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Zack McClintock, an over-the-hill "security consultant," knows he isn't up to traveling to Central Asia in search of his kidnapped son-in-law. A group claiming to be Islamic fundamentalists has first demanded a million-dollar ransom, then suddenly offered to free the son-in-law if a deranged and feral local child, fallen into the hands of an American woman, is flown to the United States. Zack finds himself in a country teetering on the edge of anarchy, wracked by tribal and sectarian violence, but even he is ...
Zack McClintock, an over-the-hill "security consultant," knows he isn't up to traveling to Central Asia in search of his kidnapped son-in-law. A group claiming to be Islamic fundamentalists has first demanded a million-dollar ransom, then suddenly offered to free the son-in-law if a deranged and feral local child, fallen into the hands of an American woman, is flown to the United States. Zack finds himself in a country teetering on the edge of anarchy, wracked by tribal and sectarian violence, but even he is surprised by how quickly things come apart. Threatened on all sides by deceit, betrayal, and random violence, Zack discovers that the greatest jeopardy originates in the human heart as he tries to understand whether he's being confronted with a last chance at salvation or just another enormous loss.
Shelter from the Storm is storytelling at its best. The timely plot, taut writing, and powerful characters make it a rare achievement.
The wolf boy, the wild child, the strange feral creature appeared early one spring as the iced-over streams started to crack and the blown snow on the steppes was melting. In that place whose history, in its most objective rendering, read like a conflation of myth, magic and madness, and where recent events were so turbulent and improbable that any future, or no future, seemed possible, each sign was seen as an omen of potential catastrophe.
The first villagers to spot him kept their distance and watched warily. These were mountain people. They lived with their livestock in huts-dank, cave-like and carved out of rock. Having just wakened from what amounted to months of winter hibernation, they imagined the boy to be a dream-memory or a lingering shade from the spirit world. It was the custom of their clan to butcher animals on feast days and dress the bloody carcasses in human clothing. Then they wrapped themselves in animal hides and cantered about disguised as beasts. Legend had it that their ancestors descended from a she-wolf that mated with a man in the Heavenly Mountains. To this day when a baby was born heavily downed with hair, the villagers believed a yeti had been among them. So while the wild boy worried them, it didn't so much shock as fascinate them to see him lap water from the communal trough. Silent and stock still, they let him drink and attempted to take his measure.
He was naked, down on his hands and knees. Steam rose in ripples from his bare, weather-browned skin. Bony and misshapen, he might have been mistaken for a cripple, with long stringy arms, claw-like hands and prehensile toes. Yet he moved with lupine grace, and there was a wolfishnarrowness to his face. When he caught their scent and jerked up his head, he gazed at them through tilted, agate-colored eyes. Then he whirled around, low to the ground, and disappeared downhill, draining out of their lives and leaving them to the laborious process of assimilating what they had witnessed into tribal lore.
Down on the treeless plains, wind was constant, and people studied it as a sailor would the sea or an aviator the sky. Whenever it blew from the mountains, it was glacial and brought killing frosts and blizzards. When it swung around from the opposite direction, it combed across a thousand miles of desert and carried tons of airborne dust. Wind from the west stank of oil wells and chemical plants, insecticide and fertilizer. The villagers preferred the familiar smell out of the east, an aromatic reminder of horses that had endured ever since the armies of their ancestors arrived a millennium before, bearing nothing but weapons-no art, no skills that weren't martial and only a single maniacal idea: that battle, not building; destruction, not creation, was man's fate and final legacy. These warriors rode for days, sleeping in the saddle, soothed by the susurrus of waist-deep grass that parted and closed behind them. They didn't dismount even to eat. They opened slits in the necks of their horses and drank the blood. This left their lips rouged like a whore's. Myth had it that their leader, Genghis Khan, came from the congress of a wolf with a deer.
The men who lived here still rode horses and they spotted the wild child with a pack of pariah dogs. Starting off on all fours, he built speed in a few strides, then raised up and ran on two legs. It didn't seem to them that he was being chased. Yapping like a puppy, he frisked and howled along with the rest of the pack. A mane of lank hair streamed from his head. Dark tufts sprouted from his back, spiked as the bristles that roached up on the spines of the growling mongrels.
