The waves rolled the boat to and fro in a constantly changing rhythm. The prow bobbed gently up and down as sharper movements shook the vessel, rocking it fiercely from side to side. The skipper struggled to fasten the little boat to a narrow steel post, but the weathered floating dock kept retreating, as if it were part of a game. He patiently repeated the same movements over and over, pulling the frayed rope in the direction of the post, but each time the coarse loop was about to fall into place, it seemed to be yanked away. It was as though the sea were playing with them, showing them who was in charge. In the end the man managed to secure the boat, but it was unclear whether the waves had grown bored of teasing him or whether the captain’s experience and patience had got the better of them. He turned to the three passengers, his expression serious, and said: “There you go, but be careful stepping up.” Then he jerked his chin at the boxes, bags and other things that they’d brought with them. “I’ll help you move this off the boat, but I can’t help you take it to the house, unfortunately.” He squinted at the surface of the sea. “It looks like I’d better get back as quick as I can. You’ll have time to sort all this stuff out once I’m gone. There should be a wheelbarrow around here somewhere.”
“No problem.” Garðar smiled faintly at the man but made no move to start unloading the boat. He shuffled his feet and exhaled loudly, then turned his gaze inland, where several houses were visible above the line of the beach. Further away several roofs glinted. Although it was early afternoon, the faint winter light was fading quickly. It wouldn’t be long before it was completely dark. “This place isn’t exactly buzzing with life,” he said, with false cheer.
“Well, no. Were you expecting it to?” The skipper didn’t hide his surprise. “I thought you’d been here before. You might want to reconsider your plan. You’re welcome to come back with me; free of charge, of course.”
Garðar shook his head, studiously avoiding looking at Katrín, who was trying to make eye contact with him so she could nod, or indicate in some other way that she really didn’t mind going back. She’d never been as excited as him about this adventure, though neither had she opposed it outright. Instead she’d gone along with it, letting herself be carried along by his enthusiasm and his certainty that it would all go according to plan, but now that he seemed to be wavering, her own confidence in it had ebbed away. Suddenly she felt quite sure that total failure was the best they could hope for, but chose not to imagine the worst-case scenario. She glanced at Líf, who was supporting herself on the gunwale, trying to regain the balance she’d left behind on the pier in Ísafjörður. After battling seasickness for most of the voyage, Líf looked utterly wretched, bearing only a passing resemblance to the perky woman who’d been so keen to come with them that she’d ignored Katrín’s words of caution. Even Garðar didn’t seem himself; as they’d drawn closer to shore, the bravado he’d shown as they prepared for the trip had faded. Of course, Katrín could hardly talk; she was sitting on a sack of firewood, doggedly refusing to stand up. The only difference between her and the other two was that she’d never been looking forward to the trip. The only passenger who seemed excited to disembark was Putti, Líf’s little dog, who—in defiance of all their assumptions to the contrary—had turned out to have excellent sea legs.
Apart from the lapping of the waves, the silence was absolute. How had she ever imagined this could work? The three of them, all alone in the dead of winter in a deserted village way up north in the middle of nowhere, without electricity or heat, and the only way back by sea. If something happened, they had no one to rely on but themselves. And now that Katrín was facing the facts she admitted to herself that their resourcefulness was decidedly limited. None of them was particularly outdoorsy, and almost any other task you could name would suit them better than renovating old houses. She opened her mouth to make the decision for them and accept the captain’s offer, but then shut it without saying a word, sighing quietly to herself. The moment had passed, there was no going back, and it was far too late to protest now. She had no one to blame but herself for getting involved in this nonsense, because she’d let numerous opportunities to raise objections or change direction go by. At any point since the house project had first been raised she could have suggested that they decline the offer to buy a share in it, for example, or that the renovations could wait until summer, when there was a regular ferry schedule. Katrín suddenly felt a cold breeze and pulled the zip of her jacket higher. This whole thing was ridiculous.
