A ragged dress was hanging from one branch of a rotting pine tree. It put the old man in mind of a song from his youth, about a dress on a washing line. But this dress wasn’t hanging in a southerly breeze like in the song, but in the ice-cold meltwater in a river. It was completely still down at the bottom of the river, and even though it was five o’clock in the afternoon, and it was March, and the sky above the surface of the water was clear, just as the forecast had said, there wasn’t a lot of sun-light left after it had been filtered through a layer of ice and four metres of water. Which meant that the pine tree and dress lay in weird, greenish semi-darkness. It was a summer dress, he had concluded, blue with white polka dots. Maybe the dress had once been coloured, he didn’t know. It probably depended on how long the dress had been hanging there, snagged on the branch. And now the dress was hanging in a current that never stopped, washing it, stroking it when the river was running slowly, tugging and pulling at it when the river was in full flow, slowly but surely tearing it to pieces. If you looked at it that way, the old man thought, the dress was a bit like him. That dress had once meant something to someone, a girl or woman, to the eyes of another man, or a child’s arms. But now, just like him, it was lost, discarded, without any purpose, trapped, constrained, voiceless. It was just a matter of time before the current tore away the last remnants of what it had once been.
‘What are you watching?’ he heard a voice say from behind the chair he was sitting in. Ignoring the pain in his muscles, he turned his head and looked up. And saw that it was a new customer. The old man was more forgetful than before, but he never forgot the face of someone who had visited Simensen Hunting & Fishing. This customer wasn’t after guns or ammunition. With a bit of practice you could tell from the look in their eyes which ones were herbivores, the look you saw in that portion of humanity who had lost the killing instinct, the portion who didn’t share the secret shared by the other group: that there’s nothing that makes a man feel more alive than putting a bullet in a large, warm-blooded mammal. The old man guessed the customer was after one of the hooks or fishing rods that were hanging on the racks above and below the large television screen on the wall in front of them, or possibly one of the wildlife cameras on the other side of the shop.
‘He’s looking at the Haglebu river.’ It was Alf who replied. The old man’s son-in-law had come over to them. He stood rocking on his heels with his hands in the deep pockets of the long leather gilet he always wore at work. ‘We installed an underwater camera there last year with the camera manufacturers. So now we have a twenty-four-hour live stream from just above the salmon ladder round the falls at Norafossen, so we can get a more accurate idea of when the fish start heading upstream.’
‘Which is when?’
‘A few in April and May, but the big rush doesn’t start until June. The trout start to spawn before the salmon.’
The customer smiled at the old man. ‘You’re pretty early, then? Or have you seen any fish?’
The old man opened his mouth. He had the words in his mind, he hadn’t forgotten them. But nothing came out. He closed his mouth again.
‘Aphasia,’ Alf said.
‘A stroke, he can’t talk. Are you after fishing tackle?’
‘A wildlife camera,’ the customer said.
‘So you’re a hunter?’
‘A hunter? No, not at all. I found some droppings outside my cabin up in Sørkedalen that don’t look like anything I’ve seen before, so I took some pictures and put them on Facebook, asking what it was. Got a response from people up in the mountains straight away. Bear. A bear! In the forest just twenty minutes’ drive and a three-and-a-half-hour walk from where we are now, right in the centre of the capital of Norway.’
‘Depends what you mean by “fantastic”. Like I said, I’ve got a cabin there. I take my family there. I want someone to shoot it.’
‘I’m a hunter, so I understand exactly what you mean. But you know, even in Norway, where you don’t have to go back very far to a time when we had a lot of bears, there have been hardly any fatal bear attacks in the past couple of hundred years.’
Eleven, the old man thought. Eleven people since 1800. The last one in 1906. He may have lost the power of speech and movement, but he still had his memory. His mind was still OK. Mostly, anyway. Sometimes he got a bit muddled, and noticed his son-in-law exchange a glance with his daughter Mette, and realised he’d got something wrong. When they first took over the shop he had set up and run for fifty years he had been very useful. But now, since the last stroke, he just sat there. Not that that was so terrible. No, since Olivia died he didn’t have many expectations of the rest of his life. Being close to his family was enough, getting a warm meal every day, sitting in his chair in the shop watching a television screen, an endless programme with no sound, where things moved at the same pace as him, where the most dramatic thing that could happen was the first spawning fish making their way up the river.
‘On the other hand, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen again.’ The old man heard Alf’s voice. He had gone over to the shelves of wildlife cameras with the customer. ‘No matter how much it might look like a 6 teddy bear, all carnivores kill. So yes, you should definitely get a camera so you can figure out if it’s settled down somewhere near your cabin or if it was just passing through. And now’s the time brown bears emerge from hibernation, and they’re starving. Set up a camera where you found the droppings, or somewhere close to the cabin.’
‘So the camera’s inside that little bird box?’
