Title: Stallo (aka The Shapeshifters).
Author: Stefan Spjut.
Genre: Fiction, fantasy, horror, folklore.
Publication Date: 2012.
Summary: In the late 1970s, a young boy disappears from a summer cabin in the Swedish woods. His mother claims that he was abducted by a giant. The boy is never found. Twenty-five years later, an old woman claims that a creature has been standing outside her house, observing her and her five-year-old grandson for hours. When Susso – who's dedicated her life to the search for creatures whose existences have not been proven – hears of this, and sees a possible link between the two incidents, she takes to the road on a terrifying adventure into the unknown, to uncover a paranormal conspiracy she could have hardly imagined possible.
My rating: 6.5/10.
♥ The silence brought on by the rain is still hanging over the forest. From the top of the steep glistening wall of pine trees come isolated, experimental trills. He walks slowly along the trail, his face upturned, trying to catch a glimpse of the birds, but the trees reveal nothing moving within them. They have secrets.
♥ A shieling is an unpainted wooden shack – that much he knows, at least. Nobody lives there, but in the old days, long ago, animals lived there. Alone.
A house with animals. What would such a house look like? Has it got windows? If so, do the animals stand inside looking out, feeling bored? It was a strange thing to imagine. He is sure animals often feel bored, that they are so used to being bored they never even think how bored they are.
♥ The water beneath has a pea-green skin. It looks poisonous. A pine cone is floating in it. He could end up like that if he is not careful. He knows that. Someone floating, immobile, face down. Someone drowned.
Holding onto the tail he walks across the bridge. His mother's lips mouth a warning inside him, but he is already on his way into the sea of grass waiting on the other side. It is so tall that he disappears in it. When the wind blows the leaves bend and brush against each other. They become waves that whisper.
He can be just like an animal in the grass. A shrew, perhaps. Nothing is visible apart from strips of green slicing against each other. Holding his hands out in front of him he uses them to part the rustling reeds. This is what it is like for the shrew. Exactly like this.
The boy walks further and further out on the moss.
♥ Afterwards, when they have turned off the light, they hear a faint rustling on the roof.
The rain is falling softly. As if practising.
He can hear a mosquito moving about the room, but it seems unable to find its way to the bed. It goes quiet from time to time. He thinks it is waiting.
"Mum," he says, but he can hear from her breathing that she is already asleep.
She screams at the top of her lungs, a pleading howl that makes her voice crack. She tries to grab hold of him and knocks the kitchen table with her hip.
But he has already run outside.
He is already gone.
♥ Because the first news pictures of Magnus Brodin, carried in the Gefle Dagblad on 24 July 1978, takes up over four columns, there is no need to read the headline to realise that something bad has happened to the boy. That's always the case when a large face appears in the paper.
..He isn't looking at the camera but down to the side, and he looks a little uncertain, almost afraid, I think. You'd like to imagine that a sliver of fate wold show in his eyes. A dark glimmer.
♥ The facility lay far down below in the river valley, a burning fortress that filled the night sky with a dusky blue sheen. The pylons rose up like many-armed giants with straddled legs and handfuls of cables in their fists. The power cables rose in loops up the slope, from giant to giant, running over the tops of the birch trees and hanging over the road. Susso could hear they were making a noise.
They were speaking.
She wondered if it was caused by the snow or if in reality it was the sound of high voltage, of fast-travelling electrons. Did electricity make a sound? She had no idea. She pulled her hands up inside her jacket sleeves and walked closer to listen. They were emitting a humming noise, a secret song. She could not decide if the hissing came from snowflakes landing on the cables. All she heard was the song. Dark and strange.
♥ The long hours of daylight that fortify us and the unyielding darkness that wraps itself thickly around the shimmering green swirls of the northern lights – it is primarily these extraordinary and mutually opposed forced that led our family, the Myréns, to investigate and eventually reveal the existence of trolls.
Dad was drawn to the dramatic play between light and darkness, and to the landscape itself, of course. And he drew us with him.
This is what I remember him saying, or rather singing:
"Sweden, Sweden, country of wildlife, winter country of fiery norther lights."
I used to wonder what kind of image foreigners have of our circumpolar land. A windswept and frost-ravaged expanse? A barren and for the most part wretched region, sparsely populated, if not to say uninhabited? A stag standing proudly on a mountain, with jutting chest, a nimbus of hoar frost around his raised antlers, the northern lights radiating behind him? Or is it a howling wolf, or the muffled sound of troll drums? I know.
..But it isn't the deep, solemn winter that brings the tourists here, it's the midnight sun. The light that never fades. People come from all over the world to see it. The majority are Germans, of course, then the French and the Spanish. They think it's amazing, seeing the sun hanging on the horizon. Odd, in fact. As if there must be something wrong.
♥ He came into the world further south in Örnsköldsvik, which made him a man of Ångermanland, and I like to believe that I have Ångermanland in my heart as well, because I have never liked it up here. In a way I hate the life here: the coarse mentality that dominates the iron ore mining fields, the macho culture, the stubbornness and the corrosive, everlasting gossip. The darkness and the cold which leave deep and permanent frost damage in their wake, both in buildings and people. The reindeer and their pastures, as sacred as cemeteries.
♥ It looks like a monkey, but of course it most definitely is not a monkey.
And it is not an animal.
And it is not a human being.
It is something else.
Something in between.
..And suddenly, there it was.
The thing clinging to the bear was a troll.
It was only a word, after all.
A name for something extraordinary and elusive.
A troll is quite simply something that will not allow itself to be categorised.
A hybrid that has not been given a scientific description or a habitat.
♥ Crying children made them sad, and that could actually make things worse.
"Children's tears are corrosive," said Lennart. "..Taking a child with violence is no problem. An animal can do that. But to take a child so it doesn't realise – that's a completely different thing. You've got to be fast and wary, but not too fast and not too wary. It's a bit like plucking squirrels from a tree. Do you know how to do that? ..The squirrel has to be sitting on a suitable branch," said Lennart. "The branch must be thin enough for you to shake. A small tree is fine. When you shake the branch the squirrel clings on tight. That's how it protects itself when the wind blows. An innate defence, so it can't stop itself. And while you're shaking – not too hard or the squirrel will lose its grip, and not too gently or it will run – you reach out and pluck it like a pine cone. ..You attract the kid with a shapeshifter," he said. "Children that age can't resist them. Make sure it's wearing clothes, that's a good trick, and that it hasn't shifted into an animal. A little hat is enough. The child will never have seen anything like it before, at least not in real life. They become hypnotised, and then all you have to do is open the car door. Sooner or later the child will want to go home. That's unavoidable. And that's when you have to shake the branch, so to speak. It's best to get the shifter to do something amusing. But you know what they're like. They can never be trusted, so you have to be imaginative. Entertain the child constantly. Tell them something interesting. Sing, maybe. Persuade them with a present."
♥ Talking to yourself at night, that was part of it. It made it easier. The silence pressed against her eardrums, but there was no point in switching on the radio, for example. You had to talk, to say something. Anything at all. Hear your own voice echo inside your head. It was not madness but a way to banish the madness.
♥ But at the end of the day it was just a matter of semantics.
"Monster" did not mean "beast", it meant "warning", from the Latin root "monere". It could also be interpreted as "reminder". The word "monument" had the same origins.
But what was it a reminder of?
That everyone could be a monster?
♥ "I'm sure that won't be a problem."
"As long as we're kind and they keep calm. Children are polite creatures. Their politeness paralyses them."
♥ "It was a crisis. Just like it is now. Erasmus had snatched a child in Finland, but we needed more. And they had to be girls – well, you know why. And dark-haired, because he'd worked out there was less of an outcry if you took a kid with black hair, and that's true. There's less coverage in the newspapers because it's not nearly as dramatic as when a Swedish kid disappears. People don't identify with it in the same way. They don't care because they don't feel it could have been their child. It's only some immigrant kid. And anyway it's much easier to hide children who aren't Swedish. No one recognises them. They all look alike."
♥ By this time he had twisted his face towards the glass so that the tears welling up in his eyes would not show. They would be streaming down his cheeks any second.
It was only a matter of time.
Everything passes with time.
He had been told that himself, and he knew it was true in a way. Time blotted things out. They lost their hold. Although of course there was no telling what would fade and what would remain. But it would get better. He would get used to it, even if he was sad to begin with. It vanished with time. A shell formed.
♥ Ever since Edit had phoned and told her that Mattias had disappeared, Susso had blamed herself, and nothing could persuade her otherwise. The guilt felt like a bitter grey lump inside her. However hard she tried she could not suppress the thought that she had triggered all these events by driving to Vaikijaur and setting up the camera.
The photos take by the wildlife camera had scared her. Those white eyes were aimed at her. "It's like I've been fishing and caught something. I don't want on the end of my hook," she had said to her mother. And so it was.
♥ He held the door open for the little man, who climbed up onto the seat without looking at him. He curled up in the furthest corner, twisted his head and looked towards the dog enclosure. I expect he is said, thought Seved, and slammed the door shut. Who knew how long he had been here? How old was the farm? Two hundred years, certainly – agricultural buildings this far west of the cultivation boundary were usually pretty ancient. The old house did not even have exterior cladding and the barn's guttering was made of wood.
He knew the shapeshifters disliked being moved. They attach themselves to places, Börje said, not to people. Maybe he had been there for generations? Seen Torsten grow up, and perhaps Torsten's father. And grandfather.
Of course it was painful for him.
To the extent he could feel emotional pain, that is. Ejvor had frequently told him he should not allow himself to be fooled. They have faces, but that is all. Any other human attribute you think you can see comes from your own imagination.
♥ Creaking gently, the car trundled along the narrow forest road. Seved could see the fox's eyes in the rear-view mirror. Yellow and ringed with black they were watching him intently. There was no doubt Jirvin was concealed in there, in those narrow pupils. It was exactly the same look.
Seved knew he was very old. He had been living in this country when people were eating marsh turtles, so Torsten had said. That was an exaggeration, of course, but how old could he be? Five hundred years? A thousand?
♥ "What will happen with those policemen now?" he asked, after he had swallowed.
"They'll have a little chat with Luttak," Börje said.
"Yes, but what will happen to them? Will they forget everything, or what?"
"If he could just make them forget, then he would," said Börje, who was standing looking out of the window with his hands in his pockets. "But he can't. When he scrapes the details of the event out of them, others things come too. And the memory of it will sit inside them like an old nightmare. They will never be themselves again, believe me. In many cases it ends in suicide."
"Because no one believes them?"
Börje shook his head.
"It's more like a burn. They'll feel the pain but have no memory of the fire. They won't know what they've experienced, but it will hurt and they will suffer a personality change, as the newspapers say. Start to drink. Slap the wife about. And then it ends wiht a gun in the mouth. Either that or they kill themselves driving."
♥ Form the basket of woven birch bark he took a slice of crispbread and crumbled it over the yoghurt.
Seved felt a pang when he saw how the boy broke the bread, because it gave him an insight into the life he must have had, a life trhey had taken from him. That he had taken from him. Who had taught him to crumble crispbread into his yoghurt? Seved tried to push the thought aside but it was not easy. It worked its way in and spread, forcing to the surface a lingering anxiety.
♥ In my defence I can say I didn't do it consciously. It was just that I couldn't deal with it, that's all. My reserves were too low. Drained. It takes a considerable amount of energy to maintain the pretence of self-pity.
But naturally we are stronger than we think.
And if it hasn't been obvious before, it certainly becomes apparent when you find yourself in a crisis.
In mortal danger.
♥ It struck her that this part of the country was completely unknown to her. It had always existed on the map, but only there. She had never been here, not even in her thoughts.
♥ From beneath his floppy hair Seved peered at the little object, but he had to be careful not to catch its eyes. They were a kindly brown but he had noticed a nasty piercing gleam in them, something hard and sharp that wanted to force its way inside him.
Evil beings, Börje had said.
Seved realised now what he meant.
♥ "..So we call it a troll for lack of a better name."
"And how much do you know about the stallo people?" Barbro asked. "Since you come from up there."
"Stallo?" answered Susso, hesitantly. "It's... well, what can I say? In Sami mythology they are giants, a kind of troll. But people think there is some truth in the tales, or rather to the creatures in the tales, and that they were a kind of foreign tribe the Sami people often clashed with. There are various cultural relics – graves and dwelling sites and so on – that are known as stallo graves and stallo land. But no one really knows."
"And they took Sami children too, didn't they?" said Barbro.
"Yes," she said. "That's the kind of thing trolls do, generally."
♥ "Her story began in the summer of 1904, when John was working on illustrations for a book called Lapland – the Great Swedish Land of the Future. He was living with the Sami people and was allowed to travel with them as if he were one of their own. One day, when they were on their way to a fell lake to fish, they saw a group of timber huts in the distance which attracted John's interest. He wanted to take a closer look, but the Laps refused, so John had to go alone. The people living there were walking around in strange fur clothes – wolf pelts and bear skins with the animals' heads still attached. Some of them were enormous and others were more like dwarves, you could say. They had a tame bear which walked among the huts like a dog. John had never seen anything like it and was absolutely mesmerised.
.."There was a squirrel," Barbro continued. "They kept it as a pet and John took a liking to it because it was unusually sociable, and when one of the giants said he could have it, he took it gladly. When he returned to the Sami the first thing he did was show them the squirrel, but they did not share his delight and one of them, an old woman, even tried to beat it to death. They told John he had been among the stallo people and that the little animal was one of them and not to be trusted. They said that if John wanted to stay with them, he would have to get rid of the squirrel, but he was not prepared to do that so he left for home the following day."
"Are you saying there were stallo around as late as the beginning of the twentieth century?" Susso said. "It must have just been something they said, something the Sami people told him to scare him. Or maybe they were joking."
"Yes," said Barbro, "that could have been the case. But he could find no other name for them. And fourteen years later, in the autumn of 1918, they came to his home on Bjorkudden. ..They turned up late one evening," she said. "And they were really very strange. One of them was gigantic. His head hit the ceiling, so he had to stoop, and the ceiling of the ground floor was two metres and seventy-five centimetres high. The second was a dwarf, hardly a metre tall. The third man was normal height, which, under the circumstances, looked quite amusing. He did all the talking while the other two, who were wearing floor-length capes with hoods to hide their hideous faces, stood quietly in the background. Esther assumed they belonged to a theatre where John had worked as a set designer, but when she asked if they were actors, they did not answer. They just stared at her in silence. John told her to take Bengt up to the studio, which she did, and when she came back down a moment later, John was sitting on a chair, his face completely ashen, with Humpe the squirrel on his lap. That was the name he had given it. He wouldn't say anything at first, but eventually he told her that the men had come to settle a debt. Esther and John had been in financial difficulty for some time, so she received that news with a sigh and asked how much money they wanted. And then John said it wasn't money they were interested in, but the boy. He told her about his meeting with the stallo and how they had given him the squirrel. In exchange they now demanded to adopt John's child. Naturally Esther was beside herself and asked John if they couldn't just give back the squirrel, but John only shook his head and said that was completely out of the question as far as the stallo were concerned. They wanted the boy, and if he was not given to them, they would take him.
.."John contacted the police but they practically laughed in his face, so Esther had come to Sven, hoping he would be able to help them by writing something in the newspaper. She thought if it was brought into the open, if everyone knew that there was an isolated group of people in the Lapland wilderness who were about to kidnap the son of the famous artist John Bauer, then the police would take the family seriously and the stallo would not dare to carry out their threat. But of course Sven did not write a word about it. He was convinced that John Bauer had corrupted his wife, poisoned her with his fantasies about trolls, and that she, a woman of taste and considerable artistic talent herself, had more or less lost her mind in that isolated house on Bjorkudden.
.."Only a few days later they were dead," Barbro said. "Swallowed up by the waters of Vättern. Esther, John and the little boy Bengt, who they call Putte. Along with twenty-two other people. It was a horrible business at a horrible time. The war was over and the old world lay in ruins. Spanish flu was raging, following invisibly in the footsteps of the war, and would not be stopped by peace treaties or boundaries. Sweden had kept out of the battles, but the country had not avoided emotional scars. They were like a rot, hidden and inaccessible. By the time the war ended no one knew how many people had lost their lives, but it was thought to be a considerable number. And the shortage of bread – that was certainly not unknown in this country. Not to mention the lack of coffee! ..On the first of October, in the final stages of the war, a train came off the tack in Getå. It was caused by a landslip and there were forty-two casualties. And only a couple of months later there was the terrible accident on Lake Vättern. Bauer, the guardian of everything the war would not be allowed to destroy. How could he, the man with the enchanted pen who had revealed the hidden recesses of the Swedish forests and fulfilled the longing for myths that was beating in the heart of the population – how could he, of all people, have drowned by pure chance? At that very time. And on Vättern, of all places, the country's oldest and most impenetrable lake? How could that have happened? ..Gustaf Cederström," Barbro said. "Have you heard of him? He is best known for his painting of the funeral procession of Karl XII, and he was Bauer's tutor at the Konstakademi. He came up with an answer to that question. ..Here," she said, holding up a cutting. "It's an obituary, published in Gammalt och Nytt, and this it what he writes: 'Bauer's life was full and spent alongside the enchanted lake which became the grave of his happiness. The many legends that surround Vättern, and its ever-changing mystical nature, left a profound impression. Perhaps in some way his rich imagination is a gift to the lake, and indeed we see in the legends how trolls reclaim their gifts. This dreadful year, has not the lake taken back what it once gave?'"
♥ "..It was like my fear disappeared, like I felt he wasn't dangerous and that he didn't want to hurt me."
"That's what he does," Barbro said.
After bending forwards and listening to the animal's breathing – a rapid hiss coming from the little triangular mouth – Susso straightened up and looked at her searchingly.
"He plants thoughts in your head," the old woman said, tapping her finger against her forehead. "It's a kind of telepathy."
Susso studied her to see if she was being serious. It was clear that she was.
"You mean he can read people's thoughts?"
Barbro shook her head.
"No, I don't mean that. I don't really think he can do anything. He just pops up in your head,m unexpectedly. And then you know exactly what he wants. It's not even words, it's only... thoughts. His thoughts. But you don;t feel they are not your thoughts."
"That sounds dangerous," Gundrun said.
"But it isn't," answered Barbro, shaking her head. "It's not as if he can control you. He only wants to make you understand what he needs. He communicates with you. It's not as if he makes you do what he wants, or anything like that."
"Are you completely sure about that?" Gundrun asked.
♥ The preferable choice of doubting the existence of trolls was no longer an option and I have to say I missed that alternative as I sat there in the brightly lit waiting room. It's not such a bad idea to doubt at times.
But we had been given an answer to the question of why trolls had never been found.
They hid themselves.
They took refuge in the shape of animals.
You would certainly have to look hard to find a better hiding place.
♥ "Have you seen the films of the tsunami?" Mona asked. "From Thailand?"
"There were children on those beaches," Mona said. "Little children. The wave came in and took them, as if it was collecting them. I think it was the same with Magnus. The person who took him was like that flood wave, the same kind of indifferent force."
She moved her fingers across the surface of the table to show how the wave had swept in.
"It has been explained to me that my shock formed an image of the person who took him," she went on. "That the pain inside me took on a physical shape, the shape of a giant. And in the end you believe it was like that because it's the only reasonable explanation. And it wasn't only the giant. The day Magnus disappeared I saw a fox and a hare as well outside the cabin. Perhaps you know about that?"
♥ Numbly he backed to the door and spotted two other shapes detaching themselves from the darkness surrounding the fallen spruce tree.
One of them sat partly concealed by the tree. It was an owl. At least, that is what Seved thought until it occurred to him that the wolverine shapeshifter had taken the head of an eagle owl and made it into a mask. The hooked beak hung down like a claw in the wide-open jaws of the predator, and the tufts projecting from the crown of its head looked frozen and rigid.
The other one was standing upright on bowed, dark furry legs and was jutting out the bone lines of his ribs as if it wanted to flaunt its unnatural manifestation. The slimy lump of gristle that bulged above the groove that was its mouth was not a nose or even a snout, and with every breath a fleshy flap of skin on each side of it flapped. It was trembling and panting with excitement. Around its neck was a strap with something metallic dangling from it that clinked as the creature expanded, and Seved realised they were ring pulls from old aluminium cans.
♥ After sitting down in the kitchen Inger explained in a trembling voice that they had lost their son. They had moved to Kramfors so start again, and that is when the troll came to them. He had been sitting naked in the forest beyond the garden, looking at their house with small moist eyes. In his hand he held a birch twig that he slowly waved about him to keep the mosquitoes away, but also perhaps to wave at them. They had never been afraid of him, despite his appearance. It had seemed obvious from the very beginning that they would look after him. There had been no discussion about it either, and as the years passed they hardly mentioned him. They had given him food and cleaned up after him, but never even tried to talk to him. It was not until now, after he had gone, that they realised how peculiar that was. They had not even given him a name!
"Can you understand that? Over twenty years and not even a name!"
They had no idea what he did all day because the windows were always covered. Presumably he slept a lot, on the floor on top of a heap of blankets and branches that he carried in. Roughly every third day he came out and lumbered up to the forest to answer a call of nature, leaving behind a huge stinking pile of faeces, and they were only too grateful he was house-trained, so to speak. Sometimes the radio would be on for an hour or so, always very quietly. They heard him sing sometimes too, but never any words, only a low humming as if he was trying to lull himself to sleep.
..Some days he wanted to play. Couronne, for example. At those times he would appear at the window and tap on the glass with a stick that looked so tiny in his hand. ..That is what he was like: quiet, sleepy and incomprehensible.
♥ The police never located the actual head, even though Susso had given them the GPS coordinates. Whoever had put it in the tree had moved it, maybe to keep it as a trophy or to have as dessert. The wolverines, perhaps. It's the kind of thing they do, decorate trees with the ripped-off heads of their prey, and no one really knows why they do it. Perhaps they don't even know themselves.
But, as I say, nobody found a trace of Jola Haapaniemi, apart from his car, and when the guilt makes me break out in a cold sweat at night I try to persuade myself that he got away somehow. That the bears left him alone. Because Randolf's words, when he said it was like murder throwing him out, they come back to haunt me, I can tell you.
♥ Susso picked a snus pouch from the tin and held it to her lips.
"He's stallo," she explained. "That means he can shapeshift."
After saying this she inserted the snus, and when her tongue had pushed it under her upper lip she added:
"It's the best hiding place in the world."
♥ "You must have longed for him very much," the woman said.
"Isn't it remarkable how very strong our love for our parent is, despite all their faults?"
I agreed. It was an infinite love. Unconditional.
"As a child you are prepared to do anything for them."
"Yes," I said. "Anything at all."
"You forgive them everything."
The woman sighed and turned her face to the ceiling. The spotlights were reflected in her glasses. It looked like she had white pupils in a pair of black eyes.
"That must be the worst thing that could happen to a child," she said. "Losing its mother or father."
"No child should have to go through that," I said.
"Just as no parent should have to lose a child."
"No, that's awful," I said. "I've come close to that, I know."
"Which is why we have to look after them," she said, looking at me. "Make sure they don't come to any harm. We have to watch over them. Like a binne, a she-bear!"
"Yes, of course," I said. "It is our responsibility. Our duty."
"Our duty," she repeated, nodding in agreement.
Then she pulled off her glove and extended her right hand, which was thin and a little crooked, so I held it gently. As I shook it she looked at me and said once again: "Our duty."
Then she withdrew her hand, remarkably slowly.
That was when I felt the claw, lightly scratching my palm, and when I looked down I saw that two of her fingers were hairy and deformed.
Slowly she pulled on her glove, nodded at me and smiled, and then the girl wheeled her out of the shop.
♥ "Trolls can have children with humans," she said. "But then the children turn out like that. Deformed. So it's not surprising they take fully human children instead."