2 August 1983 At 2:30 in the morning they flew southeast over the sleeping western suburbs toward Stockholm. A thin fog had crept into the area, and much of the ground below them lay shrouded in mist.
At first Eli was in the lead, but soon Oskar came abreast of her and firmly took her by the hand. The wind whipped the hair across their faces as they stole glances at each other, and they flew in tandem for awhile, soon clinging to each other only by their fingertips.
Then Oskar quickly pulled ahead, looked back, and laid down the gauntlet by giving Eli an evil grin. Eli’s eyes narrowed and she smiled back, then sped up and gave him a smug look as she passed him, beginning a happy game to see who could go the fastest. Faster and faster they skimmed across the sky, just beneath a broken layer of clouds.
Soon it became clear that neither of them could win a contest of speed, and as if by mutual consent they slowed. Eli asked Oskar how he liked flying, to which Oskar replied that he loved it, and would do it all night long if he could.
Then Eli began to make a slow spiral around him, crossing over below him, up around the opposite side, then moving above him before descending back again to his side before repeating the process. Oskar experienced a feeling of vertigo as his eyes traced her mesmerizing path about him, and unable to contain himself, he began to laugh. Then he, too, joined in. Soon their spinning paths made a double helix that wavered and wandered through the darkness, leaving a trail of laughter behind.
Eventually they grew tired of being dizzy and leveled out. Oskar was not used to flying, let alone navigating by air at night, but he easily recognized downtown Stockholm. He spotted the prominent iron spire of the Riddarholmen Church in Gamla Stan, where the kings were buried, and thought how amazing it was to see it by air. Off to his left was the slightly less imposing steeple of Clara Chruch, and the tower of the City Hall on the Riddarfjärden loomed out of the fog. Eli began to descend a little, and as they crossed Skeppsholmen, Oskar realized their destination: Djurgården, an island immediately east of the downtown area. Eli headed straight for the tall white tower sticking up in the middle of the Gröna Lund amusement park, and before Oskar realized it, they had alighted on its top.
The glare of the green neon lighting the top of the tower was immediately below them, and the big green flags flapped above their heads on their metal poles. Well below them, the roller coasters and other rides were still lit up, though silent now because the park was closed for the night.
Oskar gazed down over the edge and around in awe. “Whoa, Eli. It’s so cool up here.”
Eli gave Oskar a huge smile. “Isn’t it? I’ve been here once or twice before, and I’ve never been disappointed by the view.”
“I guess no one can see us up here,” he offered.
“Don’t think so. It’d be pretty hard, I think. ’Cause we’re so high up.”
They crawled around the windy top in silence for a short time; then Oskar gave Eli a puzzled look and asked her if this is where she had wanted to take him.
“No. We need to go that way a little further.” She pointed to the east. “Into Skansen.”
Then it hit Oskar: Skansen--of course! He’d taken a field trip there in Sixth Grade. Where else would they be able to find an 18th Century house?
They launched themselves away from the tower, and were soon circling above the open-air museum. Eli scanned the woods and paths below them, then spotted a cluster of buildings, and they dropped through the fog to the ground.
They landed in a courtyard of sorts, a rough square bound by the low, wooden structures that surrounded them: old-fashioned log buildings, cross-tied at the corners. Although there was no one around, they quickly ran over to the overhang of the house to their left, and stood in the shadows for a moment as they got their bearings.
Oskar jumped a bit when a cow mooed loudly from a building to their right. Eli smiled at him reassuringly and then wrinkled her nose. “Cowshed—can’t you tell from the smell?” Oskar squeezed her hand nervously, and his nose twitched. Then he gave her an embarrassed grin. “Oh yeah . . . whew.” Then he added, “Bring back any memories?”
Eli continued to smile, but her voice was serious. “Actually, it does.”
Oskar looked around the barnyard and noticed a long pole with a rope on it, sticking out from behind the end of the building where they were. “What’s that?”
“You use it draw water out of the well, there. Come’re and I’ll show you.”
