Gonashi and Turgey
Dusk was fast approaching and snow still lightly falling when I awoke from a pounding in my dream to a pounding upon my door. While I slept, my lady had succeeded in turning her body somewhat onto its left side. The blanket was raised enough for me to see that she had also succeeded in hoisting the undergarment roughly to her waist. She was emitting a low wail which I considered to be an attempt to wake me.
I seized my cap and ever-present ax and burst out the door as if bent upon obtaining some firewood. This way I could save inviting my visitor inside just to determine his business.
My neighbor Gonashi, the poor shepherd who lived at the river crossing two hours or so toward the village, Pinea, stood before me as a supplicant, and with him a youth — his oldest son, Stallo. By a rein the youth held the bob-tail mare.
“My friend, Gonashi!” I greeted him and we bowed to one another. “How well to see you!”
“My son and I have found this horse.” As if I might not have seen it, Gonashi waved his arm behind him to indicate the beast. After a pause he explained further, since I remained silent: “We are come to return it to its owner, and we thought that it might belong to your master.”
“I wish it were ours, oh Friend, but it is not, nor is it one I have seen before.” (How boldly I lied!) Gonashi was no threat to my safety, but I needed to maintain a consistent fabrication with everyone I might meet.
“I see,” Gonashi said, and hung his head.
I waited, for a moment, then invited them inside for a cup of stew. “I have a sufferer, very ill, and my master is still away, but I am sure you could join me for a rest or until morning.” I was confident that they would decline, but it was not a great risk even if they stayed.
“Thank you, Friend Kolyei,” Gonashi replied, “but we have only set out at mid-day and have traveled but little. Clearly we will go many stadia before we have found this mare’s owner. We are prepared to travel.”
I considered what this honest man would go through to look for the non-existent owner, and what he would be forced to do when he would give up the search. I thought about his pastures, mushy with thawing ground water, the crusts of snow perforated with sprouting crocuses intent upon driving winter away. I thought about lambing, and pregnant ewes getting stuck in the mud along the river’s edge. I loved this quiet man, who humbly provided Sadruk and me with fresh sheep parts and products for our medicine stocks and asked nothing for them: gonads, eyes, and bladders, the oil of boiled lambs’ wool, and the fat scraped from the skin. Gonashi was not the rough, arrogant gospodar that I was accustomed to in a sheep owner. Nor was he timid or weak. He was simple, clear-eyed, sincere, and a very hard worker.
“Friend Gonashi, I think you would be justified even now to turn this horse over to the magistrate. He would understand. You cannot afford to be gone from your tasks for so long as it may take to find this horse’s home. You are required only to make a search, and I can avow that you have done that. You are not required to search until you find. Perhaps this is the horse of one who —” I paused, lowering my voice, for I had warmed to my speech “— of one who has had an unfortunate accident, or perhaps it was set loose for being mean-tempered.”
“You are wise, Friend Kolyei. My compliments to your master. We will continue to search for a while, but I will not neglect my family. We will go.”
I watched them move away under the pair of giant pines that sheltered my short path to the road. Then, to relieve the heaviness I felt at seeing them thus occupied at my indiscretion, I called after them: “If the magistrate wishes to find a home for such a fine beast, you may tell him that I am willing to be its owner!”
“And I, too!” Gonashi called back. “But of course, I cannot!” It was true. One who found an item of worth and who turned it in to the magistrate could not request to claim the same item. This was to prevent lawful stealing.
And I truly did not want the horse! First, I was not prepared to shelter and feed such a beast, and second, I could not take the chance of having it around where my lady, upon sufficient recovery, might see and recognize it, not to mention others familiar with the dead man. “Friend Gonashi!” I called at last. “If the magistrate will give it to me, I will surely repay you!” I hoped my phony sincerity didn’t show.
“You are a friend,” Gonashi called back, and waved good-bye.
