LETTER TO A STRANGER
TO MY ARCTIC VARDØGER
By ALEXANDER LUMANS
Only six people live in Pyramiden, Norway. Abandoned in 1998, it was once a thousand-person Russian mining town. Now, my tour group ship docks here, hundreds of miles north of the Arctic Circle. Through my cabin’s porthole, I can barely make out a junkyard and a strange mountain, a factory and a tall signpost for the city. I want to reach through the glass and touch them. It’s so fecundly cold here that the Soviet-era edifices will stay preserved for five hundred years. With a thirst to drink up every ounce of Arctic detail outside my window, I cannot fight that patent feeling of déjà vu: I have been here before. But this is the farthest I’ve ever been from anyone and anywhere.
Before my tour group disembarks the ship, you come aboard. You are one of the six people.
Standing perfectly straight in the ship’s brassy saloon, you look unpreparedly cold in your road-cone-colored jumpsuit. You sport gray eyes and a sharp nose. Your clean goatee encircles some greater quietude, which I take as evidence that you do not speak English. You are either exactly my age of thirty-one, or twice that. You carry a rifle.
You step forward and speak in a strong, bell-clear Russian accent: “My name is Sasha. Welcome to our ghost town. It is good to see people again.” You pause. “Sometimes, we forget.” And you do not say what or why.
Your name is mine. Or rather, yours is the Russian equivalent of mine: Alexander. I imagine becoming a version of you if I were to move here. (The ship’s crew has already told me: out of everyone on board, I am the one they can most see moving to Pyramiden.) In this place, I envision you and I each leaving behind our old life problems, seeking the same Ice Age solutions—only you would have done so years before I ever arrived in the Norwegian Arctic.
At the time I do not know the word for this sensation. But then I learn about the vardøger. A vardøger is known in Norse mythology as a spiritual predecessor. Unlike déjà vu or the Germanic doppelgänger, it is a guardian ghost with your voice, scent, or appearance that arrives in a place before you do, performing your actions in advance. In other words, when a vardøger appears, witnesses believe they’ve seen or heard the actual person show up before that person physically does. They say it is a phantom double.
You meet my tour group in the town square. I have the urge to draw you in my notebook, the one in which I’ve sketched the faces of glaciers I fear I will never see again. You wear a traditional Cossack coat under one of those iconic fur hats I always forget the name of. Your fingerless gloves tell me you have seen climates much worse than freezing. And your rifle peaks over your shoulder like a featherless wing. “For the bears,” you say, which is another way of saying, For your safety.
In the cantina I run my hands over the crumbling mosaic tiles of a rogue polar bear squaring off against a Norse king; in the drained swimming pool I pick up one of the old lane markers before it falls in half; in the auditorium I play a single note on the world’s northernmost grand piano. I first thought that someone went to the Arctic—this faraway territory devoid of life—to feel alone. That is not the case. Through its calving glaciers and thin-aired silence, the Arctic has slowly revealed itself to be a place where I sense the wavering fragility of living things as well as the significance of profound self-reflection.
Here, all my solidified regrets feel more like abandoned What Ifs; here, I most understand how each of us is his or her own great agent of change.
Pyramiden still has a working vodka bar. All us tourists buy bottles. We drink them right there in gulps and grimaces. I hate vodka; this is the best vodka I have ever tasted. In the middle of the bar, I step into some imaginative tunnel where I can see myself toasting and hugging. I fall into a preemptory nostalgia; a kind of vardøger of the mind. I don’t want to forget how all this cold stone and arrested wood feels; I want to preserve the living moment for five hundred years. Then you walk through the door, put down your rifle, and pull me from my anticipatory reverie.
You look thrilled to share space with new voices and you look terrified to talk without a script. We toast you. We desperately want to know your story; Why are you here? is a way of asking, Why am I?
As a young man living in St. Petersburg, you fell in love with a Russian woman. You married her with untamed abandon. She was it. As you tell us about her, I can hear your quietude give way to a voice long spent on the coin of old joy. I recognize it because it is how I often sound; I want to hold on to the skins of treasured memories the way Russians collect fox pelts for promised prosperity.
But your joy fast decays into a flat, frozen expression. Is she here?—I already know the answer.
She left you. Like that. For another man. The coldness was not a gift, but it was a sign of territories to come. You told us you did not know what to do with yourself. You were too young and too in love. So you left too. You moved here. You tell us between sips of vodka, “Pyramiden was the only place I could confront—fully understand—my grief.” I don’t know if I have heard a more honest and more frightening sentence. It is difficult to tell, however, if you have succeeded.
Leaving the bar, I am a little drunk, like everyone, on spirits and memory. Knowing the ship will soon be leaving this place, I feel the definitive urge to have some private conversation with you. One in which you confirm that yes, I should abandon my current life—my long-distance relationship on unstable ground, my three adjunct jobs of no prospective futures, my big western city with nowhere to fit in, my deepening depression that will slowly kill me—leave it all behind and move to Pyramiden. “Become me,” I want you to command, which is to say, Become yourself.
No individual conversation occurs. Instead, we all say thank you. You say the same back, but why?
As you walk solo toward the town square, your rifle clings tightly to your back. (I have always wished I had asked to hold that gun and become you for the briefest moment.) You could simply continue walking: past the old mine’s entrance and out into the snowy wilds. The temptation must strike you every day. To go out, confront your grief, and never let go. I admire that you are still here, holding on to this life you’ve created, acting as some mirrored reflection of another me yet to come.
Ahead of you, from around the corner of the cantina, appears a small blur. An Arctic Fox in its dark summer coat. You walk up to the fox running in circles. It looks up at you like it wants to tell you a vital secret about the future. I hear you say something in Russian; the fox listens. You reach down and pet the wild animal like the two of you once shared a great trauma, or you soon will. Do you look at the fox and spot something familiar in its pointed face and gray fur? Did you look at me and see more of the same? You turn around to face the tour group and you give a final wave.
I still cannot get over your fingerless gloves in this spectral outpost of the Arctic. But I understand: you wear them so you do not forget what you have already touched—what you will touch again.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alexander Lumans was awarded a 2018 NEA Creative Writing Grant in Prose. He was awarded a fellowship to the 2015 Arctic Circle Residency, where he sailed in a tall ship around Svalbard, Norway. He was also the Spring 2014 Philip Roth Creative Writing Resident at Bucknell University. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Paris Review, Guernica, Glimmertrain, The Walrus, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Story Quarterly, Black Warrior Review, and American Short Fiction, among others. He has been awarded fellowships to MacDowell, Yaddo, VCCA, and Brush Creek as well as scholarships to the RopeWalk, Sewanee, and Bread Loaf Writers Conferences. He received the 2015 Wabash Fiction Prize from Sycamore Review, the 2013 Gulf Coast Fiction Prize, and the 2011 Barry Hannah Fiction Prize from Yalobusha Review. He graduated from the M.F.A. Fiction Program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and now teaches at University of Colorado Denver and Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Find him on Twitter: @oldmanluman and Instagram: @oldmanlumans.
Header photo by Decokon