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James and Mary Anne went to Iceland when there was no snow. “First winter in ten years,” the man in the car told them. “It’s uncanny.”
They travelled heavy. Mary Anne recorded sounds, James took pictures. Flight cases were a must. They were glad they had turned hobbies into work. “We’re like a team,” he’d say, “sight and sound,” and Mary Anne would smile warmly as if it was the first time she’d ever heard him speak. She was the one that found the place. It had five stars from everyone who had returned. She booked without asking, tantalised by the description: remote, it said, cabin, sea, aurora.
The man who said “uncanny” collected them from the airport. He owned the farm and his profile said he was a family man.
“Mary Anne,” she said, shaking his outstretched hand.
“Týr,” he said, nodding to them both.
They piled their bags into the back and stood for a moment on the frosted tarmac, listening to the roar of the jets. The plane that had brought them was already turning back. They watched the tail dip, the wings fold back, and the people who had taken their places vanish into the low-lying cloud.
The big silver car crunched over the dark miles, quiet in a fog of breath. They barely saw a soul. When they passed the Blue Lagoon Mary Anne tapped James on the arm.
“There’s the Blue Lagoon,” she said.
“I see it,” he said.
“The water is beautiful,” she said, “like an alien world.”
“It gets crowded,” said Týr.
The blue pools shone like neon in the streetlamps; steam was rising into the night.
“It must be so amazing,” she said, “to see the northern lights.”
“Yes,” said James, “amazing, we really want to see them.”
“After a while you get used to them,” said Týr, “then you hardly look up.”
James liked the way he said that, then you hardly look up. He typed a note into his phone, pleased at already having found a memory. He closed his eyes and opened them again. Out in the darkness came a black lake; the moon glinted on the surface. He stayed silent; eyes fixed on the lilting moon path, then came a mountain jutting up from the flow of earth. Mary Anne pointed at the shape, a giant formed from the flow of lava, hardened by the moonlight. Týr watched her eyes drift onto the slope.
“They made a film there once,” he said, “I did some driving for them. When they finished they just left it all, the fake houses and the burnt cars. Abandoned.”
“That’s a shame,” said Mary Anne, but Týr did not reply.
“How far is it, the farm?” James asked after a while.
“Oh, not far, two, three hours,” said Týr.
“Your English is very good,” said Mary Anne.
“Everyone’s English is good,” he said.
“We practised a few words in Icelandic,” said James, “to help us fit in.”
“Halló, Hvað segirðu gott?” said Mary Anne.
“There is no point,” said Týr, though they were sure that wasn’t what he meant.
James felt a chill, something other than the cold, blindness, or like being in a cave: a feeling that they were going down deep into the earth. The radio was off and there were no buildings and no signs and no lights of any kind, the headlamps from the car illuminating no more than a small scrap of incoming road. The moon had gone. Thick clouds clung low to the roll of hills, making it hard to tell ground from sky. The temperature had dropped. Only their bodies had warmth.
Mary Anne nudged James again when they were still far from anywhere.
“Do we need to stop?” she whispered.
Týr’s eyes darted from the back seat to the front.
“Did you say there was a shop beside the farm?” said James.
“No,” said Týr, “not in winter, all closed up.”
Mary Anne made a face.
“Will we be able to stop,” James said, “on the way down?”
“I think we better had,” said Týr, “there’s nothing within thirty-five miles of the farm, just a church and a lighthouse.”
“Thanks,” James said.
“Thanks,” said Mary Anne.
“Do people go there,” said Mary Anne, “to the church?”
“Not many,” said Týr, “lots buried there though. We all get buried there.” He paused for a moment and then carried on, “I’m the church-keeper. I help with the funerals and repairs. The lighthouse runs by itself.”
James lifted his head from the window.
“Sounds beautiful,” he said.
“Yes,” said Týr, “in its way.”
The condition of the road had improved. There was a sign and then there were lights. Mary Anne saw the first houses, a series of low roofs lifted from the gloom, then a large building that looked like a school. Two cars passed, big churning SUVs swaying right to left. At the next junction in the road was a great bank of halogens, and a glass-fronted supermarket the size of a warehouse. They turned into the car park and stopped.
“Here,” said Týr.
“Do you want me to go?” asked James.
“No,” said Mary Anne, “I want to see. Let’s both go.”
“Ok,” he said.
Týr had got out and was talking to two men standing beside a maroon pickup. There were tanks of gas, heavy ropes, and tools piled in the back and loosely covered with tarpaulin and blue plastic. The doors slid open and they went inside. The light was bright but soft too, not like at home.
“Look how expensive flowers are,” said Mary Anne.
“Everything comes across the sea,” said James.
“No growth,” she said, reaching out to brush the stems wrapped up in cellophane.
“How many days are we again?” said James.
“Four,” she said, “then two in the city.”
“Ok,” he said, “four days. So we want something small for tonight and then three full days and nights.”
“Yes, though I think we can have dinner in the main house tomorrow if we want. The listing said that. It’s an option.”