Together they jumped down off the rough-hewn porch and went over to the small well. Eli removed the cover and dropped the bucket down in until both of them heard a faint splash. Then together they pulled the rope until the bucket, now half full of water, re-emerged. Eli smiled and then, holding the bucket on either side, hoisted it up and poured some into her mouth. Oskar watched her throat move and then heard her sigh as she lowered it down. The water had splashed down her neck and soaked her shirt.
“Ah, it’s so cold,” she pronounced. “Do you want some?”
“Sure.” Oskar took the bucket from her and drank. It was very chilly, as Eli had said, but flat. “Doesn’t taste very good.”
“I don’t care how it tastes. I just want some.” She took the bucket back and drank again. “Do you want some more?”
“’kay.” She poured the water back into the well and replaced the wooden cover.
Oskar looked around. “Where do you want to go?”
“Let’s check the stable.”
“Where is it?”
“There. Attached to the house.”
They walked back across the barnyard toward the largest house, the one with a small porch jutting out. Immediately to the right of the porch and its door was a larger opening. Inside they found the stable, just as Eli had said, and in the stable a handful of sheep peered out at them.
Looking at the sheep, Oskar immediately felt the timeless urge of the four-year old inside him: to pet them. So he climbed over the rail and stepped into the pen as the sheep bleated nervously. Eli joined him. The sheep were quite tame, and soon they were squatting on either side of a lamb, running their hands through its soft wooly coat and touching its head and face. It seemed to enjoy the attention, and licked Oskar’s forearm.
“It’s the salt in your skin,” Eli remarked. “They like it.”
Oskar smiled happily. “Did you have sheep when you were little?”
“Yes. Sheep, goats, chickens and a few cows. Ever had goat’s milk, Oskar?”
“Goat’s milk? No.”
“Then I guess you’ve never milked a goat, either.”
Oskar chuckled. “Got that right.”
“It’s not that hard. Just takes a little practice, like everything else. Come on—let’s go in the house.”
They encountered a padlock on the door, but Eli said something about not having come all this way for nothing, and broke the latch. Then they pushed open the wooden door and stepped across a well-worn threshold into the house.
The main room in which they found themselves had a large, stone fireplace on the back wall, equipped with a cooking pot and iron utensils. The walls and floor were unfinished. A big, old-fashioned drop-leaf table sat in the middle of the room with a few simply designed, unfinished wood chairs around it. To their left there was a long, rough-looking wooden bench. In the far corner to their left, not too far from the fireplace, sat a spinning wheel and a cradle. In the right-hand corner a hand-painted corner cupboard hung on the wall. The room smelled of old wood and smoke.
Oskar looked around, fascinated by how old and plain everything seemed. He tried to imagine what life had been like in this house two hundred years ago, his mind conjuring up images of people dressed in old-fashioned clothes like he’d seen on his field trip. Then he tried to imagine Eli, dressed like a young boy in the same kind of clothes, sitting at the table with his family. He found it very difficult, because he was so used to Eli living in an apartment with him, and dressed in modern clothes. Then it struck him how strange it was, to be standing with—no, to be in love with—a living person who had actually been around back then. The entire situation suddenly felt very strange and disjointed, as if, perhaps, he had just slipped back in time and was now living long ago with Eli here, in this place.
He turned to look at Eli. She walked slowly around the room with a small smile, her head tilted slightly to the side, her hands touching and gliding over every surface that she passed.
“So, is this how it looked? More or less?”
“Well, this house is actually a lot nicer than ours was,” she replied. “I remember a bench, like that, but our table wasn’t nearly as good as this one.” And we did have a spinning wheel, but it didn’t look quite the same as this.”
“And the cradle?”
“Mmm hmm . . . I can still remember that. Except ours wasn’t painted green.”
Oskar studied the spinning wheel. “How’s it work?”
Eli came over and stood beside him. She pointed to a pedal on the floor. “You pump the pedal with your foot and it turns the wheel. You get the wool ready and thread it onto the bobbin there, then use the wheel to turn it into thread.”
“Did you ever do it?”
“Helped my mom with the wool and watched, mostly.”
