The wolves had started their pursuit in the settling dusk. As the horse troughed and splintered through the icy sheets of a shallow river, a sonorous howl broke the soft silence of the flurry, soon to be joined in unearthly chorus.
Reigning back, I looked over my shoulder and into the forest. Far off, the settlement’s light burned faintly through the trees. Flicking in and out of the trunks and undergrowth, shifting shadows darted and skulked, frequently pausing to bark and take scent. The horse whinnied, eyes rolling in fear as the first shapes emerged. Upwind.
Splashing their way through the slush of the river-bank, the wolves discarded their ethereal woodland quality and replaced it with sinewy elegance: each loping bound an effortless description of hungry, determined efficiency.
Panicked hooves bit into frozen mud, spraying the brown flanks with glistening shards. I reached into my greatcoat.
A cry – very close – reverberated through the valley. The pack halted momentarily, growling at some unseen challenge.
Running parallel to the horse, and weaving through the trees was a large wolf, yellow eyed and of the palest silver grey.
Unsheathing the sabre, I clasped the hilt and brought it in close. Rising slowly over the wooded ridge, an arc of moonlight appeared.
The wolf kept pace, matching the horse’s snorting panic with its rangy gait. It stared momentarily, and then with a sharp yelp disappeared into the darkness.
The moon grew. The wolves gained. The snowfall thickened with the rising wind.
Suddenly the horse slipped and staggered violently, pitching me into its thick neck. The blade pressed against my head, slicing deeply through the flesh of my cheek and brow. My eyelids crushed into wiry hair and I inhaled sweating horseflesh. Reeling back in the
saddle, I shrieked as the wind bit deeper than the blade had, and a crimson trickle splashed, freezing where it fell.
A feral snarl brought me to my senses. I swung the sabre down hard, smashing through the snout and teeth, breaking the lower jaw as the stroke cleft cranial bone. The wolf fell back dead, and was set upon by several others. My free hand clutched the matted mane and I spurred the horse down towards the steep valleyside.
As I neared the incline, three wolves darted out from below, blocking the descent. The horse began to bellow, its wild eyes seeking escape through vapours of snorted breath as it edged backwards and around. Pulling on the reigns, I leaned back, my weapon raised. The pursuers caught up, skidding to a halt in powdery eruptions.
One flew at the rearing horse’s throat and was felled by flailing hooves: the iron shoes snapping vertebrae and foreleg before kicking the bleeding mass cascading below. Another began worrying the flanks and was slashed from throat to abdomen as it leaped, spilling intestine in a wash of blood. As the horse wheeled, a young wolf snatched at the steaming offal of the thrashing form beside it.
A larger wolf sprang from behind. Turning, I hacked clumsily, catching it under the ear. The sabre lodged deep into its skull, viciously twisting from my hand as it fell away with the beast’s weight. I glimpsed something disappear underneath as two more ran up, snarling fangs sheened with saliva.
The horse bucked violently, throwing me into the ravine. Tumbling uncontrollably, I crashed through pines and spiny undergrowth, thrashing limbs catching on branches and trunks. Snow packed into my clothing. My leg hurt. I screamed. The side of my head struck something solid. I stopped. Disorientation. A branch of pale, barkless wood steamed and glistened. Cold.
I stared ahead. The moon was a blurred face sewn onto a silk standard, blue-black in hue. Snow fell upon me, each flake a melting star. Blackness.
I felt warm. The moon was devoured by the silver grey wolf. It stared at me with piercing eyes. Drool dripped upon my face. Its breath was honeyed, and I saw the heavens reflected in its pupils. Blackness.
I felt nothing. An old man’s face eclipsed the moon. Behind him were stars, and the slow fall of snow. He rubbed ice into my face. Blackness.
The smell of cooking roused me. I felt feverish, my body shook and pulsed numbness. I was covered in furs that were soft and warm. A figure huddled over a fire, roasting greasy strips of meat. As I watched the smoke rise up to a gap in the conical roof, the figure stood and shuffled over. Kneeling beside me, the old man’s sullen mouth split into a broad grin. His weathered face, framed by long tangles of grey hair was that of a Tartar, dark and heavily furrowed. Deep set almond eyes danced joyously as he began to bathe my brow with water, screeching in exaltation. He stopped suddenly and frowned. Throwing back the furs, he poured the contents of the water bowl over my shivering torso, making me gasp with shock. Whispering quietly to himself, he hurried outside. Returned quickly, he threw armfuls of snow upon my writhing body. I tried to sit up, pushing up from elbows and shoulders, but was forced back. As I tried again, the old man spoke sharply and slapped me.
Struggling weakly, I saw what he had tried to hide. The reek inside was not just of goat and damp fur. The toes of my foot were swollen and grey, and a strip of stained material was bound tightly around the shin, hardly disguising the weeping protrusion of bone underneath.
Shouting, the Tartar raised his fist.
