Sunday, October 31, 2010

What does one do at the ends of the earth?

I sell books and maps, and I knit. Lydia feeds people--at the bakery in Kirkenes, at a little coffee shop in Puerto Williams. Alex builds furniture in Norway and then down south picks up whatever work he can--whatever appeals to him at the moment.

Henry is in the darkness, so he writes. And he translates--Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Spanish. I love the idea of being fluent in so many languages--not like my high-school French and the get-by Norwegian and Spanish I use. Henry insists I'm too hard on myself. In seven years, I must have become comfortable with the language.

But among ourselves, we speak a lot of English. It's a crutch I lean on.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Years ago, Henry left me a photo with his letter in the cookie jar. So I know he looks tall and lean, with eyes that are squinting a little--from light or from laughter, and his hair is dark and rumpled, as though he runs his hands through it when he's thinking.

I keep the picture, wonder how he's changed.

At the next turning, I put a picture of me into the jar, one from Kirkenes, at the height of summer--a day at the reindeer park, sun-drenched, the wind blowing my hair across my face, brown streaks across the freckles.

I wished he could know summer.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Henry says three more families have left his group, but a couple of young men came down from Santiago--mostly curious. He doesn't know how long they'll stay.

It's hard for me to fathom why anyone--how anyone--could live in darkness, or a lingering dusk, could seek that.

The sun gives Henry headaches--bad ones, so he stays as far away from it as he can. He grew up in California, often in pain, and moved around until he found our counterparts--those who follow the night.

I've asked him about drugs, and he's asked me about antidepressants. But it's a lengthy conversation, and disjointed, because we correspond only at the turnings. Six months between letters.

I've wondered why we don't write more often, in between, use a simple stamp. But it feels like we would be breaking some rule.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Dear Misha,

Dear Misha,

The letter is in the cookie jar. I start to read it--but maybe I should save it for later, after I'm unpacked and have a cup of tea in my hand.

Dear Misha,

I set the folded paper on the table and lug my bags to the middle of the room. Wool and yarns go into the chest, clothes into the old bureau, towels and toiletries in the cupboard, a couple of books on the kitchen shelves. A kitchen-library--the perfect use for a room.

Henry has left the tins of beans and rice full. I'll figure out later what I need to pick up.

I snap out the sheets and put them on my bed, give the floor a good sweep--who am I becoming? I guess it's my spring cleaning. Then I steep my tea and return to the letter.

Dear Misha,

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Passage through the channel, in the dark and then daylight, a rotation, a great wheel. And the boat's motors chug. And the air bites.

Then I am stepping onto land again, lugging my bags through the roads of Puerto Williams and up the hill to Nido Claro, our little nest in the light.

My red tin home perches over there, on the left. I open the door.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Senora has a pot of beans on the back burner, and I scramble eggs while people drift in from the little sheds dotting the property. Lydia and Alex sit down at the table. Karin, Marya, and Sylvia burst into the kitchen, filling it with laughter.

"Something must be funny," Lydia grumbles, pouring the thick coffee. She'll warm up about halfway through the cup, and then maybe I'll find out what she has planned.

We're like sisters--friends and rivals. She mothers me, and maybe I need it--but I tend to resent it, too. Sometimes it feels fragile, this friendship built up over the years. I guess I'm still on my guard.

But Lydia has other plans. She's going to shop for supplies, lay up a store before taking the boat. I could tag along, but today she isn't goading me.

At 3:00 we walk across town to Sven's--our contact point with the Chief. Maybe he'll have found passage for us. The little office is cramped, and Sven leans against his desk, his rough gray hair sticking crazy out from under his watch cap.

We stand quietly when Sven picks up the phone and listens. I can feel the pull of my little tin house waiting for me across the Beagle channel.

Ten spots are available!

But my name isn't on the list Sven reads.

The pull is still in my gut, but my home feels further and further away.

I end up staying in Punta Arenas all week, helping Senora, feeding the chickens, stopping at Sven's in the afternoon, meeting with a wool merchant.

"You see, " Lydia chides, "you can buy directly, instead of waiting for Reynaldo."

Reynaldo, with his speeches and his flirting, will be disappointed, but it is a savings. And now I'm ready for the season.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

"What is it with you and men?" Lydia asks as she hands me a plate to dry.

I hate drying dishes, would much rather plunge into the warm, sudsy water. But it's my first summer in Kirkenes, and I'm staying with Lydia, and so l dry the dishes and try to answer questions. I'd rather be asking the questions.

"My father," I explain.

She hands me another plate.

"He kept leaving." l polish the plate dry.

"He loved us, but he didn't know how to stay in one place, to be happy there. He kept looking around the next corner."

Another plate comes along, and I know she's waiting.

