It was late, and the ride from the Tromsø Airport felt endless. My driver swept us by hills of piled up snow and bare-bone trees, and I attempted to remember how to pronounce the foreign names of the streets we passed. Ørnevegen, Forhåpningen, Verftsgata—my mind was numb from the 11-hour flight from America. Only a few of the phrases I bothered to memorize were useful anyway. Goddag meant hello. Takk was thank you. Hvor er toalettet? Where’s the toilet?
When the taxi creaked up to my hotel, I grabbed my bags, mumbled, “Takk,” and handed over some kroner—the colorful bills I received in exchange for my comparatively plain American dollars—before stepping out into the haze of street lamps. A blond, tall man was standing by the door to the hotel. “Goddag,” he said. “Hello. You are Heidi?” His Scandinavian accent coated the English words.
“Oh, yes. And you’re…” I trailed off, blushing because I couldn’t remember the name of my guide for the weeks ahead.
“Søren,” he said, shaking my hand. He taught me how to pronounce the “ø” like “uh” as we walked into the hotel, and then he immediately launched into business talk. “I’m so glad you’re here. I really need the help.”
“I’ll do the best I can.” I could feel my eyelids droop.
“I’ve already mapped out the locations of sightings from past years. I’ve triangulated them and found a central spot where we can set up a base camp.” He spoke quietly, almost hesitantly, but when the words came out they came all at once. “I’m saying too much. You must be tired,” he said. “I won’t keep you any longer.” We scheduled a time to meet the next day, and I waved as he left the lobby and slipped back into the darkness outside.
Exhausted and exhilarated, I unpacked my bags with bleary eyes. It had been over a year since I last traveled for work, and I had missed the icy chill of nerves sprouting in my stomach when I walked through unfamiliar streets. I missed smelling foreign foods that twisted out of restaurants whose names were riddles to me. The hotel room had crisp white sheets and a stiff plank of a mattress. Even the air smelled new.
My work at the International Endangered Bird Foundation in Maine sent me all over the U.S. and occasionally to other countries to conduct fieldwork—that is, track down and study endangered birds in their natural environment.
I had visited many strange places, but nothing quite like this. Tomorrow would be the first day of December, and in Tromsø the sun hadn’t risen over the peaks of the distant mountains for a few days.
The rare breed I was sent to locate—the Nordic lark—was believed to frequent the forest areas near the Norwegian Sea, but it was disappearing at a rapid rate. Local scientists like Søren were struggling to discover why. From the little we knew about it back home in Maine, the Nordic lark had stopped migrating south during winters, and more recently it has stopped appearing in the daylight altogether. The polar nights, the month and a half of continuous nighttime, would be our best opportunity to track them down. I expected this to be a failure, but Norwegian scientists were desperate for answers and finding birds was my expertise.
I lowered my window’s blind on the darkened sky. Around the time I was scheduled to leave Norway in mid-January, the sun would finally start to make shy advances above the horizon, and if I was lucky I might get to see the city underneath a glowing expanse of jewel-colored teal. I unpacked a sunlight lamp from my bag and set it on the table next to my bed. I clicked it on. Bright, artificial sunshine poured out into the pathetic room, its light folding my arms in warmth. My sister Christina had given it to me on a lunch date just before I left.
“I doubt these things really work,” I had said, examining the packaging for any fine-print admissions of fraud. “Light therapy lamp?”
“Even if it’s a placebo, it’s better than nothing,” she said, shrugging. “Promise you’ll try it?”
“Thank you,” I laughed and patted her arm. “But I’ve read up on this polar night stuff. It doesn’t seem so bad.”
“But with everything you’ve been through…” she trailed off when I rolled my eyes, but a moment later she hit the table with her palm. “No, you know what?” she said, her voice louder, “I’m going to say this because no one else has the balls to question you right now. Your husband just died. Now is not the time to run off to another country. This isn’t going to be some Eat, Pray, Love shit.”
“I’m doing my job the same way I’ve done it for years,” I objected.
“Except that you haven’t traveled for fieldwork in over a year.”
“I quit traveling because Phillip got sick,” I said. “I need to feel normal again. I can’t be cooped up working from home anymore.”
“You’re overestimating your strength,” she said frankly. She laid some cash over our bill and reached out to grab my hand as if to soften the blow of her statement. “Why don’t you come stay with me for a few days?”
“I’ve made up my mind. There isn’t anything for me here.”
She squeezed my hand.
“Except you, of course,” I smiled. “And if I get too depressed I’ll just talk to my therapy lamp.” I squeezed her hand back, and she frowned.
