Authors: Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Hannah threw herself into the dark maze of the forest. The moon shone through the clearings, lending the mist a bluish hue. The wind awoke the whispering voices of thousands of leaves, the trees standing by like petrified ghosts, their branches transformed into threatening claws. She ran desperately towards the light that beckoned at the end of that tunnel, a channel of brightness that seemed to move further away the more she tried to reach it.
A thunderous noise filled the forest. The shadow was ploughing through the undergrowth, destroying everything in its path. A shout froze in Hannah’s throat. Her hands, arms and face were covered in cuts from branches and thorns. Exhaustion clouded her senses, and a voice inside told her to give in, to lie down and wait . . . But she had to go on. She had to escape. A few more metres and she would reach the road that lead to the village. There she would find a passing car, someone who would help her. Her salvation was just a few minutes away, beyond the edge of the forest.
The distant lights of a car approaching along the Englishman’s Beach swept through the gloom. Hannah straightened up and screamed for help. Behind her, a whirlwind surged through the undergrowth then rose up the trees. Hannah looked up towards the treetops shrouding the face of the moon. Slowly, the shadow unfurled. She was scarcely able to let out one last moan. Then, raining down like a torrent of tar, the shadow swooped on Hannah. She closed her eyes and pictured her mother’s smiling face.
Moments later, she felt the cold breath of the shadow on her cheeks.
Ismael’s boat emerged through the veil of sea mist that coated the surface of the bay. Irene and her mother, who was sitting calmly on the porch with a cup of coffee, glanced at one another.
‘I don’t have to tell you . . .’ Simone began.
‘You don’t have to tell me,’ replied Irene.
‘When was the last time you and I spoke about men?’ her mother asked.
‘When I was seven and our neighbour Claude persuaded me to give him my skirt in exchange for his trousers.’
‘Cheeky little rascal.’
‘He was only five, Mum.’
‘If that’s what they’re like at five, imagine when they’re fifteen.’
Simone sighed. Sixteen. My God. Her daughter was planning to run away with an old sea dog.
‘So we’re talking about an adult.’
‘He’s only a year and a bit older than me. What does that make me?’
‘You’re a child.’
Irene smiled patiently at her mother. Simone Sauvelle didn’t make a good sergeant major.
‘Don’t worry, Mum. I know what I’m doing.’
‘That’s what scares me.’
The boat crossed the entrance to the cove. Ismael shouted a greeting. Simone observed him, one eyebrow raised in alarm.
‘Why don’t you ask him to come up so you can introduce us?’
‘Mum . . .’
Simone nodded. She hadn’t expected that ruse to work.
‘Is there anything I ought to say?’ asked Simone.
Irene gave her a peck on the cheek.
‘Just wish me a good day.’
Then, without waiting for a reply, Irene raced down to the jetty. Simone watched her daughter grab hold of the stranger’s hand (he didn’t look much like a boy to her) and jump onto his boat. When Irene turned to wave at her, her mother forced a smile and waved back. She watched them head out into the bay under a brilliant, reassuring sun. On the porch, a seagull, perhaps another stressed mother, was looking at her with resignation.
‘It’s not fair,’ Simone said to the seagull. ‘When they’re born nobody ever tells you that they’ll end up doing the same things you did when you were young.’
Unaware of such considerations, the bird followed Irene’s example and flew away. Simone smiled and got ready to return to Cravenmoore. Hard work conquers all, she told herself.
An easterly wind filled the sails of the
as she ploughed through the shimmering emerald ripples, with glimpses of the seabed just visible below. Irene, whose only previous experience on board a boat had been the short journey a few days earlier, gazed open-mouthed at the hypnotic beauty of the bay. Far away, the tail of the night’s storm rode off towards the horizon. Irene closed her eyes and listened to the sound of the sea.
Once their course was set, there was little for Ismael to do but fix his eyes on Irene, who seemed bewitched by their surroundings. With scientific precision, he began by observing her pale ankles, then slowly moved upwards to the point where her skirt inconveniently covered the tops of her thighs. He then went on to assess the pleasing proportions of her slender torso. This process continued for some time until Ismael’s eyes unexpectedly met Irene’s and he realised his inspection hadn’t gone unnoticed.
