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Fiction

Polar Fire

By Moa Backe Åstot
Translated from Swedish by B. J. Woodstein
In this excerpt from a novel by Moa Backe Åstot, a young reindeer herder in a Sámi community has an encounter with his crush.
A herd of reindeer attached to a sled at sunset
Photo by Hans-Jurgen Mager on Unsplash

Ánte stared at the blinking cursor in the search bar until his pulse began beating at the same speed. Even though he didn’t want to, something was making him do it. He typed carefully, then closed his eyes for a second before looking at the results. Several threads came up on Flashback. He read the heading for the top thread.

Before he could read anything more, he pressed his thumb against the telephone’s lock button. The screen immediately went black, cutting off the words that had lodged inside him. But they were still there anyway. They were running through his entire body.

Are there homosexual reindeer herders?

***

Ánte’s fingers closed around the reindeer’s horn. The strong bull responded immediately; it pulled and refused to stand still. At the same moment, Ánte caught sight of Erik across the field. Erik’s brown-bear-colored eyes focused on him.

Their eyes met.

His body softened and he lost his grip on the reindeer and fell. The snow had been trodden on so it was the consistency of milk, and his knees and feet sank right down and got stuck. Shouts from the other reindeer herders mixed with the sound of the reindeers. They moved around him—around, around, around. He closed his eyes. Despite it all, there was a sense of security there for him—he knew that the reindeer would never run him over as long as there was another path for them to take.

He could still feel Erik’s eyes on his body. They burned through layer after layer of heavy winter clothing.

Before he got to his feet again, he heard Erik whooping. Loud cries in the darkness. The reindeer tried to run away from Erik but couldn’t. It looked like they were playing.

The snow raged on, white spots against the dark sky. It was almost night, and the residents of the Sápmi village had worked all day to separate their own reindeer from the herd. Ánte’s heart pounded as he hurried over to Erik. Together they pulled the bull into Ánte’s family’s office—what they called “the enclosure,” where they gathered their own reindeer—and when they turned to go back to the center, he nearly stumbled into Erik. Ánte couldn’t control his body. It wouldn’t do what he wanted. Every muscle ached.

“Are you tired or what?” Erik asked. “We could probably take a break soon.”

Ánte shook his head and took off his glove so he could rub his eye. Erik’s smile turned blurry at the edges.

A hand on his shoulder.

“Soon, buddy.”

They each sat on a stump, circling the fire with their snowy boots. Erik drank steaming coffee out of a kåsa. Ánte counted the seconds. He stopped at thirty-two when Julia arrived. She sat right next to Erik, burying her red nose into his throat, putting a hand inside his jacket.

“We should go home soon, don’t you think?”

Erik shook his head. “There are still reindeer feeding. It’ll take a few more rounds.”

He looked at Ánte, who nodded. Julia’s knit hat was covered in white. Her whole body was shaking.

“You can borrow my extra jacket. It’s in the bag.”

Erik’s coat was unzipped and his hat was on his lap as they took their break. His bangs were stuck to his sweaty forehead. Ánte wanted to reach out and move them aside. He wanted to push the hair behind Erik’s ears and let his fingers stroke his neck.

He kept his hands completely still in his gloves.

Erik kissed Julia just under the edge of her hat before he got up and shook off the fresh snow from his snow trousers. Ánte should also have stood up—he ought to have done many things he never did—but his body felt paralyzed.

“Are you coming?”

Erik stood by the door to the office. The center was just about to be filled with reindeer again—you could hear the animals coming. He raised an eyebrow. He got no response from Ánte, so he left.

The reindeer thundered in. A deep longing rose in Ánte’s chest at the sound of bells and hooves on the snow. Or maybe it was a sense of missing something. He couldn’t identify the feeling and didn’t know where it came from. He was there. There was nothing to miss.

Julia studied him from the other side of the fire. It looked like she was going to say something.

“What?”

She didn’t reply; she shrugged her shoulders and turned away. Ánte sat for another moment before forcing himself up on his feet. He went out among the reindeer and slammed the door behind him. It didn’t close properly, so then he had to shut it more carefully.

