Mar 13 2012 6:00pm
After the Snow (Excerpt)
The oceans stopped working before Willo was born, so the world of ice and snow is all he’s ever known. He lives with his family deep in the wilderness, far from the government’s controlling grasp. Willo’s survival skills are put to the test when he arrives home one day to find his family gone. It could be the government; it could be scavengers—all Willo knows is he has to find refuge and his family. It is a journey that will take him into the city he’s always avoided, with a girl who needs his help more than he knows.
I’m gonna sit here in my place on the hill behind the house. Waiting. And watching.
Aint nothing moving down there.
The valley look pretty bare in the snow. Just the house, gray and lonely down by the river all frozen. I got to think what I’m gonna do now that everyone gone.
But I got my dog head on.
The dog gonna tell me what to do. The dog gonna help me.
The house look proper empty—don’t it, dog.
You just sit quiet in these rocks, Willo.
The dog talking sense like he always do.
I reckon the fire in the house probably gone out by now with no one to feed it cos everyone gone and I been sitting on the hill all day finding that out. Everyone got taken away cos I seen tracks in the snow. They all gone.
The others gone.
But I don’t know why.
Tell me, dog—what am I gonna do?
I find the dog in the heather one winter. Cold and dead. He been a big old black dog. Fur getting mangy. But one time he been leader of the Rhinogs pack cos I seen him enough times out on the hill. I bleach his bones out on a rock behind the house. Summer come and the skull just sitting there washed out and white, teeth still holding in his powerful jaw. Talking to me somehow.
That’s when I know he been my dog. And I got him stitched up onto my hat with stones tied into his old eye sockets so he can see. I near beg Dad to help me cure the skin cos he say it aint worth the effort. But he do it anyway and I stitch that tattered hide on my coat. Dog gonna keep me warm and tell me what to do after that.
Sometimes before a hunt I get him up to my secret cave on the Farngod. Get the power of the dog strong inside me then. All his cunning. His sharp ears and cold eyes. The oldness of the mountain and all its knowing inside my secret place. And I need it inside me too. That’s how I catch so many hares see.
Dad say, you’re strong like a Spartan, Willo. Could have left you out in the snow and you still gonna keep screeching.
Dad say we’re like Eskimos now. And when he tells me about Eskimos I got to believe him cos he been born before and knows what an Eskimo is.
See, Dad got this book in his box filled with stuff from before, and when he gets it out he lets me look in it, and there are pic- tures of Eskimos in that book but they got funny faces not like us.
Sometimes the grown-ups sit around the fire and give us a Tell about the old days—that’s the days before everything got proper cold. Everyone got trucks and cars back then. And stuff like electricity and hotbaths and water coming out the wall.
That’s always in the Tell.
But like I say, that was in the oldtime, before the sea stop working, before the snow start to fall and fall and fall and don’t stop. Grown-ups like remembering all that old-time stuff—they make out it’s so the kids aint gonna forget, but I think they talk about it so they aint gonna forget it themselves.
Sometimes I sit in the corner with my dog skull on. I know the stories roundside about, but the dog might like to hear them. Just like the little kids who sit at the front with their mouths all red and open like baby birds. They lap all that stuff up.
I only get interested when the grown-ups talk about real things—like what’s been happening in the city and the stealer camps by the power lines. Cos that stuff is more exciting than listening to a bunch of weary thin graybeards talking about hotbaths and food. But I don’t need to tell you that—you probably got your own bunch of boring grown-ups to listen to.
My dad though, he’s all right. He’s got enough boring old-time stuff inside him too, but he’s my dad so I got a bit more time for him than all the rest mostly.
Sometimes he sticks his arms around me and spouts on about how much he loves me and stuff that makes me feel a bit different inside. I don’t mind it when my dad spout all that soft stuff, except that I get this feeling sort of hot like a strong wind blowing into my head—and it makes me want to cry. And I don’t like that so I tell him to leave off which he usually do.
But he’s my dad like I said, and you got to respect your dad I reckon. My mum got dead when I been a baby still scrieking in my ass rags. That happen a lot up here when the snow been deep and your breath freeze in the air. But Magda live with Dad now, up in our end of the house. Magda’s in charge of the little kids and I don’t envy her that job. If it been me I’m gonna bash them all.
