“Are you really sure we took the right turn in Burger-something?” Suni asked me for the third time. She peered into the Icelandic darkness from which our car’s lights only cut a thin slice of black asphalt, white road markings and slender yellow street posts.
“It’s Borgarnes. We passed the turn to road 55 earlier, didn’t we?” I answered, “the one to to Buðardalúr?”
“I suppose… the sign was tiny though. And the letters look weird.” She squinted at the worn roadmap in her lap. “But that felt like it was ages ago. We should have reached 56 by now. I’m tired. This sucks.”
“Look, there is a gas station at the turn to 56. We’ll see it in the distance. And from there we’re half an hour from Stykkishólmur.”
I wasn’t too worried about driving in the night, but for Suni, it was her first time in Iceland since she was a newborn and she had yet to get used to the darkness of the North.
“It’ll be alright,” I said to ease my daughter’s mind. From her reaction, now craning her head around to look out of the rear window, it didn’t seem to work too well. And I didn’t quite believe my own words, I had to admit that she was right in a way. With our current speed, the drive from the last intersection shouldn’t have taken more than fifteen minutes, but we’ve surely passed it half an hour ago. Maybe the gas station had been closed and we missed it? But there had been no structures, no other roads, I was certain. Only the road we were on. In the worst case, we’d follow road 54 for about fifty kilometers, until it turned back in the direction of Stykkishólmur. In principle, driving down Snæfellsnes, you couldn’t get lost: it’s a peninsula with one road going in, and another one going out.
“Will they wait for us?” Suni said.
“They know we are late, I sent them a text earlier,” I explained. Hilda had replied right away, no problem, they were up late and we just had to ring, any time of the day or the night.
“Stupid airline,” my daughter now complained. I wondered where she had picked that up, since her mother had never been that grumpy. Maybe genetics, after all? Or was I the one constantly complaining about things? I should watch that, it might not be too late for Suni to drop the habit at sixteen years of age.
“What, you rather fly through a storm?” I said teasingly. “At least we did fly today, I didn’t want to be stuck at Heathrow for another day.” She acknowledged my point with a grunt.
“Still, it’s almost midnight,” she said. “Why would anyone be living out here anyway? There is nothing here.”
Apparently, her heritage didn’t guarantee a love for the north, even if I had hoped that she would love her birth country right away, just as my wife and I had learned to love the land. But she had had no chance to see much yet, just roads and the vague hints of rugged lava fields beyond. Maybe tomorrow.
“Have you considered that might be the reason for some people? You have the sea, the mountains, the low grass…plenty of horses…” I said.
“Yeah, but what if you want to go shopping? Or to the movies?”
“There’s a cinema in Borgarnes, for example. Or maybe in Akranes. But from here, you can see the northern lights, which are way better.”
Suni looked up at the sky through the windshield.
“I don’t see any…” she said, a hint of petulance from the childhood she was just leaving behind.
“Yeah, it’s cloudy,” I said, unable to keep the sarcasm from my voice. She did smile a little bit though.
“Look, it’s a light!” I said, when another fifteen minutes had passed in silence between us. Indeed, the only sign of some human presence besides the road and our car. Since the air is so clean in Iceland and there are no other light sources, a single bulb can be seen from kilometers away. It took us another couple of minutes to reach a turn, which led to a smallish lot, right next to the street. A single lamp on an ancient, bent post illuminated a gas pump. I parked next to it. The sudden stillness and absence of movement as I turned off the car were ringing in my ears.
“Let me check. I think this is the gas station…although I do remember it larger. But maybe I’m mixing things up. You can wait if you want.”
I got out of the car and stepped into the crisp air. A slight breeze made me close the zipper on my sweater. The car’s interior light painted a perfect triangle on the rough asphalt, until I shut the door carefully, as if not to disturb someone nearby. I felt my head clear up and breathed in slowly, deeply, trying to savor the smell of sea, grass and moss.
Walking around to the gas pump, each step made a dry crunch that sounded like chewing crackers. The pump itself was dilapidated, worn and rusty. All digits were set to zero and if there was any doubt that it wasn’t functioning anymore, the hose that connected to the nozzle was torn in two. When we drove to Arnarstapi two years ago, just my wife and me, there had been a big N1 gas station here...well at least one at the intersection of 54 and 56. There was no intersection here either, nothing but an old lamp and an old pump. Suni watched me from inside the car, scowling thoughtfully. She rolled down the window, just a few centimeters.
“Well? This looks broken,” she said.
“Hm, yes. It’s not the intersection yet.”
Confused, I walked back around and got in the driver’s seat. Where did we miss the turn? We pulled back on the lonely road.
