by Edward Weinman
Gummi stares at the crumbling pier where the body washed ashore.
“Who murders somebody just before Christmas?” he thinks to himself. “Why not wait until the damn Holidays are over?”
The rugged, Icelandic detective knows the answers to his rhetorical questions. Darkness, wind and incessant isolation are constants in Iceland, especially in towns like Neskaupstadur, villages located at 66 degrees north latitude, on the edge of the inhabitable world.
The snow falls wet and hard, as the cop pounds on Einar’s door, hoping to find out if the shut-in had noticed anything out of the ordinary over the past few days. Gummi has been knocking for nearly 30 minutes, but despite the lights flickering inside, Einar refuses to answer.
When a stranger comes knocking, residents don’t answer their doors, not in this remote fishing village frozen to the edge of Neskaupstadur. Yet, Gummi stubbornly continues. He needs to question Einar, Ivar and Telma, all of whom live across the street from the decaying pier that stretches into the black sea like a fractured arm.
While walking from house to ice-encrusted house, Gummi has become concerned about the lone, 25-foot boat limping away from the harbor’s shelter, into the mouth of the surging swells, struggling towards the end of the long fjord where the open ocean lurks.
His father was lost at sea on a night like tonight, a hopeless night when the weather turned so frigid the crew scrambled to the deck wielding axes, frantic to break off the ice smothering the ship’s rigging in a desperate act to keep the double-rigged beam trawler from sinking. His father’s crew didn’t axe fast enough: the bilges took on water and quickly burst, the 2,000 horsepower engine flooded and the North Atlantic Ocean swallowed yet another Icelandic fishing vessel.
Watching this hobbled boat, its rigging rattling in the northern wind, he can’t help but wonder if a ten-year-old boy will climb out of bed on Christmas morning and in his footed pajamas patter into the kitchen to find out breakfast has not been fixed because his mother sits helplessly on the floor, crying into a dish towel.
Unlike the dead body, discovered by two scuba divers who were scrubbing the pier’s underbelly, Gummi’s father was never recovered. The entire crew was lost at sea. Learning his father’s fate was the “gift” Gummi received on his tenth Christmas.
The homicide detective’s circulation slows to a crawl in the type of cold darkness inflicted upon Icelanders living at these northern latitudes. When the local cops, Thordur, and his younger partner Skuli, lifted the body from the slushy water, the December morning still cloistered the town in darkness, despite the 10:00 hour. Daybreak emerges slowly in the subarctic. The corpse dangled from the backhoe’s rusty chain, hooked like a fish on a line, and when Thordur directed his flashlight on the body he saw stab wounds to the belly. The beam of light then tracked upwards, across the corpse’s wrinkled face, illuminating two eyes. Brown eyes. A foreigner’s eyes. A damn foreigner, or as Icelanders call them, Helvítis útlendingar.
As the body swayed mercilessly in the wind, a seagull swooped down, perched on the corpse’s shoulder, and pecked at the waterlogged skin.
Gummi hears what the medical examiner said after viewing the body’s dark skin, dark hair and those dark eyes. “He probably came down from Kárahnjúkar work camp. Helvítis útlendingar always wander into town on the weekend, get drunk and try to screw our women.”
Kárahnjúkar. This country’s last untouched wilderness area, bulldozed. A glacial river dammed. Both by the aluminum giant Alcoa to tap the river’s energy to power a massive smelter that would, as the government said, supply jobs to the towns dotting the craggy East Fjords. But once Alcoa’s smelter went hot government leaders quickly learned that most Icelanders didn’t covet the brutal, blue-collar factory jobs, so foreigner labor was recruited to Neskaupstadur.
Neskaupstadur is so small it contains no movie theater. It’s not so much a town, but a cluster of houses built on the bottom sweep of a mountain, directly in the avalanche zone. There’s one road leading in and one road leading out, a soccer pitch, a swimming pool and one pub. The town’s so secluded that the bar has no name. It’s simply known as The Bar.
Gummi understands that finding the killer will be difficult, because in this insular outpost locals harbor secrets so deep that, if revealed, the romantic myth that Iceland’s bucolic villages are the moral fabric holding this windy country together would shatter.
Einar holds such a secret, which is why he refuses to answer his door. The call had come from his neighbor Christine. She phoned Einar, frantically begging him to protect her on a winter’s night so claustrophobic and dreary it transformed her father into a snow-blind animal.
