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Between Dry Ribs

I wipe the drop of sweat from my eyebrow, shift my stool so I can watch the American family in the mirror behind the bar. Most of the tourists who wander here from the Dutch side of the island choose to sit on the patio. Most tourists chose another place entirely; the Belle Vue caters to the folks who work in the tiny industrial park on the outskirts of Marigot, and its view is of a warehouse and the parking lot of the health clinic, with a few palm trees hanging limp and listless in the swelter.

But this family insists on sitting inside. “Out of the sun,” the father says, tipping back a soggy golf cap. His paunch frames a ring of belly sweat on his pink polo shirt. The mother fans herself with one of those cap-less visors; the sunburnt skin between her shoulder blades creases, channeling a slow stream of perspiration under her halter top to pool in the small of her back. A boy, around ten I guess, slumps in a basketball jersey with arm holes that hang to bony hips. A girl, a few years older, perches in her chair prodding her phone, she and her brother both with the oblivious perfection of privileged children.

Or is their disregard too studied, too perfect? I fish the lighter from my pocket and set it on the bar.

“Voilà, Mademoiselle,” the bartender says, startling me. “Nous avons enfin obtenu quelques glaçons.” He slips a napkin across the bar, sets my rum and ginger ale on it. The sweat on his arm is an even sheen, the dark gloss of a lifelong resident.

My fingers are pale in comparison, despite my five years on Saint Martin, despite my Senegalese mother, despite my need to blend in. Too much Parisian grey in my skin, too much smog and concrete, too many long low-angled shadows and twilight on the snow I must not think of. My arms are unevenly burnt and flabby and sweat-streaked and wholly beautiful.

At least the bartender is speaking to me in French. Behind me, the American family is getting drinks, the waiter explaining in patient English that ice cubes are coming. I am sure I look native to their eyes, a slow local in this slow local bar that is far too busy for my peace of mind. All of Marigot is too busy for me, sleepy though it is compared to the Dutch side. Too many strange faces, too many odd accents. But the bartender’s French, the unmistakable island lilt, the distant hint of my mother’s creole on his tongue, is reassurance.

In the mirror, the parents are studying the menu in a sort of baffled dread. ‘What are we doing here,’ those looks said, so far from the pastel-painted markets by the cruise ship landing, manned by Dutch students on their year-off adventure, alway within safe range of a McDonalds or PizzaHut or Starbucks. Their confusion, the way their eyes twitch as the bartender hacks at the ice with a pick, the way their sweat-slick shoulders hunch forward. All that, too, is reassurance.

The boy has twisted in his chair, has pinned a gecko’s tail to the wall with one finger; as I watch in the mirror the tail pulls free and the gecko drops to safety. The girl has set her phone down. Her reflection gives me a look too dry and flat, and a fresh layer of sweat breaks out across my scalp, under my bra. I smell my own fear. The girl is rolling her can of Coke across her forehead, and her reflection is too distorted, the mirror too dank and corroded for me to tell if the glints are sweat or just the can’s condensation.

The humidity, which finds everything, can make my lighter unreliable. I fight the urge to try it, imagine the lure of the flame. Instead I pull out my little pocketknife, open it so the blade faces upward, rest the last joint of my forefinger upon it.

The clatter from the other end of the bar, ice rattling in glasses, the waiter and the bartender laughing over something small. The bartender brings it over, with a wide smile and low chuckle. “Pour la femme cool, pas comme certains . . . ” he says, with a tilt of his beautifully scarred cheekbones toward the American family. He slips another napkin next to my glass, set the thing on it. It’s a little snowman chunked from the ice, toothpick arms and eyes scraped hollow. It is insulated from hot planks of the bar by the napkin, like a little beach towel—not the pastel prints they sell in the market here but a bright Nordic white—and its fresh-carved curves and wooden limbs are smooth, dry, perfect. Everything I cannot, not with the girl still watching, must not think about.

The snow hotel was a full day’s trip north of Helsinki. It was mid-afternoon by the time I got off the train, and the sun was already on the horizon. Two other women headed to the hotel came off the train—a tiny Texan named Casey and broad-shouldered Kate from Australia—and we shared a taxi out to the hotel, trading stories of our travels in our variously accented English and French.

