The view in every direction was the same—sloping tables of wind-scraped land tilted this way and that as if they’d been dropped by a running child. There were no trees, just an incongruous carpet of bright green grass sown across volcanic rock. Low clouds scudded past overhead, the sky bearing down on Pete Harmon so that he seemed to be on the summit of a high peak rather than twenty feet above sea level. That’s how he would describe Iceland to Tower, a mountain breaking through the ocean.
So then, he was lost at sea.
He laughed and patted himself figuratively on the back for the strength of character it took to laugh in such a situation. Lost in a harsh country of ice and rock. He wished Tower was here to see it, it might have changed his opinion.
He didn’t try to tell himself it was fine out here on his own, that he didn’t miss Tower’s company. Their trips were a tradition, one of the few he had left, a yearly reprieve from the pressures of his practice. He was happiest during the months of preparations—poring over maps, researching the patterns, caravanning down to the fly shop—and on the flight before they touched down. Watching the threads of water flash under the wing, the liquid shimmer of possibility. It wasn’t the same without him, and Pete knew this solo trip would be his first and last.
The core of the earth was close under his feet, contained by a thin skin of rock and gravelly soil. He bent beside a geothermal vent to let the steam warm him, though he suspected it probably chilled him even more in the long run. He heard rumblings in the distance, hungry belly growls like thunder rolling. This was newborn country, geologically speaking. He stomped his feet, clapped his hands against his sides. His lips were too cold to whistle properly, but he tried anyway. Squeaked out a pitiful, thin peep, and laughed again.
You could summon the hiddenfolk, Einar had told him, with a whistle.
“They run this place,” he’d explained, while they detoured a half-hour around a boulder in the road he claimed the hiddenfolk had put there. “Not the government, not the Prime Minister, not Bjork.” He snorted and bounced over a lip of calcified mud at the edge of the road. “She might be hiddenfolk, though, now I think about it. One of their bastards.”
They could change the landscape itself, Einar alleged, move mountains and rivers, even alter the sky. Their powers were vague and enormous, and they used them according to a code only they understood. Out of simple mischief sometimes, but at other times directed toward more serious ends—to protect the helpless, and to punish the deserving.
“’They are little gods brought to life’, Halldor Laxness said.” Einar smiled and spit a dollop of snuss into a coffee cup. “He was a smart man and a great writer, but a little too clever for Iceland.”
Pete squinted out into the empty landscape. How nice it would be to believe in such things, fairytale creatures behind every stroke of good and bad luck. At the core of every disease, nestled down in each corrupt cell. He could just whistle over Cicely, promise a favor in return for a favor.
He saw her thin and frail in her tidy room, the disease moving invisibly beneath her skin like ants burrowing, and saw Tower at the window looking out on the field behind the hospital, the muddy pool of rainwater. He thought out there was where life was lived, that the two worlds—inside/outside, sickness/health—were mutually exclusive. But Pete knew they existed on a single plane of possibility, that the wall between them was as soft and permeable as a cloud bank.
He stepped out into the hall and breathed in the vaguely ammoniac air, listened to the hospital’s soothing metronomic heart, and he felt a contentment he felt nowhere else but on a river. It was a world that he understood, for the most part, and that he admired. Sometimes as he made his rounds or took the long way down to the OR, he would stop in the middle of a hallway and listen to the whir of the ducts like water flowing, the low voices rippling. He’d watch the carpet turn liquid, the silver backs of trout flick through doorways.
He crooked his finger under the cork of the rod handle, felt it balance perfectly. It was a beautiful creation, supple, hand-wrapped bamboo. It had been a gift from his father before their first big trip to the Yellowstone, passed on to him in an oddly ceremonious moment—his dad’s head down, offering it butt-first like a sword, eyes smooth and glassy as a junkie’s. It was an attempt at connection, Pete understood, however tardy and frail. He decided he’d give it to Cicely when he got back.
