This piece was submitted by Solvi Bjorn Sigurdsson as part of the 2015 PEN World Voices Online Anthology.

Solvi Bjorn Sigurdsson’s event: A Literary Quest.


“I want to be put through to Hannes.”

Gudrún sat still in the chair staring down at her lap when the young policeman stood up. He had told her that Hannes was on traffic duty but she didn’t believe him and continued telling her story. Two hours later an elderly man appeared in the office in civilian clothing—corduroy trousers, brown sweater over a yellow shirt, and a black tie that she was sure he had picked especially for the occasion. It was a relief to see him and verification that the long wait had paid off. Hannes Bjartmarsson was the commanding officer of the detective force in the autumn of 1982, and she was just now realizing that he had probably retired a long time ago.

“How are you, my dear Gudrún? It’s been a long time.”

“Too long. Nobody here at the station seems to be able to help me.”

“Before we continue,” he said, standing up to pour them each a cup of coffee, “I want you to know that I have very little clout here anymore. Everything you tell me is off the record. I’m here as an old friend, if I may be so bold to claim to be one. I was very sorry that we never got to the bottom of the case. It kept me awake for more nights than you can imagine.”

“I have new information,” Gudrún said and thought about how she could explain it to Hannes. “My Margrét. The thing is…what I came to tell you, is that my little girl is dead.”

The old cop leaned forward into the light of the lamp reflecting off the lacquered tabletop. It was still daylight outside and therefore there was really no need for the lamp, but it affirmed the fact that this conversation was actually taking place. That they had not suddenly been sucked into the past.

“That was always the assumption. That the girl was dead. After such a long time with nothing but dead ends, former deductions are rarely altered. We concluded that the girl died shortly before you and Pétur returned home, between four and five. I remember it like it happened yesterday. I must tell you that the department filed it as a closed case a long time ago. If you want, I can give you a ride home; we might as well continue this conversation there. The boys wanted me to come after having gone through the files. But it is what it is, Gudrún. It is what it is.”

“This station, just like any other legal office in the country, must surely in the end be about justice. The case is not closed until the truth comes out.”

“Well, of course not. It would be a great relief if the case would be solved after all these years.”

“My boy saw the whole thing and wrote a letter about it.”

“We took a statement from Benedikt and there was no indication that he knew anything about this. There were limitations on how much we could lean on the child.”

“I never knew what Bensi saw, and I’m not talking about him either. It was Matthías who saw it.”

Hannes gave Gudrún a paternal look but soon old remorse gave way to the grit of the officer. He had taken it badly when the younger boy was taken from Gudrún almost ten years after the girl disappeared. He had done his best to prevent it from happening but the system had beaten him. Matthías, however, had not been born when the girl disappeared so Gudrún was clearly delusional. Hannes knew that she had been admitted to the psychiatric ward a few times and in fact he didn’t find it too difficult to put himself in her shoes. The vanished girl was not his child and yet he often felt like the case had eroded the boundaries between the reality of facts and the obscure. There was something there that had never quite made sense. Hannes’ career took a dive after that case. The life of the woman sitting opposite him now must have been permanently derailed.

“We didn’t take away your little boy because we wanted to. I never said that you were an unfit mother. It was a judicial conclusion. Matthías was fostered in Öræfi. And you know as well as I do that there is no way that he could have witnessed the events. Matthías wasn’t even born the night Margrét disappeared.”

“There are a lot of things in Pétur’s life that I’ve never understood,” Gudrún said. “And I’m not the only one. We were married for 13 years and kept on living a similar life for at least 13 more years. I suppose I belong to the generation that revolted against the new world order yet my life has been characterized by obedience. I took care of the home while Pétur went his own way. Matthías writes about the things that went wrong between us. Also what happened that night. It was Pétur’s fault that our daughter died and I want him to pay. If anyone knows how I deserve justice, it’s you.”

“We deducted that the girl died before you came home and that she was then moved out of the house or hidden away, probably by Pétur. We had a psychologist working on the case who described it as irrational heartbreak syndrome. We couldn’t be sure by Pétur’s reactions, however, whether the assumption was right or not. The conclusion was to presume that this was how it was, but we also assumed that Pétur acted blindly. The instinct to hide the girl was not considered criminal though the act itself was the biggest issue of the criminal case. Pétur claimed memory loss and the polygraph tests supported his claim. We had a Swedish lie detector expert on board, the top international name in the field at the time. He was convinced that Pétur couldn’t remember anything from around 5pm of the 13th until the evening of the next day, when he and Benedikt arrived east in Öræfi. The department didn’t like it. Most of my men were dubious of Pétur’s statement and thought that the Swede was in league with the pharmacist commie. Pétur didn’t have any favors here at the station but when the investigation was initiated I had to rely on my gut instinct based on years of experience. The truth was that there was nothing to indicate that Pétur Valkoff wanted to hurt your daughter. Everything pointed to an accident. Of course there was always the question of what happened to the girl. Over the next weeks the investigation focused on whether Magrét’s older brother had something to do with her death. That would have explained a lot of Pétur’s actions after he got home. Why he had you wait in the car instead of letting you help look for the child. Why he didn’t immediately call the police. Why he took off with the boy out east. And why the girl was never found.”

“Matthías doesn’t say in the letter, but he describes it like someone who knows the truth.”

