The next day I stayed by Marta’s side, only raising my head to gaze at the olive tree. At midday the family joined us: my aunt in her silks like a walking tent, followed by servants carrying chairs and a table, my two cousins strolled a few steps behind with their hands in their pockets. As my aunt settled in the shade of a tree with her sons on either side of her, my uncle came over to see the wagons laden with baskets.
“Good work, good work!” he said beaming. “I always like to be here when the harvest comes.”
Uncle Trent was a merchant, who spent much of his time on the trade road that ran through our town to the great port city in the north and south to Pangan, my mother’s birthplace and a bright dream from my childhood.
Marta, Eva and I spread a large white cloth over the table and began to set out the food.
“Would you believe it, I’ve forgotten the oil!” said Marta, “I’ll pop back to the house and get it. You carry on, I’ll be back in a minute.”
“So even the infallible Marta makes mistakes!”
“That’s not funny.” said Eva.
“What’s not funny?” said Tan.
“Oh nothing,” I said.
“Those look good,” said Tan leaning over to take one of the pastries.
“No, you mustn’t,” said Eva, before I could stop her.
“Oh, mustn’t I? I think I’ll have another.”
Eva snatched the plate away from him and held it close to her chest shielding it from him.
“Tan, please don’t tease her. She doesn’t understand.”
Tan just laughed and grabbed at her arm. Eva’s cry was that of a rabbit in a fox’s jaws.
“Tan, let her go. She can’t stand being touched.”
Tan looked at me, grinned and wrapped his arm around her waist. Eva screamed and struggled. The noise was attracting attention.
“Stay still, you stupid bint, and enjoy it.” His mouth closed on the back of her neck. A piercing howl.
“Stop it, stop it now!” I threw myself at him, pulling at his arm. Hopeless gesture, he was three years older and a man – his arm lashed out and sent me sprawling in the dirt. One of the master’s servants hauled me up by my hair.
“What happened here?” said my uncle.
“She went for me.”
“You were hurting Eva. I was trying to stop you.”
Uncle looked at Eva, who was curled up on the ground sobbing.
“I only touched her.”
“Eva is terrified when she is touched,” said Marta joining the circle. “You know that, Master Tan.”
“Well…” said Uncle.
“What does it matter?” said my aunt. “A woman may not strike a man.”
“And if Eva can’t bear to be touched, perhaps the creature should be taught”
“Creature! She’s not a creature.” Marta’s dark stare was on my aunt’s face. “She’s a Shadow and Shadows need a certain understanding. I am teaching her and she is learning.”
“Marta, I’m sure…” said my uncle.
“All right, Marta. I overstepped the mark. She’s not a creature,” said my aunt. “But Anya will take the punishment. A stay in the cupboard is called for.”
The crowd of servants parted as I was marched off to the house. I smiled at Marta as I passed. We both felt a duty of protection towards Eva. I had failed but she had succeeded, though how I could not tell. But she was helpless to stop what was happening now, we both knew it. A woman may not strike a man and to strike the eldest son of the household… And so I smiled at Marta to tell her that I understood. This was better than for Eva to be “taught” not to scream. I told myself: I was getting older, no more childish fears. The cupboard did not frighten me as it had before. It would be unpleasant, but I was confident I would cope.
I soon discovered certain flaws in my optimism. I was older, but I was also taller, I could only stand bent double. I had no option but to sit or kneel. I considered kneeling a stupid idea and so attempted to sit. There was barely enough space to do that, it was only possible to sit cross-legged. I thought about Eva and Marta. I had often wondered why Aunt had allowed Eva to live when first we came there. There were no Shadows in her family. If Tan had had one it would have been quickly dispatched, not drowned as you might do an unwanted kitten in the Northern Forest, that would have been a waste of good water, but its throat would have been slit as if a deformed sheep. I wondered whether Marta had spoken for Eva then, had argued Eva would be another unpaid servant and an obedient one unlike me. The thought of a willing slave would have appealed to Aunt.
At first the house was silent, everyone had returned to the fields. But at last the din of normal life crashed into the corridor In the darkness with life walking only a pace away I thought of Mother and wondered whether that was how it was for her too in her grave by the wall. The bell for dinner, the scuffle of feet as the servants went to their rooms and their beds. The house fell silent once more.
“Anya.” A whisper – not Eva this time.
“How are you?”
“I’ll survive, thirsty of course. How’s Eva?”
“Distraught. I’m keeping her in my room tonight.”
“Good. How long do you think before I get out?”
“I’ve no idea – in the morning I hope. Your aunt has taken the key, but at least your uncle’s here. Try to make yourself comfortable and get some sleep.”
Comfortable! I nearly laughed, but she meant well. My head was already aching badly for lack of fluids and there was the first twinge of cramp in my leg.
“Good night Marta, think of me as you lie in your bed.”
“Don’t worry, I will.”
All night – eight hours more at least – so much for my confidence! Marta was right, it would be better if I could sleep for some of it. But first I would need to massage my leg.
The long-thorned briars with their roses white and streaked with red. The more I slash, the more they catch at my arms and legs. But now they open and I stand at the base of the tower.