But what if it wasn’t really her passivity that was to blame, but the eagerness of Einar, now deceased, who’d been Garðar’s best friend and Líf’s husband? It was hard to be angry with him now, when he was six-feet under; nonetheless it seemed clear to Katrín that he bore the greatest responsibility for this absurd situation. Einar had hiked in Hornstrandir two summers ago and so was familiar with Hesteyri, where the house was located. He had spun them the story of a village at the end of the world, beauty and peace and endless hiking trails in an unforgettable setting. Garðar had been inspired—not by the lure of nature, but by the fact that Einar hadn’t been able to rent a room in Hesteyri, since the only guesthouse there had been full. Katrín couldn’t remember which of them had gone on to suggest they see if any of the other houses there were for sale and transform one into a guesthouse, but it didn’t matter; once the idea had been mooted there was no going back. Garðar had been unemployed for eight months and he was completely gripped by the idea of finally doing something useful. It was hardly going to dampen his interest when Einar expressed a keen desire to take part, offering to contribute both labor and capital. Then Líf had stoked the fire with extravagant praise for the brilliance of the idea and characteristically effusive encouragement. Katrín remembered now how much Líf’s eagerness had got on her nerves; she’d suspected it was partly motivated by the prospect of time apart from her husband, as the renovations would require him to spend long periods of time up north. At that time their marriage had appeared to be falling apart, but when Einar died, Líf’s grief had seemed bottomless. An ugly thought stirred in Katrín’s mind: it would have been better if Einar had died before the purchase of the house had been completed. But unfortunately that wasn’t how it had happened: now they were stuck with the property, and only one man excited about the renovation project where there had been two. The fact that Líf was so keen to take on her husband’s role and press on with the repairs probably had something to do with the grieving process; she had neither skill nor interest in that kind of work, that much was certain. If she’d wanted to pull out, the house would have gone back on the market and they’d probably be sitting at home watching TV now, in the comforting arms of the city where night was never as black as here in Hesteyri.
When it became clear that the project hadn’t died with Einar, Líf and Garðar had gone west one weekend and sailed from Ísafjörður to Hesteyri to take a look at the house. It had certainly been in poor condition, but that did nothing to diminish Garðar and Líf’s excitement. They returned with a pile of photographs of every nook and cranny of the house and Garðar went straight to work planning what needed to be done before the start of the tourist season. From the photos, Katrín would have said that the house was held together by its paint, despite Garðar’s insistence that the previous owner had carried out all the major repairs needed. For her part, Líf added flowery descriptions of Hesteyri’s incredible natural beauty. Before long, Garðar was making in-depth calculations, raising the price of an overnight stay and increasing the number of guests that could fit into the little two-story house every time he opened his Excel spreadsheet. At least it would be interesting to see the place with her own eyes and work out how exactly Garðar intended to accommodate all these people.
Katrín got to her feet, but couldn’t see the house from where she stood on deck. From one of the panoramic shots that Garðar had taken of the area it had looked as if it was located at the edge of the settlement, but rather high up, so it should be visible. What if it had simply collapsed after Garðar and Líf had been on their reconnaissance trip? Nearly two months had passed since then, and the area was subject to no small amount of foul weather. She was about to suggest that they verify this before the boat sailed away when the skipper, doubtless starting to worry that he might have to carry them off the boat, said: “Well, at least you’re lucky with the weather.” He looked up at the sky. “It could still change despite the forecast, so you should be prepared for anything.”
“We are. Just look at all this stuff.” Garðar smiled, a trace of his previous conviction returning to his voice. “I think the only thing we have to fear is pulled muscles.”
“If you say so.” The captain didn’t elaborate on this, and instead lifted a box onto the pier. “I hope you have fully charged phones; if you climb up to the top of that hill you can get a connection. There’s no point trying down here.”
Garðar and Katrín both looked toward the hill, which seemed more like a mountain to them. Líf was still staring back at the eddying black surface of the sea. “That’s good to know.” Garðar patted his coat pocket. “Hopefully we won’t have any need for them. We should be able to make it through the week; we’ll wait for you here at the pier, like we discussed.”
“Bear in mind that I can’t make it out here if the weather is bad. But if that’s the case, I’ll come as soon as it clears up. If it’s a bit rough, obviously you don’t need to stand here waiting on the pier; I’ll come up to the house to get you. You can’t hang around here in the cold and wind.” The man turned and looked over the fjord. “The forecast is fair, but a lot can change in a week. It doesn’t take much to make the boat bob like a cork, so we’ll have to hope it’s not too rough.”
“How bad does the weather have to be to stop you from coming?” Katrín tried to hide her irritation at this pronouncement. Why hadn’t he told them this before they made arrangements with him? Maybe they would have hired a bigger boat. But as soon as the thought entered her mind, she realized that they wouldn’t; a bigger boat would have cost far more.
