The Nordlyset by T. D. Komoff
The Arctic research station looked like a half-buried Coke can turned on its side. A snow desert surrounded the station, stretching unbroken to the horizons. It was a forgotten building that smelled of rotting floorboards and neglect. Gene’s job for the winter was to babysit air monitors, retrieving and replacing the filters that collected windborne pollution. A young grad student should have been there, not a 63-year-old tenured professor, but Gene had insisted.
Gene wanted to forget. He longed for amnesia, which was why he was drawn to the Arctic. Snow didn’t have memories. Any impressions he made would be wiped away by wind and storms, leaving nothing but an empty peace.
It was six in the evening and already dark, had been for hours. Gene had made a chair by scooping a seat out of a snowdrift. He sat on it, leaning against the station wall. There was little to do at the station, save work, and no one to talk to. The aurora was a welcome diversion and that evening it didn’t disappoint, putting on one of the most vibrant displays he had seen. The lights hung in thick blue-green curtains. To Gene, they looked like women in flowing dresses gently swaying.
The Alaskan Inuits thought the lights were deceased warriors kicking a walrus head across the sky. The Cree thought they were the souls of deceased loved ones. Where had Gene learned that? Sandra, she had always had an interesting tidbit to share.
“The Norwegians called the lights the Nordlyset,” she had told him once. How long ago was it, thirty? No, thirty-three years. “They said you could make them change their dance if you whistled and, if you kept whistling, they would draw closer.” There was more to the myth. Gene knew it turned dark at the end, but the memory clouded. If he tried to see through the cloud, he encountered…was it resistance? It didn’t really matter. Gene didn’t want to remember; remembering Sandra hurt too much. Darts of umber light zipped between the dancing women.
“The all-red lights are the rarest,” Sandra whispered in his memory. He tried to think of something else, but the memory was too strong. He could almost feel her warm breath on his ear. They had been on a mountain somewhere in Norway, watching the lights. It was during their honeymoon even though they had been married three years before they could afford to take the trip. He wished he could rest his cheek against her head, the way he had that night on the mountain.
“You know the northern and the southern lights are mirror images of one another,” Sandra had said. She looked up at him with that Cheshire Cat grin she wore when embarrassed…or lying. “I’ve always imagined they were dancing.” She blushed and turned her face away, her hair brushing against him. She always smelled of lavender, Gene remembered.
Years later, NASA discovered the auroras were not mirror images. Gene read about it in a magazine, sitting in a hospital waiting room while Sandra underwent another barrage of tests. He hid the magazine under a stack of old newspapers before she returned. Sometimes a lie is better than the truth, he had thought at the time.
Gene shifted uncomfortably against the research station. The snow desert lay before him, vast and empty with a cold that stretched on forever. It penetrated his thick snow gear and seemed to grip his heart. Memories of the warm Texas evenings he and Sandra had spent looking up at the stars on their back porch came unbidden. Gene had volunteered for this Arctic assignment as a way to escape his memories. Now that he was here, however, he found escape harder than ever.
“Nordlyset,” he said to no one.
Was it really a pair of dancers reaching for one another, or warriors playing with a walrus head or…lost loved ones? Gene stopped himself, knowing if he went down that path it would be painful. But the wish was strong, too tempting to think she could be up there dancing.
“If you keep whistling, they draw closer,” Sandra whispered in his mind. Gene licked his lips, the moisture immediately freezing. Turning his face to the sky, he whistled a single note, drawing it out. He told himself it was a lark, the act of a bored old man trying to fill the lonely hours. But it wasn’t a lark, far from it. It was an appeal to whatever lay in the heavens, “bring her back…please.” He imagined the note flying from his pursed lips, away from the Coke-can station, over the endless snow, and into the night sky where Sandra was waiting.
He whistled until he was out of breath, staring at the Nordlyset for any hint it might have heard him. A few bursts of purple light streaked across the sky. He leaned forward, thinking, perhaps, something might happen. But the blue-green ladies went on dancing, oblivious. His heart hurt. There had been other nights like this, nights when he thought anything could happen, but nothing ever did.
