Author: Tatiana Bonch-Osmolovskaya
Once there was a little girl loved by everyone. Her mum loved her, and her dad loved her, and her nanny loved her, even Petya, her older brother, loved her, and the girl knew from her friends that older brothers could be so mean. But Petya loved her and always gave her a pack of lollies and chocolates when he came to their parents’ house, and mum always said he was giving her too many sweets, and took the lollies away, then gave the girl a lolly a day, and the girl ate each of them for hours, thinking about her older brother Petya who spoke in loud voice and wore a beautiful uniform. The girls’ dad spoke much quieter but sang songs together with the girl and her mother when there were guests in their house. And her mum sang for the girl every night when the girl was going to sleep.
Also they had a guarding dog Sharik on their yard and plenty of chickens and a rooster, the only one who didn’t love the girl. She was scared of him and always looked to the right and to the left when she stepped out of the house through the backyard to go to the village’s street.
The girl’s house was on the very edge of the village, next to the woods, so when bombs fell onto the roofs of their village the girl was the only one who reached the woods. The girl was great at running and climbing trees, so when the shells buzzed over the village and their house shook and it became so hot, and her mother yelled and pushed her to the woods, the girl ran like she never did before in all her life. She fell into mud at the bottom of a ravine full of blackberry bushes, scratching her arms and legs. When the buzzing calmed down, the girl crawled from the bush, she was deafened, and at first she was crawling on all fours, then she got up to her feet and ran back to her house. Or rather, to the place where her house was before, and now it was only ashes, the same as the other houses of their village, and heavy blue smoke rose from the debris.
There was a strange silence around, only humming and flames’ crackles, but there were no voices – neither people nor animals. Chickens didn’t cackle, the dog didn’t growl, the parents did not call for the girl. Her arms and legs hurt, full of scratches, but no one hurried to wash and caress her wounds, clean her face, scold her for getting into dirt and console her for her pain. The girl cried alone.
Still no one came to comfort her.
The girl found a pot on the road, among rocks and splinters and chips. It was the pot for porridge, her mum was cooking it for them for breakfast when the shells came. There were still some half-baked oat flakes on its bottom, and the girl sat on a smoking rock and grain by grain ate the porridge cooked by her mum. There was no milk and no butter in it, her mum was going to add it later, but it was salted in plenitude with the girl’s tears falling into the cauldron, and she ate the porridge to the last flake and she put the empty pot on her arm, she hung it from her elbow. Then she covered her head with some piece of rag she pulled out from under the debris, under the rock which possibly was a part of their house’ wall, and she went to look for her grandmother in the wood.
The girl did not see her grandmother often. She saw her even on rarer occasions than she saw her older brother, but her grandmother remembered her. She called the girl on every birthday and the girl’s mum asked her to write cards to her grandmother every New Year. The girl also remembered how they once went to see grandmother in her house: her dad was driving a car for such a long time, the girl became hungry and burst into tears, and her mum took a pie from a large linen bag and gave her, right on the road, though at the beginning she said you shouldn’t eat on the road, because you had dirty hands and you would get sick. But the girl didn’t get sick, she ate the jam pie and calmed down. Then they came to her grandmother’s house, and she gave them all sorts of and pies, one pie after another, and mum said at first the child should not eat so many sweets, then she ate a lot of them herself, pie after pie, and dad laughed and sang songs, and grandmother also sang songs, and her voice was so loud, even louder than the fathers’ voice.
So the girl went by the path in the woods to her grandmother’s house. The girl knew there were scary creatures and even scarier people living in the wood, and it was dangerous for a little girl to cross it, especially in the dark, and she would definitely have to walk in the dark to get all the way to her grandmother’s house, but what else could she do! The girl also knew there were berries and mushrooms in the woods, and good people, they were there, in the dangerous black wood she was going to cross.
So she went down the path. The pot swayed on her arm, her head was covered in soot stained but still beautiful tissue, and her dress was almost clean, the dirt from her falling into the ditch had dried out and was not visible anymore.
