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The Year of the Wolf

Johanna Holmström

The Year of the Wolf is a novella from Johanna Holmström’s collection of linked stories, Camera Obscura.

In The Year of the Wolf, four young environmental activists go to live in a cabin in the Finnish forest as a retreat from consumer society. The driving force behind this move is Anna, whose childhood friend Ida has recently committed suicide in protest against materialism.

That morning the old man comes before they’ve had a chance to wake up properly. Lotta is standing in the kitchen, lighting the wood burner, about to brew organically-grown coffee on the hot plate, and she sees him through the window, fast approaching, hunched and muttering. They’ve already got used to his way of turning up and his benign grumpiness, but now he’s angry. The sparks are flying off him as he approaches, and she goes quickly to warn the others.

“Something’s up,” she says, and they reach the kitchen in time to see the old man barge in and stop just inside the door. He stands still a moment and looks at them; they huddle together; and then he lifts the rifle he’s holding and shakes it. Sebbe cries out, and Anna, who is standing next to him, flinches.

“Thought you were so clever, didn’t you?” screams the old man. “You sodding animal rights bastards.”

He spits on the floor and Lotta recoils – she’s the one who’ll have to clean, after all, the one who’ll have to mop up, the one who’ll have to restore order, no spit, no dirt – but she says nothing.

“What the hell are you on about?” Markus asks. He is still half-asleep, with his light brown hair sticking up. “This may well be your cabin, but we’re renting it, and we don’t want you stomping in whenever you like and…and…and swearing and carrying on.”

The old man stares at him with his small, glittering eyes. “Christ!” he says. “I should’ve known this was a bad idea, but I needed the money…”

“I don’t understand,” Anna says. “What’s going on?”

“All right then,” the old man says. “Play innocent if you want. But who else could it have been? There’s no other tree-huggers round here. And it weren’t one of us, damn it.” He spits again, and this time Lotta can’t help herself.

She steps forward and puts out her hand. “Could you kindly refrain from spitting? After all, you’re not the one who’ll have to clean it up. Instead perhaps could you consider telling us what it is you’re accusing us of so we can get to the bottom of it,” she says in the polished tone she uses when dealing with authority, and it helps – the old man lifts his rifle and aims it at her, which is progress of a sort.

They stand like that for a while. Little Lotta with her snow white skin and a gun in her face, and the old man at the other end.

Then he lowers the rifle again and gives them a surly look.

“Four kids were running about in the forest in the early hours. Four! I’m telling you – you got away with it this once, but there won’t be a next time. Next time, we shoot. Anything that moves,” he says, and he turns on his heel and goes.

Lotta collapses onto the chair next to the low, square table in the kitchen. She doesn’t want to make eye contact, but Anna sees that her hand is shaking before she folds her arms to hide it and forces it to be still. She sits down opposite Lotta and looks at her, at her auburn hair and her freckled nose, the stubborn, watery blue eyes, and she feels an urge to claw her thin, pink eyelids, her smooth, white neck. Sebbe and Markus sit down too, and then they just sit there, Sebbe with his head lowered, staring at the table top, Markus with a protective arm around Lotta, and they sit in silence in the wooden kitchen, surrounded by the smell of varnish, with the forest outside the walls and the wilderness at the door.

Then Anna asks, “What was that about?” and Sebbe raises his head and gives her a look.

He is struggling hard to hold something back, and for the second time in just twenty-four hours, she sees him wrestling with words. She sighs and looks away; she’s had enough of him, and of Lotta and Markus too. She just wants to get out, to the mountain and the other cabin where she will be given tea made with dried mint from the herb garden near the meadow in the forest.

“You can fuck off with your secrets,” she says, getting up, but Sebbe takes her hand, stopping her with a look that makes her sit down again.

“No secrets,” he says. “Just a misunderstanding. When you were out, the old man came over to tell us we should stay in ’til it’s light, because they were going wolf-hunting, illegally, of course, and it would be in our own interest to stay out of the way, so that no one got hurt. Obviously, we talked about it, and we were very indignant. Lotta tried to get him to change his mind, and she got a bit, well…assertive.”

“She made him angry, you mean?” says Anna, looking at Lotta, who’s gone deathly pale, and she purses her lips.