He stood in the middle of the herd. Arms, backs, and horns poked into his body as people and reindeer pushed past him. He tried to look for earmarks that he recognized among the hundreds of reindeer ears, but he couldn’t concentrate.

Someone shoved his shoulder and made him jump.

“Why are you standing around, just staring?”

Ánte turned toward his dad. They looked at one another silently for a moment. Then his dad caught a reindeer without even really looking and Ánte grabbed the other horn. His first instinct was always to help.

They pulled. He didn’t know if he was in fact of any use, if he had any strength left in his arms at all. Maybe it was his dad’s strength alone that made the reindeer move forward.

His grandma ticked off the reindeer when they let it into the office. She was standing up on a stump so she could look out over the fence and into the center.

She marked off whose reindeer it was, her hand shaking.

“Find one for yourself next time,” she said, patting Ánte’s back between his shoulder blades.

“Okay, Áhkko.”

“Are you cold?”

He shook his head. “I’m sweating.”

Áhkko had a big down coat on. Her bright red hat made her head look round, like a little berry.

“Maybe you need to rest a little.”

Dad had gone back to the paddock. He’d already gotten hold of another bull and started pulling it toward the office. The reindeer twisted its horns and threw its head toward his face.

Ánte took a deep breath, his lungs filling with air. His heart hadn’t slowed down behind his ribs yet. It beat as if it didn’t have anything to beat for except this.

“Another time,” he said.

***           

A knock on the outer door made Ánte drop his phone on the table. Who would come over so late? It was almost time for bed. He hadn’t even gotten up before Erik came into the doorway between the hall and the kitchen. Snow was melting into drops around his boots. His hair stood up in every direction when he took off his knitted cap. A hurricane. He ran all five fingers through the strands.

What was he doing here? Hadn’t they locked the door? Even if they were close friends, Erik had never come over so late before. Ánte’s heart was trying to beat its way out of his chest.

“Are you awake?” Erik asked.

“Nah,” Ánte said, lifting his cup of tea to his mouth. He tried to keep his voice steady. “I’m sitting here, sleeping.”

Maybe that was true. It felt as though he was dreaming.

“And there I was, thinking I saw a light on.” Erik scratched his head. “Maybe it was someone else then.”

“Strange. Everyone in the house is asleep,” Ánte said. “If you listen carefully, you can hear me snoring.”

Erik’s smile made him swallow too hard. His throat burned.

“What are you even doing up so late?”

“Couldn’t sleep.” Erik lifted a bag off his back and leaned it against his leg. “I brought along a snack. Thought we could go out.”

Go out? In the middle of the night?

“How did you even know I was awake?”

“You must have a skin we can take with us, right?” Erik asked, going into the hall.

Ánte got up and poured his tea out in the sink. It smelled of hay and vanilla. The cup clinked against the counter when he put it down.

“Do you keep them in the garage?”

Erik had already put on his shoes again and pulled his hat over his head when Ánte came out into the hall. He pulled on his snow trousers and pressed his feet into boots. Erik took a key from the wooden cabinet on the wall and went out.

Ánte hurried after him. The light was on in the garage, the smell of petrol and scooters wafting out. Erik grabbed a reindeer skin that had been rolled up on the floor and turned off the light before he came out and gave the key to Ánte. The metal of the key had been warmed by Erik’s hand. Ánte pressed it against his palm.

 

The forest lay still in front of them, and everything was quiet. The only audible sounds were their crunching footsteps and their breath in the crisp air. They walked carefully, so as not to wake those who were asleep. When they got to the frozen lake, Erik stamped down some snow, spread out the reindeer skin, and sat down. Ánte sat next to him.

“It’s times like these that I’m glad I don’t live in Jokkmokk,” Erik said. “It’s probably never quiet there on market nights.”

Ánte leaned back on the reindeer skin and looked at the stars.

The sky was endless over them. Little sparkling dots in the coal-black heaven. A net of pearls.

