STRANGE things happen in the far north, as anyone who has ever lived there will tell you. Ravens fly backward in the wind and wolves howl unrepentant; and in the winter, lights hiss and crawl across the night sky like green water snakes, dancing. But the strangest things of all occur on Midsummer's Eve, for on that magical night of almost-day, the real and the unreal collide and both emerge somewhat bent at the edges; and after that, well, almost anything can happen (and usually does!). For you see, on Midsummer's Eve up north, the sun never seems to set. It just hovers about the horizon for a short while like a bee about a flower and then pops up again, all flushed and ready for another day.
The effect of all this extra ultraviolet on the human psyche is really quite astonishing. Golfers tee off at midnight. Kids skateboard till the wee hours. Normally prudent shopkeepers set their surplus inventory out into the street on half-price tables and never seem to mind that some of it disappears without being paid for. Nobody's much into shopping, anyway. Or sleeping. Or doing anything in particular. Everyone is just happy to be out fishing on the lake or strolling around in shirt sleeves, basking in the euphoria of a northern summer night.
We once went to a wedding on Midsummer's Eve on a flying bus. That it actually flew, I saw with my own eyes; but whether it was Midsummer's Eve or simply the wings of love and friendship that took it aloft, I was never sure. For it was one of those occasions that occur sometimes in small towns when people band together to help one another. And somehow, in the doing of that, boundaries dissolve and anything becomes possible.
The reason the bus was at the wedding was that there was no other vehicle large enough to carry us all. The two limousines had been booked, but they were off at a funeral. So Charlie said he would bring his bus around to the church right after he came off duty. It was all right, he said, noticing our hesitation, there was plenty of time before he began his midnight run. Besides, it was his gift to the bride and groom.
Our hesitation was not over the timing. It was over the bus itself. You see, Charlie's bus was essentially a freight vehicle, running the gravel road around the lake, taking loads of mail and motor oil to the small settlements along the way. It was dusty, pockmarked with dents, and always smelled of old canvas and packing crates. So his gift, while appreciated, was not relished.
We should have given Charlie more credit. He knew that underneath that old chassis there pumped something worthy of much more than just a freight run. For when we came out of the church in the bright evening sun, there was the bus waiting for us at curbside, polished and looking every inch a proper wedding coach. Charlie had even tied silver ribbons to the side mirrors.
It was a tight fit inside. We had to share the seats with four cartons of thermal underwear that Charlie had just picked up from the general store. ``A late order,'' he said, apologetically. Then he suggested we take a celebration ride through the streets. On Midsummer's Eve, in a wedding coach? Who could refuse?
We went down to Old Town where the float planes were coming in to land and up to the bush pilot's monument where ravens were sorting methodically through the trash cans. We went out to the airstrip for a spin and across the bay to the Indian village and down to land's end where all the houses were painted a different color and looked like a piece of rainbow fallen from the sky. We toured the town twice over and everywhere we went people stopped and stared. ``Look at the bus all dressed up with silver ribbons!'' They turned and followed on foot, and the bikes and motorbikes followed, too. Soon it seemed as if the whole town were following the bus on its victory parade through the streets.
A woman came outdoors with a tambourine and a set of handbells and we let her on board. Someone said later as we drove by that it sounded like a chorus of celestial chimes ringing.
It was a wonderful night. It seemed to go on forever. And then toward midnight Charlie had to go. He would take the bride and groom back to change, he said, and then he must be off. We all climbed out and stood in the street while he loaded the rest of the freight. By now the bus had acquired a ``Just Married'' sign and a tail of tin cans and a showering of confetti both inside and out.
Charlie climbed back in with the bride and groom, and as they moved slowly off down the road, to the sound of our bells ringing and the tin cans clinking in the dust, I quite held my breath. For it was midnight on Midsummer's Eve. And in the shimmering half-light of a northern summer night the wheels of that bus seemed hardly to touch the ground.