“Calm down,” says Sebbe. “This is serious. It was a threat. Well, an insinuation. He told her what he would do to her if she got mixed up in this in any way. You wouldn’t have expected it of him. He just seemed like a harmless old man.”

“What was he gonna do then?” Anna asks, and Lotta whimpers, and then falls silent.

Anna sizes Lotta up.

“Perhaps it’s about time you stopped antagonising him,” she says. “You’ve been going on and on at him ever since we got here, and he is our landlord. Have you got any idea when you’ve gone too far or is there nothing in that head of yours but biodynamic chicken shit?”

“Shut the hell up!” exclaims Markus, and his eyes flash dangerously.

Lotta’s not crying, but she’s not far off, and Sebbe observes them sitting there, one crushed, the other protective. Their symbiosis. He remembers and grits his teeth.

“Someone spoiled their hunt. Now I want to know if you had anything to do with it,” he says.

Markus shakes his head. “We were in bed the whole time. We were asleep for fuck’s sake!”

“Fine, then it wasn’t any of us. Shit, shit, shit! This is the last thing we need right now!” Sebbe says.

He buries his head in his hands, and rubs his face. Looking like a chubby Che Guevara in his army jacket and black cap.

“There’s no way this could be a coincidence,” says Anna, looking at Lotta.

She pulls herself together, daring to meet their gazes, her pale eyes now red.

“It was Nettan and her gang. She and the others and some witch from up north,” she says, her voice low, just a murmur.

Silence. Only hanging heads and stifled sighs. Markus stares down. Sebbe grimaces. Anna smirks and looks at Lotta.

“We have a traitor in our midst,” she says with affected grandeur. Lotta lifts her head.

“You’re the traitor,” she answers. “Ever since that thing with Ida.”

“Don’t you get started on that,” Anna says.

“Really believing in something and then doing everything you can to fight for it, that’s true dedication. A real soldier doesn’t budge an inch when death stares her in the face. A real soldier is motivated and spurred on by loss, whether it’s the loss of property or of friends, or time that is spent in a cell. A real soldier doesn’t go to pieces when someone dies. A real soldier marches on, through blood and death, until she reaches her goal or until she stops existing, with her eyes fixed on the flag flying above her head and her hand raised in salute and…”

“Don’t give me that crap,” rages Anna. “She was drunk when she jumped, for fuck’s sake, and now you’re making her into some fucking martyr. She wasn’t your friend. You didn’t even know her. You didn’t even turn up until our group was starting to fall apart, you and your anarchist bullshit. It’s meaningless. It’s just empty rhetoric.”

Silence falls in the kitchen and Anna breathes raggedly. Lotta’s attention drifts out of the window again, and Sebbe lifts his head.

“How the hell did they find out that a wolf hunt was being held out here in the middle of nowhere?” he asks, and Anna laughs.

“Because she rang them, you fuckwit.”

“Yeah, I rang Nettan and told her how we’ve been getting on out here, but I never told them to come,” Lotta replies.

“They know you, Lotta,” says Anna. “They can read you. You don’t have to say a word – they know what you want anyway. Do you think we’re stupid?”

“No,” says Lotta. “But you’re cowards. You’d just stand there and let them shoot these noble, wild creatures…how can you? Doing nothing is as bad as taking part in the slaughter.”

“You’re despicable. You promised you wouldn’t make any trouble. That’s why we let you two come in the first place. But you’re not respecting that. God, you don’t deserve to be here at all,” Anna says, her voice rising.

She buries her face in her hands and breathes in and out, inhaling the scent of her skin. Wishes they would disappear, and that the next time she opens her eyes and looks between her fingers the kitchen would be empty, the sun reflected off the glossy varnish of the table, the air containing nothing but dust, swirling in the slanting light. She longs for silence to soothe her eardrums, but soon Lotta and Markus start to argue, talking over each other, and their voices drill into her ears. She gets to her feet. She stumbles away from the table. She doesn’t hear them, doesn’t see them, just staggers towards the little bedroom. The stripes of the rag rug guide her. Into the room. Her back to the closed door. She shuts her eyes. She shuts them tightly, pressing her head against the wood.

