Galina let go of Ulf, not knowing when or if she’d see him again. She didn’t understand why he had to go; just that she couldn’t stop him.
The dark curls of her hair clung to her face in the dampness of the morning mist, and a single tear hung at the edge of her eye as Ulf stamped his paws in the earth and howled. He bowed before her, staring up slightly to align his silver eyes with hers. He bounced onto his front paws and barked, waving his head toward the horizon.
He barked once more at Galina, but as she reached up to touch his nose, he darted off. His fluffy white tail bounced in and out of view over the grass like a bobbing bunny ear until he was gone.
Galina moaned and inhaled a breath, which seemed to get snagged on a barb in her throat. She wanted to cry out to Ulf to come back. She wanted to pound her fists on the moist ground, but she didn’t. Instead, she dug her tiny fingers into her palms and released, repeating the motion until her heart slowed.
Wrapping her tiny arms around her whisper-thin frame, Galina tried to stifle the audible growling of her stomach. It just wouldn’t stop. It was like there was a raccoon in there clawing out her insides, complaining there was nothing to eat.
The bright yellow balloon in the sky had crested the horizon and plummeted into darkness a few times since she had found bright, blueberries like her mama used to bring home after a long walk in the Taiga. They hung on a bushâ€”not too far from where she stood nowâ€”like little candies. She had plucked two fistfuls and stuffed the berries into her jean pockets. But they didn’t taste like mamaâ€™s berries anymore.
In spite of that, Galina put a berry into her mouth, her face contorting as she ate; the flavor like a pinch on her tongue.
She sat down and inched her way back into the shallow hole she’d dug into the ground before sheâ€™d found the berries. Her mini chasm amongst the grasses had been home to her and Ulf for quite some time; for how long, she didnâ€™t know. It was long enough to become native, familiar with every bump in the night. She used long, thin blades of verdure to make a bed inside and she curled into a little ball on top of the bed. The soles of her tennis shoes pulled away from her feet as she dragged them behind, so she reached back and pulled them off. The red and green tank top she wore was the last thing her mama bought for her at some place called a “market.” Galina didn’t like how she couldn’t smell home on her clothes anymore. They just smelled fetid and sour from the scent of her body mixed with dirt.
What would she do at night with Ulf gone? He had kept her warm while she slept and kept the bad animals away with his snarl. She could bury her face in his white and gray fur and wrap her arms around him when he’d curl up beside her. Would the monsters that rustled and groused in the unfathomable dark leave her alone without Ulf as sentry?
She wanted her mama and papa. She hadn’t seen either of them inâ€¦she couldnâ€™t remember. Her last memory was watching her papa leave in his white truckâ€“â€“a dented heap of metal that made an ear-piercing screech whenever he got into the thing. It had a doddering rumble that was as hesitant and persistent as he. Mama had always said papa had bad posture because he worked too hard, and his job was risky. He’d been gone for days while at work and Galina missed him terribly.
That last memoryâ€”the last time he leftâ€”Galina had stood outside their house with her arms at her sides, crying. Her mama tried to console her, saying he’d be back soon and to be patient, but Galina still cried until her eyes and head throbbed with pain. Ulf had stayed next to her pushing his nose into her hand each time she sobbed.
Galina thought she saw her papa lean out the door and say something before he left, but he drove away before she could reply. Sheâ€™d dug her fingers into her palms, then too, and licked the salty tears from her lips.
That’s when her mama reached for Galina’s hands. “Stop it, Galina.” She touched Galina’s face with the back of her index finger. “No need to worry. He’s weary but durable, like that truck of his.â€ť
Galina didn’t believe her. It felt like he wasn’t coming back like something would happen to him. Mama had gone inside, leaving Galina alone with her sorrow. Sheâ€™d bolted at a full sprint down the dirt road away from the house and into the Taiga.
Ulf followed close behind, his paws pattering soundlessly on the tundra. Galina ran through the towering spruce trees that loomed over the dirt road like dark prickly umbrellas. She thought she could still hear the doddering rumble just a little bit farther down the road, faint but recognizable.
