Contest #232 winner 🏆

The Lantern of Kaamos

Submitted into Contest #232 in response to: Set your story during polar night.... view prompt

64 comments

Adventure Inspirational Fiction

The melting Arctic is a crime scene, and I am like CSI Ny-Ålesund. Trond is the anonymous perpetrator leaving evidence and clues for me to discover, like breadcrumbs leading back to him. “Jonna,” he had said, the day we first met at the research institute, “If you are going to make it up here, don’t lock your doors.” It seemed like a life philosophy, rather than a survival tip.


It is ironic. Out on Kings Bay, the coal miners came first, then the science outposts. Trond was already out here mining the Arctic when I was still just a bright-eyed undergrad, out to save nature from the ravaging capitalists.


When we met, we both understood immediately that we were on opposite sides. I guess sleeping with the enemy isn’t out of the question when it is seventeen below. At winter’s end, we both got the tattoo “79 ° North” on our shoulders. After flask after flask of bittersweet Jägermeister Mule and a night of cross-country skiing on the fjord to observe the Northern Lights, there seemed to be a permanence in the gesture. A holiness to it. Sacramental and sacred. We weren’t big drinkers and we had used a month of drinking credits to line our shelves, to consecrate the occasion.


We had lived together in the world's northernmost settlement, located on the southern bank of Kongsfjorden, throughout the whole of the polar night. The tattoo was a memento and a reminder of that time. The promise of an unbreakable bond. Then, with the first sunrise, everything changed. As a biologist, I should know by now that what is forged in the endless night, seldom survives the spring thaw.


Store Norske Mining Company was going to close the Gruve 7 mine, once and for all, and Trond would stay and find work. Plans were made. Treaties of peace were arranged. And the wartime between us seemed like a distant memory. Then the Ukraine war broke out, and the mine received a stay of execution. Trond was called back. “See you in the spring,” he had said and was gone the next day. Neither of us doubted the war would end quickly. Surely, neither side would willingly sacrifice their young for some fields of oil and a strategic port? But we were wrong. We underestimated the Soviet greed and also the resolve of a people yearning for freedom.


Bi-weekly video chats gave way to a weekly call. Before long it was an occasional lazy text. Finally, a message, at the end of January: “They need me to stay.” Then nothing. Soon it will be a whole year that he’s been gone.


The MS Nordstjernen cuts through the night, bound for Svalbard, and I stare out at the light of the stars. When I reach Svalbard, my Swedish colleagues, Clare, Leah, Julio, and I will document the mysteries of the polar night. Especially the variations to the krill and phytoplankton, brought on by the shedding of the light. After all this time in the Arctic Circle, I finally feel like I am off on a proper adventure.


I try not to think of Trond removing his headlamp and reclining in the Gruve 7 breakroom next to the coal mining tunnels, miles below the Arctic mountains, risking his life more and more with each day underground. It would be lunchtime now in Adventdalen. Trond would have a thick coat of black dust on his forehead. Under his gloves, his hands would be doused in the dark soot, the calling card of the dark lords of the mine shafts. Trond wouldn’t bother washing up or wiping his forehead before unwrapping his sandwich. He is a true Norwegian, through and through. Savages. The lot of them.


I prefer the polar night. A perpetual full moon hugs the horizon transiting in a perpetual loop like a beacon from a distant lighthouse, circling the outpost. The blue light of the afternoon fades to velvety black after midday. And on the ship, the seas sleep soundly. Kinetic energy accumulates all around us. A limitless supply of ancient sunlight, stored like grain in underground silos. Just below the concealing ice. 90 billion gallons of oil. A third of the world’s natural gas. Coal basins salt the earthen caves; pressure cookers compact the carbon in the leaves of ancient ferns. And at every level, life thrives. From the ocean bottom to the mountain peaks.


