Out of Water
BY PETUR HK
The boat is called an útróðrarbátur, someone tells you. He grabs you round the waist and continues: Of course, out of the water it’s just scrap like all the rest.
There is the smell of moss everywhere. A smattering of seagulls circle above, and you watch as the crane hisses to life. Any second now, and then: the straps, two around the belly of the boat, whoosh themselves taut as they bear the weight, and the whole craft is torn out of the water like an infant from the womb. When you look away, it still floats there in the corner of your eye, rock-a-bye-babying in the straps.
The someone with his arm around you is Hjálmar. Hjálmar is your boyfriend. For the past few days, you’ve resented him for dragging you with him to the islands even though it was your idea to begin with. He can tell, but he doesn’t understand, and maybe you don’t really either. You have a fight later in his parents’ kitchen and both go to bed angry. You sleep squeezed together in his old single-size bed. It smells of teenage anxiety and sweat and a little of the sea. You think about the boat as you drift off.
Hjálmar wakes you in the night and hugs you and tells you he had a dream about God’s giant finger emerging from the clouds above Runavík, the neighbouring town, and appointing a boy named Trón who used to bully Hjálmar in primary school as the main character in the story of the universe.
You tell him: No, that really happened, and he turns and falls asleep again. In the next room, Hjálmar’s father is getting dressed for work. The sound of his zipper reminds you of the work you have to do and also of an Etgar Keret story you’ve forgotten the name of. You make a mental note to Google it in the morning.
After breakfast, you spend an hour out on the balcony staring over the screen of the laptop and at the fjord, water calm as a mirror, feeling like there’s something you forgot. Around you, the town is deserted, and it’s about one degree Celsius out. You bundled up but still the cold needles in and out of your lungs. You tell yourself it’s a good thing. The biting cold a sign of life, but really, if you could bite back, you would.
Earlier, over breakfast, Sharon, Hjálmar’s mother, showed you a video of God’s finger in the sky and pointed to three unsuspecting birds that dropped to earth the moment they came in contact with it. There was a building in the way, so you couldn’t see them crash to the ground, but the image of it is there nonetheless. Sharon asked, Why does no one write about them? They are not the only ones, you know. You should write about them.
Instead, you sit in the cold and e-mail your thesis advisor, asking if the story about Joseph Mitchell is really true and if The New Yorker kept paying him for thirty years even though he never wrote another word. You know the answer. Like, obviously. But there’s something to be said for the illusion of progress. Next door, on the neighbor’s balcony, barely an arm’s reach away, there’s someone else bundled up in front of their laptop, typing furiously. You want to ask her name, but that would stop her words dead in their tracks. If you sat closer to the fjord, you could spy on the reflection of both of you in the water.
Hjálmar appears behind you, massaging you gently. Through the blankets, you can barely feel anything, but still.
Let’s go for a drive, he says. Probably, he sees the empty page on your screen.
You mean, like your dad?
Every evening without fail his father goes for an hour long ‘drive’ in their dinged-up Mazda. And twice late at night, too, you’ve heard the front door click open and shut, the engine brumming to life outside, the gravel in the driveway crunching underneath the tires as he eases away.
It’s the national pastime, Hjálmar says, fuzzing your scalp. His hands are warm and electric, and tendrils of your hair trail his fingers as he moves round. He nudges in and you sit close for a while, looking out over the fjord, the cold melting slightly in between the warm silence. In the distance, a seal pops its tiny head up out of the water. A pup, most likely. In the wake of it, you watch as the mirror shatters.
You get up. Let’s go.
Most of the roads into Runavík and the rest of the islands beyond are blocked off on account of Trump’s visit to meet Trón, so you pretty much end up going in a seven-or- eight-mile circle around Toftavatn, the lake on the other side of town, and it’s the best time either of you have had in months.
On your second or third date or whatever, Hjálmar told you a joke about how, on the islands, it’s normal to see priests jammed into the side of the road. You didn’t laugh, though he laughed enough for both of you, which is something you still love about him. In reality (and this was the joke), the priests are small wooden, reflective sticks in the ground, not actual living beings.
You look at Hjálmar, pointing out the windshield. What were they called again? You ask for his sake, mostly, but maybe, also, to see if he remembers.
He slows down the car. They’re, well, you know—they’re called prestar, which means ‘priests’. They’re supposed to guide you through the fog and stuff, make you stay on the path.
As he says this, you both watch a young ewe itch its backside up against a straining priest, teaching a speckled little lamb to do the same. Mostly, though, Hjálmar says, yeah.
After a few seconds, he continues: But the priests get taller the higher up the mountains you go. Because of the snow.
A mile or so ahead, just over a small hill, in between two great mossy boulders plopped almost side by side, there’s a vista of the entire lake with most of Runavík lurking behind it. You know because you’ve already ridden past a couple of times, you’ve felt the lurch in your stomach at seeing the crowds gathered there, all along the main road, squirmy like herring waiting for the trawler to scoop them up.
On the first lap over the hill, Hjálmar had pointed to the right of Runavík, towards the ocean and a small village, or bygd, in a small bay and said, That’s Rituvík. My great-great-or-whatever grandparents founded it.
On the second lap, he told you the name of the lake, and you said, Yeah, it means ‘ruinlake’, and he said, How’d you know? and you said, I’ve done my research, and you leaned over and kissed him so long and so hard you had to grab the wheel to stop the car from Mazdaing down an unsuspecting priest.
What you didn’t tell him was that, two nights ago, you’d snuck out of bed and invited yourself onto one of his father’s nighttime drives. It was dark out and a little warmer than today but still freezing. Hjálmar’s father told you to bundle up, to which you, on the bottom step of the stairs in a decade-old Foo Fighters hoodie and a pair of jogging pants, said you were fine. He didn’t labor the point. Once in the Mazda, he turned up the heat to max.
He also turned on the radio and manually tuned in to the only active station. It plays country music all night and devotes five minutes every morning to reading aloud burial notices and the names of the newly dead. Whenever a name comes up that Sharon recognizes, she gets up from the table and marks the date on the calendar behind your seat. Then she asks if you want some more tea and fills your cup before she’s finished the sentence. You want to scream in her face and hug her all at once.
The route was a carbon copy of your and Hjálmar’s trip now, and you think maybe that’s because this was how Hjálmar and his father passed the days before Hjálmar moved away, though really, you can’t picture it. Still, the feeling, riding with Hjálmar’s father, was the same, the sea salt in your nose, the sighs of the gears, the lull of the engine, the way he chewed the inside of his cheeks, the different weight to the air. And when you came over the hill, that’s when he reached over and turned the music down and told you about the monster in the lake.
It’s called Nykurin, he said, slowing the car to a halt by the side of the road. He is half man, half boat.
It comes from an old song, a kvæði. Nykurin rises out of the water disguised as a beautiful knight and lures people—young girls, mostly—by promising them riches and half his kingdom if only they will marry him. Then, the second they lay hand on his skin, they are stuck, and he drags them back to his kingdom at the bottom of the lake. To escape, then, like little Elsa in the kvæði, you need only the strength to see the knight for what he really is and speak his true name, which, Hjálmar’s father said, is like asking someone to find a polar bear in a snowstorm.
You bury your fingers in Hjálmar’s hair and look to the lake and Runavík and the crowds and, then, towards Rituvík. You say, Why don’t we go there? Let’s check it out.
He turns the radio down, shrugs. It’s a dead end, he says.
You shrug back. And going in a circle isn’t?
The gulls are called likkur, Hjálmar says. He grabs you round the waist and continues, Of
course, the proper name is ritur, like the town.
You’ve parked by Rituvík Bay and gotten out to snap a picture of the dead seagulls said to be washing ashore. Here, too, the smell of moss overpowers everything. The wind breathes life into your hair, and you feel Hjálmar next to you. He is warm, and a little hard through his jeans. After a short while, you take his hand and leap into the sand, childlike, tugging him along. He gigglesnorts and shrieks at you not to drop the camera, and there it is, another reason to love someone.
Then you come upon the gulls, and everything else fades into the past. Somewhere on the ground, a plaque reads: Two centuries ago, Hjálmar’s great-great-or- whatevers built their home here, by the edge of the beach. Back then, it stretched far out to sea, and they named the place after the birds, which were plentiful and soared like cherubim in the sky, right until the finger emerged from among the clouds above Runavík and the dead gulls started piling. Hundreds. Thousands? Piled haphazardly. Like the bricks of a collapsed house, yellow beaks thrusting out all over. Above, a few still circle, diving intermittently to snap at the pile, twisted looks in their eyes. It makes you sick to your stomach, and you think of Sharon’s calendar on the wall, the thought of the weight of marking down something like this.
You both look away and out to sea, and Hjálmar squeezes your hand so hard you can almost feel his thoughts cross with yours in the space between your bodies. The wind feathers against your cheek. You wish you could take a few steps back and spy on the two of you from behind. Fuck the birds—that’s the picture you’d take.
Hjálmar turns to you, and you know what he’s going to say. It’s stuck in your throat as much as in his, a toad croaking without end.
We could try again, you hear him say.
Neither of you say anything after that, and for a while, the sound of the waves lashing up against the pile is all there is, like a forgotten dream on the tip of your tongue. Not far from shore, another baby seal pops its head up out of the water, and beyond, an útróðrarbátur chugs along, casting out a net twice as wide as any catch you’ve ever seen, and beyond that, Nólsoy, the island with a mountain like a fistful of nails, punctures most of the horizon, priests winking starlike in the light of the setting sun, and beyond that, maybe, you wonder, an unspoiled kingdom at the bottom of the sea. Doesn’t that sound like a wonderful thing?