage of time and give thanks for the gifts from land and neighbor. All night, she and Janis had wandered from house to house, under the glow of lanterns strung between the rooftops. They moved in time with the drum and accordion that leaked into the street, his arm around her shoulders.

She had felt so safe. Yet even then, all she knew had been turning to ice, about to crack under her feet. His arm felt heavy now when she remembered it. He’d been trying to hold on to her.

Below, the back door slammed as Papa staggered in and out. In came wood for the fire, out went ashes for the bucket in the privy. Breon hunched over his schoolwork at the table.

“You’ve been good to me, Minka,” Janis was saying. “But it’s not right for me to deceive you. I have to let you go.”

Minka forced her voice to work. “I don’t believe you.”

He gestured with his hands wide apart. “You want to go on like this?” he demanded. “You want me to take your hand and build a house and a family out of lies?”

His words hung between them. He was right. That was the worst part.

**** him. Even in this, he was honest and good. His green eyes were solemn, strangely bright, piercing her. Minka never wanted to see that look again.

Janis was getting restless, shifting from side to side on the mattress. When he spoke again, it was little more than a whisper. “I won’t be coming over anymore, Minka,” he said. “I wish you all the happiness in the world, whatever that means to you.” Janis reached for a piece of her hair—he’d always loved its color, somewhere between red and brown—and tucked it behind her ear, one last time.

Minka didn’t bother to show him out.

***

She sat on her mattress after that, flushed and rigid, her knees to her chest. She tried to imagine who he could have feelings for but couldn’t. Minka couldn’t see him with anyone else.

And she’d felt nothing wrong between them. Not like this.

She heard Papa and Breon drag the dressing screen from the corner of the sitting room. It was a frame of plain wood, as tall as Minka was, stretched with woven scrap cloth. They spread the screen open and fetched buckets of water, creak-stumble-thump.

She heard Mother come back from the workshop. She would be squinting; Minka knew the look. Her mother’s black hair was half pulled back. The rest flowed loose over her shoulders and needed to be brushed.

Mother and Papa each washed themselves and slipped away to bed. Minka held her grip and waited her turn.

Tucked behind the screen, in the hot glow of the stove, she wove her auburn hair into a braid and tucked it up with a comb. No matter what she did, it was as thick and straight and boring as the floorboards. Maybe this other girl’s hair held a curl or waved naturally.

She doused herself with water, rubbed with a little milk-and-honey soap. Her breasts had grown again since the harvest and kept getting in the way. Maybe this other girl had the same, whoever she was. Or maybe she was slim, and he liked the thought of something different.

And then her face crumbled like it had been crushed in someone’s fist.

So he’d gotten tired of her, all right. Tears surged out, hot and rough with salt. Please don’t anyone hear. Minka bent over the tin bucket, her breath shaking. Even the air in her lungs was beyond her control. **** him, she thought. **** him, **** him, **** him.

Minka cried until she couldn’t breathe anymore, until her head pounded. She finally righted herself and looked in the mirror. Her eyes were just like Mother’s, a grayish-purple-blue that made it hard to tell what she was thinking. The color of bruises, she thought. But there was no hiding the swollen rims. She splashed her face.

When she clambered back into the loft, Breon was sitting on his mattress, slouched over a schoolbook with a candle. He looked up, watched her. She turned her back to him and wiped at her face one more time, just to be sure.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

Minka didn’t feel like talking. “Nothing.”

“So nothing made your face puff up like that?”

“Quiet, Breon.” She fluffed her pillow like it was Janis’s neck with her hands around it. His, or this other girl’s, whoever she was.

There was a sulk in his voice. “I was just asking.”

Minka slammed her pillow onto her bed and squatted on the edge of the mattress. “Fine,” she said. “Janis and I won’t be courting anymore. And we won’t be getting married. He…” It was hard to say. “He has an eye for someone else now.”

“Want me to beat him for you?”

A laugh, or a sharp fragment of one, burst out under Minka’s breath. “No,” was her retort. At fourteen, her brother was more colt than boy, always squaring his shoulders and swaggering about on his sprouting legs. But he was still thin. The top of his head had yet to pass hers. And it would only make trouble.

She heard her brother slip down the ladder to wash. Some time later, he crawled back into his bed and slipped off to sleep with his usual soft grunt.

Minka kept her eyes closed and breathed deeply. In, out, in, out. Like a lullaby. But she couldn’t chase the dull weight from her belly. It filled her from rib to rib, from her backbone to her guts and all the way up to her throat, like it wanted to chase her breath away and make her sick. Another wave of tears clawed at her eyes.

They had talked about the future for years. A simple life through dim, soaking winters and bright summers, harvests and New Years. Everything she thought she knew was vanishing, burning away like mist in the sun.

She rolled on her back. But the empty feeling only spread, heavy as mud as it tried to choke her. Leave me be, she thought. I just want to sleep. But the mess inside of her only tightened its grip. She had become an arrow launched off course—barreling through a blur with nothing to land on.

***

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