Translated from the Japanese by Asa Yoneda

 

Translator’s Note

The first-person narrator of this story, like many of Motoya’s narrators, is very firmly stuck behind her idiosyncratic assumptions and expectations of the world. Of course, we all are. But as a self-confessed misanthrope, self-employed seasonal recluse, and – more importantly – a fictional narrator, she’s more free than most of us from the need to pretend otherwise.

I think of translating as involving both empathizing with and identifying with the voice of a piece. Most of the time, these two things are not so different. But if it’s challenging to empathize with the voice of a character who’s this self-absorbed and isolated, then, working to identify with it – and perpetuate its solipsism – is downright hazardous to the translator’s sense of self.

The whole point of translating is to make a piece more accessible, but what do I do if the voice I’m translating seems to alienate the reader without even trying? The more I identified with it, the less I found myself caring about the reader my words were supposed to reach. Regaining a sense of translator-ly purpose meant letting go a little, and trusting the voice to ‘speak through me’. It was tricky until I realized that I could do it without necessarily trusting her as well.

 

once lived with a whole lot of dogs.

I don’t recall their breed, which is strange, because we were close, and spent all that time together. I loved those dogs, and they loved me. There were dozens of them, each one bright white like freshly fallen snow. I spent my days warm and comfortable in a room with a fireplace, not seeing anyone. The dogs did ask to be let out, but I never once saw them doing their business – which was also strange, but at the time, I assumed that they were modest, and had set up some kind of toilet area away from the cabin. I didn’t like beds, so I slept standing up, leaning against the windowsill. The dogs would gather around me at night like an overcoat, leaving only my mouth and eyes exposed. I enjoyed drowsily gazing at the fire, drifting to sleep, with the heady feeling of being engulfed by the mass of dogs.

At the time, I had some work that I could do holed up in the cabin. It involved sitting at the desk in the attic from morning to night, peering into a magnifying glass, tweezering tiny pieces of paper of innumerable colours: work too mind-numbing for most people even to contemplate. For many years, come winter, I’d take several weeks’ worth of food and water and hide myself away in that cabin, which belonged to someone I knew.

The cabin consisted of a high-ceilinged living room, a small bedroom and an attic, but that was ample. When I first reached the isolated cabin, having driven inexpertly over the narrow, winding mountain roads, I was still on my own. I remember dropping the keys, and struggling to pick them up again while still holding all my luggage, because of the bulky scarf which covered half my face, preventing me from seeing my hands. Autumn had just ended. Towards the beginning of my stay I’d definitely gone to sleep alone, looking out the window each night and feeling as if I were at the bottom of a deep sea. Strangely enough, I don’t recall when the dogs started living there.

I loved all the dogs equally. At first, I made an effort to name each one of them, but that was short-lived because I never actually liked naming things. I was happy just looking into the glossy black of their eyes, which shone as though they’d been fired in a magic kiln. And after all, it wasn’t as if the dogs called me by name. But this got to be a little inconvenient, so I came up with some names to try out on them. I lined the dogs up in front of the fireplace, and told them to bark if they heard a name they liked. Then I held up the collars I’d fashioned and, looking into their eyes, called out the names one by one.

‘First up, Early Morning.’

Heh heh heh heh.

‘The Day the White Goods Arrived.’

Heh heh heh heh.

‘Pastrami.’

Heh heh heh . . . Yap!

The dog stuck his tongue out deferentially. I placed the collar marked pastrami around his neck.

‘The World.’

Heh heh heh heh.

‘Takeaway.’

Yap! Yap yap!

The dogs took care of their own meals as well. I surreptitiously let them out in the mountain woods, so they probably hunted animals as a pack. Once when I went for a walk among the trees, I found what looked like a bird’s skull at the bottom of a tree. I slipped the skull into my coat pocket and, when I returned to the cabin, I threw it at the dogs where they lay lounging. ‘Boo!’ I shouted. The dogs didn’t really react, but I thought that must be because they were ashamed that I knew they’d been eating birds. They never let me see them feed. What I did see them doing was drinking plenty of the very cold water that I got from the well behind the garage. I tried warming it for them so they didn’t catch a chill, but they wouldn’t touch that. For some reason, the dogs preferred flimsy plastic supermarket dishes to ceramic, wooden or glass. With their tongues hanging from their mouths, they drooled everywhere, but I didn’t worry about it too much – I just went around the cabin with my feet wrapped in plastic bags. They seemed to be at their most energetic just after drinking their ice-cold water.

One day, I drove down the mountain to replenish some food supplies, and came across a knot of people from the town, puffed up in woolly hats and down-filled jackets and gathered by the roadside.

I slowed down to see what was going on. Through the open car window I heard a voice saying something about a dog. My heart skipped a beat. The dog curled up in the passenger seat next to me began to raise his head as if he had sensed something, so I said ‘hush’ and held his round head down in my hand. He’d come nosing around my feet as I was getting in the car, so I’d brought him along.

The dogs’ heads just fitted in the palm of my hand, and I was always moved by how their little skulls were wrapped in soft fur. This helped me stay calm on this occasion, too, and I quietly rolled up the car window and slipped past the townspeople. Perhaps a dog had caused some kind of problem. In the supermarket, I kept my scarf wound twice around as usual, hiding half my face, to discourage the staff from approaching me. But when the shop assistant from the fruit and vegetable section looked into my basket and casually remarked, ‘Stockpiling All-Bran again?’, I plucked up my courage and asked, ‘Has something happened in town?’

The man looked a little taken aback – probably because I’d spoken at all. ‘A five-year-old boy’s gone missing,’ he whispered as he glanced around.

‘A child? Was it a kidnapping?’

‘Kidnapping? No, nothing like that would happen around here.’

‘Then what?’

‘Maybe he fell into the valley when his mother took her eyes off him.’

Suddenly, the bantering air of familiarity that had arisen between me and the shop assistant became unbearable, so I hurried away with my trolley. The dog, who’d apparently been asleep at the foot of the passenger seat, looked up at me blearily, and I gave his head a stroke. I swung by the petrol station. There was an elderly attendant there who would always try to strike up a conversation with me. I found it a bit of a trial, but it was the only petrol station in town.

I didn’t keep in touch with anyone. I’d always considered my only strengths to be that I was completely content not to talk to a single soul all day and that I had a high tolerance for monotony. The exception was the phone call I got once a week from a certain man. It’s conceivable that I allowed his phone calls to lull me into feeling that I’d discharged all my social obligations. Of the few people I’d met over the years, he was the only one I felt I could still confide in. We had no romantic feelings for each other, simply a relationship where we could say what we honestly thought. When I heard his voice, my shoulders would let go of some of their tension, like the knot in a firmly tied silk scarf loosening deep inside a forest, far from where people are. His speech was distinct, like an oiled egg popping out of his mouth.

There was no doubt he was a misanthrope, like me, but unlike me he had enough courtesy and presence of mind not to let it show. He was the one that let me use this cabin, and would always joke that it was because he wanted me to pursue the life he couldn’t. We often put our opinions to battle on the subject of whether it was better to distance ourselves from civilization or immerse ourselves in it, and when we tired of that we could hang up without a hint of awkwardness. He had a family. After our phone calls, I felt relieved at having fulfilled some minimal quota of human interaction, and comforted by the thought that he seemed to be making steady progress in the kind of life that was my ‘road not taken’.

There wasn’t a set time for our phone calls, but that day, like on others, I had a premonition that made me look up from my magnifying glass. I must have been engrossed in the work – though I thought I’d barely had a sip of my hot milk, five hours had passed since I’d come up to the attic. I put my tweezers down on their stand and got up from the chair, checking that none of the tiny pieces of coloured paper were stuck to my hands or clothes. Above the desk there was a window with two layers of glass, and I could see several dogs running around in the snow outside.