“Did you have a lot of chores?”
“Yeah, I guess so. Didn’t really think about it like that at the time, though. Life was pretty simple, Oskar. We went to school, helped take care of the farm animals and helped Dad with the crops. We complained about stuff and played around when we could, just like kids do nowadays, I suppose. But Mom probably did more work than anyone else, when it came down to it.”
“What’d you do for fun?”
Eli looked at Oskar and smiled broadly. “Run around and get into trouble—what do you think? And sometimes Papa played a fiddle. That was always fun.”
Oskar wandered through the doorway leading into the adjacent room. “Looks like a bedroom in here.”
Together they went in. Oskar pointed to a ladder leading up to a hole in the ceiling by the wall. “Where’s that go?”
“Kids’ bedrooms are up there,” Eli replied. Then she sat down on the double bed and withdrew something from her pocket.
“It’s a comb.”
It did not look like any comb Oskar had seen before. He was used to combs being long and rectangular, with lots of small teeth, but what Eli had seemed more square, and it had only a few long, thicker teeth. She held it in her lap and looked at it quietly.
Oskar sat beside her. “Can I see?”
She handed it to him. It was old and yellowed, with a lacy pattern carved into its top that was now broken on one corner. “What’s it made of?”
“I think it’s whalebone . . . or maybe from a reindeer’s antler. I’m not real sure.”
“Where’d you find it? In there?” He nodded his head toward the other room.
“It was my mother’s.”
They sat on the bed in silence. Then Oskar heard a soft sound: Eli had begun to cry. It started as a hitching in her chest, then became a gentle sobbing as her head bowed down. Then she leaned against him, her head against his chest. He placed the comb back into her hands, then put his arms around her. With eyes closed, she continued to weep.
Her hands began to knead the old, hard comb, her thumbs rubbing the ancient, ivory-colored surface. After awhile, she began to speak softly, her voice thin and muffled in the crook of Oskar’s arm, its pitch high, thin and full of suffering. “Momma . . . Momma—I miss you. I miss you so much.” The incessant kneading stopped; then her slender arms crept around Oskar’s waist and she clung to him. “Why? Why were you taken from me? How I wish . . . I wish so much that I could see you again. Just once, that I could . . . .” She talked further, but all Oskar could make out was “your face.”
Her words tapered off into further crying, and Oskar did the only thing he could: he held her and let her cry; rocked her gently and told her that it would be okay. When her crying finally diminished, he gently took the comb from her hands and ran it through her hair, as he imagined her mother might have done, his own face now wet with tears. And as he sat there with Eli, he realized that he was crying not only for her, but for himself; he missed his own mom, too. Then he laid the comb aside, put his arms around her from behind, and pulled her back with him onto the bed, holding her close to his chest. Eventually Eli turned and burrowed into him, and they lay quietly together in the dark.
“Do you mind if I ask you . . . what happened to your mom?”
“I don’t know what happened, Oskar. After he let me go, I went back to my home, but my family was gone. And, being what I was, I couldn’t talk to anyone I’d known before. You know . . . some of the friends I’d had.”
“So your house was just empty?”
“All your stuff was—”
“That’s right—except the comb. I found that outside in the yard.”
Oskar hugged Eli a little tighter and stroked her hair as he stared up at the ceiling. “I don’t think I could’ve handled that. I mean, to have my mom and dad just disappear like that without a trace. I don’t know what I would’ve done.” He paused, then added, “What did you do?”
“I was scared, mostly. Really scared, all the time. Confused. I didn’t really know what to do. I sort of became an animal, you might say. I didn’t want to be around people because either they would hurt me, or I would hurt them, and I didn’t feel safe staying in the town where I’d grown up. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. So I . . . I went out into the woods. Deep into the woods. Because I understood by then that the cold wouldn’t bother me. That was the one thing that helped me. And I found a cave, and I lived in that for awhile. I knew what I’d been told, but still, I tried to live off animal blood. Rabbits, squirrels, deer—things like that. I was defiant; I didn’t want to believe it. But I realized after awhile that he had been telling me the truth, because animal blood just made me sick. And I got weaker. And that’s when . . . all the bad things started.”