"I like men," and now I'm sounding defensive. Hold onto the plate.

"I just don't want anyone taking so much of me away when they go."

I imagine how my mother stood in the kitchen when she got that call. I remember the ragged breath, her voice when she phoned me with the news.

"They don't all go."

"How many stay here? How many years?"

Lydia has been here three seasons--six turnings, I think. Not enough for a definitive answer. But she is dating some one, and she wants to trust this loveliness is for good.

I hope she forgives my jab. I hope she's so happy she doesn't notice. And I hope she's right.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

I snuggle into my sleeping bag's warmth, listen to the silence. I don't know what time it is, but think about what my sister might be doing. Sleeping, It's a short ritual. This is the trouble with time zones.

l stay as long as possible, and then the need to pee becomes imperative. Slowly, as quietly as I can, I fumble for the fresh blouse that l stashed in my bag to get warm. Why do I bother? It will be lovely beneath my sweater and coat. This chasing of light is not a warm business. Thank God Mrs. Strand taught me to knit. But I wriggle out, sufficiently dressed, without waking the others, and I head to the Senora's main house.

Mission accomplished and a little water splashed on my face. Then I hear the backdoor tap shut. I follow
the noise, catch up of with Senora Fuentes.

"Buenos dias, Senora,"
"Buenos dias, Misha," She is going to gather eggs.

Surrounded by the clucking hens, I remember my father, rigging lights in the fall so the hens would lay all winter. I think he needed the lights much as they did.

Friday, October 22, 2010

I was a normal girl once. I had red sneakers and ponytail holders and I fought with my sister and I got good grades in school. I sang in the church choir and practiced the piano most of the time and pigged out on chocolate chip cookies and ran all over the marshes in summer.

Dusk meant frogs, and the other twilight songs. Night meant sleep.

I wasn't afraid of the dark.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

I am awake before the roosters, long before the light. I close my eyes again. See, it isn't so different.

Does that mean darkness is like sleepwalking?

These cusp months are the hardest, the trade-off. In my perfect world, we would spend the in-between seasons somewhere mid-way--in Caracas. Or I think about the Canary Islands. I have always wanted to see Tenerife.

I asked about it a couple of years ago, during one of the longer flights, with night pressing up against the airplane windows.

"Won't work." The Chief didn't waste his words.

Before I could ask why, he continued, "Three months is not enough time to join a community, to find work, to be trusted. We need to be trusted--and we're already looked upon as a little odd. But we've spent years building the trust and the relationships."

I shifted in my seat. An interim stop would also mean less traveling all at once, and my butt was getting sore.

"Misha, this is one of the trades we make. It isn't perfect for me either, for anyone." The Chief went back to reading his magazine, something about sailing. Again, I felt like the fish out of water.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The first swallow burns like light down my throat, and I chase the shot with a swig of beer.

It's karaoke night, and onstage a woman sings "I Got You Babe" in Spanish.

"Misha, what are you going to sing tonight?" Alex teases. Most of the songs I like probably aren't on the machine. I shrug my wet blanket shrug. I haven't sung in front of people since the eighth grade.

"What about you?" The best defense is a question.

Lydia returns with another round and a plate of empanadas.

"I saw the Parkers and Sebastian at the bar. They're coming over."

As the evening deepens, we collect more friends. We drink more, eat more, wander the town, watch it close. Stars arrive in the sky as we reach our little shed at the Senora's.

"Are you starting to feel at home?" Alex whispers as I crawl into my sleeping bag.

Not even a whole day.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Lydia has stayed at this house before, and navigates easily. Alex and I must almost trot to keep up. The bags and the various luggage we carry or pull along grow heavier.

Lydia likes a city—and this is not. But it's closer than anywhere we usually live. Punta Arenas has pavement and plazas. Lydia is as hard as ice, but she likes her creature comforts as much as any of us—as much as I do.

Now, she chirps as she hurries to Casa Fuentes, all the things we'll be able to do and see—and eat and drink—while we're stuck here.

The word stuck is mine. And this is my first time stuck in Punta Arenas.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

In Punta Arenas

Even though we travel lightly, we have a lot of bags and boxes and trunks to lug from the airport in Punta Arenas to the dock where we'll catch our boat. The Chief can't always get us all on. Sometimes he's able to charter, but often some of us have to wait behind, catch the next ride.

Lydia and Alex will be the first to volunteer. Lydia will want to try all the food. Alex just likes to be out and about, and he'll troll for guide work and whatever else he can find.

"Misha will stay with us," Lydia sings out as the Chief checks names on his list.

"What are you doing?" I hiss. She knows I'm a homebody. She knows I don't like the transition. And although I've grown used to Patagonia, I haven't quite grown fond of it.