“I caught a story on Matthías a few years back—I still notice when your family appears in the papers. An old habit. It said he won a scholarship to Harvard and was doing well over there.”

“Georgetown. He’s at Georgetown actually, but that’s irrelevant. Matthías has always been different. That’s why it doesn’t matter when he was born. He saw it through his eyes. And now it’s out in print. Ink on paper doesn’t lie.”

“You want to know what happened, Gudrún. We all do, all of us who worked on the case and had to accept that it had gone cold. If Matthías has received new information…that would of course offer a new angle. But I don’t believe in messages from the beyond, which is what you seem to be talking about. And I can assure you that the department will not either.”

Gudrún took a sip of coffee and looked towards Engey Island, balancing between the gray ocean and the clouds on the horizon. She had explained all this to the young policemen earlier and encountered the same lack of understanding as she had all those years ago.

“He doesn’t need to have heard it. Don’t you understand, Hannes? Matthías doesn’t need to have heard or seen what happened. He knows. I can’t explain it. He describes it in the letter and it’s proof that my daughter would perhaps have lived if the reactions had been different. If Pétur hadn’t been Pétur.”

“I very rarely leave home these days. But I felt I had to come when they called. I was hanging about the house, not really doing anything, same as any other day. I’ll confess that when I received that phone call and heard that you were waiting here, my heart beat a bit faster and some old wound, some old need stirred. We all hated Pétur at the station, I can tell you that now. Everything he said seemed true and yet there were missing pieces. The clues seemed to point in his direction and yet I never found evidence to support that he had anything directly to do with her death. I hated him on sight, and the same went for most of the guys here. We had no common ground with a man like Pétur Valkoff. And then we got to know each other during the investigation, you and I. I started to see the case differently. Forty years on the force and I never had a case that saddened me as much as this one. A missing little girl who was never found. Later my resentment for Pétur gave way to pity. I still think that he must be innocent. Maybe not of carelessness or some sort of cover-up, but innocent of a serious crime.”

“So you don’t want me to tell you about the letter?”

“I think it’s best that you give me the letter. I’ll read it and then hand it over to the guys; if the implications are strong enough they might open up the investigation again.”

“It’s up in the attic. I left it there. I was snooping and I felt uncomfortable. Reading so much about Matthías who never tells me anything.“

“Let me tell the boys so they can go get it. Then we can continue.”

“I need to tell you something first. You always said that Matthías wasn’t my child. That he could no longer be my child and that you wanted to take him away from me. I watched him come out of me and I remember clearly what it was like, because giving birth is painful. But now I know that he isn’t mine. He is Pétur’s only begotten son.”

“I think you are upset, Gudrún. I understand that these things are not easy to deal with.”

“You’ve never believed me, no matter what I’ve said. You all think that I’m a weak woman who needs you to feel sorry for her, but the fact is that my needs and instincts are no different from yours. I am in no way different. I was also at home doing nothing when this all resurfaced.”

“I know, Gudrún. I didn’t mean to patronize you. But to be fair, you are asking me to believe that the truth about a 30-year-old criminal case is to be found in a letter written by a boy who wasn’t even born at the time of the incident. And that he isn’t your son even though you gave birth to him.”

“You never listen. Just forget the letter, Hannes. Go back home. I’ll get to the bottom of this myself. Good-bye.”

But she didn’t get up. It was as if she just didn’t have the energy. She had been ushered into this unfurnished little room that no one seemed to use when they had realized that she wouldn’t leave the station of her own accord. The view outside was of busy traffic snaking down to the motorway by the sea and of the bay where the world was in constant motion, but in here there was an emptiness that she felt suited both her and this reunion with the old cop. Gudrún was somehow drained as a person in this world. She was done, done with desires and expectations. After decades of trying to participate in humanity, she just preferred staying at home, pottering about, chewing on a leg of smoked lamb, pulling out books from shelves and scribbling a few words between the lines. When you throw away everything, the soul loves the flesh to stop craving suffering. Semyonov’s book on dynamics was no longer the gauge for the inner workings of the organs when she walked under the pine trees and started loving Pétur in the fall of 1967. Fifteen years later her life was hijacked. All the bottoms of the oceans were marked by her thoughts and the possibility that her little girl was lying there among the fish. Between the mountains of the west and the east and the north were glacial ridges of all the cold nights when she had lain awake thinking of Magga. Was her little girl out there in some valley full of dirt and mud? She had explained it over and over to people who in the end regretted asking. Five, six, or seven times she had emptied herself of the incident. It did no good. Nobody could really understand what it was like to lose a child. When a child is born you give yourself over, you erase your own needs and become tied to this leaf that the wind wants to take, become the root that the tree grows from. In drawers she had brochures from the World’s Fair with drawings by Magga, lots of love to Gorbachev and mom. It was ridiculous to hold onto this, to let the sorrow grow instead of taking up squash or attending support group meetings with women who knew harm. Just to somehow boost yourself out of the trauma and get up. Two new children had not managed to let the dust settle over the pain, not even Alex. She had tried numbing it with drink, sleeping it off, picking at it with medication and therapy, but in the only mirror available to her, those grayish blue mornings called life, the same reflection stared back at her. A fallen tree in the garden, a wilted root, a dead leaf.