PART I Härjedalen / October–November 1999
He woke in the night, besieged by shadows. It had started when he was
22. Fifty-four years of sleepless nights, constantly besieged by
shadows. He'd only managed to sleep after taking heavy doses of sleeping
pills. He knew the shadows had been there when he woke, even if he'd
been unaware of them.
This night, now drawing to its close, was no exception. Nor did he have
to wait for the shadows - or the visitors, as he sometimes called them -
to put in an appearance. They generally turned up a few hours after
darkness fell. Were there without warning, by his side, with silent
white faces. He'd got used to their presence after all the years, but he
knew he couldn't trust them. One of these days they'd be bound to break
loose. He didn't know what would happen then. Would they attack him, or
would they betray him? There had been times when he'd shouted at them,
hit out in all directions to drive them off. He'd kept them at bay for a
while. Then they'd be back and stay until dawn. He'd sleep in the end,
but usually for only a few hours because he needed to get up and go to
He'd been tired all of his adult life. He had no idea how he'd got by.
Looking back, he could recognise only an endless string of days that
he'd somehow or other muddled through. He had hardly any memories
unconnected with his tiredness. In photographs taken of him he always
looked haggard. The shadows had also taken their revenge on him during
his two marriages: his wives had been frustrated by his constant state
of unease, and the fact that when he wasn't working, he was always half
asleep. They'd lost patience with finding him up for most of the night,
and he'd never been able to explain why he couldn't sleep like a normal
person. In the end they'd left him, and he'd been alone again.
He looked at his watch. 4.15 a.m. He went to the kitchen and poured
himself coffee from the thermos he'd made before going to bed. The
thermometer outside the window showed minus two. If he didn't remember
to change the screws holding it in place, before long it would fall. He
moved the curtain, and the dog started barking out there in the
darkness. Shaka was the only security he had. He'd found the name he'd
given his Norwegian elkhound in a book - he couldn't remember the title.
It had something to do with a powerful Zulu chieftain, and he'd thought
it a suitable name for a guard dog. Short and easy to shout. He took his
coffee into the living room. The thick curtains were securely drawn. He
knew that already, but felt compelled to keep checking. He checked the
Then he sat at the table again and contemplated the jigsaw pieces spread
out before him. It was a good puzzle. It had lots of pieces and demanded
imagination and perseverance to solve it. Whenever he finished a puzzle,
he would burn it and immediately start on a new one. He made sure he
always had a store of puzzles. It was a bit like a smoker and his
cigarettes. For years he'd been a member of a world-wide club devoted to
the culture of jigsaw puzzles. It was based in Rome, and every month
he'd get a newsletter with information about puzzle-makers who had
ceased trading and others who had entered the field. As early as the
mid-'70s it had struck him how hard it was to find really good puzzles -
that is, hand-sawn ones. He didn't think much of the mechanically
produced ones. There was no logic in the way the pieces were cut, and
they didn't fit in with the patterns. That might make them hard to
solve, but the difficulties were mechanically contrived. Just now he was
working on a puzzle based on Rembrandt's The Conspiracy of the
Bathavians under Claudius Civilis. It had 3,000 pieces and had been
made by a specialist in Rouen. He'd once driven down to visit the man.
They'd talked about how the best puzzles were the ones with the most
subtle nuances of light. And how Rembrandt's colour schemes made the
He sat holding a piece that obviously belonged in the background of the
painting. It took him nearly ten minutes to find where. He checked his
watch again: 4.30. Hours to go before dawn, before the shadows would
withdraw and he could get some sleep.
It seemed to him that on the whole everything had become much simpler
since he'd turned 65 and retired. He didn't need to be anxious about
feeling tired all day. Didn't need to be frightened of nodding off at
work. But the shadows ought to have left him in peace ages ago. He had
served his time. They had no need now to keep their eye on him. His life
had been ruined.
