Ash fell from the wind. She began to take long walks. Before breakfast, after lunch, she walked the weed-pocked path to the lake. White ash turned the lake’s surface to desert and the tops of fjalls invisible.
By the third morning, ash from Eyjafjallajökull coated the porch, the porch rail, the seats of the porch chairs, and the rented station wagon. The hrossagaukur had disappeared, and the cabin’s weathervane creak had stopped. Laura told Adam, again, she was going out. He was her son. She tied a gauze scarf around her nose and mouth.
“I look like a robber,” she said.
“No one will see you.”
He opened the door for her into the otherworldly weather. She was garish in the ash in her flannel green coat. At the cabin window, he watched her diminish, and like a little boric flame a quarter mile out, her back rose on the path, then shrank and went out.
This dale in Iceland had a permanent population of eighty-six. They had seen almost no one . . . once or twice, until nine or ten at night, they’d heard shouting children. Icebabies, Laura called them. You can’t ever see them, of course. They’re made only of sound.
Adam was a data systems analyst. He was thirty-six. He lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Palo Alto, where Laura was, in a house she’d once shared with Adam’s father on the other side of town. Iceland for two weeks had been her idea for her birthday. She’d just turned sixty-one, and she’d told Adam she didn’t believe it, and he shouldn’t, either. She’d said, You look in the mirror and acknowledge you’re as old as you like. She felt nineteen, mostly. She looked fifty.
She returned from her walk late enough that Adam had made soup. The cabin had five rooms, floors of dull old wood, a kitchen and dining area adjoining the living room. There was a woodstove, a coffee table with a fan of women’s fashion magazines, an expensive guitar on its stand, a box of black rocks and cockles from the lake and elsewhere, a striped sofa, a cushion ripped, all owned by the family they rented from.
“On the news they’re saying don’t go out at all,” he said.
“But no one’s said anything like that to me.” She untied her scarf.
Bits of ash stuck to the silvering blonde roots of her hair. She was tall, too slim. She wore blue jeans and tall boots.
“On TV, Mother.” He put a roll and a bowl in front of her, soup with halibut and celery from the store in town.
“Well, people are out there,” she said. “I talked to some people.”
“Who’s out there? Rangers?”
“I think it’s coming down most at the lake,” she said. “Right now it’s like the moon. It’s not dangerous on the moon.” She put her scarf on the small dining room table. “Come with me, come to the lake. There isn’t much ash.”
She picked up a chunk of fish in her spoon. “What does antimatter mean?”
“Antimatter?” Adam wiped his mouth with his napkin. He liked when she asked questions he could answer. “Sure, it’s like a mirror image, a negative image of matter, like matter’s twin. And there are antiprotons. Antielectrons—”
“What happened to all the fish?” she said.
“In the lake? All dead, from the ash.”
“I don’t think they feel anything.”
She walked in, waking Adam from a nap in a chair beside the fire in the woodstove. It had been two days. Her scarf was tangled around her neck. Her green coat off, a rip in her shirt at the elbow. She held her arm to her chest: a bright red cut like a seam showed through the rip. She went into the bathroom with a sleepwalker’s involuntary smile and an alien tannic scent, maybe wine.
“You’re going to laugh,” she shouted, “when I tell you what happened.”
“Let me help you,” he said, getting up from the chair.
“It’s fine,” she said. “Sit down. It doesn’t hurt.”
Maybe she’d stolen a neighbor’s skiff, as she’d done the week before, the day they’d argued because he’d looked out the window and said a fjall was beautiful. She’d told him not to call things that, told him that one word, “beautiful,” a word his father had used constantly, was limiting. She had learned the landscape, the words rill, caldera, and the names of wildflower species. Nights after her afternoon walks, she’d sit with a field guide. I have a birdheart, she’d say, your mother, the bird. Precise knowledge of a fjall’s origins, or of the call each bird made, was the closest she felt she had, she said, to wisdom, because land, because details, were important. They were solid and finite and felt infinite.
“Let me help you,” Adam said again. “Please.”
She came back into the room. “I was climbing up that boulder on the shore. I had my camera with me and a bird swooped near my head, and I just tumbled off. Your mother. On the ground.”
“No more walks.”
“I wasn’t going to,” she said.
“It’s like with those eggs. You forget what you’re doing.”
“That nest’s still in my room at home,” she said. “It’s one of the few objects I like to own.”