“If the waves are high on the open sea it’s not likely I’d attempt it.” He looked back over the fjord again and nodded at the water. “I won’t sail if they’re much worse than this.” Then he turned to face them. “I need to get going.” He went to the stack of supplies on deck and passed Garðar the mattress that was lying on top. They formed an assembly line to move the boxes, paint pots, firewood, tools, and black bin bags stuffed with non-breakable items onto the floating pier. While Katrín arranged the items along the pier to keep the end of it free, Líf was allowed to rest. She was in a bad way; it was all she could do just to hobble onto land and lie down near the top of the beach. Putti followed her, jumping about on the sand, obviously delighted to have solid ground under his feet and blind to the sorry condition of his owner. It took all Katrín’s strength to keep up with the men, and sometimes they were forced to jump onto the pier to help her. Finally the cargo stood in a long line on the dock, a kind of guard of honor for the visitors. The skipper started shuffling his feet impatiently. He seemed more eager than them to part company. His presence provided a sense of security that would disappear with his little boat over the horizon; unlike them, he had dealt with the forces of nature before and would be prepared for whatever might befall him. Both Garðar and Katrín flirted with the idea of asking him to stay and give them a helping hand, but neither of them expressed it. Finally the man brought things to a close. “Well, all you need to do now is get ashore, and you’re on your way.” He directed his words at Garðar, who smiled half-heartedly, then clambered onto the floating pier. He and Katrín stood there, staring down at the man with bewildered expressions. He looked away, half embarrassed.
“You’ll be fine. I just hope your friend feels better.” He nodded toward Líf, who was now sitting up. Her white jacket stood out sharply, a reflection of how poorly the new visitors fitted into these surroundings. “See, the poor love seems to be feeling better already.” His words failed to cheer them up—if that had been his intention—and Katrín wondered how they looked to him: a couple from Reykjavík, a teacher and a graduate in business administration, both barely over thirty and neither of them cut out for any great physical exertion; not to mention the third wheel, who could barely lift her head. “I’m sure everything will be all right,” the captain repeated gruffly, but without much conviction. “But you shouldn’t wait too long to get your gear up to the house; it’ll be dark soon.”
A heavy, tangled lock of hair blew across Katrín’s eyes. In all the rush not to forget anything on the list of necessary building materials and supplies, she had forgotten to bring hair bands. Líf claimed she’d only brought one with her and had had to use it during the sea crossing to keep her hair out of her face as she vomited. Katrín tried to push the hair back with her fingers, but the wind immediately ruffled it again. Garðar’s hair wasn’t faring much better, though it was a lot shorter than hers. Their hiking shoes looked like they’d been bought specifically for this trip, and although their windproof trousers and jackets weren’t brand new, they might just as well have been—they’d been given them as wedding presents by Garðar’s siblings, but this was the first time they’d had a chance to use them. Líf had bought her white ski suit for a skiing trip to Italy and it was about as appropriate to their current environment as a bathrobe. It was also clear from their pale skin that they weren’t big on outdoor pursuits. At least they were all in good shape from spending hours at the gym, although Katrín suspected that whatever strength they’d managed to build up was unlikely to be sufficient for the work they’d be doing here.
“Do you know if any other visitors are expected to come here this week?” Katrín crossed her fingers behind her back. If so, there would still be hope that they could get a ride home earlier if everything went badly for them.
The skipper shook his head. “You don’t know much about this place, do you?” They hadn’t been able to talk much on the way due to the noise of the engine.
“No. Not really.”
“No one comes here except during the summer, since there’s no real reason to be here in the dead of winter. People stay in one of the houses over the New Year, and one or two house owners pop over sometimes to make sure that everything’s in order, but otherwise it’s empty here during the winter months.” The man stopped and looked over what was visible of the settlement. “Which house was it you bought?”
“The one furthest back. I think it must have been the priest’s residence.” Garðar’s voice betrayed a hint of pride. “You actually can’t see it from here in the dark, but otherwise it’s quite prominent.”
“What? Are you sure?” The skipper looked surprised. “No priest lived in this village. When there was still a church here, it was served from Aðalvík. I think you must have been given the wrong information.” Garðar hesitated and various thoughts crossed Katrín’s mind, among them the hopeful notion that this was all a misunderstanding: there was no house, and they could turn right round and go home.
“No, I’ve had a look at it and it clearly used to be a priest’s house. At least, there’s a rather nice cross carved into the front door.”
The skipper seemed to have trouble believing Garðar. “Who else owns the house with you?” His brow had furrowed slightly; it was as if he suspected them of having come into possession of the house by some criminal means.
