Pyotra and the Wolf
Elna Holst © 2020
All Rights Reserved
On the day that was to change the lives of the three remaining members of the Kulakov family forever, it was night. Pyotra Nikolayevna Kulakova lived with her grandfather and younger brother outside a minuscule Russian settlement in the northern Siberian snow forest, where the polar night lasts for a good month out of the year. According to the unsmiling face of the clock on the wall on Boris Ilyich’s izba, however, it was in the early hours of the morning that Pyotra pushed her weight against the door, caught between the dread of the freezing cold without and staying trapped inside, unable to procure sustenance for the two men under her care.
Her brother, it might be argued, was too young to be called a man, and her dedushka was worn and grey, an old curmudgeon who had lost his eyesight, if not his wits. Pyotra loved them dearly, desperately, with the parentless child’s determination to cling to what has been left her. Boris, in turn, doted upon his grandchildren: Pyotra, the twenty-two-year-old, and Sergei, nearly twelve. Not that he ever told them as much. It was not his way.
Pyotra sighed as the door refused to budge. A metre of snow had fallen while they slept. “Come help me, duckling, if you want to see the sun again.”
Sergei made a noise through his nose. He sat by the fireplace, fiddling with his tackle, oiling his rod, making sure the lines were not tangled. It was a new favourite pastime of his. Lately, he had taken it into his head that he was to be the future provider of the family. Pyotra assumed it was a notion he had picked up at the village school. Their father had never been much of a provider; he had made sure he had his vodka, and that was that. Sergei was too young to remember.
“There won’t be any sun for another week or so,” he replied, holding his rod up for inspection. “And stop calling me ‘duck.’”
Pyotra hid a smile. She was by no means ready to let go of her private memory of Sergei taking his first waddling steps towards her, as their mother, Serafima, gasped, “Look, look who’s walking. My little duck!”
It was all that Serafima Anatoliyevna had left her offspring; that and her grey-blue eyes, her peculiar-coloured curls, and her steely resolve to survive, to thrive, even in the most austere and unforgiving corner of the world.
Except, she hadn’t. She had walked out into the Arctic night, only to be brought back by a search party a few days later. Parts of her, at least. Bones, hair, ravaged flesh, the gold wedding band by which she had been identified. Attacked by a pack of wolves was the universal verdict. Their father could not cope, it was likewise said; he drowned his sorrows in liquid comfort and went down with it.
And then they were three.
Pyotra Nikolayevna had never been able to forgive her parents for dying. But she could not give up on their little duck, bright-eyed and pink-faced, holding his chubby arms out to her as if she was the centre and epitome of existence.
His arms were not that chubby any more, but still.
At the table, Boris moved uneasily, his unseeing eyes directed towards the unflinching darkness of their one grimy window to the outside world.
“Let it be, Pyotrushka,” he burred, winding his fingers through his beard. “There’s an ill wind blowing. It smells like…wolf.”
Pyotra clicked her tongue. Shaking her head at her grandfather would be a waste of energy better employed in breaking out of the snowed-in log cabin. “For pity’s sake, Ded. This isn’t the nineteenth century, nor even the twentieth. The weather holds no omens to be deciphered. If you smell something off, it’s probably Sergei.”
“Ey!” Her brother looked up at her for the first time, adorably affronted.
Pyotra winked at him and turned to give the door another mighty shove. It cracked open a centimetre or two, a small avalanche of fresh snow tumbling in through the opening.
“Bring me the spade and the bucket, duck,” she called over her shoulder to Sergei, her tone of voice forestalling opposition.
As she started shovelling, clearing a passage out at less than a snail’s pace across a rugged cliff, Pyotra Kulakova sighed anew. This was going to be one long day, irrespective of the lack of sunlight.
It was past noon before Pyotra and Sergei—who eventually grew bored with his own resistance—had managed to come as far as to the communal road leading down to the village, which had been cleared by the local snow removal team. Pyotra took one look at Sergei’s blanched face and sent him back to fill up the samovar for Boris, while she proceeded down to the one shop within an eighty-kilometre radius.
“I will be back in a couple of hours,” she told him, pinching some warmth into his cheeks. “Don’t do anything stupid, please.”
“I’m not the stupid one.” Sergei stuck out his tongue and batted her hands away. “That hurts!”
“Not as much as frostbite, let me tell you. Or better yet, let Dedushka tell you. That’ll keep you both occupied.”
With a rude sign—another new trick they had that eminent educational institution to thank for—Sergei ran back to the alluring warmth of the hearth. Watching him go, Pyotra felt a sting of loneliness. Of loneliness, but also of the constant worry that came over her whenever she had to leave him, leave them both. Since her father’s earthly remains had been lowered into the ground to join her mother’s, two years after their first, gut-wrenching loss, Pyotra Nikolayevna had lived with a droning terror at the back of her mind, which she hadn’t any better name for than Things Could Happen. The namelessness of it only served to magnify her dread.
Shaking herself, Pyotra straightened her headband torch, hiked her empty rucksack higher onto her shoulders, and set off.
Mariya Petrovna Leonova’s shop lay in a squat, rectangular building encased in corrugated iron, the word магазин painted in red along its side. Mashka was no artist, but she got her message across.
Business had been good to her over the years; she could easily have invested in a new sign, less motley shelves, and a sturdier floor inside. But being Mashka, she had invested in her twin passions: Persian cats and budgerigars. How she kept them alive in the relentlessness of the Siberian deep-freeze—fifteen or so cats and twice as many budgies—was a mystery that no one in the village had solved yet. She kept herself to herself, did Mashka Petrovna. Although, unmarried and unbothered, she had always had a good eye to Boris Kulakov.
