Fresh snowfall muffled the sounds of Zhenya’s passage as he made his way back to the village. His traps had yielded two woodcock and a quail: not an abundant catch, but better than all of the days when he caught nothing. He would eat well tonight. The thought of his warm stove and warmer bed hastened his steps. Dusk was falling, and he wanted to be out of the forest while there was still light.
A warm bright light caught his eye: something glowing on the ground, half-hidden by snow and underbrush. The shape resolved as he drew nearer, and then he realized what it was, but he didn’t believe it. He prodded it with one foot, digging it up from the snow. A feather, shining, made of flame.
“Firebird,” Zhenya whispered, although there was no such thing; those were only stories.
He set down his string of game and turned a slow circle, crouched to run if he had to. But he was alone in the woods, as he had been all day. A few unseen birds called, but they were only songbirds.
He’d heard tales of men who went mad in the forest, but he hadn’t ever expected to be one of them.
Slowly, ready to snatch his hand away at the first sign that something wasn’t right, he knelt and reached for the feather. It rippled with flame, but it didn’t burn. He grasped the shaft and lifted it from the snow, spinning it in his hand to marvel at the shifting light.
There was no time for this. Christmas was past, and the days were lengthening, but they were still short, and night came on fast. He tucked the feather into his pack, careful that it wouldn’t be crushed, and hoisted his game over his shoulder again, and went on.
His house sat at the edge of the village, bordering the fields. It was small but well-built. He had done most of it himself, except for the oven and the roof. He was proud of his work. The oven kept the house warm all day, and once he lit a lamp the interior was very cozy, he thought. He fed the chickens and set about skinning his catch for dinner. The firebird’s feather glowed from his pack, but he left it where it was. There was time for that once he had eaten.
He had just set the birds in the oven to roast when he heard a knock at his door. Maybe it was Kolya, come by to see if he wanted to play a hand of cards—although it was late to be out, in the dark and the cold.
Zhenya went to the door, using one foot to block the cat from slipping outside. “Who’s there?” he asked, opening the door a crack to peer out into the darkness.
A man stared back at him: dark-haired, shorter than Zhenya, and completely naked. His arms were wrapped around his mid-section, and he was shivering violently.
“What the fuck?” Zhenya exclaimed, and then winced, because he shouldn’t swear at a stranger. “Hurry, come in, you’ll freeze out there.”
The man came inside, into the warmth. Zhenya sat him on the bench beside the stove and wrapped a blanket around him. The man’s teeth were chattering too hard for speech, so Zhenya didn’t pester him with questions at once, like he wanted to. Instead he filled a bowl with some of the porridge he had set to bake that morning and put it on the bench.
“Eat when you can,” he said, and went about his business of cleaning and oiling his boots. He would be out again tomorrow in the snowy woods.
After a few minutes, he heard the man pick up the bowl, and turned to look. Vaska had hopped up on the bench and was sniffing at the porridge, and the man was smiling and scratching at Vaska’s ears. The cat wasn’t supposed to be on the bench and knew it, but Zhenya would let it pass this once.
The man ate, steadily and without looking up. When he was done, he set the bowl aside and let Vaska step delicately into his lap.
The blanket didn’t cover him well. His modesty was preserved mostly by Vaska’s furry body. Zhenya hoped the lamplight concealed the way his eyes lingered on the man’s pale, muscular thighs. He couldn’t help the things he wanted.
“Thank you for the food,” the man said. His voice wasn’t what Zhenya had expected, but he didn’t know in what way.
“You’re welcome,” Zhenya said. “There’s meat that will be done soon, if you’d like more.”
“I might,” the man said. He smiled. “Thank you again. I’m Sid.”
It was an odd name. Maybe a nickname, and not his real name. “I’m Zhenya,” Zhenya said. He was wary of offering his full name to a stranger who wouldn’t share his own.
“I know,” Sid said. “I know who you are.”
Zhenya was a good trapper, and good at embroidery, too. It was women’s work, but everyone knew Zhenya was a little strange. There was a peddler who came to the village specifically to buy Zhenya’s linen. He used the money he earned to buy what he couldn’t make or grow himself. It was possible that people beyond his own village had heard his name because of his work. But he didn’t think that was what Sid had meant.
He didn’t know what to say. Sid ran his hand over the gray curve of Vaska’s back and said, “You found my feather.”
A sudden chill washed over Zhenya’s body. His eyes betrayed him and darted toward his pack, still glowing brightly from the feather within.
“Thank you for looking after it,” the firebird said: the bird in the shape of a man. For a moment, the shadow on the wall behind him showed the shape of great spreading wings.
Zhenya rose from his stool. Once he was on his feet, he didn’t know what to do next. Where could he go? He could run out into the cold, to old Petya’s house down the lane. But what would Petya do? He had no teeth, and could barely see. And the firebird wasn’t doing anything threatening. He was only sitting there, calmly stroking Vaska’s back.
Slowly, keeping both eyes on Sid, Zhenya sat back down.
“I didn’t mean to frighten you,” Sid said. “I just need a place to hide out for a few days. And you’re the only person who picked up one of my feathers.”
“Hide out,” Zhenya said. He couldn’t wrap his head around any of this. What did a firebird need to hide from? What did the feather have to do with anything? If Sid was going to hang around his house for several days, Zhenya hoped he would at least magic himself up some clothes.
“Koschei the Deathless is looking for me,” Sid said. “He’ll get bored soon if he can’t find me.”
“He—okay,” Zhenya said. All of this was madness, but he had a feather in his pack that said otherwise. “Am I in danger?”
Sid straightened, frowning. His sudden shift disturbed Vaska, who lifted his head and peered around before deciding he had nothing to be concerned about. “No, I wouldn’t—you won’t be harmed. Koschei can’t come for me here. That’s what the feather’s for. It’s like—” He made a vague sideways gesture with his hand. “It’s a bridge between the worlds.”
“It’s all stories,” Zhenya said. “Koschei. Firebirds. Next you’ll tell me Baba Yaga is real.”
“I had lunch with her last week,” Sid said, and then, at Zhenya’s look, “What?”
Zhenya should tell him to leave. He had enough food to get through the winter, but he didn’t have much extra. And he was of course displeased by the thought of a mythical villain descending on his home, although it seemed ridiculous, too. Sid was probably lying to him, or crazy, or both.
“I don’t have anywhere else to go,” Sid said quietly.
Zhenya groaned. “Well, Vaska likes you. So I suppose you can stay.”
+ + +
He found some old clothes that Sid could wear. They didn’t fit him well, but it was better than nothing. Zhenya politely turned his back while Sid dressed. He didn’t need to see that, or carry those thoughts with him to sleep.
Zhenya offered his old pair of boots, cracked and worn but all he had to spare, but Sid shook his head. “If I leave the house, it won’t be on foot.”
“What’s it like to be a bird?” Zhenya asked, because so far Sid had been nothing but pleasant, and it couldn’t hurt to ask.
Sid smiled at him. His eyes were the color of kvass. “What’s it like to be a person?”
“Cold, mostly,” Zhenya said.
“I’ll send you a dream tonight about flying,” Sid said. “Then you’ll know.”
Zhenya grunted. He didn’t like the idea that Sid could poke around in his dreams. What else could he do? Could he read every one of Zhenya’s secret thoughts? He probably couldn’t.
“Tomorrow I’ll work here in the morning, when the light’s good,” Zhenya said, “and then go to check my traps in the afternoon.”
“Is that what you do every day?” Sid asked. He sat beside the stove again, dressed in his new clothes, and Vaska immediately hopped onto his lap, pricked his ears forward, and began kneading Sid’s pants with his little white paws. Usually that was Zhenya’s spot beside the stove, and he spent every evening with Vaska curled up on him and purring.
“All winter,” Zhenya said. “In the summer, I’m in the fields.”
“That’s hard work,” Sid said.
“Yes,” Zhenya said. What else was there? A man worked until he died, and if he was lucky he had many children to help in the labor. If he was unlucky, he was alone.
