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Thistlefoot:  A Novel

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Thistlefoot: A Novel

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Author: GennaRose Nethercott
Publisher: Anchor, 2022
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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Synopsis

The Yaga siblings--Bellatine, a young woodworker, and Isaac, a wayfaring street performer and con artist--have been estranged since childhood, separated both by resentment and by wide miles of American highway. But when they learn that they are to receive an inheritance, the siblings agree to meet--only to discover that their bequest isn't land or money, but something far stranger: a sentient house on chicken legs.

Thistlefoot, as the house is called, has arrived from the Yagas' ancestral home outside Kyiv--but not alone. A sinister figure known only as the Longshadow Man has tracked it to American shores, bearing with him violent secrets from the past: fiery memories that have hidden in Isaac and Bellatine's blood for generations. As the Yaga siblings embark with Thistlefoot on a final cross-country tour of their family's traveling theater show, the Longshadow Man follows in relentless pursuit, seeding destruction in his wake. Ultimately, time, magic, and legacy must collide--erupting in a powerful conflagration to determine who gets to remember the past and craft a new future.

An enchanted adventure illuminated by Jewish myth and adorned with lyrical prose as tantalizing and sweet as briar berries, Thistlefoot is a sweeping epic rich in Eastern European folklore: a powerful and poignant exploration of healing from multi-generational trauma told by a bold new talent.


Excerpt

CHAPTER TWO

If anything ever happened to Bellatine's hands, this story would be over before it began. Without her hands--their delicate motions, their deft strength--none of this would be possible. They were woodworkers' hands, able to whittle an ornate little owl into the neck of a spoon or heft a chainsaw through a Douglas fir. These hands were gentle as lace when they needed to be, or strong as iron. They were small, in fitting with Bellatine's general stature, but could muster a vise-strong grip on a jam lid or a torque wrench. The fingernails were often slicked with a gold glitter polish, gnawed and chipping at the edges. The knuckles, slightly over-plumped from cracking and the fingertips calloused from labor. To guess her age by looking at her hands would be futile, as they suggested far more than Bellatine's twenty years. These were her mother's hands, too, and her mother's before that, and hers. Heirloom hands, passed down through generations. Hands like these are versatile enough to carry an entire story in their cupped palms.

Luckily, no harm will befall them. Not in this story, at least. There will be many other sufferings--I can't protect you from that. But I can promise that of all the pains this story holds, none of them belong to Bellatine's hands. Her hands will remain unsullied.

***

On the third day in September, Bellatine's hands were busy wringing one suspender of her denim overalls like a goose's neck. Her knuckles were white, fidgeting. She was nervous. She could admit that much to herself. Maybe she had no reason to be, but she could feel a long eel of dread swimming laps in her stomach, nonetheless.

The Greyhound toward the Red Hook Marine Terminal was only halfway to its destination. It had paused at a gas station, and Bellatine jostled past rows of carpeted seats and down the steep stairs to the parking lot. She untangled her matted bus hair with her fingers, a jaw-length shingle bob with bangs; she knew the flapper flair of the cut looked incongruous with her slouchy uniform of overalls and striped T-shirt, but she didn't care. Long hair can get caught in power tools, so she kept hers short and sweet.

It was a cool afternoon, the promise of autumn just beginning to puncture the air. She bent over to touch her feet, stretching the tight muscles in her back, sore from hours on the half-empty bus.

Was Isaac already there, at the shipping yard? She hadn't heard from him in four days, when they'd first agreed on a time to meet. Maybe he wasn't even coming. It wouldn't be unlike her brother to vanish without a word and leave her to deal with the shipment on her own. She imagined herself sitting in some estate office, filling out acquisitions paperwork, cursing her brother's absence while signing her name in wet black ink on the package release forms. The anxiety quieted. Wishful thinking, she realized--to not have to deal with Isaac at all. As much of a hassle as it would be on her own, it would be easier. Calmer. Without Isaac, she could at least be the one in control.