In her mind’s eye, she sees Ida. She’s singing softly, “Don’t worry ‘bout a thing. ‘Cause every little thing gonna be alright.” In her mind’s eye, Ida is standing in the middle of the room, with her hands in her jeans pockets, wearing a blue jumper, the sleeves too long. Her shoulder-length hair keeps falling from behind her ears where she had tucked it. She grins her adolescent, thirteen-year-old grin. Then she shrinks. Becomes six years old, chubby.

They are walking together through the forest, midges flying off the spruce trees and bilberry bushes. They’re wearing dresses and white knee socks. No. Blue cords and bilberry-stained, yellow sweatshirts. Ida has rosy cheeks. That’s when it all starts.

The family have just moved to their own house in The Future, a development in the middle of the forest. The area with its strange, candy-coloured stone castles beside the noisy main road that joins the one town to the next. But The Future does not belong to either town. The Future belongs to the district in between, and from its strange bubblegum pink, pear ice-cream green, mango sorbet orange, lemon sherbet yellow, and bilberry yoghurt blue stone houses, the elegantly dressed, cotton-draped, shiny-shoed parents drive their gas-guzzling luxury cars to one of the towns to scrape together more icing to coat their sugar-frosted walls.

In The Future, the narrow streets between the gingerbread houses have signs to make it easier to navigate its two square kilometres that Ida can dart through in a single dash while Anna times her with a stopwatch. Her feet slap the road, and the noise spurs her on, the asphalt clinging to the rubber of her chalk-white plimsolls. She slows as she nears the dusty, unsurfaced road; stands for a moment, gazing out, towards the pensively swaying spruce forest that marks the end of civilisation.

The illusion is complete.

Turning, she sees Maarit Herala in her pink gardening apron, silk blouse, pale blue rubber gloves, pearl necklace and white tennis visor, standing on her lawn, looking out over her large, flame-coloured tulips. Maarit Herala turns, shielding her face from the sun. Squinting out over the neighbourhood, she can’t see the woods for the glare. All she can see is The Future, which seems to have stopped and stagnated at the precise point where an unknown little girl is bending down and carefully tying her shoelace, already dusty from the road.

The Future was where Anna, her dad, and her mother moved to. The Future was where she first turned and found herself face-to-face with a little girl, several centimetres shorter than she was. A little girl with a yellow sweatshirt, dark blue trousers, and straggly white-blonde hair that stubbornly defied combs. For a moment they stood and looked at each other, then the other little girl made a hideous face, sticking out her tongue, and running away. Anna ran after her to thump her.

They lived in a lemon-yellow house, Ida in a marzipan-pink one. From one bedroom window, you could see into the other. In the evening, they stood with their noses pressed to the glass, making their most revolting grimaces, giggling quietly but unable to stop. Mirroring one another’s movements.

Leaving The Future and entering the great forest required no more than a single step. You could take it running, creeping, hesitantly, determinedly, quickly, or at ultra-rapid speed, after a grand pause for contemplation or simply as a nonchalant stride, but the end result was always the same. After that single step, you left The Future behind you and stepped right into the wilderness that every day grew taller and stronger and greener and seemed to build a singular kind of wall around The Future, isolating it from the high-speed artery that carried the luxury cars to and from the towns every morning and afternoon. The Future’s pulse beat more slowly, but it did beat, and it was that throbbing noise that Anna and Ida rushed to escape at least once a day, whether they were given permission or not. And they plunged between the trees that were old and tall, wizened and wise in all their mute steadfastness.

Being alone in the forest was something wholly different from the organised Sunday strolls, where they walked behind the group of parents in a docile line, forbidden from making a noise, lagging behind or running ahead. Their parents breathed in the forest air, nostrils flared, scouring every millimetre of the ground for wild mushrooms, noting every crooked tree, making a show of being nature-lovers, getting lost but always knowing exactly where they were. They were tourists. Anna and Ida were in their element. They soon knew every twist and turn, every hillock, every fallen tree trunk, and every marshy patch. In raptures, they followed the glowing wild strawberries to new meadows and made them their own. They ate everything they found. Bilberries, crowberries, stone bramble, cloudberries, wild strawberries, lingonberries, raspberries, sloes, May lily berries, devilberries, elderberries, and trollberries. They never got ill. Their stomachs never ached. The poison would never reach their hearts to suffocate them. They laughed and stuffed themselves full with the shining red elderberries that burned their mouths as they chewed.

