by Steinunn Sigurðardóttir
translated by Philip Roughton
“Fishes’ love is as cold as they themselves.” Jónas Hallgrímsson, from Cuvier
Yesterday I ran into Hans Örlygsson on Laugavegur High Street. He’s lost weight, which I feel suits him better. I said hello to him, but pretended to be in a hurry. It’s been eight months since I last caught a glimpse of him, also on Laugavegur, and almost half a year since he phoned last, the night before New Year’s Eve.
I hadn’t really meant to remind myself of this, but just to do my proofreading in peace and quiet, now that my co-workers were on their long Friday lunch break. I’m going over the Indian love poems that I’ve been working on translating for several years.
I’ve sat down to work, pen in hand, when I notice how dejected the hibiscuses on the windowsill look, so I get up to water them and pick off the unopened buds and withered blossoms. From a new growth of dock weed in the cats’ playground, which is a long back garden with broken clothesline poles, comes a whiny yowl. I linger at the window and see a furry tail snaking up from the bulging stroller standing by the moldering steps at the far end of the garden. They lead to the doorless wall of the extension to the narrow, corrugated-iron-clad house that was supposed to have been torn down long ago. It would be a pity, I feel, if this ugly little house were gone; if I had my way, it would be allowed to remain as long as I was there to stand at the window and look at it.
I’ve changed my mind about doing proofreading now, and instead pour myself a dry sherry from a bottle in the fridge and enjoy the peace and quiet of the office, making little sketches on typing paper of various versions of Swiss wooden cottages with deer on the window shutters as I reminisce on my relationship with Hans Örlygsson, who wore such a peculiar expression on Laugavegur yesterday. That story is over, but three years ago, at this time of year, to the very day, in fact, it began something like this:
I spent my days alone, after my friends had gone to work. My apartment had small windows, it being in the attic of something of a castle. In my mind, I called my house a branch of the main castle, which is perched on a crag, dark and huge. I must have spent hours staring at it from my kitchen window. The castle was like an extension of the rock it was standing on, yet carved out differently than its foundation, and of a slightly lighter color of stone. In wet weather, the pitch-black crag glistened and looked as if it were made of obsidian.
Ever since I came here, I’d been on my way to going and having a look at the castle’s interior. One time, I reached the thirty-second step before turning around, feeling as if it was too bright a day to spend cooped up inside the castle’s walls. At the same time, I found this fairly illogical, seeing as how I lived in a little castle at the time.
Sometimes I spent my mornings reading Indian love poems, and had begun translating them for my own amusement. On cloudy afternoons, I strolled around the city and visited museums. One week, I went day after day to scrutinize Tizian’s painting of the three stages in the life of man. The red color of the dress of the young girl sitting talking with her lover under the tree, I had never seen before. Now and then, I tried to think about that color before I went to sleep, because I wanted to dream about it. But I never remembered the following morning whether I’d managed to develop it in the darkroom of sleep.
Strangely, I felt homesick for Iceland. I’d grown used to living abroad, so the feeling was new to me. From my bedroom window, I had a view of a railroad track, and before crawling into bed at night I would watch the trains roll by and disappear into the distance. To tell the truth, I longed to hop aboard one of those trains and leave, hasten my journey home, even though I would never have considered actually doing so— my friends would have been so surprised!
At home in Iceland, spring had arrived late, causing a general itchiness among the population for better weather, but when summer finally arrived, it did so unusually abruptly, and had been endlessly pleasant ever since. It was certainly no ordinary Icelandic summer; a season that usually arrives in sudden leaps forward and lengthy reversals. I had started calling my mom every other day to ask her about the weather. I could hear in her voice that she found this suspicious, but she continued chatting with perfect politeness, informing me each time I called that was actually not better weather, but a thinner ozone layer. “Maybe we shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth?” I asked once, and, with a slightly strained laugh, Mom replied: “I don’t know about that.”
