“Once there was a boy who lived with his father and his little sister in a wood. The boy's mother had died not long before, and so the boy was sad and his father was sad too. And because his mother had died and his father had to work all day long, that boy often had to look after his baby sister. Sometimes he did not mind looking after her, but sometimes he did, and that's the truth. She was heavy to carry and he could not leave her alone. But he liked to explore the wood and he liked to climb trees as well, so one day he tied the baby on to his back and he set off into the woods to go on an adventure further away from his home than he had ever been before.
It was a fine day and the boy had some bread and cheese to eat and some milk for the baby, and soon enough he was out of the part of the wood he knew and amongst trees he had never seen before. Magnificent trees these were, you should have seen them! They rose up to incredible heights with branches coming out straight and sure as the trunk went up: easy to climb. So of course the boy began to climb a tree. He chose one that was at the top of a rise because he knew that meant it would be higher than all the others and so he would be able to see a long way if he could get up to the top. But climbing a tree with a heavy, sleeping baby tied to your back is not easy, you try it! The boy got so far, but then found himself stuck, so he clambered down again carefully, untied his sister from his back and left her there, sleeping soundly at the bottom of the tree.
You can guess what happened easily enough. The boy climbed the tree and marvelled at how far he could see over the wood as it spread out in all directions. He could not see the edge of the wood though, and that made him sigh. He had always lived in that wood and so he had never in his life seen open land, but after he had stood there and wondered for long enough, he climbed down, and when he got to the bottom of the tree he found that his baby sister was gone.
He looked for her all around, but he did not look carefully or for long. He was just a boy and he was frightened. He ran all the way home and told his father what had happened. It was dark by then, and his father was frightened too. That boy's father was sad all the time, and being frightened made him angry. He beat his son and flung him into a corner. “You've left your sister alone and the wolves have taken her!” he shouted, and the boy felt horribly ashamed.
Early in the morning, before his father woke, the boy got up from the floor where he had slept and set off back into the wood to look for his sister. He took an axe with him, because of the wolves, and he was terrified. He walked through the daybreak wood, which was stranger and more alarming than it had been the night before, all the way to the place he had left his sister. He searched properly this time, and he called his sister's name as well. She knew her name, even though she had not yet learned how to talk. He moved out in wider and wider circles around that tree, but he did not find her.
And then he heard a sound that froze him to the spot where he stood, for he knew somehow what it was. An enormous wolf came out from the undergrowth and walked towards him.
It was not an ordinary wolf; it was much bigger than that. The boy stepped back, but he was too frightened to run. The creature did not look angry, or as if it was going to attack, but it did look serious. He looks as if he is about to speak, the boy thought.
The wolf did speak. He spoke human language in a voice that was deep and growling. “You are the boy,” the wolf said. It spoke very slowly. “You are the boy who left the child here. She was howling for milk and she did not like being alone, so we took her away and fed her.”
The boy was amazed to hear a wolf speak. He was awed by it so that it nearly took his voice away. “May I have her back?” he managed to ask. “Please?”
The boy's father had not been able to sleep properly that night, but he did sleep in the end, and he woke up late to find that his son was gone. He felt a cold wind blow through his heart at that. His baby daughter was gone, and now his son was gone too. But he shook himself and became sensible again. It was his own fault for losing his temper and he was sorry about that now. He took up his bow and arrows and a bag of food, and set off into the wood. It was a part of the wood he knew well and he found the boy's trail easily and followed it.
When he saw his boy standing in front of a great grey wolf and looking so small there, he did not think at all. He fitted an arrow silently to his bow, took careful aim and in an instant the creature lay dead.
But there were other wolves. The father had not known that, and neither did the boy.
The boy looked up and saw his father standing, bow in hand, and the world spun around him. He looked at that miraculous and magical creature lying dead at his feet, but only for a moment. For all around him massive wolves crept out of the trees and the undergrowth, snarling and baring their teeth. None of them looked as if they wanted to talk to him; they only seemed to want to eat him! So he ran to his father and the two of them hared off into the wood towards their home.
The boy and his father lived in the wood after that for years, and they spent days and months searching for the boy's little sister, but they never found her. And they never found the wolves again either, not the wolves themselves or any kind of sign they had ever been there at all.”
This is a story that Sayman the miller told to his son Misha when he was small, after his mother had died. In the book, Sayman remembers and tells the story, and as he tells it he wonders how he could have told such a sad story to a child who had just lost his own mother. But Misha loved the story, and Serena loved it too, once she was old enough to listen and understand. And she made up her own ideas about what happened to the baby girl who was taken by wolves.