As we walked our separate ways from the restaurant she pulled me into a tight hug. “You don’t have to punish yourself for anything, Heidi.” I laughed, but it caught in my throat.
My 7:00 a.m. alarm yanked me out of the flimsy layers of dream-sleep, leaving me with an unshakable foggy feeling. I lifted the blind on the window and winced at my aching shoulders already sore from the stiff bed. Outside, the velvety blue sky stretched over the city to the faintly glowing edges of the distant mountains.
After pulling every lever and turning every knob in the bathroom and still failing to coax any hot water from the showerhead, I sat dejected on the cool tile floor. As the exciting newness of travel morphed into incomprehensible foreignness, I vaguely considered going back to the airport to get the next flight back home, or at least getting back into bed.
I forced myself back up. “Keep moving,” I said as I rubbed a bar of soap over my hair and dunked it into tepid water from the sink taps and then took a cold, limp washcloth to the rest of my body.
I grabbed my pack with my night vision binoculars, camera, notebook, and flashlight, threw it on over my thick layers, and set off to meet Søren.
The city was awakening despite the sun’s absence. Tall, wispy-looking couples strolled along the sidewalk past lit shop windows, and car headlights swooshed over small, colorful wooden buildings masked in shadows. Strings of lights were draped across the street, twinkling against the dark sky. Despite the inherent dismal feeling of a dusky morning, Tromsø was, in contradiction with itself, a surreal picture of holiday cheer. A town full of colorful gingerbread houses wrapped in garland and sprinkled in powdered sugar. It wasn’t as cold as I had expected it to be in northern Norway—the temperature hovered around freezing—but a light snow dusted the sharply peaked roofs and collected in cracks in the stone streets. I tried to duplicate the merriment I saw around me, but the city’s darkness pressed down on me like dense humidity in the air. It felt heavier and more mysterious than any night sky in Maine. At home, even when Phillip and I spent days on end in the hospital, I could at least step outside in the fresh morning air and feel the warmth of the sun on my face for a few moments.
Phillip was dying, and dying is expensive in America. Consultation fees, hospital bills, pharmacy bills—they all pile up until the sum of money you owe is a dark joke hanging over the hardest moments in your life.
One night at the hospital, when Phillip thought for sure that he only had hours left on this earth, he started to confess his regrets. Neither of us had slept in days, yet all we seemed to do was sit or lie around and wait. My exhaustion made me weepy. He funneled his into bitterness, which he spewed my direction.
“How did I let you talk me into never having kids?”
“It was a mutual agreement,” I said, knowing any input I offered would be ignored.
“I always wanted kids. Two at least. I should have convinced you to quit your job. You were always gone.” He had a wildness in his eyes replacing the lifelessness that had taken hold over the past weeks.
“Honey, we both traveled for work. It would have been impossible.” I rubbed my neck and kept holding back the sob lodged in my throat.
“We could have had grandkids by now. This room should be filled with our family.” He wasn’t looking at me anymore. He stared at the blank, white walls.
“We used to laugh at our friends with kids. They lost so much of themselves running around after children, spending fortunes on them.”
“I have nothing to show for my life. I’ll die tonight and you’ll be the only one to see it.” He was crying.
I wanted to tell him that at least he had me. When I died I would be entirely alone, but I knew it was selfish. I wanted to comfort him—lie in bed next to him and use myself as a shield from the unfairness of the world, but I didn’t know how. I was afraid to even reach out and hold his hand, so I fell asleep curled up in my chair.
We never talked about that night again. He died four months later.
I met Søren at a café so we could go over our plan for the weeks ahead. He had seen the larks before. He said when he was a child they lived throughout the Nordic countries, but as he grew older he noticed they were receding to live only in the north. Eventually the birds only came out in the dark. Most sightings happened during the polar nights’ nearly two months of darkness but also at night in other parts of the year. During the summer, when the sun alternatively didn’t set for weeks, they essentially vanished. We laid a map out on the table and circled the locations where flocks of Nordic larks might be hiding.
Søren was teeming with excitement to talk to someone about this project. He had binders full of research about the Nordic lark for me to look through, chronicling everything from its origin as a subspecies of shore lark to its current state of endangerment. Although I was the one with decades of experience, he had so much concentrated knowledge that I felt unqualified to help him. We finished our coffees and Søren packed up his maps and charts.
“Shall we get you acquainted with the lay of the land?” he asked.
