In the autumn of 1992 there were rumours of a mushroom glut in the forests; it was said that the warm moist weather of late summer had provoked a burst of chanterelles and hedgehog mushrooms. As Lennart Cederström turned off onto the forest track in his Volvo 240, he had a large basket and a couple of plastic bags on the back seat. Just in case.
He had a mix tape of pop hits on the stereo, and Christer Sjögren's voice was loud and clear in the speakers: Ten thousand red roses I'd like to give you...
Lennart grinned scornfully and joined in with the chorus, imitating Sjögren's mannered bass vibrato. It sounded excellent. Almost identical; Lennart was probably a better singer than Sjögren. But so what? He had been in the wrong place at the wrong time on too many occasions, seen too many golden opportunities snatched away from under his very nose or heard them zip past behind his back. Gone when he turned around.
Anyway. He would have his mushrooms. Chanterelles, the gold of the forest, and plenty of them. Then back home to blanch them and fill up the freezer, giving him enough for mushrooms on toast and beer every single evening until the Christmas tree was thrown out. Several days of rain had given way to a couple of days of brilliant sunshine, and the conditions were just perfect.
Lennart knew every bend in the forest track, and he screwed up his eyes and gripped the wheel as he sang.
Ten thousand roses in a pretty bouquet....
When he opened his eyes there was something black on the track ahead of him. Sunlight flashed on shining metal, and Lennart only just managed to swerve as it flashed by. A car. Lennart glanced in the rear view mirror to get the registration, but the car was doing at least eighty on the gravel track, sending up clouds of dust in its wake. However, Lennart was pretty sure it was a BMW. A black BMW with tinted windows.
He drove another three hundred metres to the place where he usually parked, switched off the engine and let out a long breath.
What the hell was that?
A BMW out here in the middle of nowhere wasn't exactly a common sight. A BMW doing eighty along the gravel track leading out of the forest was a unique event. Lennart felt quite excited. He had been a part of something. In the moment when the black object came hurtling towards him, his heart had leapt and then quailed as if anticipating a fatal blow, before opening up and settling down once more. It was an experience.
The only thing that bothered him was that he couldn't report the driver. He would probably have given the mushroom picking a miss so he could savour going home and calling the police, giving a detailed description of the encounter on a track with a thirty kilometres per hour limit. But without a registration number, it would be pointless.
As Lennart got out of the car and picked up his basket and his bags, the temporary rush gave way to a feeling he'd been bested. Again. The black BMW had won, in some obscure fashion. Perhaps it would have been different if the car had been a beaten-up old Saab, but it was definitely a rich man's car that had covered his windscreen in dust and forced him into the ditch. Same old thing.
He slammed the car door and tramped off into the forest, head down. Fresh tyre tracks ran along the damp ground in the shade of the trees. Churned-up mud in one place indicated that a car had shot away here, and it wasn't much of a leap to assume it was the BMW. Lennart gazed at the wide wheel marks as if they might offer himsome evidence, or a fresh grievance. When nothing occurred to him he spat in the tracks instead.
Let it go.
He strode off into the forest, inhaling the aroma of warm needles, damp moss, and somewhere beneath everything else...the smell of mushrooms. He couldn't pin it down to an exact spot, or identify a species, but a faint undertone in the usual scent of the forest told him the rumours were true: there were mushrooms here just waiting to be picked. His gaze swept the ground, searching for a difference in colour or shape. He was a good mushroomer, able to spot from a considerable distance a chanterelle hiding beneath undergrowth and grass. The slightest nuance in the correct shade of yellow, and he swooped like a hawk.
But this time it was a champignon he spotted. Ten metres away from him, a white button sticking up out of the ground. Lennart frowned. He had never come across a champignon around here before; the soil was wrong.
As he came closer, he saw he was right. Not a mushroom; the corner of a plastic bag. Lennart sighed. Sometimes people who were too idle to drive to the tip dumped stuff in the forest. He had once seen a guy hurl a microwave out of his car window. On that occasion he had made a note of the registration number and reported the incident in writing.
He was about to head off along his normal route, searching out the good mushroom places, when he noticed that the plastic bag was moving. He stopped. The bag moved again. It should have been something to do with the wind. That would have been best. But there wasn't a breath of wind among the tree trunks.
He heard a faint rustling noise as the piece of plastic shifted again, and all of a sudden his legs felt heavy. The forest surrounded him, silent and indifferent, and he was all alone in the world with whatever was in the plastic bag. Lennart swallowed, his throat dry, and moved forward a few steps. The bag was motionless now.
Go home. Ignore it.
He didn't want to see an old dog that had almost but not quite been put out of its misery, or a pile of kittens whose skulls had almost but not quite been smashed. He didn't want to know about anything like that.
So it wasn't a sense of responsibility or sympathy that drove him on towards the bit of plastic sticking up from the ground. It was ordinary human or inhuman curiosity. He just had to know, or that waving white flag would torment him until he came back to find out what he had missed.
He grabbed hold of the piece of plastic and instantly recoiled, his hands flying to his mouth. There was something inside the bag, something that had responded to his grip, something that felt like muscles, like flesh. The earth around the bag had recently been disturbed.
A grave. A little grave.
The thought took flight and suddenly Lennart knew exactly what had responded to his hand. Another hand. A very small hand. Lennart edged back to the bag and began to clear away the earth. It didn't take long; the soil had been thrown carelessly over the bag, probably by someone without any tools, and in ten seconds Lennart had freed the bag and pulled it out of the hole.
The handles were tied together and Lennart ripped at the plastic to let in air, let in life. He managed to tear a hole in the bag, and saw blue skin. A tiny leg, a sunken chest. A girl. A baby girl, just a few days or weeks old. She wasn't moving. The thin lips were pressed together, as if defying an evil world. Lennart had witnessed the child's death throes.
He placed his ear to the child's chest and thought he could hear the faintest echo of a heartbeat. He pinched the child's nose between his thumb and forefinger, and took a deep breath. He pursed his lips to send a blast of air into the tiny mouth; he didn't even need to take another breath in order to fill the little lungs once more. The air bubbled out, and the chest was still.
Lennart took another breath and as he sent the second puff down into the lungs, there it was. A shudder went through the tiny bodyand white foam was coughed up. Then a scream sliced through the silence of the forest and started time ticking once more.
The child screamed and screamed, and its crying sounded like nothing Lennart had ever heard before. It wasn't broken or plaintive. It was a single, clear, pure note, emerging from that neglected body. Lennart had a good ear, and he didn't need a tuning fork to tell him that it was an E. An E that rang like a bell and made the leaves quiver and the birds fly up from the trees.
LITTLE STAR. Copyright © 2010 by John Ajvide Lindqvist. Translation copyright © 2011 by Marlaine Delargy. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.