Authors: Peter Geye
Safe from the Sea
The Lighthouse Road
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
Copyright Â© 2016 by Peter Geye
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, Toronto.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Wintering / Peter Geye.âFirst edition.
pages ; cm
1. Domestic fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover photographs: (canoe) Bruce Amos/Shutterstock; (sky) Viviana Falconer/plainpicture
Cover design by Stephanie Ross
For my boys, Finn and Cormac
And for Dana
The country between Lake Superior and the Lake of the Woods is, like the whole watershed between Hudson's Bay and the Valley of the St. Lawrence, a rugged assemblage of hills, with lakes, rivers, and morasses, of all sizes and shapes, in their intervals. It is, in fact, a drowned land, whose waters have assumed their permanent features by a balance of receipt and discharge.
They all communicate practically with each other, either by water or by portages, so that the traveller may reach the Lake of the Woods by many routes, differing only in danger, labour, and directness.
âJOHN JEREMIAH BIGSBY
are faithful and unfailing and we take what they bring, but this season has tested even the most devout among us. The thermometer hanging outside my window reads thirty-two degrees below zero. Five degrees warmer than yesterday, which itself was warmer than the day before. I can hear the pines exploding, heartwood turned to splinter and pulp all up and down the Burnt Wood River.
As if the cold weren't enough, yesterday brought another unkindness. Gustav Eide came bearing it: his father's red woolen hatâthe one he wore almost every day, the type children wear tobogganingâfound by those Bargaard twins as they ice-skated out past the breakwater.
It wasn't the first time Gus came knocking this winter. Back in November he held his own hat in his hands. Gus, with his father's lonesome, lazy eyes, standing bareheaded but buttoned up outside my door.
“I hate to drop in unannounced, Berit,” he had said then.
“Since when do we stand on ceremony around here? Come in.”
He stepped inside but stood with his back against the door, his eyes studying his bootlaces. I've seen much of this town's woe, its suffering and tragedy, and have marked it all. While I stood there waiting for Gus to speak, I knew my own everlasting sadness was suddenly upon me.
“He disappeared last night, Berit.” He spoke without looking up. “He's gone.”
I turned and stepped carefully to the bench under the window and sat.
“We found tracks heading up the river,” he said.
I looked up at him, now looking down at me. I thought of sitting at his father's bedside the evening before, holding his hand, singing to him. I thought of how Harry had looked at me, his gaze seeming to go through me and into some past only he could see. I was disappearing from his view. This I knew.
Gus came and sat next to me on the bench. “That new sheriffâRuutu's his nameâis leading the search. We went all the way up past the lower falls. The dogs lost his scent around the Devil's Maw. Ruutu's down in Gunflint right now, calling for more help.”
He reached over and held my hand, a gesture he surely learned from his father and one that calmed me down, at once familiar and uncanny. There are depths to those Eides no sounding line will ever reach. I knew this about Harry and I have come to know it about Gus, though on that November morning he knew me much better than I did him.
“They're not going to find him, Berit.”
He let my hand go and sat back and rubbed the cold from his cheeks.
“Why would you say that? He can't have gone far,” I said, thinking again of that faraway look in Harry's eyes.
“We've heard this story before, haven't we?”
“Speak plainly, would you? For the benefit of an old lady?”
Then Gus looked through me just as his father had only hours before. “People searched for don't get found here. Not in these woods.” He closed his eyes and shook his head as though to banish some thought. “Put on some coffee? I'll tell you how all this happened.”
So I did. I went to the kitchen and filled the kettle at the sink. As the water poured from the faucet I glanced upriver, where I have kept my eyes more or less since. Two stories began that day in November. One of them was new and the other as old as this land itself. Both of them were borne by the river.
Ruutu and his deputies and Gus and his sister, Signe, and the good people of Gunflint spent a week searching for Harry, every dawn following some new dead end into the wilderness, every dusk emerging from wherever they'd been, tired and cold and no closer to finding him. Gus stopped by each evening to tell me where they'd looked, assuring me every single time they'd never find him. Even still, the next morning he went out with the others. Sometimes three or four parties, following three or four leads. When, finally, they conceded Harry to the wilderness, it was thanks to Gus's insistence. Signe went back home to Minneapolis. Gus back to his job teaching English and history at Arrowhead High School. Ruutu back to our local misdemeanors and traffic violations.
Me? I was still searching in my own fashion. That first morning, I visited Harry's empty bed. There was the iron headboard and the flannel linens and the quilt crumpled at the foot of the bed. Harry was always too warm. The pillow still held the imprint of his head. His medication sat on the bedside table, next to the radio and a half-drunk glass of water. The bureau opposite the bedside table was as old and timeworn as whatever part of Harry stored his memories. I crossed the room and opened the top drawer and noticed straightaway his knit hat was missing. Strangely, the pompom had been snipped off.
I'd passed the previous evening as I had so many others before it, sitting at his bedside, reminding him of who we used to be, feeling at times that I was not only disappearing into the darkness of his mind but from the world altogether. It was no less strange that evening than it had been at the start of his confinement to see a man still so bodily strong becoming a child again. No less strange and no less unbearable.