The news never made the paper. No charges were pressed, because Einar remained silent. Within one week, they shuffled Christine to Copenhagen to live with her Aunt and nine moths later Christine gave birth to her father’s son.
Einar can’t escape what he witnessed that night. When the wind sweeps in from the north, he wakes up with a start, a cold sweat soaking his sheets. So as not to bother his tired wife, he buries his face in his pillow and silently screams.
When Gummi knocked on Ivar’s door he didn’t answer, either, because Ivar swore to himself never to reveal what went down in the men’s bathroom at The Bar, at 4:30 am, on Sunday morning. Drunk, like the rest of the townies crowded into the local pub, Ivar rushed to the bathroom after slamming three straight shots of Brennivín. He had to either puke or piss, but wasn’t going to decide until he made it to the toilet. He did neither. When he opened the bathroom stall he saw the owner of the fish factory forcing himself on Kola, who happened to be Ivar’s niece.
Kola’s 16-year-old, Nordic eyes pleaded for her uncle to fight off the 52-year-old man who reeked of whisky, but Ivar knew he’d lose his job as factory manager if he didn’t close the door behind him. And forget. As karma would have it, the mountain took care of the fish factory three years later. After the avalanche, Kola moved to Keflavik where she met an American serving at the US naval base. The American drove up to Neskaupstadur with a baseball bat and clubbed the former owner of the fish factory, who today can no longer hear out of his left ear, or see out his left eye. Although he also wanted to bash in Ivar’s skull, the American left him alone, because Kola had since forgiven her uncle’s silence.
Today, Ivar lives by himself in his small flat. Nothing hangs on the walls but white paint. The only visible sign anyone occupies the grungy apartment is a small Arsenal FC sticker stuck to the cracked windowpane, the sticker slowly peeling away from years of neglect. Ivar even refuses to buy a Christmas tree. On the darkest of these subarctic winter nights he stares at two full bottles of vodka, contemplating whether or not to drink both and forever forget about his niece Kola.
Telma worked at the local sjoppa selling candy, pylsur (Icelandic hotdogs) and Cokes to the drunks on Friday and Saturday night. Telma was an honor student, saving money so she could one day realize her dream of moving to Reykjavik and trying out for the National Theater. It was summer (last summer) so not unusual for a teenager to work late. It wasn’t unusual for Benni, a taxi driver, to pull up to the sjoppa. He needed a sugar fix to get him through the long night. He preferred Twix.
And teenage girls.
Telma had known Benni for what seemed like forever. Benni and her father grew up together; went to school together; fished together; watched soccer together; drank beer together. He was a friend, so Telma thought nothing about climbing into the back of his taxi to help him find a missing wallet, not until Benni locked the doors.
Nobody knows for certain whose child she carries in her belly, except for Telma and Benni. In the years to come, the townies, even Telma’s father, will ignore the fact that her baby has Benni’s nubby nose and droopy ears. Ashamed of what happened, and afraid that if she tells anyone Benni might one day attack her again, Telma will insist until the day she dies that it was a romantic interlude between herself and a German tourist who drove through town late that summer night. She’ll repeat it over and over again, telling the same old story for so many years she’ll start to believe it herself. She was never raped. “It was a German tourist. He was searching for gas. One thing led to another.”
Today, Telma waitresses at The Bar. She’s in her second trimester. She twists her hair whenever her father and Benni stumble into the pub, knowing she’s the one who must serve them. When Benni ghoulishly winks at her, she pulls her blonde hair, the only way she can keep from screaming.
Small towns are full of secrets, especially rural, Icelandic fishing villages located at 66 degrees north where nine-month winters are as deep and final as a man’s funeral. It’s why small-town “folk” shutter themselves behind locked doors and drawn curtains when outsiders come knocking.
Gummi’s considered an outsider. The detective grew up in Neskaupstadur, but had the sense to escape to Reykjavik, having planned never to return to this insulated, incestuous place, until a dead foreigner called him back to his childhood home to face his own secrets. When Gummi finally questions locals like Einar, Ivar and the pregnant Telma, he doesn’t expect them to “know” anything about how a body wound up submerged beneath a moldering pier.
Gummi spits, a nasty habit that increases for Gummi during the Holidays. He curses Christmas, and then continues knocking on the locked doors, peering behind the closed curtains, chipping away at the local permafrost, trying to unearth and expose even the most stubborn secrets.
