Boryarsky waved at us impatiently, still with that seemingly indelible smile creasing his face. Erik grunted and motioned me to begin moving what baggage we had left from our six day trek. The smoke from his rolled up cigarette hung lazily in the air around his head, giving him the look of a mad scientist in the aftermath of a failed experiment. The craggy face, with his dark eyes and permanent frown completed this picture nicely, the final touch of menace added by his clean shaven head sticking out from the black jacket he wore. We were at Barneo Station, eleven days after setting off from Resolute on our quest to reach the Pole.

We had been choppered in five days earlier, our expedition finished. Six days with Erik, and Stath and the rest of the huskies had me feeling like quite the adventurer. I had, though. Adventured. It was not a fantasy any more. I rolled and lit a cigarette of my own and sat on the bags at the door of the mess tent, waiting for the Russian built Antonov-74 aircraft that would be the first stage of my trip back home. Home. The thought of it caused a little flutter in my chest, that familiar feeling I got when I felt unforeseen dangers ahead. Erik snapped me out of it by yelling loudly, I looked up to see him flinging himself backward from the seat and simultaneously brushing furiously at his front.

The immediate bellow of laughter from Boryarsky and the shower of sparks that were flying in all directions were evidence that he had brushed the tip of the fag against the jacket. Since we first met I noticed his odd habit of holding his cigarettes inverted into the hand rather than away and this meant that whenever he would take a drag he’d inevitably rub it against his front. He made a beeline for my half smoked cigarette- the look on his face clear enough about not taking no for an answer. We dragged a chair with him as he snatched it from my fingers. I had never heard him say please of thank you in the now three weeks I had known him.

“Home, eh? Iloti, you should have –“ whatever he was going to say was cut off by a violent spasm of coughing and much flailing of arms. The cigarette formerly known as mine was itself showering us with tiny embers. I was content to smile, Boryarsky ran Barneo and so could do what he wanted. Erik’s death stare would just slide off Boryarsky- it still had a vaguely chilling effect on me.

“I am saying, you go home now, eh? Did you get through to her?” I shrugged. I had tried to call, twice, but the phone just rang and rang. I didn’t leave a message. I told myself that it was because she deserved better but in truth I was dreading hearing her voice. Erik studied me and just like the first time we had really had a conversation and every time since, his eyes didn’t seem to bore right through me, rather I felt like I was out of myself, words and thoughts distended in the air, like someone else was talking.

“I tried, Erik. I did, No one answered.” I could hear the defiance in my voice, like I was under interrogation.

“But did you leave a message maybe she will call before we leave?”

I shook my head with what I hoped was a nonchalant look on my face. The Russian plane was to have arrived half an hour ago but the runway had to be de-iced again, so the aircraft was circling at lower latitudes waiting for the all clear. It was the 23rd of April and this was the last flight off the camp. Erik called it the worst hotel in the world, because it functioned for only a month out of the year and was pulled down and packed up in Russia for another 11 months. The plane was making final descent now, I could hear its engines in the distance.

She would not call. It was impractical, to say the least. I was too lazy to calculate what time it was back home but it must have been an ungodly hour because it was 9 PM here- though the earth’s ceiling was as blue as any noon sky above the Sahara. She probably knew it was me calling I couldn’t think of anyone else in the western hemisphere who would be calling her. I shuddered, turning my attention back to Erik, who had slipped out while I was lost in my thoughts to say good bye to the most important members of our expedition. They lapped and bounded at and around him, and I shed all thoughts of time zones and flight times and second first words to join my polar guide in saying goodbye to these amazing new friends of ours. I noticed Stath keeping his distance from Erik and our frolicking. I was slightly alarmed when he ignored the still bloody haunch of moose that had been the center of a spirited scrum of canines. I began to make for the lead dog but Erik grabbed my arm firmly.

Barneo Station

“Stath was my lead dog for now six years. I have lived here with him since he was born. I leave only once, to go for this holiday that becomes a nightmare. He knows I am gone forever now”.