The men mounted up and pursued the boy. To them this was like buzkashi, a brutal variant of polo played with a hundred and fifty riders to a team and a dead goat in place of a ball. The boy, too, appeared to regard it as a game-a darting, dervishing pageant that men and animals participated in together. The riders later claimed they couldn't catch him. They coursed the steppes and never gained on him. They said that he remained tantalizingly beyond their grasp, a chimera at the edge of the earth. A few admitted that they didn't care to catch him. They were afraid that once they had him in their hands he would change into something else.
Their terror was as nothing, however, compared to the panic that already gripped cities throughout the region. Wracked by food riots, violence between ethnic clans, turf wars between drug lords and Islamic fundamentalists, they also suffered a ferocious backlash from the Russians who had been stranded there after the Soviet Union disintegrated. Everyone was armed, and each night, along with darkness and a slight diminishment in the heat, there came eruptions of gunfire. Sometimes this signaled a bank robbery or revenge killing, sometimes a mafia wedding where guests shot off automatic weapons in drunken exuberance.
When the wolf child stumbled into this petrie dish of urban disasters, the fear was that he carried disease. Typhus, polio, leprosy and plague-illnesses long thought to have been eradicated-spread through the poorest neighborhoods, and new scourges seemed inevitable. Scavengers at the garbage dump claimed they had seen the boy eat meat too rotten and tainted for any human being. Families found him in their gardens stealing apples and cherries, and they drove him off with stones. He was accused of killing chickens and rabbits, snatching lambs and calves. Some said he disemboweled them, gobbled only their internal organs and abandoned the mutilated carcasses. Others argued that he didn't just consume farm animals, carrion and road kill. He dug up graves and devoured the dead.
Too frightened and befuddled to deal with the boy themselves, people did the unexpected. They appealed to ragtag remnants of the army. Normally, the accepted wisdom was to avoid soldiers at all costs, but this was one emergency when military firepower might help them. The terrified populace figured that if the wolf child were flesh and blood, not some ghostly figment of fevered imagination, troops could shoot him down.
The next time he materialized at the garbage dump, a team of soldiers was waiting for him. They harried the boy out onto the salt flats where blinding white crystals had hardened into a crust. It buckled under his weight, and his feet stove through the surface into damp silt. That slowed him down and exhaustion finally stopped him. A swollen pink tongue lolled from his split lips. His rib cage pumped and deflated and pumped again, each anxious in-suck of air pressing his skin tight against the wickerwork of bones.
Although they had him in the crosshairs of their rifles, the soldiers didn't fire. They could see how skinny and sick and scared he was, just a kid of eleven or twelve, with bleeding sores on his elbows and knees. Dirt, whorled and closely woven as a garment, covered his nakedness from head to foot. Cuts on his chest and face had healed over without having been cleaned, and grains of sand tattooed the scar tissue in beaded hieroglyphics. What they had taken for hair tufted down his backbone was actually mud and matted grass. For all the ungodliness of his appearance, the men believed they knew what he was-a shell-shocked survivor from the battalions of boy soldiers, a member of one of the massed divisions of cannon fodder that had been routinely dispatched to the front lines in the recent war. After a day of religious indoctrination and no military training, the kids were ordered to march across miles of open fields while, following in their footsteps at a careful distance, the regular army kept to the paths that had been cleared by these unwitting minesweepers.
Miraculously, a small number of them came through the carnage and knee-deep gore more or less alive. But they were hollow-eyed and unhinged. Wailing prayers and imprecations, jibbering suras from the Koran, they stripped off their uniforms and fled naked. The soldiers thought the boy was one of them-a mute remnant from the human wave, too wasted to do anything now except kneel in animal resignation waiting for whatever befell him next. If they brought him to the barracks, they hoped that might bring him back to his senses. But he shocked them by resisting help. When they tried to touch him, he bared his broken teeth, hissed and arched his spine. Rearing upright, he lashed at them with his hands, raking their arms and faces, tearing off ribbons of skin and leaving splinters of his filthy fingernails in their flesh. He bit them. He head-butted and bowled over one man and gnashed at his throat. It took four of them to pull him off. Then they beat him unconscious with a canteen.
They trussed him up in chains and tossed him into an armored personnel carrier. On the clattering ride through the countryside and the barely smoother and quieter drive over a road potholed by weather and war, he clanged around on the metal floor. Whenever he started to stand up, the soldiers knocked him flat.
At a military cantonment, they carried the boy into an empty cage in the guard dog kennel and unchained him. Dogs in neighboring pens barked and hurled themselves at the bars, eager to get at him, sample his smell, challenge him, fight him. But as he climbed to his feet and circled the cage, they fell quiet and watched with confusion. One instant he had appeared to be an animal, the next moment something approximating a man.
