Synopsis of A Chance Visitor, from The Oxford Companion to the Literature of Constance Eakins

“A Chance Visitor” is the story of a widow named Tracia Burnhoof who, ten years after the death of her husband, visits Oulu, a small city in Finland on the Gulf of Bothnia. Tracia had spent a memorable night in the city with her husband, shortly before his death.

On the first day of her vacation she meets a man at the post office who calls himself Jaim-Chretian. Much to Tracia’s surprise (she rarely talks to strangers, let alone strange men) she invites Jaim-Chretian back to her hotel’s lounge. Over tea, he reveals to her that he is a government operative, though he does not disclose which government. He speaks many languages and is of mixed ethnicity—his features seem Levantine, his name French, and his English is Spanish-inflected—so it is difficult for her to guess anything else about him. Since she is happy in his company she decides that it doesn’t really matter.

The weekend Tracia spends with Jaim-Chretian is the happiest since her husband’s death. They hike across the Rokua esker, climbing sand dunes. Beside the dunes are deep kettle holes in which, Eakins writes, “bone-white lilies float and occasionally twirl at random—like ladies’ parasols.” They pick ocherous cloudberries and wild mushrooms before making love on the desolate bank of Lake Oulujärvi.

On their third morning together Jaim-Chretian tells Tracia that he must leave for several days on official business. At the train station, she begins to suspect that Jaim-Chretian does not intend to return. He weeps as they part and, as the train begins to pull away, presses a locket into her palm. As soon as the train leaves the station, she pries it open. Inside, there is a clump of Jaim-Chretian’s hair, glued together with a redblack substance that is sticky like tar.

Tracia decides she must follow him, but at a distance, since she is afraid to put his mission at risk. She is desperate to let him know that she loves him and will forgive him for leaving her behind in Oulu. In three trains and one jalopy taxicab—which jiggers through the dirt roads of several tiny farming villages—she follows him to the northern town of Sodankylä. There he gets out and walks through the snow to a heath that begins beyond the town limits. She follows him by foot under the midnight sun, through sparse spruce forests, fetid bogs, and carpets of lichen on the lips of deep ravines. At one point, after they circle an enormous, mosquito-ridden swamp, Tracia suspects that Jaim-Chretian may have come across her own footsteps. He pauses and changes his course, following her tracks. She wonders whether he realizes that they are her footsteps, or if he thinks they are the footsteps of the person he has been pursuing. She begins to fear not only that she might be caught, but that she could cause him to fail his mission. She sees no other course but to return to Sodankylä.

She wanders in what she thinks is the direction of the town, but must rest after several hours, when darkness falls. When the sun rises again three hours later, she is alone, and utterly lost. Jaim-Chretian is nowhere to be found. A reindeer with twisting, knobby antlers is standing nearby, chewing the moss-encrusted bark of a fallen evergreen. Freezing and confused, she slips into a semiconscious state. The story ends with her longing for Jaim-Chretian to save her, and wondering if he knows that she was behind him, and in front of him, in the tundra.