But we marine biologists are concerned with the most alluring mysteries. Krill eyeballs. Sensitive enough to see only by the light of the moon. The werewolf effect. Where all living things become more active and restless under the light of the full moon. Making sleep a scarce commodity during the whole season. Diel vertical migration. The magnetism of marine life being pulled upward by the light of the sun. Light. Like sprinkles of fish food from the hand of God, those nurturing rays call forth the phytoplankton and krill. And beneath the ice shelves, a strange world of algae, bacteria, plankton, and swarms of shrimp-like arthropods feast on the energy locked in the melting ice. Stored sunlight, and its byproducts, locked in a frozen lunch box, churned and warmed by the rolling seas. The light banquet above ceases completely during the polar night—leaving the upper levels of the ecosystem dark and void. Only the icy dance under the sea continues, unimpeded, unaware of the nocturnal slumber above.


Amazingly, nature finds a way. Animals buried deep under the sea begin to emit their own light, like floating mermaids, carrying their own lanterns, searching the depths for a fresh meal, or a companion. Anything that sustains. There is also polar gigantism and marine snow. The Ice Dragonfish has anti-freeze in its blood to keep it from freezing. This too is surprising and miraculous.


I imagine myself growing gigantic, my skin radiating light, my blood adjusting to the ice in my veins. At last, growing so large that I am a beacon that can even be seen from miles below the Norwegian permafrost, where Trond toils silently in the darkness of the void.


The MS Nordstjernen docks at Svalbard and we pack our bags quietly, fuel ourselves with bitter coffee and sweet cream, and prepare to go ashore.


* * *


“Hallå,” Clare says. “Are you ready for a hyttetur?” That means a cabin trip. We will be traveling by snowmobile, over the sea ice, out to a remote cabin in Sveagruva for some crew bonding and cross-country skiing out in the mountainous moonscape, aided by headlamps and plenty of layers, and a healthy pack full of booze.


Clare smiles through the biting cold and revs the motor of her snowmobile, blasting her headlamps to repel the enveloping blanket of darkness. Clare hands back a cup full of flour tortilla-wrapped sausages as if she knew how hungry I would be.


“Dani, Framät,” she says to her Siberian Husky. Dani hops to his feet, from where he is lying in the snow.


“Hey, ‘framät!’“ Clare repeats.


Dani begins racing along by the side of the snowmobile, panting happily, his breath coming out in clouds that he pierces with his gait, and which break in pieces and trail behind him like the exhaust of a locomotive. We traverse the cold ridge to Clare’s cabin for supplies, grinding through the fresh powder as a flurry of snow falls and coats our ski goggles. It is not even a mile away. Clare has the stove ready, stuffed with chords of wood. And we drink tall mugs of coffee and recline in warm blankets, in her oceanfront cabin, as the small cabin warms with fresh heat.


“It is beautiful,” I say.


“Wait until you see Sveagruva,” she says. “Det är bättre än himlen.”


“Better than heaven.”


“Vänta och se,” she says—wait and see.


A few hours later, we have the trailers for our snowmobiles packed, and we are ready for our adventure.


Compared with Svalbard, the coastline route to Sveagruva is terra nullius. No man’s land. We wouldn’t dare venture out in the polar night without GPS and Garmin inReach Sat Phones in tow in case of emergency. And rifles, in case of a run-in with polar bears. Glaciers border the route. Around noon, when the blue light casts the landscape in an eerie hue, we stop at cavernous ice caves carved in the glacial housing of thousand-year-old ice. If only Trond could see this.


“Titta där,” Clare says, Look there, pointing at what looks like a polar bear den. It is nestled under a ridge of roots from Dwarf Birch and Mountain Sorrel, burrowing in the mossy permafrost, framing the den with walls of living iron.


The polar bear peaks her head out from her maternity den, her clipped white ears checking for sounds of movement.


“Let’s call her Nadia,” I say.


Nadia sniffs, gimbaling her head about as she picks up a familiar scent. Nadia smells a wolverine far in the distance. Her dark black eyes scan the line of the horizon for other dangers. Finding none, she emerges, and helps herself to a snow bath, rolling about in the frozen snow of the playground outside the den. She yawns, revealing her long canine teeth, and stretches, grabbing the ground with her sharp claws and black foot pads, and slowly connecting with the earth, reclining on the snow, rolling over onto her back. Two young pups begin to crawl out and play fight, scuttling over to the mother bear and feeding from her exposed nipples.


