Steinar Bragi

 

 

 

(Iceland)

 

 

THE HIGHLANDS

 

 

Chapter 1: The Flora of Iceland

 

          Nature lay in complete stillness. The shadows out by the horizon grew darker and turned sharp against the sky before blending into the night.

          All four of them were silent. Nothing could be heard apart from a low murmur from the radio between the two men in front. In the back seat, Vigdís was reading a book and Anna had woken up from a short nap and had just opened a can of beer. Between them lay Anna‘s dog, an Icelandic sheep dog she’d owned for a few months.

          “Let’s play a game,” Anna said, breaking the silence. “I’ll think of an object, something that’s in the car or outside it, by the road or on the sands –”

          “Yeah, I’d forgotten about that one,” Egill interrupted, his voice childlike from excitement as well as his third beer, the tenth swig from the flask.

          “Interesting,” Hrafn said, ignoring Egill. He watched Anna in the rear view mirror, her dark outlines, a dim spark at the eyes. “What do you mean, object? If I thought of your husband’s conscience, or his blood, would that count?”

          “How sick,” she said mockingly. Egill looked out the window and it occurred to Hrafn that he might be looking into the wing mirror, at Vigdís sitting behind him. “No, no blood. Anything that isn’t visible around us is out of bounds.”

          “What are you talking about?” Vigdís asked, shutting the copy of The Flora of Iceland in which she’d been absorbed. Anna explained the game to her and said she’d go first.

          “Do it!” Egill said, and the game began. Hrafn didn‘t take his eyes off the road, which became increasingly difficult as darkness descended. The evenings weren’t as bright anymore, it would stay dark for several hours at night, and winter had started to penetrate his thoughts, rising like a tidal wave out by the horizon along with the fear that had been growing over the past few days. Since around noon, he’d been haunted by an intense desire to drive back to the city as quickly as he could manage.

          “The driver’s eyes?” Vigdís asked, as the jeep continued to glide between the road markers glowing in the dark. Hrafn pushed the button which slid down the window, stuck his head out and saw the sky was covered by clouds, eerily close to them; but after all, they were up in the highlands.

          “Do you think you’ll find it up in the clouds?” Anna said behind him with a laugh.

          “You’ll have to help me out, boys,” Vigdís said. “I can’t think of anything else.”

          “A road marker,” Hrafn said and slid the window back up. Anna said no. The Arctic Winter, he thought. Was that an object? At least the signs were visible all around them; the rocks cracked from frost, nothing green, no colours, no flora. Only sand, grit, different hues of black and grey.

          Soon the clouds sank all the way down to the ground and they drove into fog. The headlights cut two cones into the fog, which whitened but stayed dark grey around the sides, above the black sand. The visibility was no more than ten or twenty metres, and Hrafn’s eyes soon began to ache from staring into the murk. He wouldn’t have minded taking a rest from the driving but Egill was too drunk to be trusted with the car, and he didn‘t trust the girls at all, barely in town and definitely not out there on the sands.

          He stopped the car to go out for a piss and to refresh himself; stared into the fog which was rapidly growing denser and stuck to his face, cold and damp. None of them had the least experience of mountain trips, or would know what to do if the car stalled. Vigdís had discussed this when the trip was being planned, but he and Egill had calmed her down with some empty words they’d never followed through; they had actually set up the GPS device, but soon after they’d passed Askja it had stopped working – although not necessarily, since none of them really knew how to work it.

          He wondered how long a human being would last all alone out there on the sand. – In summer, no more than a few days, with access to water and shelter from the wind, but only a few hours in winter, maybe even minutes; the fear over being lost would push the blood out into the skin and cool down the body, thoughts would grow confused, the strain would become too much and the system would shake itself to pieces from sheer panic.

          He got back in the car and drove off. The road markers glinted dully from out of the fog, like the eyes of deep sea fish. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Egill lighting up a cigarette, yet again bumping the bottle against his face, and heard him laugh. They were still playing the game and suddenly it hit him how absurd this was, the four of them gliding across the sands north of Vatnajökull, in the dark and the fog, almost as if it was no big deal; sipping Mexican beer, lightly dressed in the warmth they could adjust by turning a knob on a board in front of them, with music in their ears; to be carried motionlessly across the country, not hearing the grating and screeching as the tyres ground down the grit, not worrying about anything, not really – not about the trip, but about other things: their relations, something someone had said or done to them just now, yesterday or twenty years ago, the condition of their bank account, while they watched nature slide past out there –

          He came to again and tried to focus on the trail while knowing something had changed. After driving for a few minutes he turned first one way, then the other, slowed down and finally came to a complete halt.

          “What?” Egill asked.

          “Can you see any markers?” Hrafn tried to remember how long it had been since he’d seen a road marker, but he couldn’t. For a while now, the gap between them had been increasing a bit, and the fog was rapidly descending.

          “Fuck,” Egill said, sat up and peered through the window. Anna appeared between the seats and asked whether they were lost.

          “I wouldn’t mind,” she added. “Lost in the fog, like in an adventure.”

          “How long has it been since we last saw a marker?” Hrafn asked, looking at Vigdís in the mirror. She raised one eyebrow.

          “No idea,” she said. “I was concentrating on the game.” Hrafn looked straight ahead into the light, at the white drifts of fog swirling to and fro, then stepped on the pedal and slowly drove off again.

          “How could you lose track of the road?” Egill asked.

          “I‘m sure we’ll figure it out,” Anna said, squeezing herself inbetween the front seats. The smell of alcohol on her breath was sharp and dizzying. It couldn’t have been long since they’d left the track. He had a vague sensation of having turned a bit too much over to the left, which meant the track should be on their right.

