The longest night of the year crept towards them from the Arctic, whose southern border lay just across the sea from the village of Fiskurfjörður, where Birta had lived all her life. At this time of year, gold light snuck up from behind the northern mountains at noon, lighting the ice-frozen road, then disappeared, pallid and bitter, only two hours later. The view out Birta’s kitchen window—salt-scrummed boats beached for the long winter, wind whipping at the fjord—lay always either in twilight or in that midnight dark when Fiskurfjörður seemed as far away as it was possible to be from the sun while still remaining on the earth.
Today, Birta’s Advent calendar revealed a piece of weak chocolate and the date December 14, 1966. The solstice was approaching, fast, and the signs showed that this year, the ghost was approaching too.
That afternoon, after Birta finished straightening the cans and boxes on the shelves at the store, she walked to her friend Magret’s house through the twilight, as she had three or four times a week all through her twenties and into her thirties. After Birta hung up her coat and threw her fur-lined boots on the rubber mat by the door, she padded into Magret’s kitchen, where Magret poured them black coffee into chipped mugs.
“One week left.” Magret cradled her mug. “Well, they said down at the community center that Ólafur will donate part of what we need for the ritual, and, you know, the men from the fishing cooperative have been out looking for a reindeer every afternoon when it’s not snowing. So we should be able to stave it off, so long as we can come up with a sheep skull. That’s what I hope, anyway.” She stared at Birta as though waiting for her to agree.
Birta tested the scalding coffee on her lower lip and studied the red-and-green needlepoint troll banner that Margret had hung on her kitchen wall. The corner of the banner fluttered in the breath from the heater. Birta had a similar troll banner hanging in her own house, ready for the holiday. Like all the girls, she and Magret had made these banners in school, when they were on the cusp of teenagehood.
She and Magret had always led, and still led, very similar lives, like everyone in Fiskurfjörður: they had gone to the same elementary and secondary school, learned acrobatic and survival backstroke in their mandatory swim lessons at the town pool, giggled at the boys in the sauna. They had moved out of their parents’ and settled into their own houses a few years after graduating, had decorated with hand-me-down couches and hand-made tables. They each kept two ponies, and in summer picked wild herbs in the field next to the fjord to make tea.
Of course there were differences: the wind-proofing metal on the side of Magret’s house was deep green, while Birta’s was yellow. Magret came from a fishing family, while Birta’s was herding-turned-fishing. Magret was married, her husband, Gunnar, gone for more than half the year on a commercial trawler that steamed halfway to Norway and back, while Birta had never married, her last boyfriend, Egill, having moved away. But these variations were minuscule compared to the variations in the lives of those like Egill who had gone to pack fish in Dalvik, or to study in Reykjavik, or even to other places that for Birta were completely incomprehensible.
“I just hope that all of this is over, soon.” Margret fiddled with the jar of jam next to the plate of dark bread. “The ritual works, and the sun comes back, and we can rest easy.”
Birta sipped her coffee, even though it was still too hot.
“Yes, of course,” Birta said. “Why are you even asking me that? What kind of a person do you think I am?”
“The road over the mountain’s iced over til April,” Magret said, as though Birta didn’t know this, as though everyone in the village didn’t know this. “Imagine if the fjord road iced over too.”
“Yes, a whole winter without canned corn from Akureyri. I’d be pretty bored at the store.”
Magret stared at her; Birta took another sip of coffee, too large, and smiled around her mouthful of bitter liquid, hoping Magret would take it as a joke.
“People starved around here, not too long ago,” Magret said. “In our parents’ time.”
“You mean grandparents.”
“No, my father told me there was one false spring when he was young where three farmers up the mountain didn’t make it. They found them frozen—”
“Isn’t your father an exaggerator?”
“This isn’t a joke, Birta. That was a ghost winter, and they didn’t do the ritual. They couldn’t find any reindeer to hunt. The cold autumn drove them all south.”
“I just think,” Birta said, “that it will be fine. We’ll be fine.” She sipped her coffee down to the dregs, which scraped rough on her tongue. She set the chipped cup back on her saucer and she and Magret fell silent. The clock on the wall, a novelty clock shaped like a black cat, ticked away, its tail swishing.
Magret coughed, rough, then cleared her throat and started gossiping about who was engaged, and who was already pregnant. Birta joined in, and they talked about who would sing in church on Christmas Eve next week, and who had saved enough money for a trip to Vik in the summer, and when Gunnar’s trawler would next return to Iceland. But the gossip was forced, as though they were acting out their parts. They both knew there was another conversation that they needed to have, an argument about the ghost, and Birta’s attitude. They had been friends for as long as they could remember, and now, after more than three decades, their friendship had taken on the cast of family: built around habit, boredom, obligation, like most everything in Fiskurfjörður. Birta suspected that if Gunnar retired and moved back here full time, or if Birta gave into her father’s worried suggestions and got married, the friendship would fade away.
