There is an Icelandic song called “Þorpið” which moves me every time I listen to it.
It’s hard for me to share its lyrical meaning with non-Icelanders, so I wrote a short story about the emotions it evokes instead. I hope you like it. Let me know how it made you feel.
“Hér vil ég vera hér á ég heima
En tækifærin burtu bara streyma
Það er ekkert rangt við það að dreyma
Að þorpið mitt það hjarni við.”
The town’s still here, but there was no saving the factory. It shuttered its doors last night and sent everyone home without so much as an apology. I think the Board probably could’ve saved it but the director didn’t want to spend the money. They gutted every last piece of machinery in there to sell as scrap down south. Just to make one last final bonus us working people will never see. Not that we ever reaped the benefits of any of the fish. The owners took their quota and gave us the measly breadcrumbs they could spare, if only to avoid a riot.
I still go down to the pier where we used to fish before you went away to school. The trawlers still sit on the water, like skeletons we forgot to bury. I heard the news of your fancy internship at the bank. I’m so proud of you son, I know you’ll do well in the city. You’ve always gone chasing after your dreams, wherever they would take you. I see your mom every morning on my walk. I’ll tell her the news the next time I go by. She used to miss you so much. It was always hard for her to say goodbye whenever she saw you. Sometimes she cried afterwards and I would console her and tell her how great of a person you would become.
Your old man’s still here though, kicking along, reading and doing his puzzles. Don’t worry about me. I worry more about what’s going to happen to this town if things keep going the way they have. Sometimes I feel like there’s no point to stay in a town like this. It’s already a ghost town, it’s just that the ghosts are still wandering around with a pulse.
Take care. Tell Dana I said hello.
Henry put the pen down and gazed at the dark mountains outside his kitchen window. The breeze whined through the poorly insulated old building. The corrugated steel siding looked colorful (and popular in the eyes of the few lonely tourists who made their way all the way north), but when the north wind blew, the steel sang a dissonant harmony. It was late September and the first snow still hadn’t arrived. The wind chill made it feel like the dead of winter, but the early evening sun told Henry otherwise. He finished the rest of his burnt coffee, slurping the strong black liquid down with a wince, bracing himself for his afternoon walk.
Henry made his way to the outskirts of town, to the cemetery next to the old wooden church. It stood barren and alone, naked flagpoles standing watch over the dead. As he made his way to the grave he admired the dreary landscape. He found something calming about the desolate church sitting at the edge of the sea. The cemetery was the largest patch of grass in the fjord. The only other grass you would see were the tiny weeds sprouting between the cracks of the asphalt. The free-roaming sheep had eaten the rest of the grass off the windblown mountain, except in the far reaches where they couldn’t graze. As the sun expired behind the mountains, the dark hillsides reminded Henry more of a prison wall than the bustling fishing village he grew up in.
Jónatan screamed into the phone, “what do you mean it’s all gone?!?”
The operator on the other line read calmly from a script. Jónatan inhaled with a grimace, imagining himself reaching over the telephone line and strangling the person on the other side.
“It’s everything we put in there for two years! We had faith that the interest rates would stay the same. And now the news is saying it was all just a big lie?” The operator kept talking as Jónatan paced around the living room of his downtown highrise.
“Just put the rest of the funds we have in our checking account. It has to be safe there?” He nodded as the operator assured him that the rest of his money would be secure, although not earning anything in interest.
He hung up and let out an audible sigh. His knuckles were so white he was surprised his phone was still intact. Dana sat on their plush leather sofa, her hands clutched around her knees.
Jónatan met her gaze and broke a little on the inside. “Honey, it’s going to be alright.”
“Is it?” Dana said.
“We still have our jobs.”
Jónatan offered this meek suggestion as a way of compromise, fully realizing the future insecurity of their employment. As for their savings, they were wiped out. They had been investing most of their income into the various funds their bank recommended. 14% interest. Highest in the world it seemed. It felt too good to be true, but, for a few years, their savings kept growing. So they doubled down and increased their risk exposure. They dreamt about paying off and owning, mortgage-free, not only their chic downtown high rise, but also a cabin by the lake. That phone call in September 2008 they had found out, it was all an illusion.
“We work in finance, Jónatan. I’m too terrified to even find out if my job still exists. The government took over our bank. What does that even mean?”
