Translated by Larissa Kyzer
“It’s kind of extraordinary when you think about it. This is a person who I’ve spent the vast majority of my energy trying to wipe from my memory. Completely erase. I began to do this in earnest around ten years ago. But when I think about it now, this is the person I actually think about most. Nearly every single day.
Saturday, March 25, 1995
“Congratulations,” the director said loudly over the cast as he stormed into the actors’ smoke-filled dressing room and picked up a glass of wine. Anton looked at Helgi, realizing he hadn’t seen him since the performance ended. They’d gotten four encores, which you had to admit was pretty fucking good, as one of the extras had said when they’d clinked their glasses together.
“It’s all family members. What did you expect?” said Anton as he sat down and poured some beer into a glass. He silently watched the rest of the cast, who were all laughing, high-fiving, clapping each other on the shoulders, hugging.
“You came through like heroes,” said Helgi and brushed the long hair that had come loose from his ponytail off his forehead and tucked it behind his ear. He dried his face with a towel he’d draped over his shoulders. Anton wondered about this—the whole sweating thing. Around forty, the trim theater director played a role of middling importance in the piece, but it wasn’t so physically demanding that it should have prompted all this sweating.
“And not just you actors—all of you who’ve put hand to plow day and night so that this would become a reality,” he continued, looking over everyone. “Great lighting, impeccable set design—and you, Anton. The costumes are spectacular. I mean, stand up and look around,” said Helgi, who came up uncomfortably close to him, grabbed his arm, and pulled him to his feet. Looked at him for a moment with a glint in his eye.
Anton didn’t meet his gaze, but rather considered his rough skin, which still bore clear signs of having undergone the harsh assault of teenage acne.
“Superb. Cheers to you. Cheers to everyone!” shouted Helgi, turning in a circle with his glass raised.
Anton glanced around, looking at these angels, disciples—at Jesus and Lucifer themselves. The cast and crew clapped and shouted out things like bravo! hurrah! and woohoo! Someone ruffled his hair and smacked him too hard on the back, making his beer slosh out of his glass.
He sat back down. This was too excessive and over-the-top a reaction for his liking. Anton had never properly gotten used to this character—the director. It probably wasn’t just him, but no one ever said anything out loud. He was celebrated around town for his selfless work on behalf of the youth and had played a significant role in the bright future of the next generation, as someone had written somewhere. Yes, and in the Christian Youth Association pamphlet, it read that he was a person with a keen eye for the disadvantaged and has toiled, with diligence and perseverance, for the explicit purpose of lifting up young people who will undoubtedly distinguish themselves in our community in the future. On top of this, he was very active in the operations of Dynheimar, the old theater in Akureyri, and also as a deacon, performing mass and teaching the Christian Ed classes at the Síðuskóli school whenever the regular teacher wasn’t available. Anton wasn’t alone in thinking it particularly tactless that Helgi should take such an active part in the opening night celebrations and toast them—the youth of tomorrow— so enthusiastically.
Indeed, Anton had met Helgi at Síðuskóli three years earlier, when he was of confirmation age. Helgi had taken over the Christian Ed classes and confirmation instruction for the better part of the winter, while the pastor was ill. During one class, he went over the creation story with particular persuasiveness. Anton and his childhood friend Rabbi had fiercely protested, pointing to the theory of evolution.
Bullshit, they’d been told.
They mentioned the thing about the fish that crawled up onto land and referenced the well-known image showing an ape elongating itself, step by step, before finally standing erect in the human form that we know today. Anton also remembered a girl in the class who commented on the picture, asking if it was only men who had evolved from apes, which garnered laughter and snide comments for several days after.
After they’d revealed their heresy, Helgi had asked the friends to stick around after class ended.
That’s when everything started.
That’s when everything changed.
Anton could feel himself growing angrier. He was going to get up and leave the party but stopped when he noticed the door to the dressing room opening slowly. Rabbi quietly walked in and closed the door behind him—it was as if he wanted to be as inconspicuous as possible. Anton watched Rabbi as he walked to the table with his head bowed, got himself a beer, and sat in the empty seat next to his own. Ran a hand through his long, black hair.
Someone had turned up the music and “Chocolate,” by GusGus echoed through the room. A few people were getting out of costume and dancing along to the music.
“Did something happen?” asked Anton. He’d waited for the right moment to ask. Had looked at Rabbi a few times and noticed he was just staring off into the distance. As if his mind was miles away. There was nothing to suggest that his body even registered the music—not even one of his knees. Anton wondered if it had been the wrong moment. Or if Rabbi had maybe not heard him.
“Rabbi. Did that bastard…”
“Ugh, just shut the fuck up,” he said as he stood up. Anton went to do the same, but Rabbi pushed the flat of his hand into his face, shoving him back into his seat. Anton sat rigidly, just watching. Watched as Rabbi disappeared into the crowd.
He came back to his senses when the show’s lighting master suddenly stood in front of him with a giant smile on his face. He sat down on his heels and extended his hand.
“On the house,” he said, passing Anton a little mirror and a rolled-up piece of paper.
Anton looked hesitantly at the mirror, but then took it. Inhaled the white powder.
Anton knelt in front of the altar and opened his mouth. The pastor smiled mildly, placed the wafer on his tongue, and lifted the chalice to his lips. Anton looked down into it for a moment. No blood of Christ there. The chalice was filled to the brim with black sand. He hesitated and looked into the eyes of the pastor, who smiled even more broadly and conveyed with an encouraging look that there was nothing to fear. Anton tilted his head back and opened his mouth as wide as possible, felt the fine sand pouring down his throat—effortlessly, like in an hourglass.
He stood up, walked down the aisle, and opened the door. It was pitch dark and absolutely still outside. In the dim yellow light that flickered above the door, he could make out an open grave, right in front of the church steps. He walked towards it and didn’t stop at the edge, just kept going and fell into it. Instead of plummeting to the ground, he felt himself drifting through the void as though he were on the moon. Then all of a sudden, gravity kicked in as though it had opened his mouth, and he fell at a terrifying speed and crashed to the bottom of the grave with tremendous force.
