There isn't enough light these days for a proper shave. The sun is taking longer and longer to creep above the horizon, the days slowly compressing until they seem eclipsed by night. He's not far enough north for polar night--not quite, and that's still a month off--but winter's icy tendrils already creep across the land, heralding her arrival in biting frost and still-dark mornings.
Technically he doesn't need the light; could shave with his eyes closed, the metal of the blade as familiar as his appendages. It's not something he likes to think about. Instead he's fired up the generator, even though he's running low on fuel and its incessant humming makes his teeth ache.
The light above the bathroom sink pulses as the generator struggles. Erik stares at his reflection; watches the stark lines of his face fade into passing shadow, and then resurface, highlighted by the bright flare of light. He shaves a stripe down his left cheek, rinses the blade in the sink's shallow pool of water, and then tips his head to the side.
He's been up for hours now, sleep eluding him. It's the weather, he thinks; dull grey cold carrying memories on icy wind. They're nearing the end of the season, the long expanse of winter ahead, with only the ghosts of his past for company. They manifest as nightmares, Erik waking, often in a cold sweat to stare up at the open rafters and wonder why God--if he even exists--sought fit to let him live when so many others had to die.
He runs the blade down the side of his neck.
The generator's kind enough to wait until he's done to sputter and then die, the bulb above his head flickering before falling into darkness. He sets aside the razor and reaches for his pre-dampened cloth. Without the generator, the pump doesn't work either. Erik washes his face, drains the sink and then retreats into the main room.
There's enough light to see by now, the world painted in the false glow of pre-dawn. It makes his cabin look larger than it actual is; elongates shadows and casts corners into darkness. The sharp, sweet scent of wood smoke fills the room, overpowering everything, even his shaving cream. Erik sets his damp cloth beside the stove and then lifts one of its lids; breaks down what's left of the wood so that the fire will go out. When he's done, he carries his used teacup to the kitchen and sets it inside the wash basin.
There's nothing else keeping him, his morning routine efficient and well-practiced, so he shrugs into his overcoat, moss green that reminds him of the wool dress his mother wore their last day in hiding. It's too early for a scarf, but he loops one around his neck anyway and slips his hands into fingerless gloves. He'll replace all of it once he gets to the docks, but it's a long walk and already he feels the need to huddle beneath his blankets, near the stove's lingering heat. He spent too many years half frozen as a child: he has a tolerance for it, but he doesn't like it.
Outside, there's a warm breeze coming in from the west, carrying with it the scent of salt and sea. It's an illusion, a temporary reprieve before the temperature nose dives. He lets it fill his lungs all the same, the taste of sea-air sharp on his tongue. It reminds him strangely of home, a sign he's been here too long.
Not that long, he thinks with a rueful shake of his head, though he knows that's not true. The longer he stays the more this place reminds him of the seaside village he grew up in as a boy, before his family's flight to Poland; before the camps and the war. But Norway is nothing like Germany, for all there are similarities, and besides, he's not interested in anything approximating the country of his birth. Germany, for him, died long before the Soviets and Americans carved it in two. The Nazis burned it to ash.
The sun is cresting the horizon as he leaves the rocky foothills, the boundary of his property marked by a line of red pines. The land slopes beyond, dirt-track road spilling into the village below. From this vantage point, it's easy to make out the whole town. It seems so much smaller when viewed from above, clusters of chestnut red and mustard yellow houses framing the small inlet harbour. Across the fjord, towering cliffs, not yet framed by sunlight, loom like black walls, making him feel like he's living on the edge of nowhere.
To most of the world's population, he probably is, but Erik likes the isolation. There's hardly anyone about, especially at this hour, and those he does pass--mostly men like him, heading to the docks--give little more than polite nods, content to leave Erik to his business if he leaves them to theirs. It's part of the reason he settled here. He's spent a good portion of his life travelling and this marks the first time he's found a people reticent enough to suit his needs.
He still finds himself growing increasingly tense as civilization springs up around him, the occasional house becoming clusters and then groups. The town seems impossibly large now that he's in the middle of it. The street narrows, buildings looming, the scent of salt and sea and gutted fish growing stronger. In another month this place will grow quiet, the lull of the off-season filling the locals with impatience even as they take the opportunity to rest, but for now it still hums with activity, the end of the season hanging over their heads. Already the smaller boats are off the water, the sea dark and choppy, a danger to anyone who thinks to underestimate her.
