Olafur Gunnarsson

 

 

 

(ICELAND)

 

 

 

THE KILLER WHALE

 

It was Saturday and Olaf was late. He had decided to be on time so his wife would not scream at him but he was late anyway. They had been separated for three years now, his time with his daughter was every Saturday and for the last six months his former wife had had a new husband and they lived in a big house at the center of the city. The time he had forgotten to pick up the child she had phoned him later in the day from a public library and that had not hindered her in screaming at the very top of her lungs, she was a woman born with the heart of a wolf.
The traffic came to a halt and Olaf looked at his watch and worried. If the early Saturday traffic jam would not soon dissolve he risked being much too late. He was not good at making plans, or so his former wife had always told him. When they were a married couple she used to write everything down on paper for him, were to drive to pick up the vegetables she wanted, to which cleaner to go, where to do various shopping and in what line of order, even to check if there was any mail at the post office, she marked that down too, she marked the places from number one and onwards in order for him to save gas so he would not spend his time driving from one end of town to the other. The traffic suddenly began to inch forward and just about when he though he would slip over a main street at an intersection the lights changed to yellow and then to red again and he was grounded once more. It was raining a little and he turned on the window vipers, at the same instance his cell-phone rang. It was her and she was excited, not though quite at the point of yelling, -you should have been her by now, she said. Katharine is excited and she misses you. And she is afraid you might not come!
-I´m just stuck in heavy traffic, he said. –Bad luck.
-Bad luck my ass! The traffic is always heavy this time on Saturday, she said. –You know that very well, and you should have taken that into account.
-I´m sorry, he said.
-You are insulting your daughter; she was raising her voice now. He knew if he would protest to that she would begin to scream.
-Learn to plan things, she said. –That is what I was always trying to teach you.
He thought of saying, “I´m a slow learner”, but managed to restrain himself. Just at that very moment the lights switched to green and the traffic began to move. –I´m on my way, he said and tried to add a happy tone to his voice. -The jam is loosening up, he lied and as by some kind of a miracle it turned out to be the truth. A road to the left was just at that moment being opened up by some workers dressed in uniforms which showed they worked for the city and a group of cars turned that way clearing up the main road for the rest of the traffic.
-Well hurry, you know she is getting excited and she can’t be allowed to get excited! She just gant! He closed his cell-phone and speeded up the car all he could but never the less he could see by the clock in the tower of the church, which hovered over the city, that he was already ten minutes late.
She lived right by the city lake in an old sturdy timber building with small windows, it was the expensive part of town, and when he finally managed to take the turn where the house was in full view he knew he was far to late. An ambulance was standing outside with two wheels up on the side-walk.
He parked his car across the street from the house. His wife came running down the timber steps as soon as she saw him. -Are you insane? she screamed. –I told you to be on time! You know how much she loves you! She can’t tolerate the insecurity of waiting. She has had another attack. And its bad! Very bad! The nurse is with her now. You are lucky she did not die.
He found himself wondering about that as he hurried up the stairs and entered the house. Her new husband, an exceptionally good looking man, a weight lifter with thick wavy hair, sat at the parlor table with an expression of doom on his face. He was a lawyer and owned the house. Olaf felt suddenly sorry for the guy. He hurried up the next flight of stairs to the nursery. His daughter was in bed and a young nurse he had not seen before was attending to her. He walked out into the spacious room where the lake could be seen through a series of rowan trees, he asked the nurse; -How is she?
-She is not feeling very well, the nurse replied. There is a lot of puss in her lungs and I have been helping her to cough it up. The nurse was rolling the girl to and fro in the bed and hammering lightly on her back. The girl had a blue shade to her pink red cheeks.
-How does she feel? Olaf asked stupidly.
-Not very well, the nurse said, – and she lets me know it. I know when she lifts her legs that she is angry at me. And she is very angry now.
He looked into his daughters eyes. They were liked made of silicone and he could not see any hint of recognition in them.
-Now I have to remove your mask for a moment, the nurse said to Katharine. –Be prepared for it. She removed the oxygen mask and the girl gave a gasp, the nurse rolled her on the side and some yellow looking substance came in the form of froth over her lips. It seemed to Olaf that she was without a mask for an eternity. And it made him think not of heaven but of hell. His daughter was in hell. This is what hell must be, he thought.
The nurse put the mask back over the face of his daughter, felt her limbs and legs and remarked. –She is feeling much better now. Surprisingly much better, for a fact. –Where you very close once?
-We still are, he said.
