Through the cold metal bars covering the dusty windowpane, I watched the immense spectacle taking place outside above the tops of the wise conifers. The vast ribbons of the northern lights gasped and writhed in the sky. They crescendoed and diminuendoed as if an omnipotent conductor commanded their every move. We don’t get too many snowless nights in the Northwest Territories, so I was overcome with gratitude that the sky was clear for viewing the aurora borealis. Although I had made the journey up here to the isolated, antiquated research facility to study the science behind the aurora borealis, I was still overwhelmed with awe of whatever divine being created them. The vastness and grandeur of this sight stirred within me great feelings of wonder and amazement. Even though I had been at the Northwest Territories Atmospheric Science Research Facility for six long months, the northern lights still inspired me and made me feel less alone.
Well, I wasn’t actually alone. Aaron was here too. My hand wandered to the spot on my face that he had made purple and constantly changing like the northern lights. Nobody else shared the research facility so there was no use in covering it up, but he still insisted that I wear makeup. He did this to make himself feel less guilty. I did as he asked. Doing so demeaned me, but the alternative--not doing what he said--would just lead to more bruises to cover. Even though he told me what to say, what to wear, how to look, I thought I loved him. He said he loved me, and he wouldn’t lie to me, right? I thought it was noble to be hopeful and believe that he would change.
I felt guilty sometimes for making him upset, but I thought he had a right to get angry because he was doing so much for me. At the same time, he scared me because he had so much power over me. If I did something he didn’t like or said something he didn’t agree with, I bore a great physical and emotional burden.
My stomach dropped when I heard the old heavy metal door open. I quickly sat down at my desk to make it look like I was working because he hated when I was off task. The door creaked ajar on its rusty hinges and I braced myself for what he would say, but my ears were met with silence. I tiptoed in a circle to spin my chair around and see what was going on. It was only a breeze.
My shoulders relaxed back into my fleece, but a pang of fear poked my neck like a hot fire poker when his tall figure stepped into the doorway and blocked the light. He had a mess of greasy brown hair, day-old stubble, and a sour face. The snow looked like fairy dust on his stiff leathery work boots, but he aggressively stomped all of it off on the doormat. Moody, somber, and peevish, he was at the same time a petulant child and an imposing giant. Where was the brilliant, pensive, and serious man I first fell in love with? I was still in love with that Aaron, but he no longer existed.
“Hi sweetie,” I chirped, straightening up in my chair.
“I’m sorry you think I did something wrong Annie,” he said flatly, not making eye contact. He threw his backpack down on our bed and it bounced back up. I studied his face and gathered that he was referring to earlier. He had a way of being vague and noncommunicative, even when he was speaking to me in his raspy voice.
“Oh...no worries,” I said in the most upbeat manner I could muster, “I’m going out to do some photography in a bit, do you want to come with me?”
“No, I have actual work to do. What we came here to do--remember?” he replied in his usual flinty voice. My lower lip began to tremble and hot tears came to my eyes. Had he forgotten the actual work we were doing? My grad school was the one that had sponsored me to come up here. We met at school because we were both majoring in atmospheric science. Just days after he proposed to me, the school presented me with the opportunity to do independent research up north--an opportunity that I could not pass up. When I excitedly told him about it, he lashed out at me, saying that I wasn’t grateful for our relationship-just as my own parents had flown into a rage when I told them I was accepted to college and they knew I would be leaving their control. I asked the school and they made a special exception that allowed him to come if he paid his way. He often took credit for the things I had accomplished. In this instance, he couldn’t resist belittling everything I did, even my photography, even though we both knew that taking pictures of the northern lights was actually essential to my work. The various colors of the northern lights showed the type of oxygen in the air: atomic oxygen was pink and molecular oxygen appeared green. The pictures were studied later for analysis.
“You know what,” I said shakily, “I’ll just go by myself.” He looked shocked, just as my parents had when I first stuck up for myself and told them I was going away for college. His loss for words and actions gave me the perfect opportunity to make my exit. I grabbed my tripod and slammed the door before he could respond. The clang of the door shook my very bones and echoed hollowly through the cold and lonely research facility. It was only after I had crossed most of the frozen lake towards the woods on my snowmobile that I realized the full weight of the punishment that would await me when I returned, or worse yet if he found me before I could take temporary refuge in the woods. But the dread lifted as I sped away from the building and toward the welcoming forest. Nature’s hands were soft and gentle even if Aaron’s weren’t.
The woods were a gathering of sister trees, huddled close together with clasped branches. Here I was free. Anything could happen, for better or for worse, but the healing power of the gentle sisters that swayed above me took my mind off the guaranteed tension and pain back at the decrepit research facility. The conifers whispered secrets to one another and playfully swished back and forth. The wind cried like a mysterious symphony of the howls of unseen wolves as I traversed the no man’s land of the frozen lake. I reached the other side of the lake, and stepped into the sweet and inscrutable woods, taking steps toward my final destination: the clearing so perfectly situated for photographing the colorful northern lights.