In any case, Birta didn’t want to have their argument today: she felt hot, and jittery with caffeine, and soon she said she had to go feed her ponies, and took her leave.
When she arrived home, she slipped her feet into her rubber galoshes and ventured out her side door into her stable-yard. Tonight was warmer than last night, around zero, but with waves of wind blowing up off the fjord, numbing her hands in her canvas gloves. She strapped on her crampons and tromped across the yard, the metal teeth on the crampons biting into the frozen slick of manure and hay. In the weak orange light of her barn, she scattered oats for her ponies, who waited impatiently, their tails swishing, and forked fresh hay onto the boards.
After she finished, she knelt down at the foundation of her house and ran her gloved finger along the dirt, where the previous owners had buried fragments of bone during winters when the ghost had crept over the moor behind the mountain. She knew that next week, if the men from the fishing cooperative found a reindeer and sheep skull in time, she would bury a lucky fragment in her foundation, just like everyone else in the village. Then the ghost would stay away from Fiskurfjörður, and it would be a tolerable winter.
And why didn’t Birta feel relief at that thought, or fear that it might not come to pass? It wasn’t that she didn’t believe in the ghost; she did. But when the other villagers wrung their hands over it, and whispered in the store about it, nodding, concerned, while they counted their preserves and cans of food, something prevented her from joining them. She never lay awake at night worrying about it. She hadn’t joined in when Magret had cried about it this autumn, not once.
She told everyone that she had long outgrown that nonsense from her teenage years, as girls do when they become women. But she suspected that at least Magret, if not more of them, knew she was lying. That still, just as when she was a teenager, she wondered what would happen if the men failed to find a reindeer. If they didn’t complete the ritual. If they let the ghost win.
She wondered, sometimes, why she felt this way. Was it because she had never known true hardship? Because her father had survived his time as a fisherman, had lived to retire to a pleasant life of vodka and cards? Because the starving times had ended before she was born? If there had been trouble and texture to her life, would she fear the ghost like the rest of them?
Either way, she hadn’t, and she didn’t.
She ran her hand through one pony’s mane, patted the other on the rump, turned off the light and tromped back across the yard, her crampons the only thing keeping her upright in the merciless wind. She lit her Christmas candles in her window, and turned on her television, the volume off so the black and white image flickered in silence. She read a book on her couch. The long night lasted, and lasted.
The ghost had lurked around Fiskurfjörður for as long as anybody could remember. Some said that it was the ghost of a person who had once lived in the village and sworn revenge on it. Some said it wasn’t the ghost of a person, but rather a spirit, ancient, malevolent, unknowable—or perhaps not, perhaps it was a punishment for some forgotten sin. Some swore that it lived on the glacier to the south, or in the white-toothed caps of the water past the docks, but most believed that it lived on the moor behind the mountain. Most village folks whispered a prayer if they had to pass over that moor in summer—it was impassable in winter—and they had all rejoiced when the government had paved the road along the fjord three years ago, making it easier to avoid the ghost’s territory.
But there was no avoiding the ghost if it got into the village. Everyone said that it would whisper disaster into the very foundations, that it would starve and freeze the people who lived there, and its breath would steal everything in its wake. Birta’s mother, an older woman retired from cashiering, who now knit away afternoons at the community center and taught craft lessons once a week, had explained to Birta many years ago the signs of a coming ghost-winter: a spoon thrown within five paces of the ocean would spin around, fast, and never settle until you clapped a hand onto it; half the fishing catch from the sea would come up dead, eyes rolled back above desiccated scales.
The first time the signs predicted the ghost during Birta’s life, she was just seven years old. She remembered trailing her parents from their house on the slope above the town, down the dirt road, past the general store and the flat warehouse smelling of scaled fish, to the only intersection in Fiskurfjörður. The whole town was there, all holding candles, everybody Birta had ever met clustered in one place.
She followed her mother and father through the crowd, brushing against coats that smelled of woodstoves. She spotted Magret, and she waved, but her parents tugged her on. They wanted to show her what lay in the center of the crowd: a brown-and-white sheepskin, still smelling of its time in the tannery up-coast. On it sat three skulls. One was jaw-heavy, with a mountainous snout and curling antlers; one had an even longer nose, with a strange flap of bone over its nostrils; and one was elegant and antlered.