“Can I play some games on your phone?” Suni asked, apparently bored by the futility of making streets appear from wishpower. I nodded, maybe it would take her mind off the worry. From the corner of my eye, I could see her fingers steer the little black snake around the screen, trying to feed her pixels. I never understood the appeal of that game, but Suni was engrossed. At a steady ninety kilometers per hour, the road appeared a twenty or thirty meters ahead of us, drawn from the darkness, then vanished into oblivion behind, tinted red. It was easy to misjudge distances in Iceland, especially at night. I was almost sure that we had missed the proper turn to road 56 and were now well along the way along 54, which would soon turn north, climbing a pass in steep turns. Behind the pass, it would turn eastward again, back to our original destination. The weather seemed to be stable, there was no rain or snow (not unheard of in September), nothing besides a slight breeze and a low layer of clouds that obscured the sky. Maybe there were northern lights today, but not visible from here.
We drove on in our little bubble, the street varying not much. If we were still on 54, we should have started the drive up the pass. Yes, I thought to myself, just as we should have hit the intersection with a big, brightly illuminated N1 gas station about an hour ago. I wasn’t really worried, Iceland was one of the safest countries on earth. Any roads that were less frequented soon turned to gravel, so I’d know to turn around then. But we were still on a relatively new, paved street, much like the main highway number 1. Maybe they had built some new roads here, adjacent to the old one? There was no real rationale behind a project this big, out here. Yet, confusion spread through me, a feeling of unease, probably fueled by worry about Suni.
Another light appeared in the distance, but I stifled the urge to cry out again - Suni had fallen asleep eventually, the tiny display of the cellphone dark, head tilted against the window. The clock nearing half past 12. We’d left Borgarnes well before 10 and I had to be honest that I was lost, at least as far as that’s possible in the west of Iceland. As the light grew, so diminished my hopes that it was finally the N1, even though I wanted it to be. It remained a single light, no big signs, no more traffic. I fixated on this point, hoping it would turn out to be the emergency light of the gas station: maybe there had been a power outage. Eventually, I turned off the street into the small parking lot. As we neared the lamp and an old pump, I felt dread creeping up my spine. Was this coincidence? Another parking lot with the same light, the same old pump? Had we been going in circles? The bent lamp post was the same we had seen before. I rubbed my eyes, left the car in idle because I suddenly feared the silence. What was this place? Undoubtedly, the pump was the same: all digits turned to zeros, the hose frayed off from years of disregard. And yet, a single yellowish lamp casting the only light apart from the car.
Suni must have noticed that we weren’t moving. She roused from sleep.
“Are we there?” she said, yawning and looked at me, smiling a bit. Then she saw that we weren’t in a town, as promised and spotted the rusty gas pump next.
“Did you…did we turn around? Do you know where to go?”
I reached over and ruffled her blonde hair, trying to be confident.
“Well, maybe you were right and we took a wrong turn. I think we could be on the main route, driving north instead of west. But I’m really tired and exhausted. The sun should be up in a few hours, we could simple stay here until it gets brighter and easier to orientate.”
“But there is nothing here…,” Suni said tiredly, as if to finish her earlier argument.
“Look, I can’t drive all night. Here,” I reached behind her seat and rummaged through my backpack to extract half a bag of chips. “Dinner is ready.” I offered her the bag with a smile. “It’s gonna be better tomorrow, I promise. This sucks. I feel with you, really.”
She hesitated to accepted the peace offering.
“Maybe it was a bad idea to come,” she said.
After some thoughtful seconds, she added: “I don’t even know them. How can you even know a person only from letters? I mean, just because she is my…mother…I don’t know.” She trailed off, staring off into the dark.
“It will be fine.” I really felt too exhausted to find more appropriate words, to encourage her, perhaps even to convince myself. “You know, maybe Hilda can take us on her boat to spot some whales!”
“That would be nice,” Suni conceded. I turned on the radio and we even managed to get some faint music and Icelandic chatter, which helped a lot to smooth our unease. Some sign, however noisy, that we weren’t alone. We munched the chips, and I even recognized some old songs, like stony cliffs rising from a sea of static. I locked the car from inside, turned off the lights and we let the radio sway us into sleep.
A draft at my face woke me, my back sore from the unnatural sitting position in the tilted drivers seat. Suni’s door was open and her seat was empty. I put my hand on it, it was strangely cold. The radio had turned off, as had the ceiling light that should illuminate when the doors are open. Had we drained the battery? It was still dark outside, the blackness almost substantial. All I could see was the rusty gas pump and the yellow shapes that the single bulb cast inside the vehicle. My body was protesting, the coldness from outside sucking almost all energy from my muscles. I shivered, pulling the sweater closer. Had Suni gone to relieve herself? How long was she out there? Maybe the clouds were gone and some northern lights were out?
I exited the car, the same dry crunch underneath my feet as earlier in this seemingly endless night. No lights overhead, no stars, no moon. The salty breeze was the only indication that I wasn’t standing inside a cave or a tunnel.
