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A Cold Swedish Winter’s Day by Nigel Roth

One fine morning, in April of 1908, Karolina Olsson awoke on the small isle of Oknö, which sits quietly between the Swedish mainland and Gotland, Sweden's largest Island, in the Baltic Sea, part of the vast Atlantic Ocean.

It was an ordinary day for most Swedes, who may have been planning a trip to the newly-inaugurated Royal Dramatic Theater (as opposed to the non-dramatic theater down the road which was far less entertaining), or were pondering the membership fees for the new cross-country skiing association, which encouraged the development of Swedish skiers, who've competed very successfully ever since.

For Olsson though, this day was a little different to the previous twelve-thousand.

Because Olsson had spent all of those - from the 22nd of February, 1876 until this moment - fast asleep.

Or had she.

Back in 1876, fourteen-year-old Olsson had arrived home to her deeply-religious and eidolistic mother and father, and her four brothers, and told them a story of woe. She had, she announced, fallen on the ice and bumped her head, and showed the many bruises she sported as proof of the slip.

How exactly the family reacted to this tale, whether with complete belief and agreeable nods, or with slight incredulity at the extent of the physical damage from one fall, there is no record.

But we do know they went on chewing their black herring and decided that the child needed no medical attention; probably because the nearest doctor was some distance away, and also because they had few old riksdalers or new krona to spare.

It was when Olsson’s awful toothache then started a few days later, that her mother realized the severity of the young girls injuries and, in keeping with the best practices in these sorts of cases, in nineteenth-century remote Scandinavia, in a household that lived cheek-by-jowl with wood-witches, wind-warlocks, sea-phantoms, and ancient antagonistic apparitions, did what all good mothers would have done; she sent her to bed.

For thirty-two years.

Before that day, Olsson had been unschooled, charged with helping her mother with the constant household chores - laundering and cleaning, sewing and cooking - each day, while her brothers swanned off to receive an education at the local schoolhouse. Her only foray into the world of learning was the requirement that she learn her catechism.

After that day in 1876, it seems chores and Lutheranism didn’t matter so much any more.

Once in bed, Olsson slept deeply, with her mother becoming her carer, washing her daily, and making sure Olsson drank two glasses of milk each day, which she is said to have existed on for the entire duration of her sleep, though the idea of a grown woman surviving on just that for so long seems improbable.

Local people, having heard of the tragic fall and subsequent bed-riddeness, came to call, and saw a well-tended child lying asleep in a warm, clean bed. They asked after the patient, and were told she was ill, sick, unwell, tired, or exhausted. Eventually, neighbors paid for a doctor to visit, fearing the mother’s superstition might get in the way of sense and science. The doctor, Johan Emil Almbladh, though, could find no way to wake the child, and decided some sort of coma must have ensued after the fall.

The doctor brought other medical professionals to see Olsson, but none could determine what condition she was suffering from, how to cure her, or why her hair, fingernails, and toenails didn’t grow at all while she lay in this sleep-state.

Sixteen years after her drift into slumber, in 1892, as fundamental changes were taking place in her country - like the founding of the Swedish Cooperage Union and Stockholm Women's Public Club - she was diagnosed in absentia with a severe case of hysteria, and transported to a hospital in Oskarshamn for examination and tests; advanced medical methods like pricking her with sharp needles, and even more advanced treatments like flashing electric shocks through her. All to no avail. While there, it was determined that she was in good physical condition, with no muscle atrophy or physiological degeneration at all. She was sent home with a tentative diagnosis of dementia paralytica, a late-stage symptom of syphilis.

While the press wrote copiously of the woman they dubbed ‘Sleeping Beauty’, Olsson slept on, in the safety of her bedroom and under the loving care of her doting mother.

Until 1904, that is.

As Olsson’s motherland ended its union with its Norwegian neighbors, so that Norway could rejoice solely in the ‘hell of a beating’ it gave England in the World Cup qualifier in 1981, Olsson’s mother ended too. Up until then, Olsson had been known to moan weakly and had been heard faintly whispering prayers she’d learned as a child, but was now found weeping profusely in her permanent sleep-state.

Her father was too aged to care for his daughter, and so a housekeeper was brought in to look after her, and with this new carer, who was far less devoted to the heap in the bed, things started to change a little.

The housekeeper noticed how well-tended Olsson's skin was, and that candy she brought to the cottage when she attended the slumberer would strangely disappear when she was in another room. And, she also seemed to sense more movement in the woman, as she went about her tasks with definite care, but with nowhere near the same dedication and commitment Olsson’s mother had shown to someone who hadn’t left their room in thirty years.

But, Olsson snoozed away for another four years.

In 1907, Olsson’s brother - no record of which of the four - died, and this time Olsson began wailing with grief, but still remained asleep. A year later, in 1908, on April 3, the housekeeper heard movement and strange noises from above in Olsson’s bedroom, and, on entering, saw the woman jumping around and crying intensely.

After thirty-two years and forty-two days, Olsson had woken up.

On awakening, she is said to have been dazzled by the bright lights, her body was weak and very thin, and she found it difficult to speak.

But strangest of all, the forty-six year-old woman that now sat awake before her remaining family, medical professionals, and soon the world’s press, looked no older than twenty-five at the most.

Following her restoration, she was tested and quizzed, questioned and probed, and was found to be competent and intelligent, and quickly seemed to regain strength and speech. She found she could read and write well, and remembered everything that had taken place before she fell asleep, though she failed to recognize her brothers in their now much-older state.

To all who came in contact with her, Olsson was a complete mystery.

The Swedish psychiatrist Harald Fröderström, met her a few years later, and reported how much younger than her years she seemed, and believed Olsson must have suffered an episode of severe psychosis, brought on by a harrowing event, but not necessarily an innocent fall on the hard ice, on a cold Swedish winter’s day.

Others at the time, and since, have also been wary of the story, citing evidence indicating that Olsson did wake up occasionally, and have held her mother complicit in hiding her away from a world that had scared or hurt her, in some way.

And, some were convinced that Olsson and her mother simply talked the girl into an illness, from which there was no coming back, maybe because of shame or embarrassment, maybe because it was their secret, and they shared it well, until her mother died, and Olsson’s dream of reclusive peace ended.

On April 5, 1950, Olsson, The Sleeper of Oknö, died from an intracranial hemorrhage, caused when a blood vessel within the skull ruptures due to physical trauma, like an innocent fall, on the hard ice, on a cold, Swedish winter’s day.

Or, of course, it may have been witchcraft after all.

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