Sometimes I sat on the terrace of a café at the foot of the main castle, sipped bad coffee and pretended to watch the people around me: tanned mothers with chubby babies, a red-headed troubadour singing “Streets of London,” Japanese tourists with camcorders, and a slightly hunchbacked woman selling bunches of roses. But mainly, I stared at the crag beneath the castle and the tiny white flowers growing in its fissures, my mind on Skaftafell for days on end. I wanted to be there, hiking the trail to Morsárdalur Valley, even though I knew that it would hardly be peaceful, not as it was in early spring or late fall; now it would be crowded with people, tents, and cars. I longed to see the birch leaves shimmering by the stream in a mountain breeze and sunshine, the glacier above me and all around, so vast that it’s actually many different glaciers, each with its own name. My eyes thirsted for the sight of a hillside thick with wood crane’s-bill, surrounded by scrub called “woods” in Iceland, birch and willow thickets confined by a rushing river on a tangled journey over black sand that ends at a harborless coast. There, numerous foreign fishermen had been washed lifeless ashore, though some were saved and begat children with native women. This expanse of sand was a necropolis of shipwrecks from various times. Resting there were Viking ships with gaping jaws, the wrecks of smacks, turn-of-the-century trawlers, as well as a veritable treasure trove, a Dutch flagship from the seventeenth century, loaded with gold bars and Chinese porcelain, waiting to be re-launched from its underground slipway on Doomsday, unless adventurers got to it first and raised it with all its precious cargo.
As I sat there dejectedly at the small round table and stared up along the sheer rock that transforms into a fortress at its top, I felt as if someday, among the small summer flowers that are so curiously vivid— violets, bluebells, orchids— someday I would experience a day of happiness, a turning point when the wishes that I hadn’t yet formulated would all come true, if I only got to sit on a rock in the middle of a stream and watch the water flow on that short stretch of its journey, the journey that ends at the same great well, through the drainage network of the sands. Right at my toes, a plover would sing a frolicsome tuu-e-ee and wagtails would flit around with noisy chirps. I would perhaps come across rare bracken, plants growing straight out of the rock, and Icelandic juniper, which thrives in the shadow of birches and willows. I asked for no more than that one day in that one place, even if people from all over the world, with all their cameras, were there to disturb me. I would just have to accept it. There is where I wanted to be, resting in a clearing as the short-lived midsummer lingered a moment, before continuing my journey uphill along the stream to come as near as I could to the glacier, that glistening white expanse like a country within a country, and which I knew best from the sky.
I’d met him before but couldn’t remember his name. Upon encountering me at the castle gate, he recognized me straightaway and said: Sorry, but aren’t you Samanta, and I said yes, that’s my name, after an English girlfriend of my mom. She died.
He smiled, mainly with his eyes, and said that his name was Hans Örlygsson.
I know, I replied, remembering his name as soon as he said it, though I was red-faced at having actually been explaining my name to a stranger.
Maybe I’ll manage it this time, I said. Last year, I turned back because I didn’t feel like being inside a castle on a sunny day.
I’m sure it’ll still be sunny when we come out, he said, and insisted upon paying for my entry ticket.
We hung around inside, despite the darkness on such a bright and sunny day, as well as the kind of cold that’s only found in castles and an odor impossible to describe, but which was probably the same many centuries ago, when the castle’s residents were real and not flitting shadows, like us just passing through.
We gave ourselves time to have a good look around, but mainly chatted about everything under the sun, leaving me scarcely more knowledgeable about this stronghold into which I’d been heading for so long.
Hans had heard that I lived with friends of mine in the attic of a small castle. Is it also called an attic in a castle? he asked. I don’t know, I said. No better word comes to mind.
Through one of the bull’s-eye windows, as Hans so wittily called them, I was able to point out to him where I lived. He said it looked awesome.
I asked what had brought him here, and it turned out that he was attending a computer course for CEOs. The course lasted two more days.
When he asked about me, I said that I was mainly on holiday, but hurriedly added: Though I also spend my mornings translating poetry, just for fun.
What sort of poetry? he asked abruptly.
Oh, Indian love poems.
Then I added: Old ones.
He gave me a look that could only be called dubious. We both said nothing, until I broke the silence by saying:
I was originally supposed to have been here two more weeks, which I will be, of course, but I feel as homesick as a child. I want to go to Skaftafell. Maybe I’m losing it.
I doubt that. I want to go there just as much as you do, though I might have a better excuse. When I was a kid, I spent eight summers on a farm in the Öræfi countryside.
There’s nothing more magnificent.
But it was terribly isolated. I had to go by plane to Fagurhólmsmýri or by boat to Hornafjörður. I would look forward all winter long to heading out east, and would leave immediately after exams.
Did you want to be a farmer?
Yes, more than anything. But I couldn’t see any future in it, so I joined the business world, instead.
