Black Dog and Golden Bitch burrowed in from the outside. They had been out all night and found nothing. They greeted everyone, carrying the cold in with them on their shaggy shoulders. They smelled the empty nest in deep snuffs. Then they waited with the younger dogs for twilight. Everyone would have to hunt.
Even in winter the mountain gave off enough heat to melt the heavy snowfall; and, with its cold heat, to send a steady beacon of faint chemical disturbance into the frozen forest and out to the tenements and apartment blocks. In its updraught, ragged birds—seagulls and grey ravens—wheeled and cried, looking like bits of windblown rubbish themselves. Snowstorms held everyone pinned in their holes or huts. In between storms, the earth was fluffy and evanescent; the sky solid as metal. Everyone hunted in the lulls. The hunting was variable for the dogs but hard for people. At winter’s twilight, stooped figures trailed up and down the mountain or along the river, poking for scrap metal or wood, or digging for food. The mountain was ringed day and night with fires.
Close-up, everything around the mountain was movement. Snowflakes danced and drifted in the smoke that rose from the fires. People stamped and jiggled in their bulky clothing; dogs trotted continuously. The birds swooped and beat the falling snow in troubled eddies with their wings.
Romochka knew little of this. Denbound by the cold, he depended on the food the others brought in and the milk he drank. He waited for the first plunge in temperature to end and the snow to shell. That first fortnight of storms took its toll on everyone and when it lifted, Romochka couldn’t stay inside. He put on all his clothes, grabbed his sack and headed for the mountain with White Sister and Grey Brother. It was a mild clear evening and the trail to the mountain was marked in the snow—man and animal had already been this way.
He was past the abandoned construction sites when he heard a faint music. He stopped. Singing, human singing, out by the mountain. The harmonies, with their dying fall, seemed to come down from the sky like snow or rain. They filled the air around him with something as faint and as lovely as the smell of spring flowers.
He would hunt later. White Sister and Grey Brother followed him unquestioning, trotting towards the forest and the fires. He liked the fires but had never been able to get near them. People here knew he was not one of them, and he guessed that he broke their rules, crossed their invisible closed paths and offended their order. Romochka was faster and more silent, and he had the dogs: he wasn’t in any real danger from anyone. But he couldn’t creep in and be friendly around a fire without being chased in earnest.
The music swelled and reeled him in. The men were lit up in orange light, roasting the hindquarters of a slaughtered dog. Its pelt and head lay on the stained snow. It wasn’t a dog he recognised, and he thought from the smell that it was probably one of theirs, not a clan dog. Someone would be wearing that golden pelt in a few days. The smell of cooking meat was very good. White Sister and Grey Brother melted into the forest, and he slipped silently to the birch trees at the edge of the circle. The fire was so warm he could feel a little of its heat seeping into him, even from so far away. Men and women stood around it, holding out their hands to the warmth, all singing. The song was sad and beautiful, and although Romochka knew all these people by sight, sound and smell, they seemed now strange, transformed and mysterious. His chest burned with a feeling like hunger but closer to his throat. He wished he had something to gnaw on.
The women’s voices rose and knotted the wild air, filling the nothingness above him with pain and longing. The men’s voices, it seemed to Romochka, tried to scramble up into the sky from the earth and fell back, weeping for their failure. The women’s voices fluttered, by choice, down the ladder set by their shifting notes and then stepped down to rest with the men in long chords, joined.
He felt he might burst with the need to scream, howl or run. But he stayed still, blended in the shadows to the trunk of the birch tree. The voices rose again in the same wild refrain and a hopeful croak or moan slipped from his own throat. A woman holding a large sleeping girl child stopped singing, turned and peered hard into the darkness. The singing continued around the fire, but he could hear from a sudden absence in the music that it must have been her voice that soared above the others. She was staring straight at him but couldn’t see him. He held himself hunting-still. Her arms clutched the heavily bundled child and he made out the torn fringe of her coat silhouetted by the fire. Her mouth sounded wide, as though smiling into the darkness. He was suddenly very afraid of her.