Then they both had their stomachs pumped, after an unusually thorough orgy, followed by dizziness, high temperatures and nausea. Anna had already moved away from The Future with her dad by this time, and the incident happened a few years later, on one of her rare visits to her mother. They were taken to the hospital in town. Two fair-haired girls in adjacent beds. Pillow to pillow, cover to cover. Drips stuck in the undersides of their arms, which were much paler than the peeling, sun-burned tops. Pale like the belly of a dying fish.

They told stories in their hospital beds, when the room had fallen silent and all that could be heard was the bleeping of someone’s heart that they sometimes thought was about to stop. Now, they whispered. Now… one… two… three… now, but the persistent beeping carried on. In the darkness that with the electronic gleam was never truly dark, they whispered stories.

Ida talked about her mother, who danced round a pole and showed her bum to the whole world, and Anna told the most secret story of all. She told the story of a mother who once upon a time took her out into a forest and left her there. A mother, confused, with glazed eyes, afraid, yet reassuring. They went deeper and deeper into the forest and it was obvious that her mother didn’t know where they were going because she kept spinning round and round and saying it was probably this way, or maybe that. And then, when Anna had tangled her feet in the bushes and stumbled too much on the boggy ground, her mother told her to sit down on a rock and wait.

And she sat down. Her arms hugging her little body, the midges swarming around her trembling mouth, and she rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand, snuffling and gulping for breath. Sometimes she called out with a shaking voice, pitiful and frightened, but her voice just broke against the stones in a gurgling, sobbing wail that lasted for a few hours but then tired and subsided. The surrounding forest made her thoughts swim and short-circuit in fear. The heavy branches’ slow sway, the rough, grey-green fur of lichen. The cobweb-clad raspy tree trunks. The wind’s quick but halting walk across the hilly terrain.

She didn’t know how long she’d sat there, she whispered to Ida, but after a long, long time, she heard the sound of running feet.

They rustled rhythmically through the heather and bilberry bushes. She thought that maybe someone had finally found her mother and was coming to find her too. The steps scurried closer and soon the branches parted to reveal a long nose protruding from a grey, shaggy head. The ragged dog yelped in surprise and then froze, on its guard. Its yellow eyes lit up, and Anna started to cry again; she knew then that the creature was not a dog but something else. The beast stood still for a while, sniffing the air around it, then took a cautious step forward, baring its long, yellow teeth, glistening with saliva. Anna turned away, reaching out for someone not there, someone who would pick her up and rescue her. But, at that very moment, the beast stopped growling and guardedly came towards her. The long, slender paws padded over the soft ground and the head, turning to sniff the air, stretched towards her and nuzzled against her chest for a time, until Anna stopped crying. Then the creature looked at her, with a calmness in the depths of its gleaming eyes, and turned. Its tail swished in her face and she flinched, but the creature didn’t vanish into the forest, as she had expected, but stayed where it was, its tail level with her chin. So she grasped the tail. Her fingers slipped into the soft fur, gripping the bone beneath. Then the wolf started to move, and she followed. They made their way through the forest in a strange procession, until Anna spotted a car parked on a narrow path. There the wolf left her without a backward glance. Bounding lithely in among the trees, it was gone.

That was the story Anna told in the hospital bed, lying next to Ida, and their hands fumbled, each in search of the other, their little girls’ fingers interlocking in soft stickiness.

Ida, she whispers in the dark. Her head against the door, her back to everything, to the kitchen, to Lotta, Markus and Sebbe. The murmur of their voices continues long after Anna has gone to bed, and pulled the cover up to her chin. She lies awake, listening for a while, clutching the cover in her fingers. Then she loosens her grip and lets herself fall. In her dream, she is running. In the slanting sunlight, the forest flashes past, trailing into a blur. The wolf turns in the grey mist of morning. The sound of its panting fills her ears. It draws up the corners of its mouth into something resembling a toothy smile. She laughs.

Translated by B.J. Epstein, Fiona Graham, Kate Lambert, Michael Rollerson, Nichola Smalley, and Saskia Vogel, with author Johanna Holmström, at the BCLT Summer School 2013.

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