Please take a moment to review Hachette Book Group's updated Privacy Policy: read the updated policy here.

The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

A magical debut with a fairy tale feel that will break your heart . . . Perfect for fans of The Night Circus, The Bear and the Nightingale and Uprooted.

 

 

97803164832921

1

Liba

If you want to know the history of a town, read the gravestones in its cemetery. That’s what my Tati always says. Instead of praying in the synagogue like all the other men of our town, my father goes to the cemetery to pray. I like to go there with him every morning.

The oldest gravestone in our cemetery dates back to 1666. It’s the grave I like to visit most. The names on the stone have long since been eroded by time. It is said in our shtetl that it marks the final resting place of a bride and a groom who died together on their wedding day. We don’t know anything else about them, but we know that they were buried, arms embracing, in one grave. I like to put a stone on their grave when I go there, to make sure their souls stay down where they belong, and when I do, I say a prayer that I too will someday find a love like that.

That grave is the reason we know that there were Jews in Dubossary as far back as 1666. Mami always said that this town was founded in love and that’s why my parents chose to live here. I think it means something else—that our town was founded in tragedy. The death of those young lovers has been a pall hanging over Dubossary since its inception. Death lives here. Death will always live here.

2

Laya

I see Liba going
to the cemetery with Tati.
I don’t know
what she sees
in all those cold stones.
But I watch,
and wonder,
why he never takes me.

When we were little,
Liba and I went to
the Talmud Torah.
For Liba, the black letters
were like something
only she could decipher.
I never understood
what she searched for,
in those black
scratches of ink.
I would watch
the window,
study the forest
and the sky.

When we walked home,
Liba would watch the boys
come out of the cheder
down the road.
I know that when she looked
at Dovid, Lazer and Nachman,
she wondered
what was taught
behind the walls
the girls were not
allowed to enter.

After her Bat Mitzvah,
Tati taught her Torah.
He tried to teach me too,
when my turn came,
but all I felt was
distraction,
disinterest.
Chanoch l’naar al pi darko,
Tati would say,
teach every child
in his own way,
and sigh,
and get up
and open the door.
Gey, gezinte heit—
I accept that you’re different, go.

And while I was grateful,
I always wondered
why he gave up
without a fight.

3

Liba

As I follow the large steps my father’s boots make in the snow, I revel in the solitude. This is why I cherish our morning walks. They give me time to talk to Tati, but also time to think. “In silence you can hear God,” Tati says to me as we walk. But I don’t hear God in the silence—I hear myself. I come here to get away from the noises of the town and the chatter of the townsfolk. It’s where I can be fully me.

“What does God sound like?” I ask him. When I walk with Tati, I feel like I’m supposed to think about important things, like prayer and faith.

“Sometimes the voice of God is referred to as a bat kol,” he says. I translate the Hebrew out loud: “The daughter of a voice? That doesn’t make any sense.”

He chuckles. “Some say that bat kol means an echo, but others say it means a hum or a reverberation, something you sense in the air that’s caused by the motion of the universe—part of the human voice, but also part of every other sound in the world, even the sounds that our ears can’t hear. It means that sometimes even the smallest voice can have a big opinion.” He grins, and I know that he means me, his daughter; that my opinion matters. I wish it were true. Not everybody in our town sees things the way my father does. Most women and girls do not study Torah; they don’t learn or ask questions like I do. For the most part, our voices don’t matter. I know I’m lucky that Tati is my father.

Although I love Tati’s stories and his answers, I wonder why a small voice is a daughter’s voice. Sometimes I wish my voice could be loud—like a roar. But that is not a modest way to think. The older I get, the more immodest my thoughts become.

I feel my cheeks flush as my mind wanders to all the things I shouldn’t be thinking about—what it would feel like to hold the hand of a man, what it might feel like to kiss someone, what it’s like when you finally find the man you’re meant to marry and you get to be alone together, in bed . . . I swallow and shake my head to clear my thoughts.

If I shared the fact that this is all I think about lately, Mami and Tati would say it means it’s time for me to get married. But I’m not sure I want to get married yet. I want to marry for love, not convenience. These thoughts feel like sacrilege. I know that I will marry a man my father chooses. That’s the way it’s done in our town and among Tati’s people. Mami and Tati married for love, and it has not been an easy path for them.

