Cover

CONTENTS

COVER

ABOUT THE BOOK

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

ALSO BY HENNING MANKELL

TITLE PAGE

EPIGRAPH

PROLOGUE: Africa Hotel, Beira, 2002

PART ONE: The Missionaries Leave the Ship

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

PART TWO: The Lagoon of Good Death

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

PART THREE: The Tapeworm in the Chimpanzee’s Mouth

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

PART FOUR: The Butterfly’s Behaviour When Faced With a Superior Power

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

Chapter 62

Chapter 63

Chapter 64

Chapter 65

Chapter 66

Chapter 67

Chapter 68

Chapter 69

Chapter 70

Chapter 71

Chapter 72

Chapter 73

Chapter 74

Chapter 75

Chapter 76

Chapter 77

Chapter 78

EPILOGUE: Africa Hotel, Beira, 1905

AFTERWORD

GLOSSARY

COPYRIGHT

ALSO BY HENNING MANKELL

Kurt Wallander Series

Faceless Killers

The Dogs of Riga

The White Lioness

The Man Who Smiled

Sidetracked

The Fifth Woman

One Step Behind

Firewall

Before the Frost

The Pyramid

The Troubled Man

Fiction

The Return of the Dancing Master

Chronicler of the Winds

Depths

Kennedy’s Brain

The Eye of the Leopard

Italian Shoes

The Man from Beijing

Daniel

The Shadow Girls

Non-fiction

I Die, but the Memory Lives On

Young Adult Fiction

A Bridge to the Stars

Shadows in the Twilight

When the Snow Fell

The Journey to the End of the World

Children’s Fiction

The Cat Who Liked Rain

‘There are three kinds of people: those who are dead, those who are alive, and those who sail the seas.’

PLATO

About the Book

A Treacherous Paradise sees Henning Mankell turn his talents for writing gripping thrillers to a world where power and powerlessness meet and passion is a dangerous commodity.

In 1904, Hanna Lundmark escapes the brutal poverty of rural Sweden for a job as a cook onboard a steamship headed for Australia. To her surprise, she finds love in the form of the ship’s mate, whom she marries, but disaster strikes when her husband is struck down almost immediately by a fatal illness. Jumping ship at the African port of Lourenço Marques, Hanna decides to begin her life afresh.

Stumbling across what she believes to be a down-at-heel hotel, Hanna becomes embroiled in a sequence of events that lead to her inheriting the most successful brothel in town. Uncomfortable with the attitudes of the white settlers, Hanna is determined to befriend the prostitutes working for her, and change life in the town for the better, but the distrust between blacks and whites, and the shadow of colonialism, lead to tragedy and murder.

About the Book

Henning Mankell has become a worldwide phenomenon with his crime writing, gripping thrillers and atmospheric novels set in Africa. His prizewinning and critically acclaimed Inspector Wallander Mysteries are currently dominating bestseller lists all over the globe. His books have been translated into forty-five languages and made into numerous international film and television adaptations: most recently the BAFTA-award-winning BBC television series Wallander, starring Kenneth Branagh. Mankell devotes much of his free time to working with Aids charities in Africa, where he is also director of the Teatro Avenida in Maputo. In 2008, the University of St Andrews conferred Henning Mankell with an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters in recognition of his major contribution to literature and to the practical exercise of conscience.

www.henningmankell.co.uk

Cover

PROLOGUE

Africa Hotel, Beira, 2002

ONE DAY IN the cold month of July, 2002, a man by the name of José Paulo opened up a hole in a rotten floor. He was not trying to make an escape route nor was he looking for a hiding place, but he intended to use the damaged parquet flooring as firewood since the cold of the African winter was harsher than it had been for many years.

José Paulo was unmarried, but he had taken over responsibility for his sister and her five children after his brother-in-law, Emilio, had suddenly disappeared one morning, leaving behind nothing but a pair of worn-out shoes and a number of unpaid bills. His debts were owed almost exclusively to Donna Samima, who ran an unlicensed bar close to the harbour where she served tontonto and home-brewed beer with an astonishingly high alcohol content.

Emilio used to spend his time drinking and talking about the time in the distant past when he had worked in the South African gold mines. But many people maintained that he had never set foot in South Africa, and had certainly never held down a steady job in his life.

His disappearance was neither something expected, nor something unexpected. He had simply slunk away during the silent hours just before dawn, when everybody was asleep.

Nobody knew where he had gone to. Nor would anybody miss him all that much, not even his own family. It is doubtful whether Donna Samima missed him, but she did insist that his bills should be paid.

Emilio, the talker and drinker, made virtually no impression on anybody even when he was in the vicinity. The fact that he had now disappeared made no real difference.

José Paulo lived with his sister’s family in the Africa Hotel in Beira. There had been a time, which now seemed both distant and incomprehensible, when this establishment had been considered one of the grandest hotels in colonial Africa. It was ranked as comparable with the Victoria Falls Hotel, on the border between Southern Rhodesia and Northern Rhodesia before those countries achieved independence and became known as Zimbabwe and Zambia.

