The Ural Mountains July 1933
The dog. That’s what Sofia heard first. The dog. Then the men.
The sound of them carried to her through the quivering breath of the forest as the hound’s paws splashed through a gulley and scrabbled up the other side. Coming closer, too close, with belly-deep whines, teeth bared and tongue loose, thirsting for the taste of blood. It set Sofia’s own hackles rising into sharp spikes of fury. Her hand reached out, her scarred fingertips clutching at the air in front of her as if for one last second she could capture its placid warmth and cradle it to her chest.
But how could she be angry with a dog? The animal was only doing what it did best, what it was bred to do. To track its prey.
And she was its prey. So they’d come for her at last. She shivered.
Had they come by accident? Or design?
It didn’t matter. She was prepared.
Sofia had been watching the evening sun slide away from her along the curving line of the trees, transforming the greens to amber and then to a fierce painful red. A komar landed on her bare arm. She didn’t move, but watched the insect’s tiny body turn into a ruby tear as it drank its fill of her blood. It made her think of the way the labour camp had tried to suck the lifeblood out of her. She struck hard and the mosquito was transformed into no more than a pink smear on her skin.
She was standing in the doorway of a cabin. She’d found it in a small clearing that was hidden way up on the northern slope of the forest, deep in the Ural Mountains. It wasn’t really a clearing, but more a ragged scar where lightning had decapitated a tall birch which, as it had fallen, had brought down a handful of young pine trees. The cabin was skilfully built to withstand the merciless Ural winters, but now it was old and patched with moss, tilting to the right like an old man with cramp.
It looked as if its bones ached just the way hers did. It had taken four never-ending, hard, grinding months as a fugitive to reach this point. She’d scuttled and scrambled and fought her way halfway across Russia, travelling always south-west by the stars. The odd thing was that it had taken her a long time – far too long – to get used to being on her own. That had startled her.
The nights were the worst. So big and empty. Five years of sleeping packed five to a bed board and you’d think she’d relish the sudden relief of solitary living, but no. She could hardly bear to be on her own at first because the space around her was too huge. She found sleep hard, but gradually her mind and her body adapted. Then she travelled faster.
The actual escape from Davinsky had proved even more dangerous than she’d expected. It was a dull damp day in March with a lingering mist that swirled among the trees like the dead drifting from trunk to trunk. Visibility was poor. A perfect day to join the ghosts.
She and Anna had planned it carefully.
They waited until the perekur, the smoke-break, which gave her five minutes. Five minutes was all. Sofia stood in a huddle with the other women from her brigade and saw Anna watching her, taking in every last detail, saying nothing. The idea of leaving Anna behind felt absurdly like treachery, but she had no choice. Even alone her own chances of survival were… She stopped her thoughts right there. Minute by minute, that’s how she would survive. Adrenalin was pumping through her veins and her throat felt dry.
She stepped closer to Anna and said quietly, ‘I promise I’ll come back for you. Anna, wait for me.’
Anna nodded to her. That’s all. Just a nod and the look that passed between them. A moment frozen in time with no beginning and no end. A nod. A look. Then Anna left the huddle of women and hurried over to where four guards were standing around a brazier and smoking, stamping their feet and laughing at each other’s crude jokes. One guard was holding a dog on a chain, a German Shepherd that lay like a black shadow on a patch of icy grass, its eyes narrow slits.
Anna skirted the dog warily. She was to create the distraction, so with a shriek of alarm she started to make a fuss, waving her arms about to draw attention.
‘Look!’ she shouted. Heads turned towards her. ‘Look there!’ she shouted again, this time pointing urgently at the line of pine trees behind the guards.
A ribbon of space had been hacked out of the forest for the new road they were building, but beyond that lay a dense and gloomy world where little light penetrated. There, power was wielded by claws and teeth instead of guns.
‘What?’ All three guards jumped and swung round, raising their rifles.
‘Wolves!’ she warned.
‘Fuck!’ exclaimed one of the men. ‘How many?’
‘Tri. Three. I saw three,’ Anna lied. ‘It could have been more.’
A second guard came forward. ‘I can’t spot any.’
‘There’s one!’ Anna screamed. ‘Over there. See that pale shape behind…’ her voice was rising in panic, ‘no, it’s moved, but I saw it, I swear I did.’
A rifle shot rang out. Just in case. The dog and its handler were running closer to the trees. The prisoners all watched nervously. Sofia seized the moment: everyone’s attention was focused on the forest to the north of the road, so to the south she turned and began to move. The trees were fifteen metres away. Her heart was hammering in her chest. Don’t hurry, walk slowly. She cursed the ice that crunched noisily under her boots. Ten metres now, and she could see the tall slender trunks coming closer.
‘There!’ Sofia heard Anna cry out again. ‘Quick, off to your right – look, one of the wolves is over that way!’
The guard dog was whining as it strained at its leash, but she heard the handler utter a single word of command and the animal dropped to the ground in silence. The hairs on the back of Sofia’s neck rose and she didn’t dare breathe. Six metres now between her and the beckoning darkness of the forest, that was all. So close she could taste it. She made herself keep to a steady walk and resisted the urge to look behind her.