We walked outside beyond streets of crammed-together shops and restaurants, past the sweeping modern facades and industrial buildings on the outskirts, and into the wooded area to the north. Purplish light filtered through the pine needles above, and the quiet din of the city disappeared. I looked at my watch; it was just after noon.
Søren pointed out what little wildlife was around during this strange time of year: arctic foxes in the forests, puffins on the coasts, and the occasional reindeer wandering the open fields. He took me through the history of the Nordic lark in the context of its habitat. He pointed out their old summer nesting spots—dead grass gathered together to form small cups on the ground or in low bushes—and where to find the insects and nuts they ate. Søren walked through the forest as if by memory and showed the kind of tenderness toward the wildlife one only reserves for their homeland. Soon we arrived at the coast of the Norwegian Sea, which flows between this sliver of an island and the next. The expansive mass of water lay between me and a shadowy strip of ambiguously shaped mountains on the horizon.
I began setting up trail cameras on trees where Søren said sightings were most likely. Most of the area’s birds had migrated south already, so it was eerily quiet aside from the creaking of the thin birches and pines. They swayed like shadowy giants dancing in gusts of wind. I pulled my scarf tighter around my neck. The pine needles produced their sharp, familiar scent from where they lay coating the forest floor.
Søren was mostly quiet on the long hike except for when he spoke in bursts of long sentences about larks. I told him I knew larks tended to have extravagant, beautiful calls, and he whistled the Nordic lark’s song for me. It was a striking and ghostly tune, and he coached me through producing it myself. While we set up nets and cameras, we called like a Nordic lark and listened for a response to ring from the pools of darkness beyond the trees. We only heard our own echoes.
The Nordic lark is a light, mousy brown with dashes of darker, blue-black coloring on its back, and its underside is a creamy white. Its short, scaly legs have strong claws to support its ground-dwelling habits. In other words, the Nordic lark looks just like hundreds of other shore larks. There is such slight variation in coloring that it is nearly impossible to properly identify one without capturing it. Its call is its most recognizable quality.
“How likely is it, really, that we’ll find this bird?” I asked while we were packing our equipment up for the day.
“You say ‘this bird’ like there is only one left. There are whole flocks around these forests, they just don’t want to be found.”
“The behavior is like nothing I’ve seen before. What could have caused it?”
“Some say they flew so much in the long summer days they grew tired of the sun. Others say they are hiding from a storm that will soon kill us all.”
Over the next few days and weeks together, Søren and I spoke more during our stakeouts. Søren would talk about the Nordic lark for hours if I let him, so I tried to guide the conversation away as easily as I could.
After one particularly long spiel about the subtle changes in lark camouflaging methods over time, I asked Søren why he was so interested in this bird. Aside from its strange pattern of regression, it didn’t seem to have any standout characteristics to make it a favorite for someone who could study thousands of different creatures.
Søren shrugged like no one had ever asked him.
“You just have quite a lot of…” I avoided the word useless, “unique knowledge about the Nordic lark. Why did you choose it of all the birds in Norway—in the world?”
“I grew up with this bird and its legends,” he said. “I don’t believe all of that mystical nonsense, but I do know there must be a scientific reason for the changing behavior. I want to find out how to bring it back. Everyone else has given up. My colleagues, they think it is hopeless, but I have been watching it from the beginning. My family and I would always watch the birds. My father likes larks best. He likes their songs, like you.”
“Where does he think they’ve gone?” I asked.
“I’m not sure. I haven’t asked. He and my mother moved down to Oslo. I haven’t spoken to them in quite a while.”
“Oh,” I said, uselessly. I wondered how long “quite a while” could be for someone in his mid-20s.
“Why did you take this job?” he asked. “You don’t seem to like it here very much.” The lack of sun was starting to get to me, and Søren had already voiced his concerns. Life in Tromsø felt like a perpetual dream. Without the sun to reassure me a new day had started, the whole trip seemed like a blur of one long, tired day.
“I wanted to travel again,” I said. “There just isn’t much for me back home.”
He frowned. “No family?”
“My husband died,” I blurted. “Recently. I couldn’t keep going into the office every day and seeing everyone’s sympathetic looks.”
Søren fidgeted with his camera settings. “I’m sorry.”
“Have you ever been married?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I was close to it once.”
“I wouldn’t recommend it.” I said.
He looked like he was considering my words, but then he asked, “Have you read Chaucer?”
“I think so. In high school, maybe,” I said, taken aback.
“ ‘The bisy larke, messenger of day.’ From The Knight’s Tale. The lark is supposed to bring the break of day. A new day. A fresh start. Another silly mythology, but a nice sentiment.”
