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 ?"
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.