Of that last night we spent together, I cannot say he exhibited any signs he was about to undertake a disappearance, no word spoken or gesture made that gave me pause. He did nothing that might've forewarned me. That evening I only hoped, as I did every night, that when he finally fell to sleep he would do so with the knowledge of my love, and that when he dreamt it would be of peaceful things.
It was Doctor Ingebrigstenâwho grew up in Misquah, went to medical school in Minneapolis, and returned to Arrowhead County because, she said, this place needed one of its own to care for its sicklyâwho described to Gus and me what it would become like for Harry. “You and I,” she said, “we see our past as though it were a bright summer day. The trees green, flowers blossoming, the water shining blue. Harry's going to start seeing less and less of his past untilâsadlyâeverything will seem as though it's taking place in a nighttime blizzard in the dead of winter.” She said this on a September morning, with the trees in full autumn blazeâour loveliest time of yearâand I wept to think that the man I loved would never register that beauty again, even if he lived another ten years.
That same morning Doctor Ingebrigsten told me the best thing I could do for Harry was to be with him. Sit at his bedside and talk to him and tell him I still loved him. To hold him among us for as long as I could. So I did. Of course I did.
And now it's been half of a winter since Harry vanished, and I can finally rest my thoughts. I ought to feel relief. Of this I'm sure. But do you know what it's like to hold proof of the last heartache you'll ever know in your own raw hands? I hadn't known, either, not until Gus delivered Harry's red hat yesterday morning, a cork bobber sewed on where the pompom should've been. Gus's stories and that damn hatâhanded to me like a verdict and never spoken of againâthese things have made of my heart what this season has of the splintering pines along the river.
I poured the coffee did Gus remove his gloves and unbutton his coat. His eyes were fixed on the kitchen window, warning of nothing, though their sadness was plain. Outside, the first snow of the season, which had fallen all night, was finally relenting.
I thought of the townsfolk zipping up and brushing it from their cars. They'd make it to the nine o'clock service at Immanuel Lutheran come what may, choosing the cold and snow over the fires of hell any day. Families marching into church, sitting straight-backed in the pews. The wives and children enthralled by Pastor Nils's holy words. The men sitting there beside them, heads bowed or turned heavenward. You'd as likely hear his silent prayers as you would his singing voice at hymn time. For some sixty years I've lived among these peopleâall my adult life and the end of my childhood. I know how they make you wait.
So I waited for Gus, my hands warmed by my own mug of coffee. After a time, he shifted his eyes from the ceiling and pulled off his coat.
He spoke slowly, almost as if what he said had been rehearsed, though of course it hadn't. “You made him very happy, Berit. You made his life worth living.” He paused and looked at me. “Being as he was, though, well, what worth was there in that? I might've gone off myself, knowing what was to come. Hell, I'd have strung myself up from the fish-house ceiling.” He put the coffee to his lips but did not drink. “I'm sorry,” he said over the lip of the cup. After a sip he went on. “I must've inherited his habit of saying any damn-fool thing that comes to mind.” He tried to smile but just couldn't do it. “Lately, I've wondered quite a lot about what memories were still left. Did anything come to him at all?” Again he paused, and did manage a sort of smile. “If he remembered anything, it was good times with you.”
“You don't need to butter me up, Gus. I know how it was with him.”
As if I'd not spoken at all, he continued. “When Tom and Greta were babies, I used to walk them to sleep. You know, wander around the house at night, whispering to them, singing them lullabies, telling them everything would be all right. I liked to think they could understand me, that my voice soothed them until they eventually calmed down and fell asleep.” He actually smiled now. “Of course, they didn't know a damn thing. Only that they were tired and unhappy.” He took a deep breath and shook his head. “I wish to Christ he would've said one simple thing before he left. One damn thing.”
“I'm sitting here looking at you, Gus, and thinking you're his spitting image. But you certainly didn't get his plainspokenness, did you?”
“You'll have to pardon me, Berit. I don't make a lick of sense in the best of times.”
“You said they're not going to find him.”
“Of course they aren't.”
“Well, I can sit here all winter with you,” I said.
He looked up at me and smiled and by some legerdemain placed on the table a small moose-hide portfolio. “You just might have to,” he said. “Ruutu found this up on the river.” He slid it across the table.
“What is it?”
“Proof that he never found what he was looking for.”
I picked it up, opened it to the first page, and saw a hand-drawn map of the shore of Lake Superior.
“I don't know how to talk about this. I don't know if it makes perfect sense or if my mind is starting to go, too. But maybe you can help me understand, Berit.”
“Understand what, Gus?”
“Why he walked off. What he left behind.” He shook his head. “What happened that winter when I was a kid.”
“I know what happened that winter.”
“No, you don't. Not all of it.”
I got up to refill our coffee, and when I sat back down I said, “Folks are skipping church this morning to search for your father, Pastor Nils is praying for an old man lost in the snow, and here you sit telling stories to his sweetheart.”
“I told you, they're not going to find him. They just won't. Pastor Nils is a good man. One of the best. But his prayers won't help my father.” His eyes were glassy. “And you? You were more than his sweetheart. You know that as well as I do. You were the only reason he didn't wander off thirty years ago. Hear me out, Berit. And don't think for another minute my father's anything but gone and resting now.” He closed his eyes and looked up. “If rest's what he found down there.”