“You know it’s coming.”
“Of course. Not to worry.”
“You got enough fuses, matches? Toilet paper?”
“Jonas min, I have lived here 7 years. I have enough toilet paper to last me to the second coming.”
“I wish I could be there, but we have the state tests all week. I’ll try to get out Wednesday.”
“Don’t push it if it’s still howling. Jonas, you know I can take care of myself. Bamse says hello.”
“Jenta mi, no matter what the Beaufort scale says, your cell still works. Call me. How many candles do you have?”
“With the boxes you brought at Christmas, I’d say at least 20 gross. When the power goes, I’ll be the best lighthouse on the island.”
“Gotta go, Jonas.”
“OK. Stay warm, OK?”
“Very funny. Goodnight. I – well – I – I – I care about you.”
“I care about you as well. Go grade some essays.”
She pushed the red phone button and sighed, smiling. Life could be worse than having an overprotective “friend.” “Let’s not go analyze that right now,” she thought. “Save that for a better time.” Now it was time to batten down the hatches, bring inside anything that would get blown around, and do a final check on the moorings. It was just another winter storm, but with the churn of the week-long northeaster still roiling around the water’s edge, a sudden increase from the southeast could do some serious damage. Already the mercury was dropping precipitously. She glanced at the old barometer on the wall, which was heading below 1000 mb. It was famously unreliable. It had been stuck on “sunny, fair” during the entire northeast gales the week before. Well, that was normal for the northeasterners of winter. No change in air pressure, but the winds would make a man piss on himself no matter which way he turned. She grinned. And it had. But her grandfather’s German barometer got one thing right: it knew when the wind back-hauled. She didn’t need the marine forecast; a southeast blow was coming. A northeast is fierce but a southeasterner in the winter brings the monsters up from the deep. They would be catching strange fish for weeks afterwards, Gerd knew.
She checked her fire set-up and was satisfied. Bamse had curled up in the chair closest to the stone fireplace; he knew where the warmth would come from when needed. Gerd peered out the kitchen door: silent. No question about it, she’d have to move her sjekte around from the east to the west of the dock. The anchoring was much worse on the west side, nothing but sand mostly, but she needed to be in lee of the wind. Time for a land-line? Yes, maybe two even. She had a bad feeling about this one.
Gerd grabbed the wool sweater that she had knitted herself (good god, but it was ugly), snickered at her own non-domesticity in the knitting department and thought “but it’s warm! So I have stitches running all down the seam – do I care? Knitting is a plebeian occupation anyway.” She showed her feet into the rubber boots waiting by the door, shrugged into a windbreaker (no rain yet), and went out. Bamse watched her go, unconcerned.
It was beautiful out here in the calm before the storm. Pink sky at 3 pm. Soft, high, feathery clouds, none of those dark massive cumulous thunderheads. Gerd raised her eyes to the sky and the tree line and thought of the new weaving she was planning. This was perfect: pink and salmon streaks within a thousand shades of blue and grey. “The annunciation,” she thought. Damn, how the childhood indoctrination never leaves you. It even colors beauty.
She moved quietly down the path toward the dock. When she had retreated to the island so many years ago – intending to make the sojourn short and to find a final resting place in its coves of soft sand – the dock had been a few 2x4s hammered together barely hanging on to some rotten pilings. But later, when she had decided to remain among the living, she had actually entered the town bank and asked for a loan to build an unyielding wooden pier with cement pilings in a T shape: storm from any direction could not dislodge her. There it was. Dark, heavy, solid, defiant. Her sjekte – her wooden 22 ft fishing boat with a captain’s helm and a hold for the industrial amount of fish she was supposed to catch – rolled softly in the drag. Gerd hauled in the painter, stepped on board, and started the 4 liter Volvo Penta. She brought the painter on board and nimbly moved to the stern to pull up the anchor. A minute later she was on the other side of the T-shaped pier, nosing into it while idling the engine. She stepped ashore, fastened the painter with a very long slack, and let the boat float while she threw the anchor further out. Leaving it loose, she got back on the pier and walked down to the rock-strewn shoreline. She had a heavy line fastened in a hundred-year old bolt for just a situation like this. Grabbing that extra line, Gerd crab-walked back along the pier, onboard the boat, and fastened it to the stern. How much slack to run? Too much, and the boat would be dashed against the shore rocks. Too little, and it would be pulled apart. She made her best judgment and pulled in the painter so she could barely step back on the dock. Done.
