Excerpt

The Wolf and the Watchman

Niklas Natt och Dag, translated by Ebba Segerberg

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Natt och Dag’s The Wolf and the Watchman , which was named the Best Debut Novel of 2017 according to the Swedish Academy of Crime Writers, and is newly translated to English by Ebba Segerberg. The enthralling and grotesque historical thriller about eighteenth century Stockholm finds a watchman and a lawyer working to identify a mutilated body; in this scene, they examine and discuss the corpse.

The gravedigger answers the knock on his door in the building next to the wall. He is old, short, and bowlegged, with a crooked back and a hint of a hump on one shoulder. His speech bears a trace of German.

“Mr. Winge?”

“Yes.”

“My name is Dieter Schwalbe. You have come for the body? You have the rest of the night at your disposal. The priest will read over him before morning mass.”

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“Be so good as to show us the way.”

“Just a moment.”

Schwalbe lights two lanterns with a long match that he waves in the air to extinguish. On a nearby table, there is a well-fed cat washing its face with a freshly licked paw. Schwalbe hands one lantern to Cardell, closes his door, and skips haltingly out in front of them. On the other side of the yard is a low stone building.

Schwalbe puts his hand to his mouth and makes a loud noise before he unlocks the door.

“For the rats,” he explains.

“I prefer to frighten them than the other way around.”

Objects are piled in all corners of the room. Spikes and spades, coffin materials both old and new, pieces of headstones splintered by winter frost. The body lies under its wrappings on a low bench. The room is cool, but the smell of death is unmistakable.

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The gravedigger gestures at a hook and Cardell hangs his lantern on it. Schwalbe bows his head and clasps his hands as if in prayer, shifting his weight from foot to foot, clearly ill at ease. Winge turns to him.

“Is there anything else? We have much to do and time is of the essence.”

Schwalbe stares straight down at the floor.

“No one can dig graves for as long as I have without seeing things that others don’t. The dead may not have voices of their own but they have other ways of speaking. The one lying here is angry. I’ve never felt the likes of him. It’s as if the plaster in the stone walls around us is crumbling away at his rage.”

Cardell can’t help feeling disturbed by this superstitious talk. He begins to make the sign of the cross but stops when he sees the sceptical look Winge gives Schwalbe.

“The dead are defined by the absence of life. All consciousness takes leave of the body, and where it now resides I cannot say, but let us hope it is in a better place than the one he has forfeited. What remains can feel neither rain nor sun, and there is nothing we could do that would disturb this man now.”

Schwalbe’s objections are clear from his furrowed face. He draws his bushy eyebrows together and makes no sign of leaving.

“He should not go into his grave without a name. Plant a body nameless and a revenant is sown. Until you learn his real name, would you not consider giving him another?”

Winge considers this for a while and Cardell assumes that the answer will be the result of a calculation over the quickest way to get rid of the gravedigger.

“Perhaps we also may draw some benefit from having something to call him. Any suggestions, Jean Michael?”

Cardell hesitates, unprepared for the question. Schwalbe clears his throat in a meaningful way.

“By custom, the unbaptized are given the king’s name, yes?”

Cardell shudders and spits out the name as if it had a bad taste.

“Gustav? Hasn’t this poor soul suffered enough?”

Schwalbe narrows his eyes.

“One of your Karls, then? There are twelve to choose from. The name means ‘man’ in your language, if I am not mistaken, and should therefore be suitable in this case.”

“He should not go into his grave without a name. Plant a body nameless and a revenant is sown. Until you learn his real name, would you not consider giving him another?”

Winge turns to Cardell.

“Karl?”

In the presence of death, old memories are stirred.

“Yes, Karl. Karl Johan.”

Schwalbe smiles at them both and reveals a row of brown nubs.

“Good! And now I bid you a good night, contrary to my better judgment. Mr. Winge, Mr. . . . ?”

“Cardell.”

Schwalbe pauses on his way across the threshold and adds over his shoulder, “Mr. Karl Johan.”

Winge and Cardell are left alone, illuminated by the lantern. Winge turns aside a corner of the wrappings and reveals one of the legs, a stump sawn off two handspans down the thigh. After a while he turns back to Cardell.

“Come closer and tell me what you see.”

Cardell finds the sight of the leg worse than his recollection of the corpse in its entirety, this anonymous stump that does not immediately call to mind any human form.

“A severed leg? There’s not much to say about that.”

Winge nods pensively. The silence makes Cardell feel foolish and then irritated. The night seems to have gone on forever without an end in sight. Without removing his gaze from Cardell’s face, Winge gestures towards his left side.

“I cannot help but notice that you are missing an arm yourself.”

Cardell knows he is good at cloaking his disability. He has practiced for more hours than he can count. From a distance, the light beechwood is easy to mistake for skin, and he has learned to keep the arm somewhat obscured behind his hip. Unless he waves it around, few notice his affliction before getting to know him better. Especially at night. But he sees no other choice than to confirm the observation and inclines his head.

“My condolences.”

Cardell snorts.

“I came looking for my missing coins, not pity.”

“In view of your distaste for our late King Gustav’s name, I hazard that your injury occurred during the war?”

Cardell nods as Winge continues.

“I mention this only because your insights regarding amputation greatly exceed my own. Will you do me the favor of inspecting the stump one more time?”

This time, Cardell allows himself to study the area, beyond the layer of dirt that remains in spite of soap and water. When the answer comes to him, it is so self-evident that he realizes he should have seen it right away.

“This is not a fresh wound. The injury is completely healed.”

Winge nods in assent.

“Yes. Those of us who find a body in conditions such as these can generally consider the wounds either the cause of death itself or else the killer’s attempts to get rid of the evidence. Neither is true in this case. It would not surprise me if we were to find that all four stumps are in a similar condition.”

On Winge’s command, they go to opposite sides of the pallet, lift up the covering, and fold it, corner to corner. The body gives off a sweet-sour, earthy stench that has Winge pressing his handkerchief to his nose while Cardell simply resorts to his sleeve.

On Winge’s command, they go to opposite sides of the pallet, lift up the covering, and fold it, corner to corner. The body gives off a sweet-sour, earthy stench that has Winge pressing his handkerchief to his nose while Cardell simply resorts to his sleeve.

Karl Johan is missing both arms and both legs, all severed as close to the body as the unimpeded work of knife and saw have found it possible to achieve. The face is also missing eyes; the eyeballs have been removed from their sockets. What remains is malnourished. The ribs stick out. The belly is distended with gases that have turned the belly button inside out, but on each side the pelvic bones are clearly visible under the skin. The chest is thin, still narrow with youth and not the full width of a grown man’s. The cheeks are sunken. Of the young man who once was, it is his hair that remains in the best condition. The light blond mass of hair has been washed and combed out across the boards by the humble parishioners.

Winge lifts the lantern from its hook for a closer inspection and walks in a slow circle around the body.

“In the war, you must have seen more than your fair share of waterlogged bodies?”

Cardell nods. Yet he is unaccustomed to scenes such as this one— the analytic and dispassionate examination of a dead man—and his nervousness loosens his tongue.

“Many of those whom we lost in the Gulf of Finland came back to us in the autumn. We found them under the walls of Sveaborg Fort, beneath the batteries. Those of us who had escaped the fever were sent to pull them out. Codfish and crabs had eaten what they could. Often they would start to move and that was the worst. Sounds came out of them, belches and moans. The bodies were full of eels that had eaten themselves fat in there and that reluctantly wriggled away across land when we interrupted their feast.”

“And how does our Karl Johan appear in comparison?”

“No similarity at all. We often salvaged our dead faster after skirmishes, the same day they had gone overboard. Pale, a little shriveled and waterlogged, and that is what I see here too. Karl Johan did not spend much time in the lake, if I’m any judge. I would say the time should be no more than a few hours. He must’ve been put in the water just after nightfall.”

“How long did it take your arm to heal?” Winge asks thoughtfully.

Cardell stares back at him before he comes to a decision.

“Let’s do this properly, so that we will be on more or less the same ground.”

Winge helps to roll back the sleeve on Cardell’s outstretched left arm, until the cloth is pulled back over the straps that hold the wooden limb attached to the elbow. Cardell loosens them with practiced ease and pulls his arm out. Cardell holds his stump to the light.

“Have you ever seen a man’s flesh being cut before?”

“Never a live subject. I visited a public dissection at the anatomical theater once when the surgeons were working on the body of a deceased woman.”

“My own operation was hardly a case study for the textbooks. It was at the clumsy hands of a seaman’s dirk, right under the elbow. Once I was brought to the surgeon, he had to carve away even more to save the arm from gangrene. You restrain the patient with chains clad in leather so he won’t be able to ruin the operation by lunging or convulsions. The soft flesh is cut with a knife, the bone with a saw. The lucky ones are given enough alcohol to render them senseless, but in the haste of the moment I was granted a sober experience. The large veins must be closed quickly. If the clamps slip, I have seen fountains of blood spray long distances. Men lose their strength and grow white in only a few moments. If all goes well, a flap of skin large enough to fold back over the stump is saved and its edges are sewn with needle and thread. See here, you can trace the scar all round and still see the marks of the needle. If the limb escapes any onset of rot, all you have to do is wait for it to grow out again.”

He smiles humorlessly at Winge, who is listening attentively.

“You have seen every stage of healing far closer than anyone would wish. Can you attempt to date the amputation of Karl Johan’s limbs for me?”

“Hand me the lantern, then.”

It is Cardell’s turn to circle the dead man. He bends over at each corner of the body and studies the stumps one by one. With his healthy arm occupied by holding the lantern, he is unable to cover his nose. He breathes through his mouth and exhales the pungent air in small puffs.

“As far as I can tell, he lost the right arm first. Then the left leg, the left arm, and the right leg. I’d say that the right arm is three months gone, provided Karl Johan has healed at the same pace as myself. The right leg? A month, perhaps.”

“So this man has had his arms and legs shorn away in turn. Each wound has been dressed and allowed to heal, whereafter the next limb has been removed. The eyes were intentionally blinded. None of the teeth are left, incidentally, nor the tongue. To judge by the state of the injuries, the process of turning him into what we see today began last summer and was completed a few weeks ago. Death came to him only yesterday or the day before that.”

Cardell feels the hairs on his neck stand up at the full implications of what Winge is saying. Winge knocks pensively on his front teeth with his thumbnail before adding, “I imagine it was welcome.”

He stops in the middle of replacing the coverings, carefully rubbing the cloth between his fingers.

“I thank you for all of your help, Jean Michael. Unfortunately, you have overestimated Karl Johan’s skill as a pickpocket. Your purse is still in its place underneath your jacket. The bulge is clearly visible, and if that were not enough, the purse in question revealed itself when you bent over with the lantern. But you knew this already, since the intoxicants you allowed yourself last night have not remained in your system quite as long as you would have me believe.”

Cardell flinches and inwardly curses the impulse that has betrayed his lie. Anger overtakes him now that his drunkenness is steadily being replaced by nausea. Winge’s cold-blooded attitude towards the dead man, in contrast to his own—he has seen more death than he would wish upon his worst enemy—disturbs him. He spits over his shoulder, as if to ward off evil.

“You are a cold one, Cecil Winge. No wonder you’re so at ease in the presence of the dead. Let me return your powers of observation with some of my own: You don’t eat enough. If I were you, I would try to spend more time at the dinner table and less on the latrine.”

Winge pays no attention to the insult.

“Something else brought you here this evening. Exactly what, we can leave unsaid. But would you continue what you have begun? Would you see this man avenged in hallowed ground? I can provide certain resources on behalf of the police authorities. I would be grateful for your assistance and am prepared to compensate you for it.”

Winge looks at Cardell with his large eyes. Something is alight in them that was not there before. It both frightens and confuses Cardell, but he feels the fatigue spreading throughout his body and just stands there until Winge goes on:

“You don’t have to give me your answer immediately. I will now proceed to the Indebetou in order to listen to the morning briefings. I already know what I will hear. The petty constable will give his report. The responsibility will fall on the procurator fiscal, who is already occupied with affairs that are far simpler and promise more glory than this one. At best he will urge the petty constables of Maria parish to consult their neighborhood officers as to whether local rumors may shed light on the matter. I nurture little hope of any progress there. This broken body will remain deprived of its true name, and at the city’s expense will be laid into a pit on the north side of the graveyard where we now stand. There will be no one to mourn his passing. The police chief has asked me to do what I can. On my own, I fear that it will not be enough.”

More than this is required in order to calm Cardell once his temper has been lost. He has already turned away to leave, ripe with conflicting emotions. Winge’s hoarse voice follows him out.

“If you wish to help me, Jean Michael Cardell, come to see me again. I rent a room from Roselius at Spens Manor.”

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From THE WOLF AND THE WATCHMAN. Used with the permission of the publisher, Atria. Copyright © 2017 by Niklas Natt och Dag. English language translation copyright © 2019 by Ebba Segerberg.




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