He went to the bookcase where he kept his CD player. He'd bought it a
few months ago, on one of his rare visits to Östersund. He put the
disc in the machine back on - he'd been surprised to find it among the
pop music in the shop where he'd bought the player. It was a tango, a
genuine Argentinian tango. He turned up the sound. The elkhound out
there in the dark had good ears and responded to the music with a bark,
then was quiet again. He went back to the table and walked round it,
studying the puzzle as he listened to the music. There was plenty yet to
do. It would keep him going for three more nights at least before he
burnt it. He had several more, still in their boxes. Then he would drive
to the post office in Sveg and collect another batch sent by the old
master in Rouen.
He sat on the sofa to enjoy the music. It had been one of his life's
ambitions to visit Argentina. To spend a few months in Buenos Aires,
dancing the tango every night. But it had never happened; something
always cropped up to make him draw back at the last minute. When he'd
left Västergötland eleven years ago and moved north to the
forests of Härjedalen, he'd meant to take a trip every year. He
lived frugally, and although his pension wasn't a big one, he could
afford it. In fact, all he'd done was once or twice to drive round
Europe looking for new jigsaw puzzles.
He would never go to Argentina. He would never dance the tango in Buenos
Aires. But there's nothing to stop me dancing here, he thought. I have
the music and I have my partner.
He stood up. It was 5 a.m. Dawn was a long way off. It was time for a
dance. He went to the bedroom and took his dark suit from the wardrobe.
He examined it carefully before putting it on. A stain on the jacket
lapel annoyed him. He wet a handkerchief and wiped it clean. Then he
changed. This morning he chose a rust-brown tie to go with his white
shirt. Most important of all were the shoes. He had several pairs of
Italian dancing shoes, all expensive. For the serious dancer, the shoes
had to be perfect.
When he was ready, he studied his appearance in the mirror on the
wardrobe door. His hair was grey and cropped short. He was thin; he told
himself he should eat more. But he looked considerably younger than his
He knocked at the spare bedroom door. He imagined hearing somebody
bidding him enter. He opened the door and switched on the light. His
dancing partner was lying in the bed. He was always surprised by how
real she looked, even though she was only a doll. He pulled back the
duvet and lifted her up. She was wearing a white blouse and a black
skirt. He'd given her the name of Esmeralda. There were some bottles of
scent on the bedside table. He sat her down, and selected a discreet
Dior which he sprayed gently onto her neck. When he closed his eyes it
seemed to him that there was no difference between the doll and a living
He escorted her to the living room. He'd often thought he should take
away all the furniture, fix some dimmed lights in the ceiling and place
a burning cigar in an ashtray. Then he'd have his own Argentinian dance
hall. But he'd never got around to it. There was just the empty stretch
of floor between the table and the bookcase with the CD player. He slid
his shoes into the loops attached to the bottom of Esmeralda's feet.
Then he started dancing. As he twirled Esmeralda round the floor, he
felt he had succeeded in sweeping all the shadows out of the room. He
was very light on his feet. He had learnt a lot of dances over the
years, but it was the tango that suited him best. And there was nobody
he danced with as well as Esmeralda. Once there'd been a woman in
Borås, Rosemarie, who had a milliner's shop. He used to dance the
tango with her, and none of his previous partners had followed him as
well as she did. One day, when he was getting ready to drive to
Göteborg where he'd arranged to meet her at a dance club, he had a
call to say she'd been killed in a road accident. He danced with lots of
other women after that, but it wasn't until he created Esmeralda that he
got the same feeling as he'd had with Rosemarie.
He had the idea many years ago. He had tuned in to a musical on the
television: he'd been awake all night as usual. In the film a man - Gene
Kelly, perhaps - had danced with a doll. He'd been fascinated, and
decided there and then that he would make one himself.
The hardest part was the filling. He'd tried all sorts of things, but it
wasn't until he'd filled her with foam rubber that it felt as if he were
holding a real person in his arms. He had chosen to give her large
breasts and a big backside. Both his wives had been slim. Now he'd
provided himself with a woman who had something he could get his hands
round. When he danced with her and smelled her perfume, he was sometimes
aroused; but that hadn't often happened over the last five or six years.