Another rifle shot rang out in the still air and Sofia instinctively ducked, but it wasn’t aimed at her. It was followed by a string of bullets that ripped through the undergrowth on the north side of the road, but no howls lifted into the mist.
‘That’ll scare the shit out of the creatures,’ one guard declared with satisfaction and lit himself a cigarette.
‘OK, davay, back to work, you lazy scum.’
There was a murmur of voices, and quickly Sofia lengthened her stride. Three more steps and-
‘Stop right there.’
‘Where the hell do you think you’re sneaking off to?’
Sofia turned. Thank God it wasn’t one of the guards. It was the leader of one of the other brigades, a woman with hard eyes and even harder fists. Sofia breathed again.
‘I’m just going to the latrine pit, Olga.’
‘Get back to your work or I’ll call a guard.’
‘Leave it, Olga, I’m desperate to-’
‘Don’t fuck around, we both know the nearest latrine is in the opposite direction.’
‘That one’s overflowing, too disgusting to use, so I-’
‘Did a guard give you permission?’
Sofia sighed. ‘Are you blind, Olga? Of course not, they’re all busy watching out for the wolves.’
‘You know the rules. You can’t leave your work post without permission from a guard.’ The woman’s mouth clamped shut with an audible snap of her false teeth.
‘What’s it to you, anyway?’
‘I am a Brigade Leader. I make sure the rules are obeyed. That,’ she said with satisfaction, ‘is why I have bigger food rations and a better bed than you do. So-’
‘Look, I really am desperate, so please just this once-’
‘Guard! This prisoner is running away.’
The ground was still packed tight with the last of the winter ice. Every thrust of the spade made Sofia’s bones crunch against each other and she muttered under her breath at the guard, a thick-set man who stood watching her with a rifle draped over his arm and a grin let loose on his face.
She had been ordered to dig out a new latrine pit as punishment and it was like digging into iron, so it took her the rest of that day. It could have been worse, that’s what she kept telling herself. It could have been much worse. This punishment was for not requesting permission before stepping away from the road because, thankfully, none of the guards believed the Brigade Leader’s story that she had been trying to escape. The punishment for an escape attempt? A bullet in the brain.
Damn it though. Sofia cursed her luck for running into Olga. She’d been so close. She’d snatched a brief glimpse of the freedom out there in the deepening shadows of the forest.
The latrine, which had to be three metres long and one metre deep, was set no more than two paces beyond the edge of the trees. The pines there were sparse and offered only token privacy. Near the end of the day, when the mists were stealing the branches from the trees, a young dark-haired girl was made to come and help her as punishment for swearing at a guard. As they worked side by side, in silence except for the metal ring of spades, Sofia attempted to catch sight of Anna on the road, but already her brigade had moved on, so she was left alone with only the girl and the guard.
Oddly, she didn’t feel sick with disappointment at her failure, even though she knew she had let both Anna and herself down badly. It was as if she was certain in that strange clear space inside her head that her brush with freedom was not yet over. So when the actual moment came, she was expecting it and didn’t hesitate.
The sky was beginning to darken and the rustlings on the forest floor were growing louder, when the girl suddenly pulled down her knickers, straddled the new latrine pit they’d dug and promptly christened it. The guard’s grin widened and he ambled over to watch the steam rise from the yellow trickle between her legs.
That was the moment. Sofia knew it as clearly as she knew her own name. She stepped up behind him in the gloom, raised her spade and slammed its metal blade on to the back of his head.
There was no going back now.
With a muffled grunt, he folded neatly to the ground and slumped with his head and one arm hanging down into the pit. She didn’t wait to find out if he was alive or dead. Before the girl had pulled up her knickers and screamed out in alarm, Sofia was gone.
They came after her with dogs, of course. She knew they would. So she’d stuck to the marshes where, at this time of year, the land was water-logged and it was harder for the hounds to track down her scent. She raced through the boggy wastes with long bounding strides, water spraying out behind her, heart pounding and skin prickling with fear.
Time and again she heard the dogs come close and threw herself down on her back in the stagnant water, her eyes closed tight, only her nose and mouth above the surface. She lay immobile like that for hours in the slime while the guards searched, telling herself it was better to be eaten alive by biting insects than by dogs.
At first she had the stash of food scraps in the secret pockets that Anna had sewn inside her jacket, but they didn’t last long. After that she’d existed on worms and tree bark and thin air. Once she was lucky. She stumbled upon an emaciated moose dying from a broken jaw. She’d used her knife to finish off the poor creature and, for two whole days, she’d remained beside the carcass filling her belly with meat, until a wolf drove her to abandon it.
