The daylight and the warmth in the air pulled them from the lair. Romochka stood in the lane in front of the construction sites, breathing deeply. The snow still lay in thick drifts, covering everything, but the trees stood bare and free. Something about the black lace of the trees against the sky spoke of freshness, even though not a single green bud was to be seen. The snow banked against the trunks, splashed now with weak sunlight, had a defeated look. It was losing its hold, sucked away into the melt underneath. He could smell it, dank with rotted autumn leaves and the promise of mushrooms. He could hear it gurgling quietly away to itself, waiting to rush out and make everything horribly muddy. The flock of clouds in the blue above had gentle pale grey centres. Clouds that would never snow, he thought, his heart leaping. These spring rain clouds made him so happy! He cut a tight circle with a quick-step scamper. Soon they would all be in the forest playing, in the grass, in the green green grass! Everything sick and dying would have vanished with the winter, the fat would fill them, smooth out their boniness and make them all bigger; the world would be new again.
That night Romochka insisted they go out for dinner and get something fresh, warm and bloody. He was utterly sick of the frozen carcasses, utterly sick of the smell of them, utterly sick of the hard work to chew frozen meat off the bone, utterly sick of peeing on his own food to soften it up.
A small boy about six years old is walking just inside the forest, weaving through alder, linden, oak and birch. It is a picturesque season: creamy sunlight slides over mottled trunks; fine white branches and pendent leaves wave in the breeze. The air is filled with birdsong and pollen. White blossom hangs in clumps on the rowan trees at the edge of the forest and cemetery. Yellow archangel flowers, lily of the valley and wood sorrel speckle the glades. The sweet scent of linden flowers thickens the air and, up close to any linden tree, the song of honeybees adds to the subtle din of birdsong, electric-cable buzz and distant highway.
This place is one of those odd pockets of Moscow where forest takes over and city fades to sound only. It is a tiny frontier—part of a tattered wilderness interspersed with city, more city, then fields, dachas, villages—the beginning, in dribs and drabs, of the unending wilds that stretch northwards into myth.
On the brink of the vacant lands the buildings are a strange mixture of the older highrise apartment blocks with blue-tiled façades and new projects—excursions reclaiming the grass and swamp, begun in high enthusiasm during perestroika and then abandoned through ever-lengthening temporary delays. The spikes of rusting construction girders and concrete façades stand at the edge of the untended fields, marshes and copses of birch forest. Electricity pylons carry low-slung lines over the fields and into the forest. A few green and brown dachas huddle together in a copse under one of the nearer pylons, looking like a marooned fragment of a village, which is what they are.
He scuffs his feet along, kicking anything solid ahead of him.
The residents of the rubbish mountain and the forest know him and leave him well alone, even go to great lengths to avoid him. What stands out at first sight is his mane of matted black hair. It sweeps back from his brow in a tangled ropey mass that reaches the middle of his back. He is, like everyone here, filthy and dressed in several layers of motley clothes and rags. He is uncommonly healthy for a child of this place, his body straight and wiry. His physique is harder and more agile than that of any normal child. He is more dexterous and twists through his spine more quickly than humans ever do. He swings the rough club in his right hand with easy proficiency. He is almost silent, except for the snarls that can rattle through his nose and teeth.
You cannot guess his parentage exactly, except that he is dark-eyed and faintly Tartar, pale-skinned under the encrusted filth. He has good features: broad cheek bones above a wide mouth and excellent teeth, but it is hard to tell whether he could look pleasing. His black, slightly Asiatic eyes would meet yours, if you came upon him by accident, with a kind of naïve hostility and mercenary appraisal: disconcerting in a six-year-old. He also smells worse than any bomzh. But this isn’t why people avoid him. There are many odd people on the mountain, and as a child he would normally be easy pickings for predators.
People avoid him because he is never alone.
It is whispered that his dogs can appear from nowhere and there are more than twenty of them. They are bigger and stronger than normal dogs. His own long, sharpened fingernails have the strength of wolves’ claws. He is a demon, some say, who eats the flesh of humans and wanders alone in the form of a child to tempt people near. Others say he is a genetic mutant escaped from top-secret laboratories. Even the sceptics are, nonetheless, aware that he is dangerous. A ripple spreads across the mountain and forest at the sight of him. People wedge their shanty doors shut and watch him through cracks.
Their own dogs bristle and growl uneasily, snuffing the air as he passes. That dogs fear him adds immeasurably to his reputation.
Through the gentler seasons, the dogs and the people who live in the ramshackle huts on the forest edge of the rubbish mountain leave each other alone. They share a territory and share its hardships and provisions. They share its dangers.
Militzia, charged with fighting the twin threats of disease and crime, and trying at the same time to supplement their own meagre pay-packets, patrol the mountain and the rim of the forest. They destroy the shanty huts and round up people, shooting pet dogs in front of their owners. Last autumn the clean-up was in earnest: an unprecedented attempt to remove homeless people from the city centre and get rid of the increasing number of stray and feral dogs. Moscow was to be a showpiece, the government TV stations proclaimed. The streets were swept, the canals cleaned by wide armed barges; dog registration was half-heartedly imposed, a census taken, residency permits audited. Stray dogs and people were hounded and bullied to the outskirts and beyond.