Iceland is wild. From the Viking settlers who raped and pillaged, to the farmers forced to sacrifice their children in order to survive the winter on the measly scraps their land produced, to today’s inhabitants who drink feverishly to wash their minds clear of the emotional hardships endured living in this subarctic land, Icelanders are scarred by violence. The land itself routinely punishes the inhabitants squatting here with floods, deadly volcanic eruptions and earthquakes shattering the Richter scale.
Even this country’s Christmas folklore is marred by bloodshed. The jólasveinarnir (Yule Lads) number 13, and most of these Christmas characters are harmless, traditionally setting out on Christmas pranks, like stealing leftovers from a family’s pots and pans or harassing sheep. Icelandic Christmas poems, however, describe some Yule Lads as homicidal monsters who eat children. Grýla gave birth to these 13 Yule Lads; she’s also been known to feast on children who misbehave.
Benni grew up the son of a farmer. He learned about the homicidal Yule Lads in school. From an early age, he also learned how to butcher sheep, and after fall roundup the boots he wore to school were routinely covered with blood. He knew what death smelt like. And thanks to his uncle, Benni learned at an early age that violence and sex were twined together.
Like many in the East Fjords, Benni practices the art of drinking away his secrets with beer. He’s sitting next to Telma’s father, but instead of listening to him recount another perilous sea-going adventure, Benni’s attention is drawn up to the bar where Gummi talks to Telma. Despite having polished off three pints in the past twenty minutes, he’s sober enough to worry about what she might right now be revealing to this stranger. He shoves Telma’s father in the shoulder and points at her.
“You gonna let that outsider flirt with Telma?” he asks his friend. “She’s pregnant, man.”
Telma’s father is a retired fisherman. With nothing to occupy his time, he hangs around the pub, every day, depleting his savings on beer. With each passing day, he watches Telma’s baby-bump grow, wondering how he’ll support his grandchild. Not knowing the truth about Benni, he curses the German who supposedly drove into town last August and impregnated his daughter.
“Helvítis útlendingar,” he says, pounding his beer, more pissed off at this unknown German than at Gummi for talking to Telma.
Gummi knows what all Icelandic detectives know. Icelanders can hide during the day, refusing to talk to strangers, but come night, or the weekend, these potential witnesses will eventually unlock their front doors on their way to the local bar. In rural Iceland, all roads, no matter how snowy or encrusted by ice, lead to the pub. After questioning Einar and Ivar, both of them telling the Reykjavik cop that they saw nothing strange down by the pier, Gummi moved on to Telma.
Telma’s father staggers to his feet and stumbles past tables and chairs, over to the bar. Before he can confront Gummi, though, a drunk townie pushes the button on a talking Santa doll propped next to the cash register. “Merry Christmas,” the Santa doll wishes, before the doll’s computerized voice let’s out a slew of “Ho, Ho, Hos” in a deep throated chuckle. Telma’s father pushes the townie off his bar stool, and then swipes the talking Santa to the floor so hard the double A batteries pop out. “I fuckin’ hate Christmas,” he says, stomping his thick work boots on the doll, using both feet to make sure he crushes the plastic Santa dead.
Telma steps away from Gummi, ashamedly shaking her head at her intoxicated father.
“Heyridu,” he slurs loudly, employing the common Icelandic greeting that means, when sober, “Hey.” When slobbering drunk, though, the greeting means: “What the fuck you doin’ talkin’ to my pregnant daughter.”
Telma commands her father to return to his beer, but he refuses, instead trying to punch Gummi. Being a detective, and an Icelander, Gummi’s skilled in the art of handling drunks. As the drunkard throws his punch, Gummi steps out of the way and Telma’s father loses his balance, but before he falls to the ground, Gummi grabs the pathetically drunk man, and gently guides him to a barstool.
“Slaka áf,” Gummi says forcefully, scolding Telma’s father like a mother scolds a rowdy child.
He calms down and apologizes to Gummi, who hasn’t produced a badge because he wants as few people as possible to know a Reykjavik cop is snooping around. Telma, embarrassed by her father, walks away. She desperately wants to escape to the back room, but Benni calls out for another beer. She stares at Benni, pulling on her tangled, blonde hair until tears well up in her icy, Nordic eyes. She knots her hair until her scalp reddens, numbing her into not screaming “Rapist!” in a shrill voice. After pouring Benni a beer, she retreats to the break room.
