Einar Jónsson wasn’t the first to see the ship entombed in the rocks, but little did I know then, he was one of the few Icelanders who could actually do something about it. “If I only had enough time,” he said to me, as we stood on the black sand and stared at the tell-tale stones, “and sharp enough chisels, by God, I think I could really bring out the shape of it.”
Einar pointed out over the water. It was that time of year when the air was mild and the sun wheeled round the mercurial sky, barely dipping below the horizon before arcing up again into another dawn. To the south, Iceland’s ocean was a dirty mirror, its tarnish glittering with every churn of the breakers. “Look, Gunnar,” Einar said. “Have you really looked at it? It seems like it doesn’t need much work.”
“It’s a fisherman’s yarn,” I said.
“It’s three great sails,” said Einar.
“It’s reynisdrangar. A beautiful cluster of rocks in the sea, all in a row, that just happen to be shaped like great sails.”
“It’s a troll ship.”
“Einar.” I kicked at the coarse, black sands by my feet. “Come now.”
“And I suppose you believe now that God is a fairytale, too?”
I studied my friend critically. He had been away for a long, long time. First studying sculpture in Rome, then living and working in Copenhagen. We had exchanged letters, now and again, but letters move slowly and anyway, they are not the same. Not when as boys, we could run across the green, green fields of Galtafell, where the sheep are fat and the days sweet and slow, and be napping in the cozy bunks of each other’s baðstofa well before noon. Back then, we’d been closer than natural brothers, able to predict what the other was thinking before he himself knew. But now? “Of course not,” I said. “But Einar, we’re not boys anymore. You and I both know that no great, ancient troll ship ever tried to storm the beaches at Dyrhólaey, and froze into stone when the dawn fog suddenly lifted and revealed the sun. Those are just rocks.”
Einar frowned. His frown was still the same, dark as an autumnal storm. “Trolls,” he said, firmly.
I sighed. “Forget the trolls. Look, the sun’s peeped out. Let’s go wading before it disappears.”
Einar appeared to drop it. We waded and ate the lunch we’d packed, tender hangikjöt on rye bread, but all through the morning Einar kept giving morbid looks full of meaning to those craggy stones. As the tide receded, more of the “troll ship” appeared, the wet coloring the rough basalt. You could just see where the “sails” connected to the “deck.” It really was a lovely formation, and the whole point of our journey together was to see more of the southern coast, but I didn’t want to look at it too much. It would only encourage him.
“I suppose it’s only a wild fancy,” said Einar at last, when we finally trudged up the beach.
The fishing hamlet of Vík í Mýrdal awaited us, hunkered down in the dusty black dunes. Like much of the area, or indeed much of Iceland altogether, the Modern Age had not yet arrived there, though of course I only knew this because Einar had told me. I’d never had a reason to go so far as Europe.
“Well,” I said. “Don’t worry about the fancy. I heard somewhere that you have a creative mind. Forget it.”
“I will. After we go out and take a look.”
“After we what?”
“Take a look,” Einar repeated, solemnly. “We’ll ask around the village. Find a fisherman to take us out to the rocks tomorrow, in exchange for a day’s labor.”
“You’re mad. We won’t be able to get that close. The rocks below the waterline will snap us to pieces.”
“What do you know of it? You’re a farmer.”
“So are you.”
“We’ll be fine.”
“I’m not going.”
“You’d leave me to die alone? At sea?”
“I am not going, Einar. And neither are you.”
But back in the hamlet, Einar charmed the first fisherman’s wife he met into offering us a place in their baðstofa for the evening, and later, her husband into giving us a place in his boat upon the morrow.
So we went. Damn it all.
Einar, I suppose, had seen something of the sea, having traveled across it twice. I’ve never been further away from Iceland than Heimaey, and even that short trip was unpleasant enough. I didn’t get seasick, but the boat did become beset by a flock of kittiwakes (“Welcome to Heimaey, sir; is that bird shit in your hair?”) so excuse me if I don’t trust boats or the men who steer them.
The fisherman who rowed us out was named Olaf Sigurðsson, a red-faced barrel of a man with oilskin clothes that stank and a gap-toothed grin that wouldn’t quit. He sang to himself in a creaky tenor as he manned one pair of oars while Einar and I gamely took turns with the other. The bastard got a lot of work out of us since he insisted on leaving at dawn, and dawn near the summer solstice happens at around, oh, 3 a.m. “Tired yet, boys?” he finally cackled, as he hauled up the anchor for the last time. “Sitting on your rears and watching sheep all day isn’t quite like hauling up fish in this sun, now, is it?”
Einar smiled. A loose fish flopped about his ankles, its lips popping breathlessly. “It certainly isn’t. How long have you been at this work now?”
