Originally published in Mithila Review.
The Domovoi is ugly as sin.
He is about the size of a human infant. His eyes are small and beady, flashing murky yellow like an owl’s. Scraggly patches of gray fur cover his body, and it looks as if someone hit him in the face with the blunt end of a hammer until his nose and cheekbones caved in.
The Domovoi, like me, traveled all the way here from Russia, hidden in the bowels of an ocean liner. Later he would tell me he threw up for the entirety of the journey until his throat bled and his stomach muscles cramped. He says he felt like he was drowning in salt even though there was no seawater inside the cargo hold. All the while, Uh-mer-i-kah glittered like a dream on the horizon.
These days, he lives in the Cunningham’s manor, where I also work as a maid. The first time I stepped into it, I thought I had been spirited away to a tsar’s palace. The couple bought the countryside manor with the intention to renovate and resell. However, they ended up staying here, enveloped in this odd fusion of modern and old, history and technology. The existence of such a place in the new land is both nostalgic and agonizing—a constant pressure deep in my throat.
The East Wing comprises of electric light fixtures and unfamiliar devices I’m too scared to touch, lest I mar them with the oils of my fingers. It all looks like something straight out of an American home catalogue. The West Wing, where I retire for the night in the servants’ quarters, is a different story.
The rooms are large and numerous. They echo. Sunlight is pinned behind dark velvet drapes, struggling to spill in at the fine-threaded seams. With only the haughty portraits on the walls to spy me roaming through drafty halls and corridors, I sometimes wonder if I’m a ghost. We have myths, in the old country, about all kinds of sprites and specters.
The Domovoi isn’t a ghost but a house spirit. Normally, Domovois remain unseen, only to be heard in soft sighs and pitter-pattering footsteps at night. When Miss Greene, the ancient housekeeper, isn’t looking, I leave out some warm milk and bread for the Domovoi. I say a little prayer for him too, as Mamochka taught me. The next day, he skitters out from behind the kitchen stove and reveals himself to me. Says he would like butter with his bread, too, because the people here aren’t going to miss it. His long beard shifts with his huffs and snorts. Despite his bad temper, I think he is grateful for my offerings. He would never admit it, but the Domovoi is lonely here, in a house with no children or animals and with more ‘electric servants’—as the kitchen appliances are sometimes called—than people.
He isn’t part of my kin, but we seem to have adopted each other in this strange new land, whose customs and language still elude us both. We’re kin in spirit, not in body.
“Yevgeniya,” the Domovoi says. He doesn’t add anything else sometimes, just shapes my name in his sharp-toothed mouth. Everyone else either addresses me with some mangled version of my name, or with no name at all, like just another piece of furniture. Hearing the Domovoi’s thick accent is like slathering ointment on a bone-deep burn you can never quite locate, much less treat.
It’s not nearly enough, but it is something.
I’ve been working in the Cunninghams’ manor for almost a month, but I’ve only seen the master of the house once, in a flash of silver cufflinks and polished wingtip shoes. He is a businessman who spends most of his days in the city. The lady, too, is an absent entity. She’s recovering from the flu, Miss Greene says, in that iron-rod tone that leaves no room for argument. But when I was scrubbing the floor outside the lady’s chambers, I spotted Miss Greene through a small crack in the ajar door. The lady laid her head on her old nursemaid’s lap, weeping about a baby that hadn’t made it past its third month in the womb.
Miss Greene’s elderly bones sound like the creak of birch branches against a window. The Domovoi’s pointy ears twitch when he hears her approach the kitchen. He’s been watching me prepare dinner, but now he scampers away to one of the manor’s many dark corners. Leaves me to face her sharp looks and impatient mutters on my own.
“Girl,” Miss Greene admonishes and pushes me away from the stove with her gnarled hands. “You’re doing it wrong. Mrs. Cunningham likes her mashed potatoes creamy and her steak rare.”