Birta loosed her hand from her mother, who was distracted by a conversation with Kai Baldursson, the owner of the general store. She moved, wary, towards the skulls, and knelt on the sheepskin. She studied the horse’s eye socket, and found herself overcome with the desire to know whether her hand would fit inside it.
She took off her mitten; her skin purpled, the wind raising goose bumps and orange spots. She already had big hands, and she crossed her fingers together, trying to make them small as possible. Then she dipped her hand towards the socket.
“Birtie, what are you doing?”
Birta’s fingers fit into the socket easily, but her wide palm jammed. She had to turn her hand sideways, narrow it, curve the palm in on itself as though she were curving a fish-bone that she had extracted from her supper. She pushed again and felt her skin catch on the socket’s rough interior.
“Someone grab her,” shouted a male voice, and from elsewhere in the crowd came a shriek, and then the high voice of a little girl, Magret, screaming Birta’s name over and over again, until her mother had to pick her up and carry her away.
Birta’s parents also picked her up, her mother holding her while her father pulled her hand out, yanking it from the elbow. The president of the fishing cooperative told Birta’s parents to keep her back, and they held her still at their side. Once the overly-curious little girl had been properly chastened, the ritual proceeded: the three strongest men in town raised hammers and hooks and brought them crashing down on the three skulls, sending shards scattering towards the boots of the surrounding townsfolk.
The town fell to picking up the pieces, gathering them up from where they had stuck on the sheepskin or skittered down the dirt. Each family took a fragment back to their house, and the next day, when the weak sun turned the sky to faded blue for long enough to wield a spade against the frozen dirt, each family buried their skull-shard beneath their foundation.
“See,” Birta’s father had said, as she helped him, “do you see what would’ve happened if you had had your hand stuck last night, Birtie? We might not have been able to use that skull, if your hand had stuck in there. Or we might have hurt you, trying to get you free. It was dangerous. You do see, right?”
Birta was old enough to note that her father desperately wanted her to agree that what she’d done was wrong. She told him she did, and they went inside for licorice and tea and cookies. And yet Birta knew that if the skull were still whole, she would do it again. She had liked the shouts of the adults around her. She liked it, she realized, when things didn’t go according to plan.
Birta had worked at the general store off Fiskurfjörður’s only intersection since she finished secondary school at age nineteen. The store consisted of two rooms, smelling of sawdust and sand trailed in by boots and shoes. There, Birta was cashier, unofficial manager, cleaner, cook. In the mornings, she ducked away from the new electric cash register every hour to brew another pot of coffee in the tiny kitchen in the back, cordoned off from the dusty hallway by a curtain that trailed on the ground. She kept the coffee warm in an industrial metal dispenser on a table beyond the end of the counter. The table was draped with a plastic cloth patterned with bows and cherubs, from which she always had to wipe sticky, spilled sugar and the dregs of half-dried milk. In afternoons, she directed the teenage employees, some of them the sons and daughters of her former classmates, to unpack boxes of canned corn and peas and broccoli, even expensive tomato sauce and boxes of pasta, to stock the shelves. She also sold strings of licorice from the jar by the register, and pastries brought in every day by Odda Svanurssdottir, a friend of Birta’s mother. Odda used to talk about opening a bakery, maybe even a restaurant, in Fiskurfjörður, an idea Birta had loved when she was younger, but sometime past 25, she’d realized Odda was only ever going to talk about the restaurant.
Today, December 17, Birta had hauled the coffeepot off its perch to wipe at the brown circular stain that marred the bows and cherubs. She scrubbed at the gummy plastic with a steel-wool sponge, then used a cloth to wipe away the debris, then attacked the same spot with the sponge again.
The store around her was close and humid with the breath and sweaty coats of townsfolk clustered at the three tables to the left of the register. At one table, Talía Dittósdottir flipped through a book catalog and wrote down titles on a notepad, muttering names and authors; at the next table sat Kai Baldursson and Haddur Jonnisson, engaged in a loud discussion about the young men in the fishing cooperative, who had left that morning to hike up the mountain and hunt a reindeer herd for the ritual.
“We’ve always found one in time before, and this is the fifth time it’s come in my lifetime, so I don’t see why we wouldn’t catch one again,” Kai said.
“God’s will is God’s will,” muttered Haddur.
Haddur’s son was Egill, Birta’s most recent boyfriend, who had become involved with the American military and left for that country more than five years ago.
“I don’t understand why you didn’t go with him,” Magret still said sometimes. “You’ve always wanted to travel.” And Birta couldn’t explain to her that she didn’t want to go to America as the accessory to Egill’s journey. She didn’t want to bring a piece of Fiskurfjörður with her into the wider world. She wanted her departure to be hers and hers alone, even if that meant her departure would never come.