Water dripped from Gene’s snow gear into a puddle on the rotting wood floor. He laid awake in bed, listening to the sound of the droplets fall in the dark. He counted the time between drops, trying to keep his mind occupied with something other than painful memories. Plop, “One, two, three, four…” Plop.
Beneath the sound of dripping water and Gene’s whispered counting there was another noise. Faint at first, it came from far away, growing louder as it approached.
It was a crackling sound, similar to fireworks, the yellow ones that sparkle and die after the big explosions turn to smoke. Initially, Gene thought the vacuum tubes in the station’s ancient ham radio were finally dying, but as the crackling grew louder, he noticed a muffled quality to the sound. It was coming from outside.
He made his way across the darkened room, accidentally stepping in the puddle of melted snow. The water soaked through his socks, causing a full-body shiver. Beyond the tiny window in the door, the snow desert seemed to undulate with the northern lights. It was like looking into a fishless aquarium, the landscape remaining motionless as the lights surged and swelled around it. A figure stood in the distance, watching the station. A dark silhouette against the illuminated sky.
“Sandra,” Gene whispered, the word fogging the window. But it couldn’t be. The scientist in him was saying it had to be a polar bear, or perhaps a local, though he was hundreds of miles from the nearest village. The figure advanced, growing larger. This wasn’t right, he thought and grabbed the emergency shotgun that hung over the door. It was old like the station, hadn’t been taken care of in years and Gene wasn’t sure it would even work, but the feel of it in his hands was reassuring. The crackling sound grew louder. It penetrated the room, echoing off the walls and multiplying until it roared.
Gene reached for the deadbolt on the door and flipped it locked for the first time since arriving. The figure stopped, as if it could hear the lock clicking into place even across that great distance. The Aurora grew brighter until it was almost blinding, obscuring the silhouette, burning the image into his retinas. It was only a moment before the lights dimmed, a moment longer before his vision cleared. By the time Gene could see again, the figure was gone.
The next night, Gene dreamed he was back in Texas, sleeping in their overly air-conditioned bedroom. The ceiling fan spun above, his effort to drown out the noise of Sandra watching television in the living room down the hall. They had been married for decades, their girls grown and gone. He was accustomed to her warm body beside him. In fact, he couldn’t really fall asleep until she crawled into bed.
“I’ll just toss and turn for hours if I go to bed early,” she always said.
“And I’ll just toss and turn for hours if you don’t,” Gene would always reply. Then he would go to bed defeated, drifting in and out of sleep, until he heard the slow creak of the bedroom door closing and Sandra’s clothes falling to the floor as she crossed the room.
The mattress dipped as she climbed under the covers, her body heat radiating to his side of the bed. With great effort, Gene pulled himself just far enough out of sleep to roll over, flopping an arm out to pull her closer. His knuckles hit the curved metal wall of the station, the impact vibrating his bones, jarring him awake. Gene sat up, her name forming soundlessly on his lips as he scanned the empty station.
It had been a dream, but seemed so real. He had felt the mattress move. Gene threw the covers back, exposing the bare side of the bed. The fitted sheet was crumpled, almost in the shape of a body. He felt it. Still warm.
Gene grabbed the spare pillow, holding it to his face, breathing in. There was the familiar smell of dampness that lingered over everything in the station, but also another scent, a stronger scent. The scent of lavender.
Days were short this time of year, sunlight lasted only a few hours. By three-o-clock the following afternoon, the sun had set. Gene sat at the table, laptop before him, entering the day’s data into a spreadsheet. After Sandra’s visit the night before, he had forced himself to stay awake, sitting on the edge of the bed, pillow in arms, hoping she’d return. Now, the lack of sleep was catching up to him. His head drifted up and down as he fought slumber.
Gene slapped himself to wake up. His wedding ring hit his cheekbone, causing a dull throb. The last few nights of Sandra’s life had been much the same. Gene sitting in a hard vinyl chair by her bed, slapping himself awake. Afraid if he fell asleep, she’d pass.
