This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing is set in a polar region and full of Nordic despondency.
Review: “Starfish”, Karin Tidbeck, 2016.
This is a genuinely weird tale with a very melancholic mood. It’s set in something like our Arctic.
We are on a fishing vessel full of tourists.
The story opens with the Skipper putting his boathook into the slushy water and impaling a “transparent little rag” of a creature. He jokes to the tourists that it goes great with fresh cucumber. Most of the tourists are rather sickened by this thought though they had fish for dinner, but they “hadn’t watched the fish die”.
We then meet the story’s other main character, Kim, in her cabin which has a strange mural of a mermaid with a monstrous anglerfish looming over her. Kim seems depressed.
“The trip is supposedly good for her health. It’ll help her recovery. All she can think of is how going elsewhere isn’t enough. The world she had emerged into will still be there when she comes back.”
On the first two nights of the trip, the sound of the ice scraping the ship’s hulls has made her anxious about hitting an iceberg.
On the fourth day, the Skipper takes them to an ice cave with glowing points in the ice. They are the mature form of that earlier creature. Over a year or more’s worth of time, they burrow their way to the top. The very thought of being encased in the ice for that length of time disturbs Kim. She has to remind herself to breathe.
Kim asks what happens to the starfish when they reach the top. The Skipper tells her the starfish are devoured by seagulls, deposit their eggs in the birds’ guts, and are defecated out. Kim takes one of the starfish and puts it in a thermos full of ice.
That night the talk turns to the mysterious rock carvings in the cave. Then the Skipper speaks about the Iron Coffin.
It’s not an actual coffin but an area of the sea which has to be crossed on their main route. It doesn’t look dangerous, but it is during the full moon. Some say that’s because of minerals on the seabed there. Others say it’s paranormal activity or that the area is cursed. During a full moon, compasses won’t work there. The stars shift and “suddenly they’ll be in the wrong place”. You think you are heading somewhere you’re not. Few ships escape the Iron Coffin when the moon is full. Nobody knows if they are dragged under the water or elsewhere. The ships that got away speak of bright lights and strange noises. Special maps are needed for the Iron Coffin during the full moon.
The tourists go to bed, and Kim shares some plum brandy with the Skipper. He begins to speak of a ”captain he knew” – but it’s pretty clear it’s him. After his wife died, he took his daughter on his voyages to be be “both mother and father” to her. But she didn’t return his love. He despaired and thought, without his daughter’s love, life was worthless.
One night, at sea, he threw his map away and navigated by the stars. He thought he would capsize. (Interesingly, he doesn’t say he was heading to the Iron Coffin, but it’s implied especially when Kim asks if capsized.) The ship survived, and “He came out the other side.” Then he continued with his life. He never tried the Iron Coffin again. (Though, again, he doesn’t explicitly say he headed there.) He wanted to try again to return to his original world, but he also but didn’t want to drown.
Kim says she wishes she could go to the “other side”. Why, asks The Skipper?. She’s young, has everything to live for. “You don’t know me,” she replies. He agrees he doesn’t “But it can’t be as bad as all that.” “That’s what they all say,” says Kim.
Going back to her cabin, the starfish has climbed out of the thermos and is glowing in a corner of the floor by the mermaid mural.
On the voyage’s fifth day, the tour goes to an island where something looking like concrete, “an ancient road”, goes on the ocean floor next to the Iron Coffin. Kim asks if it is really a road. The Skipper replies “According to the tour package, it is.” (If he’s not of this world, perhaps he can’t judge the truth of the claim independently.)
She asks if the Iron Coffin is not really that far away. The Skipper asks what happened to Kim. “I was ill for a long time. . . . It changed me.” The Skipper pats her tenderly on the shoulder, his eyes are kind. Kim briefly takes his hand, and says she doesn’t want to die, but “It’s just that there’s nothing here for me anymore.” Maybe the Iron Coffin will offer something else.
Maybe it will, says the Skipper, “But nothing will be better.”
When asked, the Skipper admits he gets homesick, but there’s no point to it. He doesn’t think his daughter there has changed. “Then bring someone who likes you,” says Kim. She doesn’t know him, he replies. No, she doesn’t, but she likes him and “that’s the first time that’s happened in years.” The Skipper admits he likes her too.
The next night, after visiting another island, the Skipper takes Kim aside and tells here that tomorrow’s stop is as close as they will get to the Iron Coffin. Are they going, asks Kim? What if he refused, asks the Skipper?
“I’ll go home again . . . and wither.”
The Skipper asks if she really believes that. Kim does. The Skipper points out she could stay here, and they could get to know each other.
“We would still be here . . . Which is where I can’t stand to being.”
The Skipper takes her hand says “For you, then.”
The Skipper pulls the boat away from the island, leaving the tourists to be picked up by the next ship.
The story concludes:
Kim waits for the impact, or the fall, or the updraft, whatever it is that’s coming. Ahead, the galaxy’s arm opens wide.
Will the escape work? It didn’t for the Skipper the first time. But now he has a companion. And is their voyage to the Iron Coffin like the starfishes’ quest for the top of the ice? A fatal pursuit? But, while fatal, the starfishes reproduce at the end of that climb. Is that what is store for the Skipper and Kim?
The story is full of melancholy and depression lightened by the beginning of love and companionship. Kim’s depression is so deep it extends to the entire world.
I’ll note that the theme of depression is also at the center of the other Tidbeck work I’ve discussed, “Rebecka”.