          He swerved the car to the right and tried to keep on course. Vigdís asked what he was doing and he explained. “Then let’s hope the track doesn‘t swerve to the right as well,” she said and Anna giggled.

          Hrafn kept turning until he was sure he’d driven for too long for the road to be on the right hand side. Besides, he’d probably taken such a sharp turn that they’d driven in a circle, a fairly small circle even, and maybe more than one. The rest of them had either had too much to drink to notice, or they simply didn’t care.

          He stopped the car again, turned off the radio in order to concentrate better, and fetched the compass from the glove compartment.

          “Alright,” Egill drawled. “No mercy.”

          Hrafn opened up the compass, kept it on his lap and started driving east.

          “Why are you doing this?” Anna asked.

          “So that I don‘t drive in circles,” he said, glancing between the compass and the sand in front of them.

          “But are we driving in the right direction?” Vigdís asked.

          “The trail we were on lies from north to south,” he said. “I‘m positive we didn’t veer off it to the left. Which means we’re west of it – and heading east to find our way back. Don‘t you agree?”

          Vigdís raised her eyebrows again and he got the feeling she was annoyed.

          “Sounds good,” she said. “Except of course if we drive straight across the trail without noticing, between the markers –”

          “Then we’ll just have to take care, won’t we? Those of us sitting on the right will keep a look out on that side, the others on the other side.” The old panic was stirring, the claustrophobia. He slid down the window and saw how the fog kept getting denser, could feel the smell of alcohol growing stronger –

          “How could you lose the fucking road?” he heard Egill whine next to him, and got fed up with ignoring him.

          “Why did you lose it?! Aren’t you sitting next to me, looking out through the same bloody window?”

          “I‘m not driving though, am I?”

          “Now, guys,” Vigdís said, touching Hrafn’s shoulder. “I think we should just relax, take a deep breath and all that. It’ll all turn out alright, and much sooner than we think.”

          They fell quiet. The dog had sat up; occasionally it would give a low whine, and through the open window they could hear the hissing of the sand underneath the tyres. Hrafn peered into the darkness on his side but could see nothing. After driving east for ten minutes, he no longer knew what would be their best course of action. He thought back on his first reaction, wondered if he hadn’t driven far enough west, and glanced down at the compass to make sure of the direction. If they kept to it, they were bound to eventually find the trail again.

          “There aren’t any chasms here, or cracks, are there?” Anna asked. “Aren’t you going to buckle up, Egill?”

          “Or quicksand,” Vigdís said.

          “Christ. Do you mean, like, for us to disappear into?”

          “Yeah. They’ve found horses out here from the middle ages, well preserved in the mud. And humans.”

          “A jeep would be some find, then. With four passengers, a dog, mobile phones, text messages and dental fillings. – The twenty-first century checks in for future research!” They laughed.

          There was no sign of the markers or the trail. Rather than turn around and be asked to justify his actions, Hrafn decided to carry on east; it would probably be better to stop and wait for the daylight that would come in a few hours, or wait until the fog let up, but that would be ludicrously stupid if the track was only a few metres away. He kept on driving, didn’t want to give up too soon, or maybe he just lost his sense of time, got lost in his thoughts, or maybe he just didn’t care; maybe none of them cared as they stared silently into the fog, which was grey around the edges but brighter in the middle where Hrafn felt like he was driving through a shining, white opening, a tunnel going ever deeper.

          At some point he saw a light out in the fog, faint and yellow. As if by instinct, he turned towards the light, clenching his hands around the steering wheel. The darkness was moving all around them, and he muttered quietly to himself, squinting at the light, but then it suddenly disappeared; something came rushing out of the fog and hit the car.

 

 

Chapter 2: On all fours

 

          The windscreen broke, cracks flowed across the surface and a white bubble expanded into the world and swallowed up his head. Inside the bubble there were fish made of light, entire schools of fry with piercing red eyes, wanting to do something to him. He shot out of the bubble again, saw Egill slam into the window over on his side, red streams cascading down his forehead as he was lifted off the seat with a grin on his face.

          The blood counts now, Hrafn thought, feeling the car tilt and shake, before it all grew still. He inhaled deeply, blinked and felt pain in his chest. The seatbelt was cutting into him. The airbubble had gone. Grey steam filled up the car, tasting of oil, and white shreds floated through the air. He put his hands up to his face to feel for broken glass but found none; he unbuckled the belt, then he was all the way out of the car, feeling the stream of fresh air.

          The first thing he did was stretch into the backseat and help Vigdís out of the car. She said she was alright. Anna was screaming at Egill, who was slumped over sideways into the driver’s seat. The window on his side was broken.

          In front of the car, the darkness was denser, as if there was a rock stretching into the sky and looming over them, dark and silent. Hrafn wondered when the sun would come up, whether it would reach over the top of this black monstrosity. He pulled Egill out of the car and laid him down on the sand. The dog ran around them, howling.

          Vigdís knelt by Egill, shouting at Hrafn to fetch the first aid kit from the trunk. A light came on towards the top of the rock, first one light, then two.

          “He’s just been knocked out,” he heard Vigdís say and passed her a bottle of disinfectant he’d found in the kit. Anna lifted Egill’s head while Vigdís wrapped a gauze around his forehead to halt the bleeding.

          The lights on the car were shattered and dead. The steam had left the inside of the car but was drifting up through the crumpled bonnet. Hrafn was kneeling by one of the front tyres – the one that wasn’t submerged in the blackness – and could hear a low, rhythmical hiss, as if an animal had crawled underneath the car to hide.

