from The Wolf Run
by Kerstin Ekman
introduced and translated by Linda Schenck
Very early on the morning of New Year’s Day 2018, the day before his 70th birthday, Ulf Norrstig, the first-person narrator of The Wolf Run, has a life-altering experience. Sitting in his private space, an old marzipan-green trailer he has permanently parked on his own forest land, he sees, for the first time, the wolf whose presence he has suspected. Ulf spends a great deal of time in his woods, but the experience overwhelms him. Thus begins a journey back toward his childhood and forward toward the inevitable but unpredictable end of life. We walk alongside him for the next eighteen months, a time of great adventure.
When we look back on our lives, we often remember things not quite as they were. At Ulf’s place of work, The Swedish Forestry Board, he had what he refers to as his 'signature phrase when I wanted to stress the importance of thinking something through' when he felt decisions were being made too hastily. It is a quotation from Kipling’s The Jungle Book: 'Consider carefully, O wolves! Consider carefully!' But when he turns to The Jungle Book to find another passage he happens to see it, and it says: 'Look – look well, O Wolves.' As it transpires, Ulf was reading from a different Swedish translation than the one he read as a child. Although there is nothing particularly remarkable about this, it throws him, as things tend to do when we are vulnerable and feel that those things are important and we have got them wrong. Ulf, it might be added, is a form of an older noun ulv, meaning wolf. The strands of the lives of these two wolves become increasingly intertwined.
This short novel is an act of love, a gift from Kerstin Ekman to her readers and her translators. It is a tale of a man and his wife of many years, of their love for their community, their family, their dogs and for the natural world of which they are a part. Also, it deals with the issue of the importance of having things we keep to ourselves, our ambivalence about keeping secrets and about shame. It poses existential and moral questions and demands the reader’s ability to identify with a life that is surely not every reader’s, but where the issues undoubtedly overlap, irrespective of our age.
This extract comes from approximately a quarter of the way into the novel and I chose it because it gives the reader a sense of the way the novel is structured.
from The Wolf Run
I was living an ordinary life. It probably wouldn’t last too many more years. Not with my angina. But in any case it was an ordinary, even a fine, life. I had my share of tenderness. Sometimes it took the form of nicely prepared sandwiches, sometimes as skin touching my skin. Often actually. But I was unable to satisfy the expectation such tenderness aroused in both of us. I presume the medication was at fault. Whatever. We were resigned to it. It wasn’t the end of the tenderness. We did have our clashes. We always had. Two strong wills colliding like heavy freight cars. We were fully loaded with lived life. And with opinions and assumptions and other quite irrelevant rubbish. But naturally and above all with volition. We didn’t grate, never bore grudges. We’d just get back on track.
We lived an ordinary life. I did.
Until I saw that wolf.
An animal without anima. When I was younger I thought anima had something to do with being animal-like. But that wasn’t it. It was more a matter of animation, possessing a soul. To be lacking in anima is to be soulless.
What had he done with me?
I saw him and my life ceased to be ordinary. I began to wonder what had animated me. Moved me to kill. Moved me to plan forest clearance areas. Plans I had sat in an office and administrated. Plans that had to be amended each time the powers that be decided something else would be more profitable.
Granddad logged selectively. So did my dad. Selective logging was prohibited on state-owned land in 1950. My dad went on with his. So in the ’80s I inherited a nicely tended forest with trees large and small, mosses and woodpeckers and streams and courting wood grouse and God only knows what else. Linneas, wintergreens, thyme-moss, cloudberry bogs, the perfume of marsh Labrador tea in the wetlands. All of it.
It was no small amount of land, as I had opted for forest land over cash when the house at Norrstigen and its outbuildings were sold. I got the furnishings and paintings as well: crockery, glasses, silver-plated cutlery – all kinds of things so outdated they weren’t valued at much. There was no room for it in our cabin so we stored it all in a neighbor’s raintight shed along with nothing but two bicycles and a bit of rubbish. I brought home the moose-head trophies, deer antlers and stuffed game birds. They were part of my childhood. Then when we moved to this house there was plenty of room for it all in the attic. It’s a museum up there, with dead animals and animal parts. However, Zenta loves to lie under Dad’s desk on the beaver pelt.
