But I know the one there is, and this is not his story.
• • • •
This is mine: I might have spent the summer in Tuscany, if my mother had visited Iceland in 1968. I could have found a boy in Siena with the face of an Etruscan faun and read him D.H. Lawrence among the vineyards and the oak-groves, olives silver in the sun; in Brittany, paced the stones of Carnac and the pine-dark tumuli and looked out for a reaper’s broad-brimmed hat in the bars of Carnac-Plage and La Trinité-sur-Mer; maybe even, if I had accepted Rohit’s invitation to stay a few weeks in Kyoto, shared sake and fried tofu with a girl met at the foot of Fushimi Inari-taisha, her hair as fiery cinnabar as its torii, her eyes lit amber like a fox’s. In Belfast, in Brno, anyone at all. Or solitude, some postcards, a secondhand book: I could have drunk hot chocolate at the Museo del Prado and spoken to no one. Kept a diary. But my mother’s stories were there ahead of me, a planted pale of anecdotes marking out the globe more strictly than capitals or date lines, and at least in Reykjavík none of them could shadow me — student riots in Paris, endlessly feuding in-laws in Bonn, opera buskers in London and missionaries in Thessaloniki and an ill-fated shortcut across the Connemara bogs. Black, she said when I asked among their litany for a description of Iceland, black and white. Lava and ice, as stark and shuttered in time as all her photographs of that year. All she had seen was half an hour of tarmac and 707s under snowy overcast, the airport at Keflavík where every other transatlantic flight was laid over for the weather, their passengers dispersed to hostels and gistihús and their own devices, but hers flew on to Glasgow and she could only look backward at frost and fire, the earth spilling up through the sea: not blue remembered hills, but fjords and burning fells; unclaimed. She saw Zeffirelli’s Tosca at Covent Garden. She made her backpacker’s grand tour of the Continent while I dreamed sketchily of Ultima Thule, looping Sigur Rós and Thom Yorke for six hours above the North Atlantic; she learned how to say I am a good girl, leave me alone in Cretan Greek and I took a man from last call on Austurstræti back to my room at the Hjálpræðisherinn because his hair was a ramshackle grey and his face too young for the fine lines awled into it and even on the dance floor he shivered in his overcoat, crowded up with strangers and crashing bass. Straddled under me, he looked thin and lost, as though he could not remember where to start with hands or hips or silence, his eyes painfully closed under drift-ice brows. I had to snap out the lights, draw the dormer curtains before he would unfasten his jeans, pull over his head the dark fisherman’s jersey that left his hair hackled up like winter, boyish against his bunched shoulders, and I felt all over him the scars I could not see. I could hear him in the bathroom afterward, throwing up. The solfatara smell of hot water came back to bed with him, but a cold sweat was on his shoulders and his mouth tasted rusty, tongue-bitten, and the second time we fucked was something starving: weight and nails, aftur með gaddavír sem rífur upp gamalt gróið sár, er orðinn ryðguð sál. I thought he was starting to retch again, but it was laughter. You should try my father . . . His eyes were lighter than brandy, resin-yellow. My mother brought home a Moleskine of names from trams and churches, museums and pubs, and folded anonymously with my pickup in a single bunk, asleep at all the wrong angles to one another, I had my first nightmares since leaving Baltimore: scoria, torch-smoke, the seethe and mutter of spattering rock; an icefield sky-bright under freezing steam; the sun circling endlessly at the horizon’s rim. The four black paws anchored in his naked human feet, the black wolf’s head that had mimed him across the radiator, the fixtures and brackets as he reentered the room. The walls were filled with daylight where there should have been dawn. I woke in their Christ o’clock brightness, so cold I thought I was alone; startled by a feverish heat when I touched the tight bones of his back. He breathed beside me in small pants and whimpers, a badly dreaming child. Last night’s stubble showed up silvery, black-ticked, like his hair; less transparently, the old weals roped up and down his arms, streaked whitely at his throat. My Reykjavík snapshot, my rúntur souvenir. I left him sleeping in the inarguable sunlight, camera in hand to Hallgrímskirkja and the whale-bellied clouds. Whatever we had drunk up and down Laugavegur under the white-night neon reel, the waning daymoon, his shadow by morning rucked and splayed over the crumpled sheets, curled in on itself, nose to tail. When did it ever stop me, knowing someone’s name? All I had called him that night was shape-changer.
