There was a legend that haunted that place, the kind that clings like a persistent odor. It was rumored that in late autumn every year—before the rain turned to snow—the mountain lake would begin to exhale sinister murmurs.
They came from the water like steam and rose over the banks with the morning mist when the surface of the lake reflected the sky, heaven mirrored in hell. That was when the hissing began, a sound like a protracted howl that enveloped the late nineteenth-century building on the eastern shore of the lake.
The School. That’s what they called it, down in the village, though the purpose and the description of the building had shifted through the years, from imperial hunting lodge, to Nazi command center, to a sanatorium for consumptive children.
Now there was only silence along its corridors, only peeling walls, crumbling plaster, and the echoes of solitary footsteps—and in November, the howling that unfurled through the fog, rising to the top floor windows and onto the pitched roof glistening with frost.
But legends were for children, the elderly and nostalgic, and for the faint of heart. This much, Agnes Braun knew. The School had been her home for long enough that she wouldn’t let something like nocturnal whispers get to her. She had memorized the creak of each floorboard and every rusty pipe winding through the entrails of those walls—even though most of the building’s floors were closed off now, and many rooms boarded shut.
Ever since the School had been converted into an orphanage, public funding had dwindled and no private benefactor had come forward with a donation.
Agnes walked across the kitchen, which was situated in the basement between the pantry and the laundry room. Pushing her trolley, she weaved her way through cooking pots that would soon be steaming with greasy vapors. She was alone, at that hour suspended between night and day; her only companions were the shadow of a furtive rat and the shapes of slaughtered animals left to hang inside what used to be an ice box.
She took the service elevator up to the first floor. This part of the building was her responsibility, but recently this task had begun to fill her with a nameless dread, like a latent fever that never quite flared up.
The elevator groaned under the combined weight of her body and the trolley, the chains and the cables began to squeal, and the cage rattled as it rose, coming to a shaky halt a few meters above. Agnes pulled the metal grate open. The damp-stained first floor corridor was a long narrow band of dull blue, with a constellation of large panelled windows on one side.
A windowpane was banging against its frame in a steady rhythm. She left her trolley and went over to close the window. The glass was cold and fogged over; she wiped at it with one hand and made a porthole of sorts. Down in the valley, the light of dawn had begun to illuminate the village. The roofs of the houses looked like tiny lead-colored tiles. Further up, at 1,700 meters above sea level and between the settlement and the School, the motionless expanse of the lake was beginning to turn pink beneath the mist. The sky was clear. But Agnes knew that the sun that day wouldn’t bring any warmth to their steep, sloping clearing—by now she had learned to interpret the migraines that plagued her the moment she stepped out of bed.
The fog rose to engulf everything in its path: light, sounds, even smells became imbued with its stagnating presence, that essence of ancient bones. It seemed to come to life as it climbed over the frostbitten grass, and from its tendrils came forth those laments.
The sighs of the dead, thought Agnes.
It was the Buran, a fierce north-easterly wind. From its source in distant steppes, it had journeyed thousands of kilometers and forced its way into this valley, roaring against the river banks below the tree line, whirling across the floodplains, and howling as it emerged on the other side, only to crash against the rock wall of the mountain.
It’s just the wind, she kept telling herself.
The pendulum clock in the atrium chimed six times. It was getting late, but Agnes stood still. She was conscious that she was stalling, and she also knew exactly why.
It’s all in your head. All in your head.
She gripped the trolley’s metal handle, and the bowls on it clattered as she finally willed herself to take a few steps toward the door at the end of the corridor.
Her stomach contracted with the abrupt realization that it really was a hive. That’s what it had become over the past few weeks. There was a subtle, mysterious buzz of activity about the place, like a diligent insect preparing for metamorphosis. Agnes was sure of it, though she wouldn’t have been able to explain what was happening in there. She hadn’t said a word to anyone, not even the principal: he would have thought she was going mad.
She put her hand in the pocket of her uniform and her fingers found the coarse material of her hood. She took it out and pulled it over her head. A thin veil covered her face and eyes, obscuring the outside world. That was the rule.
She walked in.
The room was completely silent. A few embers from inside the large cast-iron stove near the door were emitting a pleasant warmth. There were forty cots in the room, arranged in four rows of ten. No names to mark them: only numbers.
There were no cries nor calls. Agnes knew what she would have seen if only she’d looked: blank, vacant gazes.
With one exception.
Now that she’d become accustomed to the silence, she could hear him kicking at the far end of the room, building his strength. He was preparing for something, although she couldn’t say what. Maybe she really was insane.
Her footsteps brought her closer to cot number 39.
Unlike the others, this subject was thriving. His eyes, which were so unusual, were alert and darted about following her movements. Agnes knew that the subject was seeking out her eyes behind the veil of her hood, but she kept looking away, embarrassed. Subject 39 shouldn’t have been aware of her presence, and yet . . .
She checked to make sure that no member of staff was looking through the door, and then she extended a finger. The subject bit it, squeezing her flesh tight between its gums. The expression in its eyes was different now, electric. Agnes pulled back, cursing, and it let out a short, anxious moan.
That’s its true nature, she thought. A carnivore.
What happened next convinced her that she could no longer keep her suspicions private: the cots next to number 39 were no longer quiet. The other subjects’ breathing had turned agitated, as if they were responding to a call.
