Start reading THE WIDE STARLIGHT
The Hazel Wood meets The Astonishing Color of After in this dreamy, atmospheric novel that follows sixteen-year-old Eli as she tries to remember what truly happened the night her mother disappeared off a frozen fjord in Norway under the Northern Lights.
Scroll down to start reading The Wide Starlight by Nicole Lesperance!
I find the letter one slushy February afternoon, stuck in the holly bush beside my front door. Setting my bag of library books on the steps, I crouch and fish the envelope out of the jagged branches. Judging from the dark splotches and water lines on the paper, it’s been there a long time. Someone has printed my name in pencil, crooked and hasty, with none of the i’s dotted and the faintest hints of crosses on the t’s.
There’s an official post office sticker across the bottom. Return to sender, it says. Not deliverable as addressed. But somehow it made it here anyway. The postmark is smudged; I can only just make out the word Norge. Norway. Oblivious to the icy rain pattering into my hair, I tear the envelope open. Somehow, the paper inside isn’t wet.
Moren din er nær. Jeg hører henne, men hun kan ikke høre meg. Du må prøve. Kall på henne. —M
I never learned to read Norwegian, and it’s been years since I spoke the language. Whenever I try, the words feel like rocks in my mouth. Squinting at the paper, I whisper them out loud.
My scalp begins to prickle. It’s been ten years since I last saw my mother, ten years I’ve been waiting for her to come back, even though my dad and I live on another continent now and she’d have no idea how to find us. I mutter the rest of the words, hating how awkward and foreign I sound. It says something about hearing but not hearing, something about calling.
I glance across the street: Iris’s truck isn’t in her driveway. On Saturdays she meets up with other incredibly intelligent people from all over Cape Cod and they solve math problems for fun. She should be home any minute now.
Moren din. Your mother.
A bead of ice slips inside my collar, sending a wash of goose bumps across my skin. With trembling fingers, I unlock the door and step inside, where I’m enveloped by the smoky scent of chipotle layered over rich, salty beef. My dad left the house while I was out, but he must have put dinner in the Crock-Pot first. Pulling out my phone, I sit on our ancient couch and type the note’s words into an online translator.
Your mother is close. I hear her, but she cannot hear me. You must try. Call her.
Every inch of me goes shivery. I used to get lots of letters after my mother disappeared and we were all over the news, but those letters tapered off years ago. The last one came when I was twelve, and I burned it like all the others. But this one is different. This one hums with an almost imperceptible energy.
I send Iris a text:
Me: Found a weird note in my bushes. Where are you?
The response is instantaneous:
Iris: [Auto-Reply] I’m driving right now—I’ll get back to you later.
I hope that means she’s on her way home. Aimless and unsettled, I wander into the kitchen. On the counter, the Crock-Pot bubbles and simmers. Beside it is a note from my dad, written on the back of a receipt.
Out with Helen for the rest of the day. Help yourself. It might need more cumin.
I haven’t met Helen. My dad stopped bringing his girlfriends home years ago because I kept trying to wrap myself up in them, even though they never quite fit. The last one I met was named Clara. She was from Germany, tall and lean and red-haired. She taught me how to knit, and it still hurts my chest to think about her.
The chili does need cumin, so I add a bit more, then head for my room, which is crammed full of bookshelves and bins of fabric and yarn. Gertrude, my headless dressmaker’s dummy, stands beside my bed, piled high with half-sewn clothing. Setting the note on my desk, I press the creases to lay it flat, and I write the English words underneath their Norwegian originals.
Your mother is close. I hear her, but she cannot hear me. You must try. Call her.
As if it were that simple. As if I haven’t tried. Even in my dreams I’m calling her. Screaming her name, whispering it, sobbing it. Finding phones and dialing over and over, always getting one number wrong and having to start again. Sometimes in my dreams, I call and scream and plead and she actually, finally comes and I see her face again, those dark eyes and sweeping cheekbones, and her soft body folds around me and I’m home. Nothing is dangerous; nothing is bad. It’s the way I wish I could remember her always. Those are the most heartbreaking dreams because when I wake up, she’s gone all over again and the loss is a thousand times sharper.
I hear her.