They ate the woodcock Zhenya had caught, roasted to dripping in the oven. Zhenya wondered what Sid thought about eating birds, but decided it was best not to ask. The stove put out a steady radiant heat. Zhenya shifted his stool a little closer to warm his toes. He was cold all winter, except when he was sleeping.
The lamp burned low. Zhenya had done what work he needed to do for tomorrow. It was time for sleep.
He climbed the ladder to his warm nest on top of the oven, the mattress piled high with blankets. He situated himself and peered over the edge at Sid, still sitting on the bench and gazing up at him. “This is my only mattress. You can sleep down there, but it’s not very comfortable.”
“All right,” Sid said. He nudged Vaska from his lap and rose to his feet, and stripped off the shirt Zhenya had given him. His skin was the color of cream, unmarred and perfect, like he had never seen the sun or hard labor, but the breadth of his shoulders said otherwise.
Zhenya lay down so he wouldn’t look. “What are you doing?”
“It’s too warm to sleep in these clothes,” Sid said. He climbed the ladder naked, and Zhenya tried not to look, but he also didn’t want to be caught too obviously not looking. Sid’s cock and balls hung soft between his thighs as he crawled into the bedding. “It’s so warm up here. You really like this?”
“Yes,” Zhenya said, lying stiff and still with the blankets pulled up to his chin, like a frightened maiden on her wedding night.
“Better than sleeping on the bench,” Sid said. He sighed and lay down on top of the blankets, apparently completely unbothered by his nudity. There was room for both of them, but it was a close fit. Zhenya had to draw his body against the wall to avoid being pressed against Sid from hip to shoulder.
“I hope you’ll be safe here,” Zhenya said.
“I will be,” Sid said. The lamp was guttering now, but Sid put off a soft glow, and Zhenya could see his smile. “You’ve offered me the protection of your home. That’s powerful magic. Thank you.”
“Well. You’re welcome,” Zhenya said, and counted each of his heartbeats until he finally fell asleep.
+ + +
They ate bread in the morning, and Zhenya roasted the quail. He went outside to fetch water from the well down the lane. A light snow was falling.
“Cold today,” said Thin Misha, when Zhenya met him at the well.
“Yes,” Zhenya said.
He spent the day as he spent most days, sitting by an open window for the light, with a blanket draped over his lap to combat the draft, embroidering linen. Sid lay for a while on the floor beside the oven bench, speaking softly to the chickens, who liked to sit under there because it was warm. Zhenya couldn’t hear what he said, but both parties seemed to enjoy the conversation. When that was done, Sid roamed around the house, touching all of Zhenya’s belongings, and finally he came to sit at Zhenya’s side with a knife and a piece of wood and began carving a spoon.
Zhenya watched his hands work. He held the knife like he knew what he was doing. “You’re good at that, for a bird,” Zhenya said.
Sid grinned. “I’ve picked up a thing or two over the years.”
“You said your feather is a bridge between the worlds,” Zhenya said. “Are there only two?”
“There might be more,” Sid said. “I don’t know. Two is enough for me.”
“What’s the other world like?” Zhenya asked.
He was focused on his embroidery, but he could see Sid’s hands still for a moment, and he could feel Sid’s eyes on him. “You’re curious.”
“I like stories,” Zhenya said. “I’ve gone to the next village along the river, and the market town beyond that, but no farther. And you’ve seen two worlds.”
“I’ll tell you a story, then,” Sid said. “Do you know the tale of Ivan Tsarevich?”
Zhenya scoffed. “Of course.”
“I know how it really happened,” Sid said. “I was there.”
That passed the rest of the morning, until the sun reached its apex and began to sink, and Zhenya had to leave for the forest. Alone, walking through the snow, with his breath making clouds around his face, Zhenya pondered what Sid had told him. He wasn’t sure he really believed it, but it was nice to imagine that there was another world so close at hand. Like two blankets stacked together: you could only see the one on top, but if you peeled that back, the second was revealed to you, finely woven and richly embroidered.
He had dreamed the night before of flying: up over the trees, the countryside laid out below him, the frozen river and the bare snow-covered fields, the deep expanse of the forest. It went on forever, in every direction: the great world that he would never see.
His traps were full that day, every one of them. He had caught three ermine, winter-white. Their coats would fetch him a good price, and the birds would feed him and Sid both for a few days, thinned out as soup. He slogged home through the snow in high spirits, whistling through his teeth a little as he approached the village. It was good to be going home, and good to know that someone would be there waiting for him. Maybe Sid would tell him another story before they went to sleep.
Vaska greeted him at the door, meowing and twining around his ankles, and there was Sid, smiling at him from a stool by the stove. The house was lit not by the lamp but by Sid’s feather, upright in a wooden cup and filling every dark corner with light.
“Look how much I caught!” Zhenya crowed. “Three ermine! And so many woodcock!”
“A good day’s work,” Sid said, and he was smiling, but he didn’t seem as excited as Zhenya thought his catch deserved.
“It was you,” Zhenya said, realizing in that moment what Sid had done. “Wasn’t it? You used—magic.”
Sid shrugged. “I’m eating all your food. I thought it might help.”
Zhenya eyed him. Would birds caught by magic fill his belly? But they made solid weights along the pole he had strung them to, and they had made all the mess of real birds when he dressed them, their entrails spilling out over the snow.
“Don’t look so suspicious,” Sid said, grinning. “They’re real animals. I only encouraged them a little.”
“As long as they’re good to eat,” Zhenya said.
“They will be,” Sid said. “And I made kasha.”
They ate beside the stove, with Vaska in Sid’s lap. Zhenya cleaned his boots and skinned the ermine, and Sid told him another story, one he didn’t know, about a weather spirit and Baba Yaga. Zhenya listened, rapt, caught as much by the animation of Sid’s expression and the sweet way he ducked his head to smile at Vaska as by his words.
“What did you do while I was in the forest?” Zhenya asked, when the tale was done, and his eyelids were growing heavy, and it was time to sleep. He didn’t want to say goodnight just yet.
“I made some more spoons,” Sid said. “The chickens and I had a good talk about laying. What did you do in the forest?”
“Nothing much,” Zhenya said, but then he remembered the small white hare he had seen, nosing cautiously from its burrow and then hopping along for a while to follow Zhenya, as if it were curious. He told Sid about that, and about the clean unbroken snow where no one had tread since the last snowfall, and the intense deep peaceful silence of the woods.
“You’re alone a lot,” Sid said. “Do you get lonely?”
Zhenya had no work in his lap, nothing to distract him, so he stared at his own hands. “This is my second winter alone. Two winters ago, my parents and brother died from an illness. I buried them and burned the house. Then I built this one.”
“I’m sorry,” Sid said. “It must be hard to have a family.”
Zhenya glanced at him. “You don’t have one?”
Sid shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t remember being young, or growing. I’m not sure I’ll ever die.”
“It’s hard not to have a family,” Zhenya said. “I should marry.” It was an argument he’d had with himself many times. If he married, he would have a wife to help him, and children to keep his house warm. He was old to still be unwed: twenty-three in the summer.
“But you haven’t,” Sid said, and Zhenya thought of Sid saying, I know who you are.
“No,” he said. “I haven’t.”
+ + +
Sid’s second day with Zhenya passed much the same as the first, and so did the third, when it arrived. Zhenya’s traps were full both days, and he hung his catch in the unheated anteroom off the back of the house, to save it for when he needed it. Sid tired of spoons and switched to weaving a basket. He liked to talk, and Zhenya was happy to listen. His days passed much faster when he could listen to Sid’s stories while he worked, and going out into the cold wasn’t so bad when he knew Sid would greet him with a smile and a hot meal when he returned.
“Why is Koschei looking for you?” Zhenya asked, on that third evening, sleepy by the warm stove, with his belly full and Vaska on his lap, for once, instead of on Sid’s.