-I´m so sorry, the nurse said. –A slip of the tongue on my part. I´m truly sorry. The nurse became hot in the face and she blew her hair away from the cheek and he noticed how very pretty she was.
His wife suddenly appeared in the doorway but the nurse looked in her direction and then turned her head from side to side. His wife disappeared. It made Olaf happy that someone had such a power over his former wife.
Guess then, the nurse said. –That your arrival might be the reason for how much better she suddenly feels. It was almost like some sort of a flattery and it made him feel bad. He looked around the room; it was filled with toys his daughter had once been able to play with. A rocking horse on iron springs with a white mane especially caught his attention. He had bought it as a Christmas gift five years before. Almost at the very beginning of her illness.
-Will you take her to the hospital? he asked.
-No, not this time. Her recovery at the sight of you like I said, was quite remarkable.
-Tomorrow is Sunday, he said to his daughter. –I will come for you then if you mama says it is ok. I will talk to your mama now. She will come upstairs right after I am gone and tell you if It’s ok I’m coming tomorrow. He suddenly pulled himself together when he felt the nurse staring at him. -I will come tomorrow whatever! We can’t let another week go by.
The girl looked at him with such sudden loneliness in her otherwise neutral eyes that he felt him self almost on the verge of asking the pretty young lady standing beside him if she would be willing to go to bed with him. It was an insane thought.
He went to the door and called to his former wife; -Will you please attend to her now!
In the company of the nurse he went out of the house. It was almost like she protected him against his former wife when they met her on her way upstairs. –Are there many children in the country with this illness, he found himself asking fully knowing the answer to this but he could not think of anything else to say.
-I think the figure is about three, she said.
When they came to the bottom of the stairs he said to the husband who still sat at his place at the parlor table with a doomed expression. –Will you kindly tell Gudrun I will be back for the girl tomorrow?
The man nodded. He did not even rise to follow them out of the house.
The day outside seemed enormously fresh after such a short visit.
-How long do you expect her to live? he asked as they walked down the stairs. The ambulance driver was sitting beneath the wheel talking into a cell-phone about some matter or other, which judging by the expression on his face was of a great importance. When he saw that the nurse, he beckoned her to hurry.
He also knew the reply to this and the nurse confirmed it. –She should be dead by now. All children that start to pre-age in her manner usually don’t live this long. I really don’t know to be honest what’s keeping her a life. Well, goodbye she added and took leave of him. He felt the strong urge come over him again to ask her for a date, but it was insane, and almost shameful given the occasion. She was about to get into the ambulance when suddenly he got an inspiration; -I´m taking my daughter out tomorrow to go whale watching, could you perhaps accompany us if your are free? Or perhaps you do not work weekends? But it would give me a great sense of security, he added. –Should she have an attack of sorts. He blushed. -I will pay you of course!
-I would be absolutely delighted, she said. –And you don’t have to give me anything. Do you have a piece of paper or a pen so I can give you my phone number?
He took out his cell-phone. –Just give it to me. He stamped the figures in as she related the number to him.
He turned around and sent his former wife a smiling glance she would knew what meant. Then the ambulance drove away and he got into his car.
It was a van. He had a small furniture business and did most of the upholstery himself. The car was equipped to carry his daughter’s wheel chair in the back for their moments together. And when he looked at the empty compartment it made him think that he had some shopping to do. He was sure he would not bundle up the way he drove across town like his wife had always accused him off.
He decided to go and buy some black velvet.
He bought the velvet from and old importer who ran his business from his home. The importer who had the nickname; The Boxer, because he had a flattened nose, his nose was actually the result of an accident, a horse had kicked him when young, had sold textile to the firm ever since the business was run by Olaf´s father.
Olaf parked his van in the street where The Boxer lived and walked the path up to his house. The sidewalk and the path were strewn with leaves. It was autumn and getting colder. The tourist season was almost over. He would have to check on the whale watching tours. It was his daughters favorite to take the short trips out on to the bay where the giant animals could be seen coming up from the deep to show their massive backs and sprout. It was the time he really saw life and merriment in her eyes to the fullest. He saw that The Boxer was at work when he came closer. He could see his bald head and massive shoulders in the window outlined against the darkness of the cellar. The Boxer looked up but did not greet him. It was not his custom to great people from his desk. He had a strict set of rules. Even his sons who were now middle aged men and worked for their father were accustomed to knock on the door before entering the office.
Olaf walked the steps down to the door. He entered the dark corridor and knocked. –Come in, a voice said.
Olaf entered.
