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Fiction

The Wolfskin

By Risten Sokki
Translated from North Sámi by Olivia Lasky
A Sámi woman looks back on the wolves that haunted her village childhood in Risten Sokki's short story.
A wolf sleeping in the snow
Photo credit: Christian Pietzsch, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

I watch the sky darkening from my seat by the living room window. I often sit here at this time of day with a cup of coffee in hand, counting the days through the fall and winter, and in the spring when the sun at long last casts its light over the world. If I look to the north, I can see the endless sea with cascading waves that splash against the shore. If I look to the west, I can see our bright white church. The wind has blown small drifts of snow in the churchyard, dappling it with rippled patterns. Here and there you can spot dark patches of bare earth between the drifts.

 

My daughter was just here for Easter. She and her family live inland, and she’s always trying to convince me to move there.

“Can’t you stay with us during the winter? You’re all alone here. Imagine if something happened. You could live here in the summer when there are more people around.”

My answer was the same as always:

“I’m just fine here. I don’t do well in places with too many people.”

And that’s how it is. I sit here, looking out the window, watching the wind swirl and toss the snowflakes through the air.

 

“When the forested valleys in Russia start filling up with snow, the wolf begins its journey from the south toward the plains in the north. You can hear it running if you put your ear to the earth. You can hear it announcing itself several days beforehand. Its howls give it away well in advance, telling you that it’s on its way now. If it’s a cursed wolf, it howls with a hateful sound that pierces your body and stays there. It’s a sound that follows you for the rest of your life. It might go away, and you might even start to believe it’s gone forever. But the sound will come back to life from time to time—because a cursed wolf always returns.”

That’s what my grandmother told me.

She and I stood in the doorway, watching Grandfather skin a wolf. There were a few other wolfskins hanging on the storehouse wall. I’d heard a wolf’s howl before, so I believed what Grandmother told me: It was a sound that stayed in your bones.

 

I went to school in the village and lived in the dormitories. The school was perched at the top of a steep riverbank that we used for sledding.

We were all standing outside one day, looking up at the sky. We could hear the sound of an engine coming closer and closer. The plane approached like an enormous bird readying itself for landing, the pontoons quivering like birds’ feet bracing for impact. A swirl of snow covered the entire plane for a moment. The sound of the engine was deafening and we could no longer hear the barking of the dogs. This was no ordinary occurrence in our little village, and this time, we schoolchildren got to be the very closest to what was happening.

The pilot and his two passengers were all dáččas. These Norwegians were hunters, dressed in big, thick sheepskins. The plane had taken off early that morning and flown toward the tundra. They were wolf hunters, tasked with shooting predators and cleaning up our vidda. You could fly quite low in this kind of plane and open fire out of the window if you got close enough. If a wolf was only wounded, you had to land and set out after it on skis.

The hunters waved at us. I was brave and stood at the very front. I wasn’t scared of the wolf and I wasn’t scared of the dáččas either. Iŋgá stood at the back. She was always a bit nervous, and we all knew that. The largest of the three men stepped out of the plane. He turned his back to us and pulled something out: an enormous wolf carcass. Then he tried to push the carcass toward us. The wolf was heavy, and suddenly it tumbled forward—almost menacingly. We leaped aside, shrieking and shouting. Iŋgá sprinted away and hid behind the corner of a house, peeking out cautiously. The dáččas laughed and shouted “dead, dead,” and the largest hunter pointed his thumb and forefinger to show us that the wolf had been shot in the head.

Now more of the villagers had come over to look, including my grandfather. The men dragged the body up onto his sled; he was the one who would skin the wolf. The pelt was apparently valuable, but the carcass would be thrown into the garbage. There were red flecks of blood in the snow behind him as he drove away.

 

We carried these wolf stories with us for a long time. Ántte-Niilas, the oldest boy at the winter school, had all kinds of spooky tales he would tell us at night. He’d secretly listened to the kitchen girls when they told stories about wolves who weren’t really wolves, but the devil himself. One of these wolves—which lived completely on its own—had attacked the dogs once and even killed one of them. Apparently, it had happened in a siida to the east quite recently.

 

Iŋgá was terrified by these stories and mostly sat there listening quietly. Sometimes we other children would try to scare her a bit. Iŋgá was an orphan; her parents died when she was very young, and she was raised by her grandparents. Now it was my job to look after her and put sedge grass in her moccasins every morning. I’d gotten a krone from her grandmother for this, and I’d already put it on a string that I wore inside my gákti.

We were utterly captivated by all of these wolf stories. One day, I stole a wolfskin from Grandfather and took it to the dormitory, where I showed it to Ántte-Niilas. He took it from me and told me he’d look after it.

