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Letters from 68 degrees, Kiruna

Blog at 68 degrees

What's happening here at 68 degrees, a bed and breakfast in Kiruna.

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Escape from Colditz

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Sat, November 16, 2019 19:04:24

Part One

We’d been tunnelling a while. Almost a week, in shifts. From the prison of the house there was little trace of our activities visible, the snow piles obstinately dominating our driveway. Over days of hard labour we kept each other’s spirits up with rousing cheers for a good day’s tunnelling, and ice cream treats. Our plan was to join up the two escape tunnels, one down the driveway and one up from the garage where the car was trapped, by Sunday evening, when the next snow was due.

Early stage of tunnelling

The connection between the tunnels was rather wriggly, but calculated on the basis of the car’s reversing position from the garage and subsequent turning circle. Surprisingly this morning we realised we were almost there – the tunnels had connected. The time had come. Escape from Colditz.

Donning the arctic equivalent of motorbike leathers, Rolf strode down to the garage. The car reversed out beautifully, turned in three manoeuvres – and then got stuck up the driveway.

After some urgent adjustments with a spade the car was released. Blinking into the light of freedom, we sped off down the road before the battery died.

Part Two

As we and our car sped away from captivity, a thick snow fog settled over the town providing perfect cover for our escape. Still weak from the ‘flu we just couldn’t resist going to see what it looked like now. Our first sight of the town, since arriving two weeks ago, was going to be disturbing – so many changes since we were last here, so many buildings gone!

We approached the site of the town hall. Snow had covered any trace there might once have been a building there. Your brain can’t quite accept it; mine put the image of the town hall back there anyway. On the other side of the road, a whole row of wooden yellow houses had also gone.

The white mist softened the blow of the loss. We couldn’t see so well what was there, or what wasn’t there. We were grateful for the soft focus. We sped out past LKAB’s main building site where now four, tall blocks of flats disappear into the white sky, like a mirage. Where did they come from?

And then we drove on to the junction with the new main road, now a completely new route across the foot of the ski slope and crossing behind the town. There are views from this road that might have helped us understand where we were – the new route is so disorientating – but these were all obscured by the mist. We were driving on an unknown road in the middle of nowhere.

It was a gentle re-introduction to Kiruna, to be repeated when we feel a bit stronger.

A day can feel a very long time

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Mon, November 11, 2019 20:56:27

┬┤Flu struck us on arrival, so the necessities of life have become much smaller ones, more close to home. Crossing the room, making a meal, eating a meal, keeping awake, going to sleep. We’re doing OK.

Meanwhile, it snows, and snows. Our first days here are usually spent clearing paths around us, releasing our car from the garage, preparing tracks and storing places for all the snow to come over the next few months. These days are usually full of activity and purpose, but now all we can do is sit indoors and watch nothing happening, just snowing and snowing.

It’s a lesson in patience. It’s also a lesson in faith, that when our time comes we really will manage to deal with it all, we will get that snow cleared. We need patience, and faith, and we need a way to manage the boredom.

We don’t have much to entertain us in our sickened states. We watch snow. We change position, and watch yet more snow. The days seem very very long. I’m on the internet, looking for something, something to help pass the time. I remember that today is the day that Mercury is crossing the Sun in view of the Earth. Now that’s a suitably cosmic subject for us, up here on the top of the world.

We click on a link to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, and there it is – that lucky old sun, and a tiny tiny tiny black dot, which, we’re reliably informed, by someone there at the Observatory, is, in fact, Mercury. There’s some groovy cosmic music to tune in to as we try to get a feel for what we’re watching.

It’s hard to see that the block dot is moving. It’s hard to believe it’s a planet. It’s hard to believe that is the sun. But we watch. ‘We hope you are enjoying it,’ they say, all the way from LA. We continue to watch. The dot doesn’t appear to move. Then I realise it’s a bit of dirt on my screen and the dot we’re supposed to be watching is a bit more to the left.

OK. We’re watching that dot now.

Meh. I look out the window. It’s snowing.

Did you know that a day on Mercury lasts for (literally) two years?