But no. He'd be there. There was no chance in hell that Isaac would skip out on a mystery like this. He wouldn't arrive with a sense of duty, no desire to help out with a tedious family chore--it'd be his curiosity that would draw him in. He'd want front-row seats to see whatever was about to be hauled off that barge when it pulled into port.

A few days prior, both Yaga siblings had received an identical call from a man with a thick Eastern European accent. An inheritance lawyer, he'd claimed. Bellatine had assumed it was a scam at first, but when she called home to check, her mom confirmed the information as legitimate.

"Your twice-great-grandmother, my bubbe's mother," Mira, Bellatine's mother, had clarified.

"On your dad's side?" Bellatine asked, pinning the phone between her ear and shoulder to leave her hands free.

"My mom's. What's that noise?"

"I'm at work." She set down the sandpaper and cracked open a tin of mahogany wood stain, dipping in a rag.

"You know, she may have been the one who started the surname tradition, where the women passed on the family name rather than the men. Or maybe that was the next generation... At any rate, we've always been a stubborn flock, Yaga women. You certainly inherited that much from the family line, Bellatine."

Stubborn was one word for it. It was true--by all accounts, Yaga women were bold and took what they wanted; what they wanted, however, rarely included their own daughters. Though Bellatine had spent years on tour with her family's puppet company growing up, she felt like she barely knew her mother. Sometimes she felt that her mom parented her puppets more closely than her. Mira wasn't cruel, exactly. Just sealed off, like a museum display of a mother enclosed behind a glass cabinet. To be studied and respected, but never played with. They'd certainly never spoken at length about their family history--or anything else, for that matter. Mira's own mother had died when Bellatine was little, but the few memories she did have of her bubbe had left a cold, chalky impression, rather than one of maternal warmth. Mothers and daughters might share a name in the Yaga line, but that's where the intimacy stopped.

"Do you know anything about this woman? Any idea what might be in her inheritance?"

"I don't have time for this, Bell. Your father and I are supposed to meet with the board at noon, and I'm knee deep in planning the festival. We've been working with a new set painter, an incredible woman from Yemen, but I honestly don't know where in the budget we'll--"

"Just quick, then. Anything."

"When my bubbe came to the United States," Mira continued, making sure to sound put out, "my great-grandmother stayed in Russia. There may have been letters after that, but they never saw her again. I know she was very poor, like my grandparents were poor, so we didn't think she'd bothered to leave a will. What would she have written into it? Seems like we were wrong."

Per stipulations in this will, according to the lawyer, it had been hidden from the family until seventy years from the date of their ancestor's death. As of this month, those seventy years were up. Allegedly, the document had specifically directed that the inheritance be bequeathed to the deceased woman's "youngest living direct descendants." When the estate lawyer had traced the Yaga bloodline, he'd found the youngest members: Bellatine, and her older brother, Isaac.

"No money," the lawyer had insisted. "An heirloom."

"What kind of heirloom?" Bellatine had asked.

"Very large. But I know nothing what inside box, I have not open. The will clearly: no one open but you and your brother. There will be shipment, from Ukraine to New York. You must go New York, receive shipment, early next week. Paperwork wait for you at terminal."

And so, Bellatine had booked a bus from northern Vermont to New York.

Soon, she'd be there. If all went according to plan, the shipment would be waiting. And so would Isaac--her only sibling, whom she'd last seen six years prior, when he'd dropped out of high school to hop trains and chase stories and see America, leaving everything and everyone behind. Even her.

***

Behind her, the Greyhound growled back to life. She imagined its headlights glowing like nostrils full of golden flame. Great wings unfolding from its metal spine. Her hands tingled, dots of heat humming in her rough fingertips. She reached into her overalls' pocket and gripped a little wooden spoon, pressing her thumb into the dipper, already smooth and worn from touch. Breathe slow. In, then out, she told herself. Count to five. Her emotions were getting the best of her. She hadn't felt her control on edge like this in a long, long time. But ever since she'd learned that she'd be seeing her brother again, her thoughts had been fragmented, flitting from the past to the future to the past again. She squeezed her fists tighter until her joints cracked. She couldn't let herself get careless. There was work to be done. She turned and climbed back aboard.

