Today's Reading

PART ONE
CHAPTER ONE

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 sunlight 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.

"What?"

"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."

"That's fantastic."

"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.
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