White people came to the Africa Hotel from far and wide in order to get married, celebrate anniversaries, or simply demonstrate the fact that they belonged to an aristocracy that could never imagine that their colonial paradise would one day collapse. The hotel had been the venue for tea dances on Sunday afternoons, swing and tango competitions, and no end of people had been photographed standing outside its imposing entrance.

But the colonial dream of paradise was doomed. One day the Portuguese abandoned their last fortresses. The Africa Hotel started to crumble the moment the former owners had left. The deserted rooms and suites were occupied by poverty-stricken Africans. They deposited their few belongings in the carcasses of what used to be upright pianos and Steinway grands, in dilapidated boudoirs and bathtubs. The beautiful parquet floors were chopped up and used as firewood when winter was at its coldest.

Eventually there were several thousand people living in what had once been the Africa Hotel.

Anyway, one day in July, José Paulo made a hole in the floor and chopped up the parquet. It was freezing cold in the room. The only source of heat was an iron cauldron in which they cooked their food over an open fire. The smoke was channelled out through a smashed and badly repaired windowpane by means of an improvised chimney.

The half-rotten flooring had already begun to smell thanks to its neglect. José thought there must be a dead rat underneath it spreading the stench of decomposition. But when he investigated, all he could find was a little notebook with a calf-leather binding.

He managed to spell out a strange name written on the black cover.

Hanna Lundmark.

Underneath the name was a year: 1905.

But he was unable to make head or tail of what was written inside it. It was in a language he didn’t recognize. He turned to old Afanastasio who lived further down the corridor, in room 212, and was regarded by all those packed inside the hotel as a wise man, because in his youth he had survived a confrontation with two hungry lions on a deserted road outside Chimoio.

But not even Afanastasio could read the text. He approached old Lucinda, who lived in what used to be reception, for assistance, but she didn’t know what language it was either.

Afanastasio suggested that José Paulo should throw the book away.

‘It’s been lying there under the floorboards for ages,’ said Afanastasio. ‘Somebody hid it there in the days when the likes of us were only allowed to enter this building in the role of waiters, cleaners or porters. No doubt this forgotten book tells an unpleasant story. Burn it. Use it as fuel when it gets really cold.’

José Paulo took the book back to his room. But he didn’t burn it, without quite knowing why. Instead he found a new hiding place for it. There was a cavity underneath the window ledge where he used to stash away any money he occasionally managed to earn. Now the few filthy banknotes could share the space with the black notebook.

He never took it out again. But he didn’t forget about it.

A Treacherous Paradise

Henning Mankell

Translated from the Swedish by
Laurie Thompson

PART ONE

The Missionaries Leave the Ship

1

IT IS 1904. June. A scorching hot tropical dawn.

In this far distant here and now, a Swedish steamship lies motionless in the gentle swell. On board are thirty-one crew members, one of them a woman. Her name is Hanna Lundmark, née Renström, and she is working on board as a cook.

In all, thirty-two people were due to make the voyage to Australia with a cargo of Swedish heartwood, and planks for saloon floors and the living rooms of rich sheep farmers.

One of the crew has just died. He was a mate, and married to Hanna.

He was young, and keen to go on living. But despite being warned by Captain Svartman, he went ashore one day while they were topping up their supplies of coal in one of the desert harbours to the south of Suez. He was infected with one of the deadly fevers that are always a threat on the African coast.

When it dawned on him that he was going to die, he started howling in fear.

Neither of the men present at his deathbed – Captain Svartman and Halvorsen, the Ship’s Carpenter – could make out any last words that he uttered. He didn’t even say anything to Hanna, who was about to be widowed after a marriage lasting only one month. He died screaming and – eventually, just before the end – roaring in terror.

His name was Lars Johan Jakob Antonius Lundmark. Hanna is still mourning his death, having been devastated by what happened.

It is now dawn the day after his death. The ship is not moving. It has heaved to because there will shortly be a burial at sea. Captain Svartman does not want to delay matters. There is no ice on board to keep the corpse cold.

Hanna is standing aft with a slop pail in her hand. She is short in stature, high-breasted, with friendly eyes. Her hair is brown and gathered in a tight bun at the back of her head.

She is not beautiful. But in a strange way she radiates an aura suggesting that she is a totally genuine human being.

The here and now. She is here. On the sea, on board a steamship with two funnels. A cargo of timber, on its way to Australia. Home port: Sundsvall.

The ship is called Lovisa. She was built at the Finnboda shipyard in Stockholm. But her home port has always been on the northern Swedish coast.

She was first owned by a shipping company in Gävle, but it went bankrupt after a series of failed speculative deals. And she was then bought by a company based in Sundsvall. In Gävle she was called Matilda, after the shipowner’s wife, who played Chopin with clumsy fingers. Now she is called Lovisa, after the new owner’s youngest daughter.

One of the part-owners is called Forsman. He is the one who arranged for Hanna Lundmark to be given a job on board. Although Forsman has a piano in his house, there is nobody who can play it. Nevertheless, when the piano tuner comes on one of his regular visits, Forsman makes a point of being there to listen.

But now the mate Lars Johan Jakob Antonius Lundmark has died, killed by a raging fever.