Talking to Søren about Phillip felt good, like I was preserving him in some small way by pressing the memory of him on more people, by saying his name. Through the dim bleakness of our daily walks to and from the forest, I spoke of the simple, happy moments of our 20 years of marriage. While I reminisced on the good times, I holed up the memories that kept me up at night racked with guilt and loneliness.
“So you almost got married once?” I asked as we trailed along looking for a suitable place to set up our nets. I was eager to prod something out of Søren to keep myself from spilling everything just to fill his silence.
Søren sighed. “Years ago. I was too young. My parents didn’t approve of him.” He paused before speaking again. “It probably wasn’t the best idea to come out as gay and then immediately ask for their approval of the man I intended to marry.”
“What was his name?” I asked while tying a net between two small bushes. I wished now that I hadn’t spent so much time gushing about the great aspects of my married life.
“He was called Kjell,” he said and busied himself setting up the audio recording devices.
Søren and I spent hours reviewing audio and video footage that gave no hints about the secrets of the larks’ lives. As December’s days ticked away, the forest’s darkness became more disturbing. We plunged deeper, and my eyes readjusted again to another, darker shade.
By the week before Christmas, I practically worshiped my sun lamp. I slept and basked in its artificial rays until I was forced to get up, jiggle the hot water tap uselessly in my shower, jump in and out of the frigid water, and then trek back into the sinister forest with Søren. Although my skin was sallow and sickly and all of my clothes had adopted an unyielding scent of dried sweat, my legs had grown thick with muscles from daily trips to the forest.
Søren and I would pack a lunch and eat it with gloved hands every afternoon when the sky was at its brightest—an eerie indigo. We huddled around our tracking equipment biting into cold sandwiches and admiring the traces of periwinkle at the edges of the sky. If we were up high enough we could see the warm glow of Trømso, a tiny dot in the distance. My suffocating black hole of loneliness felt furthest away during these moments with Søren. The hopeless bird hunt was a viable distraction during the day, but my grief took a vigorous hold every night after he dropped me off at my hotel. In the dark of my hotel room, loneliness morphed into a huge, shadowy creature that latched onto me.
I would click my sun lamp on and lay on my stiff mattress feeling pangs of shame like a heartbeat.
On our last field day before taking a couple of well-deserved days off for the holidays, I asked Søren about the last time he saw the Nordic lark.
“Oh, it was maybe ten years ago,” he said. “I haven’t been lucky enough to see a living one in recent years.” Søren’s parents owned a small house surrounded by tall trees then, he said, and he was around 15 years old. He and his father were returning home with medicine for his mother who was bedridden with a serious illness. His father was teaching him how to perfect his Nordic lark call when they heard a reply from a few yards ahead. They ran together toward the spot and found the small Nordic lark arranging grasses for a nest.
“I reached out to catch it so I could bring it to my mother, for luck you know, but it flew away. My father was very angry with me for scaring it off. He called me greedy for luck.”
“Was he as obsessive about the Nordic lark as you are?” I asked with a laugh.
“That’s where I got my fascination. He believed in all of the myths and legends, while I stick to the science.”
Like Søren and his father had, we used the Nordic lark’s call to find each other in the thick labyrinth of the woods instead of disturbing the still air with our shouts.
I called to Søren and he came over to find me examining some low brush.
“We’ve wiped out so much of their habitat it’s no wonder they want to stay away from us.”
“It could be,” Søren said.
“Tell me your theory then.”
He thought about this for a while. “I want it to be something physical, something I can fix, but I think it is deeper than that. I think it’s a natural cause, or maybe even a psychological one.”
“So even after all this work you think the Nordic lark is doomed just like your colleagues?”
Søren shrugged. “I’ve been looking for years, yet I’ve seen nothing substantial. Maybe they’re already gone.”
It was Christmas Eve, and I was sitting in the circle of light from my sun lamp, willing the warm rays to cure my aching back and my restless mind. I wanted the lamp to wipe my memory and take me out of this miserable hotel room. Tomorrow would be the first Christmas since Phillip died, but every day was full of firsts without him. Right after he died I thought of so many things I wanted to tell him. Something ridiculous one of my nieces had said. A dirty joke I thought up while sitting in traffic. A new brand of laundry detergent that was better than the one he always picked out.
Every thought was a fresh realization that I had no one to whom I could tell my passing observations or complaints.
Why had I come here? The darkness muddled my thoughts and left me perpetually confused. I needed sunlight to map my life again.
