Merethe Lindstrøm brings to life a mother’s terror when she is robbed at knifepoint as she holds her toddler daughter in her arms.
One time she was threatened with a knife.
When other people talked about terrifying experiences, they always said it happened so fast. But this didn’t happen fast. It took its time. She was riding the metro home from a girlfriend’s. She was carrying the sleeping child. That was the reason she chose the seat next to the door. She was bearing a weight and wanted to sit down so her daughter could sleep in her lap.
The car was empty. It was late at night, too late to be out with a three-year-old. She could have taken a taxi, but they lived near the T-bane station. She regretted her choice after she was on the train. She had waited at an above-ground station along one of the eastbound routes, they had been the only people on the platform, but just as the electronic voice over the loudspeaker announced that the doors were closing, a man appeared, he grabbed the doors, which were almost shut, and forced his way inside. The train started, the man took the seat directly across from Karin, his face was turned toward hers. She looked out the window, fervently wishing she was still standing on the platform.
Then they went underground.
She felt the train pick up speed in the tunnel, she felt it pitch, and when she looked up again the man was holding a knife.
She had glanced up quickly when he entered, noticed that he wasn’t exactly short, had formed a general impression of his appearance. But it was fuzzy, lacking in detail. Now it was difficult to see him at all, her terror, like a solid pane of clouded glass, obscured him. He was just a face, a hand, and the knife. A stranger’s empty voice.
Earlier that day she had been to one of the public outdoor swimming pools west of the city, she could still feel the sun, her skin was warm, almost burned, she had stood together with her daughter in the shallow pool, listening to the distinct, endless soundtrack of different voices, they could have been inside a drum, it was as if the soundtrack was exerting a vague, even pressure on her eardrums. The heat was perpetual, solid, like a roof above her, something pressing down. The sense of numbness in her legs, the prickling sun. Right then she could have been half awake, she was convinced she slept, part of something, dreaming the same perpetual dream. The pale cement around the pool, a faded yellow color, and a defined field with something that resembled bluish mildew; the largest pool was located up some steps, built into the upper plateau. It had windows in its cement walls, the water was darker there, and every time someone jumped off the diving board, which was between five and ten meters high, you could see through the windows as they broke the water’s surface. Others swam or stood upright, some simply floated, allowing themselves to be jostled by the water’s perpetual motion. The whole day, outside in the heat, she had the same feeling, of being asleep.
The knife wasn’t pointing directly at her, the hand holding it rested on his hip, next to his jacket pocket, ready to conceal the weapon if necessary. She was convinced the knife was enormous, and it was not more than two feet away from her daughter’s spine. Karin recognized this, she sat stiffly, as if on a cold surface, like she had sat and changed into her bathing suit on the shadowy steps earlier that day, his glance might have belonged to a gynecologist, a prison guard, someone with authority. And the terror she felt was old, maybe from her own childhood. That feeling of helplessness. Even if she had never felt so helpless before.
No, that wasn’t quite right.
What do you have in your purse? he asked.
I want whatever’s in your purse. Karin felt her daughter’s head shift, pressed it carefully back against her shoulder, and began a rocking motion with her upper body.
No, she thought. He has to understand. She was sitting here with a child.
One time last year she had woken up and noticed how silent it was, it was barely six o’clock, it was never so silent at that time. Hilde, her daughter, liked to come into the bedroom early, she lay there carrying on little conversations with herself. Karin had walked through the apartment to her daughter’s room, noticing as she entered the bitter, cloying smell of vomit, and had seen the soaked blanket and pillow. She had pulled the blanket off Hilde, had felt her daughter’s burning skin, had stripped off the girl’s pajamas. Hilde’s body, white, naked. The feverish, racing heart as Karin bent down to listen. Karin had shouted that they had to hurry.
He slammed the window shut above them. Hilde shifted her head but didn’t wake up. Karin sat motionless. The back of her daughter’s neck was damp, she sweated during sleep. Karin’s face was next to the girl’s hair, it still smelled. He repeated that he wanted whatever was in her purse, she shoved the object forward, when he grabbed it the knife came closer, it was pointed directly upright now, if she lost her grip on her child, if her daughter fell back even a few inches, it would pierce her neck. Karin clung tight. She couldn’t put the child beside her on the seat, Hilde would wake up and be frightened. A hot surge in her throat, she had to swallow. The nausea appeared so suddenly. When it vanished, she felt calmer.