The hotel was disappointingly mundane at first. The cab dropped us off at a low wooden building that could just as well have been a storage unit but proved to be the office, dining room, and common lounge. But then we took the tour: the guest ‘cabins’ not just built of snow and ice but carved into snow spirits and ice queens, yetis and yokai, all connected by paths that wandered labyrinth like between head-high snowbanks and widened here and there into gardens of frost flowers and ice pools filled with grimacing snow-molded monkeys. The more we saw of the place, the stranger it got.

The same could be said of our guide, who proved to be the owner, chef, bellhop, and chief sculptor. He was Finnish, but spoke English with a heavy Australian accent. Every individual part of him was massive, barrel-body and hands like mittens, but all assembled onto a normal sized frame, like a doll pieced together from mismatched parts, with a tiny mustache that look glued on as an afterthought. His name was Matti Kokko, and something about the way he announced that, tapping his huge fist against his hat, gave Casey such a case of the giggles that she had to stop in a grove of snow cacti and pretend to blow her nose for a good minute.

The last stop on the tour was the sauna, built of unstained planks in the same simple style as the main building. Matti was the architect, of course, and clearly proud of the details: the beech-trimmed shower in the small changing room in front, the propane heater for the surprisingly spacious sauna itself. A porch looked out over the lake, with steps down to a hole in the ice. “If you want to be traditional,” Matti said. And speaking of tradition, he was firm on the rules of the sauna: no changing the thermostat, not too little or too much water on the stones, and absolutely no clothes, not even a bathing suit. “Not healthy, dangerous even,” he said. “The steam must touch the skin, the skin must be free to sweat. Tonight I will show you, right,” that last said so matter-of-factly that it wasn’t entirely creepy, though it did set Casey giggling again.

I lasted about twenty minutes in my cabin. The charm of its yawning Green Man entrance and forest-nook interior, complete with vaulted ice branches and snow squirrels, couldn’t distract me longer than that from the fact that it was literally freezing. I pulled on a second pair of tights over the first, dug a book out of my bag, and set off back to the main building.

I stopped on the way to take a picture of the snow snow monkeys. Matti might be somewhere on the spectrum from madcap to plain mad, but he was without doubt talented; the monkeys lounged in swirls of ice, arms around each other’s backs, heads back in bliss. I was kneeling on the ice of their pond trying to get a good angle when a voice said, “Isn’t it so funny, the way they try to act like human? It makes you laugh, how they try and fail. Are you headed to the lounge?”

She was on the path in just slippers and a white terrycloth robe, straight blond hair still wet and slipping from a turban of towel. She stood there with a small smile, head at an inquisitive angle, until I realized that she had asked a question. I admitted I was, dusted snow from my hands and knees, and joined her on the path.

“I am Anna,” she said, slipping her arm through mine. “And you?” I stared—flustered by the casual familiarity and by her elusive accent, every word precise, equal in stress and slightly lilted so that the end of a sentence or a question came unexpectedly—for a few seconds before stammering, “Chloé.” And because her patient regard seemed to require more, added, “Chloé Martin, from France.”

“Ah, the French are so perfectly fashionable,” she said. I stared again at that, seeing as I was a walking mound of layered wool and wind-proofing. If she was being sarcastic, though, there was no visible sign, just that somehow solemn smile, that inviting tilt to her head.

“Are you coming from the sauna?” I guessed.

“I have been swimming in the lake. Matti Kokko tells me that the people do this, here.”

So not a local, then. There were no goose-pimples or raised hairs on the arm under mine, though, where her sleeve rode up, and her skin was neither flushed nor pale, but a perfect tan.

“You must be from somewhere north,” I said. “Or south,” I added, thinking of hearty Australian Kate.

“I must,” she said. Again I couldn’t tell if it was a question or not, and I before I could think of a response that wasn’t awkward, we’d arrived at the main building.

“I think she’s a cop,” Casey said, around a mouthful of breakfast. “The way everything she says sounds like she’s questioning you? The mysterious accent?”