Anton opened his eyes and held his head. When he finally managed to focus his eyes, he was looking at the wooden legs of the coffee table and he realized he’d fallen off the couch. He leaned on the coffee table, sat up, and looked around. Was overcome by the smell of sour beer and tobacco.
He saw Rabbi sleeping on the red couch, mouth open and eyes half-closed, sounding like a drainpipe when he breathed.
Anton stood up slowly so as not to provoke his headache any further and looked over the coffee table, which was covered with wine glasses and overflowing ashtrays. After moving the butts around with his index finger, he found a half-smoked cigarette and lit it. The floorboards creaked a bit and his socks stuck to dried spatters of beer as he walked towards the dormer window. He wiped the condensation from the glass and looked out. It was light, but there weren’t many people out. He tried to orient himself.
He crossed the living room and went into a little hall. After having peeked in behind two half-closed doors where two or three naked people were lying motionless, he finally found the bathroom. He looked around numbly. There was a shower stall without a curtain in the corner and a curry-yellow sink that someone had thrown up in. A small, circular mirror hung over the sink. Anton nearly fell when he slipped in a wet spot on the white floor tiles.
He threw his cigarette into the toilet and looked in the mirror. His body probably just didn’t have enough energy to react when a man appeared there. He felt only its numb attempt to do so, but it was as if his heart was being squeezed in his chest.
Anton moved closer to the mirror and looked at his face for a long time. It was painted bright white except for black rings around his eyes which came to sharp points both above and beneath them.
He hardly recognized his reflection, which at first, reminded him of a zombie. Or some rock star. What the hell was his name? Was it one of the guys from Kiss? No, yes…now he remembered: Alice Cooper. His dad had loved that guy and, once, when he was a kid, had hung a poster of him up in the living room. Anton had a vague memory of his mother ripping it down the same day. The memory of the argument that followed was clearer. You couldn’t really call it an ‘argument’ in the strictest sense. It was more in the vein of a brawl, one in which more than just verbal abuse—plates, glasses, decorative statues—was hurled.
There was never any middle ground. And each of them always came into his room to chat with him after he’d been tucked in. It always went the same way. Year after year: taking sides. Take Mom’s side. Take Dad’s side. He started to take both their sides without their knowing. They were the kind of people who were far too candid and said far too many inappropriate things far too loudly when they weren’t happy about something the other one had done. But they managed to confine their violent reactions within the walls of their home, because in later years, he’d often had to hear from family and friends how kind his parents were—what good people. Yes, and how lucky he was to have grown up with all that love and warmth.
Fuck you, he’d replied then, in the deepest recesses of his mind.
He returned to his reflection and tried to remember the sequence of last night’s events. He could recall some vague, meaningless fragments. The gaps seemed enormous; the last thing he remembered was leaving the theater with some other people. Yes, and here was another relatively intact shred: the taxi. He’d hopped into a taxi with someone outside of the theater on Hafnarstræti. After that, it was as though a black eraser had been wiped across his brain.
He looked down to turn on the tap and that was the first time he noticed what he was wearing. A dirty, white cloak hung down to his mid-thighs. Someone had scribbled a cock and balls where the cloak opened. He turned to the side in front of the mirror and saw a threadbare and tattered pair of angel wings lying along his shoulder blades. He’d designed the costumes for the play himself and been very ambitious with them. The director had, in fact, praised them to the high heavens.
He turned on the tap and let the water run into his hands and rubbed his face. Fumbled for the soap on the dirty sink. Didn’t find any. He grabbed a towel and dried his face on it, even though it smelled of vomit. Looked in the mirror and could just make out his skin under the white paint and the black streaks that ran down both cheeks. It was as if Alice Cooper had either aged about a hundred years or was melting. He didn’t have the energy to clean himself up any better and tossed the towel onto the floor.
Oh, how much I hate you, he said simply and quietly to his reflection. Plenty of people would be so happy to be rid of you. Fucking loser!
There was something rolling around on the floor and he nudged it with his toe. He looked under the sink, and unsure of what it was, picked it up. Red lipstick. He took the cap off and screwed up the waxy cylinder.
He looked at himself in the mirror again for a moment. Brandished the lipstick.
Anton opened the front door and left the apartment. The cold bit his cheeks immediately. There was a lot of snow outside and he walked carefully along the slippery sidewalk and out to the street. Although he didn’t remember much from the evening or night before, he was still pretty sure that there hadn’t been any snow. He wondered for a moment if he’d been in the apartment for several days. Not necessarily was his conclusion. Everything could change in a matter of hours when the snow swallowed everything.
He enjoyed a deep breath of the fresh winter air and then took a long gulp of Southern Comfort from the bottle he’d grabbed from the kitchen and lit a half-smoked cigarette. After a few drags, he set off down the street. The sun’s ice-cold rays stabbed at his eyes.
When he came to the next intersection, the Glerárkirkja church appeared in front of him and he saw a group of kids having a snowball fight out front. They tried to dodge the snow balls, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Although they were a long way away, their laughter and horseplay echoed in his ears.
The church doors opened and a man in a black suit came out. There was a pronounced tremor within Anton, something that hit all the way home, when he saw the man interact with the children. It was like all his focus and self-awareness was dialed all the way up when he heard the man laugh. It was like he could feel his own skin when the man patted a few of the children on the head, stroked the backs of their necks slowly and gently. What he didn’t feel it at all, however, was when the bottle dropped from his hand.
Anton walked slowly towards the church and it wasn’t until he’d gotten very close that the children stood completely still all of a sudden—froze like they did when they were playing the statue game. They skidded to a stop when they saw this unclean angel. Yes, and the drawing of the cock and balls. It wasn’t before the pastor had gotten a look at the countenance and face of this unsightly angel that he told them to hurry home. Now! he said shrilly when some of the children didn’t react.
“Hello, friend, would you like to come in?” said the pastor as he opened the church door and extended his hand.