I start to climb. At first it is easy, there are plenty of empty holes. Below me is a sea of rose bushes holding out their long arms. Pain begins to shoot through my leg muscles. Even as it does, I feel for a handhold and find it stopped with a stone box. I feel for another: the same. The shelves are full of boxes and I know that Father is in one of them.
“Father! Father! I’m afraid. I’m going to fall.”
The bones in the stone box do not answer.
My fingers begin to slip.
“Mother, I am going to fall!”
“Then fall,” comes my mother’s voice, “I will catch you.”
I woke as my head jolted forward. I had slept upright leaning against a mop handle. I groaned – my legs were singing with cramp. I tried to moisten my lips with my tongue but failed.
“I’m in a bad way, Mother.”
There was no reply.
I put my hand down to massage my thigh and feel something flicker against my fingers. I freeze. A tongue is tasting my sweat. The muscles beneath its skin ripple as the snake moves slowly over my palm. I wait, but nothing more happens. Has it slid away again? I haven’t felt it, but then my legs are so painful I probably couldn’t feel anything. I must know. Carefully I follow the snake’s course with my hand and find my fear coiled in my lap. It doesn’t move as my fingertips brush its side. It seems asleep, I on the other hand am horribly awake.
And so I stayed, for hours, perfectly still. Occasionally the little snake would move, but only to settle in a new position in the folds of my dress. My leg muscles were screaming, my head became heavy with pain and fear. Light began to slither through the gap at the top of the door. The household began to stir, the breakfast bell sounded and still the viper did not move. Footfall along the corridor, duties being started: men to the stables and the yard. A clink of a metal pail and a slosh of water on the tiles, a curse. My head, my head – how the blood hammered against the inside of my skull! Darkness.
I woke to the sound of a key sliding into the lock.
“Well Anya – will you say it?”
Was the snake still there? No matter, I must speak even if I wake it. “Yes, Aunt.” The words came out mangled by my dry mouth, but the snake made no move. I sighed as the key turned.
“Now say it to everyone here and louder!” Aunt flung open the door. Behind her stood the entire household. The sudden noise and light made the snake uncoil. There was silence. “May the angels protect us, a snake!” said my aunt, making a sign against the evil eye. “Do you see that – she has a snake!” There was terror on my aunt’s face.
I lifted my hand to allow the little serpent to make a swift dash for the darker corners of the cupboard and was promptly sick.
“Get her out of there,” said my uncle, but only Marta and Eva stepped forward to help. The other servants hung back, some too made the sign against evil, all were gone by the time Marta had lifted me to my feet. My legs were so cramped, I cried out as I put weight on them.
“My room,” said Marta. “Eva, go and open the door for us.”
“I’m disgusting,” I protested as Marta lowered me on to her bed.
“Well I’ve smelled better,” she replied. “But you’ve been in there a whole day, it’s hardly surprising. Bedclothes can be washed and so can you. But first you need to drink. Here. Not too fast, you’ll make yourself sick again, that’s it. Eva, get a fresh dress for your mistress.”
Stripped of my filthy clothes, I sat passively, watching as Marta wiped me down with a cloth rinsed in tepid water. Everything seemed so unreal – it was almost as if I wasn’t alive. Until she came to rub my legs.
“I’m sorry,” she said as I cried out.
“It’s just cramp,” I said through my teeth. “I didn’t dare move for hours.”
“Can I do something?”
Marta ignored Eva, instead she slipped a clean shift over my head and tugged it down.
“There decent again,” she said with a smile. “Keep drinking. Eva, yes there is something you can do to help.”
My calf went into spasm and I nearly dropped the glass. Marta took an ointment jar from her medical bag and rubbed some of its contents into her hands.
“Watch this, Eva. I am massaging the ointment into the muscle, easing the knots and stretching the fibres. I let it relax a bit. And again I start working my way along the muscle.”
“Anya doesn’t look as if she’s liking it much!”
“No, no, it hurts but it’s helping,” I gave a smile that was close to being a grimace.
“Now your turn,” said Marta holding out the ointment to Eva.
“Me, I can’t!”
“Yes, you can. You have to. You heard what Aunt Kat said – you have to learn to touch. Or they’ll make you.”
“And this is your mistress, Eva. She needs you.”
“I can’t, I can’t!”
“Marta, if she doesn’t want to…”
“No Anya, not this time. This time she must. Eva, Anya is in pain, she’s in pain because she protected you from Tan.”
Eva whimpered, “You do it.”
“I won’t always be here, Eva. What will happen then? Don’t think of this as touching, think of it as something practical you can do to help your mistress.”
Eva stopped whimpering and looked at Marta quizzically.
“You do touch, you touch all sorts of things. Some of them might even hurt you and yet you touch them. How is this different? Anya would never hurt you, you know that.” Marta held out the ointment once more.
Slowly Eva moved forward and took a daub of ointment and started to rub it into her hands. I watched in amazement. Eva knelt down in front of me, looked at Marta, bit her lip and began to work the cream in. She was breathing heavily and there was a slight tremor in her hands. Her strong fingers sought out the hard lumps in the muscle and eased them away, she felt this and grew more confident.
“Thank you, thank you,” I said and she looked up at me and smiled.
“It’s just like making pastry,” she announced.
I looked at Marta and we both laughed.
“What’s funny?” said Eva.
“Nothing, nothing. You’re right, it is just like making pastry.”