“She isn’t Finnish?” Kate said, pouring equal parts coffee and sugar into her cup.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “Icelandic, maybe?”

“Russian. A Russian spy,” Casey said.

“You Americans with your cops and spies,” Kate said. “Anyway, she doesn’t sound Russian.”

“She’s buff enough to be one. A cop, I mean. In the sauna last night—”

“You used the sauna?” Kate laughed. “Good, you can show me how it works. I’m not sure I could make it through Matti’s sauna lessons without cracking up.”

Casey made a quick hushing gesture, turned into a wave. “Hey, Matti, awesome breakfast.”

“Breakfast is a serious meal here,” he said, as he topped off coffee cups.

“Coffee is a serious meal here,” Kate said, approvingly.

“The Finns drink more coffee per capita than any other nation,” Matti said. “It’s good for the health, keeps the bodily fluids flowing.” He slapped his belly.

Kate’s face turned a delicate pink. As soon as Matti had stumped back into the kitchen she splurted her mouthful of coffee onto the tablecloth and sniggered. “Matti is just flowing with healthy fluids.”

“The man is a barrel of health,” Casey said.

“So you did take a sauna with him!” Kate said.

“Not really,” Casey said. “I went down to check it out last night. Well, I went down to warm up, honestly. It’s closer to my cabin than the lounge here. Anyway, Anna was already there, and she had the sauna going, so I stayed a while. It was pretty great, actually. Made sleeping in an igloo a lot more pleasant. Matti showed up just as we were leaving. He did look a bit put out that we hadn’t waited for him. ‘Stay and I show you our sauna traditions.” But I was cooked through, and Anna was already dressed. Not that she wears much, yeah? Even though it’s like negative a hundred degrees out. It’s that spy training.”

“And she’s spying on . . . what?” I asked. “Matti’s snow snow monkeys, perhaps?”

“Reindeer smugglers,” Kate suggested. “Reindeer who are smugglers.”

Casey looked around, leaned in. “On Matti! She asked a lot of questions about him. Well, sort of half-questions. Did you know he used to have a wife in Australia?”

Kate got an odd look on her face.

I shrugged. “Maybe she is interested in him,” I said. “As a man, I mean.”

Casey shook her head doubtfully.

“Just because he is, ah, broad and she is thin doesn’t mean there cannot be an attraction,” I said, a little crankily. “To be honest, the shape she has, it’s so . . . ” I waved a hand in something like frustration. “So perfect, it is more unnatural than his.”

“No fat shaming here, sister,” Casey said, and blushed. “It’s just that, well, Anna was very friendly in the sauna.”

“Ah,” I said.

“I think Matti could tell, too. ‘The sauna, it is not a place for the erotic, it is a place of safety,’ he said. As he was stripping down, mind you.”

“So international womanizing woman of mystery versus Matti the sculpting criminal,” I said. “Who knew snow hotels were so exciting?”

“Keeps the bodily fluids flowing,” Casey said.

A day later, and I had visited a reindeer farm, hiked through some beautiful forest, and taken a snowmobile ride to see the northern lights, but I still hadn’t taken a sauna.

I had come close, the evening before. I’d walked down to the lake after the snowmobile ride, to get one more look at the aurora, and found Matti sitting on the porch of the sauna with a pipe and a lantern, like a ship’s captain keeping watch. He had just finished, he said, and offered to go another round and show me what to do. The thought of taking off even a single layer of warm clothing, in front of him or not, was just too daunting. I shivered for a few minutes beside him on the porch, and the lantern light and the smell of his pipe and his quiet comments on the shimmering colors over the lake were enough to leave me optimistically sleepy.

I did not get much sleep, though. Despite leaving my layers on, and the hides and blankets and down sleeping bag my snow-carved forest nook was just too cold. Kate was in the same boat; we commiserated over pre-breakfast coffee in the lounge. Anna was there as well, in a thin pullover and jeans, hair slicked back as if she’d been for a pre-dawn swim.

“Your friend Casey, she is around.” she said, or asked.

Kate waggled her eyebrows at me, out of Anna’s sight. “Casey seems to have figured out the secret of sleeping well here,” she said.