Sheâ€™d taken a short cut through the woods and ran until her legs felt like dough. But when she stopped, the Taiga was dense and repeating, an interminable maze of flora. She and Ulf wandered and turned, but Galina couldn’t find her way home. Everything was strange, misplacedâ€”she couldnâ€™t find her way home.
Galina’s heart sank with the memory. That day felt like ages ago. She stared outside the hole, teary-eyed. She rolled sour berries between her fingertips until she slept.
* * *
A bird landed in the grass just outside the hole, waking Galina with a warbling chirp. The bird ducked its head into the earth, hopped closer. She studied its white throat, its sleek brown and spotted body. She reached out to touch it, but it launched upward. Galina wished she could make friends with birds. Maybe the bird could tell her where her parents were. Maybeâ€¦
She pushed herself out of the hole and absconded after the bird, following it as it swooped and dove through the sky above her. She ambled through the grass as best she could, but her legs felt awkward and fatigued. She pushed her way through the tall undergrowth until she reached the river, but the bird had disappeared like magic.
She knelt down on the bank, the sound of rushing water filling her ears. She plunged her hands into the cool water and slurped it out of her cupped palms. The water had an earthy taste, but no flavor. If she ever got home, she’d ask her mama about this. She sat back, glanced across the riverâ€”a brown bear stood on the other side.
The bear stared at her and took a heavy step or two forward. Galina wished for Ulf. If only he would appear right now. He would know what to do. He would have pulled her away like he did whenever she got scared. He would have grabbed her shirt with his teeth and tugged. She wanted to see him againâ€”himâ€¦and her parents.
The bear growled and stood on its hind legs. It was as tall as the conifers surrounding them, a brown, furry behemoth with a wet, cavernous mouth. If she didn’t move soon, it would eat her, she was sure of it. She swallowed and her throat felt like cracked bamboo, dry and aching, despite the water.
She wanted to go home. Now. Maybe she could find Ulf.
She backed away from the river and crab-crawled up the bank slowly. Her fingers peeled away the cool mud underneath, slipping. Once she reached the higher ground, she turned and scampered into the tundra. She pulled at the air with her arms and lifted her legs as high as they would go. She perspired with the effort. She could hear the bear groaning behind her, but his snorts grew softer. He wasn’t chasing her.
That night, Galina shivered in her hole. She curled into the fetal position with her arms wrapped around her knees, and squeezed her eyes shut until she heard an inward roar. She pressed her face into the wet grass and then covered her ears in a futile effort to drown out the howls, slithers, cracks and snaps of intruders lurking amongst the trees and in the grasses nearby. She kept her eyes closed.
She pushed her body against the bottommost part of the hole so only her front was exposed, swathing herself in straw so only her face was visible. Her teeth chattered and her mind ran wild with visions of a monster bear and its teeth. Eventually, she slept.
When the big yellow balloon winked over the snowy mountains at dawn, Galina heard the barking, soft and distant.
“Ulf?” she asked out loud, her voice no more than a gurgle from lack of use. The barking resonated, became sharper, crisper.
“Ulf!” Galina scrambled to get out of the hole, wincing from the stiffness of sleeping in the same position all night. She tried to stand on bare feet, but fell. Her legs were numb, stuck. She fixed her eyes on the Taiga, barely visible over the grass. But she saw enough.
It was Ulf. He bounded through the tundra toward her, his tongue projecting from his mouth like a pendulous flag. His ears peaked forward in her direction. People wearing reflective uniforms followed him. They were calling Galina’s name.
As Ulf reached Galina and enthusiastically licked her face, Galinaâ€™s papa approached. He was hunched over a walking stick, and had dark circles around his eyes. Tears streamed down his cheeks when he saw Galina. He reached for her, held her frail body to his chest. The smell of home on his clothes and the rhythm of his gait rocked Galina to sleep as he carried her to the medics with Ulf trotting close by.