She looked at him, expecting a response. She tired him. What did she want? He knew how she thought of him, his “normalcy.” She said what she thought, and there was both innocence and maturity in that. When she was eleven, she’d told him, she had watched her brother die from a rare leukemia. She’d spent the rest of her life trying to strike lightning back.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “The eggs are alive.”
“I believe you,” he said.
Laura had raised him on her “wisdom and whims”—she’d taken him to museums and operas, he’d had a violin and no television, she’d taught him the names of native ferns and trees around their house. Sometimes she’d invented names. On Adam’s first day of high school, she’d taken his face in her hand and told him school was for wolves and sheep, that wolves and sheep ought to be separate, and that she wanted him to be a wolf. She was a wolf. His father was a sheep.
He’d attended college on the East Coast, joined a fraternity, been an average student. He visited her that first Christmas, then stopped. When they talked on the phone, she told him he’d become something else, someone she didn’t understand.
Ten years ago, after he graduated, Laura called him: they’d found a small tumor in her neck. He flew to Palo Alto to live with her a while, to help her. She’d told him it wasn’t necessary. She recovered fully, incredibly, and he’d obtained a small apartment and a job there, told himself he’d been planning to live in California anyway and that it was the “right thing to do.” Now he saw her every Sunday dinner, some weeks more frequently to help around the house, though she claimed she didn’t need him.
He aged uneventfully, a little sadly. Gained a little weight, lost a little hair. He was often ill with some non-threatening flu or infection; he had problems with his joints. He saw several doctors and specialists. Sometimes he had a girlfriend, and there was a coworker he slept with occasionally.
But Laura—she’d become younger, uncommonly healthy. Woke earlier, stayed up later, ate what she wanted, always hungry. It was as if she was subtracting years. Some days she told him her ecstatic dreams, which never contained people. They both forgot these dreams immediately.
After dinner she stood on the sofa and took down the three framed watercolors on the living room walls.
“Be careful,” he said.
“It’s just that they’re a bit disgusting. Kitsch.” She balanced on the back of the sofa, her feet clinging to the edge. She’d painted her toenails pink the night before. “I should have done this a while ago.”
“They’re not ours.”
“I refuse to stare at it anymore. It’s unhealthy.” She jumped off the sofa without trouble and stacked the watercolors in a corner and looked around the room for anything else that offended her. She took the fashion magazines from the coffee table and put them in a drawer.
“I think I’ll go for a walk,” she said.
“Please don’t tell me don’t.”
“Mother. Don’t go outside.”`
“You love scolding me. You think you get something from it. Like your father.”
“All right,” he said. “Then I’ll come with you.”
They walked to the lake with scarves tied around their faces—he’d insisted, though the ash had stopped falling. This time of year, the sun did not fully set until ten o’clock at night. The other cabins, spaced around the dale, were out of focus in the northern pre-twilight. Another constellation of cabins, mirroring their own, across the lake. A giant fjall above them.
She’d been asking to come to Iceland for years, ever since she’d met an Icelandic man, divorced and in his fifties. A year after she’d recovered from her illness, she had started seeing him, and then had stopped abruptly. But she still needed to visit the place that felt like both “the end of this world and the beginning of another,” the man had told her, “a second life.” Adam wouldn’t let her go by herself. What a good son you are, they’d said to him at work. Your mother’s very lucky. He’d felt he had no choice.
He was quiet while they walked, he knew that was important to her, but he wanted to say something about the red blinking light across the lake—the ranger’s station—and the sound of the skiffs knocking against one another, tied on the shore. He felt old and practical. He felt he wasn’t there.
“God,” he said finally.
“Everything. The news last night. We’re trapped. A volcano erupted, we’re trapped.”
“We have a car,” she said.
“It needs gas. It’s a hundred dollars here for a tank, you know. A hundred twenty-five.”
She didn’t. The trip had cost them thousands. She owned her house in California outright, had a small pension from Adam’s father, and Adam helped her take care of the rest. She knew nothing of money; she’d forget to pay bills. She’d bought a car she couldn’t afford. Here, of course, but even in California, she acted as though currency were foreign to her. At restaurants, she treated money like it was only paper, holding it by the corners. She left waiters incredible tips.
“We’re not trapped,” she said.
“We are. That’s the perfect word for what we are.”
“Think of this as something else, meaningful. Maybe this is a land of ash now. This is some kind of other place. Ashland.”
