Lost in a Frozen Country

Eric and his wife met on a ferry from Denmark to Norway. They both had the same kind of backpacks. An omen, she told him. It meant they were destined to travel together. Four years later, she took hers down from the attic and left him to hike the Inca Trail with a poet from Belize. Their daughter Marnie stayed with him. It was, they agreed, the best thing for her.

He and Marnie moved into his grandparents' summer cabin on Lake Michigan. Eric turned the garden shed into a carpentry shop. The cabin had only two rooms heated by a single potbellied stove. He gave Marnie the small bedroom and built her a bed shaped like a miniature Viking ship complete with a dragon's head at the foot. At night, she pulled all her stuffed animals into it with her. From the doorway, the bed looked like Noah's ark. Sometimes he would sit with her. Marnie liked to curl against his chest as he read her bedtime stories. When the wind howled across the lake, she would pretend they were sailing their blue and gold ship to Greenland.

The year Marnie turned seven, Eric taught her how to use the North Star to navigate the heavens. They would sit cross-legged on the grass behind his workshop until they got too cold, watching the constellations swing over them. To know the stars is to know the way home, he told her. Almost everyone can see the stars of the Big Dipper no matter where they are in North America, but we don't call it the same thing. The English call it a plough; the French, a saucepan. Runaway slaves called it the Drinking Gourd and followed it to safety.

The next year the school nurse called to tell him that Marnie had passed out in gym class. It happened right before lunch, she said, probably a bit of low blood sugar. No injuries, just bruises. Nothing to worry about. But the bruises did not heal, and Eric did worry.

The doctor at the hospital gave her condition a long, complicated name. Eric gave it a short one-- cancer. They told him that Marnie could eat whatever she wanted while she was undergoing chemotherapy. Every day he raided the grocery store on his way to the hospital. He would lay her favorite foods across the bedside tray to tempt her-- green grapes from Chile, apples from New Zealand, chocolate from Switzerland.

Specialists urged him to try a bone marrow transplant. The chances of success would be highest with an immediate family member, they said. Eric was tested first. The hallway where they gave him the results seemed unnecessarily bright. They did not match, the doctors said. Perhaps his father, he asked. No, they said, no one else in his family would match. They were gentle. They were polite. He was sure he could not locate his wife, or perhaps the child's biological father? The doctor touched his sleeve. Eric stepped back and slid down the wall, his eyes staring straight ahead. The next day he bought her a bag of orange Oreo cookies.

The night Marnie died the ground was covered in snow. Eric dragged her bed into the garden, piled the mattress with grape cuttings, star maps and stuffed animals, then lit it on fire. He lay on the ground next to it until the smoke filled his eyes and his tears blotted out his view of Polaris.

About the author:

Irene Svete lives in Seattle. Her work has appeared in Bricolage, Gargoyle and The Sun.