He inspected her purse, did a thorough job of it, unzipped a pocket, some objects fell out, her address book, a comb, the tissue package, a small bag of gummy fruit she had brought for Hilde. He opened the pocketbook, found her credit cards, her money, she had money, just a little over five hundred kroner, she was relieved there was something to occupy him. She caught a glimpse of their passport pictures in the front pocket, herself, her daughter, both staring wide-eyed at the same point, the way in which the pictures had been taken, from head on, made it look like the subject was approaching the camera.
Your cell phone, he said.
She thought it was in her purse.
But it wasn’t, he held the purse open, he had inspected all the compartments. Her terror returned, just as quick and sharp, she realized that she had put her telephone in her jacket pocket, it was right beneath her sleeping daughter.
She needed to move. She wondered if it would wake up the girl and cause her to cry, thereby putting them in even greater danger.
They had driven the car to the hospital early in the morning, her husband maneuvering through the still empty streets, she had held her daughter in her arms the whole way, one time Hilde threw up on her shoulder. They stopped in front of the emergency room entrance and carried her inside, through the hallways, up to a counter, and then to an examination room where other people took over. She remembered things that were said, etc. They examined Hilde and put her in a bed. For a while Karin was together with her daughter, holding her hand, later she and her husband were sent to a waiting room.
They were each left to their chair and their thoughts about what might happen.
A whole night spent with that thought.
The man was not content. She had to get moving.
She slid her hand beneath Hilde, was able to unzip her jacket pocket while rocking her daughter and whispering something soothing. She felt the cell phone’s smooth surface and grabbed it.
Her daughter slept on.
He inspected the telephone. Closely, like a convincing repairman. The cell phone was expensive, but not entirely new, she wasn’t especially attached to it. Nothing but a tool. Still, there was something intimate about the way he held it in his lap. It was the SIM card he was after. At first she didn’t understand why. It seemed irrational, everything he had done so far had had an odd sort of logic she could follow. The knife was in his hand while he worked, she didn’t look right at it. It was a knife, there was nothing more she needed to know, she tried not to see it.
He fiddled with the small object. Removed the battery and SIM card. He had another card and tried to replace hers with his own.
She tried to breathe, it felt like she couldn’t quite breathe right, like she couldn’t quite exhale, not just due to her fear, but due to the weight, the child she held. Outside in the pool she had felt the weight as she shifted her feet, she was standing in the water to catch Hilde, who jumped off the edge. It was a rhythm they had: her daughter directly above her, the smile when she launched. Karin’s outstretched arms. The smooth, slightly chilled body. They could go on and on.
They had pulled into a station and he was more alert now. Sat back up, pulled the knife to where it wouldn’t be visible. The brakes squealed. The empty, underground station.
They came to a halt. Maybe half a minute. Someone could come running through the doors and catch sight of her, of him. The electronic voice: The doors are closing.
The doors closed. The train started again.
The child woke.
One time during the night at the hospital she had needed something to drink, suddenly she was so terribly thirsty. She was standing at the soda machine next to the entrance where they had first entered, when a woman was shown through the door, she had no visible injury but her face had this expression, or it was more of an impression, that Karin had never forgotten. The woman was sobbing so that you could not hear it, it was more like a hiccup, like she might have lost her breath, soundlessly she was led into another room, like being led out of this world, Karin had thought.
They had driven home again several days later, through the same streets, but midday this time. Hilde had sat in Karin’s lap, healthy again, talking about food and a new backpack.
It had all gone smoothly.
She was way too vulnerable.
On the train, Hilde was trying to sit up. Confused, bothered by the light. It’s OK, said Karin, you’re just a little tired.
She tried to coax the girl back into a resting position. Her daughter twisted away from the shoulder where she had been lying. There was no way Karin could stop her from seeing the man sitting across from them. Hilde turned away, rubbed her eyes. Trusting. They had stood at the window in the pool wall, looked beneath the water, she had lifted her daughter so that she could also see. It was the light inside, she suddenly remembered, that let them see everything so clearly. She had never imagined it could be so clear. They had stood and peered inside.
The knife was still partially hidden at his hip where he had concealed it when they had entered the station. Hilde wasn’t alarmed. She was thirsty.
You can’t have any water now, Karin said. Her terror was a thin thread in her voice. She had to let her daughter slide onto the seat, the girl was too restless, she did not want to be in Karin’s lap.
