The fjord is deep and the mountain high, the sunshine glints off the surface of the ocean. The road winds along, moves uphill and disappears in the end in the distance. There’s a thermal vapor over the asphalt; within it there’s a bright spot that’s moving ever nearer. It is a van — a white Yaris with two women inside and a little sticker from the Hertz rental-car agency in the rear window.
The women’s names are Frida and Melanie. In the trunk there are two backpacks, a cardboard box with provisions, sleeping bags and a tent.
“How far is it to…What’s the town called?” Frida asks in English. She’s at the wheel; Melanie’s in the passenger seat.
“Eskifjord-ur.” Melanie runs a finger along the map. “I’m not sure but it’s either at the next fjord or the one after it.”
“Fjord, fjord, fjord,” Frida mutters. She’s Swedish; Melanie’s from Australia. They are twenty-three and twenty-four years old and met in Edinburgh where they are studying. Except for a weekend trip to London their trip to Iceland is their first serious trip together.
“Are you sure the air-conditioner is on?” Melanie asks.
“Yes, it’s at full blast but…” Frida falls silent when a noise comes from the engine and the car begins to stutter.
“What’s going on?” Melanie asks.
“I don’t know!” Frida shifts down and steps on the accelerator but the car slows down even more, but the loss of power is so total that she is forced to stop. The engine stutters and coughs and then is stone dead.
“Is it dead? Melanie asks.
Frida doesn’t answer. She turns the key in the ignition; the starter works but the engine won’t turn over.
“What?” she asks irritated.
“Are we stopping?”
Frida raises her hands in frustration. “What does it look like to you?”
“Shouldn’t we call someone?”
Frida glances at her cell phone. “No reception. Great!”
Melanie looks out the window, up to the rugged mountain and out toward the dark blue ocean. “What are we going to do?”
Frida wipes sweat from her forehead. “We can’t wait here, we’ll roast in the heat. There must be a farm nearby. If not, we’ll just hitch a ride to Eskifjord.”
“All right,” Melanie says. They get out of the car. The silence is almost overwhelming though they can make out a heavy murmur from the ocean and subdued birdsong.
Frida ties a windbreaker around her middle. “We’ll take only the most essential things with us. Our purses, passports and something to drink.”
“Okay.” Melanie hangs her camera around her neck and sticks her toiletry bag, a packet of biscuits and two water bottles into her little backpack.
Frida walks ahead. The day before they had whiled away a few hours at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. Melanie scrolls through the pictures in her camera while she ambles along at a distance from her friend.
Frida stops. “Would you hurry up!”
Melanie looks up, then she points ahead toward the road. “What’s that?”
“The sign there. That yellow one.”
They quicken their pace; the sign is getting closer. It stands on the underside of the road and points to the gravel side road that lies down by a hill and disappears down in the lowland. The sign says: Uxavellir 1 km.”
“Is that a farm?” Melanie asks.
Frida shrugs her shoulders. “I would think so. One kilometer is not much. Shouldn’t we check it out?
Melanie looks in both directions. There is not a single car to be seen, except for theirs, which has become a little dot further in the fjord. “Yeah, we don’t have anything to lose.”
They walk off of the highway and go down a side road.
“That’s a farm,” Melanie says shortly afterwards. They look down from the hilltop, over a hayfield, a heath and marshland. The side road ends by a low knoll. On it are a few houses, white with red roofs.
“Do you see anyone?” Frida asks.
Melanie looks through the camera lens and zooms in. “No. Maybe it’s siesta time or something of the sort.”
Frida laughs. “Siesta time? We’re in Iceland, not Spain!”
Melanie smiles. “Maybe the farmer’s Spanish?”
They continue on. Down farther on the flatland an old corrugated-iron shack appears on the other side, all lopsided and awry. In front of it is a collapsed enclosure and within it there is nothing but weeds. Melanie stops to take a picture of the shack.
Frida raises her hands in frustration. “Not now! I’m going to suffocate from the heat; let’s move on.”
“Wait.” Melanie comes nearer, lowers herself onto her other knee and takes a picture from a new angle.
“We need help, don’t you think?” Frida says irritated.
“This is an odd shack, something so real,” Melanie says fascinated. “I’m going to take a quick peek inside.” Frida sighs tired-looking, so she sits down on a stone on the roadside. The sun shines right down onto her head, flies buzz amid the weeds and drops of sweat run down into her eyes. “Be quick about it, I’m dying here.”
Melanie goes into the shack, steps into shadow. Her eyes get used to the darkness. She encounters a familiar smell — her paternal uncle has a ranch not far from Perth, the seaside town she grew up in.