          The fog in his head began to lift. He could see the outlines of a house, a black house on black sand, into which they’d driven. He moved his numb, unsteady legs and saw a ray of light dart across the sand. The dog barked. Someone came around the corner of the house, aiming a torch at them.

          “Who’s there?” a female voice asked, out in the darkness. Vigdís replied and said they needed help, the light moved towards Egill’s blood-stained head and another torchlight appeared in the dark. The female voice gave a wail and Hrafn could discern her outlines in the light: a crooked back, wispy hair, and a slight old man behind her, grinning like Egill when he’d hit the window.

          “Into the house,” somebody said.

          Into the house,” the old woman repeated and asked them to hurry up, swung her torch and shooed the old man. Hrafn took hold of Egill by the armpits. Anna was crying. They carried Egill between them, around the corner, up a steep set of stone steps, and into the house.

          The woman showed them into a living room where they laid Egill down on the floor. He came to, muttered some nonsense and smiled without opening his eyes. Anna shouted his name.

          >Vigdís appeared close by Hrafn’s face and asked whether he was alright.

          “I guess so, bit confused,” he said, and they hugged. Over her shoulder he could see the old crone waddling in circles, in a room that looked like a kitchen.

          “And you?” Vigdís said she was okay as far as she knew, then tore herself away from him and said she’d run out to the jeep to get the first aid kit and some whiskey to revitalize Egill.

          A commotion followed and when Hrafn came out to the hall, Vigdís and the old woman were arguing. The woman was blocking the door and wouldn’t allow Vigdís to get out.

          “I need to get some stuff from the car,” Vigdís said.

          “Are you going to lock us in?” Hrafn asked. “What are you doing?” The old woman didn’t reply, just shook her head and stared at them with wide-open, pleading eyes.

          “Let’s just calm down,” Vigdís said, grasping Hrafn’s hand. “You’re upset, you and your husband both. I completely understand. We drove into your house in the middle of the night, we made a proper racket and you were startled –”

          “Will you open that door,” Hrafn said, and could hear he was on the verge of bursting into laughter. There was something in the air, some strange aggression, although he didn’t recognize its source or reason.

          “We’re all just going to stay calm,” Vigdís said, and to his surprise, Hrafn saw that she was looking at him, not the old woman.

          Then he was back in the living room. Anna was bending over Egill, speaking to him quietly and staring down at him like a lovesick teenager. – Sick, sick people, Hrafn thought. Somewhere in the house he could hear the banging of a hammer.

          Vigdís came into the living room, dragging the dog who obviously wanted to get out again, and handed Anna a plastic bag containing a blanket and a bottle of whiskey. Anna pulled the blanket over Egill, who had opened his eyes, and poured some whiskey into the cap which she raised to his lips.

          Hrafn could feel the thirst envelop him, could hear Egill cry out, pointing towards him and shouting angrily: “You did it on purpose! But you forgot about the airbag!” and other incoherent nonsense, to which Hrafn shut his ears. Anna leaned across Egill, preventing them from looking each other in the eye. Vigdís appeared again and asked:

          “Are you okay? You look a bit pale.”

          He nodded. “Of course. It was an accident, an unfortunate accident.” He lit up a cigarette, inhaled the smoke deeply and watched Anna pour more whiskey into Egill’s mouth before slipping a capful into her own. “But it‘s obviously absurd, ridiculous, for us to be here, inside this house, in someone’s living room.” He remembered his mobile, fetched it from his shirt pocket and checked the reception.

          “Is there a signal?” Vigdís asked. He shook his head and something told him this thing called a signal didn’t matter in the least anymore, not from now on – it belonged to his former life, worries from a previous existence. He couldn’t understand his thoughts, could feel them curl up with the hum of the nicotine, and decided to sit down and rest. He sank into the sofa and heard the dog Tryggur whining somewhere in the house.

          Vigdís brought him a glass of water and he gulped it down, watching her move into the kitchen where she talked to the old woman. He glanced around the living room, at the brown linoleum on the floor and the red blanket that had been pulled over Egill. In the room there was a shelf full of books, and on one wall there hung a framed photograph. On the table in front of the sofa there was a bowl of stained glass, red, green and blue, in a pattern he didn’t recognize.

          They weren’t guests there, he thought as the ash tumbled off his cigarette and into the carpet. The old crone wanted to get rid of them as soon as possible, however thoroughly she might have been locking them in. They weren’t welcome.

          He needed an ashtray, walked out of the living room and saw a bolt had been slid across the front door.

          “We’ve been offered a bed for the night,” Vigdís said as he came to a rest in the kitchen doorway. The two women were sitting at a table. “We´ll stay here tonight, so Egill can rest. We also need daylight to check the jeep.”

          “That’s very nice of you,” Hrafn said, smiling at the old woman. He introduced himself and she muttered something in reply, which he thought sounded like Ása. He asked whether it was short for a longer name but she didn‘t answer. The old man was nowhere to be seen. “I promise we won’t stay long, Ása,” he said. “It’s important that we leave here as soon as possible, I understand that.”

          “You are welcome,” Ása said in a fairly hoary, shrill voice; yet he found it difficult to guess her age. Her face was wrinkled and leathery, the hair black with the occasional grey streak, falling down her back in a simple ponytail. She looked to be around sixty years old, but in her eyes there was something observant, a slyness which could have belonged to a much younger person. “You’ll stay here tonight,” she continued, nodding as if to confirm this to herself. “For everyone´s sake. It can’t be any other way. I’ll show you the rooms and tomorrow everything will be fine and you will leave.”