Bash. Bash. Bash.
But then I probably been just the same way annoying when I been small and Magda look after me too then, so she’s all right, and she sometimes does that arm-hugging thing like my dad. But it’s better cos she’s careful to do it when no one’s looking—she’s clever like that, so I always keep my face and none of the other kids don’t touch me for blubbing.
Cos if I catch one of them blubbing I’m gonna stick it to them. That’s probably why I’m not the most popular. But I don’t care. I catch a lot of hares. And no one sticks it to me.
But aint no point thinking on all that homespun stuff right now. The house gonna be cold but I got to sleep there or I’ll freeze, even if the dog is scared. So I keep the wood on the sled and I tell the dog, leave off worrying, and I stick my head out from the rocks. But quietly all the same.
Dad let the trees grow just like they want and they near growing under the door so you can’t see the house except from up here on the hill. Gray stones built up good and strong in the walls though. You can see it took a long time to put those stones together so neat and make them all square around the windows. Those old-time people been proper clever.
Magda get angry about once every month cos of those scrubby bare branches tapping on the walls but the grown-ups decide at the meeting that the trees are a good thing cos they keep the house hidden. Don’t need anyone except farmer Geraint to know where we are and we been here near three years and no trouble, so Magda know to keep herself quiet now.
I hope none of the little kids got clever and hid in the attic or nothing cos I don’t want no crying kid around my legs if I been the only one left.
That thought punch me right in the guts. Me being the only one left I mean.
But it aint no time for getting soft. Cos I seen some boys who gone soft. Usually with a girl at the Barmuth Meet. Then they start blubbering on to the girl and that aint gonna last long if you ask me cos the girl always talk about it afterward, and then I’m gonna find out.
But I aint too bothered about girls. Magda says I will get bothered. She says a girl is what I need. I don’t know what she’s talking about. It sound like I got something missing on me when Magda say stuff like that. I got all my arms and legs and even all my teeth still. So I aint got nothing missing so I don’t see why I need anything—especially not a girl.
What I need, Magda, is a GUN. That’s what I want to say. I mean I got a knife. My dad got it from Geraint last year. One to keep—just for me. I trapped a lot of hares for that knife.
But no gun.
Geraint can’t get me a gun really. He’s just a farmer. I mean, he knows deer and skins roundside about, but he aint gonna be any good getting a gun for a straggler without papers. Geraint’s got a gun himself. He got papers for it. He let me and Alice hold it once. But if you got a license like he has I guess you can get anything you like.
Gun gonna make me feel pretty good right now. Being alone up here and everything. One day I’m gonna get one. I know where too. No one knows this but I been right over on the other side of the Farngod to the road where the power lines run. To a stealer camp. I reckon they got a gun and I’m gonna steal it if they come back next summer. I been there in the snow when they gone back to the city. I smelled it all roundside about and can get around in the dark, quiet like a fox. They aint never gonna know I been there. Until they can’t find that gun.
I like the thought of that. Stealing from a stealer. I got a laugh inside me when I thought that up.
But I didn’t tell no one about my plan cos Dad don’t have no time for guns anyway. And he’s gonna get angry if I tell him about the stealer camp cos he’s as scared of stealers like they were starving dogs or something. But stealers don’t move too far away from the power lines so all you need to do is hide somewhere quiet and far off if they come out. They aint gonna be wandering on the mountain long in their woollen rags.
But what does Dad know? He don’t sit out in the freezing wind with his fingers working slower and slower tying the wire up on the trap runs. I’d rather sit with a gun and get a dog every now and then than sit up on the Farngod in the snow all winter for hares, even though I’m the best there is at trapping.
Somehow I got a knack for it from somewhere. Dad says it’s cos I been born out on the mountain and don’t know anything different. Maybe he’s right. But I don’t plan to spend my whole life on this mountain getting old and thin. My dad just waste his time dreaming of getting a license. When he aint dreaming he’s getting angry about it. But they aint gonna give him a license. I know that. But he don’t.
Geraint knows it too, and he should know cos he’s got one. He’s allowed to farm his deer and go down to the city and sell stuff and have a gun and everything. Government even give him juice from the power line sometimes and a big fence around his farm to keep stealers out.