“And how is your grandfather?” the shop owner par excellence called out as soon as Pyotra entered.
Pyotra paused to kick the excess snow off her boots. It was Mashka’s standard mode of greeting, picking up as if they had been interrupted in their last conversation for a few minutes, when in reality it was a matter of weeks, sometimes an entire month.
Apart from her own two legs, Pyotra had no means of transportation, but she had a strong enough back that she could carry several weeks’ worth of provisions for the two-hour hike. Conveniently, as they would otherwise have had to rely on Mashka’s delivery service, which entailed having to deal with Mashka’s toothy-grinned nephew Dmitri, whizzing around on his snowmobile. Pyotra had tried that when Boris had been down with pneumonia and she had been reluctant to leave the house for four hours in one go. Never again.
“Boris is Boris, Mashka,” she replied. She was at times tempted to add he sent his love. Her grandfather would do no such thing, however.
“The widow Tsvetayeva has gone and got herself married again, to a man fifteen years her junior. I tell you, what is the world coming to?” Mashka put her knuckles to her hips, head tipped back in disgust.
“Love is love,” Pyotra turned her back on the magazin owner, busying herself with picking through Mashka’s scant supply of tinned vegetables. Peas and carrots. Carrots. More peas.
“It’s unseemly is what it is,” Mashka continued, unperturbed. She sniffed in disapproval. “She never had a decent bone in her body, that one. Did I tell you she was after your ded in our youth?”
“You may have mentioned it.” Pyotra sniggered soundlessly among the sacks of flour. She hefted one into her trolley, followed by three jars of pickled beetroots. Sergei needed his vitamins.
“Lucky he already had his eyes set on your grandmother. She was a saint of a woman. How she could have had a son like—” Mashka broke off, wisely. However much Pyotra Kulakova privately resented her father, she did not suffer others to speak ill of him. He had been unwell, a sickness of the soul, of the mind. Of the heart, if Pyotra were to be honest. She could understand, even if she could not pardon.
“I have something for that brother of yours.” Animated by the idea of a possible upsell, Mashka rose to her toes—no mean feat for a woman in her seventies—and picked a green box covered with a lid of transparent plastic from a shelf behind the counter. The sharp points of the fishing hooks inside each compartment glittered under the fluorescent light. “Special delivery from Arkhangelsk,” Mashka crooned, sweeping her gnarled fingers over the box as if she were performing a conjuring trick. “Prime steel.”
Pyotra shook her head, not deigning to look closer at the offering. Mashka Petrovna knew the weak spots of all her customers. “It’s not his birthday for a few months yet. We couldn’t afford it.”
Mashka tsked. “These beauties pay for themselves. You’ll have fish on the table every day, guaranteed. Between us, I’ll give you a good price. You could pay in instalments. Just don’t tell anyone—apart from Boris, of course. You tell your grandfather everything, I know. You’re a good girl, Pyotra.”
“We can’t afford it,” Pyotra reiterated, fixing her gaze on a faded poster to Mashka’s right. It showed a man in grey overalls admiring the exaggerated bulge of his bicep, and above him, radiant as the sun: an orange. Her mouth watered. “We’ll have some frozen orange juice.”
Mashka peeked up at her, a canny expression in her watery eyes. “Three cartons for the price of two?”
Pyotra gave a brief nod, feeling hooked, lined, and sinkered. It was the one luxury item she fell for, same deal every time.
She wished she could have bought those hooks for Sergei. Mashka would probably have been as good as her word and given her a fair price, if only to keep herself in the imaginary good books of Boris Ilyich. But Pyotra didn’t like to encourage him—Sergei, that was—in this newfound pursuit of his. He would freeze his digits off if he kept out at all hours. And he wasn’t as strong as he liked to think; what if the fish dragged him down through the hole in the ice, pulling him into the frigid water, and Pyotra wasn’t there to help? She couldn’t be there all the time. There were things she needed to do. And what if Boris couldn’t hear him; what if Sergei’s lungs were too shocked from the cold to scream, and—
Pyotra pushed a fist into her chest, trying to knock her wildly beating heart into adopting a more sedate rhythm. The rucksack felt like so much lead on her shoulders. The light from her torch skittered along the glacial road.
“He’s not allowed to go out on his own,” she reminded herself out loud. “He wouldn’t.”
The firs surrounding her on her homeward stretch stood mute, unwilling to echo her reassurances back at her. Their silence seemed a contradiction in its own right: Wouldn’t he, Pyotra Kulakova? Don’t you know your little duck?
A howl tore up the preternatural quiet, and Pyotra was running—never mind the weight on her back, the distance left to cover—because she knew, in her bones she knew the answers to those questions. She did know Sergei. He would.
As she turned the corner onto what they called their ‘meadow,’ a clearing with a small pond and a larch bending over it, Pyotra Nikolayevna Kulakova’s worst nightmares seemed to have come true in one fell swoop: the tail and hindquarters of a huge, menacing beast were sticking out of a hole in the ice—the hole she herself had assisted Sergei in drilling two days ago, and which, with the stubbornness of the almost twelve-year-old, he would have been able to reopen himself, given enough time. Say, three hours or so. While Pyotra—
The front of the wolf resurfaced, and in its maw: Sergei.
Pyotra let her rucksack thud onto the tightly packed snow and drew out her father’s rifle, long in disuse, but—she prayed to the saints, the angels, Baba Yaga, anyone within hearing range—still loaded.
The dripping wolf was dragging the lax body of her brother onto the ice, sniffing him, fangs exposed.
Pyotra cocked her rifle.
The head of the wolf snapped up.