Wolf Winter

Wolf Winter

by Cecilia Ekback

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Overview

A compelling historical thriller set in 1700s Sweden from an exciting new literary talent.

"Exquisitely suspenseful, beautifully written, and highly recommended." — Lee Child

"Visually acute, skillfully written; it won't easily erase its tracks in the reader's mind." — Hilary Mantel

"Wolf winter,'" she said, her voice small. "I wanted to ask about it. You know, what it is." He was silent for a long time. "It's the kind of winter that will remind us we are mortal," he said. "Mortal and alone."

Swedish Lapland, 1717. Maija, her husband Paavo and her daughters Frederika and Dorotea arrive from their native Finland, hoping to forget the traumas of their past and put down new roots in this harsh but beautiful land. Above them looms Blackåsen, a mountain whose foreboding presence looms over the valley and whose dark history seems to haunt the lives of those who live in its shadow.

While herding the family's goats on the mountain, Frederika happens upon the mutilated body of one of their neighbors, Eriksson. The death is dismissed as a wolf attack, but Maija feels certain that the wounds could only have been inflicted by another man. Compelled to investigate despite her neighbors' strange disinterest in the death and the fate of Eriksson's widow, Maija is drawn into the dark history of tragedies and betrayals that have taken place on Blackåsen. Young Frederika finds herself pulled towards the mountain as well, feeling something none of the adults around her seem to notice.

As the seasons change, and the "wolf winter," the harshest winter in memory, descends upon the settlers, Paavo travels to find work, and Maija finds herself struggling for her family's survival in this land of winter-long darkness. As the snow gathers, the settlers' secrets are increasingly laid bare. Scarce resources and the never-ending darkness force them to come together, but Maija, not knowing who to trust and who may betray her, is determined to find the answers for herself. Soon, Maija discovers the true cost of survival under the mountain, and what it will take to make it to spring.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781602862944
Publisher: Hachette Books
Publication date: 11/03/2015
Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
Pages: 376
Sales rank: 502,675
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Cecilia Ekbäck was born in Sweden in a small northern town. Her parents come from Lapland. In Wolf Winter, her first novel, she returns home to the landscape and the characters of her childhood. Ekbäck is a Professional Member of PEN American Center. She lives in Calgary with her husband and twin daughters.

Read an Excerpt

Wolf Winter


By Cecilia Ekbäck

Weinstein Publishing

Copyright © 2015 Cecilia Ekbäck
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60286-252-4


CHAPTER 1

Swedish Lapland, June 1717


"But how far is it?"

Frederika wanted to scream. Dorotea was slowing them down. She dragged behind her the branch she ought to be using as a whip, and Frederika had to work twice as hard to keep the goats moving. The morning was bright; white daylight sliced the spruce tops and stirred up too much color. Frederika was growing hot. There were prickles on her back beneath the dress. She hadn't wanted to go, and now the goats didn't want to either. They leapt to the left or right in among the trees and tried to run past them back toward the cottage. The only sounds were those of a tree shifting, of a hoof striking stone, and the constant bleating of the stupid goats.

"Only poor people have goats," she had said to her mother that same morning.

They were sitting on the wooden porch of their new home on the side of Blackåsen Mountain. In front of them bugs flitted above the grassy slope. There was a small stream at the base of the hill and, beyond that, a field. Enclosing all this was forest—jagged black spears against pink morning sky.

"We'll sow turnips up there." Frederika's mother, Maija, nodded toward the barn. "That's a good place with sun."

"At least cows and sheep manage on their own in the forest. Goats are a lot of work for nothing."

"It's just until your father and I have built a fence around the field. Take them to that glade we saw on our way here. It's not far."

The barn door opened, and Dorotea hopped out. The door clapped shut behind her.

"It will be fine," her mother said in a low voice as Dorotea ran down the slope.

Frederika wanted to say that here nothing could be fine. The forest was too dark. There was spidery mould among the twigs, and on the ground beneath the lowest branches there were still patches of snow, hollow blue. She wanted to say that this cottage was smaller than the one they had lived in, in Ostrobothnia. It was lopsided and the land unkempt. Here was no sea, no other people. They shouldn't have left. Things hadn't been that bad. Hadn't they always managed? But the wrinkle between her mother's eyes was deeper than usual, as though she might want to say those things too, and so Frederika had said nothing.

