The snow came early that year, settling around the forest like an old bear ready for its cave. As Ingrid made her way through the silent wood, the sky above performed its northern waltz, a dance of light in shades of pink and green. She whistled and Narfi came leapfrogging towards her, his large body sinking almost completely into the powdery snow dusting his black-and-bronze coat. ‘Stay away from that fox,’ she warned. She hadn’t missed the Arctic creature in the distance, its fur almost indistinct from the wintry landscape, its eerie blue gaze pinned on them. ‘She’s looking after her kits and doesn’t know you just want to play.’ He whined, gambolling from her and as close to the fox as he dared again. She shook her head, cheeks pink from the cold. Her eyelashes were spiked with ice. ‘You want another scar?’ she asked, pointing at his snout with a mittened hand, where he’d had a run-in with a wolf cub as a pup. He paused, cocking his head, as if weighing her words before coming to a stop at her side. ‘Good choice,’ she said. Then sighed. ‘Besides, you’ve got a task ahead of you,’ she reminded him. ‘I’m going to need you to work your magic today.
’ Narfi frowned, making a grumbling, reluctant noise. His liquid brown eyes darted hesitantly from her to the lonely red cabin with its faded, peeling paint edging the frozen lake. It was almost hidden by the tall, snow-capped birches. The walk was already laborious, her thighs aching from lifting her feet into the waisthigh snow, but it seemed even more arduous at the prospect of what lay ahead of them. At the door, Ingrid paused, resting her head against the wood. ‘It could be one of his better days,’ she told the dog with more hope than conviction. There was a huffing, impatient sound. Even Narfi didn’t seem convinced. He’d let the fire die out. The air blew out of Ingrid’s mouth in a cloud as she walked inside the freezing cold cabin.
Somehow, with the dark interior, it felt even colder in here than out and she swore softly. She looked around with a frown, eyeing all the clutter. Newspapers, old books, magazines, paintings and sketches, wooden carvings, fishing tackle, rifles, tins of food with missing labels. She itched to sort through it all, to create order from the chaos, and reveal the clean lines and good bones beneath the passage of time. To restore the pictures to the walls, sort through the paintings and sketches, but she knew she’d have to take it slowly, or the consequences would be dire. She found the lump of him, asleep on the padded kitchen bench, beneath several old coats. He seemed to have some aversion to his bed that she didn’t quite understand. But then, there wasn’t a whole lot to Jürgen Anderson that she did. At least, not anymore. He awoke at the sound of footsteps, going from half-asleep to wide awake and fully belligerent within seconds.
And true to current form, he greeted the morning, and her, with a curse. His salt-coloured hair was shaggy around his thin, weather-beaten face, which hadn’t seen a razor in some weeks. He was still wearing the clothes she had seen him in last, clothes she suspected he’d been wearing for some time, judging from the sour smell coming off him. It was uncharacteristic. He took daily ice baths every winter, partly for health, partly to prove something. Perhaps those goals were long gone now. If she thought about that, the tears would threaten, and she didn’t need that, not now. He was enough work without the tears, as his commitment to being difficult from the moment he opened his eyes to the moment he closed them was a full-time occupation of late. On some level this commitment might have impressed her, but it couldn’t while somewhere deep within the cranky old bear remained the man she used to know and love. His voice became a jagged razor, as his rheumy blue eyes opened, and he saw her inside his kitchen.
‘För fan i helvete, din jävla idiot! Do we have to go over this again, Marta? I told you last time – and I made it very clear, didn’t I? I do not need you,’ he spat. ‘Are you brain dead or something?’ Ingrid closed her eyes for a moment, mentally gathering up the bits of herself that resembled her mettle, then put the basket she’d been carrying on the table with a bit more of a thud than was strictly necessary. She took a deep breath and reminded him, ‘I am not Marta.’ Marta was Ingrid’s cousin. She was also the old man’s last helper. It was fair to say that it hadn’t gone well. It had ended with Marta refusing to ever darken Jürgen Anderson’s door, even if he died, and someone needed help moving his mouldering body… ‘Even then – find somebody else,’ was the way Marta emphasised the end of the ‘arrangement’ when she’d gone to her home a few days before. Then she’d laughed hysterically at the prospect of Ingrid taking over. ‘Oh, he’s going to eat you alive!’ When Ingrid had given her a hard stare, Marta snorted. ‘Oh, that’s almost cute – you think you’ll be tougher than me.
I haven’t spent my life in the city with electric heating, child; go on, knock yourself out. But don’t say your old cousin didn’t warn you when you come here in tears in a day or two, your tail between your legs…’ So Ingrid had left, vowing that whatever happened with the old man, she would not go to Marta. She turned to Jürgen now, who grunted. ‘Pah! Same blonde hair, same interfering family.’ ‘Marta has brown hair,’ Ingrid pointed out. ‘I’ve never seen her wash it – for all I know it is actually blonde.’ Ingrid snorted. He was insufferable. ‘I don’t think it’s Marta’s hygiene you should be concerned about.’ ‘Just her cooking?’ It was the source of the trouble, to be fair.
Apparently, after Marta had made him a meal – plain chicken with broccoli – things had gone from bad to worse. Marta had asked how it was and he’d casually taken the plate, walked outside and tipped it onto the snow, calling for someone named Obehang. ‘Obehang, here boy.’ At Marta’s shocked look, he’d said, ‘He’s a rat, such a nuisance, a bit like you. Though, unlike you, he is someone I’m allowed to kill.’ He’d pointed at her dinner. ‘Thank you, this might just do the trick.’ Which was when Marta had quit. Despite herself, Ingrid’s lips twitched, just like they had when her cousin had told her the story, although it was her cousin who began laughing herself stupid when Ingrid said she’d volunteered to take over. ‘Will I be alive the day you admit you are wrong?’ she asked Jürgen now.
‘Probably not,’ he conceded, and something almost like a smile ghosted across his lips too. Yesterday, when she’d first come to check up on him, she’d lasted the grand sum of thirty minutes. It had felt like a lifetime. She’d managed to clean one cup, sweep part of the floor, melt some snow for water, and hang his coat on the hook at the back of the door, while being henpecked and harangued to within an inch of her life, before he’d thrown one of his heavy boots at her and told her to get the hell out of his house. A small bruise still smarted on her thigh. The names he’d called her had stung more than the bruise. They still did. She’d spent the previous evening trying to convince herself that she should just give up her dream of moving back to the small hamlet she’d grown up in, in wild northern Sweden. Stjärna, in the Västernorrland region, had a population of just fifty. She’d sat up wondering if she were being a fool, if she shouldn’t just return to the little grey apartment she’d called home in Malmö for the past ten years.
Where life had been safe, and she’d had a good job as an accounts clerk. It had been a comfortable life, but also dull. Out here, life happened more slowly, because it had to – there was no convenient supermarket nearby, everything required time and preparation, but somehow life seemed richer for it too. Returning to that safe life wouldn’t help either of them. Whether he liked it to not, he needed her. For the most part he was still lucid, but the cracks were starting to show – and if he didn’t let her in he might be taken somewhere to be looked after full-time. She was his last chance and unlike the other helpers he’d scared off over the months, she had more to lose by giving in. She needed to make this work. She’d dreamt of moving back to this barely touched part of the world since she was a child. This was her chance.
He didn’t need to be happy she was here and checking up on him, and they didn’t need to get on. All she had to do was ensure that he was alive, fed and hadn’t burnt his cabin down in the night. Despite Marta’s opinion on the matter, she was capable of that, even if he called her every vile name he could think of in the process. She set her jaw and pulled the mittens off her icy hands. Her woollen hat would have to stay; it was far too cold to take it off. ‘I’m going to make breakfast for us and then—’ She couldn’t help herself; she flicked her eyes around the room, wishing, not for the first time, that the old man hadn’t chosen to live so simply, with no running water or electricity, and said, ‘I’m going to get more snow to melt for your bath.’ His next words were choice. Ingrid’s ears turned red; she wasn’t used to being spoken to like this – everything in her itched to give him as good as he gave. Instead, she shot him a pointed look, crossed her arms and scolded, ‘You let the fire die out.’ Here, in the frozen winters of northern Sweden, where temperatures could reach minus forty, a mistake like that could cost you your life.
Her words caused him to deflate like an old balloon. Shrinking, as he folded in on himself. He rubbed his eyes, then sighed. ‘I was trying to make the wood stretch a bit. I was going to go to the shed for more first thing this morning, but I must have fallen asleep,’ he said, looking at the empty wood pile with a frown. Ingrid didn’t point out that morning wouldn’t have helped – it wasn’t as if there was more light then, not at this time of year. She itched to tell him that this was exactly the reason she’d come by the day before – to help with things like that. So that the old man didn’t have to trudge to the shed in the middle of the night, and return laden down with a pallet of wood on a sled. She pursed her lips, keeping in the lecture she would have loved to have given him, while Jürgen examined the floor. Narfi chose his moment wisely.
Sensing the brief impasse, he made his way slowly towards the old man, whose eyes brightened slightly, as he petted him with a heavy hand. The dog bore it with dignity, though his eyes warned Ingrid that some form of recompense might be required in the not-too-distant future. Ingrid wasn’t sure if it was a trick of the light or not, but the old man’s anger seemed to have withered. So, she offered a truce. ‘Coffee?’ ‘One sugar,’ he agreed. ‘Tack.’ She nodded and was about to head towards the dresser, when he stood up, with a creak of old bones and joints, and shook his head. ‘Nej, Inge, I’ll make it. Yours is probably not even fit for the dog. The swill they pass for coffee in the city,’ he mumbled, slipping his feet into a pair of old worn slippers as he shuffled towards the gas cooker, ‘it’s an absolute joke.
’ Ingrid hid a smile, thinking that it was good that he remembered that she used to live in Malmö. After their coffee and breakfast, she’d take the sled and stock up on the wood from his barn outside. She knew he didn’t like to admit it but the activity was getting harder for him now, which was likely why he put it off. That and the worrying fact that he forgot. Like an old gramophone that needed to be wound before it would play, Jürgen slowly turned more into the man she used to know. It helped that today he seemed to remember who she was. As if reading her thoughts, he asked, ‘Why are you wearing Marta’s hat?’ ‘This?’ she said, touching the lime green hat with earflaps. ‘Oh, well, she gave me a few things – some “more practical” stuff now that I’m living here. You know how she is.’ He grunted, and there was a wealth of meaning behind that grunt.
Then he shrugged and added, ‘Well, she’s not wrong.’ He looked at it again, his lip curling in distaste. ‘You know a person can be too practical.’ Which for a man who owned exactly three shirts was saying something. She shrugged. Who was going to mind out here – the reindeer? Even they were too busy trying to keep warm. Jürgen unhooked a pair of brown ceramic mugs from the dresser, pausing to fill the kettle from the canister that sat on the counter. It was filled with the water Ingrid had melted from the snow the day before. So that’s why he’d confused Marta and her, she thought – the hat. Though she knew it wasn’t just that, was it? Whatever he said.
She’d been here for enough time for him to register who she was… but still, it made sense now in some ways. ‘Here you go – some proper coffee,’ he said, handing her a mug of thick black liquid. The ‘proper’ coffee was a cheap supermarket blend. So strong Ingrid wouldn’t have been surprised if it melted the spoon. ‘Tack,’ she said, blowing on it, before taking a sip. It wasn’t half bad, to be fair. ‘Maybe later I can give your hair a trim?’ she suggested, her eye falling on his long grey hair. His blue eyes danced. ‘Not unless you want to be put over my knee. I always thought you needed more hidings when you were little, Inge, or you’d grow up with ideas.
’ She hid a smile. ‘I seem to remember you telling Far that only thugs hit little girls.’ ‘Pah,’ he said, taking a loud slurp of his coffee, and smacking his lips in pleasure. ‘I’ve always believed in a firm hand. I would have told your father to triple your hidings,’ he promised, with a wink, raising the flat of his hand, ninja-like. ‘It must have been your other grandfather who said such silly things.’ Her lips twitched in amusement. They both knew she’d only ever had the one – and he was more than enough. ‘It must have been.’ As the wood-burner billowed smoke into the snowy forest, and the grey sky turned a cloudy blue as the morning passed, the tough outer shell he’d assembled slipped away, and she saw a glimpse of the person she’d most adored as a child – like that first precious peek of sun after a long grey winter.