In winter things are different. The militzia season is more or less over, at least out in the open by forest and mountain. The bomzhi survive by working or begging in the city, there to be preyed upon by the militzia waiting outside factories on payday; or supplementing their income through beggar protection rackets. The enmity between feral dogs and bomzhi is seasonal, and winter is its peak. Clan dogs break into any hut that seems unusually cold and fight other packs off the fresh meat they know they will find. If humans notice, they might beat the dogs off with flames and shouting and sticks, but still at times neighbours find a chewed-over frozen corpse when the dawn-dusk seeps like milk into the sky.
Out here, in this land of the dead and the discarded, the bodies exposed when the snow melts in spring are unremarkable. People of the city call them snowdrops. The municipal authorities and the militzia collected more than three hundred this thaw.
In spring, life returns to a precarious normality. For now, men and dogs get along in mutual wariness and muted hostility. The weather is mild; pickings in city and forest are good. And they have a shared enemy.
Romochka kicked through the leaves and junk. White Sister, Grey Brother and Black Dog were with him. He could see Black Dog scavenging by the river up ahead, looking like any dog out there by himself, minding his business. Grey Brother and White Sister were in the forest to his right, out of sight but watching over him. They were waiting for him to go deep into the forest for the hunt. He could feel their separate, reassuring presences, their patience.
He was hovering at the rim of the forest for no good reason, something that had lately become a habit. At first he had enjoyed the stir he caused trailing through with his siblings at his heels. But these days he meandered apparently alone, apparently aimlessly. He listened to fragments of human speech, repeated them in his head in wonder and misery.
‘Yeah, I can get you a teev. Won’t be fuckin easy but I can get you a teev.’
‘I’ll feed you to the dogs if you don’t stop whining’…‘You want wheels? ASK THE ROOF FOR WHEELS!’
If he saw people, particularly if he saw children, he would find a nice birch tree and whack it savagely with his club until its bark was pulped. Then he would saunter off again. He had begun to come close to the huts and the outskirts of the shanty village. Quite a few birch trees had his marks on them.
Today he saw nobody. The muster was over. These days, two men with guns came every morning to the village. They dressed in ordinary, if clean, clothes but their haircuts made them look like militzia. They smelled faintly of houses: cooked oil, sweat and soap. They lined up the men, women and children. Then they chose men with sores, missing limbs or scars. They took the babies off their mothers and gave them to other women. Young children too were swapped around, and then everyone was yelled at, loaded into a minivan and driven to the city. They’d return late tonight, and exhausted mothers would retrieve and feed their starving children.
He smashed some bottles with his club behind a shack but no one came out, even though he could tell there were children hiding inside, hiding first from the muster, and now from him. He knew they were watching him. He howled, eyeing the pretty lace at the window. White Sister and Grey Brother appeared and sat beside him, as he stared at the back door, but nothing happened. He thought of pulling away some of the polythene nailed all over the shack and crushing it into little pieces to provoke them, but changed his mind. The shack itself seemed special to him—it would be wrong for him to touch it. He headed off into the forest feeling restless, even disconsolate. He really wished he had some lace in his collection of special things, or better still, a big piece to hang on the front of his bower.
The singer, his singer, was gone these many months. Her hut too was gone, obliterated as if it had never been. He wished she would turn up again. If he ever saw her again, or her skinny daughter, this time, he told himself, he would talk to them. ‘Hi,’ he said conversationally to a slender tree. His voice was odd and croaky. He tried, louder, ‘How are you?’ Black Dog trotted up, startled, and licked his face, then fell in behind him with White Sister and Grey Brother. They set off at a trot into the forest.
When he was with the dogs he had no reason to fear bomzhi but they worried him, unsettled him. He thought about them a lot, mulling over what he saw them do. Territory and paths clearly mattered to them, but other than obvious zones around fires and houses, he couldn’t see the boundaries, and this made him fear them a little. Sometimes they seemed to him just like sick dogs or lone strays. You couldn’t predict when they would be dangerous. Some of them didn’t know how to behave, either with him or with each other. They fought and yowled, ripped and tore each other over food and scraps of metal. They stole from each other, beat each other senseless, even killed. They mated even when one of them didn’t want to. At other times they touched each other with a tenderness that filled him with confusion and longing.
At first sight and first smell, Romochka knew that to strangers, to house people, he himself was one of the bomzhi, the horde of the homeless, undifferentiated to the city people and the militzia. For a long while he had been charmed that he could pass as a bomzh but these days it troubled him. Today, like many days before, he escaped his vague unhappiness by returning to his usual activities: hunting, or home to the lair.
The forest was best of all in springtime. The dogs scented for him, and he climbed like a young bear to raid nests of eggs and fledglings. Black Dog always dug crazily for moles, although he rarely got one. They chased spotted deer fauns on sight but avoided young elk: they had fierce and powerful mothers. Around the spring-fed ponds the young ducks and other water-fowl were plentiful, if rather smart.
Romochka couldn’t swim and didn’t like getting wet, but all of them tried hard to fish, so enticing was that glitter in the fast running stream that ran from the prudi through the forest and into the city. Black Sister, always the fastest, was the only one to have had any success. She had stood up to her shoulders in the stream, staring intently into the water, again and again plunging her great head under. The one time she came up with that splattering wriggling meal of silver made them all redouble their efforts.
Today, however, Romochka was bad tempered and half-hearted, and they got nothing.