Evening descended with unnerving abruptness, like a curtain hurriedly lowered on an amateur theatrical gone horribly awry. And then Daniel noticed the darkness was not the result of the sun setting but of the train entering a dense forest, leaving behind the bright open fields of snow it had traveled across all afternoon. The fir trees, tall and thick, crowded closely along the tracks, like school children pressing themselves up against a classroom window to get a better view of some gruesome accident in the street.
Alice, his wife, sat on the seat across from him; they were the only two in the small, wood-paneled carriage of the train. She was reading a book she had found abandoned in the waiting room of the train station they had passed through that morning. She had been delighted to find this book, ancient as it was, for it was in English, and the novel she had been reading had been stolen, along with her handbag and everything in it, in the market of the city they had stayed in the night before. Someone—so quickly did it occur that it was impossible to distinguish the thief's gender—had collided violently with her in front of a fish monger's stall; she had fallen to the floor, into a puddle of the cold dirty water that had melted out of the large basins of iced fish, and by the time she had managed to stand up, the thief had disappeared into the crowd. Until that moment she had been trying to find some charm in the market—she was French, and believed in the charm of markets—but this market was singularly without charm, for it contained nothing but fish and meat and root vegetables, and the fish did not look fresh and the meat appeared to be nothing but organs and brains and feet and lips and hearts, and the vegetables were all winter vegetables, roots and tubers and other colorless dirty things savagely yanked from their cold earthen beds. And then she had seen, in the distance, one stall that sold hothouse flowers, and had rushed towards it, desperate to find something that did not entirely turn one away from life. Daniel had noted their artifice before she did, and had tried to steer her down another aisle, but she had pulled free of him and run toward the warm brightness of the flowers, wanting to bury her face in their fragrant petal softness, buy an armful of them and carry it with her, like a bride, like a diva in the footlights, back to their cinderblock hotel room, but the nearer she drew to them the less real they looked. They were plastic. Not even silk, she thought. I would have touched them if they were silk. And so it seemed only appropriate that one would be mugged in such a market, pushed onto the cold cement floor and kicked.
Of all the things in her bag that had been stolen, she most regretted the loss of the novel, and so when she had seen the book—it was called Certain Persons by St. John Cyre—in the station waiting room that morning she had pounced on it, and had submerged herself in its damp faded pages for the entire day.
For some time after the darkness fell, or was entered, Alice continued to read. Or perhaps she had not been reading but simply regarding the book, thought Daniel, for he could not recall her having turned a page in the longest time. Suddenly she looked up from her book at the dark rushing windows of the carriage, and asked, "Is there a light?"
There was just enough light remaining in the carriage to see that there was no light. "I don't see one," Daniel said.
"You'd think there'd be a light," she said.
"Yes," he said.
They had been traveling for days, first by plane, and then by train and ferry, for their destination was a place at the edge of the world, in the far north of a northern country. Their journey was like a journey from a prior century, a matter of days rather than hours, the earth serious and real beneath them, constantly insisting on its vastness.
A true evening was now occurring, and they both watched it through the window. The pines trees abruptly ceased their relentless parade and a village briefly occurred, only to be replaced once again by the forest.
She turned away from the window and looked back down at the book that lay in her lap. She gently touched the page with her fingers, as if they were Braille. "How's that book?" he asked.
For a moment she said nothing, just watched her reflection hurtling along the dark scrim of pines. "Terrible," she finally said to her face in the glass. "But I'm enjoying it."
"What's it about?"
"A nurse," she said.
He waited for her to elaborate, but she did not, and he could tell by her faint smile that had bloomed upon her reflection that this withholding pleased her. It seemed to him almost unbearably mean and petty of her, to withhold something as inconsequential as the plot of a book.
"And?" he said.
She turned away from the window and smiled at him, and he realized the smug smile he had seen had been a fault of the glass, and that she had merely been preoccupied, not ungenerous, and he felt a stab of shame.
"And?" she said again.
"What happens to the nurse?"
"Oh," she said, looking down again at the book. "I don't know. Not much so far."
