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Short Story


The shouts of the archeology students reach across the field to Mr. Stordahl’s yard, where I’m taking in the laundry. Over the blackberry bramble I can see the students hurrying toward an excavation pit. One of the girls claps her hands happily, and I feel happy. Mr. Stordahl’s voice enters my head. See, Annie. The power of emotional transference.

Bivouacked on the peninsula since the start of summer, the graduate students are seeking evidence for the southernmost Viking settlement in North America. They go gaga over trash heaps, old fires, fragments of timber. I’ve allowed them to dig a bit on the grounds, and two of the archeology students have even expanded the survey to include the waters off the point where the shore likely was, a thousand years ago. In truth, those girls have discovered a mutual affection between dives. I came upon them once, on the way to my morning swim in the tide pool. None of the others seem interested in a summer fling. Even the boy who plays guitar every evening enters his tent alone.

I fold my laundry, including a few pairs of the students’ jeans. I’ve made Solace—Mr. Stordahl’s house—available to the students should they wish to sleep indoors in inclement weather, or use the kitchen and amenities. I’m as hospitable with them as the Friends of Able Stordahl are with me. The Friends take care of the property tax and myriad other matters. This spring they came out for a week and painted the main house and even the onion-shaped dome. Solace glows white and gold now, like the old days when the waiting room was full from morning to night with those seeking Mr. Stordahl’s gifts.

The students are posing for a group photo now, even though their discovery still appears lodged in the ground. I’m sure I’ll hear of it tonight, when they come by to use the phone. Apart from the graduate students and the Friends, Solace attracts only a small number of visitors during the summer months, and those are usually here because they’ve read about Mr. Stordahl in Bertrard Fahr’s A Recent History of the Occult. Rarely, to these strangers, do I confess to having been Mr. Stordahl’s housemaid, then secretary, then lover—only because I doubt it would interest them. What visitors want to know is whether Mr. Stordahl’s powers were real. They skip his sagacity, his intimate knowledge of herbs and plants that he prescribed for his patients, his advocacy for the training of the mind through self-reflection, and his little book, On Healthful Exercises for the Body in all Seasons. Instead, they want to hear about his ability to locate missing persons, misplaced tools, stolen jewelry. They want to hear how he knew a patient’s story before they stepped into his study for a consultation. It’s the truthfulness of his clairvoyance they’re after—and how they might follow a path to gain some of the same. They’re uninterested in how he gave his gifts to patients in exchange for a few coins or a barter of eggs or flour or, often, freely for the benefit of the patient. Is it true that he could…they ask? Of course, I say. Ask anyone. But the anyones are few to none now; most of the patients Mr. Stordahl helped have passed on. It’s good he lived when he did, though; his gifts would have been incompatible with modernity, which sees trickery in everything, or wants to know the trick.

Shortly after I’ve had my supper, the sky thunders. Rain plays softly on the hydrangeas outside the window, still brightly colored, even at dusk. By nightfall, Solace is filled with a dozen graduate students. They’ve brought in their little camping stoves to cook dry soups, their sleeping bags stored against the walls, some already asleep within them, others ending the day with books; there’s no internet here and we are beyond even the reach of cell phones. They’ve placed the day’s discovery on the dining table: a dark and heavily pitted metal dagger. The weapon sits beside the rest of the season’s discoveries: an intricately carved button; a curved piece of metal, possibly from a helmet; crude bricks; and a small earthenware vessel containing imperfect pearls. I listen politely to their theories of Viking trade with the First Nations. I nod at the intricate maps of the dig site, which they twirl and zoom on the screens of their devices. It is beyond me, so I escape to brew enough tea for everyone who is still awake. Though the students’ enthusiasm is infectious, I do not wish I were young again. To have one’s life stretching out unknown before you? No, thank you. I prefer Solace, this peninsula, memories.

I offer the remains of Mr. Stordahl’s liquor cabinet—half-full bottles of whisky and aquavit—to help toast the students’ discovery of the dagger. Mr. Stordahl drank sparingly; the bottles he received were all gifts from patients. The students decline my offer, and I realize that in their eyes the labels are simply too old for the contents of the bottles to be considered trustworthy. I have a nip of the aquavit in my reclining chair and I am back with Mr. Stordahl and it is a Sunday in summer with Solace closed to patients. We are swimming in the large tide pool out on the point. The sizable depression fills at high tide and warms in the sun. Able is wearing his straw hat and I am wearing a swimming cap, and neither of us is wearing anything else. I feel everlasting and in no desire to head back to the house. But with a rumble of thunder I am back there, here, decades later. A house full of students that nevertheless feels empty without Mr. Stordahl reading or studying within it. The students have retired to the library and to Mr. Stordahl’s study to sleep.

