Twenty minutes out of Svolvaer, on my first drive through arctic Norway’s Lofoten Islands, I stopped to admire the handsome wooden church at Kabelvag. The day was very still, with dark clouds threatening rain. One other car was parked in the lot, but I saw no sign of any people. I was photographing the angled roof lines and the building storm clouds when I heard shouting. The voices didn’t sound angry or alarmed. Just needing to communicate across a distance. They were coming from the other side of the road, where there was a cemetery I hadn’t noticed before.
Maybe the cemetery was worth seeing. But now the rain had started. I returned to my car just as the shouters — a man and a woman — climbed into theirs. They were white-haired, with straight backs and a general look of fitness, in that Norwegian way. They were carrying rakes and trowels. Gardening tools. They eyed me briefly before looking away. We didn’t speak.
I drove on along E10, the two-lane road that’s the closest thing the Lofotens have to a highway. I passed quiet ponds and sodden fields, silver bays and cloud-capped mountain islands. The grays of the sky shifted. The rain came and went. It was chilly, more like my idea of March than late May. At Rorvik, I turned South, towards Henningsvaer, a fishing village with beautifully preserved wooden houses. In a restaurant overlooking a canal, I treated myself to a bowl of fish soup and a cup of hot coffee. I spent the next hour wandering around the little town, taking pictures. Fish hung out to ferment. Hand-blown glassware in a gallery window. A yard filled with odd sculptures assembled from found objects. Spring buds on the birch trees. The white clapboard siding of the Lofoten Arctic Hotel.
I headed back toward Svolvaer, retracing the route I’d taken in the morning. When I reached the wooden church at Kabelvag, I stopped once again. This time, the lot was empty. I crossed the road to the cemetery, not sure what I was looking for.
What I found were neat rows of headstones, not terribly old. Statues of angels, not particularly attractive. Pretty stone birds perched on the stones of children. And everywhere, fresh flowers. Pentecost was just a few days off. Is that a traditional time for remembering the dead? Or is tending cemeteries as soon as the ground thaws an annual rite of spring in this harsh climate? I could only speculate – just as I could only guess at the meanings of the inscriptions (the Norwegian tantalizingly close to English, but still beyond reach), and conjecture about the lives behind the names and dates of the dead.
I like cemeteries. I have photographed them in southern France, in Burlington,Vermont, and here in Rhode Island. The day after I explored the Kabelvag cemetery, I visited another one in worse weather, outside the hard-edged fishing town of Stamsund, two islands over. In my novel, two important scenes are set in a cemetery.
Why do these places that appeal to me so much? I like seeing how the old stones weather. I like thinking about the people who selected each stone – chose the words, picked out the pictures or the carvings, planted the flowers, maybe as recently as that morning. Gravestones don’t just memorialize the dead. They also reflect the sensibilities of the survivors, and convey the conventions of the times and cultures in which they lived. When my father traveled, he liked to read the phone books that were then standard in hotel rooms. Skimming the lists of residents in Omaha or Sausalito, he would remark on the area’s ethnic make-up. I read graveyards in this same way. But I also peruse them for more personal stories.
Idar Bjornar Rodi was born in 1937. That would have made him 3 the year the Nazis occupied Norway, and 8 when the war ended. How did this early experience shape his life? Eirik Bergstetdt Henningsvaer died at 6. Was he sickly? Or did he die in an accident? It was impossible not to wonder, and humbling to acknowledge how much I would never know. It was humbling to acknowledge these people – parents and children, neighbors, generation after generation – who had lived out their lives in this place that for me was the end of the world, a remote location I was lucky to be getting a glimpse of.
I felt lucky. The clouds were lifting. I felt safe, sheltered by my solitude, and secure from the dangers of real life, the way one often does (foolishly, no doubt), in foreign countries. It’s a trick of the mind that comes from being happily alone and far from home, while knowing that in a little while you’ll be back where you belong. But it wasn’t just the foreignness that made me feel safe. It was also the cemetery itself, a sanctuary not just for the dead, but also the living. A protected place where I was free to snoop around in strangers’ lives without fear of encountering any actual human beings.
And anyway, I wasn’t alone. Someone was nearby — unseen, but close enough to hear. Someone who was typing. A clerk, maybe. Or a person composing a letter. Or maybe a writer, like me. Whoever it was must have been just beyond those trees. The sound of the typewriter was perfectly clear – quick bursts of the typehammers striking the paper, followed by long pauses, as the typist searched for the next receipt that needed to be recorded, or pondered the next word.
It was the sound of my father composing a travel piece at his desk in the sun room. Of my mother organizing her remarks for the Board of Education in the bedroom beside mine. It was the sound of my own writing, back in the days when I dreamed of one day selling a story and spending the earnings to trade in my manual typewriter for an electric. It had been a long time since I’d heard the sound.
All this passed through my mind before I registered what I was thinking. As soon as I did, I knew that of course I was wrong. There was no desk nearby. And even if there had been one, the person working at it wouldn’t have been using a typewriter. Even here in the arctic, typewriters were anachronisms.
So what was I hearing? Birds. Those large brown ones, flapping between the trees. Their voices (it couldn’t have been their wings, could it?) sounded exactly like typewriters. I smiled at my mistake. But as I turned back to the graves, knowing I was wrong, I couldn’t shake the sense that I had company – and comforting company, at that.