I looked back at the dog. Was he sad when Erik left for Mombasa? Erik’s wife Erin had come herself to drag him away from the cold. “”No one can live sixty years and just look at white snow. Come and look at white sand instead, Snygging.” She called me Snygging. I always found that funny, because even as a young man in the service I was no one’s movie star like your Brad Pitt.” He had talked about Erin for six days, whenever of course he could be bothered to talk. We spent our downtime poring over satellite imagery of the region and trying to catch some sleep. There was no time for couch sessions. We were- or, at least he was and I was trying to be- very professional. It was work, juggling between jogging alongside the sled, watching for bears (I admit, that was a personal job, Erik could not have been less concerned about the massive white carnivores. Hungry, carnivores), cleaning (dogs shit indiscriminately) and untangling the reins.

Rest breaks were short, and cooking was a chore. I was glad to be leaving this absolutely beautiful place. I turned to Erik as we walked on to the plane to Norway. He took a last look at Stath, who looked dignified besides the Inuit men who would be taking our sled back. His hard face did not crack. But there was a different look in his eye and I felt doubly bad for my friend. It was goodbye to the only job he’d had since ending his compulsory military service and rather than going home to a wife who he had been looking forward to winding down his days with, he was going home to face his loss head on. He had not been back to what had been their home for 38 years, since her brutal death in Mombasa two years before..

I stood at the door of the craft, a feeling of insignificance washing over me. The vast whiteness was broken up in places by shimmering blue pockets, everything still despite the wind howling around us. It was the arctic, in all its glory, unspeakable beauty borne of the hostility of the individual parts that made it up. Like that woman too beautiful to approach, whose striking looks were in part due to her unapproachability, I turned, without sentiment, to head to my seat. Once the great lumbering Russian plane was at an altitude that guaranteed death rather than maiming in the event of a crash, I told Erik about the comparison I had made, of the arctic and a beautiful woman. He said nothing first, staring at the pristine whiteness below, I opened my mouth to mumble a ‘never mind’ when he turned. His eyes were heavy.

“Maybe. But perhaps you are referring to a haughty woman?”

“Yes, Erik”, I responded, eager to make sure he got the full gist of what I was saying, “But a beautiful haughty woman. The beauty comes from her being unapproachable, and her being unapproachable takes her beauty into the divine.” I felt proud of myself, and it must have shown, because he gave a contemptuous smirk. I felt faintly aggrieved, but from the way he had turned to face me I felt glad that I had caught his attention.

“You have shown me that you have balls and you have a little brains too. But you lack, I think the English word, is…” He paused briefly, then lifted a finger in recall. “Nuance. This is right word, you lack nuance.” I lifted my brows but did not show displeasure at the casual put down.

“Why? Because, you define beauty as though it has a connection to attraction. Must that always be the case? You speak of a woman whose beauty is so much that men do not approach her. She has no love because men either want to diminish her beauty by bedding her, or use her beauty to show her off as a trophy.” He paused, took a huge gulp of the vodka we had cracked open in the mess tent and continued. “Do you assume this woman does not have the capacity, within herself, to love, and be loved? You are making the assumptions people make of plain people: that they crave to be beautiful. My Erin could have been a model, When she joined the military she was used as a - what do you say – pin up girl for the military posters. A man shot himself in the chest when he found out she had given her hand to me. Me!” He had a wistful smile on his face. It seemed less than a sneer than it ever had.

“I was the son of a fisherman from Goteborg, her family is one of the wealthiest in Sweden. You have heard of Henrik Vanger? She was his cousin’s daughter, and her father was related to the royal family. She was the secretary in the naval boatyard where I was a ship mechanic. The men would never go near her, and the few that dared were so afraid of rejection that they had been already rejected before they got on their feet.”

“But you got her, huh?” I liked his stories but I was eager to know why he shot me down, plus talking about his wife did now sound like a very good idea anyway.

“Yes,” His voice had lost the wistfulness and the edge of contempt replaced it. “I walked up to her and told her I thought she was beautiful and would like to take her out when we got leave.”

“What did she say?” I leaned in.

“She said she would not get leave for six months and that a Snygging like me should not be kept away from the good women of Stockholm just because he was waiting for me.” He said this as he suddenly made a noise I never heard him make before- he was laughing.

“What is a Snygging?” I asked. It was the second time I had heard him say it, it sounded like ‘snuiging’.

“Like how you would say sexy, or maybe hottie?” He said, the gales of laughter and the tears that came with them not subsiding. I would have been laughing too but he was definitely not what you might describe as having those conventional good looks. I didn’t want to laugh and cause offence.