At that very moment the first squall hit. Gerd looked up to the southeast. The dark line toward Denmark was approaching rapidly. Time to huddle close, pray to the god of dry firewood, and hide.
As she pushed against the growing wind up toward her house, Gerd saw a figure barely outlined against the storm clouds. Who the hell could be out in this weather? The faltering gait revealed him: pilot Joacim.
“Los Corneliussen, what are you doing out in this?”
“Hei, lille Gerd. Jo, I thought I just needed to see to it that all was secure.”
The retired pilot, Joacim Corneliussen, was ninety at least. He hadn’t piloted a ship through the treacherous entrance to Storesand in more than twenty years since they all got their GPS’es and whatnots.
“Thank you, los. Yes, we’re all settled on this end of the island. You know the Vegaards went back to town after Christmas. I just came down to put out an extra line on the sjekte. It’s back-hauling. They say it’s going to be a rough one.”
“Hmm,” said pilot Corneliussen, as if any fool born yesterday couldn’t see that. “Well, I’ll just make my rounds, then. You have enough firewood and matches, don’t you? If you don’t, you’re welcome to come over and stay with me.”
“Right,” thought Gerd. “If I came over to your house, I’d have to suffer through two thousand descriptions of every storm since God was a boy. And drink your dandelion wine, to boot. Guess I’ll pass.”
To Corneliussen, she said “I’m fine, thanks. Call me if you have any trouble. You know my phone number, right?”
“Hmmmm,” said Corneliussen, and moved past her. Telephones were the devil’s own invention as far as he was concerned. Why, when he was a boy …….
Gerd watched him limp over the grass toward the outside. The old man was running on whiskey and milk, as usual. He could probably order the storm to take another course just with a look. Good man to have in your corner.
Gerd felt the hairs on her neck stand on end. “There it comes.” From where she was standing at the corner of the Viking Graves, she couldn’t see the southeast horizon. No need to see, though, that wet wool blanket of the approaching storm front left no doubt. She started up the path just as the gusts started talking seriously.
It was no more than half a kilometer from the dock to her house. Across the low sands to the lilacs (well, lilacs in spring, anyway) and up the narrow path. By the time Gerd yanked open her front door, the rain was a wall of cold water and the wind was flattening small bushes. Put up the shutters? No, it was too late for that; already the view from her living room windows was nearly completely grey. But not totally: a monster of frigid water was heaving up 12-foot waves over the breakwater her grandfather had built. She hoped Los Joacim had had the sense to turn back. Well, he could probably breathe water, the old fish.
Bamse glimpsed up at her from his throne in the brown leather chair, unconcerned. Gerd tapped the ancient barometer and watched it sink 10 more millibars. She wandered restlessly around the living room and in and out of the kitchen. Make some food? She wasn’t hungry. Settle down and try to paint while the power was still on? No, better get the oil lamps out and put the candles and matches on tables and sideboards. Light a fire, in case it went suddenly. Rearranging the kindling and the wood (she had carried in three armfuls earlier) was good therapy. Gerd redid the fire set-up with some torn up sketches she didn’t like, added a few more sticks of dry kindling, and laid three spruce logs, cut side in, in an Indian tent over the starter. She picked up the nearest matchbox and ------- she went blind. From one second to the next, she could see nothing. She fumbled with the box in her hand and shakily lit one match. It gave a tiny bit of vision and she saw the nearest edge of the paper under the logs. Bending close, she touched the match to the paper just as it went out. Faen i helvete. Try again. This time the fire stayed lit until the paper caught. Gerd quickly pulled closed the glass shutters of her fireplace; in this old house, the wind found its way through cracks no one could see or find. A tiny spark, a real flame, and the kindling caught. She frantically grabbed a few more sticks of kindling that Jonas had split for her (“I love you for this”) in case the spruce wasn’t as dry as she thought. But it was, of course it was. Slowly and inexorably the light from the fire pushed back the darkness.