Although I am trying my best to keep up, the instructions seem endless. The words, too, sometimes flee my mind before I’ve managed to grasp their meaning. At the maid agency back home, I received rigorous training, working fourteen hours a day to learn the language and customs of the rich American folks who would pay for my trip overseas. Still, nothing seems to satisfy Miss Greene, who purses her thin lips, digs her nails into my elbow, and shows me again how to prepare dinner the ‘American way.’
The call bell rings, and Miss Greene takes off to attend to the lady. I creep toward the stove and turn leftover dough and mashed potatoes into vareniki. I eat the pouches, fried to a golden crisp, straight from the pan until I scald my tongue. The kitchen smells like Mamochka’s home; if I close my eyes, I can picture my younger siblings huddling around the stove to inhale the warm aroma and intoxicating heat. I flick the wetness from my eyes and stuff some vareniki in my apron pockets for the Domovoi.
The lady doesn’t leave her chambers—until, one day, she does. I go into the library, equipped with a feather duster and strict instructions, and there she is on a chaise lounge. Her legs are tucked beneath her, a heavy book resting open on her lap. Under the dusty-pink frills of her dress peek silver-painted toenails; the chipped polish resembles minuscule crescent moons.
I remember to bow, and sputter in broken English, “My Lady, I didn’t know you are here. I leave now.”
I’m backing out, still bent like a sapling before the north wind, when she springs to her feet. “Wait, don’t go!”
She sways in place and reaches her hand out. Hurrying to her side, I guide her back onto the chaise lounge. Her bed rest is over, but if what I heard outside her chambers is true, the lady of the manor is recovering from more than just the flu. I bring to mind my younger siblings, with their precious gap-toothed smiles. The mere thought of a miscarriage is enough to turn my stomach into a mud pit.
“I’m sorry.” A sheepish smile tugs at the lady’s mouth. Pearly pink like the inside of an oyster. “You must think I can’t do anything on my own.”
I retrieve the book she dropped on the plush carpet with a susurrus of old parchment pages. “It is not my place to think that.”
She smiles again. I take in her appearance through short flicks of my eyes, assembling a mental image of her like an exquisite corpse: smooth, dark hair coiffed in doll-like ringlets, clear skin, full lashes curving shadows over round cheeks. She’s my senior by a couple of years, though she can’t be older than twenty-one. Born at the turn of the twentieth century like me.
“Miss Greene mentioned a new girl. I’ve been dying to meet you.”
Not for the first time, I wonder why they had to hire a maid all the way across the ocean. Why not pick some local girl?
She catches me staring, so I train my eyes downward. Her satin slippers. stitched with autumn-colored threads, depict exotic flowers and birds mid-flight. “I’m Yevgeniya, my Lady.”
“Call me Lily. And you… you’ll be Jeanie!” She claps her hands like a child on a trip to the circus.
The girl fits the name. Watching the long column of her neck, my mind conjures up white lilies in full bloom.
I’m about to bow again and take my leave. However, she holds my calloused hand in both of hers, small and pale like doves. “Jeanie, I am so very lonely. Will you stay and keep me company while I read?”
“Of course,” I say after some hesitation. A good maid should remain unseen, Miss Greene always says, and every time I add in my head, Like a Domovoi. But if Lily has asked me to stay, how can I refuse?
She pats the cushion next to her. The realization jolts me: I don’t want to refuse. I haven’t talked to anyone but Miss Greene and the Domovoi in months. From what I can tell, Lily has been just as isolated.
I perch on the edge of the seat. My eyes fall on the gold Latin characters embossed across the burgundy hardcover in Lily’s hands. Surprise unties my tongue. “Pushkin?”
“Our library has an entire section dedicated to Russian literature,” Lily enthuses. “You might even find an original Cyrillic edition. Come on.”
As I pad after her toward the shelves that stretch high into the ceiling, I spot the Domovoi lounging before the lit fireplace. His limbs, too long for his stout body, are stretched out to absorb as much heat as possible. It looks like the ligaments inside barely hold the limbs to their sockets. I curl my fingers into a wave, but he only frowns and pops out of sight, the sound masqueraded among the logs crackling in the fireplace.