She was asking him to concede, to play her game, as she’d asked him to imagine things when he was a child. He wouldn’t anymore, he said nothing, and she looked at him with disappointment, as if he’d played the wrong notes on the piano. But in fact he’d played nothing. For years, he’d only sat silently on the bench in front of the keys.
They’d come to the lake, a layer of ash on the surface, gray-white. Torn bits of paper. She took off one of her shoes and put a toe in the shallow water. Specks of ash stuck to her pink toenails. She let her whole foot sink in.
“Isn’t it too cold?” he said.
“We’re not trapped,” she said.
“We’re in a volcano. We’re trapped. It’s remarkable.”
“It isn’t remarkable. Nothing is merely remarkable. You think something can be one word,” she said, taking off her other shoe and standing with both feet in the lake. “You can enjoy yourself. Not think the way you do. You’re not always just who you think you are.”
She spoke softly, as if to herself. Her inflections were neutral, anonymous, any evidence of her midwestern origins gone. She had sung with a band in the seventies in Ohio, she habitually told him. Music producers had been interested, but her own mother had been jealous of any success, of any attention she’d received.
“Look, I’m tired,” he said.
“Everyone I know is always tired. Why?”
She looked at him—a stranger’s doubt and maternal empathy—and he wanted to ask her to either hug him, as sentimental as it was, or to leave him alone. An act of kindness, or nothing at all. She was incapable.
“Your father said it that way. You never heard him say it.”
“We should walk back now,” he said.
Adam drove in the morning to the base of the dale with his laptop, on his thighs, bumping against the steering wheel. The wagon’s tires crushed sprigs of lupine powdered with days-old ash. Parked across from the ranger station, he leeched the station’s Internet and e-mailed clients. He was scheduled to return to Palo Alto in two days, but he knew they couldn’t leave by then. The road to Reykjavík was closed indefinitely.
He had been gone a half hour and had driven halfway back, when, rounding a switchback, he saw Laura two hundred feet below, a little green jacket in high boots. She used a bowed branch as a walking stick. She carried a backpack he’d never seen.
He parked the car on the side of the gravel road, tied his scarf around his face, and followed her down the path to the lake, through the tangle of bushes. She hadn’t seen him, he was sure of it, but she walked as if pursued.
At the lake he hid behind a boulder. She crouched amid drifts of ash on the black rock shore. Hands quick as a sharp’s dealing cards, she seemed to sort rocks into stacks—minutes of this—then scooped a stack into her backpack and kicked the second into the lake. She was talking to herself—he’d caught her doing this before, at the house, washing her hands at the sink, gesturing to herself with the water running, talking and singing to no one, sometimes without words, cooing. She worried him . . . sometimes he thought she was too forgetful and scattered, too unpredictable or immature, or that she might be approaching a very mild, early form of senility. He worried he couldn’t help her.
She left the lake. He followed her down another path, overgrown with wildflowers and weeds. She was walking up a stairway to a cabin. Weather-battered, smaller than theirs, with blue shutters. No antenna on the roof, no car in the gravel driveway lined with walls of bushes. She knocked once, then opened the door herself, leaving stick and backpack on the porch.
Adam was heating soup when she returned, holding her scarf. She had the same preoccupied, sleepwalker’s smirk, her blue jeans stained black at the cuffs.
“What happened?” he said.
“I looked for fish, for anything living. There weren’t any eggs out there, either.”
She’d been gone a few hours since he’d seen her enter the other cabin. Her backpack was gone. She put her scarf on the table and warmed her hands in the steam from his teacup. Sometimes she’d sit still so long she’d turn, not “to stone,” as she knew she’d scold him for thinking, but to what? An inanimate vacancy, with eyes, wide-set as an elf owl’s, that could blink her alive.
“You were at the lake?”
“I can’t see to its bottom. Looking at the lake for so long makes me never want to look at land.”
“Where’s your backpack?”
She scraped her chair on the floor and stood very quickly. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
She went to her bedroom. He almost followed her; he went to the bathroom. Her cosmetics, her face powder, her tiny bronze cylinders of perfume, were on the glass countertop. A canister of rouge had spilled. He collected it in a mound and then released the mound into the sink. Ten years ago, when she’d been ill, he’d had to help her to the bathroom. She’d put both arms around his neck while they walked. There is no gulf between humans as wide as between the ill and the well. When she was finished, she’d call for him to help her to the bed. She’d told him she’d been trying to discover something unearthly, being nearer death. She couldn’t find it. She’d told him he could have her pearls, her dog. Everything. How remarkable, impossible, that she was completely well now and did not need him.
