Read the excerpt:
Abyss has no biographer.
Maybe he shouted after her. Cora, a command. Cora, a plea. Maybe it was just an echo in her head. She wasn’t listening this time. She wasn’t stopping. This time she was running, zigzagging through the pines towards the lake, his dog at her heels, her bag heavy on her shoulder. She looked towards the distant houses hunched against the winter. They were shuttered and lightless. No sanctuary there. No witnesses either. The icy air rasped in her chest and she stopped on the footbridge, leaning against the wooden railing to catch her breath.
Cora looked down. The dead branches had snagged whatever the frozen water brought within their grasp—plastic bags, a rodent’s small, bloated corpse. The dog whimpered, both of them injured, her forepaw cut deep, Cora’s wounds hidden. She did not feel the cold. She felt his hands on her shoulders. She did not hear the wind. She heard him telling her she was delusional, that she did not see things right. She had fought that, breaking free of his hold on her, getting out, getting away.
A series of harsh cries stopped Cora’s heart. She looked back. Crows swirled up from the trees behind the cabin but she detected no human movement. He was not following yet, but Cora was taking no chances. She was running again and this time she made it to her car. She opened the door and the dog leapt in too. Cora slammed the door, steadying her hands enough to get the key into the ignition. The engine took despite the cold but her wheels spun and then there was traction and the car jolted forwards. The snow-laden branches lashed the windshield as she drove down the narrow track. Half a mile later and she was on a back road. The snowploughs had been through so it was easier to navigate.
Another three miles and Cora stopped at the far end of the lake. She looked back. On a clear day it was possible to see the cabin but today the weather had closed in and nothing was visible. Cora got out and opened the back door but the dog refused to move. Cora reached in and grabbed her collar and dragged her out. The dog resisted, her fangs slicing into Cora’s wrist but she got her out and slammed the door shut. The dog dashed for the open front door but Cora kicked her in her bruised ribs, and in the moment the animal was off-balance, she was inside the vehicle slamming the door shut.
The dog howled and Cora heard it for the accusation of betrayal that it was. The bleeding dog ran alongside the car, printing crimson flowers in the fresh snow. She kept pace until they reached the road, running behind Cora, but the distance between them grew steadily and Cora watched her recede in her rear view mirror. It brought a lump to her throat, but she had no alternative. She could only save one of them and, part wolf, part husky, the dog would know how to survive in this wasteland of snow and ice. That’s what Cora told herself as she drove through whirling snow, hers the only vehicle on the road, her vision blurred by tears. The first time she had been driven on this road the sky had been a tender blue. The sun, catching the early snow, had blinded her for a moment.
Half an hour later she saw the sign for the petrol station. She turned in. There was no sign of anyone except a lone waiter in the diner. He was bent over his phone and he did not glance up when Cora pulled up behind a row of rubbish bins. Then she grabbed her bag and went to the bathroom, stripping off her stained shirt and bra. The key was there around her neck and she closed her fist around it. The sensation of the metal, warm from lying next to her skin, triggered a searing pain behind her eyes. She released the key and turned on the hot water, washing as best she could. Face, arms, throat where the marks were starting to show.
Cora inspected her wrist where the dog’s teeth had sliced her skin open. The sight of the blood transfixed her for a moment but she felt no pain. She fashioned a bandage from her scarf. She put on a clean white shirt and hid the stained clothes at the bottom of the holdall. She pinned up her hair, bringing it back to order. She looked for her mascara but that was gone. That small loss overwhelmed her. She looked out of the grimy window next to the basin. The undulating landscape beckoned. All she needed to do was to walk outside, lie down and accept the snow’s cold embrace. It would be weeks or months before anyone found her. She caught a glimpse of her face in the window—so like her daughter’s. She turned away from the window. She had done enough damage. She had told Freya when she was a little girl that no matter where she went she would always return. After everything, that was one promise she could keep. Cora hunted in her bag for a tranquilizer. It was pale yellow in her palm. She slipped it under her tongue. The dissolving bitterness gave her the strength she needed to return to the car and drive on through the gathering darkness.
After some time houses began to appear and lights and other cars and people and signs indicating where she should turn off to reach the airport. She obeyed them. She handed back her hired car and a young man checked for damage but he found none and wished her a safe flight. She smiled at him and walked towards International Departures.
Cora walked through the brightly lit terminal and on to the security checkpoint. There she stripped off her boots, her jacket and the key round her neck. She put her bags into the trays to be X-rayed.