Inside, I bent over my lady in order to see her face. Although her eyes were large and bright and by daylight I could have seen them open from anywhere in the house, in the rapidly advancing darkness, and with my flawed vision, I needed to peer closely. My presence startled her, but then slowly she turned flat onto her back again.
“More food?” I asked.
She declined with a shake of the head, and again I pitied her look of pain and nausea.
“Can I make you more comfortable?”
Again she declined.
“Can we talk, then?” I suggested.
After a pause she assented. “I don’t believe he — would have left me,” she whispered. “He doesn’t know these parts. We have only just entered — these woods from the south. Where could he have gone? Did he say — how soon he — would return?”
I hadn’t thought of that, so I busied myself with feeding the fire. By then I could respond: “There was a problem with the cart, and he wanted to get it repaired as quickly as possible. Whereas I am a physician, I have not the means to offer carriage repairs, so I directed him to the near village of Pinea, a half-day’s journey by foot, therefore much shorter by horse.”
“I believe he would have stayed,” she repeated, no longer resorting to whispers.
After a moment she asked: “What sort of horse — did your friend find?”
I answered half truthfully: “A shaggy, bob-tail, tarpan mare that looks like those to be found in the west, I’d say.”
Then she asked: “Who is your master?”
“The physician who owns this house, and who has been my teacher, is Sadruk, of Pinea.” I spoke fondly of him, as indeed I was, or had been until he died at my hand. I pulled a bench from beside the stove to the edge of the bed, and I sat.
Hoarsely, she pressed on: “And he is away, you say.” She had overheard my whole conversation with Gonashi the shepherd. That was all right for the most part, for soon she would have to know more about me and about her surroundings.
“He travels to Bulgária, near Greece, to learn, sometimes to teach, and to bring back new medicines.” Truly Sadruk had done just that a few times in the past. He had gone there twice since I’d been with him, always attaching himself to a party of others leaving from Drizha, the village to our south. Most recently he had gone in order to learn the ways of diagnosing disease by the study of the sufferer’s urine. He had been in the process of teaching me about this very subject when he died. For days he had been gnawing on tough bearberry leaves. The effect was to turn his urine bright green. If a person were suffering from a urinary ailment, Sadruk was telling me, the bearberry leaves would have made the urine brown. But what to do for the ailment — that was lost to me when Sadruk suddenly died. My notes, inscribed several days later, also say that the bearberry can be made into a tea, but to what purpose I still don’t know. That is a secret of the Greeks. Sadruk would have traveled there many more times, and I might soon have been asked to go along.
Occasionally while we talked my lady stiffened with spasm, a new development, and one which I hoped she would not ask me to explain.
“I suppose you know my name, and some things about me?” my lady challenged presently, turning slowly onto her back in order to face me. The movement made her wince until she was settled again. I didn’t offer to help but sat close at hand and watched stupidly.
“Your name!” I replied cheerily. “Well, that’s interesting, because I completely neglected to inquire for that information. Why don’t you tell me who you are, so that I may address you properly?”
“And I suppose that you know not who it was that left me here?”
“That too I did not ask.”
The lady paused to gather some force for her next pronouncement: “You may be — a physician,” she groaned, “but you are also a fool. A fool for — not asking, or a fool for believing — that I would accept no explanation for your lapse in not asking.”
The truth, so plainly stated — that I was a fool — stung me a little, coming from so fine a woman as she. But I could forgive her, out of pity if for no other reason. “Your husband said —”
“My husband?” she interrupted hoarsely, then gritted her teeth for another spasm.
“He referred to you as his wife,” I lied, losing my confidence.
“He would not have done that,” she said, relaxing again into the bed.
I sat silently beside her, trying to maintain an air of innocence, and struggled with a lump in my throat.
