1894 (Part One) by Jen Michalski
This excerpt was in the first draft of The Tide King—it’s a more comprehensive “origin story” of the enchanted herb, burnette saxifrage, that changes the lives of so many people who come in contact with it. It’s also the story of Stanley’s mother, Safine, how she came to America and met Stanley’s father. It was a lot of fun to trace Safine’s immigration to America through Europe, to try and find a route and date that would have Safine and her mother sailing through the Baltimore port and not Ellis Island. So much of The Tide King was the struggle with what I wanted to happen in the narrative and what was historically accurate. Many scenes were cut for that reason—certain things just could not have happened when I wanted them to, when it was convenient for them to happen in the novel.
Not so for this excerpt. It fit in the timeline, but in the second revision it became too much of a tangent. It slowed the pace of the novel. So it had to go, kill your babies and all that. I wound up writing over 600 pages for The Tide King over three years and only kept maybe 350 pages, so I could not be overly sentimental about each individual scene. Still, I’ve always regretted (and my editor, too!) that we were unable to keep these chapters about Safine and Ela.
Jen Michalski, author of The Tide King
When they burned the witch, it was said they burned her daughter too. Which is why, when Safine told her mother she’d been playing with a little girl by the bone house, she was punished for lying.
“Matka, it’s true.” Safine curled her lip, blinked back tears. She had had imaginary friends when she was younger, but she was eight now, too old for Matka to accuse her of such things.
“I told you not to go up to the bone house, first of all.” Her mother shooed her into their cottage. “And then you lie about the girl. Now wash the floor—you cannot go back outside today.”
From the kitchen window of their two-room cottage, Safine could see the bone house where the witch had once lived with her daughter. But that was a long time ago, according to Matka, even before Matka was Safine’s age. And the girl had been burned, too, everyone in the village said. But somehow in the house—a hut made with rocks and old animal bones and dirt—she lived.
Safine had always played on the side of their cottage that did not face the bone house. But a few days before, she heard a child singing. They lived far from the village, on a hill, away from other children; the voice tugged at her heart and her limbs and finally her head. She followed the sound of the voice up the hill.
The girl sat outside by the well, hugging a lalka. It was the only lalka Safine had ever seen and therefore the most beautiful. But it was beautiful even beyond that, Safine knew. It had a real face and a soft, red dress and little black shiny shoes. The girl lifted it by the arms above her head. Its face caught the sun, clear and white like Matka’s only teacup.
“Would you like to play with my lalka?” The girl looked at her and smiled. She was dark of hair and eyes, taller than Safine but not a woman, not even a teenager. Safine looked around the open field beyond the bone house, at the mountains of fir trees that stretched around the horizon, hugging them. She had been so mesmerized by the lalka that she hadn’t thought to sneak up on the girl.
“Are you a witch?”
“Do I look like a witch?” the girl laughed. She held out the doll. “Here. Would you like to hold her?”
Matka had told Safine stories, fairy tales, she supposed, about Baba Yagas who turned themselves into young, beautiful princesses and lured men to their huts. They lured children, too, and ate them, packing the bones in the mud and stone of their houses.
“I’d better not.” Safine moved her right foot backward, then her left. Then her right again.
“What’s your name?” the girl asked. She brought the doll to her breast. Safine herself could feel the weight of it in her arms, the soft fabric against her cheek. “I’m Ela.”
Safine could not remember whether the Baba Yagas asked for names, but she didn’t want to chance it. She retreated, feeling for the incline of the hill with her feet.
“Come back tomorrow.” Ela smiled still. Her dark hair was curly, wispy. Like Safine’s hair when Matka washed it once every few weeks, when they had leftover water from the laundry. “Maybe I will find you your own lalka.”
Safine scrubbed the stones of the cottage, ignoring the faint singing up the hill. When Matka returned with carrots and onion and cattails for stew, Safine was still, and the sound of Ela’s voice moved through the kitchen. Matka sat down at the table with her knife, peeled the carrot skins with her hands, which were dry and red with work, and did not look at Safine.
“You think the floor, it cleans itself?” Matka said after awhile, and Safine ground the bristles onto the stone, watched the lye run along the uneven, dirty rocks. She thought of waterways, of America, of her father.