“Oh—he likes to capture me,” Sid said. He was mending Zhenya’s spare pants, a task Zhenya had neglected for too long, from a lack of inclination and time. “I always get away in the end, but I’d rather be free.”
“But you said he’ll give up soon,” Zhenya said. He rubbed his fingers beneath Vaska’s chin and felt his rumbling purr.
“Probably,” Sid said. He frowned at his stitches. He had careful hands, but he was worse at sewing than he was at carving spoons. “He’s trying to marry a princess, or abduct her? I’m never clear on the details. He’s distracted by that. I can feel him still looking for me, but he’s already losing interest. It’s tiring to search for something that doesn’t want to be found.”
It all sounded very silly to Zhenya, like a young boy playing a game. And Sid didn’t seem concerned talking about it now, calmly stitching up the tear in Zhenya’s trousers. But he had tossed down his feathers in a desperate bid for help, and he was here in Zhenya’s house, hiding, befriending Zhenya’s cat and hens. Zhenya understood nothing. Maybe it was beyond his understanding.
Unsettled, he climbed the ladder to his bed before Sid finished his mending, and lay there with the warmth of the oven all beneath him, staring up into the dark rafters. He had begun thinking of Sid as a friend, a companion, but Sid wasn’t even human. He wasn’t even mortal. After a few more days, he would return to his own world. Given enough time, Zhenya would probably think he had imagined Sid and these strange days together.
He heard Sid moving around below, putting things away, and then the room darkened as Sid put his feather beneath an upended bowl. Otherwise it would glow all night. The ladder creaked as Sid came up it. Zhenya rolled himself in a blanket and turned to face the wall, and pretended he was asleep.
He woke in the night from a bad dream, the worst dream, the same one he always had. The house was burning—the house he had grown up in—and his parents were still inside, and his brother. They screamed as their flesh melted like tallow. The fire made a huge invisible wall of hot air that kept Zhenya out, no matter how hard he fought to go inside and save them.
He woke frozen in place, stretched out on his back. For a moment, he couldn’t move, and it was like the dream again. But then he took a breath and could curl onto his side, trembling.
Sid stirred behind him. “You’re cold?” His voice was scratchy with sleep.
“A little,” Zhenya said, because he didn’t want to admit that he was so distressed by a simple nightmare.
“I don’t know how you can be cold up here,” Sid muttered. There were some rustling noises, and Zhenya’s blankets shifted, letting in a draft. Zhenya was still mired in his dream and didn’t realize what Sid was doing until he felt a hand on his hip.
He stiffened. Sid slid in behind him, his knees in the crook of Zhenya’s knees, his arm over Zhenya’s waist, his chest against Zhenya’s back. His bare skin was so warm, warmer than the oven. For three nights, Zhenya had wrapped himself in blankets and kept his limbs tucked politely inside, and he and Sid had barely touched. Now he was closer to Sid than he had been to another person since childhood, and he was certain Sid would be able to hear the frantic pounding of his heart.
“Go back to sleep,” Sid said, a quiet voice in the darkness.
It seemed impossible. But maybe there was some magic in his words, because Zhenya drifted easily back into sleep. For the rest of the night, he dreamed he was flying above a green forest, and the air that passed above and below his wings was warm with summer.
+ + +
He felt shy in the morning, but Sid gave no indication that anything out of the ordinary had happened. Zhenya woke to the sounds of Sid stirring the ashes of the fire and adding fresh wood, and when he climbed slowly down the ladder, after a few minutes of working himself up to it, Sid only smiled at him and said, “I broke some bread for you.”
“Thank you,” Zhenya said dumbly.
Zhenya went to the village banya for a quick bath and returned home. Sid finished his basket and started another one. He and Zhenya sat side by side at the window and worked. The chickens ventured out to peck around the floor and finally settled beneath Sid’s stool, the smaller ones crowded out by the larger ones. Two took refuge beneath Zhenya’s stool, clearly the less desirable locality.
“Are they happy?” Zhenya asked, feeling a little foolish to ask but curious to know the answer.
Sid shrugged. “They’d be happier with grass to run in and dust to roll in. But you can’t help that it’s winter.” He looked up from his basket for a moment to smile at Zhenya. “They like how you talk to them.”
“I’ve given them all names,” Zhenya admitted. They were silly names, like Little Mittens, who was brown all over except for small white patches at the tips of her wings. Chickens weren’t pets, but he was fond of his.
Sid’s smile deepened. “I know. They know you try to take good care of them, I think. Chickens don’t really understand anything that isn’t a chicken.”
“How do you know these things?” Zhenya said, piqued. “Do you know what I’ve named them? Can you read my thoughts?”
“No, it’s nothing like that.” Sid put the basket aside and gave Zhenya his full attention, which was an uncomfortable feeling, like having the priest fix his eyes on you in church. “You picked up my feather. So I know you like I might know a good friend, someone I’ve been friends with for a long time. But I can’t read your mind, and I don’t know everything that’s in your heart.”
“But most of it,” Zhenya said, with a cold, queasy twist of his stomach.
“I know a lot of it,” Sid said. Nothing in his expression spoke of disgust. He looked like someone who was very fond of Zhenya: a good friend for many years.
Zhenya hunched over his embroidery, fighting a sharp unexpected prickle of tears. Maybe it was a small thing, for Sid to know how he was and like him nonetheless. But Zhenya had to blink rapidly for a few moments before his vision cleared.
“I know you have conversations with Vaska when you’re alone,” Sid said. Zhenya could hear the smile in his voice. “And I know you put grass in your boots when you were younger, to make yourself taller—”
“All right, that’s enough,” Zhenya said, smiling at his careful stitches. “I don’t need grass anymore.”
“No, you’re taller than anyone should be,” Sid said. “Does it hurt when you bump into a cloud?”
“You should know,” Zhenya said. “What do they feel like? They look like wool.”
“No, they’re like steam,” Sid said. “Or mist. You can pass right through.”
“Oh,” Zhenya said, a little disappointed, because he liked the thought of giant, fluffy wooly tufts in the sky. He finished stitching a border along one cuff and turned the shirt to get the other sleeve. “Could you show me what you look like as a bird?” he asked, a little shyly, because he thought Sid might say no. “Your feather’s so beautiful.”
Sid took the basket into his lap once more. “I shouldn’t change in the house. It’ll scare the chickens.”
“Out of the house, then,” Zhenya said. “Can you go out? Will Koschei see you?” He spared a wistful thought for his old life of four days ago, when he had thought Koschei was a myth and not a real being to discuss in casual conversation.
“Maybe,” Sid said. He wrinkled his nose. “I’m tired of being indoors, though.”
“But what if he comes for you?” Zhenya didn’t have a gun, and he was no fighter. He would be helpless if Koschei tried to snatch Sid away.
“Oh, he can’t do that,” Sid said. “He can’t hurt me here, since you took me in. He can’t see me at all if I stay in the house, and maybe he can see me if I leave, but he can’t do anything about it. I’ll just have to stay here longer until he forgets about me.”
Zhenya liked the idea of Sid staying with him longer. “Well, that’s okay. You’re not so hard to feed, it turns out.”
Sid huffed. “Then we’ll go out this afternoon, if you don’t mind another few days of me talking to your chickens.”
“I don’t mind,” Zhenya said.
+ + +
Sid stuffed some rags in the toes of Zhenya’s old boots, so that they would fit, and then he and Zhenya went out into the winter afternoon. Sid had promised that nobody would be able to see him, which was good, because Zhenya had no explanation for the sudden appearance of a stranger, much less one who looked like Sid, too clean and shining faintly even in the daylight. Still Zhenya tensed as they passed the Morozova sisters coming down the lane. But they only nodded politely at Zhenya, and he at them, and went on their way.
“Good work hiding,” he said to Sid.
“Shouldn’t have doubted me,” Sid said, and elbowed him gently.
Knowing he could rely on Sid’s magic, Zhenya had grown lazy with setting his traps and clustered them all close together. It was an easy fifteen minutes’ work to dress his catch and reset the traps. Sid watched curiously but didn’t offer to help, which was just as well. There was an art to it, and teaching him would take too much time.