The Hive was buzzing.
The crow lay by the footpath, its crumpled feathers streaked with purple and its beak wide open. There was blood staining the ground beneath its swollen belly, but even in that damp afternoon it had already dried up. Who knew how long the poor creature had been there, one blank eyeball pointing toward a sky that promised snow, and the other eye lost entirely.
Mathias had been crouching over it for a while. He wondered whether the fleas had abandoned their host the moment its heart had stopped beating; he’d heard a hunter talk about that once, and the thought had tormented him for some time. It was a detail that seemed both fascinating and ominous.
He touched the crow with the tip of his finger. It was an older specimen. He could tell from its beak, which was bald and pale. Its legs had gone stiff, and its sturdy talons gripped thin air.
He quickly wiped his gloves on his trousers. His father would have smacked him if he’d found out. He’d often caught his son observing the carcasses of small animals in the garden or in the pine grove behind their house, and he’d berated him for it, calling him a word Mathias hadn’t heard before, but which sounded quite ugly. He’d looked it up in the dictionary. He couldn’t remember what it meant, but it had something to do with madness.
Mathias wanted to be a veterinarian when he grew up, and he’d take any chance to learn something. His grandfather had once told him that observing did half the job of learning. The rest would come so long as you tried and tried again. The boy stood up, his eyes still fixed on the animal. At first he wanted to bury it, but then he thought it might be better this way: nature was carnivorous and would appreciate those remains. They would not go to waste.
He heard the church bells in the town ring twice, followed by a third half-chime. It was getting late; the others were waiting for him in their secret place.
He set out along the frozen path. That morning, the village of Travenì had woken up to a coating of snow. It was only a light dusting and had melted away too fast, but it bode well for the forthcoming skiing season.
He reached the bluff that rose near the village. The memorial to the fallen soldiers of the Napoleonic wars soared through the low woodland of spruce and pine trees: a bronze grenadier scowling as he surveyed the horizon, his long mustache curling upwards. A blue scarf fluttered from the tip of his bayonet, indicating that a member of their group had already gotten there and climbed all the way up the statue to set up their signal.
Mathias sped up. Earlier that day the teacher had taught them the meaning of the English word “leader.” It had made a huge impression on him. He liked how definitive it sounded, but most of all he liked the idea of being an example for others to follow.
The teacher had explained that a leader protects his team, which was exactly what Mathias tried to do with his friends. He knew they saw him as the head of their group, and not just because he was the eldest—ten years, two months, and two weeks old, to be precise—but because they knew they could rely on him.
That was why the scarf tied to the statue should have been his, not Diego’s. He should have got there first and led the way, though they all knew that path well enough by now. Instead, he’d wasted time staring at some dead animal on the side of the road. Maybe his father was right after all.
The grenadier’s bluff was surrounded by sheer rocky cliffs that plunged straight onto the bed of a stream. Water purled through fronds of dark reeds a few dozen meters below.
Mathias set out along the path that led down the cliff in sharp turns, bounding along as fast as he could and gripping the fence that flanked the track whenever he felt stones give way beneath the soles of his sneakers. He was out of breath by the time he reached the gravelly riverbed, his knees shaking and his face burning with the effort.
He followed the gully as it unfurled along its winding route, carved out over thousands of years. There were stepping stones over the water and wooden and metal stairways clinging to the rock walls. Beneath the metal grates the river was streaked with ruby-colored light, and smelled of ice. The light and the warmth of the sun rarely reached the depths of the ravine.
Mathias could hear the sounds of his own breathing and of his heart beating in his chest, and became aware of how completely alone he was. Tourists tended to favor the ski slopes at this time of year; it was too cold down here, and there was always the risk of a fall.
He started to walk faster without quite knowing why.
The sliver of sky he could see through the sharp peaks of the pine trees some sixty meters above his head was spanned by an old railway bridge from a line that was no longer operational. His grandfather’s grandfather had helped to build it, a century and a half ago.
Mathias was walking with his face upturned when he slipped on an icy rock and banged his knee. His exclamation was echoed by a sound coming from the forest. A low cry. He spun around, his breathing shallow.
His mother’s words leapt to his mind: “The forest is no place for children.”
He pulled himself up and didn’t bother to check for any damage to his jeans or scrapes on the palms of his hands, though he could feel them chafing inside his woolen gloves. He crossed a gangway that led around a protruding boulder. Wet moss on one side, rapids on the other. The path led to a small cave. Mathias ran the length of those few meters in the dark, telling himself it wasn’t fear that pushed his legs to go faster, but merely haste.
When he emerged on the other side, he stopped. A ray of sunlight had pierced the green canopy of trees, bathing the undergrowth in gold. The waterfall that powered the stream took a fearsome plunge and sprayed tiny droplets of water as it crashed down; in summer, when there was more light filtering down here, those droplets were traversed by the colors of the rainbow.
His friends were sitting in a circle on the rocky beach, waiting for him. Lucia, Diego, and Oliver. As soon as he saw them, his fears vanished. A smile appeared on his lips. There was no one behind him. No one had followed him there. He looked back defiantly into the dark depths of the cave. He’d won; he was a true leader.
But soon his smile dimmed until it disappeared altogether.
He was sure of it now.
There was someone hiding in the dark, watching him.