The trees of the Arctic Circle are stunted in a permanent adolescence. To be fair, it’s not their fault—the long, harsh winters preclude any full flowering. But the top of the world feels smaller as a result, smaller than you expected it to when you spread your legs over its wide equatorial rump, dreaming of boundless expanses of ice and snow. Santa’s so-called elves, it turns out, are not really elves at all; they are people duly proportioned to their trees.
The hallways on the train to Lapland from Helsinki were designed for such slender elves. As Tiina, my parents’ long quondam exchange student, and I walked to the dining car, we forced four men with raven widows’ peaks to reverse the extent of the car. They laughed nervously as they pressed themselves against our chests at car’s corner. In Helsinki the night before, I had slept in Tiina’s apartment sharing a bedroom with her mother, Kaija. Within ten minutes of swallowing her nightly glassful of cognac, Kaija began snoring like a congested ewe. I slept no more than five broken hours my first night in Finland, and the invisible life inside my body, a fast dwindling galaxy of waning light, was aching for more by the time we entered the dining car.
For Tiina, however, the night was just beginning. I sat and slowly drank a glass of white wine with her and then walked drowsily back to our room. I passed through six or seven cars meeting no one. One was painted a pale, lusterless yellow and teemed with jostling cages of puppies, cats, and guinea pigs. The window in this car was open, and I stuck my head out, pressing my collar bone against the steel frame, listening to their cacophonous yelps. It was late August, but the algid winds whipped hard against my face. A blur of power lines entangled in weeping vegetation of diminishing proportions sped past. Staring out, I felt somehow left behind while knowing it was these forests, these lakes that were standing still; I was the one running past them in a frenetic, dizzy whirl.
Our room accommodated two compact bunk beds and a bathroom with a shower nozzle but no shower. To wash yourself, you were presumably to close the door, sit snugly on the toilet lid, and hope that you didn’t flood either your entire room or the passenger car itself, rusting over the wheels that propelled you relentlessly forward. The sink brim allowed no room for either my toothbrush or small cylinder of toothpaste, so after slipping on my nightgown I packed them in my carry-on bag and shifted it back underneath the bed. Once I clambered onto the top bunk, I expected to fall asleep right away. But the train’s continuous low-level seizures, its insistent forward momentum torn by the periodic abrasion of rocks and hills made sleep impossible for me. A digital clock with glowing scarlet numbers read 2:30 when Tiina opened our door. Like her mother the night before, she soon began snoring her bellowing ovine snore while I lay awake until the engineer knocked on our door at 6:30, letting us know we would arrive within 20 minutes.
Fredi, her husband, would meet us at the station. From there, we would drive another two hours north into Lapland, where they had rented a cabin and we could take long, languid walks in the premature autumn sun. While the two of us were hurriedly getting dressed, I brought a powder applicator to my face, giving my skin a quick, pale coat. “Why are you putting on makeup?” Tiina asked from her bunk. “Just a habit,” I replied, as she looked at me with an uncomfortable admixture of wonder and disgust. I wore the same clothes as yesterday—a tulip-sleeved cotton blouse and brown capri pants—when it was 75 degrees in Helsinki, and she warned me I would need a sweater here. “Yes, I have one,” I said, “But until we leave the train, I’m too hot to wear it.” I brought the powder puff again to my forehead to damp away the sweat.
As we left our car to wait in the hallway near the door, she began describing the different men she had met in the dining car last night. “They were very, very nice guys,” she emphasized. “I told them you were my little sister and they kept begging me to go back and get you. They saw you having the glass of wine with me, but I knew you were sleeping.” She offered me some Keralian pies, rye pastries filled with rice and pinched into the shape of a womb, from a hand-held cooler. I said I would have some later; I was so tired I couldn’t eat right now. “But you don’t need to watch your weight, you know. You have the perfect body—maybe not your face, but your body is perfect. You can eat more and it will only go to your chest,” she offered, but I said I would wait and eat with Fredi.
