Meanwhile he starved, though occasionally some sympathetic old baba yaga would scuttle forth from her kennel to spare him a stale pierogen or a potato as soft as a powder puff. These he would dine on for days, storing the leftovers under the burlap in the refrigerated casket to extend their relative freshness. Lightheaded from hunger, Salo sometimes daydreamed: The river he had just been ferried across (for the price of reading scripture aloud to an illiterate ferryman) was the lost Sambatyon, on the other side of which lay the land of the immortal red-headed Jews. Or had he strayed off the map of the known world entirely and crossed the border into Sitra Achra, the kingdom of demons, which was beyond God’s jurisdiction? But even as he indulged them, Salo recognized such notions as merely the shades of dead fancies, lingering vapors of the bubble-brained boy he had been only a short time ago. Moreover, with every meal he missed, a bit more of his vestigial baby fat melted from his bones, and although there were no available mirrors, Salo could feel that he was becoming somebody else: He was a young man transporting a sacred burden through a menacing winter landscape, the hero of his own unfolding story, who had no need of encumbering himself any longer with superstition and grandmothers’ tales.
Sometime during the third week after the departure from his native shtetl, Salo came across a thickset peasant in sheep pelts shambling along the road, clutching one end of a rope that trailed over his shoulder. At the other end of the rope was a noose that circumscribed the neck of a woman whose haggard features—nose protruding like a cucumber from the folds of a ragged shawl—identified her as a suffering Jewess. Salo’s first impulse was to nod deferentially to the peasant and pass by. The journey had taken a toll: His empty belly whistled to rival the flatus of his rattle-boned mare, and his feet ached as if he were trampling glass; to say nothing of how the relentless cold froze his brain. But prey to a stronger urge than self-preservation, Salo addressed the man in the Polish he’d heard since birth, and scarcely recognized his own brash voice.
“What’s that you got there, friend?”
“Are you blind, friend?” said the peasant, giving the salutation a hostile emphasis as he continued to walk on.
At that Salo gripped Bathsheba’s bridle to halt her, and turned to inquire in as diplomatic a tone as he could muster, “Beg pardon, but has no one challenged your right to the woman?”
The peasant abruptly paused and turned about, bristling, his flat face as flushed as a purple onion. “I found her in the village of Plok,” he barked. “She’s mine.”
“Who’s arguing?” said the young man, conciliatory, then gently submitted, “But isn’t she, excuse me, a human being?”
The peasant peered at Salo as if he were a half-wit. “I knew she wasn’t a goat.”
Salo grinned, deciding to try another tack. He cleared his throat and assumed an attitude he thought of as strictly business. “So what’ll you take for her?”
The peasant cocked an ear. “Is she for sale?”
Shrugging what he supposed was a mercantile shrug, Salo replied, “Everything’s for sale, friend.”
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