On the Way to the Thing
It was cold in the way that only Iceland can be cold. The houses in Iceland aren’t made of wood. It’s a volcanic island and therefore all the buildings need to be built to a certain code, to withstand, I guess, volcanos and other seismic activity. So the houses are stone and concrete and it is cold ten months out of the year. Not colder than New York, where I was from, but the cold never seemed to abate because it bled into every pore of every squat grey building and, at nineteen, I wondered sometimes if I would ever be warm again.
But Daddy and my sister, Meg, and her newly minted boyfriend, David, were visiting for my wedding and my father, a professor of linguistics, was in his glory. Iceland is every linguists’ wet dream. The language is captured in time, ambered for a thousand years in isolation and bad weather. And here his own daughter, a disappointment in so many ways, had married an actual Icelander who was also fluent in German, Danish, Swedish and English. What a son-in-law! Before we’d moved to Iceland, Daddy had had Kommi (short for Kormakur) read the poetic Edda onto cassette tapes and interviewed him about the pronunciation and relationship between words. On top of being Icelandic – which would have been enough to satisfy my father – he was hulking specimen of manhood. Kommi was six foot six inches – just shy of two meters – and he was incredibly strong (a normal man would struggle under one box of books, while Kommi cheerfully carried three, smiling and not losing his breath) and handsome in the way that very large boys are – big blue eyes, sandy blonde hair, dimples when he smiled. And he could do all the manly things that my father wished he could also do but couldn’t actually – fix stuff, move stuff, drink massive amounts of beer. Daddy had absolute confidence in Kommi.
Frankly, I had absolute confidence in him as well. Right up until that day, he seemed infallible in my teenage eyes. I had moved away from Daddy at sixteen and although I still desperately wanted his approval in all things, I was also blindly and fiercely independent. I wasn’t going to college. That bourgeois bullshit was what my father and step-mother were all about. Instead I joined the Socialist Workers Party that August of 1989, just two months after graduating high school, and then dropped out the same day, deciding to move to Iceland to join the sister party there with my boyfriend of three months. Kommi was in New York volunteering at the publishing wing of the SWP, Pathfinder, and he was supposed to go back. He asked to stay longer but his request was denied. It took me under thirty seconds to decide to move to Iceland with him. It seemed like the revolution would be easier to start in such a small country, anyway. And Kommi seemed so absolutely sure of everything and smart in a Vulcan sort of way but much better looking than Spock. Not really my type – all those muscles – but he made me feel dainty and with my Russian-Jew peasant build, that was a rarity. And he worshipped me. That helped.
So it made absolute sense to get married at nineteen. Not for the institution of marriage which was, of course, a tool of capitalism to keep women subjugated – of course not! But I’d get my Icelandic citizenship faster and I could join the fish workers’ union, where all the action was. And, of course, I was entirely safe because I was with Kommi and nothing bad could happen and, after a life time of terrible things happening, mostly but not entirely at Daddy’s hands (as hard as I try, I cannot really blame him for my mother’s death from breast cancer when I was eleven), I was pretty content to have the rest of my life be emotionally staid. Or so I thought in that way that one thinks they know everything at nineteen.
Daddy wanted to see the Þing, (pronounced as though the word Thing and Think were being pronounced together) the site of the original Icelandic Parliament. Iceland has the oldest parliament in the world and it all started at this large rock in a valley with great acoustics. The people of early Iceland would stand, their backs to the audience, and make their arguments to the wall. The sound would bounce back and everyone would be able to hear, despite the wind and rain and snow and possibly even on a rare entirely sunny day. Daddy wanted to stand in front of the rock and speak and have his voice echo over Iceland, pretending he was a huge, brutal-looking Viking, like his son-in-law of three days.
We’d rented a jeep and set out of Reykjavik early in the morning for Þingvellir National Park. It didn’t seem like the most fun thing to do in January in Iceland, but I wanted to be a good little Icelandic wife (and no, the contradiction in my thinking was entirely blind to me back in 1991) and show my American guests the sights. It was part of the touristy “golden circle” that included Geyser, the geyser from which geysers are named and his little brother, Strokkur, which actually went off like clockwork without prompting. But we were just going to see what was essentially a big rock in the middle of nowhere when it was so cold, even the sheep huddled together out of sight.
It was January 4, 1991 and would be unusually sunny for winter in Iceland. The longest night had passed on December 21st and now there was some daytime, although usually I couldn’t tell the difference. It came midday and often with grey clouds so dark it might as well have stayed dark. At least in the dark there was the promise of the Aurora Borealis. At least in the dark you knew it was going to be dark.
We left in the black morning and headed out in the Jeep, Kommi driving. Daddy was in the front seat and Kommi was playing tour guide, telling him about the city and the history of Iceland. Daddy was a good tourist because he already knew a bit of everything, so he could ask questions, professorially leading Kommi to tell him the parts he didn’t know. I was behind Kommi, the worst seat for touring because he was too gigantic to see around, but I picked the spot so my guests would have a better view. Meg sat next to me and David sat behind Daddy. That was a good spot for him since David was not my father’s idea of the ideal specimen of a man for his daughter. A full foot shorter than Kommi, David looked like he could be my brother. He wasn’t handy, he was dogmatic and loud about it, willing to get into debates with my father (an activity akin to washing your car in a snowstorm) and he usually refused to shut up when it was clear that my father wasn’t interested.