When we alighted from the train, Fredi angled happily toward me in gray sweatpants and outstretched arms. He hugged me for what seemed like an age, but that was only his custom, I knew. I apologized for being lethargic, explained I hadn’t slept at all on the train, said I was truly happy to see him. He said I must eat something; then I could sleep in the back seat of the car and take a nap at the cabin if I liked. So we sat round a faux marble table in the train station drinking coffee. Tiina and Fredi spoke in Finnish while I browsed the calendars and postcards behind a tray of hot rolls. Sámi dolls smiled in space on the doors to the men and women’s restrooms. The woman, no taller than my index finger, had brown eyes like opaque buttons inside an alabaster face. Waves of chestnut hair were tucked into her cap and her feet hung beneath her blue skirt like detached tree roots.
After we finished our coffee and I accepted a Keralian pie from Tiina, I tucked myself into the backseat of their car. Folding a plaid woolen blanket in between my legs, I felt myself sinking into sleep inside my black leather crib. Tiina woke me two hours later when we stopped in a village for gas and some gyros. She asked if I was hungry, and I was, ravenous in fact. The restaurant wouldn’t open for another half hour, though, so we browsed the aisles of the grocery store across the street. I marveled at all the endless varieties of yogurt, all sold only in pints in the shape of long white breasts. Fredi looked over at me and laughed. “You know, we saw several reindeer as we were driving, but you were breathing so hard—I didn’t know in fact that you could breathe so hard, loud like one of your American vacuums. We wanted to wake you so you could see them, but I could see when I picked you up that you needed sleep. Your eyes were just staring, I didn’t know where. But now, look how fresh, how fresh you are.” And he hugged me again, in front of the mute choirs of yogurt while Tiina bought fresh bread and milk.
It was raining when we pulled into our cabin driveway. Wet leaves clung to my shoes as I carried our luggage onto the front porch. Its slatternly rows of russet wood sagged beneath my weight, and I stooped over to take off my shoes on the entryway rug. Like the Japanese, Finns don’t countenance shoes in the house, even when it is not their own. I sank my gaze into the golden marbled wood bathing all the walls. Just to the left of the entrance, the bathroom housed a glass-enclosed sauna facing the heater, large as a round refrigerator and sitting imposingly beside the toilet. A squeegee leaned against the back wall of the shower, which stood translucently curtained off at floor level.
I walked into the kitchen and began helping Fredi put away the food he had packed, mostly meats and cheeses for morning sandwiches, instant coffee and some chocolate especially for me, a box of red as well as white wine. He and Tiina drank only white, but he had bought the red for me, remembering that I preferred it. Tiina walked in shrieking as if she had just seen a rat, “Oh my god! I never saw … I mean this is not at all what it looked like on the website. This is a positive dump, a shack really!” She began fingering the fringe of curtains in the main room. “What are these, Egyptian? Look at those snakes around their necks—they are Egyptian. Why would they put Egyptian curtains here? And the furniture! I see no theme at all. Oh Melissa, this is not what we wanted for you, I promise it isn’t.” I said it was fine, lovely really. I pointed out how close we were to the lake; an overturned tin rowboat sat just aside of the dock.
Sensing she would rather I concede her point, however, I pointed to a chair in the corner that looked like a vintage barber chair. “And this we can use for cutting Fredi’s hair. Every cabin needs a good barber shop,” I offered with a laugh. She giggled in assent, flung her nest of auburn curls back, and said she needed a nap; she hadn’t slept at all on the train. A double bed sat low to the ground in the corner, flush against a window facing a cluster of birch trees, each with an olio of ceramic bird feeders hung on them like forgotten Christmas ornaments. Following my gaze to the bed, she expostulated, “Oh no. I won’t be sleeping there. That’s Fredi’s bed. You and I will be sharing the room upstairs. You know he and I can’t sleep together. He snores all night,” she groused.
After Tiina climbed the pine ladder to our shared room, Fredi stepped outside to smoke. I thought I could take this time to read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. As far as I could tell, Fredi and Tiina, who were both flight attendants, were not great readers. Still, I hoped that here, away from the nightlife of Helsinki, I would have time to indulge my own quieter sensibilities. We had four stupendously uneventful days together. Originally, we had determined this would be a hiking trip, but Tiina had injured her knee a month ago, too late for me to cancel. The forecast called for ceaseless cataracts of rain.