She knelt down, her bony knees smarting against the hard floor, to gain leverage in her fight against the dirty tablecloth. She gripped her sponge tight between thumb and forefinger, attacked the stain.
“Birta.” Ingrid, who had once been one of Birta’s closest friends, turned around from the third table. Ingrid’s two children, straw-haired twins, played on the floor at her feet. She had dyed her hair again, a strange magenta color that Birta understood from magazines was popular in the Soviet Union. “Did you hear what Haddur just said? ‘God’s will is God’s will.’”
“Do you take issue with that?” Haddur set down his coffee cup so it sloshed onto the table.
“The more powerful will belongs to those folks down in Reykjavik who paved the fjord-road. They did that since that last ghost winter. You can’t tell me that that road didn’t drive the reindeer further back into the moorland. If we end up without a skull, I say we should blame—Kathinka!” She set down her coffee and scooped up her daughter from the floor. “Do not put that in your mouth,” she cried. She pulled a kroner from between the girl’s lips. “Birta. Birta. Did you see this? Someone left this on the floor. How dangerous. Don’t you sweep under here?”
“Ingrid, you’re a schoolteacher. Surely you have kids putting much worse in their mouths every day.”
Ingrid huffed. “Kathinka could have choked.”
“I’m glad she didn’t.”
Ingrid stared at Birta for a second; Kai and Haddur had gone silent, staring at the steaming mugs in their chipped-nail hands. Then Ingrid sighed. “I’m sorry. I’m just worried.” She hugged Kathinka close to her chest, and Kathinka pummeled Ingrid’s shoulder with one little fist, trying to push her away. Ingrid stroked her daughter’s hair and looked at Birta as though waiting for her to say, “I’m worried too.” Birta only gave Ingrid a tight smile and returned to the coffee stain. She had wiped away ten percent of it, she estimated. She gave the tablecloth another swipe.
A breath of cold air as the door swung open, and Magret entered, her breath rasping with the cold. She had a towel over her shoulder and carried a duffel bag, a hot pink one she’d purchased when they were twelve. Now its strap was frayed, and duct tape bolstered one of the seams.
“Ten laps today,” she announced to Birta and Ingrid. Her cheeks were bright, her breath labored. “That’s the most I’ve done in two years.” She coughed.
Birta slid a mug beneath the coffeepot, filled it, and handed it to Magret, who sipped, her eyes watering. When they were children, the town had raised money for and built a 25-meter pool in the community center to comply with the new government regulations about swimming lessons. Within a few months, Magret had become the best swimmer in Fiskurfjörður. She had won the school backstroke competition every year, and was always selected to demonstrate the proper way to haul an unconscious person through the water: Birta remembered many long afternoons, when she longed to go flip through magazines and dream of the land beyond the mountain, or of Reykjavik and New York and Paris and Rome, which she instead spent on her back, her eyes closed, Magret cradling her limp body from one side of the pool to the other.
But Magret hadn’t had that kind of stamina for ten years, since her breathing problems had started when they were twenty-two, and Birta didn’t understand why her friend still insisted on swimming several times a week.
“Oh, Magret, will you take her?” Ingrid lifted Kathinka up high, and Magret set down her coffee and seized the grasping little girl. Magret cooed, presented the girl with her finger, even though Birta knew for a fact that Magret disliked children.
“Aren’t you a sweet girl,” Magret said, petting the child’s head, bouncing her on her hip. “Birta,” she said, as Birta worked away on the stain. “Birta, has your mother come by? I ran into her at the community center.”
“Well, she told me that Hanna Gerðursdottir came all the way down here from that sheep farm her husband owns half an hour up the fjord to tell us that her husband had an ewe that went off and he had to shoot it, so, there’s our sheep skull for the ritual.”
“Oh,” said Birta, and suddenly, she wanted to cry.
“We need someone to drive up there and get it.” Magret glanced around, at Ingrid, who had never learned to drive, at Kai and Haddur, whose eyesight was too bad for the journey, even though they would never admit it. “You need to do it, Birta.”
“I’m working.” Birta dropped her sponge. “Can’t it wait until later, when we close up?”
“Drive up the fjord-road after dark? Asphalt doesn’t make it magic. Come on, go now and you’ll be back in an hour. I’ll watch the counter for you.”
Birta no longer wanted to cry. Instead, she wanted to take Magret by the shoulders and shake her.