Gerd walked around from one oil lamp to the next, lighting the ones she thought would keep the storm outside. No way was she going to go upstairs to her cold and creaking bedroom tonight. She would have laughed, but the truth that she admitted only to herself was that she was panicked afraid of the dark. Yes, she was afraid. Without reason – is there ever reason for fear? Fear of a wolf staring you down, perhaps. But it wasn’t fear of the actual storm Gerd felt. It was the marrow-deep fear of the unseen. “Oh shut up,” she thought. “Don’t go there.” “God natt sang nylig den fugl på kvist og gjemte sitt nebb bak sin vinge ……” she hummed. There is nothing lonelier than a solitary human in a storm. She needed some other sound. Music, yes. With no power she could run her laptop for a few hours on the battery, but she didn’t want to deplete it. The old CD player, where was it? Oh, useless of course, no power. Wait, didn’t she have an old radio with a cassette player somewhere? One with batteries? Yes, in the back of the closet in the spare room downstairs (she wasn’t going to go upstairs) was where she found it. Searching for a battery-driven radio holding a candle aloft; if her heart wasn’t hammering 140 beats a minute it would have been funny. And batteries – Cs or Ds? – are on the top shelf in the kitchen next to the useless fuses. Behind the radio she found two cassettes: Jan Gabarek and Lillebjørn Nilsen. Not exactly Carmen, but plenty good enough: Gerd found and inserted the batteries and shoved in the first cassette a bit roughly. Dulcet tones of Jan Gabarek in a mellow mood filed the room. Breathe, just breathe.
The only clock in the house that ran on batteries was her grandfather’s carved mantelpiece monstrosity. Love for her unknown grandfather and his delicate hands carving roses and cherubs in soft wood filled her. The clock hands showed the short hand between 5 and 6 and the long hand straight down. 5:30, she deduced. “Here I am pretending to be a tough, self-sufficient pioneer living alone on a godforsaken island in a storm, and I can barely tell the time.” She made a mental note to be better prepared for the next time as her heart beat slowly steadied.
Food. In dire straits people need hot liquids. Oh, shit, of course the refrigerator is out as well. And so is the stove. Forget the microwave, how ridiculous. Gerd knew she had an old propane one-burner somewhere in the shed; did she dare venture out that far? No other option if she wanted hot food tonight.
She found the big maglight – yes, full of superb batteries – and tested the kitchen door. It faced north, so it opened. Something was slamming in the wind like Tor’s hammer. The shed door, probably. Gathering her courage around her like a prayer Gerd pushed out the door and down the five steps. Black as evil surrounded her with a wind force that tore her hair out by the roots. “The shed is there; ten steps away; it hasn’t moved.” She felt her way around the corner and moved into the northwest cone of silence. What’s slamming? Just some old hemp rope she had hung on the door; how she had even heard it over the howl of the wind she couldn’t imagine. She hauled the right side of the double barn doors open. The door nearly flew out of her hand and she didn’t care.
Gerd shone the flashlight cone into the maw of the shed. Evil, evil. “Get a grip, girl, there is nothing here that wasn’t here in daylight.” She knew – thought she knew – that the propane burner was on the top west wall shelf. Yes, there it was: dark green and solid. But was there propane in the canister? At this point, she couldn’t care. Food or no food; all she wanted was to get back into her safe house. She pulled down the burner and dropped a few other things on the floor in the process. No big. With the propane stove tucked under her arm, Gerd backtracked, showed the big door closed and secured the latch, and, head down, forced her way back to the stairs, up the stairs, in the door (close the door), and into the kitchen. She trembled as she put the burner on the counter.
