They passed throngs of people who were making their way home or to shops after work but no one stopped the boy or asked his name. He was a boy; his companions dogs. There was nothing to show that he was following, not leading. They looked like three obedient dogs, and he like a boy master neglected, young to be out alone, but everyone knows without thinking that a person with dogs is not lost.
Three dogs and a boy passed through the populated thoroughfares of the precinct to more deserted lanes. Gates and mesh fences sagged, street walls crumbled. In the distance, apartment blocks were stacked like dishes in a rack, their windows glittering. Close up, weeds filled all gaps. They passed by low buildings with no balconies: offices and warehouses and factory sheds. They passed rows of identical five-storey tenements with cracked tiled facades and a few unkempt birches in the raked yards. They breathed in the smell of cooking onions and cabbage. Inside, people were preparing their evening meals, sitting or moving around in warm rooms, arguing, tired, sipping hot tea or soup.
They slowed only to cross roads or skirt cars or people, then picked up pace again.
A lane opened to a vista with no more streets. Ahead was a meadow filled with oddments of rubbish, ringed with buildings, all unlit: factories or warehouses without people. Then the three dogs did stop and eddy, sniffing in the corner of the street wall and the field fenceposts, moving around the boy, ignoring him. The three dogs peed quickly, here and there. Then they trotted on as purposefully as before. He followed, staggering now. They slipped one after another through a hole in a fence and crossed the meadow through blackened weeds. They made a ragged trail through the icy grass, one track wide and one dainty. At the far side of the field, he stumbled and stopped, swaying on his feet. The lead dog dropped back and waited, looking at him, so he nodded, turned and trudged on.
They squeezed through a gap between a brick wall and a fence post, and then they were among abandoned construction sites. A car passed up the potholed lane and a few scruffy people walked by. A man was lying in a heap against the street wall, asleep. He had been rained on and smelled of wet wool and old urine. The dogs stepped wide around him but otherwise paid no attention.
The boy's strength was almost gone when the mother dog disappeared through a broken gate. They all in turn slipped through into an ancient courtyard. Here there was a tangled mess of dried grass and a dead orchard of five apple trees, their trunks bearded with lichen. Above, a brick facade ended in a broken cupola silhouetted against the sky. It was a church, a blackened and roofless ruin.
The dogs' lair was in the basement. They entered through a hole in the floor and clambered down a pile of rubble along a narrow, much-used path. Inside was dark. Somewhere puppies yelped and yabbered.
And so it was, trotting with three dogs through ordinary lanes, past ordinary tenements, past ordinary lives, a lone boy crossed a border that is, usually, impassable not even imaginable.
At first he didn't notice.
Romochka could see nothing at all. He was assailed by a stench, pungent even in his cold nostrils. Then he made out a wide cellar with holes here and there in the roof. The two younger dogs had flopped down on the floor to one side and were scratching and licking themselves. They didn't seem to have any food. He could see some distance now. His dog had trotted to a far corner and was being greeted with delight by four small puppies. He crept close and squatted on his haunches as she was licked and squealed at. He watched as she lay down and the puppies tumbled over themselves to suckle. He could just make out her dark, shining eyes watching him as the puppies pushed and grizzled. He noted her thick hair, her tidy feet, with pale tufts sticking out between her shadowy toes. She was motherly to the puppies: firm and distant and bossy. He wondered what dog milk tasted like, and edged closer. His stomach gurgled. She watched him steadily. The warmth of the nest, warmth of the squirming bodies, rose to heat his face. He dropped to his hands and knees, to his belly and wriggled towards her. She growled, steady and low, and he stopped. Then he inched closer, again, eyes averted. She was growling softly when he reached her flank and the full heat of the puppies. He curled himself slowly into that warm bed and pulled off his freezing mittens.
Excerpted from Dog Boy by Eva Hornung. Copyright 2010 by Eva Hornung. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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