They had both fallen asleep and were simultaneously awoken by a peculiar sensation: stillness. The train had stopped. Outside the carriage window they could see, through the fog that their breaths had condensed upon the glass, a platform and a building. There was no one about and no sound but the tickling sifts of snow against the glass. Daniel thought of the warm molecules of their breath, trapped against the cold glass of the windows.
"Is this it?" Alice asked.
"I don't know," he said.
"What time is it?" she asked.
"I don't know."
"This must be it," she said. "Wasn't it the first stop?"
"Yes," he said.
"Then this is it," she said.
"Yes," he said. "Unless we missed it."
"Then it's behind us."
"I don't see any sign," he said.
She rubbed a messy circle on the window and said, "No."
"This must be it," he said. She was still rubbing, making the circle larger, but nothing helpful was revealed, just more of the wooden platform, on which a single lamp separated a conical swathe of snow from the huge surrounding darkness.
He stood up and opened the carriage door.
"Don't go," she said.
"But this must be it," he said.
"It can't be," she said. "It's not a real station. There's no town, nothing. No one. It's so dark. It must be a way station."
"A way station?"
"Yes," she said. "A pause, not a stop."
Daniel stepped out onto the platform, disturbing the perfect blanket of snow. He felt like a barbarian, but once its perfection had been defiled he knew he must continue, so he ran about in ever-widening circles, kicking up the snow about him as messily as he could, and drew near enough to the building at the platform's edge to see, in a sort of echo of faded paint, the name of the town that was their destination.
He abruptly stopped, and was aware in the silence and darkness behind him of some frightening engagement that after a moment he realized was the train. He turned to see it slowly moving, so slowly that for a moment he thought it must be the darkness rolling behind it, but then he knew it was the train, for he could see Alice leaning forward, looking out of the still-opened door, her white ghost face aghast and gliding silently into the snow-dark.
Daniel called out to Alice and ran toward and then alongside the hastening train, and she was up and throwing their bags out of the open door as if it were all part of a well-rehearsed drill and, just before the platform's abrupt end, she jumped out the door and into his arms. The train clacked, with a burgeoning insistence, into the darkness, the door of their carriage still flung open, like a dislocated wing.
For a moment he held her closer and tighter than he had held her in a long time. They held onto each other until the sight and the sound of the train had left them behind, and in the ensuing darkness and silence they went to fetch their bags, which appeared artfully arranged like dark rocks on the snowy Zen expanse of the platform. When they had collected their bags, they stood for a moment and looked about them at the darkness.
"This can't be it," she said.
He pointed to the letters on the station wall.
"I know," she said, "but this can't be it. There's nothing—"
"Let me look around front," he said. "Perhaps there's something there."
"I don't know. A telephone, or a taxi."
"Yes," she said. "And perhaps there's a McDonald's and a Holiday Inn as well." She laughed bitterly and he realized that she had finally turned against him, forsaken him as he had watched her forsake everyone else she once loved, slowly but surely drifting towards a place where anger and impatience and scorn usurped love. She stepped away from him, toward the edge of the platform, and reached out to steady herself against the metal railing.
With his outstretched arm, he swept a cushion of snow off of a bench that stood against the station wall. "Sit down," he said.
"No. I'm coming with you."
"No, sit. Stay here, with the luggage. Are you cold? Do you want my coat?"
"There's nothing around the front," she said. "There's nothing anywhere. We never should have come."
"Don't be ridiculous," he said. "Sit."
"I'm not a dog," she said. But she sat on the bench.
"I'll be right back," he said. He walked along the platform and around to the front of the building.
A few dark cars and trucks stoically amassed blankets of snow in the small parking lot. A single road disappeared into the forest that surrounded everything. There was no sign of life anywhere, just trees and snow and silence and the shrouded slumbering vehicles. He thought of Alice behind the building, sitting on the bench; it was like imagining someone in a different country or from another century.