“This is an old stable,” she calls.
“C’mon!” Frida calls back.
Melanie glances around. There’s a food trough in the middle of the shack; nearer to the door there are two stalls; at the far end, a barn. The barn is empty, except for a scattering of old hay — dry and rotted. She raises the flash of her camera up and takes a few pictures.
“What is that?”
Something brown is on the floor by the hay. It’s a sports bag. By the side of the bag is a horse’s skull and on top of it is a tea light. On the floor there are a few cigarette butts; in the hay is a bed, in which a foldout map lies and on a nail in the wall a small pair of binoculars hangs from a strap.
“Someone sleeps here.”
“There’s a bag here with all kinds of things. Someone’s putting up here in this shack.”
“Come!” Frida calls.
Melanie takes two more pictures, then she goes back out into the sunshine. “Who sleeps in a shack like that?”
Frida looks over her shoulder, as if afraid that someone were pursuing them. “I don’t know. A vagabond?”
“Maybe,” Melanie says. “Still. There’s a pair of binoculars in there, and a sports bag with someone’s stuff in it. Why would a vagabond need binoculars?”
“I don’t know,” Frida speaks under her breath and increases her pace. They’re nearing the farmstead. The dwelling stands at the top of the hill, a two-story stone house with an attic. On the other side is an enclosed garden and a T-shaped pole for hanging clothes on; on the far side a large shed, like an oversize garage. The shed is open; inside it is pitch-black but in front of it stands a blue Isuzu pickup truck.
Nowhere was any movement to be seen.
“What?” Frida asks.
“They listen closely. A dog is barking somewhere. The barking is loud and yet muted.
“He seems to be far away,” Frida says.
“Or locked in,” Melanie says.
Frida points to the wheelless pickup. “If that’s the only car, I’m afraid that we’re not going to get to Eskifjord.”
“They must have a phone here,” Melanie says.
“Where are they all?” Frida asks.
“Listen again,” Melanie says.
They listen closely again. The barking has stopped but a protracted mooing comes to their ears. Melanie points to the outbuildings. “It’s coming from there. There are cows inside. Why are they inside? Shouldn’t they be out grazing?”
Frida balls her hands in irritation. “I don’t know! Come on, we should knock.”
Melanie looks at the house, then at the outbuildings again. “You knock. I’m going to check on the cows.”
“Maybe they’re all in the cowshed,” Melanie says at the same time and heads across the farmyard.
“Yes, maybe,” Frida mutters. She looks at the house. In front the doors are locked and the curtains are drawn in all the windows.
The dog starts to bark again. He seems to be indoors. Why is he inside? What does that mean? That no one is home?
Frida goes in a semicircle around the house. On the gable that faces the shed there are other doors, maybe the doors to the laundry or something of the sort. The barking gets louder and the dog scratches the inside of the door and whines low.
“Good doggie,” Frida says. She goes back out to in front of the house, walks quickly past kitchen windows and alongside a post in front of the main entrance.
She musters up her courage and knocks on the door.
She looks back. Melanie is nowhere to be seen. On the roof of the cowshed a raven shrieks.
Frida knocks again, only harder — there is a click and the door opens up two centimeters, as if it had a busted lock. The hairs on Frida’s neck stand up. She retreats two steps and waits between hope and fear.
She pushes on the door, opens it halfway. “Hello?” Excuse me!”
She looks into the little vestibule, but it is dark inside.
“Hello?” Frida opens the door wide and steps overs the threshold. The dog is whining at the other end of the house. “Is anyone home?”
Melanie goes to the outbuildings. There are three doors, two smaller at each end and large doors with a sliding door in the middle. In the sliding door there are two even smaller doors. The leftmost doors are locked. Over them towers a red-painted steel beam that looks like a railway track. She tests the sliding door. It is unlocked and open up into a broad corridor.
The cows moo; that is the only answer that she receives.
Melanie shades her eyes and looks over her shoulder. Frida is still standing in front of the house, all hesitant and insecure. Why doesn’t she knock?
Melanie is more resolute. She steps over the high threshold and looks around the corridor. There is a screech, then the door closes and something slams with a clatter on the floor.
“God!” That scared the hell out of her. The door is probably askew and for that reason closed itself.
“What hit the floor? She looks around herself but doesn’t see anything. No big deal.
The cows answer with a loud mooing. On the left the door is open, on the inside it is dark. On their right the doors are locked. On the leftmost are large barn doors; they open wide onto a doorway.
Ahead is the cowshed — a long feed line with stalls on both sides and glass pipes in the ceiling.
The cows swing their tails and look at her big-eyed. In the air is a strong animal odor.