‘What are you thinking about?’ she asked.
‘I was thinking about the wind,’ he lied. ‘It’s moving south. That usually happens when there’s a storm brewing. I was wondering whether you’d like to go round the headland first. The view is spectacular.’
‘Which view?’ she asked innocently.
This time there was no doubt, thought Ismael: Irene was teasing him. Ignoring her subtle joke, Ismael guided the boat to the outer edge of the current that flowed past the reef, a mile off the headland. From this point, Irene could see a vast beach, wild and deserted, extending as far as Mont-Saint-Michel, a castle rising through the mist.
‘That’s Black Bay,’ Ismael explained. ‘So called because its waters are much deeper than those of Blue Bay. Blue Bay is shallow, more of a sandbank really, only seven or eight metres deep. A natural harbour.’
The rare beauty of the landscape made the hair on the back of Irene’s neck stand on end. She noticed a recess among the rocks, like jaws opening out on to the sea.
‘That’s the lagoon,’ said Ismael. ‘It’s like an oval cut off from the current and it connects to the sea through a narrow opening. Behind it there’s something the locals call the Cave of Bats – do you see the tunnel going into the rock? Apparently, in 1746, a storm drove a pirate ship right into that cave. The remains of the ship, and of the pirates, are said to be still in there.’
Irene looked at him doubtfully. Ismael might be good at captaining his ship, but when it came to lying he was a mere cabin boy.
‘It’s true,’ Ismael explained. ‘I sometimes go diving there. The cave goes right inside the rocks.’
‘Will you take me there?’ asked Irene.
Ismael blushed slightly. That sounded like a commitment.
‘There are bats in there. Hence the name,’ he warned her.
‘I love bats. Little rats on wings,’ she remarked, determined to carry on teasing him.
‘Whenever you like,’ he said, giving in.
Irene smiled warmly. Ismael was utterly thrown by her smile. For a few seconds he couldn’t remember whether the wind was blowing from the north or whether a keel was some sort of pastry. And the worst thing was that Irene seemed to have noticed. Time to change course. His hand on the tiller, Ismael turned the boat almost full circle, causing the other side of the mainsail to fill with wind. In doing so, the boat tipped so far over that Irene’s hand touched the surface of the sea. A cold tongue. She laughed and let out a shriek. Ismael grinned at her. He still couldn’t make out what he saw in this girl, but of one thing he was sure: he couldn’t take his eyes off her.
‘We’re heading for the lighthouse,’ he announced.
A few seconds later, riding on the current and with the invisible hand of the wind behind it, the
slid like an arrow over the reef. Ismael felt Irene clutch his hand. The sailing boat flew along, as if barely skimming the water, leaving behind a chain of white foam. Irene glanced at Ismael and noticed that he was looking at her too. For an instant his eyes were lost in hers and Irene felt him press her hand gently. The world had never seemed so far away.
It was around mid-morning when Simone Sauvelle walked through the double doors of Lazarus Jann’s personal library, which occupied a grandiose oval room at the heart of Cravenmoore. A whole universe of books rose in a imposing ornate spiral towards a tinted glass skylight. For a few seconds, Simone stood spellbound. Then, suddenly, she realised she wasn’t alone.
A figure, neatly dressed in a suit, sat at a desk directly below the skylight. When he heard her footsteps, Lazarus turned, closed the book he was consulting – an ancient volume bound in black leather – and smiled kindly at her. It was a warm, contagious smile.
‘Ah, Madame Sauvelle. Welcome to my refuge,’ he said, standing up.
‘I didn’t mean to interrupt . . .’
‘On the contrary, I’m glad you did,’ he continued, ‘I wanted to talk to you about some books I need to order from Arthur Feldmar . . .’
‘Arthur Feldmar in London?’
Lazarus’s face lit up.