‘The bird box, as you call it, protects the camera from the elements and any animals that get too close. This one’s a simple, reasonably priced camera. It’s got a Fresnel lens that registers the infrared radiation from the heat animals, humans and everything else give off. When the level deviates from the norm, the camera automatically starts to record.’ The old man was half listening to the conversation, but something else had caught his attention. Something that was happening on the television screen. He couldn’t see what it was, but the green darkness had taken on a lighter shimmer.
‘Recordings are stored on a memory card inside the camera – you can play it back on your PC afterwards.’
‘Now that’s fantastic.’
‘Yes, but you do have to physically go and check the camera to see if it’s recorded anything. If you go for this slightly more expensive model, you’ll get a text message every time it’s recorded anything. Or there’s this one, the most advanced model, which still has a memory card but will also send any recordings directly to your phone or email. You can sit inside your cabin and only have to go back to the camera to change the battery every so often.’
‘What if the bear comes at night?’
‘The camera has black-light LEDs as well as white. Invisible light that means the animal doesn’t get frightened off.’
Light. The old man could see it now. A beam of light coming from upriver, off to the right. It pushed through the green water, found the dress, and for a chilling moment it made him think of a girl coming back to life at last and dancing with joy.
‘That’s proper science fiction, that is!’
The old man opened his mouth when he saw a spaceship come into the picture. It was lit up from within and was hovering a metre and a half off the riverbed. The current knocked it against a large rock, and, almost in slow motion, it spun round until the light from the front of it swept across the riverbed and for a moment blinded the old man when it hit the camera lens. Then the hovering spaceship was caught by the thick branches of the pine tree and stopped moving. The old man felt his heart thudding in his chest. It was a car. The interior light was on, and he could see that the inside was full of water, almost up to the roof. There was someone in there. Someone half sitting, half standing on the driver’s seat as he desperately pressed his head up to the roof, obviously trying to get air. One of the rotten branches holding the car snapped and drifted off in the current.
‘You don’t get the same clarity and focus as daylight, and it’s black and white. But as long as there’s no condensation on the lens or anything in the way, you should certainly be able to see your bear.’
The old man stamped on the floor in an attempt to attract Alf’s attention. The man in the car looked like he was taking a deep breath before ducking under again. His short, bristly hair was swaying, and his cheeks were puffed out. He hit both hands against the side window facing the camera, but the water inside the car leached the force from the blows. The old man had put his hands on the armrests and was trying to get up from his chair, but his muscles wouldn’t do what he told them to. He noticed that the middle finger on one of the man’s hands was a greyish colour. The man stopped banging and butted the glass with his head. It looked like he was giving up. Another branch snapped and the current tugged and strained to pull the car free, but the pine wasn’t ready to let go just yet. The old man stared at the anguished face pressed against the inside of the car window. Bulging blue eyes. A scar in a liver-coloured arc from one corner of his mouth up towards his ear. The old man had managed to get out of his chair and took two unsteady steps towards the shelves of cameras.
‘Excuse me,’ Alf said quietly to the customer. ‘What is it, Dad?’
The old man gesticulated at the screen behind him.
‘Really?’ Alf said dubiously, and hurried past the old man towards the screen. ‘Fish?’
The old man shook his head and turned back to the screen. The car. It was gone. And everything looked the same as before. The riverbed, the dead pine tree, the dress, the green light through the ice. As if nothing had happened. The old man stamped the floor again and pointed at the screen.
‘Easy now, Dad,’ Alf said, giving him a friendly pat on the shoulder. ‘It is very early for spawning, you know.’ He went back to the customer and the wildlife cameras.
The old man looked at the two men standing with their backs to him, and felt despair and rage wash over him. How was he going to explain what he had just seen? His doctor had told him that when a stroke hits both the front and back parts of the left side of the brain, it wasn’t only your speech that was lost, but often the ability to communicate in general, even by writing or through gestures. He tottered back to the chair and sat down again. Looked at the river, which just went on flowing. Imperturbable. Undeterred. Unchanging. And after a couple of minutes he felt his heart start to beat more calmly again. Who knows, maybe it hadn’t actually happened after all? Maybe it had just been a glimpse of the next step towards the absolute darkness of old age. Or, in this case, its colourful world of hallucinations. He looked at the dress. For a moment, when he had thought it was lit up by car headlights, it had seemed to him as if Olivia was dancing in it. And behind the windscreen, inside the illuminated car, he had glimpsed a face he had seen before. A face he remembered. And the only faces he still remembered were the ones he saw here, in the shop. And he had seen that man in here on two occasions. Those blue eyes, that liver-coloured scar. On both occasions he had bought a wildlife camera. The police had been in asking about him fairly recently. The old man could have told them he was a tall man. And that he had that look in his eyes. The look that said he knew the secret. The look that said he wasn’t a herbivore.
Svein Finne leaned over the woman and felt her forehead with one hand. It was wet with sweat. The eyes staring up at him were wide with pain. Or fear. Mostly fear, he guessed.
‘Are you afraid of me?’ he whispered.