A faint smell of burning, carried on the wind, told us what lay beyond the rise. The column dismounted and entered the village. Most of the dwellings had been razed, the ash and charcoal already freezing into the snow. Timbers had collapsed in on themselves, creating new structures to support the dirty sky. Amongst the debris, a length of spinal column lay partially obscured: heat-splintered ribs caged blackened earthenware fragments, rags of shrivelled flesh clotted on bone. Beyond the low boundary wall, a knot of grim faced men stood around a huge blaze, leaning on picks and shovels. They had fired this patch of ground to melt the frozen topsoil so that their dead could be buried.
The villagers told us that the insurgents had set up camp in the remains of a Yiddish settlement to the north. I was sent with a detachment to scout ahead. Far away, a wolf cried.
I awoke alone. The fever had diminished, and feeling was painfully returning. Uncovered, I stared at my leg with delirious fascination. It was rapidly becoming gangrenous, a yellowy matter had soaked through the bandage, crusting at the edges. Bales of pelts were stacked by the entrance. The stiff hides of squirrel and sable were layered with those of goat and karakul. Bundles of dried fish and vegetables were strung around the curving walls. I turned to look behind me. A wolf’s head grinned, its two socketless eyes leering, the rest of its grey fur draped over the back of a trunk.
The Tartar entered the yurt, firewood clutched to his chest, wearing my greatcoat and boots. Throwing the wood down, he stamped his feet and began to place some of the lighter kindling into the flames. Seeing my expression, he grinned and plucked at the garment with his thumb and forefinger. ‘Kozhak, eh?’ he cackled. ‘A good warm skin, eh?’
As his laughter continued, silvery webs of spittle dribbled down his chin. I moaned a reply as he took the coat off and began to rummage in a sack. Producing a small bottle he moved over and uncorked it, setting its rim against my mouth. I choked as the rye spirit trickled over my tongue. I took several more sips, gasping less with each. Cold fingers brushed my forehead.
‘Warm the skin inside, eh?’ he whispered.
I smiled in wordless gratitude.
Taking the bottle, he drank some himself, and reaching over me suddenly poured it onto my wound.
The settlement was in the centre of a large clearing. We had skirted it, approaching from the south west through thick forest, leading the horses in silence. A few miles away we had found the body of a young girl near a river, tied to a tree with wire. Bloodstained clothes were scattered before her in careless adoration, their still gestures a mute witness to her last moments. She had suffered greatly. Her bottom lip was bitten through, and a garrotte sliced deeply into her pale neck. We cut her down, and covered the slight, emaciated frame with snow.
Nearing, we tethered the horses and unslung our rifles. Removing outer gloves, mittened fingers checked firing mechanisms and fixed bayonets. A dull light emanated from one of the buildings on the far edge, its chimney faintly smoking. In a skirmish line we went forward, moving from tree to tree in the creeping dusk. A solitary cry accompanied our approach, masking the sound our footfalls.
The Tartar had cleaned my leg. A fresh dressing bound the break, but I could see that the infection had spread. I had slept for three days, he told me. Bad dreams, Kozhak.
After washing the waste from my backside and thighs, he fed me a soup made from dried fish and mushrooms. Spooning the thin liquid into my mouth, he frequently pausing to damp my head with cold water. Wrapping me in the furs, the old man squatted by the cooking pot and ladled its contents into a shallow wooden bowl.
My name is Pyotr Koznyshev, I told him. I was born in the province of Perm in the Autumn of 1887. My Mother was very beautiful.
We came under fire as soon as we neared the hut. An ambush. Outside the clearing carbines barked, their muzzles spitting molten defiance. A Maxim chattered, churning up snow and men in long raking stretches. Bone and flesh danced in a tracery of bullets, kicking legs and whirling limbs with its erratic rhythm. Screams eclipsed in counterpoint, harmonising and syncopating in a ragged round. Weapons dropped. We ran. The air thickened with sound, bodies fell heavily. At the treeline, wood splintered and branches cracked in a furious crescendo. The horses tore at their reigns, foaming bits cutting into gum and mouth. One lay twitching on its side, its neck stretching up to where the twisted reigns were tied, steaming in red diffusion. Freeing the nearest animal, I clawed my way onto its back, and spurred it through the zoetrope of trees. Behind me, a swathe of broken bodies coloured the snow.
Sometimes at night, when he was there, the Tartar told me of his people, stories from long ago. He would sit cross-legged, the wolfskin over his shoulders, staring into the fire. Time unfurled as I listened: with his words I saw conquering armies rise from the past, witnessed the slaughter of battle, watched great cities fall. He spoke of fabulous treasures and of beautiful women whose very names echoed the poetry of their myth. The nature of the steppe was reflected in these tales, and as his eyes shone in the firelight, I saw the faint echo of his barbarous descent; an untamed essence that had passed down through the dim challenge of centuries.
The firing stopped. Shouts drifted across the clearing as dark shapes swarmed over the fallen soldiers. A moaning howl ghosted through the air. I passed the tree where the girl had been found. A wolf stood where we had covered her. I rode on, seemingly into silence.
A slight sensation of pain brought me back from dreams. The Tartar was cutting the bad meat from my leg. Vomit trailed from his chin as he worked, retching in disgust as his fingers delved for muscle and tendon in the rot.
The insurgents blood-smeared faces looked up in unison. Abandoning their feeding, they began to run on all fours, shedding garments and skin in perverse metamorphoses.
