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Accounting for the Keys

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Spring followed winter, and summer followed spring. Panova Mandelstam taught me to sew. Her stitches were as small as seeds. Mine were like acorns. In autumn the squirrels grew fat on real acorns. When the snow fell, Miryem came to visit her parents. All the while, we were growing and planting and feeding the goats. That made a year.

In the summer of the second year, Panov Mandelstam gave me a book with a red leather cover. Miryem taught me to shape letters with a twig scratching in the dirt. She told me letters are like tracks the rain cannot wash away. Later I practiced letters with fat chalk on a slate. My words were too big for the beautiful book. I told Panov Mandelstam so. He looked at me very hard. I know Miryem thinks her father is soft like a dumpling but that is not always true.

Panova Mandelstam told me to put beautiful words in the book. She said I should let my heart lead and my hand follow.

I thought that was a big job. It was so big that if I tried to see the end of it, I would never begin. I decided to start with a simple kind of magic, a kind I understood. I counted the years.

At first it was easy. I knew that the first year Miryem married the Staryk. In the second year, Miryem's belly curved and she walked with her toes turned out like an angry goose. In the third year, the white-and-brown spotted goat had twins and Miryem brought a tiny child with fingers pale as feathers. We called the baby Pitsele because she was so small.

But after that, the years began to run together. The big rains were the spring of the fourth year, and in the fifth year, Sergey helped the widow Sopianka plant her fields. But I only know this count because I wrote it in my book.

In the sixth year, Sergey and the widow Sopianka were married. I offered to build another room for the forest house. But Sergey said, "No, Stepon is growing big and strong and Panov Mandelstam is still hale. I will go to be the papa in my own house."

Sergey stared into the hearth when he spoke of being a papa. It was scary to him. The widow Sopianka did not see it. Her first husband was taken by a shaking fit, the year that winter almost stayed forever. She thought Sergey could not be frightened of anything.

Sergey and Stepon and me, we knew all about being frightened. But we also knew, if we kept working, things would change. The leaves would sprout, and grow dark, and fall again. The snow would come.

When there is wood for the hearth, and the first true snow covers the roof and stacks along the walls, so everything is muffled in a scarf made of fallen sky, that is the most beautiful thing of all.

In the seventh and eighth and ninth years, Stepon became a papa, three times over. He was as good at it as Panov Mandelstam, though I did not tell him so.

In the tenth year, Panova Mandelstam's cousin's daughter came to visit. Tsaika was always losing things. She lost the scarf off her head and the buttons off her coat and the letter given to her by Panova Mandelstam's cousin. I do not know how she ever survived in the city.

Tsaika had lost so many things so well that she had become good at finding secrets. She loved the hens. She petted them and gave them special names. She found all their eggs, even the ones hidden at the edge of the forest. She used sugar she brought from the city to make the eggs into cakes.

In the summer of the twelfth year, Tsaika found out that Stepon loved her. Stepon was always shy of strangers, and shyer in her presence, so I do not know how she puzzled it out.

In the autumn at the end of the thirteenth year, Stepon and Tsaika were married in the city. We danced all night, and if the bride and groom slipped off to bed early, nobody thought they were lost.

But when I say it was the thirteenth year, I tread near to a secret I was keeping. I had stopped it up in my own heart where nobody could hear it, not even Mama's tree. The priest counted the years from Easter, when the village baker baked bread with raisins in it. Panov and Panova Mandelstam said the year began with apples in the fall. But in my book, Stepon married Tsaika at the year's end, not at the beginning.

In my heart, the new year began when the snow fell.

At the beginning of the fourteenth year, Miryem and Pitsele came to the house in the forest together. Miryem gave Tsaika a golden bracelet made of interlinking leaves. It chimed as she turned it on her wrist. Tsaika insisted she should not be trusted with anything so precious.

