The northern lights have a sound, you know. Like static but grander. The electricity of eels, not machines. The first time I’d heard their song, I had just arrived at the upper reaches of Finland’s Bothnian Bay, and while standing there at the edge of the sea with the lights shimmying and quavering above me, for a moment, finally, I wasn’t staring at my feet, the pavement, or the cracks in the earth. I was actually watching, truly listening.
Then the lights were gone, retreating across that vast sea stretching all the way to Sweden, and all that was left was the slapping of the steel-colored waves trundling toward the shore with such fervency it was like they were urging me to return home.
I proceeded nonetheless, determined to see my oldest friend Kari after years apart, and walked slowly but steadily beneath a row of towering wind turbines toward the ferry landing.
(Anyway, there was no home to return to. Half my life was in the rucksack slung over my shoulder, and the other half was sitting in a closet somewhere back in Oregon.)
I boarded the ferry at no cost and took a seat in the compact passenger lounge along with a few others who refused to make eye contact, let alone welcome me to their 100-square-mile hunk of permafrost. (Kari had warned me that Finns too are islands unto themselves.) The windows quickly fogged up with body heat and coffee steam and soon neither the lights nor the mainland nor the distant island were visible.
Kari had initially invited me there months earlier, as he somehow thought that a stark and minimally populated island would be the ideal environment for breathing some life back into my body. It was true that I was in recuperation, as I’d recently suffered a terrible fall, having broken both of my legs and crushed my skull against a windshield. (Or at least this is what I was told; I remember little from that day beyond the cobalt brilliance of the sky and the chiaroscuro effect of the oncoming clouds.)
Still it had taken me many months to work up the spirit to leave the country, but when the political climate in America grew to untenable toxic heights, I alerted Kari and he immediately purchased a series of tickets for me. I then boarded a plane bound for southern Norway, where I made a stopover to pick up a small package for him. After an odd and tense meeting at a trailer on the brink of a gravel pit with a slovenly fat-fingered man who spoke only a few words of English, I obtained the package and flew directly to Oulu, Finland, where the darkness settled on my skin like a heavy varnish. Until, that is, moments later, when the lights transformed the sky.
The ferry ride to the larger island of Hella lasted one hour, but that was not my destination: I was heading to a second smaller island off the western shore called Otso. To reach it I had to hire one of the island’s three on-call taxis, which took me on a thirty-minute tour of the island en route to the second ferry landing. There I boarded a small and battered bargelike ferry without so much as a bench to sit on. I stood in the center as it lurched and rocked across the channel, and five minutes later I at last debarked onto Otso. I shouldered my rucksack, tucked my small painting under my arm, then took a deep breath and set out walking for the Arctic Outpost Hotel and the adjoining lighthouse where Kari was caretaker.
Though Hella was one hundred square miles, Otso was a fraction of that, and the ever-spinning eye of the lighthouse served as a constant waypoint by which to orient. The walk from the ferry with my barely healed knees took me twenty minutes. The island had but half a dozen streetlights, and those that weren’t dead bore globes so begrimed with decades of mildew that the light they cast was no stronger than that of a match. As I limped along, I broke through clouds of my own breath.
When I at last reached the hotel, I saw that the western wing was covered with numerous gray tarps. It had been badly damaged by a recent fire, and Kari and I were to oversee its renovation while living in the eastern wing. Standing in the shadow of the hotel, light-headed with fatigue and my bones throbbing, I looked up and saw stars brighter than the any celestial entity I’d ever witnessed. I also saw darkness so unfathomably infinite it punctured my very soul, (which was born first, the light or the dark? And which would ultimately rule?)
I called out for Kari as I climbed the porch stairs. When I reached the doors, however, I found them locked. The windows were dark. I banged for a minute, two, then three, five, ten, muttering and then cursing, kicking and then screaming in the hoarse dry-throated weariness of long-distance travelers. I set my things down and held myself and stamped my feet. The wind coming off the Bothnian Sea was vicious and relentless, causing the tarps to beat out a nasty rhythm against the damaged building, a primal slap-slap-thump-thump-slap that I could feel in my sternum.