"We have to get you acclimated," she replies. I have become her project. She is working to rehabilitate me—or habilitate me, to turn me into a good nomad. For a woman with so much attitude, she has her kindness.

And now it's too late to protest. I don't want to make a scene, add complications. I don't want to be a baby about this.

Chief Lundgren continues to separate us into two groups. I see Jeff, Paolo, and Gabriella go into the group leaving first. Jeff and Paolo are builders. They'll start off by fixing any damage that winter did to our houses. A lot can happen during a winter on the Cape. And Gabriella goes where Paolo goes.

I feel the small twinge.

The rest of us, left behind by now, divide into smaller groups—families, or three or four friends together. The Chief gives us each a name and address. This is where we'll stay until we can get a boat to Puerto Williams.

When we set off to find the home of Senora Fuentes, it's already growing dark—I can taste it under my tongue, a taste like sadness.

"But it's still too early to go out," Lydia reminds me. I see a night of bars ahead.

"We'll find you empanadas. It will be good." She looks at Alex, and I start to wonder.

Maybe I've got the wrong project.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

I knit another row and try to find the right questions. I already know that he's from Edinborough, that he joined the band when he was sixteen, after his mother died. So many of us have death in our histories.

I know that Alex worked with Stian Halvorsen, sweeping the old man's shop and then learning how to carve from him—a long apprenticeship. I know that even in Kirkenes, where he has steady work, Alex likes to travel—to Hammerfest and Vardø.

I know he's a couple years older than I am, and his voice could charm me like a snake.

I start to unwind a little. Does he have any trips to the mainland planned? Has he heard from his brother in London?

In this way, we fly through the hours.

Monday, October 11, 2010

When you're 22 years old it can seem easy to dissolve your life, to reinvent yourself, to up and move away.

I had almost everything I owned in my suitcases, and it wasn't much—except for my books. I hadn't figured out how to bring them yet. Shipping to the end of the world gets expensive.

My books—all the books—waiting on their shelves.

I can sense Alex looking at me from across the aisle. My cheek feels a little red, and I pay closer attention to the wool between my fingers and the needles, careful not to drop stitches, .

Alex and I went out a couple of times this summer, hiking and coffee. Easy things. But nothing for the last couple weeks. I thought I must have bored him, but last night he kept hanging around the edge of my vision—and now here he is looking at me.

"You don't like the turning," he ventures.

"I'm a bad nomad." He already knows this. But I appreciate his efforts at conversation. I appreciate his smile, faded by the fakey airplane lighting, but still the brightest thing I've seen in hours.

I know it's my turn.

"What are you going to be doing this south?" My needles click and click. Didn't we talk about this before? I don't know what else to say.

Alex stretches out, hands behind his head.

"Anything I can—maybe a little guiding, maybe for birders, maybe try to get a guide job on one of the science teams, or I'll do some crabbing, or spend some time on Isla Grande with the sheep."

He grins.

"Mostly all of the above."

He is a good nomad, a wood carver, a sculptor up in Kirkenes—but a man of all trades on Navarino. I can feel my heartbeat picking up, and I don't want it to.

And why not?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Chief Lundgren was not scary.

He was not scary, but he was fierce.

And old. And very tall.

The door seemed to swallow my knock before it swung open, and I saw the Chief.

"Hello—excuse me," I stammered, hoping my heartbeat wasn't as loud as it felt. "Lydia sent me."

He relaxed a little.

"How can I help you?"

I glanced around. The street was quiet, washed by a damp sunlight.

"I'd like to join your group."

The Chief looked at me for what felt like an hour.

"What do you know about our group?"

"This. Here, and that you go south the other half of the year."

He almost smiled.

"You need some more information."

He nodded for me to follow him inside.

"We have much to discuss," he stated as he took another coffee cup out of the cupboard.

"Starting with some introductions."

Saturday, October 9, 2010

She looks at me more closely. I feel like a bug under a magnifying glass. A streak of sunlight paints the table.

"My name is Lydia," she says. "I can give you the address of the chief. That's the guy you need to talk to."

I have so many questions—does this happen a lot, people wandering in and asking this? Is the chief nice? Is there a test?

I hope there isn't a test. How do you pass such a thing? A barometer for miserable? A measure of depression? The shadows under my eyes all winter?

She scribbles an address on a scrap of paper, and comes around the counter with it. I shake her hand, and she takes my plate as I stare at this magical writing.

"Go to the end of the road and take a left."

Friday, October 8, 2010

The bell jingles on the door, and a woman looks up from behind the pastry case. Her blue eyes look like ice. Good morning.

"En kaffe og…" I stutter and trail off, looking at all the choices. Can you order a cheese Danish in Norway?

"Welcome to Kirkenes," she says. I blush. So clearly I am American.