He felt small, lying there. Smaller than a spot. Figures floated high up. He thought of the Sápmi constellations that Áhkko had told him about. Not many people saw them anymore, but she did. He looked at the north star, which held up the sky. The gigantic elk, Sarvva, with the hunters following after in an eternal hunt. They said that if the hunter Fávdna caught up with the elk and shot his arrow at it, he might hit the north star and the entire firmament. Then the sky would fall down and crush the earth. The world would catch fire. It would be destroyed, once and for all.

He wondered if the hunter would dare to shoot, to gamble with the entire world. Was it worth it to take such a big risk? To either win or lose everything.

Maybe it was almost time. Maybe it was now.

“What are you looking at?”

He jumped and turned his head in Erik’s direction. “Just the constellations.”

“Aha.”

Erik lay down, too. His head was just a little bit away from Ánte’s. They lay there in silence. Ánte concentrated on counting stars. Tried not to notice how his face would touch Erik’s if he turned to the side. Tried to pretend that all the oxygen hadn’t been squeezed out of his body.

“Want a snack?” Erik said. “I have fruit in my bag.”

“Okay.”

Erik sat up and dragged his leather sack over. He pulled out an orange. The tops of his fingers shone as he peeled it, white pith getting stuck under his nails. When he’d ripped off the outermost layer, he broke up the fruit. The inside was red, like blood.

He sucked on a segment and handed one to Ánte, who took off his gloves. The juice got in the corners of his mouth.

“Do you think our ancestors also sat here by the lake and ate blood oranges in the winter?” Erik asked.

Ánte snorted, holding his hand in front of his mouth so the piece of orange didn’t fall out. He shook his head and swallowed hard.

“Don’t think they had blood oranges then.”

When Erik really smiled, there were little furrows around his eyes. Ánte wanted to touch them, but instead he pressed his wet fingers together. They were a little wrinkly.

“That book you bought,” Erik said. “What was it really about?”

The black-and-white photographs were still in his head. The bodies, the scared look on the child’s face. He had thought about them all evening, twisted and turned before he gave up trying to sleep.

“Don’t know. Old things.”

“Is that why you’re an expert on ancestors and blood oranges now?”

Ánte pulled his knees up to his body and shook his head, pressing his hands to his cheeks.

“Are you cold?”

“Nah, just a bit.”

Erik came closer to him and dried his palms on his thighs. He stretched one hand out towards Ánte’s face.

The whole sky moved into his body.

“I’m warm,” Erik said. “Feel.”

He placed his palm against Ánte’s left cheek. It burned. Erik’s thumb moved softly over Ánte’s skin, making the other cheek scream for attention. Ánte tried to control his breathing. He focused on the birthmark above Erik’s lip, a little brown spot.

What was happening? Ánte was cold and Erik was warm. He really was, so maybe he just wanted to warm Ánte? And yet there was a part of Ánte that couldn’t help but hope. Maybe Erik meant something more by it.

The hand wandered further back, towards Ánte’s throat, his neck. It couldn’t be unintentional now. Ánte sat completely still. He closed his eyes when Erik put his fingers in his hair, just inside his hat. Down to his cheek again. When Erik’s thumb touched Ánte’s lower lip, Ánte shivered, all the way down into his shoes.

Their eyes met, right before Erik let go. “Your cheeks are freezing,” he said, getting up. “We’ll go back.”

It took a moment before his brain made contact with his muscles.

Ánte stumbled in the snow when he stood up. Erik picked up the reindeer skin and shook it off before rolling it up.

Without saying anything, they started to walk. Ánte looked at Erik’s back, at the creases in his brown jacket. He wondered if he would feel the warmth from Erik’s skin through the thick material if he put his hand there.

Erik turned around. “I can’t see you when you walk back there.” He slowed down and waited for Ánte until they were walking side by side.

There were a thousand words floating between them, but Ánte didn’t know what to say.

His body still shivered, but he couldn’t feel the cold anymore. The warmth from Erik’s hand was in him. It felt as if it would never let go.

