To think that, until the dogs’ appearance, everything had been going fine.
She’d left home when it was still dark. From time to time she was forced to go further afield in search of food. Previously it had been easy: you only had to go to Castellammare and you found what you wanted. But the fires had complicated everything. She’d been walking for three hours under the sun as it rose in a pale cloudless sky. The summer was long past, but the heat wouldn’t let up. The wind, after starting the fire, had vanished, as if this part of creation no longer held any interest for it.
In a garden centre, next to a crater left by the explosion of a petrol pump, she’d found a crate full of food under some dusty tarpaulins.
In her rucksack she had six cans of Cirio beans, four cans of Graziella tomatoes, a bottle of Amaro Lucano, a large tube of Nestlé condensed milk, a bag of rusks, which were broken, but would still make a good meal soaked in water, and a half-kilo vacuum pack of pancetta. She hadn’t been able to resist that; she’d eaten the pancetta immediately, in silence, sitting on some bags of compost heaped up on the floor, which was covered with mouse droppings. It was as tough as leather, and so salty it had burnt her mouth.
The black dog was gaining ground.
Anna speeded up, her heart pumping in time with her steps. She couldn’t keep this up much longer. She was going to have to stop and face her pursuers. Oh, for a knife. As a rule she always carried one with her, but she’d forgotten to pack one that morning, and had gone out with an empty rucksack and a bottle of water.
The sun was only four inches above the horizon—an orange ball trapped in purple drool. Soon to be swallowed up by the plain. On the other side, the moon, as thin as a fingernail.
She looked back.
He was still there. The other dogs had gradually dropped away. Not him. He hadn’t closed on her over the last kilometer. But she was running flat out; he was just loping along.
Waiting for darkness before he attacked? Surely not. Dogs didn’t plan so rationally, did they? Whatever: she wouldn’t be able to keep this up until nightfall. The pain in her ankle had now increased and spread to her calf.
She passed a green sign. Five kilometers to Castellammare. The white line between the lanes provided a sure guide to concentrate on. The only sounds were her breathing and her feet hitting the asphalt. No wind, no birdsong, no chirping of crickets or cicadas.
Passing another car, she was tempted to get in and rest, but thought better of it. What about dropping the rusks on the road for the dog to eat? Or climbing over the fence at the side of the road? No, the mesh was too tight, and there didn’t seem to be any breaks in it she could slip through.
Or the central reservation on the other side? Here some oleanders had survived the fire. Their branches hung down, heavy with pink flowers, their pungent scent mingling with the smell of burnt wood.
The partition was high.
But you’re the kangaroo.
That was the nickname Signorina Pini, her old gym teacher, had given her, because she could jump higher than the boys. Anna didn’t like it; kangaroos have long floppy ears. She’d have preferred to be associated with the leopard, a far more elegant jumper.
Hurling the rucksack over the bushes, she took a short run-up, used the concrete kerb as a springboard, and jumped through the branches onto the other side.
She retrieved the rucksack and counted up to ten, panting. Then she punched the air, flashing her teeth in a full smile, a rare event for her.
She limped on. If only she could find some way of getting over the fence on this side of the road, she’d be safe.
Beyond the fence was a steep slope down to a narrow road which ran parallel to the autostrada. Not the best place to climb over with a swollen ankle. She slipped off the rucksack and looked back.
She saw the dog leap through the oleanders and come galloping down the road.
He wasn’t black at all; he was white, his coat covered with ash. The tip of one of his ears was missing. And he was huge: the biggest dog she’d ever seen.
And if you don’t get moving he’s going to eat you.
She grabbed the mesh of the fence to climb up, but was paralysed by fear. She turned round and slid down onto the road.
The dog raced down the last few meters of the autostrada and jumped over the guardrail and ditch. Then he jumped on her—all forty stinking kilos of him.
Anna stuck out her elbow, aiming at the dog’s ribs. He collapsed in a heap. She stood up.
He lay there, an almost human astonishment in his eyes.
She picked up the rucksack and hit him on the head, on the neck, then on the head again. He yelped, struggling to get to his feet. Anna swung round full circle like a hammer-thrower, but the strap of the rucksack broke, she lost her balance and put out her foot to steady herself, but her sore ankle couldn’t take the weight and she fell to the ground.
They lay there for a moment, looking at each other, then the dog sprang at her, snarling.
Raising her good foot, Anna rammed it into his chest, throwing him back against the guardrail.
He fell down on his side, panting, his long tongue curled under his nose, his eyes narrowed.
