By Kautokeino

John Burnside

I walk in a shower of ice
on the Finnmarksvidda:
freezing rain, not snow; hard pearls of ice,
stinging my face and hands as I make my way
to the frozen lake.
No sign of life – just scats and moulted hair;
but something calls from far across the water,
some elemental, lost beneath the sky,
darker than flesh and blood when it calls again
then waits, as if it wanted me to answer

and snow beings to fall – huge, sudden flakes,
drifting between the birch trees, blurring the moss,
as if some festival had been resumed,
the ceremony of another season.
Down in the village
they’re coming away from church:
mothers and fathers, grandchildren, second cousins,
the blue-eyed girl I saw on the road to Avze,
the man in the tourist café
with his perfect English.
New wives stand in their kitchens
preparing bidos,
a pair of ducks go walking on the pond,
crossing his garden, an old man stops to acknowledge
the heartbeat under his feet, and the veins of thaw
far on the vidda, a music he hears in his sleep
through the mumble of ageing.

Out in the snow
I am making a landmark of bones,
a ring of scat, an avenue of lichens.
They say, if you make your camp
at the Pikefossen,
the girl who drowned there centuries ago
will wake you in the small hours, as her screams
unravel from the slow roar of the waters;
but surely there are other sounds to hear,
the subtler frequencies of earth and sky,
dead generations buried in the sand,
feeding the ling, feeding the birch trees and willows,
reindeer and arctic fox and unnumbered men
who made a living here with skill and patience,
their works provisional, their dreams immense,
their children raised in memory and song.

Down in the village
they’re drinking the sweet white coffee,
talking or falling silent, reading the paper
or fixing a broken sled
in a cluttered yard.
The blue-eyed girl I saw on the road to Avze
is turning aside from her book
to consider the future
when something gives her pause – a cry, a rumour,
the animal keening that hovers against the walls
of a quiet house;

and, setting her homework aside,
she stops to listen,
alone in herself, and thinking in the lull
of all her future lives: newlywed; old,
or travelling on somewhere
to a fresh beginning;
abroad in the world and singing a favourite hymn,
or here in the same bright house
with her kinfolk around her.
She turns to the open door, when a voice she loves
calls from the other room, to say ‘It’s nothing’
though nothing could explain the quiet song
that bleeds through the net of the wind
and the sound of water.
Nothing explains the pull and lurch of the sky,
how, sooner or later, each of us goes to answer;
no logic stills the heartbeat in the earth:
it never stops, it knits within the bone,
a world around the world we understand
waiting to be recovered and given names:
this gravity, this lifeblood in the thaw,
this salt of love, this mercury in absence.