–I´m about to close for the day, the boxer said. -You’re late. Why don’t you come tomorrow?
-Because I´m going to work over the weekend, Olaf said. –That’s why.
The boxer looked up surprised. –Well that’s news to me. And you sound like you are actually serious about it. I don’t remember anyone working at weekends in the upholstery business but your father.
-Well, Olaf said. –I´m a changed man. Something happened.
The Boxer snorted in contempt. –Well, what is it that you need? I’m about to close up.
-Black velvet!
-Black velvet, The Boxer repeated and stared at him. –Now, what do you want that for? Some one asked you to upholster a coffin?
-No, Olaf smiled. –Nobody has asked for that. And they are usually done in red. An old lady wants to redo her sofa and chairs in black velvet, that’s all. Something unusual about that?
-Yes, for a fact it is. I got it in stock alright. Have had it in stock for years. Because nobody has been buying. But I can see that the times are changing.
-Indeed they are, Olaf said.
The Boxer found the key’s to the garage which was really his storage room and they went out off the office and to the garage. When the old man was fumbling with the lock he said; -And how is your daughter?
-Much the same.
The Boxer made no response to that but said in a harsh voice; -You still do that mad sport of yours.
-What! No, no, I quit that a long time ago.
-Well that’s good news. It always worried your father; he feared that you might drown.
-Well, I didn’t.
-How is it down there in the deep?
-Its another world really.
The Boxer made no response to that because he had managed to get the door open. They entered the garage. It was a well kept, well heated place in order to preserve all the textiles which were stored there.
-Black velvet, the Boxer muttered. -The world is going crazy.
-I thought you would be glad to be rid of it.
-Yes for a fact I´am. How much do you need of the stuff?
-About fifty square meters.
-That’s a lot.
-Its coming into fashion, Olaf said. –And I want to store up.
The Boxer rummaged around in the piles until he found the black velvet. –Its old and its cheep and it should be just about what you need.
-Well charge it to me Olaf said. He carried the garment down to his van. He was a strong man and could do the work in one trip only.
Sunday was bright and sunny although autumn had arrived to its full with the clear brisk air around a faded yellow disk of the sun, he phone the tourist center when he got home. Yes, they confirmed, there was a whale watching tour the day after. The last one of the season. He then phoned the nurse. She told him her address. She seemed to be happy to hear from him. Then he phoned his wife and told her at what hour he would be arriving. Two´o clock sharp. He laid the receiver down before she had time to start an argument.
He picked up the nurse who dressed civil looked even more beautiful than the day before. She lived in the east district of town and they chatted a bit while he drove to the city lake. He felt awkward, even a little bit in love. He was in front of his wife’s house at two o´clock sharp. He opened the back of his van so he and the husband could lift the wheelchair with his daughter inside. She had her breathing mask on but never the less he thought he could hear what was a wheeze of pleasure. He shook the husband’s hand. His former wife was standing on the veranda looking like a general. When she saw the nurse she came down to great her. –When do you think you will be back? she said, she was addressing the nurse in order to show her former husband contempt.
-Around five o´clock, Olaf replied never the less. -The folks at the whale watchers said that the trip takes two hours at least. She nodded her head. Her husband was so pleased when they took leave of them that he even shook hands with Olaf.
He drove in direction of the harbor. The weather was becoming more beautiful. He could see that there was snow in the top of the mountain across the bay and for a minute wanted to draw his daughter’s attention to it but then decided against it, it was too much trouble. And besides, the nurse was attending tenderly to the child. He liked her more and more all the time.
There was a shop in the street next to the harbor that sold sporting goods; shotguns and shells, trunks for swimming, gear for scuba diving, footballs and javelins and discuses, shoes for jogging, he parked the car and said to the nurse; -I have to jump into the shop for a few minutes and buy some things. I won’t take long. She nodded. He took a look at his daughter, she sat there in her wheelchair like a solemn old woman who approves of her well behaving grandson, he went in, he was acquainted with the store owner who greeted him with a look of surprise; -Going swimming? he asked. It’s a long time since I have seen you around. He leaned forwards and peered out the window, and a lady, congratulations!
-No, no, no, not today he said. –But the autumn is simply so wonderful. I´ve been in contact with the guys. A group of us is going out for a swim in the bay next week. Let me have a can of the grease and a new rubber trunk for the head, a yellow one and please be quick about it. My daughter is outside in the van, waiting. And for your information, the lady is her nurse.
The shop keeper said quickly, obviously so as not to get into a discussion about his daughter; -You guys are nuts, all of you! You should have been born seals! He handed Olaf the rubber cap and Olaf tested it. It was tight but would fit. –Sea swimming is one of the healthiest sports you can think of, he said. -It makes a man out of you.