“When will we go to be with Ojciec in America?” Safine stood by the table as Matka pushed some young cattail shoots toward her for peeling.
“When he is ready for us,” she answered. Safine could not tell whether this answer was different than “soon,” which is what Matka had told her months ago. Back when the letters were more frequent and Matka smiled more and talked about the big ship that Safine’s father took to America. To work in the factories, Matka explained vaguely. To make us rich, she said surely. The fields in Reszel were too small for farming, carved up generation after generation.
Ela did not sing at night. But she was in Safine’s dreams. Everyone was—Ojciec, Matka, the little bird that Safine fed breadcrumbs before she found it dead near the rosemary bushes. In the dream they lived in a castle, and Ojciec went to work in the factory and he brought home oranges and real potatoes, not the fishy-tasting cattails. And Ela had a lalka, too, but blond like Safine, with a white dress, whiter than the summer clouds. And they lived forever: her parents, Ela, and her songbird.
The next day it was a different song, sweeter than the last. It sounded like spring breezes and the warmth of Matka’s back when Safine pressed against it during the winter nights. She could taste it in her mouth, a pear. It smelled like grass. She looked at Matka as they ate the cold, leftover vegetable stew for breakfast with the leftover heels of bread. But Matka did not say anything, did not look toward the kitchen window, did not tilt her ear to the air.
“It looks like rain today,” she said finally, collecting the empty bowls. “I want you to stay inside.”
Safine sat in the corner of the bedroom with her dolls—twigs curled and tied together with string from Matka’s sewing kit. They were dressed in swatches of leftover fabric that Matka had used for their spring dresses. A single strand of brown yarn was knotted to the top of each stick, and Safine smoothed them with her hand, thinking of the dark silk hair on Ela’s doll. She went to the window in the kitchen and watched her mother, beating the quilt of its dust outside. The rope ran from the roof of their cottage to a tree twenty feet away. Her eyes followed the rope and trailed off to the hill, which was where she saw it. A heap of white and gold, like a fallen angel, at the base of the hill. She could make out legs and arms and even fingers. A lalka. Her lalka.
She leaned far out the window. If Matka had glanced to her right, she would see it too. She never saw Matka look, but when she finished beating the quilt Matka walked over to the hill, picked up the doll, and threw it toward the bone house as hard as she could. When Matka came back in the house with the beaten quilt, Safine crouched deep in the corner with her dolls, to hide from Matka her tears.
For four days the sun shone outside, and the only time Safine felt it on her arms and legs was when it leaked in through the kitchen window in the late afternoon. She danced in it, wishing she were outside with the birds and flowers. And Ela. In Safine’s dreams, Ela was no longer a stranger. In the hazy orange dream sky, they sat on the hill, the grass soft and warm, Ela’s head on her shoulder.
Then Ela began to sing at night, a song that felt like blisters, hard bread, winter dark. Safine’s heart was a heavy river stone. She rolled over and burrowed into her mother’s back, even though it was hot and the sweat of Matka’s skin came through her nightclothes and onto her face. Matka grumbled in her sleep, pushing Safine away. Safine held onto the edge of the bed and tried to close her ears, imagined birds building nests in the holes and filling them with their bodies. But then the birds began singing Ela’s song. Safine tried to swallow them, but they flew away, and Ela’s voice was clear, loud again.
Matka slept like a bear. She was heavier to move than their cow out to pasture. Safine would be only a minute. She slipped from the bed, moved the tree limb from the door, and slipped out of the cottage. The moon sat high, the sky purple, full of hot breath. Safine made her way around the cottage. She could see Ela at the top of the hill.
“You came.” Ela’s shoulders went up; she smiled. “Come on. Have you seen the forest at night?”
Safine could not even think about the forest at night. It was filled with Baba Yagas and wolves and slugs. But Ela took her hand. Together they entered the edge of the forest.
“Do you hear the wood owl at night?” Ela asked, and Safine nodded, afraid to breathe. She wanted to run home and stick her face into Matka’s back, no matter how salty and foul. “I will show you where he lives.”
They wound through the dark trunks and thick undergrowth. It was not as scary as Safine had imagined. The crickets talked to the frogs, who talked to the owl. They were as busy as the village on trading day, when Matka took her cattails and milk and other meager crops and tried to get them a few cups of flour, a bowl of oxen tail.