"But how far is it?

Frederika looked at the blonde child in the hand-me-down dress that billowed around her like a sheet on a clothesline in wind. Dorotea was still little. Frederika was fourteen, Dorotea only six. Dorotea stumbled on the trailing hem.

"Lift your feet when you walk, and hurry," Frederika said.

"But I am tired," Dorotea said. "I'm tired, I'm tired, I'm tired."

It was going to be an awful, awful day.

They climbed higher, and the forest below them turned into a sea of deep greens and stark blues that rolled and fell until the end of the world. Frederika thought of gray lakes, of a watery sky. She thought of flat earth with sparse growth that didn't demand much, and missed Ostrobothnia so badly that her chest twisted.

The path narrowed and dipped, with many loose stones. To the left the mountain plunged all the way into the valley far beneath.

"Walk after me," she said to Dorotea. "Watch where you put your feet."

Along the base of the rock, star-shaped purple saxifrage peeked through the stones. There was a small mound of brown pellets sweating in the sunshine, spilling—a deer of some sort. Above them, growing straight out of the stone, was a small, twisted birch.

The path veered right. Frederika hadn't seen this when they came, but here the side of the mountain had burst. There was a fracture cutting deep into the rock. Lynx lived in crevices like this. Trolls also.

"Hurry," she said to Dorotea and lengthened her steps.

There was a large boulder and another bend in the path. The trail broadened. They were back in the forest.

"I stepped on something prickly." Her sister lifted her leg and pointed at the sole of her dusty foot.

Then Frederika sensed rather than saw it. The goats sensed it too. They hesitated and stared at her, bleating large question marks.

It was the smell, she thought. It was the same stench that lay over the yard when they slaughtered to have meat for winter. Earth, rot, feces.

A fly buzzed into her ear and she hit at it. Further away, between tree trunks, there was light. The glade. She put her finger to her mouth. "Shhh," she whispered to Dorotea.

Watching where she put each foot among blueberry sprigs and moss, she walked toward the brightening. At the edge of the glade she stopped.

Tall grass sprouted in tufts. A bouquet of hawthorn butterflies skipped and danced in the air like a handful of pale flowers thrown to the wind. At the farther end of the glade was a large rock. The pine trees behind grew close into a wooden wall. There was a shape beside the boulder. Yes, something had died. A deer. Or perhaps a reindeer.

Dorotea took her hand and stepped close. Frederika looked around as their mother had taught them, scanned the evenness of tree trunks for a movement or a shape. In the forest there was plenty of bear and wolf. Whatever had attacked could still be about, still be hungry after winter.

She concentrated. A woodpecker tapped. The sun burned on her scalp. Dorotea's hand was sticky, twitching in hers. Nothing else. She looked back toward the carcass.

It was blue.

She let go of her sister's hand and stepped forward.

It was a dead man there in the glade.

He stared at Frederika with cloudy eyes. He lay bent. Broken. His stomach was torn open, his insides on the grass, violently red, stringy. Flies strutted on the gleaming surfaces. One flew into the black hole that was his mouth.

Dorotea screamed, and at once it was upon her: the stench, the flies, the man's gaping mouth.

O Jesus, please help, she thought.

They had to get their mother. Jesus—the goats. They couldn't leave the goats.

She grabbed her sister's shoulders and turned her around. Dorotea's eyes were round, her mouth wide open, strings of saliva that became a bubble, then popped. She lost her breath, and her mouth gawped in silence.

"Dorotea," Frederika said. "We must fetch Mother."

Dorotea wrapped her arms around her, clambered up her like a cat up a tree, clawing. Frederika tried to loosen her arms. "Shhh."

The forest was quiet. There was no rustling, no tapping, murmuring, or chirping. No movement either. The forest held its breath.

Her sister bent her knees as if to sit down. Frederika grabbed her hand and yanked her to her feet. "Run," she hissed. Dorotea didn't move. "Run!" Frederika yelled, and raised her hand as if to hit her.