As she travelled further through the taiga, mile after mile over brittle brown pine needles, seeking out the railway track that would lead her south, at times the loneliness was so bad that she shouted out at the top of her lungs, great whooping yells of sound, just to hear a human voice in the vast wilderness of pine trees. Nothing much lived there, barely any animals other than the occasional lumbering moose or solitary wolf, because there was almost nothing for them to eat. But in some odd kind of way the yelling and the shouting just made her feel worse: the silence that responded only left a hole in the world that she couldn’t fill.
Eventually she found the railway track that she and Anna had talked about, its silver lines snaking into the distance. She followed it day and night, even sleeping beside it because she was afraid of getting lost, till eventually she came to a river. Was this the Ob? How was she to know? She knew the River Ob headed south towards the Ural Mountains but was this it? She felt a wave of panic. She was weak with hunger and couldn’t think straight. The grey coils of water below her appeared horribly inviting.
She lost track of time. How long had she been wandering out here in this godforsaken wilderness? With an effort of will she forced her mind to focus and worked out that weeks must have passed, because the sun was higher in the sky now than when she had set out. As she tugged out her precious bent pin and twine that was wrapped in her pocket and started to trawl clumsily through the water, it occurred to her that the shoots on the birch trees had grown into full-size leaves and the warmth of the sun on her back made her skin come alive.
The first time she came across habitation she almost wept with pleasure. It was a farm, a scrawny subsistence scrap of worthless land, and she crouched behind a birch trunk all day, observing the comings and goings of the peasant couple who worked the place. An emaciated black and white cow was tethered to a fence next to a shed and she watched with savage envy as the farmer’s wife coaxed milk from the animal.
Could she go over there and beg a bowlful?
She stood up and took one step forward.
Her mouth filled with saliva and she felt her whole body ache with desire for it. Not just her stomach but the marrow in her bones and the few red cells left in her blood – even the small sacs inside her lungs. They all whimpered for one mouthful of that white liquid.
But to come so far and now risk everything?
She forced herself to sit again. To wait until dark. There was no moon, no stars, just another chill damp night inhabited only by bats, but Sofia was well used to it and moved easily through the darkness to the barn where the cow had been tucked away at the end of the day. She opened the lichen-covered door a crack and listened carefully. No sound, except the soft moist snoring of the cow. She slipped through the crack and felt a shiver of delight at being inside somewhere warm and protective at last, after so long outside facing the elements. Even the old cow was obliging, despite Sofia’s cold fingers, and allowed a few squirts of milk directly into her mouth. Never in her life had anything tasted so exquisite. That was when she made her mistake. The warmth, the smell of straw, the remnants of milk on her tongue, the sweet odour of the cow’s hide, it all melted the shield of ice she’d built around herself. Without stopping to think, she bundled the straw into a cosy nest, curled up in it and was instantly asleep. The night enveloped the barn.
Something sharp in her ribs woke her. She opened her eyes. It was a finger, thick-knuckled and full of strength. Attached to it was a hand, the skin stretched over a spider’s web of blue veins. Sofia leapt to her feet.
The farmer’s wife was just visible, standing in front of her in the first wisps of early morning light. The woman said nothing but pressed a cloth bundle into Sofia’s hands. She quickly led the cow out of the barn, but not before giving Sofia a sharp shake of her grey head in warning. Outside, her husband could be heard whistling and stacking logs on to a cart.
The barn door shut.
‘Spasibo,’ Sofia whispered into the emptiness.
She longed to call the woman back and wrap her arms around her. Instead she ate the food in the bundle, kept an eye to a knot-hole in the door and, when the farmer had finished with his logs, she vanished back into the lonely forest.
After that, things went wrong. Badly wrong. It was her own fault. She almost drowned when she was stupid enough to take a short cut by swimming across a tributary of the river where the currents were lethal, and five times she came close to being caught with her hand in a chicken coop or stealing from a washing line. She lived on her wits, but as the villages started to appear with more regularity, it grew too dangerous to move by day without identity papers, so she travelled only at night. It slowed her progress.
Then disaster. For one whole insane week she headed in the wrong direction under starless skies, not realising the Ob had swung west.
‘Dura! Stupid fool!’
She cursed her idiocy and slumped down in a slice of moonlight on the river bank, her blistered feet dangling in the dark waters. Closing her eyes, she forced her mind to picture the place she was aiming for. Tivil, it was called. She’d never been there, but she conjured up a picture of it with ease. It was no more than a small distant speck in a vast land, a sleepy village somewhere in a fold of the ancient Ural Mountains.
‘Oh Anna, how the hell am I going to find it?’
Yet now, at last, she was here. In the clearing among the silver birches, the mossy cabin with its crooked roof warm at her back, the last of the sun’s rays on her face. Here, right in the heart of the Ural Mountains. But it seemed that just when she’d reached her goal, they were coming for her again. The hound was so close she could hear its whines.
She darted back into the cabin, snatched up her knife and ran.
Seconds later two men with rifles and a dog burst out of the tree line, but by then she had already put the hut between them and herself as she raced for the back of the clearing, hunched low, breathing hard. The dark trunks opened up and she fell into their cool protection. That was when she saw the boy. And in a hollow not three paces away from him crouched a wolf.