My dad say it aint right that we don’t get a license, we don’t even get papers—so we can’t sell our own animal skins. It make my dad angry. But Geraint don’t come by too often and even I can see that we need him cos we aint never gonna get a license. That’s for sure.
If my dad complain, Geraint—sitting up all smart on his pony and laughing—says, go down to the road and get a truck ride to the city if you don’t like it, Robin. You can be legal as you like then.
Geraint find it funny when he say that to my dad. But my dad aint never gonna bring us all to some dirty cold tent in the shanties and not be able to move about or hunt or trap. No way. We aint gonna go down there to the government even if that mean we got no papers cos of it. When Geraint laugh like that at my dad he aint really being funny though.
“Let’s have a look what you got for me then, Robin,” Geraint gonna say, getting off his horse, all mean.
“We need oats and salt and more alum—and Willo wants a knife,” says my dad handing over my hare skins and the snowshoes Magda make.
“And I need pencils for the children,” says Magda. She always got her own list.
“I can give you a hundred yuan for these skins and ten for the shoes,” says Geraint.
“A hundred ten? We need more than that.”
“No papers, Robin—can’t just sell them as easy as you think. A hundred ten’s all I can do. But I’ll get the boy a knife—a real Chinese one—and Magda her pencils on top. Because I’m trying to help. But nothing more.”
Dad go back in the house then and come out with one of the dog skins he been keeping. I know he don’t want to sell it cos we need it for making new boots.
“What about with this one?” says my dad, looking at Magda. She nod.
Well, there aint nothing Geraint don’t know about fur and he see this dog skin is probably half wolf. He feel the skin with his short fingers.
“I’ll give you two for the lot,” says Geraint.
Dad aint happy with that. I see it on his face—but what can he do? He got to agree.
Geraint unroll his pack and give my dad a deer skin. “Hundred fifty for you when this is cured too.” He got a bag of oats tied on his saddle and he give it to Magda along with a bar of soap. He say it’s from Alice.
My dad’s face goes a bit dark then, but he don’t say nothing. We got the oats though so I guess Geraint aint all bad—cos he know he cheat us on the dog skin. After he got a baby with Alice and let her come up and live on his farm, he got softer with us like that.
“Don’t forget the boy’s knife,” says Dad. “He nearly froze to death to get those extra skins.”
And that’s how I got my knife. But I earned it proper good sitting up on the Farngod in the wind tying snares.
When Geraint is gone my dad’s dark face gets darker. Same as when he talks about me wearing my dog skull or when I don’t speak to no one sometimes.
He don’t understand that to trap a dog I got to wear the dog skull and not talk to no one. I got to get the power just like with the hares, only stronger cos the dog is cleverer than a hare in some ways.
But I think Dad got a dark face thinking about Alice, cos she was fourteen and they aint supposed to get a baby until they get older even though they can.
That’s what all the grown-ups agree at the Meet.
But my sister Alice got a baby with Geraint when she was fourteen. And he’s an old graybeard. But I don’t know why it make Dad get that dark face. We got the oats. And the soap. I know Magda like the soap.
Magda puts her arm around my dad. “We got the oats, Robin,” she say.
He push her arm away then. I think I see that Dad got wet eyes, but I can’t be sure. My face gets all red when I see that and I go away from the house cos I got respect and he’s my dad and I try and forget I ever saw it.
Maybe I’m gonna steal the gun from Geraint instead of the stealers. Be easier too cos Geraint’s old and spends all winter getting thin on the mountain like his fathers before him. There aint much to steal in the middle of the winter see.
I don’t know why I’m thinking of all this stuff though. There’s more important things to think on now. Number One, I’m cold sit- ting here in the snow. Number Two, I got to have a plan. Don’t know why I been talking in my head about the others.
You’re thinking wrong.
But I’m pleased the dog is talking to me. This dog must be half wolf he’s so clever.
You’re thinking wrong because the others aren’t in the house now. You’re alone, boy. And gun or no gun, you’ve got to start thinking about things happening now. Like food and where you’re going to sleep and what you’re going to do if your pack has gone without you.
See, I know the dog gonna help me.