The ground crumbles beneath stunted yellow grass, as Bo Falk shines the beam of his halogen lamp across the field. It’s over thirty degrees Celsius in the day, twenty at night, making the carcass of the dead ewe bloat in the heat. He clicks the lamp off and on again, seeing first one beast, then another, capturing what he knows to be the intense gaze of the wolf. Bo’s ewe could have been killed in the night, the gasses encouraged by the heat. This is the pair he has heard about, the wolves rumoured to have made their den somewhere in the woods, between the Falk family farm and his neighbours’. Bo watches the wolves as they watch him, and then he shouts at them, the law says that’s all he can do.
“Bugger off, you evil brutes. The devil take you. This is my land. Mine.”
Bo kicks at the dusty surface of his field, cursing the land as he curses the wolves. There’s no fodder. He’s already exceeded the summer budget, piling on the debt until the money is nothing but numbers and the bank pumps more money into Bo Falk, money for feed, money for water. Falk men and women have farmed this land for six generations, and now there is only debt to pass to his son, and more debt that his son will pass on to his children. Last year it was unseasonably wet, this year a drought, and now the wolf.
Bo hurls the trigger lamp across the field, hears it crash on the dry earth beyond the carcass, pulls out his phone as the light disappears with the splinter of glass, and strides across the dead grass to his dead sheep. The wolves are gone.
“Bo?” his wife calls, peering into the darkness, her t-shirt clinging damp to her skin, her hair, slick with sweat, sticking to her cheeks, her forehead, her shoulders. “What is it?”
“Wolves,” he says. “I’m calling Viktoria.”
“Now? It’s three in the morning.”
“Yes, now. Get Jacob up.”
“He’s asleep, Bo.”
“He needs to see this.”
“Can’t he see it in the morning?”
He ignores her and she hears him bark something at the farm veterinarian. If she drives now, she’ll be at the Falk farm in just twenty minutes, long before first light. If she leaves now. Camilla Falk isn’t so sure, not about that, and not about the wolves. But if Bo says it is wolves, she believes him.
Camilla walks back to the farmhouse, her heels rubbing inside the leather boots, the soles slap slapping on the cobbles, dragging dust from the dry paddock. The crickets rub frantic legs together and she is distracted as she tries to remember the last time there were so many. Not last year, last year was too wet.
“And now too dry,” she says, her last thought on the crickets as she unlatches the door to the main house. Falk farm lies just four kilometres outside the village of Thyrup, West Jutland, just a spit and a strong gust of wind to the sea, the broad beaches, the tourist traps of the Danish west coast. Camilla kicks off the boots, pads through the stone-flagged kitchen and along the short corridor, past the painting of the church cross on the hillside to Jacob’s room. He’s sleeping, legs sprawled over the rumpled bed sheet, duvet on the floor, window open. She enters the room, presses a small hand on his bare shoulder, shakes him gently and whispers him awake.
“It’s not even dawn,” he mumbles, his mouth thick with warm air, eyes gritty with sleep.
“Your father wants you.”
“A sheep is dead. One of the ewes. You need to come.”
“Wolves?” Jacob asks, as he presses one hand flat on the bed to sit up.
Jacob nods, find his jeans on the floor, tugs them over his large bare feet. His mother steadies him as he stumbles, his foot catching in the denim trouser leg.
“Still asleep,” he says, almost laughing.
Jacob zips and buttons his jeans, buckles the chafed leather belt. There’s a plastic knife sheath looped on one side of his belt, but he doesn’t remember where the knife is. He’ll buy another from the store. He scours the floor of his room for a t-shirt as his mother leaves. She fills the kettle as he plods from his room to the kitchen, pulling a shirt over his lean stomach.
These are lean times, Camilla thinks as she brushes his cheek with her hand, kisses him before she starts breakfast. Jacob slips his bare feet inside the same boots she had worn – his boots. He dips his head to peer out of the leaded window to the right of the door, grabs a torch from the windowsill, and goes outside.
There is a tree, an oak, in the centre of the Falk family farm. Jacob swung beneath it as a child, climbed it as a teenager, he might curse it as a man, as his father does each morning, cursing it to the roots; the roots that run deep, anchoring them to the land. They will never leave. Jacob walks beneath the bough, feathers his palm over the trunk. He loves it still, he hasn’t learned to hate it, not yet.
He finds his father by the ewe and turns on his torch with a click. He directs the beam at the ragged hind leg and plays it over the distended belly, encouraged by the heat of the seventh tropical night in a row in Viking lands. His father takes the torch, flicks his hand against Jacob’s chest, and points to the road.
“Here comes Viktoria,” his father says, as lights bump along the beech-lined gravel road running straight between the fields to the farm, three hundred metres from the Thyrup road.
“You called the vet?” Jacob points at the ewe. “It’s dead.”
“And so will we be if they don’t listen.”
“Christiansborg. Parliament needs to listen, Jacob. We have to make them.”
“But calling the vet at…” Jacob looks up at the sky. “It’s not even four.”
“Go and meet her.”
Jacob turns, kicking at the dust as he walks across the dead grass to where Viktoria parks her car. She used to babysit when his parents went to the dance. He might have tried to kiss her once, before she married. Now he just stares when he can get away with it, shrugs when she catches him.
“A dead ewe, Jacob, what is he thinking?” she says, as she steps out of the car – a Volvo – so new the dust is streaked in apologetic lines, reluctant to cling, unlike the thick layers clogged beneath the flakes of rust on the Falk family tractor.
“He says it’s wolves.”
“Is that right?”
Viktoria grabs a torch from the boot of the Volvo. She clicks it on and, for just a second, the light catches her hair, teasing Jacob with a flash of lust, a memory of that almost kiss. Was she eight years older than him? He doesn’t remember, he just watches her close the boot and then follows her as she walks along the northern wing of the farm. He jogs once to catch up until he stands beside her and his father, the three of them beside the dead sheep.
“Bo,” Viktoria says, as she crouches by the sheep and examines the carcass in the light, flaring the nostrils with her fingers, lifting the hind leg with her hand. She shines the light over the ragged lacerations, nods when Bo tells Jacob to turn the sheep, and finds another wound in the belly, smears of blood caked in dust. Viktoria clicks off the torch as she stands up.
“Well?” Bo asks.
“It could be a wolf,” she says. “It could be a dog.”
“It’s not a dog.”
Viktoria sighs. “Then you don’t need me, Bo. You already know what it is.” She looks at him. “But what do I care? It’s your money.”
“Say it’s a wolf.”
“It might be. But we don’t know.”
“I saw them.”
“Over there,” Bo points. “Anton’s seen them too.”
“Anton Bjerg? He never said anything to me.”
“He doesn’t have sheep. The wolves are cowards, they won’t touch his cattle.”
“Bo,” Viktoria says. “It’s tourist season. You know what it’s like. The beaches are crowded, there’s a dog in every other family. They get loose. Every year.”
“This isn’t a dog, or dogs, Viktoria. These are wolf bites. They are making their den, on my land.”
Jacob watches his father, sees the lines crease his forehead, ticking and tugging at the skin around his eyes, as the first light fills the sky. The church spire is now visible on the low hill that presses out of the parched earth between the farm, the fields and the village. The poorer fields are yellow and dry, green only where the water is pumped and sprayed over the crops for five thousand Danish kroners a day.
A wet season, a dry season, and now wolves, denning in the woods.
“I’m calling Tilde after breakfast,” Bo says.
“From Thyrup Dagbladet. She’ll want to talk to you.”
“Because I’ll tell her you said it was a wolf.”
“For God’s sake, Bo…”
Bo clenches his fists by his sides. He takes a long breath, as he waits for Viktoria to settle. Jacob lets the sheep roll back onto its side and stands up.
“Your dad had a farm, Viktoria,” Bo says.
“Had,” she says. “He went bankrupt.”
“He was a friend of mine.”
“Until cancer put in him a hospice.” Viktoria gestures at the church. “And then Aage Dahl buried him. Right over there.”
“He can see us, you know.”
“It’s a little early for Aage, don’t you think.”
“I was talking about your dad.”
“I know,” Viktoria says.
“Then help me,” Bo says, as he reaches for Viktoria’s arm. “We’re struggling, this year more than most. It’s the drought, and now the wolves. One takes my crops, the other my sheep. Say it’s a wolf, Viktoria.”
“It might be,” she says, as Bo lets go of her arm.
“Say it is.”
Viktoria nods, ever so quickly, and Jacob sees it. He follows her to the car when Bo tells him to. The grass, dead straw, hollow vines and husks, scratch along the leather of their shoes until they both reach the cobbles, and the dust settles between the stones. The light is stronger now, and Jacob can see strands of Viktoria’s hair clinging to her cheeks, tiny beads of sweat between the top of her lip and her nose. There’s not a lick of wind, nothing to hide the sudden thud and thump of teenage lust in his chest, the tingle in his fingers.
Married, he thinks.
Viktoria opens the boot of the Volvo, tosses the torch into a plastic crate, and looks at him through the glass. She almost smiles at the look in his eyes, and he wonders if she remembers the half kiss when he was seventeen.
“You’ve grown up,” she says, as she closes the boot.
“What?” His throat is sticky, and he licks his top lip.
“Don’t be like your father. He’ll die on this farm, or it’ll kill him, like my father.”
“You said it was cancer.”
“Farming is a cancer, Jacob,” Viktoria says. She opens the car door and gets in. “I’ll tell Tilde it’s a wolf,” she says.
Jacob nods, turning as his father walks past the end of the north wing, calling out something about breakfast, with a nod towards the kitchen.
“Between the bank and the politicians, what’s one more predator, eh?” Viktoria says, as she starts the car.
Jacob takes a step back as she closes the door and reverses into the courtyard. He watches her go, waits until she has reached the road, and then turns to look over his shoulder at the church on the hill, and the woods below. There the wolf lurks beneath the trees, the vet will confirm it, the local paper will report it. The wolf summer begins.
About Paint the Devil
As the wolf debate heats up during Denmark’s hottest and driest summer on record, wildlife biologist Jon Østergård and his teenage daughter relocate to the West Jutland village of Thyrup, to study problem wolves in a community divided by fear, belief, opinions and violence.
Jon quickly discovers that his experience of wolves in Greenland means nothing in a farming community fighting to have their voice heard in an increasingly divisive national debate.
Pressed by politicians demanding an objective report on one side, and locals on the other, Jon risks losing his way as the debate turns ugly, and his daughter is drawn into a family convinced that extreme action is necessary to protect their livelihood.
Sporadic wildfires flare up in the surrounding countryside, and the flames force a small pack of wolves closer and closer to the village.
Available from Amazon