Erik knows better than that.
He remembers the stories his father used to tell, and his grandfather before that. Sailing is in his blood, his father used to say, even when he was landlocked, chained to the dockside factories. It seems fitting Erik ended up here, after all was said and done.
Light fans through the streets now, caressing the rough-stone ground, highlighting clumps of moss in yellow-green. It'll fade to brown soon, and then disappear beneath a blanket of white. Not today, though, the sun still holding a little warmth. He lets it infuse heat into his breast, temporary warmth that will vanish once they're out on the water.
He can see the docks through the line of houses, boats sitting ready for launch, the pier a hive of activity. The true arrival of morning has filled the streets, people moving with intent and purpose. Erik passes a woman already hanging her wash; a man carting nets back to the ships.
He exchanges a few more nods, though mostly he's ignored. The townsfolk know him, however much he's a foreigner. But foreigners are growing increasingly common these days; the war has displaced so many. They see him as a good man to have on a ship, one who keeps to himself and doesn't put his nose in where it isn't wanted. They've got their own lives to worry about, and while Erik may be an oddity--an exiled man with no real background--he's one they can live with.
Raven is the exception to the rule.
She calls his name as soon as she spots him, Erik's mouth pressing into a thin line even as his jaw clenches. He offers her a curt nod, not encouragement, simply decent manners--he has vague memories of his mother teaching him manners--but she takes it as an invitation. There's an awkward gait in his step as he slows to allow her to reach his side. The smile she offers him is both mischievous and friendly. It reminds Erik painfully of his sister.
"Good morning, Erik," she says in perfect English. She's an American by birth, displaced like him, though unlike him she seems to think they share a bond because of it.
"Good morning, Raven," he answers, his English polished though hesitant.
Her smile widens. She gestures over her shoulder, to the two-story house she's come from, the lower floor a dry-goods store, her own, the only place in town that sells sundries and staples, the kind of stuff that gets shipped in once or twice a year. Her latest shipment came last night. Erik knows; he helped unload the boat.
"I set aside some things for you," she says when it becomes clear Erik's not going to open the conversation.
He used to worry, especially in his first year, that she stayed for him, but he doesn't think that's the case anymore. He thinks sometimes she stays because this is the closest thing she's known to a home, Raven once married to local. She's widowed now, her husband five years lost at sea. Erik knows more about grief than he's willing to admit, so instead of making an excuse to leave, he gives a polite nod and gestures her inside.
Her store is filled with bits of metal--screws and nails and coils of wire and tin cans and odd pieces of scrap. Erik is acutely aware of it, which is perhaps why he avoids coming here whenever possible. It sings to him, the same way the metal hulls of ships sing to him. He could close his eyes and point out the tiniest bolt; call it to his side without a moment's hesitation.
He has no idea why he can do what no one else can. A lingering curse, he sometimes thinks, for whatever he did to deserve his life thus far.
Raven, by contrast, is everything he will never be. She has a family--a mother and father and two sisters, all back home in America--and an adventurous spirit, her early life mostly untainted by tragedy. There are days when Erik hates her as much as he envies her.
"I asked for any English titles they had lying around, though I wasn't sure they'd find anything," Raven is saying, Erik only then realizing he has his eyes closed; that he's standing in the middle of her store, mentally tallying the coins in her register. He blinks and steps towards her; follows her gaze to the countertop where a pile of battered paperbacks are stacked neatly against the register.
He doesn't recognize the titles, and if he had to judge from the covers, he'd say a few aren't intended for their literary merit. He smiles at them all the same, books the one luxury he allows himself. When he glances back up to catch Raven's eye, she's watching him nervously.
"I'll take them, unless there are any you want," he says, sounding far too gruff for how grateful he is. She must understand, because she smiles, relief colouring her cheeks a subtle pink.
"I already went through the pile and took out the ones I wanted. Sorry," she confesses, which earns her one of Erik's genuine but rare smiles.
"You don't have to apologize," he says, and in that moment she looks so much like his sister--the scant few memories Erik has remaining--that something seizes in his chest, tightness stealing his breath until it physically hurts to breathe. Raven's expression shifts; becomes one of concern.
Erik swallows against the impending attack; stomps down his body's instinct and reins in the memory.