A strange kind of poetry

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Wed, November 06, 2019 17:24:33

Our return to Kiruna has been marked by a number of setbacks, not least that the ‘Letters from 68 degrees’ have been put through a jumble machine and all the old posts have reappeared as pseudo-poetry with random line endings. This is because our web hotel moved the pages over to WordPress without the necessary preparation. Current posts will appear normally but old posts are very odd looking. Hopefully these will be restored soon.

11th November, this is now done and normal line breaks have returned!

Cocobana on Ice

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Wed, November 06, 2019 15:06:13

We’ve just arrived home after a lengthy absence and life isn’t easy. Winter arrived a month earlier that usual and it takes us quite a while to dig a path to our front door.

Then begins the lengthy process of warming up the house. During this period the mains gets overloaded and cuts out, so we’re shivering in the fading light, trying to work out which of our complex system of electric circuits needs attention. The lights come back on, thanks to study of the circuits we’ve kept on the laptop, but then the laptop breaks down.

The house is strewn with chopped wood, half-unpacked suitcases and piles of warm clothing, ready to be piled on and off depending on our activity levels. The fire alarms are beeping because the batteries have run down.

We hunker down for the night with a hot water bottle and in the morning brilliant sunlight streams through the dirty windows. Nothing else has magically transformed itself over night, unfortunately. There is still that mountain to climb.

Breakfast would help, but tinned tomato soup doesn’t cut it. We go through the drawer to consider options. Rice. Flour. Cereal. Tomato puree. Noodles. Nehh.

The car, shut away in the garage, remains unreachable, the snow in front of it representing several days hard labour. We’re a short walk from a supermarket, but we both have heavy colds and this morning feel unable to walk even a few metres.

Then we find it, that staple arctic ingredient, tinned coconut milk. Poured over cereal, it’s bliss in a can. It gives us just enough hope to be able to imagine a future.

Easy prey

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Mon, March 04, 2019 16:25:00

Tourism grows in Kiruna but is fairly low-key compared with many parts of the world. It’s still possible to come here, do your own thing and feel as if you’re alone in the landscape.

There are plenty of ready prey, though, for the Northern-Lights-Husky-Dogs-Snowmobile-Sami trips. That’s not to say that none of these activities are worth doing, but they’re beginning to blur rather, as people want tours that tick off as many things as possible in one evening.

Meanwhile we’re still enjoying what Kiruna has to offer for free. A day of sparkling sunshine in February sends us out onto Lake Torneträsk, to walk on the ice and marvel at the soft white mountains hanging in a blue sky.

We’re particularly enjoying it right now because for a few days last week we felt we’d lost winter. It was plus 6 degrees for days, the top layers of snow melted and roads and pavements became a mass of gritty grey ice and slush, later turning to slippery ice. It was hard to appreciate the warmth of the spring-like sun, when the result was the loss of so much beauty.

But right now winter has returned. It was minus 30 out on the lake yesterday and feeling too cold to stop, too cold to face the wind, too cold to be long out of the sun.

The conditions are familiar, and appear normal for winter, but there’s hidden damage from the recent warmth. In our driveway a slippery layer of ice lies underneath the snow so we have to be careful not to clear too much snow away or we’ll be driving on an ice rink. More seriously, in the landscape the ice layer under the snow prevents reindeer reaching the moss, their main source of food. They have very agile feet to push away snow, but they can’t break through ice. Their owners have to bring the whole herd together in large fenced areas and provide them with bought feed.

It’s tough on the reindeer, obviously, who can no longer graze where they want, and it’s tough on their owners, who have to work harder to keep their animals alive. But there are pay-offs elsewhere.

For one thing it’s much easier for us to encounter a large herd of reindeer. Yesterday we spotted a herd being fed near the main road to Norway. Reindeer herds look like hundreds of rocks until you come closer and see the antlers. I’ve always thought they were beautiful animals, so it was a treat to be able to observe them there when we stopped the car and wandered over to the fence.

There was another treat, and, apparently, another pay-off nearby. A hawk owl, balanced on the top of a spindly birch tree, also observing the reindeer. The patterned grey head was swivelling 360 degrees and the eyes glinting in the sunshine. At first I thought I was just lucky, to encounter an owl near a herd of a reindeer. Then I thought, owls eat lemmings, and lemmings probably like artificial reindeer feed. The owl got a lemming pay-off from the layer of ice.

