Frances, a recent college graduate, has traveled from New York City to the Norwegian Arctic to study with a master painter named Nils. They're on an island in the Norwegian Sea, during the season of the Midnight Sun, when the sun never sets. They're painting the local Viking Museum's barn completely yellow for a national art competition.
Nils started the car just before midnight, when it was still very bright, and we drove northwest from Leknes. It was the clearest night he'd seen on the islands.
We listened to Radio Norge, the national station, whose most frequently played song was Dolly Parton's "Jolene." Nils announced he would speak only in Norwegian for the rest of the night. When he flattened his Lofoten map over the dashboard, allowing me to pick a direction, I pointed at the word EGGUM. It was a place near Borg, up the road from the museum, on the northern shore. His reply was, "Det kan vi." That can we.
Along the way, vocabulary basics. One sheep on the roadside: Sau. A horse: En hest. The horse: Hesten. Nils pointed a finger to his chest, said, Jeg, pointed at me, said, Du. Jeg, I said. Du, he said. We were getting somewhere.
We hunted the midnight sun, and found it behind each mountain, over every pond and fjord, doubling itself on the smooth surfaces of those waters, and in the windows of Nils's car, and on the lenses of his glasses. We wanted to get somehow closer to it, as close as possible. That's how Eggum helped us. As shown on Nils's map, it was the northwardfacing, beachy top of our island. Between Eggum and the North Pole lay one final landmass, a polarbear-inhabited block called Svalbard. But Eggum was inhabited by people, if sparsely, and was even marked with a sculpture of a human head.
When we sat on the beach there, between the sculpture and a damaged World War II radar fort, our eyes met the sun's stare. Nils filled two tin mugs with instant coffee and balanced them on a flattopped rock. We sat on a boulder that faced due north, and in the glare of that final waterfront I couldn't say how much of the night we would spend there, or what kind of togetherness ours was.
I wanted to keep the conversation simple, to avoid a host of complications. Waves made the rocks look like dolphins jumping, I told Nils, or a whale's tale flipping up. "Ja, but it is rocks," Nils said. He looked at his watch and said, "Klar?"
I wanted to keep the conversation simple, to avoid a host of complications.
One o'clock, two o'clock—these were the hours in Lofoten when the sun came down to the sea, colored the water and mountains, and sat on the brink of the horizon before starting back up again. It never left our sight, or the sight of the world, whose ponds and grasses seemed to be watching the sun along with us, mimicking it and lighting up for all the night travelers to see.
Nils said, "Bra," with great sincerity in his voice, meaning, "Good."
These hours were characterized by a wildness of colors, the combined power of a sunset and sunrise. It was easy to watch the horizon for hours straight, the sun in perpetual motion, the sky turning orange and cranberry until at three it returned to blue, and I felt ready for bed. Nils rose from his rock and said we would begin Yellow Room work in four hours. He called himself kjempetrøtt, "supertired," to teach me kjempe, the prefix that supersized anything. Best to sleep now, he said, if we were to sleep any.
Radio Norge filled the slow ride back with Journey, A-ha, Dolly Parton, and a metal band called the Sins of Thy Beloved.
The light behind the mountain at Utakleiv Beach was gold; it looked like a biblical place. The foothills were patchy, balding. Tall plants formed patches for the road's elbows. In every meadow grew white and yellow grasses. Waterfall veins streaked the mountains, and a little rain in the air prepared the sky for rainbows. We drove through a passing wink of colors, a natural hologram.
It had been a very long day, and this had been our day off. I pictured the barn's thousand wooden surfaces that needed sanding, priming, painting. I didn't know whether Nils would become my friend or my uncle, whether he had a wife, whether, in the absence of all other society, our ages separated us as much as they otherwise would. The space we shared was immense, and we were both petite people who barely filled our own rooms. I took off the clothes I had worn since boarding the Hurtigruten, twenty-four hours and many fjords earlier. I stood by the window and nobody could see me—even the sheep had gone.
The space we shared was immense, and we were both petite people who barely filled our own rooms.