The days and weeks blur together, fractal and kaleidoscopic.
We have tea in the library together most afternoons. Sunlight slants thin and buttery through the bay windows overlooking the fields. Frost has crystalized the ponds that dot the pasture, turning them into mirrored sequins; the winding road that leads to town looks like a sinuous silk ribbon. Although central heating has been installed in the East Wing, the library—with its domed, frescoed ceiling and dark rosewood bookshelves—is caught somewhere between worlds. Undulating heat from the roaring fireplace wafts up to us until the windows fog over and my eyelids grow pleasantly heavy.
Miss Greene brings us silver trays of sweets and canapés. I feel her milky stare against my back, her eyes sharp despite the cataracts that riddle them. Her disapproval of me neglecting my chores is as potent as the scent of mothballs and yeast she emanates whenever she moves. Still, I often catch Miss Greene looking at me with her brown-splotched face twisted into a wounded grimace, as if she wants to tell me something. In the end, she always pinches her lips together and hobbles out through the library’s double doors.
Most times, we read in companionable silence, but sometimes Lily is in the mood to talk. I learn that she’s an only child whose family married her off to one of their business partners once she came of age. She was sickly as a child, home-schooled for most of her life. Even now, she rarely leaves the house and only has her books and Miss Greene for company while her husband is away.
When I tell Lily I have five younger siblings, every part of her shimmers with juvenile joy. “How perfect! I envy you, Jeanie.”
Another time she asks for a story. I weave one about the Domovoi. “So each house has its own magical servant?” she asks with a bubbling champagne giggle.
I try to explain that Domovois aren’t considered servants, but progenitors of a kin. They are to be worshipped, and in turn they protect the house, the animals and children especially.
Lily doesn’t understand what it’s like to live without knowing if you’ll be able to have a full meal the next day. To leave behind your friends, family, and everything you know and love in order to make something better for yourself. Her obliviousness, however, is refreshing. So is her childish excitement, probably because I was never allowed to be this young even when I was a kid.
“I got you something,” Lily says on the day that marks one month since our first meeting in the library.
“You shouldn’t have…” She has already given me a chest full of clothes, fashionable, vibrant, and so unlike my own frumpy dresses dyed the colors of mouse fur. Mamochka was always too proud to accept hand-outs, but I couldn’t help myself.
“Nonsense. I can do whatever I want.”
Lily opens a carved case to reveal a ruby necklace shaped like a teardrop. Her hands flutter against my throat, caress aside the loose hairs which have escaped from my braid. When she leans in to clasp the necklace, her breath against the nape of my neck makes me shiver all over like a flame in a draft.
“Beautiful,” she says. She’s not looking at the ruby nestled between my collarbones or the refracted light dancing across the gem’s hexagonal surface. Through the gilded mirror mounted above the fireplace, Lily’s gaze settles on mine. I never noticed before, but with our brown hair and brown eyes, our reflected selves look like they could be sisters.
“Jeanie, you know I can’t have children. Edward and I have tried many times, but our babies always die before the second trimester.”
Her words tug at something behind my sternum, warm and fleshy. I think about my siblings again, their tiny fists squeezing my fingers when they were babies.
“It is my fault, not my Edward’s,” she continues. “But if we could find someone to carry our child in my place…”
“I… I don’t understand.”
Lily covers my hand with hers. “Oh, Jeanie, will you let us put our baby inside you?”
I repeat her words, both in English and in Russian. My hands inch to my belly, soft from all the French pastries and sugared fruits Miss Greene brings us during our afternoon reading sessions.
“If you do this one thing for us, we’ll be indebted to you. Do you know what that means? We will pay you and care for you and our baby while it’s in your room.”
Lily’s doe eyes swim with crystalline tears. She bows her head low enough for the sleek ringlets of hair to veil her face, looking every bit like a supplicant.