“When I really understood that I didn’t have any options. That to live, I was going to have to--”
“I know what you mean—don’t say it. Please.” He rubbed her shoulders, then kissed the top of her head. His voice dropped, became softer. “Oh, Eli . . . you must’ve been really lonely.”
“Huh.” She didn’t need to say more.
“What was it like, really? I mean, all those years that you’ve . . . I don’t--”
“I can’t explain it to you, Oskar. I guess I’ve always felt . . . left behind. Like . . . suppose you went to a party for your friend. Maybe a birthday party? And then, say you fell asleep during the party, took a nap. And when you woke up, all of your friends were gone and a bunch of people you didn’t know where there, having some other party. And they didn’t like you being there, and you didn’t like them. But you couldn’t leave and go back to wherever all your friends had gone. You couldn’t go back to them because everyone you knew was dead.”
“That’s horrible. A nightmare.”
“Yes. Except for me, it was real. I didn’t have anyone—I was a leftover. No mother, no father . . . no family at all. I had . . . outlived them. Outlived everybody I’d known when I was just a person . . . a normal person, I mean. And to think that some people actually believe that immortality would be a great thing.” She laughed disgustedly. “How stupid people are.
“And so I just . . . shut down. I just stopped thinking—I didn’t want to think about anything. Didn’t want to know anyone. Didn’t want to care about anything. Didn’t want to be anything. And after awhile I didn’t even think about what I was doing—with the killing, I mean. But then, something amazing happened.”
“Oh, Eli--don’t be silly. There’s nothing—”
“I’m not being silly.” Eli suddenly sat up to look him in the eyes. “You, Oskar, you are . . . the most amazing person to me.” Tenderly she touched his face.
“No, you are. That’s how I feel about you. But Eli, surely you’ve had friends before I came along. I mean, I remember what you told me the day you came over to my apartment—about how you hadn’t had a normal friendship with anyone for two hundred years. But still, that old guy who was with you—you stayed with him for awhile, didn’t you? And you weren’t living in a cave anymore.”
“That was after I found out that I had to go to sleep for months and months. And when I woke up, I’d be really weak. I’d need help. So that forced me to find people who would be willing to help me. But they were never like you, Oskar. They weren’t like what I have with you.”
Oskar was quiet for a moment, thinking. Then he said, “Eli . . . would you like to meet my mom? I mean, if we’re going to need help like that after we sleep, maybe . . . I don’t know. Maybe she could adopt you. And we could stay with her.”
Eli was not sure how to respond. Finally she said, “I don’t think she’d like me very much, Oskar. After all, I’m the one who took you away from her. She’d probably be really mad at me.”
“You didn’t take me away—I left. And . . . well, she might be mad at first, but maybe she’d get over it.”
“Why would she get over it?”
“Well, she’d have to get over it and accept us the way we are, wouldn’t she? She have to realize that I’m . . . different now. You know--that I’m not the little boy anymore that she—”
Oskar heard, and then grasped, his own words. He stopped suddenly, his face an open mask of confused and conflicted thoughts. Eli got up and faced away from him on the edge of the bed. He heard her sniff and realized that she was on the verge of tears, so he touched her back. “Eli . . . please don’t. I know you didn’t mean it.”
She straightened and then looked up at the ceiling, her hands clasped in her lap. “It’s all right, Oskar. It’s just—well, I spend a lot of time thinking about how much you’ve given up to be with me.” She turned to look at him. “And sometimes I think about the man you might’ve been, if I hadn’t been so weak. So I’m sure that if she came to understand what’s happened to you, it would hurt her terribly. She might actually be better off, not knowing.”
Oskar hadn’t thought of it this way; he had not gotten beyond thinking that his mom would be happy just to see him again. But he began to understand what Eli was saying. How would Mom react, if she really knew what he’d become? And what would she think of Eli, for making him that way? Could she ever forgive her, as he had forgiven her? Could she maybe be the mother to Eli that Eli had lost, so long ago? He wasn’t sure.
