Welcome to the next free extract from Peter Higgins’ wonderful Wolfhound Century.
Short chapters aren’t they? I think there’s an interesting essay to be written on chapters and their various lengths in novels, how and why they break the book up, how they group intent and theme, how they affect the flow, but here and now is not the time. While we’re distracted I’d rather take a moment to direct your attention to the quote from which Peter took the title of his novel. It’s from a poem by Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938):
“The wolfhound century is on my back –
But I am not a wolf.”
If there’s a better two line evocation of the sense that you live in dangerous times, and that the danger feels like an injustice, then I’d like to read it.
But anyway, back to the story in hand…
Five time zones to the west of Podchornok, on the roof of the Grand Hotel Sviatopolk in Mirgorod, Josef Kantor waited. Despite the ragged fingernails of wind scraping at his face, he was immovable: a pillar of patient rock in a dark and fog-soaked coat. The fog had come and gone. Drifting in off the river before dawn, it had enfolded him in blankness and sifted away at the cold rising of the sun, leaving him beaded with dull grey droplets. He had not moved. He was waiting.
Kantor teased the cavity in his tooth with the fatness of his tongue. The hurting was useful. It kept him rooted in the true present, the only now, the now that he was making come to be. He only had to wait in the cold and it would happen. He only had to not be deflected. Not be moved. And it would happen.
Far below him, Levrovskaya Square, transected by tramlines, was monochrome with yesterday’s snow under the blank white dawn. Twelve floors beneath his feet the lobby roof projected, taking a small trapezium bite out of the squareness. Pavement tables were set in two neat rows, penned in by a rectangle of potted hedge. Empty. Sellers were setting up next to the tram stop: a woman putting out a stall of old clothes, linen and dressing gowns; another, wearing a sheepskin coat, lighting a stove for potatoes; an old man arranging his trestle with trays of pancakes, bowls of thin purée, cans for kvass. For the first time, Kantor consulted his watch. Exactly nine a.m.. It was time.
The iron car rattled around the corner and into the square, drawn by a pair of horses, stepping carefully, leaning into the weight, heading for the Bank of Foreign Commerce. His people would begin to move now. He looked for the women first, and there they were, Lidia and Stefania, the edges of their skirts wet with melting snow, crossing to the gendarme in his kiosk on the corner. The women were laughing, and soon the young gendarme was laughing too. He would be smelling their heavy, promising scent. Kantor used the women to ferry explo- sives, and they soused themselves with perfume to cover the clinging smell of dynamite strapped against their sweating bodies.
Lidia drew the revolver from her skirts and shot the young gen- darme twice. His legs gave way and he crumpled into a sitting position, hunched over his burst belly: blood in the slush; crimson in pale grey. He was still alive, moving his body from side to side, pawing weakly at his face. Lidia stepped in close and shot him in the side of his head.
In Levrovskaya Square, no one noticed.
No, that wasn’t correct. An old man in the uniform of the postal services was staring across from the opposite pavement. He took his bag from his shoulder and laid it on the ground, gazing at the dead boy. That didn’t matter. The strong-car had reached the middle of the square. But where was Vitt? He should have come out of the Teagarden by now.
And there he was, but he was running, his grenade already in his hand. He dropped it hastily into the path of the horses. It didn’t ex- plode. It simply lay there in the snow, inert, like a round black fruit. Like the turd of a giant rabbit. Yelling, the driver hauled on the reins. Kantor watched Vitt stand, uselessly, eyes blank and mouth slightly open, gazing in abstraction at his hopeless failure of a bomb.
Vitt turned and ran out of sight down the alley between the Tea- garden and Rosenfeld’s. The driver was still screaming at the horses. They stood confused, alarmed, doing nothing. The back of the car opened and soldiers climbed out, looking around for something to fire at. Kantor saw Akaki Serov saunter towards them, smiling, saying something jaunty. When he was close enough he lobbed a bomb with casual grace, going for the horses, and another that rolled under the car. The double flash came, and sudden blooms of smoke and flying stuff, and then the sound of the concussions. The force of the double explosion disembowelled the horses and tore legs and arms and heads off the men. Akaki Serov, who was too close, was burst apart also.
Into the silence before the screaming began, the rest of Kantor’s people surged forward, the giant Vaso wading among them like an adult among small children. Lakoba Petrov, Petrov the Painter, hurried along beside him, taking three steps for his one. Petrov was bare-headed, his face flushed pink, firing his Rykov wildly at groin level. The pair ran towards the burst-open strong car, out-distancing the others. Petrov shot a soldier who was rising to his knees, while the giant wrenched at the doors of the car, tearing the metal hinges, and climbed inside. It seemed improbable that he could fit himself inside such a small space, but he ducked into it as if it was a cupboard to hide in.
The others spread out across the square, firing and lobbing grenades. Pieces of flesh, human and horse, spattered the cobbles. There were soft messes of blood and snow and fluid. The screams of the injured sounded as remote to Josef Kantor as the distant cries of the gulls in the bay.
The revolutionary is doomed, he whispered across the Square. The revolutionary has no personal interests. No emotions. No attachments. The revolutionary owns nothing and has no name. All laws, moralities, customs and conventions – the revolutionary is their merciless and im- placable enemy. There is only the revolution. All other bonds are broken.
The potato seller lay on her face in the middle of the square, her leg somewhat apart from the rest of her, her arm stretched towards a thing she could not reach.
A kind of quiet began to settle on the square, until the tall bronze doors of the bank were thrown open and a mudjhik came lumbering out, twelve feet high, the colour of rust and dried blood. Whatever small animal had given its brain to be inserted inside the mudjhik’s head-casket must have been an exultant predator in life. This one was barely under control. It was smacking about with heavy arms, bursting open the heads of anyone who did not run. Behind the mudjhik, more militia came out of the bank, firing.
Whether it was the shock of the mudjhik or some more private and inward surge of life-desire, one of the horses attached to the strong-car twitched and jerked and rose up, squealing. Still harnessed to the car, its comrade dead in the traces alongside and its own bowels spilling onto the pavement, the horse lowered its head and surged towards the empty mouth of East Prospect. With slow determination it widened the distance between itself and the noise and smell of battle, pulling behind it thirty million roubles and Vaso the giant, who was still inside.
Kantor breathed a lungful of cold, clean air. The chill hit his hollow, blackened tooth and jolted his jaw with a jab of pain. Time to come down from the roof.