A gorgeous blond inspecting things in the shop gave both of them a brief glance and smiled.
The shop keeper added things up on the till and put the grease and the swimming cap in a bag. –Well he said. You give my best to the boys and you all watch out now and don’t go to far out. You watch out for the killer whales, I’m serious.
-A killer whale never attacks a man except in a pool, Olaf said. –And they are only seen far out to the east.
-I know that, the shop keeper said. –What is the matter with you? Cant you take a joke anymore?
-I guess not, Olaf gave a thin smile. -I´m a bit absent minded today. Well I got to hurry.
He hurried to the car and the girls, his daughter sat content in the wheel chair with a satisfied look on her cheek.
He drove down to the waterfront. It was just a shot away. The whale watching vessel lay at bay duly marked at the stern for the tourists. The car rattled a bit on the bridge. A lady in a black uniform was selling tickets at the side of the ship. Olaf and the nurse got out. He walked to the rear of the car and could see the sea black and glittering with oil beneath the planks. He jumped into the van, untied the wheel-chair and rolled it to the back, the nurse got out and took the footstall in hand and together they lifted the wheelchair down to the planks. His daughter looked at the sun with a saintly expression.
Then he rolled the wheel-chair to the side of the vessel and paid the lady in the black uniform their fair. –Will you be needing any help? the lady said and looked at the girl in the wheel chair.
He looked up at the steep stairs leading up to the deck. It was not exactly suited for wheel chairs with rims of timber screwed down to the platform as substitute for steps but he had seen worse. –No, we will manage, he said. He took the handles of the wheel chair and walked backwards up to the ship, the nurse holding onto the footstall, helping him. Then they were aboard and he pushed the wheel chair to the rear of the ship. There were not many other whale watchers on board that day, the tourist season was coming to an end. He felt comfortable with the nurse and the child now, almost like they were a family.
-You don’t know how often I have prayed? He suddenly said.
-Pray? She asked all at once looking very unfamiliar.
-Well, perhaps praying is no the correct word. Wished for a miracle is a better description.
-I understand, she said.
He was going to reply when the engines of the ship suddenly roared, the bridge at the side was removed by the staff and there was a sudden movement as the ship set out to sea. There were but a few miles to the grounds were the whales kept them selves and he walked to the stern of the ship with the nurse now pushing the wheel chair behind him. Other passengers gave them a kind look. The gray autumn like expanse of the sea looked hard as steal. He nodded to a lady, she said she was from America, Arizona to be exact, she had long dreamt of visiting Iceland with her husband, she introduced Olaf to an elderly man and then said it had turned out more wonderful than both of them had expected but they had really come to see the whales. She had heard there was a multitude of them out on the bay. –Yes, Olaf said, feeling a strange sort of pride like the whales were a possession of his. He turned to his daughter and said; -My daughter loves them.
The foreign lady said something but he did not hear what it was as he noticed there was water in the eyes of his daughter, resulting from the cold breeze, the nurse had not noticed it so he wiped the tears away with the back of his hand. Her eyes had more life in them now. She knew she was going to see the whales. She looked at him with love. The nurse was looking astern shading her eyes with her hands although the sun was shining on their back. They sailed on for about twenty minutes. Suddenly there was an announcement through a loudspeaker on the bridge; -Whales a head, the sound of the engine lowered and then at last died down; the boat slid into a field of whales which were sprouting and snorting and feeding at the surface, in full trust and friendship with man, the onlookers. A whaling ban had now reigned for a quarter of a century and when it was to be lifted the tourist trade had become more important than the hunt. –They are not killed anymore, Olaf said to the American lady who nodded her head in approval. He turned to his daughter, took her out of the wheelchair and lifted her up in his arms so she could see, the nurse held onto the oxygen mask. The girl was making delightful sounds of joy. And the herd of whales was snorting and wheezing and blowing as to make it all sound like a symphony. The moment lasted a long time, then the engines were stared up again and the boat sailed in a circle like the whales were inside an arena.
When that was over the engine came alive with full power; it was time to head home. He put his daughter back in the wheelchair. She was in a state of total bliss. It made the nurse laugh; -I think we have perhaps seen today something of the miracle you wished for, she said.
Olaf gave a thin smile but said nothing. For some reason the trip back to the harbor seemed quicker than when they sailed out to sea. –There weren’t any killer whales, the foreign lady said. -That was a bit of a let down.
-No, Olaf said, -they’re loners. They live in herds all by themselves. They don’t mix with other whales. They attack them. They feed on them. They are fierce and independent and have no enemies at all in the sea. They live by the shore out to the east. About three hours from town. But there is no whale watching there.
