In Ann-Helén Laestadius’s bestselling novel Stolen, out next week from Scribner, a young Sámi girl defends her community’s reindeer from a ruthless hunter. Nine-year-old Elsa has just come across the lifeless body of her beloved reindeer and caught a glimpse of the hunter as he prepares to flee the scene of the crime, when the man threatens to kill her if she tells anyone what she’s seen. In the excerpt below, Elsa’s family discovers the slain reindeer and Elsa struggles to keep silent.
Mom and Dad were whispering above her. She was tucked into the snowmobile sled, wrapped in a blanket. Her skis were under the reindeer pelt. No one was even thinking about how she’d skied all the way to the corral; no one said a word about it. Elsa closed her eyes. The snowflakes that brushed her face melted fast and the silvery frost in her hair was gone. She was herself again.
Her parents, her Enná and Isa, had found her sitting beside her reindeer. They asked what had happened, but she was mute. Inside her mitten she squeezed the little piece of ear. The blood had congealed but the fur was still soft. She didn’t show it to them, even when they exclaimed, upset, that “that bastard” had taken the ears, all of one and half of the other. Sometimes you were required to show the ear markings to prove your ownership of a reindeer if it had been run over or killed by a predator. But she wouldn’t let anyone have this ear. Her Nástegallu was dead.
Mom sat down beside Elsa and pulled her close. Enná was crying. Her mom always cried. She tried to stay calm, to wait until they were back home so she could shut herself in her bedroom where she thought no one could hear.
Dad and Mattias were taking gentle care of her reindeer. It had been dark for a long time, and Elsa couldn’t see everything they were doing, but she could hear them mumbling.
“She must have seen them, or else they would have taken the reindeer,” Mattias said.
“Oh no, they just want to kill and make sure we see it.”
Dad walked around, aiming his flashlight at the snowmobile tracks. Elsa could have pointed out which way he’d gone and which tracks were his, but she couldn’t lift her hand. It was as if the ear kept her still, weighing down her arm. She had seen the man make the sign for death, so she knew this was serious.
The beam of light bounced over snowbanks, sagging trees, and snowmobile tracks. Dad bent down and took several pictures on his phone. They had photographed Nástegallu too, before they moved her. Elsa was sure they had called the police, but they all knew no one would come tonight.
“We have to go now, Nils Johan. She’s freezing,” Mom said.
Elsa wasn’t freezing, but she was trembling. Mom held her tighter and rubbed her whole body with a firm hand. It didn’t help.
Dad hit the gas so fast they fell backwards on the sled. Mattias passed them on his snowmobile. He sped out into the drifted snow, his engine roaring through the forest. Elsa knew he was angry. You could always tell by the sound of his snowmobile. Soon his taillights were just two red points far across the lake.
Her hand fumbled under the reindeer pelt and found her skis. She felt their smooth surface. She would never ski to the corral again.
Mattias found reasons to peek into Elsa’s room all evening. She studied him, her big brother. Stuoraviellja. Seven years her elder, no longer a child but not grown either. In between—“gasku,” as Áhkku liked to say. Her grandmother had a word for everything, but only in Sámi. In Swedish, Áhkku felt she had too few words, but sometimes she couldn’t speak Sámi without having to mix in some Swedish.
The adults said Mattias was like Mom; he was tall like her, and they said he was so grown up. Elsa thought he had the face of a little boy. Mom and Mattias had the same dark hair and the same eyes, but Mattias’s eyes were more watchful.
He dug through the wardrobe in the corner of Elsa’s room but wouldn’t say what he was looking for.
“Did you see him?” he asked without turning around. “Was it Robert Isaksson?”
She lay under the covers, the ear in her hand. She couldn’t hold it too tightly, because then it got sweaty and wasn’t as alive and as soft as it should be. But she didn’t dare let it go.
“You have to talk, or they’ll think you’ve gone crazy and need to go to the hospital,” Mattias said, stomping around the room.
It was sweaty under the covers because Áhkku had turned up the heat in the room. She thought heat was the remedy for everything, rather than snuggling and being close, because she had trouble lifting her arms when she gave a hug. It was unsettling to hug someone who didn’t hug back, but if Elsa lifted her grandmother’s arms for her, she could keep them there. And sometimes her fingers moved across Elsa’s back, almost shyly.
No one had mentioned yet that it was Elsa’s reindeer, the one she had marked herself with the little knife she always had on her belt. Her fingers stroked the cuts in the ear. She could draw the ear marking, cut it in her mind, the marking that was hers, theirs, the family’s. She let her index finger slip across the small edge of the cut, remembering how difficult it had been to make. The larger, round cut had been simpler, as had the one that cleaved the very tip of the ear by just under half an inch.
She truly did want to tell Mattias everything, but he would do something stupid—she knew it. That’s what always happened back when he was in school. It was in self-defense, but no one cared and he was always to blame. According to Áhkku, Mattias was just like Áddjá at that age. Grandpa used to get into fights at school too. But Mattias would never be able to beat up a grown man. And never that man. He was tall, taller than everyone else, with broad shoulders and huge hands.
Stalking back and forth, Mattias rubbed his scalp with the tips of his fingers.
“All you have to do is nod, unna oabba. Nod so I know it was him.”
Elsa lay perfectly still to keep herself from nodding by accident. To be on the safe side, she closed her eyes. But that made Mattias angry; she heard him snort. It was best to peek again.
Maybe she couldn’t talk anymore. That’s how it felt, as if the words would no longer allow themselves to be said. That scared her, because it was important to be able to talk at school. She cleared her throat, testing it out a little, and Mattias fixed his eyes on her. She didn’t want to disappoint him, but she didn’t want him to die either.
“Why did you have to go out there by yourself?” he snapped.
She swallowed hard, willing herself to think about something else.
Excerpted from Stolen by Ann-Helén Laestadius. Copyright © 2021 by Ann-Helén Laestadius. English language translation copyright © 2023 by Rachel Willson-Broyles.Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.