Saturday March 15
An early spring evening, Torneträsk. The ice was thick, more than a meter. All along the lake, some seventy kilometers long, lay arks, small cabins on runners, four square meters in size. At this time of year the inhabitants of Kiruna made their pilgrimage up to Torneträsk. They came up on snowmobiles, towing the ark behind them.
Inside the ark there was a hole in the floor. You drilled a hole through the thick ice. A plastic pipe linked the hole in the ice to the hole in the floor, and that prevented the icy wind from getting into the ark from below. And then you sat inside fishing through the hole in the ice.
Leif Pudas was sitting in his ark in just his pants, fishing. It was eight-thirty in the evening. He’d cracked open a few beers, it was Saturday night after all. The Calor gas stove was hissing and whistling. It was lovely and warm, almost eighty degrees. And he’d caught some fish too, fifteen mountain char, only small, but still. And he’d saved a few sprats for his sister’s cat.
When it was time for a pee it felt like a kind of liberation, he was
much too hot, it would be nice to get outside and cool down a bit. He pulled on his boots and clambered out into the cold and dark in just his pants.
As soon as he opened the door, the wind seized hold of it.
During the day it had been sunny and calm, with no wind. But in the mountains the weather changes constantly. Now the storm was tugging and snapping at the door like a rabid dog. One moment there was hardly any wind at all, it was as if it were lying there growling and gathering its strength, then it was pulling at the door for all it was worth. Would the hinges hold? Leif Pudas got hold of the door with both hands and closed it behind him. Maybe he should have put some clothes on. Oh, what the hell, it only took a minute to have a pee.
The gusts of wind carried loose snow with them. Not soft, fine fresh snow, but sharp diamond slivers of compacted snow. It whirled across the ground like a white cat-o’-nine-tails, flaying his skin with a slow, evil rhythm.
Leif Pudas ran around the ark to shelter from the wind and got ready to pee. He might be sheltered from the wind, but it was cold so far up north. His scrotum contracted to a rock-hard ball. But at least he managed to pee. He almost expected it to freeze on its way through the air. To be transformed into a yellow arc of ice.
Just as he finished, he heard a kind of bellowing through the wind, and all of a sudden the ark was at his back. It almost knocked him over, and the next second it was gone.
It took a little while for him to understand. The storm had taken the ark. He could see the window, the square of warm light in the darkness, traveling away from him.
He ran a little way in the darkness, but now its mooring had come loose, the ark was gathering speed. He hadn’t a chance of catching up with it, it was hurtling away on its runners.
First of all he thought only about the ark. He’d built it himself of plywood, then insulated it and covered it with aluminum. Tomorrow morning when he found it, it would be firewood. All he could do was hope it didn’t cause any damage. That could lead to difficulties.
All of a sudden there came a powerful squall. It almost knocked him to the ground. Then he realized he was in danger. And he had all that beer inside him, it was as if his blood was just beneath the surface of the skin. If he didn’t manage to get inside somewhere very soon, he’d freeze to death in no time.
He looked around. It had to be at least a kilometer up to Abisko tourist station, he’d never make it, it was a question of minutes now. Where was the closest ark? The whirling snow and the storm meant he couldn’t see the lights of any other arks.
Think, he said to himself. You don’t take one single bloody step until you’ve used your head. Which direction are you facing now?
He used his head for three seconds, felt his hands starting to stiffen, and tucked them under his arms. He took four steps from where he was standing and managed to walk straight into the snowmobile. The key was in the disappearing ark, but he had a little toolbox under the seat, and he got it out.
Then he prayed to someone up there that he was going the right way, and set off in the direction of his closest neighboring ark. It was no more than twenty meters, but he wanted to weep with every step. He was so afraid of missing it. And if he did, he was a dead man.
He searched for Persson’s fiberglass ark. The wet snow covered his eyes; he tried to peer through, but it was as if a slush kept forming over his eyes and he had to wipe it away. It was impossible to see anything, darkness and snow.
He thought about his sister. And he thought about his ex-partner, about the fact that things had been good between them in many ways.
He’d almost walked straight into Persson’s ark before he saw it. Nobody home, the windows dark. He took the hammer out of his toolbox, had to use his left hand, the right one was completely useless, pain shooting through it after holding the cold steel of the toolbox handle. He fumbled his way through the darkness to the small Plexiglas window and smashed it.
The fear made him strong, and he heaved his entire bulk of over two hundred pounds in through the window. Swore when he scraped his stomach on the sharp metal frame. But what did that matter. Death had never been quite so close before, breathing down his neck.
Once he was inside, he had to do something about getting some heat going. Even if he was protected from the wind, it was bitterly cold inside the ark.
He rummaged in the drawers and found some matches. How can you hold something so small when the cold has made your hands completely useless? He pushed his fingers into his mouth to warm them until they were working well enough to allow him to light the lamp and the stove. His entire body wanted to do nothing but shiver and shake, never in his life had he felt this cold. Frozen through to his bones.
“Bloody hell it’s cold, fuck me it’s cold,” he kept saying to himself over and over again. He spoke out loud, it somehow kept the panic at bay, as if he were keeping himself company.
The wind howled through the window like a malevolent god; he grabbed a big cushion that was leaning against the wall and managed to wedge it fast between the curtain pole and the wall.
He looked around and found a red padded jacket, probably one of Mrs. Persson’s. He also found a drawer full of underwear, pulled on two pairs of long johns, one on his legs and one on his head.
The warmth came slowly, he held his limbs out toward the stove, pain shooting through his body; it was agonizing. He had no feeling at all in one cheek and ear, which wasn’t a good sign.
There was a heap of blankets on the bunk bed. They were ice cold, of course, but he could wrap himself up in them anyway, they’d provide some sort of insulation.
I’ve survived, he said to himself. What does it matter if I lose an ear?
He yanked a blanket off the bed. It was covered in big flowers in different shades of blue, a relic of the seventies.
And underneath it lay a woman. Her eyes were open and had frozen to ice, so they were completely white, like frosted glass. Something that looked like porridge, or maybe it was vomit, on her chin and hands. She was wearing sports clothes. There was a red mark on her top.
He didn’t scream. He didn’t even feel surprised. It was as if his emotions had been completely wiped out by what he’d been through.
“What the fuck” was all he said.
And the feeling that washed over him was like the feeling you get when your new puppy pees in the house for the hundredth time. Exhaustion in the face of how crap everything is.
He resisted the impulse to simply put the blanket back and forget about her.
Then he sat down to think. What on earth should he do now? He had to get to the tourist station, of course. He wasn’t too keen on going up there in the dark. But he had no choice, did he? And he didn’t much like the idea of sitting here thawing out with her.
But he needed to sit here for a little while longer. Until he wasn’t so damned cold.
It was like a kind of companionship between them. She kept him company as he sat there for an hour, tortured by the pain in various parts of his body as the warmth brought the feeling back. He held his hands out to the stove.
He didn’t say a word. And neither did she.
Excerpted from The Black Path by Asa Larsson. Copyright © 2008 by Asa Larsson. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.