Just after 10 p.m. he finally finished. The last stanzas had been difficult to write; they took him a long time. He had wanted to achieve a melancholy, yet beautiful expression. Several attempts were consigned to the wastepaper basket. Twice he'd been close to giving up altogether, but now the poem lay before him on the table--his lament for the middle spotted woodpecker, which had almost disappeared from Sweden. It hadn't been seen in the country since the early 1980s--one more species soon to be wiped out by humankind.
He got up from his desk and stretched. With every passing year, it was harder and harder to sit bent over his writings for hours on end.
An old man shouldn't be writing poems, he thought. When you're 78 years old, your thoughts are of little use to anyone. But at the same time, he knew this 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 the period of enlightened wisdom. He would go on writing poems as long as he could lift a pen and his mind was clear. He was not capable of much else. A long time ago he had been a car dealer, the most successful in the region. He was known as a tough negotiator. He had certainly sold a lot of cars. During the good years he had owned branches in Tomelilla and Sjöbo. He had made a fortune large enough to allow him to live in some style. But it was his poetry that really mattered to him. The verses lying on the table gave him a rare satisfaction.
He drew the curtains across the picture windows that faced the fields rolling down towards the sea, which lay out of sight. He went over to his bookshelf. He had published nine volumes of poetry. There they stood, in a row. None of them had sold more than a single, small printing. Not more than 300 copies. The unsold copies were in cardboard boxes in the basement. They were his pride and joy, although he had long ago decided to burn them one day. He would carry the cardboard boxes out to the courtyard and put a match to them. The day he received his death sentence, whether from a doctor or from a premonition that his life would soon be over, he would rid himself of the thin volumes that no-one wanted to buy. No-one would throw them onto a rubbish heap.
He looked at the books on the shelf. He had been reading poems his whole life, and he had memorised many. He had no illusions; his poems were not the best ever written, but they weren't the worst, either. In each of his volumes, published roughly every five years since the late 1940s, there were stanzas that could stand beside the best. 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. He had sent his first collection to the big publishing houses in Stockholm. They came back with curt rejections on pre-printed forms. One editor had taken the trouble to make a personal comment. Nobody would want to read poems that were only about birds. The spiritual life of the white wagtail is of no interest
, the editor had written.
After that, he wasted no more time on publishers. He paid for publication himself: simple covers, nothing lavish. The words between were what mattered. In spite of everything, many people had read his poems over the years, and many of them had expressed their appreciation to him. 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: 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 a reflection of the innermost secrets of life.
He picked up the sheet of paper. The last stanza had worked. He put the paper back on the desk. He felt a sharp pain in his back as he crossed the large room. Was he getting sick? Every day he listened for signs that his body had begun 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 80. The end of his allotted time was approaching. He went out to the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee from the coffee machine, 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. On the calendar and in my life.
He carried his coffee back to the living room. He sat down carefully in one of the brown leather armchairs that had kept him company for 40 years. He had bought them to celebrate his triumph when he was awarded the Volkswagen franchise for southern Sweden. On the table next to his armrest stood the photograph of Werner, the Alsatian 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. Even your dogs vanished into the shadows. Soon he would be alone. At a certain point in life, everyone was. 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. But birds were what he knew how to write about. Not people. Birds he could understand. People were unfathomable. Had he ever truly known himself? Writing poems about something he didn't understand would be like trespassing.
He closed his eyes and suddenly remembered "The 10,000-krona Question" TV programme of the late 1950s, or maybe it was the early 1960s. TV 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 cheque for 10,000 kronor, an incredible sum in those days.
He had not been sitting in the television studio, in the booth with headphones on. He had been sitting in this very same armchair. He too had known all the answers, and not once did he even need extra time to think. But he didn't win 10,000 kronor. Nobody knew of his vast knowledge of birds. He just went on writing his poems.