Anna looked from Kate to me, one eyebrow raised.

“Saunas, I guess,” I said.

“Keeps the bodily—” Kate said, and lost the rest in a giggle. She bit her lip and poked at her phone.

“Your friend checked out,” Matti said, coming from the kitchen with a basket of bread and the coffee pot. “Yesterday afternoon. She left a note, said she had learned that Finland was not for her, and was traveling to Spain.”

Anna said, “You did not know.”

I shrugged. “We only met her on the train here.”

“Texans,” Kate said. “They walk alone.” She frowned at her phone.

“Walk,” Anna said. “Yes, that is what I am doing now.” She got up, in her gracefully abrupt way, and left without looking back.

“Well now,” I said, when Matti had had returned to the kitchen. “Do you think that perhaps Anna got a little too friendly with Casey?”

Kate was still grimacing at her phone. She took a breath, and a quick peek toward the kitchen.

“Chloé, you know how Casey said that Anna said that Matti had had a wife in Australia?”

Once I had parsed the English, I nodded.

“Well, that rang a bell, or rather, the name Kokko did, in context. So I texted my mum. She’s a big one for the local news back home. And yeah, I was right. Claire Kokko, how could you forget a name like that? Matti’s wife, yeah? And dig this. Around ten years ago, she disappeared. Went for a coffee, some dull dull suburb of Melbourne, and never came back. Big manhunt, womanhunt, whatever, Matti on the TV asking for help. I thought he looked familiar. Anyway, not a trace. And then a year later, they found her body. Taken apart.”

“You have animals in Australia, yes?” I said. “Dingos and, er . . . ”

“She was found in a condo downtown. An expensive condo. It had been sublet, and the tenant’s identity turned out to be stolen. Stolen from a couple who had gone missing three years before.”

“So you think Anna is a policewoman, investigating Matti’s wife’s death?” I put my hand over my mouth. “My God, you don’t think Matti . . . ”

Kate slumped back in her chair, shook her head. “Nah, my mum says he was cleared by the investigation, no doubts. She even remembered that he’d returned to Finland. But that doesn’t mean Anna isn’t here because of that.”

“Casey was right, then.”

Kate shrugged, and yawned. “If so, I hope she was right about the sauna helping her sleep. I am dead tired.”

By dusk, which came mid-afternoon, I was giddy with exhaustion. I walked down to the sauna, hoping to find Matti on the porch with his pipe and lantern, but found Anna instead, stepping up from the lake, with nothing at all but her own perfect skin, glowing green and blue by the aurora.

“Beautiful,” she said, it could have been a statement, a question, but she followed it with, “You have come just in time to join me,” as if it had been an address, as if she’d meant me.

She brushed past me, held the door open, as if there was no choice but to follow her. I did.

“You must leave your clothes here,” she said, in the small front changing room. “It is dangerous, otherwise.”

“So Matti says,” I said.

“There is much to learn from him, such extraordinary things” Anna said, and went into the sauna, leaving me to undress in the dim glow coming through the little round window in the sauna door, leaving me to ponder her, and Matti, and Kate’s story. What extraordinary thing would Anna, supercop Anna, perfect Anna, think to learn from madcap Matti? “Taken apart,” Kate had said.

There were towels by the sauna door, too small to wrap around me but I took one anyway, clutched it in front of me and opened the door.

The heat was breathtaking. I blinked against the steam, for a second convinced that Anna had disappeared. She was sitting on the upper rank of of benches, leaning into the corner, almost invisible. Her skin was the same warm brown as the wood.

“You will find it cooler up here,” she said, patting the bench beside her. “Casey found it more comfortable.”

“I’m sure she did,” I said, and then regretted my tone, but Anna seemed oblivious. And then I’d waited too long and there was no choice but to sit where she’d offered or be obviously rude. Anyway, her gesture had been too careful, too mannered to seem erotic. Maybe I had Casey’s cop theory too much in my mind, but I felt like I was being sat down to an interrogation. ‘Good cop or bad cop?’ I thought, and sat.