He turned his head to look up toward the sky. Above him, the hunter drew his bow.


From
Himlabrand. © 2021 by Moa Backe Åstot. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2022 by B. J. Woodstein. All rights reserved.

English

Ánte stared at the blinking cursor in the search bar until his pulse began beating at the same speed. Even though he didn’t want to, something was making him do it. He typed carefully, then closed his eyes for a second before looking at the results. Several threads came up on Flashback. He read the heading for the top thread.

Before he could read anything more, he pressed his thumb against the telephone’s lock button. The screen immediately went black, cutting off the words that had lodged inside him. But they were still there anyway. They were running through his entire body.

Are there homosexual reindeer herders?

***

Ánte’s fingers closed around the reindeer’s horn. The strong bull responded immediately; it pulled and refused to stand still. At the same moment, Ánte caught sight of Erik across the field. Erik’s brown-bear-colored eyes focused on him.

Their eyes met.

His body softened and he lost his grip on the reindeer and fell. The snow had been trodden on so it was the consistency of milk, and his knees and feet sank right down and got stuck. Shouts from the other reindeer herders mixed with the sound of the reindeers. They moved around him—around, around, around. He closed his eyes. Despite it all, there was a sense of security there for him—he knew that the reindeer would never run him over as long as there was another path for them to take.

He could still feel Erik’s eyes on his body. They burned through layer after layer of heavy winter clothing.

Before he got to his feet again, he heard Erik whooping. Loud cries in the darkness. The reindeer tried to run away from Erik but couldn’t. It looked like they were playing.

The snow raged on, white spots against the dark sky. It was almost night, and the residents of the Sápmi village had worked all day to separate their own reindeer from the herd. Ánte’s heart pounded as he hurried over to Erik. Together they pulled the bull into Ánte’s family’s office—what they called “the enclosure,” where they gathered their own reindeer—and when they turned to go back to the center, he nearly stumbled into Erik. Ánte couldn’t control his body. It wouldn’t do what he wanted. Every muscle ached.

“Are you tired or what?” Erik asked. “We could probably take a break soon.”

Ánte shook his head and took off his glove so he could rub his eye. Erik’s smile turned blurry at the edges.

A hand on his shoulder.

“Soon, buddy.”

They each sat on a stump, circling the fire with their snowy boots. Erik drank steaming coffee out of a kåsa. Ánte counted the seconds. He stopped at thirty-two when Julia arrived. She sat right next to Erik, burying her red nose into his throat, putting a hand inside his jacket.

“We should go home soon, don’t you think?”

Erik shook his head. “There are still reindeer feeding. It’ll take a few more rounds.”

He looked at Ánte, who nodded. Julia’s knit hat was covered in white. Her whole body was shaking.

“You can borrow my extra jacket. It’s in the bag.”

Erik’s coat was unzipped and his hat was on his lap as they took their break. His bangs were stuck to his sweaty forehead. Ánte wanted to reach out and move them aside. He wanted to push the hair behind Erik’s ears and let his fingers stroke his neck.

He kept his hands completely still in his gloves.

Erik kissed Julia just under the edge of her hat before he got up and shook off the fresh snow from his snow trousers. Ánte should also have stood up—he ought to have done many things he never did—but his body felt paralyzed.

“Are you coming?”

Erik stood by the door to the office. The center was just about to be filled with reindeer again—you could hear the animals coming. He raised an eyebrow. He got no response from Ánte, so he left.

The reindeer thundered in. A deep longing rose in Ánte’s chest at the sound of bells and hooves on the snow. Or maybe it was a sense of missing something. He couldn’t identify the feeling and didn’t know where it came from. He was there. There was nothing to miss.

Julia studied him from the other side of the fire. It looked like she was going to say something.

“What?”

She didn’t reply; she shrugged her shoulders and turned away. Ánte sat for another moment before forcing himself up on his feet. He went out among the reindeer and slammed the door behind him. It didn’t close properly, so then he had to shut it more carefully.

