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.
The dog telling me to be careful about going down to the house. But I aint got nowhere else to sleep so I creep out the rocks all stealthy.
I want to ask the dog about the tracks in the snow but I reckon the dog don’t know nothing about them cos it’s a dog and dogs don’t know about those kind of things.
Must be something big come through here by the size of the tracks. I got a smell of it in the morning when I come back from breaking the ice on the water—which is why I gone and hid on the hill. That and Magda shouting out all angry.
I aint never smelt a snow truck up here before. I know it can’t be stealers cos A it’s the winter and B stealers don’t have trucks. Only government have snow trucks. But what they’re doing up here away from the power lines I don’t know.
We aint doing nothing except sell our skins to Geraint without papers. Government need skins and people in the city need skins too. So where they think they’re gonna get them if it aint stragglers like us freezing our fingers off in the mountains trapping hares for their warm gloves and boots? We aint stealers. We’re just up here looking after ourselves.
Dad say we’re beacons of hope. I never really know what he’s got in his head when he talk like that. I don’t know what he means. And I’m worrying about all that beacon-of-hope stuff and the government trucks, and my sled bash me in the leg cos I’m not concentrating on getting down the hill proper and I’m dragging it behind me. I got the firewood on it that I got this morning so it’s good and heavy and running away if I let it.
The barn been open. I sniff inside. The goats gone. I close the doors. Shut them tight. Got to go and look in the house.
I’m right about the fire. It musta gone right out cos the house is cold as stone. And dark.
The door scrape across the stones. I stand inside still as I can, but my breathing sound really loud so I try to make it quiet, but that don’t help much. I wait about half an hour just standing on the stones with my breath on the air, ready like a hare that heard an eagle.
It’s dark as dark inside.
I got to listen good, cos if someone been upstairs waiting for me I want to hear them creaking on the floor above.
But the only creaking is just the old house moving in the cold.
And there aint no answer.
I put my hand against the wall and feel my way down the passage. I can feel every lump under the cold plaster and I know my palm’s gonna be dusty white if I can see it. I come to the coats still hanging on the pegs, the fur all soft. But no one go out without their coat in this weather? I don’t understand why the coats still here and the people aint.
I got a funny feeling being all alone in the house cos my back’s to the door and it’s dark and I don’t like it with no one here.
But like the dog say, can’t stop to think about that now.
I get to the kitchen, the same roundside smells seeping out of the dark. I tap along the beam to find the box of tinder cos I got none in my pouch—but the box fall to the floor with a bang. It really make me jump and I got to stay still for a while more. But no one come leaping out the shadows so I reckon the house is safe for now.
The dog worrying me too much. Thing is, dogs can’t make fire and stuff so they got to be more careful than us. That’s the only trouble with wearing the dog skull. The spirit of that dog get right inside me sometimes and I forget who I am. That’s what my dad say when he make me stay in the house with the others and do my reading with Magda.
I say, “Dad, I can read enough.”
Cos I had to sit around with Magda all day when I was little, doing reading, and what do I need it for when I got to catch hares and get wood and stuff as soon as I got old enough?
Dad say it’s cos I’m human that I got to learn reading and not spend all day out on the mountain thinking like a dog. I don’t think Dad know about my secret place where I keep the animal skulls and get my power from, but I think he got a bit suspicious. I mean he just about let me wear the dog skull but he aint happy about it. I know.
Dad hit me once cos of it—the skull go flying across the room. You’re not a bloody dog, Willo! He been good and angry. But the skull aint broken. I got a strong feeling that I hate him when he do it but it pass by the next day. Can’t hate your dad. Cos he’s your dad. And sooner or later you’re gonna want to show him some- thing clever you done, like catching a big hare or stitching a neat pair of gloves. Don’t matter if your dad hit you or not—you’re gonna want him to know what you been doing.