So there we were, watching the hawk owl watching the reindeer. Those were our pay-offs. Meanwhile – who was watching us?

A van screeched to a halt in the lay-by and a couple of people climbed out with huge zoom lens cameras dangling from their necks. I guess they’d seen us, looking at the owl. They wanted those pictures too.

And – who was watching them?

A tour company perhaps, wondering if there was now a demand for bird-watching in their tour schedule.

Not what you’d expect

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Mon, February 11, 2019 20:33:37

The other day I was walking up the hill by the road taking photos of trees, bending down now and then trying different angles to catch the feeling of the light and the snow. A passing car beeped at me, rather aggressively I thought a the time. I looked up to see what it was about, and saw the driver pointing at me and the road as he drove past. It took me a few seconds to remember I was in Kiruna. It turns out he wanted to let me know I’d dropped a glove.

You can have these rather surprising experiences in Kiruna. As if the isolation of the place demands a cooperative spirit, a kind of caring for other people that is hard to find in bigger, more connected places.

A young man goes into a garage shop and buys a sausage in bread and a sweet bottled drink. The next day he goes there and buys it again. And the following day he comes in again.

We’re in the shop at the time and hear the sales assistant refuse to sell it to him.

‘This is the third day you’ve come in here for that sort of food,’ she says, turning to serve someone else. ‘Now go and get yourself a decent meal somewhere else’.

So he does.


Here at 68 degrees Posted on Mon, February 11, 2019 18:39:17

A low mist hung over Kiruna as we drove out of town along the Kalix river. We were hoping to break into the bright sunshine ahead – there was a feeling of spring, even though it was minus 30 degrees. Sunlight in February can be fierce in a white landscape and it draws you to it after so long an absence.

We went to a favourite spot, a place on the river where it narrows so much there’s always a stream of open water. People came here in the 1800s to live off the river fish, and this close knit community survives, since most people in the village have the same name, Fjällborg. We like to walk along the river, enjoying the contrast between the thick ice on the river edges and the trickling and splashing water in the middle, shaking particles of ice as it pushes by.

It’s rare to find moving water in winter so it’s a popular place – at least with us and with birds overwintering in the Arctic. Small birds skim the water surface and you wonder how they survive these conditions. Where the water is moving the air above looks like a steam bath, the condensing humidity marking the area of ice that it is unsafe for us to walk on.

We met a man as we walked back to the car. He lives in the village, and he’s the one who drives his snowscooter in strange loops on the ice to keep paths open for bird watchers who come here. He described the birds he sees, such as the white-throated dipper, and pairs of swans that stay here all year round. Then he told us his name. Fjällborg, of course.

Driving into town we drove back into a dense mist. When we reached the main road we wondered if the water leak earlier in the day had been the cause. A mains pipe had burst near the road spewing water across it. A humid mist would have formed above the area, and the water quickly turn to ice. We don’t normally have a problem with ice in Kiruna (because the snow doesn’t melt) but a burst water pipe – open water in the street – is an instant ice rink. It caused a bit of chaos earlier in the day, a car skidding on an unexpected patch of ice, but by the time we were there it had been cleared. An area of frozen mud was visible along the road, and machines were at work heating up the ground and mending the pipes. A thick white mist still hung in the air all around, trapped by cold temperatures above.

Out at the airport an army of Volvo engineers and mechanics were testing new trucks in winter conditions. We only knew this because someone working there was staying with us. They were testing the engines, the brakes, the connections, the power supply, the living conditions in the cabs. Kiruna provides most of the tough challenges of winter, but the one thing missing is ice. They were able create it though, by releasing water onto the runway.

It was a watery, misty, icy kind of day in Kiruna.

Entertainment in Kiruna

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Mon, January 28, 2019 17:32:08

As I’ve reported before, Kiruna’s annual ‘Snow Festival’ does little to capture the imagination. This year, perhaps, even less so.

It was a bitter minus 22 degrees in the square, and there were no signs of a crowd forming to watch the snowplough competition (small hand driven snow clearing machines). There was no queue for hot dogs outside the community centre. A handful of tourists were looking for something to do, ideally in the warm. The Ice Hotel offered a seat by the fire, no doubt in return for listening to some marketing spiel about adventure tours they run.