But Kai, Haddur, Ingrid, and even Talía were watching her, and so she rummaged in the drawer under the register until she found the spare keys to the village’s one motor vehicle: an ancient pick-up truck, olive green, technically owned by the fishing cooperative but free for all town business. She stepped outside into the drowsy dusk of mid-afternoon and walked down towards the steeple of the church and Aron Bjartursson’s house, where they kept the trunk, since Aron knew a little bit about machinery. To her right lay the slate fjord, which cut into the sere grasses, with the flat town on the slight slope behind her, and then, on the other side of the fjord, the low, jagged mountains. The wind buffeted against her, catching her in the middle so she had to double over, whisking strands of hair out of her ponytail.
She reached the pickup, swung inside, started the raspy engine, crawled out of town. She had learned to drive when she was sixteen, one of the few in Fiskurfjörður who had ever been behind the wheel; her father had asked her to learn so she could transport traps and nets and tools around the village. She had discovered that she liked driving: sometimes, on the straight stretches along the fjord, she pressed the gas pedal, hard, and shifted into a higher gear, and watched the scrubbed hillside speed up until she could barely tell rock from tree from sky.
At the farmer’s house she climbed out of the truck, rubbing her hands together. She knocked on his door and waited, watching three birds lifting off his roof. The air was too cold for her to smell the sea a hundred meters away. The farmer’s yard was messy, tires stacked in the corner, a single ram, loosed from the barn, staring at her with doleful eyes.
Her father had kept sheep for a few years when she was young, before he’d joined the fishing cooperative. One year, an ewe grew pregnant in February. Its belly swelled, and Birta remembered running her fingers through its fur, which was matted with frozen clumps of dirt that she and her mother trimmed out every Saturday. But in April, when the lambs should have arrived, the ewe began to stink. The stink crept through the stables, through the farm yard, through the metal walls of their house. It sank into Birta’s sheets, which were faded and patterned with sprigs of lavender; she smelled it when she fell asleep, and when she woke in the morning.
It turned out that the lambs were rotting inside the ewe, poisoning her. Her father shot it one night in the sleet, but Birta remembered a few hours before that, in the stable, when she watched a leg, topped by a perfect dark hoof, jut out from inside the ewe. Her father snapped the leg off in his hand.
The farmer answered the door. She remembered him: his name was Kristjan, and he had been a year above them in school. Magret had had a hopeless crush on him for about three years. “You’re Birta Einarsdottir, right?”
“Yes,” she said.
Kristjan handed her a bulky tarpaulin. “This one fought,” he told Birta, as he handed it to her. “My wife and I had to hold it down together.”
Another memory of her family’s sheep-keeping days: holding down sheep while her father held a gun to their heads and their eyes roiled, showing the crescent whites. She used to cry out “I’m sorry” right before her father pulled the trigger. Her parents always looked at each other, knowingly, as though they were both sure she would outgrow this pity, as though the day would come when she realized that this was just a part of life, like so many things were just a part of life. She wondered, now, if that day would come soon, if, for example, she would wake up on her next birthday transformed, the things she still cared about, the things she hadn’t give up on, suddenly all stripped away, like turpentine stripping away the gummed-up paint on a badly winterized boat.
She handed Kristjan five kroner for the sheep skull and carried it back to the truck.
There was one night, more than half her life ago, now, when Birta had showed herself too baldly. People had forgotten, or if they remembered, they waved their hands, dismissive (teenage girls), but Birta remembered, and so, she suspected, did Magret. It happened the December they were fifteen, when the spoons spun and the fish came up dead and for the second time in their lives Fiskurfjörður began to prepare for the ghost.
“I think we should go see it,” Birta said to Magret, and to Ingrid and Emma, another classmate. Emma was smoking a cigarette; her father had let her smoke ever since she was thirteen. She offered one to Birta, and Birta took it, clicked the lighter three times before it ignited, and inhaled. She knew cigarettes were supposed to make you feel a certain way, but they didn’t work on her. She had discovered that plenty of activities that other people used to satiate the wild dark parts inside themselves didn’t work on her. Last week, she had officially become the first of her friends to lose her virginity, to Ólafur Jonsson in his bedroom. He was two years ahead of them in school, and had flirted with Birta for six months, bringing her drinks at the parties along the fjord in summer, waiting for her and Magret when they came out of the changing rooms at the public pool, pulling off her shirt and unhooking her bra in the narrow twin bed in her bedroom at her parents’ house. The day they had sex was the first time she saw his house. In the kitchen, he poured her a mug of coffee, which was brewed from special beans his father had received as a gift from cousins in Bergen. She thought it was too sweet, but she decided that she enjoyed it anyway; she had never had coffee from Norway before. In the bedroom, she studied the unadorned walls, painted the color of old eggshells; the square bureau, indistinguishable from her own; the stack of worn schoolbooks in the corner, battered and used by generations of students. The one decoration in the room was an Air France poster, showing a plane circling a lit-up monument in Paris. It was a fold-out from a magazine that Birta knew her mother was selling down at the store; they put those posters in all the magazines, now that the war had ended and Europe wanted visitors again. The creases in the poster were still visible.