“Oh, about 40, 45 years,” said Olaf. He jerked his grizzled chin at the nearby reynisdrangar to indicate that we should bring the boat round. Olaf rested his oars on the gunwales as I pulled. “Been out to the troll ship dozens of times, it’s perfectly safe if you just know where to anchor and when. The kids love to see it, you know. Soon as we get near, they scream and carry on like I don’t know what-all. Whoops.” Olaf looked up. The temperamental coastal weather was turning, and a thick flock of clouds, gray and low, scudded into the harbor and swallowed the sun. “Well, about time. Could use a good cooling off. Whoa, Gunnar my friend, close enough!”
I stopped pulling and Olaf dropped the anchor. We were near the rocks that were furthest from the shore, close enough to see fulmars wheeling up and down the irregular cliff-face in alarm at our proximity. On either side of us, the receding tide made powerful eddies above unseen hazards, but our little vessel just quivered in its place.
“Now you know the story of the troll ship, of course, don’t you?” Olaf asked.
“Oh yes,” said Einar.
“It was a year and a day after the beginning of the world…” began Olaf, as though Einar hadn’t spoken.
I tuned them out. Let the two fools be dazzled by each other. Instead, I peered more closely at the basalt rock face, studying the birds wheeling through the thickening mist.
That is, until it moved.
I blinked. There were so many fulmars, I was seeing things.
No I wasn’t. The rock face did it again. The movement was barely detectable, a glacial undulation of stone, as though the rock were the hide of a monster inhaling.
Or a sail, filling.
I couldn’t speak. I could only swallow and point. My other hand flapped madly at Einar’s shoulder.
“For pity’s sake, Gunnar, what is it?”
The fog abruptly thinned. A blot of white appeared behind the clouds, growing brighter as the wind pushed them away. The rock face stilled. “It was… I saw…”
“Trolls,” said Olaf good-naturedly, and laughed. “Usually only the littlest kids say they can spot ’em, but you must have a good eye!”
Einar laughed with him. I sagged on my seat and couldn’t even manage a smile.
“Well, if that’ll be all?” asked Olaf.
“It will,” said Einar. “I’m so happy I could see it up close. Thank you very much, Olaf. This day has been most instructive.”
After we came ashore, as we three settled in for a nap, Einar whispered to me, “You saw it too, didn’t you, Gunnar?”
I opened my eyes. We were napping in Olaf’s baðstofa while his wife minded the children outside. In the dim light, filtered through fishskin-covered windows, Olaf snored in his small bunk. On the floor in front of me knelt Einar, his grave eyes searching my face.
For the first time since this visit had begun, I felt that I could read his thoughts, like the old days. “Yes,” I whispered back. “I saw it.”
“I have to carve it.”
“You’re mad, Einar.”
“Think of it. If I can somehow cut away all that excess stone, smooth it out, bring out the shape of the sails… I mean not literally I alone, it’s far too big—but a team of us, somehow, for it will take many men… I know a man in Copenhagen, no, two civil engineers who know how to take raw rock and—”
“The sails, Gunnar. Think of it. We take all the dross away, the crags and the bird shit, and we shape the features just a bit, just a little bit. From the shore, on the nights when the moon is high, you’d be able to see that whole beautiful, terrible ship, forever frozen in the sea, and its three sails billowing.”
“It would set the entombed monsters free!”
Olaf’s snoring paused. I cringed. Einar’s eyes bore into mine, our mutual agitation frozen until the fisherman’s breath began again to putter. “I wouldn’t,” Einar whispered. “They’re trapped. You can’t ever completely free a troll once it’s turned to stone. Everyone knows that.”
“But nobody’s ever tried what you’re proposing.”
“Nobody’s ever been positioned to. But I am. Iceland has a magic humming deep in its bones, Gunnar, and the entire reason I went away was to learn exactly how to reveal it to ourselves, so that we can never forget.”
“And you can reveal it! But you can do it by making some nice, normal, little statues in that new studio of yours out in Reykjavík when you return home!”
Einar’s autumnal frown came on. He shook his head. His eyes were distant, glittering, like the mirrored surface of the ocean churning over its secrets. “We need to begin with a test,” he said. “Yes. A little test carving, to see how workable the stone actually is. I didn’t study much stonecutting, you know, but I know a few things. I’ve got one small chisel with me. And I’m sure Olaf has a mallet I can borrow.”
I sat up. “We are not doing this.”
” ‘Give your eldest son another day off from fishing,’ I’ll say to Olaf. ‘It’s no trouble at all.’ “
Again Olaf’s snoring paused. I reigned in my tone to a soft and desperate hiss. “I mean it this time, Einar. We are not doing this.“
Einar eyed me. He rose from his kneeling position on the floor and strolled to the bunk Olaf had given him. “You’re right,” he said, coolly. “We are not. I am, alone. I don’t think having you along tomorrow will be very constructive, after all.”
