Skyglow

I HAVE had the unique experience of visiting Iceland both at the height of summer, when sunset is of but a moment's duration, and in the depths of winter, when day consists of a tentative, three-hour skyglow, following which the whole of the land is again doused in a darkness laced with the ceaseless howl of North Atlantic winds. Iceland in winter is strictly an Icelandic game - so much so that at one party I attended in Reykjavik a large, dark man came swaggering toward me through the crowd of guests, threw his arm about my shoulder, and when I told him I wasn't an Icelander, asked incredulously - ``Then what are you doing in Iceland?''

I was en route to visit friends in a village on the edge of the Greenland Sea, where the black ocean lies frozen to a beach of black volcanic sands. But what was most interesting of all was the long bus trek north, a ride my friends in Reykjavik told me would take ``six hours. Or 20 hours. It depends on the weather. But don't worry.''

I didn't. I was in good company. Every available seat on the bus was taken, and some of the farewells in Reykjavik were as protracted and poignant as immigrant leave-takings from the Old World.

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In the darkness of early morning we left the capital, and as we crossed the city limits a soft snow began to fall as Mozart's clarinet concerto seeped in through the overhead radio. Children slept, conversations were muted and expressions reserved, in true Nordic fashion. I settled into it as into a warm bath.

The road north was entirely snow-laden and indistinct from the bordering fields. Our driver followed in the tracks of some previous vehicle. I didn't think to ask what guide there was in those instances in which time and snow had filled in such a fortuitous clue.

When the sky had turned from black to royal blue with wisps of tangerine drawn out against it, the surrounding landscape became more apparent and breathtaking. Our eastern and western horizons were bounded by snow-covered mountains. Between them, in the valley of our transit - only more snow, slung from those mountains in a meld of unbroken whiteness. It was like riding the back of a cloud. Only here and there a black line could be seen snaking its way through the snow - cut by the relative warmth of some underlying stream.

I began to think of the times I had flown over such farflung, somehow forlorn places as Labrador, Greenland, and Lapland. ``Is there really life down there?'' I would ask myself. And then, in the middle of treeless desolation - a house. That meant life, perhaps a family. Ah, if only my eyes were telescopic - what must their lives be like?

The bus hissed as the brakes were applied, and we rolled to a long, slow stop. A few voices were raised. I looked out my window again and saw that the wind had picked up some snow from the expansive fields and tossed it into the air like talcum.

The doors opened and a young mother and her little boy, perhaps 3 years old, got off. The bus hummed steadily in place for some moments as I watched, as we all watched, the two of them walk down into the seemingly eternal field, hand-in-hand into the snow cloud, until they had disappeared. At that moment I heard the low drone of a plane directly overhead. I looked up and nodded.

Even in the isolating dark and cold of the Arctic north there is life. There is warmth.

Then the bus pressed ahead.

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