I take a deep breath and shake my head from all my thoughts. This morning, everything looks clean from the snow that fell last night and I imagine the icy frost coating the insides of my lungs and mind, making my thoughts white and pure. I love being outside in our forest more than anything at times like these, because the white feels like it hides all our flaws.

Perhaps that’s why I often see Tati in the dark forest that surrounds our home praying to God or—as he would say—the Ribbono Shel Oylam, the Master of the Universe, by himself, eyes shut, arms outstretched to the sky. Maybe he comes out here to feel new again too.

Tati comes from the town of Kupel, a few days’ walk from here. He came here and joined a small group of Chassidim in the town—the followers of the late Reb Mendele, who was a disciple of the great and holy Ba’al Shem Tov. There is a small shtiebl where the men pray, in what used to be the home of Urka the Coachman. It is said that the Ba’al Shem Tov himself used to sit under the tree in Urka’s courtyard. The Chassidim here accepted my father with open arms, but nobody accepted my mother.

Sometimes I wonder if Reb Mendele and the Ba’al Shem Tov (zichrono livracha) were still with us, would the community treat Mami differently? Would they see how hard she tries to be a good Jew, and how wrong the other Jews in town are for not treating her with love and respect. It makes me angry how quickly rumors spread, that Mami’s kitchen isn’t kosher (it is!) just because she doesn’t cover her hair like the other married Jewish women in our town.

That’s why Tati built our home, sturdy and warm like he is, outside our town in the forest. It’s what Mami wanted: not to be under constant scrutiny, and to have plenty of room to plant fruit trees and make honey and keep chickens and goats. We have a small barn with a cow and a goat, and a bee glade out back and an orchard that leads all the way down to the river. Tati works in town as a builder and a laborer in the fields. But he is also a scholar, worthy of the title Rebbe, though none of the men in town call him that.

Sometimes I think my father knows more than the other Chassidim in our town, even more than Rabbi Borowitz who leads our tiny kehilla, and the bare bones prayer minyan of ten men that Tati sometimes helps complete. There are many things my father likes to keep secret, like his morning dips in the Dniester River that I never see, but know about, his prayer at the graveside of Reb Mendele, and our library. Our walls are covered in holy books—his sforim, and I often fall asleep to the sound of him reading from the Talmud, the Midrash, and the many mystical books of the Chassidim. The stories he reads sound like fairy tales to me, about magical places like Babel and Jerusalem.

In these places, there are scholarly men. Father would be respected there, a king among men. And there are learned boys of marriageable age—the kind of boys Tati would like me to marry someday. In my daydreams, they line up at the door, waiting to get a glimpse of me—the learned, pious daughter of the Rebbe. And my Tati would only pick the wisest and kindest for me.

I shake my head. In my heart of hearts, that’s not really what I want. When Laya and I sleep in our loft, I look out the skylight above our heads and pretend that someone will someday find his way to our cabin, climb up onto the roof, and look in from above. He will see me and fall instantly in love.

Because lately I feel like time is running out. The older I get, the harder it will be to find someone. And when I think about that, I wonder why Tati insists that Laya and I wait until we are at least eighteen.

I would ask Mami, but she isn’t a scholar like Tati, and she doesn’t like to talk about these things. She worries about what people say and how they see us. It makes her angry, but she wrings dough instead of her hands. Tati says her hands are baker’s hands, that she makes magic with dough. Mami can make something out of nothing. She makes cheese and gathers honey; she mixes bits of bark and roots and leaves for tea. She bakes the tastiest challahs and cakes, rugelach and mandelbrot, but it’s her babka she’s famous for. She sells her baked goods in town.

When she’s not in the kitchen, Mami likes to go out through the skylight above our bed and onto the little deck on our roof to soak up the sun. Laya likes to sit up there with her. From the roof, you can see down to the village and the forest all around. I wonder if it’s not just the sun that Mami seeks up there. While Tati’s head is always in a book, Mami’s eyes are always looking at the sky. Laya says she dreams of somewhere other than here. Somewhere far away, like America.