I’d forgotten all about the fur until the next morning, when I heard a piercing shriek— Iŋgá had woken up with the wolfskin in her bed and was sitting there, sobbing. Ántte-Niilas had snuck in and hid it there when she was asleep. I tried to comfort her, but she refused to speak to me; she knew where the fur had come from and blamed me for what had happened. She wouldn’t get out of bed that day, and the teachers said she was sick. Iŋgá didn’t say a word to them about the wolf skin, though, and that same day I took it and snuck it back over to Grandfather’s storehouse.

 

The next morning, Iŋgá was gone. Her bed was empty. I ran to the kitchen and asked the kitchen girls if they knew where she was, but they didn’t know anything and started searching the school. The rest of us got dressed as quickly as we could, went outside, and started shouting and searching as well. But there wasn’t a single trace.

A while later, Bier-Ántte came driving up to the school. He told us that they’d found the little girl floating in an open channel in the frozen river, her right hand gripping the edge of the ice. She must have been trying to cross there.

 

I don’t remember much from those days. I must have blocked it out. But I do remember that no one asked why Iŋgá was sick on that day in particular. No one talked about it, and no one asked me when I’d last seen her.

 

I don’t go back to the village all that often; I left as soon as I was done with school. I went into service in town, which is how I met my husband and settled down by the coast.

 

When the wooded valleys start to fill with snow, the wolf sets its course toward the viddas in the northwest. If you put your ear to the earth, you can hear if it’s on its way. The ground thrums when it runs.

I’ve listened in the evening hours when the autumn winds set in and the snow starts to fall. I listen, and hear how my heart beats just like a wolf as it tramps across the earth.

 

I remember it like it was yesterday. The fishing had been good that winter. My husband had recently gotten a big catch and we were relieved to have finally paid off our debts. Our only daughter was going to school inland. When someone knocked on the door that evening, it was like a familiar sound went through my body, a sound I hadn’t heard for a long time. They’d caught a lot of fish and the boat had taken on water.

 

A howling. If it’s a cursed wolf, it howls in rage, and such a sound settles in your body. It’s a sound that follows you all your days, though it might go away. Then you can live believing it’s gone forever.

 

The north wind gusts and snow covers the churchyard as I drink my coffee. It looks like a storm is brewing.


Gumppenáhkki, from the collection The Stone Bird (Geađgeloddi, Davvi Girji, 2019). By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2022 by Olivia Lasky. All rights reserved.

English

I watch the sky darkening from my seat by the living room window. I often sit here at this time of day with a cup of coffee in hand, counting the days through the fall and winter, and in the spring when the sun at long last casts its light over the world. If I look to the north, I can see the endless sea with cascading waves that splash against the shore. If I look to the west, I can see our bright white church. The wind has blown small drifts of snow in the churchyard, dappling it with rippled patterns. Here and there you can spot dark patches of bare earth between the drifts.

 

My daughter was just here for Easter. She and her family live inland, and she’s always trying to convince me to move there.

“Can’t you stay with us during the winter? You’re all alone here. Imagine if something happened. You could live here in the summer when there are more people around.”

My answer was the same as always:

“I’m just fine here. I don’t do well in places with too many people.”

And that’s how it is. I sit here, looking out the window, watching the wind swirl and toss the snowflakes through the air.

 

“When the forested valleys in Russia start filling up with snow, the wolf begins its journey from the south toward the plains in the north. You can hear it running if you put your ear to the earth. You can hear it announcing itself several days beforehand. Its howls give it away well in advance, telling you that it’s on its way now. If it’s a cursed wolf, it howls with a hateful sound that pierces your body and stays there. It’s a sound that follows you for the rest of your life. It might go away, and you might even start to believe it’s gone forever. But the sound will come back to life from time to time—because a cursed wolf always returns.”

That’s what my grandmother told me.

She and I stood in the doorway, watching Grandfather skin a wolf. There were a few other wolfskins hanging on the storehouse wall. I’d heard a wolf’s howl before, so I believed what Grandmother told me: It was a sound that stayed in your bones.

 

I went to school in the village and lived in the dormitories. The school was perched at the top of a steep riverbank that we used for sledding.

We were all standing outside one day, looking up at the sky. We could hear the sound of an engine coming closer and closer. The plane approached like an enormous bird readying itself for landing, the pontoons quivering like birds’ feet bracing for impact. A swirl of snow covered the entire plane for a moment. The sound of the engine was deafening and we could no longer hear the barking of the dogs. This was no ordinary occurrence in our little village, and this time, we schoolchildren got to be the very closest to what was happening.

