The Snow Wind by Boris Pilniak

TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH BY

F. O'DEMPSEY

A cruel, biting blizzard swept across the snow; over the earth moved misty, fantastic clouds, that drifted slowly across the face of a pale troubled moon. Towards night-fall, the wolves could be heard in the valley, howling a summons to their leader from the spot where the pack always assembled.

The valley descended sharply to a hollow thickly overgrown with red pines. Thirteen years back an unusually violent storm had swept the vicinity, and hurled an entire pine belt to the ground. Now, under the wide, windy sky, spread a luxuriant growth of young firs, while little oaks, hazels, and alders here and there dotted the depression.

Here the leader of the wolf-pack had his lair. Here for thirteen years his mate had borne his cubs. He was already old, but huge, strong, greedy, ferocious, and fearless, with lean legs, powerful snapping jaws, a short, thick neck on which the hair stood up shaggily like a short mane and terrified his younger companions.

This great, gaunt old wolf had been leader for seven years, and with good reason. By day he kept to his lair. At night, terrible and relentless, he prowled the fields and growled a short summons to his mates. He led the pack on their quests for food, hunting throughout the night, racing over plains and down ravines, ravening round farms and villages. He not only slew elks, horses, bulls, and bears, but also his own wolves if they were impudent or rebellious. He lived—as every wolf must live—to hunt, to eat, and to breed.

In winter the snow lay over the land like a dead white pall, and food was scarce. The wolves sat round in a circle, gnashed their teeth, and wailed long and plaintively through the night, their noses pointed at the moon.

Five days back, on a steep slope of the valley not far from the wolf track to a watering place, and close to a belt of young fir-trees surrounded by a snow-topped coppice, some men from a neighbouring farm had set a powerful wolf-trap, above which they had thrown a dead calf. On their nocturnal prowls the wolves discovered the carcase. For a long time they sat round it in the grey darkness, howling plaintively, hungrily gnashing their fangs, afraid to move nearer, and each one timidly jostling the other forward with cruel vicious eyes.

At last one young wolf's hunger overcame his fear; he threw himself on the calf with a shrill squeal, and after him rushed the rest, whining, growling, raising their tails, bending their bony backs, bristling the hair on their short thick necks—and into the trap fell the leader's mate.

They paid no attention to her, but eagerly devoured the calf, and it was only when they had finished and cleared away all traces of the orgy that they realised the she-wolf was trapped there for good.

All night she howled and threw herself about, saliva falling from her dripping jaws, her eyes rolling wildly and emitting little sparks of green fire as she circled round and round on a clanking chain. In the morning two farm-hands arrived, threw her on their sleigh and drove away.

The leader remained alone the whole day. Then, when night again returned, he called his band together, tore one young wolf to pieces, rushed round with lowered head and bristling hair, finally leaving the pack and returning to his lair. The wolves submitted to his terrible punishment, for he was their chief, who had seized power by force, and they patiently awaited his return, thinking he had gone on a solitary food-hunt.

But as the night advanced and he did not come, they began to howl their urgent summons to him, and now there was an undercurrent of menace in their cries, the lust to kill, for the code of the wild beasts prescribed only one penalty for the leader who deserted his pack—death!

II

All through that night, and the following days and nights, the old wolf lay immovable in his lair. At last, with drooping head, he rose from his resting-place, stretched himself mournfully, first on his fore-paws, then on his hind-legs, arched his back, gnashed his fangs and licked the snow with his clotted tongue. The sky was still shrouded in a dense, velvety darkness: the snow was hard, and glittered like a million points of white light. The moon—a dark red orb—was blotted over with ragged masses of inky clouds and was fast disappearing on the right of the horizon; on the left, a crimson dawn full of menace was slowly breaking. The snow-wind blew and whistled overhead. Around the wolf, under a bleak sky, were fallen pines and little fir trees cloaked with snow.

He moved up to a lone, naked waste above the valley, emerged from the wood, and stood with lowered head by its border, listening and sniffing. Here the wind blew more strongly, the trees cracked and groaned, and from the wide dark expanse of open country came a sense of dreary emptiness and bitter cold.

The old wolf raised his head, pointed his nose, and uttered a prolonged howl. There was no answer. Then he sped to the watering place and to the river, to the place where his mate had perished.

He loped along swiftly, noiselessly, crouching on the earth, unnoticeable but for his glistening eyes, which made him terrible to encounter suddenly.

From a hill by the riverside a village could be descried, its mole- like windows already alight, and not far distant loomed the dark silhouette of a lonely farm.