“Oskar, we’ll have to think some more about your mom. I like the idea of having a mom—that was part of what I liked so much about your birthday party . . . the one that I was in. And I know you probably miss her. But I’m not sure how she’d react, and we need to be careful now. We can’t take chances.”
A wolf began to howl somewhere not too far away.
Startled, Oskar abruptly sat up and looked in the direction of the sound, his eyes wide. Eli, too, turned her head toward it, her head tilted slightly as she listened intently. Unlike Oskar, she was very calm.
A second wolf joined in, the pitch of its cry lower than the first, but undulating up, and then down, before being joined by a third that was the highest of all.
Oskar grabbed Eli’s forearm. “Listen to them, Eli! They sound like they’re right outside the door.”
Eli glanced at him and smiled. “It’s just your ears, Oskar. They’re a lot sharper than they used to be, remember? They’re over in that area on the eastern side of the park. Didn’t you see them on your field trip?”
“No—we ran out of time.”
“Do you want to go see them?”
Oskar appeared uneasy at the thought. “At night? Aren’t they dangerous?”
Eli gave him a quizzical look. “Not as dangerous as you.”
“But how will they . . . will they act like cats do? Toward us?”
“No—not at all.”
“How do you know?”
“I told you I lived in the woods for awhile.”
“Why don’t we just go, and you can see for yourself. I would like to see them. Since we’ve been spending some time tonight learning about my past.”
Oskar hesitated for a few seconds more, then agreed. But as they got up to leave the rustic little house, Eli offered a warning.
“Just one thing, Oskar. You can’t show any fear in front of them. They’ll sense it. And it would be bad if one of them got aggressive, and we had to kill it.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t go, then.”
“Oskar, I think you’ll find them beautiful. And you really have no reason to be afraid. You have to start remembering what you can do. You could handle any of them, even all of them, very easily. And we can always fly if we need to. Don’t worry.”
They flew due east a short distance, following the sound. They approached a heavily wooded trail that ran north and south, but as they drew near the howling ceased, and when they landed they were greeted only by silence. Behind a fence the ground dipped down and then sloped upwards, broken by a small stream that ran toward and then parallel to the fence. The rugged ground was strewn with rocks and boulders, and the trees beyond were shrouded in mist.
They peered into the woods and saw nothing. Then Eli looked at Oskar and said, “Come on—let’s go over the fence now.”
Oskar hesitated. “Umm . . . you go first. I’ll watch.”
Eli looked at him a moment longer and thought about offering a few more words of encouragement. Then she simply said ‘all right,’ and quickly climbed over, jumped down, and landed, feather-light, on the opposite side. She stood perfectly still with her arms at her sides, three or four meters from the fenceline.
At first, Oskar saw nothing; even with his excellent vision, it was hard to see much of anything beyond her in the fog. Then he saw Eli turn her head slightly, and at almost the same time, a ghostly gray shape moved rapidly between two pines off to their left. Oskar scanned harder, straining to see.
There was a faint rustle, the soft padding of feet, and then he saw two low, dark shapes emerging from the screen of some undergrowth near the stream. Then he realized that at least six wolf-like forms were moving in the woods toward Eli. They were spread out, and he was unable to see all of them at the same time, so he swung his head back and forth to watch them as they came closer out of the mist.
Then he heard a deep, low growl; and at this, he became afraid for Eli despite his knowledge of what she was. Seeing the big, grayish-black shapes slink toward her small, slender silhouette sent a shiver of fear down him from his head to his toes. It touched down somewhere deep inside him and provoked a powerful, primordial urge to flee. He wanted to yell at Eli to get out, but didn’t dare.
Suddenly a young, powerful wolf, the one that had been growling, advanced full into view and began to trot rapidly toward Eli. Its flanks were reddish-brown and its ears were laid back; its amber-colored eyes glittered. It opened its mouth in a snarl, its canines very white in contrast to the reddish-pink of its gums, and broke into a run.