“I know you, Gunnar. You’ll try to stop me. Don’t pretend that you won’t.”
I couldn’t lie to him—truly couldn’t. All I could do was hiss his name in frustration: “Einar!”
The sculptor lay down and pulled his blanket up to his chin. In his mind, the matter was clearly settled.
Well. Fine. If he wouldn’t let me come with him, I’d have to stop him another way. I’d just find another fisherman later this afternoon who’d agree to take me out in his own boat and give chase.
The next day dawned chill and rainy. I pretended to sleep as Einar and Olaf dressed and slipped from the baðstofa, then sprinted like a fox to the house of Björn and Ingi Ísólfsson, twin brothers who seemed to move more slowly than the undulating reynisdrangar themselves. It was all I could do to stand still while they calmly readied their boat, dropping in new rope in careful, fat coils inch by excruciatingly gradual inch.
We finally made it out to sea. The wind was restless, and the water, choppy. I didn’t like the look of the sky, but when I asked Björn and Ingi, “Storm coming on?” all I received was a laconic, “Maybe.”
The wind rose. A heavy fog whipped in, covering the bay in fleecy dimness. We fished in silence. The catch was poor. The waves grew rougher, and several times, under Ingi’s direction, we had to stop and move from one part of the boat to another, to steady it. “Should we go in?” I asked, nervously.
“Maybe,” said Ingi.
I started to argue my case, but the wind carried a cheery creaking to my ears—Olaf singing somewhere in the fog. If Einar wasn’t quitting, neither was I. “Actually. Can we go now? To the reynisdrangar?”
The twins looked at each other. The sound of Olaf’s boat receded.
“I have a feeling,” I said. “Please. Listen, you’re barely catching anything as it is. Take me now and I’ll come out in the boat with you tomorrow, too. Please?”
The twins looked at each other again. God in Heaven, how is it possible for two men to turn their heads so slowly?
“Maybe,” said Ingi.
My bargaining turned to begging, and my begging turned frantic and unmanly. Ingi finally relented with a sharp and uncomfortable, “Fine.” I had embarrassed him. I was embarrassed myself, and we rowed to the rocks with me hanging my head in red-faced shame.
When we reached the basalt, my shame was joined by fear. Olaf’s craft was moored right up against a rock face, wriggling frantically in the waves while a handful of accompanying children on board squealed and screamed in delight. No sign of Einar. My fear grew like the rising winds. “Bring me close.”
“This is as close as we get,” said Ingi, bringing up the oars. He wouldn’t look at me.
“I need to get to the rock face!”
“Olaf’s in the only good spot,” said Björn. “No other place to risk landing.”
I stood. “Must I throw myself overboard and swim there?”
“If you want to,” said Ingi, “that’s your business.”
I squeezed my hands into panicked fists, nearly ready to charge into Ingi and knock him overboard myself. I looked up at the cliff face, receding upward into darkness and fog, and when the wind shifted, I caught the unmistakable sound of steel chipping into stone. Ching, ching, ching. “He’s up there, doing it already!” I cried. “Can’t you hear it? Don’t you know what that madman is trying to do?”
“Time to go back,” said Ingi to Björn. “We’re done for the day.”
“Please!” I shouted. In Olaf’s boat, the children reached out tiny hands, daring to just touch the basalt before pulling away with a joyful shriek. The rock was more alive than ever, breathing and settling, breathing and settling, a ghoulish backdrop to Olaf’s laughter and the high peals of Einar’s madness. Ching, ching, ching. “Please—he’s trying to carve the stone! Don’t you know what that would do? It would free the…” I was suddenly aware of how foolish I sounded. My ravings sputtered out. “…the troll ship…”
The twins looked at each other.
Then Ingi turned his head to Olaf. “Olaf,” he called. “Move your boat.”
My thanks gushed forth. The twins seemed not to hear. Olaf and Ingi called out to each other, and masterful Olaf finally maneuvered his craft away from the cleft he’d wedged it into—choppy seas, swirling tides, screaming children, and all.
Ingi and Björn worked to take his place. Their boat lodged with a jolt. Where we were moored, there was no shelf or landing. Only dark, weather-beaten cliff face, towering over the pounding waves. “Up you go,” said Ingi, nodding. “There’s plenty of handholds. Don’t look down.”
Spray licked my calves and soaked my legs, despite the foul oilskin clothes Björn had loaned me. Wet wind blinded me. The handholds were slick but sharp, like crumbled glass, and as I climbed, I cut my palms and yowled as sea salt rubbed into the wounds. A fulmar screamed past my ear, a flash of angry white that nearly made me lose my grip as I moved too near its perch. It wheeled round and dove at me. I leaned away and my foothold crumpled.