“I am sorry,” she told me at last. “You are — not to blame, and you obviously have — no knowledge of me.” At this she laughed bitterly and strangely, suffering as she did so. “I shouldn’t actually say — you have no knowledge of me. Perhaps better to say you — know nothing about me. If you were told it, or out of kindness you have concluded — that he and I are married, that is not your fault. You are a good care giver.”
“Thank you, Madam,” I said humbly.
“I am not a ‘Madam,’ I am a ‘Miss.’”
“And you are right in one thing,” I told her sincerely, “but I make no excuses for it: I am a fool, and not only since you arrived.”
“I am hungry, if you please,” she said, changing her mind about my offer of more food. “And I hurt greatly.”
I brought her broth with morsels of solid meat and dried beets in it this time, my best hardwood spoon, and a hard biscuit to gnaw. I dined with her and ate very slowly, since she needed a great deal of time and much help to consume anything.
I still had to know what she knew of the accident, so I hit upon Yomo, the sow. “I butchered a pig last night, you know,” I ventured, “so that you might have some good meat.”
“Surely not only for me.”
“Well, for me, too. And for your companion, when he returns. You might have seen this pig when you arrived. She was not well-fattened.”
“I saw no pig. I saw nothing when I arrived. I know only that I was greatly…” she adjusted her position “…fatigued in that carriage, trying to sleep while — being tossed about on your horrible road, and then — the thing was tumbling like a thrown stone.”
I believed her. Patiently I held her stew before her as she paused for long spells between mouthfuls.
But, my horrible road! Indeed, it was my road. It was part of the bargain by which the magistrate of Pinea, elected by the mir to be starosta as well as Prince Askold’s ruler in this part of the volost, allowed me to stay in his district. For, as is the case with any woodland resident, Sadruk was responsible to maintain a clear path for half the distance to his nearest neighbor in each direction. But this was a job the older physician did poorly, preoccupied as he always had been with his science. I was assigned the job, a masterful stroke for the magistrate, (for I believed that I did it very well). I introduced to him and to the region my own idea for improving the road system, and yet not my own thought but the method invented by the prince of my northern homeland. We laid straight, long poles of evergreen at the center of the path, all the way to the next citizen’s boundary of responsibility. Once laid, the poles marked the road so that it would not be lost in the rush of springtime growth, and these poles had to be replaced only infrequently, as when some traveler burned one for fuel or cut it up for wagon parts.
For a traveler on foot the poles made handy spans across streams and mud. An agile traveler could traverse a distance of pole road very quickly, since he could avoid snares of tree roots and undergrowth. Depending how they were harnessed and depending whether drawn by men or by beasts, carriages and carts could straddle the poles and find the packed wheel tracks on either side — or ruts where these were unavoidable. And ambitious drivers of carts could “borrow” the poles near a deeper stream, lash them end to end, lay two sets side by side, and lay shorter logs across the pair to form a solid bridge wide enough for the vehicle. I always tried to provide a stack of poles near river and stream crossings for this purpose, thereby not to lose the ones meant to mark the road itself.
I knew that I maintained my part of the road better than anyone else from Pinea to Drizha, so the lady’s complaint about the path cut me like a sharp stone to the ankle.
I must have reflected on these thoughts for as long as it has taken to write them, for when I next regarded the young woman, she had finished the cup of stew that I was spooning into her and was saying: “I am wracked with pain, and I know I must sleep.”
I made her a fixative of flummery strongly laced with acid of spiræa and told her she must swallow two mouthfuls. “This would ease your aching if you were less sorely injured,” I said. “In your present circumstances I can say only that it will help, but I can promise no total relief from pain.” I had to feed her the pasty substance, but she seemed eager for any abatement of her agony.
“It needs salt,” she commented in an advisory tone. “Tomorrow I shall sit, with your assistance,” she announced when she’d finished, “and the next day you will help me to my feet.”
I wanted to protest, but reluctantly I agreed to cooperate in her plan. As I watched, she closed her eyes, turned her head, and panted lightly. I let her sleep.
