Spitsbergen by Elizabeth Davis
Yusuf, the sixty-something year-old tour driver, arrived before sunrise to collect me at the Hotel Atlas, the hotel named for the mountain range we’d tour, the mountain range named for the one who carried the wide world on his back. Beneath fading stars and indigo sky I followed Yusuf through the Old Medina alleys to the bus. He held my hand as we crossed a busy roundabout. We passed men wearing business suits and a woman selling coffee from a thermos, and I had some, but Yusuf didn’t. He seemed to be a man of kindness.
We tourists, strangers to each other, left Marrakech in a fifteen seater-charter bus for the mountains and the Algerian Sahara, bound to spend three days sight-seeing and New Year’s Eve camping in the dunes. There were three couples: the Norwegians, the Italians, and the Spanish. The Norwegians were the best prepared and changed their socks often; the Italians wore trendy, matching ski outfits; and the Spanish seemed underprepared for everything and wore Converse sneakers and hoodies. The Spanish man was named Pictor.
“Like Victor, but with a P,” he said.
“That would be a good name for a fencer,” I said.
I sat in the backseat next to the Norwegians, Dan and Nadira. What did they
do for fun during the winter? I wondered.
“I come home at three every day,” Dan said, and he rowed his arms, as if they
were attached to ski poles. “Do you always travel alone?” he asked.
“Always,” I said. And I asked Pictor his opinion on the likelihood of holiday fireworks in the desert.
I’d spent the New Year’s before with my ex-husband Steven at a fancy East Village party. I’d worn a black-beaded two-piece dress with a Paris label. I remembered less about how I felt, and more about how I looked, how we looked. I spent a lot of money on my outfit for that night. Maybe because I thought if I could make my body look like a nice place to live, it would become a nice place to live. He had kissed me at midnight and pressed my cheek with his hand and had said, You’re so happy, you’re so happy.
The bus turned tighter circles through the cedar forest, and Peugeot pick-ups dusted past us. Sometimes children waved to us from the truck beds, hoisting snow-white baby foxes into the air, signaling us to pull over for a picture and a tip.
“Do you think it will be below freezing when we camp?” Nadira asked. She inspected her fingertips, which were blue and patchy and seemed near death.
“Around seventeen Fahrenheit,” Dan said, “multiply by nine fifths, then add
“Did you live in the U.S.?” I asked.
“The Bahamas and some other islands use Fahrenheit,” Dan said.
“Did you live there?” I asked. “Did you have to look up that formula?”
He shook his head, No, and smiled, ice-blue eyes shining. Out the bus window, hours had passed. Dan and Nadira shuffled beside me. He searched their bag for gloves while she repositioned herself, sitting atop her patchy, blue fingers. And I wondered what he thought he might be able to do for her.
At the top of the first pass, we took a break at a roadside coffee stand. We had climbed past the tree line and into the winter. Alpine meadows crunched like permafrost beneath my feet. We admired, down below in the valley, a turquoise mountain lake. I sat at a picnic table with Dan and Nadira and tried not to worry about the force of the wind while they told me about their home in Spitsbergen, one island among a constellation of many north of Norway. In case of polar bears, people there carry rifles on their backs, to keep one another safe, they said. But I wondered if it might be better said: people there carry rifles on their backs, to keep themselves safe. As I listened, I focused my gaze on a hailstorm of black gravel dropping down from the mountaintops toward the lake. That body of water, as all bodies must, had tides.
Before, when I was still a wife, we’d visited Lake Nahuel Huapi in the Argentine Patagonia. It was July and so it was cold. Storm winds blew, and the brackish waves reached heights of those I’ve heard may rise in open ocean. High altitude fog hung at eye level and drifted across the water out into the mountains. We stood at the edge, and, holding hands, talked about our dog back home. We always talked about her smell. I followed a path of island stones into the lake and perched myself alone atop a high rock, just as I’d done as a kid. Across the lake, stood a loan boathouse. Tiny, ant-sized men used their whole bodies to wave at me, like grounded seabirds with weighty, oversized wingspans.
“What did I do wrong,” I yelled to my husband.
“Come back,” he had called out from the shore.
In darkness the group arrived at the hotel along the edge of the Dandès River. The sky was clear and filled with stars. Yusuf lit my cigarette. We leaned against the bus and he smiled, asked something in French. He’d taken off his baseball hat, and he ran his fingers through his hair, as if considering the day’s game.
From across the road tiny voices called, “Pourboire! Propina! Tip!” It was two boys, about seven, and there was a foxlike dog with them. All day long, the children had asked for tips. Sometimes they’d sell crafts of woven grass: camel and star figurines. By nightfall I had a little collection in my backpack. They wore white t-shirts and tan shorts, and, when they carried foxes, they would sling the pups across the back of their necks or over their shoulders. Sometimes they’d just asked for the tip. I bought a star and Yusuf gave them a few coins.
The dog looked at me and I asked, “How much for her?” I rubbed behind her ears.
“Good evening,” one boy said and they three were off, back into the night.