He didn’t want to remember this. Gene tried to focus on his work, but the image of Sandra lying in the hospital bed forced itself to the front of his mind. She was small, grey against the white sheets. He had wanted to hold her, as if holding her would keep her from slipping away, but the blood thinners made her bruise easily and the chemotherapy had made her so fragile.
Instead, he spent their last night together sitting beside her, limply holding Sandra’s hand as they watched television and talked about Gene’s plans to pick their girls up from the airport in the morning and bring them to the hospital.
“They’ll be tired after the flight,” Sandra said. “They won’t want to come here. They’ll want to take a nap.”
“They’ll want to see their mother.” Gene had replied, stopping himself before he squeezed her hand. She had grinned up at him, a grin that later Gene realized was her Cheshire Cat grin, as if she had known, as if she planned it.
“You look old, husband,” Sandra said. She lifted her free hand, gently running the fingertips down his stubbled cheek.
“I am old, wife,” Gene replied, smiling. A tear slid down Sandra’s cheek; he watched as it was absorbed by the pillowcase, leaving a small dark circle on the fabric.
“No,” she said, her voice catching. “You’re tired. You’ve been sleeping in that chair too long.”
“I don’t mind.” Later, Gene wished he’d told her he slept better sitting in the hard chair beside her than he ever would sleeping on a soft mattress alone. Maybe, if he had said that, she would have let him stay.
“You need to go home,” Sandra said. “You’ve got a long drive tomorrow. I don’t need you falling asleep behind the wheel with the kids in the car.” She had squeezed his hand, looked him in the eye, and with a seriousness she rarely showed said, “You have to take care of our girls.” She paused, waiting for him.
“Of course,” Gene said.
Sandra nodded and there it was again, that Cheshire Cat smile, accompanied by tears.
“I love you. You know that?” she said.
“I love you too. He leaned over and kissed her, not in the passionate way he once had but in that gentle way he had learned since the start of her illness. A light brush of his lips on hers, never enough. Though nothing was ever enough when it came to Sandra during those final days.
“Go on, get out of here.” She pulled her hand away from his. “Go get some sleep.” He tried to protest, but she stopped him. “I’ll be here tomorrow,” the Cheshire grin, “I swear.”
Gene was about to pull out of the hospital parking deck when a nurse called to say he needed to come back. He left the car in the middle of the aisle, keys in the ignition, and started to run.
The hospital campus was large, too large, the hallways too endless. He ran, feeling like time was racing ahead of him, too fast to keep up. He reached her floor, shoving the door so hard it banged against the wall and echoed down the corridor.
Dr. Chang stood just outside Sandra’s room, his back to Gene. At the sound of the door, the doctor turned, his eyebrows pinched, a frown on his face as he started forward.
Gene immediately stopped, wishing for time to stand still as well. Wishing that Dr. Chang would stop walking toward him with that pitying look on his face. Wishing that the news he knew was coming would never make it. But time continued to race on.
“I’m sorry,” Dr. Chang said. Two words that brought Gene to his knees.
“I was just here.” His mouth filled with the hot thick liquid that always accompanied tears. “She said she’d see me tomorrow.” He was vaguely aware of Dr. Chang leaning beside him, his voice saying things Gene could not possibly understand.
Before him, the laptop’s screen had grown fuzzy, the spreadsheet blurred. He thought about entering the room where Sandra’s body lay. Of how empty it had felt, of how empty she felt. As he thought about that horrible night, he realized she was with him. He felt her. Sandra stood behind him, near the station’s door, watching.
“You didn’t let me say goodbye,” he said. The floorboards creaked as Sandra took a step forward, the lavender scent preceding her, wrapping around him like a light blanket. “You didn’t even wait for the kids.” She stepped closer. He felt her heat radiating on his back. “You were sick, and then you were just gone.” He would not turn around. “You made me leave, and it was selfish. You were selfish.”
He knew that wasn’t true as he said it, but it felt good to be angry at her. Feeling anger was so much better than feeling loss. “You ruined everything.” He had driven home that night, pulled into the driveway only to realize he couldn’t bring himself to enter their empty home.