“I don’t know sweetie. We’ll figure it out.” Jónatan wrapped his arms around her on the couch. The Monday morning sun broke through their curtains, offering her condolences. Jónatan had fallen in love with Dana’s tough, no-bullshit attitude. Having grown up with three older brothers, she wasn’t the type for tears. But on that ironically perfect September day, he could see her squeezing them back.
As a part of his daily routine to the cemetery, Henry passed the old playground on his way back to the house. The swings swayed empty in the wind, the sandbox sat untouched. If he closed his eyes he could hear the echoes of bygone children, running around the multicolored playhouse castle. When the warmth of the memory faded, he huddled closer into his coat and walked past, leaving the chipped paint of the vacant, worn-down castle behind.
I heard about your work troubles. I’m sure you will figure it out. You were always the smartest one in class. Þetta reddast, as we say. We’ll be proud of you whatever you end up doing. I passed the old playground on the way home and remembered fondly how much fun you used to have climbing the castle and swinging on the swings. Your mother would watch you for hours while I worked and I always loved to see you in the sandbox when I was home from sea. It’s looking a little more ragged these days, but the children still enjoy it! They laugh as they always do. I wish I had somebody to help me mend my clothes. Not you, of course. The blue collar never suited you at all and we thought that was just fine. But if your mother was around she’d sure swear at the state of my sweaters these days. So many holes, I’ve forgotten which ones are the original ones.
The house prices have never been lower, and they were hardly worth anything to begin with. None of the young people here last very long though. There’s too much to do everywhere else, with the new industry and such. I never knew how to do anything but fish, but that job vanished a while ago. Maybe they got sick of the money in the sea and just wanted to make millions without getting themselves dirty in fish guts. Now their hands are dirtier than ever. Not that I’m complaining. I’ve got enough here with my old timer benefits keeping the lights on and the fish boiled. The air is free and the walks as well.
I hope you and Dana come out soon.
The glass window decal exclaimed “Icelandic Adventure Tours! See the Land of the Vikings!” The open office space looked out at the main pedestrian street that rarely saw an actual Icelander. Jónatan spent his workdays filling out customer information and coordinating trips for tourists. Jónatan hated everything about it, but it paid the substantial bills he had outstanding. Every day, people would wander into the office and book whatever tour the company was hawking that day. South Coast Waterfall Tour. Puffin Island Excursion. The Golden Circle Adventure. He pined for the height of his finance days. The adrenaline of trading. The waves of cash he received into his bank account.
“We want to book a tour please. What do you have?”
A nondescript European with an ESL accent had wandered in off the street, catching Jónatan off guard mid daydream.
“Ha?” he said, collecting his thoughts and straightening his posture. The lady wore a cyan-blue parka that had become the collective uniform of the tourists. On every given day, he would see foreign rainbows walking around downtown at every hour of the day: cyan blue, canary yellow, scarlet red, usually wearing much thicker overwear than the weather demanded. You could spot the Icelanders easily. Men and women in black, wearing light jackets or clubwear, somehow impervious to the weather.
“Tours?” the lady repeated, pointing to the trifold brochure on top of Jónatan’s desk.
“Ah, yes. Of course.” Jónatan grabbed a brochure and laid it flat on the counter between them.
“We have three tours available. The South Coast Waterfall tour. The Puffin Island Execution and the Golden Circle Adventure.”
“Sorry, what was the second one?”
“The Puffin Island Excursion,” he said, drawing his index finger above the name in the brochure to reinforce that whatever she must’ve heard, she was mistaken.
The water reddened Henry’s skin as he submerged himself in the hot tub. The public pool had three hot tubs, one hotter than the other. Henry sat in solitude in the hottest one, content with his privacy, away from the loud tourists that insisted on bringing their towels outside the changing rooms. Every morning he would swim his laps like clockwork, and then relax and warm back up in the hot water. His meeting with the boys was always at 7:30 am to talk about the politics of the week. But that was before. Now he was the only one left.
On the way back from the pool, Henry stopped by the supermarket. The supermarket was small and always staffed by seasonal workers from foreign countries he had a hard time communicating with. Dana, his daughter-in-law, had taught him basic English so he could understand what he needed. It wasn’t much. He was a simple man that didn’t need to converse with the cashiers about classical literature or his opinion of the broken financial systems that left a scar on his country.