My dad got funny ideas about things. He always think things gonna change, things gonna get better like they were before. He says man thinks he caused all this cold and snow, but he didn’t. Dad say the snow gonna come anyway after the sea stop working— he say the planet’s stronger than all the people on it and gonna do what it wants. He say we just got to learn. Like in the days long ago. That’s usually when he start talking about beacons of hope.
He got this picture see. He keep it in his book. I really like this picture. It got painted a long time ago by a man called Broogle. It’s called Hunters in the Snow. What I like about it are the hunters walking through the village with all their dogs, I mean you can tell it’s proper cold cos down below the lake is frozen over and the sky is all green like it gets. Raven sitting up in a tree.
The thing I like best though is just the dogs. The hunters got loads of dogs. Thin kind of ones with long noses and all of them sniffing along behind the men. But the hunters only caught a fox. Not much to eat on a fox. Maybe they catch it for its fur. But Dad say no, he say the hunters only got a fox cos it’s a hard long winter. He says all the things in the picture were put there to say something like telling a story. So the dead fox supposed to tell us that the people aint be too successful on their hunt cos times been hard and there aint no hares. He say the picture got painted a long time ago when it been cold like now. He say it snowed for more than a hundred years and everyone got proper hungry and lots of people died. Aint no different to now, just less people and they know how to get on better then. They didn’t have to go and live in the city then. They didn’t have a government telling them it gonna get hot when really it aint—it gonna get cold. Dad say we’re like those hunters, and people call us stragglers, but we got to be beacons of hope til things get better.
But if everything in the picture got a reason behind it then what I see is that raven black and hungry. Raven just sitting in the tree looking down on all those people in the snow. I reckon that raven looking at the dead fox the man got slung over his shoulder, and the raven probably thinking, I could do with that dead fox, man. The raven aint looking at the people in the village skating on the ice or the frozen mill on the lake or the woman making a big fire by the house. He’s just thinking about food.
But I don’t say nothing to Dad about that cos he thinks that picture telling us everything gonna be all right again one day, that the snow gonna melt and everyone gonna get on like before. I don’t know about that, but I know the picture roundside about and I really like it.
Soon I got the fire lit good, and it make a soft dance on the walls that gets the whole room friendly just like it used to be. And warm too, which is good cos I got proper cold by now and everything shaking. My teeth shaking. My hands shaking. My legs shaking. All from sitting out on the hill all day in the snow.
Only thing is there aint no people here.
I aint gonna mind if the place been filled with kids shouting and scampering. No I aint gonna mind that whatever I say before. In fact, I almost wish a little one been clinging around my leg right now. Someone who’s gonna tell me what happened, just keep me company.
It get to me in a moment.
I go to the door and shout out to the valley but my voice get eaten in the dark. Outside the snow’s falling heavy. There aint no wind so the flakes are all big and round and soft and they just keep dropping down from the sky one after another straight down like they aint never gonna stop. Falling soft and silent, covering my footprints down the hill, covering the track marks from the truck. That kind of snow gets deep real quick. I aint never gonna know which way that truck went now.
Looking out at the snow falling down from the big black sky brings that panic bubbling up in my throat and I feel like I’m gonna choke if I don’t stop it. I got a feeling terrifying inside me in the darkness. Dark and nothing all around me.
But the dog saying, I think everything gonna be all right inside the house tonight, everything all right for now. The storm coming in and you just got to make the best of it.
So I get some coats and lie down by the fire.
You can’t do much except sleep or talk in front of a fire and I aint been tireder for a good long time. Sometimes sleep been the best thing. Maybe tomorrow gonna be better.
Yes, tomorrow gonna be better.
That’s for sure.
I wake up wrapped inside the coats. It feel proper warm and good.
Then I remember what happen the day before.
I never hear Magda shouting like that before. And no one here. No one come back to the house.
Thinking that make me sit up pretty quick and heavy I tell you. I never got awake that heavy in my heart before, not even when my sister Alice gone to live on Geraint’s farm.