“Good,” Anna said, which might have sent a chill down my spine if I hadn’t already been half-melted. The wood of the bench was like a stove beneath me.

Sitting skewed in the corner like that, either my legs were going to jam up against her or my shoulder would. I tried to split the difference and ended up pretty much plastered to her. I was slick, and somehow also gluey, with sweat. But where I touched her, all down my side and thigh, felt cool and dry.

“Ah, no, the steam must touch the skin, the skin must be free to sweat, remember?” Anna said, and slipped the towel from my lap. “Now, I have so much to ask you.”

‘So then, bad cop,’ I thought.

“No, no, you must not think I am bad,” she said.

I stopped breathing.

She put her hand on my thigh, slide it higher, and where her hand passed, the sweat disappeared, leaving the dry traces of her slender fingers. Her other hand slide behind my neck. It was neither warm nor cool, dry with a textured smoothness like the pages of a good book between your fingers. She pulled our faces together with a slow strength I could not have fought, had I tried. Her head tilted, not like a kiss but like a question. I shut my eyes, not in surrender but in despair.

The door flew open behind me. Something cold and wet grabbed my upper arm, pulled me around and off the upper bench. I landed on the lower bench with a thud.

Matti stood over me. He scraped a forefinger up my cheek like a razor, shook the sweat off it with a grunt. He let go of my arm and I slid back against Anna’s legs. My arm felt bruised; I cupped it and my palm came away bloody. Not my blood, though, this was dark and half-frozen.

“Casey,” Matti said, and I thought he was confusing me with her, but he continued and my own blood went half-frozen. “You missed a piece.”

He leaned over me, crushing me into Anna, his belly pushing my head back into her lap. He grabbed her by the forearm and pulled, and the skin of her arm came away, crumpled in his fist like paper.

I pulled my legs up and kicked him away, crawled down the bench and rolled to my feet. Anna was ahead of me, stepping over me with those long legs to the center of the sauna.

“Oh, you’ve torn it,” she said, lifting her arm, tendons sliding in the light.

Matti turned, fumbled in his pocket with his free hand, pulled out a lighter. He flicked it, a shaky arrhythmic scratching until the flame caught. Anna’s eyes caught the flame, a confused flashing as her head snapped around and her hand swung down, a ripping sound as she tore the lighter from Matti’s hand, along with his thumb and three fingers.

A beat of silence and stillness, then, as the blood blossomed from Matti’s hand.

As if reluctant to end that silence, Matti did not cry out. He gave a small sigh that sounded more of resignation than it did of pain. I had no breath to scream, no will to move.

And Anna, Anna gasped as if in wonder or delight. “Look how it is inside,” she said. “Is it not beautiful? Are you all not filled with wonder?”

She looked up at me, head at that inquisitive angle, and reached toward me with her left arm, that had had the flesh torn away.

Matti sighed again. “Look,” he said, echoing her with an extraordinary gentleness, and raised his hand in front of her face, cupping blood. Anna held my gaze me a second or two longer, but the lure of his voice, his wound, seemed to great. She leaned over his hand, a drop here and there splattering her cheek, and raised a hand to the frayed edges of his flesh.

Matti, his voice so calm and matter of fact now, said, “Ms. Martin. The lighter. Please. While she is distracted.”

The urge to look along with Anna was hard to resist, or maybe it was the fear of looking away. I cupped my hand over my eyes and looked down. The lighter had landed under Anna’s feet, up against her heel. Matti’s thumb still clung to it.

“I can’t,” I said. “I’m sorry. I can’t.” I did not look up.

Matti sighed again. “The stove, then,” he said. “The burner, under the rocks.”

Still looking down, I stepped backward until my calf hit the bench, edged sideways until I felt the burn of the stove against my side. I fumbled at a rock, thinking of throwing it, got it loose but the heat was too great. I dropped it clattering onto the floor, and froze as Anna made a curious “huh” in response.

The rocks were in a steel basket, under which flickered a blue propane glow. Heart pounding—‘oh god how my blood will fountain if she . . . ’ I thought—I slowly took my towel from the bench and dipped it in the water bucket and grabbed the edges of the steel basket and lifted.

