Chickens are squawking in the yard. There’s a great commotion; heated male voices, shouting and confusion, then, the wailing of women. As the headman, I must calm them, but as I step outside I see my sons, Cheslav and Kreshimir, running out of the compound, followed by our men and a slew of girls. I wipe my hands on my apron and follow. They’re headed toward the river.
I’m running now. My small daughter, Mila, runs alongside me. She senses something is wrong and is wide-eyed with fear. A crowd is gathered at the banks, I push my way through them, and see Cheslav wading through the reeds and motioning to his brother, who rushes to help him. They haul a sodden body out, and as they carry it, water pours off in rivulets, like rain. Everything slows down. It is as if I am deaf, and all I can hear is the throbbing of my own pulse as it quickens. Vladimir stands next to me, struck dumb. It is Vesna, my daughter, his bride. I close her eyes and pick her up. The crowd parts, and I carry her down the long road back home.
I swear by Rod and Crnobog that whoever has done this will pay the price.
A watery death, peaceful and clean; Vesna is asleep among the grasses and weeds.
‘Did you tell Vladimir what you saw?’ I ask, but Morana denies it. She’s lying, of course. I see it in her eyes. We’re picking berries in the thicket, and she won’t meet my gaze.
‘You must never tell. Yaroslav will think the deed was done as revenge. He will blame Vladimir.’
‘What if it was the Outlander?’ Morana asks.
‘He had no reason.’
‘Vladimir had reason besides revenge. He wants you,’ she says, stuffing the berries in her mouth, until her lips turn purple. ‘He had you on the summer solstice. He wants you again.’
I don’t answer her. How does she know these things? But she was always like that, from her smallest steps, always busy, always watching other people.
‘On Yarilo, this spring, we walked next to each other,’ I say. I carried wildflowers, and he carried green fronds. I had a new dress, a gift from Vesna’s mother for helping ease her pains this winter when she was ill. I had embroidered the white linen with red thread. When Vladimir looked at me, I could see what he was thinking, and a bolt of pleasure shot through my body. We followed the procession and went from house to house, singing songs of spring and reawakening. We gave each other pisanke: goose eggs, colored red and white, as gifts.
‘On Kresh, we sat together at the bonfires, drinking and feasting. I danced with you and the other girls around the fire, and he leaped over it and danced; jumping and twirling, just for me.’ We ran away, like other couples, and fell to the ground under the stars. Our union blessed the fields and the animals. Afterward we went to the river to bathe. I’m dreamy, remembering. The seventh month came and passed. He was betrothed to Vesna then, and then after Perunovo, the holy days of thunder, we saw each other no more.
‘He can be yours by Bozhich. The old year will die and the new year will be reborn, and you and he with it,’ she says.
I wonder what’s in it for her, my faithful friend. ‘Don’t tell anyone Vladimir knew about Vesna and the Outlander. Promise me you’ll keep him safe.’
She looks straight at me with those empty blue eyes and says, ‘I promise.’