I think about my family; my sisters who had to give up their schooling in order to take care of the younger kids; my mother working her hands to the bone against the washboard. I think about war and unrest, fear and poverty.
“Would that make you happy?” I finally ask.
In the end—and shame spreads through me like fire blight in the spring—what makes me say yes isn’t the thought of my family back in Russia but the yearning in Lily’s face. She has given me so much already, yet I don’t have anything to offer her.
But I can give her this.
When I return to my room, the Domovoi is waiting for me in his nest atop the windowsill. I recognize one of Lily’s dresses among the coils of filthy, ripped velvet beneath him. His keen eyes follow my every movement as I close the door behind me.
“You don’t know what you just agreed to,” he hisses, the swish of his tail slicing through the air. “You’re not friends or sister wives or whatever it is that’s gotten in your head. She wants something from you, and once she gets it, you’ll be kicked out before you know it.”
“You’re just jealous she and I have become so close,” I tell him in English, a sure way to make his patchy fur and unkempt beard bristle with anger.
“She only has to call your awful butchered name, and you run after her like a puppy.”
“What’s wrong with the name Jeanie? Maybe I like it. It sounds glamorous, like a cinema star.”
Thin capillaries of lightning blaze across the Domovoi’s eyes. “Do you even listen to yourself?”
“Perhaps I just don’t want to listen to you!” I shout. The West Wing lashes my voice back at us tenfold.
For a moment, we stare at each other, our breath labored and animalistic. Then his furious expression morphs into sadness, as if he thinks I am beyond help. A blink later, and the Domovoi has vanished. I fume in bed for hours and curse him in every language I know. That night, however, I prepare his usual offering and murmur his favorite prayer.
He doesn’t come. The only family I have left in this country is gone.
I tell myself that I don’t care; I don’t need him. The Domovoi is jaded and bitter and will say anything to pit me against Lily. I can still feel her hand covering mine, her beseeching eyes turned to me the way Mamochka used to look at the icons of her saints. The Domovoi is wrong about her.
He’s wrong about me, too.
I know Master Edward is back even before I spot the glossy black automobile parked in the cobblestone courtyard. The scent of white lilies gives his presence away. I wake up early in the morning, and the dainty flowers occupy every crystal vase in the manor; their creamy, sweet fragrance permeates West and East Wing alike.
That same morning, plates end up broken, milk curdles, and objects go missing, much to Miss Greene’s chagrin. The Domovoi doesn’t come when I call. He makes his displeasure known by going as far as to steal Master’s cigars from the off-limits study.
Lily and her husband talk for hours. Even if I was able to make out their words through the study’s heavy insulation, the incessant thunderclap of my heart would drown out their voices. Finally, Lily leans against the doorjamb and says, “Jeanie, come. Edward would like to meet you.”
I cower behind Lily as I view the inside of the study for the first time. A heavy mahogany desk and a set of plush leather chairs sit atop a Persian rug dyed in rich reds and dark browns. The electric light fixtures, encased inside stained-glass lampshades, cast everything in a warm, soft glow. Finally, I drag my eyes toward Lily’s husband. Edward Cunningham has a trimmed mustache and sleeked-back hair graying at the temples. I search his face for signs that he fought in the war, but other than the shallow lines around his mouth and eyes, the haunted look I’ve seen in other men is absent. Perhaps he was never drafted. I’ve heard rumors, about prestigious men paying their way out of it.
“You’re doing us a great service, my girl,” he says in his smooth, basso voice.
The gold rings that adorn his fingers are cold against my palm. I shake his hand but cannot bring myself to look him in the eye for longer than a heartbeat. Somehow, his gray irises remind me of the voyage to America, of rough waves and salty water and not knowing whether I’ll drown or make it out of the ship’s cargo hold alive.
Master Edward explains the terms of the agreement. Clasping my hands behind my back, I bob my head up and down as if I’ve turned into one of those drinking bird toys. Lily stands beside me, shoulder-to-shoulder. Her hand grips mine, out of view. Each squeeze of her frail fingers is a mantra of accept, accept, accept.