He stood in the middle of the herd. Arms, backs, and horns poked into his body as people and reindeer pushed past him. He tried to look for earmarks that he recognized among the hundreds of reindeer ears, but he couldn’t concentrate.

Someone shoved his shoulder and made him jump.

“Why are you standing around, just staring?”

Ánte turned toward his dad. They looked at one another silently for a moment. Then his dad caught a reindeer without even really looking and Ánte grabbed the other horn. His first instinct was always to help.

They pulled. He didn’t know if he was in fact of any use, if he had any strength left in his arms at all. Maybe it was his dad’s strength alone that made the reindeer move forward.

His grandma ticked off the reindeer when they let it into the office. She was standing up on a stump so she could look out over the fence and into the center.

She marked off whose reindeer it was, her hand shaking.

“Find one for yourself next time,” she said, patting Ánte’s back between his shoulder blades.

“Okay, Áhkko.”

“Are you cold?”

He shook his head. “I’m sweating.”

Áhkko had a big down coat on. Her bright red hat made her head look round, like a little berry.

“Maybe you need to rest a little.”

Dad had gone back to the paddock. He’d already gotten hold of another bull and started pulling it toward the office. The reindeer twisted its horns and threw its head toward his face.

Ánte took a deep breath, his lungs filling with air. His heart hadn’t slowed down behind his ribs yet. It beat as if it didn’t have anything to beat for except this.

“Another time,” he said.

***           

A knock on the outer door made Ánte drop his phone on the table. Who would come over so late? It was almost time for bed. He hadn’t even gotten up before Erik came into the doorway between the hall and the kitchen. Snow was melting into drops around his boots. His hair stood up in every direction when he took off his knitted cap. A hurricane. He ran all five fingers through the strands.

What was he doing here? Hadn’t they locked the door? Even if they were close friends, Erik had never come over so late before. Ánte’s heart was trying to beat its way out of his chest.

“Are you awake?” Erik asked.

“Nah,” Ánte said, lifting his cup of tea to his mouth. He tried to keep his voice steady. “I’m sitting here, sleeping.”

Maybe that was true. It felt as though he was dreaming.

“And there I was, thinking I saw a light on.” Erik scratched his head. “Maybe it was someone else then.”

“Strange. Everyone in the house is asleep,” Ánte said. “If you listen carefully, you can hear me snoring.”

Erik’s smile made him swallow too hard. His throat burned.

“What are you even doing up so late?”

“Couldn’t sleep.” Erik lifted a bag off his back and leaned it against his leg. “I brought along a snack. Thought we could go out.”

Go out? In the middle of the night?

“How did you even know I was awake?”

“You must have a skin we can take with us, right?” Erik asked, going into the hall.

Ánte got up and poured his tea out in the sink. It smelled of hay and vanilla. The cup clinked against the counter when he put it down.

“Do you keep them in the garage?”

Erik had already put on his shoes again and pulled his hat over his head when Ánte came out into the hall. He pulled on his snow trousers and pressed his feet into boots. Erik took a key from the wooden cabinet on the wall and went out.

Ánte hurried after him. The light was on in the garage, the smell of petrol and scooters wafting out. Erik grabbed a reindeer skin that had been rolled up on the floor and turned off the light before he came out and gave the key to Ánte. The metal of the key had been warmed by Erik’s hand. Ánte pressed it against his palm.

 

The forest lay still in front of them, and everything was quiet. The only audible sounds were their crunching footsteps and their breath in the crisp air. They walked carefully, so as not to wake those who were asleep. When they got to the frozen lake, Erik stamped down some snow, spread out the reindeer skin, and sat down. Ánte sat next to him.

“It’s times like these that I’m glad I don’t live in Jokkmokk,” Erik said. “It’s probably never quiet there on market nights.”

Ánte leaned back on the reindeer skin and looked at the stars.

The sky was endless over them. Little sparkling dots in the coal-black heaven. A net of pearls.

He felt small, lying there. Smaller than a spot. Figures floated high up. He thought of the Sápmi constellations that Áhkko had told him about. Not many people saw them anymore, but she did. He looked at the north star, which held up the sky. The gigantic elk, Sarvva, with the hunters following after in an eternal hunt. They said that if the hunter Fávdna caught up with the elk and shot his arrow at it, he might hit the north star and the entire firmament. Then the sky would fall down and crush the earth. The world would catch fire. It would be destroyed, once and for all.

He wondered if the hunter would dare to shoot, to gamble with the entire world. Was it worth it to take such a big risk? To either win or lose everything.

Maybe it was almost time. Maybe it was now.

“What are you looking at?”

He jumped and turned his head in Erik’s direction. “Just the constellations.”

“Aha.”

Erik lay down, too. His head was just a little bit away from Ánte’s. They lay there in silence. Ánte concentrated on counting stars. Tried not to notice how his face would touch Erik’s if he turned to the side. Tried to pretend that all the oxygen hadn’t been squeezed out of his body.

“Want a snack?” Erik said. “I have fruit in my bag.”

“Okay.”

Erik sat up and dragged his leather sack over. He pulled out an orange. The tops of his fingers shone as he peeled it, white pith getting stuck under his nails. When he’d ripped off the outermost layer, he broke up the fruit. The inside was red, like blood.

He sucked on a segment and handed one to Ánte, who took off his gloves. The juice got in the corners of his mouth.

“Do you think our ancestors also sat here by the lake and ate blood oranges in the winter?” Erik asked.

Ánte snorted, holding his hand in front of his mouth so the piece of orange didn’t fall out. He shook his head and swallowed hard.

“Don’t think they had blood oranges then.”

When Erik really smiled, there were little furrows around his eyes. Ánte wanted to touch them, but instead he pressed his wet fingers together. They were a little wrinkly.

“That book you bought,” Erik said. “What was it really about?”

The black-and-white photographs were still in his head. The bodies, the scared look on the child’s face. He had thought about them all evening, twisted and turned before he gave up trying to sleep.

“Don’t know. Old things.”

“Is that why you’re an expert on ancestors and blood oranges now?”

Ánte pulled his knees up to his body and shook his head, pressing his hands to his cheeks.

“Are you cold?”

“Nah, just a bit.”

Erik came closer to him and dried his palms on his thighs. He stretched one hand out towards Ánte’s face.

The whole sky moved into his body.

“I’m warm,” Erik said. “Feel.”

He placed his palm against Ánte’s left cheek. It burned. Erik’s thumb moved softly over Ánte’s skin, making the other cheek scream for attention. Ánte tried to control his breathing. He focused on the birthmark above Erik’s lip, a little brown spot.

What was happening? Ánte was cold and Erik was warm. He really was, so maybe he just wanted to warm Ánte? And yet there was a part of Ánte that couldn’t help but hope. Maybe Erik meant something more by it.

The hand wandered further back, towards Ánte’s throat, his neck. It couldn’t be unintentional now. Ánte sat completely still. He closed his eyes when Erik put his fingers in his hair, just inside his hat. Down to his cheek again. When Erik’s thumb touched Ánte’s lower lip, Ánte shivered, all the way down into his shoes.

Their eyes met, right before Erik let go. “Your cheeks are freezing,” he said, getting up. “We’ll go back.”

It took a moment before his brain made contact with his muscles.

Ánte stumbled in the snow when he stood up. Erik picked up the reindeer skin and shook it off before rolling it up.

Without saying anything, they started to walk. Ánte looked at Erik’s back, at the creases in his brown jacket. He wondered if he would feel the warmth from Erik’s skin through the thick material if he put his hand there.

Erik turned around. “I can’t see you when you walk back there.” He slowed down and waited for Ánte until they were walking side by side.

There were a thousand words floating between them, but Ánte didn’t know what to say.

His body still shivered, but he couldn’t feel the cold anymore. The warmth from Erik’s hand was in him. It felt as if it would never let go.

He turned his head to look up toward the sky. Above him, the hunter drew his bow.


From
Himlabrand. © 2021 by Moa Backe Åstot. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2022 by B. J. Woodstein. All rights reserved.

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