***

Scarlet scaffolding laced over the Red Hook Marine Terminal, hovering above concrete runways in vast, interlocking bridges. It gave the appearance of a massive red spiderweb, woven with steel. Bellatine navigated past car-sized crane hooks, which swung down to hoist shipping containers from barges to the mainland. The containers reminded her of children's building blocks, all orange and green and blue and silver, stacked one atop the next. Across the black harbor waters, the New York City skyline loomed steady, a chrome army of giants keeping watch.

Bellatine nudged past a cluster of longshoremen in hard hats. She followed signs for the freight station, where cargo was stored and unloaded from boxes before being restuffed and transported by train. According to the short, white-whiskered man she'd encountered at the gate, her great-great-grandmother's shipment would be held there for pickup. How she'd manage to transport it afterward was another question--but that was a problem for later. First, she'd need to find out what exactly was in that box.

At just past four, the sun was beginning to weep down toward the horizon, hazing the quay in pale peach-colored light. Bellatine rounded a tall warehouse. There, perched on a stack of wooden pallets, sat Isaac.

He was leaning back with his eyes closed, a cigarette tucked behind his ear. Asleep, Bellatine realized. Beside her brother lay a green, metal-framed backpack, stuffed full enough that the flap was pinned down with a bungee cord. A tiny black cat dozed atop the pack, its back rising and falling in a spot of sunlight. Was it Isaac's cat, or did he simply attract strays? The dress suit Isaac wore was filthy, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. His jacket flopped open to reveal a white T-shirt, torn from the collar to the left armpit. A watch chain dangled from his front pocket, glinting against the setting sun. He looked like a movie villain or the ghost of a 1930s bank robber. Bellatine would have laughed at the spectacle if her stomach weren't suddenly roiling like a school of fish had just hatched inside it.

For a moment, she didn't move. She watched her brother sleep, comparing him to the memory she had carried with her for the past six years, and the few scattered photos she'd seen online. He had sharper edges. New lines etched into his forehead, the corners of his eyes. She sucked in a breath as her gaze fell on his right forearm, where a long red scar snaked around his elbow. He'd changed since she'd seen him. But then again, so had she.

A lick of breeze rose up from the harbor, brushing a curl of Isaac's hair down over one eye. He twitched, lifting a hand to his face. He opened his eyes.

"Well I'll be damned." He sat up straight, looking Bellatine up and down. She froze, a beetle under a microscope. "Tiny, you're not so tiny anymore." A grin split across his face, and he leapt off the pallets, sweeping Bellatine up into a hug. "But kid, you'll always be Tiny to me."

Despite herself, Bellatine beamed into her brother's shoulder. She let herself squeeze him back.

Suddenly, she is seven years old again. She and Isaac are scurrying through the seats of their parents' puppet theater, burgundy silk capes ribboning behind them. Isaac belly flops onto the stage, dragging his sister up after him.

"I claim this ship on behalf of the Yaga family enterprise!" he announces, removing his cape and tying it around a set ladder like a flag. "Your crew is now ours to command." He yanks up one of their father's puppets--a knee-high tailor sitting at a miniature sewing machine. "Do it, Tiny," he whispers, thrusting the puppet into her hands.

Bellatine's palms fill with coal-dark warmth. She focuses on the little tailor. Her heartbeat grows louder, throbbing in her fingertips. More heat. Brighter. Her focus intensifies as a spark needles into his delicate coat, then grips some inner part of the puppet. There. She feels it. A pulse.

A horn from a passing barge jerked Bellatine back into the shipping yard. No. Enough. The last thing she wanted was to feel like a child again.

"You're right," she said, pulling back from her brother. "I'm not tiny anymore. It's been six years--a lot's happened, Isaac." It came out colder than she'd intended.

"I bet, I bet." He released his grip on her, setting her firmly on her feet. He seemed uneasy then, unsure of what to say. "Hey, you seem like you're doing great. You been going to school? Carpentry, right?"

"Woodworking. Graduated this past spring, I apprentice for a cabinetmaker now."

"That's good, that's real good..."

They lapsed into silence.