That done, Zhenya slung the pole over his shoulders and said, “Come on, I want to show you something.”
The cold air chilled his nose and reddened Sid’s. He was immortal, but he wasn’t immune to the frigid temperatures, and seeing him furtively wipe his nose on the back of Zhenya’s spare mittens made Zhenya’s heart feel soft and pliable, like bread dough. They walked until they came to the little brook, still running clear despite the weather, and then turned and went upstream. The woods were hushed, the branches of the conifers weighted down by snow, not yet sifted clean by the wind. Zhenya loved the forest in all seasons, but winter was special, the earth breathing quietly under her blanket of snow.
At last they came to the small clearing and the pool, hollowed out by some past obstruction. The center was free of ice where the stream ran through. “This is it,” Zhenya said, feeling a little foolish now that he had brought Sid here, because maybe it wasn’t much to look at.
“This place is special to you,” Sid said, his head tipped up to study Zhenya’s face.
“My brother and I used to come here to catch frogs in the summer,” Zhenya said. “Our mother wouldn’t come this far into the woods to look for us, so we could escape our chores for an afternoon.”
“It’s really nice,” Sid said. “Thanks for showing me.” He touched Zhenya’s elbow, the barest pressure through Zhenya’s coat.
Zhenya dusted snow from a stone and sat down, hugging his knees to his chest. “Will you change now? You won’t set the woods on fire, will you?”
Sid laughed. “No. It’s not that kind of fire.” He gave Zhenya a long considering look. “Are you sure you want to see? Maybe you’ll, uh. It might be strange for you.”
“You’ve spent four days talking to my chickens,” Zhenya said. “I know you’re a bird.”
Sid shook his head, grinning, and took off his coat.
“What are you doing?” Zhenya asked, as Sid untied his belt and his pants. “You can’t undress here, you’ll freeze.”
“No, I don’t feel the cold,” Sid said. “And I can’t change with clothes on.” He took off his shirt and draped it over a low branch.
“You were cold when you knocked on my door the first night,” Zhenya said skeptically, and then averted his gaze as Sid’s pants began to slide down his hips.
“Oh, well.” Sid cleared his throat. “I did that on purpose. So you would feel sorry for me and let me come in.”
“You tricked me!” Zhenya said, oddly delighted by this revelation, and then had to look away again, because Sid was bending over to pull off his boots.
“I gently nudged you,” Sid said. “All right. You’re sure you want to see?”
“Yes,” Zhenya said, and braced himself for the sight of Sid standing naked in the snow, pink where he wasn’t white, sleek and glowing. Zhenya had seen handsomer men, but Sid had some quality that marked him as inhuman. He wasn’t from the world Zhenya knew, a small and narrow world of dirt and grief.
Sid rippled like the unfrozen surface of the pool. He gave a soft cry and flew up to a branch and perched there, wings spread and tailfeathers trailing. He was twice the size of a pheasant and made of fire, warm and shifting, golden and orange. Zhenya had never expected to see something so beautiful in this life.
Zhenya rose to his feet and cautiously approached, pulling off his mittens. The longest trailing feathers hung low enough for him to touch, and he reached for them, ready to pull back if Sid gave some indication or if he felt any heat. The feathers were warm, but not hot: the same comforting warmth as his oven. They felt like any bird’s feathers, stiff but delicate.
“You’re beautiful,” Zhenya said, and flushed to hear the awe in his own voice.
Sid cocked his head, his burning eyes peering down at Zhenya. He opened his beak and sang a few notes, a sweet unearthly music that filled Zhenya with brutal joy. He would never go farther than the market town, but he had seen a firebird.
Zhenya tugged gently at one of Sid’s tailfeathers, and Sid ducked his head down and sang a few more lovely notes. “We should go,” Zhenya said—reluctantly, because he wasn’t certain he had committed Sid’s bird form to memory. “It’s going to get dark soon.”
Sid fluttered down from the tree and was a man again by the time his feet touched the ground, a seamless transformation that Zhenya’s eyes couldn’t follow. One moment he was a bird, and in the next he was smiling at Zhenya and pulling on his shirt, and saying, “See, I didn’t set anything on fire.”
“No,” Zhenya said. He whistled the notes of Sid’s song and watched Sid’s eyes crinkle. “Would you rather be a man or a bird?”
“A bird,” Sid said without hesitation. “But then I can’t talk to you.”
“You could sing to me,” Zhenya said. “I would understand you.”
“Teach me a song you know,” Sid said, and that kept them busy all the way back to the village.
+ + +
When he climbed into bed that night, Zhenya left the blankets untucked and turned down, and waited in hopeful agony for Sid to join him. He heard Sid clicking his tongue at the chickens and saying something quietly to Vaska, and finally the light dimmed as Sid covered his feather for the night. Zhenya’s heart raced as Sid mounted the ladder. He couldn’t ask for what he wanted, but he hoped Sid would know.
Sid’s head appeared above the edge of the stove. He stopped there. His gaze met Zhenya’s, and then dropped to the carefully arranged blankets, the space Zhenya had left for him. “You must be cold,” he said.
“Yes, very cold,” Zhenya said, although he was warm and probably visibly flushed.
Sid climbed fully into the bed and slid beneath the blankets. “Turn,” he said quietly, touching Zhenya’s shoulder, and Zhenya rolled onto his side, heart in his mouth. He tried not to breathe too deeply or too shallowly, or do anything else that would make Sid reconsider. But he couldn’t stop his shaky exhale as Sid curled behind him.
“You need a big dog to sleep with you and keep you warm,” Sid said. His arm tightened around Zhenya’s waist.
“A dog would frighten Vaska,” Zhenya said. He shifted to press himself closer against Sid.
“That’s true,” Sid said. Zhenya felt him smile, his mouth against the back of Zhenya’s neck, almost like a kiss. “Will you teach me another song?”
Earlier, Zhenya had taught him part of a song about Ilya Muromets, who killed Nightingale the Robber in the forest. Now he sang a song his mother used to sing to him before sleep. He didn’t have a beautiful voice, like Sid’s birdsong, but he could carry a tune, and Sid listened without complaining. “Why do you stand swaying, o slender birch tree, with your head bent?” Zhenya sang. “Across the road, across a wide river, stands a lonely oak tree.”
The second time he sang it, Sid’s voice joined his own. “I wouldn’t bend and sway then as I do now, with my slender branches, I would lean against him.”
“I would whisper day and night,” Zhenya finished.
“Day and night,” Sid said. His mouth pressed to Zhenya’s nape, and this time it was a kiss. “Sleep, Zhenya.”
Zhenya slept the whole night through, and if he dreamed, they were only peaceful dreams that he forgot upon waking.
+ + +
The next day was Saturday. Zhenya finished embroidering a shirt and went to check his traps, as always. He hauled in a load of firewood and stuffed his mattress with fresh straw. Sid fed the chickens and made shchi and two loaves of bread. Zhenya wondered when a firebird had learned to cook, but Sid seemed to know many things. He had been alive for a long time.
After dinner, Zhenya set a pot of water in the oven to heat. The village had a small tavern, and every Saturday evening Zhenya went there to drink a little and play cards. He would visit the banya tomorrow, but he wanted a quick wipe-down before he left the house, because he probably smelled like chickens and entrails.
“I’m going out for a few hours, to see some friends,” he told Sid as he undressed. “I’ll be home before too late.”
“Vaska will keep me company,” Sid said. He was sitting on the oven bench, close enough to make Zhenya self-conscious as he stepped out of his pants, but the pot was too heavy and hot to move away.
“You could come with me, but watching people play cards probably isn’t too interesting.” Zhenya dipped a rag in the hot water and scrubbed his face and neck, keeping his eyes down so he could pretend he didn’t see Sid’s head turned, watching him.
“No, I’ll stay here,” Sid said. “I’m glad you’re going. You’ll have fun.”
