Altai region, Siberia
The two creatures lived in a world of their own, abandoned so long ago that neither had memories of those who had left them. They made their den in the lonely house they were born in, the old tin roof and wooden timbers barely standing after seven relentless Siberian winters.
The female hunted, scouring the hillside forest or venturing as far as the village for scraps of food or farmers’ livestock. She kept the younger male in his place, baring her teeth with a deep growl whenever he tried to leave. She knew he was different and not as strong. The outside world was not safe for him.
The den was his domain. Whatever he lacked in physical strength he made up for in ingenuity. He knew how to fill a cooking pot with snow and make water by dragging it into their sleeping cave. The cave itself was his doing, a deep burrow of foul-smelling blankets and sheets beneath a pile of overturned furniture.
They lived by their stomachs, day to day and hour by hour, depending on each other entirely. He worried when she hunted, scared that she would never return. She would hurry home with a mouthful of food, scared to leave him alone. They rolled on the ground in reunion, nipping at each other with friendly growls, communicating by bark and touch and sleeping curled against each other for warmth.
He dreamed of the coming spring, of a bright sun and green grass, but a strange sound woke him. She growled and scrambled out of the cave, into the light. He followed with his own timid growl and saw her looking through the gap in the broken wall. The sound came again, a slam like a piece of roof slapping the ground, but it came from outside, beyond his boundary.
She bolted through the hole barking furiously, and he ran after her to help.
Social worker Sofia Kushnya stopped where she stood and looked up from her paperwork, glancing first at her partner and then at the pickup truck, making sure they hadn’t locked the doors they just slammed. “I don’t like the sound of that dog,” she said in Russian.
Her young assistant gulped and cleared her throat. “I think I hear two of them.”
The two women had already become uneasy after finding the snow-covered road to the isolated Tolstyk house blocked by a fallen tree and what looked like years of accumulated forest debris. They were here to find out why seven year old Andrei had never shown up for school.
“I’ll climb up and take a look,” Sofia said.
She picked her way through the snow, finding footholds in the branches of the fallen tree. She stopped short at the top, her mouth hanging open. A fierce-looking German Shepherd barked and bared its teeth fifty feet away, but what shocked Sofia was the figure crouching behind the dog. It howled in a high-pitched whine, face hidden beneath a heaping tangle of brown hair, its body naked and skinny under a dark coat of grime.
“Andrei?” Sofia asked. She spoke softly but repeated his name twice more, louder each time.
He quieted as he listened to her, lifting a dirty hand to part the hair in front of his eyes. His head tilted to one side.
“Andrei?” she asked. “Do you understand me? Are your parents here?”
She turned toward the rundown house, but the guard dog barked louder and lunged forward, covering half the distance between them in seconds. Sofia lost her footing and slipped into the pile of snow and debris. She scrambled toward the truck, where her partner already waited. The dog barked but kept its distance. The last thing Sofia noticed before slamming the door was the long, eerie howl of the human child. She pulled her keys out with a shaking hand.
“What was that?” her partner asked. “What did you see?”
Sofia shook her head and fumbled to fit the correct key in the ignition. “We need help,” she said, starting the engine. “And tranquilizers.”
Andrei awoke on a soft surface of sheets that smelled like flowers, wearing fabric that clung to his chest and wrapped around his waist. He tore them off and dove to the floor, quickly sniffing his surroundings. The room was clean and empty, with no holes in the walls to escape through. He crawled under the bed and waited twenty minutes before crying out for the dog.
For about an hour there was no reply. Finally, the woman entered, bringing food smells that made his mouth water. His heart pounded. He watched her from beneath the bed but made no movement or sound. He remembered seeing her and the others like her. Like him. He was of their kind, but they had pointed something that made the dog fall with a terrible yelp. They had grabbed him and stung his arm, all the while making strange sounds with their mouths.
She did that again now and set a plate on the floor, a steaming chicken and baked potato. He had eaten both before, but never in such good condition. Never steaming. She sat against the wall and waited, making the strange mouth sounds until his stomach could bear it no more.
Andrei crawled out with a growl, lips raised to show his teeth. He watched her and let his nose lead him to the plate, which he pushed awkwardly back under the bed. He scurried after it and sniffed each piece before biting into the chicken. Hot! Like a rock warmed in the summer sun. He spit the chicken out and tried the potato. He growled and waited for the food to cool.
The woman brought him food every day and never did anything bad except make him wear the fabric that clung to his waist, so Andrei slowly began to trust her. She used the mouth sounds constantly, sometimes repeating the same ones over and over. Andrei whined and barked, hiding under the bed or crouching in the corner.
One day she wheeled in a metal box, plugged a wire into the wall, pushed a smaller box into an opening, and pressed a button. The big box came alive. Andrei howled and hid under the bed. He heard rhythmic sounds and peaked out, amazed to see a jungle moving inside the box. Was it real? Mouth sounds came from the box, and a big cat walked across a branch. Andrei’s eyes opened wide when he saw one of his kind, a baby in a basket.
“Mowgli,” the woman said.
The next sight made him howl with joy. Dogs! A big dog played with little dogs. Andrei whined for his old friend and scrambled to reach into the box, but his fingers hit glass. The woman laughed and sat with him. They watched a boy play with dogs.
“Mowgli,” she said again, pointing at the box. Then she pointed at him. “Andrei,” she said. She pointed at the dog. “Dog,” she said.
Andrei watched with fascination as Mowgli had many adventures with fantastic animals like a bear and a snake, elephants, birds, and monkeys. Finally, Mowgli met a female of his kind who he followed into a village.
“Mowgli,” the woman said again, pointing at the box. “Andrei,” she said, pointing at him.
Andrei practiced the mouth sounds alone at night, safely curled under his bed. He knew she wanted him to use them, but he feared what using them would mean.
One day the woman showed him pictures of dogs. “Dog,” she said, over and over.
Andrei nodded and barked and howled and smiled. She smiled back and showed him a new picture that launched him into the air with a happy yelp. The dog in the picture was not just any dog. It was her, his old friend and protector.
“Dog,” the woman said, knocking against the door behind her.
Andrei howled, and moments later he heard the dog, his friend, whining outside the door! He barked and the dog answered, both of them whining and scratching against the door. Neither of them knew how to open it. Andrei desperately looked to the woman.
“Dog,” she said.
“Dog!” he yelled. “Dog! Dog! Dog!”
The door flew open. Andrei and the dog rolled on the floor, barking in blissful reunion.