Instead, Gene drove to the airport. The highway was deserted, the streetlights casting bright circles on the pavement that reminded him of the tear on her pillowcase. He sat in the empty baggage claim area. The conveyor belts still. The room silent, save for the echoing taps of the night guard’s shoes as he patrolled the room. The guard kept a wary eye on Gene, as Gene intermittently slept, and wept, and waited to tell his girls their mother had died.
“You left me.” Gene couldn’t look at her. She pulled away, his back cooling, the lavender scent fading. “You ruined our life,” he said, instantly hating himself for it. Why, after all this time wishing he could be with her, was he so angry when he finally was? Her scent was almost gone. “Sandra?” he asked. “Wait. I’m sorry.” He turned to where he was sure she was standing. “Don’t leave.” But she was already gone.
Beyond the window, the Norldyset danced. Gene watched it for a while, then let out a long whistle, hoping the lights would bring Sandra back. Instead, they faded away.
Neither the Nordlyset nor Sandra appeared to Gene the next day, nor the day after. Maybe his anger had driven her off for good. He felt guilty. A feeling that quickly turned to panic when he realized his last words to his wife were those of anger. He watched the window for the lights. The image burned into his retinas, so even asleep the small square floated on the backs of his eyelids.
On the third night after Sandra’s visit to the station, as Gene sat sentinel by the window, the Nordlyset finally returned. It started as a faint blue haze, filling the sky and causing Gene to wonder if it was real or just a figment of his wishful mind. The light grew brighter, green curtains emerging from the blue.
Then Sandra was there, a dark silhouette on the horizon. Too far for him to discern any features. Close enough for him to know it was her. Gene grabbed his snow gear—the hanger ricocheting away—and dressed quickly and followed Sandra out into the Arctic night.
Gene walked for a long time. Long enough for the research station to disappear beyond the horizon; long enough for his limbs to itch, then burn, then grow numb from the cold. He stumbled through the deep snow, not taking his eyes off Sandra’s tiny figure in the distance. The snow suit wicked away his sweat, freezing it in the folds of the fabric, making it difficult to walk. Gene briefly stopped to bend his limbs and break the ice crystals free, but in the few seconds he paused, Sandra almost disappeared.
“Wait!” It was a sob; he was exhausted physically and emotionally. With great effort, Gene ran. The frozen legs of the suit fought his every stride. The sleeves refused to bend. “Sandra!” Her figure grew smaller until it was no more than a dot on the horizon, a dot he continually lost sight of as he lunged over the snow. He ran until his legs were weak, his lungs hurt, and nothing but his forward momentum kept him upright; he couldn’t close the distance.
Gene’s boot caught under a heavy snow drift. He fell too fast to catch himself, landing chest first, knocking the wind out of him. He couldn’t breathe. Panic—but not for oxygen or the lack of it, rather from the growing distance to Sandra. Gene rolled on his back, sucked air and snow in short loud gasps, desperate to recuperate. But Gene was old, just as Sandra had said that last night. And just like that last night, time and Sandra raced on without him.
Above, the Nordlyset was almost gone, revealing stars he had never seen back home. She had left him…again. He couldn’t reach her, not with his aching lungs and numb limbs that were on the verge of frostbite. Gene doubted he could even make it back to the station. He was defeated, realizing he’d been that way since the hospital. He had spent months fighting a battle he had already lost. He couldn’t do it anymore. He didn’t want to be lonely; he didn’t want to fight his memories; he didn’t want to miss her. It was time to give in, to stop fighting. Time to rest.
“If you whistle,” Sandra’s memory whispered, and he didn’t turn away from the thoughts as he usually did. Instead, he listened, pursed his lips, and blew. It was a lonely sound. A sound that ended almost as soon as it began, replaced by rib bruising coughs, but it was enough.
The stars grew fainter then winked out as the Nordlyset returned. It filled the sky, encompassing Gene in a blue-green dome of fire. Wind rushed over the empty expanse, carrying stray snowflakes that dusted his face and smelled of lavender.
