Ragnhild opened the door cautiously and peered out. Up on the road everything was quiet, and a breeze that had been playing among the buildings during the night had finally died down. She turned and pulled the doll's carriage over the threshold.
"We haven't even eaten yet," Marthe complained.
She helped push the carriage.
"I have to go home. We're going out shopping," Ragnhild said.
"Shall I come over later?"
"You can if you like. After we've done the shopping."
She was on the gravel now and began to push the carriage toward the front gate. It was heavy going, so she turned it around and pulled it instead.
"See you later, Ragnhild."
The door closed behind her-a sharp slam of wood and metal. Ragnhild struggled with the gate, but she mustn't be careless. Marthe's dog might get out. He was watching her intently from beneath the garden table. When she was sure that the gate was properly closed, she started off across the street in the direction of the garages. She could have taken the shortcut between the buildings, but she had discovered that it was too difficult with the carriage. Just then a neighbor closed his garage door. He smiled at her and buttoned up his coat, a little awkwardly, with one hand. A big black Volvo sat in the driveway, rumbling pleasantly.
"Well, Ragnhild, you're out early, aren't you? Hasn't Marthe got up yet?"
"I slept over last night," she said. "On a mattress on the floor."
He locked the garage door and glanced at his watch; it was 8:06 A.M. A moment later he turned the car into the street and drove off.
Ragnhild pushed the carriage with both hands. She had reached the downhill stretch, which was rather steep, and she had to hold on tight so as not to lose her grip. Her doll, who was named Elise-after herself, because her name was Ragnhild Elise-slid down to the front of the carriage. That didn't look good, so she let go with one hand and put the doll back in place, patted down the blanket, and continued on her way. She was wearing sneakers: one was red with green laces, the other was green with red laces, and that's how it had to be. She had on a red sweat suit with Simba the Lion across the chest and a green anorak over it. Her hair was extraordinarily thin and blond, and not very long, but she had managed to pull it into a topknot with an elastic band. Bright plastic fruit dangled from the band, with her sprout of hair sticking up in the middle like a tiny, neglected palm tree. She was six and a half, but small for her age. Not until she spoke would you guess that she was already in school.
She met no one on the hill, but as she approached the intersection she heard a car. So she stopped, squeezed over to the side, and waited as a van with its paint peeling off wobbled over a speed bump. It slowed even more when the girl in the red outfit came into view. Ragnhild wanted to cross the street. There was a sidewalk on the other side, and her mother had told her always to walk on the sidewalk. She waited for the van to pass, but it stopped instead, and the driver rolled down his window.
"You go first. I'll wait," he said.
She hesitated a moment, then crossed the street, turning around again to tug the carriage up on the sidewalk. The van slid forward a bit, then stopped again. The window on the opposite side was rolled down. His eyes are funny, she thought, really big and round as a ball. They were set wide apart and were pale blue, like thin ice. His mouth was small with full lips, and it pointed down like the mouth of a fish. He stared at her.
"Are you going up Skiferbakken with that carriage?"
She nodded. "I live in Granittveien."
"It'll be awfully heavy. What have you got in it, then?"
"Elise," she replied, lifting up the doll.
"Excellent," he said with a broad smile. His mouth looked nicer now.
He scratched his head. His hair was disheveled, and grew in thick clumps straight up from his head like the leaves of a pineapple. Now it looked even worse.
"I can drive you up there," he said. "There's room for your carriage in the back."
Ragnhild thought for a moment. She stared up Skiferbakken, which was long and steep. The man pulled on the handbrake and glanced in the back of the van.
"Mama's waiting for me," Ragnhild said.
A bell seemed to ring in the back of her mind, but she couldn't remember what it was for.
"You'll get home sooner if I drive you," he said.
That decided it. Ragnhild was a practical little girl. She wheeled the carriage behind the van and the man hopped out. He opened the back door and lifted the carriage in with one hand.
"You'll have to sit in back and hold the carriage. Otherwise it'll roll around," he said, and lifted in Ragnhild too.
He shut the back door, climbed into the driver's seat, and released the brake.
"Do you go up this hill every day?" He looked at her in the mirror.
"Only when I've been at Marthe's house. I stayed over."
She took a flowered overnight bag from under the doll's blanket and opened it, checking that everything was in place: her nightgown with the picture of Nala on it, her toothbrush and hairbrush. The van lumbered over another speed bump. The man was still looking at her in the mirror.
"Have you ever seen a toothbrush like this?" Ragnhild said, holding it up for him. It had feet.
"No!" he said. "Where did you get it?"
"Papa bought it for me. You don't have one like it?"
"No, but I'll ask for one for Christmas."
He was finally over the last bump, and he shifted to second gear. It made an awful grinding noise. The little girl sat on the floor of the van steadying the carriage. A very sweet little girl, he thought, red and cute in her sweat suit, like a ripe little berry. He whistled a tune and felt on top of the world, enthroned behind the wheel in the big van with the little girl in the back. Really on top of the world.
The village lay in the bottom of a valley, at the end of a fjord, at the foot of a mountain, like a pool in a river, where the water was much too still. And everyone knows that only running water is fresh. The village was a stepchild of the municipality, and the roads that led there were indescribably bad. Once in a while a bus deigned to stop by the abandoned dairy and pick up people to take them to town. There were no night buses back to the village.
Kollen, the mountain, was a gray, rounded peak, virtually neglected by those who lived there, but eagerly visited by people from far-off places. This was because of the mountain's unusual minerals and its flora, which was exceptionally rare. On calm days a faint tinkling could be heard from the mountaintop; one might almost believe it was haunted. In fact, the sound was from sheep grazing up there. The ridges around the mountain looked blue and airy through the haze, like soft felt with scattered woolen veils of fog.
Konrad Sejer traced the main highway in the road atlas with a fingertip. They were approaching a traffic circle. Police Officer Karlsen was at the wheel, keeping an attentive eye on the fields while following the directions.
"Now you have to turn right onto Gneisveien, then up Skiferbakken, then left at Feltspatveien. Granittveien goes off to the right. A cul-de-sac," Sejer said pensively. "Number 5 should be the third house on the left."
He was tense. His voice was even more brusque than usual.
Karlsen maneuvered the car into the housing development and over the speed bumps. As in so many places, the new arrivals had taken up residence in clusters, some distance from the rest of the local community. Apart from giving directions, the two policemen didn't talk much. They approached the house, trying to steel themselves, thinking that perhaps the child ...