I was shivering violently, cold sweats diluting the stink of stale fur and unwashed body. A shadow sat in the opening, dark against the starry depths of night.
‘The light of damned souls fill up the sky,’ said a voice.
The sitting figure stood and slowly turned around. Two large amber eyes gazed inside.
They were scattered where they had fallen, uniform and flesh thrown open with violent convulsion. Throats and chests lay exposed in bloody ruin, limbs racked in impossible contortions as stubborn bone broke through the human mould. The moon grew in intensity.
The corpses began to judder and twitch, flailing in spasm. Digits expanded, jaws opened wide and distorted as nasal cartilage extended. Mewling, they ripped at their clothing as new life emerged from inside. Dead eyes stared piteously as the last vestiges of humanity lay scattered before them, the bloodied shreds of birth. They became travesties, neither beast nor man.
The legacy of wounds was endemic. Where an arm had been shattered, a foreleg elongated and withered, where bullets had hit, purulent muscle swelled: the change even making a mockery of how they died. Soon they succumbed to the inexorable urge, and left the dying place to run with the pack.
The Tartar fed me a bitter soup. Although he has tried to disguise it, I know what he looks like, his inner self. I have watched his eyes yellow in the firelight, seen their hunger; know how they regard me. I have woken to find him sitting in the entrance, staring into the night, his beast’s head outlined. He no longer bothers to tend my leg, yet curiously I feel no pain, despite the condition. I know that I am to die. Ironically, I actually feel stronger. He sits, talking to himself in an ancient tongue, wrapped up in the pelt.
The night is impossibly dark, starless. The wolf-creature crouches over me in an aureole of moonlight, fur gleaming with silvery luxuriance. Its arched frame ripples as it leans closer.
Six breasts jut out from the torso, swollen with maternal ripeness and a sense of bestial sexuality – it nurtures, yet is in permanent season. It presses a teat towards me, dripping with viscous milk-pus. A low diphonic murmur starts, slowly building. The pack lies in supplication before the Mother: a semicircle of misshapen heads keen a micro-polyphonic cradlesong, layering sound in swirling, discordant textures.
‘Feed, Pytor,’ the She-wolf whispers.
I wake to find the old man gently blowing at the fire’s embers. My body glows with feverish vitality. I compose myself, thrilled with realisation. My leg has corrupted to mid thigh, its ravaged odour sweet and faintly musky. I know how I can live. I know how to control the wolves. The constructs of men are made irrelevant by the amoral purity of nature. Conflict is nothing more than a primitive territorial dispute, an expanded show of strength to establish order. When the traits of civilisation are eroded, the true beast emerges, incarnate. Silently, I rise and throw my body weight against the small of the Tartar’s back. His head cracks against the hearth stones as he pitches forward. The damp skin beneath the bandage splits and begins to seep. Taking the pelt, I push through the hide flap and go outside.
Fires rage, searing. Stone cleaves my skull, thickening with blood. Blind: my mouth is gritty with dust.
Snow had blown in through the unsecured entrance, shrouding him and collecting about the yurt in small drifts. When the agony had subsided into a ragged ache, Kartaga found that he could lift his head without too much discomfort. The Russian had gone. Rising from the ashes, he gathered a few provisions, buttoning the greatcoat, and took his rifle. Faint tracks led off into the forest.
The war neared. He had heard gunshots that night, and the wolves. As he had approached the injured man, he was certain he saw something dark slink away.
‘When a party of Koryaks have killed a bear or wolf, they skin the beast and dress one of themselves in the skin. They dance around the skin clad man saying it was not they who killed the animal, but someone else, generally a Russian.’
J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough
The soldier’s leg had been badly broken and he was almost dead through cold. Filled with a strange compassion, Kartaga pulled him onto the sledge and dragged him home. For days he had burned with sickness, and the infection steadily worsened. The hunter realised the man was dying.
Since time immemorial the indigenous Siberian people had used herb infusions and certain fungi as medicines. Collected in the warm seasons, the harvest was prepared and desiccated prior to storage. The civil war, although external to Kartaga, effected him nonetheless. Conflict begat scarcity: all that remained was a pouch of dried mushrooms usually used in ceremonies.
It was still common practice amongst the Samoyed and Ostiak Shamen to use them for auguring and invoking the Bear God. If ingested, the Russian would enter the realm of spirits, free from pain and other worldly constraints.
Now, it occurred to him, it was a question of possession.
He tracked for several miles, following the dragging prints through the trees. He found the partially devoured remains of a young woman deposited on a river-bank, the imprint of bare foot mixing with those of boot, hoof and wolf.
To the north was the settlement. Moving quickly, he sensed death ahead. Bodies littered the clearing, their spilled life crystalline until the Spring thaw: a sculpted testament to mortality. Amidst the carnage, a solitary figure squatted awkwardly, gnawing the flesh from frozen fingers. The man was filthy and naked except for the pelt tied around his waist. His hair was matted and his sparse beard slicked with feeding. He suddenly stopped, cocked his head, and began to scour the treeline.
A howl broke the silence.
The old hunter raised his rifle and took aim.