This is ten times worse than that.
The fire nearly out now. I just sit there on the floor wrapped in all those coats. I guess my mouth been hanging open cos I’m staring at the fire but not really at it, sort of past it, and I can see my breath in the air and a thin line of light between the boards at the window cos a new day begun.
A picture of Geraint come into my head. It’s a picture of Geraint up on his pony laughing at my dad. For some reason I can see his short dirty fingers like they’re too big. They got to be the biggest thing about him in my headpicture.
Maybe I’m gonna go across the mountain to Geraint’s place. Sell some skins.
You’re dreaming, boy.
It’s the dog again.
But I don’t feel right about Geraint with that picture of him in my head. I’m not sure Geraint’s gonna welcome me with open arms if I turn up at his place either. A dark thought cross my mind. Maybe it all got something to do with him? Everyone being taken away I mean. Maybe he tell the government about my dad living up here without papers, or something proper bad, something bad that got a bit of truth mixed in with it.
My dad say he aint causing no harm. He says, if you’re gonna be a beacon of hope you got to be positive and not think negative thoughts.
He usually talk that kind of talk with Patrick when they’re curing the skins. Sometimes I think he’s talking to me with all that stuff but I act like I aint listening. That way he thinks I just been concentrating on scraping the skins cos if he thinks I been listening he’s gonna ask me a lot of stupid questions I aint gonna answer.
Patrick never say nothing much back. But he listen pretty good all the same. I reckon he know my dad’s head roundside about the amount of time they been spending together curing skins and my dad spouting on all the time like he do.
Patrick aint been with us for too long. He just turn up one spring day and say he want to stay. He virtually beg on his knees cos he been proper thin then and no warm clothes on his back. He just come right off the mountain. He say he been in the power plant at Wylfa. But he run away and then he find us all hidden up here. Which is lucky for Patrick cos I reckon a couple more days out on the Rhinog like that, and he’s gonna wake up dead.
But Patrick’s lucky in other ways too. Number one, he got here in the spring. Cos if he try running from Wylfa in the winter he’s gonna freeze for sure, and if he come here in the snow we aint gonna let him stay anyway.
Not after that family from the city come up here one winter mewling and begging.
You can’t afford to lose even one potato in a bad winter. That family, they just eat our food and then die anyway. When they die I think Magda put the baby out on the hillside cos I seen footsteps in the snow the next morning but I didn’t say nothing cos the baby been near starved and covered in sores and crying all the time after the woman died and we got no milk or nothing for it. Specially not in the winter. Sick baby you can’t do nothing for’s gonna drive you mad with its crying, I tell you that for a fact.
Anyway, after that the grown-ups decide there aint gonna be no charity no more. Not in the winter. You got to work for your share all summer if you want to stay. But Patrick, he come in the spring and everyone see he got big strong arms on him even though he got no fat left on his bones.
At first my dad want to know everything about the power plant and trouble stirring in the shanties. But Patrick don’t talk much about his life before. That’s the first thing you got to know about Patrick. Cos you’re gonna see from his frostbitten hands and the lines on his face that he want to forget all that kind of stuff. Patrick’s just gonna get on with hauling wood and trapping and cur- ing and that’s that.
But he listen to my dad talking. My dad say the government keep everyone blind by making them live in cold little boxes and not move anywhere without papers and send them off to work in the power plants or coal mines even if they don’t want to, just cos they manage to get an extra pair of gloves or a stick of wood. I guess he’s talking about Patrick then.
One time I hear Patrick say that after all the troubles, when lots of people die—government got even more control then and people start getting angry and my dad say yes, it’s cos the people got scared which make them angry, and they got guilty they made all the bad weather happen—and while they been scared and guilty and angry and busy digging themselves out of the snow, government been planning. And the government got all the money and the food and the medicine and the keys to the trucks and power lines and the juice just like it always was.