The light was off in her bedroom, but before he reached the doorway he heard her talking to herself, so softly he couldn’t understand it. It seemed as if she was trying to calm herself. He could smell her, the lotion she used on her face: lavender, clean. She sat on the bed, still as a sphinx.
“Is there soup left?” she said, when she saw him. She looked startled. “For tomorrow’s lunch?”
“What were you doing?” he said. He switched on a lamp in the room. He moved to touch her, and her shoulder tensed. He moved away.
“What?” she said.
“I saw you,” he said. “In that house. You told me you’d stop going outside.”
“I don’t think I said that.” Lying meant nothing to her.
“I saw you go in that cabin.”
“Pétur lives there, by himself. I met him one time, walking.”
“But you agreed with me,” he said. “It isn’t healthy.”
He wanted her to say she agreed, to apologize. He could feel himself start to try to take her by the hand.
“Pétur has,” she said, “has turned into a friend, I think.”
She looked past him, toward the door. She was done talking. He saw in her face she intended to dismiss him. With her, you could risk nothing. She forgave nothing, not the slightest imposition upon the complex world she believed in. She saw that he was simple, he thought, a teenager or a very old man. It scared him to watch her that way. Scared him more to watch her watch him that way.
Adam slept the kind of skeletal, half-sleeping wakefulness that allowed him the belief he was asleep. A car door somewhere in the dale closed, and he looked at the digital clock, then turned on the TV. All European flights were stranded for a week, and cots and cotless irate passengers crowded Heathrow terminals. Eyjafjallajökull had erupted a second time, ash descended on London and Scotland, and there was concern about Katla, another volcano, in Vík í Mýrdal—“Could you turn it off?” Laura called from her room.
She left before he rose. The tattoo of her boots on the wood floor. He made sure she had gone before he got out of bed and made coffee and built a fire in the woodstove.
He came into a sheer fog at the end of the path. It was very early. There were no lights on in the cabins, most of them probably empty.
He came to the lake, now dusted with faint patches of ash. He hadn’t been able to convince himself not to follow her. He stopped at a boulder too tall to sit on and tightened the scarf around his face. The lake was the color of weathered nickel. Small rocks like globules of oil littered a shallow bed at the shore. The water, hitting the edge of the boulder he leaned on, sprayed up in a tiny spire. Across the lake, the other cabins were dark, too. A waterfall, tiny from where he stood, forked a few feet from the top of the fjall.
He walked the same path he’d seen her walk the day before. Bugs nagged his arms. He passed abandoned cabins; others had tiny yards with patio furniture. In one yard was a plastic toy yellow car with ash on its roof.
He came to the bottom of the steps he’d seen her climb. “Pétur’s” steps. Trees obscured the house. From the bottom of the stairs, Adam could see only the housetop, the woodstove chimney.
There was a table on the porch. A small gas grill. He stepped over an open garbage bag spilled on its side. He decided, without really considering, to crouch below a corner of the screened window and to look in with one eye.
Adam could see his mother at the other end of the house. She was alone, putting pots on the stove, lips in motion. The cabin was one room, much smaller than theirs, with hardly any furniture. A table with chairs, a bed, an armchair in the corner, no refrigerator, dark rhombuses on the wall where frames had been. He could hear her now, talking quickly. He studied the interior, the corners. She was alone.
On the floor were her flannel green coat and the backpack he’d seen the other day. Rocks she’d collected from the shore were stacked in a pyramid and placed as a centerpiece on the table. Cans on the counter, open cans he recognized from their house, cans he’d bought himself at a near town’s store. She was talking, and he made out not the words, but the tone, the cooing inflection.
She became very quiet. He watched from the window. She brought a bowl of dim liquid to the table and ate, closing her eyes. He watched this a long time. She put her bowl and spoon in the sink. Then she pulled her dress over her head. She had on a pale slip. She took off her rings.
If Adam’s life was “ordinary,” an average of a series of predictable events, maybe that was why, for him, there was no Pétur. On the bed, she climbed on top of nothing, of no one himself, and moved her hips forward and back.
Photo: Srikanth Jandhyala