Marfa dares not risk the road, even now that night has fallen. Instead, she hobbles through the forest, the hem of her grime-stiffened skirt dragging through the damp leaf mulch. Despite the need for haste, she pauses often, pulling back the shawl around her head and straining against her deafness for the faintest trace of sound. There’s something, but she cannot tell if it is the heavy tread of boots or the muffled rush of blood pulsing through her ears. Either way, she has no choice. She must keep moving.
She’s been a fool. She knows that now. What happened in the ballroom brought her to her senses. She rubs away the ache in her chest, then crosses herself, praying she’s not too late to right her mistake. If anyone discovers what she’s done, there’ll be no forgiveness or understanding. Being a foolish and sentimental old woman won’t save her.
Her pace slows as her circuitous path closes in on the disused shepherd’s hut. The thought of arriving turns her stomach to ice. All she’s ever wanted is to be left alone to tend her pigs and chickens. Nothing more. Ask anyone, they’ll tell you she’s a good person. They’ll tell you she’s never had the time, or wit, for politics.
If the firewood hadn’t run low last night she wouldn’t have needed to go to the woodpile. The woman would have passed her cottage and Marfa would never have known of her plight. She pulls her shawl tighter across her shoulders, wishing she could turn back the clock. If their places were exchanged, if it had been her alone and afraid in the dark, would the woman have taken her in? Marfa’s age-chapped lips draw into a bitter smile; as if a countess would shelter a peasant.
She pauses again, listening to the echoes of the night. What if she was meant to see her? She’s not a priest; it’s not for her to say what God has planned. For all she knows, her actions have been preordained. Once again, she thinks of Judas Iscariot. Until tonight she considered him the lowest of the low. But did he have a choice in what he did or said? Surely no earthly force could have driven an apostle to betray the Lord.
The temptation to believe the things she’s done – the thing that she intends to do – beyond her own control grows stronger with each step. But isn’t that the way temptation always works? Marfa shakes her head to cast the Devil’s whispering from her thoughts. Even so, she doesn’t quite dismiss the hope that something more divine than fear steers her course.
Moonlight has transformed the pasture into a rippling sea of silver grass. It’s not far now. The grinding in the small of her back spreads to her hips as she shuffles across the uneven ground. Her breathing reduces to shallow wheezing and she presses a hand to her ribs.
If tonight turns out to be a test, she tells herself, then she would rather chance her fate in the next world than throw away the life she has in this one. Especially for a woman she doesn’t even know. Only a saint would do otherwise. And she would never claim to be a saint. Just a lonely farmer’s widow – too old, too soft, too caring – who saw a soul in need of help and acted with her heart. But hearts are rash. They never stop to think of risk or consequence. The guilt will last a lifetime, and rightly so. But she has suffered greater hardships and survived.
No one will believe her story. How could you fail to recognise the Countess Lebanovitch? You, who made the village gather in the lane outside the church to catch a glimpse of your beloved Count’s young bride. She recalls the carriage decked with flowers and the girl emerging in her wedding finery.
Her mind flashes to the ballroom and she stumbles, losing her footing and dropping to her knees. The jolt sends a shock through her spine that knocks the scant air from her lungs. Her fingers clutch the damp grass as she struggles against the wretchedness that fills the void inside her chest. The men who cheered beneath the chandelier have no idea how much they have destroyed.
On the day he was born, Andrei Lebanovitch was plump and beautiful. His fingers curled around her plaited hair as she cradled him in her arms and marvelled at the opulence of his nursery. In forty years, the memory has not faded. Instead, its colours and sensations have grown with every passing season. Marfa would relive that moment in a heartbeat, despite the pain it brings her.
The day she first held Andrei was the day her own son died. His frail ribcage rose and fell one final time. Unsuckled milk seeped, like tears, into her smock. That night she would have welcomed the Reaper’s knock upon her door but, instead, it was a summons from the house that claimed her. The midwife in attendance, hearing of her sudden loss, had urgent need of Marfa’s service. Grief was not a reason to refuse.
She was escorted to the nursery and presented with a child whose lusty cries drowned out all thoughts of death. Her misery remained but, as the new-born count nursed keenly from her breast, the hollow space created by her loss contracted, like the shrinking of a womb.
Marfa rises to her feet. This is no time to wallow in the past. One child has turned to dust within its grave and the other did not know her from a stranger. A lump forms in her throat as she brings to mind the day outside the church when Andrei’s eyes swept past her face without a hint of recognition. What else did she expect? To him she’d been a useful dug. No more, no less.
No bonds remain to tie her to his fate. And, even if they did, those bonds did not extend beyond his life, or to those he’d left behind.
She lingers in the cold, one hand against the hut’s rough wall. A part of her believed she could avoid this moment. Even now, standing on its threshold, she cannot quite accept the time has come. For the first time she allows her thoughts to run beyond the woman she’s come to see. Tears blur the stars above her head. She wishes she could swap her breaking heart for one hewn from the stone beneath her palm.
She finds the countess backed into a corner, breathless, pale and terror eyed. The pins that held her braided hair have slipped. Tear tracks smudge her dirty cheeks. Her pale silk dress is dark with mud, the lace around its collar torn and frayed. The baby in her arms cries.
Marfa looks away.
The child’s wailing grows louder. The countess groans and covers his mouth with her hand.
Marfa knows she has to speak, knows what it is she has to say, but the words refuse to come. Instead, she does the thing she swore she would not do.
She lifts the infant from his mother’s arms and smooths her swollen knuckle down his cheek, crooning wordless reassurance. His cries subside. With the baby in her arms, she cannot help but brush her lips against his head. He is the living image of his father.
Surely there must be another way? The hut might not be searched. If she brought them food, some milk, the blanket from her bed. It needn’t be for long. A few days from now the roads will clear. The pair of them could leave. No one would ever know.
Or maybe she could send the woman on her way and keep the child. If she claimed he was her cousin’s daughter’s orphaned boy, who would think to check? Without a doubt she’d care for him far better than his mother.
‘Tell me what is happening,’ the countess whispers, sinking to the ground. ‘Did you go to the house as I instructed? When does my husband come for us?’
Marfa clears her throat. She hears again the murderous jubilation of her countrymen as the bloodied count is strung below the ballroom’s chandelier; recalls his legs begin their jerky dance above the parquet floor and then fall still. She didn’t see his face. She could not bear to lift her head.
There is no other way. The realisation, now it comes, is blunt and dull. The men will find the disused hut. No one will believe she did not give the countess aid.
Marfa’s mind grows calm. She is not prepared to die for this woman or her child. And, if either one remains, then that is what will happen. If she turns them out, they will be shot before the dawn. But maybe not. Their fates will rest with God. As will her own.
‘Old woman, tell me of my husband,’ the countess demands, struggling to her feet. ‘Does he come for us?’
Marfa shakes her head. Even though she will not try to save this woman’s life, she has it in her power to show her kindness, of a sort.
She looks her in the eye. ‘I know nothing of Count Lebanovitch. But the revolutionaries search the village and the farms.’
She dips her head to kiss the child, one final time, then returns him to his mother.
Andrei was not her son. His wife is not her kin. Their child is not her flesh.
The words form smoothly in her mouth. ‘I have done all I can. But now you have to go.’
About The Author
Jacqui Pack is a writer of fiction and poetry, and hold an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Chichester. Her work has appeared with a variety of publications, including Litro, Synaesthesia, FlashFood and Storgy.
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