“See? You are not as alone at night as you think,” Ela smiled. “There is always someone awake.”
“Where is your matka?” Safine asked, and Ela did not answer. She bowed her head so low Safine was afraid she would trip on a stone or a root. She squeezed Ela’s hand. “I bet you could live with me and my matka.”
“That’s okay; no one wants me to live with them.” Ela shook her head. “My mother died. I have been alone for a long, long time. I am so lonely for company, but the villagers think I am a witch. They do not understand why I grow no bigger.”
“I am big for my age, Matka says. Maybe you are small for yours?”
“No.” Ela patted her shoulder. “I will tell you sometime. Tonight let me enjoy that fact that I finally have company.”
They reached the tree where the wood owl sang. It cocked its head at them as Ela said hello. Ela showed her a stream that Matka had never taken her to; the water was clean and cold. She yearned to tell Matka of this new stream but knew she could not. Nor could she tell her of the owl, the family of squirrels, the honey tree, the way the moon peeked through canopy of branches, making sure they were safe. And she could never, ever tell her about Ela.
They traveled so far west that they passed through the forest and came upon a clearing, burned to black chalk by a lightning strike, and nothing grew in this grave save for a plant with three to four long stems, little white bouquets of flowers topping them.
“Take this herb,” Ela broke off a flower by the stem and handed it to her. “Burnet saxifrage. It will make you stay young and beautiful. Your hands will not curl like your matka’s; your face will not line, and your lips scowl. You will experience a long, prosperous life.”
“Tomorrow night may I take it?” Safine answered. “I do not feel so well tonight.”
“Do not fear me.” Ela put her hands on Safine’s shoulders and sought out her eyes. “I would never harm you.”
“I know.” Safine nodded, and bent over so Ela would not see the quiver of her lip. She did not want to lose her only friend, but if she took the herb, maybe Ela would turn into the Baba Yaga she feared and herself into a pig to be eaten. “But I must get home tonight because I feel very sour. I shall take it tomorrow, when I feel better. I promise.”
“You do not trust me,” Ela smiled. She led her away from the blackened patch where flowers grew. “It’s all right.”
Ela did not mention the flower again. Every night, Safine stole away and saw Ela, and it was as if it had not happened. Safine wondered if she had dreamed it. Sometimes they walked in the woods; other times they lay on the grass in the moonlight, talking softly. One night, she even went inside the bone house. It was small and dark and smelled a little of rot, but Ela’s quilts were soft and warm and colorful, full of colors Safine had not even seen, except in her mouth (the pink of her gums). She looked for the lalkas but did not see them. Safine bit her tongue so that she would not ask about them.
But Ela seemed to sense her disappointment, and the next night, when Safine went to the hill, Ela waited, a doll in each arm. She held out the blond doll, but Safine did not take it right away.
“Where did you get such beautiful lalkas?” she asked. It seemed too good to be true, something Matka had always warned her against. Only a Baba Yaya, Safine reasoned, could produce such beautiful dolls.
“My matka gave me them.” Ela’s arm dropped back to her body, the blond lalka’s hair swinging toward the ground. “I have been waiting so long for a friend to play dolls with.”
“How did your matka die?”
“Your questions hurt me,” Ela frowned. “I only wanted a friend to help me forget my loneliness. Yet you only try to remind me of it.”
Ela went into the bone house. Safine did not call after her. She ran down the hill and slipped back in her bed. She promised herself never to leave it, because her next encounter with Ela she might not be so lucky.
When they went to the village to sell the milk and cattails, the villagers seemed particularly talkative. In the spice store, the man who sold them nutmeg and sugar whispered to Matka that the girl had been in town recently.
“I gave her some sugar,” he said, his overgrown mustache moving with his lips. “What was I to do?”
“We have nothing to give her to keep her so appeased,” Matka answered, glancing at Safine to make sure she wasn’t listening. Safine hummed and sucked on the small piece of rock candy the nutmeg man gave her. “I wish my husband would call for us.”
“I know a captain.” The nutmeg man leaned forward on his stool, lighting his pipe. “You work your way on the ship.”
“Thank you, Erlin, but we will wait for my husband.” Matka gathered her sacks and nudged Safine. “Come. Don’t dawdle.”