“Yes,” Zhenya said. It was his turn to say something, to keep the conversation going, but he couldn’t think of anything to say with the weight of Sid’s attention bearing down on him. He wiped his arms and chest and wondered why he had thought this was a good idea. If he smelled bad, Kolya could suffer through it.
He dipped the rag again and wrung it out, and risked a glance at Sid, who was watching him openly, stroking Vaska’s back and looking at Zhenya’s naked body, without making any effort to hide what he was doing.
Zhenya’s cheeks burned, and the back of his neck. “What are you doing?”
“I’m looking at you,” Sid said. “You’re finely made.”
Zhenya thought his body might go up in flame. He dunked the rag again, to give his hands something to do, and dithered for a moment before he began washing between his legs.
“Should I not look?” Sid said quietly.
He shouldn’t, but Zhenya knew what he was really asking, which was whether Zhenya wanted him to.
Zhenya kept his eyes fixed on the floor. “You can look.”
He heard Sid breathe out. “Okay. I wasn’t sure.”
Zhenya glanced at him again, turning his head just far enough to catch sight of Sid’s face. “I thought you knew me.”
Sid ran a hand over his head, and Zhenya realized with a new flush of heat that Sid was nervous or flustered, the first time Zhenya had seen him wrong-footed. “Well, in theory, but I didn’t know how you’d feel specifically about me.”
Zhenya felt only good things: warm and frightening and exciting things. He rotated his body more toward Sid as he finished washing, giving Sid permission to look, saying without words that he liked it. Sid watched him with dark eyes and Zhenya thought his heart might burst from his body. No one had ever made him feel the way Sid did.
He took his time dressing, and Sid’s gaze lingered on him the whole while. He didn’t want to leave—not now, not with Sid’s eyes full of fire—but someone would come looking for him if he didn’t show up. He never missed a Saturday unless he was ill.
He tied his pants and put on his coat and boots. He couldn’t delay any further. “Well, I’ll be back.”
“Enjoy,” Sid said, and Zhenya went out into the darkness and was grateful for the cold air as it cooled his overheated cheeks.
He lost three hands of cards in a row and didn’t even care. “Are you feeling well?” Kolya asked, peering at him from across the table.
“Never better,” Zhenya said, and meant it.
He drank enough vodka that his steps were light as he walked home, and he didn’t feel the chill at all. His house was still bright inside: Sid was still awake. Zhenya took off his boots in the anteroom, and when he went through the door into the main house, Sid was right where Zhenya had left him, eating some bread and feeding crumbs to the chickens.
“Dinner wasn’t enough for you?” Zhenya asked, shedding his coat, feeling his face stretched wide with a smile.
“I got hungry,” Sid said, a little sheepish.
“Oh, in that case,” Zhenya said. He came to flop down on the bench beside Sid, and—greatly daring—pressed his face into Sid’s shoulder. “You’ll make my chickens fat.”
Sid laughed softly. He shifted to wrap his arm around Zhenya’s shoulders, to Zhenya’s intense and terrifying delight. “Did you have fun?”
“I lost a lot,” Zhenya said, “but it was fun.” Kolya’s wife was pregnant for the second time, and it was sweet to see his excitement and happiness, even more this time than the first, because this time he wasn’t so nervous.
“You smell like vodka,” Sid said, his voice warm with amusement.
“I drank a little,” Zhenya confessed.
“I’m glad you enjoyed yourself,” Sid said. There was a gentle pressure against the top of Zhenya’s head that could have been a kiss.
They sat in silence for long enough that Zhenya began to drowse. Sid had stoked the fire, and the house was warm and cozy, the chickens asleep beneath the bench and Vaska on top of it, curled on his blanket. Outside, the world was huge and unknown, but inside they were safe. No one could find them.
“We should sleep,” Sid said after some time. “It’s late.”
Zhenya swallowed. He had thought, with the way Sid looked at him earlier—
“Just to sleep,” Sid said. His hand squeezed Zhenya’s shoulder. “You’re almost asleep already.”
Zhenya permitted himself to be nudged up the ladder. His blankets were warm and his mattress was a little prickly from the fresh hay. He opened his arms to Sid, drunk enough to be bold, and Sid lay down with him and studied his face and combed his hair back from his forehead, where it had been matted down by his hat.
The house was dark, but Sid shone. “Where do you live?” Zhenya asked. “Do you live in a house?”
Sid smiled at him. “You’re barely awake.”
“Tell me,” Zhenya said. Their legs were tangled together. He tucked his toes between Sid’s calves to warm them. “A story until I fall asleep.”
“I have a house on top of a mountain,” Sid said. He leaned in and pressed a lingering kiss to Zhenya’s cheek, and Zhenya’s breath caught and held. “And another one in the forest, beside a big lake.” He kissed Zhenya again, in the same place.
If Zhenya turned his head, their mouths would touch. He thought Sid was probably inviting him, but he had used up all of his boldness for one day.
“Which one do you like better?” Zhenya asked.
“The one by the lake,” Sid said. He gathered Zhenya close, tucking Zhenya’s head beneath his chin. “It has a big glass window in front, and the deer come down to the water in the evening to drink.”
“That sounds nice,” Zhenya said. He couldn’t keep his eyes open.
“In the winter, I can skate on the lake,” Sid said. “There’s a vodyanoy who lives in the water. Sometimes I’ll see him swimming beneath the ice…”
“That’s nice,” Zhenya murmured, and heard nothing else before he fell asleep.
+ + +
Zhenya’s village was too small to have a church or a priest. People worshipped at home, or not, as they chose, except for holidays and festivals, when they would all gather to carry out the rites. Zhenya had his red corner and kept the icons clean, and he fed the house spirit as he should, but those were the things everyone did. He was lax in his observance. But he was happy to hold Sunday as a day of rest, to lie snug in bed until the sun was well up and the demands of his stomach drove him to rise, and to go to the banya and steam himself until he felt boiled like a crayfish.
But Sid stirred at first light and sat up, ready to go about his day. Zhenya groaned and caught his elbow. “Stay here, let’s not get up yet.”
Sid frowned down at him. “But we need to put wood in the oven, and feed the chickens—”
“The chickens are fine,” Zhenya said. “Lie down. It’s Sunday.”
“What does that mean?” Sid asked, blinking.
“Oh,” Zhenya said. “Well, it’s—a day to rest, to prepare for the new week. It’s okay to sleep a little longer.”
“But I’m hungry,” Sid said. “I’ll make blini,” which was cheating, because Zhenya loved blini, and Sid probably knew.
“You’re in such a hurry to get up. You should stay here and keep me warm,” Zhenya said tartly, and then flushed a little, because he hadn’t meant to imply—but maybe he had. When was it going to happen? Soon, surely. He didn’t know quite what would be involved, but he thought Sid would know, and would show him.
He watched as Sid’s expression softened. He moved his hand to touch Zhenya’s cheek, right where he had kissed him the night before. “Are you cold? Do you want a story?”
“No,” Zhenya said, and took a breath, and said, “I want you to lie down with me.”
Sid’s hand moved to touch Zhenya’s mouth. Zhenya could feel his heartbeat all through his body, a great roaring pulse like the river when it flooded. Sid made a noise like he was going to say something, but instead he lay down and nuzzled himself into the warm space beside Zhenya’s body, his nose tucked up behind Zhenya’s ear. Sid’s hand slid onto his chest, over his heart.
“Are you nervous?” Sid asked, his words warm against Zhenya’s skin.
Of course he was nervous. He didn’t know what was going to happen, and he was full of nebulous longings for things he knew he shouldn’t want. He turned his head aside and closed his eyes as he felt Sid press a kiss to the soft hollow behind his ear.
Sid drew back and Zhenya heard him shifting around, maybe sitting up. “We can eat breakfast. I’ll tell you a story.”
Mutely, without opening his eyes, Zhenya shook his head.
“No one’s ever touched you,” Sid said: said, not asked, because he knew the answer.