The rod tip sawed between two clusters of stars showing through the half-twilight. Maybe he could dowse his way back to the car, let the rod point the way. He turned in a slow arc, panning across the sky where the unfamiliar stars jumbled together like spilled salt. Jesus Christ, he muttered, what stupid fucking— just before the rod picked out the low-slung cabin tucked into a cleft in the rock.
There was no lock on the thick slab of a door, which swung open surprisingly easily. A cast iron stove sat in the corner, hunched on bowed iron legs, its paunch stuffed already with wood. He got it going with one match and flopped down on the floor like a dog worn out from chasing its own tail.
Cicely returned as he descended into a sleep like a fall, as she often did, without ceremony or demands. She sang the song he played when he was in the OR, and that he’d found himself unknowingly singing at her bedside:
“Baby you’re lost, baby you’re a lost cause.”
He’d thought at one time there was something funny about it in the context of the OR, but he’d almost buckled with shame when Cicely looked up at him from the bed with that little crease across her forehead, and Tower clenched his hands into fists at the window.
He woke to words he couldn’t understand, grunts and trills like animal sounds. There wasn’t much light in the room, but in the face hanging over him he could clearly discern the distinctive features of Down’s syndrome.
“I couldn’t find my car,” he said.
The girl said more that he couldn’t understand, then opened his creel where two fat char sat on a bed of grass. She lifted them and turned their heads so that they faced her. She said something to them softly before gutting them on the counter.
They ate both the fish, along with some shriveled potatoes fried in butter. The girl laid the fish bones carefully and neatly on her plate as she ate, studying their pattern and every now and then tsking or nodding. She turned the plate expectantly to Pete at one point, to show him some divined meaning, but he only saw a scatter of bones tied loosely by strips of skin.
After they’d eaten, she lifted his rod and pack and held them out.
“Nordura,” she said.
Pete recognized the name, one of the rivers on his list.
“Lead the way,” he said.
She smiled her wide smile again, her face as smooth as the flank of their breakfast char.
They followed a long incline up out of the valley, along the spine of a glacial moraine that could have been set down a week ago. The girl reached the crest well before him, and immediately began jumping up and down and pointing at something. At the river, Pete thought, until he reached the top and saw big puffs of smoke curling from a wide mountain in the distance. Drifting toward them in a flat-bottomed plume.
"Eyjafjöll! Eyjafjöll!" she cried.
The smoke puffed and swirled like a time-lapse film, black cauliflower blooms spilling upward from the volcano, then curling back on themselves. Swollen lobes merging like cells, splitting and mutating.
Pete sometimes imagined that Cicely was his own daughter—he saw them watching movies together, playing Scrabble, cooking not very good meals and laughing at the results. And he saw them at other times too, when he could hear himself scolding.
It was probably too late for him to have kids of his own. Fifty next year. He'd have to marry a girl the same age as most of his friends' kids. Cicely's age. It was too lecherous for him.
He tried not to think about what he was missing, the closeness that he saw between Cicely and Tower, their tangled nerves and hearts. He sidestepped the question of posterity, who’d be left after him to remember, to carry on. Because what was there to carry on, really? He was an easily replaced face on a medical group's website, a cog in a machine. Traveling? Fishing? Did that qualify as a legacy? It was something, anyway, something you could turn to when you turned away from other things.
They reached the river to find black ash flakes falling on the water and dissolving in bursts. The girl stuck her tongue out to catch one of the flakes, spit and tried to scrape the taste away.
He rigged up his rod, hoping the reel wouldn't foul. The falling ash flicked past like scratches on an old film. He thought about collecting some to take back, to show Tower, maybe give some to Cicely. To provide evidence of the world still being born. To demonstrate that, despite recent reports, they weren't at the end of everything.
