Iceland, South of Vatnajökull
63.78° N, 18.06° W
“It’s cold enough to freeze the nips off a brass monkey.” Josefina Jesús-María says. She is muffled and barely recognizable; a geological enigma layered in nylon, wool, faux fur, pleather and probably polypropylene. “I mean, this ain’t the chinga tu madre cold I grew up with in Chicago, but it is still fucking cold.”
She’s gravitas; this one. Even impersonating a fashionable Eskimo seal huntress, heads turn at her entrance, watching her waddle as if she were some fallen angelic cloud with red shoe-laced boots. The lobby she enters is full. The hotel restaurant is fuller. The hotel bar fullest. She unwraps her scarves, demystifying the mummy, and in doing so, here in this bar middled in nowhere, Josefina has found an audience of the curious.
Outside, there is nothing but gravel rock and the desolation of Route 1 at the foot of the glacier Vatnajökull. The closest villages are Vík í Mýrdal (pop. 318) 95 km to the southwest and Hof (pop. 20) 60 km to the east. Those who flock here are drawn to nothing. Visitors in droves arrive in search of darkness. We initiates to the divine seek unobstructed heaven and where better to do so than a hotel middled in nowhere. Nothing here could obscure our views of the aurora borealis… nothing except clouds.
Edda is behind bar serving overpriced drinks. Her blue eyes fail to find my flailing phalanges waving her down. She moves at glacial speed; when she arrives into my geochronological epoch, I order a beer at the cost of a 1st born son or 2nd born daughter (“whichever comes first” says the fine print). Bottle in hand, I turn in search of Josefina. The hotel restaurant is run amok with anxious nocturnal-tourists watching weather reports on their phones, gloves and cameras at the ready, pleading & praying for a break in the cloud cover. I find Josefina at table with a pair of giddy Lotharios with wind-burnt cheeks and Nordic jaws. The two mountaineers are surprised when I claim the fourth seat at their table. He’s with me, Jo says to the Norse. Hmpf, they snort and nod, mildly accepting, slightly-less giddy.
These dudes climb giant ice cubes, Josefina says, introducing the long-haired and strong-jawed Vikings at our table. And… she adds, more importantly, they have smuggled a bottle of Brennivín under their coats. Oh? There is a single waiter waiting the tables: the peevish and pinch-faced Dagmar. When Dagmar turns his back, my tablemates, Nic & Siggi, take a slug of the schnapps. Fair enough; Jo and I take our own swigs timed with Dagmar’s back.
After the 1st Shot of Brennivín
“Black Death” they call it. An aquavit flavored with caraway seeds, Brennivín tastes like a ham sandwich on rye if the ham were cured in battery acid. It’s enough to curse a mother. Josefina curses mine and I Siggi’s. Nic is the only one laughing and he’s watching cosplay elf-porn on his phone.
After cleansing her palate with a slug of Arctic Pale Ale, Josefina Jesús-María beckons to the many Christmas season illustrations decorating the walls of the restaurant, asking what’s the deal with the coked-out chiflado leprechauns? Siggi giggles, these are the Yule Lads. Sons of child-eating troll woman, Siggi tells us, the Lads are a part of Christmas tradition. They are wintry boogeymen described by Amma to convince grandchildren to clean their plate. Siggi begins naming off the various thieves, like Askasleikir the bowl-licker and Bjúgnakrækir the sausage-swiper and Gluggagægir the window-peeper. Josefina laughs, mentioning the Lads remind her of men she knew of in Tampa. Not to be forgotten, Siggi insists, is Giljagaur, the gully-gark, who hides in the shadows of young mothers waiting to thieve milk from the lactating breast. Knew him too, Josefina recalls, we called him Pete St. Pete.
After the 2nd Shot of Brennivín
“Black Death” is a lil’ bit less deathy on second sip, opines Jo.
We learn Nic is from New Zealand and has come to Iceland for work because commercial glacier guiding back home has literally melted away. We learn Siggi is nervous of hiking off-trail lest he step on an invisible elvish village. I mention the tales I’ve heard in the souks of Old Fez about a kingdom of dwarves living in the Atlas Mountains. Nic tells Josefina seal-hunters use the scent of menstruating women to catch seals. Jo says this might be the worst pick-up line in the history of Homo sapiens. Nic belches out his nose and returns to his elf porn.
After the 3rd Shot of Brennivín
Witches could protect us from the evil devil whales or mediate the whale curses, Siggi sez. But after the Brennuöldin witch-burnings of the 17th Century, there weren’t any witches left. Now the illhveli are unfettered.
“If you were crushed by a glacier, know you were one of the loves in my life.” Josefina says, sleepily, to me or someone looming above me as she lies on the floor.
After the 4th Shot of Brennivín
I’m beginning to like this Brennivín. Josefina Jesús-María’s taste for it has soured. She says she feels like she’s been ear-fucked by a stick of licorice.
Sigmund Simunderson continues his dissertation on Icelandic fishwife lore, explaining how cross-eyed babies were the fault of the birthing mother staring straight into the aurora borealis while giving birth. And, adds Josefina, if you jag-off while looking at the northern lights an angel loses its wings. Siggi, offended by this foreign algebra, strongly suggests “no” as the lights blink…
It is closing time. It is midnight and the restaurant is closing. We’re being ushered into the already crowded lobby full of hotel guests, most of which are Japanese speaking hurriedly and excitedly. We find a corner to ourselves, near the computer kiosk, where Nic sets up his backpack of booze for us to continue our descent from purgatory. I’m warm and tingly and shoeless and sliding around the floor in my socks and mostly happy, yet paranoid about these Viking mountaineers who are waiting for me to nod-off before they kidnap Jo…
I begin to sleep against the wall when Josefina shakes me awake.
After the 5th Shot of Brennivín
Pinched-nose and peeved-face Dagmar finds us, sniffing at the caraway scent on our collective breath. His shift is through and he’s a bone to pick with us. He’s been listening to our bullshit and wonders whether we’ve given any consideration to the illhveli menace. Siggi mutters and leaves for the lavatory. Dagmar tells us the story of Rauðkembingur, the red-crested evil whale…
The illhveli whale curse has destroyed many Icelandic families. When any man attempts to harpoon the mythological red-crested whale, whether successful or not, the entire family is doomed. The Rauðkembingur will destroy the harpooner’s ship and then will draw each member of the harpooner’s family into the sea until each has drowned. So many families have been eliminated by the Rauðkembingur that the evil whales, these illhveli, have had to set their eyes on foreigners to further their vendetta against man. The illhveli use the northern lights to mesmerize tourists. A visitor from Taipei, for example, could be mesmerized by a Rauðkembingur through the aurora borealis and return home to Taiwan to drown in the East China Sea and pass the curse of the illhveli to the next of kin.
A Break in the Clouds
The bottle is empty. Dagmar has left for the night. A woman runs into the hotel screaming bloody murder, or so it seems as we do not speak Japanese, but a kind soul translates, “there is a break in the clouds!” The northern lights have shown themselves! I look at Jo and Jo at me and me at the red-crested whale haunting my imagination and we agree with a look, Heaven can wait. We’re ready for bed.
Or not! Jo is trying to make herself crossed-eyed but has again failed. This is you agreeing with a look, she says, attempting to cross her eyes again. So heaven can’t wait, I ask. We’re not ready for bed? You got to bed, she says and rushes after the sober Japanese tourists. I find my boots and rush into the early winter morning air, onto the moonscape, chasing after her under the northern lights.