Melanie peeks into the barn. It is almost completely empty, though inside fat flies are buzzing.
The cows moo more loudly, as if they are expecting something.
“Why aren’t you outside?” Melanie asks at the same time that she goes to the first stall, then stops and slaps her hand to her mouth. “Oh, my God!”
The cows are shaking and milk is streaming from their teats; their udders are swollen and little streams of milk are running along the filthy floor; mix and become larger streams and flow in the end into that animal mess where the milk blends with piss and shit.
The feed line is empty; the cows are famished and neglected.
“The poor things!” Melanie is heartsick. She then hurries into the barn. Inside it there is a bale of hay. She takes up an armful of hay, goes back over the barn floor but she stops in her tracks when she steps onto something that cracks open.
She looks down. What’s that? On the floor there are pottery shards, as if something had broken, and a little farther in there is a dark spot, dark-red and glossy. Around it are coal-black flies.
Is that blood?
Melanie looks ahead toward the corridor, a confused expression on her face. Why haven’t the cows been milked?
What’s going on here?
Melanie hesitates, then tosses the hay away and runs out of the barn. Her heart is racing in her chest. She is about to take the same way out but there is no doorknob on the door.
She pounds on the door with her bare palms. “Frida?”
What is she going to do?
Melanie begins to lose her mind. She blinks and looks then to the side, to the open door and the dark chamber. She rushes forward silent, gropes inside on the wall, finds a switch and turns on a light. The chamber appears to be used for feed storage. In the middle of the floor there is a barrel full of water. The concrete floor is blue; on it lie drowned rats. Up from out of the barrel stick stiff legs in pants and shoes. Melanie screams at the top of her lungs and backs away from the doorway.
There is a dead man in the barrel.
She turns around, runs across the corridor, opens the door opposite and feels as if the blood is freezing in her veins.
Melanie stares as if paralyzed into the white-painted room. Down from out of the ceiling hangs a chain with an iron hook. On the iron hook hangs a limbless human body. Under the chalk-white body is an iron tub, half-full of dark blood. In the solidified blood a human head is half-submerged — staring eyes, gaping mouth. On the floor lie legs, and bloody tools — a machete and two pointed knifes.
Frida enters the house. “Hello?”
She creeps toward the vestibule. Why is she creeping toward it? Her heart is pounding in her chest. Ahead is a windowless room, some kind of coal. There is a black grandfather clock, a bookcase and a steep staircase that climbs up to the attic. From the clock comes a rhythmic ticking that echoes between the walls. Frida hardly dares breathe.
She is afraid but doesn’t even know why. The house is silent, except for the metallic ticking. There’s probably no one at home. Even this feeling, as if someone were lurking — that she was being observed, her every sound heard.
She looks to the left. There is a kitchen there. There is a corridor and at its end is a locked door. Behind it the dog whines low.
Frida is about to call out once more but refrains from it when her toes bump into something. She looks down. There is a roll of barbed wire on the floor. It is almost empty, just a spool made of hard plastic and one or two coils of thorny wire that twist across the floor.
At the side of the spool there is pair of work gloves, a forging hammer and a bundle with embroidery.
Frida follows the wire with her eyes; it runs into the dusky living room on the right. In the living room there is barbed wire crisscrossed, from floor to ceiling, from one wall to the other, and in the middle there is a thick coil that hangs in the air as if…
Hesitantly, she walks closer and opens her eyes wide. As if it were an insect wrapped in a spider web.
Frida gapes in wonder.
A spider web made of barbed wire?
Her eyes adjust to the darkness; she takes two steps closer but takes care not to hurt herself on the wire that stretches out from the oblong coil. What is really…?
Frida stops and catches her breath — she sees a finger, she sees a hand, then hair and a foot, an empty eye stares out from between the wires. There are drops of blood on the carpet.
Someone is there in the wires. A woman.
Frida screams, she holds her hand in front of her mouth, retreats two steps and screams again then. “Oh, God! Oh, God!”
She must get out. The dog starts to bark and up in the attic she hears a thud.
Frida stiffens with fear, grips the doorframe and looks up to the ceiling with an expression of terror.
“Moo!” Someone is walking across the attic. Someone or something that bellowed like a bull. The footfall is heavy and it is nearing the stairwell.
Frida screams for the third time, she takes off on her feet. She runs in the direction of the door.
She must get out!
“Moo!” There is a creaking high on the stairs when the thing that is mooing comes racing down them.
Image from Stacja Islandia
© Stéfan Máni 2015. Books at Gallimard.
© Translation from the Icelandic: Dean Hunt