The truth was, she had been doing well. She'd been surprised at how sweet a life she'd found up north, tinkering in her old teacher Joseph's woodshop during the day, retreating to her apartment at night to drink a few beers with Carrie and Aiden over hands of Bo Potato--the card game they'd made up when they were all in school together. She was happy--or rather, she wasn't unhappy. And wasn't that enough?

Bellatine broke the stalled hush, noticing a pile of books and cigarette butts on the pallet where Isaac had been sleeping.

"How long have you been here?" she asked.

"Since last night."

"How'd you get in?"

"Drove the first half. Truck broke down outside Raleigh. Hitched the rest of the way."

"You hitchhiked here? When we had a deadline? Isaac, what if you hadn't been able to get a ride, we'd have missed the pickup."

Isaac shrugged. "Except I did get a ride, and here I am. I beat you here, didn't I?"

"Is that your cat?"

His hand flashed in and out of a pocket, emerging with a pen and a crumpled strip of receipt paper. He offered them up.

"What's this?"

"If this is going to be a full interrogation, you might want to take notes."

The doors to the warehouse screeched open, and a tall man in an orange vest squinted out into the lot.

"You two here for the crate from Pivdennyi?"

Bellatine spun on her Chuck Taylors so fast that the rubber squealed against the concrete. The man peered down at a clipboard.

"Bay Eighteen. Follow me."

***

The box was enormous. A cube twice the height of a standard shipping container and fortified with steel bars. Even in the dusty warehouse they'd been led into, vast enough to be an airplane hangar, the metal crate occupied formidable space--looming at least fifteen feet above them. Its shadow pooled across the cement floor like a gray blanket. Isaac crept forward. The shadow slid over him.

"I'll just need to see some ID, then I can sign her over to you," the dockworker said.

Bellatine had her driver's license at the ready. She'd brought her passport and birth certificate, too, in case they wanted further proof, but the tall man gave her ID one casual glance and nodded, checking something off on his clipboard. Isaac pulled out a worn black billfold and shuffled through it with a blackjack dealer's dexterity. In her periphery, Bellatine glimpsed flashes of at least four driver's licenses, each with a vastly different Isaac pictured--and each with a different name. He handed one to the tall man, who seemed satisfied, making another mark on the clipboard.

"She's all yours." With that, the tall man left, leaving Bellatine and Isaac alone in the dim warehouse.

Isaac approached the crate and grabbed hold of a vertical sliding bolt, thick as his arm. He wrenched it. The lockrods clattered.

"Hold on!" Bellatine started.

"What?" asked Isaac, freezing.

"We don't even know what's in there," she sputtered.

"Well, yeah. That's why I'm gonna open it."

"Don't you think we should have some sort of moment or something? This is the last wish of one of our ancestors, you know?"

Isaac raised an eyebrow. "Should I chant?"

Bellatine flushed. "I don't know. I mean, no."

"Blood sacrifice? Ah, I know, I'll call the rabbi. Hold on, I've got him on speed dial."

"Stop it. Let's at least open it together." She stepped forward, placing a hand on the bolt, next to her brother's. The metal was oddly warm and seemed to buzz a little, as if carrying a subtle electric current. She glanced at Isaac to see if he felt it, too, but he didn't seem to notice.

"Ready?" she asked.

"Tally."

Their grips tightened.

"Kill the lantern..." Isaac nodded at her.

"Raise the ghost," she replied automatically. Their family's preshow equivalent to "break a leg." She'd been echoing that call and response since she first learned to speak. When was the last time she'd heard her brother say those words?

They heaved up the lever, unhitching the bar, and then tugged in unison. The hinged door of the shipping container swung open.

For a moment, neither of them said anything. They just stared, their eyes adjusting to the darkness within the box. The darkness gave way. Their vision stretched and cleared.

"Oh my god," Bellatine gasped. "It's..."

Isaac finished, "A house."

