Embers

By Josephine Greenland

Two siblings investigate the slaughter of reindeer in northern Sweden.

Ring of the Sun

‘Just a bit further, please!’

Ellen wanted to yank her brother off his bike. They’d been cycling all day, darting up and down the roads, crisscrossing past museums, rivers and parks. Her top was plastered against her skin, and her legs ached from the exercise. The day was so bright it hurt her eyes merely looking straight ahead.

‘Ten minutes,’ she called. ‘Then we must go back.’

Simon nodded and turned off the main road, heading down the forest track. Ellen lingered by the turn-off, taking the chance to catch her breath. The path, a two-furrow track probably used by tractors, forged dead straight through the pines. She’d be able to keep an eye on her brother from here.

Exactly what it was about this place that excited him so much she struggled to see. The town was like the palm of one’s hand; after ten minutes you could navigate it with your eyes closed. It was a transit point, a place you passed through on the way to somewhere else.

There will be plenty to see there, Ellen! Mum had told her. The mining museum, the local history, the Sami…

So far, the mining museum was closed. The history museum showed the same kind of How-did-people-live-in-the-past exhibitions with model villages, hunters and stuffed animals that you could see in any town. The Sami, well they’d be with the reindeer in the forest and on the moors. Or did Mum really think they would stand by the station in their traditional clothes, waving at the tourists getting off the train?

She’d booked the siblings in for five nights. Five nights of counting trees and iron ore mines. Perhaps Simon was excited now, but once the novelty of this place wore off…

Ellen stopped her thoughts. Simon had got off his bike and was kneeling on the ground at the edge of the track.

Had he seen something? An animal, an insect?

‘Simon, your ten minutes are up!’

That wasn’t true. Looking at her watch, she guessed five or six minutes had gone, and if Simon had heard her, he would tell her so. But what she needed now was his attention and she did not care if her inaccuracy irked him.

‘Come on, we need to get back in time for the tour!’ She biked over to him and said his name again. Still, he didn’t react. She walked up and peered over his back.

There was a dark spot on the ground.

‘What is that?’ She bent down beside him. Up close, she saw the mark was reddish brown. When she sniffed it, it smelled metallic, like copper.

‘Blood?’ The word left her lips before she could rein it in. She looked around her. Did an animal get injured on the road? There were no other spots on the ground. The pine trees formed a thick wall on either side of the path and peering through them she saw only darkness.

 ‘A car has been here,’ Simon said. ‘The grass lining the track is flattened. The car must have reversed and headed back to the road.’

He pointed past her, further down the track. There was a puddle of shiny liquid beneath an overhanging spruce branch, rainbow colours dancing on its surface. Oil.

‘Why would anyone drive a car down here?’ Ellen said. ‘There’s loads of roots and stones and stuff.’

‘It must be a very old car to drip oil like that,’ Simon said. ‘And look here.’ He pointed at the blueberry bushes in front of them. ‘There’s blood drops on the leaves.’

There was a dark mark, like a squished berry, staining one of the leaves. Another one further along. And there, a strip of plastic.

‘Someone’s carried something into the forest, and the plastic bag ripped. Some of the sprigs are broken.’ Simon squinted. ‘I think I can see a clearing over there.’

‘Simon, this isn’t the time for playing detective…’

Simon didn’t listen. He stepped off the track into the underbrush.

‘Wait!’

Her brother stopped. He folded his arms.

Ellen licked her lips. A strange feeling grew inside her, a pulse within her neck, as if she had been stung. She brought a hand to the spot. ‘What if…’

What if what? Her brother’s eyes said. Hadn’t she been complaining about how dull Svartjokk was?

She looked back from where they’d come. The road was a silver lining between the trees.

It wasn’t more than twenty minutes back to the town.

‘Ok then,’ she said. ‘But just a quick look, all right?’

Simon nodded and continued. Ellen prodded her neck carefully. The skin was smooth. No tenderness, no swellings from a sting. Yet the pulse was still there, a heart-beat in her spinal cord.

She shook her head. It couldn’t mean anything. Perhaps it was just the heat. She stepped off the track and followed her brother, blueberry sprigs snapping under her feet.

It wasn’t long before the stench reached her nostrils. Rot. Decay.

She covered her nose and mouth. A fly buzzed by her ear and she hit at it with her free hand. The clearing was close. Light filtered through the trees, painting yellow tracks in the moss.

Simon was stepping into the opening. Didn’t he smell it?

She quickened her pace. When she reached the light, she froze.

Animal heads were lying in a circle in the glade. Reindeer heads.

They stared at Ellen with their glassy eyes. A fly wandered across a pink tongue hanging from a gaping mouth. She saw teeth, flat and broad, like grey stones protruding from the pale pink gum. Grinning at her.

The animals’ antlers had been cut off and laid in a cross. At the centre of the cross was a large, arrow-shaped rock.

