Today's Reading

"I'll take them one by one," Stefan Sanberg said, making a sweeping gesture toward the opposite side of the road, where the old school was fully lit up in the falling twilight. Advent stars were hanging in the windows and dark shadows could be glimpsed inside. There were those in the village who thought it looked cozy, like an exhibit in the local history museum.

The whole gang had gathered for a party at old man Ottosson's run- down house. The old man himself was languishing in a nursing home, but a grandchild had a key, and the gang usually met there. Beer and liquor had flowed, and no one really believed Stefan's bluster. They'd all heard him carry on before. A few listened more carefully, and perhaps were influenced, while others sneered.

One of those who was listening was Sebastian Ottosson. He was a listener, who often sat quietly. For that reason he could pick up on judgmental, meaningful glances, and not least become aware of suppressed emotions that could take the most peculiar expression. He read between the lines, knew to take the right position, and there was probably nothing wrong with that. He did like the rest. The problem was his surroundings.

Sebastian stood by the window, observing the old school. He went there a couple of years before it was closed down, but that was not anything that influenced him. There was no nostalgia, no memory that could counter-balance what he felt before its illuminated windows.

If darkies are going to live there, then it's completely worthless, he thought. He knew that he would inherit the house, his grandfather had told him that. Sebastian had ideas about what he would do. A few acres of pasture-land were part of the property, and Sebastian had fantasized for a long time about raising sheep and goats. It was a dream that few knew about, but he had figured it all out quietly. He knew that there was a market for goat's milk. He could manage it, maybe by working extra at Sandvik to start with or somewhere else. But blacks as neighbors? They would surely steal his milk and animals. People like that eat goats, he'd heard. What was it called, hammal butchering or something?

It was a blindingly beautiful New Year's Eve. In the days after Christmas it had snowed heavily before clearing up on the last day of the year. The whole village, even the properties with dilapidated fiber cement facades and moldy verandas in shadow, and the farms stained with rural melancholy, was embedded in a conciliatory white blanket. Abandoned farm machinery looked like prehistoric animals dressed in white fur. The roads were edged by snow-burdened spruce and over the fields the ice crystals sparkled. At the edges of the fields, surrounded by inhospitable thickets and invasive aspen trees, deer stood, hesitant, before they stepped out in the open to scratch out a rotting potato under the blanket of snow on Waldemar Mattsson's parcel. The wind was stiff and it would pick up during the afternoon.

And naturally that made the firefighting harder in the blaze that would later light up the whole central village.

"They can't even shovel snow, damn it," Mattsson's youngest son, Daniel, said. His father had a municipal contract, so snow removal was Daniel's specialty, which he liked to talk about, especially after three days of intensive plowing on squares and parking lots and cul-de-sacs in a residential area in Gimo. In other words he was worn out and therefore susceptible. The weather forecast had promised that New Year's Day would also be clear, so he'd gotten permission from his father to go to the party and even drink some alcohol. He maintained that he fell asleep a couple of hours before the old year turned into a new one, and would therefore be freed from all suspicions about participation in arson.

For arson it was, everyone was convinced of that, even if the investigation could not prove it unambiguously. There was talk of lit candles that were left in the kitchen, covered heating elements or overload in the electrical system in the antiquated school, which had not been maintained for several years but could now serve as a residence for seventeen men, thirteen women, and nineteen children. All victims of persecution and war. All in flight.

That night the temperature was eight degrees Celsius. The sky glistened with starlight, but who could appreciate that when the rays were hidden by grayish-white smoke in the freezing wind?

Gösta Friberg stood as if petrified, supported by the kitchen table, on trembling legs, with his feet stuffed in sheepskin slippers and with a damp spot that was growing on his flannel pajamas, a kind of afterbirth to his visit to the toilet. The glow from the burning school created a ghostly fluttering in his kitchen. The rain of sparks came like swarms of countless fireflies.

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