Authors: Carlos Ruiz Zafon
‘What’s happened, Mum?’
Her mother hugged her. Irene clasped her mother’s hands in her own. They were cold.
‘It’s Hannah,’ whispered Simone.
A long silence. The wind scratched at the shutters.
As Irene pedalled towards the village on her brother’s bicycle, the sun was setting. For a moment she looked back over her shoulder at Seaview. Simone’s words and the alarm in her eyes as she saw her daughter rush out of the house weighed heavily on Irene, but the thought of Ismael sailing towards the news of Hannah’s death distressed her even more.
Simone had explained that, only a few hours earlier, two ramblers had discovered Hannah’s body near the forest. From that moment on, all those who’d been lucky enough to have known her had been overcome by grief and desolation. There’d been a lot of talk. People were saying that her mother, Elisabet, had suffered a nervous breakdown when she heard the news, and was still under sedation. But little else was known.
Rumours concerning a series of crimes that had upset village life years ago now resurfaced. There were those who saw this new tragedy as the continuation of a gruesome series of unsolved murders that had taken place in Cravenmoore forest during the 1920s. Others preferred to wait until they knew more details of the circumstances surrounding Hannah’s death. But the rumour mill didn’t throw any light on how she might have died. The two ramblers who had stumbled on the body were still giving evidence at the police station, and two pathologists from La Roche were on their way – or so people said. Beyond that, Hannah’s death was a mystery.
Cycling as fast as she could, Irene reached the village just as the sun finally dipped below the horizon. The place was almost deserted and the few people who were out on the streets walked in silence. She left the bicycle leaning against an old lamppost by the entrance to the side street in which Ismael’s aunt and uncle lived. Their home was a humble, unpretentious building, a fisherman’s house near the bay. It was clear that the last coat of paint had been applied decades ago, and the light of two oil lamps accentuated the effects of the sea air on the façade.
With her stomach in knots, Irene approached the front door. She was afraid. What right did she have to disturb the grieving family at a moment like this? What was she thinking of?
She stopped for a moment, unable to advance or retreat, caught between her reluctance to call and the need to see Ismael, to be close to him at such a moment. At that very instant the door of the house opened and the rotund figure of Doctor Giraud, the local physician, emerged into the street. The doctor’s eyes glinted behind his spectacles in the dim light.
‘You’re Madame Sauvelle’s daughter, aren’t you?’
‘If you’ve come to see Ismael, he’s not at home. When he heard the news about his cousin he got on his boat and sailed off somewhere.’
The doctor saw Irene’s face grow pale.
‘He’s a good sailor. He’ll be back.’
Irene walked to the end of the quay. In the moonlight, she could see the lonely silhouette of the
cutting through the mist as it headed towards the lighthouse island. Irene felt like jumping onto a boat and following him into his secret world, but she knew that there was no point.
The full impact of the news was beginning to sink into her own mind, and her eyes filled with tears. When the
finally melted into the darkness, she got onto her bicycle again and started pedalling back home.
Dinner was brief that night and silence ruled as the Sauvelles pretended to eat something before retiring to bed. By eleven o’clock there wasn’t a soul to be seen downstairs and only one light still burned in the entire house: the lamp on Dorian’s bedside table.
A cold breeze wafted in through the open window. Lying on his bed, Dorian listened to the eerie sounds of the forest. Shortly before midnight, he turned off the light and walked over to the window. In the woodland, a sea of dark leaves stirred in the wind. Dorian could sense a presence lurking in the dark.
Beyond the trees stood the sinuous outline of Cravenmoore. Suddenly a flickering glow appeared amid the vegetation. Lights in the forest. A lamp or a torch shining through the trees. Dorian gasped. The trail of small flashes appeared and disappeared as if someone were walking in circles through the forest.
A minute later, wearing a thick jumper and his leather boots, Dorian tiptoed down the stairs and carefully opened the door to the porch. It was a cold night and, down below, the sea roared in the darkness. His eyes followed the path lit by the moon, a sliver of silver snaking into the wood. A fluttering in his stomach reminded him of the warm safety of his room. Dorian sighed.
When he reached the entrance to the forest, the pale lights had receded into pinpricks barely visible through the mist. Dorian put one foot in front of the other and, before he knew it, the shadows of the forest had engulfed him. Behind him, Seaview seemed very far away.
Nothing could have induced Irene to fall asleep that night. Finally, around midnight, she gave up trying and switched on the small lamp on her bedside table. Alma Maltisse’s diary lay next to the tiny pendant in the shape of a silver angel her father had given her years ago. Irene picked up the diary and opened it again at the first page.
The slanted handwriting welcomed her. Slowly, as her eyes caressed line after line, Irene was drawn once more into the secret world of Alma Maltisse . . .
Last night I heard them quarrelling in the library. He was shouting, begging it to leave him in peace, to abandon the house for ever. He said it had no right to do what it was doing to our lives. I’ll never forget the sound of its laughter, like the howl of an animal, full of anger and hatred; the noise sent thousands of books crashing off the shelves, reverberating throughout the house. Its fury grows with every passing day. From the moment I freed that beast from its prison, it has been gaining in strength.
He stands guard at the foot of my bed every night. He’s afraid, I know, that if he leaves me alone for even a moment, the shadow will come and take me. For days now he hasn’t told me what is occupying his mind, but there’s no need. He hasn’t slept in weeks. Every night has become an endless and terrible vigil. He places hundreds of candles all over the house, trying to light every corner, so that there is no refuge in the darkness for the shadow. His face has aged ten years in barely a month.
Sometimes I think it’s all my fault; that if I disappeared, the curse would vanish with me. Perhaps that is what I should do, leave him and face my inevitable meeting with the shadow. It’s the only way we’ll ever find peace. The only thing that stops me is the thought of abandoning him. I couldn’t bear it. Without him, nothing makes sense. Neither life nor death . . .