Our son Rolf had once liked the big yellow house in Loåsen we bought when we retired and sold the house in Bollnäs. But now he’d started calling it our caparison. I suspect the word was his new wife’s term. She probably didn’t know caparison originally referred to ornately decorated horse blankets, though. I guess they simply thought the house was too big for us. We ought to slow down. Cut back. But I didn’t give a damn. I got an additional eighty hectares of forest when I bought the house, to add to the hundred and sixty I had inherited. Two floors plus the attic and a big glassed-in porch. Fruit trees. Currant bushes. An outbuilding and a woodshed. I’d added a lean-to for stacking more firewood. It dries faster outside.
I shot a bull moose with palm-spread antlers in one of those very parcels of forest land that came with the house. A 6x6. Dark brown. It was the best set of them all. Neither my granddad’s nor my dad’s collection had a set that fine.
My son’s new wife passed by the open woodshed where I was working on the moose head. I was standing at a huge cauldron boiling the half with the antlers, about to remove the eyes with a soupspoon.
What are you doing? she cried.
Just stood there staring for a moment and then ran off in disgust. Ah well, it didn’t exactly look appetizing. It had been hanging for some time and the eye sockets were all maggoty. Boiled maggots now. It was a bit complicated explaining to that young woman that I had to cook the head before I could scrape it clean. I’d have half the skull, crowned with the antlers, mounted on a finely polished wooden plaque. When I was done I went inside and had a dram at the kitchen table. The task hadn’t left me unruffled either. Inga laughed and called me valiant.
Have a shower and change. Dinner’s nearly ready.
I’m not having dinner, shouted Zuzanna, who is Polish. Rolf calls her Suss.
I couldn’t possibly swallow a single bite. How can you?
We’re having char tonight, said Inga. With hollandaise sauce. So you needn’t think in terms of meat.
Those huge dark-brown antlers were handsome after I had them mounted. Rolf brought the boys up when he could get away. And when it was his week, of course. What the hell did they have to go and get divorced for? We liked Monica. But Zuzanna didn’t seem keen on coming back to Loåsen after that. She had kind of turned off on us. Hadn’t asked me why I was poking at the eye sockets in a boiled moose head. I don’t think she even noticed the antlers.
All right, I could identify with that. Turning off. You think: I don’t want anything to do with this. Whenever I read a couple of pages in my pathetic hunting log I saw myself turn off. It doesn’t contain a word about all the things I would really like to know. And yet it’s clear in my memory. Or am I inventing when I think I remember more?
Everything I have lived and seen must be inside somewhere. The risk lies in starting to talk too much about it. When you do that you will invent, whether you mean to or not.
Who would call on a summer night?
It must be a mistake. Some wino calling the wrong number. But it just went on and on. We were sitting up in bed by now. It was the landline ringing down in the hall. Would it never stop?
I’ll go down, I said.
I don’t know why I thought someone was messing with me, playing a prank. They would hang up as soon as I picked up and said my name. Not everyone in the village likes me. At least not as much as the shopkeeper claimed in his speech. I looked at Granddad’s clock that had been ticking the time for more years than I had been alive and saw it wasn’t so late. The hands showed just after midnight. When I picked up the receiver a woman’s voice was screaming and babbling unintelligibly.
Who’s calling? Say your name.
Elna! she cried. It’s me. Help me. Come over!
Are you hurt?
Not me. But the sheep’ve been killed. Every single one.
By that point she was down to sniffling and then a man’s voice took over.
Bring your rifle, he said.
I recognized the voice. And it didn’t exactly sound sober.
Is that you, Affe?
Git on over here! he shouted. You’re the team leader, after all. An’ bring a gun.
I didn’t really want to go over there armed. But when I’d told Inga what was going on and got my clothes on I unlocked the rifle locker anyway. I took my .222, the one I use in the deer hunting season, and loaded it with two cartridges.
A summer night shouldn’t smell like this. But it was a peculiar summer. Unreal. Hot and dry. I was reluctant to get into the car.
The enclosure bordered on the woods. Peculiar sounds were coming from one of the sheep. I moved slowly toward it without looking at Elna’s house. But I must have registered out of the corner of my eye that the windows on the side facing the enclosure and the woods were shut. I recalled it afterwards.
The peculiar sound wasn’t a bleating, it was a different noise I hadn’t ever heard before and it was waning. Was it a moan, an attempt to shriek?