“I need a glass of wine,” she thought, “just one, to steady my hands.” She went into the living room and to the big corner hutch where she kept liquor. Grabbed a glass – don’t care if it’s a white wine glass – and held it under the spout of the red wine box. Filled the glass; took a sip. The effect was instantaneous; liquid warmth spread through her icy veins. Holding the glass and feeling much more competent, Gerd went into the kitchen, opened the valve on the propane burner, and held a match to the hiss. It lit like this was its only purpose in life.
Throw some water in a pot for starters and put it over the flame. What’s in the little refrigerator freezer compartment? Aha! Two slices of cod from long ago when she was planning to prepare something-or-other for Jonas and they had ended up in bed instead. She tore the plastic bag in half with her hands and dumped the frozen cod into the simmering water. Needed some vegetables, but all the perfectly blanched and frozen vegetables from her extensive garden were in the box freezer in the shed. No way.
Gerd dug in the veggie compartment of the warming fridge and came up with some green beans and carrots that had seen better days. In the pot they went. Onion? Don’t have any. But look – there are a few slivers of garlic that are not totally rotted. In fact, they look just fine. Throw them in – we can fish them out later. Need some stock of some kind: no, it’s all in the box freezer. OK, how about a Maggi vegetable cube? Yummy.
It was 6pm and time for the evening marine forecast. The Gabarek tape had ended and she switched the radio over to FM. She turned the knob and Abba was asking for money, money, money. Herrejesus after that ridiculous movie Abba had had a resurgence. “Hell must be an infinite loop of Abba,” she thought sourly. The second-spaced beeps started and finally a tinny voice said “This is the southern marine forecast, broadcasting from Havnsheia.” All-crafts warning; all local ferry traffic suspended. The man with the West coast accent didn’t say it, but the implication was clear: stay the hell off the water if you weren’t there already and if you were, head for shelter. Nothing she didn’t already know. She turned off the radio and jumped when her phone started playing Solveig’s Song. Nanna.
“Hei yourself, how’s it going?”
“Bamse and I are fine; we have wine, cat food, and candles. How are you and Peder?”
“We’re good. You know we are in a wind-shadow here; can’t feel the southeaster much.”
“So what do we say now?” thought Gerd. Better not chat too long; I have no way to charge this thing.
“Want to come over and spend the night with us?” Nanna asked. “Elise left two days ago and the spare room is just sitting there all alone.”
“Thanks, but no thanks,” said Gerd. “I’m totally watertight with the new windows and we’re snug as bugs in a rug.” How snug can a bug be in a rug? She smiled at herself.
“OK. Stay in touch, though. I’m going to check on Gamlefru Andresen. You know she forgets to eat.”
Forgetting to eat, that would be a serious charge in Nanna’s book. Nanna was big, blond, generous, loving, and a horrible cook. People thought twice before accepting an invitation to dinner at the Høgdes. Actually, Nanna had retained her family name of Dalsenga, but no one paid attention. She and Peder were the Høgdes, whether she liked it or not.
“Now don’t give her food poisoning on top of her arthritis, right?” joked Gerd.
“Not to worry; I’ll just bring her one of my famous pasta dishes. You can eat that cold and it’s just as good.”
Gerd refrained from the obvious response. Everyone needs a Nanna, she thought. Nanna was the mother of the island.
“OK, girlfriend. I’ll stop by when this blow is over. I have to go before my batteries run out.”
“You don’t have a spare battery?” Nanna asked anxiously.
Shit. Shouldn’t have said that.
“Yes, of course I do. I was just joking.”
“Not like you to joke, Gerd.”
True indeed. When god handed out the gift of the gab, Gerd must have been busy with something else. Thinking about colors of yarn, probably.
“Nanna, my soup is boiling over. I’ll see you later, OK?”