+ + +
I was up early to do some chores which I took some delight in attending. I added to the stew, still at simmer on the stove. I aired the room of smoke and then went onto the roof to retrieve some meat. Yomo’s carcass, cut up and wrapped, was at one end of the roof so that it not be confused with Sadruk’s stored slave organs. As I sawed at a pork bone with a dull blade I paid no attention to the world around, so when Turgey shouted a greeting from only an arm’s length beyond my dangling feet, he startled me, and I fell off the roof.
The freeloader stepped aside, not even attempting to break my fall, but I was able to sit on my sore tail and laugh with him. His cloak in shreds and patches, he was still, somehow, the picture of vagabond dignity. A missing tooth gave his grin a peculiarly personal edge, and the elaborate bindings on his feet gave his costume a look of palace importance.
“When I found you absent, and Sadruk also, I was tempted to join the lady in the master’s bed!” Turgey confessed as I struggled to rise.
“You can’t imagine how much you’d have regretted such an act,” I said as I hoisted myself to a hunched erectness.
“You realize, of course, that I must take my pleasure wherever I can find it,” Turgey grinned down at me. Each time I saw him I was once again struck by his towering height, and I almost lamented that he could have been a guard for the Prince or a man of high authority, given his imposing presence.
I straightened and dismissed these pointless thoughts, which could only humiliate him. I led him slowly to the front of the house. He had already peeked inside, so I bowed to him at the door and invited him in for a meal and conversation. “What were you doing on the roof, Friend?” Turgey was asking as I passed under the lintel.
So I turned and told him, matter-of-factly, that there were two piles of meat on the roof: that which Yomo had bestowed upon us, for which I thanked him directly, and some organs and other portions from a couple of dead slaves, which gruesome by-product of death Sadruk had secured there in the fall. “What news do you bring?” I then asked.
Turgey barely waited for the invitation before he ducked under the lintel and strode into the warm chamber. “Oh, Kolyei, the greatest news. Yes, the greatest news!” he exclaimed, spinning around with his face uplifted and his arms raised.
I stared at him with frank skepticism. There were few people in the world who made me feel superior, and I liked to show him that he was one of those whom I looked upon with good-natured contempt. In fact, it was this relationship, which he also accepted, that made me welcome his ill-timed visit. “What is the news, Friend Turgey?”
“Kolyei, it’s wonderful! I’ve been keeping careful watch on the length of daylight, and it’s increasing once more! The gods of light are once again pushing back the armies of the gods of darkness! We shall have longer days once more. Even now the length of day surely exceeds the length of night!”
I ladled some stew into a large, shallow bowl from which we could both spoon our breakfast. I also took from a post a pouch containing two fists of dried berries that I knew my guest would appreciate, and sat it before us. I cringed to realize that I was probably surrendering my entire remaining stock of such fruit, for I brewed many remedies and drinks from them. Turgey sucked and slurped and munched and splashed, and consumed the entire portion of dried berries. After I had eaten a little I stared at the man as we sat together on my bench. I watched him drip the heavy broth freely into his beard, and I knew that for the remainder of his visit, after our bowl was licked dry, I would watch him suck on tufts of the matted hair in order to glean the flavor and crumbs from it.
At last I spoke: “What you’re witnessing is the change of seasons, Turgey. Haven’t you heard of the seasons?”
“A plausible explanation, Kolyei, but every few years spring does not come. Besides, where do seasons come from? The gods must control them!”
“When did spring not come, Turgey?”
“A few years past, My Friend. It was late autumn, and I was traveling far beyond the north shore of the Sea of Balta, and I was forced to stop in a very unfriendly village. There was a trained bear that had its own house, and they made me live with the bear.”
(I peeked around Turgey and squinted at my lady, lying close by, as his story became more and more preposterous. I caught her glaring at Turgey’s back through the slits of her eyelids, pretending to sleep, but challenging me to know that she was offended.)
