One afternoon during the rainy and cold summer of 1977, I set out with my son Joen in a white painted, but very leaky motorboat, out of Amanningen at Flodhall, through Virsbo Lock, where the big trucks rumble over the bridge and where the children splash in the sluice basin, through Virsbo Lake which is longish and flat, into the swampy delta between Virsbo and Seglingsberg, where twelve wild geese flew up in front of the bow and where a wonderful pair of cranes crossed our path, past Bo Stenar, where the fishermen sit as they have been sitting for centuries with their fishing rods, right where the stream is the narrowest and the stream channel deep, sitting so close together that they conceal the red paint stain on the rock that is a landmark on the canal’s starboard side, and all the ore boat and barge skippers curse them —as we did when, at the last second, we discovered that we were forced to squeeze between two outlying boulders; but everything went all right and we continued through Seglingsberg and Farmansbo locks and noticed that Farmansbo had gotten a chubby, pretty lockkeeper who spoke with a Finnish accent and had a huge cat and a small child playing near the water, both carefully protected from falling down into the deep inconstancy by an enclosure of wood, and at dusk we came through the last river bend out onto Norra Nadden, the lake of my youth.
“It’s so little,” said Joen, who had always heard it described as large, and I, poor absent-minded father in faded jeans and bare feet, feeling chilly from having stayed for hours in the teabrown humus water, which the whole time was leaking into the boat somewhere astern, I suddenly discovered how right he was. So confined, so melancholy, the lake of my childhood, with the slowly decaying sawmill to the north, the cleared forests, barely concealed by so-called shore trees to the west, and the small idyllic summer villas of Brattheden to the east. The only thing that had remained the same was the swampland to the north, that water labyrinth of reeds and red water-lilies where, sometimes, cranes could still be heard. So little, so confined. And while we filled up with gasoline from the five-liter gas can — through the old blue funnel which had disappeared in the spring storm of 1974 but was found again in the nettles at Kyrkviken in June of 1977, a faithful old funnel—it occurred to me to begin telling a story.
“You’re looking at a small melancholy lake which is in the process of growing again,” I began. “You see a sawmill which is becoming a ruin, and you see a few small, weathered summer huts on a ridge, grown over for the most part. You have to understand that I see something else. In my childhood memory, it swarms with people here. Students in white suits and caps carefully row young girls between clumps of reeds and talk modestly with them. The trains, belching out black smoke, pull into stations and drop off swarms of travelers from Stockholm, among them my eccentric uncles and aunts . . .”
“Half of them exist only in your novels,” said Joen, who had just reached puberty and had begun to take on lofty airs.
“I see old workers who sit on their verandas in the twilight,” I continued nonchalantly, “who scrape out their pipes with a nail and tell stories of fathers and grandfathers, stories that are so old that they go back to the eighteenth century, stories about charcoal burners’ huts and foundry proprietors who are so malicious that the devil himself fetches them on Christmas night, and stories about the big mysterious fish, the Giant Catfish of Bo Cauldron, the Great Fish, the Original Fish, who hides in the depths where the sunlight only makes its way down like one star among others, the Inexorable Fish, who severs all lead lines with a single gnash of his huge teeth so that rope and chain alike come up to the surface again, neatly cut off.”
“Why does he do that?” asked Joen, a modern young man who doesn’t approve of long stories. He’s in a hurry to get to the end, as if there were going to be something remarkable right at the end.
“Why does he do that?” asked Joen again. “What is it he’s really hiding?”
“There is gold down there in the depths; far down something inconceivably rich glistens, the darkness possesses something, and the Catfish is the monster that protects and hides it. Never, never will any living person bring the gold up to the surface. The monster would rather die than give up the gold. He would rather die than show himself.
“Unlike the common sea monsters we read about in the newspapers, the Loch Ness Monster, the Great Sea Beast or whatever he’s called, the Giant Catfish of Bo Cauldron is a sea monster whose whole existence consists in his never showing himself.”
Hardly was the philosophizing over before we were going northward again between darkening clumps of reeds. We were in a bit of a hurry since we were just about to miss the lock times. It was the beginning of August; the summer light was on a rapid retreat. As Joen steered through the increasingly abstract landscape, I took care of the bailing. Frightened ducks fluttered in front of the bow; a hawk stood almost still over the forest edge, but there were no pairs of cranes this time. In the lockkeeper’s house at Farmansbo there was a yellow, friendly, inviting light. By mustering all our charm we succeeded in borrowing the lock key. It was already so dark that the white water appeared to light up by itself. Uneasy bats whirred above the sluice basin.