The girl knew there was a spring in the wood, and she came down to the bottom of the ravine and washed her face and her hands, and drank fresh water from the spring, and filled the pot with water, so it stopped swaying and pulled down her arm. But she carried it anyway and sipped the water from it as she went by the track, until the pot became lighter and lighter and finally empty. But by that time it was late evening already, and the girl was not thirsty.
The path disappeared in the darkness, and the girl didn’t know where to go, so she decided to stop for the night. As we have mentioned already, she was good at climbing, so she chose a good pine tree with the branches frequent and thick like steps of a wooden staircase, and used these branches to get to a high fork near the top, with three branches growing in different directions making a seat in the centre, and she settled down there.
During the whole day when the girl was walking by the path in the woods, she forgot about hunger and hadn’t searched for mushrooms and berries, and now her stomach grumbled, but she decided it was better to spend a night on top of a tree and look for food the next morning. She hung her pot on a twig above her head, so it looked like a lamp without light over her bed. She twisted her legs around a branch and her arms around another branch, on the other side of the trunk, and fell asleep.
Owl’s cry and wings’ rustle over the girl’s head woke her up sometimes during the night, but at least there were no shell growls like during the past nights. When she was woken up, the girl looked at the half moon crawling across the sky behind the branches. Then the moon disappeared and it became dark, and the stars winked at each other. Then the moon appeared again from the thick cloud, and the whole world was lit up, like a picture from a fairy tale book that the girl’s mother read her before bed. There were scary wild animals in these fairy tales, and even scarier people, but everything ended well, and the girl knew everything would end well with her as well, and was not afraid.
The trees’ branches moved in the moonlight, like in a magic shadow theater, opening another scene solely for the girl, then closing it. It also looked like the dance of fire, a cold lunar fire instead of the stove heat in the girls’ house. The girl shuddered and held her arms tighter around the tree trunk.
Two round eyes lit up behind a thorny branch, as if two moons came down from the sky to keep closer to the girl. They looked straight at the girl, so close to her.
“Who are you?” she whispered.
“Squirrel,” whispered someone.
“You are too big for a squirrel,” the girl did not believe the eyes.
The eyes closed and opened again.
“Then a wolf.”
“Wolves do not climb trees,” the girl argued.
“I am a wolf, honestly. I was born small, and my parents left me, my older brothers ran away from me, I got lost and no one looked for me. None from my family. They were ashamed I was so small and weak and quiet and didn’t behave like a wolf. So when I was lost I ran and fell into a fox hole and was raised by foxes.”
“So you are a fox!”
The girl began to distinguish a grey shadow in the darkness, the contours of the sad creature sitting on a tree branch, next to her pot. Indeed the beast looked like a tiny wolf, a wolf cub. He tilted his head like a dog, and a long tongue ran around his muzzle.
“But foxes do not climb trees either!” the girl proclamed.
She was absolutely sure.
“What’s the matter! I do climb, you see,” said the wolf. “I had to learn, because there are so many predators below.”
“Aren’t you a predator?”
The girl untangled her arms from around the trunk and sat upright. She couldn’t sleep anymore, and when you are awake you can hold to the branches.
“I am not a predator,” the wolf looked sad by admitting it. “But not a prey either. And you know how many predatory wild creatures are around!”
“I only walked for one day in the woods, I haven’t seen anyone dangerous yet. I haven’t seen anyone at all actually.”
The girl went silent for some time.
“Is it so hard not to be eaten by the predators of the wood? Not to become their prey? I just need to go to my grandmother. My house was burnt, and my parents disappeared. And my brother is fighting the enemy. All I have now is my grandmother in the house in the woods.”
“This is hard. But I can help you.”
An owl hooted over them. The girl shivered and grabbed the trunk.
“Can you help me get to my grandmother’s house?” she asked the wolf.
The wild creature from the woods licked his muzzle.
“Do you have any porridge?” he glanced at her pot. “I smell porridge.”
“No, it was there, but I ate it.”
“It’s a shame. It smells so good. Porridge. Have you truly eaten all of it? To the last drop?”
“I did. I am sorry.”
The girl couldn’t smell the porridge from the pot, but was feeling hungry too.
“My grandmother always has a lot of porridge,” she remembered. “My grandmother will make a whole pot of porridge for us, for both of us, you and me!”