Oskar could no longer restrain himself. “Eli!” But as the wolf loped past a big pine, another wolf, snarling viciously, exploded out from its lowest branches and leapt upon the other, striking it like a bullet and knocking it down. The new wolf was bigger and older, and its coat was lighter than the other’s.
They fought one another savagely for several seconds, twisting and turning around each other, their jaws snapping furiously. Soon, though, the older wolf achieved the advantage, and pinned the upstart to the ground. The young wolf began to whine as it lay on its back, holding its forepaws in front of itself. After a few moments, it regained its feet, and slunk back into the bushes.
Oskar watched, nearly paralyzed with fear, as the big old wolf turned its attention to Eli, staring at her with black and gold eyes. The top of its head was a dark, steely gray, and it was gray down its back. Its paws, sides, and snout were a creamy white. It lowered its head as it advanced and held its tail straight out, making itself look even bigger. As it closed the distance to her, the others renewed their advance as well.
Oskar watched Eli closely, waiting for her to react. He hoped against hope that she would fly up and rejoin him on the other side of the fence, or at least grow some claws and teeth, but she did neither. From what Oskar could tell, all she seemed to be doing was looking at the big wolf as it came closer.
Then something strange happened. When the wolf drew very near to Eli, it laid its ears back and lowered its head even further, baring its teeth in an apparent grimace. Then it lowered the whole front half of its body and its tail, never breaking eye contact with her. To Oskar, it almost seemed like an act of supplication, and the idea of Eli as Artemis suddenly returned to him. What did the wolf see in her?
Eli dropped to her knees and knelt directly in front of the wolf; now she seemed even smaller and more vulnerable. Then she did something that, to Oskar, was completely unexpected: she put her arms around its strong, shaggy shoulders and hugged it. To Oskar’s surprise, the wolf began to whine softly, and Eli made low, murmuring noises, as if, perhaps, speaking to it. Slowly, it sat down on its haunches and rolled onto its side; then Eli embraced it completely, laying down between its front legs and pressing herself to its chest; resting her head on the thick fur around its neck, one hand stroking its coat.
One by one, the other wolves came and sat around the pair, some on their hind legs and some lying down; even the one who had fought earlier.
Oskar realized that for the moment, he was on his own. Eli had her back to him and was quietly holding the wolf in a peaceful embrace; her attention was no longer on him, and she showed no sign of getting up anytime soon. He could tell that Eli was happy; that in some mysterious way, she was enjoying an experience that was akin to what she felt when she was with him. Seeing how they had encircled her, Oskar could only conclude that the wolves somehow understood what she was. Like him, they had accepted her; and like him, their acceptance was unconditional.
I went out into the woods. I became an animal.
Did wolves become Eli’s companions when, wretched and alone, she was thrust out into the world so long ago? Had she hunted with them, or for them? Did she share a cave with them? Lie curled up with them, finding solace in the warmth and comfort they offered? Seeing her small body clinging so closely to the great, shaggy beast, Oskar imagined that it must have been so.
He was no longer afraid, but was not sure what to do. Then one of the wolves, this one charcoal black from nose to tail, approached the fence and sat in front of him. Its odor was different from Eli’s Alpha male, and he realized that it was a female; perhaps the other’s mate. It was beautiful; its coat thick and rich, its markings much more subtle than he had first realized—dark brown highlights over its eyes, jet black ears, and white around its mouth. It watched him intently. He looked into its eyes, trying to understand.
Who are you, Oskar?
What are you, Oskar?
The wolf was for him; he was for it. Was he finally ready to embrace the life that his love for Eli had created?
In one, quick motion he flew straight up over the fence and dropped to the ground next to the black wolf, landing crouched on all fours. When he landed the animal sprung backwards, away from him, her back arched, her forelegs splayed down and out. Then she straightened, relaxed, and approached him cautiously. She carried a deep, dense wild smell that saturated Oskar’s nostrils. He remained on all fours, his head at the same level as the wolf’s. Then she came up and licked his face. Oskar smiled; and when two other wolves came over and began to nuzzle him, started to laugh.