My guest prattled on: “Even though it was only autumn, the snow came suddenly and stayed, and I could go no farther. The people of this town could not speak a real language. They only jabbered in strange syllables, and so they were very unfriendly. So I had only the bear’s own house for my shelter. The snow was so deep that neither the bear nor I ventured outside even to loose our bowels…”
“Even the bear held it all winter?”
Turgey feigned pain at the insult to his honesty. But he wouldn’t be stopped, and I counted on that fact. I wished the lady to hear this tale as well, for I hoped his sincere absurdity would amuse her.
I wanted to ask him what they ate. If neither went outside, where did they get food? Why didn’t the bear remain asleep, as I knew bears would ordinarily do?
“The snow piled deeper and deeper, and the nights became longer and longer until there was virtually no daylight at all. And then it remained that way for weeks upon weeks. Twice I was able to crawl out through the roof and find other people atop the snow, who gave me little bits of food and fuel in the frigid darkness. I asked them what was happening, and all pretended that this was quite normal. So I was forced to nibble crumbs and to hoard fuel that I could not light and to huddle inside that little house with the stinking, unfriendly bear.”
“Didn’t the bear sleep away the winter?” I had to ask.
“Of course it did, My Friend, but it awoke briefly every few days and snarled at the unending darkness. Months went by, and eventually I could stand it no more. So one dark morning, I crawled out again and, with wide planks strapped to my feet, I raced toward the south for days without stopping. Still, the daylight didn’t come more than a couple of hours a day. And then, in a town on the south shore of the sea, I met some travelers who were as bewildered by the phenomenon as I, for they had just come from the west, and reported that they had already seen crops in bloom and warblers in the trees.
“I told them, of course, of my experience to the north. They thanked me for warning them against proceeding farther, and they rewarded me with this fine silver dagger, which I have carried ever since.”
Turgey handed me the knife, and I admired it well, turning it over and over in my hands. When had this adventure taken place? Before I first met Turgey, perhaps? And only now he showed me this great dagger?
“It’s yours, Friend Kolyei,” he declared.
I thought about the sword and the money that I already possessed, which had belonged to my lady’s nobleman. So I refused Turgey’s gift, gently but firmly, and asked him what I could do for him that he would be so generous with his knife-of-good-fortune.
“I need some oil of fliskouni, Friend Physician. I have found it useful in treating this boil that threatens to rot my nose right off my face. Our friend and your master, Sadruk-the-physician, first treated me with it.” Turgey’s left cheek was an open sore, weeping yellowish clear fluid which formed a crust at the edges.
I produced a clay flask of the oil he requested, my last quantity of it, but I knew that I would be able to replace it in a few months, once the herbs in the forest yielded their new growth.
“This isn’t all you wanted of me, is it,” I stated openly.
“I have something else which I had also hoped to leave behind with you,” he admitted quietly. But then he turned to study the lady’s slight form on the bed, covered as it was with furs.
“That is a sufferer in my charge,” I explained frankly, “a stranger in this forest, who was injured and left in my care. She is sorely wounded and how long I shall tend her I don’t know.”
“And your master?” he asked.
“Gone for a considerable time,” I said truthfully, because forever is a considerable time. “Just what else was it you wanted us to have, Friend Turgey?” Had the trained bear fallen in love with him and followed him here? Did he have a wagon-load of silver daggers he’d stolen from a vendor? A corpse, perhaps?
“A nine-year-old girl,” Turgey said sheepishly.
“Where is she now?” I asked him with alarm.
“Safe. Quite safe right now. You see, I was forced to remain in a town called Riga for many weeks, mistaken for a cripple that had run away from the town. Of course, I am no cripple, but that was the point; they thought that I had hobbled away and found a magician to heal me in the evil arts, and had then returned. So they put me to work in the stables of the magistrate. Hard work, Friend Kolyei! Riga is a very large town, and the magistrate has many horses! The few times I tried to speak with the magistrate and explain that I was a learned and worthy fellow just as he was, he had me whipped!