“Then we should go,” agreed the wolf.
“What, now? Wait, where are you going, it is still dark, the darkest hour, the wolf’s hour, the worst hour…”
But the wolf was already climbing down the tree, and the needles were showering down after him. The girl grabbed her pot and followed. She wished to see how he would come down to the ground, but when she set her feet on the ground herself, he was already standing there on his four. He stood in front of her as a shaggy dark shadow. He was taller than her, and his white teeth, somehow invisible when they sat on the pine tree branches, now sparkled in the moonlight, as if he consisted solely of huge round eyes and white shining teeth.
“Well, let’s go!” the wolf proclaimed as if nothing was going on, and licked his lips.
The girl thought he could have eaten her at any moment when they were on the tree, and when she was sleeping, and when they were talking, and when she was descending from the tree. But he didn’t, and she decided there was no sense in being scared now.
“Let’s go,” said the girl.
And they went.
At first, it was absolutely dark in the woods, and they walked slowly. The girl stumbled again, and again. But the wolf walked beside her, and warmth spread from his thick fur. The girl put her hand on his back, another hand, not the hand she held the pot with, and walked leaning onto the beast’s back.
They walked and walked and walked until the sky over the tops of the trees began to lighten. Grey twilight appeared instead of the silvery blackness of the night, and the girl realised how tired and sleepy she was. She was stumbling more often, until she almost fell down and grabbed the wolf’s back with both of her hands. The pot hit him and the wolf turned to the girl with all his shining sharp teeth.
“Hrrr…” said the wolf. “Get on.”
He lay down at the girls’ feet, letting her climb on his back.
The girl buried her face into his fur.
“Just do not fall asleep, or you will fall off!”
The wolf stood up and stepped from one paw to another. “Are you holding tight?”
The girl nodded. She wanted to sleep. She was already falling asleep. But she clung onto his coarse fur smelling of moss and mushrooms with both of her hands and closed her eyes.
“Let’s go then.”
She awoke in a second. How could she sleep, when the wolf was running through the woods, without following any path? The girl slid over his back to the right and to the left, while her friend was rushing, jumping over the windfall, over fallen trees, over rocks covered with moss, in the direction of twilight. Her stomach jumped with her, her teeth chattered one against another, and the tissue she had covered her head with flew off and disappeared far behind them.
Her first question when at last they stopped, was about this tissue, as if this dirty, stained with soot and dried blood piece of cloth was the most important thing she had.
The wolf just licked his lips in response. Really, where did she hope to find it, they have already fled so far from the place she lost it.
“Are you hungry?” the wolf asked her instead.
The girl just shook her head. She didn’t feel hunger any more. She just wanted to lie down on the moss and clasp her knees and close her eyes and fall asleep. She was finally falling down to the ground while still holding on to the wolf’s fur.
“When will we come to my grandmother?” the girl asked the wolf plaintively.
The wolf looked around before answering.
“Soon. Her house is close, behind the meadow, behind the birch trees’ grove. We will get there soon, if we don’t meet anyone. There are wolves in this wood, you know. And hunters. And I don’t know who’s worse.”
“Are you afraid of wolves?”
The girl was surprised.
“They don’t think I am a wolf. I told you I am a squirrel. They will swallow me without a thought.”
“And the hunters take you for a wolf.”
“Exactly. You see me now. And do you know what? They will take you for a wolf as well. Their dogs will take you for a wolf.”
“Let them think so! I don’t care about these stupid dogs! I am going to my grandmother, you know how big the dog in her yard is! Like five of these stupid hunters’ dogs! They all are afraid of him!”
The wolf cringed.
“It is almost daytime, let us wait until the night. Go, hide yourself for now, before they notice us.”
The girl tilted her head towards the wolf. The beast towered over her like a thundercloud appearing on the greying sky. It would start raining soon, or turn into to a white cloud in the clear sky. The girl hadn’t slept much that night and started seeing strange things.
But the meadow was so close, and the grove was so clean that the girl begged the wolf.
“My dearest, my little cutie wolf, please, let us run, we are so close, we can do it now. My grandmother is waiting for me, she is worried about me.”