Simon had stepped past the heads into the circle. He turned around, taking in the scene, muttering to himself.

Ellen blinked and rubbed her eyes. Scanned the trees and the shadows circling the glade.

What had happened to the bodies?

She stumbled forward, failed to spot a root lurking in the undergrowth and fell face forward. Pine needles and dirt in her mouth. She spat them out, wiped her mouth, stood up. Trees loomed around her. There was no bird song, no chirping or tapping. No wind.

Simon was still pacing inside the circle. He’d covered his nose and mouth with his shirt, but he showed no other sign of being affected by the smell. As she watched, he bent down and ran a hand along one of the antlers, fingers curling over the tip. He continued along the line, until he disappeared behind the stone.

‘Simon!’ She called through her fingers. ‘We have to call the police.’ She took a few steps forward, and then it hit her: the death, the stench, the heads. Her stomach heaved dangerously. ‘Simon!’ She fumbled for her phone.

Her brother appeared around the corner of the rock. He bent down by one of the heads, then picked something from the neck wound and crossed the glade towards her.

‘Look, Ellen,’ he said, holding out his hand.

In his palm was a fly.

‘Simon!’ She reeled back. ‘The bacteria!’

‘It’s strange,’ he said, voice level. ‘All of the flies inside the neck wounds are dead.’

She took a step back. ‘We need to call the police,’ she said again. ‘I’m not doing it here.’

‘But I need to investigate.’

‘You can investigate when the police come.’

She grabbed his hand, ignoring his protests, tugging harder when he struggled against her grip. He wasn’t getting out of her sight this time. Her stride broke into a jog, her jog into a run. When they reached the track, she collapsed by the bikes and her stomach emptied itself. She rolled over onto her back, the taste of bile in her mouth, legs limp as if they’d never be able to walk again, and stared at the distant strip of sky, a blue bridge through the sea of pines. From the road a car swished by.

That was all the sound there was.

2

Departure

At first, Ellen had told herself it was Simon’s fault they had to go north. If not for those beetles he’d dropped on Mum’s boss they’d still be at home; she’d be going to her morning shifts at the supermarket and spending her free time sketching in town.

Her parents told her different versions of what had happened. According to Mum, Simon overreacted. Her colleagues had seen him all alone in the tree house and wanted to make conversation. When they saw he was making notes on the insects in his jars they became curious. He had all the glass jars lined up by the wall, organized from small to large, each with a tape label stating the species of insect. Mum’s colleagues were science teachers, and Simon was probably twice as dedicated to his studies than all their students combined. They began asking questions, they wanted him to come down so he could show them his notebook. Mum’s boss reached up to him, reaching for the book, and her hand brushed against his knee. Simon cried out and tipped the jar over, beetles falling into the woman’s hair. Then he laughed.

Dad had a different take on it. He said Mum’s colleagues had provoked Simon into dropping the jar. There were too many people crowding the kitchen, too many people crowding the lawn. Simon had taken refuge in the treehouse as that was the only place where he could shut out the natter. Mum had been irresponsible. She put her own ego first, rather than her son’s comfort, and hadn’t told her colleagues about Simon’s Asperger. This whole fika thing was a massive show-off to say thank you for her promotion.

Dad’s complaints took Ellen aback. Normally, he always kept a tight lid on his feelings. He could be in an argument with Mum for an hour, and in the next moment talk about the weather or the football with their neighbour. Now he clenched his fists, blue eyes burning with frustration.

Ellen had gone to her brother, hoping his take on the incident would give her a better understanding of what had happened. That was a failed mission. Simon told her the lady had tried to take his book from him and she had touched him, and then he got upset and pulled his hand back and the jar fell over.

No Touch was Simon’s Golden Rule. No one could come into physical contact with him unless they were close family, who were allowed to hold his hand if he was upset or pat him on the shoulder if he’d made an Achievement.

If Mum’s boss had broken The Golden Rule, no wonder he tipped the jar.

Ellen knew she wouldn’t get any more from him and left the matter.

Her mother did not.

‘He needs a holiday,’ she announced in the evening. She and Ellen were standing on the veranda in the back garden, laying the table. Dad was in the kitchen, chopping onions for the Bolognese. ‘With you, Ellen.’

‘Me?’

‘Mhhmm.’ Mum brushed a stray lock of hair from her face. ‘You could both do with a week off. You’ve never had a holiday alone together. Dad and I can’t always trail behind like guards. Simon is fourteen and a half, he needs a chance to stand on his own legs.’ 

‘But where are we going?’

‘To Svartjokk.’

‘Svartjokk?’ Ellen froze in her movements, a plate in her hand. She put it down slowly. ‘Why?’

‘You know why, we’ve talked about doing this trip for ages.’

‘As a family, yes. Not as… not as a way to punish Simon.’ 

Her mother gave her a wide-eyed stare. ‘It’s not a punishment, Ellen! You agreed, before, it would be good to go. To see where your granddad grew up, and the Sami…’

‘But why now? Why not next summer?’