A glass-walled foyer adjoined the two wings, and behind the hotel sat an outbuilding and a couple of sheds. Other than that, no other homes were visible, nor did I discern signs of life beyond a couple of distant lights atop ships plowing their way toward god-knows-where. As I stood studying the terrain, the lighthouse’s Fresnel lens lit up the shore and I realized that the archipelago contained more islands yet, their dark lenticular shapes rising from those ominous-looking swells.
After circling the building in search of an unlocked door or window, I realized that my only option was to breach the tarp-covered wing. I dug up a shovel from a nearby stack of tools and started chipping away at a few of the plastic ties securing the tarps. It was harder than I’d expected, and I soon worked up a sweat.
I then slid my rucksack and the painting through the opening in the tarp and crawled in behind them. I couldn’t find any more zip ties to secure the tarp and the slapping only worsened to the point that had Kari appeared right then and there, we would have had to scream our conversation. (Though in truth that would not have been much different from many of our dialogues.)
I felt myself brushing against the blackened furniture and walls as I made my way through the room. The door on the far side was unlocked; I shut it behind me and listened for noise and evidence of life within the building, but beyond the tarp’s beating I heard nothing except for my own dull panting. I made my way down the hallway until it met an adjoining corridor, which I followed to the lobby. It was somewhat quieter here and I again called out for Kari while ringing the brass bell on the check-in counter. But when I turned on the lights I saw that the building was largely forsaken, with a coat of dust on everything and papers strewn about. Two vending machines hummed softly. The wind hurled sand at the windows.
“Son of a bitch.”
I had enough euros for a soda. I stood there drinking it, occasionally ringing the bell and waiting for my best friend to materialize.
He’d gotten me again. These pranks—he was always luring me into unforgivable situations. (Such as the time we were hitchhiking to Oregon and he secured us lodging at a sorority house occupied mainly by Christian cheerleaders; he then promptly disappeared for two days, leaving me to my own devices with a pack of frigid blond virgins who strutted around the house in their underwear.)
(Of course I forgave him for that; always do.)
I studied the hotel room map, then got a key for a room in the eastern wing, farthest from the damaged side. I passed through the cold glassed-in foyer, climbed the stairs to the second floor, lurched down the dim hallway and let myself into a room with a view across the bay. I turned up the heat until the pipes achieved a light musicality, which served as an accompaniment to the thumping tarps, then opened the curtains just as the lighthouse beam swept across the coastline.
“I am here.”
Only from the hotel room’s little clock could I tell that morning had come, the sky still dark, the sea still churning, the wind still raging as if it had something to prove. I’d gone to sleep early after a meal of vending machines snacks but had woken whenever the wind set the tarps to beating like a frenzied animal’s wings against a hollow tree trunk.
I showered in the room’s tiny bathroom, taking only the briefest glimpse at myself in the mirror. I hadn’t shaved in months, hadn’t cut my hair once in the past year, and my appetite had waned so greatly in recent weeks that I looked unfamiliar to even myself.
After brewing some coffee in the hotel kitchen, I walked to the water’s edge and scooped up handfuls of the cold dense sand and let the clumps fall through my fingers. Although I was furious with Kari for not being there to meet me, the environs were indeed peaceful and conducive to recovery. When looking out across that expanse of water, I felt life returning to my legs and heart. I could pretend that I owned the island, that this was my tiny empire, devoid of the politics and idiocy of the country I’d just escaped. (And with the exception of the locked lighthouse, there was nothing to fall from here.)
Kari had told me that in the winter ice entombed the island and people could drive there from the mainland. The ice had not yet started to form, but such weather felt but a mile or two from shore: dark birds were trading places with white, the sun’s strength felt like little more than a whisper, and the atmosphere was the color of a fresh bruise.
