Each night she leaves the light on in the front window and walks the cove shoreline out to the point and from across the water tries to believe she lives there, in the warm and quiet glow of the fish house. So many nights during the last year—the hardest of her life—after working all day on the house or at her desk, she’s come out here to take comfort in the surging waves. My, how they keep coming. But for weeks the cove and even the lake out beyond the point have been frozen. The cold tonight will make the ice stronger. The snow will make it softer.
Her grandmother once painted the fish house from this vantage. Back in the 1940s, when she was first a bride and still in love with the idea of living here. That painting, along with five others, hangs in the historical society on the Lighthouse Road. It’s titled Fish House in Snow Squall, and from where she stands now Greta can see it as she imagines her grandmother might have, even if she’s standing in a blizzard, not a squall. The trees on the point sway in the gusts, their blackness a shifting smudge against the snowlit sky.
“You’re doing it again, Mom,” Liv says, her voice pinched on the wind.
Greta steps closer. “Doing what, love?”
“Talking out loud.”
“I was thinking about my grandma.” Greta brushes the snow from Liv’s hat and sees its reflection in her daughter’s eyes. “She was an artist. Her paintings are in the historical society. You’ve seen them.”
“The one of the fish house,” Liv says.
“That’s the one I was thinking of.”
“It’s not the same fish house anymore.”
Greta imagines some pride in her daughter’s voice. “It certainly isn’t.”
Together they look back across the cove, the wind biting their faces. Usually the radiance from town a half mile across the isthmus comes up over the trees, but tonight the snow blots even that out. The only thing alight in any direction is the window.So many nights during the last year, she’s come out here to take comfort in the surging waves. My, how they keep coming.
“Axel!” Liv hollers as the dog chases a whorl of snow blown up off the ice. “Come here, boy!”
“He’s okay,” Greta says. “The snow’s got him excited is all.”
Now they watch him bound off. Liv’s crazy about him, a giant mutt that looks as much like a bear as a dog. At two years old, he weighs a hundred and thirty pounds. His paws are as big as Liv’s feet. Perfect for the snow.
“The wind’s so quiet without the water,” Liv says.
Greta’s heard that before, and wonders whose expression it is. Her mother or father? Her grandfather? It can’t be Frans, can it?
“If it wasn’t snowing, would the wind sound the same?” Liv asks.
Greta puts her ear up to the night, as though listening for birdsong, and says, “I don’t think so. If it weren’t snowing, it would sound more like a scream. This is almost like someone whistling. Or humming.”
Axel comes barreling out of the darkness, storming into Liv’s legs and knocking her down. She laughs and bounces up and tries to tackle him but misses. Axel circles back and Liv gets up again and pushes her hat up off her eyes and together the two of them start toward the fish house. Greta watches them running, can hear Liv’s laugh carried on the wind. Before they’re halfway across the cove, the light in the window wavers and, on the ebb of another strong breeze, the house goes dark.
In the closet off the mudroom, Greta finds the lantern and a box of wooden matches and she lights up the mantle and they go into what she’s now calling the great room. A fire still smolders in the replace and Greta rekindles it while Liv collapses on the leather chair. Axel shakes the snow from his coat and lies on the rug. The house is warm, but without power the new bedrooms up in the loft will soon get cold.
“We’d better sleep down here,” Greta says.
“Like a slumber party.”
“I’ll go get blankets and pillows. You brush your teeth.”
Greta goes upstairs for Liv’s bedding and the stuffed polar bear she’s lately been sleeping with again. She grabs her own comforter and another pillow and heads back downstairs. It’s so quiet inside. Only the snap of the fire and the dog’s heavy sighs and, out in the night, the wind through the darkness.
Before she’d done all the work on the house, the wind had mowed through it like water through a fishnet. But with the new replace and chimney and the loft, with the new windows and roof, the place has been trued and now the wind’s kept outside. Greta arranges Liv’s pillow and quilt on the big chair and spreads her comforter on the sofa.
Liv comes out of the bathroom and jumps in the chair. “Will it stay warm enough with just the fire?”
“I think so,” Greta says.
Liv reaches down for the dog. “I can sleep on the floor with Axel if I get cold. He’d love that.”
Greta smiles at her daughter’s easiness. She hasn’t seen much of it recently. Liv’s only 11 years old. Eleven going on eighteen, what with all the mood swings and surliness, the back talk and pit ting herself against the world, the unexplained tears and desperate hugs. Of course, Greta feels responsible for all of it. How many times each day does she agonize over Liv’s mood? How much time does she spend wondering if her daughter will be all right? How much are her own choices going to cost her daughter? And her son, Lasse, too, who is staying the night up at his grandpa’s house?
“I’ll be up working for a while,” Greta says. “I’ll keep the fire going. Maybe the power’ll come back on.”
“Are you still writing the family story?”
Greta sits down and spreads Liv’s quilt and kisses her forehead. “I’m almost done.”
“Is it a true story?”
“Are the people happy?”