She took a step towards him, and he saw her face clearly. He knew her, but had never looked closely at her. She was young and beautiful and had a huge scar that split her face down the middle from forehead to chin, breaking even her nose and lips. She only seemed to be smiling—her mouth fell around the scar that way. He knew which hut she lived in and knew the sound of her screams. He knew her thin daughter too.
‘Irena! Irena! Don’t go far!’
The same voice.
He was no longer afraid. His ears still rang with the high glory of her singing. On impulse, he stepped suddenly out of the shadows and stood, legs apart, arms at his sides. He heard an intake of breath. She knew him too. Everyone here knew he was not one of them, that he was wild and had dogs. She didn’t move but looked fearfully into the forest behind him. His heart was shaking him, he knew he should run but still he made no move.
She tilted her head; he saw the fire illuminate full half of her lovely face. She was looking right at him now, into his eyes, and her face glowed in the flickering, sound-filled orange light. Then she opened her wide, broken mouth and was singing again, her back to the other singers, her eyes on him, her arms clutching her sleeping child tightly. He stood like a deer frozen in a beam of light, part of him rising into the black sky with her voice, swelling until he, Romochka, filled all the vast hoop of the night sky above the fire, the mountain and the forest.
She suddenly nodded to him, her mouth arcing around the black hole out of which her shining voice flooded, and he came back to himself. Eyes still fixed on his, she ducked her head then, in what he imagined was an acknowledgment, even a trusting farewell, and turned, still singing, back to the fire and the other people. He was so happy he couldn’t bear it. He ran soundlessly, sensing Grey Brother and then White Sister swing from different parts of the forest into the trail behind him.
He went often to listen to the singing after that but it was only after many visits that he saw his singer again. She was alone and ill; her voice had lost the quality that had transfixed him. It fluttered like a sick bird that could not fly, and he was disappointed and annoyed.
He waited until she was trudging back to her hut and then slipped out of the woods into the light of her flame, just to see what she would do. She shrieked and clutched at her chest, gasping her fear. He was at first pleased, then suddenly very upset with her. She pulled herself together, and they stood facing each other in the deep snow. Her torch crackled between them, its light flickering on the pale forms of the birch trees. The sizzling rubber bound to her stick seemed to him very loud, and he dropped his eyes, embarrassed. Then she sucked saliva back from her open mouth and he looked up. She nodded again at him, but without the language of farewell in it, and, clutching the torch with one hand, she leaned slowly forward and reached out her bandaged hand. She brushed his cheek with the backs of her bare fingertips, her eyes smiling. He spun and bounded off into the snowdrifts of the forest, feeling as though, after all, she had sung as before.
The cold deepened. The dogs were restless, day and night. Hunting wasn’t too hard at first: everything was struggling on the mountain, animal and human. The dead were quickly buried in snow, but they could make several trips out to any fresh carcass before they lost it.
Romochka’s cosy life as a puppy the previous winter was like a dream. He had to stay put in the den, drinking from Mamochka whenever she appeared and eating what the dogs brought in for him. With all the dogs out hunting, and no puppies, the den was bitterly cold. Mamochka didn’t have enough milk to fill him and barely enough to warm him up. He put on the tights, the three pairs of trousers, all the long-sleeved garments, pulled socks onto his hands, feet and head, and huddled in the greatcoat, shivering. He shook out a hair-encrusted blanket from the bed and wrapped it around himself. He tried to cajole a dog into staying with him, something only White Sister really understood. He would wait, shivering, cuddling her close until the others returned.
He slept fitfully and dreamed of the singer, her voice wringing the air with the power of a snowstorm, yet so sunny, so starlit, so strong a howl for a moon! Sometimes he felt tied and helpless within its knots and coils; other times he had wings and he saw himself and her as shining birds. Sometimes he dreamed she was his first mother and it was his name she was singing. He named her one evening, rummaging through his mind for the human word, gnawing away until he found the marrow he knew was there. Pievitza. The Singer.