I tested the doors on the annex, outbuilding, and sheds, then returned to the hotel and went from room to room in search of signs of Kari. Although there was no basement, as one would expect of beachfront construction, I did find a cold storage of sorts, stocked with enough food for a staff of ten or more. The kitchen had plenty of food, and I found more supplies in the employee room. The vegetables in the refrigerator, however, were wilted, the milk rancid, and some bread had grown a coat of gray-green fuzz.
When I tried calling Kari’s mobile phone, a voice told me in three languages that the number was not available.
I couldn’t do much except wait, but the hotel was already maddening. It had a vocabulary of its own, with the flapping tarps, the creaking pipes, the shifting beams, the sand scouring the front windows, and a variety of other sounds whose sources I couldn’t pinpoint. Because I didn’t want to invite anyone to investigate my comings and goings, I kept the lights off unless I was actually in the room, leaving the rest of the building one continuous swamp of murk and shadow. It was disorienting and melancholic, and I soon felt myself slipping back into torpidity and self-pity.
That first day I tried to keep myself busy. I made some food in the kitchen, then laid out my three changes of clothes (all variations on the same black pants, gray T-shirt, black button-down, and a charcoal sweater) and the one small painting I’d brought with me, along with a set of oil paints and a few brushes. I set them out on the desk in my room and studied the painting and its three oblong shapes a short while, considering where to begin.
I got my coat and knit cap that I’d purchased just for this trip and went for a walk.
I didn’t intend to go far, but the more distance I put between myself and the lighthouse the better I felt. The day was warm, with the clouds pulled back and the sun low but full just above the horizon.
Eventually I reached a copse of stunted conifers, the kind of trees that’d survived for eons by hardening themselves against the climate. I felt a poignant gravitational draw by the woods’ dank coolness, the bitter scent of a century’s worth of decaying pine needles and the synchronicity of life and death embedded in the owl pellets littering the forest carpet. I broke open a few of these small gray-and-brown tufts and unlocked the tiny skulls, phalanges, and spines encased within them and marveled at nature’s ruthless efficiency, its complete lack of self-awareness.
At the end of this forest lay the barrier beach that, with the waters receding slightly, put me a stone’s throw from Hella. I heard voices on the other side—the first I’d heard since arriving—and two men came into view, walking shoulder to shoulder. I slid off my boots and socks and waded across to the larger island.
“Hello!” I called out.
The men spun around with looks of mild terror on their faces, then removed their hands from their pockets and separated slightly as if preparing for an assault. They were older men, silver-haired, both with narrow eyes set in prominent cheekbones.
I stopped short. “Hello,” I repeated. “Speak any English?”
Their faces relaxed, as did their postures. They discussed something briefly, then shook their heads. “Suomi,” the taller man said, the word for both their country and their language.
“No English at all?”
The taller man said something to the other who nodded in response.
“Kari?” I said, jerking my thumb in the direction from which I’d arrived. “Kari Maldonado? Do you know him? From the lighthouse?”
“Sori,” the shorter man said, shaking his head. “Suomi.”
“Oh, ok.” I stood looking at my bare feet, trying to appear as pathetic as possible in the hopes that they’d pull out a phone, attempt to help in some way, or even offer a smile. Instead they turned and continued on their walk. I watched them for a long time, neither of them turning to look back at me. Soon their heads and shoulders vanished among the dunes and I was alone again.
I walked a short ways farther, then sank into the sand. My knees ached and I felt like destroying something. (And a beach—what is it but an expanse comprised of destruction, sea life and stones reduced to granules and shards.)
“You fucking asshole, Kari. I’ll never forget this.”
I kicked at the sand with my bare heels, recalling, of all things, the time my mother had forgotten to pick me up from soccer practice one Saturday. I had sat at the edge of the road for two hours before a woman stopped to see why I was crying. I was about to climb into her car when my mother pulled up, irate. She thanked the woman, then told me to never get into cars with strangers, no matter how pretty or sweet-talking. (I’d like to say that I’d done the opposite ever since, but the truth was much plainer: I’d simply learned to endure the mild torment of waiting.)