“That might be nice. Something proper.”
“Yeah,” she said, “there was a picture. It was a kind of stew and people smiling.”
They filled up two baskets with pasta and cans of tomatoes, a can of green beans, bread, ham, chicken, some salad items, peppers, dried herbs, a bottle of red wine and a four-pack of beers, two different kinds of cheese, and a small bottle of oil.
“That should do it,” said Mary Anne.
“Yes,” said James.
They paid together, splitting the bill in two. Outside Týr was smoking and laughing with the two men. He turned as James and Mary Anne emerged from the building, and nodded their way. Týr shook hands with the pickup men and they drove off, the engine screeching with speed. One of them shouted something back to them but his voice was quickly lost to the wind. Mary Anne and James were weary, their hands raw with cold and the pull of plastic. Týr stubbed out his cigarette and helped load the bags.
“You were quick,” said Týr.
“Eager to get to the cabin,” said Mary Anne in a friendly tone.
“It’s nice,” said Týr.
They drove on.
There were no cars now, no more buildings. Only the vague shape of the land showed them that they were moving at all, rising and falling tones of grey and the deepest blue. The sound of waves crept in beneath the murmur of the road, scratching softly. Mary Anne’s eyes flickered open and then closed, James rubbed his shoulders, tiredness settled on them.
They were snapped from their trance by the car stopping still. As if from nowhere there was the farm, warm and inviting, glowing as though lit from the inside by a thousand candles. Their eyes and limbs let go any resistance, they had made it. Sleep would come soon.
“Here it is,” said Týr.
“A beautiful home,” said Mary Anne.
“Inside,” he said.
A woman, tall and broad, stood in the doorway. She seemed to be half-composed of blankets and wool.
“Welcome,” she said.
“Mary Anne,” said Mary Anne.
“James,” said James.
“Kristin,” said Kristin.
They stood there for a moment smiling awkwardly until Týr said, “I’ll show you the cabin.”
“Ok,” they said.
“Food?” said Kristin.
“In the car. They bought,” said Týr.
“I’ll put in the house for you,” said Kristin.
“Oh no, no, that’s ok,” said Mary Anne, “we can do it.”
“It’s fine,” James whispered, holding her arm. Kristin was already unpacking the bags.
“No problem,” said Kristin, “bed. We can speak in the morning.”
“Night,” said Mary Anne.
Kristin gave them both a short, functional hug and disappeared back into the warm glow.
“Follow me,” said Týr.
The waves were loud and the wind swooped and died in icy squalls. The cabin was two hundred metres from the farm, Mary Anne remembered the number. Not far away from it was another, larger outbuilding which Týr explained was the toilet and shower block. The cold was sinking into their bones and James’s teeth chattered.
Before he opened the door, Týr said “sea” and gestured into the void with his torch. They followed his hand out into the black expanse but could not make out where the land became the water. The cabin was made of grey fibreglass with a wooden deck at the front and pine panels lining the inside of the walls.
“Cosy,” said Mary Anne.
Týr nodded. “Warm, soundproof,” he said.
James boiled some pasta in the house and brought it across covered with pepper and grated cheese. Mary Anne decorated the cabin with the string of fairy lights and little candles she had brought.
It was light when they awoke. The cabin was set in a meadow of pale, frozen grass. The wind howled and the sky was flat, unmoving grey. In the distance lay upturned boats, broken down and left to rust, and scattered barns piled high with farm machinery or else fallen into disuse and torn open by the elements.
“It’s incredible,” said Mary Anne, “wild.”
“Desolate,” said James, “in a good way.”
“You might get some good photographs,” she said.
“You might get some good recordings,” he said.
“Yes,” she said. “I want to record the wind and the birds if there are any.”
“Everywhere has birds,” said James.
“Not trees though,” said Mary Anne, “don’t you think that’s strange, a land without trees?”
“It’s strange,” he said, and then, “there are no trees anywhere.”
The farm was empty when they went in. Mary Anne made sandwiches. They walked out towards the lighthouse. The wind was screaming all around, dragging sea spray up into the air like rain. Gulls hung suspended, wings tensed against the gale. When they crossed the headland they saw another house, a timber frame only a just bigger than their little cabin. Beside it in three even rows were twelve spindly, weather-beaten trees: a jumble of scrawny birches and sea pines.
“Trees,” said Mary Anne.
“The owner must have planted them,” said James.
“I feel better now,” said Mary Anne.
“So do I,” said James.
James photographed the abandoned barns and the lighthouse and the church. Many of the graves had flowers, and he looked at them and then over the barren tundra, thinking how much it must cost for them to mourn. Mary Anne used her microphones to record the wind moving through the rotten wood and tumbled ruins. She recorded the waves and the birds huddled beneath the lighthouse. Týr was outside when they returned. James waved a greeting and then headed for the shower cabin.
“You went for a walk,” he said, then, “dinner in the house tonight, chicken.”
“You can see the shape of the lava,” said Mary Anne, “like the land is still liquid.”
“The ground shakes here,” said Týr. “We have earthquakes every week.”
“The land is young,” said Mary Anne.
“Yes,” said Týr, “like being born.”
“Yes,” she said, and they both looked out over the moss-covered lava, the black sand and the grey waves crashing in the distance. She thought about big things, life and death, family, the future, what the world would be like after they were gone.
“You must learn a lot about yourself,” she said, “being so remote.”
“I don’t know,” said Týr, “there is a lot to do. I don’t notice myself.”
Later on James and Mary Anne read their books and listened to the recordings Mary Anne had made.
“We’re in a sealed, soundproof cabin, listening to the noises coming from just outside the door,” said James.
“Do you find it unsettling?” said Mary Anne.
“No,” said James, “you bring the world inside.”
They kissed. The daylight went as quickly as it had come.
“Time for dinner,” said James.
The farm was glowing again. They tramped through the frost-covered grass and splintered moss aiming their torches in front of their feet. They took their shoes off at the door and went into the kitchen.
“Dinner soon,” Kristin said.
“Who are the pictures of?” said James.
“Our children,” said Týr, “all fifty-three of them.”
“Wow,” said Mary Anne, “you fostered them?”
“All except two,” said Kristin.
“There are a lot in Iceland,” said Týr, “needing homes.”
“That’s sad,” said James.
“We keep them safe,” said Týr, “it’s easy to be good out here.”
Mary Anne pointed to the coat hooks.
“We like the jumpers,” she said, “the famous ones.”
“I make,” said Kristin, “do you want to see?”
“Yes please,” said Mary Anne.
Kristin lifted open a wooden trunk and there they were, twenty patterned jumpers, white and blue, red and blue, white and red, green and white, red, blue and white.
“Lovely colours,” said James.
“Yes,” said Kristin.
“For sale,” said Týr, “if you want, before you leave … Sunday.”
“Great,” said Mary Anne.
“I like red,” said James.
“Blue,” said Mary Anne.
“Green,” said Týr, holding up his own.
“Now, dinner,” said Kristin.
They put the stew on plates and sat round the table covered with a plastic cloth. They dipped bread into the red sauce and spoke about children. They learned about the ones who had been on drugs and the ones who still came back for dinner and the ones who had been left at the side of the road. Mary Anne said that the food was delicious and when they had finished James helped to clear the table.
“Take some back with you,” said Kristin, holding up two bowls.
“Thanks,” they said.
They carried the bowls across. James switched on the fairy lights and Mary Anne lit a candle, using an empty jar for a lantern. They held hands, looking through the window at the dark field.
“This is the kind of night you always remember,” said James, and they listened again to the birds and the waves crackling inside the cabin walls.
“One world inside another,” said James.
“Right,” said Mary Anne, “somewhere between them there’s silence.”
They listened. She used one candle to light another and he took a picture of her standing by the door.
“Do you think the photos will turn out?” she asked.
“I hope so, it’s hard to capture, the emptiness.”
“It’s always exciting, waiting for your pictures.”
They finished the stew and put the bowls on the windowsill.
“What shall we do with the bones?” asked Mary Anne.
“I don’t know,” said James, looking across at the farm, “the lights are off over there.”
“Would we disturb them?” she said.
“I don’t know if we should risk it,” said James, “I feel awkward.”
“We can’t just leave them in the cabin,” she said.
“You’re right,” he said, “I’ll put them outside.”
“Bury them,” she said.
“It’s not exactly tropical out there,” he said, “the ground is frozen solid.”
“Beneath the shower cabin it’s not,” she said.
“Ok,” he said.
James went out into the night. He looked up. A veil of cloud shielded the meadows from the stars. He removed his gloves and used a fork to scratch at the powdery, ash-coloured earth, depositing the bones in a single layer just below the surface. The freezing night bit into his knuckles while he dug. Fog crawled over the grass and up inside his breath. When he was done he placed a flat stone on top and darted back inside, flexing his fingers, blowing into his cupped palms.
“Did you do it?” said Mary Anne.
“It’s done,” said James.
“We did not see the lights,” she said.
“One night the clouds will clear,” he said.
“I hope so,” she said.
Mary Anne’s eyes flickered open, then closed. James rubbed his shoulders. Sleep came and laid its blanket over them.
The bear came over from Greenland they said. A polar bear. Sailing on an iceberg just like a boat. It happens. The icy craft collided with the shore and the bear began to wander. They found claw marks in the church timber and broken pots of graveside flowers. The raft, cracked and let loose from some great glacier, drifted down the coast.
On the farm no one stirred. The lights did not turn on. The bear found the chicken bones after it had found the bodies, sleeping in their nook. It crunched them down and walked away, fur vibrating with the frost. The cabin was sprayed up and down with blood. James and Mary Anne had never woken; they did not make a sound.
The waves and the wind roared against the night. Above, the northern lights glittered green and blue, their glow invisible to the twelve dark treetops, and to the distant stars.