“Where?”

“Where?” by Stein Riverton,
published in the collection Himmel og Hav, 1927. Translated by Michael Henrik Wynn

Mr. Elling Winter is one of those restless vagrant individuals whom you can encounter anywhere on this earth. I chanced upon him on several occasions, most recently in the north of Italy. There is a certain arrogance about his behavior, which he probably picked up during his year-long tenure in the English colonies. He is not the worst sort of globetrotter, though. Beneath his trivial facade of melancholy, tiger-hunting and womanizing, any countryman would soon notice his hearty and friendly disposition. He is more than willing to tell you of his adventures. And listening to him is not always amusing. There is often something impersonal about his exposition. He has almost made a cosmopolitan art of downplaying his own role in events, yet at the same time making his own importance apparent to each and all. But, during our meeting in the north of Italy this time he told me of an unusual series of happenings, a result of his fraternization with a more ordinary crowd. That I myself had occasion to witness the events that brought the story to his mind, made it immediately more captivating. What happened was this:

We had just dined together at the Hotel Colle in the mountains overlooking Bolzano and were sitting in the in the cafe on the terrace, from where there is the most splendid view of the remote, glittering and snow-covered Swiss alps. I suddenly noticed that a woman was climbing the stairs to the terrace, the sort that you can frequently observe at major international spots and spas, where the unfortunate seek solace for their fragile nerves. Not quite young, though not burdened by her years, she seemed weighed down by something else, a certain melancholy and unease. Her hair was as gray as her gaze; gray, too, were her clothes. Another older woman followed her, that this was her nurse was painfully obvious. The lady in gray slowly crossed the terrace, past the many prattling people. Her movements seemed solitary, for she was in a world of her own. She quietly disappeared into the carpeted corridors of the hotel.

As she passed us, I was surprised to notice that Elling Winter leaned over and covered his face behind a napkin.
“You know her?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied.
“And you have no wish to meet her.”
“I didn’t want her to see me. She is the type of person whom you feel obliged to pity”
He got up and let his eyes wander far over at the hotel roof, like he was scouting for migrating birds.
“It is as I suspected,” he then said, “the hotel does not have a phone. I have heard they say about her that she restlessly moves from place to place, and that she always chooses locations without a phone. The mercilessly shrill sound of a ringing phone is linked to a terrible event in her life, which I once witnessed. That is why I didn’t want her to see me.”

I bade him relate the story to me – and here it is, based on his own words. While he spoke, the early southern dusk descended, and the city of Bolzano far below lit its mesh of lights. His story was set at the same time of day, though in another country and in another time; in those twilight hours when daylight gives way and conjures up the most colorful moods, from the most serene peace to the most terrifying distress.

It was a spring evening in the great city up north that you know so well. I was at a party at a most refined and reasonably happy family. The hostess was the very woman that just passed us. I remember everything about that evening very clearly, precisely because the events that transpired so completely overturned the life of my friends. I remember that the mistress of the house and I were standing on the balcony looking down unto a road that stretched out into the distance. The door to the apartment was open, and we could hear the hum of voices. The lamps were not yet lit inside, but the gray dusk flowed in through the windows, and in the dwindling light we could make out a few faces. Here and there there was the glow of cigarettes, and in the corner there was a piano whose ivory keys gleamed. The two of us on the balcony talked about the seasons and the first spring evening. What did we say? I remember that I was at the time was most concerned with the events of my personal life, and this must have tainted my conversation, no doubt.

Our tête-à-tête unintentionally assumed an ominous tone that in a strange and sinister way forewarned of later events. I told her what I believed to be the truth, that I always meet the season with an irrational sense of foreboding. It is this fear that always motivates my travels. Spring falls upon every man like it falls upon the trees of the forest: all that grows in us, grows in spring, both what is good and what is evil. It is a dangerous time. As we stood thus talking, we noticed how dusk descended upon the city. I leaned over the railing and looked down towards the asphalt below where the streets teemed with people and carriages. There was still enough light to make out the occasional human. I pointed down towards two tiny shapes that walked swiftly and closely side by side. I thought I recognized the children of the house, and told their mother. She leaned forward, placed her arms on the marble railing and rested. I looked at her blond hair and her calm smiling face. I heard her whisper: “Anne-Marie and Luise”. Whispering seemed like the natural thing to do. Because she was their mother, they were bound to hear her. But then she straightened up. “No, it’s not them,” she said. —
My God, how happy and peaceful we felt at that moment. And think about her whom you just moments ago saw passing us, transfixed with fear.