• • • •
I know his story; I nearly write it sometimes. The girl at the last bed-and-breakfast in Höfn named one of her sheepdogs Disraeli, after Kaori Yuki rather than Benjamin, Earl of Beaconsfield. I laugh when I find out, Váli eyes us both tiredly, un-bishounen in the tousling wind that shears the clouds up against the mountains, spits everyone’s hair but Ásta’s into their eyes. His hands are in his pockets, so neither of us can see his bitten nails; his head rises as though he has forgotten something at each yap and bark. In Sauðárkrókur, we drink store-bought brennivín like winos on the curbside with an archivist whose English is as flawed and fluent as his Portuguese, Icelandic, Malayalam, watching sunrise and moonset cross the same luminous sky: Váli makes a telescope of the bottle’s black-ringed glass and repeats, dreamily cursing, the names of his nephews, fire-jawed pursuers of light. He takes terrible pictures of me on the Dutch-spread bed in Kirkjubæjarklaustur, camisole straps falling down and toothpaste on my fingers. I retaliate on the asphalt-colored sands of Vík í Mýrdal, where he flinches with each wave that explodes against the basalt stacks. Between his diffident hands and the confusion of flash adjustment with shutter speeds, the better shots are jags and spurs of light, seepage, and clipped signals; his profile frays into the bare blue sky. We are in Breiðdalsvík, the night he finally goes out alone. Back at Pravda, he had stared at me with eyes I took for drink-dilated hazel and said doggedly, My brother’s blood is on my hands. You don’t know. I watched them put my father away, sounding more like a medieval penitent than a bragging ex-con, and I thought he was lying either way. Now he crouches away from me in the bedside light, a wet holly spray in his frost-rick of hair, scarlet-spattered across his winter-haunted face, his coat’s hem trailing as darkly as the shadow that whines and worries at his heels, and when at last I have gathered him trembling into my arms, all ribs and elbows, hot as a hawk, I can hear his heart hammering the black miles of Surtshellir. Egilsstaðir, Seyðisfjörður with its ferries and nineteenth-century clapboards and the tide rolling green up to green-springing turf, we run the ring round the island that makes a crime scene’s chalk of glaciers, and it is not the last night he comes home with blood in his teeth. Sheep-killer, I think. Not hikers, backpackers: lovers some bored or aching hour under the pale sun-stifled sky. Are there girls in black mackintoshes and emptied throats, cast up under the birches of Skaftafell? Boys with surprised, wind-roughed faces billowing like ghosts in the white water of Barnafoss? The next butcher’s mess he chokes up into the sink or the shower stall, in a ditch or a byre somewhere, laid open to the heavens and the Allfather’s single eye. I am not your brother, I whisper into his sleeping mouth. He kisses me goodbye at the terminal with almost the same dazed, curious submission, as if he never bit me, or I fucked him till both of us bled. You think of these things at half past three in the morning, when the streetlight filters through frozen rain on the windows, a dead tintype wash you can just read by. Maybe it ends when he kills me. A brief mortal interlude, getting on for Götterdämmerung. Or maybe I introduce him to my mother. I shouldered my bag off the carousel at JFK and — travel-stickered, slightly hungover and still on Greenwich Mean Time — declared nothing more than a bottle of svarti dauði, duty-free, two novels in translation, and a roll of unshot film. He was gone by the time I came back from the cathedral, only the sun reflecting on the very clean walls, my bruises slowly fading in; a smell of sex and iron in the sheets, as of chains cankered by the sea.