The wolf sighed.
“We will not get there before dawn. And I can’t walk in daylight.”
“Please, please, wolf, we have plenty of time, have a look, the whole sky is covered with clouds. The sun will not appear on it anytime soon, and you, my dearest wolf, you run so fast, you will run over this meadow in one jump! Then you can run on the birch trees’ branches like a squirrel, right? You are my pretty squirrel!”
The wolf laughed.
“What a sweet voice! What a sweet song! You can sing your song to a bear! Is your name Masha?”
“My name is,” the girl stopped, “they called me… they called me before, but now no one calls me.”
“But I am not a bear, so don’t you sing your songs to me. It won’t work with me.”
“And what will work with you?” the girl jumped. “What will work, wolf? Do you want anything?”
“What can you do for me, little girl?” the wolf laughed.
“I can do a lot. My grandma can make pies for you. And I… I can marry you when I grow up.”
The wolf laughed again.
“And what would I do with this wife? Carry her on my back all the way?”
“I can do a lot!” The girl picked a bunch of glass blades and wove them into a wreath. “I will be an excellent wife, I can sew, I can cook, and I can keep your hair clean.”
“I told you, you took me for a bear.” The wolf sat down in the grass next to the girl. “Let’s get some sleep.”
But the girl already put the wreath on his paw, and another blade of grass woven into a ring on her own finger.
“Here, now, we are engaged. From now on you have to obey me, and do what I tell you to do. And I tell you, let’s run, let’s run now, we will be at grandma’s house in five minutes.”
“If you say so, wife.” The wolf opened his mouth wide. “Then let’s go. Get on.”
The sky turned from grey to transparent blue above the middle of the meadow.
“We don’t have much time, come on.”
The girl grabbed the wolf’s mane.
“Don’t be afraid, wolf, we will get there in the dark yet. Let’s go!”
But the wolf, just a moment ago urging the girl on his back, stood without motion, only trembling, only staggering. After a long silence he stepped forward, carefully placing his paws on the grass. He walked slowly through the meadow, as if through a swamp, and the swamp bumps disappeared from under his paws. The girl gasped at the grass, smelling of freshness and flowers, and did not see any swamp bumps, but the wolf walked slowly, on his half-bent paws, freezing for a moment at each step. He seemed to shrink under the girl, and she was clasped at his entire back, her legs hung behind his back all the way to the ground.
The sky became pink along the horizon line, even through a thick greyish cloud.
A large fly flew out from under the wolf’s paw. Or a wasp. Or a bumblebee, the girl did not recognise it, she just heard a quick low buzzing. And another one on his next step. And another one.
In a few moments, the flies were buzzing everywhere around them.
The girl waved her empty pot, swatting the flies away, but they flew right through the pot, leaving ragged holes in it.
The girl felt the rise and fall of the wolf’s chest, she held on to his fur tighter than ever, tighter than when they galloped through the windbreak. The wolf trembled, but he moved forward.
They had already crossed the top of the meadow, and the girl saw a birch grove growing larger and larger in front of her, and her grandmother’s house behind the grove, and a familiar figure on its threshold.
Thick clouds covered the sky, but the first morning rays were already breaking through the clouds, too bright to bear, and the girl’s eyes watered at the rays, and the wolf became completely transparent under her.
“Be careful! You run through the trees!”
But the wolf only growled in response to her.
The flies were buzzing deafeningly loud.
An owl flew over their heads, and the air hummed and shook, and dry branches fell from the birch trees.
A familiar figure at the grandma’s door raised her hand to the forehead, as if peering at them. From behind the figure, another one stepped out of the house onto the porch, and another one, taller than the first, in beautiful military uniform, and another one.
The dog raged on the chain, not listening to the buzzing of the flies.
“Who is there?”
The girl heard a voice.
“Grandma,” she wanted to scream, “it is me, it is me…” when a whole swarm of flies fell on her and threw her to the ground.
Holding a fluffy woollen wolf under her arm, the girl lay on the threshold of her house, with her leg folded clumsily under her body, and smiled to the grey sky hurrying to cover her with rain.