The water steamed out of the towel in seconds and the steel seared through the cloth and almost, almost I said again, “I’m sorry. I can’t.” The door to the sauna was just three steps to my left. But the basket was rising, inch by inch, from its brackets. I groaned, and behind me Matti finally cried out, if faintly.

There was a wet splat, and Anna cooed, “Oh, see how it almost makes sense underneath. We are finding out so much.”

“Ta gueule!” I screamed and pulled the basket loose. It was too heavy to throw, or even to hold; it tumbled onto the bench spilling rocks. I shoved the towel into the flames of the burner, a puff as the last of the water steamed off and then smoke and finally flame and I whipped the towel around behind me.

I hit nothing, of course, and the towel spluttered and smoked in that too moist air, so I turned with a sob, straight into Anna’s even gaze. She was looking over her right shoulder, hair swept back to trace the long curve of her back, one foot behind the other heel, hip cocked at the ideal angle of a sculpted Greek youth, her lips pressed lightly to Matti’s ruined hand.

I flicked the towel against that perfect shape and she went up in flame.

And then she went out.

Her skin had burnt away like paper in a poorly set fire, leaving the logs untouched. No logs here, though, just muscle, bone, sinew, nerve.

“Oh,” Anna said, looking down at herself. She ran bony fingertips over the starfish ducts of her breasts, the ridged muscles of her abdomen, the protruding angle of her hipbone. Her exposed flesh was dry; her fingers made a sound like pages turning.

“It was an old skin,” she said. “We thought it looked good, but see, I don’t think it works right.” She prodded the smoldering remains of her skin with a toe bone. “Would yours do this?” she asked in her half-question voice. Her eyes were intact, their porcelain and china blue stare all more curious without the lids.

Matti’s knees wobbled, but she was holding him up with no apparent effort with one hand. “Go,” he said, “or she will take you apart. Like a child takes apart a toy. My wife Claire . . . ”

“We learned so much from her,” Anna said. “Look!” She slipped her fingerbones between her belly muscles and under her ribs, rummaged around inside herself with a rustle like autumn leaves. She pulled out something dark and oblong, I think it was her spleen, and held it out to me. “I feel that we are very close. This looks like Claire, Matti Kokko, does it not?”

Matti was still looking at me. “Go,” he said.

“But see.” Anna rolled the thing with her thumb against the white joints of her fingerbones and it crumbled like a clod of earth. “That’s not quite right,” she explained. “I’ll show you.”

She wiped the crumbs against her ribs, then shoved the tips of her fingers through Matti’s shirt, his skin, the cartilage under his sternum, and deep into his belly. “Mmm,” she said, and then “Ah!” She let Matti go and he folded down, with a sound like beach ball deflating. She held out his spleen, flexed it bulging between her fingers. “You are all so rich. Filled with such beauty,” she said. “We want so much to be like you. Will you help?”

I ran. Backward at first, through the sauna door and into the changing room, but the outside door was latched and I had to turn my back on Anna to find the handle.

It should have been a shock, going naked from the sauna to the arctic air, but I was already deep in a greater shock. I thought of diving into the lake, hiding under the ice, except I was now certain that I’d find Casey there, disassembled. I took the path, instead, winding toward the office, bare feet slipping on the ice, snow drifting from the branches to catch in my hair.

A shape protruded from the ice at my feet: a chest, splayed arms, head back and staring at the stars. I had taken a wrong turn; it was one of Matti’s snow snow monkeys. He’d carved them with such patience, such skill, for what? A remembrance? A lure? The monkeys were almost perfect. “It makes you laugh, how they try and fail to be human,” Anna had said, when I first met her here.

I did not laugh, but I did turn around.

There was a woodpile by the side of the sauna under the overhanging roof, and an axe on brackets above it. I took it and walked around the front of the building. The front door was still open and steam billowed out. There was something obscene about that exposure of the inside to the out, something in the steam coming through the door that was too much like the way the blood had bubbled up from Matti’s hand. The axe was not enough. I put it down and lifted the tank of propane from its frame, walked until the hose ripped loose with a hiss, kept walking through the front door and the changing room and into the sauna.