"Do you mind if I pick these up on my way home?" he asks. Raven gives a brief nod. "I'll need some other things." He hands over a list then, written in his crooked hand, trusting Raven to gather the items on it; to have them ready for when he returns. She accepts the scrap of paper gingerly, concern still written across her features.
Erik doesn't answer her unasked question. He doesn't offer false platitudes or expressions of gratitude. He doesn't even say goodbye. He merely turns on his heel and leaves the store, the day now truly begun, Erik overdue for departure.
When he reaches the docks, someone hands him a cable of rope. Erik carries with him to his boat, passing some of the smaller, single-man crafts to get to Azazel's larger trawler. It's not the largest boat in the harbour, but it is close, Azazel unapologetic in his attempts to commercialize what has long been a local, traditional practice.
Unlike Raven and Erik, the locals see Azazel as somewhat of an invading species, though they treat him with as much magnanimity as they do everyone else. He's a displaced Russian, having moved here after the war, but before the Iron Curtain sprang into existence. There's no going back now, though Erik doubts he'd want to. He's a good man to work for; fair and honest, and he doesn't expect anything more than a hard day's work. Erik can appreciate that, though mostly he appreciates that Azazel doesn't ask too many questions, or stare too hard at Erik's forearms whenever he's got his sleeves rolled up, something that doesn't happen often.
He gives a gruff nod now as Erik jumps the space between the dock and the boat, landing on her grated deck with a resounding clang. Erik sets the coil of rope down on the starboard side, changes, and then heads for the rigging, nodding once to the third in Azazel's crew; a greenhorn, new this season.
Daylight's a short window these days. It's almost not enough to make going out worth their while, though Azazel talks often about other ships in other places, heading out in the dark of morning; coming home in the dim light of dusk. Erik's not so sure Azazel's confident enough to navigate these waters without at least a little light, but the world is changing, navigation systems and radar no longer restricted to the world's militaries. It's a strange thing to witness, especially here, on the edge of all things, but stopping it would be like trying to stop a freight train. Change will come whether they want it to or not.
The ship pitches heavily when they finally get turned into the current, Erik falling easily into the work. He never got the chance to work on the boats when he was a boy, his grandfather having fallen too old to take him out, and his father long since having moved onto land, but the memory of it is in his blood, an ancient thing, passed on from generation to generation.
He turns as they slip from the harbour and watches the town dwindle from view. Somewhere, beyond the jagged hills, his tiny cabin sits, cold and lonely, awaiting his return. In the sky above the harbour, flocks of cormorants and gulls circle endlessly, already looking for scraps. A larger bird, graceful in a way the others are not, flies overhead. Erik watches it for a moment; recognizes it as the crane he's seen only recently, as displaced on this island as he is. It circles out of sight, disappearing across the fjord. Erik turns back to the stare at the water, rock giving way to horizon, the fjord spilling into the sea.
The work is hard and dangerous, the deck soon slick with misting spray, ice forming across his skin wherever salty water has landed and froze. His eyes are white with it before they've even reached the deeper waters, his fingers numb from cold. He hauls ropes and reconfigures rigging, the boat rolling from side to side, cresting waves with stomach lurching drops. He's seen newer men--greenhorns--lose their breakfast over the side at such waves, however tame he finds them. Erik merely shifts his stance against them, remains unmoved by their rolling.
The land is a distant dot, framed by sunlight before Azazel orders the nets dropped. It's heavy work, Erik's muscles straining to keep from being swept overboard by their weight. His fingertips have long-since calloused over, rough pads protecting him from the razor-sharp bite of the rope. As soon as the nets are out, the trawler comes around, pulling them tight, Erik reeling his side in to keep them taut against the boat's turning. They move forward.
The fish are done spawning, so the catch won't be as large as it is in the height of the season, but the nets soon grow heavy with mackerel. There are other boats on the horizon, occupying the path the mackerel use to return to their spawning ground; a journey that will take them most of the winter. Erik stares out at them now, bits of colour breaking the monotony of the black water. Their metal shines like beacons.
At Azazel's order, he starts reeling in nets.
There's something hypnotic about the process, the physical work distracting him from thought. It reminds him strangely of his adolescence, his work as sonderkommando requiring the same divorcing of thought from action, though for entirely different reasons. He finds it fitting that something that was once a survival mechanism now bridges the gaps between hours, allows him to move seamlessly about his job.
