The Devil’s Cub: A sample

This is a sample from the first chapter of “The Devil’s Cub”. I hope you enjoy it!

Spring just won’t come.

The fields are still frozen over, the ground harder than rock. The farmers are desperate. Some strew ashes on the snow to make it thaw faster. Others have butchered their last cow, skinny and weak after a long winter in the cowshed.

Others again just die.

I don’t care. I don’t feel the cold anymore.

It’s been three weeks since I met the devil.

I’m standing on a small hill overlooking the farm. We’re half-hidden among the pine trees, the tatere and I, listening to the wet snow sliding from the branches and hitting the rotten slush.

The tatere are a small group – a small wandering, as they call it. Just three sisters, a brother and their father, an old dying man who never leaves the wagon.

I’m talking to Bolette, the oldest of the girls. Women. She’s laughing at the brazenness of her sisters, who’s down at the farm to beg for shelter. Bolette’s unmarried; no bride’s brooch or diklo scarf for her, she just wears a thick shawl over head and chest.

The farm’s a small place, just a few old planks thrown together and thatched with moss and dirt. One cow. No horse. Too many children, probably. Still, they’re alive after the winter; there’s smoke rising from the vent.

“Last year we stayed at a big farmhouse,” says Bolette, sturdy, feet planted in the earth like wooden beams. The foundation of their little family. “They were so rich! We almost didn’t want to leave, but the farmwife kicked us out. The damn burobeng chased us with an axe. Devil take her.”Burobeng. “Devil’s farmer”. She spits. Brown tobacco stain melts with the soggy earth. Not a short woman, but I’m taller than her. Taller than most men.

She holds out her hand. I give her more tobacco. This is how it works when you’re with the tatere, the wandering people. Travellers share everything. And they know exactly what you’ve got on you that can be shared. One of them sees your pouch, and it seems they all suddenly know where you keep it. No matter to me. They won’t touch my things. They’ve seen the carvings on my skin, the patterns of scar and ink.

I’ll leave them, like I leave them all.

Smoking my pipe, I watch Ellebreca, the middle sister, a small brown speck in the dirty white. My eyesight is still sharp, but nothing like it used to be. I treasure the tickling in my lungs. But not the tickling in my belly. For the thousandth time I damn that gift.

I don’t even know the name of this place. I’ve stopped remembering the names of places; it’s all just gadzer and people to me now.

I’m somewhere in Norway. It’s 1801.

I’m one hundred and fifty years old, pregnant, and pissed off.

Here’s how we typically do it.

Two of the younger women go down to the farmhouse, carrying a child. Not two children, and not too old; the whole idea is to get the sympathy of the buro, the farmer, and make it impossible for him to say no when the girls ask if they can stay. “It’s been so cold—just one night, please, for the little one… We just want a roof over our heads for the night!” A bit of pleading and looking sad and poor, and they give in.

“Can I just get my brother? He’s waiting for us across the river. He can help! He’s strong!” And well, since the buro has already said yes, how can he say no now? He doesn’t want to split up the little family, and it won’t do to let some in and make others stay out in the cold.

And now the deal is sealed, it’s impossible for him to say no when one brother turns out to be two, and maybe a few cousins and an aging mother or aunt, and where did all these children come from? The tatere come in smiling and laughing; they put their blankets on the floor, start making coffee by the fire and cooking food in the kitchen. They light up their pipes, get out their drinks. They take over.

Me, I just join in. I don’t say much; I’ve said it all before and heard it all before. Still, it’s good to be with the living and in a Christian house. I don’t mind vicar and sexton, cross and spire. They’re good protection. And it’s long since they stopped burning us.

But I don’t put pictures of their gods on my goavddis drum. My mother never did, and I never will. Once, a hundred years ago, I had to stand court and tell the magistrate about the people I’d drawn on the drum skin. I told them about Christ and the mother of God. And the devil. Lies, all of it, except the devil.

They made me swear an oath, but I know that Christ isn’t vengeful. He’s never killed anyone who broke an oath to him. Unlike my gadzer.

I don’t fear Christ. I fear my gadzer, my guidingspirits, who will happily eat my body and leave my beating heart behind to bear witness.

I feel that something is wrong the moment Ellebreca starts walking back. Her gangly frame moves too fast, stumbling and hurrying up the hill, slipping in the mud, dark hair hanging over her face. Synnøw, the youngest of the three, follows as fast as her short legs can carry, encumbered with child and skirts. Bolette runs toward them.

There’s screaming from the farmhouse.

Ellebreca is in tears, her big mouth gasping for breath. “They’re dead! They’ve been killed!” Synnøw shouts in a light voice, “He’s still there!”

I walk up to Ellebreca quickly. Grab her thin arm hard to make her focus. “What happened? Farmer kill his wife?”

Her brown and childish eyes are full of fear. She can’t answer. Her face is bloodless and pale.

Synnøw says, “No, it wasn’t him. He’s dead, too. All of them.” Even now her eyes look sleepy. Ellebreca sobs.

I look towards the farm again. It’s quiet now. The smoke continues to rise silently. The screams have stopped.

“Bandits?” I ask Synnøw. She looks at me under heavy lids without answering. Maybe bandits, maybe not. The child on her arm is sleeping. Little bastard never sleeps during the night, I’m thinking. Only when they carry him.

A farm full of dead people. I’ve seen it before. We could just move on. But bandits… If they’ve killed now, they’ll kill again, and the girls are the only witnesses. They could come after us.

And if they’re not bandits, if they’re something else…I need to know what they are.

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