Dorotea gasped and set off down the trail. Frederika spread her arms wide and ran toward the goats.

They flew through the forest, hooves and bare feet drumming against the ground.

Faster.

Frederika whipped the back of the last goat. She fell, knees stinging, hands scraping. Up-up-don't-stop. One of the goats jumped off the trail. She screamed and slapped its rear.

When they reached the pass, Frederika grabbed her sister's arm. "We must go slow. Be careful." Dorotea hiccupped and dry sobbed. Frederika pinched her, and Dorotea stared at her, her mouth wide open.

"I'm sorry. Please, a little bit longer." Frederika stretched out her hand. Her sister took it, and they followed the goats into the pass. One step, two, three.

The rupture into the mountain seemed larger. There was a sound. It might have been breathing.

Oh, don't look. Frederika kept her eyes on her feet. Four, five, six. In the corner of her eye she saw Dorotea's naked feet on the trail beside hers, half-walking, half-running. Seven, eight, nine. The goats' hoofs were loud against the rocks. Please, she thought. Pleasepleaseplease.

The path slackened, twisted a little, and then flattened and fell downward and outward, and they began to run—slowly at first, then faster. Downhill now, sighting their house between the trees. Dorotea ahead of her, screaming, "Mamma, Mamma!"

And at last, safe in their yard. Her parents came running, her father with long strides, her mother just behind him. It was then that Frederika vomited.

Her father reached her, hauled her up by her arm, "What is going on? What happened?"

"A man," Frederika said and wiped her mouth, "in the glade, and he is dead."

And then her mother swept her into her long skirts as if she would never have to emerge again.

* * *

"We need to do something," Maija said.

Frederika had let go of her. Now it was Dorotea who was on her hip, fingertips on Maija's shoulders, face in her collarbone. Holding this child was like holding no weight at all. She clung on. Like a little spider.

"Your uncle said there were other settlers on the mountain. We need to find them," Maija said.

Her husband, Paavo, rubbed his forehead with his knuckle, pushed at his hat with the back of his hand, pulled it down again with two fingers. Maija's chest tightened.

"He belongs somewhere," she said. "This man. He belongs to someone."

"But which glade are you talking about? I don't know where it is," Paavo said.

Maija put her nose in her younger daughter's thin hair. Inhaled sunshine and salt. "I'll go," she said into the hair. "I'll see if I can find anyone."

The sun doesn't help, she thought, as if that excused him. Its glower made them seem brittle, beige quaking grass anticipating a storm.


They hadn't seen anyone during the three days they'd been on Blackåsen, but surely eastward there must be others who, like them, had come from the coast. People who had been there longer than they had. Maija walked fast. Blueberry sprigs nipped at her skirt. The sun was high; her body left no shape on the ground. She noticed her nostrils were flared. That little pull of dislike that was more and more often on her face. She wrinkled her nose, relaxed her features, and slowed her pace.

"It's not his fault," she said to herself.

She imagined her dead grandmother, Jutta, walking beside her: the snub nose, the forward-slanting forehead, and the underbite, elbows lifted, as if she were wading through water. "It's not his fault," Jutta agreed. "He's going through hard times."

Hard times for everyone, Maija couldn't help thinking.

The men in Paavo's lineage were of a weaker makeup. Fainthearted, it was often whispered back in the village. When Paavo proposed to Maija, he'd told her himself. Told her some among his family were prone to fear. It didn't bother her. She didn't believe in such a thing as destiny. And she had known the man in front of her ever since he was a long-haired boy pulling her braid.

"You are solid," she said, and touched his temple.

Neither of them expected what was to come.

As soon as they were married, they started. The terrors. As if being wedded brought damnation down on him. At night Paavo threw himself back and forth. He moaned. He woke up soaking wet, smelling salty of seaweed and rank like fish.

Paavo began to avoid the edge of his boat when they pulled up the nets. She tried to warn him, said, "Don't." But soon her husband no longer took the boat out in the brackish bay, where herring swam in big silver clouds and the backs of gray seals were oily slicks of joy. Then he decided he did not need to accompany the other men at all. His hair darkened and he cut it short. His skin became pale. He thickened. Little by little his world shrank until he could no longer bear the sight of water in the washbasins in the house or the sound of someone slurping soup.

And that was when Paavo's uncle, Teppo Eronen, came to visit from Sweden last spring and said, "Swap you your boat for my land." Teppo sang of a country with ore in every mountain and rivers full of pearls, and it awoke in Paavo a desperate longing to leave the waters of Finland for the forests of Sweden.

Yes, Uncle Teppo wasn't the shrewdest. And he told tall stories, everybody knew that, but might there still not be some truth to what he said? After all, the Swedes had tried to possess the north for centuries. Besides, Finland was being destroyed by the war. And it might do them both good, a fresh start?

Maija's heart felt heavy. If it wasn't the Tsar's soldiers hounding their coasts, burning their villages and looting, it was the Swedes, and that's where her husband wanted to move.

"It is not easy to leave something behind, you know," she said.

"I know that."

"It is possible though," she had to admit.

She put her hand to his cheek, forced him to look at her. "Then if we go, you must promise you will not take this with you."

His face told her what he felt. He wasn't sure a promise like that could be made. The fear might be braided in with his very fiber.

"People hang on to their past way beyond what's necessary," she said. "Swear you won't take it with you."

In a burst, he promised. And she trusted him.

The walk over the ice on the throat of the Baltic Sea ought to have taken them a few days, a week at most with the snow, but wind pressed down between the two landmasses. It lashed at their eyes with grains of ice until they couldn't continue. They dug a hole in the drifts and lay down with their daughters, as the wind ripped layer after layer of snow off them, until all that was left was the reindeer skin they clung onto. Paavo shouted in her ear. The wind cut out his words.

"What?"

"Forgive me." He shouted again. "... lied.... There was a boat ... I couldn't go by boat."

And then, as fast as it had angered, the wind mellowed, leaving behind blue sky, deep green ice.

But inside Maija the wind still screamed. All those things they had left behind, and yet her husband had chosen to bring his fear.


Maija stopped to wipe her forehead with her sleeve. June warmed spruce and pine trees all the way to their cores, worked on their frozen centers until they loosened and gave and the heat could reach into the ground along their roots, to break the frost at the deep. But for June this was hot. It was a good beginning. If it continued like this, nature would provide. Above her a high wind tugged at the crowns. At ground level all was still, a golden-green smell of resin and warm wood.

And then, instead of silence, there was the murmur of water. She began to walk again, head tilted, following the only timbres that were familiar in the midst of the woodland. And as the rumble of rapids became louder, she lengthened her steps, anticipated the opening, the air. She came out onto a large rock on the shore above a river and stopped. The water in front of her churned, screamed against stones and gushed down. She knew this, had seen it before, and yet she had never come across anything like it in her whole life. Once, he would have loved this, she thought. No, she could almost hear her husband say. I never liked anything like that.

She turned right, walked alongside the river torrents until they fell into a lake, faint swells on a blank surface the only signs of the violent struggle beneath. And on the south shore, about a kilometer away, there was a cottage.


The settlement lay on a grassy hill overlooking the lake. Behind the house the forest was lofty pine, not the craggy spruce of the mountain. Maija came out in a yard surrounded by four small buildings, sheds to store wood and food for winter. There were the rhythmic whacks of an axe, and she followed them toward the back of the barn. Along the wall scythes, rakes, shovels and levers stood in a well-ordered row. She passed cages where meat must be kept to dry in early spring before the flies. Four fat graylings hung on a hook, a string through their gills, bodies still glistening, their mouths agape. This was what a homestead should look like. She hadn't said it to the others, but she'd been shocked at the poor state in which Uncle Teppo had kept his. She walked around the corner and a man looked up. His dark hair was cropped close to his skull. There was a glitter of beard on his cheeks and a scar on his upper lip that pulled his mouth aslant. He steadied the piece of wood on the chopping block and split it in one blow. He reached for another log on the ground.

"My name is Maija," she said. "We've taken over Eronen's land. We arrived a few days ago."

He remained silent. His eyes lay so deep that they were like black holes under his eyebrows.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck. Copyright © 2015 Cecilia Ekbäck. Excerpted by permission of Weinstein Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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