It gradually grew darker, and the electric arc lights came on with a sudden spark, the streets swarmed with blinking hats and the streetcars seemed to glide upon a luminescent river. The artificial glare hit us on the balcony like a cold gust. We went inside. The sitting room was not yet lit, but the adjoining room was completely illuminated. The shimmer from the room next door blended with the dusk that flowed in through the windows, and transformed and blurred our gray faces. The voices were subdued like they always are in darkness or faint light when thoughts multiply and we are reluctant to disturb the dreamers among us, or seem annoying. Everything was peaceful and pleasant at this quiet and quite ordinary party when suddenly a clock nearby began to strike and killed all conversation. It struck twice. It was eight thirty.

Our hostess stood up and fumbled for the electric light switch. The sharp, white rays filled the room revealing a number of faces- all seemed surprised by her haste. Her eyes showed fear. Not much, but a little.
“Eight thirty,” she said with a questioning look on her face, “the children should have been here by now.”
“Come now,” said her husband comfortingly, “they will be here soon. Where are they?”
“At aunt Hanne’s. She promised to send them home by seven thirty.”
A few giggles were heard and some remarks were made. Then aunt Hanne has been reluctant to part with the dear children. Dear God, such old children . . .Parents will be parents, what do you expect? … Then the conversation turned to other matters. Until silence again hit them with striking of the clock. It was now nine.
The young mother had been pensive and nervous in her chair the last fifteen minutes. While the clock was still striking, she ran to the door to the adjoining room and called for her husband.
“Hans!” she shouted, “it is nine o’clock and the children have not yet arrived.”
Her voice was tremulous, and made the silent guests slowly turn towards her. For a second there was a dead quiet. Then they could hear a man getting up in the adjoining room. Suddenly he was in the doorway. The moment he saw how frighted his wife was he turned calm.
“You are making me nervous,” he said, “the children have of course remained with aunt Hanne”.
He sounded for the maid and asked her call aunt Hanne on the phone. I noticed how the mother tried to stifle her worry and I wanted to say a few words to her in order to calm her down. After all, I knew her pretty well. But suddenly she looked at me as if I were a complete stranger. There was a message on the phone that the children had left aunt Hanne’s one and a half hours ago. And they only had to walk for a quarter of hour to get home. When the mother heard this, her first inclination was to turn towards the city. She opened the balcony door and went out. The night had started to settle on the center. The ever-growing silence between the many ominous stone buildings out there must have filled her with terror.

My dear friend, I don’t have to tell you that every one of us really had began to worry, but we wanted to hide it from the mother. Little girls who wander alone about the big cities at night  always face that particular threat. Just at this time there had been an especially nasty case that was of such a nature that the bourgeois press declined to report on the matter. The mother might not have known about this, but she realized the danger. I could see from the way her eyes passed questioningly from one person to the next. It was strange and terrible to notice how the guests who forced an attempt at pleasant conversation ended up looking so superficial that their words seem to choke on our common fear. The mother was all the while mute, but attentive. Bound by a conventional and embarrassing concern for her guests, but watchful like an animal, alert, desperately impatient.

I can still see her stand by the balcony window, trapped between the subdued voices of her guest behind her and the bustle of the city below. There is no one as unreasonable as a frightened mother. Suddenly she was a hunted prey in the forest, sniffing the air for danger. Her black pupils widened in scope as well as depth and her chest heaved. Her dry lips and the movements of her nostrils, all betrayed an agitation of mind that seemed almost bestial. Even when her husband approached her with his wide arms open, she withdrew, frightened by his overbearing smirk. Perhaps his smile was a brilliant disguise to hide what they both suspected. Yes, why did we all suddenly turn so quiet? Even the great city outside did not seem to raise its voice. The quietness of the evening became apparent. Perhaps the mother regarded the city as a living entity, a huge and monstrous foe that was afraid to speak because of something that was about to happen. Or perhaps it had already happened? I thought about the young girls who I had seen so often. And really it was as if I pictured their faces in the urban night, their transitory smiles and red innocent lips. It was a terrible moment. And then there were all these imbecilic guests! I will always remember their mutterings:
“Mothers are all like this, what can you expect? They all think that their child is always at risk, while, truth be told, no one is so protected in the big cities as the very young. They can hardly walk a few steps without being pursued by watchful eyes, and if they get lost, there is a constable at every corner, a genial Bobby, who will look after them and bring them home. And let us consider our own childhood, when we walked down the highstreets admiring the wonderfully illuminated shop windows. Did we pay attention to the time? Hours seemed to fly by, while we just gazed and gazed in amazement. We dashed around corners without anyone noticing. And suddenly we were absorbed by an unfamiliar throng. If Anne-Marie and Luise are lost and encounter some nice Bobby, they will have been taught a lesson, that is all. The night is still young. Life has not even started yet on the great boulevards. There is still plenty of time before people will withdraw for the evening and lock their doors—
The mother again seemed painfully impatient. She surveyed her guests nervously and her instinct no doubt told her that they all conspired to hide the truth from her. She shook with suppressed anger over such remarks. They still talked about the beauty of the night. It was clear, blue and cool – and there was no more wind. The curtains hung motionless in front of the open balcony door. Down there lights flickered behind all the shut windows and silence reigned in a thousand backyards. …..