“Look at that!” I say and blurt out, “Trond would die if he could see this.”


“You haven’t spoken to him, have you?” Clare asks.


“Oh, no. Of course not.”


“Att försvara ett fel är att fela igen,” Clare says.


“Once bitten, twice shy,” I say, nodding.


* * *


Out here in the icy valleys of the moonlike cliffs and eerie glacial rivers, the sheer expanse of the landscape, immense, and imposing is a thing of wonder.


Nature’s imagination is vast. Almost as vast as the reaches of space. And her colossal moods seem big enough to swallow galaxies. Dazzling displays of light and dark are her trademark. In all her mercurial palettes. Polar night, for instance. You have to seep in the emancipating darkness long enough to appreciate being pulled out into the overbearing light.


Dark and cold. They go together like warm coffee and cold cream. One hides all mundane things, leaving only the magical. The other strongly warns of nature’s power and cautions against overindulging. After all, all magical things are deadly. Polar bears. Ice drifts. Plunging temperatures. Packs of wolves. The reorienting wind that blows where it wills. Loneliness. Regret. For every magical night filled with the Northern lights is an evening where the seas hurl daggers the size of Buicks at the land and send icy gusts with murderous intent after every creature that crawls, slithers, or walks.


In the darkness, though, we can see what is never visible in the light. The light of a thousand distant suns. They blink their celestial eyes like eyelids, squinting to catch a glimpse of an oasis in an unimaginably vast desert of ice.


When polar night descends, the Nordic country blows away the sun like a dandelion blown out of a child’s hand. Then a month later, it returns. Blue twilight is a reminder that days are real. A long sunrise without a sun. Soft and pink. Painting the world in cold pastels. We shudder at the feeling that comes when the sun at last returns, anticipating its coming; knowing that it is like seeing the sun for the first time in your whole life.


After what seems like an eternity in my own thoughts, clinging to Clare’s coat and hugging her for warmth, we arrive at the cabin, which stands enormous against the landscape.


Leah and Julio have traveled ahead, and are busy dusting off the drifts of snow, filling the water tank, hauling in dry chords of wood for the furnace, and readying our sanctuary for a long weekend.


* * *


I look at my cell phone. The little green bubble says, “I know you are over this. I don’t know what I did or what happened. But I worry about you and hope you are well, my love. You are thought of… often.” Three weeks ago. Long enough to stop hoping for a response. But one never knows.


Like the sun’s rays that seem lost forever in the long travail of the polar night, things that feel lost forever can return suddenly and unceremoniously, crying out that they were never gone at all, but always there just out of reach, only inches below your line of sight, sending out diffuse blue signals as evidence of their constancy.


The question hangs pregnant over the proceedings, and I know it is coming before she asks.


Clare hands me a mug of hot cocoa that Julio prepared for us, complete with floating marshmallows, as we crowd inside and unpack our bags.


“Kommer du att stanna till våren?” she says.  Will I be staying for the spring? That is the question. But I haven’t decided.


“Do you think I should stay?”


“But of course.” She smiles with her teeth glistening in the blue twilight. “You must, bebis. You are part of our Grabbarna now.” I guess I am part of the gang. Science nerds gone Ernest Shackleton.


We have found so much out about the world below the ice. Yet there is so much more to discover. How do the Krill find phytoplankton? How do those little energy packets survive in the sunless reaches throughout the polar night, with nothing to nurture them in the cold season? How does life continue in darkness? How do the winds of the jet stream re-circulate energy into the Arctic realm?


This is a true hyttetur. No plumbing, no running water, and no electricity. Leah lights candles throughout the cabin. Julio fires up the generator, which we will use sparingly for heating water. And also stores little propane tanks for the camp stoves. Leah comes outside in her down jacket with a bottle of Italian Grappa.


