Fifth in the Kurt Wallander series.
“A scary and cunning tale. . . . Here is a police procedural in which the main procedure is thought.” —Rocky Mountain News
“Achieves a deeply satisfying density of plot and characterization.” —The Baltimore Sun
“A marvelously told mystery. . . . You can't put it down, but you won't want to finish it either.” —Austin American Statesman
Read an Excerpt
Just after 10:00, he finally finished the poem.
The last stanzas had been difficult to write; they took him a long time. He had wanted to achieve a melancholy yet beautiful expression. He broke off several attempts by tossing them in the wastebasket. Twice he was close to giving up altogether. But now the poem lay before him on the table his lament over the middle spotted woodpecker, which had almost disappeared from Sweden; it hadn't been seen in the country since the early 1980s. One more bird about to be eradicated by humankind.
He got up from his desk and stretched. With every passing year, it was harder and harder for him to sit bent over his writings for hours on end.
An old man like me shouldn't be writing poems anymore, he thought. When you're seventy-eight years old, your thoughts are of little use to anyone but yourself.
At the same time he knew that he was wrong. It was only in the Western world that old people were viewed with indulgence or contemptuous sympathy. In other cultures, age was respected as a time of enlightened wisdom. He would keep writing poems as long as he lived, as long as he could manage to lift a pen and his mind was as clear as it was now. He was not capable of much else. Not anymore. Once, a long time ago, he had been an expert car dealer, the most successful in the region. He was known as a tough negotiator in business deals. And he had certainly sold a lot of cars. During the good years he had owned branches in both Tomelilla and Sjöbo. He had amassed a fortune large enough to lethim live in style.
But it was his poetry that really mattered to him. All the rest was ephemeral necessity. The verses lying on the table gave him a satisfaction he seldom felt.
He drew the curtains so they covered the picture windows that faced the fields rolling gently down toward the sea, somewhere beyond the horizon. He went over to his bookshelf. In his lifetime he had published nine collections of poetry. There they stood, side by side. None of them had sold more than a small printing. Three hundred copies, sometimes a few more. The unsold copies were in cartons in the basement. But they had not been banished there. They were still his pride and joy, although long ago he had decided to burn them one day. He would carry the cartons out to the courtyard and put a match to them. The day he received his death sentence, either from a doctor or from a premonition that his life would soon be over, he would get rid of the thin volumes that no one wanted to buy. No one would be allowed to throw them onto a trash heap.
He looked at the books standing on the shelf. He had been reading poems his whole life, and he had memorized a lot of them. He had no illusions; his poems were not the best ever written. But they weren't the worst, either. In each of his poetry collections, which had been published about every five years since the late 1940s, there were individual stanzas that could measure up to anyone's standard. But he had been a car dealer by profession, not a poet. His poems were not reviewed on the cultural pages. He hadn't received any literary awards. And his books had been printed at his own expense. The first poetry collection he put together he had sent around to the big publishing houses in Stockholm. They were always returned with brusque refusals in pre-printed form letters. One editor, however, had taken the trouble to make a personal comment. He said nobody would want to read poems that were about nothing but birds. The spiritual life of the white wagtail was of no interest, the editor had written.
After that, he stopped turning to publishers. He paid for publication himself. Simple covers, black text on white paper. Nothing expensive. The words between the covers were what mattered. In spite of everything, many people had read his poems over the years. And many of them had expressed their appreciation.
Now he had written a new one, about the middle spotted woodpecker, a lovely bird no longer seen in Sweden.
The bird poet, he thought.
Almost everything I've written is about birds. About the flapping of wings, the rushing in the night, a lone mating call somewhere in the distance. In the world of birds I have found an intimation of the innermost secrets of life.
He returned to his desk and picked up the sheet of paper. The last stanza had finally worked. He placed the paper back on the desk. He felt a sharp pain in his back as he crossed the large room again. Was he getting sick? Every day he listened for signs that his body had started to betray him. He had stayed in good shape throughout his life. He had never smoked, always eating and drinking in moderation. This regime had endowed him with good health. But soon he would be eighty years old. The end of his allotted time was fast approaching. He went out to the kitchen and poured a cup of coffee from the coffee maker, which was always on. The poem he had finished writing filled him with both sadness and joy.
The autumn of my years, he thought. An apt name. Everything I write could be the last. And it's September. It's autumn. Both on the calendar and in my life.
He carried his coffee cup back to the living room. He sat down carefully in one of the brown leather armchairs that had kept him company for more than forty years. He had bought them to celebrate his triumph when he was awarded the Volkswagen franchise for southern Sweden. On a little table next to his armrest stood the photo of Werner, the German shepherd that he missed more than all the other dogs that had accompanied him through life. To grow old was to grow lonely. The people who filled your life died off. Finally even your dogs vanished into the shadows. Soon he would be the only one left. At a certain point in life, everyone was alone in the world. Recently he had tried to write a poem about that idea, but he could never seem to finish it. Maybe he ought to try again, now that he was done with his lament for the middle spotted woodpecker. But birds were what he knew how to write about. Not people. Birds he could understand. People were usually incomprehensible. Had he ever once understood himself?. Writing poems about something he didn't understand would be like trespassing in a forbidden area.
He closed his eyes and suddenly remembered The 10,000 Kronor Question during the late fifties, or maybe it was the early sixties. The TV screen was still black-and-white back then. A cross-eyed young man with slicked-back hair had chosen the topic "Birds." He answered all the questions and received his check for the incredible sum, in those days, of 10,000 kronor.
He had not been sitting in the television studio, in the isolation booth with headphones over his ears. He had been sitting in this very same leather armchair. But he too had known all the answers. Not once did he even need extra time to think. But he didn't win any 10,000 kronor. Nobody knew about his vast knowledge of birds. He just kept writing his poems instead.
He awoke with a start from his daydreams. A sound had caught his attention. He listened in the darkened room. Was there someone moving outside in the courtyard?
He pushed away the thought. It was just his imagination. Part of getting old meant suffering from anxiety. He had good locks on his doors. He kept a shotgun in his bedroom upstairs, and he had a pistol close at hand in a kitchen drawer. If any intruders came to this isolated farmhouse just north of Ystad, he could defend himself. And he wouldn't hesitate to do so.
He got up from his chair. There was another sharp twinge in his back. The pain came and went in waves. He set his coffee cup on the drainboard and looked at his watch. Almost 11:00. It was time to go outside. He squinted at the thermometer outside the kitchen window and saw it was 7° Celsius. The barometer was rising. A slight breeze from the southwest was passing over Skåne. The conditions were ideal, he thought. Tonight the flight would be to the south. The long-range migratory birds would pass over his head by the thousands on invisible wings. Although he wouldn't be able to see them, he could feel them out there in the dark, high above his head. For more than fifty years he had spent countless autumn nights out in the fields, just to experience the feeling of the night birds passing somewhere up above him.
The whole sky is moving, he often thought.
Entire symphony orchestras of silent songbirds would be leaving before the approaching winter, heading for warmer climes. The urge to leave lay deep in their genes. And their unsurpassed ability to navigate by the stars and the earth's magnetic field always steered them right. They sought out the favorable winds, they had built up their layer of fat, and they could stay aloft for hour after hour.
A whole sky, vibrating with wings, was beginning its annual pilgrimage. The flight of birds toward Mecca.
What is a person compared to a night flyer? A lonely, earthbound old man. While up there, high above, a whole sky sets off on its journey.
He had often thought it was like performing a sacred act. His own autumnal high mass, standing there in the dark, sensing the departure of the migratory birds. And then, when spring came, he was there to welcome them back.
The night migration was his religion.
He went out to the entryway and stood with one hand on the coat hanger. Then he went back to the living room and pulled on the sweater lying on a stool by the desk.
Along with all the other vexations, getting old meant that you got cold more quickly.
Once more he looked at the poem lying there finished on the desk. The lament for the middle spotted woodpecker. It had turned out the way he wanted at last. Maybe he would live long enough to put together enough poems for a tenth and final collection. He had already decided on the title:
High Mass in the Night.
He went back to the entryway, put on his jacket, and pulled a cap over his forehead. He opened the front door. The fall air was filled with smells from the wet clay. He closed the door behind him and let his eyes grow accustomed to the dark. The garden was desolate. In the distance he could see the glow of the lights in Ystad. Otherwise, he lived so far from his other neighbors that only darkness surrounded him. The starry sky was almost completely clear. A few clouds were visible on the horizon.
On a night like this, the migration was bound to pass above his head.
He started walking. The farmhouse he lived in was old, with three wings. The fourth had burned down sometime early in the century. He had kept the cobblestones in the courtyard. He spent a lot of money on a thorough renovation of his farmhouse, which was still not completed. In his will he would give it all to the Cultural Association in Lund. He had never been married, never had any children. He sold cars and got rich. He had had dogs. And then the birds had appeared over his head.
I have no regrets, he thought, as he followed the path that led down to the tower he had built himself, where he usually stood to watch for the night birds. I regret nothing, since it is meaningless to regret.
It was a beautiful September night.
Still, something was making him uneasy.
He stopped on the path and listened, but all he could hear was the soft sighing of the wind. He kept walking. Could it be the pain that was worrying him, those sudden sharp pains in his back? The worry was prompted by something inside him.
He stopped again and turned around. Nothing there. He was alone. The path sloped downward, leading to a little hill. Just before the hill there was a broad ditch over which he had placed a footbridge. At the top of the hill stood his tower. From his front door it was exactly 247 meters. He wondered how many times he had walked along this path. He knew every turn, every hollow. And yet he walked slowly and cautiously. He didn't want to risk falling and breaking his leg. Old people's bones grew brittle, he knew that. If he wound up in the hospital with a broken hip he would die, since he couldn't endure lying idle in a hospital bed. He would start worrying about his life. And then nothing could save him.
He stopped suddenly. An owl hooted. Somewhere close by, a twig snapped. The sound had come from the grove just past the hill where his tower stood. He stood motionless, all his senses alert. The owl hooted again. Then all was silent once more. He muttered peevishly to himself as he continued.
Old and scared, he thought. Afraid of ghosts and afraid of the dark.
Now he could see the tower. A black silhouette against the night sky. In twenty meters he would be at the bridge crossing the deep ditch. He kept walking. The owl was gone. A tawny owl, he thought.
No doubt about it, it was a tawny owl.
Suddenly he came to a halt. He had reached the bridge that led over the ditch.
There was something about the tower on the hill. Something was different. He squinted, trying to see details in the dark. He couldn't make out what it was. But something had changed.
I'm imagining things, he thought. Everything's the same as always. The tower I built ten years ago hasn't changed. It's just my eyesight getting blurry, that's all. He took another step, out onto the bridge, and felt the planks beneath his feet. He kept staring at the tower.
There's something wrong, he thought. If I didn't know better, I'd swear it was a meter higher than it was last night. Or else it's all a dream, and I'm looking at myself standing up there in the tower.
The moment the thought occurred to him, he knew it was true. There was someone up in the tower. A silhouette, motionless. A sudden twinge of fear passed through him, like a lone gust of wind. Then he got mad. Somebody was trespassing on his property, climbing his tower without asking him for permission. It was probably a poacher hunting the deer that usually grazed around the grove on the other side of the hill. He had a hard time believing it could be another birdwatcher.
He called out to the figure in the tower. No reply, no movement. Again he grew uncertain. His eyes must be deceiving him; they were so blurry.
He called out once more but got no answer. He started to walk across the bridge.
When the planks gave way he fell headlong. The ditch was more than two meters deep. He pitched forward and didn't even have time to stretch out his arms to break his fall.
He felt a hideous pain. It came out of nowhere and cut right through him, like red-hot irons piercing his body. The pain was so intense he couldn't even scream. Just before he died he realized that he had never reached the bottom of the ditch. He remained suspended in his own pain.
His last thought was of the night birds migrating somewhere far above him.
The sky moving toward the south.
One last time he tried to tear himself away from the pain.
Then it was all over.
The time was twenty past eleven on the night of September 21, 1994. That night, huge flocks of song thrushes and red-winged blackbirds were flying south.
They came out of the north and set a southwest course over Falsterbo Point, heading for the warmth that awaited them, far away.
When all was quiet, she walked carefully down the tower steps. She shone her flashlight into the ditch. The man named Holger Eriksson was dead.
She switched off the flashlight and stood still in the darkness.
Then she walked quickly away.
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