“Suni?” I called out, walking around the car. “Darling?”
She wasn’t there, not behind the gas pump, where the shadows were made of a different kind of deep black than around me. Where had she gone? Had she left with someone else? But I would have awoken at the arrival of another car, I was sure.
I’m not a religious or superstitious person, but there are situations which are so profoundly drenched in weirdness and dread that it squeezes your whole human existence, igniting some primal parts of the soul that helped humanity survive for aeons. It’s a visceral reaction, goosebumps and some icyness in your spine, a tingle behind your eyeballs. I tried to breathe, but my vision began to blur and I was surprised to find myself crying. Must have been the cold air, I tried to reason, before I was hit by wave of the uttermost fatigue, like I had been awake for days and my body was telling me that sleep was the only option now. I leaned against the car, feeling the cold metal. Where had Suni gone? Where were we? I hadn’t really believed that we were on route 1, too few turnoffs, too little traffic. Then where? Trying to call out for Suni again, I could only yawn, ending in a half-spasm that almost left me retching. In this moment, the singular bulb that had been illuminating me, winked out, without making a single sound.
Anyone growing up in an urban area, or even a village, has little chance to experience true darkness. Here in Iceland, this is possible: no light pollution, not a single light within a hundred kilometers. On an overcast night, it gets dark, no, more: black, tenebrous, lightless. My hands felt weird, wet, spiky and there was a pressure on my back that I couldn’t match with a sensation that made sense. For some reason, the sharp feeling from my hand made me imagine small white balls dancing around irritatingly. I closed my fingers and there was some recognition. This was gravel, the pressure on my back came from the fact that I was lying on the ground. Had I fallen down, or fallen asleep, or both? Where was Suni?
Blinking, I tried to find out if I was actually awake and even if my eyes were open, but it didn’t make a difference. My brain made up some colorful shapes, reacting to the absence of information. At some point, I pulled myself up into a sitting position, still unsure of where I was. I turned my head - blackness here, blackness there. Flashes of light when I blinked, all inside my head. A tiredness wanting me to go back to sleep, but I fought against it. I had to find Suni.
Then, a new shade of black, a shadowy difference. I counted breaths, as I reached ten, I could make out some object next to me, within my reach. Touching rough metal, I assumed it must be the gas pump. It felt red and rusty under my fingertips. More black shapes around me, some smooth surface that had to be the car. Maybe I could get the ignition going? As I pulled myself up, I was hit by vertigo from my brain, trying to tell which way was upright. I never fully realised how much we depend on vision to fix our position in space. Maybe the non-darkness was the first hint of dawn? I looked around and there, far behind the parking lot, were three shapes, pulsating from darkness to blackness. I moved towards them. It was impossible to tell their distance. Were they small and nearby? Or gigantic and far away? They reacted to my approach, because slowly, they started to actually light up, glowing from within on the surrounding landscape. I stepped from the gravelly parking lot into the mossy and stony ground, fixated on the lights. They didn’t seem like anything human-made, more resembling pebbles or boulders. I stumbled over the sharp rocks, hoping to find Suni at the source of whatever happened there.
The three objects were indeed quite large, at least car sized. By now, they were emitting a strong glow which reflected in some low puddles. The breeze rippled the smooth surface of the water. Their light had a strangely sunlike quality where it lit up the mossy lava stones, strong and alive. Yet, behind their halos, the Icelandic night was the darkest it had ever been. The glowing rocks weren’t on the ground, they hovered several feet in the air. Then I saw that they were tethered to the ground by ropes or cables, against which they strained, as if trying to escape. Their light was so alive, like the plays of embers within a fire, feeding, fading, shifting.
“Suni?” I called out, my voice lost so that I wasn’t even sure if I had said anything at all. The floating rocks drew me in more, I stumbled over the sharp edges of the rocks, ever closer. From somewhere I heard a low humming noise - was it the wind? Was it the blood in my ears? I turned my head, but behind me, the landscape was lost in black like it was hiding behind a thick veil. Behind the veil, a threat loomed, like an abyss that I was almost falling into. When I faced back to the rocks, my perspective turned and the objects weren’t strapped to the ground anymore, they were hanging and I myself was hanging, but not yet falling into the vast and hostile emptiness below me, or above me. Maybe if I could reach a cable, I would be able to hold on - maybe Suni had already fallen into the nothingness, maybe I should let go, too. Taking a step forward on the ceiling was the hardest thing I had ever done. Yet I was compelled to move on, only a few steps towards the bright irregular globes that dangled down. The noise that I had heard earlier was the whispering of the void, waves, wind, leaves in the darkness, slowed down so that each sound would last a lifetime, or sped up so the whole of creation was condensed into a few seconds. Leaning forward, closing my eyes, I reached for a rope and felt a tingling in my hands just before I grabbed it. I lost my connection to the ground then, my feet whipping up and around, hanging onto a thick, oily cable over an inverted world of blackness.