A noise woke him with a start from his daydream. He listened in the darkened room. Was there someone in the courtyard? He pushed away the thought. It was his imagination. 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 revolver 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 kitchen bench and looked at his watch. Almost 11 p.m. It was time to go. He squinted at the thermometer outside the kitchen window and saw it was 7°C. 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 migrating birds would pass overhead in their thousands, borne on invisible wings. He wouldn't be able to see them, but he'd feel them out there in the dark, high above. For more than 50 years he had spent countless autumn nights out in the fields, experiencing the sensation of the birds passing. Often it had seemed as though the whole sky was on the move.
Whole orchestras of silent songbirds would be leaving before the approaching winter, heading for warmer climes. The urge to move on was innate, and their ability to navigate by the stars and the earth's gravity kept them on course. They sought out the favourable winds, they had fattened themselves up over the summer, and they could stay aloft for hour after hour. A whole night sky, vibrating with wings, was beginning its annual pilgrimage towards Mecca.
What was a lonely, earthbound old man compared to a night flyer? He had often thought of this as the performance of a sacred act. His own autumnal high mass, as he stood there in the dark, sensing the departure of the migratory birds. And then, when spring came, he was there to welcome them back. Their migration was his religion.
He went out into the hall and stood with one hand on the coat hooks. Then he went back to the living room and pulled on the jumper lying on a stool by the desk. Along with all the other vexations, getting old meant that he got cold more quickly.
Once more he looked at the poem lying there finished on the desk. 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 hall, put on his jacket, and pulled a cap over his head. He opened the front door. Outside, the autumn air was redolent with the smell of wet clay. He closed the door behind him and let his eyes grow accustomed to the dark. The garden seemed desolate. In the distance he could see the glow of the lights of Ystad. He lived so far from his other neighbours that this was the only source of light. The sky was almost clear, and filled with stars. A few clouds were visible on the horizon. Tonight the migration was bound to pass over his property.
He set off. His farmhouse was old, with three wings. The fourth had burned down early in the century. He spent a lot of money renovating the building, although the work was still not completed. He would leave 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 dogs. And then birds.
I have no regrets, he thought, as he followed the path down to the tower he had built himself. 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 downwards, leading to a slight rise. Just before the rise there was a broad ditch over which he had placed a bridge. At the top of the rise stood his tower. He wondered how many times he had walked this path. He knew every bend, 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, unable to endure lying idle in a hospital bed. He would start worrying about his life. And then nothing could save him.
An owl hooted. Somewhere close by, a twig snapped. The sound had come from the grove just past the hillock on which his tower stood. He stood motionless, all his senses alert. The owl hooted again. Then all was silent once more. He grumbled under his breath, and continued.
Old and scared, he muttered. Afraid of ghosts and afraid of the dark. Now he could see the tower. A black silhouette against the night sky. In 20 metres 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 the 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. I'd swear it was a metre 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 twinge of fear passed through him, like a lone gust of wind. Then anger. Somebody was trespassing on his property, climbing his tower without asking him for permission. It was probably a poacher hunting the deer that grazed around the grove on the other side of the hill. It couldn't be another bird-watcher.
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 again. No answer. He started to walk across the bridge.
When the planks gave way he fell headlong. He pitched forwards and didn't even have time to stretch out his arms to break his fall. The ditch was more than two metres deep.
He felt a hideous pain. It came out of nowhere and cut right through him, like red-hot spears piercing his body. The pain was so intense he couldn't even scream. Just before he died he realised that he had never reached the bottom of the ditch. He remained suspended in his own pain.
His last thought was of the migrating birds, somewhere far above him. The sky moving towards the south.
One last time he tried to tear himself away from the pain. Then it was all over.
It was 11.20 p.m. on 21 September 1994. That night, huge flocks of thrushes and red-winged blackbirds were flying south.
They came from the north and set a southwest course over Falsterbo Point, heading for the warmth that awaited them, far away.
When all was quiet, she made her way carefully down the tower steps. She shone her torch into the ditch. Holger Eriksson was dead. She switched off the torch and stood still in the darkness. Then she walked quickly away.
Just after 5 a.m. on Monday, 26 September, Kurt Wallander woke in his flat on Mariagatan in central Ystad.
Excerpted from The Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell. Copyright © 2004 by Henning Mankell. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.