It was an item on his bucket list. She was just a passenger along for the ride. He was travelling to the States for work and decided to extend the trip to take advantage of the great Aurora season. The best time of the month at the best time of the year and they could be in one of the most likely spots on earth to experience it. Far out in the depths of the Yukon Territory they’d be many miles from the nearest town or neighbours. “It’d be a shame not go” he said
Minus 21 degrees was going to be a little colder than she was used to or in fact had ever felt before. He had measured them up and organised the snow gear complete with boots to be there waiting for them. She never fitted into standard clothes easily. She was short and what was politely termed curvaceous. The jacket sleeves reached down passed her knees and the legs were bunched up over her boots that she found it difficult to walk. Of course, out there, there wasn’t really anything to walk to.
Plentiful supplies of booze and food were purchased from town to see them through their five days at the cabin. Dropped off by a large SUV, it would return a week later to pick them up. They had their phones in case of emergencies. Deep wide tyre tracks were all that was left as the truck has disappeared through the black, spiky forest. Expanses of endless white fields merged with the snow covered mountain ranges in the far distance. Soft pinks and lilacs filled the sky as the sun set on their first evening in the log cabin.
Retreating inside, he poured liberal amounts of wine whilst she put out a platter of cheese, meats and bread to nibble on. No stereo system to fill the silence, they resorted to cable TV as their soundtrack for the evening. Food Network shows on repeat would amuse at first, only to grate in the coming days.
Before they left Australia, they had embarked upon their first counselling session together. It was at her insistence. He couldn’t see any problem. She didn’t want things to go on like this.
They’d met through friends at a club, like many do, and things were light and fun to begin with. They knew they had their differences. She had kids. He didn’t want any of his own. He’d lived alone for eight years. She’d dated for the last five. They had a great time together going out with friends for dinner, drinks and parties. She long ago learnt not to bother planning a future too firmly as things never worked out that way. The only thing he planned ahead was holidays. She loved getting away though always looked forward to returning home. He put off returning to reality as long as he could.
Sitting there on the simple wooden chairs in their tiny cabin, with their wet snow gear draped on whatever spare surface could be found ‘Bobby Flay’s BBQ Bonanza’ rolled on into ‘Cut-throat Kitchen’ marathons. The small tinny TV blared at them, images flickering with the camera zooming in and out trying to create drama from a piece of grilling meat. Outside the darkness rolled in, blanketing the sparse forest surrounding their quaint little cabin.
It was only recently that things had started to turn sour. It was the little things. It usually is. He wanted to go out and some nights she wanted to stay in. She worked weekends. On Friday nights, he’d start drinking the moment he arrived home from work even when they had a big night out planned. His glass would never empty and he’d put on dance music so loud that the neighbours started to complain. It was his Friday night, he said. He was allowed to let his hair down, not that he actually had any. Often she gave in and they went out, dressed to the nines.
It was only when they were at the club that he became sullen. His chin never inches from a drink; he’d look over the glass watching her. She was a social butterfly and loved the chance to meet new people or catch up with old friends. Middle suburban mum during the week, this was her chance to transform.
She smiled. People bought her drinks and admired her outfits. She preened and spun for her admirers. He leaned against the bar in the corner and scowled. Occasionally he tried the same act but he came off more like an inebriated bumblebee.
That was when his sulking would really kick in. How come she got the attention and he didn’t. He tried flirting with other women. Many times, people would ask her what he was on. Once his dance moves were enthusiastic and earnest. Now she just felt pity.
Naturally the best viewing hours for the Aurora Borealis would be in the middle of the night. She said that she’d turn in and he promised to wake her if there was anything to see. Solar flares had been active these last few days so things looked promising. The wine bottle clanked in the sink as he reached for a second one. Lights were turned off and he methodically donned his snow gear before stepping out into the black moon-less night. He sat in his chair and hunkered down to wait and watch.
She tossed and turned on the too firm bed. She stretched out to use its full width. Her mind tossed and turned also as she thought back over the last few days. Busy with the machinations of travel, they’d not fought or discussed their counselling session the previous week. She didn’t know if this was a promising sign or not.
As they were passing through town earlier that day she recalled seeing a paddleboat stuck in the frozen Klondike River. Klondike was a name she’d heard of but without context, it had meant nothing. Stuck in winter ice, the historical wooden boat hadn’t gone anywhere in a long time and wasn’t going anywhere soon.
Not long after they arrived in town, they’d found a saloon bar to perch in with a tasting paddle of local beers and the Super Bowl beamed in live. “Go 49’ers!” they both shouted echoing the raucous rooting of the local clientele. Whitehorse, Canada was as foreign to her as suburban Melbourne would have felt to their new found bar mates. She played along anyway. She knew how to do that.
Unable to easily drift into slumber land thanks to her active mind, she put on her snow boots by the door and threw a thick warm blanket around her. One step into the dry crunchy snow and despite her layers she feels too exposed.
“Anything yet?” she asks, knowing the answer would be negative. He shakes his head as he looks up at her. She sits on the edge of his chair, his arms not moving to make any more room for her. He fills his glass with more wine but offers her none. It’s that kind of quiet that is deafening in its heavy solid silence.
“I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t be out there either” she thinks when she realises she can’t hear the sounds of any wildlife. She stays only a few minutes and turns to go inside the sanctuary of the lighted warm cabin when she can bear the frigidity no longer. “Too cold. Too quiet. Too still.” she thinks.
“At least there shouldn’t be any tantrums tonight” she says hopefully out loud to no one but herself. Those nights they would return to his place after too many drinks at a club and he would start in. All she would want to do is sleep and all he would do is rage at her for her lack of attention. It seemed he would rather wait until things had gone too far before he said anything. She never knew when a night was going to turn pear-shaped. She never saw any warning signs. At least with her children, she had learnt to recognise the tells beforehand.
She only realises that she was asleep when he shouts from the open door “Come quickly!” Groggy, she puts on her thick puffy jacket, grabs a scarf and beanie and threads her feet into the boots just inside the door. Turning the light off to enhance the view, she walks away from the veranda to maximise the view of the sky. Turning this way and that, she’s not sure exactly what she’s looking for. She’s seen photos of the Northern lights and knows they’re large wispy green waves of light. Do they move? Do they only last momentarily like lightning? There are some stories she’d read about eerie noises accompanying the lights. She can’t see anything. She can’t hear anything.
At last, he has put down his glass and takes her shoulders in his hands. He turns her slightly and points low towards the horizon. “There” he says quietly. Leaning against him, he rests his cold chin on her bed-warmed hair and without speaking they watch the ribbons of pale green light dance languidly in the sky. In the morning he will show her his photos of the evening.
All she can think is – “some realities delight and some disappoint.”