The ninth year of Margarita Yurevna Platnikova’s life was the year that the village of the Lungs finally got its prized silver icon back. It was also the year that she was sunburned four days in a row and once in the dark. That year, from November to October, it rained only tiny white daisies and petunias and Margarita landed in a flower bed after falling out of Babushka’s window. It was also the year Rita died.
When Rita finally settled back in her blanket, Max nestled in beside her. Babushka had gone back to her sewing, but was much slower at it now. The fabric flopped back and forth on her lap like a dying cotton fish.
As Rita stroked Max’s back she said, “I thought that the hill spirit was supposed to be good for the Lungs.”
Babushka nodded. “Just not for us. He’s a powerful creature.”
“Have you ever seen him?” She traced the half-sunflower on her pup.
“One time, yes, when I was about your age.” Her voice was low. She brought the fabric close to her blue eyes, squinted, and then jabbed the needle through the edge and pulled it out the other end.
“But he didn’t get you? See, it’s a misunderstanding.”
“He didn’t get me because I never gave him a chance,” said Babushka. “I picked up my skirts and ran home, screaming like a maniac. Once you see those eyes,” she paused, “it doesn’t matter if he’s cursed you or not.” She adjusted her legs and her knees cracked beneath the blanket. “Besides, my child, that was before your papa married your mama. The curse is from her side of the family.”
Rita stopped petting Max, her hand resting on his pudgy belly. Her pup raised his head and asked with his eyes why she had ceased. He sniffed and licked her hand.
“What does he look like?”
“He’s big, my dear, as big as a lion. His coat is speckled with gold and black and white. And his eyes are very deep, like water in a grave.”
Rita imagined Mistress Katrina chasing the hunting dog around with the watercolors they used in her classroom. But then she frowned and in her mind the dog stopped running. He was as big as the church now, hiding behind the schoolhouse with his jaws wide open. The lay nun ran right into his gaping maw. The bird in the tree outside the window departed from its branch and Rita jumped—the movement cast a shadow over the frosty ground and into her heart.
Babushka cleared her throat. “His footprints—”
“Aren’t they made of gold?” Rita turned away from the window to Max. “I wish you could do that.”
“Dearest, it’s best to stay away from him.”
She frowned. “But I’ve never gone looking for him—I’ve got a good dog right here. And me and Sasha are always outside but he hasn’t come for us. I don’t think we could even be cursed by a dog, Baba. What time did you see him when you ran?”
“It was near dinnertime, I think.” She squinted at the light thread in her needle.
Rita snuggled closer to Max. “See? Not even at dawn. He’s just misunderstood. Dawn is when he’s supposed to hunt, after all.”
The front door opened and Agafea Dmitrievna walked through with brown bags of food and goods in her arms. Her hair was stiff from the cold and she was still sucking her teeth for warmth. She pulled her neck and chin out of her scarf and shook the snow from the top of her head. Max leapt from the loveseat and scrambled over to sniff her. She shooed him away with her foot.
“It’s getting slushy out there,” she said. “Who let you in, you dirty dog?” She smiled and put the bags on the table. Her employer the landowner Dorosh sometimes allowed her to stuff these bags full of excess foods and items his housekeeper and cook didn’t need. Charity for their cleaning lady. The bag on the left fell on its side and a bundle of candles toppled out. “Who’s misunderstood?” she asked.
Rita sat up. “The hill spirit, Mama. I think people got the facts wrong—”
As the words left her mouth, she caught Babushka’s bulging eyes and remembered she wasn’t to say anything. She clapped her hands over her mouth and her blanket fell halfway to the floor.
Agafea Dmitrievna became pale. The blood drained from her face like the snowflakes that now started their journey down the windowpane.
“Margarita Yurevna, you are never to speak of that creature in this house again, do you hear me?” She took a step forward and water dripped from her boots.
Rita’s cheeks grew hot. “Yes, Mama,” she whispered.
“Don’t you speculate, don’t you guess, don’t you think about it at all. It’s a lie—it’s a terrible lie.” Her right hand gripped one of the bags. It crumpled.
“Go to your room. Go practice your lines for the play.”
Rita sprang up. Max bounded after her as she slipped up the stairs. She remembered her socks, turned around, but saw Agafea’s livid face and raced upstairs to her room instead, pausing by the door frame. Her mother spoke to Babushka.
“How could you fill her head with those lies? You know Rita—you know she believes everything at once. To give her such ideas—”
“The children need to know—”
Rita shut the door. Her eyes filled with tears. Max was already on her bed and she walked over and got in next to him, looking out the window at the swaying grass of Big Field.
“But it’s not true, Maxy,” she whispered. Her feet started to get cold. Sasha snored.
She sniffled and wiped her snot on the sheet. Max adjusted in his spot, patting down the comforter with his front paws, nuzzling the sheet into a bunch with his nose, and shoving himself between the two.
“I’ve got to find the hill spirit and tell him he doesn’t have to scare Mama anymore—get him to admit that there’s no curse.”
Max huffed at her and soon added his snores to Sasha’s. Rita watched the snow fall outside the window until she fell asleep to dreams of a multicolored Max with paws of gold.
The snowfall over the Lungs soon turned to slush. When night fell it began to rain, but a peculiar rain with white daisies and petunias in every drop. They plopped on each house like sluggish hail and dripped down the roofs into gardens and gathered in pools beneath porches. It coated the steppes with flowers, one for each blade of grass. Near dawn the flower rain stopped and the temperature lowered, freezing the pathways around the village and trapping the daisies and petunias in the ice like insects in amber.