He cast a wooly bugger out to the eddy line, closed his eyes and pictured the contours of the river beneath the surface. Watching the fly drift through, anticipating the bite. It was a habit he’d developed when he was a kid, fishing along murky ditches and dry fields. He would watch the hook floating, feel the water washing over him in a single, unbreakable sheet. Later, when he moved on to sleeker and prettier rivers, he would see the after-image of peaks and rimrock, the speckled stones at the waterline. It was all so beautiful, and it left him with a craving—the only frustrating part—wanting badly to somehow take it in, to taste it, to make it part of him.
He still remembered the feeling just before Tower pulled him out of the Blackfoot that time, the moment he gave in and stopped fighting. His arms and legs unburdening, his chest relaxing, everything sharp and clear as he stood on the border looking across. It terrified him still when he thought about how willing he’d been to give in, the resentment like bile when he was yanked back.
It had passed quickly, of course, with his first gulped breath (though it returned unexpectedly from time to time, tugging at his sleeve). A chest-burning rush of love shot through him, and he promised right there—tearfully, ridiculously—to be the watchdog of Tower's newborn daughter. To let nothing happen to little Cicely. Knowing that she would not always be little Cicely, and still believing himself capable of keeping such a promise.
She cried at her baptism, the icy water splashing across her forehead, running into her eyes. They were tied immediately in that way, bonded by water. Later, he and Tower together taught her to fish the little creek near their house. Pete would come up for the weekends, and they would hike out together through the woods to the chalk creek. She was more interested in the birds nesting in the low cliffs and the viceroy butterflies hovering over the creekside asters, but it didn't matter. Fishing was to a large extent an excuse, Pete had known that for some time.
When she was first admitted to Mercy, he tried to carry the connection inside by bringing a goldfish to her hospital room. It was very much against the rules, but he knew no one would call him on it. No nurse or PA certainly. The bowl sat on the sill in the little window alcove, the fish swimming aimlessly inside and periodically throwing itself against the glass. You could hear it, a little ping every so often. Then it would float slowly toward the surface before recovering and swimming back into its corner behind the little pirate's chest.
Tower took it away before it died, something Pete himself should have done. Its color had faded quickly, no longer gold but a nearly transparent gray like the belly of a lamprey. It recovered more and more slowly each time it charged the glass, floating for longer periods on the surface, gills working.
"You're an idiot sometimes," Tower said.
A nun passed them in the hall, her head lowered to hide her smile. They were always shuffling past, fingering their beads, their black shoes clicking on the tiles.
"I thought it would cheer her up."
"Just fix her. That'll cheer her up."
"Yeah you can."
He watched the nun's back, the black cloth off which everything flowed like water. They made him uneasy, the nuns. He couldn’t help feeling they were working against him, with their magic book and their incantations. He’d hear them whispering with patients, catch them glancing secretively at him. In their eyes, he was a partner to the disease.
"I want to bring in a specialist."
"Nobody else," Tower said.
"It’s the rule for this kind of thing, Matt. You don’t take care of your own.”
“Bullshit. That’s the opposite of the rule.”
“Not here. Not in medicine. You don’t treat family, that's the rule."
“We’re not family.”
“Close enough.” He thought that might strike Tower as touching, but it didn’t. “Your judgment goes when you’re too close. You can’t make the hard choices.”
It was true, whether or not it was the real reason for his decision. He considered calling down the hall to the nun, having her explain to Tower how weak and faulty people are, how they can't be depended on to carry the day.
“It’s like a fishing guide. Think of him like that.”
“No, really. He knows where to look. And where not to waste his time.”
When Pete brought Kinnell in, all the way from Pittsburgh, Tower wouldn't even shake his hand. Kinnell stood there with his hand out, his thin, bluish wrist covered with a fine dusting of talc, the long fingers twitching like worms.
"This guy’s the best,” Pete said to Cicely. "The best in the world."
Cicely tried to smile, to ignore her father's turned back and be the good patient, but she knew just as well as Tower what it was all about. She had never named the goldfish. She wasn't a kid anymore, she knew how these things went.
The river smelled of sulfur, a plume of steam rose from the far bank.. The fish had adapted to it, Pete supposed, taking in the gas and converting it to belly colors and parr marks. Beauty transformed from poison. That was life, right? Though just as often it flowed the other way.
