I say evolve, and let the chips
Fall where they may
-The Dust Brothers' "This is Your Life"
There once was a big house in the snow. In this house was a family.
They could not leave.
Their world mapped to the kitchen, but for the Men-Cousin and Father-venturing out for firewood. There was some outside the house, of course, but that was madness.
They all slept gathered around the stove, which never went cold.
That, too, was death.
Katiya found that the empty rooms of the house weighing on her mind like the drifts of snow, outside the door.
Empty rooms, with nothing more then echoes and silence.
"We must have patience," said Mother.
"We must have grace," said Aunt.
"We must have food," groaned Father. He glared at the empty table, as if it were somehow the fault of the rough-hewn wood.
"We must have heat!" wailed the children. The kitchen was the warmest room in the house, with it's large oven. They normally ate in the main dining room, but that would've been a waste of what little warmth they possessed.
One disadvantage of the kitchen; looking at all the pots and pans only reminded them of their empty stomachs. And there wasn't much heat. Just enough, to stave off the bitter wind whistling outside, to turn one's thoughts to the snow and dark everlasting.
"We must be quiet," said Katiya. She placed some thin borscht on the table, and the family fell upon it ravenously. She managed a smile, trying not to think of what happened once that small portion was gone. Katiya was young and beautiful, and would be prettier if her cheeks weren't thinned by hunger and worry. She would have suitors plenty, could they get through the whiteness that blanketed every inch of the fields around their estate.
She wanted to scream.
So she cooked.
Mother and Aunt talked as they worked at the counter. A thin attempt to hold back the fear that never left, that was as much a part of their lives as the house they lived in. Katiya joined them. She found the chatter did not keep the worry at bay; a momentary lull was enough to bring to mind the rapidly dwindling store of firewood, the way the children laughed less and less.
The walls were not enough. They were not nearly enough.
And so; Katiya busied herself. With the children, playing games with string and telling what stories she can remember. With the door, to open it when the men need to come in. With Inge.
Inge. Old Inge with the clever hands, weaving Cat's Cradles into fantastic shapes until those hands were stiffened by rhematism. Inge who could could food to make strong men weep. Until she lost her sense of taste and smell. Inge who could weave whole worlds from nothing more then bright, bright words. Until her sight failed and her mind weakened and she could not remember where she was from one moment to the next.
Inge stubbornly refused to die.
Father had pointed at the woodpile, months ago. He had set aside a portion, and said "This is for Inge." Inge was sick at the time, doubtless to perish soon, a soon that had stretched for weeks. Father had started to talk about what it would be like if they did not have to waste wood on "that woman". Not loudly enough that Mother might hear; Inge had nursemaided both him and his children, and had been a maid and cook before that.
"It is just an object," said Inge, staring at something in the distance, beyond the walls of the room. "It does not mean what you think."
"What?" said Katiya, rousing.
"Do not worry about Inge," the old woman chuckled. "I have served this family for many years, and am happy with what little I could do."
"We will all die," Inge continued, as if the girl hadn't said anything.
"Da" said Katiya miserably. "The Angel of Death comes to us all."
The woman shakes her head impatiently. "No, no, no," she says, punctuating each word with a quick pat of the girl's hand. "We will die."
Katiya felt a chill worm its way down her spine. She adjusted her shawl. "What do you mean?"
"This house, this line, it will be no more." Her old eyes stared at something only she saw. "The line will die here, in this house."
Katiya adjusted her shawl again. "That's nonsense," she said, not sure who she was trying to comfort. "Inge, you must get your rest."
"Ja," said the old woman, smiling faintly. "It is nothing but an old woman's madness. You must rest too."
The girl smiled; that was better. Inge released her hand. She looked back at the old woman, once, as she left. Inge raised her hand, slowly, ever so slowly.
"Goodbye, my Katiya," she said.
Katiya nodded and left.
Afterwards, she asked herself if she had known, somehow, if she had forseen that moment when Father came through the door, to shake his head.
There was desperation then. Something there in the way that Cousin tested the blade of his axe, the way Aunt looked at the children, the way Mother wielded her knife. Even Katiya finds herself looking at her family and gauging the meat on their bones.
She shakes herself.
The family was somewhat wealthy. Paintings with gilt frames. A silver teapot or two. Gems and jewels that shone with cold light. A light that gave no succor to anyone at all.
You cannot eat wealth.
But you can burn it.
The deeds go first. Property papers for land in places they will never see. Almost worthless, but for the pitiful amount of heat they give.
Then the banknotes. They were found in on of the locked drawers. Cousin had to smash the lock with an axe; the key is long lost.
Then the desk. Father eyed it, and asked Cousin to help.