          “It must be uncomfortable for you,” Vigdís said, “to get unexpected visitors like this. You must have been startled.”

          “Perhaps,” Ása said and stood up from the table. “It was an awful bang.” In the corners of her eyes she had eczema of some kind, a raised redness running past the nose down to the corners of the mouth.

—————-

          The rooms they were allocated were on the upper floor, opposite each other, by the end of a long hallway. Hrafn and Vigdís fetched a mattress from a closet, according to Ása’s directions, and laid it on the floor in their room, which was empty apart from a small table with an oil lamp. In Anna and Egill’s room there was a chair, a table and a double bed for the patient to sleep in.

          As the girls helped Egill up the stairs, Hrafn kept his distance. The worst of the dizziness finally left him. Ása said there was a jeep on the farm that they could use the next day to drive out of the wilderness, if theirs wouldn’t start, and this made him recover his senses even more. Everything would work out fine.

          Ása handed them a blanket and a pillow, turned on the lamp in Hrafn and Vigdís’ room, and Anna got permission to keep Tryggur in her room that night. The old woman said she’d be in the kitchen if they needed anything.

          Hrafn lay down on the mattress in his room, lit a cigarette and stared up at the ceiling. The mattress smelled of damp but the light cast a warm glow on the walls. Out in the hallway, Anna and Vigdís were wondering if it was safe for Egill to go to sleep after being knocked out, and why the front door had been locked so securely.

          “Four locks, it’s as if she‘s expecting –” Anna began but then lowered her voice. Hrafn shut his eyes and heard Vigdís enter the room. She walked across the creaking wooden floor and lay down on the mattress next to him, put her arms around him and nestled her head in the groove of his neck. He put out his cigarette in a cap on the floor and turned towards her.

          “You can drink if you want,” he said.

          “I know. I don’t want to, I’m too tired,” she said after a short silence. “Of course I know I can. Do you want to?” He shook his head. When he came to think of it, it was weird that they hadn’t been asked what had led to the accident, or whether they wanted any refreshments: coffee, biscuits, a sandwich even. Whatever had happened to good old rural hospitality? On the other hand, they had been offered a bed for the night, but the old hag was definitely up to some tricks, he could see it in her eyes. She was hiding something, was disinclined to take them in but could see she had no choice.

          He opened his mouth to discuss this with Vigdís but changed his mind. Vigdís got undressed, pulled a blanket over them and snuggled up to him. They kissed, he said he loved her but she didn’t reply. She moaned, and without having meant to he pulled down his trousers and pushed himself into her. After a while, she rolled over on her stomach, and he raised himself up to his knees and held on to the window sill.

          He happened to glance out through the window and saw the fog had disappeared. Occasionally, the moon would appear from behind the clouds, casting its pale light over the sand. Out by the horizon, the glacier rose from the flatlands; heavy, motionless and white, like a photograph which has yet to be developed.

          They moved faster, beneath him Vigdís gave a low whine, and as he came he caught sight of something out on the sand: a man running away from the house, crooked and stooping, tumbling over and disappearing at full tilt into the darkness, on all fours.

          He lay on his back on the mattress, the room spun in front of his eyes and his heart thundered. On all fours, he thought, and soon he was asleep.

 

 

Chapter 11: The Canyon

 

          They walked across the sand until they could discern a low hum. A great big canyon opened up in front of their feet, the thunders increasing as each step brought them closer.

          “Aha, finally something’s happening!” Egill shouted. They lined up along the edge and stared into the canyon, full of awe, at the dirty yellow snowmelt from the glacier cascading down from the highlands into the east. The rocks on the other bank were grey with black patches, but the water was white where it was thrown around in turnabouts or foaming up the cliff walls, the movement chaotic and unsettling after the stillness of the sands.

          Hrafn soon began to feel dizzy from staring into the water and he walked away, rolled up his shirtsleeves and sat down on a sandy mound close to the canyon. The temperature had become almost uncomfortably high.

          “Starting to heat up,” Egill said and sat down next to him.

          “Foehn wind.” Hrafn pulled out a packet of cigarettes and handed one to him. “The wind heats up on its way across a mountain but doesn’t cool down as much on the way down.”

          “Which mountain?”

          “The glacier. Which is supposed to be here somewhere.”

          They smoked together in silence, looking at Vigdís from behind; she was still standing by the canyon. The earth trembled underneath them, not much, but enough to be noticeable.

          Egill reached into his jacket and pulled out a gleaming object. “You haven’t lost a key, by any chance?” he asked.

          Hrafn took the key and looked at it: silvery with a red reflector on one side. The key was unmarked. “Doesn’t look familiar to me. Where did you find it?”

          “Underneath the lamp post when I woke up this morning. Actually, it was the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes.”

          “Have you asked Anna?”

          “I didn’t want to scare her.”

          “Scare her? Why would she be scared?”

          Egill grew embarrassed. “I don’t know … It wasn’t there when I fell asleep. I would have noticed it, in the sand right in front of my face, you know.”

          “Or you rolled over in the night and woke up in a different place from where you lay down.” The red of the reflector grew deeper and darker the longer he looked at it. “At least this solves the riddle of the lamp post. People go there to find the keys they lose in the highlands.” He handed the key back but Egill waved it aside, saying he didn’t want it.

          Vigdís walked over to them from the edge, had a look at the key but didn’t recognize it. She seemed distracted and asked for the binoculars, used them to look across the canyon and then walked further down the bank. They followed her until she came to a halt and lowered the binoculars.