“I was furious”, he continued, now wiping the tears of mirth away, “She was adding insult to injury by mocking me!” His face turned faux-taciturn. “So I calmly told her that I respected her right to say no but she did not have to insult my looks as well.”

“And?”

“Calm as I had been, she turned to face me, and slapped me full in the face. I was so shocked I just stared. She raised a perfect finger to my face and I noticed it was the hand of someone who had done her fair share of manual labour. If the power behind that slap didn’t convince me enough of course.”

His face was different than I had ever seen it before eyes shining with the memories, face animated as he was transported to that day 39 years ago. I felt a powerful pull towards him then, a man who could fall in love again with someone he had spent all of his life with. I thought I had seen a powerful love, but Brian was young- I felt I sharply understood now why things that have aged have, and why things that have not have not. I had known a hard man, a man in pain but a man without asides. But now a say a new side of him.

“She told me to fuck off because I had no right to call her a liar and who the hell did I think I was”, he grinned and that was the first time I had seen his teeth- near perfect. “We were married a year later, had Gustav a year later and I spent six months on the ice and six months at home each year.”

He looked back outside the window and asked me if I still thought that desolation added to the beauty of a thing. “You see, Iloti, she was twenty years old and she had never been told by anyone that she was beautiful. She spent most of her youth in the family farm and at the floor of one of her uncle Henrik’s factories in Malmo. The men around her saw only a hardworking, funny and clever leader, not a beautiful woman whose identity began and ended with her face. Her beauty, such as it was, meant nothing to her. She didn’t even think of it as a thing to drag from the minds of men to the richness of the tapestry that was her being. Then I appreciated other things. It was easy to love her then, much easier.” There was a long silence after that. Most of the rest of the two and a half hour flight was spent talking to an interesting German police officer called Trudl and swilling that excellent Russian vodka.

The beauty of the Arctic was now almost all behind us. Mountains, fjords and green grass were the ground features now, and I thought about the desolation of the place. I bristled again at how I had been put down but something he said held me. It was desolate but it was beautiful despite, and not because, of this desolation. Isolating yourself from the world is not something to aspire to.

I digested what he said, the plane bucking as we began our descent into Norwegian air space. We got through customs, with the friendly official behind the counter congratulating me for going for the pole. I smiled back at her, and a sharp pang went through me when I noticed she had dimples just like where Naomi’s had been. I saw her smile falter as my eyes widened in the shock of the misery that surged through me. She handed me my passport, the smile less radiant but still there. I forced a smile back and followed Erik to the waiting lounge for our flight into Sweden.

Gustav was waiting at Arlanda Airport in Stockholm, and the difference from, was as startling as the similarity to, his father. He had fair hair, slate grey eyes, and a set jaw, in contrast to his father he was a cheerful, warm man. Yet he was a strong man that seemed to command respect from those around him. He and his father shook hands and exchanged a few words in Swedish, then he turned to me, arms extended, wrapping them around me. He was a big man, all of six foot three and at least two hundred pounds. I only had time to flimsily pat his back, and I felt the muscles move smoothly even in that brief touch.

“Iloti! You brought my father home. Thank you. I have never heard him speak so highly of a client before.” His English, like his father’s, was fluent, and I was thrown by his accent, that sounded almost Etonian. I mentioned this.

“Stav’s mother insisted on sending him to school in the UK, she believed that he would get a better education there”, explained Erik as Gustav effortlessly scooped our three bags and began making long strides toward the parking lot. Within half an hour we were out of Stockholm and fifteen minutes after that we were pulling up in front of a mansion built in the old Georgian style. There was a long dry fountain in front of the house. It was grand, but something about it felt soulless, even more than usual for such mansions.

We spent two days roaming the idyllic Scandinavian forests that surrouned the property. It was spring and there was life all over, a welcome relief from the howling wind, the barking dogs and that interminable sound that the sled made as it skidded along the ice that had become an exquisite form of torture by the third day of our expedition. We hunted and caught a deer, Stav proving an excellent shot, probably because of his two years as a sniper when he served in the forces. He was in the Swedish Special Forces as well, but now took care of the extensive family businesses his mother had left behind. For all the coolness between them, I saw that gleam that every son hopes they can elicit in their father’s eye whenever I caught him watching his son.