The Film Studio invited people to a showing of the Japanese cartoon film ‘Spirited Away’, but in this showing ‘everyone speaks Swedish’ so visitors gave that one a miss.

There were the usual snow sculptures, a couple of which brought a smile to the face. But otherwise you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d missed the festival, had come too late, too early, or to the wrong place. I don’t know if the snowplough competition ever happened – later in the day we thought we saw a machine moving the snow away that had been put there for the race. There was no-one hanging out in the town square.

On the face of it, it seems not a lot happens in Kiruna these days. An illuminated notice board in town outside one of the venues (the sports hall) advertises ‘Gravel Guts’ and ‘The Dead Cobras’, performing on 28th January. The sign has been there for at least three years. Do Gravel Guts, I wonder, perform there every 28th January and it’s just simpler to leave the sign up?

It feels as if Kiruna has run out of ideas on how to present itself and how to entertain its visitors – or perhaps it has just run out of the will to do so. Abisko draws people in by clever marketing about the aurora sky station, while Kiruna is seen as just a convenient place near the airport. Those of us who live here know that Kiruna has more to offer. It isn’t a pretty Austrian mountain village, granted, but it’s a real town with a dramatic history, and an equally dramatic present. Couldn’t we make a bit more of telling people about it? Couldn’t we try just a little harder to show that Kiruna is a fun place to be?

For example, if at the weekend Kiruna’s visitors had been directed somewhere else, just a few minutes’ walk away from the town square and the non-happening Snow Festival, then they would have seen a more interesting sight: how Kiruna itself is being ‘Spirited Away’.

Now that’s what we locals call entertainment.

When minus 25 is pleasant

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Sun, January 27, 2019 22:58:08

You don’t go out to experience minus 25 degrees but to experience what minus 25 degrees does to the world. It can be breathtaking, a landscape made still by the cold. Even a town made still by cold is a kind of miracle. After a day of a thick cold snow mist, this morning there wasn’t a thing in town not covered by frozen snow – every twig, every pole, every fence, every window, every street sign. A layer as thick as three fingers in all directions, not just sitting on top.

It still amazes me, though I experience it every year.

You have to respect the people who work in these temperatures. This weekend at the Snow Festival there were snow sculptors at work, and the only thing that stops me feeling sorry for them is that they choose to do it. Construction workers, or – as happens in Kiruna these days, deconstruction workers – need the right gear, but then they also have small cabins to sit in on the top of their machines, so they’re probably warm as toast up there. In the past though, people just had to manage – building and repairing the railway, for instance, or reindeer herders moving with their herd in winter.

I’ve been reading a recent English translation of what is considered to be the first secular book in the Sami language: ‘An account of the Sami’ by Johan Thuri, published in 1910. Thuri describes Sami reindeer herders’ lives, how the winter migration required stamina, skill and good fortune. Survival was the goal, and anything more than that was an unexpected but welcome bonus. It was a very hard life.

Thuri sometimes describes some part of their daily lives with the word ‘hávski’ – which is translated as ‘pleasant’. It’s a surprising word to find among all the description of hardship.

For things to be ‘hávski’, according to the translator, meant that at that moment, everything was ‘exactly as it should be’. During the winter migrations there were many things that could go wrong. You needed luck on your side, as well as skill to manage the migration and stamina to sustain you. The Sami had to walk long distances with the reindeer, in biting cold conditions with only what they could carry loaded onto a few of the tamer animals. They had to climb mountains, cross rivers, erect tents in freezing winds, and stay overnight in areas without easily available firewood. The animals were liable to scare easily, and hours were spent in the cold herding them somewhere safe for the night. Children had to be cared for, meals prepared, and equipment and clothing dried before the next day’s trek. Despite all this effort, if you managed to organise things well and things worked out as they should, then according to Thuri, life could often be experienced – temporarily at least – as ‘hávski’.

Most of us will never experience anything like this level of hardship, and never have to find the inner resources to survive in those kind of conditions.

I was thinking of this yesterday, when the temperatures went below minus 20 and we were walking on the river. I was testing new boots (my old boots had begun to split and welcome in cold air and snow) and was wrapped up well. On the river it felt bone-chillingly cold, especially as the wind hit the face. Whiteness spread in all directions as an endless expanse of snow mist. Reaching the other side of the river we walked through a low forest where the trees were like giants, cranky white arms reaching out to us and waving their long pointy fingers over our heads.

