The landscape gives me moment to pause. From my bedroom window I can see four of the five northern-facing mountains which stand sentinel over Longyear valley and its town, Longyearbyen.
Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen, 78 degrees North. The high arctic.
I arrived here on New Year’s Eve, the Svalbard archipelago pulling me back. I had tried to leave – twice – but kept returning. And so, having made it as far south as Morocco, I found myself boarding a plane northbound, landing at Longyearbyen airport with a few totally inappropriate clothes for the height of the dark season and subzero temperatures. The fact that I did not really know anyone was the least of my concerns. Actually, the fact that I had no proper clothing did not seem to perturb me either. I landed and it felt like home.
Longyearbyen has that habit. It lulls people here, embraces them, leaves them permanently encased in her snowy grasp. There are countless stories of people who came here for two months, for seasonal work, and ended up staying for ten, fourteen years.
I don’t think I’ll be staying permanently. But one really never can tell.
Longyear valley hosts a second smaller town, Nybyen, a ten minute walk southward along the valley. The walk takes you through ten minutes of house-absence on either side of the road which runs aside the mains (large pipes hoisted above the ground on rickety-looking frames). In between the two towns sits the former meeting hall, Huset (or, the House), a now-refurbished 1950s mansion which has conference facilities, an auditorium, cafe, fine dining restaurant, and the island’s single nightclub (really just a small dance floor and bar, constructed every Friday and Saturday nights in the cafe).
They say Huset is haunted. I believe them. A girl who works there said once she had encountered three ghosts. The first was at the entrance to the cellar, just loitering. The second used to occupy a space in the kitchen, near the cookers, and had a habit of watching what the cooks were doing. The last hovered about an abandoned and now ruined shed which used to be a part of the building. A mystic who visited the island confirmed the three ghosts and their locations. As it happens, the girl was exactly right.
It does feel like there are “others” here. Even when you are completely alone, sitting as I often do in the candle-lit entrance foyer of Huset as I strain my brain thinking of something to say to the computer. Pleasant eeriness fills the spaces so that they never seem empty, and in this world of darkness you never feel alone.
And you never really are.
I walked back from Huset one night and encountered the lights of Asgard: the Aurora Borealis. This far north they tend to glow green most often, though they have been white and blue on occasion. This night they were amazing. Not flat and spread-out but tall, figures tiptoeing across the heavens. Their green striations ran vertically, away from me, and northward, revealing the depths of the heavens otherwise invisible. I lay flat on the snow and watched them dance overhead. No one else in the valley. No sound. Just me and the dancing polar lights, shimmering like a curtain softly in a breeze.
As I continue my walk home, something tells me to stop. So I do. I hear a bark. Not that of a dog but more the sound of a cranky gull. And just then, an arctic fox jumps onto the road, its white winter coat stark against the cookies-and-cream gritted road. He plods gently forward. Doesn’t seem to see me. Stops. Sniffs. He plods forward again. Turns his head and barks. Two return barks issue from the dark mountain somewhere to my right. Forward he moves again and stops four meters from me. He sits, lifts his hind leg, and scratches behind his ear, ears alert. He looks straight at me. Continues scratching. He sniffs the ground, wanders around a little then returns to his spot four meters in front of me.
It is as though he cannot see me for the predator that I am. As though he sees with eyes not his own. And I feel like an apparition, like a ghost in his world. I move ever so slightly, but he notices and gives a cry of shock. Then he sees me, his fox eyes returned, sees my eyes, and with another bark of protest, runs off in the direction he came.
It may not have been me at all who startled the fox but a man, a huge Viking with beard and goatee, meandering down the road with his tiny schnauzer. He stops next to me, asks me what I am doing. I point to the mountain. “Foxes.” He stops and listens. We can hear their barks, at least three of them, in different spots over the mountain. Then, as we look, we see three little white bodies running along the snow. My companion nods and smiles. “Fantastisk,” he says in Norse.
He seems to revel in the experience as much as I, but he has been in Longyearbyen for the better part of his life, almost forty years. We talk about his experience of the place as we continue down the road, me, the little dog and this Viking of a man. At the turn-off to my street I bid them farewell, but the dog does not understand and, as they walk away, he continues to stop and look back at me, a question of puzzlement on his whiskered face as to why I am not walking with them anymore.
August Cyr is a writer.