Anton’s thoughts fluttered to when he’d been sitting with Rabbi after the play the night before. When his friend had pushed him back into his seat. As soon as he did, Anton knew what was tormenting him. He smelled it and he knew that scent—the scent of genitals. The scent of cock. And semen.
And as he looked at the pastor’s open palm, he was overcome with the same scent.
Rabbi came to and sat up on the red couch. Wiped the saliva from his face and touched his tongue because he was sure it’d turned to rough sandpaper.
He stood up, feeling how hard it was for him to get his balance. After a good, long moment, he looked around. He strode over a person lying on the living room floor, walked into the hallway, and looked into a bedroom where someone was asleep. Said Anton’s name in a low voice, twice. No one answered.
He went into the bathroom was pretty pleased when he managed to open his fly. He was even more pleased that the yellow stream mostly hit its intended target.
Not bothering to flush, he stood in front of the sink. Looked into the mirror. It took him a few seconds to figure out what was obscuring his reflection. He took a step back and squinted. Then he saw it: the red picture. It was great—or he thought so, at least. A face, drawn with lipstick, was staring straight at him. The artist had formed the lips by kissing the mirror. The face was determined and menacing, but at the same time, there was something sexual about it. Maybe it was the lips, he thought, and then read the three sentences that were written in the same red lipstick on the mirror.
Friday, August 22, 2014
Hróbjartur held his plate under the hot stream of water until it had dissolved most of the remains of the curry sauce. He rubbed the rest off with his fingers and put the plate in the rack next to the sink. He grabbed a dish towel and dried up the wetness around the sink. Looked thoughtfully out the kitchen window, which faced west, rubbed the condensation from it. The sun was hiding behind Mt. Sauðaneshnjúkar and he observed the sky, which looked like it was on fire.
He turned on the light in the kitchen. Saw his reflection in the window. Looked at it for a moment. Had he aged that much in twenty-four hours? he thought, stroking his cheek with his large hand. His light hair had yellowed over the summer. The gray hairs on his cheeks were conspicuous and he wondered if he should to get in the bath and dye his hair. Even though he felt like he was pretty good at it and did pretty well with the color, he sometimes wondered if people noticed. He remembered a conversation he had with his friend, who was in the same situation. The worst is when you’re buying the damn dye. They look at you like you’re buying condoms, he’d said and laughed. The recollection sometimes made Hróbjartur smile. But not now. He looked seriously at his face. Turned off the light and the reflection disappeared.
Tears were running down his cheeks. He wiped them away with the dish towel and threw it on the table. Looked to the side and at yesterday’s morning paper. That paper had kept him up all night. And ruined the day, which had, for the most part, gone into pacing back and forth across the floor. He’d planned to drop in on a neighbor he hadn’t seen in a long time but opted not to. Huddled inside instead. Was sad and angry in turn. How could they do that to him? He hadn’t done anything. He said it again and again in his head. Now and then, he said it out loud. I haven’t done anything. But every time he rid himself of the thought, some hidden voice in his head would say: That isn’t entirely accurate, Hróbjartur, ol’ pal. Or: What about the boy? It didn’t matter what he did to find where these thoughts had secreted themselves away—they’d dug themselves down too deep for him to get to them, as if they were the last remnants of his guilt and had done everything they could to bury themselves in the deepest recesses of his mind. It didn’t do any good to sweep them aside. Choke them.
He clutched the paper with him when he walked into his bedroom and laid down in his bed. Looked at the front page. Read the headline.
He’d gone to the store last night. Greeted people he met as he pushed his shopping cart ahead of him. Tossed greetings at them: Hey, buddy. Evening, ma’am. Nice to see you two. How’ve you been since I saw you last? As a rule, he’d nearly always have a short chat with someone about this or that. But this time, it seemed that none of these people wanted to look at him. He really started to suspect that not everything was as it should be when he passed three people who hadn’t the slightest interest in even saying hello. Forget having a chat. Whenever he made eye contact with someone, it was as if his glance was burning hot. People avoided meeting his eye.
It wasn’t until he’d pushed the shopping cart to the register and started to gather his items onto the conveyor belt that he felt as though he’d taken a heavy blow to the chest. In the blink of an eye, it was like he’d been plucked up and set down in a small, dark bedroom where he stood alone in front of a giant newspaper. There was a photo of seven pastors on the cover. And he recognized all of them. Himself among them.
He laid a hand over his heart. His heartbeat was irregular. He felt like the headline was screaming at him:
Church Covers Up for Pedos:
The Victims Speak Out
He didn’t remember anything after that. Not buying the paper. Not leaving the store. He didn’t even remember driving home.
Lying in his bed now, Hróbjartur flipped, for the fifth time, to the page where the article began. He mumbled quietly as he read.
“It’s been demonstrated time and time again that most of the victims didn’t know each other at all. So this isn’t a conspiracy that we’re dealing with here, as some have claimed. Although some of the victims have come forth anonymously, we clearly can’t look past the fact that there are a number of individuals who have come forth with similar stories and accusations. That speaks for itself. The Church of Iceland’s special committee is going to investigate these recent accusations, as well as older cases. We must get to the bottom of this as a community. Get everything out in the open. People have to take responsibility and accept the consequences. We’re not going to leave any stone unturned and are taking this matter very seriously,” said Father…
“Such damn foolishness…it was dismissed,” he said aloud, throwing the paper on the floor. He crossed his arms and looked up at the ceiling. Sighed heavily and closed his eyes.
He wasn’t sure if he’d dozed off when he opened them again. He sat up. Had he misheard or was it something he’d dreamt? He listened and looked through the open bedroom door and into the living room.
He jumped when he heard it—the rattling.
He raised himself up better, listening. Could hear the rattling again.
He cautiously got out of bed and walked towards the door. Looked around as he walked slowly through the living room and into the kitchen. And now he smelled it. But he couldn’t be smelling that smell because…
He jumped when he heard the rattling again, louder than before. And now he realized what the smell was. The coffeemaker was dripping the last drops into the pot.