“Skål,” Leah says, passing the bottle around. I take a long swig and the fire of the burning liquid coats my throat and warms my chest, reminding me that there is still some life within me. Leah starts blasting some EDM beats which echo off of the canyons of ice chortling through the Arctic valley.


I was going through my e-mails while we played Monopoly with hand-crafted Harry Potter figures. And I was thinking of Trond. Worrying. As usual. Then I saw an e-mail from Trond. I debated for an hour whether or not to open it but ultimately gave in.


“I don’t know why I’m writing you this. Why I am writing now. Kongsfjorden is different than I remember. It seems that everything has changed. Reindeer sleep by the trams, out on the graded snowbank, which is pitched so they are shielded from the wind. I never noticed before.


We gathered today in Fruene to talk about what happened to Peter. ‘We who live in the north in darkness, we know how much the light means,’ said Pastor Skaaheim at Peter’s mass. Sigurd, Jakob, and Luka were down with me in the tunnel when it happened. We met with Mayor Olsen and he represented Peter’s family in the union negotiations. He used to be our spokesman before he became Mayor, you know. At $45 a ton, it hardly makes sense anymore to mine coal. Looks like the Greta Thunberg brigade has won at last. Congratulations. We submit.


This is how it happened. We had cleared out of the mine for the day. Right in the middle of the polar night. But the glacial melt had been flooding the mineshaft. It was so bad that the conveyor belt was going on the fritz. Peter stayed back in the shaft with a pump to clear the flood water out. Just like that, in an instant, the South wall caved in. An avalanche of rock collapsed on him. We spent the night with an excavator trying to find him in the dark. We tried TNT. Wedges. Everything. We never found his body. It is now three days his body has disappeared underneath the frozen rock. We’ve re-opened the tunnel, but search and rescue is still looking for Peter’s remains. It is almost like he disappeared into thin air. I keep thinking, it could have been me. And we would have never spoken again. Anyway. I don’t know why I’m writing you. Say a prayer for Peter.”


“Skål,” Leah says again, seeing the dower look on my face.


And she passes the Grappa bottle around the table, where Dumbledore has just passed Snape to buy Park Place. I take a long gulp.


“Whoa cowboy!” Leah says. But I need a moment.


I walk out into the polar night, my crampons crunching the deep snow. I gaze at the belligerent moon which stands at the far end of the world, taunting me. At once so close I feel that I could reach out and touch her. And still so far away that the incalculable distance and icy traverse, are borderline infinities. Not unreachable, but damn near to. Like the past.


And right here and now, I finally understand the polar night. I can’t return to the Kongsfjorden I’d known with Trond. And Trond can’t stop being a miner. All that has happened has irreversibly changed us, like the creatures adapting to the abiding polar night. I take out my phone and write back the only true thing I can think of. “I want to see you. I am in Sveagruva for a hyttetur. Nothing is the same without you.”


And at that very moment, a small crown of yellow against the horizon displaces the blue twilight and the sun returns.

January 12, 2024 23:59

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64 comments

18:11 Jan 19, 2024

Another world! I could swear that you have spent your whole life there, surrounded by dark magic and heartbreak. A truly fine piece of work.

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Jonathan Page
00:46 Jan 30, 2024

Thanks, Christine!

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Mary Bendickson
01:14 Jan 14, 2024

Jonathan, this should be the winner. It encompasses all I think the judges meant when they created the prompts this week. Ooo! I actually called one right!!! Knew it should win. I am so happy for you! Well deserved. Congrats. 🥳

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Jonathan Page
17:55 Jan 14, 2024

Thanks Mary! I definitely like how this story turned out--and learning about polar night.

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Ryan Hodes
17:34 Jan 19, 2024

Nice story, Jonathon; congrats on the win! The imagery is great, as with the other story of yours I read; I particularly liked the paragraph starting with "Dark and cold."

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Jonathan Page
00:46 Jan 30, 2024

Thanks, Ryan!