This riverside hotel smelled like new construction. It seemed somebody had built it while considering both large group stays, and, strangely, mission revival architecture I might usually associate with southern California. There were two wings: one side, a great room, the other, the guest rooms. Room keys were chained to giant blocks of fuelwood, guaranteeing that, no matter your size, the key would not fit into your jean pocket.
In the dining room, a fire-burned and it was so orderly and romantic, it was nearly embarrassing. It burned while we ate our multi-course, family-style meal. For dessert, we drank Berber tea and peeled clementines and we strangers made first-date talk. I was a student, I forgot what Nadira did (probably because I thought her work sounded boring), and Dan worked as a psychologist in the Norwegian prison system, he won.
“Creative writing seems a very similar path to psychology,” he said. And he watched his folded hands as he rubbed his thumbs together.
I shook my head. “Psychology is about making people feel better.”
“Not that,” he said, and shook his head, No, and he shifted, held his cheek as he spoke. “Just helping people feel.”
Nadira held her blue hands above the candle. “It’s new,” she said and she kind of rolled her eyes. “Circulation problems with the hands and feet.” Her short, curly hair fell around the corners of her mouth and her skin was a little rough. It seemed like she kind of had eczema across her cheeks. Her eyes were blue, like Dan’s, but it was hard to notice for certain their color because the shine of her pupils created a glare, and appeared to me as ever expanding, circular waterfalls.
“We should move closer to the fire,” I said, but maybe thirty percent out of concern, seventy percent wanting to be liked.
Dan checked his watch, a diving watch. And it occurred to me why, beyond stereotypical Nordic culture, he might store formulas for temperature conversions at the front of his mind.
We arrived at the campsite on New Year’s and the sky above was lit up so bright, not like night but more like a different kind of daytime. A guide told me, he was smoking hash when he said it, the night before he’d seen a lion sleeping in the dunes. I asked, boy or girl, and he laughed and that annoyed me a little.
As Dan had predicted, the temperature was into the low twenties and dropping. Everyone changed, adding extra clothes. The Norwegians told me to put on clean socks, and I did. The Italians wore their same matching ski gear. And the Spanish borrowed hats from the Norwegians.
After dinner, we tourists took position around the fire, a great pit at the center of camp. The men formed a drum line, and we clapped. In the firelight, women, dancers, emerged as an approaching front of coyness, and we clapped, and I, at least, felt very embarrassed. Little gold beads dangled from their skirts’ waistlines. They held, up to their shoulders, a white sheet. When they dropped the sheet, we could see their tummies. It was so cold out. Everybody was drinking tea and it wasn’t enough. The dance might have originated with the Berbers, but it seemed to have been filtered through Las Vegas, and I felt responsible.
Instead of watching, I attuned myself to the pulse of the drums and, ba da dun DUN, ba da dun DUN, ba da dun. And I felt, against my will probably if I could have involved it, a plucking of the fingerboard beneath my ribs, and I patted my hands against my thighs as a way of shy validation.
I searched the faces for my new friends. Behind the dancers, Yusuf leaned against the building, grinning, tapping out a message on his phone. Across the pit, the Italians sat folded into each other. Behind me, the Spanish.
To my right huddled the Norwegians, Dan and Nadira. He took off her gloves and rubbed her hands between his, as if he might spark their fingers to kindling. Her gloves were blue and she wore outdoor gear and a hat with snowflakes on it. Watching the dancers, she held her head high in acceptance. She sat with a kind of ease that I couldn’t mimic. Her position made her clothes look like blankets.
I sat near the fire, my legs straight out in front of me and I rolled my ankles side to side against the ground. Good evening, the boy with the dog had said the night before. In the nights of my adult life what had I noticed of the good evenings? Why was it that I’d grown backwards, in terms of wonder?
“Hey Lady,” one of the dancers called. “You, Lady. You,” she said and she pointed and smiled, I guess because she wanted me to pay attention. Not me, I thought, not me! She was in her thirties and her face was full and beneath one of her eyes, she had a wide dimple. She had applied some kind of glitter lotion and there was a sparkly, silvery pool collecting inside of it. It was pretty, but it also kind of made her look like she had a third eye. She’d pronounced the d in Lady softly, the way a child might.
She was staring and I wished for the first minute or so she would smile so that I could look away. It was an uncomfortably long time to watch her, until it wasn’t. She danced with her body but not too much with her hands. Only she held each at a hover alongside her hips, keeping her fingers and her palms flat like boards and bobbing them side to side in waves from her wrists. It was purposeful. It was as if she were soothing the waters into which she moved. Oh, and isn’t that how I wanted to be.
© Elizabeth Davis, 2016
Elizabeth Davis is from San Antonio, TX. She's an NYC Teaching Fellow working in special education. She received her MA in literature from TSU in 2011 and her MFA in creative writing from NYU in 2015. She's reading the Elena Ferrante novels right now (late to the party), and she's loving them.
Spitsbergen was read by Kristen Calgaro on 7th December 2016 for Dreams & Aspirations