4

Laya

I always thought
that if I worshipped God,
dressed modestly,
and walked in His path,
that nothing bad
would happen
to my family.
We would find
our path to Zion,
our own piece of heaven
on the banks
of the Dniester River.

But now that I’m fifteen
I see what a life
of pious devotion
has brought Mami,
who converted
to our faith—
disapproval.
The life we lead
out here is a life apart.

I wish I could go to Onyshkivtsi.
Mami always tells me stories
about her town
and Saint Anna of the Swans
who lived there.

Saint Anna
didn’t walk with God—
she knew she wasn’t made
for perfection;
she never tried
to fit a pattern
that didn’t fit her.
She didn’t waste her time
trying to smooth herself
into something
she wasn’t.
She was powerful
because she forged
her own path.

The Christians
in Onyshkivtsi
built a shrine
to honor her.
The shrine marks a spring
whose temperature
is forty- three degrees
all year,
rain or shine.
Even in the snow.

It is said
that it was once home
to hundreds of swans.
Righteous Anna used to
feed and care for them.
But Mami says the swans
don’t go there anymore.

There is rot
in the old growth—
the Kodari forest
senses these things.
I sense things too.
The rot in our community.
Sometimes it’s not enough
to be good,
if you treat others
with disdain.
Sometimes there’s nothing
you can do
but fly away,
like Anna did.

5

Liba

When we get back from our morning walk, Mami is in the kitchen making breakfast and starting the doughs for the day. Tati shakes the snow off his boots as he walks in. “Gut morgen,” he says gruffly as he pecks a kiss on Mami’s cheek. She pins her white- gold hair up and says, “Dubroho ranku. Liba, close the door quickly—you’re letting all the cold in.”

I let the hood of my coat drop down. “Where’s Laya?”

“Getting some eggs from the coop,” Mami sings. She and Laya love mornings, not like me, but I’d wake up early every morning if it meant I got time alone with Tati.

I shrug my coat off and hang it on a hook by the door as Mami pours tea at the table. “Nu? Come in, warm up,” she says to me.

I shake the chill off and start braiding my hair, which is the color of river rocks. Long and thick. I can’t pin it up at all. “Your hair is beautiful like moonstone, dochka,” Mami says. “Leave it down.”

“More like oil on fur,” I say, because it’s sleek and shiny and I never feel like I can tame it. It will never be white and light like hers and Laya’s.

“Do you want me to braid it for you?” Mami asks.

I shake my head.

“Come here, my zaftig one,” Tati says. “Your hair is fine; leave it be.”

I cringe: I don’t like it when he calls me plump, even though it’s a term of endearment, and anyway, I know what comes next. Laya walks in and he says, “Oh, the shayna meidel has decided to join us.” The pretty one. I concentrate on braiding my hair.

Laya grins. “Gut morgen. How was your walk?” She looks at me.

I shrug my shoulders and finish braiding my hair, then sit at the table and lift a cup of tea to my mouth. “Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu melech haolam, shehakol nih’ye bidvaro—Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the universe, by whose word all things came to be.” I make sure to say every word of the blessing with meaning.

Oymen!” Tati says with a smile.

Instead of trying to be something I will never be, I do everything I can to be a good Jew.

6

Laya

When I was outside
gathering eggs,
I searched the sky,
hoping to see something—
anything.
One night I heard
feathers rustling
and turned around
and looked up—
a swan had landed
on our rooftop.
It was watching me.
I didn’t breathe
the whole time
it was there.
Until it spread
its wings
and took off
into the sky.

Every night I pray
that it will happen again
because if I ever see
another swan,
I won’t hold my breath—
I will open the window
and go outside.

That’s why I rake my gaze
over every flake of bark
and every teardrop leaf,
hoping. I see that
every finger- branch
is reaching for something.
I am reaching too.
Up up up.

At night I feel
the weight
of the house
upon my chest.
It’s warm
and safe inside,
but the wooden planks
above my head
are nothing like
the dark boughs
of the forest.
Sometimes I wish
I could sleep outside.
The Kodari is
the only place
I feel truly at home.

But this morning
I’m restless
and that usually means
something is about to change.
That’s what the forest
teaches you—
change can come
in the blink of an eye—
the fall of one spark
can mean total destruction.