The house was small, a cottage really. The walls were made of timber, buckling with age. They had been painted white, but years of neglect had left long strips of exposed wood where the wash had peeled. Mud filled the gaps between boards, a sort of mortar mixed with feathers and hay. A low balcony encircled the house, edged with a pike fence made from rough-hewn branches, rushed with barbed wire. Behind the fence, a front door, over which faded a painted swirl of knotted vines, along with a little illustrated menagerie--a tiny gold lion, a crow, a blue rabbit, their heads all bowed toward center. The ornamentation must have been brilliant once, bright as blood and sapphire, but its glory had ebbed with time. Overhead, a turf roof sagged with overgrown weeds and flora, punctuated by a stone chimney. The whole structure seemed soft around the edges, like a great sleeping animal.

As the initial shock wore off, practical worries set in. Bellatine tensed. "How are we going to move this thing?"

She needn't have worried. As if in answer, the house began to move itself.

Bellatine and Isaac lurched back in surprise as the house wiggled forward. Isaac grabbed his sister by the arm and dove to the side, ducking behind a forklift. The house continued to move, shimmying from side to side as it squeezed itself out of the shipping container. Then, when fully free of its enclosure, it stood up. The house rose a full story taller, its chimney nearly grazing the warehouse ceiling. It loomed over the Yaga siblings, propped up on two long, yellow chicken legs.

"Nope, no way, I'm out." Bellatine yanked her arm free of Isaac's grip and started marching toward the exit. Isaac didn't follow. Instead, he buckled over at the waist, cackling.

"Stop it," Bellatine snapped. "I'm not doing this. We're going." Outside the warehouse, she could hear barge horns and men's voices and the clanging of metal against asphalt. Regular sounds. Sane sounds. The sounds of business and labor and a functional, dependable world with dependable laws. That was the world she wanted. The world she'd fought to be part of. Not this one.

"Oh, come on," Isaac needled. "Look at this thing!" He took a step forward, and the house scuttled backward.

"Hey, easy now," Isaac cooed. He lifted a hand cautiously, as if trying to pet a wild stallion. The house slowed, tilting slightly toward the body below it. "That's it. There you go, it's all right. I'm just saying hi, I'm not gonna hurt you." Isaac took another step closer, his palm outstretched. Cautiously, the house knelt. Its great knees bent backward. Feathered thighs as thick as oaks bulged under the weight they carried. From her hiding place, Bellatine watched as her brother laid one hand on the front gate of the balcony, then another--and quicker than she could cry out to stop him, he had vaulted over the fence, thinly avoiding the barbed wire, and skidded toward the front door. Flashing a wolf's smile her way, he lifted the metal latch, flung the door open, and vanished inside.

All she wanted to do was run. To leave this place and this monster and the terrible, bright burning that had spiked up in her hands behind. And why shouldn't she? Hadn't Isaac done the same once? Wouldn't he do it again in a heartbeat, if the roles were reversed?

"I'm leaving!" she called out to him. "Goodbye, good luck, Godspeed!" At least I'm giving that idiot some warning, she told herself. More than he afforded me.

She waited for a response. A chastisement or laugh. Hadn't he been laughing? But only silence and darkness emanated from the gaping door.

"Isaac?" she called out. Nothing. Her stomach clenched. "Isaac?" she called louder. "Are you okay?"

The door slammed shut.

Bellatine's pulse leapt into her throat. She could feel her fear rising in waves. Come on out, Isaac. Come on. She waited. Nothing. Goddamnit. She spotted a cable coiled beside some machinery, and already regretting it, tied one end around her waist and the other end to a bar on the now-empty shipping container. At least she'd be able to yank herself back out if there were some sort of trap inside. Or a gullet.

She approached the house slowly, the way Isaac had, one hand outstretched. It bobbed on its talons. She tried not to gawk at the scaly skin, thick as an elephant's hide, which stretched over the tall golden legs. Nor the beast's haunches slicked with ruddy feathers, each plume as long as Bellatine's arm.

"That's it, come on. Shhh. Good... house."

The house dipped down to her level. She gripped the gate, and with a grunt, climbed up onto the porch and crawled toward the door. She didn't trust herself to stay steady on her feet if she stood. I should knock, she thought fleetingly, before realizing the madness of the idea. But before she had a chance to, the door creaked open.

Copyright © 2022 by GennaRose Nethercott


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