“No one,” replied Garðar, frowning. “We bought the house from the estate of someone who died before he could renovate it.”
The captain tugged on the rope and then jumped up to join them on the pier. “I think I’d better find out what’s going on here. I know all the houses in the village and generally each of them has several owners, usually siblings or descendants of the previous inhabitants. I don’t know of any house that could have belonged to one individual.” He wiped his palms on his trousers. “I can’t leave you here unless I can be certain that you’ve got some shelter and that you haven’t been fed a load of nonsense.” He set off down the pier. “Point me to the house when we get to the top of the beach; we’ll be far enough there from the boat for its lights not to blind our view.”
He strode off and they followed, forced to take larger steps than they were used to in order to keep up with the man, who walked with a fast, loping gait that belied his short stature. Then he stopped as suddenly as he’d started, and they barely avoided knocking into him: they’d come to where Líf was sitting miserably. It looked to Katrín as if the color was returning to her cheeks. “I think I’ve stopped vomiting.” She tried to smile at them, without much success. “I’m frozen. When can we get inside?”
“Soon.” Garðar was unusually curt, but then obviously regretted it, since he added in a much gentler tone: “Just try to bear up.”
He pushed Putti aside as the dog greeted their arrival by fawning over him. Irritated, he brushed sand off his trouser leg.
The skipper turned to Garðar. “Where did you say the house was? Can you see it from here?”
Katrín positioned herself next to the men and watched as anxiously as the old captain. Although Garðar’s description of the village was vivid in her mind’s eye, it was difficult to reconcile it with what she saw now. The little cluster of ten houses and their accompanying storage sheds was more spread out than she’d expected, and it struck her how much distance there was between them. She would have thought that in such an isolated community people would have wanted to live closer together, to draw strength from each other in times of trouble or hardship. But what did she know? She actually had no idea how old the village was. Maybe the people there needed large gardens for keeping livestock or to plant vegetables. There could hardly be a shop there. Garðar finally spotted what he was looking for and pointed. “There, furthest out, on the other side of the stream. Of course, you can only see the roof—on the other side of the hill with the spruce trees, which block the view a bit.” He dropped his hand. “You don’t think a priest lived there?”
The old man clicked his tongue, and stared up at the innocuous-looking roof where it rose over the yellowed vegetation on the slope. “I’d forgotten that place. But no, it’s not the priest’s house. The cross on the door doesn’t have anything to do with a priest. The person who lived there was a follower of the Heavenly Father and his Son and thought it was a fitting tribute.” He pondered for a moment and appeared to be about to say something, but stopped. “For years the house has gone by the name of Final Sight. It’s visible from the sea.” The man looked as if he wanted to add something, but again did not.
“Final Sight. Okay.” Garðar tried to look nonchalant but Katrín could see through him. One of the things he had found most attractive about the house was that it had once been inhabited by one of the most important figures in the village. “I guess it would have been a lot to ask to have a rectory in a place this size.” Garðar looked over the houses, most of which were fully visible from where they were standing, unlike the partially hidden one they now owned. “But weren’t there more houses here at one time? Some of them must have been torn down over the years.”
“Yes, yes, quite right.” The old man still hadn’t turned back to face them and appeared distracted. “There were more houses here. Of course there were never many people living here, but some took their houses with them when they left. Only the foundations remain.”
“Have you ever been in there? In our house?” Katrín had the feeling that something odd was going on, but that the man couldn’t express it for some reason. “Is the roof about to collapse or something like that?” She lacked the imagination to come up with anything else. “Will it be safe for us in there?”
“I haven’t been in there, but the roof is probably all right. The previous owners were quite enthusiastic at first about patching the place up. Everyone starts off well.”
“Starts off?” Garðar winked at Katrín conspiratorially and grinned. “So it’s high time someone got down to business and completed the repairs.”
The man ignored Garðar’s attempt to lighten the mood; instead he turned away from the little cluster of houses that could hardly be called a village and prepared to head back down to the pier. “I’m going to get something from the boat.” Katrín and Garðar hesitated, taken aback, not knowing whether they should wait there for him or follow; finally they decided on the latter.
“Where are you going? You’re not leaving me here alone!” Líf scrambled to her feet.
Katrín turned back toward her. “We’ll be right back. You’ve been sitting there for over half an hour, so a few minutes more won’t make a difference. Just rest.” Before Líf had a chance to object, Katrín hurried to catch up with Garðar and the skipper.