• • • •
One day, the one you love will tear your throat out. One day, the sun and the moon will fall to their wolves. The Earth will flash to clinker in the red-giant rush of stellar evolution, the universe drift to static and silence resolved, and the gods walk quietly across wind-hushed Iðavöllr. One night I dreamed of his father under the earth and the ice, burning in his chains at the core of the world, and I had no answers from him, either. He watched me with eyes the color of white wine, flickering softly as if a candle’s flame bobbed and drew before him. I had imagined him slight, sly, and sharp-edged, not sinewy as old yew and taller than his lean-boned son, but his hair was spiky, cindery, cider-red, and the same untraceable light shadowboxed in it; I had been asking him questions, but even in the dream I could not remember what he had replied. He should have been skinned bones and screaming. No one had knelt ministering at his side in years. (She left him in 1938, when Grímsvötn’s fissures boiled over and the ice of Vatnajökull smoked, bucking in blind agonies as the earth ran. I knew this from the dream, as I knew I would never see the serpent that hung above us in coils as black as the frostbitten dead, the venom that still trickled and dropped, fire-gold, sweating a sticky sundew light, the plain, ash-wood, palm-worn bowl she had set down, carefully, to kiss her husband on the mouth where he could not feel it for the poison running from his eyes like tears. Tall as a valkyrie, a fair-haired woman with stiffened, scarred hands, never lowering her gaze. I imagined her in Oslo or Copenhagen, looking at Viking ships or the paintings of Edvard Munch; alone of her family, looking as though she moved through time. Her eyes were not blue, but the fine gray of gulls’ wings. I do not know if any of this is true.) But the echoes of his voice had crackled to silence against the dark undercurve of stone, the smallest sounds of snowfall and settling ash; all that remained was the smile twisting among the runestone lines of his face. Implicit, inextricable. The vulnerable, catching flame. Not for the son haunting Reykjavík’s nightlife like a half-recalled einheri or the son whose guts were shackles on his father’s skin, for the wolf or the world-serpent or the daughter half-frozen in the dark, but because I had smiled so easily back, I said for the last time, “Why?” and his smile only deepened, or did not change at all.
“Why does fire burn the hand that holds it?”
I whispered, “Your son isn’t fire.”
Sudden as delight, I saw his real smile, hair and eyes and scars all the same swift leap, flaring up like cinnabar, in their afterimages all the shapes he had once taken and the ones he never would, even at world’s end. “Megir mínir,” he said softly. I expected to hear a salmon’s slick flip in it, a mare’s whinny or the snapping stems of mistletoe. The roar of the volcano was only the stutter of blood in my ears; the plumbing in that ward-white room on Kirkjustræti had been louder. I heard his son, asking me nothing in the middle of the night.
“All of you are.”
I woke in the winter dawn that silvered rather than warmed, ash-gilding book-spines, jewel cases, a salt grass-streaked set of sake cups. The clock radio on the floor by the chipped green dresser was playing Radiohead, so appositely I knew it had been seeping into my dreams. I wanted sex with someone. I settled for gunpowder tea, drunk scalding in the poured-out, brightening air as the studio’s raddled heating whistled and pinged to life around me. We are accidents waiting, waiting to happen . . . A little before New Year’s, Rohit called me from the last payphone in D.C. with two suitcases, no gloves, and enough change for cab fare; still the same chapter and a half from the end of his dissertation, broken up with a bunraku puppeteer, he slept on my fold-out couch with the last four volumes of the OED until he could get hold of the conservationist at the Freer and Sackler who had once offered him an internship, digitizing kabuki playbills. Ásta emailed me weekly until suddenly she stopped, and then in early February I checked my departmental mail in Gilman and found a postcard of the harbor at Höfn, Prussian blue under brightly painted sailboats and a lyme-grass fringe, the clouds plumed like Eyjafjallajökull. I sent my mother photographs from the trip. Ragnarök is always coming. How else could we get on with our lives? One day, I will hold my hands out to be burned, and burn back. And I do not dream of either of them, anymore.