I had just settled into the barber chair with my book when Fredi stalked indoors in his socks. The rain had stopped and he wanted to take the rowboat out. So I lay Virginia and her lighthouse on the smooth flaxen table. I laced up my tennis shoes and followed him to the lake’s misty alluvium. When he turned the boat over, we saw that the seats were covered in clay, but it was damp and easy to wipe away. Soaking my hands into the cold, downy silt, I was tempted to sculpt something—a wilting flower, a hungry mendicant, a sail-less sailboat—but I kept to task and ran back to the cabin for towels to wipe it all away. As I did so, I uncovered small, spiraling snails no larger than my fingernails languishing in the watery bottoms of its tin belly. When we pushed off from the lopsided, quaking dock, we were immured in cattails. Like strawberries, they reproduce asexually; their wind-pollinated flowers live the most fleeting of lives before becoming the hard, brown spikes that grazed the curve of my cheek as Fredi rowed us out further from cabin’s view.
The lake’s silence lay upon us like a wooly penumbra. We were both wearing orange life vests, and as he rowed his eyes squinted far into the distance, making the sacs of flesh underneath bulge like frogs’ throats. I began to prate about his job, my job, his routine sallies to Asia with Finnair, my wish to travel Asia, but he abruptly asked me to stop. He abandoned the open water and deftly steered us into another island of cattails; the lake, I saw, was larger than the land now, which was nothing but shrublike trees, wet and tired looking. We were the only people within view, here in this lake at the top of the world, and we were silent, wholly silent, in speech and inside ourselves. We absorbed it like sunlight. After a few minutes, I looked over at Fredi, who smiled back. “Your face changed. Your whole face changed in the silence,” he said, in wonder and some seeming trepidation. “I saw something move across it. Sometimes I wonder who you are, Melissa of Chicago.”
By the time we returned to the cabin, Tiina was awake. She was hungry and wanted to go out to dinner, to a lodge someone she knew had recommended. The drive was only ten minutes, and the skies had started to rain again. The car’s window wipers squeaked like restive chicks wanting to fly. A statue of a brown bear stood, fierce and implacable, outside the ebony wooden steps, and we walked inside to a rustic gift shop and bar, off to the side of which were several long tables with benches, the rough bark still breathing visibly on their undersides. Tiina and Fredi sat their elbows on the bar and both ordered a gin and tonic while I perused the bibelots for sale, trying on a series of Sámi hats. Seeing me looking at myself in a mirror hung in between shelves lined with reindeer-skin drums, Fredi walked over and smiled, saying this would not be a fashion statement. “You have to understand, sometimes when we go skiing these prankster guys with the snow boards wear these hats to be funny. But they’re only being ironic. This is not something you would wear out. People would only laugh at you,” he nearly admonished. I told him people in the States wouldn’t know enough about the hats to see a reason to laugh, but he led me away anyway.
The waitress sat us down at the further end of a table shared by four men in their 30s or 40s. I was looking round at the old sepia photographs, of women and children herding reindeer amid rambling castles of snow, of canvas itinerant dwellings poised like dust against inconquerable Arctic winds ,while Fredi was expatiating on the smallness of the kitchen—only one small stove for potentially 25 customers—as he had found out at the bar from the single server, when Tiina lowered her voice and said, “They keep turning this way to look at Melissa. The blonde one won’t stop staring at her.” I looked down and said something about how much more beautiful Finnish women were, indisputably more so, but our easy flow of conversation had ceased. Fredi looked at me warily, when I announced that I wanted a hat, nevermind how unfashionable. After we had paid our bill, I ran my fingers along a hat brim embroidered in red and gold medallions. I twirled its felt golden tassel before a candelabra of reindeer antlers, sharp and dendritic, but Tiina placed her hands authoritatively on my shoulders, saying there would be more. She would happily drive me to other gift shops where I would encounter more variety at less cost. So I slid the hat underneath a bear-shaped clock and we drove back to the cabin, where I slept beside Tiina in the loft. I stuffed toilet paper in my ears and slept a hard, ursine, dreamless sleep.
