Tonight, the aurora gallops across the sky like a herd of spooked reindeer. The stars are brighter than I remember them. It almost makes me forget the chill in the air. That my nose and fingers are going numb. That under my skin, the blood is starting to crystallize. I squint through the lens of my telescope to focus on the jewelled belt of Orion. In the Sami tradition, the stars are known as the three Gállábártnit brothers. Each night, they gather in the sky to hunt the Sarvvis.
I tuck my hands into the pockets of my parka. Around me, the diminished Arctic landscape. The enormous whiteness reflects even the smallest amount of light, allowing me to see as far as the horizon. But it’s just barren rock. A never-ending expanse of snow. And when I think there’s a shadow moving on the coastline, I know it’s my mind playing tricks on me—
Galoshes submerged in sub-zero temperatures, watching from shore as the isbjørn drowned. Convinced myself that she could breathe under water or even in the stratosphere. Convinced myself that she could will breath into existence.
My name echoes on the wind. Kjårten appears over the hill, a bottle tucked under his arm. Growing up in this godforsaken stretch of tundra, he’d been the only other person my age for miles. I must have been thirteen, maybe fourteen, when I finally accepted that despite the gap in his teeth, he was handsome. Army-cut blond hair to make the local girls think that he was actually out here for military training, not that he was native to the region. That story was reserved for the weekends when he’d head over to Alta to drink.
He holds up the bottle once he’s within an arm’s length of the telescope. “I thought this would warm you up.”
“Aged fourteen years? You sure it’s okay to drink this?” I like his hands the most—fingers calloused from helping on the fishing boat. After that, his broad shoulders. And after that, his phantom eyebrows, bleached platinum.
He flashes a small wink and uncaps the bottle for me. “I never thought you’d be back.”
“Three years isn’t that long, is it?” I down a mouthful of whiskey before turning to disassemble the telescope. Once I’ve finished putting everything away, I slip my mittens back on and tug my wool cap over my ears. “I almost forgot how cold it gets here.”
Kjårten offers the bottle again, but I shake my head. I pick up the case and begin the trek back to the house—a forlorn little thing, windows boarded up, the paint peeling. That it might be a tomb once again.
Plagued with open-lidded dreams. Unable to stomach another Christmas at the dorms. I’d thought that if I came back, I could finally sleep again. Could at last, escape all of that human generated radiation, the constant stream of information, the clattering of non-stop noise. I wonder if that’s what Mama had been hoping for when she finally let herself fall asleep. The word being forever.
It began gradually, Mama’s hibernation. Coincided with the slow disappearance of daylight, until one day, the sun no longer rose, and we were left with the perpetual darkness of winter. By November, Mama was sleeping for sixteen hours a day, the portable heater blasting in her face. Feather-ice collected on the frames of the windows. Icicles grew sharp and long like narwhal horns. Eventually, the frost grew into sheets, thick as coke-bottle glasses. Obscured the sky and the frozen sea. Smothered the glow of the Milky Way, until all I could see were the hazy porch lamps from the handful of scattered houses below. Outside, the wind battered our cottage in blankets of snow. With each gust, the roof shuddered and groaned. Night and day blurred together. Time was kept only by Mama’s hair that began to fall out in clumps. It clogged up the bathroom drain. I’d fish out the tangled nests with my thumb and pinkie, pretending that they were pincers and that I was some kind of bottom feeder.
What had been the probability of the post-it note? Such a bright yellow against the beige of the fridge? As if Mama had simply been reminding me to make myself a sandwich for lunch. I’d grabbed the milk carton and the box of corn flakes from the counter. Added five tablespoons of sugar into my bowl before crunching down on my cereal. Marbles fell from my pockets, tap-danced across the linoleum.
I set the telescope against the wooden floorboards. Kjårten follows me into the kitchen, shedding his jacket and gloves at the front door. I fill the kettle with water and grab a couple of mugs from the cupboard.
Taking a seat at the table, Kjårten pours himself another drink. “It must be strange for you to be back in this house,” he says after taking a sip.
I rub my hands together, bringing them to my lips. “You have no idea.”
Kjårten clears his throat. “No. I do have some idea.”
I’m not sure how to answer him. Does he remember that day as I do? How the police and ambulance had arrived with lights and sirens flashing, how the medics had jogged up the hill, how they’d wrapped her body in a white plastic bag, how he and his sister had pressed their faces up against the window to observe the most action that they’d ever seen in their short lives? We’d not yet finished our first year of school even.
I scratch the back of my neck. “Tea?”
We hadn’t seen the sun for days. Madonna was belting out Material Girl on the record player as my ankles trembled in a pair of Mama’s high heels. My eyes watered from the sting of chemicals.
Mama sat on the bed, combing through wet hair with her fingers. “Sophie, don’t get hairspray in your eyes.” Every now and then, drops of water would splatter onto her thighs. She looked up at me with thin lips that seemed to be smiling. Or maybe it was how the velvet lamp shade illuminated her face from the side. A crown or a halo. She pinned up her hair with bobby pins. I watched as she changed into her nightgown. Counted the shiny stretch marks on her stomach. Squeezed my own chest to feign cleavage, wondering when my boobs would come in. Assumed it would be instantaneous on my eighteenth birthday. She leaned back into the pillows and cracked open a can of beer that had been sitting on the night stand since the previous day.
“Better go do your homework now.”
When I wasn’t attending morning lessons at the chapel, I’d be watching cartoons, or reading Bamse comics. Or I’d be on the look-out for the isbjørn with our neighbor Eva, who sold her wildlife photographs to magazines. Other times, I’d sneak into Mama’s bedroom since she never locked the door. Usually, she’d be sleeping, but sometimes she’d be reading through piles of loose paper, a fat felt pen balanced between her teeth. She was preparing for the start of her doctorate. From bed, reconciling the force of gravity with quantum mechanics.