He got used to the dogs pacing hackled and edgy in the den. They were not pacing merely to keep warm, as he was. He shared their apprehension but did not know what, other than the dark and cold, they were worrying about. None of them really knew except Mamochka. She knew what the cold might bring out of the northern forests, and she waited, pacing, infecting everyone with her unease.
One milder night Romochka escaped the den and headed off towards the mountain. The new snow had finally packed down enough to be easy to walk on, and this cheered him up considerably. He left the blanket behind and walked as briskly as his clothes would let him, swinging his club. He knew that Black Sister, Mamochka and Brown Brother were out too, somewhere nearby. Everyone else was in the lair.
It was dark, but he could see quite well. These days he could always see quite well in the outside dark. He headed along the trail to the mountain. He wasn’t hunting; he needed the whole clan now to do that. Winter had made the mountain very hard. Even if he found anything, someone, human or animal, would get it off him. Tonight he wanted to listen to the singing; and he wanted to find some tool to shave down the handle of his new club. It was too fat for his hand, and the mountain had everything hidden away somewhere.
He rounded the corner into the open paths that crossed the waste land snowfield to the mountain but could hear no singing. He knew the fires were blazing—he could see a glow in the sky. Why were they silent tonight?
He sensed it: something was coming. Something bad and fast, and spreading out to the sides in front of him. His scalp and neck hairs rose. He suddenly felt how little he could see, not how much. He could smell nothing. His nose was wrapped up, but in any case the cold had dulled his sense of smell. He stopped just in time to see the thing form two eyes on a black fluid point straight ahead of him, break away from the wide shadow and become a huge animal rushing, rushing, rushing up and leaping in utter silence to fill his vision. He was on his back, winded, smothered, his face pressed into coarse hot fur, an alien stench, the sound of teeth.
Then everything was fearsome noise as he felt Mamochka leap from behind his head and land on its back, bringing it sliding and suddenly terribly loud onto the snow.
He rolled and wriggled away, struggling with his layers of clothing. He turned around in time to see the darkness behind him also become points that turned into leaping animals, and then Mamochka was writhing and yelping underneath them. White Sister, Black Sister, Brown Brother, Grey Brother and Golden Bitch and Black Dog were all on top of them, snapping and snarling. The snow squeaked as they struggled; the dogs snarled and yodelled, their homely voices mixing with the deep frightening clamour of the Strangers. Romochka wanted to run but stood where he was, swinging his club ahead of him blindly and shrieking through fear-clenched teeth.
The three huge creatures suddenly separated themselves from the seven dogs, then seemed to melt into the far shadow; but Romochka could feel them turn…and watch…and wait. The dogs knew. They didn’t stop to check him or each other. They backed; the shadows followed. They turned and walked slowly until they were near the gate and the path to the den hole, then Romochka felt them all decide that he should
GO! and he sprinted for that cracked door, running and stumbling with them all hedging around him. He wriggled through as Mamochka and Golden Bitch turned and faced outwards, ears flat back and teeth bared, snarling and slavering into the darkness. Everyone else tumbled in after him. The shadows, he knew without looking, had become living animals again and were sprinting too.
After the scramble, panting and scratching to get into the lair, the dogs swallowed their terror and turned in the darkness to fight at the tiny entrance hole. The Strangers’ smell was on them, around them, in their fur, in the air.
Nothing happened. They stood, hackles raised until the smell faded from the air and they could lick its residue off each other and clean their gashes. They tested the outside air and emerged cautiously. The trails, theirs and the Strangers’, were clear. The Strangers had faltered and then veered away at Romochka’s first pee corner. Mamochka sniffed out their certainty, then their doubt and their fear in long breaths.
They were back the next night, the same three. Then, a few days later, five; then more. The days shortened. The cold clamped huge jaws on the city. The seven dogs slept in a jumbled pile on Mamochka’s nest, with Romochka in the middle. The Strangers hunted him in his dreams.
Romochka would feel Mamochka lift her head. He could picture her in the darkness, ears pricked. She would murmur low and the dogs would rise from their uneasy twitching to mutter and pace. They were all together now. There was no lone hunting and the lair hummed like a summer beehive with their many voices.