The skipper disappeared into the boat, then reappeared a moment later with an open plastic box containing various items she couldn’t make out. From it he pulled out a key ring holding an ordinary house key, and another that was much more old-fashioned and grand-looking. “Just to be sure, take these keys to the guesthouse in the doctor’s residence.” He pointed at one of the most respectable-looking houses, clearly visible from the pier. “I’ll let the owners know I’ve loaned them to you. The woman who looks after it is my wife’s sister; she’ll probably be glad to know that you have somewhere else to go if anything should come up. You don’t need to worry about staying there.”
Something unspoken hovered in the air between Garðar and Katrín: they hadn’t told the man about their plans to create competition for the guesthouse to which they were being given the keys. Neither said anything. Katrín held out her hand and took the key ring. “Thank you.”
“You should also keep your phone batteries charged, and don’t hesitate to call if you have any trouble. In decent weather I can make it here in under two hours.”
“That’s very kind of you.” Garðar put his arm around Katrín’s shoulder. “We’re not quite as hopeless as we look, so I doubt it will come to that.”
“It’s nothing to do with you. The house doesn’t have a great reputation and although I’m not superstitious, I’ll feel better knowing that you have somewhere else to go and that you’re aware you can call for help. The weather here can be dangerous sometimes, that’s all.” When neither of them responded he wished them good luck and said good-bye. They muttered farewells in return and stood rooted to the spot, waving, as the man steered the boat carefully off the pier and sailed out into the fjord.
When they were alone, anxiety overwhelmed Katrín. “What did he mean by ‘the house doesn’t have a great reputation?’”
Garðar shook his head slowly. “No idea. I suspect he knows more about our plan than he was willing to admit. Didn’t he say his sister-in-law runs the guesthouse? He was just trying to scare us. I hope he doesn’t start spreading rumors about the house.”
Katrín said nothing. She was sure Garðar was wrong. Apart from Líf, no one knew about their plans. Neither she nor Garðar had discussed them with their families for fear of jinxing the project. It was bad enough that their families pitied them because of Garðar’s unemployment. Their relatives thought they were taking a trip out west for Katrín’s winter holiday from school. No, the old man hadn’t said what he did to scare them; there was something else behind it. Katrín sorely regretted not having pressed him for more details in order to prevent her imagination from running wild. The boat receded into the distance faster than she recalled it arriving, and in an incredibly short amount of time appeared only as big as her fist.
“It’s awfully quiet here.” Garðar broke the silence that the boat had left behind. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in such an isolated spot.” He bent down and kissed Katrín’s salty cheek. “But the company here is good, that’s for sure.”
Katrín smiled at him and asked whether he’d forgotten their Lazarus, Líf. She turned away from the sea, not wanting to see the boat disappear completely, and looked along the beach and up toward the land. Líf was on her feet, waving at them frantically. Katrín raised her hand to wave back but dropped it when she saw something move quickly behind their white-clad friend. It was a pitch-black shadow, much darker than their dim surroundings. It disappeared as soon as it appeared, making it impossible for Katrín to distinguish what it was, but it looked a bit like a person, a short one. She gripped Garðar’s upper arm tightly. “What was that?”
“What?” Garðar peered toward where Katrín was pointing. “Do you mean Líf?”
“No. Something moved behind her.”
“Really?” Garðar gave her a puzzled look. “There’s nothing there. Just a seasick woman in a ski outfit. Wasn’t it just the dog?”
Katrín tried to appear calm. It could well be that her eyes had deceived her. But it wasn’t Putti, she was certain of that; he was standing in front of Líf, sniffing the air. Maybe the wind had blown something loose. But that didn’t explain how quickly it seemed to have gone by, although there could have been a sharp gust. She let go of Garðar’s arm and focused on breathing calmly for what was left of the walk down the pier. Nor did she say anything after they’d reached Líf. There was a rustling noise and a cracking in the dry, yellowed vegetation behind them, as if someone were walking through it. Neither Garðar nor Líf seemed to notice anything, but Katrín couldn’t avoid the thought that they weren’t alone there in Hesteyri.
Copyright © 2012 by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir
YRSA SIGURDARDÓTTIR (pronounced ỨR-suh SIG-ur-dar-daughter) lives with her family in Reykjavík; she is also a director of one of Iceland's largest engineering firms. Her work is found on bestseller lists all over the world, and films are currently in production for several of her books. Her previous titles include, The Day is Dark and Ashes to Dust.