And so I do.
My eyes widen to the size of tea saucers when I see the numbers on the check. My signature at the bottom of the contract they hand me looks small and wobbly. After Master Edward’s fountain pen has scratched the last curlicue of his own signature, he locks both pieces of paper in his desk drawer. “For safekeeping,” he says, and he and Lily exchange a look I cannot decipher.
Her smile is dazzling when she turns to me. I did this. I brought that smile to her face. Then why do my lips freeze in place when I attempt to smile back?
“Come on then, Jeanie. Let’s get you ready.”
Lily leads me into the bathroom, where she helps me undress and climb into her claw-footed tub. She pours ethereal oils and soap bubbles into the steaming water, a reversal of roles that thieves my lungs of breath. I soak in the large porcelain shell, my skin pinkening beneath the dream-hazy water. Lily massages my scalp and sponges my back, my breasts, the tender flesh behind the bend of my legs and the rough skin of my knees where old scars criss-cross, a legacy of childhood escapades followed by years of kneeling on hardwood floors.
When I enter the master bedroom, I’m wrapped in Lily’s robe. The fur hem grazes the birds and flowers embroidered on the satin slippers, which I leave by the side of the bed. I lie on my back and let the crimson robe fall open. Above me, Lily pulls Edward toward her for a kiss. I try to swallow the rotten-fish envy that climbs up my throat. Lily doesn’t make any move to leave.
I think of my friend Anoushka from back home. We used to practice kissing on the back of our hands, a few times on each other. She told me about what happens in the bedroom, but she never mentioned anyone watching. Nor did she mention being gazed upon as if I were just a means to an end, a life-size doll not nearly human enough.
The bed is big enough to be an island. It barely dips under the slight weight of Lily’s sparrow bones. She smooths my hair back and glides her fingers down my face as Master Edward nudges my legs open and settles above me. Although I’ve dreamed about Lily that way, when I’m alone at night and the wind howls through the West Wing, now her touch isn’t cool or soothing; it burns like a Siberian winter. Master Edward’s body, full of hard-cut planes and piercing angles, aligns with mine. His sweat tastes saline. Then his mouth is replaced by Lily’s lips, the memory of the steerage and the seawater traded in for the sickly sweet scent of days-old flowers.
Anoushka lied about the first time. It hurts.
As Master Edward howls and groans above me, like a wild dog, like the wind, and Lily’s voice lilts nonsense in my ear, I stare at the ceiling. The wood grain stirs to life before my unblinking eyes. The Leshy and the Gray Wolf dance in the forest around a single tail-feather glowing brighter than a thousand lanterns; Rusalki with stringy hair of kelp and green-hued skin beckon me into the deep; Baba Yaga grins at me with her toothless mouth, and Vasilisa the Wise’s doleful eyes drip with regret, except she looks like Miss Greene did all those times I now know she wanted to warn me.
Lily kisses me again while her husband pistons his hips above us. The ceiling stills, the spirits and demons off to play elsewhere. I almost call for the Domovoi then, apologize to him, ask him to help me, but in the end, I don’t. This feels too much like drowning.
So I don’t dare to breathe.
I take to wandering through the West Wing late at night when every other resident of the sleeping manor walks their own dreamscapes. The wind rages through the cracks in the woodwork, the mortar-and-brick fissures; frigid fingers play the xylophone along the ridges of my spine. My silk robe falls open at the chest, and I don’t bother to retie its sash. This cold isn’t like in the old country, but it is enough to raise hard pebbles on my skin. When my chattering teeth accidentally bite the inside of my cheek, the taste is hot and cloying, molten metal mixed into viscous treacle.
Sometimes, the labyrinthine corridors lead nowhere. Those times, I press my forehead against the dead-end windows. The moonlight shines gritty through the glass, frosted over like glazed pastries. I close my eyes to avoid my reflection, afraid I won’t find one.
