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Johan Theorin

The Darkest Room

The second book in the A-land series, 2009

Originally published as Nattfak by Wahlstrom & Widstrand, Stockholm, in 2008.

Copyright © 2008 by Johan Theorin.

Translated [from the Swedish] by Marlaine Delargy.

The dead gather every winter to celebrate Christmas. But on one occasion they were disturbed by an old spinster. Her clock had stopped, so she got up too early and went to church in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve. There was the murmur of voices as if there were a service going on, and the church was full of people. Suddenly the old woman caught sight of her fiance from the days of her youth. He had drowned many years ago, but there he was, sitting in a pew among the others.

SWEDISH FOLKTALE FROM THE NINETEENTH CENTURY

This is where my book begins, Katrine, the year when the manor house at Eel Point was built. For me the manor was more than a house where my mother and I lived, it was the place where I became an adult.

Ragnar Davidsson, the eel fisherman, once told me that large parts of the manor were built with salvaged cargo from a German vessel carrying timber. I believe him. On the wall at the far end of the hayloft inside the barn, the words

IN MEMORY OF CHRISTIAN LUDWIG

are carved into one of the planks.

I have heard the dead whispering in the walls. They have so much to tell.

WINTER 1846

Valter Brommesson is sitting in a little stone house at Eel Point, praying to God with his hands clasped together. He prays that the wind and the waves sweeping in from the sea this night will not destroy his two lighthouses.

He has experienced bad weather before, but never a storm like this. A white wall of snow and ice that has come howling in from the northeast, stopping all building work.

The towers, O Lord, let us get the towers finished…

Brommesson is a builder of lighthouses, but this is the first time he has built a lighthouse with a prism lens in the Baltic. He came to Oland in March the previous year and set to work at once: taking on workmen, ordering clay and limestone, and hiring strong draft horses.

The fresh spring, the warm summer, and the sunny fall were glorious on the coast. The work was going well, and the two lighthouses were slowly growing toward the sky.

Then the sun disappeared, it became winter, and when

the temperature dropped, people began to talk of blizzards. And in the end it came, the blizzard. Late one night it hurled itself at the coast like a wild animal.

As the dawn approaches, the wind finally begins to subside.

Then all of a sudden cries are heard from the sea. They come out of the darkness off Eel Point-drawn-out, heartrending cries for help in a foreign language.

The cries wake Brommesson, and he in his turn wakes the exhausted builders.

“It’s a shipwreck,” he says. “We have to go out.”

The men are sleepy and reluctant, but he gets them on their feet and out into the snow.

They plod down to the shore, their backs bent in the ice-cold headwind. Brommesson turns his head and sees that the half-finished stone towers are actually still standing, down by the water.

In the other direction, to the west, he can see nothing. The flat landscape of the island has become a billowing desert of snow.

The men stop on the shore and gaze out to sea.

They can see nothing in the dark gray shadows out on the sandbar, but they can still hear faint cries mingled with the roaring of the waves-and the creaking sound of splintering wood and nails being torn free.

A big ship has run aground on the bar, and it is sinking.

In the end the only thing the builders can do is to stand there listening to the sounds and the cries for help from the ship. Three times they try to get one of their boats out to sea, but every attempt fails. The visibility is too poor and the breakers too high, and besides, the water is full of heavy wooden beams.

The grounded vessel must have been carrying a huge load of timber up on deck. When she began to go down, the wood was wrenched free by the waves and tumbled overboard.

The beams are as long as battering rams and are washed ashore in great shoals. They have begun to fill up the inlets around the point, scraping and banging against one another.

When the sun rises behind the misty gray cloud cover, the first body is discovered. It is a young man, floating in the waves a dozen or so yards from land with his arms outstretched, as if he were still trying to grab hold of one of the beams around him right up to the very last moment.

Two of the lighthouse builders wade out into the shallow water, take a firm grip of the rough woolen shirt the body is wearing, and tow the dead man ashore across the sandbank.

At the water’s edge each man grabs hold of one ice-cold wrist and pulls hard. The dead man comes up out of the water, but he is tall and broad-shouldered and difficult to carry. He has to be dragged up the snow-covered grassy shore, with the water pouring from his clothes.

The builders gather around the body in silence, without touching it.

In the end Brommesson bends down and turns the body onto its back.

The drowned man is a sailor with thick black hair and a wide mouth that is half open, as if he had given up in the middle of a breath. His eyes are staring up at the gray sky.

The foreman guesses that the sailor is in his twenties. He hopes he is a bachelor, but he may have a family to provide for. He has died off a foreign shore; he probably didn’t even know the name of the island where his ship went down.

“We must fetch the pastor in a little while,” says Brommesson, closing the dead man’s eyes so that he will no longer have to meet that empty gaze.

Three hours later the bodies of five sailors have drifted ashore around Eel Point. A broken nameplate has also washed up: CHRISTIAN LUDWIG-HAMBURG.

And timber, lots and lots of timber.

The flotsam is a gift. It belongs to the Swedish crown now, the same crown that is paying for the lighthouses on Eel Point. Suddenly the builders have access to top-quality pine worth many hundreds of riksdaler.

“We must all help to bring it ashore,” says Brommesson. “We’ll stack it up out of reach of the waves.”

He nods to himself and looks up toward the snow-covered plain. There is very little in the way of forest on the island, and instead of the small stone house they were planning for the lighthouse keepers and their families on Eel Point, he can now build a much bigger house made of wood.

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