He didn’t like that, he held the knife erect again, closer to them both. Hilde repeated that she was thirsty.
The moment she had registered the knife, Karin had glanced at the emergency brake, the small handle beside the door on the opposite wall of the train, the red handle with the white engraved letters. Emergency brakes were always mounted, although the only ones who seem to use them were kids who pulled them for the fun of it. The emergency brake was useless now. How would the train driver reach them? But she kept her eye on it. It seemed logical.
One time she glanced out the window, the tunnel outside widened a bit, it looked like there were open areas in the corridors, and she thought it should be possible to see something, it might even be possible, but after they had passed she had no idea what she had seen, what she was seeing.
Do you have anything else? he asked.
She saw his eyes, registered the fact they were inspecting her, glancing toward the empty seats behind her, he wanted more, a watch, she thought, or a piece of jewelry, a ring. She had nothing, she never wore a ring. Karin shook her head. She said sorry, she regretted it, it felt like he had a right to ask her for something and that she had let him down. She had exposed herself to this possibility, to his anger. She had interpreted it as anger when he entered and drew the knife. But he wasn’t angry. His emotion no longer resembled anger. What was it then?
He was calm.
Guilt, didn’t he feel any guilt?
She felt guilty, she had taken the T-bane so late with her daughter, she had sat right here, she wasn’t invulnerable, who did she think she was. Other people experienced things like this, she thought. That woman’s face, her expression, the one who had entered the hospital that night. What was visible on her features: something that had happened.
Calm, you were supposed to remain calm. The bag of gummy fruit still lay on the edge of the seat, they had bought it at a kiosk in the pool area where they had spent several hours. The bag balanced there, on the hazy divide between earlier that day and this very moment, now, as she sat here. A cool, defined lunacy. The rattle of the train scooted the bag forward, when it fell the gummy fruit would land at their feet.
He tucked the shell of her mobile phone in his pocket. His face was closed, she saw him better now. He was young, the light, streaked hair, the long fingers. She ought to remember how he looked, but why would she ever want to do that. She just wanted to forget him.
He shifted, scooted sideways to the other end of the seat, he was no longer directly across from her, he still held the knife, but it was not pointed toward her. Did he smile at her daughter, see that she was becoming frightened. Perhaps there was indeed a kind of admission on his face that a child was present, but no, his face remained closed, concentrated. Hilde seemed confused, she sought his face for acknowledgment, Karin tried to see with her eyes. She saw what Hilde saw.
She thought: Where’s he from, who is he.
They had almost reached a new station and Karin understood he was preparing to do something, he had finished his business, Hilde was sitting next to her, the girl’s legs stuck out over the seat edge, the tips of her white jogging shoes pointed toward each other, the metro was still underground. Then Hilde began scooting off the seat. Karin realized, knew, that the knife was level with Hilde’s chest, her small chest, her jacket that said Hello Kitty. The cunning logo depicted there, her narrow arms, the knife Karin saw so clearly now. It was an atypical, serrated knife, not especially large, smaller than a kitchen knife, but with a wider blade, meant to pierce deep, cause damage.
She grabbed her daughter to pull her back onto the seat, but the man grabbed Hilde’s arm and stood. Karin didn’t dare to retain her hold, terrified of what resistance might mean. Her daughter slipped from her arms, just like earlier that day, when she had stood on the edge of the pool, trying to grab her daughter, but losing her grip so Hilde continued down. For a moment Hilde was underwater. Visible there, her dark hair, the top of her skull.
She knew he was not listening, realized that was not how these things worked, but still he let go. By chance, or because he had never meant to hurt them anyway and because other passengers were waiting when they pulled into the station. The door opened with a conspicuous thud––later, when she began taking the T-bane again, she would always remember it, that thud always caused her to wince––he let go of Hilde, who was crying now, he headed onto the platform toward the stairs. Vanished.
The other passengers came in, sat down. The train began to move. She glanced out and they were still in the tunnel, she could see her reflection. Those windows into the clear water, where she could see inside the pool. What she saw through these windows now could be a darker, deeper water, a pond or a lake. Just darkness, no movement, no variation, a nothing through which they moved. Or maybe they had stopped. The feeling of sleeping that she had while standing outside in the pool, the glittering light, the sedateness, the whole still-standing day, in contrast to now––is this how it feels, waking up, she thought, is this how it is.
© Merethe Lindstrøm. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Kerri Pierce. All rights reserved.