As he tried to get up, she looked around for a stone or a stick to hit him with, but saw nothing but burnt paper, plastic bags and crushed cans.
“Why don’t you leave me alone?” she shouted, getting to her feet. “What have I done to you?”
The dog stared at her, baring his teeth and growling.
She stumbled away in a daze, vaguely aware of oleanders, a dark sky, and the blackened, roofless shell of a farmhouse. After a while she stopped and looked back.
He was following her.
She came to a blue estate car. Its front was crushed, the rear window had lost its glass, and the driver’s door was open. She slipped inside and tried to close the door, but it wouldn’t move. She pulled with both hands. The door creaked shut, but bounced back off the rusty lock. She pulled again, but it still wouldn’t close, so she wrapped the safety belt around the handle to hold it. Laying her head against the steering wheel, she sat there with her eyes closed, breathing in the smell of bird droppings.
On the passenger’s seat beside her was a skeleton covered in white guano. The shriveled remains of a Moncler quilted jacket had fused with the covering of the seat. Feathers and yellow ribs showed through splits in the fabric. The skull hung down on the chest, held up by withered tendons. A pair of high-heeled suede boots covered the feet.
Anna slipped through onto the back seat, climbed into the boot and crawled up to the rear window, hardly daring to look out. There was no sign of the dog.
She curled up beside two suitcases that had been stripped of their contents, crossing her arms over her chest, with her hands under her sweaty armpits. The adrenaline rush had passed and she could barely keep her eyes open. She tried to jam the suitcases into the window frame. One was too small, but she managed to wedge the other one into the gap by pushing it with her feet.
She ran her fingers over her lips. Her eyes fell on a dirty page torn out of a notebook. The first line read, in capital letters: HELP ME, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD!
Written by the woman on the front seat, no doubt.
The note said her name was Giovanna Improta and she was dying. She had two children, Ettore and Francesca. They lived on the top floor of Via Re Federico 36, in Palermo. They were only four and five years old and they’d starve to death if they didn’t get help. There were five hundred euros in the hall cupboard.
Anna tossed the piece of paper aside, leaned her head against the side window, and closed her eyes.
She woke up abruptly, surrounded by darkness and silence. It was a few seconds before she could remember where she was. She badly needed a pee, but didn’t dare leave the car. She’d be defenseless—and blind: there was no moon.
Better to do it in the boot and move over onto the back seat. She unbuttoned her shorts. As she pulled them down, a sudden noise took her breath away. The sound of dogs sniffing. She put her hand over her mouth, trying not to breathe, shake, or even move her tongue.
Dogs’ claws scratched on the bodywork, and the car lurched.
Her bladder relaxed and warm liquid slid between her thighs, soaking the carpet under her buttocks.
She started silently praying for help, to no one in particular.
The dogs were fighting among themselves, circling the car, their claws clicking on the asphalt.
She imagined thousands of them surrounding the car, a carpet of fur stretching as far as the sea and the mountains, enveloping the whole planet.
She clamped her hands over her ears. Think about gelato. Like big, sweet, multicolored hailstones. You used to choose the flavors you wanted and they’d scoop them out into a cone for you. She remembered one visit to the ice-cream stall in the private beach area, “The Mermaids.” Peering through the glass top of the refrigerator, she’d decided on “chocolate and lemon.”
Her mother had grimaced. “Ugh!”
“What’s the matter?’
‘Those flavors don’t go together.”
“Can I have them anyway?”
“Oh, all right, then. You’d better eat them, though!”
So she’d gone to the beach with her gelato and sat by the water’s edge, while the seagulls strutted along, one behind the other.
Until the fire came, it had still been possible to find other sweet things. Mars bars, flapjacks, Bountys, boxes of chocolates. Usually dry, moldy, or nibbled by mice, though sometimes, if you were lucky, you’d find them in good condition. But it wasn’t the same as ice cream. Cold things had disappeared with the Grown-ups.
She took her hands away from her ears. The dogs had gone.
It was that phase of dawn when night and day have equal weight and things seem larger than they really are. A milk-white band lay across the horizon. The wind rustled between ears of wheat spared by the fire.
Anna climbed out of the car and stretched. Her ankle was numb, but less painful after the rest.
The road unreeled in front of her like a strip of licorice. The asphalt around the car was spattered with paw prints. Fifty meters away, something lay on the white line between the lanes.
At first it looked like her rucksack, then a tyre, then a heap of rags. Then the rags rose up and turned into a dog.