“They said that I had begged from everyone all my life and had never worked for my swill, and now I must repay the debt. Well, there was no debt to repay, for I was not their man! So, by the time I could escape from the injustice, I calculated that the town owed me a considerable debt. And so, I took the magistrate’s young daughter, to carry my things and to keep me company.
“Let me tell you: It was a bad idea. Now this is all true, I promise under the name of Shonsak. I see your look of amusement! Kolyei, I expected some resistance from the child. But no! She has clung to me like a louse. She talks without ceasing! She berates me constantly. She believes none of my stories, and yet she begs me to tell them to her again and again.
“I waited in an area near the convergence of two rivers, hoping that someone would come from Riga to find her. I have even abandoned her along the way a few times, but she is swift as a doe, and crafty, and cheerfully she catches up to me in a few days.”
“Where is she now?” I asked.
“She is with your neighbor by the river, the shepherd Gonashi. She knows by now that I can’t evade her, so she made no protest to my coming farther to see my friends, the physicians. Gonashi assured her that you live nearby.”
“She is undefiled?” I asked, without knowing why it mattered.
“Kolyei! You dishonor me! She is a child, although a fat one who will make a healthy and desirable woman. I admit, I had thought what she might mean to me if I kept her for a few years. But you know me. I can plot ahead, but I am easily diverted, so no plan is ever carried out. At least I know that about myself. I didn’t know five days ago that I would be seeing you this soon again!”
I thought of my vulnerability, my sufferer, my crimes, my short life and long future. Turgey was always flirting with disaster. Any wanderer is suspect wherever he goes, and Turgey thrived on this notoriety and suspicion. I, on the other hand, have survived by being inconspicuous and deliberate, even hesitant and indecisive.
“I see your problem, Friend Turgey,” I replied. “But you can see by my circumstances that another belly to fill and another mouth to make noise is not what I need.”
We sat silent for a moment, and then I added: “Besides, Turgey, why haven’t you simply taken her back to Riga yourself?”
My visitor gazed at me with big, sad eyes. I read in them that the entire story of the girl’s origin was untrue. I wanted to ask for the true story, but I knew that he would simply fabricate another fantasy.
“It’s true that I can’t escape her,” Turgey said, staring off into the room and twining part of his beard into the side of his mouth. “But you’re right to refuse to take her. In fact, she’s not a girl, but a boy of about nine. A very fair child, and I hoped you’d accept and I’d be gone before you’d find out that he wasn’t a girl after all. Then, some years later I would return and you’d accuse me of tricking you, and I’d assure you that all along I thought he was a girl. Oh, well. You’re too good a friend to be treated that way by the likes of me.”
I had to ask: “So, did you know he wasn’t a girl when you took him from his home?”
Turgey gave an ironic smile. “If I told you that he followed me, that I didn’t steal him as I had said, would you believe me?”
“What difference would it make, My Friend? No matter what you tell, I’m always greatly entertained. And isn’t that what you’re about, anyway?”
“You’re right. I don’t know why I come here, because I can’t hustle you or your master. But maybe that’s why I like you: You help me find my true identity once in a great while, and I can know that beneath all that I am not, there is someone that is who I am.”
To my surprise, Turgey’s eyes reddened and he produced a few brief tears. We stood and hugged, and I knew that presently he would regain his composure, his deliberate self-delusion, and his walk in life. I also knew that he wouldn’t linger as a guest. The self-examination was too constant. We stood outside in the cold mist for many more minutes, talking about little things, as if he were the man of means that he sometimes purported to be, pausing on his journey to pass the time with this country physician. I made him a gift of some more food, bundled tightly for easy carrying. No sooner had he departed than I missed his company and wanted to run after him and ask him and the boy to stay.
But I resisted, out of indecision.