Dad says it was gonna happen anyway and we just got to learn to live different, and it don’t matter about all the oil and stuff especially now there aint so many of us. People just got to forget the government and learn to live different, and we’re all gonna be all right in the end when the snows stop.
That’s why he keep that picture, the one I told you about. I guess that’s the kind of thinking he read about in his book—but it’s just his thoughts so I don’t see no harm in that. Patrick say it aint gonna be long before they’re gonna come looking for people thinking like that. If we make it on our own up here, Patrick say, then more people gonna come from the shanties, and the government aint gonna like that one bit. Not one little bit.
We aint doing nothing wrong, but if someone like Geraint tell the government that my dad thinking like he do, I reckon they definitely gonna send up big trucks to find us. And like Patrick point out, it don’t matter how many trees growing in front of the house then.
I been getting cold sitting here on the floor. That dark thought about Geraint ratting on us don’t get any better with thinking it roundside about you see. A picture of his short dirty fingers pop back into my head. And then I start remembering about how Alice got a baby with him. And she only been fourteen.
Maybe this been how my dad feel all the time?
But if I get to Geraint’s farm maybe I can sneak in all quiet and stick it to him for ratting on us. Get him to tell me where Dad is. I sit up on my knees and stir up the fire. Soon it start to get going again and I put on my clothes. I left them hanging from a nail so they aint all freezing and damp but good and warm. Part of me wants to crawl back inside my nest on the floor, but I know I can’t do that today. The others are all gone and it’s the first day of me being number one. I aint never been number one.
I light a candle on the mantel. The kitchen look like it always do. The stones on the floor all worn by the pantry door, scrubbed so clean they almost shine. Big wooden table running along the wall and the benches pushed out like someone just got up. They even left the bowls and cups lying there like they been halfway through breakfast. One of the little spoons that Dad carve when the twins been born lying broken on the floor. I guess that been exactly what happen. The government trucks come and pull everyone out the house before they even finish eating.
I open the door to the pantry. Aint no one here to scold me: Get your hungry fingers out of there, Willo. The pantry got that smell it always got from the onions strung up from the ceiling and the barrel of salted butter and the herbs and potatoes—and if you been lucky a couple of hare.
Government people didn’t take none of our food by the look of it. Just the goats in the barn. Aint touched the big sack of oats and salt. They didn’t take nothing except goats and people. People without their coats.
Maybe that’s what Magda been shouting about so angry yesterday. Being taken away with no coat on this time of year. But she got quiet real quick. I didn’t see nothing cos I was still down by the river then. I just hear her shouting out.
Maybe the trucks gonna bring everyone back sometime when they see we aint doing nothing wrong?
A scary thing happen then. I just been standing in the pantry, thinking about my dad and everyone without their coats. I can see the light coming through cracks in the boards at the window.
And something pass by. I see a shadow block out the crack of light for a second. It just go past the window. All quiet and quick.
I blow out the candle.
Someone out there.
My heart beat so fast. I hear the blood rushing in my head.
Hide. Somewhere dark and safe. And make it quick. Whoever is out there, soon they’re going to be in here.
Dog always know what to do.
There’s a door that go up to the workroom above the kitchen. I get in quick cos I know it’s dark up there. And I don’t know if that shadow I seen at the window gonna be coming inside the house or not.
And I don’t know what that shadow gonna be like.
Hungry stealer with a heavy stick in his hand creeping about the house maybe. Sniffing me out. That’s why my dad got all the boards on the windows.
My head been drowning in a bucket of fear. I feel like I’m falling— legs just aint got nothing below them no more. Falling down forever into a dark icy sea.
Get up those stairs, boy.
The dog’s here to help me cos I’m tumbling in the freezing black and no arm to pull me out.
And I hear it now. At the door.
I stop breathing to listen and there it is—the front door open.
Footsteps in the passage.
I can see right in the room through the cracks in the door. I can see the glowing embers of the fire where I stir it up—anyone coming in gonna know someone been there. Maybe they’re gonna smell me and come sniffing right up to this door.
