You wait here, Heiður. This is for my legs alone, I say, trying to come up with a reasonable method of exiting the pickup truck.
Short people like me have a harder time obeying the laws of gravity when getting down out of high vehicles than resisting them getting in. My friend watches from behind the wheel to see whether I accomplish my two-footed hop.
With the solid ground of the Norðurmýri neighborhood beneath my feet, I grab the black bucket that had been rubbing gently against my calf since leaving Laugarás and, for the last time, hurry to the gate of my yard on Bollagata Street.
What do you know—Hreinn Elías slinks out from the basement door, and my heart skips a beat. It’s been hammering ever since I woke at the thought that we were leaving today. Now, and who could know whether Edda Sólveig would be there, or what condition she might be in. Would I have to start this trip by going to look for her in some sort of dive that until last year I didn’t even know existed in Reykjavík?
Hreinn Elías is living proof that my daughter’s at home, which is why I bless him in my mind as he slithers up the steps like an amoeba, dangling his head so that his bright angel hair billows over his nose.
Good morning, I say, looking into his small glassy eyes.
He returns my greeting in his flaccid way and keeps his eyes fixed on the sidewalk as he steps into the flower bed to avoid me, crushing a marigold beneath his loosely laced sneakers.
I straighten up and brace myself for dealing with the rest of the gang. I peek in through the door, which Hreinn Elli hasn’t bothered to shut. There’s no one but Edda in the empty apartment. No need to work myself up.
I should thank my stars that the girl is home, but I’ve grown so hard-hearted that I’m no longer grateful for anything. As she lies there fully dressed on the living room floor, wearing thick-soled shoes and snoring so loudly that the walls rumble slightly, I view her as an object that has nothing to do with me. Her black leather vest leans upright in one corner, like the seared torso of a bull.
I do the rounds, and my experienced eyes immediately notice the layer of ash covering the room, the residue of beer and soda sticking to the floor and windowsills. The bathroom stinks of urine, and there are yellow splotches on and around the toilet. Edda’s friends are incapable of lifting the seat, and it’s not for me to say if they’ve ever heard of doing so. I wipe it off with toilet paper, and as I flush, the noise resounds throughout the basement. Someone threw up in the sink, and I hope that it isn’t Edda who’s sick. That is the last thing I need on this trip, which has infested my dreams for the past few weeks, and there is no postponing it now.
My eyes smart with smoke and the reek of moonshine. I open the window quietly, terrified of waking Edda, though she should be getting up anyway. Dented beer cans are arranged around her in an orderly circle, and in one corner are vinegar bottles used for moonshine.
Edda’s rasping snores grow louder as I scrub sticky splotches off the soil-brown linoleum floor. She’s lying on her back with her slightly ratty red hair hanging over her face, including a little matted lock wafting in front of her mouth. Her right hand’s clenched on her chest, and her left one is stretched out on the floor. These hands are forlorn, both of them, bony and freckled. The skull ring from her dead friend Rúna underscores their desolation.
I’ve started cleaning the apartment with unnecessary precision because I’m not keen on waking the creature, but this won’t do. I’m just about to say Edda Sólveig in a very low voice when a huge blowfly darts in through the open window, buzzing and popping like a tiny helicopter. In my mind I direct it toward the girl’s ear, and what do you know? She wakes with a start.
Are you ready, dear? We’re leaving.
I rush to the bathroom with my cleaning supplies, wring out the rag, and empty the bucket into the toilet. I carefully spread the rag over the bucket as if I were laying a tablecloth, letting it hang down equally on all sides, perfectly smooth, my practical gift to the next tenants. Then I wash my hands thoroughly, dry them with toilet paper, flush again, and return to the living room with a shivery feeling, as if I’m coming down with something.