He saw his reflection in the window. Hadn’t he turned off the light?
He stared at the coffeemaker and tried for a moment to remember whether or not he’d actually put on the coffee himself. He definitely hadn’t. Naturally, he wasn’t all together himself after the shock of reading the article. I didn’t do anything, he thought angrily. That isn’t entirely accurate, Hróbjartur, ol’ pal, he heard the voice say deep within himself. He grabbed his head. Stared at the coffee maker and the hot steam snaking from it. Looked at the glossy black drops dripping down into the pot. He felt like everything was slowing down. The drop fell ever so slowly down and formed a crown when it landed on the smooth, black surface of the coffee in the pot.
“Hello, Hróbjartur,” said a voice behind him.
Hróbjartur yelped as he turned around quickly. Looked at a black-clad man standing in a corner of the kitchen.
“Who are you?” asked Hróbjartur brusquely, startled. “What are you doing here?”
“We don’t know each other,” said the man with a discomfiting composure. “But we’re going to get to know each other a bit. Not very well, though. We simply don’t have enough time for that. We need to have a little chat.”
“Chat?” said Hróbjartur surprised. “Chat about what?”
“Sit down,” said the man, stepping forward and pulling out a kitchen chair. “I’ve made coffee.”
Hróbjartur remained standing there stock-still and looked around. His cellphone was charging on the kitchen island.
“Ahhh,” said the man, after seeing what Hróbjartur was looking for. “I have the battery,” he continued, fishing it out of his pocket and showing it to him. “Sit down. I’ll get us some coffee.”
Hróbjartur walked slowly towards the man. He considered their size difference. He himself was reasonably fit, other than having the faintest pot belly—192 cm tall and 105 kilos. But he was 68 years old, with back pain and osteoporosis. So he was pretty quick to brush aside the idea of attacking the man. Anyway, he seemed like he was in his prime, was heavy-set and seemed to be in good physical shape.
“What…what exactly do you want?” he said as he sat down. He placed his hands in his lap. Looked at the rather thick, black leather gloves that the man had put down on the kitchen table.
“Don’t make that face, Hróbjartur. It’s so pathetic,” said the man after pouring two cups of coffee and sitting down across from him. “Shall we begin with this here, perhaps? Is there something you want to tell me?” said the man, turning the morning paper to face him.
Hróbjartur looked at the paper. For a long time. He hadn’t noticed that it hadn’t still been lying on the bedroom floor where he’d tossed it. He looked, but in reality, didn’t see anything but a bunch of nonsense and a jumble of thoughts before his eyes.
“What do you want me to say about that?” he said finally.
“It’s up to you,” said the man, taking an apple out of the bowl on the table. Looked at it for a moment, tossed it between his hands, and put it back in its place. “But what happens next during this unexpected visit of mine depends entirely on your answer.”
“I don’t understand. What am I supposed to say?” Hróbjartur said fearfully, looking at the man.
“Don’t make that face, I said,” said the man abruptly and Hróbjartur winced. “I’ll give you a clue: the truth.” He put on one of his gloves. “If you tell the truth, Hróbjartur, everything will be just fine.”
“Yes, but…this is…I don’t know how I…I haven’t done anything that…”
Hróbjartur didn’t manage to say anything else because the man slammed a glove-clad fist into his nose.
Hróbjartur cried out and was thrown backwards, though he didn’t fall onto the floor. He held his face with his hand; blood gushed from his nose.
“There, there, now,” said the man blandly and reached for the dish towel next to the sink. “Here. Now, that one wasn’t so hard. The next one will be harder, and you’ll never even feel the third. The fourth will probably be fatal. There are, however, all sorts of painful things that will happen between the third and fourth blows. That’s something you never want to experience. The truth, Hróbjartur. If you tell the truth, none of that has to happen. C’mon, now. Clean yourself up and let’s start over.”
The man waited calmly while Hróbjartur cleaned the blood from his face.
“I’m sure you’ve read the article about the pedo pastors and the church cover-up many times. The accusations. And it’s quite clear that most of these cases were dismissed because they were thought to be lacking in evidence or too old. But if people tell the truth, Hróbjartur, there are still some things left to come to light. And that’s precisely why I’m here at your house now. I want to hear the truth and you can start now.”
Hróbjartur was still holding the dish towel over his face and looked aghast at the man and the paper in turn.
“There…there is…so much that could have been handled better. But believe me,” he said emphatically and with a lump in his throat, “when I say that I haven’t done anything wrong and…there’s absolutely nothing that suggests I did. None of what’s come out says that I…and the matter was dismissed.”
Hróbjartur received a hard punch to the face, right into the hand that was still holding his nose. There was a cracking sound.
Hróbjartur wailed even louder than before, fell to one side, and crashed onto the kitchen floor. The man stood up, walked over to him, grabbed his shoulders. He righted himself and sat back in his chair.
The man grabbed the paper towel roll next to the sink and placed it on the table in front of Hróbjartur before taking his seat across from him again.
Hróbjartur was red in the face and tears of pain streamed down his face. He ripped a few sheets from the roll and held them to his nose; they were immediately sodden with blood.
“Remember? You’ll won’t feel the third blow. So, now, where were we?” he said, encouragingly. He took out a little book that he placed on the table and pushed over to Hróbjartur.
“It’s a book of sorts. A journal. Flip to where I’ve bookmarked and read.”
Hróbjartur looked at the book aghast, as though it were a disease manifested in solid form.
The man hit the table top hard and Hróbjartur jumped.
Hróbjartur opened the book to the first of five bookmarks that the man had placed among the pages.
Read in silence.
Between readings, he either shook his head or emitted pathetic little sounds. He wasn’t sure if he’d thought or said things like this is terrible or god in heaven.
The man stood up and poured more coffee into their cups twice as he was reading.
Hróbjartur closed the book. Looked down.
“I know that it often seems like a great trial to tell the truth,” said the man in a low voice. “But I’ve come here to hear the truth. Let’s try again.”