Cora’s belongings passed through unremarked but the metal detector went off when she stepped through. A security guard signalled her over, moving her hands along Cora’s arms and along her clavicles, winnowing between her breasts, pausing at the wire under Cora’s bra and continuing down her belly, along the zip of her jeans, between her thighs to where the bruises were. There had been no tenderness the last time she had sex but maybe it had not been a rape. Cora did not wince but the woman was alert to the responses of strangers’ bodies and she paused, her eyes on Cora’s face, before her hands continued their journey down her jeans. She brushed over Cora’s feet, an index finger feeling under each instep—a neutral caress that felt for weapons and nothing else. Satisfied at last, she stood aside and let Cora pass. She was the last passenger to board.
The plane took off and Cora watched the roads, the buildings, the trees recede until they were nothing but dark streaks on the white. After a time the land disappeared too and beneath her there was nothing but restless ocean. Cora waited for tears to come but they did not. She felt nothing at all. She’d escaped. She’d survived again. That was all. Cora pulled up her blanket and slept.
Angel Lamar emerged from the makeshift office. The wind was up and it harried the snow. The wolves and the abandoned half-breeds emerged from their shelters and howled in unison when she walked past their enclosure. It was an eerie harmony of welcome and supplication. They fell silent when she went into the cold room.
She lifted the deer off the meat hook. Shouldering the animal, she carried it over to the cutting table and laid it out on the metal surface. The deer’s leg had been shattered where the truck had collided with it. There was a small, merciful bullet hole in the doe’s forehead where the driver had placed his gun and ended her helpless agony. Sorrow for this waste of beauty and grace tightened Angel’s throat. She ran a gentle hand down the animal’s neck—an acknowledgement and a farewell—before she switched on the meat cutter. The blade emitted a high-pitched whine as she dismembered the carcass with practiced ease.
Angel had been put away when she was fifteen—to help her make something of her life, the judge had said. She had been assigned work in the kitchens and the butcher had taken a shine to her. Taking Angel under her wing—without expecting any favours in return—she had told her there was work to be had when Angel had done her time. Cutting meat for delicatessens in the big cities where people didn’t ask too many questions about the past would not be a bad job, she said. Angel had other plans but she kept them—as she did all things—to herself.
She heard the vehicle when she switched off the meat cutter. She went warily to the door. The Wolf Sanctuary was a way out of the village. Few visitors came this way, which was the way that Angel preferred things. A black SUV with tinted windows and city plates was turning in. A tall, fur-wrapped woman got out of the vehicle.
‘I found a dog on the road,’ she said. ‘She’s hurt. Can you help me?’
‘Sure,’ said Angel, walking over to her. From the corner of her eye she could see the wolves pacing up and down their enclosure. They were hungry. ‘Where did you find her?’ she asked.
‘On the crossroads near the lake,’ said the city woman. ‘I thought she was a wolf at first, but she ran at my car and I saw her collar. I couldn’t leave her.’
‘You couldn’t,’ said Angel.
‘The dog belongs to someone,’ said the woman, wrapping her arms around herself to ward off the wind. ‘She has a collar and all. The tag. There’s a phone number. I tried it,’ said the city woman, ‘but the network just cut out. I thought whoever has lost a dog would come here to find it.’
‘Nobody’s been yet,’ said Angel.
‘I looked up the name on the tag,’ said the woman. ‘Nothing in the phone book.’
‘What’s the name?’ asked Angel.
‘Trotsky,’ said the woman. The name made Angel focus on the woman—her angular face, the blonde hair that the wind was whipping across her forehead, her voice as smooth and rich as coffee.
‘I know who that is,’ said Angel. ‘Let me see her.’
‘She’s injured,’ said the woman. ‘Be careful. It can make them vicious.’ She opened the boot. The dog looked out at them, bewilderment and pain in her blue eyes. Angel held her hand out to her and the dog sniffed her. She thumped her tail and Angel picked up Trotsky’s injured paw. She spread it out on her hand. The cut was deep but the cold had staunched the bleeding. There was a contusion on her head too but no damage to the eyes. ‘She’ll be okay,’ said Angel.
‘You know her?’ Relief in the city woman’s voice.
‘Yes,’ said Angel. She coaxed the dog out onto the snow. ‘It’s the dog’s name. Trotsky.’
‘That’s a dumb name for a dog,’ the city woman said.
‘The owner,’ said Angel, ‘told me he’d been a communist when he was young. That’s why he called her that.’
‘Who is he then?’ asked the woman. ‘I know about everyone who has cabins out here.’
‘Yves Fournier,’ said Angel.
The woman’s eyes widened a fraction. ‘The art dealer?’
‘I guess,’ said Angel, her hand on the dog’s neck. ‘He has the cabin on the far side of the lake. There’s a hide up behind his property. For watching the wolves. That’s how we know each other.’ She kept a comforting hand on the dog’s head.