And then, as if his exhaustion and sorrow had somehow manifested themselves and made themselves felt by the larger world, and that world had decided that it could push him no farther, a light suddenly shone from one of the cars in the parking lot, and its engine turned over. The silence and stillness had been so deep that witnessing the car come to life was as eerie as watching an ambered insect unfurl its wings and fly away. A bubble of white at the center of the car's snow-covered roof glowed from within and the door opened. Daniel watched the driver light a cigarette and throw the match out into the snow, where its somersaulting flame hissed itself out.
He assumed that it was his appearance that had awoken this vehicle, yet the driver gave no indication that this was the case; he smoked his cigarette and impassively regarded the parking lot and the train station.
So Daniel walked down the wooden steps and crunched across the hard packed snow. The driver made no response whatsoever to his approach, and so he stood in the narrow alley of snow that separated this car from its neighbor. He felt in this cloistered proximity a strange intimacy: the driver in the car smoking, flicking his ashes onto the snow, Daniel standing just outside the opened door, close enough to touch the driver. After a moment the driver flicked his half-smoked cigarette into the snow at Daniel's feet.
Daniel realized that the burden of acknowledgement was his. "Hello," he said. "Do you speak English?"
The driver looked at him with surprised curiosity, as if he had never heard a man speak before. He cocked his head, the way one encourages a bird to continue singing.
"Do you speak English?" Daniel repeated.
The driver seemed to find this utterance amusing—he laughed a little and lit another cigarette, and dragged upon it contentedly, as if he could happily spend the rest of his life listening to the man's gibberish. He scraped an arc in the snow with his slipper-clad foot.
Daniel looked into the warm cavern of the car and saw two stuffed Disney Dalmatians hanging by their necks from the rearview mirror. He pulled a slip of paper out of his pocket on which was printed the name and address of the hotel the sanatorium had reserved for them:
Borgarfjaroasysla Imperial Hotel
He held it out towards the driver and pointed to the words, as if they were not the only words written on the paper.
For a moment the driver did not respond. Perhaps he wasn't looking at the words, perhaps he couldn't read; it was impossible to tell. But then, in an oddly unaccented voice, he spoke the words aloud: "Borgarfjaroasysla Imperial Hotel." And he pointed toward the road, the only road, that left the parking lot, narrowing into the dark forest, like an illustration of perspective.
"Yes, I know," Daniel said. "But we cannot walk." He marched in place for a second and then wagged his finger in the air: Walk. No.
The driver continued to observe him with silent amusement. He made a little shrug and pointed to Daniel's feet, indicating that apparently he could walk.
"My wife," said Daniel. His hands outlined an hourglass in the air between them, and as he did this he thought of Alice's emaciated body, her thinness, the straightness of it. He pointed toward the station house. "My wife," he said. "My wife no walk."
The driver nodded, indicating that he understood. He shrugged a little and toked on his cigarette, as if there were many worse fates than having a lame wife.
"You drive us?" Daniel held an imaginary steering wheel with his hands and turned it back and forth. Then he pointed at the driver. "I'll pay you very well," he said. He removed his wallet from his coat pocket and showed it to the driver.
The driver smiled and reached out his hand.
"You'll drive us to hotel?" Daniel asked.
The driver nodded, and tapped his open palm with the fingers of his other hand.
Daniel opened his wallet and, holding it so that the driver could not see how much cash it contained, took out two bills. He handed one to the driver.
The driver pointed to the second bill.
"I get my wife," Daniel said. Once again he caressed an imaginary hourglass and pointed toward the station house. Then he shook the second bill in the air. "I give you this at hotel," he said.
The driver nodded.
"You wait," Daniel said.
The driver nodded.
Daniel ran across the parking lot. He slipped on the snow-covered steps and crashed his chin into the edge of the deck. He lay still for a moment, stunned, and then he saw the red bloom on the snow. He removed his glove and gingerly touched the abrasion on his chin. His teeth hurt, and he could feel the warm saline seep of blood in his mouth. He stood up and walked carefully around to the back of the station house.
Alice was still sitting on the bench. She was being slowly covered by the snow. It was falling so quickly and thickly that it had already obscured the disruption he had made by dancing on the platform.