Zhenya shook his head again. His breath came fast and shallow. He wanted Sid to do it, whatever it was, and then he would know, and he wouldn’t have to wonder.
He opened his eyes. Sid was propped up on one elbow, watching him, wearing a small warm smile that made Zhenya’s stomach flip over.
“I am nervous,” Zhenya said, and Sid’s smile deepened. “Will you kiss me? Like you did last night?”
Sid leaned in. He pressed his mouth to Zhenya’s cheek, his lips soft and dry, and lingered there. Sid had said he only knew of two worlds, but they had entered a third now, a safe warm world no larger than the top of Zhenya’s oven. In this world, Zhenya could be who he really was, he could have what he really wanted, and he turned his head and touched his mouth to Sid’s.
“Oh, Zhenya,” Sid whispered. His hand cradled Zhenya’s face. He tilted his head so their noses weren’t bumping and kissed Zhenya again.
Zhenya tried to keep his mouth closed, conscious of his sour breath after sleep. But Sid wouldn’t have it, and either didn’t notice or didn’t mind. Sid’s own mouth tasted as fresh and crisp as an apple. Inhuman, immortal, and beloved. The soft pressure of his tongue made Zhenya’s toes curl. Zhenya slid one hand into Sid’s thick dark hair so that he wouldn’t pull away or leave. He would stay there with Zhenya forever.
Their kisses stirred a warmth in Zhenya’s belly that he couldn’t fight. He knew the pleasure of his own body and how to touch himself to bring it to a peak, but having those same feelings with Sid was a revelation. Sid’s warm body against his, Sid kissing him so thoroughly.
Zhenya’s mouth was wet and tender when Sid finally pulled away and sat up. He straddled Zhenya’s waist and sat on his hips, unselfconscious as always in his nudity, even with the signs of his arousal so evident, his cock thicker and longer than usual where it hung between his thighs.
Sid ran his thumb over Zhenya’s bottom lip. “You’re so new,” he said fondly.
Zhenya stared up at the rafters so he wouldn’t have to see Sid’s face. “I know I must seem like a child to you—”
“No,” Sid said. He took Zhenya’s hands and placed them on his thighs. “Zhenya, no. I don’t think that. You’re a grown man. It’s just that your life has kept so many things from you. But maybe I can show you some of them.”
Zhenya looked at him again. There was no mockery in Sid’s expression, only warmth and light.
“I’d like to show you,” Sid said, as horribly sincere as he always was. “If you’ll let me.”
Sid’s thighs were so warm and pale and firm beneath Zhenya’s hands. Sid shifted on top of him, rubbing himself against Zhenya’s cock. Zhenya was sweating and short of breath, and he didn’t know where to begin. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Just touch me,” Sid said. He moved Zhenya’s hands to his hips. “Anywhere you like. I want you to.”
Zhenya wanted to touch every part of him, his clean soft skin, his pink cock that hardened as Zhenya uncertainly stroked his hips. He didn’t belong in Zhenya’s world, but he was here for now, and Zhenya could enjoy him.
He reached up to skim his hands over Sid’s shoulders and trail his fingers down Sid’s arms. Sid’s hands were open, upturned on his own thighs, and Zhenya stroked his palms and then his fingers, slender and short compared to his broad square palms.
“That feels nice,” Sid said, and Zhenya, encouraged, traced the lines on his palms, the blue veins in his wrists.
“You were beautiful as a bird,” Zhenya said, “but I think you’re even more beautiful like this.”
“Listen to that golden tongue,” Sid said, smiling at him.
It was only the truth, but Zhenya wouldn’t argue with him. He returned his hands to Sid’s shoulders and skimmed them down over Sid’s chest. He pressed his thumbs to Sid’s soft pink nipples, watching them indent, and Sid made a sweet noise and shifted again.
“Oh,” Zhenya said. “That?” He used his nails, and Sid made the same noise but louder. Zhenya wondered what noise Sid would make if he used his mouth, but asking for that was beyond him. Maybe next time, if they did it again.
He stroked Sid’s pale soft belly and the insides of his thighs, looking mostly at Sid’s cock, hard and flushed in its dark nest of hair. He longed to touch it, especially when a clear drop of fluid welled at the tip, proof of Sid’s enjoyment.
“You can,” Sid said quietly, probably watching the direction of Zhenya’s gaze. Zhenya darted a glance up at his face, and Sid smiled at him and parted his thighs a little further, inviting Zhenya’s touch.
Zhenya’s mouth hung open as he wrapped his fingers around Sid’s cock and gently squeezed. He dragged his hand up the shaft to rub his thumb over the head, smearing that little bit of wetness around and watching more replace it. Sid hardened more as Zhenya touched him, until he was rigid in Zhenya’s grasp, and Zhenya felt a thrill run through him when he glanced up again and Sid was staring down at Zhenya’s hand on him and chewing on his lip.
He touched Sid the way he liked to touch himself, until Sid closed his fingers around Zhenya’s and said, “A little looser.” That was easy enough to do, working the foreskin over the head, watching Sid’s thighs flex with each downstroke, pushing himself into Zhenya’s hand.
“That’s great,” Sid told him. “That feels really good,” and Zhenya could see that it did, from the way Sid was flushing and reaching down to cup his own balls. Zhenya wanted to see him reach his peak, and he moved his hand faster, squeezing at the top the way he liked, and drinking in Sid’s soft noises and his increasingly slack expression, like he was entirely focused on the way Zhenya was making him feel.
“Sid,” Zhenya whispered, “my firebird,” and Sid smiled at him and put his hand over Zhenya’s again, to urge him faster.
Zhenya had no experience, but he only needed common sense to tell him that Sid was getting close. Sid groaned a single time, and then a minute later he said, “Ah, shit,” and abruptly lifted up to shove Zhenya’s shirt out of the way, baring his stomach. “Zhenya—”
“Please,” Zhenya said, wanting so badly to feel it, to see Sid take his pleasure.
Sid curled over him, one hand braced on Zhenya’s shoulder. He shoved his hips into Zhenya’s hand, a few rough and graceless thrusts. Then he went totally still, and after a moment began to spill over Zhenya’s belly as he groaned and shuddered.
His spend was warm on Zhenya’s skin. Zhenya could feel his own cock leaking in his pants, desperately aroused by watching Sid and touching him. He slowed his hand but didn’t stop until Sid reached down to still him.
“How was that?” Zhenya asked. He didn’t have any real qualms about his performance, but he wanted to hear Sid tell him.
“You did great,” Sid said. He smiled at Zhenya and smeared his hand through the mess on Zhenya’s stomach, rubbing it into the skin until it was all gone. Then he bent over and kissed Zhenya, a slow and deep kiss that made Zhenya squirm. He wanted whatever came next.
Sid kissed his jaw. “Can I touch you?”
“Anywhere,” Zhenya said, which was a bold offer, but he trusted Sid.
Sid kissed him again and then shifted down in the bedding, hunching up on his knees as he ran out of room toward the edge of the oven. He pushed Zhenya’s shirt a little higher and cupped his hand over the bulge of Zhenya’s cock, straining in his pants and leaking a wet patch onto the fabric. Sid glanced up and caught Zhenya’s gaze as he untied the knot holding Zhenya’s pants closed, and Zhenya felt his toes curl again at the heat and humor in Sid’s eyes.
“I think you’ll like this,” Sid said. He pushed Zhenya’s pants down in the front, just far enough to bare Zhenya’s cock. Then he grinned.
“What,” Zhenya said, prepared to defend himself.
“It’s nice, that’s all,” Sid said. He bent and pressed his face to Zhenya’s groin, nosing at his cock and breathing in, and that felt good, but Zhenya had been hoping for his hand. But then Sid shifted slightly and did take Zhenya in his hand, and then parted his lips to take Zhenya into the soft heat of his mouth.