The river ran gently around Salka, who was standing out in the middle of it. Not since the first time she’d visited the Laxá river in the Mývatn district had she ever experienced as a strong connection as she did with nature and the life wriggling all around her here. There were no salmon to be had in this part of the river, but rather brown trout, which are known for their strength and energy.
A falcon glided over the river on outstretched wings. It was probably on the lookout for more promising prey. It probably wouldn’t have to look for very long, in that the bird life along the river was among the richest in the country and boasted many species that could only be found around here.
She tried to recall the last time she’d been to the Laxá. Ah yes, it was fifteen years ago. She’d been twenty-three then, but it felt like it was yesterday. Her boyfriend—no, boyfriend-to-be—had been head over heels in love with her at the time and had invited her to come with him. Eysteinn taught her the art of fly fishing and she fell for it—the river—and him. She wasn’t sure, of course, but she’d long since convinced herself that their daughter had been conceived on that first fishing trip. Among the tussocks down by the most beautiful part of the river. Three years after that first trip, she’d walked to the altar with him.
It wasn’t the fishing trip that had clenched it, though. Eysteinn was simply a good man. Trustworthy. And damn funny. Yes, and good in bed. Of course, it hadn’t hurt that he was a successful businessman and hadn’t needed to worry about money, although, in reality, that had never been all that important to her. She’d always been frugal. Didn’t take any pleasure in hoarding worldly goods or making a show of herself. Maybe they’d been a bit dissimilar in that respect.
They’d moved to the UK four years ago. Eysteinn had been hired as the head of the design division of a relatively young up-and-coming tech company that had opened a branch in London. For her part, she’d gotten a position in the Criminal Investigation Department with the city police. Life had been kind to the little family.
Salka lifted her fishing rod and waved it back and forth. Little by little, she extended the line, which glided in S-shaped waves over her head like a ballerina bending her body and limbs this way and that. The dry fly landed on the surface ten meters away from her, just where she’d meant it to. The fly slid smoothly over the surface, leaving delicate grooves behind it. She dipped her free hand into the cold river water to dampen her fingers and ran them through her long red hair.
Salka bent over a little and squinted her blue eyes. It could be hard to keep track of the fly in the sunlight. She finally caught sight of it on the glittering surface where it approached the feeding spot—just under a sharp spine of rock that broke the surface just next to her. The fly sailed past the rock—nothing happened.
She leaned back and was about to pull the line in when her phone rang from one of the pockets in her fishing vest. She sighed—she thought she’d left it back in the fishing lodge. She fumbled through her pockets and found the phone.
“Hi, Salka, honey. This is mom,” said a soft voice. “I’m not disturbing you, am I?”
“Yes, hi. No, or…you don’t need to introduce yourself, Mama. I know you—and your voice—very well,” she said with a laugh.
“What are you up to?”
“I’m a bit busy at the moment. Could I…”
“How are you feeling?”
“Feeling?” she said, falling silent.
“Are you there?” asked her mother after the silence had gone on too long.
“I feel just fine. Is there any special reason you’re calling? Everything’s okay?”
“Yes. Your dad’s doing better. He’ll hopefully be starting the chemo after this weekend,” she said.
“Yes, well, you know how it is with this health care system of ours. But we’re optimistic.”
“Well, that’s good,” said Salka, hearing her voice go a bit maudlin. She was about to ask her mother how she was when it happened. It was like someone had given her hand a great yank. The rod bowed and the line sang when it unspooled from the reel. Water droplets shot from the reel, which turned at great speed, and splashed her freckled face. “Actually, Mom, I’m kind of in the middle of something and I’m going to have to call you back. Would that be okay?”
“Yes, that’s fine,” said her mom. They said goodbye.
The powerful fish danced on its tail on the surface twice before she managed to put her phone away and get a good hold of the rod.
Walking against the current to follow the fish felt like it did when she rode her exercise bike as fast as she could.
The fish darted upriver and then down again and after about ten minutes, it seemed like it had decided to sink itself down into the deep in the middle of the river and not move a muscle.
Salka breathed rapidly and stood stock-still, holding the rod with as much tension in the line as she dared. Felt her adrenaline flowing. Felt how her upper arms trembled. She caught sight of a harlequin duckling on an islet in the river. It had probably gotten separated from its family and Salka knew that as things stood, it wouldn’t live long. It would fall prey to the falcon. And even the trout was nothing other than a river predator. It had happened on two separate occasions that she’d caught a fish from the river and found that it had swallowed a duckling whole.
The duckling quacked inconsolably, and she watched it dart into the islet’s high, grassy bank and then back out and back in, as though it didn’t know which way was up.
She thought about her mother, who probably felt like that duckling. Salka’s father had recently been diagnosed with cancer and it was as if he’d disappeared with the wave of a hand. He’d disappeared into himself, taking with him most of what characterized him as a person: his opinions, his enthusiasm, his smile, his playfulness. And her mother had been left behind, alone and confused.
Salka looked at the bowed fishing rod and regarded the taut line that ran down into the depths where the trout was biding its time.
Salka yanked on the rod with all her might. The ling zinged when it sprang, flyless, past her face at great speed.
She waded to the shore, sat in the grass, and took out her phone.
“Hi, Mom. I’m free now. How are you?”
“I’m sorry—was I maybe bothering you while you were fishing?”
“No, no. I haven’t even gotten a bite,” she said, pouring coffee out of her thermos.
“I just worry about you, Salka, honey.”
“Don’t worry. This place makes me feel great and I’m just going to enjoy being here for a few days.”
She managed to loosen the cap from the bottle of cognac that she’d bought especially for the trip and pour a slug into her coffee cup.
“You two went to the Laxá river so often…”
“Yes, we did,” Salka interrupted her. “But even so, I’ve seen fish surfacing all over the place. And the food’s a lot better at the lodge now,” she said, realizing that she’d used two, unrelated topics to change the subject. “How’s Dad doing otherwise?”