The smell of lilies—now wilted and browned—is everywhere: in my hair, on my skin, coating the inside of my nose. Gone from sweet to nauseating, from clove-like to a bloody, red-meat stink.
My eyes play tricks on me in these halls of crumbling marble and torn brocade wallpaper that remind me of the old folktales my babushka told us children about, sipping watery pea soup by a weak-burning fire with dreams of magic filling up our bellies.
I look down at the birds stitched with ochre and clay-red threads upon my—Lily’s—slippers. The tight needlework unravels, and the decorative beads clatter to the floor. My eyes whip up in time to catch a firebird surging toward the ceiling. It, too, unspools and expands, its flaming wings stretching out to graze both walls and its tail blazing a fire-drenched trail across my retinas. The bird’s plumes are like that of a peacock’s tail, all-seeing eyes and hypnotic whorls in sunset palettes. It tosses its head back and releases a guttural roar, then flaps its majestic wings. The scorching air brings smoky tears to my eyes.
The firebird prepares to swoop down, and I flatten my body against the dusty floor in primal fear, preparing myself to be singed and burned. However, when I sit back up, the firebird is gone, the satin slippers are intact, and the hallway is a quagmire dark again.
In the following weeks, whiteness falls from the sky slowly, then all at once. It covers everything like a death shroud. The manor, already remote, becomes a graystone keep surrounded by slippery ice. Even the boy who delivers our groceries changes his bike routes to avoid the serpentine road connecting the manor to the town.
My visits to the master bedroom have been happening for a month when Master Edward has to leave again on urgent business. The head-rush of relief I feel at his departure is eclipsed by the freefall realization: My monthly blood has always been regular as the phases of the moon, but now my undergarments remain unstained. I should be happy, but all I feel is sore and heavy, like my body has been hanging off a noose for too long.
When I drag myself back into my bedroom after a long day of work, the Domovoi is there as though he never left. I choke on a sob. He puts his small hand against my belly, careful not to tear fabric or break skin with the knifesharp tips of his claws. The mad shine in the Domovoi’s amber eyes says, kin. It says, Yevgeniya.
I place my hand where the Domovoi’s has been. My mouth tastes like I’ve been sucking on American coins: dimes, pennies, and nickels. I know I agreed to conceive and carry the baby, I know, but I don’t want their money or sweets or caresses anymore. My belly is still flat beneath my splayed fingers, but for how long?
How long before Lily and Master Edward realize?
I try to delay the inevitable. I wear only the loosest of clothing; slice the skin of my thigh to draw a decoy of blood when my cycle would normally arrive; mask the odor of my morning sickness behind lavender and chamomile.
Whole days used to pass when the Domovoi and I didn’t see each other—I too busy performing my chores and keeping Lily company, while the Domovoi hid in his dark corners and alcoves, where he conversed with the insects and mice within the walls. Now, he rarely leaves my side. He hisses like a feral cat whenever his heightened hearing detects anyone approaching, and coils his scaly tail protectively around my ankle.
I wonder what Mamochka would say if she could see me now. Would she take me back? Think I’m tainted? An image of my siblings floats into my mind: Katya and Tommy, Ivana and the twins. When I close my eyes, however, their little faces all swirl and merge together into the face of my baby. I talk to it for the first time then, rubbing tentative circles into my belly. I tell my baby stories about Russia and the Domovois; about the long winters and miraculous springs. When my hand stills, I imagine the little bundle of cells is also pressing its hand against my inner wall.
Lily watches me more closely than usual when we happen upon each other in the halls. During our library sessions, I catch her peering at me over the rim of her porcelain teacup. She must suspect I’m hiding something from her, yet she holds her tongue.
Her actions aren’t nearly as stoic. I used to find her quirks endearing, but now her petulance and neediness cause an ugly feeling to churn inside me, bittering my marrow. She makes me climb the ladder to the highest shelves and retrieve dozens of heavy volumes, only for her to discard each book without so much as glancing at the first page. She asks for a strawberry tart, then smashes the plate against the wall when the dwindling pantry supplies only allow for bread and jam. Her tears have no end afterward, as if she is the one who is pregnant. And when she asks to braid my hair, she tugs at the knotted strands so hard, my scalp stings and stars burst in my line of vision.