‘The dog is real comfortable with you,’ said the city woman. ‘You spend a lot of time out that way?’
‘Some,’ said Angel. ‘There are gray wolves up here. There were a couple of sightings in the woods behind Fournier’s cabin. There’s a hide and I watch them come and go.’
‘And Fournier helped with that?’ asked the woman. The woman’s eyes were full of questions.
‘Mr Fournier is interested in conservation. He’s been happy to help,’ said Angel.
The city woman contemplated that for a moment.
‘You must know Tommy Jackson?’ said the woman.
‘Yes,’ said Angel. ‘Him and me, we built the hide. His wife’s my boss.’
‘Small world,’ said the city woman.
‘Out here it is,’ said Angel.
‘You don’t miss the city?’ The city woman looked at her sharply. ‘My husband loves it out here, but me, two, three days and I’m more than ready to get back.’
‘I don’t miss it.’
‘You got family there?’
‘Not anymore.’ Trotsky whimpered and Angel was glad of the diversion. ‘We should get her inside,’ she said.
‘You think something happened to the owner?’ asked the woman. ‘Like I said, he didn’t pick up his phone.’
‘I’ll go check,’ said Angel.
‘Okay,’ said the woman. ‘You get some food for the dog. Here’s for expenses.’ She put a hundred dollars in Angel’s hand.
‘I appreciate that, ma’am,’ said Angel.
‘I’ve got to get going now,’ said the city woman, ‘if I am going to keep ahead of that storm.’
Angel watched the woman turn on to the road that led south. She was meant to go that way this weekend to check in with her benefactor. To demonstrate her progress. Trotsky pushed her nose into Angel’s hand.
‘You hungry, girl?’ she asked. The dog thumped her tail. ‘Come with me then.’ Angel returned to the cool room with Trotsky at her heels. She filled the metal pans and carried them outside to the cages. It was two days since they last ate but this feast or famine would give them a fighting chance. This was Angel’s mimicry of the wild into which she hoped to release them. Angel knew what it was to be caged. She didn’t buy it that the risk of dying in hostile terrain wasn’t worth the stab at freedom.
The pack fell on the food as she pushed them in. As in any prison, the biggest animals chose first, the smaller ones settled for what was left to them. But Angel had made sure that there was enough for all and the animals ate in ordered camaraderie once the spoils were divided. She had saved the deer’s liver and that she threw down for Trotsky. The dog fell on the meat. In a minute it was gone and the snow at Angel’s feet was bloody and their friendship was cemented.
Angel clicked her fingers and Fournier’s dog fell into step behind her. She opened the door to the makeshift office and the dog followed her inside. She stoked the fire and laid a blanket out in front of it for Trotsky. The dog curled up and licked her injured paw.
Angel thought about where she had been found—five miles from Fournier’s cabin if one was driving. Three if he had skied across the lake. She took out her phone and scrolled through the list of recent calls. She found Yves Fournier’s number. He had called last week to tell Angel he’d found a lone wolf’s prints over on the other side of the lake. Near where the city woman had found his dog. She dialed the number but it went straight to voicemail. Out of battery or out of range. He had said he could take her there on Monday and that was today. Angel zipped up her jacket again. She looked at Trotsky but the dog did not get up to follow her. Better if she stayed here. There was only one way to find out if Fournier intended to keep their rendezvous. If he didn’t, Angel wanted to know why not. Angel picked up the keys to the truck.
Angel drove with the heat turned right up and the radio on—the news was full of talk of the polar vortex. The earth gripped by an icy winter hand that had reached down from the Arctic. Fountains in Montreal frozen solid in mid-air. Roads blocked. Villages marooned. Communications cut. People lost. A family missing. Four of them—the parents and their young children with them. This was a tough winter. Coldest for sixty years, the radio man said. Angel didn’t need suits and statistics to know it was a killer.
- Margie Orford is the author of the internationally acclaimed Clare Hart novels, published by Jonathan Ball in South Africa and translated into ten languages. The books are currently being developed as a television series. A Fulbright scholar, Margie is an honorary fellow at St Hugh’s College, Oxford and has just completed her PhD at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. She was a judge in 2019 for the AKO Caine Prize for African Literature and is a co-author of the PEN International Women’s Manifesto. The Last Weekend is a thriller-in-progress. The Gift—her first romance novel—will be out on Audible in late 2020, as will Ophelia, Queen of Denmark, a prose poem, published by the art publisher, Tetrapod Press. Her memoir, Jumping Ship, will be published by Jonathan Ball in 2021. Follow her on Twitter.