His erotic desires had started to fade.
He danced for more than an hour. When finally he carried Esmeralda back
to the spare room and put her to bed, he'd been sweating. He undressed,
hung the suit in the wardrobe and took a shower. It would soon be light,
and he'd be able to go to bed and sleep. He'd survived another night.
He put on his dressing gown and made himself some coffee. The
thermometer outside the window was still showing minus two degrees. He
touched the curtains, and Shaka barked briefly out there in the
darkness. He thought about the forest surrounding him on all sides. This
was what he'd dreamt of. A remote cottage, modern in every way, but no
neighbours. And it was also a house at the very end of a road. It was a
roomy house, well built and with a big living room that satisfied his
need for a dance floor. The vendor was a forestry official who had
retired and moved to Spain.
He sat at the kitchen table with his coffee. Dawn was approaching. Soon
he'd be able to get some sleep. The shadows would leave him in peace.
A single bark from Shaka. He sat up straight. Another bark. Then all was
quiet. It must have been an animal. Probably a hare. Shaka could move
around freely in his large pen. The dog kept watch over him.
He washed up his cup and put it next to the cooker. He'd use it again
seven hours from now. He didn't like changing cups unnecessarily. He
could use the same one for weeks on end. Then he went into the bedroom,
took off his dressing gown and snuggled into bed. It was still dark, but
usually he lay in bed as he waited for dawn to break, listening to the
radio. When he noticed the first faint signs of light outside the house
he would turn off the radio, switch off the light and lie comfortably,
ready for sleep.
Shaka started barking again. Then stopped. He frowned, listening
intently, and counted up to 30. No sound from Shaka. Whatever animal it
had been, it had gone now. He turned on the radio and listened
absent-mindedly to the music.
Another bark from Shaka. But it was different now. He sat up in bed.
Shaka was barking away frantically. That could only mean that there was
an elk in the vicinity. Or a bear. Bears were shot every year in this
area. He'd never seen one himself. Shaka was still barking just as
frenziedly. He got out of bed and put on his dressing gown. Shaka fell
silent. He waited, but nothing. He took off his dressing gown again and
got back into bed. He always slept naked. The lamp by the radio was on.
Suddenly he sat up again. Something odd was going on, something to do
with the dog. He held his breath and listened. Silence. He was uneasy.
It was as if the shadows all around him had started to change. He got
out of bed. There was something odd about Shaka's last barks. They
hadn't stopped in a natural way, they seemed to have been cut off. He
went into the living room and opened one of the curtains in the window
looking directly out onto the dog pen. Shaka didn't bark, and he felt
his heart beating faster. He went back into the bedroom and pulled on a
pair of trousers and a jumper. He took out the gun he always kept under
his bed, a shotgun with room for six cartridges in the magazine. He went
into the hall and stuck his feet into a pair of boots, listening all the
time. Not a sound from Shaka. He was imagining things, no doubt,
everything was as it should be. It would be light soon. It was the
shadows making him uneasy, that was it. He unlocked the three locks on
the front door and slowly opened it. Still no reaction from Shaka. Now
he knew for certain that something was wrong. He picked up a torch from
a shelf and shone it into the darkness. There was no sign of Shaka in
the pen. He shouted for Shaka and shone the torch along the edge of the
woods. Still no reaction. He quickly shut the door. Sweat was pouring
off him. He cocked the gun and opened the door again. Cautiously he
stepped out onto the porch. No sound. He walked over to the dog pen,
then stopped in his tracks. Shaka was lying on the ground. His eyes were
staring and his greyish-white fur bloodstained. He turned on his heel
and ran back to the house, slamming the door behind him. Something was
going on, but he had no idea what. Somebody had killed Shaka, though. He
switched on every light in the house and sat down on his bed. He was
Excerpted from "The Return of the Dancing Master" by Henning Mankell. Copyright © 2005 by Henning Mankell. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.