I had to talk to someone, so I called Søren. “Are you out?”
“I’m at the lab,” he said. “Watching footage. Is everything okay?”
Søren took pity and told me to come over to his place on Christmas day. He lived in a small apartment above a shop, cleanly furnished with simple, wooden tables and white chairs. I walked through the blue-tinted streets on Christmas morning and noticed candlelight dotting shop windows. Music and carols sung by children whose foreign, slippery-sounding words I still couldn’t decipher echoed through the streets that were littered with wheat left out for the birds to eat.
Søren prepared salmon while I sat uselessly at the table under my sun lamp.
“Why did you bring that thing here?” he asked.
“It’s supposed to make me happy.”
“You are in one of the most beautiful places on earth and you aren’t happy? So it’s a little dark, who cares?”
“It’s not a normal dark. There’s something strange about it. It’s so dark it keeps me up at night.”
“You know, I have just the thing for you. I’ve been checking up on it, and after we eat we’ll go,” he said, flopping a slab of salmon onto my plate. “You need some magic medicine.”
“I already have this sun lamp.”
“This is better.”
A couple hours later we exited Søren’s car in the middle of a dark field. Søren cleared snow off the ground and sat down, then motioned for me to sit next to him.
“Why are we here?” I whispered after we had been sitting in snow-padded silence for a few minutes.
“Give it a bit longer,” Søren whispered, lying back to look at the night sky—a smattering of specks of light against the clearest navy blue.
Soon, the tendrils of neon light fizzled into our view and, before I had a chance to be shocked, they were dancing around the sky overhead. Beams of mystic green tinged with purple at the edges slithered through the sky against the curtain of stars.
I felt the urge to say something—to thank Søren. We were sharing this magic under the lights, but I couldn’t say a word. The moment peaked with a flurry of tension, and then it was too late. The more desperately I tried to cling to it, the easier I felt it slip away. I was drifting back into reality as the aurora borealis dissolved into the sky. Søren was quiet, too, lying still on the cold ground next to me.
“We’re going to find the larks,” I said after some silence.
“What makes you positive so suddenly?”
“Everything I’ve done on this trip has been for myself, and none of it has made me feel any better. But tonight, thanks to you, I feel more awake than I have in weeks. We’re going to find this bird for you.”
Søren smiled. “We only have a couple weeks left. We will have to work very hard.”
I wasn’t entirely sure I believed myself, or even that Søren believed me, but I wanted it to be true more than anything.
“You know, finding the Nordic lark won’t save me either. It will make me happy of course, but it won’t bring me any completeness.”
“It’s like Chaucer,” I said, remembering back to Søren’s explanation. “Daybreak. A fresh start. We both need some of that.”
On a quiet day just after the start of the new year, Søren and I walked on the sparse coast between the forest and the Norwegian Sea, talking in false confidence about our plans for after we find the Nordic lark. Søren, of course, said he would work to repopulate the birds.
“I don’t know what I’ll do,” I said. “Maybe I’ll stay here and see how crazy summer in Tromsø makes me.”
We decided to split up and meet at a spot further north. “I’ll go inland,” Søren said, pulling out a pair of binoculars. “You keep walking along the sea. We’ll meet in an hour.” I nodded and pressed on as Søren disappeared into the forest’s black mouth.
I had noticed over the past weeks my hearing had been heightened because of my twilight-impaired vision. To add to the visual deficiencies, fog almost always hovered between the forest’s edge and the sea. I relied on my other senses to gauge how far from the sea I was. I heard the water slosh upon the rocks on the shore to my right and felt the give of the pine needle matting on the ground on my left.
Then I heard Søren call the Nordic lark’s song a few yards in front of me.
“Søren?” I said. I whistled back. “I thought you went back in the forest?” He got louder as I walked forward but then stopped suddenly. I was enveloped in cold mist that clung to my skin and formed water droplets on my coat. “Søren?” I said again. A cluster of birds—maybe ten or twelve—leapt from the ground on my left into the sky just overhead and then flew over the water. “Søren!” I called, but he was too far away, nestled in the soft insulation of the spruce trees. I thought I had glimpsed speckles of blueish black in their shining brown feathers, but I couldn’t be sure. The birds had flown too far now to be seen, but I heard the remnants of their unmistakable song through the mist.
Courtney Stanley is a freelance writer from Ohio who recently graduated from the University of Cincinnati. She’s currently based in London, England, where she is pursuing her passion of environmental writing. Read more of her work at courtneynoelstanley.com.