Suddenly, a warm hand was wiping the snow from Gene’s eyes. Sandra was there. She knelt beside him. Her thick hair, hair she had mostly lost during the brief months of chemo, dangled around her face. Her skin was no longer the grey cast of death, but the blue-green of the lights, the colors shifting in time with the Nordlyset above. The ache in his lungs ebbed. He took a deep breath, relishing how easy the air now came. Sandra ran her fingertips down his cheek in her familiar way.
“Come with me,” her voice was slow, serene. Gene cried. She wasn’t a memory. She was real.
“Where?” he asked, though it didn’t matter.
He got to his knees, effortlessly, like he was floating.
“Take care of our girls,” Sandra had said in the hospital, accompanied by a memory of the girls finding him asleep in baggage claim. Their faces breaking into tears as they realized the news Gene couldn’t bring himself to say. The three of them crying and holding each other as busy travelers surrounded them, collecting their luggage with quick pitying glances. The girls were devastated they hadn’t said goodbye. He couldn’t do that to them again.
Sandra looked at Gene, brows furrowed as they sometimes were when she was puzzling a problem. He almost spoke, almost told her he needed to say goodbye, but as he opened his mouth the crackling returned. Behind Sandra, the Nordlyset swirled like water flowing down a drain, two figures forming in its center. The figures glided down, alighting on the snow behind her. The ghosts of his girls smiled at Gene, echoing the peaceful expression of their mother.
If his girls were there, they had to be…no, he couldn’t complete the thought. If he went down that road he would crumble, the same way he had crumbled in the hospital hallway. This time he wouldn’t be able to put himself back together. This would kill him and even Sandra wasn’t enough to stop it. The girls’ figures evaporated.
“They’re not dead,” Sandra whispered, her face serene. He was already crumbing, already starting to feel as if he was losing control.
“Why would you do that!” Gene screamed. It was cruel. Sandra had never been cruel. Had death changed her, or…
“You wanted to see your children again,” she said.
For a moment, everything stopped for Gene. She said ‘your,’ and suddenly, Gene was very afraid.
Sandra reached to stroke his face again; reflexively, he grabbed her wrist before she could touch him. Gene didn’t want to touch her—it—but he was afraid of what might happen if he let the hand go. The wrist felt so familiar, the details so perfect. The scar on the palm Sandra got from the oven during their first Thanksgiving. He flipped the hand over and there was the familiar pattern of veins and freckles. He looked at the figure’s chest, to where the odd-shaped mole Sandra had always been so self-conscious about peaked from beneath the collar of the dress. Perfect.
“If you keep whistling it will draw closer,” Sandra said, but not the Sandra standing before him—the Sandra from his memory, from that night on the mountain. “If you let it draw too close, though, it will take you away.” The memory clouded. Gene struggled to recall what she said next, but there was that familiar resistance.
The thing before him smiled a Cheshire Cat grin.
“You did a really good job copying her.”
The grin fell and Gene knew. It had been in his mind, been there even before he whistled to it, perhaps even made him whistle. All those memories, the ones Gene had been trying to suppress, this thing had called forth.
“I can give you whatever you want, be whoever you want me to be,” it said. The world shimmered, the lights shifting and shaping until they were no longer in the snow desert, but their bedroom in Texas. A room Gene hadn’t entered since the funeral.
“Stop,” Gene whispered.
A fog filled the room, the edges of the furniture blurring until they disappeared. When it cleared, they were on the edge of the mountain from their honeymoon.
“Stop,” Gene demanded.
The Nordlyset looked at him, it’s serene face hardened.
Suddenly, Gene was sitting in a hard hospital chair. Sandra, fragile and small in the hospital bed, looked at him with scared eyes.
“Gene,” it said in a voice weak and pleading. Cruelty.
Gene pushed away, the metal chair legs screeching against the linoleum. “Stop this!” he yelled.
Sandra’s face winced in pain. Instantly, they were back in the snow desert.
Gene looked around, disoriented. “Why are you doing this?”
“You called me,” the Nordlyset said.
“You made me,” Gene replied.
The Nordlyset grinned.