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Christy Morgan
01:31 Jan 15, 2024

Incredible story, Jonathan, with so much depth in terms of characters, setting, languages, imagery. Beautifully written! It must’ve taken a fair amount of time to research…highly impressed 😊

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Jonathan Page
01:14 Jan 18, 2024

Thanks, Christy!

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14:09 Jan 14, 2024

So much depth here like there is in a lot of your stories. Amazed by how much you fit in. And so quickly too. Would take me a fortnight to craft something like this 😂 very well done. Iove this: , I should know by now that what is forged in the endless night, seldom survives the spring thaw.

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Jonathan Page
17:56 Jan 14, 2024

Thanks Derrick!

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Zakirah Green
18:44 Jan 20, 2024

I love it all. Every word. Truly. It's like David Attenborough all over.

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Jonathan Page
00:46 Jan 30, 2024

Thanks, Zakirah!

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Pamela Brown
12:15 Jan 20, 2024

WOW Jonathan!!! What an experience that read was. I am transported to a magical world, dangerously beautiful and created in this story out of scientific knowledge. Your expressions are poetic prose. One of my favourites is, 'When the polar night descends, the Nordic country blows away the sun like a dandelion blown out of a child's hand.' - Wonderful! The love story, the cliff hanger resolved at the end. The whole experience was a cliff hanger, or a suspension in space, history of the Earth, yet the present physical cold reality. So ...

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Jonathan Page
00:46 Jan 30, 2024

Thanks, Pamela!

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11:34 Jan 20, 2024

Great story. The voice this is told in feels so close and alive! The nordic scene, feels like a netflix drama. And so many of your descriptions are so evocative and clever, the paragraph that starts with "Nature’s imagination is vast" is genius.

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Jonathan Page
00:47 Jan 30, 2024

Thanks, Scott!

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Kelsey H
10:34 Jan 20, 2024

Congrats! This is a great story loved the imagery, characters, and descriptions of life in the arctic.

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Jonathan Page
00:47 Jan 30, 2024

Thanks, Kelsey!

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Alexis Araneta
04:42 Jan 20, 2024

Those descriptions are incredible. Congrats on the win !

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Jonathan Page
00:47 Jan 30, 2024

Thanks, Stella!

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Hazel Ide
00:40 Jan 20, 2024

Congratulations on the win! Great piece

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Jonathan Page
00:47 Jan 30, 2024

Thanks, Hazel!

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Janet Boyer
22:14 Jan 19, 2024

Congrats on your win!

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Jonathan Page
00:47 Jan 30, 2024

Thanks, Janet!

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Trudy Jas
21:32 Jan 19, 2024

Congratulation! Way to go.

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Jonathan Page
00:47 Jan 30, 2024

Thanks, Trudy!

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Louis Harrigan
20:18 Jan 19, 2024

I've enjoyed reading this. I weaves different daily scenarios into the main thread of the story. I like it very much.

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Jonathan Page
00:47 Jan 30, 2024

Thanks, Louis!

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19:05 Jan 19, 2024

Congratulations! Well deserved!

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Jonathan Page
00:47 Jan 30, 2024

Thanks, Derrick!

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Amber Smith
06:42 Jun 08, 2024

?

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Reyna Lucas
14:51 Apr 15, 2024

idk

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Crystal Wexel
13:22 Mar 02, 2024

So realistic ! A world I never could have imagined !

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Chad Eastwood
11:37 Mar 01, 2024

Beautiful language: "Like sprinkles of fish food from the hand of God"; "her colossal moods seem big enough to swallow galaxies"; "belligerent moon". And your choice of words is melodic, and alliterative without being ostentatious. This writing is modest yet impressive. I'll stop now before I decide to post you a Pulitzer. I enjoyed this, I think you can tell. Thanks!

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Jonathan Page
11:41 Mar 01, 2024

Thanks, Chad!

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Josephine Harris
16:05 Feb 23, 2024

Beautiful writing. Just beautiful. Thank you.

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