Iceland as Thing

I’d come to stay on the southern coast of Iceland, near the town of Kirkjubæjarklaustur, and after a few days there spent mostly hiding from the wind, I finally set out in my tiny rental car toward Skaftafellsjökull, a nearby glacier, and Skaftafell national park. But this was no better than any previous attempt to leave my room. The further out I went, the harder the winds seemed to blow, until finally, while crossing a flat expanse of volcanic dust at the glacier’s mouth, a sandstorm frightened me enough to give it up and turn back around. Feeling completely defeated – though at the same time more than a little awed by the beauty and force of this natural violence – I headed back toward the guesthouse. As I drove the two lane highway around another out-jut of cliffside, I was struck again by something I’d noticed on the trip in. Beyond the cliff, surrounded by flats of moss-covered lava, stood a large rock, like some kind of weird beacon. I made a mental note to return there later, if the wind ever let up.

It was only the next day that the wind stopped almost completely – after blowing fiercely for the entire week that I’d been in the country so far, no matter where I went. So I got back into the little Yaris and this time crossed the black ash flats that had been so treacherous the day before, but only after passing again this strange, beaming rock that I’d already managed to forget about in the interim. It was visually striking, for certain, but there seemed something more about it than that. There was a kind of magnetism to it. It was as if the thing spoke to me somehow. This time I would for certain stop – the lack of the punishing winds would by now let me – but on my way back. For now I was determined to reach the glacier first.

I was already mourning the damage that my camera had sustained to its sensor the day before – caused less through the extreme weather conditions than by simple, dumb mishandling. This damage had rendered my intention of getting as much useful footage of the landscape as I could moot, but also, in a way, freed me from any sense of obligation to do so. In the time I’d spent in the country – not knowing what exactly I was looking for, but certain all the while that I hadn’t found it, and cursing myself for putting myself into such financial disarray to get this far – I’d grown increasingly depressed and defeated. Naturally. Putting so much importance onto a landscape was no better than putting it onto a person – there is no one and nothing that can satisfy the heart’s longings when you’re a hungry ghost. But with the dying of the winds I’d also relaxed a little. It didn’t matter; nothing did. I was just here. Alone and without purpose, maybe, but here.

I pulled the car over as close to the large, strange rock as I could get and walked back toward a stepladder that crossed over a wire fence. A footpath lead through the moss toward the rock, nearing a slow, quiet stream that ran alongside. Forking and converging, the stream flowed with utterly clear, cold water, winding toward the rock, and beyond it some distance, spilling out into the Atlantic further on. Since arriving in Reykjavik about a week before, I’d scarcely thought about the fae at all, putting all these ideas off to only more groundless and unrealistic longing on my part. But as I walked this short distance, I thought, If these people are anywhere, they’re here. Though, to be honest, I couldn’t take this seriously either. I knew was turning to fantasy to fill in the holes in my heart. This was useless. But the land here was beautiful, and with my sensor-damaged camera, I started clicking off pictures, framing the smaller piles of lava stone against the larger formation behind them, and against the sky.

I began to feel, with an inner, mounting anxiety, the sense that, even with the footpaths and the inviting stepladder over the fence, I was being watched, and for the time being, allowed through this place. This sense of presence wasn’t a voice, not exactly, though my own inner voice began telling me that I would be allowed passage for only a short while. It was necessary to be respectful. This landscape was too important to disturb. The sense of presence, and with it my anxiety, only grew, the closer I came to the stone. After a short distance, I couldn’t take it any more. Clearly, it was time to get out of there. But wasn’t I engaging respectfully? Wasn’t I honoring the spirit in the stone? No… no, I was trespassing now, and it was time to leave. The thought occurred to me that if I allowed myself to get too close to the flowing stream, the fae would push me into it. These critters would be happy to make a fool out of me. I knew also from experience that I could only too easily make a fool out of myself, that I didn’t need any disembodied help to do it. But now that the thought had found expression, I also needed to go nearer to the stream. Didn’t I? Didn’t I? I could get more lovely photos, if I just went closer to the stream. Against my own better judgement, I took a fork in the footpath that led near to the water. I stopped at its edge. I shot a few, uninteresting photos, nervously waiting for a shove from out of nowhere. There. Okay. Leave me alone now, I’m going. I put the cap back onto my camera’s lens.

The cap – like it has never once done before – popped straight off with a ping and dropped into the water.

The perfect, clear water.


Now what would I do? I could live without a lens cap, but the water… it was pure and perfect. I could hardly just leave the thing there, littered at the bottom of the stream. But wait – it hadn’t gone to the bottom of the stream at all. The current had taken it. But the current hadn’t taken it away. No, the slow, clear current had lifted the lens cap up, had carried it near the clear surface where it twisted, where it turned and tumbled, in seeming slow-motion, waiting where it hung now, just within reach…

Okay, I said, okay. And, You can take your shot at me, I guess. I knelt down at the water’s edge, balanced on the bank, and reached… out… toward the plastic cap, reaching just short of the cuff of my jacket’s woolen arm. The cap spun and tumbled, waiting for me, right there. I clenched my hand and grasped it, pulled it from the water, held it tight.

There. Wasting no time, I quick-stepped back from the water, back up the footpath to the fence, holding the wet lens cap in my dripping hand, avoiding the many piles of dried sheep dung that lay everywhere along the way. And the further from the rock I got, the more my anxiety lessened. I’d escaped my fate in the stream, but I knew, it was only because I’d been allowed to. Perhaps because I’d shown respect; perhaps because it had seemed more amusing if I should stay dry. Obligingly, they’d even handed my cap straight back to me.

The next night, in stillness, and for all the next day, April snows fell and covered everything.

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