Ólafur closed the door; Birta had already climbed onto the bed. Before that afternoon, she had wondered if this was how adults tamped down their sense that life was unfair, cruel and boring, stove off their restlessness, their dreams of storms at sea, and gale-winds down the mountain, and snows so heavy that the winds couldn’t whip them away. But afterwards, she turned her eyes to the window, and had to hold her shirt over her mouth to hide the fact that she was laughing.
“Come on,” Birta said to her friends. She dropped her cigarette to the pavement and ground it out with the heel of one of her galoshes. “Nobody’s seen the ghost before—”
“—because we’ve always done the ritual.”
“Please.” Birta couldn’t put into words why she wanted to go so badly. She didn’t understand it herself. It was more of a feeling than a thought. But if Emma, Magret and Ingrid said no, she would lie down on the pavement right now and let her body, already exhausted with the cold, grow numb. She wanted them to say yes more than she had ever wanted anything.
At that age, Birta was the most persuasive of the four of them, and her obsessive nature and blunt brashness were considered charming, rather than annoying, as they were now. She charmed her friends into agreeing, even Magret, for this was the time in their lives when Magret had swung the farthest towards Birta’s curiosity and dissatisfaction, if only because Magret at that age was so pliable that Birta could usually badger her into anything.
That night they snuck out of the village, their pale hair hidden by over-large hats knitted by their mothers, their hands snug in mittens, the wind tossing up their coat-hems and showing their woolen pants. Halfway along the pasture road towards the mountain, Magret slipped and nearly fell, but Birta and Emma caught her, and they all skidded for a moment on the ice, and one of them shrieked and the others shouted at her to be quiet. They had stolen sips of vodka for warmth, and it made them silly and loud. Birta wondered whether it was right to drink it, whether it made their pilgrimage to see the ghost less sacred. As they walked, she imagined them crossing the mountain, reaching the high moor on the other side, with its cairns of gray rock, the snow scuttling across its dead grasses, the reindeer with their eyes lurid in the dark. She imagined—
The headlights of the truck, newly acquired the previous year, arced on the road behind them. It turned out that Magret’s mother had noticed her absence, and had hurried to Birta’s house, where her father was chiseling ice out of the pathway. They caught the four girls before they even reached the mountain and brought them back. It was for the best, Magret and Emma and Ingrid decided. They might have gotten lost up there. They might have seen the ghost, and what then? Yes, it was definitely for the best.
“Do you really think so?” Birta said. Probably, they answered. Which, as the years went by, became definitely, and then, why are you still asking us about this, Birta? She stopped asking. That youthful night was smoothed over by seasons of fishing and farming, by ponies born and ancient horses sent off to the factory down in Vik. The clothes that had fit them as teenagers were given away to friends to give to their children as those children aged into their second decades and Birta and her friends aged into their fourths. But Birta still knew, and Magret still knew, that if Magret could travel back to that night, she would stop the girls from ever leaving their houses, while Birta would cut the engine in the truck, ice up the road, stop the adults from following them out of Fiskurfjörður, urge her friends up the mountain, tell them to go, go, go.
Now, the twenty-first of December, only two hours and thirty-three minutes of daylight, and just in time, Fiskurfjörður was prepared. The three skulls, stripped of flesh and fur, were laid out on sheepskin, surrounded by the fishers and the shopkeepers and cashiers, the teachers and everyone who worked at the community center, the pastor and the farmers from just outside town.
Birta sat back from the crowd on the single step leading up to the shuttered general store, leaning her elbows on her knees. She was sitting behind her parents, and watched her mother holding her father’s elbow, while he held a bottle of vodka, his cheeks round and affable and heavy-veined. She watched their mouths moving, her mother’s quick, her father’s slow and considered, watched the wind whip their words away. Someone in the center of the crowd announced something and in response came hard applause, like rain.
Magret tapped her on the shoulder. She must have just come down from her house, because her cheeks were ruddy, and she was wheezing, slightly, her breath catching in her chest as it always did when she walked too fast.
“Don’t forget to get your fragment,” Magret said, sitting on the step next to Birta.
“I’ll get it in a little bit,” Birta said. “Do you have yours?”
“Not yet. But . . . ” Magret muttered something under her breath.
“What? Couldn’t hear you.”