I was due to leave for home the next day, and Stav and Erik decided to take me to Möja to fish. Erik was looking forward to it. He had become much warmer since we left the Pole. “There are only two professional fishermen in all Sweden, and my old friend Steig has is the man who taught them how to fish. He is in his eighties now but the old coot knows all the best spots.”

We stopped by Old Man Steig’s cottage on the water, where he made us each drink what felt like a bottle of Aquavit, before giving us his boat and the best places to get a good catch. I didn’t pay much attention to Erik and his son loading the boat with supplies, walking in and out. I was gulping water like, well, a fish, and trying to teach the old man how to say hello and good bye in Swahili, hard to do because his English was limited and my alcohol levels were not. Stav walked into the house just as I was telling him sleep was ‘lala’.

There was a flurry in the corner of my eye but before I could turn I felt a blinding flash of pain and then it all went black. I woke up to see Gustav and Steig standing over me, a look of utter horror on Stav’s face. Erik came to me, and I realized I was lying prone on the floor. It felt like my skull had been cleaved in two. He put something on my head and I felt cold numb the pain. I sat up and gingerly got on my feet.

“Sit down, Iloti. You should sit. A hit like that usually puts trained and sober men out for a good five minutes.” It was Erik speaking. Stieg was speaking animatedly to Stav, who had a blank look on his face where the horror had been. What just happened?

“Wha-a?” I tried to speak but my head swam again. I steeled myself, fighting down the urge to wretch. “What happened, did I faint and hit my head?” I was worried that once again I had made an ass of myself drunk. Stav stood up suddenly, and came to me. Erik seemed hesitant to let him close, and slowly I began to understand what had happened. I remembered yelling 'lala' before coming to on the floor. I also remembered Stav walked in at that moment. I shrugged them all off, insisting that I was ok and making my way to the boat, swaying unsteadily on the little pier.

Erik and Stav joined me with the remaining tackle and a cold box. We set off and in a few minutes were in between two little islands in water that was secluded from the numerous tourist boats that dotted the archipelago. Stav had been driving the boat, and I went to him at the helm.

“Iloti, how are you feeling?” He offered me a cold beer. I thanked him and took a swig despite the nausea that was threatening to undo all my good work from earlier.

“I’m fine, thanks. Remind me never to get hit by a Special Forces man, active duty or no.” He looked at me but that face, much like his father’s, revealed nothing. “Your father never told me you were on that boat too. I am so sorry for your loss.”

He smiled, not the kind of sad smile that people in such situations usually put on.

“My wife, Annika and my mother were sitting in the back. I had met an old friend from the British SAS and we were having a beer at the helm. He was the hero that day, he subdued one of them as the others escaped. His girlfriend had been shot and injured and his training still led him to make the right decision. I just watched them shoot, I watched him put a bullet in my mother’s head as she screamed that my wife was pregnant. The man shouted “LALA!” before taking my whole world away.” He had a faraway look in his eyes, but there was no bitterness.

I have coped well, I had to, for my twins. They are with their Aunt in Gotëborg, Annika’s twin sister. They are scared to fly, you can understand why. To them aircrafts take people but those people do not come back.”

I said little, taking another sip of my beer. I was beginning to wonder what my reasons for going around the world were, really.

Erik was still sitting on the deck, feet up and a fisherman’s hat over his eyes. His line was secured to the boat though I had a feeling that if he never caught a fish again he would be quite satisfied.

“My father told me about you, when you landed in Oslo he called me. To inform me, but now I realize it was to give me time to be ready. I thought he had become a racist overnight when he said that you were black. What did it matter, I thought. Black or white, a guest is a guest.” I made to brush it off but he stopped me.

“I walked in to that living room telling myself how glad I was you came into our world. My father was a bitter man but since you came back I feel like he has forgiven them—“, he stopped, voice shuddering as his broad shoulders trembled. “I always said that I forgive them, but I realize that I had hidden my anger away so well. I laughed and acted strong when inside, deep inside, I swore that one day I would get my own back. I have contacts in intelligence and I had used our money to begin gathering a team of contractors to go and take my revenge.

“And then I heard you say it. The word that wakes me up every night in sweats. And my brain froze…. And. That’s what happened.” He tailed off, as Erik’s line began to shake violently. I thought he was asleep but before we took two steps to reel it in the arctic explorer was on his feet and cursing loudly, fighting adroitly with the fishing pole as we moved in closer.