The wolf prowled aimlessly through the quiet, snow-covered fields. Although it was a still, dark night, the blue lights of the approaching dawn proclaimed that March had already come. The gale blew fiercely and bitingly, driving the snow in swirls and spirals before it.

All was smooth at the place where the trap had been set; there was not a trace of the recent death, even the snow round the trap had been flattened out. The very scent of the she-wolf had been almost entirely blown away. The wolf again raised his head and uttered a deep, mournful howl; the moonlight was reflected in his expressionless eyes, which were filled with little tears, then he lowered his head to the earth and was silent.

A light twinkled in the farm-house windows. The wolf went towards it, his eyes gleaming with vicious green sparks. The dogs scented him and began a loud, terrified barking. The wolf lay in the snow and howled back loudly. The red moon was swimming towards the horizon, and swift murky clouds glided over it. Here by the river-side, and down at the watering-place, in the great primeval woods and in the valleys, this wolf had lived for thirteen years. Now his mate lay in the yard of yonder farm-house. He howled again. A man came out into the yard and shouted savagely, thinking a pack of wolves were approaching.

The night passed, but the wolf still wandered aimlessly, his broad head drooping, his ferocious eyes glaring. The moon sank, slanting and immense, behind the horizon, the dawn-light increased, a universal murmuring filled the air, shadowy vistas of pine-trees, firs and frowning ravines began to open up in all directions. The morning glow deepened into rivers and floods of delicate, interchanging colour. Under the protean play the snow changed its dress to lilac. The wolf withdrew to its lair.

By the fallen pine trees where grew delicate green firs, fat, clumsy little cubs, born earlier in the spring, played among the cones and the belt of young spruces that guarded the entrance to their lair.

III

The morning came, its clear blue bringing an assurance that it was March to those desolate places lying in lonely grandeur beneath a smiling sky. It whispered that the winter was passed and that spring had come. Soon the snow would melt and the sodden earth would throb and pulse with vernal activity, and it would be impossible not to rejoice with Nature.

The snow thickened into a grey shining crust under the warm rays of the sun, to deepen into blue where the shadows fell. The fir-trees, shaggy and formidable, seemed especially verdant and welcoming to the tide of sunlight that flowed to their feet, and lay there collected in the little hollows about their roots. The woodpecker could be heard amidst the pines, and daws, tomtits and bullfinches carolled merrily as they spread their wings and preened their plumage in the sun. The pines exhaled their pungent, resinous, exhilarating odour.

The wolf lay under cover all day. His bed was bestrewn with decaying foliage and overgrown with moss. He rested his head on his paws, gazing solemnly before him with small tear-stained eyes; he lay there motionless, feeling a great weariness and melancholy. Around him was a thick cluster of firs overspread with snow.

Twice the old wolf raised his head, opened his jaws wide and gave a bitter plaintive whine; then his eyes grew dim, their ferocity died down, and he wagged his tail like a cub, striking a thick branch a sharp blow with it. Then again he relapsed into melancholy immobility.

At last, as the day declined, as the naming splendour of the dying sun sailed majestically towards the west and sank beneath the horizon in a glory of spilled violets and purples, and as the moon uprose, a huge, glowing lantern of light, the old wolf for the first time showed himself angry and restless. He emerged from his cover and commenced a loud howling, fiercely bristling his hair; then he sat on his hind-legs and whined as though in great pain, again, as if driven wild by this agony, he began to scatter and gnaw at the snow. Finally at a swift pace, and crouching, he fled into the fields, to the neighbourhood of the farm near which the wolf-traps were laid.

Here it was dark and cold, the snow-wind rose afresh, harsh and violent, and the crusted snow cut the animal's feet. The last scent of the she-wolf, which he had sniffed only the previous day, had completely disappeared. In some remote part of the valley the pack were howling in rage and hunger for their leader.

Tossing himself about and howling, the old wolf rushed madly over hill and hollow. The night passed; he dashed about the fields and valleys, went down to the river, ran into the deep fastness of the forest and whined ferociously, for there was nothing left for him to do. He had lived to eat and to breed. Man, by an iron trap, had severed him from the law; now he knew only death awaited him.

* * * * * * *

IV

While it was yet quite dark, a farm-hand rose from his warm bed to go to the village on business. He put on a wadded jacket and fur-lined cap, lighted a pipe—the glow illuminating his pock-marked hands—and went out into the yard. The dogs leaped round him, uttering timid cowardly whines. He grinned, kicked them aside, and opened the gate.

Outside darkness had descended softly from the heavens, and lovingly overspread a tired world; greenish clouds floated through the blue- black sea of naked space and the snow gleamed greyish blue beneath a turbid moon. The keen snow-wind swept the ground in a fury of white swirls.

The man glanced up at the sky, whistled, and strode off to the village at a brisk swinging pace. He did not mark a wolf stealing along close by the road and running on ahead of him. But when he was near the village he came to a sudden halt. There, on the road in front of him, a huge, lean, much-scarred wolf sat on its hind legs by a crossway. With hideous, baleful green eyes it watched his approach. The man whistled, and waved his arm. The wolf did not stir: its eyes grew dim for a moment; then lighted up again with a cruel ferocious glare.

The man struck a match and took a few steps forward: still the wolf did not stir. Then the man halted, the smile left his face, and he looked anxiously about him. All around stretched fields, the village was yet in the distance. He made a snow-ball and flung it ingratiatingly at the wolf. The brute remained still, only champing its jaws and bristling the hair on its neck.

A moment the man remained there; then turned back. He walked slowly at first; then he began to run. Faster and faster he flew; but, as he neared his farm, he beheld the wolf again on the road before him. It was once more sitting on its haunches, and it licked its dripping jaws. Now terror seized the unfortunate peasant. He shouted; then wheeled, and ran back blindly. He shrieked wildly as he ran—mad with fear, unaware what he was doing. There was a death-like hush over the snow-laden earth that lay supine beneath the cloud-ridden moon. The frenzied man alone was screaming.

Gasping, staggering, with froth on his lips, he reached the village at last. There stood the wolf! He dashed from the road tossing his arms, uttering hoarse terrified cries; his cap had fallen off long before, his hair and red scarf were streaming in the wind. Behind him came the relentless pad, pad of the wolf; it's hot, fetid breath scorched the nape of his neck; he could hear it snapping its jaws. He stumbled, lurched forward, fell: as he was about to lift himself from the deep spongy snow, the wolf leaped upon him and struck him from behind—a short, powerful blow on the neck.

The man fell—to rise no more! A moment, and then his horrible choking cries had ceased. Through the vastness rang the wolf's savage, solitary howling.

V

At dusk when the snow-wind was rushing through the darkness of the night—a wild turbulent cataract of icy air—the wolf-pack gathered together in the valley and howled. They were calling for a leader.

The sky spread above them, wan and pallid, the wind moaned and whistled through the feathery tops of the pine-trees. Amid the snow the wolves sat in a circle on their haunches and howled dismally. They were hungry and had not eaten for six days; their leader had deserted them. He who had led them on their hunts and prowls, who seven years back had killed their former leader and established his own chieftainship, had now left them forlorn.

Sitting in a circle, howling with gleaming eyes and bristling hair, they were mournful yet vicious; like helpless slaves they did not know what to do. Only one young wolf, a brother of the one their leader had recently killed, strutted about independently and gnashed his teeth, conscious of his strength and agility. In the pride of his youthful vigour he had conceived the ambition to make himself the leader; he certainly had no thought that this was a fatal step entailing in the end his doom. For it is the Law of the Pack that death is meted out to the usurper of power. He commenced to howl proudly, but the others paid no heed, they only drooped their heads and howled in fear and trembling.

Gradually the dawn broke. Faint and silvery, the moon was sinking through pale, luminous veils in the west; in the east there glowed a fierce red light like that of a camp fire. The sky was still shrouded in darkness, the snow glimmered a cold pallid blue in the half-light.

The old wolf, fresh from his kill, slowly descended the valley where his pack had gathered. At sight of his grey, gaunt form they rushed forward to meet him, and as they ran none seemed to know what was about to happen; they advanced fawning and cringing until the young wolf, with a savage squeal, dared to throw himself upon the leader in a sudden fierce attack: then they all suddenly remembered his desertion of them, their law which demands death for its infringement, and with glistening bared teeth they too flung themselves upon him. He made no resistance. He died and was torn to pieces which, with his bones, were quickly devoured.

* * * * * * *

VI

The leader died seven days after the death of his mate.

A week later, beneath a golden sun and a smiling blue sky, the snow was melting, cleansing the earth for the breath of spring. Streamlets became abundant, twining like shining ribbons of molten light through the fields and valleys, the river grew swollen and turbid, becoming a fierce impassable flood, and the little fir trees grew still more feathery and verdant.

The young wolf, like the old one before him, now became leader and took a mate; she was the daughter of the old leader, and she went into the cover to breed.