When we came out of the castle, it was pouring rain, so we rushed, umbrella-less, down the seventy-two steps. With barely a word about it, we ducked into the nearest pub. The place was called Full Speed. It had a good wine selection, and, after studying the wine list carefully, Hans ordered a glass of extremely expensive red Bordeaux. Following his lead, I ordered the same. The rain had given us a fairly decent soaking, and I saw a raindrop slink from behind his ear down under the collar of his blue shirt. His skin is slightly fleshy, but without a wrinkle on it. We clinked our glasses of the wine that he had chosen.
I couldn’t help but tease him about his failed weather forecast. About how he’d said that it would still be sunny when we came out.
That’s the risk you take going into a castle, Hans said with a smile— which lit up his whole face this time. His deep-set eyes narrowed to little slits, making it hard to say what color they were.
He wanted to know more about my circumstances, but I didn’t really feel like revealing much. All that he learned was that I worked in publishing and lived alone, after my relationship with the person I was living with ended two years ago. That I was twenty-nine years old, like him. I didn’t ask him further about his personal life, but when he mentioned a girl I knew, I got the feeling that they were together. At the same time, I recalled that her father owned a large import business, which is where Hans worked.
It was already past seven and Hans had decided that we should have dinner together. It had stopped raining, but even so, Hans suggested we take a taxi to a restaurant that he knew of. It was on Knight’s Square, and was called The Black Rose. I was hesitant about going with him and tried to come up with an excuse not to, but was too slow, and before I could do anything about it, Hans had flagged down a taxi.
The Black Rose is located on a cobblestone square overlooked by angels holding golden trumpets perched on tall, narrow houses. Some days, I’d sat by myself in a pub called The World’s End and looked out over the square, at the knight sitting there on his horse, in full armor and holding a lance. When the weather was warm, lightly dressed women in high heels clung to their men’s arms as they wobbled slightly over the worn stones beneath their feet.
We descended twenty-five steps. It was dark inside, and slightly chilly beneath the old windowless vaults. Candles burned in multi-armed, wrought-iron chandeliers, as well as in candlesticks standing on cumbersome oak tables. On each table, a cylindrical tin vase held one rose, none of which were black, in style with the name of the place, but were all white, instead. We were shown to a table in a little nook at the far end of the room. Our table, too, held a burning candle and a vase with one rose, but this one was orange. It’s my favorite color for roses, and I said so.
It’s redder than red, said Hans.
Because it isn’t red, I said.
Suddenly I remembered that I should let my friends know where I was, so I went and called home, taking the opportunity to get my silk shawl from the cloakroom because I wasn’t warm enough. When I returned, I found a bottle of champagne in a silver bucket standing on the table.
Well, well, I said.
You let slip that you like nothing more than champagne.
He’d chosen Dom Perignon. It’s the best thing I’ve ever drunk, but I would never dream of ordering it in a restaurant. Since Hans Örlygsson was so suave, he could foot the bill himself. I gulped down the champagne like water, in my own secret, blissful high.
It was now past eleven, and we were standing on Knight’s Square. Hans offered to walk me home. I said that it wasn’t necessary, but he wouldn’t hear of me walking home alone so late.
While we were eating, it rained again, and the cobblestone square was wet and slippery. I held onto Hans’s elbow for support. He took this completely for granted, and didn’t try to take advantage of my touch. Once we reached the modern sidewalk, I let go of his arm.
The castle on the crag above us was floodlit, making it look even more impressive than in daylight: a convincing site of great deeds of darkness. I said that I often sat and looked at it from my castle. I also said, as was true, that I could watch the trains from my bedroom, and because of my homesickness, was highly tempted to board one and leave.
You should go home.
No, I’m leaving in two weeks, as planned.
It makes no sense to torture yourself if you’re feeling bad. We can go together if you leave now.
I never answered this. What should I have said?
Two peacocks met us at the gate. Hans was surprised to see these ornate, wide-tailed birds, but I told him it was fashionable for people to have them in their gardens. Which was hard to understand, because they can devour flowers in no time. He accompanied me to my door, the peacocks playing follow-the-leader behind us. Growing right next to the door were tall orange roses, and I broke one off its stalk and said:
See, it’s the same color.
Like it’s on fire, Hans said.
I handed him the rose and bade him goodnight. The moon appeared from behind the clouds and its light fell on his head. I was startled to see his face a moss-green hue, and his hair pink. He leaned forward to kiss me on the check, but I instinctively turned away, and his kiss landed on the back of my head.
Your face is green, I said.
Yours too. It’s from the moonlight.
Two ghosts on an evening stroll, I said. Have a good trip.