The catch, when they spill it on deck, is larger than they were expecting, the greenhorn giving an excited cheer, even as fish slide between his legs. Anyone not used to the stink of it would find it unpleasant, but Erik breathes deep, takes in sea and earth and the raw power of nature. He has smelled worse--far worse--the day's catch a familiar, comforting scent. He joins Azazel and the greenhorn in sorting through the still struggling fish, discarding any that don't meet their criteria; shoveling the others into the open hatches, to rest in the hold below. When they're done, the nets go back out.
The morning passes much the same: the nets go out, they come back in; they go back out. They break only for a midday meal of cold fish stew and half-stale bread. Erik eats his alone, seated on the trunk that holds his greatcoat, bracing himself against the rocking of the boat. When he's done, he stands and stretches; looks out over the horizon at the faint imprint of Norway's rocky shore. The sky is heavy with winter clouds.
He has no idea why he came here, his wandering taking him across Europe before turning north, but this is the first place the land seemed unblemished; where the air didn't taste like ash. Erik's had enough ash in the back of his throat to last him a lifetime.
After lunch, they move the boat into a shoal of fish so thick their shadows pierce the water. Azazel is smiling, the last few weeks yielding little. They're making up for it now, though it's like struggling to win a race they've started two weeks too late. They stay out longer than usual, the sun a pale ball of yellow light kissing the water before Azazel orders them back in.
Erik's sweaty and exhausted, coated in fish guts, soaked through with water and salt when the shoreline comes back into view. Azazel points them to the mouth of the fjord, the sea having calmed somewhat, but the heavy clouds suggest tomorrow will bring rougher weather. Coming in, the current is against them, tidal flow adding time to their return so that by the time the harbour comes back into view, the sky is painted in pink twilight.
Erik moves to the bow, steadies the boat against the current, something that requires effort, though he tries not to show it. He knows what the others would say if they knew. It was one thing to be a Jew in Nazis Germany. It is another to be whatever he is. He's never met anyone else who can do what he does, and that makes him an anomaly. People fear anomalies.
Azazel chalks their smooth passage up to luck; clasps Erik on the shoulder and tells him in broken Norwegian that today was a good day. Erik nods and lets go of the hull, the inlet's waters calm; serene compared to the turmoil of the ocean.
There are people on the docks waiting for them, Erik throwing a line to a man who secures it to one of the dock-ties. It takes a long time to dock a boat, especially one as big as Azazel's, the process slow and monotonous. By the time it's secure, the day weighs on his shoulders, Erik exhausted and more than ready to crawl into bed. But there is still work to be done, the men from the docks already climbing onto the boat to help get the holds emptied.
Erik leaves them to it; makes his circuit of the ship, checking her over with eyes and hands and his odd affinity for metal. By the time he's done, the holds are empty, the greenhorn in the middle of scrubbing down the decks and Azazel is loading tomorrow's supplies. Erik helps him with the last of it and then turns to the wash station.
He stinks of fish, a smell that never really leaves, but he's used to it and a quick turn at the basin removes the worst of it. He leaves his slicker suit and boots in a pile with the others before slipping back into his shoes and greatcoat.
The sun has well and truly set by the time he leaves, some coin in his pocket and a satchel of fish to take home and cure. He detours by Raven's, politely refusing her invitation to stay for supper, Erik wanting only to get his supplies home so that he can crawl into bed and begin the process anew tomorrow. She accepts his rejection gracefully, though he can tell she's disappointed. He has no idea what she wants from him. He's not husband material if that's what she's thinking. He's not even friend material if that's all she wants.
Sometimes he thinks she just likes that he speaks to her in English.
"You had gasoline on your list," she says as she helps him load his sundries onto a borrowed cart. "I had some time, so I stopped off at the station and filled a few canisters." She gestures over her shoulder, to the red tins sitting propped against the side of her store. Erik frowns.
"What do I owe you?" he asks, digging into his pocket, already counting out his kroner.
She hesitates briefly before giving him a total; Erik added the price of the gasoline to her bill.
She doesn't comment as he leaves, but he can feel her watching him, eyes boring into the back of his head. What would she think, he wonders, if she knew what he could do? Worse; what would she do?
Ahead, the light of the town is swallowed by the dark of the wilderness, Erik stepping towards it, wanting then only to be away from prying eyes and the incessant press of humanity. He is not a man meant to live amongst others. His isolation is an act of kindness.