The girl was looking at her reflection in the water, speckled with falling ash. Her broken stream of talk was a whisper now, but whether it was directed at him or the fish Pete couldn’t tell.
He took out the pocket dictionary he’d picked up before he left, but the words in it were so foreign, so crammed with peculiar letter combinations that he couldn’t tell one from another. He tried to form a sentence from the bits Einar had taught him at the lodge, but she just smiled back, a bright, tolerant smile that was beginning to wear on him.
There was a peculiar warmth under the cover of the ash, close and dry. This would be a story to tell—volcano fishing. The ground was covered with it like black snow, and a layer had formed on the rock that was slick as ice underfoot. He opened his pack and rooted around for his camera.
Cicely kept an album of all of his and Tower's trips, the pictures her way of joining them, of being part of the long chain of friendship. One picture—a shot of him and Tower on the Firehole River, their arms on each other's shoulders—she'd had made into a sweatshirt. She wore it the day she went into the hospital. Pete found it hanging in the closet, empty and limp-armed, when he went to get a new bedpan liner.
He and Tower had discussed bringing her along on a trip soon, maybe next year to the Ponoi River. She was old enough, she could handle it no problem. Pete himself had taught her to cast and she’d learned quickly—roll casts, double hauls—she wouldn't have any trouble keeping up. He had even suggested bringing her this year, but Tower had nixed it. Then she fell down at school, out cold, her belly distended and a fever burning through her. Pete wished he’d insisted on the invitation, if only to let her know she was welcome. You wait too long sometimes, and the chance goes away for good.
He took a picture looking down the river, and another across at the mountain smoking in the distance. If only he could record it all—the sharp gunpowder smell, the sound that was almost like an inversion, the river and the sizzling flakes receding toward some central mass. The sensation of being still inside a shifting pocket of sky and earth.
A school of char swam past below him, moving erratically, darting and weaving like bacteria under a scope. They veered from the wall below him out again into the current. A little downstream the girl saw them too. She ran to the edge of the ledge calling, sliding at the last second on the slick of ash.
Pete heard the crack of bone ahead of the splash, saw her flop into the water and sink. He waited for her to claw to the surface and suck in a breath, but there was no struggle, no thrashing of arms and legs, just the water closing over and weaving on through the rocks. The distorted image of the girl hung just beneath the surface, her short hair like a halo of rusty river grass. The current pushing her into the rocks, bouncing her against them.
We live in water until we're born, and resemble fish quite closely in the womb. Pete considered the vestigial tail and gill slits, saw a time lapse of the developing fetal face, the halves coming together, seams joining, the nose moving down from the forehead into place. So many things, he knew, could go wrong along the way.
He followed the bank as far as he could, the girl bobbing up then disappearing, until the river bent into a canyon and there was nowhere to walk anymore. He looped around, over a scarp and down the other side to where the river opened back out, but he couldn’t find her again. Looking up into the canyon, he could see staggered steps of rapids and pools, any number of places where she could have been caught. He let himself believe for a minute that she’d clambered out somewhere, but he knew she hadn’t. She was up there somewhere, nestled in a gravel bed or wedged in the crook of a rock. Reversing the process that had created her—her lungs turning back into gills, her arms and legs into fins again.
Trying to find his way back to the cabin, Pete mistook a knobbed volcanic outcrop for a different one they’d passed that morning and turned west instead of north. Lost again, he topped a rise and found himself on the shoulder of the road he’d driven down the day before, his car cloaked in ash a hundred yards off.
The engine turned, miraculously, the radio booming to life. Icelandic voices laughed, jabbered. Someone started singing, maybe Bjork, a wail that made him clamp his teeth. He looked in the rearview mirror—lines of ash around his red eyes, along the rim of his jaw. His skin smeared gray in a cracked mask.
Look what you’ve done to me.
