Adam waited nervously in the International Arrivals hall of Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 1. Born and bred in London, Adam had never thought of himself as the type of guy who would import a wife from Poland. His parents had made sure that he’d learnt Polish from an early age; while his English friends had played football or watched Swap Shop on Saturday mornings, Adam had been dragged kicking and screaming to Polish classes in Ealing. But it had all paid off in the end when he went to Poland one summer and met Krystyna. Since that time, the smart, pretty brunette had relocated to London and moved in with Adam. They were engaged to be married, and it seemed to Adam that all the members of his fiancé’s family had already visited London and stayed with them – all, that is, except Krystyna’s grandmother, and that was who Adam was now waiting for. Krystyna had not been able to get the day off work, and Adam was now anxiously eyeing every elderly woman who came through the arrival gate, in the hope that one of them would match the tattered photograph that Krystyna had given him.
Eventually a little old lady came out alone. Adam recognised her immediately and started to walk towards her, stopping abruptly as he saw the woman slip, drop her glasses and, in a desperate effort to right herself, step on them, crushing them completely. Upset for the woman, Adam began to rush forward, only to halt as she started to laugh hysterically. She muttered something under her breath and, had he not known any better, Adam could have sworn that what she said was “little pig!”
The sleigh sped through the dark forest, the scant moonlight reflected by the snow lighting up the whites of the horse’s eyes as it galloped along the narrow path, nostrils flaring and velvet mouth spitting foam and blood into the night. The woman cried out as the reins cut into her hands, and screamed to her children to hang on.
The three little girls clung to each other and to the sides of the sleigh, their tears freezing onto their faces as soon as they formed. The corner of the large blanket in which their mother had wrapped them for the perilous journey to their grandparents’ house had come loose and was flapping violently in the icy air.
“Hold on to Vitek!” the woman screamed over her shoulder at her eldest child, her voice barely audible over the howling wind. But the girl did not need to be told; only two days away from her seventh birthday, she clung onto her baby brother, fear for her tiny sibling stronger than her own terror. The other two girls, aged two and four, huddled together, lost in an incomprehensible world of snow and fear and darkness.
The woman whipped the reins against the horse’s heaving flanks, but the animal was already running on a primal fear stronger than pain. The excited yelps audible over the snowstorm left little doubt in the woman’s mind: the pack was gaining on the sleigh – the hungry wolves were getting closer.
That winter had been particularly hard on the wolf pack. The invading Russian army had taken the peasants’ livestock and, with no farm animals to snatch, the wolves had been limited to seeking out those rabbits and wild fowl that the desperate peasants and fleeing refugees had not killed and eaten. Driven half-mad with starvation, the wolves had already invested an irrevocable amount of energy in chasing the horse, and instinct informed them that it was too late to give up now – they had to feed or had to die.
The horse was wheezing, the blood freezing in its nostrils as it strained through the snow. Its chestnut coat was matted with sweat whipped up into a dirty foam. Steam rose off its back like smoke, giving the bizarre impression that the animal was on fire.
The woman shouted at the horse, willing it on, and brought the reins down against its flanks. She had only been fending for herself for three days – since the soldiers had tied her husband to a tree, cut off his genitals and sawn him in half with a blunt saw – but she knew instinctively that without the horse she and her children would die. If the starving wolves did not kill them, the cold would. They still had many miles to travel – and they would never make it on foot. The time had come to resort to the last hope her children had left.
The woman pulled on the reins, slowing the horse to a more controlled pace. She tied the reins to the sleigh, the horse running steadily along the forest path. She tried not to look at her shaking, crying children, clinging onto each other as they were thrown around the sleigh – the pitiful sight would break her, and she must not break. She must not lose the battle to keep her children alive.
“Good girls,” she muttered, without looking back, “hold on to your brother.” She stood up carefully in the speeding sleigh and reached over the side, unfastening the buckles on the wicker basket attached there. She opened the lid as slowly and as carefully as the shaking sleigh would allow. The sight that greeted her made her stomach turn, as fear for her children gave way to shock and panic. She howled in despair. A sudden jerky movement sent her sprawling back into the sleigh. She pulled herself up and clawed at the basket again, tearing the whole thing off in an effort to change the unchangeable.
“Little pig!” screamed the woman, her eyes wild and unseeing. The children screamed too, the madness in their mother’s voice destroying the last remnant of safety and order in their world. “Little pig!” she screamed. “They took the little pig!”
The woman fell back onto her seat. The horse was slowing. An expectant howl pierced the darkness behind the sleigh. The woman grabbed the reins and struck at the horse’s flanks again. The animal snorted and strained onwards, but even in her panic the woman knew that if she tried to force any more speed out of it, she would kill it, and all her children with it.
The howling and snarling grew closer, forcing the horse’s fear onto a new level. It reared and tried to bolt, almost overturning the sleigh, but its exhaustion and the snow prevented its escape from the hungry pack.
The wolves were beginning to fan out on either side of the sleigh, still behind it, but not far off. One of the beasts – a battle-scarred individual with protruding ribs and cold yellow eyes – broke away from the others and made a dash for the horse, nipping at its heels. The horse screamed and kicked out, catching the wolf across the snout and sending it tumbling into the trees. It pulled itself up in seconds and started back after its companions.