“Is something wrong, my Lady?” I manage through gritted teeth.
Lily sets down the marbled tortoiseshell comb. She unclenches my fist and runs her thumb down each of my fingers until she settles on my fourth digit, the one devoid of a wedding ring. Her smile is that of the frescoed cherubs on the vaulted ceiling. “You wouldn’t betray me, would you, Jeanie?”
The Domovoi has jimmied open the pantry door adjacent to the kitchen, and now he reaps the rewards of being a house spirit by submerging himself in sacks of salted nuts and dried fruit. He would have raided the refrigerator as well, had the power not gone out due to the snowstorm, causing the butter to melt and the cream to sour inside the now-silent, dark husk.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I whisper from the kitchen sink. The knife in my hand is shaking; a glinting blur.
The Domovoi turns his gaze upon me. His somber expression reminds me of my Papa while he was still alive, before his fishing boat was caught in a storm and he drowned in the Atlantic. “You don’t have to.”
I look down at my stained apron that can no longer conceal the swell of my stomach. “But I agreed to it,” I reply.
He doesn’t say ‘I told you so,’ although I can tell from the flash of his crocus-yellow eyes that he wants to. Instead, he says, “You were in no position to agree to anything. Besides, they have no proof.”
Tears sting my eyes and burn hot trails down my face. They have nothing to do with the onions I’m peeling for a beef stew before the meat becomes rancid. “There’s a contract locked inside the study with my signature. Isn’t that proof enough?”
The Domovoi’s grin reveals two sharp rows of dirty teeth. “There is,” he agrees. “But not for long.”
I wipe my eyes on the scratchy wool of my sleeve and follow the Domovoi’s quick, short steps out of the kitchen, his nails clicking against the polished hardwood floors. The wind plasters bullet-sized snowflakes against the foggy windows; I shield my candlestick against a chilly draft. The Domovoi skitters past the grand staircase and halts outside the broad study doors.
“What if we get caught?” Even as I ask this, I know nobody will come. Master Edward is still away on business; no automobile will be able to drive through the snowdrifts that serve as nature’s blockade around the manor. As for Lily, she’s sick again, or scared of the storm, or both. Miss Greene won’t leave her bedside, ever the caring, complicit companion.
I raise my candlestick toward the door. The Domovoi licks the crust of salt and sugar from under his fingernails, then inserts one of his claws inside the lock and jiggles it around the inner mechanism. I pull the double doors open, and together we slink inside, feeling our way around the dark, stout silhouettes of furniture. My hand grips the edge of the mahogany desk, then the top drawer’s brass handle—another lock the Domovoi picks with glee.
In the flickering candlelight haze, I rifle through the various documents while my heart plays a primal drumbeat against my throat, pulsing right beneath Lily’s ruby necklace that I still can’t bring myself to take off. There should be one check inside the drawer, addressed to me, along with the contract bearing my signature. I plan to tear both to shreds, then burn those against my candle’s flame. Instead, I find two checks written and signed in Master Edward’s inky, cursive scrawl. One has my name on it. The other—older, crinklier, and much more damning—is addressed to someone named Alina Svetlanova.
I burst through the kitchen’s swinging doors and find Miss Greene steeping tea leaves into hot water for Lily’s afternoon treat. Alina’s check is scorching my skin through my apron pocket.
I stare Miss Greene down, and she wrings her liver-spotted hands together.
“What happened to her?” I ask in a voice that scares me with its deadly calm. “What happened to Alina Svetlanova?”
Miss Greene’s grimace makes her face look like a mask of melting beeswax. “I wanted to warn you, girl, I did.”