Guest House at Möja

“Son of a bitch, ey? Iloti, you are lucky! This is a big fucker!” I had never been fishing on a boat before so I said nothing but I was beaming, as suddenly the fish leapt out of the water. I couldn’t tell what type it was, except it was huge. Two meters long at least and it looked like one smooth, shiny black muscle. It thrashed about, and suddenly Erick lost his footing. The alcohol had dulled my reflexes but the combination of watching his father in danger and his training saw Stav grab his father by the waist and hold him there. Erik did not miss a beat, still engaged in this silent tug of war. Now that his son was anchoring him he went at it without abandon, swaying and twisting like the fish must have been doing just below the surface. The vessel rocked hard as father and son silently work the massive fish, and when I was sure the line was going to prove the difference between these two primal forces, the fish was out again. It had little fight left, barely flailing as it finally was hauled on to the deck.

“This was an old fish, you can see here-“he pointed at many scratches and one wound behind it’s dorsal fin. “A survivor. It went out very bravely.”

I didn’t know that the fish would agree with him but it was a joy to watch them work together. I wondered if they used to fish when Stav was younger and when the cold front between them began to move in. Stav came and grabbed my shoulders with a firm grip.

“You are good luck, Iloti. That fish is known around this parts. It was considered a myth but here were are now”, he gestured expansively at the waters. “My daughters heard this story of the sailor who became a fish and would only be set free when he was caught. Now I can tell them he is free.”

At Arlanda for my flight back home Erik and Stav, as was their wont, said little. At the gate, I turned to look at these two men, who had gone through so much at the hands of boys like me. I instinctively reached out to hug Erik, then Stav in turn.

“If your daughters ever get over their fear, please, come and visit me in my country.” I paused, and looked Stav in the eye. “They need to know that it was not a country that took away their mother and grandmother, but a few misguided boys led by evil men.”

He nodded. Erik whipped out his mobile phone which was ringing loudly. He answered it, said a few words in something like Russian, and then handed me the phone.

“Iloti. Here I have her on the line.”

I hesitated, my heart racing as I put the phone to my ear.

“Hi, Iloti. How are you? Did you finally find what you were looking for?”

“I don't know....”

“No one blames you, you know. No one thinks it was your fault. Naomi’s parents are going to be here when you get back. We all will. We are so, so proud of you, son. We love you and we miss you.”

I hung up the phone in tears and crumbled to my knees as I dissolved into a silent scream of mourning. These two men, honorable and strong, knelt down beside me. Gustav whispered it in my ear.

“You made bad choices, Iloti. You did some stupid things. But your brother and his fiancée and their unborn child were not killed because of you, or by your hand. You have honoured him, and achieved for him his wish of being the first Kenyan to get to a Pole.”

“But I d-d-d-didn’t... I sprained my ankle and we had to stop thirty miles from the pole.” I looked through the tears to see a small crowd was gathered around the strange sight of three grown men huddled on their knees with tears running down our faces.

“Iloti, Brian is not thinking that you failed. I think Brian is thinking that HE succeeded. You changed your life and you accomplished this for him because you could have used the money he left you for yourself, to forget your grief.” He pulled back, cupping my face in his hands. “You have taught me and my son that grief is a good thing, that we should use it. To honour those we have lost, not be angry at the world or seek revenge. You chose to honour your twin brother.”

I smiled, feeling brave. As I left them and walked towards the plane that would take me back to begin my process, I remembered what Brian told me on the phone that day, nearly two years ago, when he called me to say there were men in his house who knew he was the drunkard who had been in a fight with who turned out to be a known criminal kingpin in Nairobi.

Ilo, listen. These guys know I’m not you. They will leave us alone. I got your back, we can work this out tomorrow. Come home, soon. I –

Then gunshots, then silence. I was going home. Maybe I could never leave my demons behind, but I realized that there were people who would help me fight them. I just had to let them in.

Qausuittuq. The land of no dawn. Where before I saw only children of resolve, now I saw that sometimes no dawn does not mean that the sun will never shine. Sometimes it means that it never sets at all.

{Kibet, Owen, Kariuki, Andrea, My Uncle Otis, and all my other people that I lost- I dedicate this to you}

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