Between Ship and Ice
by Chelsey Johnson
Issue #181 • July 17, 2013•Buy Now!
It had been nine months since Synneva had seen her father, since he had left her family and returned to Norway. The man walking toward her in the Oslo airport looked taller, trimmer. Younger. He had a sleek haircut and angular glasses. But when he wrapped her up in his arms, his jacket smooth and cool on her cheek, his torso warm and familiar, he smelled like last year, the last good year; he still smelled to her like home.
“Lillevenn,” he said, nuzzling her hair.
“Hei, pappa,” she said into his chest.
“I’m so glad you’re here.” He clutched her shoulder.
She closed her eyes and nodded.
Last January, Synneva’s father had some kind of New Year’s revelation and abruptly decided he needed to go back to the country he came from—for good, and alone. Now he had flown Synneva here to see him—He still wants you in his life—her mother had said, tight-lipped, as she smothered the contents of Synneva’s suitcase with a final heavy sweater.
Her father gathered the suitcase now, pulling it from the conveyor belt.
“Are you ready to see some bears?” he asked.
Chelsey Johnson’s stories and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, the Rumpus, Avery Anthology, and NPR’s Selected Shorts, among others. She received an MFA from the University of Iowa and a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. Currently she lives in Richmond, Virginia and is an assistant professor of English at the College of William & Mary. A novel is underway.
Adina Talve-Goodman on Between Ship and Ice
Our new issue, “Between Ship and Ice,” follows the strained relationship of a father and daughter, at the crossroads of both identity and adulthood. Adina Talve-Goodman, One Story’s managing editor, pulled this story from our slushpile, and acted as issue editor, so I’ll be turning the introducing reins over to her. I hope you’ll all enjoy this unique tale, set on the polar ice of Norway. Skål! — HT
When I was around ten years-old, a friend told me she wanted to have a polar bear as a pet. “It would probably eat you,” I said. We argued about whether or not she could train the polar bear to sit when she commanded, like her dog. She said she could. I said it would still be a polar bear and that her dog never really sat when she told him to. We never resolved the issue.
Perhaps it was the memory of that conversation that drew me to pull “Between Ship and Ice” by Chelsey Johnson from our submissions. More likely, it was the quiet nature of the story and the skillful shifting of points-of-view while Synneva, a seventh grade girl, and Erlend, her estranged father who has recently come out to all but his daughter, trek across Svalbard in search of polar bears. Along the way, Synneva and Erlend are on parallel tracks—discovering new lives independent and yet complicatedly bound by missing the other. The question of whether the two will find each other again looms. You can find out more about how Chelsey crafted these two unique voices and learned to speak Norwegian in her Q&A.
So, in these hot summer days, I’m happy to present this story filled with ice floes, snowmobiles, Norwegian folklore, and, yes, polar bears. — Adina Talve-Goodman
Q&A by Adina Talve-Goodman
But the resemblance to my actual experience ends almost immediately there. I shifted the story to Svalbard because it’s more extreme than Manitoba. I wanted to amplify everything: the landscape, the tension, the danger, the pull of desire. I wanted to stir up trouble.
When I returned to it again in my thirties, my attention went right to Erlend. He had to be more than just Dad Who Bailed. He had his own secrets and longings. Coming out later in life, he’s going through his own second adolescence that sort of parallels his daughter’s.
If there’s one supernatural power I could experience in this lifetime, it would be the chance to inhabit the head (and body) of another person—my neighbor, the bus driver, a stranger on the street, I don’t care who it is or whether it’s for a day or five minutes, I am dying to know how two different people experience the same moment. Shifting point of view is the closest you can get.
“Kvitebjørn Kong Valemon” is also known as “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.”
I am more or less fluent in Norwegian, which makes up for its debatable use-value in sheer delightfulness to speak.
When in Norway I am one of circa six vegetarians in the country, so all I can tell you about seal meat is that it looks small and dark and intense in the butcher-shop window.
My first week of grad school Chris Offutt brought a four-inch-thick folder of drafts to a seminar, dropped it on the desk with a dramatic thud, and announced to us that it was one story, and he’d worked on it for eight years. I didn’t know whether to be impressed or feel sorry for him. My idea of “revising” was a round of tweaks after workshop, and on to the next rush of new story. Now I’ve come to love the LTR over the brief torrid affair. I discovered the pleasure in the vision part of revision, and letting a story rest.