“OK, honey. Stay warm”
Nanna hung up the phone. Gerd went into the kitchen and retrieved the mangled so-called fish soup from the propane burner. She actually was a decent cook, she thought. Really she was. But this concoction? Another glass of wine would make it taste just right. Gerd mused about it: seven years on the island in all kinds of weather and every season. She knew every herb in her garden, every rock to stumble over, every sound of the cherry trees in wind, rain, and sun. Why was she thrown into a catatonic panic in darkness? “I’m genetically afraid of the dark,” she thought. Some people are genetically predisposed to anaphylactic shock if they ingest a peanut, some become invalids from a single toxic blueshell while others feel nothing at all. Me, I’m afraid of the dark.
Blaming it on genes rather than on moral weakness made her feel better. She sat down to swallow some of the awful soup and sipped her glass. “But I can turn it into something,” she thought. “I can weave darkness on my upstairs loom.” Weaving darkness, what a god-awful idea. But potentially therapeutic? Not tonight. Tonight she would huddle by the fire to banish all demons, drink herself insensate, and wake in the morning to clear skies and birdsong.
The fire was roaring, Bamse was imitating a warm, furry rock (OK, a very large, furry rock), and she was beginning to doze off when the cell phone started blasting again. This time it played Beethoven’s 5th.
“God, glad I got you. Can you come help?”
“Help what, Henrik?”
“The Englishman’s boat has pulled its moorings. It’s floating about 50 meters off shore. The fool’s totally useless. We need all the help we can get.”
“Carmichael? What has he done now?”
“Oh, nothing. Just that he may have a scout’s book of knots and badges to prove it but tie up a boat on the right side of the dock he couldn’t do to save his life.”
Jonathan Wayne Carmichael was a fairly recent addition to the island. Through some convoluted means of inheritance, he had found himself the owner of a rather nice white, wooden, one-story house just behind Henrik and Jutta. He couldn’t sell it – well not easily – because of the Norwegian laws of inheritance and permanent occupation of certain buildings. So he moved in. Two years ago, in brilliant summer light. Carmichael was not exactly anti-social, but he wasn’t an island rat either. How he made a living, no one knew. But there he was, with a huge wooden fishing boat far too large for him and a dock that was the envy of every legitimate island inhabitant. His tie-up facilities were superb. If he only knew how to use them, that is.
“Do you really need me, Henrik?”
“Girl, all the people in nyhusene fled before the storm and Old Einar’s house is dark. Peder is going to bring out his 14 footer, but we do sorely need someone to man the runabout while we try to get a line on Carmichael’s boat.”
“OK. I’ll come. I’m just going to find my flashlights. 10 minutes?”
“Bless you, girl. And the Englishman would bless you if he had a thought in his head.”
“I know. Over and out Henrik.”
Out in the screaming dark. With the storm had come a wall of rain that made her think she was trapped in the Nautilus. Gerd pulled on rain pants, rain boots, a slicker, and an old southwester from her grandfather that had a flap down the back to keep the water from running down her freezing spine. She pulled open the door and entered the elements.
Down the path wasn’t so bad; she was sheltered by the trees. Once she came out of the path, though, she’d have to traverse the lowlands of the “Viking Graves” before once again reaching the relative shelter of the beach. She pushed through, not caring what devils were riding the wind. Once on the asphalt path, she could almost stand upright. She trudged up the hill and down again and there was Peder’s house. And Nanna, standing in the doorway waiting for her.
“They’re at the dock, waiting to cast off.”
“OK. I’ll be back soon.”
Nanna nodded, no doubt going back into her kitchen to devise something equally inedible for their return. Gerd slinked along the red boat house and out to the dock, gale winds nearly pushing her into the boiling water. She saw the Englishman’s boat rapidly receding to the north, dragging its anchor. Henrik and Peder were in the open 14 footer, which looked like a child’s toy in the undertow of the storm surge. They nodded to each other; she got in.
The minute they rounded the main pier, the surge caught them. It wasn’t so much the size of waves as their power that made navigation a joke. The 25 HP Mercury engine screamed and fought. They were gaining on the huge fishing boat. And where was Carmichael? Probably blissed out in his cottage, she thought. Carmichael had some interesting habits, very macrobiotic and very potent. Henrik was in the bow with a boat hook. Peder was hanging on to a coil of hemp rope. The fishing boat was nearly in reaching distance.