She nodded and swallowed. He had always thought her beautiful. When he saw her walk to and from her home, when she was at the gym, when he was sitting on the metro just a few seats away from her, letting her see him. Just so she would know. But he had never seen her look more beautiful than she did right now, lying there helpless, so completely in his power.
‘I promise it will be quick, darling,’ he whispered.
She gulped. So frightened. He wondered if he should kiss her.
‘A knife in the stomach,’ he whispered. ‘Then it’s over.’
She screwed her eyes shut, and two glistening tears squeezed through her eyelashes.
Svein Finne laughed quietly. ‘You knew I’d come. You knew I couldn’t let you go. It was a promise, after all.’
He ran one finger through the mix of sweat and tears on her cheek. He could see one of her eyes through the big, gaping hole in his hand, in the eagle’s wing. The hole was the result of a bullet fired by a policeman, a young officer at the time. They had sentenced Svein Finne to twenty years in prison for eighteen charges of sexual assault, and he hadn’t denied the charges in and of themselves, just the description of them as ‘assault’, and the idea that those acts were something that a man like him should be punished for. But the judge and jury evidently believed that Norway’s laws were above nature’s. Fine, that was their opinion.
Her eye stared at him through the hole.
‘Are you ready, darling?’
‘Don’t call me that,’ she whimpered. More pleading than commanding. ‘And stop talking about knives . . .’
Svein Finne sighed. Why were people so frightened of the knife? It was humanity’s first tool, they’d had two and a half million years to get used to it, yet some people still didn’t appreciate the beauty of what had made it possible for them to descend from the trees. Hunting, shelter, agriculture, food, defence. Just as much as the knife took life, it created it. You couldn’t have one without the other. Only those who appreciated that, and accepted the consequences of their humanity, their origins, could love the knife. Fear and love. Again, two sides of the same thing.
Svein Finne looked up. At the knives on the bench beside them, ready for use. Ready to be chosen. The choice of the right knife for the right job was important. These ones were good, purpose-made, top quality. Sure, they lacked what Svein Finne looked for in a knife. Personality. Spirit. Magic. Before that tall young policeman with the short, messy hair had ruined everything, Svein Finne had had a fine collection of twenty-six knives.
The finest of them had been Javanese. Long, thin, asymmetrical, like a curved snake with a handle. Sheer beauty, feminine. Possibly not the most effective to use, but it had the hypnotic qualities of both a snake and a beautiful woman, it made people do exactly what you told them. The most efficient knife in the collection, on the other hand, was a Rampuri, the favourite of the Indian mafia. It emanated a sort of chill, as if it were made of ice; it was so ugly that it was mesmerising. The karambit, which was shaped like a tiger’s claw, combined beauty and efficiency. But it was perhaps a little too calculated, like a whore wearing too much make-up and a dress that was too tight, too low-cut. Svein Finne had never liked it. He preferred them innocent. Virginal. And, ideally, simple. Like his favourite knife in the collection. A Finnish puukko knife. It had a worn, brown wooden handle, without any real relation to the blade, which was short with a groove, and the sharp edge curved up to form a point. He had bought the puukko in Turku, and two days later he had used it to clarify the situation to a plump eighteen-year-old girl who had been working all alone in a Neste petrol station on the outskirts of Helsinki. Even back then he had – as always when he felt a rush of sexual anticipation – started to stammer slightly. It wasn’t a sign that he wasn’t in control, but rather the opposite, it was just the dopamine. And confirmation that at the age of almost eighty his urges were undiminished. It had taken him precisely two and a half minutes from the moment he walked through the door – when he pinned her down on the counter, cut her trousers off, inseminated her, took out her ID card, noted Maalin’s name and address – until he was out again. Two and a half minutes. How many seconds had the actual insemination taken? Chimpanzees spent an average of eight seconds having intercourse, eight seconds in which both monkeys were defenceless in a world full of predators. A gorilla – who had fewer natural enemies – could stretch out the pleasure to a minute. But a disciplined man in enemy territory often had to sacrifice pleasure for the greater goal: reproduction. So, just as a bank robbery should never take more than four minutes, an act of insemination in a public place should never take more than two and a half minutes. Evolution would prove him right, it was just a matter of time.
But now, here, they were in a safe environment. Besides, there wasn’t going to be any insemination. Not that he didn’t want to – he did. But this time she was going to be penetrated by a knife instead; there was no point trying to impregnate a woman when there was no chance of it resulting in offspring. So the disciplined man saved his seed.
‘I have to be allowed to call you darling, seeing as we’re engaged,’ Svein Finne whispered.
She stared at him with eyes that were black with shock. Black, as if they had already gone out. As if there were no longer any light to shut out.
‘Yes, we are engaged.’ He laughed quietly, and pressed his thick lips to hers. He automatically wiped her lips with the sleeve of his flannel shirt so there wouldn’t be any traces of saliva. ‘And this is what I’ve been promising you . . .’ he said, running his hand down between her breasts towards her stomach.