It was very still, and very silent, and I was aware that my hands and feet were still warm after twenty minutes of walking. I wasn’t fighting the cold, and it was definitely ‘hávski’.

Dust in the sky

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Thu, January 17, 2019 16:17:33

Although people think it must be hard to live so far north there’s so much here to help us through the dark cold months. Diamond dust, for instance.

You glance out of the kitchen window and the street is alive with light, there are millions of floating, dancing and falling ice crystals, gently settling on the window ledge, glittering in pinks and blues as they fall, and then twinkling like tiny distant stars from the snow beneath. As if Tinker Bell has waved her magic wand. Just like when you see the northern lights, it’s impossible to feel sorry for yourself.

January is a time you might feel sorry for yourself so there’s a lot of diamond dust about. Last night Kiruna felt as if it sat in a giant structure of light, with pillars of white shooting up into the black sky all around us. Diamond dust again.

This morning, in a clear sky and temperatures below minus 20 degrees, there was a giant candle flame on the horizon. It began as a slightly misshapen sun, peering over the brow of the hills on the edge of town. Tinker Bell waved her wand and released a ton of diamond dust, and then the ball of orange gradually stretched up and out to form a giant candle flame.

A round of applause for one of nature’s magnificent performances.

Every picture tells a story (but not always the real one)

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Sat, January 12, 2019 13:52:04

Outside the mining company’s hotel, after a meeting to discuss the administration of local land rights.(From left) Olof Olafsson Tuuri, Hjalmar Lundbohm, Mickel Mickelsson Inga, and Mickel Mickelsson Nia. (Photograph, Borg Mesch).

It’s controversial, the setting up of a mining area. Back in 1900 when the big mine was started in Kiruna, people seemed to be able to do what they wanted. It was a challenge in terms of economics, transport, communications, climate, landscape – you can read it as quite an adventure story in a kind of ‘wild west’ frontier environment. On the other hand, the damage done to the landscape and the disturbance to the Sami reindeer herding community was enormous.

In our understanding of this history, one figure is in the foreground – the mine’s first director, Hjalmar Lundbohm. He made all the decisions about developments. He wanted the town to be an ‘ideal society’, with health and social support systems and high living standards, and he seemed to achieve this. It had electricity. Trams took workers to the mine. There were schools. There were public buildings. There was an impressive church. In later years mine wages were above the national average. People came from all over Sweden to work here – it was the city of the Future.

In Kiruna we’re familiar with Lundbohm’s portrait. There are photos of him with workers’ children at Christmas. Photos of him with local Sami, sharing a meal in a hut or out in the wild together. We know Lundbohm argued in wider political circles for Sami herders’ rights, and took an interest in their lives, encouraging research and publications on the subject. He refused to live in a grander house, preferring to look approachable, a man of the people. He was sometimes indistinguishable, it is said, from his workers, and he had to tell them that he was actually the manager.

He could read a situation and knew how to play it to his advantage, how to get the people with the power in southern Sweden on his side. He had friends in high places, knew famous artists, even entertained royalty. He also liked more informal gatherings, to talk and eat with the locals, who were free to wander into his house as they chose. In the early days he needed Sami guides, and he used Tornedal settlers to navigate the difficult rivers he needed to travel on before the railway was built.

So while we know the mining company was ruthless in its exploitation of the area, Lundbohm himself is viewed by us in Kiruna as someone who in the circumstances did his best for local people and is very much admired, even now.

This Christmas I was given a recently published book, ‘In the Director’s Time: Lundbohm’s view of the Sami and Tornedal minorities in Kiruna’ by Curt Persson. I’ve already read widely on Kiruna’s early history, so reading another slim volume on the mine’s first director I wasn’t expecting any surprises.

