Saturday, 29 December 2012

Desert Wolves

After they watch the last of the rockets disperse in an orange blaze smeared like a false dawn on the horizon, they climb down the sand dunes. Their footsteps produce a susurrus, sliding this way and that. Several times they stop to empty out the grains from their socks and shoes.

While they are doing so, at one of their many halts near the bottom of a red dusted ravine, there is a sound of something moving atop it, causing little spills of sand to roll down from the crest. Tiny streams that sprinkle the shoulders of their jackets as the listen.

They turn and scan the line of the sky as it presses against the dune but they can make out nothing except for the stars. Any light from the rockets is long gone.

“A fox?” says E..

“Perhaps,” replies the other, as he wipes his face with one hand and grimaces, feeling the grit his fingers leave behind, “better than if it was a wolf,” he says with a laugh.

“A wolf?” repeats E. “What would a wolf be doing out here in the desert? Watching Mughal rockets?”

The other man laughs again, but with less ease. “There are wolves in the desert,” he cautions, “Truly, not like there are in the forests, but a few have been seen.” He shakes his head, “Not like in the forest where they are many.”

“Are there many? Still?” E. is skeptical. He’s seen the old faded pelts that are hung in the market, moth-eaten whole heads lolling in death. Paws that haven’t known movement and the chase for decades if not centuries.

“Yes, they’ve never been hunted to decimation like they were on the steppes - not for a long time. And even then, they were like fleas it is said, so thick that the khans couldn’t kill them quick enough, and who lost an army of horsemen in trying. Now - who knows?” His friend shrugs, round shoulders rising and falling in the starlight. “But I used to have to travel east. Sometimes west. In both directions the train runs first south and then turns along the edge of the mountains where the steppe becomes level and there are no sand storms to bury the tracks. Well, in all directions the forest is total, until one reaches the mountains themselves, of course. And amid the trees, the tracks have been laid out straight and go on for miles and miles. Hard to imagine how busy the foresters once were. Or how many were lost to the wolves.”

“Better than to raiders from the steppes, though,” E. says.

“Yes, better than bandits, but there are wolves aplenty. I’ve seen them myself, loping alongside the train for mile after mile,” says the smaller man with an involuntarily shake. “Their eyes are yellow. And at night, it’s all you can see! Or that’s what you think anyway, when you peer outside your window having been awoken, or God help you - should the train be forced off onto a siding to let another train pass, or to remove a downed tree - and of those their are many, as many or more than the wolves, to be cleared from the tracks. Or simply to let the engines rest for they are old trains mostly, and the distance is great. It is then that you see them, eyes like rush lights or djinn staring into the coaches from out the forest.”

“Why would they follow the train?” asks E.. He looks at the smaller man with his skeptical expression plain on his face as both crane their necks trying to listen to yet another outbreak of nocturnal scrambling from somewhere above them. “I’d have expected them to stay clear of all that. They’re shy creatures really, and I can’t imagine why you would think they’d actually follow a train. I would say that’s just your imagination. Fireflies perhaps, or sparks from the funnel.”

“Ah, well you see, when the line was first laid, it was principally for carrying passengers of a particular sort: convicts and prisoners from the Great War. And convicts and prisoners, especially when wounded or suffering from disease as they always are, contracted after if not before they are herded first into unsanitary camps and later into even less spacious and less sanitary quarters - if that is possible - when they are forced onto the narrow carriages like famished cattle - tend to die either of disease, malnutrition, heat, or cold, depending on the season, or from trying to escape. In such conditions, I can imagine many even murder each other.”

The commercial traveler falls silent. The noise of whatever animal or person it was atop the dune that neither can catch sight of but which both hear, fades away. In the darkness E. says nothing.

With a slight hitch to his voice, the other continues: “And considering how difficult conditions are on the trains, and how far it is to the next station - in fact, there are none, only the distant destinations on both fronts, between which there is only the wilderness on one side with its trees and its wolves and the nearby inhospitable mountains - and the desert and the steppe on the other side - so bodies, you see, can’t be kept and they are thrown over the sides, sometimes without even stopping the train in fact, or less frequently, a captive may manage to escape, slip away into the forest, wounded or hale. Either way, the wolves are waiting. Endless and hungry and they make short work of anyone. So that’s why it is said that they still follow the train even though it doesn’t carry convicts anymore. And why should it? Nowadays they take care of these things locally. Any city will do, especially a provincial capital. The camps are all empty, why go to the work of fighting a war to gain captives when men and women will sell themselves for a pittance and work in the factories and in the mines until they drop from exhaustion and can be carted away at no expense to the manufacturer by their loved ones? Why build camps indeed, when the secret police can simply come to your own rooms and drag you out into the street should they feel like it and someone pass them your name?”

The man shook his head again, looking either frightened by his own words or simply embarrassed, and then as the two men keep walking, one in silence the other jolting suddenly as if from a waking sleep a few moments later, and starting back up again, “Perhaps you don’t believe me. But no one gets off the train when it stops, except for the engineers and even then only under armed guard and none wander so far from the tracks that they can not be sighted through the barrel of a rifle as they clear away any branches or debris. Because the wolves are waiting, and they’d not give you a pass if you did. Not a man or a women, not even a soldier would likely stand a chance if they went too far and let the trees surround them. What wolf would pause or even recognize the difference between free persons and convicts? Would the meat taste any different?”

“No,” says E. having grown tired of the conversation but unable to admit his disinterest, “I believe it would taste exactly the same. But still I don’t believe you about the wolves following the trains. That was long ago after all. How many years do individual wolves live? Surely they can’t still be the same ones?”

“Perhaps,” admits the traveler whose eyes E. can’t see and which are still scanning the blind crests of the dunes around them as the land slowly rises. “But at night you can hear their howling close by and if you peer between the trees which go on and on forever into the darkness it seems from your window, all you can see is their yellow eyes. Wolves have children, that’s all that I’m willing to say. Perhaps, they teach them to follow the train. As wolves of a different type instruct each other in the city.”

“Yes,” laughs E. and at the loud suddenness of it something crashes away from the tip of the rolling hill of sand, sending small avalanches slipping down and leaving both men feeling chilled even though the night is warm. “Perhaps they do,” whispers E and with his hand on his belt knife now the pair hurry their steps, feeling the dark and the unseen possibilities of the desert opening wide all around them, as impenetrable as any tree-covered landscape, and ready to swallow them. “And some children are wolves. That’s more likely. Some urchins crawled out here like us two, to watch the rockets explode. I don’t doubt it.”

Now it is the other man’s turn to look unconvinced, and together they trudge slowly along the wadi, each lost in their own private determinations, towards the brightly lit city of A..

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