I descended the ladder with the empty Thermos and mug in one hand, and was warming up some more milk when the phone rang. Stirring the aluminium saucepan with a spoon, I reached over with my other hand and slowly lifted the receiver.

‘Hey,’ he said. ‘I hope you’re not suffering from isolation fatigue.’

No, I said, and asked whether he wasn’t suffering from socializing fatigue, to which he responded, of course I am.

‘You settled in your burrow? Anything giving you trouble?’

‘Plenty, but better that than convenience.’ I told him about the advantages of mountain life – the hairdryer blasting out hot air that was unbelievably cold, the paths that got buried in snow despite constant shovelling, the front door that I had to hurl my body against when it jammed, the hunks of snow that fell into the fireplace and sent ash flying everywhere.

He said, ‘That’s why I never go there in winter. I don’t know how you stand it. After living like that, are you really going to want to come back down when spring comes?’

I informed him I’d been down to the town just today, thank you very much, then asked him never to speak of spring again, because I didn’t want to think about it. That brought the afternoon’s events back to mind, so I told him about the huddle of townspeople I’d come across. ‘There might have been some kind of incident down there.’

‘An incident? Wonder what, in such a nowhere town.’

I was reluctant to tell him more. I didn’t want him to latch on to it and start looking it up in the papers or on the Internet. I stopped stirring the saucepan and looked over to the dogs stretched out in the living room. Sprawled on the rugs like white sausages, they acted unconcerned, but I could tell they were a little unsettled by my being on the phone, like a jealous boyfriend. I guess my demeanour changed lightly during these phone calls. At that moment, it occurred to me that I could ask him about them. Why hadn’t I thought of this before? They might have been his dogs.

‘Hey, about those little white fellows,’ I said.

‘Those ones?’ he asked back.

‘Yeah. They’re doing really well.’

There was a pause. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Here, not so much, but I did spot some of those little white fellows by the road today. Although maybe they weren’t so white. Most of them are black now, with all the gravel and the dirt.’

‘Is that so?’ I wondered whether black dogs were really more common in cities.

‘Plus, the black fellows aren’t doing so well. All melting and deformed, more or less on their last legs.’

I cut off his laughter. ‘You really don’t know?’

‘Know what?’

He wasn’t playing dumb. But for some reason now, I didn’t find it strange in the slightest that he didn’t know about the dogs. One of them came up to me and pressed his fluffy coat against my shin. I knelt down and rubbed his sides like I was giving him a good scrub, and just said, ‘I’ll tell you next time.’

‘Sure,’ he replied, as though to say he was used to my crotchety ways.

After that, we chatted about nothing in particular, and I got through two mugfuls of hot milk. As we were about to hang up, he asked whether I’d seen the weather forecast. I reminded him there was no civilization up here, and he told me, laughing, that there was going to be a fierce chill invading over the weekend.

One day, I decided to surprise the dogs in the woods, and followed them in secret when they went out to play. Once I was holed up in my workroom with the Thermos, they knew I wouldn’t be back out for a few hours, so they would start to disperse. They each had their favourite spot. Some liked to be just outside the door to my workroom, and others to lie on the clothes strewn around the bedroom and the living room, but most of the dogs seemed to be happier in the outside world.

I put on sunscreen to protect against snow burn, and some mirrored sunglasses and an anorak, and left the house. I traced the dogs’ footprints through the bare trees, and revelled in my afternoon stroll. Picking up a branch that I liked the look of, I drew meandering lines in the bright snow as I walked, occasionally swapping the branch for another when I encountered a better one.

The dogs’ prints were almost always all in a bunch. They were basically toddling along the least arduous path. Every so often, a set of tracks diverged from the rest, but then shortly came back to rejoin the group. I thought they must hunt as a team, like wolves.

Before I knew it, I was on a path that I’d never been on before. I looked over to a clump of trees, and saw one dog peeking through them from behind a bank of snow. His eyes were wide, and he was only visible from the nose up. I waved my branch number five, which was curled like a spring, removed my sunglasses and said, ‘I followed you. Is everyone over there? May I join you?’

The dog got lightly to his feet and barked. Then he turned on his heels and ran off. I advanced into the clump of trees through knee-high snow, calling after him, ‘Should I not have come?’ Feeling like a parent secretly checking on whether my children were doing their homework, and suppressing a grin, I looked out from behind a great tree.

I was astonished to see where they were: on a large frozen lake. I hadn’t known it was here, but there the dogs were, stepping with a practised air across the lake, which was big enough to hold several games of baseball at once. It was as if a ready-made dog park, sculpted by nature, had suddenly appeared before my eyes.

The dogs seemed to have no idea I was behind the tree, and were scattered in all directions. I tried to get closer to see what they were up to, but the ice at the water’s edge was thin, and far too treacherous. I stayed where I was and squinted at the dogs beginning to jump up and down. At first, they only jumped up about as high as they were tall. Gradually their time in the air seemed to increase, until all of a sudden, they were jumping so high that they could have cleared the head of a person standing. It seemed that they were each trying to make a hole in the ice. Their front paws made digging movements, trying to break through the surface. Before long, each dog succeeded in making its hole, and jumped swiftly into the water. When the last one had dived in, they were nowhere to be seen, as if they’d melted away.

One of them poked its head out of its hole in the ice and sounded a short, sharp cry. It’s drowning and calling for help, I thought in alarm, but in the next moment another dog stuck its head out of the freezing water, in a different spot, and made the same bird-like cry. Then more dogs popped their heads out from the ice, repeating the cry. It dawned on me what was going on. Swimming as a pack, the dogs were forming a large circle under the ice. And, using their cries, they were slowly closing the circle towards its centre. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. I walked around the lake, and when I found an area where the ice seemed thick enough to hold me, I leapt onto it. Using my gloves like windscreen wipers, I scraped away the frost and peered through the ice.

The only thing I could see was grey muddiness at the bottom of the lake.

I made my way back to the cabin alone, picturing the image of the dogs gracefully chasing fish through clear water.

That weekend, I woke to the morning I’d always wished for, when every last thing in the world seemed to have frozen over. The All-Bran I kept in the cupboard was in clumps so hard it was like eating hail, and seeing the icicles protruding from the roof was like having been transported overnight to a grotto filled with stalactites.

Once I’d put on as many layers as I could, shivering all the while, I took an empty bucket and shovel and headed to the garage. The dogs scampered around me, keeping close to my feet as if to hurry me along. By the time I reached the garage, taking three or four times longer than usual, my whole body was emitting heat, and sweat was pouring out of me like I was in a sauna.

I made sure the generator’s battery indicator was green. I checked how many litres of diesel fuel were left, then decided to dig out some more snow tools. I discovered some emergency tubes of chocolate, years past their ‘use-by’ date. Finally, I took some old, dusty blankets and went around to the back of the garage. I looked down into the well, and a solemn chill plastered my face, like sticky children’s hands. The extreme cold had formed a miniature ice rink in there.

‘What shall we do?’ I asked the dogs behind me. ‘Can’t get you any water.’

The one with the collar marked pastrami tried to climb up onto the well, scrabbling with his paws. ‘Get off!’ I told him, and decided to do what I could about the frozen pulley at least.

I brought out a chisel and a mallet from the garage, and as I pounded like a blacksmith, with all my might, the frozen rope finally started to give. I took hold of the rope with both hands and gave it a hard tug, and the layer of ice that had formed over the mechanism came away with a clatter as the pulley quickly began to turn.