The pilot and his two passengers were all dáččas. These Norwegians were hunters, dressed in big, thick sheepskins. The plane had taken off early that morning and flown toward the tundra. They were wolf hunters, tasked with shooting predators and cleaning up our vidda. You could fly quite low in this kind of plane and open fire out of the window if you got close enough. If a wolf was only wounded, you had to land and set out after it on skis.

The hunters waved at us. I was brave and stood at the very front. I wasn’t scared of the wolf and I wasn’t scared of the dáččas either. Iŋgá stood at the back. She was always a bit nervous, and we all knew that. The largest of the three men stepped out of the plane. He turned his back to us and pulled something out: an enormous wolf carcass. Then he tried to push the carcass toward us. The wolf was heavy, and suddenly it tumbled forward—almost menacingly. We leaped aside, shrieking and shouting. Iŋgá sprinted away and hid behind the corner of a house, peeking out cautiously. The dáččas laughed and shouted “dead, dead,” and the largest hunter pointed his thumb and forefinger to show us that the wolf had been shot in the head.

Now more of the villagers had come over to look, including my grandfather. The men dragged the body up onto his sled; he was the one who would skin the wolf. The pelt was apparently valuable, but the carcass would be thrown into the garbage. There were red flecks of blood in the snow behind him as he drove away.

 

We carried these wolf stories with us for a long time. Ántte-Niilas, the oldest boy at the winter school, had all kinds of spooky tales he would tell us at night. He’d secretly listened to the kitchen girls when they told stories about wolves who weren’t really wolves, but the devil himself. One of these wolves—which lived completely on its own—had attacked the dogs once and even killed one of them. Apparently, it had happened in a siida to the east quite recently.

 

Iŋgá was terrified by these stories and mostly sat there listening quietly. Sometimes we other children would try to scare her a bit. Iŋgá was an orphan; her parents died when she was very young, and she was raised by her grandparents. Now it was my job to look after her and put sedge grass in her moccasins every morning. I’d gotten a krone from her grandmother for this, and I’d already put it on a string that I wore inside my gákti.

We were utterly captivated by all of these wolf stories. One day, I stole a wolfskin from Grandfather and took it to the dormitory, where I showed it to Ántte-Niilas. He took it from me and told me he’d look after it.

I’d forgotten all about the fur until the next morning, when I heard a piercing shriek— Iŋgá had woken up with the wolfskin in her bed and was sitting there, sobbing. Ántte-Niilas had snuck in and hid it there when she was asleep. I tried to comfort her, but she refused to speak to me; she knew where the fur had come from and blamed me for what had happened. She wouldn’t get out of bed that day, and the teachers said she was sick. Iŋgá didn’t say a word to them about the wolf skin, though, and that same day I took it and snuck it back over to Grandfather’s storehouse.

 

The next morning, Iŋgá was gone. Her bed was empty. I ran to the kitchen and asked the kitchen girls if they knew where she was, but they didn’t know anything and started searching the school. The rest of us got dressed as quickly as we could, went outside, and started shouting and searching as well. But there wasn’t a single trace.

A while later, Bier-Ántte came driving up to the school. He told us that they’d found the little girl floating in an open channel in the frozen river, her right hand gripping the edge of the ice. She must have been trying to cross there.

 

I don’t remember much from those days. I must have blocked it out. But I do remember that no one asked why Iŋgá was sick on that day in particular. No one talked about it, and no one asked me when I’d last seen her.

 

I don’t go back to the village all that often; I left as soon as I was done with school. I went into service in town, which is how I met my husband and settled down by the coast.

 

When the wooded valleys start to fill with snow, the wolf sets its course toward the viddas in the northwest. If you put your ear to the earth, you can hear if it’s on its way. The ground thrums when it runs.

I’ve listened in the evening hours when the autumn winds set in and the snow starts to fall. I listen, and hear how my heart beats just like a wolf as it tramps across the earth.

 

I remember it like it was yesterday. The fishing had been good that winter. My husband had recently gotten a big catch and we were relieved to have finally paid off our debts. Our only daughter was going to school inland. When someone knocked on the door that evening, it was like a familiar sound went through my body, a sound I hadn’t heard for a long time. They’d caught a lot of fish and the boat had taken on water.

 

A howling. If it’s a cursed wolf, it howls in rage, and such a sound settles in your body. It’s a sound that follows you all your days, though it might go away. Then you can live believing it’s gone forever.

 

The north wind gusts and snow covers the churchyard as I drink my coffee. It looks like a storm is brewing.


Gumppenáhkki, from the collection The Stone Bird (Geađgeloddi, Davvi Girji, 2019). By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2022 by Olivia Lasky. All rights reserved.

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