Edda Sólveig’s back is turned to me as she stands on a dry island in the damp floor. I look past her, out my arched window, the jewel of this basement apartment, the window that I always keep so clean that you can’t even see the pane. Two white poppies swaying in the breeze could just as well be inside. Sunbeams stream through individual couch-grass blades with joints that bend in various directions, blades so long that they would tickle the armpits of small women. The bay willow in the hedge is midsummer green, and there’s a hint of russet in the leaves of the rowan tree; its berry clusters are no longer red, but rather orange, although it’s still August. Until tomorrow.
Then it’ll be September and I’ll have gone halfway east, to what was once my dreamland of spring. Will now be my winter den.
Which hand do you want?, asks Edda, turning around sharply, like a ninja. In just a few months she’s become an expert in taking her opponent by surprise, and her opponent’s become an expert in keeping a poker face while expecting anything. Indeed, anything could be in the clenched fist that she holds out. Even a hand grenade.
She opens her right hand to reveal an Egyptian beetle, my lost scarab.
Where did you find it?
I hug Edda as if by reflex, though well knowing she won’t like it. She pushes me away with her famous left-arm tactic, cupping her palm around the scarab.
I caught a glimpse of something when I stood up.
It’s been missing for a whole year. I wonder how it got behind the radiator.
Isn’t it from the French perv?
His name’s Gabriel Axel, and you shouldn’t call him that, considering how many beautiful things he’s sent you.
The girl hands me the beetle as if she were holding something disgusting between her thumb and index finger and walks out, her shoulders hanging and her steps wavering. She drags the unshapely vest behind her.
I fiddle with threading the scarab onto my old necklace, a gilded beetle with a body of lapis lazuli. There’s something otherworldly about this sky-blue stone flecked with gold. I’ve found myself staring at it and pondering the possibility of its being.
She’s making a run for it, the wee one?
My smirking mother is in a yoga position in front of the radiator, on the damp floor.
When I moved here, Mom, you were already dead, remember? You never came to Bollagata. What are you up to now?
Just to practice my yoga.
Your behind will get all wet sitting there. Move it. Far from there.
Did you steal the scarab?
You should ask whether I was the one who found it. Those who don’t ask the right questions don’t get the right answers.
Good of you to mention questions, Mom. There’s actually an old one that I could never cough up. I’m going to fix that as soon as I get to your sister, Dýrfinna’s out east. She’ll tell me, unless you want to answer me now. Who is my father? You have to admit it’s a good question. And from what I know, the answer should be a doozy.
That you can count on, little Eisa.
I reach over her, shut the window, and hurry out of this hole in the wall for the final time, towing a garbage bag stuffed with the remains of nighttime excesses left by Edda and company. I bang shut the door, hoping to startle the noisy upstairs neighbors who’ve irritated me to no end with their masterful thuds, sly bodily noises, and slamming doors.
I throw the bag in the garbage bin behind the building and run back through the yard in the gleaming Sunday sun. My hands are empty. Unbelievable for a person who always has something in her hands: shopping bags, bedpans, knitting needles.
The shiny white pickup waits at the gate, ready for departure. There’s something strange about this vehicle, something that’s difficult to pinpoint. Somehow it seems to me like an ambulance, but for sick sheep maybe.
Edda sits wedged against the door in the backseat. She’s packed in among bags and bundles made of plastic, leather, and cloth, her cat eyes open just a slit in a cloud of red hair. I focus all my energy on getting up into the car, first by standing on tiptoe and grabbing the door handle, then gaining a purchase on the step with my right foot and swinging myself into the seat.
* * *
As Heiður sets off, I say good-bye to the little street, to the swing set directly opposite where Edda and I swung when things were still good, hypnotized by the old spruce trees and newborn clouds rushing past, swinging to our hearts’ content at breakneck speed after we both ought to have grown out of such a thing.
I say good-bye to the un-Icelandic view over my Three Towers, as I call them—the two spires of Háteig Church and the Maritime College’s one. Behind them is Mount Esja, a bulwark for the capital.
Heiður slips a CD into the player, and an airy Telemann flute composition played by her wafts through the car. With supernatural power it balances out the reek of alcohol coming off my daughter. It’s a relief to hear, because early Sunday morning in the city is always such a chasm of silence that it’s as if Armageddon has come to pass. Although if that’s the case this Sunday, it somehow, incredibly enough, missed three women in an overloaded car.
If you’re going to play that crap, I’m getting out, comes a threat from the backseat.
Heiður gives me a flabbergasted look, as if I were the one who said it.
I try putting on an apologetic expression, as if Edda Sólveig had said it through me.
Although the car is moving, Edda tears open the door and says she’ll jump out if this fluterwauling isn’t shut off immediately.
Heiður turns off the music and says brusquely: I didn’t know the situation was that bad. She shifts gears with a harsh scrape that resembles some of the sounds she unleashed from her violin as a child, and might well have caused her to switch to the flute.
* * *
Heiður pulls up to the intersection in front of Hotel Esja, where no one is crossing, and shakes her head in frustration at having to stop. I shake my head in unison, amazed by the first living thing that we see on our way. It’s a tall man with a camera, taking pains to frame the historical site of the former Dock Wood. He has long dark hair and is wearing a light-colored suit, exactly like my photographer of old. The man I imagined was a gypsy, with a sad smile and an angel hand that he laid on my head. The man I’ve never told anyone about because of a finger that he placed on his lips, saying something in a foreign language that translated as hush. I understood that I couldn’t talk about the gold chain he gave me, and I felt safer not saying a word about meeting him, not even to Heiður.
It occurs to me that this could be the same man, that I should go to him as I did then. I feel as if he has something to tell me, and am on the verge of opening the car door when Heiður drives off. He is, of course, a different man.
* * *
Those many years ago, after I arrived at Dock Wood and the tall man had gone his way, there took place the most famous story of my childhood, which exists in many different versions and started somewhere along these lines when I used to tell it to new kids and birthday guests:
Once there were two girls at Laugarnes School. One was terribly small and dark. It just so happens that it was, in fact, me.
From Heiður’s perspective, this was how the story started:
When I came to Hrísateigur and asked for Harpa Eir, her mother said: She’s gone to Dock Wood with an orange. She’s poorly dressed, just in a swimsuit and shorts. Be a dear and go find her.
Between Heiður and me, the Dock Wood account is a horror story, but I cooked it up for Edda in such a way that it became a harmless thriller in which a broken arm is just added spice. The child retold it to her pack of teddy bears and girlfriends missing their front teeth.
Once when poor Mama was a girl she went to Dock Wood in search of wild children who lived in a ditch. It was where Blómaval Garden Center is now, and that’s the honest truth.
The site where the story took place has been leveled, the ditches all filled in. Big houses and scattered trees bordered by asphalt islands now rise from the former sward of northern dock plants. But the sculptor’s domed studio still stands, bearing witness to the story, along with the hulking cement folk who some said raised us kids in that neighborhood.
When I was out and about with little Edda in those parts, she pointed with her sharp finger and said: That’s where you were, Mommy, in your wild-child game, when the Indian and the cowboy came.
I look back over my shoulder, halfway hoping that the teenager in the backseat will ask for the story of stories, but her hostile look reminds me that she’s grown out of it.
Tell it, Mama!, demanded my ex-child every time we drove down Sigtún Street or Suðurlandsbraut Road.
I’ll tell you:
When Mama Harpa was at Laugarnes School, we kids liked to run around in the huge Dock Wood, next to the domed building where a hundred tons of concrete were playing a game of sculptures. The scrub in Dock Wood was as high as the shoulders of most kids my age, but came up to my nose because I’ve always been so small. Everyone knew that mysterious beings known as the Wild Ones lived there. They were very small and dark, with curly hair. They were actually wild children but hardly human. It was difficult to explain their existence, although everyone knew that they were orphans, among various other things. They lived mostly on dock, but if they grew hungry in winter they might kill rats for food. They were distinguished from other children by the fact that they had no belly button. That’s because they hadn’t been born in the usual way. These savage Wild Ones were rarely seen, since few dared to venture deep into the woods. Sometimes, we kids tried to stay hidden for hours, without a sound, in order to lure them out into the light of day.
During the summer following third grade, we had one of those precious warm days in Reykjavík that throw everything out of whack. I wanted to go play in a swimsuit and shorts. Mom didn’t want me going out like that, because I was always supposed to be so ridiculously well dressed, but I pestered her hard and she unexpectedly gave in. She slipped me an orange when I went out the door declaring that I was going to Dock Wood.
I was determined to find a Wild Child, even if it meant searching for the entire day. As soon as I’d crossed the plank over the shallow ditch, I crawled on my hands and knees, head bent down, so the Wild Children wouldn’t notice me right away. They were, in fact, incredibly timid, which was one reason why so few had seen them. A big boy at Laugarnes School was supposed to have come across a girl and boy as they cuddled in a large cardboard box, dressed in skins like Stone Age people, with hay for a blanket and mattress. But the boy, who was called Friðrik or possibly Ingvar, had quit school and moved, to Grenivík or Grindavík, and that’s why it was impossible to get hold of him and ask him more about it.
When I came to the Deep Ditch, over which there was no plank, I stood for a while on the bank, gathering my courage to muck through it. When I finally did, my feet got all wet and muddy, and I scraped my knees as I groped my way up the opposite bank.
Now I was on unfamiliar ground. I didn’t recognize a single pipe, stone, or stick. I’d gone past the last landmark, the hut that the sixth-grade kids had cobbled together and named the Wild Hut. Rumor had it that the Wild Ones took shelter there on stormy nights.
In this new territory I transformed myself into Kamala, the foster daughter of wolves. Mom was always talking about her. Wild Kamala from India, who’d sucked the teats of she-wolves rather than her mother’s breasts and preferred to play with young goats instead of children after she was captured and kept in the orphanage of Reverend Singh. I scurried around on all fours between pipes, sniffing the dock and snapping at it with a howl.
I wasn’t a whit afraid of the Wild Ones anymore. I felt a strange sympathy for them, and could hardly wait to meet them.
As soon as I caught a glimpse of them I’d say: I’m not Harpa. I’m the foster daughter of wolves. May I join you? You poor Wild Children, who have no beds to sleep in, no dad to read to you, no walls to shelter you from the wind, no roof to protect you from the rain.
If they allowed me to join them, I could teach them to sew so they wouldn’t always need to wear skins. Under the cover of night, I could make off with my mom’s hand-crank sewing machine and bring it to the Wild Children. Mom wouldn’t miss it, because she had a brand-new Pfaff machine that did embroidery and all the other tricks.
If it were true that they just shrieked and couldn’t produce any words, I would also teach them to speak. I would point at myself and say: Girl. Point at some dock and say: Dock. Point at the sky and say: Cloud.
I sat down in half a concrete drainage pipe not far from the ditch, a genuine rocking pipe in which I rocked myself, pretending it was a fishing boat in Grandmafjord. I looked forward to going to the countryside and getting to travel alone on the coastal ship Esja or Hekla, all grown up, with a malt drink and a banana for a snack. To going east to my fjord, Fáskrúðsfjörður, and feeding milk from a bottle to the orphaned lamb, greeting new calves, and visiting with dear Grandma, who was always warbling fee fie fiddle-ee-i-o as she worked in the kitchen and slipping me hard candies and blood pudding with raisins.
I tore off a strip of orange peel and bit into the fruit so that the juice ran down my neck. I tried to wipe it off, but my hands were muddy and just left a dirty smear. Besides that, I was all caked with dried blood from the scrape on my knee. My appearance suited me well, because the Wild Children would probably be bolder about approaching me looking like this than if I were clean and tidy. They might also be less shy if they saw that I ate everything like them, so I gobbled down a dock leaf and some orange peel.
Just then, I heard a shout, and three boys leapt up out of the Deep Ditch. One had a crew cut and was wearing a feather headdress and brandishing an ax; another was wearing a cowboy outfit and carrying a gun; the third had on shorts but no shirt.
Wild One!, shouted the Indian with the ax. Surround it!
Two of the boys took positions at either end of the pipe and one next to it, staring at me in terrible surprise. I imagined that they must be from Langholt School, since I’d never seen them before.
I told you it was true. The Wild Ones do exist.
No one ever said they ate dock.
Yes, they do.
She’s all smeared with rat blood.
Damn, she’s disgusting, and black.
My name is Harpa, and I live on Hrísateigur Street. The blood is mine. I fell and hurt myself.
This one speaks. I was told they didn’t know any words.
Of course I speak. My dad teaches shop class at Laugarnes School. His name is Axel, and he lets the kids make leather folders.
There’s a shop teacher there named Axel, supposed to be a really good guy. How does she know that?
Maybe she’s telling the truth.
No, no, this is a genuine Wild One, said the Indian. Let’s attack.
I cried out as he swung his ax to strike, aiming at my head. I just barely managed to twist away, and the ax thwacked my upper arm. In my nightmares I still hear the scream that came from me following the blow in Dock Wood.
Girls never eat dock. Let’s kill the Wild One! He swung his ax again, but the blow missed and hit the edge of the pipe.
Help me!, I cried to the cowboy and the boy in shorts, who both stood there paralyzed, frightened. At the same time, I jolted myself into action and jumped up out of the pipe, screaming loudly. But I only managed a few steps before the Indian caught hold of my hair and shoved me to the ground. They all stood over me, the Indian still brandishing his ax.
Let’s finish off the Wild One!, he howled, kicking my thigh. Otherwise, it’ll kill us!
What if it’s a girl?, said the cowboy. She spoke. I’ve also heard of a little black girl at Laugarnes School—I just didn’t know if it was true.
She has a gold chain around her neck. That’s not like a Wild One.
Let’s check if she has a belly button. Wild Ones don’t have belly buttons.
The Indian bent over me and yanked off my shorts.
Help!, I screamed as loudly as I could.
The Indian said: Hold it, and cover its mouth.
Are you crazy?, exclaimed the boy in shorts. A Wild One can’t be wearing a swimsuit. They’re always in skins.
In a frenzy now, the Indian shrieked: Hold the Wild One! It’s dangerous!
The cowboy covered my mouth, and the other boy crossed my arms and held them. I struggled and prayed Now I lay me down to sleep for what I thought was the last time. As long as I live I’ll never forget the frenzied hatred in the eyes of the crew-cut Indian, and the terrified hatred in the eyes of the other boys.
Then from not far off, Heiður shouted: Harpa, Harpa, where are you, Harpa? Hearing her, my strength doubled and I kicked the boy covering my mouth, making him lose his grip. I squeezed out a gruesome wail that stunned the boy.
She said her name is Harpa!, shrieked the boy in shorts. Someone’s calling for her! This is just a girl, who speaks and everything. You’re crazy, Bragi.
I heard Heiður approach, hurriedly pushing her way through the thick dock, swish-swash. The hatred in Bragi’s eyes transformed into sheer terror.
I’ll kill you all!, screamed Heiður, swinging a long piece of nail-studded wood.
As the boys ran away, she screeched: I’m calling the police! You’re going to jail!
I came to my senses on the stretcher as it was slid into the ambulance. A sharp pain shot through my twisted arm. I said, Arm, and thought at the same time how shameful is was to be wearing nothing but half a swimsuit. It had been pulled down to my waist. Even today, I still have nightmares about being half-naked, wearing torn shorts in public.
“Bollagata” is an excerpt from the novel, Place of the Heart (2014), published by AmazonCrossing.