He struggled to squeeze between the bars, then seemed to remember that he had hands. Squatting on his rump, he fumbled at the gate, fretting with the lock. He rattled and scratched it, but in the end went back to being an animal. He bit the lock, and when that didn't break it, he wheeled in frustration and paced the cage. His fingernails scraped against the concrete floor as if against slate. He swung his head from side to side, sniffing the air, snapping his teeth. His shoulders twitched, shaking off flies. Others promptly replaced them, roosting on his lips and eyelids and open sores. He didn't bother to bat them away.
He began to whine and whimper, then fell to his hands and knees and arched his backbone. An abrupt fit of coughing turned to convulsions and he retched and vomited and fouled himself. What fell out of him at either end wriggled with pinkish-white worms. A soldier fetched a fire hose and drove the boy into a corner. The high-pressure spray cleaned the mess off the floor and scoured the mud and weeds off the kid. Now he was truly naked, and resembled a sable peeled of its pelt. The man aimed the hose between the boy's legs. To protect himself, he grabbed his genitals and screamed. This gave his captors an idea, something to do during dead stretches of the day. Whenever the kid calmed down, they stirred him up with the hose.
That night they got drunk and dragged one of the camp whores to the kennel, tossed her into the cage and told her to fuck the wild child. When she refused, they hosed them both down. The jolting force of the water ripped the woman's clothes off and flattened her against the kid. He sank his teeth into her naked shoulder. The soldiers got a laugh out of this-until the boy's bite drew blood. They had to rush into the cage and pry the two of them apart. As the soldiers resumed drinking, there was general agreement that the kid must be truly crazy and hadn't been in the army after all. Otherwise he wouldn't have attacked the woman or spat out the vodka they force-fed him.
Bored, they abandoned the kennel, taking the whore back to the barracks. The boy crept over to the gate and discovered that they had left it unlocked. Within seconds, he was out of the cage and had clambered over the cantonment fence. Racing through fields of brick rubble, he heard the roar of wind and the howl of penned-up guard dogs in his ears.
He advanced in darkness toward the center of town and the Grand Mosque. A minaret of blue ceramic tile inlaid with gold leaf roiled in moonlight so that the elegant calligraphy that encircled its cylinder appeared to revolve. The gilt letters quoting the Koran were of a size and shape that suggested the legendary beasts-griffins, basilisks and horned seahorses-on an antique carousel. High up in this glittering alphabet jungle, a guttural voice gushed from the minaret, beckoning the boy on.
By now he was very sick. He had cankers on his throat, and it tormented him to swallow or breathe. Scrabbling for food in a trash bin, he fainted, and that's where the woman found him.
She was tall, with sun-freckled skin and long reddish-blond hair. She might have been mistaken for a Russian, but she was American, in her mid-thirties. Faint vertical lines crimped her upper lip; crow's-feet at the corners of her eyes deepened as she squinted at the boy. She had seen starving children in the streets before, but none who looked like this-naked, his hands and feet clawing the ground like a dog lost in a dream of running. She had heard the stories. Her neighbors saw it as their obligation to warn her of all rumors of danger. Still, she scooped up the wild child and carried him into her house.
--from Shelter from the Storm by Michael Mewshaw, Copyright © 2003 by Michael Mewshaw, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Posted December 9, 2008
In Central Asia, American researcher Kathryn Matthews takes in a ¿wolf¿ boy who just materialized from the nearby wilderness. The natives believe animals raised the lad as he behaves as such. At about the same time, middle aged American Zack McClintock arrives in country seeking his missing son-in-law Zack after recently receiving a ransom note demanding one million-dollars. A second letter also arrived demanding instead of cash that Zack take a boy to America for treatment. The US State Department tells Zack to go home, but instead he goes deeper into the country escorted by the Russian Mafioso, Misha. Zack meets Kathryn and her ¿ward¿, the wolf boy, among other characters carving out a post Soviet enclave, but wonders where his in-law fits in this chaos. SHELTER FROM THE STORM is an engaging suspense thriller that showcases a nameless post Soviet State country struggling to find its identity in a strange world. The story line is action-packed. However, the plot fails to fully grip the reader because Zack¿s mission seems not only out of character, but it is also never totally understood why he went overseas and in country for someone he apparently does not like. Still Michael Mewshaw is a colorful author whose latest tale will provide shelter for sub-genre fans from the storms of boredom. Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.