My toes kicked out for a grip and hit nothing but void. I cried out and clung on with nerveless fingers, begging Our Lord and Savior to see me through this.
A strong hand closed down upon mine. A merciful angel pulled me upward, to a hidden ledge in the lee of the wind. But God has a strange sense of humor, and this angel came in the guise of a terrible fool indeed.
“Gunnar!” said Einar, pulling me in from the edge. “You’ve got to be careful up here! How are you? You all right?” He looked me up and down, his grin awful and out of a place on a man who had almost watched his friend die. “I’m so glad you came after all! You’ve got to see this—someone has got to see this. The basalt, it’s so weathered, it just crumbles right away. And the ship—sweet Lord bless me, it’s right there waiting underneath. Look, Gunnar! Look at what marvels the chisel can free!”
I know now what it means to be sick with terror. It means vertigo and roaring in your ears, and spots of blackness in front of your eyes, and a terminal weakness in your knees. Einar caught me in a near-swoon. “Isn’t it magnificent?” he cried.
It was not. It was monstrous. A single arm, grotesque and gargantuan, writhed oh so slowly on the surface of that breathing, heaving stone. In my faint delirium, I could imagine the outline of the rest of the beast, a rude suggestion of a creature lying supine in the arch of a gigantic window or doorway. The massive arm, so much crisper now that Einar had worked it over, dangled down to the ledge we stood upon. Its great, hooked claws undulated within inches of Einar’s abandoned chisel and mallet.
The wind shifted. My back was hit with a wall of icy wet, and another wave of vertigo overtook me. I dropped to my knees. Einar raved on, squinting into the wind and shouting into the roar, one finger pointing and waving behind him. “Isn’t it a wonder? Those claws, those knucklebones, those sinews and joints. You can nearly see it flexing!”
Nearly? I did. The arm flexed. With a terrible, grinding boom, those claws tore free of the stone and reached down.
“Just think of what the Alþingi will say when I tell them of this! Just think of the glory we can reveal, right here in the shadow of Dyrhólaey, moored off the coast for all ages and all time!”
The claws grasped Einar’s sharpened chisel.
“Greater than the Pyramids! The Colossus at Rhodes! Or even China’s Great Wall!”
Einar turned. The arm lashed out. I threw myself forward, wrapping my own arms around Einar’s shock-frozen body, my face mashing into his soaked and filthy oilskin. We skidded along the ledge, beneath the full length of the arm, but with a sound like deafening thunder, more of the limb tore free. I didn’t even see the chisel coming after us. I only felt the wind of it against my neck.
Ching-ching-ching. Basalt hailed down upon us, into my hair, stinging my eyes. The thing was striking blindly, but that luck wouldn’t last long. I rubbed one eye free of grit and looked up.
The chisel was raised high, ready to plunge into Einar’s heart.
I kicked off the breathing wall and rolled, pulling Einar away from the deathblow. But I rolled too far. The ledge vanished beneath me, and then there was nothing but wet wind whistling in my ears and Einar’s heartbeat slamming against my arms.
I didn’t even have time for a prayer.
Luck was with us. Instead of striking rocks, we plunged into the sea, and instead of breaking anything, we only nearly drowned. The remainder of our visit together, instead of being spent gamboling innocently over the countryside, was spent recovering under the thorough but taciturn care of Björn and Ingi. Considering that we had very nearly lost our lives, I didn’t mind.
I returned to Galtafell. Einar returned to his new studio in Reykjavík. As before, we sent each other letters, but also as before, it was not the same. He was very busy with work. He got married. He moved to America for a time, and became quite famous. His letters became infrequent, and eventually trickled to nothing.
I remained on the family farm and dreamed about the reynisdrangar—about what writhes upon a certain hidden ledge, on days dark and foggy, a rusted chisel clutched in a misshapen fist. I dream that it knows what to do, so that it may someday free its brothers from the shadow of Dyrhólaey. Ching, ching, ching.
Einar’s work has become strange and fantastic, now, in his old age. Angels, homunculi, giants, gods, wolves, monsters, crucifixes, Madonnas, tangled together in symmetric, mystical clumps loaded with anxiety and symbolism many people cannot understand. He’s very spiritual now, they say, becoming more and more devout as time goes on, becoming enmeshed in pondering the unknowable.
But this is wrong. Even across such time and distance as lies between us now, to some degree, his thoughts are still mine, and I know from what obsession his tangled phantasms spring.
He dreams about that rusted chisel, too, and is afraid.
© 2013 by KJ Kabza
First published in Pen-Ultimate: A Speculative Fiction Anthology, edited by LJ Cohen and Talib S. Hussain, 2013.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
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