“He’s really easy-going now, as you know. But he’s so sedate, truth be told, that I’m not actually sure how he is. He generally says he’s good. So I just have to trust that,” she said, laughing softly.
Salka recognized the undercurrent in her mother’s laughter, heard how forced it sounded.
She pulled her fishing bag—which, strictly speaking, belonged to Eysteinn—towards her and pawed through it. She opened a zipper pocket and took out a light blue Café Créme cigar box. She couldn’t help but smile. Neither of them had smoked, except on fishing trips.
“Give him a kiss for me,” said Salka, lying back in the grass and looking up into the cloudless sky. She stuck a cigarillo in her mouth and lit it. Inhaled the smoke and frowned. Tasted the rank flavor of the bone-dry tobacco as it filled her mouth. Found it pleasant all the same. Maybe she was just being sentimental.
“I’ll come to see you both soon,” she said after forcefully exhaling the smoke towards a swarm of black flies that were hovering overhead.
“Are you smoking?”
“No, wherever did you get that idea?” she said, sitting up. She caught sight of a fisherman on the other side of the river who was wading out and probably preparing to cast his line towards her rock. She watched as he waved the rod back and forth until releasing the line, which then lay like a feather on the surface of the water where the rock protruded.
“Hmm? What did you say?”
“I asked if you’d heard from Pétur at all,” said her mother.
“Pétur? Why would I have heard from him?”
She looked at the dry fly sailing down towards the rock and behind it.
“I ran into him yesterday. He promised me…he said he was going to get in touch. The police are short-staffed up here in Akureyri.”
“Mom, don’t do that,” she said pleadingly.
“I’ll apply for jobs myself when I’m ready. You don’t have to worry about every little thing.”
She knew her mom far too well to think that would do any good. Her mother was, and always had been, a woman of action. The one who takes the lead. Makes the call. Gets to the place. Takes care of the situation. Usually, Salka thought it was her best quality, even though she was prone to be a bit pushy about it.
“Your happiness is my happiness, Salka, honey. I just think it would do you good to get back to work. Get your mind off it and work on something that interests you. There are a lot of good people out there who are ready to hire you.”
Salka looked at the man carefully pulling his line in and then casting it back out again. She heard the whirr of the line and the fly landed nearer the rock than before, floating down towards it.
“Stop calling and poking around on my behalf. I’m a grown woman. It’s not like when you applied to get me my first job as a teenager, Mom,” she said with a sigh. She knew she sounded brusque. “I know you only want the best for me, and I love you for that. But you’ve got something entirely different to think and worry about now. I’m just fine and I’m taking care of myself. It is really…” she said and jumped to her feet when the man’s dry fly disappeared right behind the rock. A handsome trout shot up out of the river with great force, fully revealing itself.
Salka smiled broadly and stood up.
“Really what?” she heard her mother saying.
“Nothing. I’ll call you later,” she said and hung up. She walked down along the river bank.
“You need some help?” she called to the fisherman. He would struggle to bring in the fish on his own, as it had zipped under the edge of the islet and wasn’t budging.
“That would be much appreciated,” he called back to her.
Salka picked up a rock the size of a fist and waded out into the river a long way down from the man but close to the islet, where the current was a little strong. The water came up to her waist and she knew that if she took one step further, the river would carry her away with it. She saw where the line entered the river, close to the islet. She threw the rock as close to the line as she dared. The trout immediately headed upstream and, if the line were any judge, it was coming right at her. Salka bent at the waist and was almost knocked over when the man’s line swept over her head, even though he’d lifted the rod as high as he could.
Salka started to wade towards the man and when she got there, he handed her a pocket net.
“You use this?” she said, looking at him in surprise.
“What do you mean? Versus what?”
“Your hands,” she said with a smile.
Once the man had managed to get the trout into the shallows, they settled on riverbank, where Salka grabbed the fish and hauled it up onto dry land.
The man didn’t think twice about it, just pulled out his priest and gave the trout three firm blows on the head.
They sat side by side for a moment, looking down at the river in silence.
“Magnús,” he said suddenly, extending his hand.
“Salka,” she answered after taking it. He had a firm handshake—like she did—and it lasted awhile, as though neither of them was in any hurry to let go.
“Yes, I know.”
“You do?” she asked, all but jerking her hand back.
“Yeah, aren’t you Didda and Steini’s daughter?”
“Uhh, yes. Do you know them?” she said, looking back at the river.
“No, not really. But I’m on the police force myself and…yeah,” he said, clearing his throat. He’d probably realized that he’d steered the conversation down the wrong path. “That was quite a battle,” he said, trying to sound more relaxed. “With the fish,” he added, after she’d looked at him blankly.
She knew, of course, why he changed the subject. Her father was a retired lawyer and had defended many of the worst criminals in the country. After defending one of the most hardened criminals in Akureyri, he had himself been sentenced—by society.
Particularly in Akureyri. She couldn’t understand how that case still burned so brightly in people’s minds, even though almost fifteen years had passed.
“You can say that again,” she said, shaking away those thoughts. “It’s obvious you know how to throw a fly. Have you been fishing a long time?”
“You could say that, yes,” he said, cleaning the blood from the blade of his knife in the grass after having bled the fish. “Ever since I was a kid. Less, though, in later years, but I try to nip out for a trip when the opportunity arises,” he said, and she suddenly heard that he had a northern accent.
“Where are you from?” she asked, passing him a capful of cognac.
“Hrafnagil. There’s plenty of peace and quiet and it’s nice to live just a little bit away from the Akureyri hub bub,” he said after emptying the cap and passing it back to her. He took off his hat and tossed it aside. The midges waged a fierce attack on him. He ran a hand through his auburn hair and smiled, subtly. His green eyes were mild and bright. Salka guessed that he was just under 40. His forehead was etched with fine lines and two of these ran from his nostrils to the corners of his mouth. Deep dimples.
“Here and there, you could say,” said Salka. “And you’re presumably on the force in Akureyri?”
