Once the Strangers were close enough, circling the walls of their sanctuary, even he thought he could smell them, and he stared into the darkness, terrified, longing for Mamochka to stop growling and give the all-clear, to lick him and cuddle him.
When eventually she settled, and the feeling of relief permeated the dark space, they would leave warily and surround Romochka as he peed, refreshing the human markers that kept the foreigners at bay. Then at the dim daybreak they would go together towards the mountain, hunting.
They seemed safe enough in their lair, even though the starving Strangers knew exactly where they were. They travelled to the mountain only in daylight, and increasingly rarely. The other dogs of the mountain and forest had all but disappeared. Perhaps they moved into the city and were shot; perhaps they were eaten by the Strangers. Romochka saw a few he recognised as young dogs from former clans: they had crept in near to the fires and people around the mountain. Romochka’s family had to learn to hunt near the fires too, moving as a pack through the vacant snowfield to the village, then dispersing in the shadows around the huts, to meet again before attempting to cross back to their den. If they could breathe the Strangers in the wind, they hung back in the village, waiting. They started to use daylight for the return. This left them just a few short hours in which to find all they needed. Returning the long way, weaving through the unheated and now untenanted warehouses and then the allotment.
It was midwinter. Night had altogether lost its summer depth and was an expanse of dirty orange above and below. Day was a brief visitation of many greys. Romochka could see the dogs’ eyes and shapes in the gloom inside the lair only at midday. Otherwise he could see nothing, but could hear them and feel where each of them was. The Strangers were in the empty construction sites all the time. When they were able to get to the mountain Romochka hovered near the trucks, darting in at each fresh tip. He would try to gather enough food for the week in a small sack, but it took the whole family to guard him from other dogs and people once he had some. Then the race home under threat of attack from the Strangers. Grey Brother was the strongest, so Romochka slung the sack over his shoulders and ran next to him, steadying it, slapping and abusing the big dog into submission. He trusted the scouts, Mamochka and Golden Bitch, to warn of approaching Strangers. He concentrated on the sack and on Grey Brother. The rest hung close as his guard. After they had wrestled food home this way twice, Grey Brother understood and they became faster.
Romochka noticed in the twilight of the days that everyone in his family was smaller than before. Narrower. Ribby, with big heads, especially Mamochka. Their fat had dwindled so slowly he hadn’t noticed. He felt his own chest. He too was a grid of bones under his hairless skin. They had an occasional fresh feed from a kill, and they had the fruit of their hurried scavenging around the mountain, but it was no longer enough.
Romochka still had his mother’s milk. From then on, until Mamochka’s milk dried up, Romochka would suck a mouthful from Mamochka and kiss it into a sibling’s lapping mouth. They wove around, expectant, when he was drinking. His fingers got used to their knobbly frames and he didn’t always share. Sometimes he was too hungry and bad tempered himself. Sometimes he would withhold it out of spite.
The Strangers called out to each other across the ruined church, still outside the charmed circle. They were starving too.
Romochka started making weapons. He sorted his collection of nails and spikes and found a length of metal pipe he could use to bash them through flat pieces of wood. When his hands froze onto the metal he had to pee on them to unstick them. His fingers ached terribly so he wrapped the metal in old cloth and put several socks over his hands. Mamochka licked his hands carefully in between his bursts of hammering, and he warmed them by burying them against her belly or between her thighs. He couldn’t do anything without a dog handy to warm him up again. He asked Grey Brother, who was the hairiest and had the strongest teeth, to chew down the handles of things, slapping him off when he thought enough had been crunched off. He made a small stockpile of various kinds of club and nailboard against the far wall of the lair. In the darkness he tested each for swing. He was pleased with his own strength and his new array of teeth. He would smack those Strangers hard if they ever came near him again.
Romochka awoke from a fitful sleep and stiffened, eyes closed. Everyone else was awake. Despite their stillness, consternation was building in the lair. He didn’t know. But they knew; and the Strangers knew. The wind had changed.
No smell came from the north, yet everyone prickled. As he scrambled to the far wall by his pile of weapons, he could feel them all in their positions: Black Dog and Grey Brother, the two strongest, near the entrance. Pacing back and across behind them: Golden Bitch, Mamochka, Black Sister, Brown Brother. He fingered the floor for the board filled with nails. In front of him, flat to the floor, he knew White Sister was crouched, ears flattened and teeth bared. He could hear her rattling snarl-breath and feel her fear. All of them knew too where he was and knew by now that he would be swinging his slabs of wood in the darkness. They stayed out of reach as they guarded him.
There was no smell. The snarl suddenly swelled among them and he could feel them tense. There was still no smell. He closed his eyes to stop blind-staring the freezing darkness, gritted his teeth on a scream and swung harder. Each breath threatened to turn into a shriek of fear as it left him. He swung harder again, fighting the empty air.
Then the Strangers’ smell was there among them, and the snarls of the family erupted in the chamber. Ahead there was a huge tumult, a crashing, compound tumbling, snarling, snick-snack, scrabble, huff, and then bubbling swells of fury. He heard Grey Brother yelp in pain as the fight rolled with crashing and scraping over towards the nest and back. White Sister in front of him shot forward, and then there were two fights up ahead towards the entrance. The deep unfamiliar snarls and gasps moved between one and the other. Strange yelling. Scrabbling at the dark entrance; fierce, strange screams again, and more scraping. He could hear Mamochka snarling through jaws clamped tight, tugging, and with each tug, a Stranger’s deep yelps halfway up the tunnel. He heard them all latch on, pull, and then the hoarse breathing, a scuffle of frantic adjustments by the silent, concentrated family; more hoarse breathing, a dimmer struggle. Then quiet.
Everyone relaxed and he lowered his nailboard, shaking all over. He could smell blood. Mamochka and Golden Bitch dragged the dead animal to one side and everyone trotted around sniffing the story, trailing the one who had escaped up to the entrance. No one made a move to go outside. Grey Brother made an odd sound as he passed back and forth—he was using only three legs.
Outside the Strangers howled and everyone hummed and prickled. This time he felt them move with Mamochka to bunch just behind the entrance. White Sister was still flat in front of him and he sensed that there was no one except her between him and the entrance. He was panting, holding his board out in front of him.
We are the only dish on the table, now.
Suddenly he saw his first mother’s face, her wry expression and wide, sidelong smile as she said that. He hadn’t tried to picture her for a very long time now and couldn’t normally drag her face into memory. It was such a pretty face! Hairless though, and with very short teeth. He held onto the image. She had managed somehow to get past the Strangers, to come checking up on him, making sure he wasn’t sucking snot or holding onto his penis. She wouldn’t approve of either the dogs or the Strangers. She’d tell them all off, and then she’d smack him one, too. They’d all slink away with their tails between their legs and their bellies, eyes and teeth low to the ground and he’d slip into his warm bed in a warm, lit-up room, and he’d hold onto his pisya and snivel until she came in, all dressed in her red glitter dress, and she would tuck him in with a biscuit and hot milk before she went out hunting. How wonderful. How delicious! All this would vanish.
This time he felt the Stranger come slowly through the icy hole, wait, and then drop into the lair. It stopped. The dogs were silent, held by Mamochka. He felt the new presence thickening the air, blocking the flow from the ice hole to him, and then he thought he felt it stiffen at the sight of him and White Sister, who had started growling, high and mean. Then he heard the faint pressure scrape of powerful hind legs. Everything slowed down. The Stranger had leapt and was silent, airborne. Would land once only: yes, there! Thud-scrape. Airborne again, huge, filling the darkness, flying over White Sister’s swelling snarl towards him. Now!
Romochka swung as hard as he could. He fell back against the wall as his nailboard stuck fast into something and was ripped out of his hands. White Sister’s high snarl was in the same moment muffled, buried deep in flesh, and then he smelled the tearing of hot guts. White Sister and the Stranger crashed together to the floor in front of him and the far end of the lair exploded in snarls and yells, yelps, scuffles. He heard Mamochka’s snarking snarl, and the swallowing increments of her fierce grip.
He heard slithering down the ice hole and another explosion of snarling and scuffling. Two fights split, roiling in the darkness to far sides of the den, and he faced the icy hole unguarded. He thought he felt another Stranger, and another, and another, all leaping at him just as the first had done, but… no, they were phantoms. He was yabbering now, patting frantically to his left for another weapon. He calmed down a little as his fingers found his club, and then he realised White Sister was still right near him, busy. Tensing, then regripping. The subtle, unmistakeable noises of throttling against the feeble scraping of the disembowelled animal.
The lair stilled to other rattles, scrabbles, crunching guttural growls. He could smell blood everywhere, and death. He schooled his ears to seek their voices, since all his sense of them had gone haywire. He could hear Golden Bitch, Mamochka, with kill grips. Black Dog roaming free, growling in the airflow from the ice hole. White Sister, breathing easy now but still gripping, just beside him. Then a scuffle and Black Sister too, with perhaps a hamstring grip. Then, in the nest, Grey Brother panting in pain, low to the ground. Brown Brother… he reached out into the darkness and his ears crawled with foreboding. Nothing.
Nothing, and again nothing.
Slowly the tension in the lair eased. He could hear normal breathing and movement, but the pressure in his chest began to build. He stumbled forward, reaching blind and disoriented into the wrecked space. White Sister came to his side and, holding her, sobbing now, he inched forward towards where the others had clustered and stiffened.
The dogs sniffed long and hard, and then, with the last warmth of Brown Brother in their nostrils, turned away, ignoring that bloodied mass as if it too were a Stranger.
Romochka couldn’t let it alone. His fingers fluttered over his brother’s body, wriggling into every wound, poking and prodding. He licked the bloodied face, whimpered. Whined as a dog then swore and cajoled. He curled up with Brown Brother as he had many times. Not even White Sister came to him as he sobbed, gasping, trying to ease the emptiness the dark and the Strangers had opened up inside him.
The huge body cooled. Romochka was driven shivering to the nest and the warmth of the others.
All of them were injured, except Romochka. Grey Brother was hurt worst of all. His foreleg hung limp, a mess of crushed and clotted flesh above the joint. White Sister had a flank gash from the attack of the first Stranger. Mamochka’s beautiful soft ear was ripped. Black Sister had a tear down her face that would later give her an even more dangerous appearance. The others had neck and shoulder bites.
They lay together, licking each other, concentrating on each wound. By the time they had finished, the corpses were crisp with icicles and as solid as rocks.
The dead saved them. They had enough frozen meat to last them until the smell of spring seeped up through the snow, daylight strengthened and people drove the Strangers from the waste lands, forest and mountain. They stayed put in the lair, cleaning out their wounds with unhurried licking sessions, conserving their strength. Grey Brother recovered slowly. Romochka fed him chewed-up pieces and lay with his arms around him to sleep. For a time, he beat the others off if they approached Brown Brother’s corpse. Then he forgot, and that heap became a Stranger to him too.
No Strangers tried, after that, to enter the dogs’ den. And the dog extermination operation that cleared the city of nearly all starving homeless dogs missed them altogether.