          “There’s something over there.” She pointed across the canyon. On the other bank they could glimpse houses, a cluster of long, single storey buildings which stretched up from the canyon and spread across the sands.

          “Shacks?” Egill asked.

          “An entire village,” Hrafn said and couldn’t understand how they’d failed to notice this from the hill. They moved further down the canyon, came to a signpost on which had been painted the words Caution – dangerous, and saw a suspension bridge drooping off the edge on the other side, tied with a rope to one of three tree trunks which had been hammered into the ground on their side.

          To the northeast they could see the house of the old couple, grey on black. Sunlight glinted off the jeep, half of which was inside the wall, but apart from that the house almost blended into the landscape.

          “Are we this close?” Hrafn said and felt like the house should be further away; he had the sense they’d been walking in circles but without ever coming back to the same place. When they had stood in front of the farm looking around they hadn’t caught sight of the canyon nor the village of shacks on the other side. “Why didn’t we see any of this from the house?”

          “Maybe because we weren’t looking for it,” Vigdís said.

          Hrafn bent down to grab the rope holding up the bridge and pulled it towards them. The bridge was fairly light, made from timber and rope. They caught the end of it and soon three loops appeared, which were meant to be slipped over the tree trunks and fastened into corresponding hooks.

          “Cunning,” Egill said, impressed. Working together, the two men unwound a twist in the bridge and then pulled the loops over the trunks. “But why all this hassle? Why isn’t it allowed to just hang across the canyon?”

          “To prevent something on the other side from getting across,” Vigdís said, looking over the canyon in a distant way. “Like the fence on top of the dam.”

          “What do you mean?” Egill asked.

          “In this way you can control the traffic from over here,” Hrafn said. “Prevent foxes, reindeer or whatever – prevent sheep from wandering between areas.”

          They finished fastening the bridge, which now stretched across the canyon in a V-shape; the upper and lower cables were tied together with rope and a row of boards lay lengthwise across the bottom of the V, tightly bound to a double rope.

          “What’s with this Caution – dangerous stuff?” Hrafn said, knocking at the sign, grabbing one of the ropes and pulling at it, as if to try the strength of the knots on the other bank. The boards were wet and glistening with spray from the river. “Shouldn’t crossing the bridge be forbidden if it isn’t strong enough? Or does Caution mean you’re allowed to cross but everything could collapse?”

          “I don’t like this,” Vigdís said, seeming to regain her senses. “Regardless of everything else.”

          “No. The fact that the bridge is here at all should be a big enough clue,” Hrafn said. “If it was dangerous they would have pulled it down.” He took the binoculars from her and pointed them at the tree trunks on the other side. From the bridge you could no longer see the shacks because of a hill that rose between them and the canyon.

          “Not necessarily. Who would have pulled it down, the old couple?”

          “If this bridge was dangerous it would be easy enough to remove it. Unfasten one small rope, or cut three –”

          “Three rotten ropes, exactly! I don’t want to play the woman here, but this is stupid. The boards are rotten and shoddy! Look at the mist rising up from the river.”

          “I suppose the path that leads to the dam is on the other side. We’ll have a look at the shacks and then walk up there.”

          “We might find something,” they heard Egill say; he was pulling at the ropes, as if he was about to cross.

          “Find what? An airplane someone forgot?!” Vigdís shouted, directing her words at Hrafn. “This is ridiculous. We should be thinking about getting home, not playing games!”

          “What’s the big problem?” Hrafn shouted back, feeling an oddly strong rage, as if he might tear her head off, and as if he wanted do. “Why are you trying to boss us around? It’s the exact same walking distance. If we don’t find anything useful over there we’ll at least have done something fun! Maybe there’s a phone over there,” he added with a smile, trying to annoy her.

          “And maybe we’ll be killed,” she said, stepping out onto the bridge. “Let’s see if you dare.” She grabbed the ropes on each side and walked quickly out onto the bridge, slipping once after she’d walked a few metres across the canyon, but otherwise crossing without accident; then she turned around and waved.

          “Christ!” Egill said and looked at Hrafn with alarm. Then they started laughing.

 

 

Chapter 12: The Village

 

          They took off their backpacks by a large storehouse at the edge of the village. Vigdís disappeared further up the bank, carrying The Flora of Iceland, and said she wasn’t going into the village, without further explanation. Hrafn could tell she was scared, maybe after racing across the bridge – he had never seen her let herself go like that, never seen her display this sort of courage, and the more he thought about it, the stranger he found it.

          The sky was clear, the wind kept getting stronger, swirling up the sand here and there, but the visibility was still good enough for them to find their way.

          The storehouse was situated a few dozen metres from the bridge; it was taller and longer than the shacks in the village and resembled an airplane hangar. On the side overlooking the west, where the unbroken flatlands spread as far as the eye could see, there was an enormous door and another, smaller one inset.

          “An entrance for humans,” Egill muttered inanely. A gleaming chain and padlock hung across the larger door, and across the smaller one as well. The storehouse was rusty in several places but the chains and the padlocks were impeccable and looked fairly new. Where the chains disappeared through holes in the door, Hrafn peered into the building, but couldn´t see anything except darkness. A faint smell wafted out through the holes, not unlike the smell of damp or earth.

          “I guess this must have been used for machines, diggers and tractors, that sort of thing,” he said. “The building must have been emptied when the village was abandoned.”

          “But it’s still locked,” Egill said. “They’d hardly lock it up so thoroughly if there was nothing inside.” Hrafn started walking past the hill that rose from the canyon, and gradually the village appeared. It looked like a still life; a miniature underneath a glass dome which nobody had shaken for a long time.