It is as if the swell of the sea has become paralysed. The ship is lying there motionless, as if it were holding its breath.

That’s exactly what I imagine death to be like, Hanna Lundmark thought. A sudden stillness, unexpected, coming from nowhere. Death is like the wind. A sudden shift into the lee.

The lee of death. And then nothing else.

2

AT THAT VERY moment Hanna is possessed by a memory. It comes from nowhere.

She recalls her father, his voice, which had become no more than a whisper by the end of his life. It was as if he were asking her to preserve and cherish what he said as a valuable secret.

A mucky angel. That’s what you are.

He said that to her just before he died. It was as if he were trying to present her with a gift, despite the fact – or maybe because of the fact – that he owned next to nothing.

Hanna Renström, my beloved daughter, you are an angel – a right mucky one, but an angel even so.

What exactly is this memory that she has? What were his exact words? Did he say she was stony, or mucky? Did he leave it up to her to choose, to decide for herself? Stony broke, or mucky? Now as she recalls that moment, she thinks he called her a mucky angel.

It is a distant memory, faded. She is so far distant from her father and his death. From there, and from then: a remote house on a bank of the cold, brown waters of the River Ljungan in the silent forests of northern Sweden. He passed away hunched up and contorted by pain on a sofa bed in a kitchen they had barely been able to keep warm.

He died surrounded by cold, she thinks. It was extremely cold in January, 1899, when he stopped breathing.

That was over five years ago.

The memory of her father and his words about an angel disappear just as quickly as they came. It takes her only a few seconds to return to the present from the past.

She knows that we always make the most remarkable journeys deep down inside ourselves, where there is no time or space.

Perhaps that memory was designed to help her? To throw her the rope she needs in order to climb over the walls confining her within an atmosphere of unremitting sorrow?

But she can’t run away. The ship has been transformed into an impregnable fortress.

There is no escape. Her husband really is dead.

Death is a talon that refuses to release its grip.

3

THE PRESSURE IN the boilers has been reduced. The pistons are motionless, the engines ticking over. Hanna is standing by the rail with her slop pail in her hand. She is going to empty it over the stern. The mess-room boy had wanted to take it from her when she was on her way out of the galley, but she had clung on to it, protected it. Even if this is the day she is going to watch her husband’s body being tipped into the depths of the ocean, sewn into a canvas sailcloth, she does not want to neglect her duties.

When she looks up from the pail, which is filled with eggshells, it feels as if the heat is scratching at her face. Somewhere in the mist to starboard is Africa. Although she cannot see the faintest trace of land, she thinks she can smell it.

He who is now dead has told her about it. About the steaming, almost corrosive stench of decay which you find everywhere in the tropics.

He had already made several voyages to various destinations. He had managed to learn a few things. But not the most important thing: how to survive.

He would never complete this voyage. He died at the age of twenty-four.

It’s as if he was trying to warn her, Hanna thinks. But she doesn’t know what he was warning her about. And now he’s dead.

A dead man can never answer questions.

Somebody materializes silently by her side. It’s her husband’s closest friend on board, the Norwegian carpenter Halvorsen. She doesn’t know if he has a first name, despite the fact that they have been together on the same ship for more than two months. He is never called anything but Halvorsen, a serious man who is said to go down on his knees to be readmitted into the Church every time he comes home to Brønnøysund after a few years at sea, and then signs on again when his faith can no longer sustain him.

He has large hands, but his face is kind, almost feminine. His stubble seems to have been painted on and powdered by somebody trying to be cruel to him.

‘I gather there’s something you need to ask about,’ he says.

His voice sings. It sounds as if he’s humming when he speaks.

‘The depth,’ Hanna says. ‘Where will Lundmark’s grave be?’

Halvorsen shakes his head doubtfully. She suddenly has the impression that he is like a restless bird about to fly away.

He leaves her without a word. But she knows he will find out the answer to her question.

How deep will the grave be? Is there a sea bottom where her husband can rest in peace, in his sewn-up canvas shroud? Or is there no bottom, does the sea continue downwards into infinity?

She empties her pail of eggshells, watches the white seabirds dive down into the water to capture their prey, then wipes the sweat from her brow with the towel she has tied to her apron.

Then she gives way to the inevitable, and screams.

Some of the birds riding the upwinds, waiting for a new slop pail to be emptied, flap their wings and strive to escape from the sorrowful howl that hits them like hailstones.

The mess-room boy Lars peers out in horror from the galley door. He is holding a cracked egg in his hand, observes her furtively. Death embarrasses him.

Needless to say, she knows what he is thinking. She’s going to jump now, she’s going to leave us because her sorrow is too great to bear.

Her scream has been heard by many on board. Two sweaty deckhands naked from the waist up stand by the side of the galley and gape at her, next to where one of the long hawsers is coiled up like a gigantic snake.

Hanna merely shakes her head, grits her teeth and goes into the galley with her empty pail. No, she is not going to climb over the rail. She has spent the whole of her life keeping a stiff upper lip, and she intends to continue doing so.