“No, you didn’t,” I accuse. “You never said a word.” She has stopped assigning me chores and tries to avoid me altogether. Whenever she sees me in the hallways, she looks away as if my gaze is capable of hexing her.
I channel the Domovoi, with his mad glinting eyes and carved claws, as I crowd Miss Greene against the wooden kitchen table. She attempts to back away, but I lean closer still and fix her with my gaze she so fears. “I don’t care if you’re Lily’s old nursemaid. I want the truth, and you’re going to give it to me.”
Miss Greene’s bony shoulders sag, resigned. “Alina traveled here from Russia to become a maid, all expenses paid. She belonged to the same agency as you.”
I remember the nameless maid agency, the coldly efficient women who took mine and the other girls’ photos, measurements, and medical histories. We couldn’t have known those records would make it all the way to America, into the hands of desperate couples like Lily and Master Edward. I remember the man in charge too, how he would look at us girls like slabs of meat on the cutting board. He was the one who bribed the ship captain into arranging my transportation hidden in the lowest part of his vessel.
Miss Greene wets her papery lips and continues, “She gave birth to twin boys, but then refused to give them up. Broke her promise to the Cunninghams. It was winter, too. Coldest one of the new century, they said.” She smiles humorlessly. I can’t look away from the misty films of her eyes. “She slipped and cracked her head against the ice while trying to escape. They didn’t find her and the babies until hours later. And by then it was too late.”
As if on cue, the baby inside me lands a kick that doubles me over. Miss Greene tries to steady me, but I shove her hand away.
“You cannot make the same mistake Alina did. What’s best for you is have the babe, take the money, and leave. It’s not right, but what other choice do you have?”
Miss Greene’s words infest my thoughts long after I’ve bolted out of the kitchen, leaving her alone with a hand pressed over her chest and dampness gathering in her cataracted eyes.
My own hand travels to my protruding belly.
What other choice do you have?
Like a house spirit, I can protect my kin.
The Domovoi latches onto the china cabinet, pulling open drawers and cupboards as he climbs higher. I only hesitate a moment before I accept the silverware set he extends my way. By selling Lily’s expensive gifts and the Domovoi’s loot, we can make enough money to get us through the winter.
I pile on as many layers of clothing as possible and scoop the Domovoi up into one of Lily’s satin slippers. To fit, he folds his long limbs and contorts himself into an impossible shape. Then he scratches a nail along the firebird embroidery, whistling in appreciation.
“Ready?” he asks, and I bite my lips and nod.
I fear we won’t make it to the door, but we do. Wind and snow greet us like an old friend. The sky is the charcoal gray of gunmetal. Squinting my eyes against the gelid gale, I cradle the slipper against my midsection and trudge down the frozen pathway to town.
“Jeanie, where are you going?”
The Domovoi grabs my coat sleeve in warning, but even after everything, that voice is enough to stall my footsteps. Like Lot’s wife, I look back over my shoulder. A deathly pale Lily stands in the manor’s shadowy doorway. Clad in a lace nightgown and with wild hair whipping in the storm, she looks like a ghost even among all the whiteness.
“Don’t leave me here all alone,” Lily shouts. It’s not the practiced whine she uses when she wants to have her way. This is real, this broken, high-pitched plea. She staggers after me, barefoot in the snow. “You won’t make it in this weather. You’ll come back begging for me, you’ll see.”
I know snow, have known it all my life, and this American cotton fluff is nothing like the real thing. I know all about survival too, through my babushka’s folktales and through my own.
The last thing Lily calls is, “Jeanie!” That one word echoes through the snow-smothered fields, and some distant bird caws shrilly in reply.
Though it hurts to hear her so raw, so naked, I do not turn back. This isn’t my real name. She doesn’t have power over me. So I take a gulp of chilly air to convince myself that I am no longer drowning, and keep going.
Once I have found a new, safe home for me and my baby, I’m going to bury Lily’s satin slipper in the snow, or burn it in the stove. Perhaps I’ll even say one final prayer for her as the billowing plumes of smoke dissipate.
And then we will be free.