The Snow Wind by Boris Pilniak
TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH BY
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
* * * * * * *
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
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
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.
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.
* * * * * * *
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.