Alice was so still that for a moment he thought she was dead, and then he saw the fog of her breath tumble from her half-opened mouth. She was sleeping.
The lobby of The Borgarfjaroasysla Grand Imperial Hotel was dark and cavernous. Its walls could not be seen in the gloom. They had to cross a vast field of patterned carpet, all gold braid and rosettes, to arrive at the reception desk, which stood like an altar at the far side of the huge room. A young woman, wearing an official-looking uniform, stood behind the high intricately-carved wooden counter, on which perched two huge bronze gryphons, each holding an alabaster lantern on a chain from its beak. The young woman stood rigidly between the two lamps, staring placidly in front of her, but gave no indication of seeing the entrance or approach of Daniel and Alice. She seemed as eerily inanimate as the creatures that flanked her.
It was the final leg of their journey, this trip across the carpeted expanse. They passed dark little islands of furniture, club chairs reefed around low circular tables. On the way into town from the train station the car had slid off the snowy road into the woods, and it had taken both Daniel and the driver a long time to push it back onto the road. It seemed only fitting that having finally gotten this far, there should still be difficulties, and Daniel thought it won't be over until I lock the hotel room door behind me and collapse upon the bed.
It was only when they were standing directly in front of the reception counter that the woman behind it lowered her gaze from the dimness above them all, and seemed at last to see the two weary travelers who stood before her.
"Welcome to The Borgarfjaroasysla Imperial Hotel," she said.
"Thank you," Daniel said. "We have a reservation."
"Cohen. Daniel and Alice."
"Ah yes," she said. "We've been expecting you. Did you have a pleasant journey?"
"I'm afraid we didn't," Daniel said. "It's been a difficult journey."
The woman recoiled a bit, as from a terrible rudeness, and said, "Your passports?"
Daniel handed these over and they were duly scrutinized and returned. Then the woman turned around and contemplated a huge warren of cubbyholes, each containing a key. For a long moment she did not move, and Daniel had the notion that she was regarding what was before her with the same comatic indifference she had exhibited as they made their long approach. But after a moment she reached her arm up and plucked a key from one of the highest cells. She turned back to them, and laid the large iron key, which was affixed to a heavy medallion, on the counter. And then she slid it towards Daniel.
"Room 519," she said. "It may be chilly, but if you open the radiators it should warm up quickly. The bellboy is away at the moment, but if you leave your bags, he will bring them up to you later."
"I think I can manage them," said Daniel.
"The bar is open all night." She pointed toward the far end of the vast lobby, where a faint red light shone through a beaded curtain. "But I am afraid the kitchen is closed."
"There's no food?" Daniel asked.
"I'm afraid not."
"I just want to go to bed," Alice said. "Let's go."
"You're not hungry?" he asked.
"I'm exhausted. I just want to go to bed."
Daniel sighed and lifted the heavy key off the counter and picked up their bags. In an apse behind the reception desk a grand staircase wound up through the heart of the building, and a small wire-caged elevator hung from cables in its center. There was just enough room to fit Daniel, Alice, and their bags in the tiny cage, and he watched her face as they ascended. They were on the top floor—the fifth—and each landing they passed flung a skein of pale golden light through the intricately wrought bars of the elevator, so that a delicate pattern of shadow bloomed and faded, again and again and again, across her face. In the year of her terrible discomfort, he had been aware of her growing more and more distant from him, as if she could see past him into another place that involved only herself.
Their room was very large and sparsely furnished. The floor was smothered in gold shag rug that crunched beneath their feet, and the walls were paneled with sheets of fake plastic brick. It was like a hotel room in a cheap porno film. The room was, as the receptionist had predicted, very cold.
Alice disappeared into the bathroom and shut the door. Daniel crossed the large crunching field of carpet and knelt beside the radiator. He turned the knob, which stuck for a moment and then released itself and a gushing spire of steam arose from the ancient Bakelite valve. The coiled intestines of the radiator liquidly rumbled like the bowels of a person about to be sick. He placed his hand against the roughened rusty skin of the beast and felt it slowly warm to his touch. It seemed almost miraculous to him: something happening, changing, something cold becoming something hot. He kept his hand there until it burned.