“But it’s not always so peaceful in Hrafnagil, is it? Wasn’t there some fire there last year? I remember reading about it on the internet.”
“Yes, there was,” he said with a hint of solemnity in his tone. After a long silence, he continued: “It was tragic. The house went up in smoke so quickly. The couple who lived there didn’t have a chance.”
“Were you involved with the case at all?”
“No,” said Magnús, and Salka noticed he was deep in thought. “I was hunting ptarmigan when it happened.”
“Did you know them?”
“No…no, not like that. They were newcomers, but still known around town. Serious drunks. People had seen them earlier that evening, before the fire—they were in bad shape. Then the house burned down later that night.”
“Wasn’t a SWAT team brought in, or what happened?”
“Yes, there was. Someone had heard gunshots from inside the house. But the house burned down before the SWAT team got there. It was a sad affair,” he said, lying back on the bank. Salka did the same.
“Have you been here before? To the Laxá river?” she asked after they’d looked up at the sky in silence for a while.
“No, this is my first time. Fantastic river. And, of course, the surroundings are a total paradise,” he said and smiled. “It’s ruined.”
“The fly. It’s ruined,” he said, showing her the dry fly. The hackle had unwound in the tussle with the trout. “Are you still with the police? A detective?” he said, sitting back up.
“You seem to know all kinds of things about me,” she said and laughed.
“Yeah, I’m sorry. I know Pétur really well. You know, the captain of the Akureyri SWAT team.”
“Yes, I know him.”
“I got a call from him the other day and he told me that you might be fishing here. I’d figured I’d run into you at the fishing lodge, not out here by the river,” he said, almost apologetically.
Salka rolled her eyes and thought back to her mother.
“Yeah, I get it. But no.”
“I’m not with the police. As it stands, I’m on leave.”
“Weren’t you with CID in London? Pétur mentioned something about that.”
Salka fell silent.
“Yes,” she said with a smile after the silence had grown uncomfortable.
“You don’t want to try your luck with the department in Akureyri, do you? Pétur mentioned that they need people.”
“I don’t believe in coincidences…Magnús,” she said after a small hesitation. She’d forgotten his name for a moment. “But I was talking with my mom right before this and she…”
“I’m sorry. It sounds like I’ve been following you. That wasn’t my intention at all…” he said, touching her shoulder.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said, looking at the buttercup she was holding between her fingers. She couldn’t do anything but laugh. “It’s just funny,” she said, looking at him.
“No way—look at this,” said Magnús in surprise. He’d been about to put the fish in a bag when he noticed something in its jaw. He took his pliers back out and, after sticking them back into the fish’s mouth, showed Salka. “It had another fly in its jaw,” he said, bursting into laughter.
“That’s my fly,” she said calmly.
“What are you talking about?” he said, looking at her in disbelief.
“That’s my fly. This fish took it earlier.”
“You’re lying. It could have been any old fish that took your fly, but you’re saying it was the same as mine? Pure coincidence.”
“I told you: I don’t believe in coincidence. This fish is big enough that it would have protected its territory. Like many other predators. So it’s no coincidence. You caught my fish,” she said and laughed.
“Amazing,” he said and fell silent for a moment. Looked at her a little abashedly but then playfulness crossed his face.
“So, I actually have been watching you.”
“What do you mean, watching me?”
“When you were fishing there earlier. I could tell from your handshake that you knew what you were doing when you threw that rock. You knew there was a fish over there, didn’t you?”
She looked at him. Goddamn, he’s handsome, she thought to herself. She’d noticed that he wasn’t wearing a ring.
“Yes, I knew. Are you by yourself?” she asked, feeling the blood running to her face. “I mean, did you come with friends, or…?”
“No, I just came by myself. Got here this morning and will be here for a few days,” he said, looking straight into her eyes—for a long time.
Hróbjartur opened his eyes as best he could. He couldn’t tell what was obscuring his vision. He closed his eyes and little by little recalled the sequence of events in the kitchen. And as soon as he did, the pain in his face got worse. He had a foggy recollection of what had happened, vaguely remembered a clenched, black fist. Or yes, now he remembered it clearly, he thought, opening his eyes. Felt them. And the man had been right: he hadn’t felt the blow.
He wasn’t sure where he was at first. Looked to the side. There was a familiar lamp lit on the bedside table. He saw the Bible lying next to the lamp. He was in his bedroom. Thank God, he thought, and tried to get up—but couldn’t. He couldn’t move at all. He carefully lifted his head and saw that his hands and feet were bound to the bed. And there was a crinkle of plastic. What was that? Something crinkling with even the slightest movement. He turned his head to the side and realized that plastic had been placed under him and over the entire bed.
“Awake?” asked the man, who was now standing in the bedroom door.
“What happened?” asked Hróbjartur, his voice hoarse and shaky.
The man walked over to him and yanked a blanket off Hróbjartur’s naked body. Hróbjartur saw then that he hadn’t just been bound at the hands and feet, but three yellow bands had also been tied under the bed and over him at his feet, his waist, and his chest.
The man sat on the edge of his bed. Looked at him for a long time. Then leaned towards him and whispered:
“The truth, Hróbjartur. If only you had told the truth, then you wouldn’t be in this…dreadful position. The whole truth was written in the book, but you don’t want to confess the truth,” he said, looking back at him.
“Yes, I’ll tell you everything…”
Hróbjartur couldn’t continue because the man put silver tape over his mouth. He leaned back towards him. Whispered.
“Shhhhhh. It’s too late now,” said the man with a smile. “You’re a man of the church, Hróbjartur. Do you know how many of you pastors there are? Hmm?”
He raised himself up and looked into Hróbjartur’s eyes. Then bent back down to him. Whispered.