That was when it happened. Pastrami leapt up onto the well, somehow got into the bucket, and disappeared down the hole, looking pleased with himself. ‘Pastrami!’ I shouted, but it was too late. Pastrami was yapping and rolling around in anguish at the bottom, having slammed onto the thick ice. Frantic, I worked the rope, raising and lowering the bucket that had fallen with him, trying to get him to jump back in it, but the bewildered dog could hardly stand up on the ice. ‘Go get help!’ I called to the dogs crowded behind me. I heard the footfalls of several dogs running off. I leaned into the well and stretched my arm down, shouting ‘Pastrami! Pastrami!’, but the yapping cries reverberating up the well were overwhelming and I couldn’t keep my eyes open. When I came to after some time, I was slumped by the edge of the well. Pastrami’s cries had ceased, as had the sound of his forepaws scraping at the ice.

‘What should I do if an animal jumps into the well?’ I asked.The power lines had gone down under the weight of snow, and it was late at night before I got through to him on the phone. ‘Animal in the well?’ he said, a little sleepily.

‘Yeah.’ I was wrapped in old blankets from the garage. I’d tried to keep my mind occupied all afternoon, chopping firewood and doing other things, but when night fell, I suddenly felt completely drained, and found myself unable even to stand up. The dogs stayed close by me through the day, like watchdogs.

‘Actually, I did find something like a weasel drowned in it once.’

‘Was it winter?’

‘Summer.’

‘Then that’s a different situation.’

‘I think I got someone from the town to get it out. I could give you the number. What is it? A raccoon?’

I told him that I couldn’t really tell because it was all the way at the bottom. He suggested it might be dangerous, and that I should just put the cover back on and leave the animal there. Wolves sometimes prowled the area looking for food, he said. He would come by with his family on his next day off to take care of it. My mind kept replaying Pastrami trying to jump up into the well bucket, and I was terribly tired, so I told him that I wanted to go to bed now. If you ever feel in real danger, he began, then went on to tell me how to unlock the cupboard in the bedroom, which he’d never let me touch before. The emergency hunting rifle was hidden in there. I told him I had no need for such a thing, and hung up. I pulled myself together and made some food, but could only eat a bite and left the rest.

I was checking that the draughty living-room window was properly closed, when I thought I heard the faint cry of a dog. I raised my head. Was it the wind howling? With a storm lamp and a shovel, and with the other dogs in tow, I made my way through the snow towards the well.

The bucket was rattling against the pulley as the wind blew. I stopped a few paces from the well and raised the lamp. ‘Pastrami?’ I said in a small voice, almost to myself. ‘Pastrami?’

I thought I heard the keening cry of a dog in distress.

‘Pastrami, are you alive?’ I called again.

This time I could definitely make out the dog crying. I flung myself towards the well – which I’d fled from that afternoon – put my hands on the edge, and looked into it. In the lamplight I could see Pastrami, getting up on the ice! I left the lamp and the dogs, retrieved a chainsaw from the garage and returned to the cabin. I sawed off the ladder that led to the attic, getting showered in sawdust, and loaded it on the red sledge that I used for transporting firewood. Once I was back at the well, with the aid of some of the dogs, I lowered the ladder into the well, careful not to break the ice, and called the dog’s name. ‘Pastrami.’ I wanted him to take hold of the ladder somehow. But Pastrami only looked up at me with his tongue hanging out, and wouldn’t make a move.

The ice at the base of the well seemed thick, and gave no sign of cracking when I tapped the ladder on it. I screwed up my courage, and tentatively climbed over the edge, and gingerly stepped onto the ladder. Slowly, cautiously, I descended. Pastrami wagged his tail weakly as I approached. Just as I’d put one foot on the ice and reached for Pastrami, there was the slight cracking sound of something giving way, and all the blood drained out of my body. With bated breath, I coaxed the stone-cold hunk of fur down into the front of my jacket. I put my hand on the ladder to climb back up, but stopped short – the other dogs had surrounded the rim of the well, and were staring down at us, motionless.

One dog moved its mouth clumsily just as the wind howled again. I thought I heard the dog say, ‘Good enough.’ Terrified, I found myself on the verge of laughter, almost simpering. ‘Good enough?’ I said. ‘For what?’