After ten minutes of brooding I was about to start the laborious process of getting up when I noticed movement farther down the beach. I lost sight of it, then spotted it again a few meters along. I raised my hand to my brow to block out the sun—still resting on the horizon like a ball trundling along a gentle incline—and realized that it was a person doing handstands. Perhaps a child, a teenager, someone youthful absorbing the light like the drug it is that far north.
I watched the silhouette of the person gliding back and forth, bending at the waist, then propping themselves as upright as a pillar for ten, twenty, thirty seconds, sometimes a full minute. When the person failed at one particular attempt, tumbling childlike in my direction, I realized that it was a woman.
But not just any woman. Perhaps not the most beautiful woman in the world but one whose remarkable kind of beauty immediately pained me: long copper-red hair, high Nordic cheekbones, full lips, eyebrows trimmed into sharp slashes that only further brought out those dark eyes—eyes taking in the world with a constant curious vigilance. She was, I thought (perhaps desperately) sylph-like, a muse, unrepeatable.
When done with her calisthenics she made her way to a pile of clothes that I hadn’t noticed lying nearby. She moved with the lack of self-awareness of a being that had never known a cage, box, or tether, deftly slipping into her sweater and coat as if returning to shed skin. I forced myself to look away but dared not move. Like the men she too refused to look at me. Still all the while I was preparing something clever or profound to say lest she speak to me. But that moment never came for in a moment’s time she was leaving.
I kicked my heels into the dirt and cursed. Yet I could sense that she was watching me from afar. Or was I just hoping? I was muttering to myself when, suddenly, I found myself in her shadow. She was saying something to me in Finnish, a string of vowels and harshly paired consonants that all but assaults the ear, and I looked up to see her standing there, clutching herself against the increasing chill. She looked less youthful up-close, which was somewhat of a relief, though no less enchanting.
“Oh, hello,” I said. “Sorry, no Finnish.”
“Ah. English then?”
“If that’s ok.”
“Sure, ok. You are from U.K.?”
I looked down. Shameful, bashful—both. “American.”
“Ah.” She studied me a moment, then offered her hand. “I am Loviisa.”
I extended my own hand. She did not shake but simply squeezed and held. The back of her hand, I noticed, was riddled with numerous tiny white scars as if more than once she had reached into a bucket of knives. With her hands being so cold the scars felt like hardened strokes of paint. Below the scars appeared to be an old tattoo.
“Frank Schugazi,” I said.
“Nice to meet you, Frank Schugazi. I never see you here. Is it that you are visiting?”
“Yes, I’m staying at the hotel. On Otso.”
“You are out there?” She looked toward the smaller island, thinking. “Is the hotel open?”
“No, I am waiting for my friend Kari. Do you know him?”
She considered that a moment. A long moment. A crow appeared, took something from the sand, departed. “Ah, yes, Kari. You are friends?”
“Very old and close friends. But he wasn’t there when I arrived. Do you have any idea where he could be?”
“I have not been to the lighthouse for quite some time and I do not know him well. You could talk to the police. The station is near the harbor. Just ask anyone where to find it.”
“I will do that. Thank you.”
“The chief is idiot so do not expect much. We call him Mustekala, which means Squid.”
“Why is that?”
“Because he is slippery and when you try to get his help he just produce some papers, fire out a bunch of ink, then run off.”
I looked up at her as she laughed toward the sky. A strange new warmth.
“I see Kari at the pub now and when. We have some friends—how do you say, mutual?”
“That’s right, mutual friends.”
“I will talk to them. I will try and call hotel.”
“You may also visit me,” I said.
Her face was stoic, no emotion registering there. I looked away, down, my own face reddening. “I mean that I am all alone out there,” I said, “with nothing to listen to but the beating of the tarps on the building. And the phone is in the lobby so if I don’t answer, that is why.” I forced myself to look at her again. I wanted to reach up and touch her lips. Instead I said, “You must be cold.”
“I am. Well, enjoy your time on Otso. And Hella. I will be in touch if I learn anything.”
She strode through the dunes. I heard a car door slam. An engine start. The car carrying her off.
I repeated her name in my head, but it seemed easier to simply remember her as Lov.