Pitsele's laugh rang like sleigh-bells. She promised Tsaika a finding song. Tsaika asked what such a thing could be, and Pitsele sang it for her. It was a simple song, three or four lines long, though half the words were in a Staryk language. As she sang, a breeze sprang up, tumbling her wild fair curls and rustling the leaves.

Tsaika sang the song and giggled at the eddy of breeze around her wrist. Then she taught it to Stepon. She told him he would always be able to find the bracelet, and perhaps to find her as well.

Stepon said, very solemn, "Papa Mandelstam taught me about comparisons of value. Between a bracelet and a beloved there can be no comparison."

Tsaika said, "It seems you already know a song for finding love!"

The little house was very warm, so I went out into the snow.

Miryem followed me. When I first knew her, she was fierce and certain and as brittle as a bundle of twigs. She moved easier, now. There was a roundness to her cheeks and a smile on her lips. She made me think of a bird hopping fluffy and warm through the snow. But it was still the sort of bird that has a nest and will strike you if she does not trust you.

She asked me, "Have you ever thought of being married yourself?"

I told her that my father tried to sell me in exchange for three pigs.

She spat, and pressed the mess into slush with her boot. "But have you wanted to be married for yourself? From your own wishes?"

All of my wishes were tied up with the forest house. With the house, and the wind blowing through the white tree's branches, and the count that I made in my book. I told her that I would not want to leave.

"You might bring a husband to this house, as your brother Sergey went to the widow Sopianka."

I smiled and shook my head. She caught my hand in hers. Her skin was smooth and cold, but her grip had force to it. No person worked harder than Miryem at the tasks she set herself.

I found that I was clinging to her hand, like the maiden in the tales who clings and clings while her lover becomes a rearing steed and then a flame. My face was certainly hot enough for a fire. I looked at Miryem, wondering if I could blame my flush upon the hearth inside, and realized now my eyes were trapped as well.

"I am sorry," I said. I should have stayed inside and let my brother sing.

"Will you trade me?" she asked. "A question for a question?"

Miryem would have the better of me, in any such dealing. But the alternative was to stay silent, and though I was as strong as I had ever been, and perhaps I could have kept my mouth closed until the snow threatened to melt, I did not think that I could bear the waiting. I shook the hand in mine as if it was a bargain and nodded to say she should begin.

Miryem asked, "Will you kiss me?"

I had not known what question I should pose, but now there was only one choice. "Are you not married?"

Miryem gazed out at the forest, as if she was arranging an accounting in her head. At last she said, "My husband promised me, by the laws of my people, to honor, provide for, and support me, and to set aside an income so that even if our marriage fails, support does not. I brought my husband a dowry made from the works of my hand. I bore a child for him, and will bear children only for him. In the custom of his people, he has given our daughter her true and secret name."

"But then—"

She set her fingers against my lips. "Only one question. But not only one person, Wanda. There is no law, neither among my people nor in the land of the Staryk, that says love is a chest with only one key."

I stared at her, who was my year-beginning, and wondered how what she said could be true. But once I began to count, I realized that I loved all sorts of people. Sergey and Stepon, and Panov and Panova Mandelstam, and Mama in the tree, but also Sergey's sons, occasionally the widow Sopianka, and even Tsaika and Pitsele, who were beginning to sing again, inside. I tried to say, "I will kiss you," but it became a sort of mumble, against her fingertips.

"You are the sun for me, Wanda," she said. "You are the warmth of July in each of my winters."

I could not listen to her say such nonsense, so I kissed a snowflake from her brow and kissed each of her eyelids, and finally her lips. I kissed softly at first, feeling myself lumbering and tall. But she was too fierce to let me waver. She flew at me and I half-lifted her and went on kissing. At last there was nothing to do but curl up in the hayloft, as if Miryem was the sweetheart I had never had, and go on kissing.

I tried to make Miryem write the sentence in my book, that love is a chest with many keys. She said it would be just as beautiful in my own hand. I do not think that can be right. But no statement ever became less true by being written large.