“There are a hundred and fifty of you. One hundred and fifty good men who tend to their duties with both the Almighty and their fellow men. Oh, sorry. There aren’t a hundred and fifty. I forgot the rotten apples. Those apples ruin so much. And they’re all over the place. Out in the world, rotten apples don’t go to market. They’re tossed out. But in the world of men, you can’t toss them out. This rotten fruit sneaks its way into every corner of society. The banks, politics, athletic associations, youth clubs, the church. The house of God. Are you a rotten apple in the house of God, Hróbjartur? How have you, the rotten apple, been able to stay so well hidden…and for so long?”
He sat back up and looked smilingly at Hróbjartur, who was staring at him as though he no longer felt any pain. His terror had gotten the upper hand. The man bent back down to him and kept whispering:
“You remember how it goes with the house of God. The church. All the symbols. No? Sure, you must know them. Okay—I’ll review them for you as best I can. So…” he said, and stood up, walking across the room. “The church itself is a symbol of heaven. It’s also often likened the Ark, built by Noah, who saved men and beasts from the Great Flood. Some churches prove to be leaky, though, and those who enter them never come back the same. Sorry, Hróbjartur. That thing about Noah was a digression,” he said and laughed before continuing.
“The church doors are a symbol of Christ. Jesus said, of course, ‘I am the door.’ The church tower symbolizes the gospel and the bells the preaching of the word. The aisle from the church doors to the altar is the straight and narrow path. That’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Then, for a long time, he looked in silence at a great, wooden cross on the wall over the bed. A golden Jesus, crucified.
“Do you ever talk to him?” he asked quietly, walking over to the cross.
Hróbjartur mumbled and coughed a stifled cough.
The man turned around and ripped the tape from Hróbjartur’s mouth. He gasped for breath.
“Jesus?” asked the man. “Do you talk to him? Does he give you any answers? The right answers, which echo in your head when you’re searching for forgiveness?”
“It doesn’t matter. But there are other fun things about all this stuff. This break-down of the church. The whole thing is really beautiful and don’t misunderstand me. I mean what I say. It’s really beautiful. Let’s continue,” he said, sitting back down on the edge of the bed. He bent down to Hróbjartur and whispered:
“The church faces east and west and opens east to the light. The west side is opposite the sunset and symbolizes death. The south side signifies the Old Testament and the north side the New. The length of the church symbolizes fortitude and the width love and…” He didn’t get any further because he burst into laughter. “Oh my god. The whole thing’s fantastic. Sorry, I just pictured you so vividly in front of me. In all your vestments, standing over the god-fearing masses.” He dried the tears from his eyes. “Ah, but we must continue with our review, Hróbjartur. We simply must.”
He leaned back over him and continued:
“The height of the church is a symbol of hope. The walls of the church then symbolize the three evangelists…what’s that? What did you say?”
“Four,” said Hróbjartur hoarsely.
“Yes, quite so, my man. All clear. Of course there were four. And of course, you know all this,” he said, standing up. “And you keep it all in mind when you’re in the house of God. Noah’s Ark.”
The man walked back to the end of the bed, picked up a black leather bag, set it on the bed, and opened it. He took out a knife, scissors, a pair of pliers, and balled-up socks.
Hróbjartur began to thrash and shout, his cries hoarse. The man walked quickly over to him and shoved the sock bundle into his mouth and taped over it. He sat down between Hróbjartur’s feet. Picked up the pliers and regarded them. He seemed to be about to start wielding them when he stopped—as if he’d remembered something.
“Yes, we still have to go over a few small details. I have plenty of time. And here I’d almost forgotten,” he said and laughed, stood up and sat back down on the edge of the bed next to Hróbjartur. Whispered. “You know, of course, the Church of Iceland’s code of conduct like the back of your hand, don’t you?”
Hróbjartur breathed rapidly and squeezed his eyes shut.
“Right at the beginning, it says that it’s meant to provide support and guidance in the service of God and men. Moreover, it also says that the basic rule of all human interaction is the golden rule: “So in everything, do unto others what you would have done unto you.” There are twenty-one rules of conduct. I’m not going to recite them all, but here are a few of interest. The seventh, for instance, says that you must never abuse your position or threaten the wellbeing of a ward, i.e. with inappropriate behavior, language, attitudes, or sexual or other kinds of harassment. The eighth rule is intriguing—that one says that you have to remember that individuals are different, and as such, physical contact can be easily misunderstood or create discomfort. Do you think the boys misunderstood it when you touched them? Do you think they misunderstood it when you shoved your cock into their rectums?”
He was silent for a long time but then continued: “I imagine you enjoy the ninth rule of conduct: Do not establish inappropriate relationships with wards. Ooph. Broke that rule, did you, Hróbjartur? Or maybe you broke this one here, the fifteenth rule? To be conscious that you are in a more powerful position than any child you work with and may not, under any circumstances, abuse that position. Ohhhh—you really dropped a stitch there, as grandma would have put it,” he said and laughed. Hung his head.
“I don’t know, Hróbjartur. When people go fishing, they use flies, spinners, or worms. But you: you use your vestments. Do you remember the commandments? The tenth commandment goes something like this: Thou shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
“Hmmm,” the man said, then stretched and continued after a few moments’ thought. “What’s missing there, of course, is the word child. Although, then, that should fall, of course, under ‘thou shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.’ But the word itself is missing. Child. Don’t you think? Thou shall not covet your neighbor’s child. If it weren’t, maybe you’d have never done what you’ve done. Yes,” said he after a moment’s silence and sighed. “You’ve always found a way to sidestep all the rules, all the values—to sail under God’s radar.”
He stood up and looked at Hróbjartur, who was no longer clenching his eyes shut. He just had them closed. The man propped his hands on either side of his head. Hróbjartur opened his eyes as their noses touched.
“You have a bowl in the kitchen. In it, there are twelve apples. Just as many as there were disciples—imagine that! I noticed that one apple is rotten. There are dark brown spots on it. But what are you to do with that apple? Throw it out? No. You get yourself a sharp knife, cut around the bad part, and eat it. Which is exactly what I’m going to do.”
“Give my regards to Satan, Hróbjartur,” said the man, standing up quickly and sitting back down between his feet.
Then he picked up the pliers.
And the knife.