There is a fever
that burns in me.
It prickles every pore.
I’m not happy with
the simple life we lead.
A life ruled
by prayer and holy days,
times for dusk and dawn,
the sacred and the profane.
A life of devotion,
Tati would say.
The glory
of a king’s daughter
is within.

But I long for what is
just outside my window.
Far beyond
the reaches of the Dniester,
and the boundaries
of our small shtetl.

It hurts,
this thing I feel,
how unsettled
I’ve become.
I want to fit
in this home,
in this town.
To be the daughter
that Tati wants me to be.
To be more
like Liba.
Prayer comes
so easily to her.

Mami understands
what I feel
but I also think
it scares her.
She is always sending me
outside, and I’m grateful
but I also wonder
why she doesn’t
teach me how to bake,
or how to pray.
It’s almost like she knows
that one day
I will leave her.

Sometimes I wish
she’d teach me
how to stay.

I close my eyes
and take deep breaths.
It helps me
resist the urge
to scratch my back.
I want to crawl out
of this skin I wear
when these thoughts come
and threaten to overwhelm
the little peace I have,
staring at the sky,
praying in my own way
for something else.

Something is definitely
inside me.
It is not glory,
or devotion.
It is something
that wants to burst free.

7

Liba

Night falls and Tati comes home from work. It’s well past eleven. Laya is already asleep beside me. She was restless all day, I could sense that—and I wanted to ask her what was wrong, but I never got the chance. Suddenly, there’s a knock at the door.

And another.

The knocks are so loud, they feel as if they could wake the dead. I can’t imagine how Laya sleeps through it. I creep to the top rung of the ladder to our loft, where I can just barely see the door. Tati goes to open it. Mami baked all day and into the night—babka for matters of the heart—and I wonder if she knew that this was coming.

Is it the Tsar’s army? Have they come for Tati? So many men from our town have been conscripted recently. Their absence in the village is felt—lights in windows have gone out all over town.

I know, we all know, that something as small as a knock—the rap of knuckles on wood—could change our lives forever. If the Tsar’s army comes for you, they take you for twenty-five years. And we know it means some people might never return.

I wait for the world I’ve known to crumble, with the scent of chocolate in the air.

“Who is it?”

There’s a muffled answer and Tati unbars the door.

A man I’ve never seen before steps inside. He bows before my father and I see Tati put a hand over his mouth and cry out.

“Yankl?”

But the man doesn’t rise until Tati places his hands upon his head and blesses him.

Ye’varech’echa Adonai ve’yish’merecha—May God bless you and keep you . . . ” I don’t understand why my father says the priestly blessing. He normally only says it on Friday nights with his hands on Laya’s head and mine—just after we sing “Shalom Aleichem” inviting the angels into our home and before he blesses the wine.

The man lifts up his head and kisses my father’s knuckles.

“Yankl!” my father says again. The men embrace. “What brings you here?” Tati asks. “How did you . . . ?”

“It wasn’t easy to find you, Rebbe, I’ll tell you that much.”

Mami takes a step forward and bows her head in his direction. “Can I offer you something hot to drink? I just made babka.”

“This is Adel, my wife,” Tati says to the strange man. And to my surprise, the man looks at her and says, “I remember.”

He wears a large cloak that looks like a bearskin, and underneath it, a satin overcoat with white stockings that end in large black boots.

“Please—take a seat.” Mami beckons the men to the table as she goes to the kitchen. I can hear her fill the kettle and put it on the fire.

The man sits down at the table and stares at Tati. “It’s good to see you, Berman.”

Tati grunts. “What brings you all this way, my brother?”

Tati has a brother?

The man starts to sway back and forth at the table as if in prayer. “Oh-yoy oh-yo-yoy, oh-yoy,” he chants. “The Rebbe is sick, Reb Berman. He doesn’t have long to live.”

I see Tati’s face go slack, white almost, like he’s seen a ghost.

“Here, have a tipple of something.” Mami takes out the schnapps and offers both men a glassful.

The man—my uncle?—takes a healthy gulp, shudders, and continues. “We need you to come home. The Rebbe needs you, Berman . . . we all need you. Please come back before it’s too late.” He takes another gulp of schnapps, then picks up the mug of tea.

Tati shakes his head. “I have to speak to my wife.”

“There isn’t much time,” Yankl pleads. “It may be too late already.”

“Then what are you doing here? Leave,” Tati growls, and slams his glass on the table.

“Berman . . . ” Mami goes to put her arms on Tati’s shoulders.

“I said I’d never go back, Adel. You know that.”

“You can’t send Yankl back out into the cold.”

Tati grunts and says, “Will you stay the night?”

Yankl stands up. “No. You’re right. I should head back right away. I gave you the message.” He shrugs. “What you do with it is on your conscience.”

“Get out of my house!” Tati yells.

“Berman!” Mami scolds.

I hear Laya turn over in bed.

Tati grumbles, “Es tut mir bahng—sorry,” and looks up at his brother. “I’ll think about it, okay?”

Yankl walks to the door.

“Yankl, I didn’t mean it. You can stay the night. You are always welcome in our home,” Tati says.

“It’s all right,” Yankl says. “I’d best be going back.”

“I’ll pack you up some food,” Mami says, “and a thermos of tea.”

He hesitates, then nods.

Mami busies herself in the kitchen, but otherwise there is silence in the room. The brothers seem to look everywhere but at each other.

A bi gezunt,” Mami finally says, bringing him a packed basket. She adds in a low voice, “I’ll talk to him. He’ll come. Don’t worry.”

And just as quickly as he’d come, the man is gone.

“Why did you tell him that?” Tati growls when she closes the door.

Mami sits down at the table and takes Tati’s hands in hers. “Calm yourself, Berman. You have no choice, and you know that. You must go back to Kupel. You have to pay your respects.”

“No choice is also a choice,” Tati grumbles. “They never had respect for you, or for me and my choices.”

“Maybe he wants to make amends . . . ”

“We haven’t had word in over a dozen years. They cast us out! I swore to you. I swore to myself that I would never go back. And now they want me back? Me, they said, not you. I won’t go.”

“Yankl didn’t say that,” Mami sighs. “You know how I feel about your family . . . but if your father goes to his oylam, chas v’shalom—God forbid—and you don’t make it back there, you’ll never forgive yourself.”

“And then they’ll never let me leave. I’m next in line. You know that. And if they won’t accept you, I want no part of it. What—I should leave my wife and daughters to go see a father who never approved of me?”

Mami’s long thin hands grip Tati’s large ones tightly, her knuckles white. “Yankl wouldn’t have come unless the situation was dire. I think you should leave now. Tonight. I’ll stay here with the girls.” She looks into his eyes and says, “I trust you. I know that you’ll come back for us.”

“It’s not about trust, Adel,” Tati says ruefully. “What would happen if you went back to your family?”

Mami shakes her head. “I could never.”

“So why is this any different?”

“Because the Rebbe is on his deathbed! Really, Berman?”

“And if Dmitry was dying?”

Who is Dmitry? I wish I understood half of what they are discussing. Everything feels both foreign and familiar all at once, as if these are someone else’s parents—but also, as if these are things I’ve heard them discuss in my dreams.

“It’s not the same and you know it. I’m sick of this life we lead,” Mami says. “A hovel at the edge of the forest? A shtetl full of nebbishers who talk behind our backs every chance they get. This town is a dead end. We are on the brink. Maybe this is your chance at salvation. To reclaim all you lost.”

“Maybe we should go to your family, then, eh? Reclaim them.”

“You know we can’t do that.”

Tati raises his voice. “So why is this any different?”

Mami starts to cry.

Tati gets up and goes to put his arms around her. “You chose this life. You chose me. Are you saying you regret that choice?”

“No, never!” Mami looks up. “But maybe you can have both. Them and me. You have a chance now. You know I never will.”

“Adel.” He hugs her tightly and sighs. “I will only go if you come with me.”

“What? And leave the girls?” Mami’s voice is shrill and I hear Laya turn over in bed again.

“If we get there and the Rebbe, my Tati, is willing to finally accept you,” he says in a voice that sounds cracked, “publicly, then we can come back here, get the girls, and move back to Kupel. But I won’t expose them to that kind of spectacle unless I know what my father’s answer will be. They must accept you first. That’s my condition.”

“We can’t leave the girls.”

“The kehilla will take care of them. And anyway, they don’t have travel permits. None of us do. I won’t take the girls on the road and expose them to that kind of danger. If we are caught, it will mean certain death.” Tati rubs his hand across his forehead. “For now, they’re safer here in Dubossary.”

“Are you meshugge? They’ll be prey to any man!”

“Liba won’t let that happen. She’s stronger than she knows.”

“Maybe we should tell them . . . ”

Tell us what?

“No! We said we’d wait until they got engaged and we’ll keep to that. No need to worry them before that. The townsfolk are mensches. They’ll take care of our girls and keep them safe.”

“No girls should be without parents,” Mami says.

“Liba will keep house until we return. She’s nearly eighteen.”

“Which is even more of a reason for us all to go back. What kind of future does she have here? You always say that no one from this town will marry our girls. Well, here’s your chance. Liba is almost of age. You can’t wait forever. It’s time, Berman.”

“When the time comes, I will find them worthy husbands. Don’t you worry about that.”

“When? How old does Liba have to be? You’ll wait until she’s too old for anyone to want her and then see what’s left? Let them come with us. Please?”

My skin suddenly feels cold, coated with pinpricks of ice.

“No!” Tati says. “My girls are more precious to me than rubies and pearls. I won’t risk their lives on the roads.”

I can tell that Mami’s crying in earnest now.

“Adel . . . ” Tati’s voice is instantly soft.

“No!” Mami cries. “I gave up everything I was—everything I had—for you. I did everything right, and it still wasn’t enough. Not here, not there, maybe not anywhere. There’s no love lost between me and your family. But it’s not like things are all that much better here. I hear what people say. I know how they talk. Please go alone. Do it for me. For us. Get his blessing. Then come back safe and sound and we’ll either stay here, or we’ll go.”

“And what if they don’t let me leave? What if I can’t come back? What if my father is on his deathbed for months? I can’t take that chance. I’ll be lost without you. You know how they get into my head. You are my life, gelibteh, I can’t go without you by my side.” He lowers his voice and suddenly sounds nothing like my father. “I don’t trust myself when I’m with them.”

Mami shakes her head and makes a fist. “And if someone murders the girls in the night, or ravages them, you could live? You’re a beast to think to leave them.”

“I am a beast,” he chuckles, “but I haven’t acted like one in many years, and you know that better than anyone.” Then he looks at her solemnly. “In times like these, people change. Maybe everything will be different. And if not . . . ” I can see my father swallow hard, his jaw working. “You’re right. I have a responsibility to my parents. At least to mourn, to say kaddish at my father’s grave if it comes to that.”

“You know . . . if things don’t work out . . . there are other places we could go. People speak of America.”

“America is a fairy tale.”

Mami throws her hands up in defeat. “You’re impossible.” She shakes her head and sighs. “Fine. I’ll come with you.”

Tati takes a deep breath and softens his tone. “The girls will be okay. We will come back for them, I promise. Adel . . . I know you think that I’m against you in this, but I’m not. It is honestly safer for Liba and Laya to stay here.”

Mami seems to make a decision. She gets up and walks across the room. She takes something out from the trunk beneath their bed.

“Adel . . . ” Tati whispers.

“Don’t stop me, Berman. I need to think. I have to get out of this cabin.”

Mami holds up something white that looks like a cloak, and drapes it over her shoulders. She rubs her arms as if goose pimples dot her skin. She begins to shiver and shake, then hunches down on the ground as if she’s in pain. Her arms arc up, graceful, yet contorted at odd angles. The air shimmers. I don’t understand what I’m seeing, only that I can’t look away. Little wisps of white start to coat her face, then her arms, and feathers, long and white, burst out of every pore. The dress she’s wearing falls to the floor in a pool of cloth, leaving her naked, except it’s not skin I see anymore, but soft white down that shines in the light. She curls into herself, like a white ball of cloud, except for her arms—they reach for the sky. I blink, and in that instant, her arms become ivory wings, feathered and majestic in the moonlight that streams down from the skylight above our heads. My mother is a swan.

My hand is over my mouth. I’m doing everything I can not to shout, not to make a sound. I’m so busy watching the swan in our kitchen that I don’t see my father reach into the trunk. When I notice, he’s taking out a brown fur cloak, one I thought I’d seen him wear before, but maybe not. This one looks different—the fur more lush and lifelike. Like the bear cloaks the townsfolk wear to celebrate the new year. Then I hear a noise that doesn’t sound very manlike and my heart skips a beat in my chest.

I look over, and in the space where my father had been, there’s a bear. This time I nearly do cry out—in fear! I’ve never seen a bear so large. It’s twice his size, like a mountain of rich dark earth. Its eyes are dark and shining, like orbs of obsidian stone, and its teeth, sharp and yellowish, terrifying, poke out of a long snout. The nose at the end of the snout is double the size of a human nose. The bear takes a step forward. His fur is so brown it looks black, like the bark of a birch tree, rippling in a sheen with every move he makes to reveal powerful muscles and paws with claws that look sharp as daggers and dig into the wooden floor. It’s a dream, I keep telling myself, it must be a dream. A fairy tale coming to life in my head, nothing more. I look over at Laya and see that she’s still sleeping. Maybe I’m sleeping too?

I’m trembling so hard I feel as if I might tumble down the ladder.

The bear nudges the front door latch open with his snout and looks back at the swan. The swan leaps onto his back as he lumbers out of the house, careful to close the door behind him. I let myself breathe hard once the door closes. I clasp and flex my fingers, trying to wake myself up, but my fingernails feel sharper and when I look down at them, they’ve grown black and dark, with fine points that almost look like claws. I cry out and reach for Laya, but when my hand hovers over her sleeping form, I see that the hair on my arm has nearly doubled in volume and thickness. I bring my arm back, afraid of what my own hands might do. I hold myself instead, trembling in fear. I close my eyes and let the tears that have gathered fall onto my nightgown, afraid to rub my own eyes and do them damage, and too scared to move lest Laya wake and see what’s happening to me. It’s a dream, Liba, just a dream, I keep telling myself. When you open your eyes everything will go back to normal.

I lie down in bed and try to steady my breathing. I wait, my heart thundering in my chest, until I hear the rustling of bedcovers and the sound of my father’s snores. I open my eyes and look at my still-shaking hands—they look completely normal. I take a deep breath and creep down the ladder, determined to see my parents as I’ve always seen them—human and whole.

Mami is awake, drinking tea at the table. I sit by her feet and put my head in her lap.

“I had a bad dream,” I say in a shaky voice.

“What did you dream?”

“I heard you and Tati speaking,” I confess.

“Oh, dochka. You heard?” She takes a deep breath. “And saw?”

I nod. “Everything,” I say, and my voice shakes.

It’s in that moment that all I’ve ever known changes. Mami always says that fairy tales are real. With my head in my swan-mother’s lap, I start to believe—and I wonder which tale is ours.

Mami leans down and embraces me.

“It wasn’t supposed to happen like this,” she says. “But it’s not everything.” She shakes her silky white-blonde hair and her tears fall on my cheeks. “There are things I need to tell you.”

But Mami doesn’t say anything more, and soon I get up and silently make my way up the ladder back to bed. All night I watch the windows and the doors. I can’t sleep. Yankl’s words about the Rebbe dying scare me because I don’t know what it will mean for our future. But the truth of what I’ve seen my parents become scares me even more.

Tati always says that every heart has its secrets, and it is not our role in life to try and uncover them. I’ve uncovered my parents’ secrets, and more terrifying than anything, I think that means I have a secret too.

As I watch Laya sleep, I see her scratch in places where only wings grow, and then I know. My body is thick and large-boned while my sister’s is lithe. We both eat fish, but I hunger for meat.

We both love the Dniester River, but I’m drawn to its dark places, while she loves the tall trees that line its banks and the open air above. My hair is coarse and black- brown, but hers is blonde like Mami’s . . . nearly white. Everything makes sense suddenly, and yet nothing makes sense at all.

There have always been rumors about the Kodari forest and the hidden things within it.

Now I know we are a part of that unseen world.