Suddenly she shouted: “I can hear footsteps on the stairs.” None of the others could hear anything, but as we all listened, the cruel ticking of the clock cut through the silence. Then, a little later, we could all hear the footsteps, and the parents rushed to open the door. Then voices were heard, male voices, and two of the guests entered the living room, their faces still exhausted from walking the streets at night. And now the mother was told what we all suspected, that some of the guests had immediately taken to the streets to look for the children. This seemed to nurture her fears. Then it was true after all, the other were frightened too. She was barely able to make out what the new arrivals said. They had not seen the young girls, but the city was bright with joy of spring, and the cafes teeming with people. There were people everywhere. There was no danger.
The mother stood for a while thinking. Then she said:
“Bring my coat!”
And the guest, all of us, instinctively got up at the sound of her voice. It was, in a way, not just her voice anymore. At that very moment the sound of a ringing phone echoes through the room. It struck us all like a summons. The mother rushed to the phone with her arms outstretched. The small white nickel-bell above the dark mahogany table was still ringing when she grabbed the receiver.
It was Anne-Marie who was on the line.

I can tell you, my friend, that every word of this phone call has been endlessly repeated. Every word that was spoken has been tested and considered, yes, even the tone in which they were uttered, all to find a way out of the darkness, a clue. The mother tells us that she first heard the rush of breathing on the line. Suddenly the tiny, slightly curious and anxious voice of a child was heard, which she recognized as belonging to Anne-Marie. The voice said:
“Is that you mummy?”
The mother bent over the phone, as if trying to bridge an unknown distance between herself and her child.
“Yes, it is me!” she shouted triumphantly, “It is me! Where are you children? Can you hear me Anne-Marie, where are you?”
There was no reply. But she could hear the child breathing into the receiver far away.
“Answer me!” she called, “Anne-Marie, answer me. It is me. It is your mummy.”
Still there was no reply. But then she could suddenly hear quite clearly that the child whispered, she whispered to somebody who was standing next to her by the phone. The mother could not make out the words. The whisper was inquisitive and curious rather than anxious.
“Dear God!” the mother shouted bewildered, “to whom are you whispering, Anne-Marie? Answer me. Who are you talking to? It is me. It is mummy.”
Then the mother heard that the child, in stead of responding, dropped the receiver. She noticed a little click. Then the line was broken, the phone dead – all was black and quiet.

Those of us who were present could no longer remain calm. Our indifference was after all an act, and now it was mercilessly exposed. In stead there were now confusion and bewilderment. Maybe we had been better able to keep to our faces if the mother had not been present, but her despair transfixed us all. She clung to the cruel phone. This scene by the phone has left a distinct impression upon my mind: the mother grabbed hold of the telephone bell, as if to resurrect her child’s voice. I can clearly see white nickle-bell between her shivering hot hands. It was like an eye that would never close, but stare at her without mercy for the rest of her life.

Mr Elling Winter made a pause in his story.
“But dear God, man,” I exclaimed, “the mystery was solved, was it not?”
“No,” he replied quietly.
“Are you really telling me that children have not been accounted for?”
“It has been six years now since this happened. You have seen the mother yourself this evening. Doesn’t her appearance tell you everything? No one has heard anything from or about the two young girls. The last sign of life was this terrible phone call.”
“But the police?”
“The police” My friend shrugged. “The police in a big city,” he muttered, “of course they did everything they could, but to no avail. They immediately tried to trace the source of the phone call, but the technical complexities being what they are, it was found to be impossible. Nor was there anything in the child’s voice that could explain the situation. No hint of fear, no sense of urgency. In stead there was this childish sense of confidence, quite puzzling. And then there was the whispering, of course.”
“To whom did she whisper? Perhaps to her sister?
“Perhaps to her sister”
“Perhaps to someone else?”
“Yes, perhaps to some one else”
For a while we sat there silently pondering.
Then my friend said:
“I know that one street and one house in the great city must know the secret. Every time I pass it on my journeys – surely it must happen once every few years as the train rushes through the dark chaos of tall and sad urban structures illuminated by bluish gleams from the streecar cables – then I say to myself: Where…. Where?”

I was half in a world of my own as I listened to my friend’s voice. The town of Bolzano, with its many points of light deep down at the bottom of the valley, did not seem so beautiful anymore. I glanced over at the hotel where I knew the mother was staying. The lower windows radiated a matt shine, but the arched gloomy ceiling weighed heavy upon the construction. Above, there was a clear and starry sky – there always was in these southern lands. The stars are signs of eternity, and they always call to us posing questions concerning our suffering lives: How, why … where?

Translated by Michael Henrik Wynn