          Altogether there were twenty or thirty shacks, built from particle boards and probably intended to sleep construction workers. They lay in two semi-circles around a large building in the middle of the village, or what Hrafn had immediately labelled a village in his head, although maybe he was being inexact – “camp” was also a possibility, or “settlement”, a swarm of shacks, built for a specific purpose, in order to finish a particular job. Overall, the shacks and their size seemed the same, except sometimes two or three of them were fitted together to form an L or a U shape.

          “Oh my, such beauty,” Egill said.

          “Adorable little village,” Hrafn said with a laugh. “In no way different from other Icelandic worker villages! Nothing missing apart from the video store.” He definitely felt better calling it a village; the place was too hideous to be without a name, a name took the edge off.

          “I wonder how long it’s been since someone lived here,” Egill said, pulling out his camera and pointing it across the village.

          “Are you sure there’s nobody living here now?”

          Along the edge of the village they could discern a gravel road which swerved from the south into the village, past the storehouse, and up to the big building in its centre. They followed the road and headed into the centre, but stopped by one of the sleeping shacks. On its longer side there were five windows and a door at one end; judging by the shreds on the walls it seemed to have been blue once upon a time, but sand and wind had mostly stripped the paint away.

          They walked around the shack, taking a closer look. Hrafn leaned on one of the windows and tried to see inside, but the curtains had been pulled across all of them.

          “Why have they pulled the curtains?” Egill said, but Hrafn didn’t reply; he tried the knob on the door, which was locked, then walked over to the next shack which was also locked, before moving further into the village.

          The central building was only one storey high, just like the shacks, but a great deal bigger. The windows were also bigger than those on the shacks, and the curtains hadn’t all been pulled. The building seemed to have several entrances, one on each side. Hrafn walked up to the nearest door; it was unlocked. He stepped into a bright, open space; tables and chairs were scattered across the floor, and there was a sideboard at the other end of the hall.

          “A canteen,” Hrafn said. They made their way between the tables over to the sideboard and had a look at the kitchen, which was empty apart from a gigantic refrigerator with an ice machine, left behind. In the sink they found a plate with a green hue and a pint glass with black, dried-up tatters on the inside. The fridge was empty.

          In comparison with the outside of the building, the hall was smaller than they’d expected. They went back outside, turned a corner and came to another door which opened into a hall that was as big as the canteen. All furniture had been removed apart from one desk and, in the corner, a lonely grey, dented file cabinet which indicated this had been an office.

          One of the walls had windows facing out to a square yard, or sand box; scattered across the sand there were benches for sitting and two ceramic urns – perhaps for cigarette butts. From the outside, the building seemed to be a complete whole, but it consisted of four shacks arranged in a square, with a gap in the middle.

          Hrafn ambled through the hall, noticing brown splotches on one wall, close to which there was a door, partly open. Splinters stood up from the door jamb where the lock was located, pointing into the room, as if someone had kicked in the door. He pushed the door carefully and it opened into a small room. In the gloom he could see the outlines of another desk, a filing cabinet and shelves stacked with folders. The light was dark blue, coming in through the curtains, and the room had an acrid smell of damp.

          Hrafn opened the curtains. The window was broken and the parquet floor below dark and swollen, but there was no sign of broken glass. The floor was covered in papers and folders which had fallen off the shelves. The desk drawers were open and full of papers which showed a series of numbers and symbols; calculations of some sort, of which he could make no sense.

          He had a vague sense of the chaos in the room not being completely random, as if someone had entered in search of valuables. – No, a troubled traveller had sought shelter there, battered down the door in order to search for food or fire or candles, and nestled in this confined space to warm up more thoroughly. But in that case, why break a window? There were no shards of glass on the floor below the window, which might indicate that it had been smashed from the inside. Someone ran into this room, slammed the door and locked it, and when he heard a pounding on the door he tried to break out through the window

          He went back out and over to the door where Egill stood, smoking. The village seemed even quieter than the surrounding desert, where you could at least hear the sand whispering. Maybe he was just finding it hard to cope with all these curtains and the dark rooms behind them.

          “Are we looking for anything in particular, by the way?” Egill asked.

          “Not that I know of. Are you looking for something?” Hrafn felt a longing to whisper, as if he was afraid he might wake someone up.

          “It‘s like we’re searching to make sure of something.”

          “To make sure of what? What are you talking about?”

          “Or to be exact, it‘s like you’re searching for something and I’m following you –”

          “Searching for something?!” Hrafn said, faking laughter. “Me? It looked to me like you were pretty busy in there!”

          “Maybe it’s just the landscape … the sand,” Egill said, clearing his throat and spitting on the ground. Hrafn had grown tired of having him around – all day, every day since the trip began – and he could see that Vigdís felt much the same, regardless of the glances between the two of them the night before.

          Hrafn walked over to the window of the room he’d just examined. Just underneath it there was some broken glass, which meant the window had been smashed from the inside – which, again, might have meant just about anything. He picked up one of the shards but as he did, something else caught his attention. In the sand he glimpsed a skeleton, tiny and white. He bent over and touched it with his finger. It was light.

          Egill knelt down next to him and Hrafn pointed out the skeleton. Near the first one they caught sight of another, and yet another one close by.

          “Can you see that?” Hrafn asked and Egill grunted in acknowledgment. In the sand, along the entire wall of the building, there were dozens or hundreds of small skeletons. Hrafn picked up one of them, so light he couldn’t feel its weight. When he let go, it almost seemed to float down to the ground. “They’re birds, right?”