“I said,” Magret cleared her throat, a phlegmy scrape. “I said I’m not worried about myself forgetting, so-called forgetting, I should say, to get it.”
Birta was quiet. What could she say? Magret already knew that Birta thought that there was something about her smooth life that begged to be cracked open like an egg. Magret wanted Birta to repudiate those parts of herself, to admit that she was wrong. Why? Why did Magret care so much?
“You know,” Birta said, fast, before she could regret it, “you know, maybe I won’t do it. Maybe I won’t put the shard under my house. What do you think would happen? Do you think the ghost would get us?”
“Unbelievable,” Magret said.
“What?” Birta said. “You can honestly tell me that you don’t want to know? I know you wondered about it when we were teenagers. You came with me up the mountain. You mean to tell me you’ve never wondered about it again, not once, since we were kids?”
Magret seized her hand. “It’s winter, Birta. There are children in Fiskurfjörður.” She dropped Birta’s hand. “It’s time for you to stop acting like one of them.”
A crash, and a cheer. The skulls were shattered, and Birta watched the crowd surging forward, saw people bend, rumps in the air, to retrieve the white shards gleaming on the pavement. Talía Dittósdottir nearly tipped over and had to be caught, set back on her feet, to laughter and applause.
Birta stood up, pushed through the crowd, and picked up a shard, a small one. She didn’t bother to see which animal it had come from. She stormed past Magret and headed up through the village, past the silent houses and the store and the community center. The mountain hulked against the starry sky, silent, unknowable.
Back at her house, she scrabbled at her foundation, jammed the shard into the frozen dirt, and used her boot-toe to cover it back up. She fed her ponies and forked hay over the boards, which had grown messy again. She ran her hands over their cold noses. Then her tasks were done and the longest night lay ahead of her.
She imagined going inside to her drowsy heat, her Advent calendar, her sliced bread and cheese in the fridge. She regarded her front door. The Christmas wreath, adorned with little plastic black cats, shivered in the wind.
She shoved her hands deeper into her pockets and set out towards the iced-over road to the mountain. She was already wearing her crampons, after all.
It didn’t take her long to cross the pasture, and before she knew it, she was climbing the road where it cut steeply upwards. She tromped up the ice-slicked dirt, towards the stars, towards the moor, and she realized that she had made it further than they ever had as teenagers. No one had stopped her. No one could stop her. She had gotten away with it, she thought, childishly, and glad to be childish again.
And yet, all in a rush, she wished Magret were with her, wished they had climbed up here together, giggling. She wished Magret still wanted to do secret, wild things, or that Birta could still convince her to do them. She wished they were side-by-side.
But that was impossible. Birta walked faster, her crampons clenching on ice. Where was the ghost? Would she see it lurking on the moor once she crossed the pass? As she climbed higher on the road, snow scuttled across her path, sticking to the front of her coat. She wouldn’t climb much longer. Soon, she would return to her village and her house, slip inside to her scalding coffee, her scratchy radio, the preserves she had made in autumn. Just a little longer. Just a little longer. She turned to face the wind.
Magret knew what Birta was about. She saw her friend pick up her fragment, fast, and practically run away from the village center. Magret lurked on the edge of the crowd, the smoke from the candles stinging her eyes and sticking in her hair, watching as Birta disappeared behind the houses. She accepted a skull-fragment, handed to her by Gunnar’s cousin, Jon, and studied it in the single streetlight: she thought, from its thin, delicate shape, that it had shattered off the reindeer skull.
Magret slipped the shard into the interior pocket of her coat, the secret pocket that you were supposed to use to hide money or your passport if you ever went to Reykjavik or abroad, which you never did. Then she struck out away from the square where the roads crossed in the heart of town and headed towards her house. She stopped to bury the shard—she cared about the village, after all, not like some people. One of her fingernails broke inside her glove as she scrabbled in the frozen dirt, and the pain made her bite her tongue. She flung dirt over the shard, thinking about Birta, her oldest friend, who had turned out so selfish, Birta, who, it seemed, had never really grown up. Birta, who Magret had had to look after, all their lives. She remembered the first ritual, how Birta had shoved her hand into the skull, how Magret herself had wanted to be the one to sprint forward and yank Birta’s hand to safety.
Magret finished burying the shard, stopped inside for her warmer sweater, and then walked out into the pasture. There was a lull in the wind as she drew away from the fjord, but once she reached the flat stretch of road leading towards the mountain, the wind ripped at her, furious. She looked up and the sky was brilliant with stars, and on the horizon curled the beginning of the Aurora. But then she almost slipped on the iced-over road, and so she watched her feet, and when she looked up again, the wind had scuttled clouds across the sky, and she smelled snow up ahead.