Irene looked up from the diary. The maze of Alma Maltisse’s doubts and fears was disconcerting, but she couldn’t distance herself from it. The line between guilt and the need to survive was as sharp as a poisoned blade. Irene turned off the light. She could not get that image out of her mind. A poisoned blade.
Dorian walked deeper into the forest, following the lights he could see shining through the bushes. It was impossible to tell where they might be coming from. Each footstep sounded like an anguished recrimination. Dorian took a deep breath and reminded himself of his objective: he was not going to leave the forest until he had discovered what was hiding there. That was all there was to it.
He paused at the entrance to the clearing where he’d seen the footprints the day before. The trail was blurred now, almost unrecognisable. He walked over to the slashed tree trunk and put his hand on the cuts. Deep. Vicious. He wondered what kind of animal could have inflicted such damage. Certainly not the kind you want to run into in the middle of the night. Two seconds later, there was a cracking noise behind him – someone was approaching. Someone or something.
Dorian hid in the undergrowth. The needle-sharp prickles of the bushes bit into his skin. He held his breath, praying that whoever was approaching wouldn’t hear the hammering of his heart. Soon the flickering lights he had seen in the distance became a steady beam, opening a pathway through the floating patches of mist.
He heard footsteps. Dorian closed his eyes, still as a statue. The footsteps stopped. He was desperate to take a gulp of air, but he felt like holding his breath for the next ten years. Finally, when he thought his lungs were about to burst, two hands pushed aside the branches behind which he was hiding. Dorian’s knees turned to jelly. The light from a lamp blinded him. After a moment that seemed endless, the stranger placed the lamp on the ground and knelt down in front of him. The face was vaguely familiar, but in his panicked state Dorian didn’t recognise who it was. The stranger smiled.
‘Let’s see. Can you tell me what you’re doing out here?’ said a kind voice.
Dorian suddenly realised that the person in front of him was Lazarus Jann. Only then did he allow himself to breathe again.
It was a good ten minutes before Dorian’s hands stopped shaking, when Lazarus placed a welcome cup of hot chocolate in them. He’d taken Dorian to the outhouse next to the toy factory.
They both sipped their drinks and gazed at one another over their cups.
Lazarus laughed. ‘You gave me the fright of my life, boy.’
‘If it’s any consolation, that’s nothing compared to the fright you gave me,’ Dorian replied, as he felt the calming effects of the hot chocolate.
‘I don’t doubt that,’ said Lazarus. ‘Now, tell me, what were you doing in the forest?’
‘I saw lights.’
‘You saw my lamp. Is that why you went into the woods in the middle of the night? Have you forgotten what happened to Hannah?’
Dorian felt as if there was a very large marble in his throat.
‘Well, don’t forget it. It’s dangerous to wander around there in the dark. For days I’ve had a strange feeling that someone is prowling around those woods.’
‘Did you see the tracks too?’
Dorian told him that he too had sensed a strange presence in the forest. At first he thought he wouldn’t be able to come out with his fears, but in Lazarus’s company he felt confident enough to speak freely. Lazarus listened attentively to his story, not hiding his surprise and even the occasional smile at the more fantastical elements of his tale.
‘You saw a shadow?’ Lazarus suddenly asked, his tone serious.
‘You don’t believe a word I’ve said.’
‘No, I do believe you. At least, I’m trying to. You must realise that what you’re telling me is rather . . . peculiar,’ said Lazarus.
‘But you’ve seen something too. That’s why you were in the wood.’
‘Yes. I thought I saw something, but my impressions are much more vague.’
Dorian downed the remainder of his hot chocolate.
‘More?’ offered Lazarus.
The boy nodded. He was enjoying the toymaker’s company and it was exciting to be sitting sharing a cup of cocoa with him in the middle of the night. Looking around the workshop, Dorian noticed a large, powerful-looking shape on one of the tables, covered with a cloth.
‘Are you working on something new?’
Lazarus nodded. ‘Would you like to see it?’
Dorian’s eyes opened wide.
‘Bear in mind that it’s an unfinished project . . .’ said Lazarus.
‘Is it an automaton?’ asked the boy.
‘In a way, yes. To be honest, I suppose it’s quite an extravagant piece. The idea has been going round in my head for years. In fact, it was first suggested to me by someone of about your age, a long time ago.’
‘A friend of yours?’
Lazarus smiled at the memory.
‘Ready?’ he asked.
Dorian nodded vigorously. Lazarus removed the cloth covering the figure and the boy took a step back in shock.
‘It’s only a machine, Dorian. Don’t let it frighten you . . .’
Dorian stared at the impressive sight. Lazarus had created a metal angel, a colossus about two metres high, with huge wings. Its chiselled steel face was shrouded by a hood and its hands were enormous, large enough to surround Dorian’s head with a single fist.
Lazarus pressed a button at the base of the angel’s neck and the creature opened its eyes – two rubies that glowed like burning coals. They were staring straight at Dorian.
The boy felt his insides twist into a knot.
‘Please, stop it . . .’ he begged.
Noticing the boy’s terror, Lazarus quickly covered the creature again.
Dorian breathed a sigh of relief.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Lazarus. ‘I shouldn’t have shown it to you. It’s only a machine. Don’t let its appearance scare you. It’s just a toy.’
Dorian didn’t seem convinced.
Lazarus hurried off to pour him another hot chocolate. When he’d drunk half the cup, Dorian looked up at Lazarus and finally seemed to relax.
‘What a fright, eh?’
Dorian giggled nervously. ‘You must think I’m a coward.’
‘On the contrary. Not many people would dare to start searching the woods at midnight after what happened to Hannah.’