‘You know the company?’
‘My husband used to buy books there when he travelled. It’s in Burlington Arcade.’
‘I knew I couldn’t have chosen a more suitable person for this job,’ said Lazarus, making Simone blush. ‘Why don’t we talk about it over a cup of coffee?’
Simone nodded shyly. Lazarus smiled again and put the thick volume he was holding back in its place, among hundreds of similar books. As he did so, Simone couldn’t help noticing the title, embossed on the spine. A single word, and one she was not familiar with:
Shortly before noon, Irene sighted the island straight ahead of them. Ismael decided to sail round it in order to berth the boat in a small, sheltered inlet. Thanks to Ismael’s explanations, Irene was now more familiar with the art of navigation and the elemental physics of the wind. She was able to follow his instructions, and between them they managed to overcome the power of the current and slide the boat through the craggy passage that led to the old jetty.
The island was barely more than a single mass of rock emerging from the waters of the bay. A considerable colony of seagulls nested on it, and some of them eyed the intruders with curiosity. As they sailed in, Irene noticed some old wooden huts ravaged by decades of storms and neglect. The lighthouse itself was a slender tower crowned by a lantern room surrounded by glass prisms. It stood above a small, single-storey building, the former home of the lighthouse keeper.
‘Apart from me, the seagulls and a crab or two, no one has been here for years,’ said Ismael.
‘Don’t forget the pirate ghost ship,’ joked Irene.
Ismael steered the boat towards the jetty and jumped ashore to secure the bow line. Irene followed. As soon he’d finished mooring the
, Ismael pulled out a picnic basket prepared for him by his aunt, who was convinced that it was impossible to get to know a young lady on an empty stomach.
‘Come with me. If you like ghost stories, this will interest you . . .’
Ismael opened the door of the cottage and gestured to Irene to go in. As she entered the old house, Irene felt as if she’d suddenly stepped back in time. Everything was veiled in a misty film caused by years of damp. Dozens of books, a variety of objects and pieces of furniture sat exactly as they had been left, as if a phantom had snatched the lighthouse keeper in the middle of the night. Irene looked at Ismael, fascinated.
‘Wait till you see the lighthouse.’
He took her hand and led her to the staircase that spiralled up into the tower. Irene felt like an intruder, disturbing this world suspended in time.
‘What happened to the lighthouse keeper?’
Ismael paused a moment before replying.
‘One night he got on his boat and left the island. He didn’t even bother to collect his things.’
‘Why would he do something like that?’
‘He never said,’ Ismael answered.
think he did it?’
‘Because he was scared.’
Irene gulped and looked over her shoulder, expecting to see the ghost of the drowned woman drifting up the spiral staircase behind her, a demonic figure with claws stretched out towards her, a face as white as china and dark circles around her blazing eyes.
‘There’s nobody here, Irene. Just you and me,’ said Ismael.
Irene nodded but she wasn’t convinced.
‘Only seagulls and crabs . . .’
The staircase led to a viewing point on the lighthouse tower from which you could see the whole of Blue Bay. As they stepped outside, the fresh breeze and the brilliant sunlight dispelled the ghostly echoes conjured up inside. Irene took a deep breath, mesmerised by the view.
‘Thank you for bringing me here,’ she whispered.
‘Would you like something to eat?’ he said.
The two sat on the edge of the platform, their legs dangling in the air, and began to feast on the delicacies hidden in the basket. Neither was very hungry, but the food kept their hands and their minds busy.
In the distance, Blue Bay slumbered beneath the afternoon sun, oblivious to what was happening on that remote island.
Three cups of coffee and an eternity later, Simone was still sitting with Lazarus. What had begun as a friendly chat had turned into a long conversation about books, travel and the past. After only a few hours, she felt as if she’d known Lazarus all her life. For the first time in months, she found herself reliving painful memories of Armand’s final days, although she also felt a great sense of relief as she did so. Lazarus listened attentively, maintaining a respectful silence. He knew when to divert the conversation and when to allow her memories to flow.