The young boy took one, two, six slow steps forward, easing his way toward the edge, then one abrupt step back as the floating layer of moss and marsh threatened to give way and deliver him into the dark, evil waters below. In fact, the involuntary abruptness of his recoil almost did just that. Breathless he took four more steps back and while his heart had yet to even consider slowing down he now felt himself on safe ground again.
The Swedish word for these small, dark forest lakes is Tjärn. There’s an English word (which obviously shares etymology): Tarn, which in any dictionary I can find means “small mountain lake.”
While most definitely a lake, a Swedish tjärn is not necessarily a mountain lake; you can find them in any non-mountainous northern Swedish forest. There are (literally) thousands of them.
The thing about a tjärn is that it is bottomless. If you drown in one of these there’ll be nothing to find or bury or cremate. You’ll drown very thoroughly, deeply immersed in the miles and miles of cold water and mud that I as a child envisioned.
Also, as different from the ordinary mountain lake, the tjärn often does not have a firm shore, but is surrounded by moss and marsh that extends from land out over the water. This vegetation, closest to land, is thick enough to walk on as it ventures onto water, but it thins soon enough and then ends in a floating carpet of moss and waterlilies: pretty and deadly. Parents warn children about these marsh-framed tjärns. It’s part of normal upbringing where I come from.
Finally, his heart begins to slow and his face begins to cool from tarn-wind skimming sweat that still surfaces, not as quick as the heart to realize that he has reached safety. He looks out across the black water and shudders at the shiny blackness. He notices, and re-notices how very black the water is. Still, he knows that if you scoop up a glass of this water it isn’t black at all, it’s just watery, as watery as that from the tap in the kitchen at home. But as tarn, this water is very black and he wonders why. Is black the color of evil? Or is it the color of hunger? For it looks hungry, does the tarn.
That night he dreams about the black tarn, or perhaps it’s another tarn, dreams can be tricky that way. In his dream, it is winter. The tarn is frozen and covered in deep snow. It is in the middle of the night. Even though there is no moon, and it seems to be overcast, it is still eerily light outside, what little light there is reflected by a universe of snow.
He is inside a small cabin by the shore of this tarn, something—an evil whisper, perhaps, or just a silent warning—had stirred him awake and made him look outside. He can see all of the snow-covered tarn all the way to the far shore. And on the far side of the tarn, stepping through the snow, in his direction: a dark figure. In his direction.
This is a murderer. It is a tall, dark figure, slowly making his way toward the young boy’s cabin. Does the dark figure know that the boy is there, that the boy has seen him, and therefore has to die? Of course, he does, or there would not have been a warning, would there?
And as in most nightmares, there is no solution—that is almost the definition of nightmare. He cannot run away. He is not dressed for running in snow, and even if he were his short legs would be no match for the long legs of the murderer approaching, approaching, reaching mid-tarn now, and step by step closing in on a regrettable but necessary homicide.
And there is no other living soul within miles of the tarn and the little cabin. So there is no help, and the murderer draws closer and closer.
There is little logic involved in panic. Why would a dark figure in the snow, in the middle of the night, want to (or need to) kill the young boy? He has not witnessed anything, and if the murderer were to turn around right now there is no way he could ever identify him, he’s just a dark shape approaching. But nightmares deal in certainties, and this is certain: the dark figure knows the boy is in the cabin, and he is coming to kill him. And there is no escape.
A distant voice calls the young boy in his dream: It is only a dream. It is only a dream. Perhaps he hears this, perhaps he does not, but before the murderer can reach the cabin and commit another murder, the boy has fallen through the marsh of the nightmare and into darker and stiller waters beneath. He remembers this dream only days later.
Yes, he wonders, is black the color of hunger, of the muddy, mossy, bottomless jaws of the tarn, hungry for small human beings whose lungs it wants to fill with cold water and forever sleep. Tendrils rooted in forever farther down reach up and snare his legs and arms and then pull, and pull and now he cannot hold his breath any longer and air-less water rushes in to greatly disappoint starving blood.
That’s how he sees the tarn, ultimately black with hunger, with a hunger so unfriendly that a young life matters nothing to it.
There will be nothing to bury or cremate once it has had its fill of him.
“Are they really bottomless?” he asks his mother one day in the warm, wintry kitchen. She is baking bread.
“Is what really bottomless?”
Now, here comes what he knows is the tricky part: to accurately determine his mother’s mood when she answers, for she is not beyond pulling his leg with a perfectly straight face.
She studies him for a brief moment, then checks on the fire in the stove, then turns to him again. “Any particular tarn?” she asks.
“No. Just tarns. They’re supposed to be bottomless. Olga says they are. But bottomless, isn’t that impossible? Wouldn’t they reach all the way through the whole planet if they were without a bottom, and kind of drain out in China or somewhere.” He thinks about that for a moment. “Or boil up in the center of the earth,” he adds.
Here it comes. Is that a hint of a smile? Or is she going to give him a straight answer? Or, it just occurs to him, perhaps she doesn’t know. But here comes the answer.
“Some are and some are not,” she says.
“So, there are tarns with no bottom.”
“Well, not bottom-less bottomless,” she says. “But they are so deep that no one has ever been able to measure how deep they are. And that in my book is bottomless.”
Good point. And she isn’t smiling. She means this.
And he remembers his dream, his nightmare. It doesn’t look quite so scary in the warm kitchen.
“I like the smell of the bread,” he says.
And Lisbet smiles.