We set out on the main road leading out of the city, past Mossfellsbier and down a long stretch of paved road, a highway by Iceland’s standards but a country road by New York’s standards. The road was sheer ice. The sun came up, glinting off the ice, and the wind playfully whipped ghosts of snow along the road. Ten minutes down the highway the car slid a bit and we all held our breath. Kommi righted it and kept on talking to Daddy and we all sighed. Kommi must know what he’s doing, we all thought. He’s an Icelander and he’s just so big and capable. And to me, he was fully grown up at twenty-eight. It would take me a while to learn that although I was nine years younger, age is relative.
Twenty more minutes passed, Kommi talking to Daddy, Daddy listening, me whispering to Meg about nothing really while David was reading. When the Jeep started to slip again, I wasn’t worried. Kommi would handle it. I was always safe with Kommi.
But then the world was thrown upside-down. Kommi fought with the car but physics won. The jeep made a perfect circle and landed back on its wheels. It shook for a moment, as if deciding if it was going to keep going, down the slight incline of the side of the road where it would have rolled and rolled us into a prehistoric field of lava. But it stopped. Our windows were all blown out and the car was dead.
“Is everyone okay?” Kommi turned to check on us.
We all murmured that we were alive except David. Meg began screaming his name, shaking him by the shoulder. He was slumped down, like a rag doll. It was only thirty seconds or so that he was out but it was terrifying. He awoke, confused and in pain, but alive. We looked around the barren landscape. There was no building or car in sight. Snow capped lava fields stretched on a flat plain.
“Right. We have to find help. Jude?” He always said my name as though there was a “ch” hidden in the middle of the “j.” Normally I thought it was adorable. Now I could barely respond.
“My arm and… my foot.” The left side of my body felt crushed. I could barely move it. As a lefty, this made me almost unmovable. The same for David but on his right side. We were both in shock, something I had heard of but never fully appreciated before that day.
“I’m fine,” Meg said. And she was. She’d been tossed between David and me and we were sufficient cushion that she was entirely unhurt except for the pebbles of glass caught in her long brown hair, some of which scraped her neck and cheeks.
Kommi and Meg, by far the most coherent of the five of us, decided they’d go and look for help. Kommi said we’d passed a farm house a few kilometers back, although I had no memory of it.
It was just after they left that I noticed Daddy’s distress. His face was covered in blood. The roof of the car above him was covered in blood. I knew head wounds bled more than other wounds but in that moment it seemed like there couldn’t be any more blood left in my father’s body.
“Daddy, let me clean your face.” I unwound the scarf from around my neck and tried to get close to him. He was inhaling his blood. I could see him breathing it in through his nose and swallowing it through his mouth. Despite all the injuries I’d sustained in my life, mostly at his hands, I had never seen so much blood.
He blocked me.
“Just wait. Kommi will get help.” He sounded gruff and wet, wheezing. I tried to feel around in his pockets for his inhaler, but he wouldn’t let me close enough to him. In the back seat, David was lost.
“So, where are we?”
“Iceland? Why are we in Iceland?”
“For my wedding.” I now had the brilliant idea of taking off my hat to clean my father. I was rebuked again.
“I don’t remember your wedding.”
I sighed. “You weren’t really there. You came the next day. You couldn’t get a flight.”
He was perplexed. “I’m not really here?”
My father started to get agitated. “Of course you’re here now!” His voice was ragged and thick with bloody mucus.
I took off my coat. The cold didn’t seem to affect me at the moment, despite the wind and absence of windows. I had to clean Daddy’s face. I got close this time, but he pushed me into the back seat with some force.
“So… I’m here with Meg. As… as a friend or as a boyfriend?”
It had been a recent decision to take their relationship from friend to lover status. It had only been a few weeks. But David was then and always had been and always would be a brother to me. I loved him like family so it seemed natural that he and Meg should be together, to make him part of our family. We always said we three knew each other since before we were born. Later, after they were married and divorced, he moved comfortably back into being our brother. It helped that Daddy was long dead by then.
“Boyfriend,” I whispered, not wanting to upset Daddy more. It wasn’t just the amount of blood he was inhaling. I didn’t yet realize how serious that would become. In his agitation, he was shaking the Jeep and we were right on the precipice of the side of the road where the slope was. I was terrified that we’d flip over again and never stop rolling.
I took off my bulky red sweater and attempted to clean Daddy again. I got even closer, so, in my shocked state, it seemed to me that what I was doing was logical.
“So, are we just friends or are we lovers?” David asked.
This was too much for my father. He knew that, at twenty-one, my sister was having sex. David was hardly her first boyfriend. But the thought of her having sex with David was too much. “Lovers!” he barked, bringing on a phlegmy cough, causing his head wound to spout more blood. He tried to turn around but was caught in his seatbelt and unable to get it undone. He began shaking the car attempting to undo it.