I slid off the cerulean blue snowmobile, realizing that I would be done for if Aaron spotted it at the edge of the frozen lake when he came to find me. But when I thought of the sheer vastness of the woods and how well I knew them, my fear was momentarily assuaged. As I walked toward the clearing, I felt a very strong energy and became aware of how utterly alone I was. I couldn’t explain it logically, I just felt it. My fingertips tingled with electricity and currents wove through my muscles. Nevertheless, I trudged forward into the deepening snow, which was now up to my knees. I was just about to stop to check if anyone was there when I heard a scratchy low voice. I froze. How did he find me here? My jaw clenched and I braced for impact. There would be no one to hear my screams. To my great confusion, the voice got scratchier and scratchier and eventually went to static. I was perplexed until I suddenly realized that it was my radio. The energy must have been so strong that it turned on by itself. It tuned in again, but this time I only heard a few fuzzy phrases.
“Several missing,” it sputtered, followed by static, “Northwes--,” “any information is app--,” then “Robert, Andrew, Ryan,” and it died. I tried to turn it on again but to no avail. I threw my backpack off to the side and let myself fall back into the snow. I was nearly to the clearing, but I was overcome with drowsiness. Exhaustion overwhelmed me like a heavy blanket. I took some deep breaths, trying to stay mindful of my breath as it fogged out and raked the back of my throat as I drew it back in. Suddenly, unbelievably, I heard the horrible sound of a man screaming in fear and pain. I checked the radio, but this time it wasn’t the source of the voices I heard. I slowly brought my head up out of the cold snow, fearful of what I would see, just barely getting my shoulder blades off the ground. This time when I looked up, not 100 meters away from me in the clearing, I saw something even more horrifying than the screams I had heard.
The center of the clearing was now occupied by a black iron cauldron that was illuminated from within. The light in the cauldron was white, but three luminous ribbons of separated color rose towards the sky out of the cauldron. The ribbons wriggled and contorted, wincing and gasping as they shot up. However, the ribbons were being controlled by a commanding force--the woman planted next to the cauldron. She wore a tattered black cloak which hung to the ground, and the scraps of fabric splayed out from her hem like the roots of a tree. Her face was obscured by the heavy flaps that hung from her hat. Lining up to the cauldron was a row of figures, apparently all men, stocky and strong, but men who seemed to be standing there powerless, against their will. They seemed hypnotized and unable to move. Upon closer scrutiny, I saw that they were indeed all men, many dressed oddly and not at all protected from the climate. How had this crew of burly men been transported here? It seemed as if they had each been plucked out of a distant place or country and dropped here.
As my eyes adjusted to the bright light of the cauldron against the darkening forest, I saw their faces. I saw their fear. As they approached the cauldron, the looks of apprehension, anxiety, and dread on their faces intensified. The woman in black drew a wand from beneath her midnight robes, pointed it at the one closest to the cauldron, lifted him kicking and screaming off the ground, and levitated him over the cauldron. He shouted obscenities at her, but to no avail. The bright white light of his soul was sucked out of his screaming mouth and quickly drawn into the cauldron. His body fell limp on the snow. As he lay there, a small river of blood trickled out of his mouth and stained the pure white powder. This process continued one by one, for each of the victims in line.
I crawled closer, careful to keep a low profile, but at the same time transfixed by the spectacle before me. What was she saying to the victims before they were robbed of their lives? What could have led this witch to so cruelly torture and kill these gentlemen? How was it that they could not defend themselves? I got as close as I could and started to piece together the words the witch uttered to each.
“Robert, is it? How is that wife of yours? I heard that she was checked into the hospital because a dresser fell on her. Unfortunately for you, I know better. You should’ve thought twice before beating her up. Now you’ll see what it feels like to be abused,” said the witch.
An unbelievable pattern began to repeat itself. At first, I was confused, but the picture began to come together as I heard her speeches to the following victims. They all involved the abuse of women. Then I realized: these men were abusers of women, and she was extracting their souls just as they had tried to extract those of the women they beat mercilessly.
My horror increased as I saw the next man in line. It was Aaron--my own Aaron! I ran forward instinctively to protect him, but immediately regretting doing so as I was revealed in the cauldron’s flickering light. I felt I was in a trance as the witch turned to look at me. The look she gave me was filled with compassion, unlike the one she had been giving the men whom she tormented. I heard her voice inside my head without her even moving her lips. She explained, as tenderly as a mother would to a child, that the darkness they have created on earth was so great that now they must spend the rest of eternity as lights in the sky. Relief suddenly washed over me. She told me telepathically that Aaron’s future as one of the northern lights would be for my own good. Epiphanous understanding washed over me and warmed me up inside like a crackling hearth. I felt that I had a friend in this witch. I admired her. I did not have the strength to leave Aaron, but she had the power to remove him from the earth and our toxic relationship. She gently levitated him, and though his face was contorted in a sadly familiar rage, the extraordinary sinuous light that his soul became was breathtakingly beautiful.
When people ask about the fiancé I brought to the Northwest Territories, I explain that he mysteriously disappeared one night, a night that happened to feature a particularly extraordinary aurora borealis. When they express sorrow that I lost him, I say that it is a comfort to see him in the Northern Lights. And then I look to the tortured souls above me, and smile.