He stood up and moved around the perimeter of the room, closing the golden drapes across the windows, and then he turned on both the bedside lamps, which wore little pink silk bonnets. He walked back over to the door and shut off the calcifying overhead light, and the room looked almost warm, almost cozy.
Sitting on the bed, which was covered by a slippery quilt of golden fabric, he listened for Alice in the bathroom, but heard nothing. After what seemed like a long time, the door open and she emerged, wearing only the long silk underwear they had both layered beneath their clothes ever since arriving in this cold country.
She stood near the bed and looked at him oddly, as if she did not expect to find him there, as if he was only along for the journey and should now disappear.
"I've turned on the heat," he said. He pointed toward the hissing radiator. "So it should warm up."
"Good," she said. "Thank you."
He drew back the golden bedspread, revealing the white pillows and sheets it had covered, and patted the blank space he had revealed. "Get in," he said.
"I'm so tired," she said. She lowered herself tenderly into the bed, and then wincingly pulled the spread up beneath her chin. She never spoke of her pain. She reached out and turned off the nearest bedside lamp.
He sat at the foot of the bed and watched her. She did not close her eyes, she just lay there, her hands clutching the spread beneath her chin, gazing up at the ceiling.
"Did you take a pill?" he asked, after a moment.
"Yes," she said.
"For pain or to sleep?"
"Both," she said.
"How are you feeling?"
"Fine," she said, "given the fact that I'm exhausted and dying."
"This may work, you know," he said.
"Yes," she said. "Miracles do happen."
She moved her finger along a ridge in the quilt, and said nothing.
"It's important that you believe that," he said. "Or at least try to. Otherwise there is no point in us being here."
"Please, shut up," said Alice, and then added "Darling."
"I'm sorry," he said. He reached out and touched her leg. It felt impossibly thin beneath the quilt.
After a moment she said, "Do you want me to live?"
"What?" he asked.
"Yes," he said.
"I think if I were you I wouldn't," she said.
"Of course I do."
"I think I'd want me to die," she said. "If I were you." She sighed and turned carefully onto her side, so that she was facing away from him.
He said nothing but reached out and touched her, or touched the coverlet that rose over her hip like a small golden mountain.
"I've been wondering something," she said, still facing away from him.
"Have you ever thought that perhaps, well maybe—that you might be bisexual?"
He took his hand away and sat up straight, but she remained still. He laughed a little and said, "No. Why would you ask me that?"
"Oh, I don't know," she said. "It just occurred to me, as I've been thinking about things. Wondering. Trying to make sense."
"Of us," she said. "We haven't had sex in so long."
"That's because you're sick," he said. "You haven't—"
"Yes, I know about me," she said. "But what about you? You're not sick. Don't you want sex?"
"No," he said. "Not really."
"But people do. Most people do. Especially men. And then I thought—well, I was remembering . . ."
"Before I got sick. When we did. How . . ."
She paused and he did not prompt her. He gently returned his hand to the place it had been.
"You always seemed a little—apathetic. A little missing."
"Yes," she said. "I don't know. It's just a feeling I realize I had. That you held back in some way."
"I'm sorry you felt that. I'm sorry I wasn't a better lover."
"Oh, no," she said. "I didn't mean that, not at all. You were a very nice lover. I loved you as a lover. But it always seemed that there was something missing for you. And I wondered if with a man, if it would be different."
He laughed and said, "Of course it would be different."
"No," she said. "I don't mean in a superficial way. In a physical way. I meant in—in another way."
Daniel said nothing for a moment, and then said, "Why did you mention this now?"
"I told you. I've been thinking about it."
"Yes, but why now? It seems odd."
She pulled her hand out from beneath the covers and placed atop his hand that lay on her hip. "It doesn't seem odd to me," she said.
He lay down beside her, on top of the golden quilt, and held her, shifting his leg over the low hill of her hip and scissoring her against him. He held her tightly, but gently, because he did not want to hurt her.