“Stop, Daddy, stop,” I cried, taking off my long sleeved t-shirt and attempting to somehow staunch the flow of his blood and his ire. I managed to press the button on the seatbelt.
David was slowly nodding his head, cradling his painful arm, trying to make sense of all of this and totally unaware that he was upsetting my father or that I was undressing in the freezing car. “So how did I get here?”
Just as I was about to wrap my pink shirt around Daddy’s forehead, he pushed me back and started flapping his arms. “You flew, you moron!”
“Daddy!” I cried, imagining his floundering bulk would surely send us over the edge of the road to certain death. I quickly took off my t-shirt and sat there in my bra, trying to clean Daddy’s face.
Oblivious, David went on, “So, I flew to Iceland for your wedding but I didn’t see it and Meg and I are lovers?”
“Yes!” Daddy and I both screamed as I tried to get Nelson Mandela’s face across my father’s face, to keep him calm and from bleeding to death. Luckily at that moment Kommi and Meg came back in a car. The couple driving the car lived nearby and had chains on their tires. They’d call an ambulance. They were all staring at me.
“Jude, sweetie, where are your clothes?”
It took some minutes for Kommi to redress me and longer for my sister to calm my father and David. Calming people in distress is her superpower.
Kommi was short of breath as he put my bloody clothes back on me. In the forty five minutes it took for the ambulance to come, it became more and more obvious that he was, in fact, badly hurt. Meg kept David quiet and wrapped my scarf around Daddy’s bleeding head and made soothing noises. I noticed that we were all bleeding, probably from the glass. Meg told me she got her only bruise from falling on the ice on the way to find help. Daddy and Kommi’s breathing both took on a serrated, broken quality that sounded unearthly in the barren icy landscape. It seemed like we were on Hoth, minus the Jedi powers but with Han Solo coming.
When we finally got to the hospital, everyone was taken in different directions. My mother-in-law, a nurse at another hospital, came to check on all of us.
“What’s wrong with Kommi?” I asked repeatedly to anyone who’d listen. They smiled and said he’d be fine.
Meg finally found out. “Kommi’s left lung collapsed. They had to put something in his chest to reinflate it. A tube or something. David has mild amnesia. He basically can’t remember the last few weeks. He’s actually annoying the shit out of me. And the whole right side of his body is hurt but he doesn’t have any breaks. I don’t know about Daddy. They said something about his lungs. Kommi’s mom said that they were putting him on a respirator.”
It took hours before anyone would talk to us. It was finally a tired looking young guy in blood splattered scrubs came over and spoke to us.
“Has your father ever exhibited… psychotic behavior?” We looked at each other and started laughing. This seemed to alarm the doctor. “Is this funny?”
“No, no,” Meg gasped, still laughing, “it’s just no one ever put it quite like that before. Yes. He has exhibited psychotic behavior.” If that’s what you could call a man who had violent rages where he beat his wife and then, after she died from cancer, his children. Somehow calling it psychotic seemed very funny.
“Well, he has fractured his skull. But there is an old fracture there, from childhood most likely, which was never treated. It is pressing on his frontal lobe.” This sobered us. I remembered a story.
“Daddy got thrown from his horse when he was eight,” I supplied. He’d grown up in rural Montana in the thirties and sometimes rode a horse to school.
“Yes, that could explain things. Yes. It could have altered his personality.”
“What does that have to do with his lungs, though? I thought he was going on a respirator,” Meg asked.
“Yes, the skull fracture and other lacerations on his head caused a great deal of bleeding. He inhaled his blood. He has what is sort of like pneumonia, but from having blood in his lungs. The right lung has already collapsed. We thought it best to start the respirator. We can’t do much for his skull until his breathing is under control. He’s not really awake. You can see him in the morning. We are keeping all three of them here. You should go home and rest. You must both be in pain as well.” He walked away from us, having answered some questions but not the really big ones. Like how at nineteen and twenty-one we were supposed to deal with the thought of becoming orphans? Or how to place this new-found knowledge of Daddy’s childhood injury with the years of pain he had put us through? Or how we were supposed to deal with Kommi and David being so injured when we were in shock ourselves?
I felt as though my world was crashing apart. I had left my country and married a man who I thought could keep me safe – based on what, I now wondered? That he was very tall and strong? That he was smart and dispassionate? I felt irrationally angry at him for not being what I wanted him to be. None of these thoughts were this clear then, at nineteen. It’s taken decades to sort out how unfair my expectations were.
So Meg and I took a cab back to the white cozy house Kommi and I rented close to downtown Reykjavik. That morning it had felt crowded with my father and my husband and my sister and David. It had felt safe and warm. That night, stiff in my cold bed, I realized what I had really known ever since my mother had died: no one was ever really safe.
About the Writer
Judy Hall is a writer and itinerant teacher of writing who has lived in such far flung places as Iceland, Sudan, Germany and New Jersey. Her MFA is from William Paterson University. She has been published in Literary Orphans, Digging Through the Fat, Huffington Post and many other places. She is currently seeking representation for her novel about a mother raising a child with bipolar disorder. You can read memoir and creative non-fiction by Judy on FACEBOOK.