Sasha is a name that is hard to pronounce, thinks Marie, but there is no need to say names when you are splashing paint on snow and swirling it together to make wonderful patterns. Paint soaks through snow. Sasha upturns a can of yellow and Marie pats her on the cheek with a spot of green.
You are a great artist, says Marie to her friend. One of the best. But she does not expect Sasha to respond. A finger in the snow, drawing a red river into a lake of blue, is good enough. When the dam breaks, the colours mix to black.
A bell rings. Sasha washes her hands in the snow and races away. Marie goes to her home. Her father is already there, sitting at the fire. Headmaster, says Marie, how was your day? He looks up: you have been at the paint. Come here and tell me what you learned today and we will see if you have got it right. He listens, and when he is done, he talks to her about snow and the changing of seasons, and the glorious celebration that is coming. A dog! she cries, when he asks what gift she wishes for the holidays. A dog! He nods, looks at the fire. Of course, he says, it would have to be a dog. But there are no dogs here. What can we do?
Dear Headmaster, she says, you are the smartest man in all the country.
He is drinking tea. He touches Marie’s hair. Your friend Sasha. The mute one. Do you like her? Would you wish her to be near you all the time? Would it make you happy if that were so? Marie puts her arms around his neck and tugs his beard. She nuzzles next to him and tells him that she would like that very much.
The next morning, Headmaster brings Sasha out of class. On the field between the outhouses and the west fence, he tells her to crawl on a patch of ground that he has cleared of snow. Sasha’s clothes are soon wet and muddy, and Headmaster says that this will not do. Keep her like this until I return, he says to Marie. You are doing so well! Marie says to Sasha. When Headmaster returns, he has pads for Sasha’s knees and gloves for her hands. She walks about on all fours. Sasha is good at it. Later, Headmaster has her eat porridge out of a bowl – no hands! – as he and Marie chew on a beef stick.
This is going better than I expected, says Headmaster. Your Sasha is well-suited to this. These people usually are. We will see if Sasha takes to sleeping outside tonight.
The shed has shovels for pushing snow, and sacks of sand that help clear the roads. Headmaster has Sasha lie on the sacks. Sasha looks about her. There is only one window, and the sky is visible through the roof. She is staring at Marie, so Headmaster gives Marie treats that she lets Sasha eat out of her hand. Sasha is happy after that.
In the morning, Marie races to the shed at first light – it is the earliest she has risen! The snow is dry and crunchy. Inside the shed, Sasha is awake. Her black hair is tangled, the side of her face crusted with sand. Oh Sasha, cries Marie, you look so cold! You poor girl! We’ll find Headmaster! At the house, Headmaster is finishing his breakfast. This only works if Sasha does it all the time, Marie. Down, Sasha. That’s right. Very good. Now we will see to this problem of cold. Headmaster moves through the house as Sasha warms up next to the fire and Marie feeds her biscuits and gives her a dish of water. When Headmaster returns, he puts a furred coat on Sasha and stitches the opening up so that it cannot come off.
That day, Sasha runs through the snow. Her breath is fierce as Headmaster signals her to start and stop. The clothes are working, and Marie is thrilled. Sasha looks happy! There is a smile on her face, and Marie plays with her the whole afternoon. And can you bark, dear? asks Headmaster. Sasha shakes her head. Ah I see. Marie, to your studies. I will provide Sasha with some additional training. He goes with her to the shed and does not come back until dinner. She will be ready by the holidays, he tells her. You need not worry. Marie is so warm with happiness that she stays awake that night, looking out the window at the shed as the snow trickles down and the light from the school pushes into the forest.
The rest of the week, the sky is clear. Headmaster patches Sasha’s clothes and trots her around the west field. They go into the forest. Marie has a leash and Sasha follows behind. I will give her a tail, says Headmaster, and he attaches a cob of dried corn to the coat, above the flap that Sasha uses to do her business. Marie leads her through the trees, into the thicker snow. Sasha follows along. In the middle of the forest, they find a rocky clearing. Will you bark now? asks Headmaster. Sasha turns her head to the trees. Ah I see. Marie, bring that stick over here. Good. Now ask her to bark, and if she refuses, hit her across the back of her legs. Firmly, if you please.
Bark please, Sasha, Marie says. But Sasha will not bark. Marie asks three more times before she uses the stick. Headmaster tells her she should hit harder. But Sasha will still not bark. Marie’s arm is tired from swinging. She says to Sasha, Oh darling, what’s wrong? Why won’t you bark? I don’t want to hit you! Please do it right. Sasha stares. Her black eyes are clouded, and it hurts Marie to see her that way. She whispers to Sasha about how much fun they will have, and how wonderful it will be when Headmaster makes of Sasha a gift for Marie. Sasha nods. Marie stands and asks her to bark. The sudden noise that comes from the little creature echoes in the clearing and through the woods. Marie is thrilled. Headmaster smiles, and together they sing as they walk back to the school.
I will give Sasha an additional lesson after dinner, says Headmaster. But Sasha can bark now! says Marie. Yes, Marie, she can. But there are other things to learn. There are always things to learn, my dear. Go to your bed. I will be back later. Marie stays up, waiting for him to return, but it is a long time before he does. Marie tries to sleep but there are noises in the forest. At first she thinks it is Sasha, but it is not that kind of animal.
Just as she is about to fall asleep, she sees light through the window. At first, she thinks morning has come early, but the sky is still dark. Outside, the shed is on fire. Marie does not wait to put on her clothes, only her boots. She races through the door. The heat from the fire has already burned a ring in the snow. The flames are higher than the trees! Sasha! she cries. Sasha, oh Sasha! But nothing can live in that fire. It is too greedy. It is too big. The roof collapses and one of walls falls hissing into the snow.
Marie thinks of the holidays, and what they will be like without Sasha at her side. She had pictured running the forest paths with Sasha on a leash, unafraid of the creatures that lurked in the shadow. Now it is all gone. She turns her back to the fire. There before her, at the edge of the trees, is an animal. It is hunched in the shadows, eyes wild as it studies the fire. It is baying. It is barking. It is staring at her with black eyes. Marie stumbles towards it, crying out: Sasha! Oh my darling I am glad you are okay! Come back to me! But Sasha juts backwards with each step that Marie takes. Sasha, it is me! Come back, and I will let you sleep in the house tonight! But when the girl is too close, Sasha bays a final time and races into the shadows.
Marie would like to run after her, but she is not dressed for the forest. Outside the circle of firelight, it is too dark to see. Behind her, the school is alive as people rush to the fire. Marie is crying. She is kneeling in the snow. She does not know how Sasha will survive in the forest, how she will live without Marie and Headmaster to take care of her. The forest is so big, so dangerous. It reaches forever, into the lonely lands where no one has ever gone before. Sasha needs someone to care for her. To feed her. To love and to teach her. She needs these things. Without them, where will she go and what will she be? There is howling in the forest. There is howling everywhere. Marie reaches for it as big hands take her shoulders and draw her back, away from the fire and into the cold.
***apologies for not having been around much of late, will be around more shortly. Hope you’re all doing great.