Cousin's chest swelled with his own importance. He was A Man!
Katiya looked at him and he suddenly seemed ridiculous. What use was maturity when they could all be dead within a week?
She went to play with the children.
"What are they doing?" one of the children asked. Katiya was loosing her hands from a knot, and took a few seconds to respond. "They are finding firewood," she said.
"Why do they need to-"
"We need fire so we will not die." A moment later she realized her error. She winced. The child had not heard her; it was listening to the sound of boots approaching.
Cousin walked in, and placed something on the table. "We found this," he said. Aunt touched it, curiously. Then she moved it a little to the left, and Katiya knew what it was. She blushed.
"What is it?" said Aunt.
"I do not know," said Cousin. "It was in the desk."
"This is no stone I recognize," Aunt murmured.
"I do," said Father as he came in. "Give it to the night. Quickly."
With an angry growl, Father grabbed the icon off of the table, opened the door-and stopped.
There was a wolf at the door.
It growled weakly, and then collapsed. Katiya rushed forward and laid a hand on its forehead. She shivered in the wind as she looked into its blind white eyes-
She couldn't stop shivering.
"I'm fine. I just..." Father shut the open door. She noticed that the stone...thing...was gone, and the wolf was inside.
Katiya backed up until she hit one of the chairs around the table. "What-"
Father looked at her strangely. "You do not know?" He walked over to the counter and picked up a chopper. Katiya's heart stopped.
"Food." he said simply.
One meal a day, for all of them. If they were very, very lucky, three days. No one would steal food. No one would dare.
The wariness shifted, then. Something deeper than simple death. Looks to the left, to the right, a predator's awareness of competition. No one leaves the table, no one blinks until their portion is done.
The book was in the library. Cousin opened it, and found that the pages would not tear. He is wiser, now. He took it straight to the kitchen.
Father came in while they were staring at it.
"Burn it," was all he said.
"Father, the ikons match those on the last object!" Katiya burst out. "That stone p-"
"I know. Burn it." He opened the stove.
"Father!" She spoke out against her father. No one ever spoke out against the father. "We could learn-"
"I will not be an abomination!" Father raged.
His words caused a brief, stunned silence.
"Husband..." said Mother slowly. "You know what this is?"
"Da," he said angrily. "My father and his father before him researched the subject, and I swore, I swore I would have no part in it. Witchcraft. Darkness. Madness. Let us be rid of it. We must give it to the flame it came from."
It would not burn.
"Let us break it and cast its pages into the night," said Father.
It did not yield to axe or knife or any manner of blade.
"Give it to the wind, and let it leave us be!" said Mother, as she wrung her kerchief.
They found it the next morning, on the table. The women were in hysterics. The children were scared. The men were moody.
Katiya was interested.
They had shoved the book into the corner, and covered it with things that would not burn, that they could not eat.
Katiya rose at midnight to retrieve it. She lit one of their last candles and sat at the table. The pages were not even creased, She noted.
She read the book far into the night, and when the family rose, she was waiting for them, holding it before her breast.
"Salvation," she whispered, her eyes bright.
The object was a powerful artifact. None knew where it came from, and it held immense power. Used properly it could change the wielder and anyone around them into half-animal...things. But it was a way out; it meant they could survive.
As one, the family turned to look at Father.
"There is blood on the pages?" he asked heavily.
"Yes. How did you-"
"We will talk about this tonight."
Tonight came, after another day of surviving. No hot food, now; not enough fuel.
Katiya sat at the table in silence, staring at her father. She found that she could tell exactly when her family fell asleep, just from their breathing.
"Do you know how your Grandfather died?" Father asked as he sat down.
"He went mad, ran into the night, and was lost."
"But you were never told why." Father had a bottle that had been secreted somewhere, and he drank from it. "It was because of this." He tapped the book.
"I do not understand-"
"Neither did he. This book is my father's knowledge of the runes on that...thing."
Katiya took a few seconds to make the connection. "The stone p-"
"Da! That cursed object! Do you know how one learns the meanings of those ikons, my Katiya? The forgotten tongues, the rituals of blood, the thousand secret names of creatures God has turned his face from? I do, and it was because I watched my Grandfather slowly go mad. He spent years of his life and half of our birthright chasing knowledge, and my father nearly lost the rest!"
One of the sleepers turned over.
Father touched the fine inkworked drawing of the object. "Such a small thing, to cause so much pain." He returned his gaze to his daughter. "Do you know how your Grandfather died?"
Katiya leaned away from him, the man she had spent her life with and did not know. "I-"
"One of these," Father said. His finger stabbed at another drawing, this of a creature half-man, half dog. There were many such drawings in the book. Katiya's ancestors had found the bones of these creatures, studied them, and learned. Intricate sections of the body; fur and skin and fat reproduced in exact detail.