“Are you okay, sweet pea?”
Liv rubs her eyes and looks like she’s about to sulk. Instead she says, “It’s tomorrow we go home, right? And Dad will be there?”
“That’s right. We’ll leave after breakfast. Dad’s on his way home now.”
Liv yawns deeply and when her eyes open again they catch the light from the fire. “I can’t wait to see him.”
“He’s excited to see you too.”
“Why’s he gone so much?”
Greta smooths Liv’s hair. “I think you should talk to him about that when you see him.”
Liv yawns again.
“I love you, kiddo,” Greta says. Liv rolls on her side, facing the fire. “I love you back.”
Greta gets up and takes the lantern off the coffee table and heads over to her desk.
She also built this. One day last fall, she’d gone up to a farm on County Road 7 to see about some old siding advertised on Craigslist. The unmoored barn had slipped from its foundation years earlier and seemed ready to collapse altogether, but the owner assured her it was safe to go inside, which they did. The same clapboard siding that covered the fish house was stacked in the haymow. It was a miracle, frankly, to have found it. She was about to start hauling boards out to her truck when she saw, in another corner of the barn, a workbench, the top of which was a chunk of white pine four inches thick and thirty square feet. When she asked about it, the man said, “Take everything. It’ll be less to burn.” Together they loaded the wood onto the trailer behind her truck. And on a warm day in October, after the loft had been sided, she’d stood outside and sanded and planed and varnished the top of the workbench. She built new legs from cedar posts and now it sat in the corner, up against the window.
Greta looks around the fish house at everything else she’s done. The loft bedrooms are the most notable addition. Three small rooms up an open staircase, one each for her and the kids. There’s the mud room and closet beneath the staircase. She built the kitchen along the north wall and a small island where four barstools sit under the counter. The wall facing the lake is all window, divided into three floor-to-ceiling panes. The floors throughout have been refinished and shine beautifully. Especially against the fire in the hearth.
The fireplace is her favorite part of the renovation. She and the kids picked the rocks from the river up by her father’s house and they cover a third of the wall opposite the kitchen. She had the hearth and flue installed but did the stonework herself, straight up to the tip of the chimney. Two solid weeks of backbreaking toil that had also been her best therapy.
She hears the fire snap, then a gust outside. She steps to the window. It still unsettles her to be here without the creaks and moans, especially on a howling night like this. She cups her hands around her eyes and peers out the window. The snow blows toward the lake, falling and dancing up off the ground at once. But Liv was right. Without the lake—without any waves—the wind in all its fierceness seems almost hushed.
That’s it: her mother used to call a north wind a quieting wind, because it blows the water away from shore. God, she misses her mother. Greta supposes it’s thanks to the many things she learned from her that she was capable of remodeling the fish house. And strong enough to have come back home to live in it. Strong enough to have found him, and to have insisted on him, despite the long odds against them.
He also spoke of the northern wind. In the first letter he sent, more than a year ago now, he wrote that she should think of it as a gift. That he’d send the breath of Boreas when he missed her most, up over the pole and on down to her. He wrote things like that, things that she read as both poetry and promises. He sent her other things too. A stone picked from the hills above Hammerfest. A bronze lighthouse figurine, small enough to wear on a charm necklace. A compass. A fountain pen. And his first and most amazing gift, that slight book and his translation of it, his penmanship so fine and precise it could have been typeset on some antique press. The original is leather-bound, with a polar bear from the shoulders up, its forepaws raised above its snarling face, embossed beneath the title: Isbjørn i Nordligste Natt. The Polar Bear in the Northernmost Night. Fiftyfour pages chronicling a fortnight in her great-great-great-grandfather’s life, published by some man named Marius Granerud in Tromsø, Norway, in the year 1898.
After reading it more times than she can count, she’s still surprised by something she can only describe as being haunted each time she looks at it. That her family, as far back as it’s known to her, has been suffering the cold and snow of this world as though these are the conditions of their natural and only habitat. It’s like a confirmation of who she is. And that the stories of her father’s and great-grandfather’s bears should likewise have their provenance? This helps her believe in the manuscript pages stacked on the corner of her desk. She reaches over and flips through them.
It comes again, the quieting wind, and she feels the house heavy behind her. She thinks of the boats that have been built in here. First her great-grandfather’s fishing boat, then her grandfather’s and father’s canoes. They all made their great discoveries on those boats. She knows the stories. Her father told them. Berit Lovig told them. So now she’s telling one herself. They’re as much a part of her as her own daughter, sleeping peacefully across the room.
And what will Greta do with the old place fitted out for her? Why, she’ll just keep starting over again. She sits down and pushes the lantern over to the side of her desk. She waits for the wind to come over the house one more time, imagines he sent it, sends a thought back to him—that she misses him, and that she’ll see him soon—and opens her computer.
Excerpted from Northernmost: A Novel by Peter Geye. Copyright © 2020. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Knopf Doubleday, an imprint of Penguin Random House.