Anna was crouched over Matti’s body. Even as exposed muscle and ridged bone, the curve of her back was perfect. She was singing softly, I thought to herself, but then she asked something I couldn’t quite catch and I realized that she did not understand that Matti was dead.

The propane tank was heavy, so I set it on the floor. Gas still hissed from the disconnected hose. I waited for it to reach the burner and ignite.

Anna stopped her rummaging and cocked her head. Then she rose, hands and knees dripping, and turned.

“Chloé,” she said. “I am finding such wonderful things. Shall I show you?” She took a step toward me, and with that I realized that, of course, the burner in the stove could not light the propane because it had been burning that same propane until I ripped the tank loose.

Now I laughed.

Anna laughed with me, and clasped the bones of her hands together. “It is such a mystery to us!” she said. “What will you do next?”

That was a mystery to me as well. It was all a mystery: saunas and snow monkeys, Australians and Texans, Finns and Parisiennes, Matti fleeing that mystery, that insatiable curiosity from one side of the world to the other, then luring it back again, waiting in his sauna for that one guest too perfect to sweat. Sitting on the porch in this darkest coldest place with just the light of his lantern, keeping watch for all of us.

I turned my back on Anna. I walked back into the cold and found the lantern. It was dark, but a tiny flicker still clung to the wick. I felt about for matches, but of course, Matti had used a lighter. It would still be on the floor at Anna’s feet, and she did, it seemed, understand lighters.

I walked back in and tossed the lantern into the sauna. It hit the Anna’s shin with a dull clunk, and then there was a woosh as the gas spilling from the hose ignited.

If the tank had blown right away, I would have gone with it. At that point I honestly did not care one way or another, as long as Anna went with me. But the gas burnt steadily for a while, the hose writhing like a thing alive. I held the door shut, and watched through the little round window.

That door, that Matti had made of good local wood, would save me when the tank did blow, would shelter me until the emergency crew came out from town and pulled me from the wreckage: one French tourist injured, one American missing—blown into the lake, the reports would be amended come the spring thaw—one local dead in the explosion of a sauna not built to safety codes. Nothing in the reports would indicate that there had been one other there. But I know she burned, because I held the door and watched through the window. I held and watched until the handle seared into my hand and the glass cracked and splintered in my face.

If she had tried to leave, I doubt I could have stopped her. The speed and strength she’d shown when she took Matti’s fingers was far beyond us.

But she just stood there over the tallow flame of Matti’s body, as her organs swirled up like leaves in a bonfire and her bones came loose, joint by joint, to drift like ash, watching me with endless fascination.

The American family is watching me in the mirror. The boy is standing over the parents, his arms slack and dry over their sweat-slimed shoulders. He’s twirling a toothpick in his mouth, but it’s not a toothpick, is it? It’s the gecko’s tail, and the couple, not parents, no, the couple don’t see because they don’t look, won’t look. Their faces are turned away from his, and their expressions of dread are not for the Belle Vue or its menu or its inhabitants, but for something that they brought with them that was far more foreign.

The girl is not with them in the mirror. She standing beside me. She has put a hand on my thigh, as if to wake me from my remembrance. I know if she were to lift her fingers from my skin she would leave a dry cool impression of her perfect fingers, like Anna’s. If I were to look into her eyes, I would see her wonder, her desire, her need to fit in, like Anna’s. Like mine.

But she does not lift her hand, and I do not look up. I watch those cool dry perfect fingers slide higher, where the flesh is soft, and start to tighten. I feel my own fingers, damp and swollen with the heat, against the edge of the blade on the bar.  Did Matti feel this sense of resolution? Did he think, heart pounding, “How my blood will fountain?”

The bartender, with his scarred cheeks, his wide smile, his icepick, seems to me the sort to stop, despite his fear, and turn around.

“We learned so much from you there,” the girl says. ”I feel we are close to understanding. We are so looking forward to what you’ll do next.”

Are we all not filled with wonder?

About the Author

Gregory Norman Bossert won the 2013 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction, and was a finalist for the 2014 Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award.  His day job is wrangling spaceships and superheroes for Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic.