Runner-up 2017 Prime Number Magazine Award for Short Fiction
Judged by David Jauss
Followed by Bio and Q&A
Astrid, their Icelandic tour guide, was so white her head seemed disembodied from her black Gore-Texed torso. Nary a suggestion of yellow in her hair, no pink to her skin, but it could have been the lighting, or more accurately, its lack. The entire busload of tourists knew one another only by flashlight. It had been dark when they boarded in Reykjavik, it was darker still an hour away from the artificial glow of the city, the better to view the aurora borealis streaking white and green in the sky. Released from the bus, they had arranged themselves on rocks in the field, silhouettes bundled against the cold, and when the first Day-Glo glimmer appeared on the celestial canvas, they gasped with awe. Except for Cuddy, for whom there was something disturbing about the ghostly colors and erratic waves. Intellectually she understood it was an atmospheric phenomena of electrical discharge, but the lights seemed to pulse like a medical device monitoring a body in the throes of crisis, and all she could think of was death.
Another device exhibiting distress was her new camera. She had read the manual on how to take pictures of the night sky but it failed her. Or she failed it. Either way, the screen was coming up blank. As others adjusted their tripods and held iPhones to the sky, she sat alone on her unforgiving rock, her down jacket pulled tight around her, and thought. Here she was travelling alone on a three-day Groupon tour to Iceland in hopes that the trip might pull her out of her post-divorce funk, but so much for the power of natural wonders. She had a cold butt and a numb nose and no epiphany to speak of. As with her spouse, she had chosen her trip poorly, and as with her marriage, she knew it from the start. On the red-eye over she’d watched her flight progress across the entertainment screen in growing apprehension with every shipwreck marked along the route. The Titanic, the Lusitania, others she’d never even heard of before but now, at 36,000 feet over the icy Atlantic, she was being forced to consider. Granted, there were no landmarks because there was no land, but, really, shipwrecks? Did Icelandair think the passengers were so totally without imagination that they couldn’t transpose ship to plane? But once she hit ground, it suddenly seemed in character. This was clearly a pragmatic people who faced their problems with no sugar-coating, not even in their public art. Bronze statues of slump-shouldered humans trod through Reykjavik’s city square, walking aimlessly through life, cut off at the knees. When she got to the hotel, the first thing she saw when she turned on the TV was a public service ad that showed a woman too depressed to go shopping for furniture. This woman, too, was slumped, but she had a husband who knew what to do and got her to the clinic in time. No waiting. Even at the famous Blue Lagoon spa that day, people trudged through the steamy water like zombies, in slow motion, their faces muddied white with silica masks.
But Cuddy had no husband, no one to pull her up off of the sofa and back into life. Quite the opposite. It had been her husband who had pushed her down into the sofa and nearly smothered her with the cushions. Metaphorically speaking. She put her mittened hands to her face and exhaled warmth into the wool. In the darkness around her she heard oohs and aahs grow in intensity with every new splash of colored light as if it were a choreographed fireworks show. But the universe was not so tidy as all that. There was no plan. She tucked her hands under her armpits. “Enough already,” she said, but her words fell on the stony ground. At one a.m. she was the first one back on the bus, fighting a fatigue that had nothing to do with the hour. Weltschmerz. That was the word for it. She was definitely suffering from weltschmerz, roughly translated as having a weary heart, trapped in the space between the real world and the one in her head, one of those insanely specific conditions of the soul that the Germans loved to name and catalogue. She should have gone to Berlin instead. She could have seen the Wall.
As they all settled in their bus seats, Astrid made multiple trips up and down the aisle with her clipboard, and when the doors closed she welcomed them back. Her face was so softly illuminated by a pinlight on her clipboard she seemed to be addressing them from inside a crystal ball.
“I know to you we must seem fussy doing these head counts over and over,” she said, “but I will tell you why. Two years ago there was a night when, for some reason, the bus driver was also the guide, and he was unsure of his count. When it was time to go back to Reykjavik it looked to him like everyone was in the bus and he started to leave, but someone said, wait, there was a woman in a black jacket who hadn’t gotten on the bus yet, so they waited. Then the driver got the searchlight and started looking in the fields and the bathrooms. He could not find her and everyone on the bus got very nervous, and one by one, they got out to look for this woman. The driver calls the police and they start searching too. Two hours later, a woman in the tour who had been searching went back in the bus to get her warmer, black jacket and put it on, and that is when someone ‘found’ her. She hadn’t recognized the description of herself. It was 4 a.m. by the time they were on the road back to Reykjavik. So that is why I must keep counting your heads.”
“That’s me,” Cuddy thought as the bus finally headed into the darkness. “I’m that woman out looking for herself. The woman who can’t see herself for who she was.”
Earlier, in the half-light of the Icelandic winter day, Cuddy had walked in the depression between two tectonic plates at the Thingvellir National Park. It seems she had walked in that place her entire life, and now the universe had to step in with its lights and colors and natural phenomena to grab her by the shoulders and shake her awake. Pay attention! Pay attention or pay the price. Then they’d motored to a geyser field, where under a low sky, they watched a series of hydrothermal explosions, from bubbling mudpots to big cauldrons that spewed energy into the air with weightless abandon. Yet they did not exhaust themselves, for after a short rest they would go at it again. She saw the original Geyser, from which all others took their name. It was Iceland’s only exported word, and meant “to gush.” In a frozen world, steam rose in tides from an earth born of volcanoes, an entire country boiling right beneath the surface with potential and energy. The world spoke volumes, but she had watched the geysers, the lights, and the space where continents collide without thinking they had anything to do with her.
