“It flew like a little bird
its bright border gleaming”
From “Mourning Cloak”—Göran Sonnevi
In Jonas’s story, the old woman comes out the door of the abandoned house to throw her pail of water onto the snow. No one lived in the village, and so the sight startled him. He told his father, and his father told him no one has lived in the village for twenty years.
A year later he met a woman—a tourist—who had somehow found her way to the same village, and had seen the same woman throw her water on the snow. She told this story unbidden, to Jonas’s surprise.
Jonas pronounces the letter “j” as though it were a “y.” Lingonberry Yam. Long Yahns. At night Jonas and I share a cabin where we lie facing each other in opposite bunks. I try not to stare as he undresses, opting instead for discrete glances as he strips off his final layer of wool and sits cross-legged in his shorts as the stove beats heat into the room, and his hairless skin warms pink in the flush of heat. “If you need, it is only to ask.” “According to me, he is a struggly boy.” “This latch it is a little bit special.” “It is an awkward smell.” He describes the chopping blade, the ear-marking blade and the blade for everything else. “It is three kilometers the bird way.”
During the day, Jonas sits atop his sled and uses a pole to guide his deer, leaning from side to side, waving his arms to direct the beast forward. Snow sags from the pines, pulls the heads of birches to the ground in arcs throughout the forest. We watch for dogs which the deer despise, and we watch for other reindeer which move though the forests digging for moss, and appearing and disappearing at will. No other creatures are out in the frightful March cold, though the sun has begun its return.
And old woman busies herself in the winter quarters. Why are the dogs so quiet? She must heat up the fire, the grate is growing cold. Who is that who wanders in the road? Why the clatter, why the cold chime? With her burden she steps into welcoming air.
“At last they came to the Finmark, and knocked on the Finn woman’s chimney, for she had no door at all.”
The Snow Queen—Hans Christian Andersen
At the sauna, the women lean their heads together and murmur. They wear sturdy swimwear and plastic clogs and knit caps. On the benches we sweat in the low light, while a man dips water from the reservoir with a neat scoop on a pole, filling the air with steam. The heat is personal and draws you into yourself, hands over your face to keep from burning. On the benches we lean forward, the air filling with our inner water.
In Finnish a woman directs us to follow her; she is bossy and has the authority of a captain. Through the chambers we exit into the night, the paths ice-covered and slick. We follow her sturdy body to the pier where we turn to face the others and, gripping the rails, lower ourselves through the hole in the ice into the black water. We leave our heat behind, sent to the bottom of the lake, the body filled and emptied, burnished pink and infantile.
An old man tells me he loves books and he reads a great deal while he takes off his clothes. He wears a string of wooden beads around his neck and puts a small wool cap upon his head. He is lean and robust, hairless, skin and flesh firm. I admire him. He carries a green bottle, corked and half full of a mysterious silted drink.
We duck into the smoke sauna, blackened cabin over baking stones. We darken and stoop under a roof of soot. The stove is our mother pushing her heat onto us, pouring it onto us, dizzying and irradiating the pink spiders of our lungs, sereing the bottoms of our feet, heat and ice, heat and ice, the lake keeps the eye of night at the bottom, the mouth of winter is the hole we climb into, jagged with teeth of ice. The mind blinds itself, scorched and frozen, dumb to thought. The body seeks the extreme. Cool me and heat me, cool and heat, Mother remake me, here in the snow.
Mark Wunderlich’s first book, The Anchorage, was published in 1999 by the University of Massachusetts Press, and received the Lambda Literary Award. His second book, Voluntary Servitude, was published by Graywolf Press in 2004. A third volume of poems titled The Earth Avails, was published in 2014 and received the 2015 Rilke Prize from the University of North Texas. He has published individual poems in The Paris Review, Yale Review, Slate, Tin House, Poetry, Ploughshares, Boston Review and elsewhere. His work has been included in over thirty anthologies and has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered. His work has been translated into Italian, Bulgarian and Swedish.