The fire had died down to its hot embers. The music had finished. People were wandering away, leaving only their voices floating, languid and profound, from the shadowy groves. The sky was dusky but the river seemed to have gathered all the light of the sunset and the fire into it, because it still glowed pink and orange, and the wading bodies of men and women were silhouetted black against it, dipping into liquid fire, liquid sunset.
For a moment, Masha thought she had been left alone. But then the Cossack girl touched her shoulder.
“Let’s go, Masha. It’s time.”
“Time for what?”
“Time to find the enchanted place.” It was Nechipor, materializing on her other side. “Are you ready, young fellow – er, lass? Lasses,” he added rather doubtfully, surveying the Cossack girl.
“Ready,” said Masha.
“Time to find the magic fern flower and your birthday present, your heart’s desire,” said her friend. “Are you ready?”
“Ready,” said Masha.
They set off together into the dark maze of paths between the allotments.
“Three sets of eyes to look out for three things,” said Nechipor. “Cossack number one, look left for the deacon’s dovecote. Cossack number two, eyes right for the church dome. And Cossack number three – that’s me, in respect of my greater age and experience – will guard the rear for old hairy-legs himself should he take it into his pumpkin head to interfere. Forward march!”
Masha obediently turned her eyes to the left. There was no one in sight, but all around the night was alive with rustling, with whispers and giggles and sighs. The sky still held the milky paleness of midsummer, and the few stars shone faintly. There was a glow of golden-white light ahead of them: the moon was rising.
“I can see the dovecote,” Masha whispered. She hadn’t meant to whisper – it just came out that way. She tugged on Nechipor’s sleeve. “Look!”
And there it was, poking above the trees.
“Well done,” boomed Nechipor, clearly not constrained by the mysterious need to whisper. “We’ll track down our treasure tonight, you bet we will, by my grandmother’s whiskers, God rest her soul. And the devil can just go and stick his head in a sack—”
He broke off rather suddenly. Because the dovecote seemed to have jumped out of the distance and was right in front of them, perched perkily on its one wooden leg. Masha looked more closely. Was that a chicken’s leg?
A long high cackle of laughter rang out, and the little house, on what definitely was a chicken’s leg, hopped right round and presented them with a small wooden door. The door popped open, a ladder unfolded with a snap, and skipping down the ladder came a dreadful old lady with a nose curving down and a chin curving up till they almost met like a pair of nutcrackers.
Nechipor’s mouth fell open. He even seemed to have turned rather pale. The old woman hobbled rapidly towards them, her knobbly stick tapping busily.
“Good evening! How good of you to come and see me, my dears,” she piped in a terribly refined voice. “Oh, how delightful to have guests! Do come and sit down. I don’t have cucumber sandwiches to offer you and the tea is a little stronger than you’re used to, I expect, but we are so, so happy to have you for dinner.” And she put one hand politely in front of her mouth and tittered behind it. Then she seized Masha’s wrist and in a moment she had dragged all three of them round the dovecote to a long table in a clearing lit by skulls on sticks.
They really were round human skulls on the sticks, with bright torchlight shining out of their eye sockets and between their grinning teeth. The cheerfully ghastly light illuminated the white cloth on the table, which appeared to stretch for ever, spread with a vast array of plates and cups and old-fashioned china teapots. Round the table sat a huge crowd of women. There were old ones and young ones, all with bright lipsticked mouths, thickly plastered eyeshadow and long artificial lashes. They seemed to be having a fantastically good time. They laughed and sang and gossiped and smoked and chomped on huge mouthfuls of food and sipped tea out of dainty china cups holding their little fingers elegantly crooked.
“Ladies,” cried the old woman from the dovecote. “Do greet our guests. Just in time for the main course!”
Text © 2008 Lily Hyde
Reproduced by permission of Walker Books Ltd, London SE11 5HJ