by John Mueter

Like many residents of Stockholm, the Nesser family spent much of the summer at their cabin on a small island. The Baltic archipelago, comprised of thousands of islands, is easily accessible from the city, only a short boat-ride away. The Nessers had one of the smaller islands all to themselves where they had built a cabin that was simple and rustic, yet offered all the modern amenities one could want.

For the second week of July Magda Nesser invited two of her best  friends to join her at the family cabin on Söderarm. The three women had formed a bond of friendship during their first two years at university. Signe and Lotta were delighted at the prospect as their families were not fortunate enough to have an island getaway of their own. The three friends occupied the summer days with boating and swimming. They especially enjoyed exploring the neighboring islands, the three of them taking turns rowing the Nesser’s modest dinghy. The nordic nights never seemed to end as it barely got dark at all. There was always plenty to eat and drink, there were stories to tell and songs to sing.

Toward the end of their week, on an extravagantly warm evening, the young women boarded the dinghy and indulged in one last leisurely circumnavigation of the island. Reaching the pier in front of the Nesser cabin, Magda, who was rowing, carefully navigated between the rocks and the handsome schooner that was anchored nearby. The channel was deep enough to allow larger craft to sail close to the island.

Much to Magda’s surprise, Signe and Lotta, who had been subdued for the last quarter of an hour, suddenly perked up and announced they would take one last swim. “Magda, it is such a perfect evening, let’s play mermaids one last time,” proposed Lotta. Signe immediately chimed in. Before Magda could raise any objection the two girls dove off the back of the boat. This was not the usual place for swimming – there was a tiny beach for that – but it was as good a place as any other.

Magda stopped rowing and tried her best to keep the dinghy in position. She waited for them to surface, but they did not. And there were no air bubbles either. After two minutes or so she began to panic. Magda knew that Lotta and Signe were excellent swimmers, but she was also aware that accidents can happen to even the most experienced. She oared around in a circle and called their names, although she knew that doing so was pointless. After five minutes she became frantic, rowing back and forth, peering into the dark water, hoping to see some sign of her friends. By now she was hollering, “Signe! Lotta! Var är du – where are you??”

Magda rowed quickly to the pier, hopped out of the boat and ran up to the cabin. She called her father who was back in Stockholm. He advised her that there was nothing to be done but to get back to the dinghy, then call and alert the authorities. This time she even rowed around the schooner. Nothing.

Returning to the cabin, she made the dreaded phone call. A search vessel appeared within minutes. About an hour later, as Magda sat in the cabin, wringing her hands in anguish, two figures were spotted emerging from the water right next to the pier. Lotta and Signe looked a bit bedraggled, but none the worse for wear. They were both animated and smiling. “Magda! Hallo!” called out Lotta, “did you think we had drowned?”

“I think we really fooled you good this time,” pronounced Signe rather smugly, as if the two of them had just brought off a clever ruse.

Magda bounded down to the pier. She was speechless and could only stare at the two girls whom she had given up for drowned just a few moments before.

“We swam under the schooner!” declared Lotta triumphantly.

“And then we climbed aboard on the other side and hid on the deck!” added Signe. “We’ve been planning this all day.”

Magda was confused and angry. “How could you do such a thing? Do you realize I had to call the authorities? And I was just about to inform your parents.”

“But it was only a little joke,” argued Lotta crestfallen.

“Please don’t be angry with us,” pleaded Signe.

“If you had reappeared after a few minutes I could forgive you, but to disappear for an hour is unconscionable!” With that she turned on her heels and stormed back to the cabin. The two girls hadn’t expected this reaction at all.

What they did not know was that the Nesser family harbored an unhappy secret. Twelve years before, during a camping trip up north, the youngest child of the Nessers, a sweet six-year old boy, Lars-Peter, had wandered off one day and was never seen again. The surrounding woods and lake shore were scoured for days before the search was abandoned and the child was declared vanished. A body was never found. His disappearance was a mystery and a profound tragedy for the whole family. The sorest spot in Magda’s psyche had been exposed and trampled upon.

But the family could never accept that Lars-Peter was gone. Perhaps he had been abducted, taken to the far north of the country, or even across the border into Norway. It was a possibility they refused to abandon. They even commissioned an artist to make a rendering of the boy as he might appear now as a young man of eighteen. One day last December, in the Stockholm underground, Magda was sure she had seen Lars-Peter exiting the Karlaplan station. In just a brief glimpse of the stranger she thought she had recognized the familiar scar over his left eye and the same sandy blond hair. Trying frantically to follow the young man and calling out his name, she had lost him in the crowd. Her anguish lasted for weeks. The possibility of Lars-Peter still being alive was an unbearable torment for the entire family. They vacillated between hope and despair, riding the emotional swells like a boat on the high seas.

Hardly any words were spoken after Magda’s meltdown. Supper and the rest of the evening were unpleasant for all of them. Apologies fell on deaf ears. No bottle of Akvavit was opened, no deck of cards appeared. Each withdrew into her own corner. It should have been a happy occasion, but it was a miserable evening.

Fortunately, Lotta and Signe had planned to leave the following morning anyway. During their last breakfast together Magda suddenly, unexpectedly broke the awkward silence and burst into tears. She stood up, to the astonishment of the two girls, and hugged each in turn. “My dear friends,” she managed to say, “I am so sorry for my behavior, but you must promise me never, never to disappear again.”∎