“I must change my life,” she said to herself.
On the dark drive back to the hotel through the frosted lava desert, Cuddy rested her head against the cold window and felt herself glow with fire from deep inside. She had so much to do when she returned to the States. So many doors to open. Classes, dating services, books, plays, volunteer work. She was not a defeated leftover from a sour marriage, she was only gathering her strength to begin again. First off, she would stop sitting in front of the TV every night scrolling through reality shows and dramas of calculated lives, endings with no loose ends, fueling her discontent. Such a waste. She would get out and make a difference and help others, not just to find her place in the world, if there was such a thing, but to discover the world in her heart. No more whining, no slumping about.
When the bus arrived at the hotel, people gathered their coats and bags and dragged themselves up to their rooms for some sleep, but not Cuddy. She was exhilarated and could not close her eyes. She felt alive, no longer blinded by familiar surroundings and established habit, and wished she could stay in Iceland forever. She regretted, now, that she had not joined a couple of the other women on the tour for a quick excursion to visit the Phallological Museum downtown, where taxidermied penises, from house mouse to humpback, filled the rooms, including mythic penises from a merman and a troll. It sounded silly, but they’d had fun. Another growth experience missed, but she wouldn’t let something like that slip through her hands again. At the airport the next morning, she stopped at the duty-free shop and bought a sky-blue Icelandic wool sweater for her niece, and a bottle of brennivín, the indigenous alcohol, for herself. She would have a party. A big party. On the flight home, she did not spend the hours staring at a screen, but at the clouds.
When she got back to the office, a dead-end administrative job that would have to be reconsidered along with the rest, she told Irma the story about the woman who was looking for herself. As she prattled on about Iceland and its profound effect upon her, Irma took out her phone and tapped around a bit. “I’ve heard that before,” she said and showed Cuddy. “That missing tourist of yours pops up on the internet every couple of years. No name, no date, just ‘somewhere’ in Iceland. I think it’s, what’s that word? Epical?”
“Apocryphal,” said Cuddy, staring at the screen.
“It probably never happened,” said Irma and she clicked off her phone. “But it’s a good story.”
Cuddy continued to stare at the empty space where the phone used to be.
“Drink after work?” said Irma. “I can catch you up.”
Cuddy shook her head. “I’ve got plans.”
When she got home to her apartment that night she switched on the light and stood there, disoriented. How had it come to be that she had wandered into this life? No chair was inviting and even her books on the shelf looked on loan. There were no photographs on the walls, no sign of humanity in the art. Even the Icelanders with their bronze depressives wandering the city square at least acknowledged the common struggle. She went to the bedroom where her carry-on duffel lay open on the bed, still unpacked, as untouched as the boxes from her divorce two years before. She unzipped the bag and there on the top was the child’s sweater, the long fibers of the blue wool like a pelt. She pressed it against her face and breathed in the scent of the Icelandic sheep, living against all odds in a harsh climate, surviving on moss, then folded it back up in its tissue. She would give the sweater to her niece now and not wait for a holiday. Underneath, wrapped in layers of bags, was the bottle of brennivín. In Iceland she had started the day with the traditional iced shot of cod liver oil, and ended it with a frigid shot of brennivín. Like the country itself it was strong brew, but it had grown on her. She unscrewed the top to sniff the potent distillation of caraway seed and the trip gushed out, filling the room.
Something else had happened on that bus ride back to Reykjavik, and in her giddiness over the lost woman she had almost forgot. They were driving along and she was jostled back to her surroundings by an abrupt swerve in the road around a boulder, and then the road continued straight again. It was odd enough that Astrid felt it was due some explanation. It was some explanation. “In the construction of the road,” she said, “the builders move the boulder out of the way, and calamities begin to fall. A flying iron cog here, a missing finger there, scalding hot tar, a broken leg, then another. This goes on for days. When the crew’s children came down with mysterious illnesses, the government realized elves were living in the rock and did not want their home disturbed. The rock was moved back to where it was, the road was built around it, and the children got well.”
The tour group hardly knew how to respond, whether in amusement or sympathy. Astrid seemed to be all seriousness in the telling, as in, the elves, but of course. Huldufólk, the Icelanders called them. The hidden people. It was a tough and brutal world, Iceland. The black earth boiled with uncertainty and the skies were filled with menacing lights. Who, living in such a harsh land, could not believe in a force greater than themselves?
If these pragmatic people could believe in elves, Cuddy could believe in an apocryphal woman. She could believe in herself. She put the bottle in the freezer, because it can never be served too cold and she planned to invite friends over very soon. She would surround herself with life. As she prepared her dinner, she reached for the TV remote by habit, and put it back down. “No,” she said. “No more.” She would be the boulder that forced the road to change its path, alive inside and full of elves.
~ ~ ~
JoeAnn Hart is the author of the novels Float and Addled. Her short fiction, essays, and articles have appeared in a wide variety of publications, including Orion magazine and the anthology Winds of Change: Short Stories for a Changing Climate. Her work always returns to the relationship between humans, animals, and their environment, natural or otherwise. www.joeannhart.com.
On a Groupon visit to Iceland to see the aurora borealis (do it), the tour director told the story about a woman who did not recognize her own description. I began to think about that woman, and the power of stories to effect change whether they are true or not.
What is your favorite dietary pleasure?
I am a potato chips kind of gal. I’ll take salty over sweet any day.
You’ve just discovered a new planet. What are you going to name it?
The name is Wonder, because the universe is a mystery.
Which is your favorite season: Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall?
Love the Fall. Here in New England it’s not too hot, not too cold, but just right for my October birthday.