And me only two steps up the stairs.
My guts feel like they gonna empty out of me but I got to keep quiet.
I hear footsteps going away to the other end of the house. Scraping and banging. Crashing around in there.
I creep backward up the steps a bit more with a taste, salty like blood, in the back of my throat.
That’s right, aint it, dog?
Yes. Fast as fast can be on your long man legs. Fast as fast can be.
Upstairs, the workroom got tables along one side. And two big metal tubs for soaking skins in. I can see it all roundside in the dimness. But I aint looking at all that cos I realize pretty fast this room gonna trap me and I got to get up in the attic but my heart beating so fast and loud I can barely move.
Quiet I get up on the bench. I hope I’m gonna reach cos I aint the tallest after having no mum and the rest, but I reach up and I know I’m gonna make it then cos I feel that the ceiling aint as high as I think and I push the hatch up and over and hang on.
My arms feel like they gonna fall out hanging up there and that’s when I hear it downstairs in the room under me. It been in the kitchen underneath and I been hanging in the air with my arms exploding and my breath catching so hard.
I hear the stranger downstairs breathing too.
In my head I see him look about the room. Head turning one way then another. Smelling me. Looking at the fire and the coats on the floor.
That gruesome thought work good on my arms I tell you, and pretty quick I pull myself up through that hatch like a rat’s tail slipping in a hole. Pull the cover over quiet as I can. Face down above the ceiling, feeling my breath on the wattle. Whoever it is still pacing around down there. Then the pacing stop. I hear it.
The door been rattled.
I can hear the handle on the door shaking. And it open.
But the person coming up those steps aint worrying about creaking. In two seconds flat they come up those stairs. Now they been right underneath me. So close I can hear breathing—in and out—right under the hatch. Sniffing me out.
I hear a tinder strike.
A dim glow seep through a crack in the hatch. I reckon they lit a candle down there.
And I got to tell you.
I reckon I know that voice.
Sound a lot like Geraint.
Looking for stuff. Just like a stealer.
But he aint looking for me cos I hear him breathing loud and crashing about gathering stuff up. He’s huffin and puffin down there stealing stuff. Stealing my dad’s stuff. It take my dad nearly his whole life to get all that stuff. Tools like he got aint easy to get and Geraint’s just stealing it all.
Well I aint gone, Geraint. I’m still here. I’m right up above you and I hear your dirty short fingers poking around in my dad’s stuff.
You’re putting your dirty fingers in a clean bowl of milk. And if you do that, you’re gonna get it. You know it. You learn that pretty quick as a kid.
Don’t go putting your dirty fingers in the milk, Willo. Twins gonna get sick, and you’re gonna get a whipping.
Everyone know that right off.
So, Geraint. I’m gonna give you a whipping. I’m gonna get you. I squeeze my eyes closed, try not to think about what he’s doing. Cos now I aint scared—I’m about to JUMP DOWN THERE all angry.
The farmer’s got a gun and he’s twice as big as you. You just stay put in your dark hiding place. You can get him later. We can think about that later when he’s gone.
Dog come back. Just in time.
So I say my words to myself. In my head. Not like when I’m in my secret place on the Farngod. Got to say the words quiet now, just quiet in my head.
Big hares little hares
come into the circle
cos the dog gonna talk and tell you a story
bout the hill and the rock
and you scratch at the snow—
Coc! (Down below Geraint drop the candle—cos the light go out.)
—and dig yourself deep
when the wind and the eagle come.
But you aint gonna see me
with my trap and the wire—
Geraint ripping the boards off the window now.
—Big hares little hares
come into the circle
cos the dog gonna talk—
Something fall. I hear stubby hands scrabbling on the floor.
Geraint down there sticking his fingers in the milk.
But I know my words roundside about see, and saying them in my head stop me going mad and jumping right down there.
They really do.
After the Snow © S.D. Crockett 2012