Zhenya gripped the blankets so hard his knuckles ached. He knew of this act; he’d heard the banya talk. But for Sid to do it, to want it, to do it for Zhenya, his dark eyes lifting now to check Zhenya’s reaction—
Zhenya reached down to touch his cheek. “Oh, Sid,” he said.
Sid’s eyes creased in a smile. He opened his mouth wider and sank down, and Zhenya had to look away, overcome.
Sid took him apart, very softly and slowly, his free hand sliding up Zhenya’s belly to rest over his heart. His mouth was so wet and so warm, and he made little noises like he was enjoying himself, which was almost more than Zhenya could bear. He tried to lie as still and quiet as he could and let Sid do what he wanted, feeling himself spool apart with shivery pleasure until suddenly it became tight and urgent.
“I’m going to,” he said, but Sid didn’t move or pull away, and Zhenya spilled into his mouth with a moan.
When he finally worked up the motivation to open his eyes, Sid was sitting up and smiling at him, wiping delicately at his mouth. The firebird was said to be dangerous, and now Zhenya knew why. That mouth could have killed him.
“Sid, lie down with me,” Zhenya said, reaching for him.
“I already did,” Sid said. “Aren’t you hungry?” But he did lie down with Zhenya, and kissed him and stroked his hair, and let Zhenya hold him without complaint for a few minutes more.
+ + +
Zhenya ate so many blini that his belly hurt and then rolled himself off to the banya, whistling all the way. He kept thinking of the way Sid had looked at him, when they were done and lying together in the blankets, touching Zhenya’s face and gazing into his eyes, older than the forest but somehow awed and tender with Zhenya and his mortal body. The greatest gift of Zhenya’s life.
The banya was occupied, as it often was on a Sunday morning. Zhenya politely greeted the old men, and less politely greeted the men his own age, who he had grown up with; and barely acknowledged the boys. The furnace was already going, and Zhenya began to sweat almost as soon as he stepped through the door.
He took his seat on the top bench, where it was hottest. Conversation turned, as it usually did, to who had gotten married, or would be getting married soon, or shouldn’t have married, or was being expertly cuckolded by his wife. Zhenya had no interest in the whole business and tried to stay out of it and hope no one’s attention would turn to him.
He wasn’t so lucky this time. “Tall Zhenya, when will you get married?” Red Vanya asked. He had no hair now, but in his youth had sported a full orange mane; hence the nickname.
Zhenya stifled a groan. Any reaction would only add wood to the fire. “When my home is ready,” he said, which avoided the truth, that he thought women were nice to talk to and pleasant to look at, but none of them had ever stirred in him half of what Sid could with a single glance.
“Ah, well,” Red Vanya said. He looked a little abashed. The loss of Zhenya’s family was still fresh, as far as village events went. “That’s right. Well, you’ll build a barn this summer, and then you can marry.”
“If someone will have me,” Zhenya said, and lifted his birch whisk again to prevent any further commentary.
He would never marry. He was certain of it now. He would be the strange old man living alone at the edge of the village, dispensing sweets to children and talking to his cat. It would be a lonely life, but he couldn’t settle now for anything less than Sid.
His spirits lifted as he walked back to his house. Sid was here now. Zhenya had years ahead of him for loneliness and regret. He would take joy in Sid while he could.
Sid was kneading bread dough when Zhenya returned. Zhenya shyly sidled up to him and bumped his shoulder against Sid’s, wanting to kiss him but not certain he should. But Sid tilted back his head and raised his eyebrows, a clear challenge, and Zhenya bent to kiss the sweet curve of Sid’s smile.
“You’re back,” Sid said, and Zhenya kissed him again, because he wanted to, and Sid leaned into him and turned it into a third kiss, and then a fourth.
“I missed you,” Zhenya said, although he hadn’t been gone for very long.
Sid kept his chin raised, and Zhenya kissed him again, and then finally stepped back, because this could go on all day. Vaska hopped up onto the bench to chirp at him, and Zhenya petted Vaska’s small head, flattening Vaska’s ears with every pass of his hand.
“Are you going out today?” Sid asked. “To the forest.”
“After I eat,” Zhenya said.
“Can I go with you?” Sid asked. “I don’t think Koschei saw me yesterday. I haven’t felt him searching.”
“I’d be glad for the company,” Zhenya said, and Sid ducked his head and smiled so that Zhenya had to kiss him again.
It was a sunny day, bright and cold. They checked Zhenya’s traps and then walked around aimlessly for a while, Sid drawing out stories about Zhenya’s childhood. It was hard for Zhenya to talk about those memories, but good, too. Like his family wasn’t completely gone from the world.
When the sun sank low in the sky, they went home to the warm small house. For dinner they ate bread, and shchi made with quail meat. After the meal was done, Zhenya said, “Maybe we should sleep now.”
Sid glanced up from his seat on the floor, where he was communing with the chickens. “Now? It’s still early.”
“Well, I’m tired,” Zhenya said, pretending to be very focused on cleaning his boots. “Maybe we could get in bed.” He wanted to lie with Sid again, but he didn’t know how to initiate it. Once they were in bed together, he thought it would happen naturally.
Sid shuffled closer on his knees and put both hands on Zhenya’s thighs, and waited until Zhenya looked at him. “You can ask, you know. If you’d like to lie together.”
Zhenya turned his head aside, embarrassed. “I didn’t know—”
“Zhenya,” Sid said. “Kiss me,” and Zhenya did, and then he said, “Can we? Again?”
“I’ve been waiting all day,” Sid said.
They went to bed. This time Sid brought some tallow with him in a shallow dish, and warmed it in his hands and stroked it on his own cock and Zhenya’s. He lay in Zhenya’s arms and worked their hips together, rubbing against each other, until they were moving in perfect sync, and Zhenya gripped Sid’s back and made so much noise that Sid laughed at him, gently, his face tucked against Zhenya’s neck.
Sid cleaned them both with a rag when they were done and dropped it over the edge of the oven. “You’re making a mess in my house,” Zhenya said.
“The chickens can eat it,” Sid said. He lay down with his head on Zhenya’s shoulder and slid his hand down Zhenya’s side to his hip. “What would you like to dream about tonight?”
“You,” Zhenya said, and lifted his head to see Sid’s smile.
+ + +
Sid stayed with him for another week: a perfectly ordinary week in every way, aside from Sid’s presence. They worked together and ate together and roamed in the woods, and touched each other every night in bed, if they weren’t too tired, or in the morning, if they were, or sometimes both. Zhenya learned everything there was to know about being with a man, or at least everything that Sid knew and could teach him.
Something that had been hard and dry and closed in him had opened now into full blossom. He lived a whole lifetime’s love in that week, stuffing it into himself, greedy for every touch and every kiss, every look Sid gave him from across the room. He had never thought he would get to feel this way, even for this fleeting time.
He knew Sid would leave. Sid had told him, back at the beginning, that he would only stay for a few days. Zhenya waited every day for Sid to announce his departure, but Sid said nothing about it. The next Sunday, after he came home from the banya, the pain of anticipation finally overcame the risk of knowing, and Zhenya said, “Is Koschei looking for you still?”
“Well,” Sid said. He bent over the basket he was weaving. “I haven’t felt him searching for me in a few days now.”
“So you can go home,” Zhenya said. His insides turned to ash. Stupid: he had known it was coming.
“I don’t want to leave.” Sid glanced sideways at Zhenya. “But you know I can’t stay. It’s hard for me to keep this shape for too long. It isn’t good for me to stay in this world.”
“I know,” Zhenya said. He had known all along. He swallowed, and forced himself to ask. “Can you ever come back?”
Sid sat up and gave Zhenya a startled look. “Of course I can. Have you been worrying about that all this time?”
Zhenya shrugged, because he had been, but now he felt foolish admitting it.
Sid put aside his basket and joined Zhenya on the bench. He took Zhenya’s hand and kissed his knuckles. “I’m sorry. I thought you knew. I don’t know how soon I can come back. My friends will be mad at me for leaving them for so long. And I have business to take care of at home. But I’ll come back to you.”