Beyond the still forms of the dogs looking down at us, I saw clouds being blown across the sky. Pastrami, who had been keeping still inside my jacket, yapped, as though remembering that he was a dog.

It was a pain having to go down the mountain, but he was adamant about keeping stocked on certain things. I made up my mind to go to town for the first time in a week. I don’t know how he knew, but when I got to the garage, Pastrami was waiting beside the car door, looking fully recovered and eager to come along.

I considered taking him, but decided against it. ‘No, stay home,’ I said. After what I’d seen last time, I thought it better to leave him behind. I drove down the mountain roads carefully, and saw that Christmas decorations were up all around town. It must be that time of year already. As I looked around, feeling the ache of old injuries from festive gatherings past, I noticed that something was a little off.

It was people’s expressions – they seemed haggard, somehow. Not to mention their little tics like they were in fear of something, constantly glancing behind themselves. That elderly person sitting on a bench had the puffy face of someone who’d been up crying all night. There were few cars on the road, and every house had its curtains drawn. Was I imagining it? Even the overly cheerful Christmas decorations gave the impression that the town was desperately trying to avert its eyes from something upsetting.

The shop assistant in the fruit and vegetable section wasn’t around. Normally, I’d have been relieved, but this time it bothered me so I asked the woman restocking the frozen foods what had happened. ‘Yes, that boy – he quit.’ Quit? All of a sudden? The woman gave me a long look. I thought I detected wariness and irritation in her eyes and quickly walked away. For some reason, the dog food had been moved, even though the cat food was still in the same place. I thought about asking where they’d put it, but I didn’t feel like engaging that woman again, and left the supermarket. The older man at the petrol station with whom I always exchanged a few words wasn’t
there, either.

‘Is he not working today?’ I asked the young attendant in the Santa hat as he handed me my change. I’d got him to put a plastic container of diesel in the boot for me.

‘Mm-hm,’ he nodded, ambiguously. There it was again. Each time I mentioned someone who wasn’t there, I could sense irritation rise in the townspeople’s eyes.

I was absorbed in a poster for a Christmas party – forget all your troubles! – when I felt the young man staring at me. ‘He said I could ask him if I ever needed anything. I was counting on it,’ I said, almost to myself.

‘Let me know if there’s anything I can do,’ said the young man, batting away the pompom on his Santa hat.

‘Do you mean that? I might take you up on it.’ I hoped my eagerness to get back up the mountain wasn’t showing on my face.

‘Sure,’ he said, nodding, and trotted inside to the cash register to bring me a pale pink flyer. ‘The charges for the services are all on here, if you’d like to take it with you.’

I thanked him, and rolled up the window, but one more thing was weighing on my mind. I rolled the window back down and asked offhandedly, ‘Do you deal with dogs?’

‘Dogs?’ he said. There was a pause, and he pointed at the bottom of the flyer. ‘You can see about dogs at the bottom there.’

I escaped from the petrol station.

Outside the police station, as I stopped for a red light, I was contemplating the sign in large print on the noticeboard – for the good of the town, they’ve got to be put down – when the lorry behind me blasted its horn.

After that, I spent most of my waking hours at my desk, because I really had to knuckle down to my work. It required bottomless reserves of concentration. Several jobs were already complete and framed, and lined up along the attic wall, but even when I looked at those, I didn’t understand in the slightest what made people want to pay so much for them. But there was no need for me to understand. The thing that mattered was that having this work let me avoid dealing with people. But the more progress I made, the more time I spent dreading when I would have to leave this place.

I was having a leisurely soak in the bath for the first time in a while, feeling good about the amount of work I’d accomplished, when it occurred to me that I hadn’t had a phone call in a few days. When I looked at the calendar in the kitchen, it was four days past Tuesday, when he always rang. I checked the time, which was only eight at night, and decided to ring him myself. No answer. No matter how many times I tried, I didn’t even get through to the answering machine. Had something happened? He was conscientious, not like me. When he’d had appendicitis, he’d left me a message letting me know he’d be in surgery and wouldn’t be answering his phone for eight hours – that was the kind of person he was. It could be that the phone had actually rung, many times, and I’d been too engrossed in the work to notice. I checked the calendar again, and was taken aback. It was the 31st of December!