I moved forward and saw the bodies of sheep behind the fence. Ewes and lambs both. Absolutely motionless. This was worse than anything I could have imagined or had ever seen. And that sound from the ewe who had been on her way into the sheep shed.
Then Elna came running.
That was just how the ewe in the half door to the sheep shed sounded. I heard ‘er, said Elna. But worse then than now.
With my .222 in hand I went in through the hooked gate in the fence. I walked over to the ewe who was emitting that sound, now almost inaudibly. She was stuck in the sheep shed door. Couldn’t go any further.
I went back and asked Elna if the shed was locked. When she just shook her head I walked around the shed and in through the door that was just shut with a hook and eye.
I stepped across the partition and down into the bed of straw, with the ewe staring at me. I didn’t have it in me to shoot her from the front. I pressed myself around her forebody so I could get at the point where her neck vertebrae began. It was difficult to aim the .222 in that awkward position. But I managed. And I shot. There was silence. I made my way back around her and fell to my knees where she had sunk down. For quite some time I just stayed there embracing her long, lovely muzzle. It was still warm.
When I got back out Elna was screaming and I wished she would just shut up. At least for a while.
There was a film on, she cried. So it got late before I went out. I always let them in before dark. But there was this film. I just sat watching and lost track of the time.
So it happened at dusk, I stated.
Elna nodded, puffy from weeping and in shock. I went on:
You were watching a film.
That’s it. There was a film on. So it got late before I went out. But not dark. I always go out, let them into the sheep shed and shut the door, she repeated. They have to be inside at night, what with the enclosure being so close to the woods. And they need their portion of hay. You can see the state of the ground here. All grazed off. This is such an awful summer. Not a drop of rain. Nothing growing, either. You have to give them their hay. But there was this film. I just sat watching and kind of lost track.
I couldn’t bear that shrill voice much longer so I went back into the enclosure. I felt for the pulse on three ewes and five lambs. Palpated each one carefully. They were dead. Bitten at the windpipe, except for two of the lambs who had been downed in the neck by powerful jaws. There was nothing more for me to do here. I left the enclosure and walked the fence. That was when I saw how he’d gotten in.
Affe drove up in his green Astra. He stepped out of the car on wobbly legs and armed with a shotgun.
What are you planning to do with that thing?
I thought you’d never get here.
So you went home for your shotgun.
Affe stared at his gun.
I guess I took the wrong one.
You’re not sober. Set the safety lock. Remove the cartridges. Leave it in the back seat.
He did as I told him but it wasn’t exactly fast work. I went back into the enclosure and walked around photographing all the bodies with my phone. As well as the hindquarters of the ewe I’d shot.
I said we’d best go inside now.
So ya shot ‘im? Ya got ‘im?
I said I’d put down a ewe that had been fatally wounded.
Let’s go inside now. I want all the facts.
From the look of things they’d been drinking Rosita bitters and Standard Selection whisky. But I thought there was probably moonshine in the whisky bottle because they hadn’t sold Standard at the liquor store for years. The stuff in the half-full bottle was pale yellow. There was a bag of cheese and onion flavored chips on the table and the house reeked of old cigarette smoke.
Of course you’ll get all the facts, Affe said. As team leader you’ll be applying for a special dispensation for a protected hunt so we can get him.
I don’t think you’ll stand a chance. Not with that enclosure. And what with Elna forgetting to get the sheep in for the night. There’s a huge hole under the fence in one spot.
Right, that’s the badger. He gets in that way; his den’s under the sheep shed. We seal it off with a stone but he just rolls it away.
Making it easy for a predator to get in.
Wolves can jump fences! Affe shouted.
Why were the two of them always hollering?
Wolves aren’t inclined to jump fences. They’d rather go under if they can.
There’s no need to put all that in your report!
What do you mean?
About what time it was. And that the stone was rolled away and all.
Now he was telling me to lie to the county administrative board for them. All I said was:
Elna, you phone the county administrative board first thing and report it. Then ask them how you’re supposed to dispose of the sheep carcasses. You can try the slaughterhouse, too. Ask if they have an incineration facility and can provide transport. If not, the people at the county board will be able to tell you what to do.
Can’t you deal with it?
As I was leaving Affe barked:
What do you think about rescuing the meat from the ewe you shot?
My thought was: so you want to rescue the meat from that miserable animal with her shredded udder. You’d want to eat that meat? But all I said was: Shut up.
