Fall came at last to lay cool fingers on the summer-dry grass; the light went from gold to gray and the clouds grew damp and soft. If Vasya still wept for her brother and sister, she did not do it where her family could see her, and she stopped asking her father every day if she was big enough to go to Moscow. But she ate her porridge with wolf-like intensity and asked Dunya often if she had grown any bigger. She avoided her sewing and her stepmother both. Anna stamped and gave shrill orders, but Vasya defied them.
That summer she rambled the woods, while the light lasted and into the night. There was no Sasha now to catch her when she fled, and she fled often, despite Dunya’s scolding. But the days drew in, the weather worsened, and on the short, blustery afternoons, Vasya would some-times sit indoors on her stool. There, she would eat her bread and talk to the domovoi.
The domovoi was small and squat and brown. He had a long beard and brilliant eyes. At night he crept out of the oven to wipe the plates and scour away the soot. He used to do mending, too, when people left it out, but Anna would shriek if she saw a stray shirt, and few of the servants would risk her anger. Before Vasya’s stepmother arrived, they had left offerings for him: a bowl of milk or a bit of bread. But Anna shrieked then, too. Dunya and the serving- maids had begun hiding their offerings in odd corners where Anna rarely came.
Vasya talked between bites, kicking her feet against the legs of her stool. The domovoi was stitching— she had furtively handed him her mending. His tiny fingers flicked fast as gnats on a summer day. Their conversation was, as always, rather one- sided.
“Where do you come from?” Vasya asked him, her mouth full. She had asked this question before, but sometimes his answer changed.
The domovoi did not look up or pause in his work.
“Here,” he said. “You mean there are more of you?” inquired the girl, peering about.
The notion seemed to disconcert the domovoi. “No.”
“But if you’re the only one, then where do you come from?”
Philosophical conversation was not the domovoi’s strong suit. His seamed brow furrowed, and there was a suggestion of hesitation in his hands. “I am here because the house is here. If the house weren’t here, I wouldn’t be, either.”
Vasilisa could not make head or tail of his answer. “So,” she tried again, “if the house is burned by Tatars, you’ll die?”
The domovoi looked as though he were struggling with an unfathomable concept. “No.”
“But you just said that— ”
The domovoi intimated at this point, with a certain brusqueness in his hands, that he did not care for any more talk. Vasya had finished her bread, anyway. Puzzling to herself, she slid from her stool in a scatter of crumbs. The domovoi gave her a tight-lipped glare. Guiltily, she brushed at the crumbs, scattering them further. Finally she gave up and fled, only to trip on a loose board and carom into Anna Ivanovna, who stood in the doorway staring with her mouth half open.
In her defence, Vasya did not mean to send her stepmother reeling against the doorframe, but she was strong and raw-boned for her age and could scamper very fast. Vasya looked up in quick apology but stopped, arrested. Anna was white as salt, with a little colour burning in each cheek. Her breast heaved. Vasya took a step backward.
“Vasya,” Anna began, sounding strangled. “Who were you talking to?”
Vasya, taken aback, said nothing.
“Answer me, child! Who were you talking to?”
Vasya, disconcerted, settled on the safest answer. “No one.”
Anna’s glance darted from Vasya to the room behind. Abruptly she reached out and slapped Vasya across the face.
Vasya put her hand to her cheek, pale with astonished fury. The tears sprang to her eyes a moment later. Her father beat her often enough, but with a grave application of justice. She had never been struck in anger in her life.
“I won’t ask again,” said Anna.
“It’s only the domovoi,” Vasya whispered. Her eyes were huge. “Just the domovoi.”
“And what manner of devil,” demanded Anna, shrilly, “is the domovoi?”
Vasya, bewildered and trying not to cry, said nothing.
Anna raised a hand to slap her again.
“He helps clean the house,” Vasya stammered hastily. “He does no harm.”
Anna’s eyes darted, blazing, into the room and her face flushed dully red. “Go away, you!” she screeched. The domovoi looked up in aggrieved confusion. Anna rounded back on Vasilisa. “Domovoi?” Anna hissed, advancing on her stepdaughter. “Domovoi? There is no such thing as a domovoi!”
Vasya, furious, bewildered, opened her mouth to contradict, caught her stepmother’s expression, and closed it with a snap. She’d never seen anyone look so frightened.
“Get out of here,” cried Anna. “Get out, get out!”
The last word was a screech, and Vasya turned and fled.