The honey lady was next. Her store was at the far end of the village and filled with hives, but the buzzing began well before one was halfway there. When Safine was younger the bees that swarmed around the store had scared her, and she waited outside. But she had gotten braver and let the moving mounds land on her arms, her clothes, as she stood by her mother. The honey lady had a thick skin of black fur that moved on her arms and neck. Safine always wondered whether they tickled, whether they kept the honey lady up at night with their buzzing.
“She got some honey from me, of course.” The honey lady ladled a small amount of honey into Matka’s teacup. It would be a treat for her and Safine, with their tea, their biscuits. Safine could feel the tiny drop Makta drizzled on her roll in her mouth. Her mouth watered, and she almost forgot to pay attention.
“I have nothing to give her.” Matka put her honey in her sack. “What could she take from me?”
“Things more precious than honey.” The honey lady glanced at Safine. Safine felt cold in her stomach and back. She thrashed at the bees, afraid they would sting her. They floated away before starting back at her, diving toward her body.
“Matka, make them go!” Safine cried. Matka put her hand on Safine’s mouth, staring her in the eyes as the honey lady stood up and guided the bees to a honeycomb in her hand.
“Przepraszam.” Matka bowed to the honey lady in apology. “She’s battled the fever recently.”
“Poor child—take some extra honey.” The honey lady motioned to another honeycomb behind her, dripping with golden syrup. “And keep her swaddled in blankets.”
“But Matka, I’m not sick,” Safine said as Matka pulled her outside.
“What do I tell you?” Matka slapped her on the left cheek. “Seen, not heard. Hurry—the sun is low in the sky.”
That night, Safine could not sleep. She wondered who the villagers talked about, why would they give her sugar, honey, leather so freely when Matka saved so long for those things and still could not afford so many of them. She wondered if Ela was sleeping. Safine wondered what would happen if Matka disappeared. In the day, it would not be so bad, because she could play outside again and maybe explore the woods, find the cold stream. But she could not imagine the nights alone. The wolves would creep from the forest and eat her. Baba Yagas would steal her from her home. And yet Ela lived every day and every night alone, and if she had these fears, Safine did not sense them.
She could smell the warm honey and bread. Matka had made the oxtail for dinner and the chewiness of it still soured in Safine’s mouth. They had not had their own honey and sugar yet—it needed to last the whole month, and it would be several days before Matka allowed the first taste of it. But she could not be imagining it. She slipped from the bed where Matka’s body rose and fell in heavy sighs and went into the kitchen. The table was bare. She walked toward the window and stopped with a start. Ela was standing on the other side, a few feet away.
“I brought you something.” Ela held out the warm bun. It was drizzled with not only honey, but butter. “You don’t have to come out. I will give it to you here, see?”
She put the bun on the window ledge and took a few steps back.
“I miss you” was all she said before she started back up the hill. Safine stared at the bun. The melted butter ran down the side, and Safine had no choice but to pick it up before it settled on the ledge. She held the bun between thumb and forefinger, waited for a moment before she realized she was still Safine and not a frog or a nymph. She put the bun against her lips. Still nothing. Then she shoved it in her mouth, and in a few bites, it was gone.
She had never tasted such delicious bread. The butter was salted, something she had only had once before, and she had been almost too young to remember it. It was when Ojciec was still home. It was odd how she remembered the taste of buttered salt and not what Ojciec had looked like. She licked her lips and, with scarcely a moment to enjoy it, wondered whether she would die. She hurried to the bedroom and burrowed herself into her mother’s back, feeling each breath enter her body and leave it. Which would be her last? Her heart rang in her throat. She willed the tears to stop, lest she wet Matka’s back and wake her. She cried inside her eyes that she would leave Matka lonely, that she would never see Ojciec again.
But she woke up the next day and she was alive. A flick of dough still rested in the well of her back tooth. She pried it loose with her tongue and tasted it.
Click here to purchase The Tide King.
Jen Michalski‘s debut novel The Tide King is available from Black Lawrence Press (2013). She is the author of two collections of fiction, Close Encounters (So New, 2007) and From Here (Aqueous Books, 2013) and a collection of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books, 2013). She also is the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore (CityLit Press 2010), which won a 2010 “Best of Baltimore” award from Baltimore Magazine. Her fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww, a co-host of the monthly reading series The 510 Readings in Baltimore, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown.