They used to say that when there was no wind the cries of the lunatics could be heard on the other side of the lake.
Especially in autumn. The cries belonged to autumn.
Autumn is when this story begins. In a damp fog, with the temperature hovering just above freezing, and a woman who suddenly realizes that freedom is at hand. She has found a hole in a fence.
It is the autumn of 1937. The woman is called Kristina Tacker and for many years she has been locked away in the big asylum near Säter. All thoughts of time have lost their meaning for her.
She stares at the hole for ages, as if she does not grasp its significance. The fence has always been a barrier she should not get too close to. It is a boundary with a quite specific significance.
But this sudden change? This gap that has appeared in the fence? A door has been opened by an unknown hand, leading to what was until now forbidden territory. It takes a long time for it to sink in. Then, cautiously, she crawls through the hole and finds herself on the other side. She stands, motionless, listening, her head hunched down between her tense shoulders, waiting for somebody to come and take hold of her.
For all the twenty-two years she has been shut away in the asylum she has never felt surrounded by people, only by puffs of breath. Puffs of breath are her invisible warders.
The big, heavy buildings are behind her, like sleeping beasts, ready to pounce. She waits. Time has stood still. Nobody comes to take her back.
Only after prolonged hesitation does she take a first step, then another, until she disappears into the trees.
She is in a coniferous forest. There is an acrid smell, reminiscent of rutting horses. She thinks she can make out a path. She makes slow progress, and only when she notices that the heavy breathing which surrounded her in the asylum is no longer there can she bring herself to turn round.
Nothing but trees on every side. She does not worry about the path having been a figment of her imagination and no longer discernible, as she is not going anywhere in particular. She is like scaffolding surrounding an empty space. She does not exist. Within the scaffolding there has never been a building, or a person.
Now she is moving very quickly through the forest, as if she did have an objective beyond the pine trees after all. From time to time she stands, stock-still, as if by degrees turning into a tree herself.
Time does not exist in the forest. Only trunks of trees, mostly pine, the occasional spruce, and sunbeams tumbling noiselessly to the damp earth.
She starts trembling. A pain comes creeping under her skin. At first she thinks it is that awful itchy feeling that affects her sometimes and forces the warders to strap her down to prevent her from scratching herself raw. Then it comes to her that there is another reason for her trembling.
She remembers that, once upon a time, she had a husband.
She has no idea what has prompted that memory. But she recalls very clearly having been married. His name was Lars, she remembers that. He had a scar over his left eye and was twenty-three centimeters taller than she was. That is all she can remember for the
moment. Everything else has been repressed and banished into the darkness that fills her being.
But her memory is reviving. She stares round at the tree trunks in confusion.Why should she start thinking about her husband just here? A man who hated forests and was always drawn to the sea? A midshipman, and eventually a hydrographic survey engineer with the
rank of Commander, employed on secret military missions?
The fog starts to disperse, melting away.
She stands rooted to the spot. A bird takes off, clattering somewhere out of sight. Then all is silent again.
My husband, Kristina Tacker thinks. I once had a husband, our lives were intertwined. Why do I remember him now, when I have found a hole in the fence and left all those watchful predators behind?
She searches her mind and among the trees for an answer.
There is none. There is nothing.
Late in the night the warders find Kristina Tacker.
It is frosty, the ground creaks under their feet. She is standing in the darkness, not moving, staring at a tree trunk.What she sees is not a pine tree but a remote lighthouse in a barren and deserted archipelago at the edge of the open sea. She scarcely notices that she is no longer alone with the silent tree trunks.
That day in the autumn of 1937 Kristina Tacker is fifty-seven years old. There is a trace of her former beauty lingering in her face. It is twelve years since she last uttered a word. Her hospital records repeat the phrase, day after day, year after year:The patient is still beyond reach.
That same night: it is dark in her room in the rambling mental hospital. She is awake. A lighthouse beam sweeps past, time after time, like a silent tolling of light inside her head.
Twenty-three years earlier, also on an autumn day, her husband was contemplating the destroyer Svea
, moored at the Galärvarv Quay in Stockholm. Lars Tobiasson-Svartman was a naval officer and cast a critical eye over the vessel. Beyond her soot-stained funnels he could make out Kastellet and Skeppsholm Church. The light was grey, forcing him to screw up his eyes.
It was the middle of October 1914, the Great War had been raging for exactly two months and nineteen days. Lars Tobiasson-Svartman did not have unqualified faith in these new armoured warships. The older wooden ships always gave him the feeling of entering a warm room. The new ones, with hulls comprising sheets of armour-plating welded together, were cold rooms, unpredictable rooms. He felt deep down that these vessels would not allow themselves to be tamed. Beyond the coal-fired steam engines or the new oil-driven ones were other forces that could not be controlled.
Now and then came a gust of wind from Saltsjön.
He stood by the steep gangplank, hesitating. It made him feel confused. Where did this insecurity come from? Ought he to abandon his voyage before it had even begun? He searched for an explanation, but all his thoughts had vanished, swallowed up by a bank of mist sweeping along inside him.
A sailor hurried down the gangplank. That brought Tobiasson-Svartman down to earth. Not being in control of himself was a weakness it was essential to conceal. The rating took his suitcases, his rolled-up sea charts and the brown, specially made bag containing his most treasured measuring instrument. He was surprised to find that the rating could manage all the cumbersome luggage without assistance.
The gangplank swayed under his feet. He could just make out the water between the quay and the hull of the ship, dark, distant.
He thought about what his wife had said when they said goodbye in their flat in Wallingatan.
'Now you're embarking on something you've been aching to do for so long.'
They were standing in their dimly lit hall. She had intended to accompany him to his ship before saying goodbye, but as she started to put on her gloves she hesitated, just as he had done at the foot of the gangplank.
She did not explain why the leave-taking had suddenly become too much for her. That was not necessary. She did not want to start crying. After nine years of marriage he knew it was harder for her to let him see her crying than to be naked before him.
They said goodbye hurriedly. He tried to reassure her that he was not disappointed.
In fact, he felt relieved.
He paused halfway along the gangplank, savouring the almost imperceptible motion of the ship. She was right. He had been longing to get away. But he was not at all sure what he was longing for.
Was there a secret inside him of which he was not aware?
He was very much in love with his wife. Every time he had to leave for a tour of duty and said goodbye to her, he unobtrusively breathed in the scent of her skin, kissing her hastily. It was as if he were laying down that perfume, as you do a fine wine, or perhaps an opiate, to take out whenever he felt so forlorn that he risked losing his self-possession.
His wife still used her maiden name. He had no idea why, and did not want to ask.
A tug boomed from the direction of Kastellholmen. A seagull hovered in the updraught over the ship.
He was a solitary man. His solitary nature was like an abyss that he was afraid he might one day fall into. He had worked out that the abyss must be at least forty metres deep, and that he would leap into it head first, so as to be certain of dying.
He was at the exact middle of the gangplank. He had estimated its total length by eye at seven metres. So now he was precisely three and a half metres from the quay and just as far from the ship's rail.
His earliest memories were to do with measurements. Between himself and his mother, between his mother and his father, between the floor and the ceiling, between sorrow and joy. His whole life was made up of distances, measuring, abbreviating or extending them. He was a solitary person constantly seeking new distances to estimate or measure.
Measuring distances was a sort of ritual, his personal means of reining in the movements of time and space.
From the start, from as far back as he could remember, solitude had been like his own skin.
Kristina Tacker was not only his wife. She was also the invisible lid he used to cover the abyss.
On that October day in 1914, Stockholm was enveloped by barely noticeable drizzle. His luggage had been brought by handcart from Wallingatan, over the bridge to Djurgården and the Galärvarv Quay. Although there were just the two of them, the porter and himself, he felt as if he were taking part in a procession.
His suitcases were of brown leather. The specially made, calf-leather
bag contained his most precious possession. It was a sounding lead for
the advanced measuring of the ocean depths.
The lead was made of brass, manufactured in Manchester in 1701 by Maxwell & Swanson. Their skilled craftsmen made optical and navigational instruments and exported them all over the world. The company had acquired renown and respect when they made the sextants used by Captain Cook on what was to be his final voyage to the Pacific Ocean. Their advertisements claimed that their products were used even by Japanese and Chinese seafarers.
Sometimes when he woke up during the night, filled with a mysterious feeling of unrest, he would get up and fetch his lead. Take it back to bed with him and hold it, pressed tightly to his chest. That usually enabled him to go back to sleep. The lead breathed. Its breath was white.
The destroyer Svea
was built at the Lindholmen shipyard in Gothenburg, and had left the slipway in December 1885. She was due to be taken out of active service in 1914 as she was already out of date, but that sentence had been suspended because the Swedish Navy had not prepared for the Great War. Her life had been saved at the very last second. She was like a working horse that had been spared at the moment of slaughter, and allowed back into the streets again.
Lars Tobiasson-Svartman reminded himself of the most important measurements relevant to the ship. Svea
was seventy-five metres long and at the broadest point just aft of amidships she was slightly more than fourteen metres. The heavy artillery comprised two longrange 254-millimetre guns of the M/85 type, made by Maxim-Nordenfelt in London. The medium-range artillery was made up of four 150-millimetre guns, also made in London. In addition there was some light artillery and an unknown number of machine guns.
He continued thinking over what he knew about the vessel he was about to board. The crew comprised 250 regular and conscripted ratings, and twenty-two regular officers. The driving power, currently making the ship throb, came from two horizontal compound engines whose horsepower was generated by six boilers. In trials she had attained a speed of 14.68 knots.
There was one further measurement that interested him. The gap between the bottom of Svea
's keel and the bottom of the Galärvarv Quay was just over two metres.
He turned round and looked down at the quay, as if hoping that his wife might have turned up after all. But there was nothing to be seen apart from a few boys fishing and a drunken man who slumped on to his knees then slowly toppled over.
The gusts from Saltsjön were growing stronger. They were very noticeable on deck next to the gangplank.
Excerpted from Depths by Henning Mankell. Copyright © 2008 by Henning Mankell. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.