This is what I learnt:

Lundbohm was an early supporter of race biology. He supported the idea that there were lower classes of people who should be kept separate from the pure Nordic race. He used these people to get a foothold here, and then refused to employ any of them – instead importing workers from ‘better’ races elsewhere in Sweden. He promoted the idea of keeping the Sami separate, uneducated, and nomadic, and away from Swedish society. He desecrated Sami sites by collecting sacred stones. He described the Tornedal Finnish farmers as encroachers on the land, a threat to the Sami, and comparable to the much-hated wolf. He supported researchers to measure the heads of Sami and Tornedal people, researchers who defined the physical characteristics of the Sami and Tornedal Finnish as ‘degenerate’, and he arranged for archaeologists to dig up the floor of a local church to measure skulls buried there. He socialised and corresponded with ardent race biologists who would later be key anti-Semites in Swedish society.

Suddenly, Kiruna’s early history and Lundbohm’s place in it starts to look rather different. His prominent position gave authority to his comments and opinions throughout the rest of the country, and he wrote and corresponded widely on the detail of the lives of the existing communities here – the Sami, and the Tornedal or Finnish farmer settlers. These ideas were around in Swedish society at least until the 1940s, and although race biology has since then been widely discredited, I wonder whether anything has replaced this early writing, correspondence, and law-making, all of which came from the time of Hjalmar Lundbohm. Isn’t there still a lot of ignorance about the history and culture of people living in the far north of Sweden? I know when I lived in Stockholm I never came across anyone living there who had ever been to Kiruna.

Public relations is important for the mining company, and Lundbohm, ‘man of the people’ has been its figurehead. They’ve recently moved his old home to their land at the foot of Luossavaara where they’re building a new ‘company area’.

Where Lundbohm’s home used to be, land threatened by the mine, there’s now a park, and they’ve erected presentation boards with photographs of earlier times. In pride of place is a giant photograph, an image of Lundbohm standing outside the company’s hotel, next to a number of Sami and some Tornedal farmers, on the occasion of a meeting of the local parish to establish the use of land in Kiruna.

Unfortunately I now know that at this meeting the Sami had no voting rights at all, the Tornedal farmers had one vote, and Lundbohm had one hundred votes. It rather changes the feeling of the image.

A transport of delight

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Tue, January 08, 2019 18:11:18

Kiruna people love their motor vehicles. Every kind – classic cars, trucks, vans, tractors. Such is the obsession that even children have special dispensation to drive – a kind of car which pretends to be a farm vehicle and is supposed to have a low speed engine (usually a very noisy one). And yet, the transport of choice over a longer period has to be the well-named ‘Spark’, truly a transport of delight.

I don’t know how long they’ve been around, but long enough for there to be ‘Spark parking areas’ in town. They are most often used by elderly women, and so are seen as a kind of walking stick in the snow, but they are an extremely practical item for anyone in a climate of cold snow – why carry your shopping when you can slide it home? Uphill a Spark enables you to push shopping you wouldn’t want to carry. Downhill, a Spark delivers your shopping home as fast as a car.

The enemy of the Spark is grit. When the temperature rises and the council put grit on the pavements in case they turn to ice, the grit brings a Spark to a grinding halt. When we first moved here grit was spread on only half the pavement for this reason. These days it’s spread everywhere so the new gritters obviously don’t use a Spark.

I’ve discovered that the best way to be taken for a local is to use a Spark. If you want to blend in then using a Spark will do it. It announces you are not a visitor, and that you’re probably over 70. Cars are even more likely to stop for you. It’s a tremendous disguise for a would-be burglar – no-one would suspect anyone lurking around on a Spark.

So a harmless form of slow transport for the elderly – why would you want one of these?

Just before Christmas our car had a flat battery. We discovered it ten minutes before the shops shut for the four day Christmas break. We realised we had no battery charger. We called the garage who apologised it would take them 20 minutes to come out (as it was a Sunday this seemed pretty good to us), and then we realised if there was something wrong with our battery we would need a charger to keep us mobile over the coming days.

By now it was eight minutes before the shops shut. I kicked off down the street on my Spark. Fortunately, there was no new grit and the Spark flew downhill. Recklessly ignoring the rights of pedestrians on the pavement, I careered over humps of snow, manoeuvring my way across crossroads, reaching the shopping centre at two minutes to closing. After tying up my Spark (one minute) I entered the shop as they were dimming the lights. I made my way to the darkened till, clutching the item to my chest. I felt I had won the lottery. There are times when a Spark is all you need.

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