He helped her clean the kitchen, sweep the floor and hang up the coats, and they enjoyed a simple breakfast of rye bread, gherkins and cottage cheese in companionable silence. Afterwards, she made the trip to the barn, stocking heavy-duty shopping bags full of the chopped wood he’d dried out the previous summer. She was relieved to see the barn was full of seasoned logs and there would be enough to last the rest of the cold season. It was one of the reasons the family worried so much – out here survival was tough. Harder still, if you were like Jürgen Anderson, choosing to live so simply – there was no alternative to heating his home. No electricity at the turn of a switch or a central heating system. If he ran out of wood it could be fatal. It was tough and sweaty work, despite the freezing cold air, but when she got back inside the cabin, unpacked the wood and started the fire, it wasn’t long before she was at last able to take off her outer layers. Her next task was to collect several more buckets of snow to melt for water, so that she could refill the water butt, as well as draw a bath for him. Then they watched the world outside from within the cosy cabin, as the light grew ever darker, and the deer made their way through the forest in this rare hour of light, so precious and over so fast.
Things changed when she insisted upon his bath. She got as far as pulling his shirt off him, before the lights in his eyes began to dim, like the setting sun outside, and he began swearing again, slapping at her hands, and arms, and making them sting. She bit her lip, tears pricking at her eyes; she hadn’t been prepared for how painful it would be when he forgot. Not that anyone had sugar-coated his condition. Their once-gentle hermit was now often sour and mean. It was a bitter pill to swallow. ‘Please calm down, Morfar. You need a bath. You’re starting to smell.’ ‘I do not smell!’ he cried, outraged.
She sighed, then picked up his shirt and pressed it to his nose. He shook his head like a dog, ripping the shirt out of her hands, and throwing it on the floor. ‘Stop it, Marta! I don’t want you here, I don’t need anyone, do you hear me? Get the hell out!’ Narfi started to bark, and Jürgen suddenly looked dazed. ‘Bjørn?’ he said, reaching out a hand towards the dog, his ire momentarily forgotten. ‘Narfi,’ she reminded him. ‘And if you want me to leave, it’s simple – just get in this bath, and soap yourself,’ she said, handing him a bar of home-made lemon verbena soap from the small farm shop half an hour away. ‘I’ll turn my back.’ Which is why she didn’t see it when he kicked the steel tub she’d spent the past twenty minutes filling with steaming water, until it cascaded onto the floor, slamming into the back of her legs. She whirled around, screaming blue murder. He stood, half-naked in the corner, laughing.
His voice suddenly high, little a little boy’s. ‘You should see your face, Küken. Better than that day we stole ol’ Polga’s boat!’ She crossed her arms and he giggled. ‘Come on, Asta, since when can’t you take a joke?’ ‘It’s Ingrid,’ she snapped. ‘And it’s not funny – I spent ages filling that.’ She knew he couldn’t help muddling names. But right then she didn’t feel much sympathy. He still smelled and it had taken such a long time to get that bath ready. She sighed, then got the towels and mop and cleaned up the mess. Afterwards, she walked up the stairs and fetched a clean shirt and a pair of tracksuit bottoms, which she thrust into his arms.
‘Put these on,’ she demanded, in no mood for an argument. She was too cross to be surprised when he complied. Then she gathered up his old, dirty clothes, which she’d take back to her own cabin to run through the washing machine. ‘You can smell for all I care,’ she said between clenched teeth, realising with annoyance that she was behaving just as Marta had, but unable to help herself. She slipped out of her soaking snow trousers. ‘I’m going to borrow a pair of yours for the walk home.’ She flashed him a hard look; she was different to her cousin – who was all fire and blather – in one respect. Ingrid was like a mountain goat, small and seemingly mild, but inside she was stubborn to the core and not afraid to use her horns if pressed. ‘I will bring them back when I see you in the morning, so I suggest you try and get over it.’ Then she felt a pang of shame, mixed with annoyance – it wasn’t like he could help getting muddled – and she softened.
‘You’ll be all right? You’ve got enough food?’ He rolled his eyes. ‘I’m fine. You don’t have to look after me – I have underpants older than you.’ She gave him a hard stare. ‘Don’t forget to keep the fire burning.’ She ducked as he flung one of his slippers at her. Then she whistled, and Narfi followed her outside. It was only much later, after her mile-long trudge back through the woods, struggling through waist-high snow, when she was inside her own tiny cabin – one of just eleven in their hamlet, dotted around the vast lake and forest – that she realised he hadn’t been speaking Swedish at all. He’d been speaking German.