In the early morning hours, the storm past, my window open, I hear soft, unmistakable cries from the two divers. Their glowing tent is the only one occupied this night. Near morning, I make my way downstairs to the kitchen and brew some tea with herbs from the garden. I sit at the table with my insomnia and examine the students’ finds. The intricate metal button was from a sweater I knit for Mr. Stordahl long ago. The other items are unknown to me, but I do know Mr. Stordahl buried them one summer for his visiting niece and nephew to find. He drew a pirate’s map of the peninsula, complete with burned edges and holes, well-crumpled and grimed with dirt. He corked it within a bottle and dropped it in the tide pool and waited. With the aid of the map, the children found items in the forest, and in the shallow waters around the boat pier, for months, but not these items I hold before me—though I seem to remember the children being chased out of the field by a farmhand. Then again, knowing Mr. Stordahl, he might have buried these items for my benefit: to draw the students here decades later so that I might have a little company in my old age. He’d found an actual stone ax blade in the field during the construction of Solace and reported the find to the university, bookmarking an idea for an excavation decades later; a message in a bottle for adults.

Such forethought would be in keeping with Mr. Stordahl’s consideration and well within his abilities. If I was sitting and reading and a draft chilled my feet, Able would walk by and spread a blanket across my legs—but not until the thought of wanting a blanket bubbled into my consciousness. He would offer a drink if I was thirsty; suggest I accompany him on a walk along the shore if I was desiring his company; bed, if my thoughts turned in that direction. Once, he suggested I visit the hospital, but without telling me what ailed me. I hadn’t noticed my own fever and what lay behind it. When I returned, he asked me if they’d given me a prescription. He read the bottle’s label, nodded, and went back to a waiting patient.

I step outside before the students have stirred. The promise of dawn is only just beginning to lighten the sky, the windowpanes the color of slate. I like to catch the day when it is stiff and cold and brittle. We have some kinship then. I walk down through the grounds that never hold snow, even in winter. One of the Friends measured for radioactivity last year, but found nothing to account for the phenomenon. I have always assumed it is another of Able’s considerations for my ease. At the point, the eastern glow lays ten thousand strokes of white gold on the sea. The bright red clouds on the horizon, stragglers from the previous day, look like hell flame. I pass my worn wooden chair and remove my nightgown. I descend, carefully, into the thick cold water of the tide pool and watch the small waves of my entering write motion on stillness. I turn around and look at Mr. Stordahl’s house as though I am waiting for him. After a few minutes, the golden dome catches the first of the sunrise and blooms. Able comes through the trees, pipe in hand, the other in a pocket of his cardigan. He never has to call for me. He always knows where I am.

“Come in,” I say. “It’s almost warm.”

He shakes his head, but with a smile. “You’ll catch your death with your morning dips,” he says, taking a seat.

“Is that how my life ends?” I ask. I’ve never asked Able to share what he knows of my future, but now I wish to have an inkling.

“Annie Welfen,” he says. “You will receive the kiss of life right here and then live another decade.”

“Only another decade?”

“Another decade after you receive the kiss of life.”

“I suppose I shouldn’t ask you for a kiss, then,” I say, and go down under the water, the cold slicing around my scalp. My fingers feel the soft sticky touch of anemone, the prick of urchin.

Then I am lifted from the waters. I am put down. I am kissed and rolled onto my side. I am feverish with cold.

“Into the house!” a voice shouts and I see them, the archeology students, and they are bearing me toward Solace. I feel un-whole, with my shoulders in one man’s care, my hips and legs with another. Inside, someone is on the phone, calling for help, but I shake my head. I am stripped by the girls who are so beautiful we are like different species. I am dried and put into someone’s robe that smells of marijuana. Moist towels are microwaved and wrapped around my shivering limbs. I tell them I am fine, to not worry. Call off the ambulance. I laugh. I will live another decade.

After the ambulance men have left Solace without me, I fall into slumber and remember candles, homemade and leaving puddles of smoke on the ceiling. I remember my father plowing the field by day, mending shoes by night, the whole house full of shoes. I imagined there were dozens of people in town who waited in their homes, barefoot, for my father to complete his repairs. My thoughts are drawn next to the gift of tides: cold-bleached logs from forests far away, the frozen shore in winter serving plates of ice, the specks of icebergs in late spring, the polar bear who broke through the kitchen window, the rug on the floor and mother wrapping me within it in a game with no rules but delight. Sundogs, the aurora, chapped skin. And then I realize that these are not my memories but those of others who have passed through this place. Perhaps these are the visions Able saw.

I wake two nights later. I do not contract pneumonia. I am fine. Iron deficient, though, but that’s easily remedied. Within a week I am back in the garden, taking in the kale, pulling up the carrots, listening to the archeology students scrape away at the field. Soon they will reach deeper than Mr. Stordahl ever dug. Who am I to say they won’t find evidence of a true Viking settlement? Strange things continue to happen here.

“Solace” first appeared in Paris Lit Up.