“Was there anything else?” the cashier said in a broken accent.
“Nei, that’s it,” Henry replied in a thick Icelandic accent.
The supermarket didn’t have much anymore, the supplies never lasted more than a week due to the amount of foot traffic from travelers all over the world. Nevertheless, they always had what he needed: coffee, bread, milk, sugar, and potatoes. His dinner was decided by a toss up of whatever meat hadn’t been claimed. As he left, he admired the visiting nationalities milling about the tiny town square, wondering why they would bother to come all this way to visit a dying town on which the sun hardly shone.
I hope you’re keeping busy in your new job. I’m so proud of your resolve and how great you are at finding the opportunities that crop up. I knew you would figure it out. Whenever a door closes, there’s bound to be a window open somewhere. At least that’s what the old house feels like. The only company I have anymore is the wind drafting through the creaky floorboards.
It looks like you jumped on the tourist train at exactly the right moment. A few more hotels have cropped up since you were gone. More and more people come every year and there’s more and more stuff happening to cater to the tourists. Although the government doesn’t do anything to fund any of the towns, the hotels have plenty of activities for everyone. Even free ones, yet rarely. I saw an ad the other day for a tour all the way up here! I couldn’t believe it! Maybe you’ve seen the brochure down south? The buses certainly seem to be all the way from the city.
Hope you’re having fun in the city.
Love you son,
The mailman slammed the heavy cardboard box on the counter of Jónatan’s office. The new brochures from corporate must be here, he thought and pried open the box. With the oversaturation of the three classic trips, the company was trying to find new places to shuttle tourists. They had made a new type of thermal lagoon in the north and it was all the rage. “Get the unforgettable experience of the Blue Lagoon…at half the price!” the marketing materials read. Jónatan sighed as he flipped through the pages absentmindedly. On the third page was a familiar image. Something he hadn’t seen on any of the Icelandic tour sites.
“Wait a minute,” he said under his breath.
“What’s the matter baby?” Dana said from the couch in the waiting area. Dana was waiting for the next group of tourists (her 548th tour, 200 of which were of just the Golden Circle), and was flipping through a magazine, dressed in her hiking outfit, ready for these supposed “Advanced Hikers” that booked her to take them to the top of a volcano.
“There’s a picture of the old town church in this brochure”
“Cool. Are they taking trips all the way up there now?” Dana asked.
“I guess so.”
“Maybe we should go up there. It’s been a while.” Dana offered.
Jónatan flipped the page over and the caption read, “See the Town that Iceland Forgot.” The memories came back to him. The happy childhood. The beautiful nature that encircled his hometown. His dad the fisherman. His doting mom taking care of him every day. As he got older he’d go to school in the south but come home every chance he got. But then the cancer. The silent, broken man his dad became. The closing of the factory and the drying up of dreams forced Jónatan to follow the opportunities that called him to the city. They rarely spoke anymore, the ghost of his mother cracked a sad chasm between them that made it impossible for them to bond. But, it was getting close to Christmas so maybe it was a good idea to check up on him and see what this tour was all about.
It broke my heart to miss you to the city, but I’ve always understood your reasons. I want you to know that. It’s my fault that we don’t talk so much. You’re just so far away and you know that I don’t like talking on the phone. I really hope you’ll forgive the silence and sadness I brought upon us. After your mom died I felt like a piece of me was missing. You reminded me so much of her it took everything I had not to get angry at you for what we lost. I love you son, and I’m sorry it’s taken so long to tell you. Your mom meant everything to me and ever since she passed I’ve felt like a ghost in purgatory, waiting my turn to take her side again.
It’s getting darker these days. The sun’s up only a few hours a day now. Maybe I’ll see you before Christmas? I know you’ll be with Dana but maybe you’ll make your way up here on one of those tours before it’s too snowy on the pass? Dana might like it up here this time of year. We don’t have much, but the sun is pretty over the mountains. She would love exploring all the trails. How is she doing?
I miss you. Hope to see you soon.
Henry folded the letter neatly and stuck it in an envelope. Outside, the crows pecked at the foreclosure signs of the empty houses around Henry’s home, circling the village like vultures.