          “Looks like it, yeah.” He nodded. “Although I’m no expert.”

          “Of course they’re birds, the bones are so light. Hollow on the inside.” He walked along the wall, picked up a beak the size of his nose and showed it to Egill, suggesting that passing birds would hit the windows and die. “The greatest risk is around sunset, I think, when the sunlight is glinting off the windows.”

          They circled the building. From a particular point of view, where there were windows both on the outer and inner walls, you could see all the way through. Most of the skeletons were lying beneath the windows. Along the wall of the canteen, where there were fewer windows, there were also fewer bones, which seemed to support their theory on the reflecting sunlight as well as the transparency.

          It wasn’t that simple. Something about white sand was coming back to Hrafn – something he’d noticed before but had ignored.

          He went back into the office space, found the door that opened into the yard and came to a halt in the doorway. The sand was covered in skeletons; so many of them that in some places they seemed to be lying on top of each other, whether closer or further away from the walls surrounding the yard.

          He stepped carefully out onto the sand, threading his way as best he could between the skeletons, or stepping on them and hearing them crack and crumble. Egill followed him and they moved silently through the yard. Some of the bones seemed to belong to animals bigger than birds. Although none of them were particularly long, they appeared both too thick and too heavy for birds.

          “Look at this. Antlers, right?” Egill said, pointing at a pile of bones which were broken in places, but shaped like the antlers of a reindeer. Close to the antlers there were some bones resembling ribs, and one looked like a thick femur which had been broken in the centre but had a head at one end, like that which enters the pelvis of a mammal.

          “Are those reindeer bones? How do they crack up like that?” Hrafn rested his eyes on one of the benches, leaned on it and sat down. One of the urns stood next to the bench. It was empty.

          He looked up again and saw a cigarette between his fingers, burnt down to the filter. He tossed it into the urn, felt the bile rise in his throat and couldn’t understand what they were doing there. “I can hardly tell whether we‘re outdoors or indoors now … What is this place? The valley of elephants? Where are all these carcasses coming from? It‘s as if the animals have come here to die.”

          “The old ones feeding the vixens?” Egill said and Hrafn snorted.

          “Yeah, a hell of a lot of vixens! Ten thousand vixens! Then they dragged the fodder all the way into the building to impress these cultivated vixens. And that‘s why there isn’t a single shred of meat on the bones but still no bitemarks – because they used a knife and fork.”

          “Just asking,” Egill said, pulling out his flask and taking a sip. “Maybe some exiles settled here, hunting for food for a few months. Personally, I wouldn’t mind being sentenced to exile, get to chill out in the countryside –”

          “It was called outlawry,” Hrafn said and rose from the bench, “when men were sentenced to become outcasts from society, wretches that could be lawfully hounded and killed.” He looked up to the sky, at the grey, whirling clouds he hadn’t noticed before. The weather was changing.

          “At least it sounds better than insider trading, or crimes against corporate law.”

          Hrafn ambled slowly through the yard, trying not to step on bones; he couldn’t take the sound of them anymore, could sense his own weight, stiffness and hardness – what in some sense made him an upright man, and was pulled here and there by a complex system of joints, muscles and neurotransmitters. If he were to lie down and keep still for long enough, he´d die, his form would crumble and dissolve into the earth. With this second death, all evidence of his presence in the world would disappear, becoming powder that would scatter over the sands.

          “Among the grains,” he muttered to himself and could see Egill kneeling over something in the middle of the yard. “What are you doing?” he asked, walking towards him.

          Egill shot a quick glance over his shoulder. “Nothing,” he said, straightening up. When he turned around he stretched one hand behind his back and slipped something into his pocket.

          “What are you doing?” Hrafn repeated, coming to a halt not far from him.

          “This is bullshit … total fucking bullshit. I think we should get back –”

          “Did you find something?” Hrafn asked, nodding towards the place where Egill had been rummaging. In the sand there was a pile of bones, not particularly high but still higher than anything the wind could have piled up.

          “I don’t know what it is,” Egill said. “I found it like that.” Hrafn took a look at the bones, which had been arranged to form a kind of pyramid rising from the sand, but the surrounding earth was bare. The bones were the size of fingers. At the bottom of the pile there was an opening, not unlike a small door, as if to confirm the fact that the bones hadn’t been blown there at random.

          “What was inside?” Hrafn asked and knew he was right. Egill had slipped something into his pocket. “What are you hiding?” Egill shuffled his feet, glancing at the pile and back to Hrafn. On his face there was a look Hrafn had never seen before: a mixture of fear, irresolution and something else he didn’t understand.

          “I’m not hiding anything. Why would you think that?”

          “You’re lying. I saw you put something in your trouser pocket. Show it to me!”

          “I didn’t do anything, I was looking at the pile –”

          “Stop with the bullshit, man! I can tell you’re lying. Do you think I’ll be scared? Did you find an old viking axe? An Egyptian death mask? What was in there?”

          Egill shook his head. “I don’t think I should.” Hrafn stretched out his hand and held it in front of Egill until he stuck a hand into his back pocket, for whatever he’d slipped in there. “I don’t know a thing about it,” he said. “I saw the pile and this was inside … in the hole.”

          He held out a photograph. Hrafn could immediately tell it had come from the camera Vigdís had inherited from her mother – the same size and the same paper. The photograph was dark and grainy, but it was still obvious that it was a photo of Vigdís. She had her eyes shut, half her face covered in shadow, while a dim light fell on the other half. Her mouth was partly open, providing a glimpse of her teeth, and in the centre of the picture you could see her breasts, round and white with dark nipples. She was lying on her back, asleep, or so it seemed to him at first.