I decided to do something about the draught from the living room window before the arrival of the new year, and so I got some putty and pressed it into the window frame. Then I noticed the pale pink flyer on the floor beneath the coat rack. I sat down on the sofa with the dogs and looked through the list of services available, just in case. It looked like they could take care of most things. The prices seemed a little high, but I could see myself calling them in an emergency. There was no entry for ‘Retrieval of animals in wells’, although there was one for ‘Recovery of dead birds in chimneys’. Further down, the item ‘Dog walking’ had been heavily crossed out. I recalled the exchange with the young man at the petrol station. The last item on the list was even more mysterious.

‘Extermination of dogs.’

Perhaps they meant feral dogs, I thought, as I stroked the heads of the white dogs. But surely that sort of thing would normally be left to the public health department. I suddenly remembered the strange snow tools, like big sharp forks, that I’d seen propped beside the winter tyres at the petrol station. What could they have been for? The dog I was petting pricked up its ears, barked menacingly and leapt onto the flyer, ripping it to shreds. ‘Stop it!’ I said, but then the other dogs caught the scent of the paper and, crouching down ready to pounce, started howling and growling like they’d gone mad. Yap yap, yap yap yap!

I calmed them down, got up from the sofa and thought I’d try ringing him again. But for some reason, I already knew he wouldn’t answer, and instead I dialled the number for my parents’ place, which I hadn’t done in a long time. No one picked up, despite it being New Year’s Eve. Just to make sure, I tried the police. No response. The fire brigade. No response. I dialled every number I could think of, but all I heard was the phone ringing, over and over.

I got my jacket from the coat rack, and with car keys in hand headed to the garage. The dogs followed and tried to get in the car. I told them I was just going down to have a look around the town, but this didn’t satisfy them. You want to come too? Yap yap! But I can’t take all of you! Yap yap yap! The dogs went on barking as if they were broken.

It took an hour to walk down to the foot of the mountain, white dogs in tow. When I got there the town was deserted, just as I’d expected.

There were still Christmas decorations everywhere, so it might have been more than a week since the townspeople had gone. Walking around, I heard pet dogs crying from inside their houses, so I prised open the doors and let them loose, but the white dogs didn’t respond to them in the slightest. The newly freed dogs ran off in a flash, as if to get away from the white dogs as quickly as they could. I spent a long time wandering around the town, and ascertained that there wasn’t a single person there. At the petrol station, I found the words our town sloppily spray-painted on a wall. our town. I gathered as much food and fuel as I could carry, and headed back to the cabin with the dogs, glancing behind me the whole way.

The following day, I sat and worked in the attic with the magnifying glass and tweezers, and went walking with the dogs over the snowy slopes when I needed a break. There was no sign of anyone approaching the cabin. I spent the next day the same way, and again the day after that. Watching the white dogs hunt, swimming gracefully under the ice, I could be engrossed for hours. When I ran out of food, I went down to the town and procured what I wanted from the unattended shops. I slowly became dingy and faded, but the dogs stayed as white as fresh snow.

One day, while I was watching them play in the snow from the attic window, I took the hunting rifle from the cupboard and let off three shots in their direction. The dogs stiffened in a way I’d never seen them do before, looked towards me and then scattered into the mountain as though to meld into the glistening snow. The day hinted at the arrival of spring.

I leaned out of the window and yelled, ‘Sorry!’ at the top of my voice. ‘I won’t do that again! Come home!’

That night, as the snow fell silently, I slept standing by the windowsill huddled with the dogs, who had come back. As I revelled in the sensation of being buried in their warm flesh, I thought – I’ll be leaving this place tomorrow.

 

Artwork © Catherine Anyango

 

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