‘It won’t be right now, Ellen. Three weeks’ time, mid-July, that’s when the tickets are earliest available.’ Her mother straightened and tucked a lock behind her ear. ‘You know how things have been, Ellen, between your father and me… This accident today didn’t make thinks any easier.’

‘You mean…’

‘You will manage, Ellen.’

‘Yes yes, of course….’ Ellen had done excursions with her brother before. The beach, the park, museums, canoeing. At Svartjokk they’d be doing pretty much the same, just further away from home. All you needed with Simon, really, was patience and an open mind. ‘But I have a summer job. They might not give me time off on such short notice.’

Camilla made a forced smile. For a moment she seemed about to apologise for something. Then her face smoothened, back into business. ‘I have spoken to Birgit. She can sign you off for holiday no problem.’ She put her hands on the chair and leaned forward to her daughter. ‘The tickets are selling fast, Ellen. If I don’t book tonight, they will be gone. You need to decide now.’

The words punched Ellen in the stomach. She opened her mouth, closed it again. No. Moaning was beneath her. She was seventeen, almost an adult.

‘What does Dad think?’

‘It was your Dad who first came up with the idea.’

‘Really?’ Ellen frowned. Normally, Camilla was the one coming with ideas and Niklas the one going along with them.

‘He said it would be a chance for you to explore your roots. And it would compensate for the fact you couldn’t go with him to your great-grandmother’s funeral.’ Camilla pursed her lips. ‘It’s now or never, really.’ 

‘Mum, can you please tell me what you…’

Camilla leaned over the table and put her hand on Ellen’s. ‘It’s going to be alright, sweetheart.’

Ellen moved her hand away and looked over her mother’s shoulder to her father. ‘Dad?’ she called.

Her turned his red-rimmed eyes to her. ‘Just the onion,’ he said. Before his face could betray him, he turned back to his work. The knife cleft an onion in two. Chop, chop-chop.

‘Please, Ellen, speak to Simon,’ Mum said. ‘He doesn’t want to talk to me right now.’

Ellen was quite certain it was the other way around.

Simon’s door was open, but she knocked anyway. He sat on the bed, working in his 1000 Brain Sizzling Quizzes book. 

‘Enter,’ he said without looking up.

She wasn’t sure whether to sit or stand. Simon didn’t always like it if you made yourself too much at home in his space. If you moved anything as much as a millimetre, he’d look at you sternly, deep line forming on his brow, until you put it back.

This situation was different. It required sitting down. She perched on the end of the office chair.

‘Simon, we’re going on holiday.’

‘I don’t like holidays.’

‘It will just be you and me.’

He shut his lips tight.

She tried to smile. ‘This won’t be like a normal holiday. We’re going to Svartjokk. On the Inland Railway. You know, where Granddad’s from. We discussed going there together as a family, remember?’

Simon’s pencil scratched against the paper. ‘Why are we not going together now, then?’

‘Well…’

Voices came from the kitchen. Simon’s bedroom was right next to the stairs, and one could easily hear what was being said down below.

‘This is all your fault,’ Mum said. ‘Simon’s got worse since Marika left.’

‘He didn’t need those “lessons” anymore,’ Dad said. ‘He’s fine in social gatherings now.’

‘You have a strange idea of “fine”, seeing he poured insects over Annika’s head!’ Mum fumed. ‘If Marika was still here, it wouldn’t have happened.’

‘He needs space to grow on his own. Which is why we both agreed they should go to Svartjokk.’

‘You just don’t want the embarrassment of saying your son needs an assistant!’

Ellen closed Simon’s door. ‘That’s why we’re going,’ she said.

‘Do you mean that they want to divorce?’

She stalled. Kept her gaze at the door, so Simon couldn’t see her surprise. ‘People don’t divorce because of one argument, Simon.’

‘But it hasn’t been just one argument, they’ve had one after the other. For years.’ Simon folded his arms. ‘They’re married. They made a vow to stay together until “death do us part”. They can’t separate.’

‘Simon, it doesn’t work like that.’

‘Has one of them had sex with someone else?’

She put a hand to her forehead. How was she to explain that Simon’s behaviour today probably was the tipping point for their parents’ relationship? That going away was a chance for Mum and Dad to clear their mess up?

‘Mum and Dad would never betray each other,’ she said finally. ‘They just need time alone to talk this out amongst themselves, and that’s easier if we aren’t around. It will be more fun for us going alone, anyway. And I think Mum is upset about the beetles, too.’

Simon looked down at his pencil. ‘Mum always says things are my fault. But they aren’t.’

‘Go on this holiday with me then and prove to her you can do things right.’

A whole minute passed. The argument downstairs ceased, followed by their mother calling them to dinner.

Her brother looked her in the eye. ‘Can I collect more insects and expand my lab?’

‘Of course you can.’

Simon smiled.

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