The next day dust motes danced in shafts of ochre sunlight through the kitchen as I made coffee. We decided that, while Tiina cooked soup for us and enjoyed the sauna, Fredi and I would take a short three-mile hike to a small waterfall where I could drink the water with my hands and pick cloud berries, sweet and hard as nuts. He was as good as his word. To get to our starting point, we took a water taxi helmed by a Sami man. With his dark hair, biting timbre, and compact limbs, he swiftly ushered seven or eight of us into his red catamaran. A team of four huskies sat behind me. They breathed hot into the back of my neck before nuzzling down against my ankles like a soft second layer of skin. The Sami violently tugged at the throttle, and the boat took off with exhilarating speed, splicing through the silence like a shot arrow. An exultant sun warmed our faces. We laughed loudly, if inaudibly, against the motor as this single middle-aged star illuminated the surrounding trees, all standing erect against a steep escarpment, their faces glowing a lusty orange in the early Lapland fall. But in only 15 minutes, when we reached our destination, the clouds had already eclipsed the sunlight, now sunk into a latent depression. Fredi stepped out of the boat ahead of the huskies. His legs were already extending themselves like featherless wings in flight up the hill when I handed our driver my life jacket and ran to catch up, but he stayed far ahead of me the whole way.
That night and the two thereafter, the three of us spent four or five hours an evening taking turns in the sauna. Every time I walked out, dressed, as we all were, in nothing but a cream cotton bath towel, my glass of wine was refilled. Fredi occupied the barber chair, and I sat on his bed, nibbling on a chocolate bar. I offered some to both of them. Fredi, with his eyes averted, took a few dark shards, but Tiina refused; she was not fond of chocolate. While Tiina was inside showering, after her third or fourth round, Fredi stepped outside and sat on the porch in a plastic chair. Temperatures had dropped to 30 degrees, but the heat of the sauna lingered in your veins. Its vaporous, pneumatic warmth pervaded the outdoor chill like a past life memory. After Tiina came out, I took my final turn in the sauna that night. I poured more water onto the rocks than before and let the steam wash over me like a cleansing fire. When I emerged, pores ecstatically distended like red grapes, I walked outside and sat in the chair that Fredi had warmed. I stared out onto the lake, still as silver glass, with a feeling of fullness, of what I didn’t know. A few desolate stars hung above the cattails. Then the door from the kitchen cracked open, and Fredi sat bow-legged on a bench beside me. Tiina, he said, had just gone to bed. He offered me more wine, but I said I thought I had had enough.
After sitting in the silence for a few moments, trying not to imagine us lifting our towels and rolling together in the wet, cold grass, I said that I wanted the hat, the one I had seen in the lodge our first night. The past few days, we had killed time browsing sundry gift shops in neighboring villages, but none had rivaled the first. Fredi said he would drive me there tomorrow morning before they took me to the airport, where I would fly to London to meet my husband for a few days before returning to Chicago. But I told him I wanted to walk. There would be time, and even if it were raining I wanted to savor my last moments here on foot. I stood up, letting his eyes traverse my all but naked body, and padded inside.
The next morning, I set out in the drizzling rain, steeping my shoes in fawn-colored mud and stones of reindeer excrement, to the lodge. I plucked my hat from beneath the bear clock and paid for it in cash. When I started down the outdoor steps, Fredi and Tiina were in the car waiting for me. They didn’t want me to walk back in the rain, they said; it was also time to go. The walk was longer than I had thought.
When I called Tiina from London thanking her for her hospitality, she rhapsodized about the hotel they had found for the remainder of their holiday. A tempting farrago of four-star restaurants encircled them, as they had migrated to a tony skiing district, albeit off season, so the rate was quite reasonable. She only wished I could have seen it. Did I remember the Egyptian curtains? She still couldn’t fathom the decorating scheme of our little cabin. Their new quarters contained a sauna with marble walls, two fireplaces—one in each bedroom—and a separate bath. From their balcony, they looked out onto a cascading mountain range, whose tips were already blanketed in snow. They would stay there for another ten days, and the forecast was clear. All the rain, she said, was now behind them.
Melissa Wiley is a freelance food and culture writer living in Chicago who seizes every opportunity to walk barefoot with half-painted toenails through airport security and stammer in pidgin tongues. When writing in full-throttle English, she often invokes the memory of her parents, her loneliness in this world, and the beauty that still remains. Her creative nonfiction has been published in a number of literary magazines.