I’d laugh if this weren’t so creepy. Reaching up, I pull a binder from the shelf above my desk. It’s been years since I’ve opened this, and the paper is musty. The first page is a printed-out article, and beside the headline is a black-and-white photo of my mother with her long, dark hair—one of the few features we share—draped over her shoulder. She’s caught in an expectant half smile, looking like she just asked a question and is waiting for whoever took the photo to answer.
Longyearbyen Woman Missing, Daughter Found On Frozen Fjord
Early Friday morning, an expedition group found a six-year-old girl on the ice of Ekmanfjorden, nearly fifty kilometres from the town of Longyearbyen. The child was taken to the hospital, where doctors pronounced her in perfect health and said it was a miracle she’d survived.
The girl’s mother, twenty-nine-year-old Silje Lund, hasbeen reported missing by her family. The girl is being cared for by her father, American marine biologist Peter Davis, and her grandmother, Astrid Lund. Local officials have mounted a massive search effort, but with temperatures hovering at negative twenty degrees, Lund’s chances of survival are dwindling. She is 1.75 metres tall, with dark hair and brown eyes, and is believed to be wearing a light blue coat and black trousers. Police urge anyone with information about Lund to contact them as quickly as possible.
Ten years later, parts of that article still make my skin crawl. Lund’s chances of survival are dwindling. They have no idea what she faced that night, what she had to survive. What we both had to survive. She promised nothing bad could happen as long as we were together, but it turns out that was a lie.
The rest of the binder is filled with articles, some in English and others in Norwegian, the language I’d be reading in if we’d stayed on Svalbard—if she’d stayed. Each article is a story about my mother and me, crafted in the imagination of someone who wasn’t there. As they go on, it becomes clear that my mother isn’t coming back, and the tone of the stories changes. The authors speculate on why she did it, they dig up details from her life and childhood, they interview people who knew her. Never me, of course, and never my father or grandmother, who refused to speak to reporters. I’ve printed out all of those articles, but I don’t like to read them. The facts may be correct, but they’re fiction.
From out in the living room comes an enormous crash; I drop the scrapbook and race down the hall. The front door is swinging on its hinges, wind pouring inside. I poke my head out, but there’s no one there. The sleet has stopped, and the cold air smells of wood smoke. The sun has dipped lower than the trees now, casting everything in slanted golden light.
I hear her, but she cannot hear me.
I haven’t felt this aimless, flighty sense of anticipation in a long time. Something is coming; something is building, but I don’t know what. Today feels upside down, crooked somehow.
An engine chugs in the distance, and a big blue Suburban comes lumbering up the road and turns into the driveway across the street. A tiny figure hops out. Iris Pells is a whisper in human form. She’s barely five feet tall, she’s got bird bones and fidgety fingers, and she doesn’t make a lot of eye contact. Even her hair is whispery: it’s white-blond and so fine it floats around her head when the air gets too dry.
“Hey!” I call. “How was genius club?”
I can’t quite see her rolling her eyes from this far away, but I know she’s doing it. “Super.”
“Did you get my text?”
“Yes.” She hefts open her garage door. “I’ll be over in two seconds. Just have to feed the birds.”
Iris runs a makeshift animal hospital in her garage, and people from all over town bring her sick and lost creatures when the real shelter is closed or won’t take them. I knit blankets for Iris’s foundlings: tiny sweaters for the shivering ones, nests for the birds, mother-shaped pillows for the babies.
I shut the door and slump on the couch. There’s something I’m supposed to understand here, something the letter writer thinks is obvious but isn’t. There must be some way to call my mother that’s not as literal as using a phone. But I don’t have all the pieces to figure it out.
The door bangs open again, making my heartbeat skitter, but this time it’s Iris, breathless and grinning. “Did you see this?” She holds her phone up. “The Northern Lights are coming. Tonight.”
Again, that upside-down sensation, that fist-squeeze of anxiety weighted with nostalgia. The Northern Lights have never come this far south before. I haven’t seen them since that night on the fjord. The night she called them down.
The night she called them down . . .
My skin tingles with possibility.
“There’s a solar storm happening right now,” continues Iris, reading off her screen. “The strongest one in over a hundred years. Apparently the lights could be visible as soon as it gets dark, and there’s a ninety percent chance we’ll see them over the Cape. How cool is—”
My face must look something like the tornado that’s tearing through my brain, because Iris catches my hand and stands on tiptoes to peer into my eyes. “Are you okay, Eli?”
The missing piece clicks.
The Northern Lights are coming, and I think I know what I have to do.