Of course Inga was awake when I got home. She poured me a mug of milk with some kind of super sweet chocolate powder in it.
You need this, she said. You’ve had a shock.
That was after I’d told her about the ewe that could hardly even make a sound at the end. And that I had shot her. Maybe Inga was right. So when she took the mug out of the microwave I drank the hot chocolate. After that I didn’t want to talk any more so we went upstairs to see if we could get a little more sleep. It was completely light outside. She pulled the shade down almost fiercely. I didn’t find it difficult to imagine her being angry with the sun this particular summer, since it never went behind a single cloud. A clear blue sky. A blazing star that only seemed to withdraw as the earth rotated slowly. But its heat remained.
I didn’t expect to sleep. Dozed off and on, but at four I gave up. Inga was sleeping. I got carefully out of bed and managed not to wake her. Down in the kitchen I brewed some strong coffee. Buttered crispbread, sliced cheese for on top. Thinking it was almost odd that I was able to eat.
When I was seated at my office desk I opened the black notebook to record what had happened. Once you’ve started writing it’s hard to stop. The letters create their own world. Writing doesn’t make me gag, though my experience at Elna’s had. There was a melody in me. That old Easter hymn: The seal has been broken, the stone rolled away...
I found myself sitting there for some time at Granddad’s desk, considering. This isn’t what I ought to be writing, I thought. I sat there for ages just staring at the wall with the hymn resonating inside me. Report, I thought. I’m good at writing reports. So I started my computer and got going.
By the time Inga was up I was printing it out. And I’d already emailed it to the environmental protection unit of the county administrative board, enclosing my photos of the dead sheep. One of the lambs was lying right by the hole under the fence. You could see both the lamb and the rolled-away stone. A stroke of luck. Because now they’d be calling Ronny. Affe knew very well Ronny would take their side. He and Elna had undoubtedly already spirited away the bottles. Especially the one with the moonshine. They’d lie about the hole and the stone being rolled away. I was sure Affe had filled up the hole by now and shoved the stone right into place. Things probably looked perfectly all right.
But the environmental protection unit would have my photos in hand by the time Ronny phoned them. Because that was what was going to happen. Elna would ask him to make the call. But it was going to do no good that he came over and tidied things up.
I signed the printed copy in ink, but below that was the same signature as on my email:
Certified forest officer
Employee of the National Board of Forestry 1972 - 2013
Leader of the Loåsen hunting team since 2002
Inga was up now and the smell of fresh coffee came wafting again. I went out to the kitchen after addressing and stamping the envelope and showed her the report before folding it into the envelope and sealing it. While she was reading I set the table for our usual breakfast. She read the letter seriously. But when she got to where I’d signed she gave me a little smirk.
Isn’t the signature a bit much?
Well, I used the clout I have. My credentials. Elna and Affe asked me to lie for them. But I won’t. They’ll ask Ronny.
What makes you think that?
Because he’ll want a dispensation to hunt that wolf down. So he’ll tell the county board exactly what they wanted me to tell them.
We had our breakfast in silence. But when we were done I said:
Let’s get going.
Yes, that was the last thing you said last night. That we’d go to the Norwegian coast for some fishing.
But we’ve got to pack, you know, which will take time.
Let’s do it fast. We can stop in Sveg for groceries. We can think it through in the car and buy whatever we’ve forgotten when we get there.
This very minute. We need to get out of here before all hell breaks loose.
You mean the hunt for that animal?
No, they’ll never get a dispensation. Not once the people at the county administrative board have read my report. I sent photos, too. So there will be hell to pay. I’ve got to get away for a while.
Albert Bonniers förlag, 2021
Rights: Johanna Lindborg, Bonnier Rights.
We are grateful to Bonnier Rights for granting permission to publish this translated extract from Löpa varg.
Nominated for the 2022 Nordic Council Literature Prize, and the 2022 Swedish National Radio Prize for Best Swedish Novel.
Löpa varg was reviewed by Deborah Bragan-Turner in SBR 2021:2.
Kerstin Ekman remains among the most prominent living Swedish authors. A number of extracts from and reviews of her works have appeared in SBR.
Linda Schenck is a native English speaker who has lived in Sweden for many years. Professionally, she worked as both a conference and court interpreter and a translator of both fiction and non-fiction. Today she devotes herself entirely to literary translation. In 2018, she received The Swedish Academy Award for translation of Swedish Literature.