Birta thought she was the only one who had ever imagined trailing the ghost over the mountain and onto the moor. This was partly Birta’s fault, but partly Magret’s own. When Magret caught her friend, she would grab her, shake her by the shoulders, and shout at her: do you really think anybody ever stops chafing against pettiness or cruelty or plain boredom? That anybody is able to relinquish their secret dreams, their occasional murderous thoughts? Who leaves behind the child’s wickedness, the teenager’s rebellion, forever?
Magret kept walking, and the road started to rise beneath her boots. This was an old road, not like the proud new one along the fjord. It was unpaved, and completely frozen: the rainstorms earlier this month had dumped water onto the dirt and it had turned to ice, inches thick. She could only find traction in the spots where snow had blown onto the ice and stuck in bumps and crenelations. More snow was falling now, dotting the shoulders of her blue wool coat—she had ordered it, last year, and she remembered the rush of pride she had felt when she lifted it from the box, and she had shrugged into it in her lonely bedroom and twirled around, once, as though she were thirteen years old.
Her boot slipped out from beneath her, and she fell, hard, onto the ice. Her palms smarted, even through her gloves, but then the cold took over and she could no longer feel them. She glanced around, on all fours, then remembered that a shallow ditch ran alongside this road, between dirt and mountain. She climbed towards the ditch on all fours, and started climbing up again, securing her hands and knees on the patches of dirt and grass sticking up through the ice. Her knee crashed through a thin-iced puddle, soaking her pants and smarting her skin, but she kept going. The falling woolly flakes stuck to the ice and blew onto her arms as she climbed.
Was she any different from Birta? She wasn’t sure anymore. Wouldn’t it have been wise to go to the other people in town, to tell them where her friend had gone? To find someone who knew how to drive that sturdy truck with the chains on its tires? To at least put on crampons? They should have gone for Birta together, a proper search party, villagers with torches to drive the ghost back.
And yet here she was, crawling up the ice alone, against the snow, against the wind. She thought about her husband, Gunnar, and how people in town said that fishermen were heroes of the land and soldiers of the sea. How impressive, how brave, that they chose to risk their lives.
She remembered how capable she had been in the pool when she was young, how she had held Birta’s rubbery shoulders, buoying her from shallow end to deep and back again. When she was a girl, she had always imagined that she would save Birta from drowning someday, emerge from the fjord with her friend’s salt-and-water-logged body cradled in her arms. But she had lost her strength before she could do anything like that. Until tonight. She heaved herself up, and she imagined herself a heroine.
That night, while Birta walked onto the snow-whipped moor, and Magret pulled herself up the road, the ghost crept into Fiskurfjörður. It slipped past the two women searching in the dark. It brushed their shoulders, but they didn’t see it in the snow. It crawled across the pastures, past the sere grasses and the frozen marshes, towards the village with its candles glowing in every window. It had visited here every winter, no matter whether the spoons spun or the fish died, no matter whether these jolly, frightened, secretive people smashed animal skulls or not.
The ghost floated down the village’s main street, past mailboxes and cottages, trailing on the road behind itself. It slipped into the community center, floated over the empty, unlit pool, brushed against the photograph of the townsfolk gathered at the groundbreaking ceremony twenty years ago. It headed towards the fjord, slipped into the closed-up general store, touched the cans and boxes and empty tables with their chairs just slightly askew, passed over the tablecloth, which was still marred by a half-circle of coffee stain.
It crept under Birta’s lintel, ruffling her troll banner, slinking through her furry slippers, touching the TV she’d left on. It passed to Birta’s parents’ house, touched the cheek of Birta’s mother, asleep in the dark, and of her father, lying awake next to her, the vodka wearing off, wondering whether his daughter would ever be happy. It passed Haddur Jonnisson and Kai Baldursson playing cards in Jonnisson’s kitchen, each heartily proposing another game, and then another. Neither of them wanted to keep playing, but neither wanted Baldursson to have to venture out into the dark alone, tonight of all nights. It passed Ingrid, sitting with her twins, sucking on a piece of licorice, even though she had always hated the flavor. It passed Talía Dittósdottir flipping through the book catalog, hoping she’d be able to order some next year. It pressed a finger against a shard of skull sticking out from a frozen foundation, and it slipped into Magret’s house, passed a hand over the chipped mugs she had left in the sink.
It stroked the sleeping cheeks of fishermen and children and pastors and fathers, as it always did when the sun fled south. It felt their skin grow colder at its touch, and sadness clutched at it, while outside, the wind blew and blew and blew.
Originally published in Black Static, Issue 72, November-December 2019.