The heat of the galley hits her hard. Standing next to the stoves is similar to the life of the stokers down below in the engine room. Women in the vicinity of boilers and lighthouses brings bad luck.

The older generation of seafarers is horrified by the thought of having women on board. Their presence means trouble. And also arguments and jealousy among the men. But when shipowner Forsman announced that he wanted Hanna to join the crew, Captain Svartman agreed. He didn’t worry too much about superstition.

Hanna picks up an egg, cracks it, drops the contents into the frying pan and throws the shell into the slop pail. Thirty living sailors must have their breakfast. She tries to think only about the eggs, not about the funeral that is in the offing. She is on board as cook: that situation has not changed as a result of the death of her husband.

That’s the way it is. She is alive, but Lundmark is dead.

4

SHORTLY AFTERWARDS HALVORSEN returns and asks her to follow him: Captain Svartman is waiting.

‘We’re going to sound the depth,’ says Halvorsen. ‘If our ropes and lines aren’t long enough, the captain will select another place.’

She finishes frying the four eggs she has in the pan, then accompanies him as bidden. She suddenly feels dizzy, and stumbles: but she doesn’t fall, she manages to keep control of herself.

Captain Svartman comes from a long and unbroken line of seafarers, she is aware of that. He’s an old man, turned sixty. The tip of the little finger on his left hand is missing: nobody knows if that is congenital, or the result of an accident.

On two occasions he has been on a sailing ship that sank. On one of those occasions he and all the crew were rescued, on the other only he and the ship’s dog survived. And when the dog reached dry land it lay down in the sand and died.

Hanna’s dead husband once said that in fact the real Captain Svartman also died, together with the ship’s dog. After that catastrophe, the captain stayed on land for many years. Nobody knows what he did. Rumour has it that for part of that time he worked as a navvy and was a member of the vanguard sent out by state-owned Swedish Railways to build the controversial Inlandsbana – a railway line linking the south of Sweden with the north of the country following an inland route rather than the existing coastal railway: the Swedish Parliament was still arguing about it.

Then he suddenly went to sea again, now as the captain of a steamship. He was one of the select few who didn’t abandon the seafaring life once sailing ships began to die out, but chose to be part of modern developments.

He has never told anybody about those years he spent away from the sea – what he did, what he thought, not even where he lived.

He seldom says anything beyond the necessary minimum; he has as little faith in people’s ability to listen as he has in the reliability of the sea. He has lavender-coloured flowers in pots in his cabin, which only he is allowed to water.

So he has always been an uncommunicative sea captain. And now he has to establish the depth at which one of his dead mates will be buried.

Captain Svartman bows as Hanna approaches him. Despite the heat he is dressed in his full uniform. Buttons fastened, shirt pressed.

Standing next to him is the bosun, Peltonen, a Finn. He is holding a plumb bob, attached to a long, thin line.

Captain Svartman nods, Peltonen throws the bob over the rail and allows it to sink. The line slides between his fingers. Nobody speaks. At one point there is a black thread tied round the line.

‘A hundred metres,’ says Peltonen.

His voice is shrill. His words bounce away over the swell.

After seven black threads, 700 metres, the line comes to an end. The plumb bob is still hanging down there in the water, it hasn’t yet reached the bottom. Peltonen ties a knot and attaches the line to a new roll. There too is a black thread marking every hundred metres.

At 1,935 metres, the line goes slack. The bob has reached the sea bottom. Hanna now knows the depth of her husband’s grave.

Peltonen starts to haul up the line, winding it round a specially carved wooden board. Captain Svartman takes off his uniform cap and wipes the sweat from his brow. Then he checks his watch. A quarter to seven.

‘Nine o’clock,’ he says to Hanna. ‘Before the heat becomes too oppressive.’

She goes to the cabin she has shared with her husband. His was the upper bunk. They often shared the lower one. Without her knowing about it, somebody has taken away his blanket.

The mattress is lying there uncovered. She sits down on the edge of her own bunk and contemplates the bulkhead on the other side of the cramped cabin. She knows that she must now force herself to think.

How did she come to end up here? On a ship, swaying gently on a distant ocean. After all, she was born in a place about as far away from the sea as it’s possible to get. There was a rowing boat on the River Ljungan, but that was all. She sometimes accompanied her father in it when he went fishing. But when she said she wanted to learn to swim – she was about seven or eight at the time – he told her he couldn’t allow it. It would be a waste of time. If she wanted to bathe, she could do that by the bank of the river. If she wanted to get over to the other side, there was a boat and also a bridge.

She lies down on her bunk and closes her eyes. She travels back in her memory as far as she can, back into her childhood where the shadows grow longer and longer.

Maybe that is where she can hide away until the moment comes when her dead husband disappears into the sea for good.

Leaves her. For ever.

5

HER CHILDHOOD, DEEP down there. As if at the bottom of an abyss.

That was Hanna’s first memory: the cold, writhing and twisting away inside the cavities in the wooden walls, close to her face as she slept. She would wake up over and over again, and feel how thin the gap was between the newspapers pasted on to the walls – there was no money for wallpaper in the squalid house in which she grew up – and the cold that was constantly trying to gnaw its way through the wood.

Every spring her father worked his way over the house, as if it were a ship on a slipway, patching and mending wherever possible, before the onset of the next winter.

The cold was a sea, the house a ship, and the winter an endless waiting. He would keep on filling the holes and gaps until the frosts arrived in full force. Then it was not possible to do any more, they would have to make the best of it. The house was launched into the winter yet again, and if there were still any leaks allowing the cold to seep through, that was too bad: there was nothing else he could do.

Her father was Arthur Olaus Angus Renström, a lumberjack who worked for Iggesund and shared a log hoist with the Salomonsson brothers who lived further down the river. He worked all out in the forest for next to nothing. He was one of the many men of the woods who never knew if the money they earned for their efforts would be sufficient to live on.

Hanna remembered her father as strong, and with a friendly smile. But also at times melancholy, lost in thoughts she knew nothing about. She sometimes had the impression that he had trolls in his head when he sat at the kitchen table, seemingly in a different world, with his hands like lead weights in his lap. He was sitting there in his own house, with the rest of his family, but nevertheless he wasn’t there at all. He was in a different world where stones had turned into trolls, reindeer moss had become hair, and the wind whispering through the pines was the chattering of voices of the dead.

He often used to speak about them. All those who had lived in the past. It frightened him to think about how few were living in the here and now, and how many more were already dead.

There was an illness, an epidemic that all women knew the name of: thumping sickness. It broke out when men had been hitting the bottle and thumped everybody within range – mostly their children and the women who tried to protect them. Her father certainly did drink to excess at times, albeit not very often. But he was never violent. And so his wife, Hanna’s mother, didn’t worry so much about the schnapps as about his melancholy. When he drank he became maudlin and wanted to sing hymns. Despite the fact that at other times he was keen to burn down churches and drive out the priests into the forests.

Without shoes,’ Hanna recalled him shouting. ‘Chase the priests out into the forests without shoes when the cold is at its worst. That’s where they should be banished to, into the forests, barefoot.

Hanna’s maternal grandmother, who lived in a draughty cottage on the edge of Funäsdalen, scared the living daylights out of her when she talked about her damned son-in-law who would condemn all his offspring to hell as a result of his blasphemous prattle. There they would find in store for them scalding temperatures and sulphurous gases and red-hot coals under the soles of their feet. Her grandmother preached threats and punishments with evil eyes and didn’t hesitate to scare her grandchildren so much that they used to burst into tears and were unable to sleep at night. Hanna thought that the worst punishment of all was when her mother forced her to keep on visiting her grandmother.

She remembered how Grandma was always angry. The old woman never stopped complaining about her daughter. She couldn’t forgive Hanna’s mother for marrying that good-for-nothing Renström, despite her warnings. Why had she fallen head over heels for that man who had nothing to commend himself? He was small, bow-legged and bald even before he celebrated his twenty-fifth birthday. And he had Finnish blood in his veins, and he came from the depths of the forests – from as far away as Värmland, where it was impossible to distinguish between day and night.

Why couldn’t she have picked out a man from Hede or Bruksvallarna or somewhere where honest folk lived?

Hanna’s mother was called Elin. She submitted to her ancient mother, never contradicted her, accepted everything her mother said without a word of protest. Hanna could understand that it was possible to love somebody who treated you badly, no matter how odd that sounded. That must have been the relationship between Grandma and Elin.

Elin.

Hanna had always thought that it was a name that didn’t really suit her mother. Somebody called Elin ought to be slim and delicately formed, with hands like milk and fair hair hanging down over her back. But Elin Wallén, Elin Renström after her marriage, was powerfully built with lank reddish-brown hair, a large nose and teeth that were not quite regular. They gave the impression of wanting to jump out of her mouth and run away. Elin Renström was certainly not a beautiful woman. And she knew it. And perhaps she also regretted it, Hanna sometimes thought when she became old enough to take a critical look at her own face in her father’s cracked shaving mirror.

But her mother was by no means subdued as a result of her less than pretty appearance. She had qualities that she made the most of. She made up for her shortcomings by always keeping a strict eye on her family’s cleanliness. No matter how draughty and cold her house was, she made sure the floors, ceilings and walls were kept spotlessly clean; and the same applied to her children and her own body. Elin hunted down lice like a battalion of soldiers attacking an enemy. She filled and emptied the tin tub in which they all bathed, carried the water up from the river, heated it over the fire until it became warm, scrubbed everybody down, then carried up more buckets of water with which to wash all the dirty linen that was always piling up.

The four children also watched in admiration as their mother handled their father when he had came home tired and dirty from the forest. She would wash him in a way which suggested she was engaged in an act of eternal love. And he seemed to enjoy the touch of her hands as she scrubbed and dried him, clipped his rough and misshapen nails, and shaved him so closely that his cheeks became as smooth as those of a baby.

But Hanna’s first memory was the cold. The cold and the snow, which began to fall around the end of September, and didn’t release its grip until early June, when the last white patches finally melted away.

And of course there was also the poverty. That was not a memory as such, but the reality in which she lived while growing up. And it was also the thing that eventually forced her to leave her home by the river.

Hanna was seventeen years old then, her father was already dead, and she spent all her time helping her mother with her brothers and sisters since she was the eldest. They were poor, but they managed to keep the worst of their destitution outside the walls of their house.

Until the year 1903. That summer was afflicted by a long and severe drought, and then an early frost which killed off whatever the drought had failed to burn up.

That was the year when her life changed for ever.

The horizon had previously been a distant phenomenon. Now it came close. Like a threat.

6

EVEN IF SHE didn’t want to remember it, it was a day she could never forget.

The middle of August, low clouds, an early morning. Hanna accompanied her mother to look at the devastation. Everything shrivelled and burnt. The earth was strangely silent. The flour they had left would barely last them until Advent. Nor would they have enough hay to feed their only cow over the winter.

As they walked through the dead field, on a slope down to the river, Elin saw her mother cry for the first time. All those long weeks while her father had been ill in bed and had eventually died, Elin had merely closed her eyes, shut out the inevitable end and the hopeless loneliness that was now in store for her. But she hadn’t cried, hadn’t screamed. Hanna had often thought about how her mother was directing all her pain inwards, to where she had hidden away somewhere inside her a secret source of strength that overcame all her pains and troubles.

It was then, as they were walking over the dead field and realized that destitution was now on their doorstep, that Elin started talking about how her daughter would have to go away. There was no future for Hanna there by the river. She would have to move to the coast in order to earn her living. When Elin and her husband had come to the bank of the river and taken over the unpromising little smallholding from one of her uncles, they’d had no choice. It was 1883, a mere sixteen years after the last great famine that had devastated Sweden. If famine was now on its way back, Hanna would have to leave while there was still time.

They were standing at the edge of the forest, where the silent field came to an end.

‘Are you chasing me away?’ Hanna asked.

Elin stroked her nose, as she always did when she was embarrassed.

‘I can cope with three children,’ she said, ‘but not four. You are grown up now, you can look after yourself, and make things easier both for you and for me. I don’t chase my children away. I just want to give you the opportunity of living your life. If you stay here all you can do is hope to survive, nothing more.’

‘What can I do down by the coast that would be of any use to anybody?’

‘The same as you do here. Look after children, work with your hands. There is always a demand for maids in towns.’

‘Who says so?’

It wasn’t her intention to contradict her mother, but Elin took it as impertinence and took tight hold of her arm.

‘I say so, and you must believe me when I say that I mean every word that passes my lips. I’m not doing it because it gives me any pleasure, but because I have to.’

She let go of Hanna’s arm, as if she had been guilty of assault and was now regretting it.

It dawned on Hanna that what her mother was doing was something extremely difficult.

She never forgot that moment. It was right then, and in that very place – at the edge of the grim landscape of famine, standing beside her mother who had just wept for the first time in her presence – that Hanna realized that she was who she was, and nobody else.

She was Hanna, and irreplaceable. Neither her body nor her thoughts could be replaced by anybody else. And it occurred to her that her father, who was now dead, had been just like her: a person who could not be replaced by anybody else.

Is this what it means to be an adult? she thought, her face turned away because she had the feeling that her mother could read her thoughts. Exchanging the insecurity of a child for a different unknown – the knowledge that the only possible answers are the ones you can provide yourself?

They returned to the house, which was hidden away in a copse comprising a few birch trees and a single mountain ash. Her brother and sisters were indoors, despite the fact that this autumn day was not particularly cold. But they played less and tended to be quiet when they were hungry. Their life was a never-ending wait for food, and not much else.

They stopped outside the door, as if Elin had decided never to allow her daughter inside again.

‘My uncle Axel lives in Sundsvall,’ she said. ‘Axel Andreas Wallén. He works in the docks. He’s a nice man, and he and his wife Dora don’t have any children. They had two boys, but both of them died, and after that they didn’t have any more. Axel and Dora will help you. They won’t turn you away.’

‘I don’t want to go to them as a beggar,’ said Hanna.

The slap came without warning. Afterwards, Hanna thought the blow was reminiscent of the impact from a bird of prey diving down at her cheek.

Elin might possibly have slapped her before, but in that case it would have been triggered mainly by fear. If Hanna had wandered off alone to the river in the spring when it was a raging torrent, and risked falling in and being drowned. But now Elin hit her as a result of irritation. It was the first time.

It was a slap given by a grown-up person to another grown-up. Who would understand why.

‘I don’t abandon my daughter in order to make her a beggar,’ said Elin angrily. ‘I only have your best interests at heart. There’s nothing for you here.’

Hanna had tears in her eyes. Not because of the pain – she had experienced much worse pain than that in her life.

The slap she had received confirmed what she had just been thinking: now she was alone in the world. She would have to leave and travel eastward, towards the coast, and she would never be able to return. What she left behind would sink deeper into oblivion for every metre a sleigh’s runners whisked her away.

It was early autumn, 1903. Hanna Renström was seventeen years old, and would be eighteen on 12 December.

A few months later she would leave her home for ever.

7

HANNA THOUGHT TO herself: the time of sagas and make-believe is over. Now it’s time for real-life stories.

She realized that when Elin told her what was in store for her. It sometimes happened that businessmen from the coast who travelled over the mountains in winter to Norway for the Røros market didn’t take the usual and shortest route back home, along the River Ljusnan and down to Karböle. Some of them headed northwards after crossing the Sweden–Norway border and then, if the weather permitted it, turned off via Flatruet and along the River Ljungan so that they could do business in the villages on the riverbanks.

There was one businessman in particular, Jonathan Forsman, who usually travelled home via the villages north of Flatruet.

‘He has a big sleigh,’ said Elin. ‘On the way home it’s never as heavily laden as it is when he’s on his way to Røros. He’s bound to be able to make room for you. And he’ll leave you in peace. He won’t try to make advances to you.’

Hanna looked doubtfully at her. How could Elin be so sure? Hanna was well aware what life had in store for her, she had never been totally devoid of other young girls to talk to. Not least the girls who used to act as maids in the shacks up in the mountains when the farmers’ and shepherds’ flocks were grazing in their summer pastures: they had all kinds of strange tales to tell with a mixture of giggles and badly concealed discomfort. Hanna knew what it was like to blush, and what could happen inside her body, especially in the evenings, just before she fell asleep.

But that was all. How could Elin know what might or might not happen on a long sleigh-ride to the distant coast?

She asked her straight out.

‘He’s seen the light,’ said Elin promptly. ‘He used to be an awful man, just like most of those old devils with their sleighs. But since he became a Christian he’s a sort of good Samaritan. He’ll let you travel with him and won’t even ask for payment. And he’ll lend you one of his fur coats so that you won’t freeze.’

But Elin couldn’t be absolutely sure if he would come, or when. The usual time was shortly before Christmas, but there had been occasions when he didn’t turn up until into the New Year. And he had been known not to come at all.

‘He might also be dead, of course,’ said Elin.

When a sleigh set off and was swallowed up by flurries of snow, you never knew whether that might be the last you ever saw of a person, no matter how young or old he was.

Hanna would be ready to travel at any time after her birthday on 12 December. Jonathan Forsman was always in a hurry, never stayed anywhere longer than necessary. Unlike people who always had no end of time to spare, he was an important person and hence was always in a hurry.

‘He generally comes in the afternoon,’ said Elin. ‘He comes out of the forest to the north, heading southwards along the sleigh-tracks that skirt the edge of the bog and lead down to the river and the valleys.’

Every afternoon Hanna would go out and gaze in the direction of the forest as darkness began to fall. She sometimes thought she could hear the bells of a horse-drawn sleigh in the distance, but one never appeared. The forest door remained closed.

She slept badly all the time she was worrying and waiting, kept waking up and had incoherent dreams that frightened her, although she didn’t really understand why. But often her dreams were as white as snow: empty and silent.

One of her dreams kept recurring and haunting her; she was lying in the sofa bed with two of her siblings: the youngest of the family’s children, Olaus, and the sister closest to her in age, Vera, twelve years old. She could feel the warm bodies of her brother and sister up against her own; but she knew that if she were to open her eyes they would turn out to be different children lying there, unknown to her. And the moment she set eyes on them they would die.

Then she would wake up, and realize to her great relief that it had all been a dream. She would often lie there awake, watching the blue moonlight shining in through the low windows covered in ice crystals. Then stretch out her hand and feel the wooden wall and the newspaper covering it. Right next to her was the cold, writhing and twisting away in the ancient timber.

The cold is like an animal, she thought. An animal tethered in its stall. An animal wanting to break out.

The dream had a meaning that she didn’t understand. But it must have something to do with the journey she would have to make. What would be in store for her? What would be demanded of her? She felt awkward in both body and soul when she tried to imagine people living in a town. If only her father had still been alive: he would have been able to explain it to her, and prepare her for it. He had once been to Stockholm, and he’d also been to another big and remarkable town called Arboga. He could have told her that she didn’t need to be afraid.

Elin came from remote Funäsdalen and had never been anywhere else, apart from the short journey northwards with the man who became her husband.

Nevertheless, she was the one who had to answer when Hanna asked her questions. There simply wasn’t anybody else.

But Elin’s answers? Vague, taciturn. She knew so little.

8

ONE DAY AT the beginning of November, when they were at the edge of the forest with an axe and a saw, collecting firewood for the winter, Hanna asked her mother about the sea. What did it look like? Did it run along a sort of giant furrow, like the river? Was it the same colour? Was it always so deep that you couldn’t reach the bottom?

Elin paused, held her aching back, and looked at her long and hard before answering.

‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘The sea is like a big lake, I think. I suppose there are waves. But I just don’t know if the sea has currents.’

‘But surely Renström must have told you? He said he’d been to sea, didn’t he?’

‘It might not have been completely true. Everything he said might have only happened inside his head. But all he ever said about the sea is that it was big.’

Elin bent down to pick up the twigs and branches they had sawed and chopped off. But Hanna didn’t want to give up just yet. A child stopped asking questions when it had the feeling that enough was enough: but she was grown up now, she had the right to go on asking.

‘I have no idea what is in store for me,’ she said. ‘Will I be living in a house with other people? Will I be sharing a bed with somebody else?’

Elin scowled and dropped a bundle of sawn-off branches into their birch-bark basket.

‘You are asking too many questions,’ she said. ‘I can’t tell you what you can expect to find. But there is no future for you here. At least there are people who can help you there.’

‘I only want to know,’ said Hanna.

‘Stop asking now,’ said Elin. ‘I’m getting a headache from all your questions. I don’t have any answers.’

They returned in silence to the house from whose chimney a thin column of smoke was rising vertically into the pale sky. Olaus and Vera were looking after the fire. But both Elin and Hanna made sure that they were never any further away from the house than would prevent them from climbing up on to a high rock, taking a look at the chimney and establishing that the fire had not gone out. Or that nothing even worse had happened: that it hadn’t crept out of the open hearth and begun jumping around the room like a madman.

It was snowing at night now, and there was frost every morning. But the really heavy snowfalls that never lasted for less than three days had still not come creeping over the western mountains. And Hanna knew that if there wasn’t sufficient snow, no sleigh would be able to approach through the forests from the main routes further south.

But a few days later the snow finally arrived. As almost always happened, it crept up silently during the night. When Hanna got up to light the fire, Elin was standing by the door which she had opened slightly.

She stood there motionless, staring out. The ground outside was white. There were low drifts against the walls of the house. Hanna could see the tracks of crows in the snow, perhaps also of a mouse and a hare.

It was still snowing.

‘This snow’s going to lay,’ said Elin. ‘It’s winter now. There’ll be no bare ground again until the spring, at the end of May or the beginning of June.’

It continued snowing the whole of the following week. At first the cold wasn’t too severe, only a few degrees below zero. But once the snow had stopped falling the sky became clear and the temperature dropped significantly.

They had a thermometer that Renström had bought at some market or other a long time ago. Or perhaps he had won it in an arm-wrestling competition, since he was so strong? The thermometer had an attachment enabling it to be fixed to an outside wall, but it was treated with great care: there was always a risk that somebody might be careless and break the little tube containing the dangerous mercury.

Extremely carefully Elin placed it out in the snow, at the side of the house that was always in shade. Now that the seriously cold weather had arrived, it was more than thirty degrees below zero for three days in succession.

During the coldest days they did nothing but tend the fire, make sure the cow and the two goats had something to chew at, and eat something of the little food they had for themselves. They used up all their strength in efforts to keep the cold at bay. Every extra degree below zero was like yet another enemy army added to those already besieging them.

Hanna could see that Elin was scared. What would happen if something broke? A window, or a wall? They had nowhere to flee to, apart from the little cattle shed where the animals were kept. But they were also freezing cold, and it was not possible to make a fire there.

It was during these bitterly cold days that Hanna felt for the first time that the imminent change in her life might not be so bad after all. An opening in a dark forest where sunlight suddenly shone down into an unexpected glade. A life that might possibly be better than the one she was living now, besieged by the armies of cold and famine? Her fear of the unknown suddenly became a longing for what might be in store for her. Away from the forests, in the fertile plains to the south-east.

But she said nothing about this to Elin. She remained silent about her vague longing.

9

ON 17 DECEMBER, shortly after half past two in the afternoon, they heard the sound of sleigh-bells coming from the forest. It was Vera who heard the horse. She had gone out to see if the hens had laid any eggs, despite the onset of winter. As she returned empty-handed along the narrow passage that had been dug between the metre-high drifts, she heard the bells. Elin and Hanna came running out when she shouted. The worst of the cold had receded, and it had been thawing during the day: but now there was a covering of new powdery snow over the frozen crust after a snowfall during the night.

The sound of the bells came closer, then they caught sight of the black horse looking like a troll or a bear at the edge of the forest. The driver, wrapped in furs, tightened the reins and came to a halt just outside the cottage, which was surrounded by deep snow and misery.

By then Elin had already told Hanna what she had expected to hear.

‘It’s Jonathan Forsman.’

‘How can you be sure?’

‘Nobody else has a black horse like his. And nobody else wears so many furs.’

Hanna could see that was true when the man in the sleigh had stood up and they all entered the cottage. He was wearing furs from both bears and wolves, had been sitting on a reindeer skin in his sleigh, and had a red fox fur wrapped round his neck. When he wormed his way out of all the furs, which were dripping with snow and sweat, it was like watching a man who had been sitting for too long in front of a fire. His face was red and unshaven, his sweaty hair was stuck to his forehead: but Hanna could see that Elin was right – the man who was going to take her away was neither malicious nor threatening. He was friendly, sat down on a stool beside the fire and gave Elin a present: a hymn book he had bought for her in Røros.

‘It’s in Norwegian,’ he said. ‘But the covers are attractive, genuine leather, and the gold embossing sparkles if you keep it clean. Besides, Elin Renström, you can hardly read in any case! Or am I wrong?’

‘I can puzzle out the words,’ said Elin. ‘If that amounts to reading, then I can.’