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Gingerbread Robert Dinsdale Fairy tale and history, wilderness and civilisation collide in this brilliant and magical new novel from the author of Little Exiles.In the depths of winter in the land of Belarus, where ancient forests straddle modern country borders, an orphaned boy and his grandfather go to scatter his mother’s ashes in the woodlands. Her last request to rest where she grew up will be fulfilled.Frightening though it is to leave the city, the boy knows he must keep his promise to mama: to stay by and protect his grandfather, whatever happens. Her last potent gifts – a little wooden horse, and hunks of her homemade gingerbread – give him vigour. And grandfather’s magical stories help push the harsh world away.But the driving snow, which masks the tracks of forest life, also hides a frozen history of long-buried secrets. And as man and boy travel deeper among the trees, grandfather’s tales begin to interweave with the shocking reality of his own past, until soon the boy’s unbreakable promise to mama is tested in unimaginable ways. COPYRIGHT (#ulink_04381ce1-bbd5-5f3b-8c92-69b121e381af) The Borough Press An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers 77–85 Fulham Palace Road Hammersmith, London W6 8JB www.harpercollins.co.uk (http://www.harpercollins.co.uk) Published by HarperCollinsPublishers 2014 Copyright © Robert Dinsdale 2014 Robert Dinsdale asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work. A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it, while at times based on historical figures, are the work of the author’s imagination. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins. Source ISBN: 9780007488896 Ebook Edition © 2014 ISBN: 9780007488919 Version: 2014-07-22 For Kirstie Who fears the wolf, should not go into the forest. Belarusian folk saying Table of Contents Cover (#u77342e12-f2fe-57ef-adf0-ea22fe12fcf4) Title Page (#u77980b4f-89fd-5afe-a004-ddcf270b2aff) Copyright (#u285b72b9-2b96-535f-8d4a-3159644c1594) Dedication (#uff045706-de15-547f-8a08-2d26865f0be5) Epigraph (#u6a774a86-fbe6-5a6e-82b4-a09ea6482b0c) Map (#u3beae908-590d-5ac9-9be5-68d1568ec273) Winter (#u044c06ff-b2c1-5bd0-bff7-c781d35c91b5) Summer (#litres_trial_promo) Winter Returns (#litres_trial_promo) Next Winter (#litres_trial_promo) Acknowledgements (#litres_trial_promo) A Conversation with Robert Dinsdale (#litres_trial_promo) About the Author (#litres_trial_promo) By the Same Author (#litres_trial_promo) About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) WINTER (#ulink_fda75fd5-86b6-5804-a26b-0327eee07ebb) When the car comes to a halt, the boy stirs from his slumber. The very first thing he sees is his mama’s face, peering at him through the mirror. She has it angled, so that it doesn’t show the sweeping headlights spreading their colour on the fogged glass, but shows her own features instead. Mama is tall and elegant, with hair at once yellow and grey, and blue eyes just the same as the boy’s. In the thin mirror shard, she traces the dark line under one of those eyes with the tip of a broken fingernail, then spreads it as if she might be able to see more deeply within. The boy shifts, only to let mama know he is awake. Outside, unseen cars hurtle past. ‘Are we there, mama?’ His mother looks back. She has not been wearing a seatbelt – but, then, the hospital told her she wasn’t to drive the car at all. This, she said as she buckled him in, would have to be their very own secret. ‘Come on, little man. If I remember your Grandfather, he’ll have milk on the stove.’ Mama is first out of the car. Inside, the boy sees her blurred silhouette circle around to help him out. It is not snowing tonight, though mama says it is snowing surely out in the wilds; in the city it is only slush, and that pale snow called sleet. It has fingers of ice and it claws at the boy. Mama helps him down and crouches to straighten his scarf. Then it is up and over and into the tenement yard. On one side, the road rushes past, with rapids as fearful as any river, while on the other the yard is encased by three sheer walls of brick. Eyes gaze down from every wall, half of them scabbed over by black plastic sheeting, the others alight in a succession of drab oranges and reds. The tenement is a kind of castle where Grandfather lives. Mama says the boy has been here before, but that was in a time he cannot remember, and might even have been before he was born. Together, they cross the yard, to follow an archway of brick and cement stairs to the levels above. The path goes all the way around the building, like a trail climbing a mountain, and at intervals the boy can peer down to see the car itself dwindling below. At last, three storeys up, mama stops. ‘Come here,’ she says, and there is something in her voice which makes him cling to her without hesitation. They are standing before a door of varnished brown, with a threadbare mat on which stand two gleaming ebony boots. The boy is marvelling at these things that seem so old when his mama raps at the door. An interminable time later, the door draws back. ‘Vika,’ comes a low, weathered voice. The boy’s eyes drift up from the boots, up the length of mama’s body, up the doorjamb broken by hinges. In the doorway, hunches his Grandfather. He seems a shrunken thing, though he is taller than mama, and taller still than the boy. On his head there is little hair, only a fringe of white hanging from behind, and his face is dominated by features that seem too large and out-of-place: a nose with a jagged crest; blue eyes shining, but eye sockets deep and dark. He is wearing a flannel nightgown, burgundy, tied up with a black leather belt, and though his eyes dwell first on mama, they drop second to the boy. He shuffles closer to mama’s legs, and it is only then that he realizes that Grandfather’s eyes have dropped further, to the boots on the mat. ‘My jackboots,’ he says. ‘They’re finished. Bring them, would you, boy?’ Grandfather turns to shuffle inside. ‘Oh, Vika …’ ‘We’ll talk soon, papa.’ After mama has gone in, the boy picks up the jackboots and follows. It is a small place, with a narrow hall and a kitchen at the end. Mama and Grandfather are already in that kitchen, with a pan rattling on the stove, but the boy creeps up quietly, stealing a look at the photographs adorning the walls. In them he sees people he does not know: a mama and a papa and a baby girl; banks of men in uniforms wearing jackboots just the same as those in his hands. He stops to scrutinize the grainy images, and sees long shadows cast at the end of the hall: the malformed shapes of his mama and Grandfather waltzing in the small kitchenette. ‘No,’ Grandfather says, the word stressed by the clatter of pans. ‘I won’t hear it, Vika. You were foolish coming here. It’s giving in. It’s weakness. I didn’t bring you up just to let you give in.’ ‘It isn’t weakness, papa. It’s cancer.’ On the tolling of that word, the boy appears in the kitchen door. It is a small room, with a stove in its centre and a ragged countertop running around its wall. Pots are piled up haphazardly in a simple tin sink. Across the stove, Grandfather’s hand trembles as he lifts a pan. His eyes, desolate, fall on the boy. ‘I made you a hot milk,’ he breathes. But mama puts an arm around him, and ushers him back into the hall. ‘Come on. I’ll show you your new room.’ There are two bedrooms around a turn in the hallway, and a third little corner with a gas fire and a rocking chair for sitting. Mama ushers him to its furthest end, past yet more photographs of times beyond the boy’s memory. The room at the end is empty but for a bed with two bunks and a chipped wooden horse standing on the window ledge. As they go through the door, his mama reaches for the light – but no bulb buzzes overhead. Still, she coaxes him in. Setting down the bag from her shoulder, she unrolls a simple set of bedclothes. ‘What do you think?’ ‘It isn’t the same as at home.’ ‘It’s my home. This is where your mama used to sleep.’ Mama goes to lie on the bed. It is a ridiculous thing to think she might once have slept in it, because even the boy can see she is too big. ‘Mama, look.’ Mama sits up, turns back to the pillow at which the boy is pointing. Where she lay her head, the pillow has kept a neat lock of her hair. ‘Oh, mama,’ whispers the boy. In two simple strides she is across the room, snatching up the wooden horse from the ledge. She gestures the boy over and, torn between his mama and the hair she left behind, it takes a moment before he complies. ‘This,’ says mama, ‘is my little Russian horse.’ The boy takes it. Once it was painted a brilliant white, with ebony points and a tail of real horsehair, plucked – or so the boy imagines – from the mane of some wild forest mare. Now its paint is dirty and in patches bare, its golden halter a murky brown. The chip above the left eye has given the trinket a look of immeasurable sadness, and the red around its open mouth looks bloody, as if the horse might have come alive in the dead of night and made a feast out of the woodlice who carve their empires in the fringes of the room. ‘It was a present from my mama, and now it’s yours.’ ‘Mine?’ ‘All yours.’ But the boy blurts out, ‘I don’t want it to be mine. It’s yours, mama. You have to look after it.’ The boy grapples to push it back into her hands. Even so, mama’s hands remain closed. ‘You’ll look after him, and your papa will look after you.’ The boy accepts the Russian horse, feeling its chips beneath his fingers. ‘But who will look after you, mama?’ Mama crouches to plant a single dry kiss on his cheek. Once, her lips were full and wet. ‘Get dressed for bed. I have to speak to your papa.’ After she is gone, the boy sits with the little Russian horse. By turning him in the light from the streetlamps below, he can cast different shadows on the wall: one minute, a friendly forest mare; the next, a monstrous warhorse rising from its forelegs with jaws flashing wild. He does not get into his nightclothes and he does not climb under the blanket. To do either would mean he would not see mama again until morning, and he knows he must see as much of mama as he can. When he hears voices, he steals back to the bedroom door and out, back past the banks of photographs, back through memories and generations, to the cusp of the kitchen. His mama’s voice, with its familiar tone of trembling resolve: ‘Promise me, papa.’ ‘I promise to care for the boy. Isn’t that enough?’ ‘I want to be with my mother.’ ‘Vika …’ ‘After it’s done, papa, you take me to that place and scatter what’s left of me with her. You listen to me now …’ ‘You shouldn’t speak of such things.’ ‘Well, what else am I to do, papa?’ His mother has barked the words. Shocked, the boy looks down. His shadow is betraying him, creeping into the kitchen even as he hides himself around the corner. ‘I miss her, papa. On her grave, I haven’t asked you for a single thing, not one, not since the boy was born …’ ‘Vika, please …’ ‘You do this thing for me, and we’re done. I won’t ask you for anything else.’ ‘It has to be there?’ When mama speaks next, the fight is gone from her words. They wither on her tongue. ‘Yes, papa.’ ‘Vika,’ Grandfather begins, ‘I promise. I’ll look after the boy. I’ll take you to your mother. And, Vika, I’ll look after you. I’ll hold you when it happens.’ Then comes the most mournful sound in all of the tenement, the city, the world itself: in a little kitchenette, piled high with pans, his mama is sobbing. Her words fray apart, the sounds disintegrate, and into the void comes a wet and sticky cacophony, of syllables, letters and phlegm. When he peeps around the corner, Grandfather is holding her in an ugly embrace, like a man in a patchwork suit at once too big and too small. ‘And you don’t let him see,’ mama’s words rise out of the wetness. ‘When it happens, you make sure he doesn’t see.’ Strange, to wake in a new home, with new sounds and new smells in the night. The tenement has a hundred different halls, and the footsteps that fall in them echo through all of the building – so that, when he closes his eyes, he can hear a constant scratch and tap, as of a kidnapper at his window. Mama has her own room, across the hall in the place where Grandfather used to sleep. Grandfather has a place by the gas fire, in a rocking chair heaped high with blankets and the jackboots at his side. It is here that the boy finds him every morning, and here that they sit, each with a hot milk and oats. New houses have new rules, and the boy must not leave the alcove while Grandfather takes mama her medicines and helps with her morning ablutions. The boy is not allowed to see his mama in the mornings, but he is allowed to spend every second with her after his schooling is finished. This morning, he is lying in the covers with the old bunk beams above, when the door opens with an unfamiliar creak. There is an unfamiliar tread, unfamiliar breath – and, though he wants it to be mama, it is Grandfather who tramps into the room. ‘Come on, boy. Time for school.’ The boy scrabbles up. ‘Is mama …’ ‘She’s only resting.’ That is enough to quell the fluttering in the boy’s gut, so he rolls out of the covers and follows Grandfather. The old man is retreating already down the hall, past the photographs of the long ago, when everything was black and white. The boy hesitates, eyes drawn inexorably to the doorway across the hall. Then Grandfather calls and he follows. In the kitchen, he studies Grandfather as they eat. Once upon a time, Grandfather was only a story. The boy lived with his mama and only his mama in a house near the school, and in the days he learnt lessons and played with the boy named Yuri, and in the nights he came home and sat with mama with dinner on their laps. Now, Grandfather is real. He has a face like a mountain in the shape of his mother, and ears that hang low. ‘What was mama like when she was little?’ Grandfather pitches forward, breaking into a smile that takes over all of his face. What big teeth he has, thinks the boy. ‘She was,’ he beams, ‘a … nuisance!’ Then Grandfather’s hands are all over him, in the pits of his arms and the dimples on his side, and he squirms and he shrills, until Grandfather has to tell him, ‘You’ll wake your mama. Go on, boy, up and get dressed.’ It used to be that mama walked him to the school gates, but the tenement is far from the school, almost on the edge of the city, where hills and the stark line of pines can be seen through the towers and factory yards, so today they must take a bus. The boy asks, ‘Why can’t we drive the car?’ But Grandfather isn’t allowed to drive, so instead they wait in the slush at the side of the road until a bus trundles into view. As he puts his foot on the step to go in, he thinks of mama, alone in the tenement like a princess locked in her tower. He halts, so that the people clustered behind him bark and mutter oaths. From the bus, Grandfather says, ‘What is it, boy?’ ‘It’s mama.’ ‘She’ll be okay. She’s resting.’ ‘I don’t want her to be on her own. Not when …’ Grandfather’s face softens, as if the muscles bunching him tight have all gone to sleep. ‘That isn’t for a long time yet.’ The boy nods, pretending that he believes – because even pretending and knowing you’re pretending is better than not pretending at all. He settles into a seat beside Grandfather and, as the bus gutters off, cranes back to see the tenement retreating through the condensation. Sitting next to Grandfather is not the same thing as sitting next to a stranger, because in his head he knows that Grandfather was once mama’s papa, and that, once upon a while, Grandfather took mama to school and maybe even sat on a bus just the same as this. Yet, knowing a man from photographs is not the same as sitting next to him and hearing his chest move up and down, or seeing the ridges on the backs of his hands. Every time Grandfather catches him watching, the old man grins. Then the boy is shamefaced and must bury his head again. Once the shame has evaporated, the boy can look back; then Grandfather catches him again, grins again, and once even puts a hand on the boy’s hair and rubs it in the way mama sometimes does. ‘I bet you’re wondering about your old papa, aren’t you?’ The boy shakes his head fiercely. It is a terrible thing not to know which is wrong and which is right. ‘I’m sure you’ve heard stories.’ That word tolls as strongly as any other, and he looks up. ‘Stories?’ ‘Things your mama’s told you, about her old papa.’ ‘Oh …’ ‘No?’ ‘I thought you meant other sorts of stories.’ They sit in silence, as the bus chokes through the lights of a mangled intersection. ‘You like stories?’ The boy nods. ‘Then maybe we’ll have a story tonight. How does that sound?’ The boy nods his head, vigorously. It is a good thing to know which is wrong and which is right. ‘Do you know lots of stories?’ Before Grandfather can elaborate, the bus stutters to a stop, the driver barks out a single word – schoolhouse! – and the boy must scramble to get off. ‘Are you coming, papa?’ It seems that Grandfather will take him only to the edge of the bus, but there must be a pleading look in the boy’s eyes, because then he comes down to the slushy roadside and, with one hand in the small of his back, accompanies the boy to the schoolhouse gates. There are other children here, and other mamas and papas, but none so old and out of place as Grandfather. He looks for faces he knows, and finally finds one: the boy Yuri, who does not run with the hordes but paces the school fence every morning and afternoon, muttering to himself as he dreams. Yuri is good at drawing and good at stories, but he is not good at being a little boy like all of the rest. He is about to go to him when a figure, the vulpine woman who does typing in the headmistress’s study, appears on the schoolhouse steps and begins clanging a bell. ‘Will you come, papa, when school’s done?’ Grandfather has a sad look in his eyes, which makes the boy remember his promise. ‘Tonight and every night, boy.’ ‘And you’ll look after mama?’ Grandfather nods. Next come words the boy knows he should not have heard. ‘And hold her, when it’s time?’ Grandfather opens his leathery lips to speak, but the words are stillborn. ‘Off with you, boy,’ he finally says. The boy turns and scurries into school. In lessons, Mr Navitski asks him about his mama and he lies and says his mama’s getting better, which will stop them asking and, in a strange way, make it so he doesn’t have to lie again. Mr Navitski is a kind man. He has black hair in tight curls that recede from his forehead to leave a devil’s peak, but grow wild along the back of his neck as if his whole pate is slowly stealing down to his shoulders. He wears a shirt and braces and tie, and big black boots for riding his motorcycle through town. In the morning there is drawing, and he makes a drawing of Grandfather: big wrinkled mask and drooping ears, but eyes as big as silver coins and dimples at the points of the greatest smile. Yuri, who doesn’t say a thing, works up a picture of a giant from a folk tale – and when Mr Navitski lines them up for the class to see, the boy is bewildered to find that Yuri’s giant and his Grandfather have the same sackcloth face, the same butchered ears, the same bald pate and fringe of white hair. The only difference, he decides, is in the eyes, where simple flecks of a pencil betray great kindness in Grandfather and great malice in the giant. In the afternoon it is history. This means real stories of things that really happened, and when Mr Navitski explains that, one day, everything that happens in the world will be a history, it thrills the boy – because this means he himself might one day be the hero of a story. He looks at Yuri sitting at the next desk along and wonders: could Yuri be the hero of a story too? He is, he decides, more like the hero’s little brother, or the stable-hand who helps the hero onto his horse before he rides off into battle. On the board, in crumbling white chalk, Mr Navitski writes down dates. ‘Who can tell me,’ he begins, ‘what country they were born in?’ Hands fly up. The boy ventures his too late, and isn’t asked, even though he’s known the answer all along. This kingdom of theirs is called Belarus. ‘And who can tell me,’ Mr Navitski goes on, ‘what country their mamas and papas were born in?’ More hands shoot up. Some cry out without being asked: Belarus! Because the answer is obvious, and the prize will go to whoever gets there most swiftly. But Mr Navitski shakes his head. ‘Trick question!’ he beams. ‘This country wasn’t always Belarus, was it?’ Yuri shakes his head so fiercely it draws Mr Navitski’s eye. ‘What country was it, Yuri?’ Yuri can only shake his head again, admitting that he doesn’t know. ‘Well, Yuri’s half got it right. Because once, not so very long ago – though long ago might mean a different thing to you little things – Belarus wasn’t truly a country at all. In just a few short years, it was part of many other countries and had different names: Poland, Germany, a great, sprawling land called the Soviet Union. And before that it was part of the Russias. Who knows what the Russias are?’ Though Yuri throws his hand up, this time Mr Navitski knows not to ask. ‘It’s an empire,’ says the boy. ‘Well, half-right again … Russia was a nation, with emperors called tsars, and it stretched all the way from the farthest east to the forests where we live today. What’s special about those forests?’ Now there is silence, all across the class. ‘Well, I’ll tell you,’ he says. ‘Once, all of the world was covered in forests. But, slowly, over the years, those forests were driven back – by people just like us. They chopped them down to make timber, and burned them back to make farms. But this little corner of the world where we live is very special. Because half our country is covered in forests that have never been chopped or cut back. The oaks in those forests are hundreds of years old. They’ve grown wizened and wise. And those forests have seen it all: the Russias, and Poland, and Germany, emperors and kings and too many wars. Those trees would tell some stories, if only they could speak! ‘And the truly amazing thing about Belarus is that, no matter how many times an empire came and made us their own, no matter how many soldiers and armies tramped through this little country and carved it up … not once, in the whole of history, have those forests ever been conquered. Those forests will always be, and have always been, ruled by no man or beast. And that makes them the wildest, most free place on Earth …’ The boy looks down. Yuri has been desperately drawing trees on his piece of paper. In between, he scrawls words: wild … free … Belarus. He presses down hard, promptly breaks the tip of his pencil, and looks up with aggrieved eyes – but the boy just keeps on staring at the page. At the end of the day, Grandfather is waiting. As the boy hurries to meet him, something settles in his stomach: a promise has been fulfilled. ‘Mama?’ he asks, before he even says hello. ‘She’s …’ The boy pulls back from Grandfather’s touch, shrinking at eyes that glimmer with such goodness. ‘… waiting for you,’ Grandfather goes on. ‘She made you her kapusta.’ To get back to the tenement, they have to take another bus. This time, it feels better to sit next to Grandfather, which is foolish because the difference is only a few short hours. Now he can ask Grandfather questions, and Grandfather will answer: how long have you lived in the tenement? How old are you, papa, and what was it like so long ago? And, most important of all, what kind of story will it be tonight, papa, when we have our story? The tenement is filled with the smells of spice and smoked kielbasa, that rubbery sausage on whose tips the boy remembers suckling, like a piglet, when he was very small. He leaves Grandfather at the door, where the old man bends to remove his black jackboots, and gambols through the steam to collide with mama in the kitchen. He is too strong, and mama flails back, catching herself on the countertop. ‘Easy, little man!’ She smothers him with kisses. When he pulls his arms from around her neck, he sees that she is wearing a kind of white handkerchief across her head. It gives her the air of a pirate, or a pilot downed in a desert. ‘What is it?’ ‘I have a special job for you. But not until after dinner …’ ‘Papa’s going to tell us a story.’ As he says it, Grandfather appears through the reefs of steam to join them in the kitchen. ‘After we eat,’ says mama. ‘Now, go and clean up!’ Dinner is the soup of kapusta with slices of sausage, thin and flavoursome on top, thick like porridge at the bottom. It is for chewing and slurping, all from the same bowl. After dinner, the boy is to help mama with the washing up, but Grandfather wrestles her out of the way, so instead he helps his papa instead. As they work, Grandfather seems in a haze, quite as thick as the steam that still envelops them. It is, the boy decides, the rhythm of the work, working a kind of enchantment. When they are finished, he finds mama in the corner room with the gas fire burning. It is too warm in here, but he doesn’t say a thing. ‘Come here, little man.’ She is in the rocking chair where Grandfather sleeps, and on a pile of newspapers at her side is a pair of silver scissors, a comb, a glass of the burgundy juice that the hospital told her she has to drink. ‘I’ll need your help.’ She hands him the scissors, and unknots the handkerchief that has been hiding her head. The boy can see now, the patches where the locks have been left on the pillow. In places there is hardly any hair at all, in others a tract of downy fluff like a baby might have. From a certain angle, however, she is still the same mama, with her long blonde-grey locks framing her face. She puts the scissors in his hands and lifts him onto her lap, which is a place he isn’t supposed to sit anymore, not since the last operation. Showing him how to hold them steady, she runs her fingers in her hair and takes the first strands between finger and thumb. ‘Just slide it on, and get as close as you can. See?’ The boy is tentative about making the first cut, but after that it gets easier. Blonde and grey rain down. Mama cuts his hair, and now the boy cuts hers too. As he takes the strands, Grandfather appears behind him, kneading his hands on a washing-up rag. ‘Vika …’ ‘Shhhh, papa,’ whispers mama. ‘You’ll break his thinking.’ There is another chair by the fire, a simple wooden thing. Grandfather settles in it, obscuring the pitiful blue flames. ‘What about our story, papa?’ Grandfather says, ‘A story, is it?’ Though he is concentrating on cutting the next lock, the boy sees his mama give Grandfather a questing look. ‘What kind of a story would you like?’ asks mama. The boy pauses, too lost in thought to see the scratches he has lain into the papery skin of mama’s scalp, too spoilt to see the way he has beaten back what is left of her hair like a forester managing a fire. ‘One of the old stories, papa,’ says mama. ‘Like you used to tell me.’ This pleases the boy. The scissors dangle. ‘Vika, I don’t tell such stories.’ ‘Please, papa. For your little boy.’ There is a pained look in Grandfather’s eyes, though what can be so painful about a simple story the boy cannot tell. ‘There are other stories.’ ‘I used to like the woodland tales. Some of them, they’re not so very gruesome, are they?’ Mama draws back from the boy, letting him stop his cutting. ‘Your papa used to have so many stories. Of heroes getting their swords and their stirrups, back when all of the world was wild. He’d tell them to your mama when she was just a little girl. Until … you stopped telling those stories, didn’t you?’ ‘Peasant stories,’ whispers Grandfather. The boy beams, ‘I’d like a peasant story, papa.’ Grandfather looks like a man trapped. His wonderful blue eyes dart, but there is no escape from the boy’s smile and mama’s eyes. ‘Go on, papa. It’s only a tale.’ Seemingly in spite of himself, Grandfather nods. When he speaks, his voice has an old, feathery texture that must work a magic on mama, because she softens under the boy, and when he looks she is beaming. The boy nestles down, half his work not yet done, and listens. This isn’t the tale, says Grandfather, but an opening. The tale comes tomorrow, after the meal, when we are filled with soft bread. His eyes look past the boy, at mama. Silently, she implores him to go on. And now, he whispers, we start our tale. Long, long ago, when we did not exist, when perhaps our great-grandfathers were not in the world, in a land not so very far away, on the earth in front of the sky, on a plain place like on a wether, seven versts aside, there lived a peasant with his wife and they had twins alike as the snow – a son and a daughter. Now, it happened that the wife died of frost and the papa mourned sincere for a very long time. One year passed of crying, and two years, and three years more, and the papa decided: I must find a new mother for my boy and my girl. And so he married again, and had children by his second wife. But a stepmother can think of old children like thistles in the wheat, and it happened that she became envious of the boy and the girl and used them harshly. They were beaten like donkeys and she gave them scarcely enough to eat. So it went until one day she wondered: what would life be like were I to be rid of them forever? Grandfather pauses, with the simpering gas fire fluttering behind. Do you know what it is to let a wicked thought enter that heart? he says, with sing-song voice and a single finger pointing to the boy’s breast. That thought can take hold and poison even the very good things in you. So it was for the stepmother. So she brought the boy and the girl to her and one day said: here is a basket, you must fill it with fruits and take it to my Grandma in the woods. There, she lives in a hut on hen’s feet. So, the boy and girl set out. They found nuts and berries along the way and, with their flaking leather knapsack filled with wild, wild fare, they entered the darkest wood. There is a look shimmering in Grandfather’s eyes that the boy can only describe as wonder. There are forests banking all edges of the city, rolling on into wilderness kingdoms of which the boy has only ever heard tell: the place called Poland, the northern realm of Latvia – and, in the east, the Russias, which once were the whole world. On they went, the boy and the girl, and at once they found the hut with hen’s feet. It was a most lamentable thing, and on its head was a rooster’s ruff, with dark sad eyes. Izboushka! they cried. Izboushka! Turn your back to the forest and your front to us! The hen feet shuffled, the hut did as they commanded, and there in the little thatch door stood a witch woman, Baba Yaga, who was truly not a Grandma at all. The children were afraid, but they held to each other as children do, and said: our stepmother sends us to help you, Grandma, and we have brought fruit from our journey. And Baba Yaga, who was as old as the forest and older than that, said: well, I have had children before and I shall have children again, and if you work well I shall reward you, and if you do not I shall eat you up. The boy watches as Grandfather says the final words. His throat constricts, and for an instant it seems that he has to choke them out. That night, the boy and the girl were set to weaving in the dark of the hen feet hut. And as they wove, the boy cried: we shall be eaten. And as they wove, the girl said: we shall only be eaten if we do not work hard. If we work hard, we shall be rewarded. But a voice halloed them in the dark, and the voice came from a knot in the wall, for in the wall were the skulls of creatures of the forest, and one of those skulls was the skull of a little boy. Ho, said the skull, but you are mistaken. Your reward will be to be eaten, because for Baba Yaga to be eaten is a great reward. Heed me, for I was once a boy who got lost in the woods and toiled in Baba Yaga’s hut. But what can we do, asked the girl, but work hard and be rewarded? You must run, said the skull, and take this ribbon. Be kind to the trees of the forest, for they will help if they can. Well, the boy and the girl waited until dead of night, when Baba Yaga was abroad. And though the girl wanted to run, the boy was too afraid. So the girl said: I will run and find our papa and we will come back to help. And she ran. But Baba Yaga knew a spiteful pine and the pine’s branches whispered to its needles who whispered to a crow who brought Baba Yaga down. And Baba Yaga gave chase on her broom. At once, the girl remembered the skull’s words. Be kind to the forest, and the forest will be kind to you. So she took the ribbon and tied it to a birch. And the birch was so filled with goodness that the trees of the forest, all but the spiteful pine, grew tangled and would not let Baba Yaga pass. So the girl found her papa and told him what had come to pass, and the papa took his axe into the forest, but because the forest was kind it let him pass. And at last they came to Baba Yaga’s hut, but of the boy there was no sign. Now there was only another skull in the wall of the hen’s feet hut, one to sit next to the other little boy. For the boy had been eaten up and now was part of Baba Yaga forever and more. And from that day until this, two boys can be heard talking at night in the dead of the forest. ‘Is it true?’ marvels the boy. Oh, says Grandfather. I know it is true, for one was there who told me of it. The boy beams. It is the way a story is always signed off, a thing he has heard every time mama tells him a story. He looks around, to see if mama has loved the story as much as him, but he sees, instead, that her face is webbed in strange patterns, that her eyes are sore and red, that some monster has hacked away at her beautiful hair to leave her scarred, ugly, naked as Grandfather’s pate. ‘Come on, boy,’ says Grandfather, lumbering to his feet. ‘I’ll make you a hot milk.’ Grandfather’s hands find his shoulders, try to drag him from mama’s knee. All around him, locks of blonde and grey shower down. His little hands reach out to catch them, but they slip away. ‘It’s okay,’ says mama, ‘I’ll finish it. Don’t cry, now.’ In the kitchen, the boy frets over a pan of milk that won’t stop scalding. He can hear Grandfather and mama, and mama has lost all of her words. Then he hears the footsteps and closing of a door that tells him mama has gone to her bedroom. Grandfather finds him wrestling with the pan, and gently sets it down. ‘She wants to see you.’ A fist forces its way up the boy’s throat. Though they have been with Grandfather only weeks, it is a law as old as time itself, one of the rules whipped up when the world was young, the forests were just tiny green shoots, and Baba Yaga only a babe: you must not go through mama’s bedroom door, not after bedtime. Grandfather ushers him down the hall and leaves him at the door. At first, the boy does not want to go through. His hand dances on the handle and he is about to turn away, crawl into his bunk. Then mama’s voice itself summons him through. ‘Don’t be afraid. It was only a few little tears.’ It is a small room, with a bed with red patchwork and a cabinet with a lamp. On one wall there is a dresser, and around that more photographs of the kind he has seen in the hallway. In these photographs there are no soldiers, nor men in jackboots with rifles on their shoulders, but only the same woman, over and over again. It is, the boy knows, his own baba, who once was married to Grandfather. Mama is on the bed but not in the covers. She has a shawl on her shoulders, the same one in which she used to wrap the boy when he was but small, and the knotted handkerchief is back on her head. Even so, it cannot disguise the fact that somebody has shorn off the last of her locks. The boy hovers in the open door. ‘Why were you crying, mama?’ Mama makes room for him on the bed. At first, he is uncertain; the room is a storm of different smells, alien even to the rest of the tenement. Only when he sees the pained expression on mama’s face does he hurry over and scramble onto the covers. She folds an arm around him and he is surprised to find that she feels the same, even though she looks so different. ‘It was only the story,’ she says. ‘Papa used to tell me all kinds of stories when I was a girl. Stories of the woodland and the wild, the kind of stories he’d heard from his papa, and his papa before him. Then, one day, when your mama wasn’t so very much older than you, he stopped telling those stories. He wouldn’t take us to the forest anymore. He wouldn’t talk about the wolves and the stags, and I never knew why. I used to love hearing about my papa’s time in the wilds, but from that day on he barely left the city. It was … nice to hear him that way again. That’s all.’ The boy isn’t certain he understands, but to say as much would be to betray mama, so he only nods. ‘Papa has lots of stories of the forests, doesn’t he?’ ‘They’re all there, waiting, still inside him.’ ‘Do you think he’ll tell me them, mama?’ ‘I hope so. But your papa, he’s a … very old man, little thing. There are some stories he doesn’t want to tell. Some he shouldn’t …’ Mama means to go on, but there come footsteps from beyond the door. They hover, and they turn, and they click – as if Grandfather has put his old jackboots back on and is meandering up and down the hall. Mama waits for him to drift away once more. ‘Listen,’ she says, shuffling so that they can face each other on the bed, the boy nestled in the diamond of her legs. ‘I need you to hear this.’ The boy stiffens. When somebody says I need, it means that the thing they will tell you is a terror, and must not really be heard at all. ‘I won’t be here for very much longer,’ she says, with a finger brushing at his fringe so that he cannot hide. ‘Your papa is a great man, a kind man, in his heart. But his heart can be buried. He lived in terrible times. You can see it in his eyes sometimes, those terrible things. It’s why we haven’t seen him so very much, not since your baba died. But I want you to know – you’re of him, just as you’re of me and I’m of you.’ Half of the boy wants to squirm, but the other half pins him down. ‘He’ll care for you and love you and, even when I’m not here, I’ll be loving you too. I’ll be in your head. I’ll be in your dreams. You can talk to me, and even if I can’t talk back, you’ll know I’m listening. I’ll watch over you.’ They sit in silence: only the thudding of two hearts, out of beat, in syncopated time. ‘It’s okay to be scared,’ whispers mama. ‘I’m not scared.’ ‘It’s okay … to want it.’ The boy’s eyes dart up. ‘It won’t be long,’ she promises, with her lips so close to his face he can feel their warmth, smell the greasy medicine still in her mouth. ‘It will be over soon. And then … then … I want you to make me a promise.’ The boy says, ‘Anything, mama.’ ‘Promise me you’ll look to your papa. No matter what happens, no matter what stories he tells, no matter what you see or hear or … No matter what you think, little one. Promise me you’ll love him, and you’ll care for him, forever and always.’ The boy doesn’t need to think. He nods, and lifts his arms to cling from mama’s neck, like a papoose made of skin and bone. ‘Whatever happens, little thing. Whatever stories he tells. Whatever you see in his eyes. Whatever happens in your life or his, he’s yours and you’re his.’ The boy nods again, head lifting only a whisper from mama’s shoulders and held there by strands of tears thick as phlegm. He is in school and making paper foxes with Yuri when Mr Navitski tells him, ‘Today, Yuri’s mother is going to take you back home.’ He has been to Yuri’s house before, for a birthday party at which he was the only guest. Yuri has a stepfather who works on the railway that goes east, into all of the Russias, but more often than not he is away and it is only Yuri and his mother in the little flat above the workers’ canteen. When he emerges from school at the end of day, white clouds are hunkering over the schoolhouse, and Yuri’s mother is talking to Mr Navitski at the distant gates. Across the yard, and Mr Navitski ushers him on his way. ‘Take care,’ he says. ‘We’ll see you … soon.’ ‘Tomorrow,’ the boy says, with a hint of defiance. Mr Navitski nods as if he does not really believe it, and then strides back to the schoolhouse. Yuri’s mother has eyes that nest in wrinkles and black hair scraped back in a bun. She has rings on each of her fingers and a coat with fur in its collar, but her boots are scratched and thin, at odds with the rest of her appearance, and it is these that the boy looks at as he approaches. ‘Yuri,’ she says, growing impatient at the boy still dragging himself across the schoolyard. ‘Don’t keep your friend waiting. We’re taking the bus.’ The promise of the bus fires Yuri, and he is much more spirited as they puff their way to the stop. The boy follows. Yuri has a strange waddling gait, like a duck being plumped up for the oven. The boy thinks: he’s like the boy in Grandfather’s story, ready to be eaten up by Baba Yaga. It is a bus he has not taken before, down past boarded-up shop-fronts. As they go, the clouds break, and fat flakes of white seal the bus in a sugary case. By the time they climb out, it lies thick on the roadsides. The city has changed shape, its corners grown less defined. Yuri’s mother leads them on, past the railway canteen, and up a flight of frigid metal stairs. There, she takes a key from her purse and admits them to Yuri’s world. Yesterday’s kalduny and draniki, heavy with fat, and a box of sugary juice for afters. While his mother is clearing up, Yuri takes him to his bedroom, which has bunks just like in Grandfather’s tenement. The boy sits on the carpet with his bowl between his legs. Yuri considers him silently, reaches out a hand with a wrist quite as big as its palm, and pats him quickly on the head. Then he turns to open a box. From it, he pulls two silver trains and a piece of toy track. The carpet of Yuri’s room is covered with a map, something Yuri has drawn himself, on the backs of envelopes and cereal packets. On the map are scrawled the most wonderful mountains and forests, rivers and roads. Yuri sets the trains down on a plain where a torn magazine front makes a ragged shore, and pushes one to the boy. ‘Mother says you’re not living at home.’ The boy rolls his train along the shore, bound for a head-on collision with Yuri. ‘We have a new home.’ ‘A new home?’ ‘With my papa.’ Yuri swerves his train out of the way. ‘What’s your papa like?’ The boy remembers mama’s words – your papa, he’s a great man, but he lived in terrible times – and they must certainly be true. But there’s another truth too: Grandfather has blue eyes just like mama, and a hundred different tales for the telling. He makes hot milk in a pan and, once, when the boy woke from a nightmare and cried, it was Grandfather who stirred and came into the bedroom and straightened his sheets and told him: hush now, it’s only a dream. It didn’t even matter that the dream was of mama, shrunk and desiccated in bed because they forgot that she was alive, because Grandfather’s vivid blue eyes made it better. ‘He’s like my mama, but old,’ the boy says. ‘I have a papa too.’ Yuri digs again in the toy box and pulls up a photograph in a frame. ‘He’s the papa of my real father.’ The picture is much the same as the ones that line the tenement hall, but these men are wearing a uniform subtly different from Grandfather’s own. In the image they stand in a row against a brick wall, each with a rifle in the crook of their arm. ‘He was in police, in the war.’ Yuri seems inordinately proud, and lands a plump finger on the man who is his Grandfather. ‘What did your papa do, in the war?’ The war was a thing that happened in the long ago, in a time beyond all reckoning. In that age there were heroes and winters that lasted for seasons on end. There were kings with companies and they waged battles on ice-bound tundras, and took up brave quests. In truth, the boy does not know if Grandfather was in a war or not. It might be that those winter wars happened in his great-grandfather’s time, or even an aeon before that. In the war, soldiers rode on woolly mammoths and unleashed great wildcats into battle, to cut down evil mercenaries with teeth like sabres. ‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘My mama says I’m not to know, but I do. He was a police and he kept people safe.’ At that moment, the bedroom door flies open and Yuri’s mother reappears. On a tray she has pastries, dusted with sugar, like the ones mama would take him to marvel at in the baker’s window. She is about to set it down when she sees that Yuri is holding the photo. ‘I told you! Put that dirty thing away or it goes in the rubbish!’ Yuri scurries to squirrel it back in the box, ducking his mother’s hand. Without another word, she tosses the tray on the bed and sweeps out of the room. ‘It’s because of my stepfather,’ Yuri explains, deliberating over which of the identical pastries he should devour. ‘My stepfather says the police were wicked in the war, but he doesn’t really know. How can a police be wicked, when he’s there to help?’ The boy shrugs. ‘Maybe I can come to your house again. Then we can play without getting bashed.’ The boy nods, but it doesn’t seem a thing that could happen, to have boys or girls to play in the tenement. The tenement is a place like that photograph now stashed away, where time is out of step and the real world awry. They play on, and in stages the tray is cleaned of pastries, shreds, and crumbs. To lick the tray clean is a forbidden thing, but the crumbs taste better for being forbidden. Soon, the snow is so thick against the windows that there is absolute dark. Through the walls, the boy can hear the tinny buzzing of a television set; Yuri’s mama is, he says, watching her stories and mustn’t be disturbed. There is the clinking of a bottle and, intermittently, she barks at the cavorting characters on screen, even though she cannot be heard. To Yuri, this appears to be the end of the world. He flushes crimson red, refuses to catch the boy’s eye and mutters about a new game, anything to distract the boy from what is happening on the other side of the walls. A clock above the door ticks – and the longer the games go on, the more persistent the ticking seems to be. Yuri chatters on, explaining new portions of his map and new games to be played, but all his words are drowned out by that simple, unchanging tick. On the clock’s face: seven o’clock, now eight, now nine. Yuri has dragged a new piece of card to the foot of his bed, and is cultivating a dark pine forest in its corners, when the boy thinks he can detect another ticking in the air. This one comes with a different rhythm; it sounds more heavily, with a dull reverberation. Time slows down. The hands of the clock drag, each tick tolling with a tortuous lag. There come three short raps, of hands knocking at the front door. Yuri spins around, as if caught in some mischief. ‘But my stepfather isn’t home until the weekend!’ It is panic that seizes Yuri, as he endeavours to tidy the room, but the boy sits still and listens to Yuri’s mother crossing the flat to answer the door. ‘Come in,’ she says – and he hears, once again, the click of those jackboot heels. After that, he knows what is coming. There is nowhere to run, and hiding would be useless. Yuri’s mother appears again in the doorway. She does not speak, but a soft look in her eyes compels the boy to stand and follow her, back through the flat, into the living room where the door stands open, with winter flurrying up in its frame. There stands Grandfather. His white hair is emboldened by ice, and his whiskers carry their weight as well. In that frozen mask his eyes are piercing bolts of cobalt. He wears gloves through which bitten fingers show. The boy goes to him, stalls, goes to him again, crossing the flat’s endless expanse in a stuttering dream. ‘Is she in hospital again?’ he says, with a tone that some might say is even hopeful. Grandfather steps forward with clicking jackboots, crouches, and opens his greatcoat to put old and weathered arms around his grandson. ‘No, boy,’ he whispers with the sadness of mountains, of winters, of empty tenement flats. ‘No, boy, she won’t be going to hospital ever again.’ On the ledge by the window, its underbelly lit up by slivers of light shooting up through the floorboards: the little Russian horse that was a present from his mother. It is cold in the tenement, and has been cold throughout the long, empty days. The boy counts them in his head: five, six, seven days since the jackboots clicked on the frigid metal stair, their steps tolling out the news. Now, with his eyes lingering on the little Russian horse, he waits for their clicking again. Today there has been nothing to do but wander up and down the hall, brooding on every photograph of the long ago, wondering at such things as soldiers and jackboots and guns. When headlights roam the road outside, the Russian horse is trapped, monstrous, in the sweeping beams. The boy creeps up, as if he might peep over the ledge and look into the street below, but the creature leers at him and he is not brave enough to come near. He turns back, meaning to sit on his haunches in the corner of the room, but the horse’s shadow dominates the far wall. The boy starts, turns back to the tiny wooden toy just as the headlights pass on. Now, it is just a flaking Russian horse again, with its painted eyes and preposterous eyelashes, its ears erect like a fox, a twisted little creature he must always look after, no matter how malevolent it has become in the week since mama disappeared. It is only when the headlights are dead that the boy goes to the window. On tiptoes he can heave himself up and look out onto the tenement yard. Mama’s car is parked at an awkward angle, one wheel up on the kerb. Ice still rimes the windscreen, so that the driver must have driven half-blind. Inside, a little heart of light glows. When Grandfather appears, he is clutching a brown parcel to his breast. He takes off, but does not lock the car behind him. Soon, after he has crossed the tenement yard, he disappears from sight. The boy listens out for the click of his boots on the concrete. Then, he drops from the window ledge, upending the little Russian horse, and creeps to the bedroom door. He will, he decides, make Grandfather a hot milk. In the hallway, the photographs stare at him, and he in turn stares at mama’s door. He has not been through since the night Grandfather brought him home from Yuri’s, but he knows that Grandfather goes in there at night – not to sleep, but to make the sad baby bird sounds that the boy has started to hear after dark. Inside, a lamp burns; the boy can see the light in the sliver under the door. He drops to his hands and kneels and presses his nose to the crack, like the pet dog he has never been allowed. He thinks: I’ll smell her still, in the air trapped like a tomb. But all he draws into his nostrils is dust and carpet strands. He is in the kitchen, with the milk pan rattling on the stove, when he hears the familiar click of Grandfather’s heels. A key scratches in the lock, and a flurry of cold air tells him that Grandfather has come in. Quickly, he fills the mugs and ferries them to that place where the rocking chair sits before the dead gas fire. In the chair, mama’s shawl is sleeping, curled up like a cat. A voice flurries down the hall, ‘You should be in bed.’ How Grandfather knows he is there, he cannot tell. ‘I know.’ ‘Couldn’t you sleep?’ Grandfather appears in the alcove, ruddy face still glistening from the cold. He looks different tonight. He has taken off his overcoat to reveal a slick black suit underneath. Grandfather has never looked as smart as he does in the suit, but it is a sad thing to see a man look so smart. His tie is done up tight and it bunches the loose skin of his neck, leaving a horrid red line like a scar. His hair has oil in it and is combed so you can see every strand. He has had a shave and all of his whiskers, once so prickly and wild, have gone. ‘I see you made the milk.’ ‘It was to ward off winter.’ Grandfather’s face cracks in a smile. ‘Like in the story!’ It was one Grandfather told him on the night mama died, of the peasant boy Dimian and his forest home, and how he loved to take his fists to his neighbours and would do almost anything to tempt them to a fight. Grandfather shuffles into the alcove, and, like a mouse afraid of being trampled, the boy scrambles out of the rocking chair to make space. Before Grandfather settles, though, there is the fire to be made. He keeps the brown paper package nestled in his arm and bends to turn a gauge. Then there is a match; a spark flies up, and the fire is lit. ‘Come on, we can have a biscuit. I don’t think she’d mind if you wanted a biscuit, would she?’ ‘Even late at night?’ ‘Well, it’s a special kind of night.’ Grandfather retreats to the kitchen, returning with the package under one arm and a biscuit tin in the other. Inside are ten pieces of gingerbread with decorations carved into each: ears of wheat curling around a ragged map, and a star with five points hanging above. The boy is reaching in with a grubby paw when Grandfather stops him. ‘Maybe we should share one.’ Really, the boy would rather have one all for himself. These are special ones, made with honey, not like the ones with jam you can buy in the baker’s. He feels distinctly more hungry just to see one. ‘Can I have one for my own?’ ‘No,’ says Grandfather. ‘They have to last.’ It doesn’t matter, in the end, because Grandfather has just a tiny corner, and the boy can suckle on his piece all night. It is rich and sticky in his mouth, coating his gums so that he will be able to taste it all the way to morning. ‘Did mama make the biscuits?’ Grandfather nods. ‘There’s nine more.’ ‘Can I have another?’ ‘No.’ He doesn’t ask why. Even so, he realizes he’s being especially careful not to make crumbs. After a great, honeyed silence: ‘What was it like today, papa?’ Grandfather nestles, and might be readying himself for another fable. This isn’t the tale, he begins, but an opening. The tale comes tomorrow, after the … ‘Papa, please.’ ‘It was quiet, boy. Snow on the cemetery. They brought your mama in a black car. I wanted to lift her down myself but she was too heavy. So the men from the parlour had to help me.’ ‘Did you … see her, papa?’ ‘Not today, boy.’ ‘It’s her in the paper, isn’t it?’ Both sets of eyes drop to the brown paper package in Grandfather’s lap. Somehow, mama is inside. All of her that was, boiled down to nothingness and poured into a little tin cup. Inside that package are all the times she walked him to school, all the dinners she made, all the stories before bedtime. And the promise she made him make. ‘Can I hold her?’ Grandfather offers her up. In his hands, she feels light as the air. She is the same as any package that might come through the door. He puts his ear to her and listens, but she no longer has a voice. ‘When will we do it?’ Grandfather takes her back. ‘Do it?’ ‘Take her to that place, in the forest.’ Grandfather’s face is lined, and for a moment the boy thinks he doesn’t understand. He says, ‘You know, the place where baba went.’ Grandfather shakes his head. ‘Not there,’ says the old man, lifting mama to marvel at her. ‘We’ll find a place here, in the city. A place near your old house. A special spot. Somewhere she loved to take you. And then, every time we want to talk to her, every time we want to hear her voice or see her eyes, we’ll go there, you and me, and listen to the wind. What do you think, boy? Can you think of a place?’ Sitting at Grandfather’s feet, with the prickling heat of the gas fire touching his back, the boy is somehow frozen. His fingers twitch, as if he might reach out for mama once again, but Grandfather’s hands close protectively around her. He picks out Grandfather’s eyes, but they are still so perfectly blue, that the boy thinks he must simply be mistaken. ‘Papa,’ he whispers. ‘She wanted to be with baba …’ ‘She told you that, did she?’ The boy feels as if he is shrinking in size, barely big enough to perch on Grandfather’s boots. ‘No, papa, she told you.’ The silence of the deepest snowfall fills the alcove. ‘When?’ Grandfather begins, his voice a-tremble. ‘It was when we came,’ breathes the boy, as if fearful of his own words. ‘You were in the kitchen and mama was crying and, papa, she made you promise.’ Grandfather hardens. ‘Your mama would understand, boy, if you wanted her near, some place she could be with us. I don’t want to take her to that place, boy. Do you?’ Though the boy is uncertain of the precise place mama meant, he has an image in his head. He was not there when the dust of his Grandma sifted through mama’s fingers, but she took him there in later years – and there he saw the fringe of the rolling forest, the tumbledown ruin which was a place of stories and histories as well. One hour out of the city, two hours or more, and the woods are wide and the woods are wild and the woods are the world forever and ever. It is, he knows, a place that baba loved through all of her life, a place mama would go to, over and again, to hear her dead mother whisper in the leaves. ‘You promised, papa.’ Grandfather is silent. The boy wonders: does he know the meaning of a promise? Perhaps a promise is a thing only for little boys and girls, like schoolyards and alphabets and mittens. ‘Sometimes, boy, you make a promise to stop someone’s heart from bleeding.’ It isn’t like that for the boy. He won’t forget sitting at mama’s side and putting his arms around her and making his oath: to look to his papa, to love his papa, to look after him for all of his days. ‘Papa, she’ll be upset.’ His fingers reach for the brown paper. At first, Grandfather lifts it away. Then, he relents. His fingers scrabble at it, find its corners, tear and touch the urn underneath. ‘Papa, you wouldn’t break a promise if mama knew.’ Grandfather’s chest rises, fills with cold air. He breathes it out in great, slow plumes. In the make-believe grate, the gas fire flickers and retreats. ‘You sound like your mother, boy. Papa, papa, papa.’ Each word is like a flint being chipped from his lips: sharp, severe, showering sparks. He bends down, his face eclipsing the boy’s, and there no longer seems any blue in his eyes. His lips are pursed and his brow is furrowed and the boy can see his fingers whitening around mama’s little urn. ‘Over and again, that’s all she said. Take me to the forest, papa. Take me to the forest!’ He rears back, and out of his hands the package tumbles. To the boy, it seems as if the world slows down. Mama’s package turns, end over end, and rolls to a stop in the deep shag near the grate. ‘Well, what if I don’t want to go to the forest?’ Grandfather snarls, whirling around without another look at the boy. ‘This is my home. My life. What if I can’t go back?’ Listening to the snarl still in his voice, the boy crawls across the floor and snatches up mama’s urn. The lid is still in place and he thinks to lift it, peer at what still remains, but instead he turns to see Grandfather disappearing from the alcove. Heavy footsteps tramp back into the kitchen. He clings to his mama. ‘Why is papa so angry, mama?’ He hears the rattle of pans, the tramp of more footsteps, a single click as if Grandfather is donning his big black jackboots. Only when the tramping dies does he dare venture up, out of the alcove, and into the kitchen door. Inside, Grandfather has not donned his jackboots at all. He is hunched over a pan of milk and his heavy breathing fogs the tenement air. ‘You’re not angry, are you, papa?’ He is; the boy can see that he is. Even when it is not foaming on his lips, it is shimmering in his eyes. At first, he does not reply. He simply breathes in and, by breathing in, seems to force the anger back deep inside him. The darkness evaporates and his eyes sparkle blue all over again. ‘I’m … sorry, boy. Your mama, is she okay?’ The boy offers up the urn. ‘I don’t think it hurt her, papa.’ It is a good thing when Grandfather takes the urn. The boy can feel his hands, cold and wet and scored with lines. They linger a little on the boy’s hand, and it is like a little pat that you might give a dog in the street. When Grandfather pulls his hands away, the boy’s go with them, his fingers entwining with the gnarled old knuckles. ‘Is it a tale before bedtime, boy?’ the old man asks, almost contrite. The boy nods. ‘And mama can listen too.’ In the bedroom, Grandfather tells him of the little briar rose. It is a German story, and not of their people, but in it are forests the same as theirs, and peasants who might be like them, were it not for different tongues and different kings. In the story a mama and a papa want a baby of their own, but their lives are empty as the tenement today, until one day an enchantment gives them a daughter, the Little Briar Rose. There is a feast, but there is no place at the table for the thirteenth wise woman of the village, and in revenge she makes a prophecy that, on her fifteenth birthday, the Little Briar Rose will open her finger on a spindle and fall into an unending, poisoned sleep. Grandfather’s voice has the same sound, like feathers being ruffled, that is swiftly becoming familiar. The boy lets it wash over him. His thoughts, punctuated by mourning mamas and walls of thorn grown up to hem in the sleeping girl, wander. ‘Why don’t you want to go to the forest, papa?’ he says, bolting up in bed so that his words pummel straight through the heart of Grandfather’s fable. This time, the old man is not so angry after all. ‘That, my boy … that’s another story. One,’ he chokes, ‘that your mama never knew.’ ‘We’ll take her though, won’t we?’ Grandfather whispers, ‘I’m sorry, boy. I didn’t mean to get cross. I … miss her, that’s all. We’ll take her tomorrow.’ The boy has closed his eyes to sleep, with Grandfather retreating down the hall, when he realizes he is still wrapped up in mama’s shawl. He has to be careful because one day the smell will wear out, so he takes it off and makes a nest in the corner. Then he plucks the Russian horse from the ledge and settles him down in the nest for sleep. Outside, tiny crystals of snow are twirling on the wind. In the ragged orange of one of the streetlamps a man is hunched over Grandfather’s car. With the door half open, the man rifles inside. But he finds nothing, and then he is gone, leaving the door ajar and the snow curling through. The boy steals back to bed, whispers goodnight to the Russian horse, and closes his eyes. It blocks out the glow of the streetlamps, but it does not block out the strange, muted whimpers coming from along the hall. In the morning they have to dress up warm, because it’s winter and today is a day out. There are mittens and scarves that mama made, and big black boots two sizes too big. As Grandfather works them onto the boy’s feet, he tries to find answers in the lines of the old man’s face, but it is hard grappling for an answer when the question remains so out of grasp. ‘Are you going to be okay, papa?’ The last boot goes on, and Grandfather looks up with furrowed eyes. His face is not scored with the same deep crevices as the night before, but this the boy does not brood on, because the night has a kind of magic and makes things all better by morning. ‘Okay?’ ‘To go into the forest.’ In response, Grandfather lifts a hat from the edge of the rocking chair and lowers it over his head. It is a ring of brown and black that, so it is said, is made out of bear. ‘We have to do it for mama, don’t we?’ Grandfather nods, with steeliness in his eyes of blue. The car, Grandfather finds, has been open all night. Snow ices the seats and the steering wheel is rimed in hoarfrost, so that when the boy crawls inside he is colder than he was outside. In his lap sits the little Russian horse – because mama must say goodbye to that poor wooden creature too – and underneath him, his eiderdown for a blanket. It is, Grandfather says, going to be bitter and cold before they are through. ‘Do you know the way, papa?’ Grandfather says, ‘I think I remember.’ ‘So you’ve been there before?’ ‘Oh, long, long ago, when we did not exist, when perhaps our great-grandfathers were not in the world …’ If it seems like a story is about to begin, it quickly turns to mist. Grandfather scrubs a hole in the windscreen and squints out. ‘The winter might be against us, but you’ve the stomach for an adventure, don’t you, boy?’ It thrills the boy when Grandfather says this, because the boy has never had an adventure, not a proper adventure of the kind he thinks Grandfather must once have had. Those photographs in the tenement spell out a kind of story, and perhaps he would find it as heroic as the fables Grandfather tells, if only he knew how to read it. ‘What if we get hungry?’ Grandfather pats his pockets. ‘I brought us wings of the angel.’ The city streets are banked in grey slush. This snow, Grandfather says, is not for settling. That Grandfather is not always correct is quickly apparent, for once they have left the austere tenements behind, the drifts grow high at the banks and the blacktops are encased in ice as thick as a river. It is frightening to leave the city. The city is school and the tenement and the miles and miles of empty factories where the boy is forbidden to play. In places, the boy knows, the forests have crept into the city itself, as if all of the streets and squares are held in a giant fist of pines, but outside there is nothing but the dark curtain of woodland and the barren heaths in between. The road weaves across them like an open white vein. For miles the road is bordered by banks of firs but, deeper in, the trees are older still: sprawling oaks and beech, alders and ash. Once in a while an oak towers over the rest, and those oaks have stories and names all of their own. Somewhere, so deep that Grandfather says it might lie in some other country, stands the plague tree, whose branches cradled an ancient king while death ravaged his kingdom. There are oaks named after battles and tsars and emperors whose empires have long since ceased to exist, but these the boy knows he will never see, for the forest stretches until the very end of the earth and, if you follow its paths, you can never come back home. It would, he knows, be a very great adventure to see the edge of the forest; but mama is gone, and the boy has made a promise: he will not leave Grandfather to drink milk in the tenement alone. They have gone many miles from the tenement when Grandfather pushes his old jackboot to the floor and turns the car onto a forest track. The branches above, laden with snow, have formed a cavernous roof, so that the trail here is almost naked, only lightly dusted with crystals of frost. The boy chews his mittens off his hands and suckles on each finger for warmth. ‘Are you so hungry?’ ‘No.’ ‘We should have brought soup.’ ‘I don’t like soup.’ ‘You liked your mama’s kapusta.’ ‘Which one is that?’ ‘Cabbage,’ the old man beams. There is a long silence. ‘I didn’t like it,’ the boy finally whispers, his head bowed. ‘I only told her I liked it.’ ‘Why?’ ‘She liked to make it for me, didn’t she, papa?’ ‘I’ll make you some.’ ‘Not like mama.’ ‘No,’ Grandfather whispers, ‘not like mama.’ When they are deep in the wood, Grandfather slows the car. The windows are frosting again on the inside and he rubs them with his sleeve to make sure he can see the trail. ‘It must be somewhere near,’ he says. ‘Here?’ There is a trembling in Grandfather’s voice; it might be fancy, but he thinks it is because of more than the cold. The boy watches him, but Grandfather is hunched over the wheel, squinting through the ever-decreasing hole in the windscreen, and betrays not a flicker. He guides the car to the very edge of the track, cutting the engine before they’ve stopped rolling. ‘Come on, boy. We’ll know it when we see it.’ It is easy, now, to see why Grandfather did not want to come to the forest. The trees have the visages of men. They leer, and grope, and they surround. Colonies of birds with watchful black eyes line the treetops. When he climbs out of the car, the frost is the first thing to assault him; the trees simply stay where they are, watching, and for a moment that is the most terrible thing of all. Grandfather waits between the trees, and by the time the boy catches up his face has blanched as white as the ice-bound branches around. ‘Are you okay, papa?’ ‘You don’t have to keep asking, boy. We’ll see it done and then be off home.’ They set off, Grandfather – in his eagerness to see it done – always two strides ahead. The trail leads them into darker reaches of the woodland, but everywhere shimmers with the same kind of spectral light, the sunlight trapped beneath the branches by a canopy of snow. This forest they walk in is a graveyard, and fitting perhaps for mama’s end. ‘The urn!’ Grandfather mutters, opening his empty hands. ‘Stay here.’ He sweeps around and, with shoulders hunched up, barrels back down the trail. Now the boy is alone. He stands in the middle of the track and watches his breath rise. The tips of his ears and the end of his nose tingle. He has never heard silence quite like this. He thinks that, if he coughed, it would break some secret forest rule. It would be so loud the blackbirds would scatter from their roosts and the wild cats come hurtling from their hidings. It smells of outside, of earth and bark and crystal-clear water. He doesn’t move until Grandfather returns, mama’s package held between hands that have lost their gloves and look raw. ‘Were you scared?’ He shakes his head. ‘I was afraid, boy, the first time I found myself in the wilderness alone.’ The boy wants to ask more, because it sounds like there’s a story in that, one quite unlike the fables Grandfather spins at night, but instead the old man tramps on and he is compelled to follow. Before they have gone far, the trees thin, then peter out altogether. The forester’s trail turns to follow the edge of the woodland, along a ridge that overlooks a clean, white pasture. In the roots of one of the tumbled yews, there is a big yellow depression and a trail of yellow droplets running away from it. ‘Fresh!’ exclaims Grandfather, and gives a shrill, throaty cheer when he spots the tracks. ‘Roe deer. Do you see the two toes?’ He nods, even though he doesn’t. How Grandfather knows such things if he never goes to the forests, the boy cannot tell. These are the things a woodcutter might know, or a hunter or a trapper, not the things of a man pottering in his towering tenement flat. He wants to ask, but when he looks up he sees that a glassy look, as frozen as the world, is in Grandfather’s eyes. His face is haloed by the fog of his breath, and through those grey reefs he stares down the vale. The boy’s eyes follow. At the bottom of the pasture, nestled against another rag of woodland, there hunches a house. It is a small thing – a girl might call it dainty – but it is old and sunken and the coal shed squatting out front is collapsed, crowned with more snow and specks of black peeking through. Most of the windows aren’t glass at all, just wooden boards nailed together. There’s a chimneystack, just reaching through the snow, with bits of broken brick lying around and a wood pigeon perching on top. ‘This is it, isn’t it, papa?’ Grandfather says, ‘Did your mama ever bring you here?’ ‘I think … but not like this.’ ‘No?’ Sometimes, memories are like dreams. He remembers the house, but not the valley; the walls of stone, but not the ruin. In his head, it is summer. There is a cloth spread out in a wild garden ringed by forest, with the spectre of a house behind – but warm and welcoming, not frigid and alone like this thing feels. But then, he supposes, things must feel different after a death. The world is different to him, now that mama is gone, and so must be the house. ‘Are we going down?’ Grandfather sinks to his haunches. He doesn’t say a word, simply rocks on his jackboot heels, and when he draws himself back up he is changed: unwavering, resolute. He cups a hand around the back of the boy’s neck. The boy tingles. His face bursts into a grin but, when he looks up, Grandfather is still staring at the ruin, as if he can see things in the tumbledown stone and colonnades of ice that the boy cannot. Up close, the house is more afraid than it is frightening. Like the trees, it has the face of a man. Frost along its open roof is a fringe, and the boarded windows are eyes gouged out. The door, an anguished maw, has slipped from its hinges but is fixed into place by hard-packed ice. On seeing it, Grandfather’s face is carved in the same sad lines as it was on the night he came to Yuri’s – and the boy wonders if making him come here at all is breaking that promise he made to look after him, and love him, for all time and no matter what. ‘Come on then, Vika,’ Grandfather says, in a whisper meant only for the urn. ‘We’re home, if home this truly is.’ He heads for the door, but walks in an odd, circuitous way, first parallel to the house, then turning sharply to approach the stone. The boy scurries to join him, plunging into snow as deep as his waist, but Grandfather turns and stops him with a word. ‘Watch out. There was a garden wall.’ ‘Where?’ ‘Right where you’re standing. It was to keep the pigs in.’ ‘Papa, how do you …’ Grandfather heaves his way to the house door. It isn’t even locked, just warped and stuck in the frame. He sets the urn down, packing the snow tightly so it doesn’t sink, and puts his shoulder to the wood. The door caves in and a tide of snow falls into the house. Together they stand, watching the dust of ages settle in the dark passage. ‘Don’t you want to go in, papa?’ But Grandfather just looks at the black forest on the borders of the dell, the mountains in the canopy where snow and ice have crafted jagged peaks. ‘Well, boy, I’d rather be in four walls than out there.’ Grandfather takes the first step, but the boy isn’t so sure. Out here it smells clean and free, but there is something different coming from the house. It smells of dust and dark and being old. It is only when Grandfather disappears that the boy dares to follow. First, he stands on the step and pokes his nose over the threshold. He can hear Grandfather shifting inside. There are pools of light up ahead, spilled no doubt through windows on the forested side of the house, and he sees Grandfather’s shadow flit across them. For an instant it is pitch-black; then the light returns, as Grandfather moves on. ‘Papa?’ His voice echoes, lonely as he was all day yesterday. ‘Papa?’ He creeps on. It is not, he decides, so very bad. The first step is the hardest. After that, all you’ve got to do is be brave. You’ve got to stop thinking about the smell, stop imagining all the ghosts that might live in a place like this. You’ve got to remember: you promised to look after your papa, and how can you look after him if he ventures on alone? He reaches the doorway at the end of the hall and peeps through. Once upon a time, this was a living room. There is still an armchair in front of a big cold hearth, and a mirror on the wall covered in dust and what looks like wood-pigeon muck. On the farthest wall one of the windows is boarded up, and the other is encased in ice. Grandfather has already shuffled through another door. He can hear the old man kicking his boots in frustration. It doesn’t feel good, going into the room. There is little carpet left, only rags around the skirting board where mice haven’t chewed it away. He can see the big wet prints left behind by Grandfather’s boots. In the middle of the room the old man must have stomped in circles, circling the armchair and then striding away. The room on the other side is a kitchen, and that’s where Grandfather is crouched, rummaging through a cupboard. Mama sits on the countertop in her urn, and Grandfather keeps calling out to her, assuring her that he’s not really left her alone. ‘Vika,’ he says. ‘Vika, why do you drag me back here?’ The boy shuffles into the door between the living room and kitchen. It is lighter in here, because more light can pour through the backdoor. The glass is coated in ice, but it is less thick on this side of the house and, if you squint, you can even make out what used to be a garden, with a chicken coop and rabbit hutch and vegetable patch with a low stone wall. Grandfather is down on his knees, buried in a cupboard under the sink. There are things scattered around his knees: old gloves, the handle of a trowel, a terracotta plot, a clod of earth. ‘What are you looking for?’ Grandfather rears up with a sudden flourish: in his hands a single-headed, dark axe. His gnarled fingers are so tight around the handle that they look as knotted as the wood. ‘Papa!’ The old man’s eyes are raw, but he is smiling, his mouth full of gaps. ‘We’ll need kindling.’ ‘Kindling?’ ‘To kindle a fire.’ ‘How do you kindle a fire?’ ‘You do it,’ says Grandfather, putting his shoulder to the backdoor, ‘with kindling.’ Grandfather has to strain to force the door, but then it crunches and gives way. Outside, the snow is piled high, and Grandfather’s hands are too big to reach through. Now it is the boy’s turn to show Grandfather how. He reaches through the crack, shovelling enough snow away that they can both squeeze out, into a garden bound by winter. It is bigger than it seemed from inside, bordered on three sides by walls of forest. ‘Do you remember it, boy?’ The memory is only faint, but the boy nods. ‘Mama brought me, with a picnic.’ Grandfather whispers, ‘She never told me.’ ‘Do you remember it, papa?’ ‘Oh, better than I ought. But I was a young man, then, and should have known better. Your mama was born in those four walls. Did you know that?’ The boy looks back. It is only a house, he tells himself, in the same way that those maps on Yuri’s floor are real maps. It is like a story written down but screwed up and cast away when its teller can’t find the words: out of shape, words and bricks heaped up without sense or form. It can hardly be a place where mama once lived. ‘Here?’ ‘She was smaller than you when we left. I always hoped she wouldn’t remember, but once something’s in your head, you don’t shed it so easily.’ ‘Why did you leave?’ ‘Because, boy, there are things in the forest, things not fit for a baby girl.’ From the tone of his voice, he does not mean to go on. He takes one big stride, then another, and in his wake the boy follows. Although the snow is thick on top of what used to be a vegetable patch, under the trees it is only light dust. They tramp beneath the boughs and, only a few yards in, Grandfather stomps his jackboot down. The frost is like a layer of hard sugar, and it cracks under his heel. He begins by stripping tiny twigs and dead bark from the trunk of a black alder. A little further in, an oak has long ago been uprooted and now lies dead on the forest floor, slowly rotting away. Mosses grow across its surface, like a bison’s winter hide, but Grandfather scrapes a patch away and exposes the dead wood underneath. The axe sinks easily into the first layers, and chips of cold wet trunk shower down. The smell is cold and stagnant, and billows up in great clouds to make the boy sneeze. ‘See,’ says Grandfather. He has chipped deep into the trunk, where the wood is dry and flaking. ‘You can start a fire with this more easily than a match.’ The boy peers closely. ‘But how do you know?’ ‘Don’t you think your old papa might know how to start a fire?’ ‘I’ve seen you start a fire, papa. You turn the gas and strike a match.’ ‘Boy, that’s barely a fire at all. Those are fires for poor old men in their tenements. I wasn’t always so very old.’ The boy replies, ‘But I’m not old, and I don’t know about fires.’ ‘I wasn’t the same kind of boy as you,’ grins Grandfather. ‘I was a little bit … wilder.’ Kindling, it turns out, is twigs and flakes of trunk and even bits of bird nest that the boy finds hidden away in a hole in the dead tree. With hands and pockets full, they go back into the house. Grandfather says there hasn’t been a fire here for years. He drops down at the hearth, props the axe against the stone, and piles the kindling in a dark mound. The boy hugs the wall at the edge of the room. His eyes linger on the hunched figure of Grandfather, then flit to the threadbare chair, the crumbling stairs. Perhaps it should not take so very much imagination to see pictures on the walls, the windows opened up, a proper banister and bedroom above. Yet, when he tries to see mama here, the cobwebs in the corners fight back, and the idea of a baby crawling on these floors is preposterous. Only a baby animal could live here, some wild thing out of the forests. Terrifying, to think of the long ago years before you were real; more terrifying even than to think of the things mama misses, now she is gone. In the hearth, Grandfather has no matches. Yet, he has sculpted a model out of the twigs and pieces of nest that imitates fire exactly, licking up in the shapes of flame. His head is low, and his lips move in a whisper. Then, as if from nowhere, there is light. It spirits from Grandfather’s lips and dances along the strands of nest. Tiny tendrils of red rush forth, spreading a fiery web. ‘Papa!’ Grandfather turns, his face lit from behind by the stirring orange. ‘It’s been a long time, boy …’ Into the orange orb Grandfather piles the rest of his kindling. Soon, the glow is stronger. These, he explains, are embers. How they appeared, the boy does not know – for Grandfather is just an old man from a tenement, and surely he does not know sorceries and enchantments. The rest, the boy understands. To turn those embers into roaring fire you have to add scraps of cloth axed from the old armchair, and even a piece of floorboard. Then, when the fire darts and spits and dances in the grate, you can put a pot in and melt down snow. If you melt snow, you get water. And if you boil up water, you can use it to soften the frozen ground so that the axe can dig down. In this way, Grandfather excavates a tiny crater in the roots of a black oak. Once he is done, he unwraps mama’s urn. When the boy peeps in, he is expecting to see the bits of mama left behind, the bone of a finger with baba’s ring still on it, a lock of hair or a piece of heart, but instead it is only grey dust. Gently, Grandfather upturns the urn and piles her in the hole. ‘Go on then,’ says Grandfather. ‘Say goodbye.’ The boy looks at the pile of dust. Then he looks at Grandfather. ‘Goodbye.’ ‘Not to me, you little …’ Grandfather cuffs him, gently, around his shoulder. ‘Did you think I was leaving you behind? Say goodbye to your mama.’ His eyes fall back on the dust. ‘I won’t see her again.’ ‘No,’ whispers Grandfather, ‘not like this.’ ‘But papa, we can come for …’ Grandfather cuts him off. ‘Goodbye, Vika.’ Now a chill wind blows up through the alders and the peak of the little pile of dust is caught and spirited away. When Grandfather sees it he drops to his knees to cover mama’s dust with dirt. Once that is packed down – the boy helps pat it flat – he smears the snow back over. The sky is heavy and, as soon as it starts falling again, there’ll be no mark that mama was ever here. ‘Is it a grave?’ ‘No, not a grave.’ ‘Then what?’ Grandfather’s eyes are wet. ‘It was summer when your Grandma … I didn’t come here, boy, though she begged me to. It was your mama who scattered her in these trees. This forest, that’s what your baba is now. And it’s what your mama is too.’ He nods. ‘It all goes back to the ground. Then it gets eaten up. And then there’s trees and flowers.’ ‘And nettles and thistles?’ Grandfather nods. ‘All the bad stuff too, but don’t forget the good. There are wolves in this forest that ate rabbits in this forest that ate grasses that grew on your Grandma.’ The old man feels the boy’s hands, tells him they are frozen, that they’ll have to get warm before frostbite eats every finger. This is a thing to set the little boy thrilling, because to lose a finger in the forest would be a very great adventure. As they turn back to the house, the boy cannot help seeing the look in his Grandfather’s eyes. It is not one he has seen before. He has seen him angry, and he has seen him sad, but fear has a way of making the eyes crease – and fear is what he sees now. His hand falls from Grandfather’s own, and as the old man tramps inside, the boy looks back at the tree that will drink up mama, and the still dark beneath the branches. If Grandfather is right, then the wilderness is baba – and soon the wilderness will be mama too. But, if it is really so, then there is nothing to fear in those long darknesses between the trees. It would be like in the story of Baba Yaga, and you would be kind to the branches and they would throw up walls of thorn to protect you from any bad thing in the world. Then he remembers: there are other stories too, ones he does not know, ones it seems Grandfather will not tell. There are stories of this ruined house, and baba and mama. There are the stories scrawled along the tenement hall, of soldiers and kings and the wars of the long ago. And there is the tale mama never knew, of why, until this day, Grandfather has never returned to the forest and stopped telling his tales. Perhaps, in those fables, the forest is a wicked thing, and boys and girls would be better off staying in Baba Yaga’s hen feet hut than running desperately for their papa through the chestnuts and pines. Grandfather’s shape hunches through the door and along the narrow kitchen. Beyond him, the fire burns strong. The old man steps into the light, rounds the corner – and then, for a moment, though the boy can still hear the familiar click of his jackboot heels, he is gone. As the footfalls fade, the boy finds himself torn between mama’s tree and the echo of Grandfather’s jackboots. By the time he scrabbles back into the ruin, Grandfather is hunched over the fire, fingers splayed to drink in its warmth. He joins him, feeling the lap of the flames. ‘Mama must have liked it, papa, to want to come back here.’ ‘I suppose she liked it well enough.’ ‘So why didn’t you live here? Why did you live in the tenement?’ ‘Stories, stories,’ mutters Grandfather. ‘Haven’t you had enough excitement for one night?’ As the flames flurry up, Grandfather brings a piece of crumpled newspaper out of his greatcoat pocket. When he sets it down, the scrunched-up paper slackens and unfurls. There, in the light of the fire, the boy sees the nine remaining hunks of mama’s gingerbread. ‘Can I?’ ‘Of course.’ The boy reaches out and takes one of the hunks. ‘I’ll want a corner.’ ‘You can have a whole one, papa.’ Grandfather closes the newspaper bundle. ‘No,’ he says. ‘They have to last.’ He turns the gingerbread over in his mouth, until it is wet and sticky and stuck in the crannies between his teeth. After some time, the flames lose their strength. In the hearth’s heart, the branches glow orange, but fire no longer licks up the chimneybreast, and the hiss and crackle has ebbed away. It does not matter, for the heat still radiates out. The boy curls in his eiderdown, and skims the surface of sleep, always the thought of mama hovering near, the reassuring presence of Grandfather, just beyond the line of his vision. He must fall asleep, because the next thing he feels are bony fingers in his hair. He does not start. The heat has lulled him, and he opens his eyes to feel Grandfather near. ‘Are you ready, boy?’ ‘Ready, papa?’ ‘To go back to the tenement.’ The boy hurtles up. ‘Please, papa. We haven’t …’ ‘I can’t stay here, boy. Not in the forest.’ ‘But why not in the forest?’ ‘Why doesn’t matter,’ breathes Grandfather. ‘Stop asking why. Why, why, why! I already kept my promise, boy. I did what I told her I’d do. Your mama loves this place. She’s fine out …’ A shrill cry, one to pierce every room in the ruin: ‘She isn’t fine, papa! She’s dead.’ If there was another anger bubbling out of Grandfather, the boy has shocked it back into place. Now he stands, merely numb. ‘She’ll be fine, boy. She doesn’t feel the cold, not where she is. She isn’t alone. She has …’ He seems to hold himself, weighing up the words. ‘… all of the trees.’ ‘Papa, just a little more.’ Grandfather lifts his hands, as if in submission. ‘Maybe you can tell us a story, papa? One for me and for mama.’ Grandfather says, ‘Something to help the long night pass …’ ‘One more story, and then we can go.’ Grandfather breaks from whatever dream was holding him. ‘I have a story,’ he says, taking in the timbers and stones, the pools of orange and pools of black. ‘But settle down, boy, for this tale is too long in the telling.’ The boy nods. This isn’t the tale, says Grandfather, but an opening. The tale comes tomorrow, after the meal, when we are filled with soft bread. On hearing the familiar words, the tension rushes out of the boy. He wriggles back into the eiderdown, bathed by the dying fire. Up close, Grandfather wraps his arms around his legs. And now, he whispers, we start our tale. Long, long ago, when we did not exist, when perhaps our great-grandfathers were not in the world, in a land not so very far away, on the earth in front of the sky, on a plain place like on a wether, seven versts aside, came the war to end all wars. Now, war, as we know, is a most terrible thing. For a long time, war had been talked of between kings and in courts, but in the little town where our story begins, war was a faraway thing, fought by champions and knights, and not for the grocers and farmers and carpenters who lived in the town, kind and careful, without any thought for killing. Yet, war … war changes everything. In the east, there was a great emperor, the Winter King, who lived in his Winter Palace and ruled his empire with an iron fist. And, in the west, there was a clever man, a calculating king who had fought in wars before, and been locked away, and risen to rule with a party of fierce companions, who all hated each other but hated others most of all. And, caught between these two evil kings, soon there was whispering in our little town that war … war itself would seek them out. The boy is rapt. It is, he decides, unlike the stories of before, those of Baba Yaga, of Dimian the peasant, of the Little Briar Rose. There is wickedness in those stories, but there are certainly no wars. But, before we find ourselves at war this night, Grandfather goes on, this is not a story of the war, not of the evil Winter King, nor the calculating King in the West. This is the story of a little boy, much the same as you, and the stories he heard of the ghosts in the woods … That little boy was smaller than you when the kings made war. He was four or he was five, and he lived, like you, in a town on the edge of the forest. And do you know how big the forest was? ‘The woods are wide and the woods are wild, and the woods are the world forever and ever,’ whispers the boy, as if repeating an ancient rite. For a little while, the wars of the Winter King were only stories to that little boy. For him the world was only his house and the streets and the finger of forest that cut into his town. It was many months before the war found him, but when it found him it changed his world. For the King in the West had broken a promise, and turned against the Winter King, who he had sworn was his friend. Angry as the end of all things, the Winter King rushed to meet the King in the West in pitched battle, and in the morning, when the boy awoke, his streets were filled with tanks and soldiers and new sounds, and languages he could not understand. He watched from his window and saw soldiers a-marching, and he knew they were a different kind of man to his papa and brothers. These were men raised in a world where they had never before known the sun, or the summer. They were soldiers from winter itself. And so it happened that the town changed. His papa became a clerk, working for those same soldiers who took his grain and commandeered his horse and took their pigs off for slaughter. He kept their stores and wrote in a ledger book every time they ate the sausages that should have been his. Some of the men in town hated his papa for serving the soldiers, and perhaps he even hated his papa little bit too. ‘Were the soldiers very terrible, papa?’ Well, sometimes they were terrible, and sometimes they were kind. Mostly they were just soldiers, and took their delights as soldiers sometimes will. But that little boy’s papa made friends with those soldiers and, in that way, stood guard over his little boy for two whole years. Well, one day, things changed, as things often will. Because the King in the West was bitter that the Winter King had brought his soldiers to town, and so the armies of the King in the West marched and laid siege. And the King in the West had soldiers reared on hate, and the Winter King’s soldiers were scared, and turned tail and ran. The new soldiers wore brown shirts and spoke a language more terrible yet, and they came in their thousands with murder on their minds. ‘Murder, papa?’ Yes,says Grandfather, and for a moment his voice loses its sing-song lilt, and it might be that he is not even telling a story at all. That little boy saw it for himself. For the King in the West had made a plan that certain mamas and papas and boys and girls must wear golden stars, and then the soldiers would know whom they should kill. Those mamas and papas and boys and girls were sent to live in a different part of the town. For a little while they were kept there. They had to make uniforms and cobble boots, and when they didn’t work hard enough, a soldier would come and say: the King in the West has called your name! Now you won’t know night from day! And that person would be taken away, and then that person might never be seen again. Well, some of the mamas and papas and boys and girls worked harder and harder, hoping the soldiers might let them survive. But some of the mamas and papas thought: the soldiers are wicked, and their King is more wicked still. We must run away, or else be ruined and turned into dust. And one papa said: there are woods beyond town, and the woods are wide and the woods are wild and the woods are the world forever and ever. And there we shall be safe, because in the woods there is no King in the West, nor even a Winter King, and in the woods they will not find us. ‘It’s like the story of Baba Yaga, isn’t it, papa?’ ‘How, boy?’ ‘If you’re kind to the woods, the woods are kind to you.’ Grandfather nods. Well, at night, our little boy would look out of his bedroom window. There, he could see the first line of the pines and know that things were moving out there, in a world he could never pass into. Because only little boys made to wear the yellow stars could go and live wild in the forest … Well, that boy was watching one night, when out of the town there hurried a girl. She was older than the boy, but not yet as old as the boy’s mama, and for many months she had been wearing a yellow star. Now, she went to the forest to live wild. But she had lost her way, and that night rapped one, two, three times at the boy’s front door. Please, please, let me in, she cried. Do the soldiers chase you? came the reply. No, for I go to make my home with the runaways in the wild, and live my life under aspen and birch. Well, the boy’s mama and papa let the girl with the yellow star in. The boy watched them in secret from the top of the stairs. And what he saw was not one girl but two, for the girl had a baby swollen in her belly and ready to come out. You must stay, said the boy’s mama, and have your babe in these four walls. But no, said the girl, for the soldiers will find me and make my baby wear a star. So she was fed and warmed and went on her way, deep into the pines. Well, the runaways found her, cold and alone. They took her to their hideaways and fed her their kapusta, and she slept a day and a night in a burrow. And, when she woke, the men were angry at her, for they had not known she was carrying a child. Now they saw her, with swollen belly ready to burst, and told her: you cannot stay. A crying baby in the forest is worse than a fire. A baby might tell the soldiers where we are camped and bring ruin to us all. And so, that girl made a terrible decision. Either she would roam the wilds alone, risking capture, or she would bear the baby and give it up, find a family who would raise it as their own and never breathe a word that it should wear a yellow star and be snatched by the King in the West. When the baby was born, it was a beautiful girl, with black hair thicker than any baby the wild men had ever seen. She was, they said, a true baby of the forests, with fur to ward off the winter, and if she was theirs to name they would call her Vered, for she was certain to blossom a wild rose. But the baby was not theirs to name, and nor would she be her mother’s. Now the baby was taken to the edge of the forest, to that same house whose mama and papa had helped the girl on her way. And the mama in that house took hold of the baby and promised she would be safe forever and all time. I know a place, said the mama, where she will be safe, and me and my boy will take her there and watch over her from afar, and know that the soldiers will never find her. So the boy and his mama took a small road along the forest’s edge, to where a little house nestled at the bottom of a dell. At the house lived a trapper and his wife. Once, they had had children of their own, but those children had perished young, and for many years now the rooms had not heard the sound of tiny feet, nor the cries of squabbling and bruised knees. The mama and her boy carried the baby to the step and laid her down, without a mother or a father or even a name to call her own. And they knocked on the door and hurried back, to watch with the trees. The door opened. Two faces appeared. They looked down, and saw that they could be a mama and a papa again, and the baby started to cry. And the house was happy after that. The house had a little girl to run in its rooms and play in its halls. The mama had a daughter to dote on, the papa had a princess to give purpose to his days. And if, out trapping in the forest, he ever caught sight of ghosts flitting from tree to tree, if he ever heard the sharp cracks of gunfire as the runaways learnt to defend themselves against the soldiers sent in to ferret them out, well, he gave his silent promise that the girl would be loved and looked after and grow up in a world safe from soldiers and yellow stars. And so ends the story of the babe in the woods. ‘Is it true?’ marvels the boy. Oh, says Grandfather. I know it is true, for one was there who told me of it. Outside, it is paling to light. Grandfather’s story has lasted all through the darkest hours. The fire is low, and Grandfather stands, meaning to bring new kindling. For a moment, the boy watches him leave. His head is swirling with pictures of the Winter King, of brown-shirted soldiers, of wild men living out in the woods, things so magical that, even through their horror, he wishes they were true. Grandfather’s jackboots click as he disappears into the kitchen and, leaving the Russian horse behind, the boy scrambles to hurry after him. When he gets there, the door is propped open and Grandfather is treading softly across the night’s freshest fall. He hesitates at mama’s tree, and seems to gaze up at the branches, at the canopy bound in ice. The boy creeps to his side. The old man is tired, of that there is no doubt, but there is another look in his eyes now, something more mysterious than simple fear of the forest. To the boy it looks something like … temptation. ‘Are we going to go back to the tenement, papa?’ Grandfather crouches, tracing his naked fingers along the roots in which mama lies. ‘Not yet, boy. I think …’ He pauses, because seemingly it does not sound right, even to him. The boy cocks his head. This is the same papa who wouldn’t come to the forest, the same papa who would have broken his mama’s dying promise and never set foot here again. Perhaps it is something to do with that fanciful folk tale. The boy looks back at the house, wondering. ‘I think we’ll stay,’ he says, letting his arm fall about the boy’s shoulder. ‘Just for a little while. Just until …’ ‘Until what, papa?’ ‘Just until the stories are done.’ The boy watches as Grandfather’s face shifts. His eyes seem suddenly far away. ‘Papa,’ he ventures, ‘I thought you hated the forest. I thought you said you’d never come back. We can go now, papa. I don’t mind.’ He thinks to say it again, as if to make sure Grandfather understands. ‘I don’t mind at all.’ ‘Oh,’ grins Grandfather. ‘But neither do I. I think … the trees might not be so wicked after all. Come on, boy,’ he grins. ‘If I remember at all, there used to be a stream …’ He lifts his jackboot, and in one simple step goes under the trees. Watching Grandfather under the trees is like watching a wolf prowl the tenement. His hands light on trunks and his jackboots sink into the frosted forest mulch, and he stops between the oaks, as if to judge the way. They do not find the stream, but it doesn’t matter; Grandfather says there will be other days, and in the dead of winter a stream sometimes does not want to be found. They stop, instead, at a stand of black pine and Grandfather shows the boy how to strip the branches of their needles. A scent like Christmas billows up to engulf the boy, and now he must fill his pockets with them, so that they scratch and prickle against his legs. ‘What is it for, papa?’ ‘Aren’t you thirsty, boy?’ The boy nods. ‘I’m going to show you something. It saved my life, almost every single night.’ Once there are enough pine needles in his pockets, the boy follows Grandfather back into the house. He has unearthed a cast-iron pot and balances it in the new flames, adding the needles handful by handful as the snow melts to sludge and then begins to simmer. ‘What do you think, boy?’ They drink it from unearthed clay cups. There is a pleasing smell to its steam and its sweet taste, of woods and wild grass, warms the boy through. When he looks up from his cup, Grandfather is holding his to his face, letting the steam bead in his whiskers, the thatches above his eyes. ‘What’s wrong, papa?’ ‘It’s the smell. It … reminds me. There’s nothing like a smell, boy, to put you in another place.’ The boy thinks he understands; it is not so very different when he drinks in the scent of mama’s shawl. The thought of it, lying crumpled by the rocking chair in the tenement, makes him wonder. ‘Are we going back to the tenement today, papa?’ ‘Not yet, little one.’ ‘I thought you didn’t like it here.’ Grandfather breathes out, expelling pine-needle steam. ‘You wouldn’t want to leave her again, would you?’ This doesn’t make sense, because it was Grandfather who said that mama was fine out there in the trees. ‘Maybe we can take mama back with us.’ ‘No,’ says Grandfather, and his tone means he will brook no more questions. ‘We’ll stay with her, for a while. She’d like that, boy. You’d like it. I’d … like it.’ Through the day the clouds are thick, so that night might have already fallen for hours before the darkness truly sets in. With real night, however, comes real snow. Standing in the kitchen door to say goodnight to mama, the boy can barely see the end of the garden. It reveals itself only in fragments, catching his eye each time the driving snow twists and comes apart. At the end of that vortex, crusts grow over the roots where mama sleeps, but Grandfather says not to worry. ‘I once slept in a hole six feet under the ice,’ he begins. ‘Three days and three nights, boy. Every time I closed my eyes, I thought I’d freeze. I didn’t know, back then, that it was the ice protecting me. It was the ice keeping me warm.’ Grandfather turns to tramp back towards the hearth, but the boy is slow to follow. ‘Papa,’ he says, ‘is it a story?’ At the fire, Grandfather bends to feed more wood to the flames. ‘It is,’ he says, ‘but for another night …’ In the morning there is no talk of the tenement. Before the sun struggles into the sky Grandfather leads him off, deeper into the forest. ‘I remembered the way,’ he says. ‘It came to me in the dead of night.’ ‘To the stream?’ ‘It runs underground but comes to the surface for just a little while …’ It turns out that Grandfather is looking for cattails. Cattails, he says, grow by streams and you can dig them up even in the dead of winter. If you cook them right they can taste just like a potato. ‘But we have potatoes in the tenement, papa.’ They stand by a depression in the land through which Grandfather is certain the stream once ran. ‘Do you want to go back to the tenement, boy? Is that it?’ ‘I don’t want to leave her, papa, but …’ ‘What’s in the tenement?’ Grandfather sinks to his knees and runs his hands through tall bladed grass. He seems to be feeling their textures, teasing out the occasional one and following its stem all the way to its root. ‘Your mama was the only thing in the tenement that mattered, and now she’s here. In spring she’ll be in every tree, just like baba.’ ‘Do you miss baba, papa?’ ‘Only every day. Might be I’d forgotten how much, until you made me come here.’ Now the boy understands: it is his fault. His papa pleaded with him not to make him come, but the boy pleaded back. There must be old smells and memories rushing on Grandfather every second. Maybe he remembers how baba smelt, how she spoke, the things that she said. ‘Are the trees your friends, papa?’ ‘They saved my life, once upon a time.’ Grandfather plunges a hand through the crust. The earth seems to swallow him, up to his elbow. He fights back, gripping his arm with the other hand as if struggling with whatever cadaver lurks beneath the surface. Finally, he topples back, the cattail in his hand, trailing pulpy white flesh beaded in dirt. ‘It’s for dinner.’ ‘What about school, papa? I have to go to school.’ Grandfather’s eyes roam the grasses, searching out another stalk. ‘I never heard of a little boy wanting to go to school.’ ‘I haven’t been since … before mama. They’ll wonder where I am. What about … Yuri?’ ‘He’s your little friend.’ The boy shrugs. ‘You want to watch out for friends. When I was a boy, a friend was a dangerous thing.’ Grandfather’s hand plunges back through the snow and comes out with another cattail root, wriggling like some poor fish just plucked from the water. ‘Come on, boy. Aren’t you hungry?’ Cattail mashed with acorn is not so very bad a dinner, if it’s been two days since you had hot potatoes and hock of ham. By the time it is done the afternoon is paling and snow smothers the forest again. Night means a different thing when there are no buzzing electric lights. Now Grandfather is ready for bed as soon as the darkness comes. He rests his feet, still in their jackboots, on a crate and sprawls back in the ragged armchair, tugging the bearskin hat to the brim of his eyes. ‘Will we go back to the tenement tomorrow, papa?’ ‘We’ll see.’ ‘We won’t see, though, will we?’ Grandfather opens one eye. It rolls at the boy with a taunting sparkle. ‘You need your rest.’ He really doesn’t, but he gets under the eiderdown all the same. Soon he can hear the tell-tale wheeze that means Grandfather is asleep. He rolls over, the Russian horse lying rigid in his belly, and dares to close his eyes. When he wakes, the flames are still dancing and an advancing tide of melt frost runs down the wall. Without clocks or the sounds of the tenement hall he has no way of knowing what time it is, nor how long he has been asleep. He squirms out of the eiderdown, leaving the Russian horse to bask in the hearth’s demonic glow. In the armchair, Grandfather does not move at all. The boy steals over. There is a desperate silence in the room. It is the silence of snow, which devours all sound, save for the howling of storybook wolves or a foundling baby’s cries on the doorstep. By the time he has reached Grandfather’s side, that silence is overwhelming. ‘Papa, are you awake?’ He dares himself to touch the thin, unmoving arms. Yet, when he does, it is a strange coldness that he feels. His eyes flit to the dead wood piled by the hearth; Grandfather’s arm feels the same as those branches, brittle and somehow empty. ‘Papa?’ When there is no answer, the boy relents, sits in a nest in the eiderdown and draws the Russian horse back into his lap. He studies his papa’s face for a long time, as fingers of firelight lap at his hanging skin. He should be snoring. His head is thrown back in the way it always was in the tenement, but no sound comes up from his throat. His lips do not tremble, nor twitch; his chest, buried beneath greatcoat and dressing gown, does not move at all. That must have been how mama looked: open-mouthed and bald, without any breath left in her breast. They wouldn’t let him see her then, but the firelight plays a cruel trick and it is as if he is seeing her now. He feels a fist of stone rising in his gorge, like a mother bird regurgitating food for her young. He fights it back down, but the stone must burst in his stomach, churning up whatever horrible slime lurks within. Back on his feet, and the room seems to be whirling. ‘Papa!’ he cries. And then, ‘Papa!’ again. But each time he has cried out, the silence is thicker; and, each time he has cried out, the idea that Grandfather is gone is clearer, more defined. Now he is like a storm-fallen tree, lying in the forest; he has the same shape as ever, the same ridges and fingers and branches and eyes, but what made him a living thing has disappeared. The boy gulps for air. He doesn’t know what to do with his hands. His feet want to run, but where he would run to, he has no idea. If only to stop that stone from rising back up his throat, unleashing his terror, he goes to the backdoor, thinking perhaps to ask mama for help. The world is silent. The snow no longer falls. But mama cannot help him now and never will again. He goes back to Grandfather’s side. ‘I’m sorry, papa … I didn’t mean to make you come. Papa, I have to get help.’ Doctors and ambulances have different kinds of sorceries. There is always a hope that their words can bring life back to Grandfather just like Grandfather’s words bring life back to deadened fires. There is, he tells himself, always the car. If he finds the car, he can find his way to town. To squatting factories and endless streets, to a tenement with its window eyes gouged out. To help. The boy steals down the passage. When he tugs the front door back, snow pours in, burying him knee-deep. With it comes winter, that relentless marauder. He gazes up the incline to the border of black forest, thinks he can make out the jaws of the trail he and Grandfather followed. If he is going to do this he will need to be prepared. He retreats to the hearth and wraps himself in the eiderdown, one, two, three times. Now it is too stiff to walk, so he loosens the blanket and tests out his stride. He is passing Grandfather when he sees the bearskin hat sitting proudly upon the old man’s head. He does not need it now, so the boy lifts it down, awkward only when he has to wrestle it over Grandfather’s ears. His eyes light momentarily on the old man’s jackboots too, but they will not fit, and he does not relish the idea of seeing Grandfather’s feet with their bulbous blue veins now devoid of all blood. It is time to leave, so leaving is what he does. Up the dell he goes, through luminescent snow. The woods in dead of night are no different from the woods at dusk, and for this the boy is thankful. The same light is captured in the snowbound canopy, the same ghosts move in the darkness, the same sounds startle and echo and live longer in the boy’s imagination. There are sounds in the forest, spidery things that scuttle on the very outskirts of his hearing, so that every time he whips his head round all he sees is frigid undergrowth. Every stem is crisped in white, every gnarled root iced with sugar like a wing of the angel. When he exhales, his breath mists, obscuring by degrees the deepening forest. It condenses in the rim of Grandfather’s bearskin hat, so that before long he is wearing a crown of ice itself. Soon it encroaches onto the skin of his forehead. It pierces him and holds fast, binding head to hat. In this way the boy huddles through the forest. His lashes are heavy, the ice creeping down his face to make a carefully crafted death-mask, but at last he sees the car between the trees. The whole body is draped in ice. He tries the handle at the driver’s side, but it is stuck. He heaves again, to no avail – and, this time, when he tries to let go, he finds his naked fingers held fast. He tugs and tugs, but the winter has him in its grasp. Panic takes him. He twists around, but he cannot twist far. Careful that the skin of his other hand should not touch the treacherous ice, he draws it back inside the eiderdown. A moment later he tries to prise his hand free. Cold is surging along his fingers and up his arm. He thinks: what will happen when it touches my heart? I’ll be frozen forever, only to wake up in a hundred years, thawed out by some wanderer of the future. He has a thought, and spits on his trapped hand. The saliva works a sorcery, thawing the thin ice and letting him work an inch of flesh free. He spits again, and then again – and, in that way, he is able to tear himself away. At last, he remembers: when Grandfather lifted him out of the car, the door remained ajar behind him. He tramps to the ditch side and sees that door still open by inches. The winter has tried to seal the gap, closing the crevice with barnacles of ice just as skin grows back over a wound, but its work is not yet done. With effort the boy is able to force his way in. The cold of inside does not have the same clarity as the cold of out. He heaves the door shut, to the satisfying sound of ice crunching against ice, and imagines he can hear the tiny clink of crystals interlocking. The key is still in the ignition. All Grandfather has to do is turn that key and the car starts rolling. When the car is rolling, its undercarriage rattles and the floor gets hot – but when he puts his fingers around the key he finds it frozen in place, bound to the car by the same ice slowly smothering the forest. Inside the car he cannot see out; through that icy cocoon all he can see are different shades of grey and black. Perhaps this is what Grandfather’s ghost feels like, if it still lingers inside his corpse. He shrinks back into the eiderdown, holding himself. He thinks: if I sleep, morning will come, and with it the morning thaw. It is not long after he closes his eyes that his teeth begin to chatter. He concentrates on holding them still, but to do so he must tense every muscle in his body and soon the effort is too great. It is only when he gives up trying that he begins to lose sensation: first his feet, then his legs, his hands and arms. At last, the only parts of him awake are his chattering teeth; then, even they pass out of all thought. ‘Wake up.’ He turns, entangled in eiderdown, not knowing where, nor even what, he is. ‘He’s coming for you. You have to wake up.’ All he can feel is a circlet of pain running around the edge of his head. He is wearing an icicle crown and, rather than growing out, the icicles have turned on him, growing into flesh and bone. He shivers. It is not a shiver of cold, but a shiver of fever. It is the kind of shiver mama got every time they said they were making her better, and put the wires into her veins. Mama’s voice. He remembers it now. She says, ‘Wake up, my littlest friend. He’s coming to find you.’ ‘Who is, mama?’ ‘He’s coming out of the wood …’ The boy’s eyes snap open. No sooner is he awake than mama’s voice is gone. He fights the eiderdown off to find himself trapped, somehow, on the inside of an ice cube. It takes a moment, but then: the car. I am in the car. Outside, the snow dark is paling, but he cannot see the trees. All is occluded by ice. Something moves. As soon as he senses movement, other shapes fall into stark relief. Edges become distinct and distances become apparent – and, although the ice still magnifies and shrinks according to how deeply its scales have grown, he can make out individual trees. He can make out, too, a figure coming lurching over a fallen bough. In three great strides it is at the side of the car. Its hands seem to caress the windows and doors, but then it retreats. He thinks, for a moment, it is gone back to the forest, but then it appears on the ditch side of the car, brandishing a bough it has lifted from the winter wood. The boy scrabbles against the furthest corner of car. His fingers find the handle, but it is held fast. He remembers the crunch of ice on ice, the sensation of the tiny crystals locking together, just as surely as this bearskin hat has become a part of his head. He tries again, unfeeling fingers fumbling – but still nothing. ‘Are you in there?’ It can talk. The shadow man can talk. Its voice is distant, a ragged whisper as a thing might make if it did not need to take any breath. The boy holds himself tight. It is only movement that he sees. Perhaps it is the same for this forest ghoul. If the boy does not move, he will remain invisible in his icy tomb. ‘I can see you.’ He has to be lying. His body is held rigid, refusing to take breath. The ice from the bearskin hat is creeping down his face. ‘I can see you, boy …’ At last, he exhales. Two great gulps, and a horrible pain explodes in his chest; he has swallowed air so frigid that veins of ice are spreading across his insides, groping from organ to organ like happened with mama. The forest shade’s hands grapple with the door. Now the ice relents. The shadow forces the bough into the tiny crack and, with a sound like shattering pipes, the door flies open. The bright white of snow behind him is blinding. It takes long seconds for the boy’s eyes to become accustomed to the glare. Slowly the silhouette gains features: a flat, crooked nose; eyes like sunken canker scars. ‘Come on, boy, get yourself out of there. I’ll have to start a fire.’ ‘Papa?’ ‘You shouldn’t have run off like that. There’s things in these forests.’ It feels as if his insides are coming apart, like a patchwork blanket with a loose thread that, once teased, begins unravelling and cannot be stopped. The sensation tingles up and down his arms, the wormy bits that make up his innards wriggling, uncontrolled. It is, he knows, a feeling of pure relief. He bobs in it, as if still cupped in the ice-cold waters of his dream. ‘Is it really you, papa?’ ‘Who else would it be?’ The boy says, ‘Well, there’s things in these forests …’ ‘I just told you.’ ‘I thought you were a … thing.’ He allows himself to be manhandled out, to stand in the ditch alongside his papa. He knows it is morning only by the smell in the air, of the top dusting of frost constantly thawing and freezing over again. ‘Why did you run?’ Grandfather is inspecting the car, using the branch to fight the worst of the snow off the windscreen. If he is angry, the boy cannot tell. He moves awkwardly, constantly leaving one leg behind. ‘I thought …’ ‘You thought what?’ ‘You wouldn’t wake up.’ ‘I haven’t slept so deep in … What is it, boy?’ ‘You didn’t even snore. You always snore in the tenement.’ ‘You wanted to go back to school, didn’t you?’ ‘Only if you want me to, papa.’ ‘Well, what do you want?’ He doesn’t say: mama. Instead, he says, ‘I only want to make you better.’ ‘Better?’ But even the boy does not know what he means. ‘I’d be better if I had my hat, little one.’ The boy, alarmed at how he had forgotten, goes to whip the hat off his head. ‘Careful!’ Grandfather barks. ‘It’s frozen to your brow.’ ‘I think it’s blistering.’ ‘You’ll have to tease it off. You can do it later.’ ‘Maybe I can go to school, papa.’ ‘We’ll have to bring this car back to life first.’ Grandfather sends the boy to unearth stones and, in a clearing in the woodland, they build a ring inside which they can harrow the earth. After that, it does not take him long to summon up a fire. The boy watches as the baby flames dance, maturing into darting oranges and reds. While the fire beds down, roasting the rocks that keep it hemmed in, the boy and Grandfather tramp back to the ruin, dragging out the cast-iron pot from the hearth. Grandfather asks, ‘Are you sure you want to leave her?’ Shamefaced, the boy nods. Once Grandfather is satisfied, they take the pot to their new cauldron in the forest. It nestles in the flames until it, too, is roasting, and then they pile handfuls of snow inside. It takes hours of new snow-melt to excavate the car – but, at last, the thaw is complete. While the boy sets about dousing the fire in the wood, Grandfather bathes the frozen key in scalding water and turns it in the ignition. Like the Little Briar Rose being revived by a kiss, the car comes back to life. It is another hour before they are stuttering back through the trees. The car is ailing as mama once was beneath them, but Grandfather doesn’t hear, or, if he does, he doesn’t care. They gutter around a turn in the trail and join the ribbon of black that snakes its way into town. As the trees fade around them, the boy looks at Grandfather. Perhaps it is only the weariness in his eyes, but he thinks he sees heartache there, the same as the day mama disappeared. ‘Papa, what is it?’ ‘It’s nothing, boy. You were right. You … have to go to school.’ ‘It’s what mama would want.’ ‘She always was wiser than her papa.’ ‘Then what is it, papa? What’s wrong?’ Grandfather takes his eyes off the road; the car slews in ice and he wrests it back with birdlike arms. ‘It’s only … I don’t want to go back to the tenement, boy. It’s dead there. At least the forest’s alive. It grows. It changes.’ ‘You never wanted to go to the forest, not until I made you.’ When Grandfather exhales, it might be a grin or it might be a grimace. ‘Might be I should never have made that promise to your mama. But, you see, I’ve seen it now, those old woodlands. Older than me. It’s only now it feels … right to be there.’ The boy thinks he understands. It is a kind of homesickness – because, no matter how long he lived in the tenement, it is the forest that Grandfather thinks of as home. A strange thought erupts in him, one that must be given voice. ‘That little boy in the story, papa … the one in the war with the Winter King …’ ‘Yes, boy?’ The boy loses his nerve. ‘It was only a story, wasn’t it?’ ‘Well,’ says Grandfather, ‘there’s a little bit of truth in every fable.’ ‘Even Baba Yaga eating little boys and girls?’ Grandfather pales, as white as the snow, and in that instant he really is the forest shade the boy thought sent to catch him. ‘Even that, boy,’ he whispers, dead words to kill the conversation. Plague oaks and black pines hurtle past. What Grandfather does when the boy is at school is a riddle he cannot solve. The boy watches the car stutter back along the road, and wonders at the yawning emptiness ahead. Turning to the schoolhouse, he thinks: we should have stayed in the forest. At least, then, papa had cattails to cook and kindling to muster. At least the trees are alive, not like the tenement walls. It must get very weary to be so very old. It is daybreak and there are children milling in the schoolyard. He stands on the edge of them, shivering – for he has left his eiderdown in the car, and his clothes still cling to him, soaked in forest frost. Yuri is already here, prowling the corners of the schoolyard with his head in the clouds. The boy means to go and play with him, but before he gets there the schoolyard starts flocking, up the steps and into the schoolhouse. Yuri has already gone through the doors by the time the boy gets there. He pauses, because to go through them now would be a very strange thing. He can see children milling beyond and the caretaker, a young man they say is as simple as the most insensible child, is moving his broom as if to sweep them on their way. He steps through the doors, to a wave of dry heat, quite unlike Grandfather’s fires. Almost instantly the caretaker’s eyes fall on him. ‘You can take off that hat.’ The boy goes to lift the bearskin from his head. Too late, he remembers the ice binding it to him. He pulls and the crystals tear at his skin. ‘Jesus, boy, what happened to your head?’ He lifts his fingers to trace the raised skin where he wore the halo. Occasionally his fingers find tiny outcrops of ice still sprouting from the blisters, but they perish and melt at his touch. ‘You little bastards don’t look after yourselves. What kind of mother sends her boy to class looking like that?’ With the bearskin hat still in his hands, he hurries down the corridor. It is only a small schoolhouse, with not even a single stair. The tiniest children are in two rooms around a bend in the hall, but everyone else is gathered in the three rooms that flank the corridor. In the middle is the library with its open walls, where you can go and choose a storybook or have injections when the nurse comes to visit. At the very end of the corridor, boys and girls are scrambling for pegs to hang their coats, and then cantering for the best seats in the assembly hall. The boy is halfway along the corridor when Mr Navitski’s eyes fall on him. At first his brow furrows, eyebrows creeping up to meet the point of his black fur, but then his eyes soften and he has a look less like bewilderment, and more like … The boy knows this look well. It is a look of: your mama’s gone and you must be hungry. As the rest of class scramble to sit cross-legged in the assembly hall, Mr Navitski picks a way through. ‘We all wondered when you’d be back.’ ‘Am I late?’ ‘No, you’re not late, but you are … Maybe you’d like to wash up before assembly?’ The boy peers through Mr Navitski’s legs, to see the headmistress already pontificating to the gathered school. ‘Will I be in trouble for missing it?’ ‘No, you won’t be in trouble. Better you … Look, I’ll help.’ Mr Navitski doesn’t seem to want to take him by the hand, but takes him by the hand nonetheless. There is a little bathroom just by the assembly hall, and together they go in. The water in the taps will take forever to warm up, so Mr Navitski fills a sink with cold and lathers up a cake of hard soap. ‘How long have you been wearing this shirt?’ The boy shrugs, because something tells him he should not mention the forest. ‘We’ll find you a new one, from lost property.’ ‘Can I keep this one?’ ‘You mustn’t wear it to class, but we’ll keep it safe for you.’ Mr Navitski’s hand strays from the boy’s shirt to his hair, where he begins to tease out pieces of twig. When his hand brushes the blisters, the boy recoils. ‘What happened here?’ ‘It was the ice.’ ‘Ice?’ ‘I was wearing my papa’s hat, and it iced to me.’ ‘You’re in his tenement now, aren’t you? Doesn’t he have the heating turned up?’ This the boy knows not to answer. ‘When was the last time you had a proper meal?’ The boy remembers cattail mash, washed down with pine-needle tea. ‘It was last night.’ ‘Really?’ ‘Really.’ ‘I have some leftovers my wife packed away for me. I’ll have them warmed through.’ After he has rinsed his face and hands and even his arms up to the elbows, Mr Navitski finds a brush and tugs the tangles out of his hair. By the time they are finished the assembly is over, and it is time for class. ‘You’ll have some catching up to do.’ ‘I know.’ ‘Come on, then. We’re learning about the war.’ ‘The wars of winter?’ Uncertainly, Mr Navitski says, ‘Well, when the whole world was at war …’ ‘Was it when the Winter King fought the King in the West? And there were some men who had to wear stars, and went into the forests and lived there and ate cattail roots and pine-needle tea, all so the soldiers didn’t catch them?’ A smile curls in the corner of Mr Navitski’s lips. ‘You mean the Bielskis, and people like them. They were Jewish partisans. They broke out of the ghettos and went into the wilderness, into the pushcha itself, and built a whole civilization there, and the Germans just couldn’t find them. There were Russian partisans too. They went into the pushcha and found ways to fight back. Oh,’ he beams – because some stories thrill grown men as much as little boys – ‘men were crawling all through the pushcha during the wars.’ ‘When all the world was the Russias?’ ‘Well, one might say that …’ ‘And they might still be out there, even if they’re gone, because the trees drink them up and everything that ever died turns into trees, doesn’t it?’ This time, Mr Navitski hesitates before replying. He nods only vaguely, his brow creases again, and he shepherds the boy into class to join children who look at him differently, oddly – because, now that mama is gone, he is not really like them at all. It turns out that the project is what our families did in the war. In turn, the boys and girls will tell about their own families, and what happened to them in that long-ago time. One girl tells how her Grandfather was a soldier and got put in a prison and had to spend the whole war there, learning ways to escape. Only, when he escaped, he found he was hundreds of miles from home and somehow had to get back. In those days there were no motor cars, and the trains were filled with wicked soldiers, so lots of people had to walk. Like those men in Grandfather’s story, they had to live wild in hedgerows and forests, and some of them looked like cavemen and others more beastly still. Yuri’s project is a pile of crumpled notepaper and a map, like the one on his bedroom floor, which shows all the Russias and the countries along its side, places like Latvia and Lithuania, a big scribble called Ukraine and after that the tiny Belarus, coloured in with trees. ‘Aren’t you telling about your papa?’ ‘No,’ scowls Yuri, scoring another tree into his map. ‘Why no?’ ‘Because,’ he says, poking a pencil in Mr Navitski’s direction, ‘he said not to do my papa, because, in the war, the police were no good. But how can a police be no good? Police are there to help.’ Yuri lifts his map and cups it around his mouth. ‘I’m sorry about your mama.’ It is an incredible thing to hear. Such a little thing, but the boy’s lips start to tremble, his hands hot and slippery as a fever. ‘What’s it like, living with your papa?’ Any words the boy might have would come out like sobs, so he swallows them. ‘What did your papa do in the war?’ ‘Is it the wars of winter?’ the boy finally says. Yuri considers it. ‘I think so. In the pictures, it’s awfully cold.’ It is dark by end of day. Outside, mothers cluck around the gates and, as the boy ventures out, he feels Mr Navitski’s eyes boring into his back. He stops to watch, because even Yuri, with a sleeve encrusted in spittle and bits of dinner, has a mama to run to. In the gloom at the end of the schoolyard, Yuri’s mother scolds him, strikes him once around the ear and takes his hand to lead him away. Grandfather is waiting on the other side of the road, prowling up and down by the car like a man in a cage. The boy takes flight, not stopping to look as he barrels over the road to find him. ‘Papa!’ Grandfather looks up. ‘I didn’t know when this all ends,’ he says, with what must be deep relief. ‘Have you been waiting?’ ‘A little.’ ‘I’m sorry, papa. Are you cold?’ He beams, ‘Well, they don’t let you build cookfires in the middle of the street, do they? Jump in. It’s getting dark.’ The boy’s eyes drift to the skies. Clouds have gathered, but a half moon still shines. ‘It’s dark already, papa.’ ‘Not this,’ Grandfather grins. ‘I mean real dark. These people don’t know real dark, do they? But we do. Your papa and you know about real dark. Woodland dark.’ The boy slides up front, and the car complains bitterly as Grandfather rolls it into the traffic. ‘Where did you get that shirt?’ It is only now that he realizes he is still wearing the shirt Mr Navitski found for him. ‘I’m sorry, papa.’ ‘Why sorry?’ Grandfather slows the car down to a halt, even though they are in the middle of a road, approaching an intersection where dark tenements huddle together. ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Don’t ever say sorry, boy.’ After that they drive in silence. The boy wants to ask: what did you do today, papa? Were you lonely on your own? Did you talk to Madam Yakavenka or go to the shop and talk to the woman at the counter? Did you get a bread from the bakery or are you filled up with cattail? But he says nothing. He wipes at the condensation forming on the windows with his sleeve, and tries to make out by streetlights where he might be, how close to home. It is only when he wipes the window clear for a fifth time that he realizes they are leaving the town. The streetlights have grown infrequent, and in rags the trees grow more misshapen, not tamed by human hands like the ones that sprout from concrete along the city streets. ‘Aren’t we going back to the tenement, papa?’ ‘But what’s at the tenement?’ ‘Well, nothing …’ ‘So why would we want to go back?’ This time, the way into the wild is familiar. They draw off from the main road, into the caverns of ice, and stutter on until they have reached the old resting spot. ‘Are you warm enough in that shirt?’ The boy shakes his head. ‘There’s the eiderdown just there. But I found you a coat. There’s a cellar, under your baba’s house. There’s a trapdoor outside, near the kitchen door.’ ‘I have a coat at the tenement, papa. It’s the one mama got me.’ ‘This one’s warmer.’ ‘But it isn’t mine, is it?’ Grandfather stalks off, up and over the dead fire, loping like a hunchback into the trees. ‘It’s in the family,’ he says. Before they reach the ruin, the boy can see smoke curling out of the chimneystack. He can see the chimneystack too, no longer a crumbled mound of bricks but now excavated and piled high, churning clouds out into the night with the same relentlessness as the factories through which they have come. From the top of the hill, he can smell the woodsmoke. Grandfather leads him down the dell and stops to lift a simple latch on the wooden door, no longer slumped and smashed into place, but hanging – if awkwardly – from hinges once again. When he opens the door, winter tries to rush in, but waves from the hearthfire try to rush out. A battle is fought in the open doorway, and through that prickly frontier the boy and Grandfather go. ‘Papa,’ the boy begins, begging a smile, ‘what happened?’ Grandfather shrugs, as if to hide the smile that is flourishing in the corners of his lips. ‘I found some … bits and pieces. This old house, it remembers me, boy.’ In the living room there are rugs. They do not extend quite to the edges as a carpet might, but they are deep and soft under his feet, and run all the way to the hearth, where a fire surges and rolls. Ranged around the hearth are two armchairs with a little table between. All of the brambles that once clawed in to take back the house have been hacked and bundled up, and now hang on strings above the hearth, drying out for future kindling. In the hearth sits the cast-iron pot, and in the cast-iron pot spits and crackles a bird. Cattail roots bob, white strands trailing like Baba Yaga’s hair, in the surface of the broiling snow-melt. Its smells lift, mingle with the woodsmoke, and reach out to tempt the boy. He peers in the pot. ‘What is it, papa?’ ‘It’s like a chicken.’ ‘But what is it?’ ‘A grouse.’ The boy looks again, breathing in deep aromas of wild grass and wet bark. ‘There are two birds here.’ ‘One’s a starling.’ ‘A starling?’ ‘It’s been such a long time since I ate a starling. Shall we say goodnight to your mama, boy?’ The boy follows Grandfather through the kitchen. Here, too, everything has changed. One of the smashed windows is covered with boards, and all of the pots are stacked in piles. A bowl by the tin sink is filled with cattail roots and acorns and other roots the boy does not know, all of them ugly as unborn children. In another bowl sits a handful of nuts, and in another still dry, sprawling mushrooms that look as if someone has rolled and stretched them out. ‘Jew’s ears,’ says Grandfather, teasing one between thumb and forefinger. ‘Jew’s ears?’ ‘Just don’t let your baba hear you call them that.’ Soaking up the heat of the hearthfire, the boy has forgotten how cold the winter night can get, and once outside he starts to shiver. Grandfather tells him to take a deep breath, they’ll only be a minute, and pads to the bottom of the garden. As he follows him, he looks back at the house. Grandfather has excavated the snow from the walls, and in the crater he can see the cellar trapdoor, hard wood and iron clasp. ‘See,’ says Grandfather, staring at the roots of mama’s tree. ‘I told you he’d be back. He’s done his schooling and now it’s time for dinner. I’m making him a bird. He won’t have tasted anything like it.’ While Grandfather is talking to whatever’s left of mama, the boy imagines her working her way up the roots, into the trunk of the tree. In the spring, perhaps there will be leaves, and in the way the veins of those leaves spread out and bring colour to the leaf, there will be an image of mama. In autumn the leaves will fall down and rot, and the tree will drink them up again, and that is how mama can live forever and always. Back inside, it is time for dinner to be served up. Grandfather even has dishes, and into each he spoons some bird and heap of roots. The boy sees, now, that there are pine needles in the broth, and chestnuts too, collected under trees planted by some ancient forester as a gift to the future. In the bottom of his bowl he finds a Jew’s ear and turns it between his teeth. It is tough as the rubber bands Yuri chews on at school, but its juices run hot and thick down his chin. ‘How do you like your real food?’ It is not like the dinners mama might make, but it is every bit as good. ‘It’s been an age since I ate like this, boy.’ ‘But when did you eat like this, papa?’ ‘Why, when I was young.’ ‘When were you young, papa?’ ‘In the long ago.’ There was not such joy in Grandfather’s voice last night. There was not such sparkle in his eyes the night before. He wonders: what has changed? It must be the house that now looks so homely. It must be the woods out back and the snow that hugs them, the hearth with its proud cookfire, and the very trees themselves. Why would his papa refuse to come to the forests, when the forests make him so happy? ‘What did you do during the wars, papa?’ Grandfather sets his wooden spoon down. The juices of grouse and starling, whose rangy skeletons now sit picked clean on his plate, glisten in his whiskers. ‘Why would you ask such a thing?’ ‘It’s … for school,’ he says, though in truth it is for everything else as well. ‘Was it like in the wars of winter? Mr Navitski says there really were people living wild in the woods … Maybe there really was a baby. Maybe there really was a little boy who helped rescue it from the forest. And maybe …’ Grandfather’s owlish eyes are on him. ‘… maybe it was baba, papa? Maybe it was this very same house?’ ‘And what do you think?’ ‘You told me there was a bit of the true in every story.’ ‘Well,’ says Grandfather, ‘maybe you’d like another tale?’ The boy’s eyes turn up. ‘Yes, please, papa.’ There comes a sound from Grandfather’s belly. It is a sound that says: settle down, boy, for we’re safe and warm, while the world is white and wild, and this tale will be long in the telling. This isn’t the tale, says Grandfather, but an opening. The boy’s mouth follows the familiar words, surging ahead even before Grandfather has finished them. The tale comes tomorrow, after the meal, when we are filled with soft bread. And now, he beams, we start our tale. Long, long ago, when we did not exist, when perhaps our great-grandfathers were not in the world, in a land not so very far away, on the earth in front of the sky, on a plain place like on a wether, seven versts aside, there was endless, endless war. The wars of winter had raged for a hundred long years, and time and again, our little town had fallen, first to the Winter King, then to the King in the West, then to the Winter King again. But the King in the West was strongest, and soon the little town became his dominion once and for all. The soldiers of the Winter King were frightened, but they could never give up. Do you know where they went? The boy remembers Mr Navitski’s words. ‘They went into the forest, didn’t they, papa?’ To the pushcha, in the snow dark between the trees, for they were the soldiers of winter and knew how to live under aspen and birch. ‘And there were partisans …’ He tries the word, and finds it almost fits. ‘… already, weren’t there? Partisans with yellow stars? Because they knew about the forests too, didn’t they?’ Grandfather nods. But the woods are wide and the woods are wild, and the woods are the world forever and ever. And there was space in the trees yet, for the Partisans of the Yellow Star and the soldiers of winter. Sometimes they would find each other, and sometimes they would help each other – and if, when winter was fiercest, they met each other in the pines, they might share their potatoes, or share their milk. Or even their guns. ‘Guns, papa?’ Oh, yes. Because the pushcha was a place of great darkness. The King in the West wreaked terrible things and, sometimes, his men would lead their prisoners out, into places where only the oaks could witness, and line them up. Then they would cast terrible magic, and the prisoners would tumble between the roots and be buried forever. Now, trees are mighty, but a tree cannot move to help a creature in need. Some of the trees, they saw such things and screamed. Their roots spoke to their trunks, and their trunks whispered to branches and leaves, and all of the forests mourned for the men murdered in their midst. But other trees saw the work of the King in the West and were filled with joy. Because trees feed on dead things, and send their roots down to drink them up, and when the King in the West killed in the forests, some trees were tempted to feed on the murdered men. And those trees grew mighty and powerful, with branches made from dead men, and leaves that turned blood-red long before autumn’s call. And to this day you can see, out there in the forests, the trees that have drunk on the dead of the wars of winter – for those are the trees whose trunks have the faces of men. For that is their curse, to forever wear the features of the men they have eaten. And that little baby, squalling on the step? Well, if she had stayed with her real family in the wild, she might have been drunken up by the trees as well. For her people were hunted down by the King in the West and, if ever they were caught, they were fed to the roots. And so ends our story, of the good and bad trees. After the tale, the boy finds that he is sleepy, lulled by the fire and the tale, but he does not want to close his eyes – not to images of trees devouring men – so, instead, he follows Grandfather back to the kitchen door, to wish goodnight to mama. Moonlight scuds over the forest. He ventures out, tramping in the footsteps Grandfather’s jackboots have left behind, but when he reaches the roots of mama’s tree, it is not her that he sees in the branches. Instead, it is the mamas and papas marched out, lined up and shot down, so that all of the deeper trees could drink on their remains. He has always known that the forests are home to wild things. Now, he knows that the forests are home to ghosts as well. He can almost hear them moaning, for the winter is whipping up a wind – and that wind is trapped, like a lingering spirit, beneath the canopies of ice. Deeper in, shadows stretch and dance in time with those mournful sounds. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/robert-dinsdale/gingerbread/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. 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