During the times when she’d be sleeping, I’d crawl under the bed with a flashlight to draw pictures of tropical sea turtles on the backs of the stray pages that had fallen into the crack between the bed and the wall. But then, I too would end up asleep. Among the dust-bunnies. A crayon pressed to my ear. Lulled by the strange glow of the snow and the crackling sky.
The kettle whistles on the stove. I turn off the burner and pour the water into a tea pot, throwing in a few Lipton Yellow Labels. Kjårten walks up behind me and wraps his arms around my waist. Starts to kiss my neck. His words, moist, against the shell of my ear—“Let’s go fuck in the shower.”
Cold air seeped out from under her door. At first, I didn’t notice the cracked window, wedged open by a heavy textbook. The curtains swelled into the room—puffy, agitated jellyfish. Caught in the draft, the articles she’d printed out at the library, bunched up against the baseboards. Arctic mechanics and the quantum wind.
Her knuckles freshly red. Her wrists whiter than the snow. The vein on her left hand lay comatose against a tea colored mole. A plastic bag was wrapped over her face. Mama—a beautiful cadaver under mixed cotton blend—not so impossible to map after all.
I ripped the bag off and covered her face with the blanket. Began to feel a sour taste in my mouth. With my back against the bedpost, I slid onto the frosted floor. I sat there for a while, then started crawling around the room, collecting her papers, ashamed that I’d been too busy eating cornflakes with an excessive amount of sugar, knowing full well she hated it. “Want to rot your teeth, Sophie?” Each of the pages scrawled with her neat and cursive writing. I stacked them beside her, then turned to close the window. The textbook fell with a dull thud.
I put on my boots and ran to Eva’s house. Shivering in my nightgown, I waited for the door to open. When she finally appeared in the doorway, I shoved the plastic bag full of Mama’s breaths into her dish-soaped hands.
Snow collected in the shaft of my boots as we waded uphill through the drifts that shifted like dunes of sugar. Inside the bag, the condensation had begun to freeze. It would be another few hours before Eva deciphered Auntie’s phone number from the post-it note.
On the night that I met my aunt for the first time, I ate burned tomato soup and toast. She came with dark circles under her eyes. Her hair was piled onto her head with mismatched clips. She didn’t try to talk to me, not even to ask if I wanted more food.
And I can’t even say that I cried for weeks. Auntie never offered stories about the stars or how I’d meet Mama in heaven again someday. Instead, she played jazz records and drank mug after mug of coffee, pounding away on her typewriter.
On the third morning, I worked up the courage to speak. “You’re not going to stay forever are you?”
She stirred the sugar into her cup. “What do you think?”
Kjårten drags me by the wrist down the narrow hallway and into the bathroom. He pulls off my shirt as we stumble into the tub and draws the plastic curtain. Squeezes my breasts as he adjusts the heat of the water. My head rolls back against his shoulder. I run my hands over the glossy tiles. The steam curdles on my skin.
For days afterwards, I lay in the bathtub with the water running. Steam on the bathroom ceiling. Dew on summer grass. Breaths in a grocery bag tallied up to 200 kroners. With my face submerged, water poured into my ears. My hair floated like seaweed against the tub. If the universe granted wishes, I wished that I’d been a sea-turtle in a past life.
Smiling with gravel stuck between my teeth. Hoarding marbles in my pockets.
For the funeral, Eva dressed me in a black dress with a satin sash. Black knee socks with black shoes. By the grave with my stomach tucked out and knees bent inwards. Jutted my chin out to prevent my lips from quivering. Sand blew into our eyes. And after, by the buffet table, Kjårten’s father shook Auntie’s hand while I tried to see how many squares of raspberry jelly could fit into my mouth at once. Apparently five.
Kjårten cuts off the water. Helps me into one of Mama’s old bathrobes. After, we collapse into her old bed, limbs tangled together, catching our breaths. The smell of mothballs makes it impossible to fall asleep. Leaves me with the sensation of a scalpel slicing open stitches, and then subsequently, of fingers dipping into split flesh.
A few weeks after the funeral, I was on my way to morning lessons, when I spotted movement on the beach. The creature weaved through the blizzard—when I blinked, she disappeared, and when I blinked again, she reappeared. We’d been waiting all summer for an isbjørn sighting, having raked the beach with Eva and her wide angle lens. For hours on end, hiding behind rotten scraps of wood, camouflaged in chunks of moss, until our legs had fallen asleep and we’d ran out of Fanta and sandwiches.
It’s how I ended up in the snow storm, the isbjørn hovering in some feverish part of my mind. Her steaming breath, reeking of digested seal pups, melted the frost from my lashes. I reached for her snout with soggy mittens, then fell face-first into the snow. My brain rattled inside my skull. Teeth pierced through polyester lining. I kept my eyes pried shut as the bear carried me like a cub. She set me down in front of the window of the nearest house on the shoreline. The glow of an incandescent bulb spilled onto the snow, filled the massive paw prints with shadow.
Beside me, Kjårten’s already snoring. On the night stand, a framed photo covered in dust. Mama and I are sitting on the fence of Fantoft Stave Kjirke. Deep into autumn, with her arms wrapped around me. We smile at the camera. Cheek-to-cheek. Crocodile skin shoes. Ballooning coveralls. Mama’s beehive piled away from her neck. Our faces flush with the glow of sunshine and blood. The polar opposite of what I can actually remember when I close my eyes—
In the casket, Mama’s skin ivory-cold. Bloodied walrus tusks. A pile of picked over whale bones. I placed a milky blue marble inside her mouth.