Katiya thought of obsession.
"Your grandfather was careless, yes? Too careless. One slip, one mistake, and he was lost."
Katiya barely breathed as she whispered "What did he become?"
"But...there are no reindeer in the forest."
Father smiled at Katiya's puzzled look. "I had forgotten your ignorance; we were not always the...lesser house we are today. We once had lands across the land, from sea to sea, land to rival the Tsars themselves." Another smile, a fainter one. "But we have always been happy to serve the motherland."
"The reindeer?" Katiya pressed.
"Yes, yes," Father said impatiently. "I was playing in the garden with your Uncle, rest his soul, when we heard a scream. Grandfather's assistants came running, and something leaped out of the rear window. It looked at us, and ran into the woods. There was a service for Grandfather shortly after that. I never saw his body."
"But the p-the idol, how did it come to be in the desk?"
"I do not know," Father shrugged. "Perhaps Mother hid it. Perhaps one of Father's assistants hid it, planning to take it later. Perhaps Father hid it himself. It does not matter; I knew it had to be cast out of our house, lest my father's fate befall me. Or worse; one of you."
"But Father," Katiya says, reaching across the table to clutch his hands. "What if this book was made for a reason? What if it is here to save us?"
Father stared at her, considering.
"I knew," he said. "I always knew they wanted me to walk in their footsteps." He sighed. "If...if I agreed, what would we become?"
"It would have to be the wolf." Katiya said slowly. "We have burned the hunting trophies." Katiya says. It is a poor attempt at a joke.
Father smiled, faintly. He took some of the drink and stood up. His pacing ended, strangely, at some onions Inge hung from the rafters, the last service she performed before her illness. "It would be to trade one Hell for another," he said.
"We would gain our lives, but what would we lose? Katiya, what would we lose?"
"Nothing," she whispered, holding the book in between them. He is frightening now, these quiet words new to her. It is worse than his rages, which she knows. A cold fury matched by the storm. "Nothing but an empty house. Nothing but an empty title. Nothing but all these treasures." Her wave took in the kitchen and the large, dark spaces beyond. "Nothing but some fear." A pause. "Is that not a small price?"
Father stared at her.
"But we do not have the idol," he said slowly. One last chance.
Katiya considered. Then she went to the door and opened it slightly. Even that light touch of cold made the sleepers huddle closer together. Katiya's arm went out. It returned holding the idol.
"Need, Father." Katiya was swaying on her feet with tiredness, but she still closed the door. A small smile was on her face, and she cradled the idol in the crook of her arm. "There can be no greater need than ours."
She went to bed.
The decision was entirely Father's; if he had expressly forbidden them to read the book, it would still be buried. But he was a brave man, and she had no doubt he would make the right decision.
As she fell asleep, it occured to her she had no idea what that is.
The day dawned clear and cold, as had all the days before it. Katiya found that she could not remember the warmth of the sun on her face, merely a cold, white light in a window they cannot spare the water to clean.
Katiya had no idea where Inge kept the soap. She stared at the ceiling, at the plain wooden beams. There were little ones to either side of her, so she could not move her arms much.
She thought of a coffin.
When the family rose, they found Father, standing tall. The bottle was gone, and Katiya found no weariness in his eyes, no trace of drinnk. Just sadness and resignation.
"The children first," was all he said.
When the storm ends, the men come.
They find an empty house, the back door open, snow piled on the simple dirt floor. They gaze with wonder at the old paintings in their gilt frames. They find clothes of all sizes under the snow, as if the family had simply taken them off and walked into the storm. But that was madness.
Perhaps they had gone mad.
There is nothing left of the family, but for the clothes, and the dead servant's body.
"This is an evil place," one man whispers.
There is a pause, then, while the wind whistles through the empty halls. The horses, outside, stamp their feet.
"Let us burn it."
Hastily, what ablutions they can remember are performed over the dead woman, and they take the torch to the house. After all, they say to themselves, she was an old woman from a far-off land, and the only ones who will mourn her are gone. Consumed, some will say for years afterward, by the storm.
Today, that family has been all but forgotten. Yes, people say they have seen, from a distance, wolves prowling about the ashes as if it were theirs. Yes, some say they saw strange wolf-creatures prowling through the forest. Yes, mothers still tell children of how the family sold their souls, to a man who passed through a storm no man could pass, and how they walked into the night and were never seen again.
But that is their legacy, not their memory. Of the family, nothing remains but the broken, blackened bones of a once-great house, like hands reaching for the sky.