There were three floating or hanging rocks, they pulsed together in one rhythm. I had to think of my family, the three of us. What would happen when Suni met her biological mother? What would it mean for our family?
From all the confusion arose a feeling of deep serenity. My life had brought me to this point, all my decisions had led me to be here, clutching a cable and trying not to fall into nothingness. And yet, I felt no panic, not even the fear of death itself. This was a better end than most had, and my life had certainly been better than most people's. The void held the promise that all my mistakes and wrong decisions had, in the end, been what defined me and my life. And Suni had grown up to be an independent girl, she would find her own path, even without me.
I looked down into the void and what I saw filled me with awe. All those hues of darkness, all those shades, all those shapeless forms! What a marvel it was!
And when I finally let go of the rope, I didn’t drop down, instead I slowly floated, almost flying over the endless organic uncolored clouds, slowly swallowed by the promise of the vacuum.
A sharp knocking yanked me into a world of cold greyish wetness. I hit my head on a hard surface, which helped me realize that I was in a car, behind the wheel. It was bright morning outside, the windshield fogged up, but I saw a human shape outside the driver’s side. I rolled down the window to face a red-cheeked blond woman who peered at me with the utmost suspicion.
“Good day, sir, but you can’t stay here,” she said with a typical Icelandic accent, hard on the “r” and a little clipped.
“What…what’s here?” I said and she stepped back. I opened the door and saw that the car was standing on a tarmac, just a few meters behind the entry area, so that no other car had a way to reach the gas station. The woman, who was supposedly the operator, crossed her arms and shook her head.
“I’m very sorry. It was very late last night and we got lost. We somehow missed the intersection for road 56.”
“56? It’s right here,” she said, pointing at the road sign not even a stone’s throw away from me. True enough, I recognized the intersection and the sign from my previous visits. But hadn’t there been an old gas pump here yesterday, under a single light? Yet this was a modern station, with neon signs and new pumps, a little shop on the side.
“I’ll move right away,” I said and got back into the car. Suni was still fast asleep, almost hidden inside her black hoodie. As I turned the ignition, she opened her eyes.
“We there?” she said with a hearty yawn.
“Almost. It’s not far.”
The wipers cleaned off the windshield and presented us with a pristine view of the Snæfellsnes landscape: green moss, turning grey on steeply sloped mountains, brightly lit by the early morning sun. I drove the car onto the proper parking space.
“Let’s grab a coffee,” I said and Suni followed me into the warm and cozy abode of the gas station shop. The woman who had woken me worked behind the counter.
“Two cups of coffee, please,” I tried in my unpractised Icelandic, which seemed to work.
“I think I fell asleep on the road somewhere,” Suni said, wrapping her arms around me, in a cuddly mood. “Didn’t think it was this far…”
“Yeah, the flight was exhausting. I think I had lost the way and stopped here,” I said, without really believing it, because my memory told me something different, something more unsettling.
“So you didn’t leave the car in the night?” I asked Suni. She shook her head, frowning at me. The woman handed us two cardboard cups and pointed at the milk carton and sugar on the corner. “Help yourselves.” My daughter added as much milk as would fit and at least three spoons of sugar, spilling some coffee and wiping it away with too many napkins and a “Sorry!”, directed at the woman. For a few minutes, the two of us stood there, sipping the hot liquid over the repeated gurgle of the coffee machine, just watching the landscape outside, over which the sun slowly rose. When Suni excused herself to find a bathroom, I turned to the woman.
“Tell me please, is there some kind of…public art around here?”
She raised her eyebrow.
“You are looking for a museum?”
“No, not a museum, more like an open…art installation? With some lights?”
“Nothing, no exhibition here,” she said, shaking her head.
“And over to Borgarnes? Or maybe some road construction?”
“Not that I know, no.”
I could feel the woman’s gaze on my back all the way as we left the station and headed for the car.
Back in the vehicle, there was some evidence that I hadn’t imagined the whole night: the empty crisps bag stuffed in the door’s pocket, the car’s gas tank already a good way towards empty, way more than to expect for the two hundred or so kilometers from the airport. Where did we drive all night? Where was the single old pump with the light? Suddenly, I remembered the dream, about the floating rocks and falling into darkness. The memory brought forth a strange emotion, a deep and wholesome sense of relaxation and contentment. I smiled, almost involuntarily, at the unexpected burst of good mood.
After we crested the pass, the ocean shimmered before us, the far peaks of the Westfjords drawing a squiggly line on the horizon.
“Wow, it is beautiful,” Suni said, shifting with a restlessness that I recognized from myself. A restlessness to go out and explore the land. Whatever strange thing had happened last night, I knew that everything was going to be OK.