Jónatan paced in front of the bathroom door of their small suburban apartment.
“Are you ok?” he asked.
“One second!” Dana called from behind the door.
A few minutes later she emerged with an expression Jónatan had never seen her wear.
“It’s positive,” she said, showing him the pregnancy test.
“Wow, that’s incredible!” he said and lifted her up in an embrace.
“Ow! Not so hard, you’ll break the baby” she said with a laugh.
“What do we do now?”
“We should probably see a doctor.”
“Yes, the people with the medical degrees. They’ll know what to do!” Jónatan shouted, his entire body reshaped into an exclamation mark.
As they embraced, Jónatan’s phone rang. He let it go to voicemail and kept hugging his wife. The phone kept ringing and he hung up again. The third time the phone went off, Dana said,
“Maybe you should answer it? Maybe there’s something wrong at one of the tours?”
Jónatan sighed, frustrated with their happy moment taken away by tourists.
“Hello, this Jónatan,” he said gruffly. He listened to a question from the other side.
“Yes, I am Henry’s son,” he replied.
The voice on the other end drained the blood from his face. He turned away from Dana and staggered to the living room in a daze.
“Ok. Thank you for letting me know” was the only thing he could utter into the phone before hanging up and collapsing on the couch.
“Baby, what’s wrong?” Dana’s eyes were wide open as she rushed to his side.
Jónatan balled his emotions into his fist and took a deep breath. He knew he wasn’t going to hold this one in.
The rock in his chest pushed further up his throat.
“He died, dad died last night.” As Jónatan released the last syllable he broke down sobbing.
The funeral was short. Henry was buried beside his wife, his plot bought and waiting long before his time. The afternoon was grey, dusk had already fallen across the bay. The sullen flagpole bowed, the Icelandic flag waving weakly in the winter wind. Jónatan stood in silence as the priest finished his sermon. He shivered and Dana hugged his side as they made their way into the church.
Over black coffee and stale layer cake, Jónatan asked the priest, “Did you know dad well?”
“I wouldn’t say I knew him well, but he did come here almost every day.”
“He kept it up all these years then?”
“Oh yes, rain or shine, he was out there talking to your mother.”
Jónatan nodded and finished his coffee and thanked him for his sermon. As they were putting on their coats the priest retrieved a box from the back room.
“I believe this is for you Jónatan,” the priest said and handed him the box, his name written on the lid in his dad’s handwriting.
“What is this?”
“They found this on the kitchen table of your old house.”
Jónatan opened the box and leafed through the hundreds of pages inside.
“I didn’t want to pry, but it looks to be letters of some sort. I hope they will bring you consolation during your grief.”
I can’t wait to see you! And honestly, just between you and me, I think your mom’s going a bit stir crazy. She can’t wait to take tourists hiking in our mountains. The sun’s up 24 hours a day in the summer and the bay will be your playground (although we do have a regular playground in case you grow up not liking nature for some reason…). It’s a little dark and cold in the winter, but we’re making plans to stay down south during the hardest months. You’ll be a city and countryside bastard! Oops, maybe I should edit that out…meh whatever, you’ll get these when you’re old enough.
Anyway, you’re going to love it here. We’ve been fixing up the house all year getting ready for you to arrive. Your grandpa would be proud to see it back to how it used to be. The town is bustling as ever, and you’ll be proud to grow up in what the tourists know as “Iceland’s Secret Town!”
Your dad’s back to his old ways, although a bit more conservatively. I’m the bank manager here! Although it’s a tiny branch, it reminds me enough of the old days. You’ll be glad to know that we already opened up a savings account for you! You’re already generating interest and you’re not even born yet! You’ll grow up thinking it’s boring, but that’s ok. You’ll still have to listen to me :)
See you soon,
Jónatan closed his journal. On the front cover, he had glued the ultrasound picture they got from the doctor when he told them it was a boy. He smirked at how much things had changed since the crash. Everything used to be an annoying hassle but now life was filled with meaning. He felt like he had finally found what he was searching for. A purpose for the first time since he could remember that wasn’t tied to a pointless rat race. His life had changed nine months ago and he was prepared to change with it.
The sun lit up the house with warmth through the kitchen window. The trees outside hardly stirred and as far as Icelandic fall days went, it was pretty close to perfect.