          “This …” Hrafn said without knowing what he meant to say. He turned the photo around and looked at the back side, as if expecting to find an explanation.

          “I don’t know why it was there,” Egill said. “When was it taken?”

          “Was what taken?”

          “The picture … It‘s Vigdís in the picture, isn‘t it?”

          “Of course it’s Vigdís. Isn’t that obvious? I’ve never seen this picture before.”

          “Didn’t you take it?”

          “Of course I didn’t take it, I don’t know anything about this picture. I’ve never taken a picture with that camera, nor of Vigdís – at least not to then slip it into a pile of bones! Why were you trying to hide it?”

          “I knew you’d be shocked, or angry. I don’t know. I was going to have a think about it, I guess … I don’t know any more about this than you.”

          Hrafn was silent. His thoughts were all jumbled up. – About the breasts and the nipples, erect and clearly defined in the whiteness, about Egill wandering the sands on his own in the middle of the night, Egill arranging bones into a pile, about Vigdís’ half-open mouth, her smooth face, a drawn-out moan escaping from between her lips –

          Egill turned around, walked away and disappeared into the building. For a long time, Hrafn stood examining the photograph, then he looked down into the sand, between two small bones which might have been those of a bird, but also a mouse, a rat, a vixen, or just anything.

          They had to get away from this place.

 

Translation: Salka Gudmundsdottir

 

 

____________________________________________

 

 

THE HIGHLANDS

 

A novel by Steinar Bragi, 2011

 

   

Brief synopsis

Two couples from Reykjavík go on an autumn trip to the highlands. A fog descends on the sandy wilderness north of Vatnajökull glacier, and by accident they crash into a house. Their jeep is ruined and despite the residents’ misgivings, they are allowed to spend the night. There is no contact with the outside world, the house is protected like a fortress and in the evenings, the residents lock up securely. Outside in the wasteland, strange noises sound and fires burn, events from the past haunt the visitors and it becomes increasingly difficult to work out where the enemy is hiding.

 

The Highlands is a psychological thriller as well as a folk tale about people who see their reflection in everything but find themselves in nothing. A gripping story of guilt and innocence, the limits of humanity and the cruelty of Icelandic nature – or our own.

 

 

The author

Steinar Bragi (b.1975) studied Comparative Literature and Philosophy at the University of Iceland. He has wandered a great deal around the globe, travelling through Europe and both North and South America, acquiring unique experience.

His first published book was the Black Hole volume of poetry in 1998. When his novel The Sunshine People was published in 2004, a Morgunbladid critic wrote that it established Steinar Bragi “as one of the most important novelists of his generation.”

His novel Women was nominated for the Nordic Council Literary Prize and for the DV Newspapers Cultural Award 2009. It was also chosen as The Novel of the Year 2010 of all translated novels in Poland by one of the most respected cultural site in Poland www.G-punkt.pl.

 

 

   

For further information please contact: FORLAGID PUBLISHINGBraedraborgarstigur 7, 101 Reykjavik, Iceland. ua@forlagid.is, vala@forlagid.is. www.forlagid.is

 

 

Media reviews:

 

“We are … in the arena of the horror story, and what is particular noteworthy in this context is the fact that the treatment of the horror tradition is “ethnic”, in a somewhat clever manner, bringing together familiar horror motifs from the tradition as it developed abroad in the last century, and the Icelandic folk tale – an oral and literary genre which in its emphasis on the darker corners of the natural world, on ghosts, monsters and supernatural forces, of course shares many similarities with the horror writing of latter times. The author’s use of folk tale motifs in this case involves a certain localization, and the cultural framework this creates underlines an important parallel between domestic and foreign literary systems, which may be useful for an author who aims at and takes part in “translating” a rare form of literature, that is to say the modern horror novel, into the Icelandic cultural landscape.

… The book is, to a great extent, a demonstration of Steinar Bragi’s talent for conjuring up uneasiness and a sort of bewilderment in the mind of the reader, and further developing the anxious atmosphere which characterized Women.

… the author’s creativity shows well in this novel, as well as the sly sense of humour, for example seen in the fact that one of the characters brings the classic natural reference work The Flora of Iceland on the journey, and flicks through it occasionally even though the image of nature conjured by the novel possibly bears more of a relation to an expression from Danish film-maker Lars von Trier’s recent film, which claims “nature is the church of Satan”. And the book often soars to great heights, creating a provocative symbolic world … also suggesting that the reality of the past few years in Iceland might be best captured within the structure of the horror genre.”

Björn Thor Vilhjalmsson, Vidsja, National Broadcasting Service

 

“I think this book is brilliant … a very well conceived and produced piece of work.”
Pall Baldvin Baldvinsson / Kiljan, National TV

 

“He is very good at creating a sense of horror.”

Kolbrún Bergthorsdottir / Kiljan, National TV

 

“(Four and a half stars out of five) Steinar Bragi’s book is one of the most interesting and unusual Icelandic reading experiences I can recall.”

Ingi Freyr Vilhjalmsson, DV Newspaper

 

* * * * * (Five stars out of five) “Steinar Bragi is a fantastically deep, original and fascinating writer who possesses a kind of superhuman grip on what he does … An enormously classy, original and very profound novel.”

Thorunn Hrefna Sigurjonsdottir / Frettabladid

 

“ … a phenomenal thriller … Steinar Bragi’s style is kind of cold-chiselled and dark, and he manages to draw you completely into the text.”

Arnar Eggert Thoroddsen / Morgunbladid

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