The reins almost slipped from the woman’s bleeding, freezing hands. She tightened her grip, wrapping the reins around her wrists. If only they were closer to her parents’ village, she could let the wolves have the horse – it was the horse that they were after. But without the horse they would all freeze in the snow long before they reached safety.
The pack was catching up with the sleigh now; the wolves spilled forward, biting at the horse. The woman shouted at the wolves, whipped at them and at the horse with the reins, but there was nothing she could do. She cast a glance at her daughters: the two little ones pale as sheets, Irena holding onto Vitek as if he were life itself. And Vitek – her perfect little boy.
The woman remembered her husband’s face when she first told him he had a son. His face had lit up; he had taken the little boy from her and held him in his big, strong arms … her husband … then an image of the last time she had seen him – seen his mutilated corpse tied to the old walnut tree in the orchard…
She was back in the present, fighting to save her children – losing the fight to save her children. The little pig was gone – she had put it in the wicker basket at the side of the sleigh and fastened the straps when the soldiers were getting drunk inside her house. She had gone back to the barn to get the children, to flee with them under cover of darkness to what she hoped would be the relative safety of her parents’ village. Someone must have seen her put the little pig in the basket, someone cruel enough to take the time to do up the straps after sentencing her children to death in the wolf-infested forest.
The little pig was gone and another sacrifice was needed in its place to protect the horse. The woman prepared to jump out of the sleigh. She turned to Irena and shouted, “Give Vitek to Kasia!” Irena stared at her mother blankly. “Give your brother to Kasia!” The woman’s voice rose to a hysterical pitch. Four-year-old Kasia clung onto her two-year-old sister, and Irena began to cry, clutching her brother even tighter. “Give him to her!” screamed the woman, “I need you to hold the reins!” But even as she said it, she knew that the six-year-old would never be able to control the terrified horse. Her own hands were a bloody ruin and she wondered how she was able to hang on as the frantic animal fought its way forward.
“Irena! Give Vitek to Kasia – now!” But Irena saw something in her mother’s eyes that scared her more than the dark and the shaking sleigh and even the wolves. She clutched her brother to her chest and shook her head, fresh tears rolling down her face and freezing to her cheeks.
A large silver wolf clamped its jaws onto the horse’s left hind leg. The horse stumbled, but managed to right itself and the wolf let go, unable to keep up with the horse in the deep snow – but not for long. As the chestnut reeled, the sleigh lurched and the woman panicked. She had to act now or lose all her children. She could not give her life for them because they would never make it to safety without her. But a sacrifice had to be made. If she could not die to save her children, then one of them would have to die to save the others. She would not lose them all. One of them would have to die and she would have to choose. The delicate fabric of the woman’s sanity was finally stretched to its limits and gave way. She threw back her head and howled her anguish into the night. All around her the night howled back.
The woman turned and looked into the faces of her children. A sharp intake of breath – like that taken by one about to drown. She took the reins in one hand, and with the other she reached out for her beloved son – her husband’s greatest joy; the frailest of her children, half-frozen despite his sister’s efforts to keep him warm, too exhausted even to cry, and the least likely to survive the journey.
“Give him to me!” she screamed at Irena. The girl struggled with her mother. The woman wrenched her baby out of her daughter’s grasp and held him to her, gazing for a moment into his eyes. The woman smiled through her tears at her son. Snow was falling on the baby’s upturned face, the frost had tinged his lips a pale blue, but in the woman’s fevered mind, her baby smiled back at her.
Two of the wolves had closed in on the horse and were trying to bring it down. The woman screamed and threw Vitek as far from the sleigh as she could. There was a moment’s silence, then a triumphant yelping as the wolves turned their attention away from the horse, and rushed away into the night. Irena cried out, and her little sisters stared uncomprehendingly at their mother, who screamed and screamed as she grabbed the reins in both hands and whipped the horse on into the dark.
As the first light of dawn broke across the horizon, an eerie sight greeted the sleepy village. The sleigh rolled in slowly, as the exhausted horse made it within sight of the first farmhouse. It stood for a moment, head drooping, blood seeping from its nostrils, its mouth, from open wounds along its flanks. Then it dropped silently to the ground and lay still.
In the sleigh sat a wild-eyed woman, staring but unseeing, her black hair streaked with white, reins clenched tightly in her bloody hands. Behind her were three little girls. Two were slumped together, asleep. The third girl, the eldest of the three, was awake – she sat very still, eyes wide, silent as her mother.
“Irena?” Adam reached the old lady and touched her arm. “I’m Adam.” He bent down and picked up what was left of Irena’s glasses. “I’m sorry about your glasses,” he told her, handing the crushed frames back to her.
“No need to be sorry,” said Irena. “It’s just a little pig.”
Adam was taken aback. It was bad enough taking care of Krystyna’s relatives, but she had never said that her grandmother was senile.
Irena read Adam like an open book.
“A little pig,” she explained, “a small sacrifice to make sure nothing really terrible happens … during my visit.”
“I understand,” said Adam. He did not understand, but at least there was some method in the old lady’s madness, and that was good enough for him. He paid the parking fee at the ticket machine, and they left the building: a tall young man pushing a trolley and a little old lady clutching a pair of broken glasses.