A rogue wave caught them just as Henrik was about to get his hook onto the boat railing. They rose like a tidal wave above the line of the fishing boat. Herregud, they were going to land on top of it. The wave receded and pulled them back out of reach. Once more, Gerd shoved the throttle to maximum to gain leverage. This time they got close. Henrik hooked the boat and pulled it dangerously close. And he jumped. At least a meter up, Henrik jumped onto the fishing vessel. He turned around just as Peder threw him the rope. Making it fast on something – whatever – he signaled to Peder to start pulling. Gerd reversed the motor, which didn’t appreciate that one bit. They got about 10 meters of rope between them, Peder making his end fast around a thwart. Henrik was obviously staying on the vessel. Gerd started turning the runabout into the wind to tow the huge boat. Up six feet of freezing water, down six feet. The runabout could take anything, but the engine didn’t like its propeller hitting air at the tops. They made slow progress toward the shore.
The three got the fishing boat back to shore and tied it up the way it should have been in the first place. Where was the owner? They could have trudged up to his house to give him an earful, but no one wanted any more trouble tonight. Nanna half-heartedly invited them in to eat, but Henrik and Gerd shook their heads. At the gate to his house, Henrik stopped.
“Gerd, I worry for you.”
“No need to worry, Henkie, I’m water and wind-tight.”
“How is your sjekte?”
“I tied her up on the west side hours ago. She’s fine. Los Corneliussen as much as said so.”
Well, he hadn’t, but if she had missed even the slightest thing, he would have let her know. Henrik didn’t seem satisfied. Finally, he said “Where is Einar, I wonder?”
“I haven’t seen him since Friday. His house has been dark. He’s not getting any younger, you know.”
“He might have gone to see his sister. You know his sister lives up behind Berget. On top of the hill.”
“He has a sister?”
“Twenty years you have lived here, Henkie, and talked to Einar every day and you didn’t know he has family in Storesand?”
“Nope. We don’t talk about family.”
“You wouldn’t. But he does. I’m going home to sleep, Henrik. Say hi to Jutta for me.
Gerd tucked her head down and walked slowly up the hill from Henrik’s. Up one hill, then a little dip, then another hill and down to the beach. Although the storm was still blowing fiercely, it seemed to have lost some of its appetite for destruction. Even in the pitch dark, Gerd didn’t want to click on her flashlight. Halfway across the sand, she stopped and marveled. The storm-leaden sky was breaking up and tiny flashes of stars showed through. “Up above the clouds, the skies are always blue.” She trudged on, thinking of old Einar. Yes, he had a sister at Skyteplassen behind Berget, but she knew they hadn’t seen eye to eye since childhood. Not very likely he’d go there. Einar was known to have a great thirst for beer. He hadn’t mistaken day for night, had he? And thought he had to bring in his lobstertraps before sunrise? No, no matter how sodden he might be, Einar knew wind and water. Although there was that old story …..
Gerd amused herself with island gossip as she at last made it to her own front door. Bamse made a major effort and heaved his 12 kilos off the chair and down to her feet, demanding treats or at least canned cat food. He allowed her to feed him, noblesse oblige. There were four messages on her phone, all from Jonas. The first three were frantic, but by the 4th, he had calmed down. “Sleep well, jenta mi, and dream of me. I’ll be there holding the devils at bay.” Gerd smiled, felt her customary nagging worry that someone knew her too well, and decided that on a night like this she’d stay in the extra room downstairs just to keep Bamse company. Sleepwalking, Gerd blew out all the candles and oil lamps. She limped into the spare room where she had a small bed. Complete darkness, but a cozy darkness. She pulled off her stiff clothes, threw them in a heap (tomorrow is another day) and fell asleep on the cot before her head hit the pillow. She didn’t even feel Bamse hauling his weight into her bed. Her last thought was “Where is Einar?”