Nighttime, though it was completely indistinguishable from the day, was a relative of other darknesses in other parts of the world, I remembered, where men lost their minds. It may have been merely the hallway I feared. I had nothing to fear from Nils. Had he wanted anything from me, he could have taken it easily in the kitchen, or the car, or the empty places along the northern shore where we'd pulled over. He hadn't made any such move. The parking lot lay illuminated in the perpetual morning out my window. I drew the curtains and locked my door, foolishly, against the empty asylum, or against my only companion, or against anything that woke in the weird bright night.
The next day lasted three weeks. The sun stayed above us, as if it had nowhere else to be. Nils and I spent mornings in the barn and nights in the car. We slept at miscellaneous times—drawing the asylum's curtains, we could choose when night was. The barn grew richer and wilder. It was the only marker of time passing. As Nils made his way around the exterior walls, covering the brown wood with his signature marigold, a square sun seemed to rise from the hilltop. From down the road, there it was: a small, brilliant box. Up close, it was strange and enormous. Its lemon color loomed over the lime-green grass. Nils considered trimming the windows and doors in white, to add a little mildness, to serve as cream. He expected the competition judges would be mild-mannered men.
We slept less and less, and started painting the inaccessible places. I climbed tall ladders to yellow the rafters; Nils lay with his ear in mud to yellow the foundation.
The world was perpetually visible, so I looked at it. Conditioned by hours in the Yellow Room, I saw the landscape in colorblock. The midnight sun came in shades of pink. The fjords rushed up onto whitesand beaches, and the sand made the water Bermuda-green. The houses were always red. They appeared in clusters, villages, wherever there lay flat land. Mountains rose steeply behind each village—menaces and guardians. Each red house was a lighthouse, marking the boundary between one terrain and another, preventing crashes, somehow, providing solace. Nils told me, "There are no dangerous animals here, bare flott," which meant either "only nice ones" or "only ticks."
The world was perpetually visible, so I looked at it.
One triumphant evening, Nils and I bought tickets to a screening of Harry Potter at the Leknes movie house. Nils didn't know anything about Harry Potter. When I tried to give him a basic introduction, he didn't understand the word wizard, but after he looked it up in the dictionary and found that it meant "trollman," he was excited.
Dead fish hung by their tails from wooden racks, mouths open, all along the side of the road. Nils said they were dried cod, for the stockfish export—Lofoten's once-great industry. The fishermen were late in collecting them this year. As the weeks passed, the fish dwindled in number, until only the bare racks remained. Nils was pleased that there would be no dangling heads when the inspectors came—with all those sharp teeth taken out of the sky, he said, the barn would have less visual competition.
The lights stayed off in the colony, and when the sun rose or fell to tree-level, perching briefly in the branches, it looked like a bird's nest in flames.
I set up an easel near the window where the ox most often appeared. Painting the animal at night, from a distance, was a relief after days spent with my nose against splintering walls. When it rained, the sky reflected itself in the ox's wet horns, and the horns turned cloud-gray, aging the beast considerably.
Nils finished the barn's exterior walls. Our sun on the hill stood irrefutable, and we began to apply details to the surfaces—thin shapes drawn in whitepink, barely visible, but making the monochrome shimmer into motion.
At the end of each day's work, Nils wanted to drink box wine. The government controlled all alcohol sales in the country, and he bought the boxes in bulk from a stateowned outlet in Stamsund. At the upstairs kitchen table, he handed me full glasses, and I shared my brown cheese with him. We read Lofotposten, a thin local newspaper that included photographs of every child whose birthday it was that day. He'd take out a pen and circle grammatical forms for me, using the simplest articles as examples.
RAMBO, KITTEN, RESCUES OTHER KITTEN, ON A
FARM NEAR TANGSTAD
A kitten / the kitten / this kitten / that kitten
En kattunge / kattungen / denne kattungen / den kattungen
I learned a great deal of Norwegian this way. When the sky darkened slightly, we got in the car to chase the midnight sun. The roads were visited nightly by arctic foxes, little things, and lined by construction machines. We'd stop to examine abandoned backhoes whose digging claws rested on the ground, mouths open. I crawled inside each claw and sat bunched up in the corner, while Nils took notes on the machine's industrial yellow. June had ended, and I felt a change coming—the judges were on their way.
Excerpt from THE SUNLIT NIGHT by Rebecca Dinerstein. Copyright © 2015 by Rebecca Dinerstein. Published by Bloomsbury USA. Reprinted with Permission.