"I'll have one of those," and I point to the sign that says skillingsbolle. It looks like a cinnamon roll—a safe bet.

"For here?" she asks, and that’s when I notice the little tables by the windows—so many windows, as if the owner of this shop knew me.

"Yes. Please."

The coffee is stand-up-a-fork strong, and the pastry flakes in my fingers. It is sweet. It is buttery sugary goodness. It is almost too much.

No one else has come in, so I start to sweep up my courage.

"Do you know of a people…"

"A people?"

"A group who follows the sun, from here to the south?"

She is wiping the counter, and her rag slows down.


Thursday, October 7, 2010

All I have is the overheard name of a town, Kirkenes. I learn what I can—and it isn't much. But I purchase the tickets to get me there. It's a small place, and I figure someone will know something.

When I arrive at my hotel, I collapse. It's light out—it is gloriously light out—and I sleep anyway, through to the morning.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

At cruising altitude

Cruising altitude shows a carpet of clouds and then a large nothing. A blank page. I need to write a letter to my mother, ask again whether she'll visit me at Christmas. She'll say—again—that it's too far and she doesn't know Spanish. The amount of Spanish I've learned could fit in one empty water glass. My mother does not want to leave her home, even for a couple of weeks.

I'm not being fair. She did come to Oslo for a week. I met her there, and we toured the city museums and ate a lot.

In this living, I miss her—and my sister, my happy sister, who stayed just down the road and now has three sons who swirl around her, their circles ever-widening until one day they may escape that orbit entirely. I try not to feel guilty about leaving them. Sometimes it works.

I travel back the years to South Bend, Oyster Capital of the World—or one of them.

I grew up in along the Willapa River, with the wide light and the salt air and the long summer days. A smaller town safely away from any kind of a city. But I shivered through winter, a long sadness that got worse when I left home for college. Caught under the fluorescent lights in the dorms and classrooms, I shrank from the dark afternoons.

At this point in the flight, I remember where I first heard. This is my ritual:

I am in the library, and I am trying to focus on Euripides, but whispering from the next table pulls at my ears. My ears follow, pick up little scraps—a village in Norway, a people who travel to Chile, a tribe that follows the light.

Now, I am buzzing—surely the way you must buzz when you've been underwater much too long and you take that first electrifying gasp of air, the way your whole body tingles when you walk in from a cold evening.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

In town, we pass my little shop, locked for now—the windows shuttered and the key left along with that letter in the drawer. The books and maps will stay shelved until the tourists return, looking for something to read in their own languages.

I am not a good traveler, and last night's akvavit isn't helping. I hunch up to the window, my forehead pressed against the safety glass. Lydia and Jeff gossip in the front seat, share what they know about the people who replace them.

"I think Mrs. Burton is an uptight bitch."

Lydia is not fond of her partners.

"And all those children. They write on the walls. I come back to find blue and yellow all over—just this crazy scrawling. Can't she clean that up?"

"She's probably too tired," says Jeff. We hear bits and pieces, or we leave letters to the people who move into our lives in the winter.

Now, Jeff is quiet. Old Mr. Albertson has died—and we don't know whether anyone will take his place. For people who love the light so much, we spend a lot of our time in the dark.

Jeff turns on the windshield wipers, their lovely lulling swish. By the time we reach the airport in Hesseng, I've slipped into thought, a submersion.

They will pick up our tickets from Chief Lundgren, shepherd me through the lines at baggage check and security. I'll take my seat for the flight to Oslo, and the next leg, and the leg after that. All these legs, and I'm sitting in an airplane chair. I'll take out my yarn and needles—plenty of time to work on my next sweater.

Plenty of time to think about where I'm going, what I've left.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Dear Henry,

I lick the flap, the sticky sweet on my tongue, and slip the envelope into the desk drawer. The secretary, my mother called it.

Dear Henry…

Each season starts the same way: Dear Henry written, folded, and left.

"Misha, come on!" Lydia leans against the car, fidgeting. She doesn't like the going. Neither do I.

Mist is rolling in, like a procession, waving gray flags of good-bye. I can smell the rain coming.

"The Chief is waiting."

I pick up my bag and my jacket. I don't mean to slam the door.

Dear Henry,

We have a journey to make, a crossing. Seven autumns now I've locked the door to my little home, left my closets and cupboards for other hands to open, left the eiderdown to cover another body on my bed. For five, I've left a letter in the drawer.

Dear Henry,

Welcome back. We're late this year, three days after the turning, and the dark steals in before supper. Cucumber pickles are in the pantry, and I left you some canned tomatoes.

Lydia's hair glints in one last afternoon sliver of sun. She drums her nails on the car door.

She tosses her blond curls and slips into the station wagon. I slide in behind Jeff, and we pull away. I know the old wagon's rattle, the sound of our little road.