“Devil fuck,” Einar said. “You’re alive.”
He laughed and slapped Pete on the back.
“Americans,” he said. “Crazy all the time.”
A group of Germans had arrived while he was gone. They nodded grimly.
Einar fixed him a plate of sheep’s head and set two beers by his plate.
“Where did you go? We looked all day for you.”
“I’m not sure. I ended up at the Nordura.”
“You took a wrong turn then.”
The split sheep’s head stared past him, the teeth gritted and lipless.
“Were there fish?” one of the Germans asked.
“There’s always fish,” Einar said. “Even when you’re lost.”
Pete tried to smile, thinking of the rivers as he’d seen them when he first arrived. The clear water, the pristine banks. Now he saw ash sputtering on the surface and frantic schools of char spinning downstream.
“The Nordura’s a good river,” Einar said. “You got lucky. With the bad luck.”
Pete popped an eye out of the sheep’s head and pushed it to the side of his plate. The Germans sipped their beers and took pictures out the window of the low sun behind the ash cloud. Picture after picture.
“There’s a girl lives out that way,” Einar said. “Her name’s Blin. It means ‘she stares’. She’s different, I don’t know what you call it in English. We call it Downs-heikenni. A big round face. Happy.”
“She has names for all the fish in the Nordura. She says she can tell them apart.”
“Is that right?”
“It’s a nice cabin she has too. Nice and warm.”
Pete pulled cautiously at the sheep’s tongue.
“Wait,” Einar said, reaching across the table. He lifted the tongue and smacked the hyoid bone with the back of his knife. “If you don’t do this, a child will never grow to speak.”
One of the Germans laughed.
“You have too many superstitions.”
“Try living here without them.”
While he was in the big room with Einar and the Germans, the lies came easily to him. He even started to believe them, to grow comfortable around them. What could anyone have done at that point? She was gone, anything he said would have just brought up more questions. Later, when it was just him in his room at the back of the lodge, the lies became harder to accommodate. He told himself various things. If he’d gone in after her, for instance—Blin her name was, he knew that much now—chances are he wouldn’t have come out. The water was cold and swift, and he wasn’t much of a swimmer. What good was a sacrifice like that?
“What is a physician’s most important trait?” his first-year clinical instructor had asked them. They had all answered predictably—compassion, technical expertise, preparedness. And the professor, Hendricksen, had shaken his head, run his tongue across his upper lip at each wrong answer.
“It’s being willing to walk away,” he’d finally said. Smug and proud in his spotless lab coat. Pete had ridiculed the answer ever since, had practically modeled his practice around proving Hendricksen wrong. And now here he was.
Perhaps everyone is a coward, he thought, the only difference is they’re never tested to the point of discovery. The moment of truth never arrives. And within that beautiful bubble, it’s a simple matter to believe you’re who you want to be.
He watched the night go slightly darker, and closed his eyes. A low buzz of electricity moved through his mind as he lay there. Someone watching would have seen his face twitch, his eyes jerking behind their lids as the vague feeling of something forgotten grew stronger, like a thunderstorm moving across dry fields. Then it was there, on top of him, arcing through him.
The rod. Cicely’s rod.
He pulled his boots on. The Germans and Einar had all gone to bed. The downstairs room was empty, the last of the fire crackling in a thousand red eyes. Outside it was still twilight, as it always seemed to be. He drove for the first few miles with the lights off, watching the landscape materialize and disappear as he moved through it. He found the road after one wrong turn, and pulled over where his tracks were still visible in the gravel.
The water seemed less violent when he looked down on it from the ledge, the current almost sluggish. A body would linger for some time before drifting out, you would think. But you couldn’t count on things like currents. Or rivers in general. A river was never the same river twice, as somebody had said. Giving them names was an act of plain desperation, a hopeless effort to hold them in state.
He found the rod where he’d left it, propped in a notch between two rocks. The bamboo, yellow and translucent as old bone, almost glowed. He lifted it, waggled the tip. It was soft and responsive, an extension of him.