It was an easy promise for Sid to make, and an easy promise to forget once Sid was back in his own world, doing whatever mysterious firebird things he occupied himself with. He would forget all about Zhenya, distracted by his lake house and his lunches with Baba Yaga. Maybe he meant it now, but time would pass, and other things would demand Sid’s attention. Zhenya would be left alone, his hopes slowly withering, until they died at last.
What would happen? He had no way of knowing. He turned his hand to entwine his fingers with Sid’s. Sid had never lied to him or tried to mislead him. He thought that Sid cared for him—he hoped that he did. Zhenya wanted to live in hope instead of cynicism, and to believe that Sid would return.
“You’ll have to learn some new songs while I’m away,” Sid said. “So you can teach them to me.” He brought their joined hands to his mouth and kissed the base of Zhenya’s thumb. “You know I love to sing.”
“I’ll teach you one now,” Zhenya said. He didn’t let go of Sid’s hand.
He taught Sid the song about the meadow duck, and they worked as they always did, talking at times and then lapsing into the silence of their own thoughts. As the day passed, Zhenya saw how Sid gazed more and more through the open window, not working but simply looking out at the path that became a deer trail into the woods, and he thought that Sid had already stayed too long with him, and would be leaving very soon.
“Sid,” he said, and Sid turned to look at him, his expression distant, somehow already gone. “When do you leave?”
“Tomorrow, I think,” Sid said. “I think I can wait that long.”
“Then let’s go to bed now,” Zhenya said, already feeling how Sid’s absence would hurt him, the tenderness inside his ribs like a bruise. “Since it’s our last chance.”
“Oh, Zhenya,” Sid said. “We’ll have more chances.” But he set his basket aside and followed Zhenya up the ladder, and touched him like maybe it was the last time.
+ + +
Zhenya woke that night from a dream, not a sudden startled awakening but a slow drifting back into consciousness. Sid was at his side, warm and still. Zhenya turned toward him and saw Sid’s eyes open, watching him.
“Did I wake you?” Zhenya asked quietly, leaning in to kiss the corner of Sid’s mouth.
“I think so,” Sid said. “You were saying something. I couldn’t understand.”
“I dreamed of a different life,” Zhenya said. “And you were with me.” He hadn’t understood anything in the dream, but with Sid there, he had felt safe and happy.
Sid was quiet for a few moments, glowing there in the dark. Then he said, “After you die, I can take you to the other world with me.”
Zhenya’s next breath ached as he drew it into his lungs. “How long will that be?”
“I don’t know,” Sid said. He drew the blanket up over both of them. “I can’t see the future. I know you’ll die because all humans die, but I don’t know when.” He smiled. “I hope you’ll live a long life, and learn lots of songs.”
“I will,” Zhenya said. “I’ll learn every song. And teach them all to you.”
Sid drew Zhenya close. In their warm bed, in the darkness, they held each other. Zhenya felt overripe with love, like he would burst with it, straight down the middle.
“You’re going to leave me,” he whispered.
“Always,” Sid said. “But I’ll come back, too.”
+ + +
In the morning, Sid took his feather from its usual place beneath the bowl and placed it in Zhenya’s hand. “This will shine every day that I think of you. So you can let it light your home and know I’ll be back.”
The feather had lost none of its beauty and wonder. It shimmered like flame as Zhenya set it in a cup, to glow all day and for every day thereafter. Until Sid forgot about him or returned.
He worked quietly as Sid sat on the floor to say goodbye to the chickens, and as he stood by the window with Vaska in his arms, holding Vaska tucked beneath his chin. Zhenya tried not to watch, because it hurt him too much, in the soft pit of his heart. When Vaska finally squirmed away and jumped down, Sid said, “All right, now it’s your turn.”
He let Zhenya hold him as long as he wanted. Zhenya’s eyes stayed dry, although his throat was tight like he was being choked. He forced himself to step away at last and gave Sid a single, lingering kiss, his hands cupping Sid’s sweet face. He hoped to dream of Sid every night and see him smile just like that, like Zhenya was his favorite person in two worlds.
“Don’t let Koschei catch you,” Zhenya said, which was all he thought he could manage without weeping.
Sid laughed. “I won’t. I’m very sneaky.” He pulled off his shirt and folded it into a neat square. “Don’t look so sad, Zhenya. We aren’t saying goodbye.”
It felt like goodbye to Zhenya: both Sid’s actions and the somber weight on his own heart. But he didn’t argue as Sid removed his pants and went naked into the anteroom. Zhenya followed him, and then out into the yard, where the cleared area between the door and the woodpile was covered in a layer of fresh powdery snow.
Sid stood naked in the pale winter light. Between one breath and the next, he became a bird, and in the next breath after that, he had lifted up into the sky, his wings beating powerfully, up into the air and out of sight.
Zhenya watched until he couldn’t pretend any faint glimmer was more than the sun piercing through a cloud. Also, he hadn’t put on his coat, and he was freezing.
He went back inside. His embroidery was right where he had left it, on the stool by the window. He put the cup with Sid’s feather in it on the other stool, where Sid always sat. Vaska hopped up to sniff at it, and sneezed. The light hadn’t faded yet, and maybe, like Sid had promised, it wouldn’t, and Sid would come back to him. But maybe it would, and Zhenya would be alone.
He had been alone before Sid came. Nothing about his circumstances had changed. The thought of returning to his quiet house every evening shouldn’t be cause for despair. But his heart was wholly new, given to Sid without hesitation and reshaped by Sid’s every careful touch. He knew what it was like, now, to have someone in his bed and home. He couldn’t un-know. He had left that world for good.
Zhenya took up the shirt he was working on. The pattern on the chest was almost finished. He pushed the needle through and began again.
The feather shone with a steady light, like the summer sun.
“How can I, birch tree, clamber over to the oak tree?” he sang. “I wouldn’t bend and sway then as I do now…”
+ + +
The winter passed. Sid’s feather glowed without wavering, every day and every night. Zhenya checked it each morning, lifting the bowl with an anxious mind, half-certain the light would have gone out overnight. But every morning it shone as bright as ever.
Sid had promised he would come back. Zhenya’s hopes did fade a little as the weeks went by and there was no sign of Sid’s return. But the feather never went out. It lit Zhenya’s home and his heart, and kept him warm through the bitterest days of winter.
He worked and went to the forest and played cards, and went into the market town for a wedding and to sell some of his embroidery, and helped old Petya deliver an early goat, a tiny bleating thing that somehow lived. He asked Petya to teach him a few songs. He thought of Sid, and wondered what Sid was doing.
Spring arrived. There was a heavy rain one night, the first rain of the season, that melted some of the snowpack. In the morning, Zhenya let the chickens out into the muddy yard, and smiled to see them run and peck, stretching their wings after being cooped up inside all winter. The earth was changing. Summer would come soon. Maybe Zhenya would build a barn and buy some goats.
That evening, after dinner, while he was cleaning his boots, he heard a knock on the door. Maybe it was Kolya, or Petya, with another goat crisis.
“Who’s there?” he called, as he unlatched the door and crouched to catch Vaska beneath his arm so he wouldn’t go out into the mud. He pushed open the door with his foot.
There was Sid, naked, muddy halfway up his shins, and smiling.
Zhenya couldn’t speak. Vaska made a welcoming chirp and began paddling beneath Zhenya’s arm, and Sid stepped forward and took him from Zhenya, holding Vaska cradled against his chest. Vaska craned up to sniff his chin and began purring.
“Spring’s here,” Sid said. “I saw a wood anemone growing by your shed.”
“Yes,” Zhenya managed.
“Well,” Sid said. He gently bounced Vaska in his arms, still smiling. “Can I come in?”
Zhenya finally recovered his senses and stepped forward to take Sid into his arms. They stood beneath the lintel, holding each other, until Vaska protested the closeness and squirmed between them to be let down.
“Come in,” Zhenya said then, feeling joy flower in him like Sid’s anemone. “You’re just in time for dinner.”