-Oh, the lady said with an odd look in her eyes, and they took leave of each other.
Olaf waited until all other passenger had left the boat. The procedure of getting the wheel chair down the stairs was much the same but now in reverse. Then they rolled the chair to the van.
Olaf drove the nurse home. She said goodbye to his daughter. And then she added when he did not say anything at the parting; -Will I be hearing from you? Her face flushed a bit.
-Yes he said, proud and shy. -You will. And thank you for asking. You have no inkling of how much that means to me, especially today.
She looked at him surprised and then her face shone with happiness. –Well I´m glad to hear it and I certainly look forward to it. She closed the door, and he watched her firm beautiful figure as she walked towards the house.
Then he looked at his daughter. She was sleeping now, exhausted. That was to be expected. He did not drive to her home but took the road that lead out of town. When he came to the intersection that led either to the east or the west he took the road east. He drove for three hours solid while it slowly grew dusk and the landscape changed, the mountains became higher the further he got into the countryside and the cliffs with the many caves high up on their surface turned to black from brown as the sun slowly approached the sea. The sky was getting dark, and clouds darker still were set against it. Suddenly he saw it, the hill down by the sea-side and the big rock beside it with space enough for a big ship to be hauled up between them and indeed this was the place legend had it that the first settlers, had landed their ships more than 1100 years before. The sand by this part of the shore was raven black for miles around. He drove towards the shore and felt the going become heavier when he went of the rough gravel road and onto the sand. Then, in lie beneath the hill, with the large rock to his right and the waves braking right in front of him he shut of the engine.
He got out of the car and opened the rear door and took out the black velvet. He threw the cloth over the car, it fully covered it. Then he found some stones to hold down the edges, took out a shovel and heaped sand over the edges around the car, when that was done he undressed. He had put on the swimming trunk before he got out of the house in the morning. He took out the jar with the grease and covered himself all over. He had waited until the very end to cover up the rear of the car, he went inside, his daughter was awake now so he rolled the wheel chair to the brink of the compartment, lifted it out and put it into the sand. Then he took his daughter out of the chair and laid her down in the sand and put the chair back into the car. He considered undressing her and covering her with grease to protect her from the cold but then thought better of it. It was not the thought of her red bloated body which made him change his mind, but mercy. The cold would kill her almost instantly. However he took the yellow rubber cap he had bough by the harbor and put it on her head. He took his old black cap and put it on. Then he covered the car up at the back, no wind would get under the sand now and tear of the cover. It would be days, even weeks at this time of year until the car was found. The he lifted the girl into his arms. There was no expression in her eyes. He walked into the breakers and then began to swim out to sea with his daughter in his arms. The sun was now a glowing disk on fire on the horizon and flames were jumping out of the sea like melted lead. His daughter’s body gave a jolt when it hit the cold water; it was almost as she came alive. He was a good swimmer, used to the sea, and he swam while it slowly got darker and then it was pitch dark. He knew she must have been dead from the cold for a long time. He swam as far out as he could manage but he was feeling very tired in the legs now and the cold had started getting to him through the grease.
And then the miracle happened. A killer whale surfaced right in front of him. He could see the white patch by the eye and then his great fin although the moon had not come out. The timing on the part of the whale could not have been better because his strength had given up by then. He embraced his daughter and both of them went down into the darkness and the deep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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ÓLAFUR GUNNARSSON was a medical emergency driver before publishing his first novel, Milljón-prósent menn (Million-Percent Men), in 1978. He has since published novels, short stories and children‘s books. His novel, Tröllakirkja (Troll‘s Cathedral, 1996) was nominated for the Icelandic Literature Award in 1992 and the English translation was nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Literature Award in 1997. An adaptation for the stage premiered at The National Theatre in 1996. In 2003, he received the Icelandic Literature Prize and the Icelandic Bookseller’s Prize for his novel Öxin og jörðin (The Axe and the Earth). His children‘s book Fallegi flughvalurinn (The Beautiful Flying Whale, 1999) has been published in Britain, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and The Faeroe Islands, and was nominated for the Nordic Children‘s Literature Award in 1990. Gunnarsson has also translated various works of fiction into Icelandic, including Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Dashiel Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. He lives and works on a small farm a few miles out of Reykjavík, Iceland.

 

 

 

 

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