“It’s not as hard as everybody thinks,” Cicely said as he dozed in the visitor’s chair. She’d been asleep when he came in after his rounds. The medication rose and ebbed in her like that, bringing her suddenly awake and just as suddenly dragging her back down into sleep.
“Living with this thing. Whatever it is.”
“Not really. It’s part of me now, you know?”
There was a name for what she was beginning to feel, though he couldn’t remember what it was. A Stockholm Syndrome sort of effect, an irrational attachment to the thing that was killing you.
“It’s hard for other people,” he said.
“I know it is, that’s the worst. But I wish you’d tell them it’s okay. Really.”
“I don’t think I can.”
Her eyes fluttered. The drugs were taking her again.
“At least tell yourself. You can do that much.”
But he couldn’t even do that. Not so he’d believe it.
He could hear the mountain’s periodic rumble flowing in and out of the hiss of wind that had come up and whistled now through the tufts of tundra grass and through the bored holes in the rock. A shrill, warbling whistle that moved with him as he made his way up the slope. He wanted a last look at the mountain, the bulk of it on the horizon like the birth of the world getting underway.
The ash cloud was breaking up. Looking out over the valley, he could see only scattered bits left, pixely tufts dissipating like static over the little clusters of hiddenfolk moving toward him. He knew what they were without thinking, as if he’d always lived among them. Their eyes blinked through the haze, their pale, streaked skin—which normally blended with the landscape—was almost translucent against the backdrop of the ash cloud. They moved quickly, and it wasn’t long before they were around him in numbers, pushing and jeering.
He thought he saw Blin in the throng, standing a head taller and smiling her guileless smile as they herded him toward the cliff edge. The water here, he knew, would be colder than the Blackfoot, colder even than the Clark Fork. Near ice, a degree or two above freezing. How long would he last? Minutes probably.
They sang and chanted: We are here, we are here, all of us are here. He could smell their breath, close to the smell of the ash plume—smoke and the aftermath of fire, melting earth. One jumped on his shoulder, bit his ear. He felt blood start down his jaw. A blade sliced across his achilles tendon. He lurched forward, half walking and half falling.
"So you're going," Tower said. "In the middle of this."
"There's nothing more I can do."
He was picturing the unreal landscape of Iceland, savoring its remoteness and strangeness. He could lose himself there, he thought. Anyway, he already had his ticket and had paid the guide. "It's just a week."
"I'll be in touch. I’ll check in with the staff."
"Sure," Tower said. "Life goes on." He was looking past Pete, out the window toward the hospital chapel and the rehab center. He looked older, but then they were all subject to that.
Cicely smiled, as she always did, her smile free of everything but love.
"Bring back some fat pictures," she said. Their joke.
Out in the hallway, a nun shuffled past, gave a little bow.
"Where is he?" Pete said. “That asshole god of yours.” To get a reaction, he guessed, to shake up the smug black-and-white stoicism and crack the beatific smile. He wanted to tear her habit off and make her face things naked like the rest of them.
"He works with love, doctor. Whatever you may say."
“Tell him he can keep it.”
He passed a room where Rick Dobson was talking to a patient in the calm, smooth tones of a hypnotist. Impeccable bedside manner; a blessing, the nuns all said. Pete wanted to go back to Cicely's room, pull the chair close to her bed and talk to her like that. Tell her everything he knew, not just about fishing and rivers, but everything. The truth. How hard could it be?
The air circulating through the ward was cold and sterile. It would be like this in Iceland, everything scrubbed clean by wind. Nothing hidden, no traps or surprises, because there was nowhere to hide. He could see it, a beautiful emptiness going on and on. Just a few sheep here and there, and every so often a river.
Jeff Ewing is a writer from Northern California. His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in Sugar House Review, ZYZZYVA, Willow Springs, Crazyhorse, Saint Ann's Review, Dunes Review, and Southwest Review, among others. He lives in Sacramento, California with his wife and daughter.