“Here, as a child, or a little boy, I often ran on the banks and fished,” I said. “There is a kind of morel here, small and black, that you don’t find anywhere else in the district. They can only be eaten after parboiling. They grow in the old slag piles. A hut once used to be there.”
We got out onto Amänningen at the last moment. The canal behind us began to get dark, but in front of us lay the large lake reflecting the evening light. Everything was very still. Our wake spread out like a theorem in a complete geometry, and another grebe dove in front of us, abruptly, as if it had been thinking of something else. Outside Dentist Point—a desolate wooded point that got its name because a dentist once built a summer cottage there —near the little islet called Gärholmen, we noticed something peculiar that caused Joen to idle the motor.
From Gärholmen a canoe put out, evidently with only one person aboard. It passed between the hazardous sharp rocks at Enträ as if they didn’t exist, and turned in quickly towards Kyrkviken. The distance was so great that it was impossible to see who was paddling, but the manner of paddling was somehow disquieting, hectic.
“For heaven’s sake, what kind of person was that!” I said.
“That’s odd,” said Joen. “Let’s go into Gärholmen and take a look. I have a feeling something strange might have happened.”
“It’s so dark,” I said.
“But I still want us to go into Gärholmen. Besides, I hid some crowns under a rock on the middle of the island when we were skating long distance last February.”
He still had the little boy’s mania of hiding things under rocks, especially on islands, perhaps so that he could become invulnerable, perhaps to leave something behind, perhaps only to create a mystery for himself.
We approached the island at half throttle. It is a very little, narrow islet. There are so many wicked, sharp rocks in the water around it that I almost never put in to it by boat, On the other hand, it is an excellent halting place in the winter, during the first few days after Christmas when the ice is hard and blueblack because no snow has fallen yet. It was almost dark now. Just when we began to come in among the really dangerous sunken rocks, we caught sight of something that had to be a swimming animal, perhaps an elk, on its way from the island toward Kyrkviken, heading in the same direction the canoe had gone. I made a careful ninety-degree turn and, with Joen searching for dark brown boulders—which at any time could begin to rise toward the surface, unreal, solid only at the moment they come in contact with the bow—I stood and peered over the water. It was too small to be an elk; it was too large to be a swimming snake. Thirty meters away, we realized that it was a person. He had quite dark hair which was slicked down over a rather small head. He was purposely, but rather slowly making his way toward land, apparently completely naked.
Were we interrupting?
He was fairly deep in the water. He was swimming very slowly in a relentless way. He should have discovered us by now. I made up my mind. We were barely up to him before I saw that the man was exhausted.
We pulled him on board as best we could. Anyone knows that it’s not an especially easy matter; a person pulled up into the back of a motorboat, and who barely makes any effort to help himself, is easily scraped on the chest. We laid him down on the bottom of the boat and put my wool sweater over him.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
He seemed too exhausted to answer.
“What shall we do with him?” Joen asked.
“We’ll take him home,” I said.
“He’s really freezing,” said Joen. “I think we should take him to Gärholmen and make a fire.”
On Gärholmen, sure enough, we found a tent. A white gas stove stood in front of the tent and some clothes were hanging up to dry over a low branch on a fir tree. We put as much on him as we could, and made a fire with the dry sticks that were farthest in under the spruces near the tent.
The first thing he said when he was able to speak again was, “There’s no danger. She’ll come back. She always comes back.”
“Okay,” I said. “But then maybe it was a little excessive to swim after her all the way to Kyrkviken. The water gets colder faster than you’d think here in Vastmanland. If you aren’t an experienced distance swimmer it makes sense to take it easy.”
He didn’t appear to be listening. He could have been around thirty-five or forty, a fairly pleasant aspect, fairly commonplace too. You could perhaps imagine some sort of intellectual profession, but not anything that carried authority. A mark above the nose indicated that normally he wore glasses—of a thinly-curved type I would guess. He was still shivering and crawled closer to the fire. There really was nothing to indicate that he was particularly crazy, even desperate. He didn’t even seem unhappy, just frozen. So I went down to the shore to see to the boat; I had a distinct feeling that the wind had changed.