“Come with me,” its whispered words swept around him on the wind, like a snake coiling around its prey. “I can be your wife, your daughters. Anything…everything.” She held her hand out for him to take.
“You’re not Sandra,” Gene said. There had been more to the myth, a way to drive away the Nordlyset. What had Sandra said? The Nordlyset clouded his memory.
A tug on Gene’s jacket made him look down. An eight-year-old version of his eldest daughter looked back at him.
“Come with us, Daddy,” she said in a sweet little girl voice she had lost long ago.
“You have to take care of our girls,” The Nordlyset made Sandra’s memory say.
“Take care of us, Daddy,” his daughter echoed. She held her small hand up to his. Gene recoiled. This wasn’t his child. He didn’t know what it was, but certainly not his family. What had Sandra told him about the Nordlyset? “They’ll take you away.”
“I’ll make you happy,” The Nordlyset said. “You will never be alone.” Behind her, Gene’s deceased parents materialized, his childhood dog by their side, his grandmother not far behind. His daughters ran circles around his family, two little girls dressed in nightgowns. He could feel the Nordlyset in his mind, working on him, confusing him, so that he struggled to believe his loved ones weren’t real.
“Son, it’s time to go home,” his father said, holding out a hand.
Gene’s head felt fuzzy.
“Let’s go home, Daddy,” his youngest echoed, her hand outstretched.
They were right; he was tired, it was time to go home. He took a step forward, reaching for his daughter’s hand.
“They’ll take you away,” Sandra’s memory whispered. There was something important he had to remember. What was it? “They’ll take you away.” They… Gene looked at the little girl and slowly put together the thought that had been fighting to break free.
“You…are…not…my…daughter,” he said finally. The girl’s face cringed as if he had slapped her and Gene could feel the cloud in his mind thin just a little. “You are not my family.” The faces of his loved ones grimaced in pain. The cloud thinned even more. “You are not real.”
The Nordlyset strode forward, angry.
“Come with me or die.” It held its hand out for him. The Nordlyset needed acceptance, needed him to willingly follow it into the night. Every time he had doubted it, refused it or it’s creations, they winced as if in pain.
“No,” Gene tested. Sandra’s face winced and what little cloud was left in Gene’s mind evaporated.
“You clap,” Sandra had said on the mountain. “Just clap and it goes away.” In his memory, she shrugged. She hadn’t really understood the myth, liked it because of the creepy undertone, but didn’t get why whistling and clapping would work to control it. Gene knew why now. It wasn’t the actions that mattered, but the will behind them. He had to invite the Nordlyset into his life and whistling was a physical way to express that invitation. And now…now he had to send it away.
“Gene,” The Nordlyset implored, clasping its hands. “Come with me.”
Gene pulled off his gloves, letting them fall to the ground. The Arctic air felt like it bit through his skin, slicing the bone.
“Don’t,” the Nordlyset pleaded.
Gene clapped, his hands so cold they felt like glass shattering.
“Daddy!” His girls were back and screaming in pain.
He clapped again.
“Gene, stop this,” his mother cried.
The figures of his family twisted in agony. “You’re hurting us!” Sandra screamed.
“I’m sorry,” he said and he meant it, but these weren’t his parents, grandmother, wife, kids. His daughters were women now, and they were out there, somewhere, waiting for him to come home. He clapped again, loud and fast until the sound seemed to merge into one long thunderous rumble.
The screams were deafening, no longer human, but a wild metallic sound. His family writhed on the ground before bursting into a haze of blue-green light and fleeing to the sky. Gene fell to his knees, clapping through the overwhelming pain until the Nordlyset faded away and with it, most of the feeling in his hands.
Snow has no memories. For a while, Gene thought that was what he wanted: peaceful amnesia. Memories only made Sandra’s absence palpable. But something had changed in the night. Something small shifted inside him as he battled against losing himself to the Nordlyset. Sandra, the real Sandra, had been with him, guiding him through his memories. As he trudged toward the station, Gene realized he had come to this forgotten place in order to remember.
T. D. Komoff lives and writes just outside Orlando, Florida.