Telma’s father, upon having seen his only daughter weave her hair into painfully tight ringlets, sobs to Gummi. It might seem odd that reticent Icelanders would open up to a complete stranger, especially one he just attempted to punch. But drunk Icelanders will one moment try to fight you, the next hug you, and if it’s late December wish you a Gledileg jól.
“She wanted to be an actress,” Telma’s father cries. “Now she’s stuck in this pit, like me. All ’cause of that fuckin’ German.”
Gummi consoles the drunkard by patting him on the back. Hearing the conversation, Benni chugs his beer.
“Helvítis útlendingar,” Telma’s father cries. Slurring his epithets, he stands and staggers back towards Benni, but before he reaches his friend’s table, he bumps into the Christmas tree, becomes snarled in the lights, and falls over on top of the tree.
Hearing the loud crash, Telma hurries out of the break room, only to find her father twisted in a mess of pine needles and Christmas tree lights. She bristles, as if suffering a bout of acid reflux, but then she cups her hands over her pregnant belly, and momentarily forgets about the man who raped her and about her drunk father thanks to that little kick of the life tossing and turning inside her.
Gummi can only shake his head as he looks around The Bar. After Telma untied her father from the Christmas tree, she called him a cab. Benni stayed behind, and continues eagle-eyeing Gummi, wondering what he and Telma talked about.
The dead body, mostly.
Gummi has stayed to question more locals, but everyone looks so pathetic. Telma’s on the verge of tears, caught between the misery of having to raise a child conceived through violence and the overwhelming love she already feels for her unborn child. She can’t understand this internal, emotional tug-of-war. She wants nothing more than to escape this town, and cut Benni in the face with a broken beer bottle for what he did to her, but right now she has no time to worry about revenge because she’s busy working. Pitcher of beer in hand, she serves a table, and when she walks away she hears Arnar, one of the divers who found the body beneath the pier, call her a slut to his friend.
Gummi’s pity doesn’t stop at Telma. Although mistletoe is tied to the doorframes and overhead beams, and festive lights are strung to the walls; although the Christmas tree has been propped back up, and Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” plays over the speakers; although holly wreaths have been tacked to the bar, and Christmas candles burn on the window ceils, the patrons of The Bar look weary, their faces lined and chapped from the brutal winter, bags under their eyes from living through days where the sun doesn’t rise above the mountains surrounding this rural town during the six-month winters. The townies look like the living dead, and none of them expect Christmas, or the imminent New Year, to offer them any mercy from the secrets they hold inside. Experience has taught Gummi that the Holidays are a scam. Watching the locals, he curses the festive season, a time when it’s impossible to forget one’s memories, no matter how much eggnog one consumes.
While he was at The Bar, Gummi eavesdropped on the locals, listening for anything out of the ordinary, any telltale by a townie that might signal guilt. He drank six pints of Viking beer, a wretched-tasting Icelandic pilsner smelling like the inside of a fraternity the morning after a rush party. These pints have not been able to numb his remembrances to the point where he can fall asleep inside the only hotel in Neskaupstadur, called, naturally, The Hotel. He sits on his bed, and with sleep-deprived eyes looks out the window, watching the snow fall.
Gummi struggles to sleep when he travels. Poor circulation has always bothered him, long before doctors named it restless leg syndrome. As a child, he required the company of his mother’s voice to lull him to dreamland. Without his mother’s nightly songs, his legs would crisscross constantly as he tossed and turned until, completely exhausted, he’d finally crash, but only hours before he had to wake up for school. When his father died at sea, Gummi’s mother took work as a secretary for Henrik Halldorsson, the local sheriff. She needed the money. But more than survival cash, she was desperate to find something, anything, to occupy the empty spaces normally filled by her husband’s presence. Work provided her with that mortar, but sitting at the table eating dinners of Ísa (haddock) and roasted potatoes, just her and her son, the wind whistling through the small creases of her poorly insulated farmhouse windows, still scared her. The eternal winter darkness pressing down suffocated her. No longer could she linger by her son’s bedside to sing him to sleep, not without a couple of drinks to take the edge off her loneliness. She loathed the taste of alcohol, so she mixed whiskey with coffee, and all that late-night caffeine stole her sleep. Like her son, she also tossed and turned until her alarm went off, calling her tired body to the police station, the exact same building that serves as the epicenter of Gummi’s investigation into who murdered the unidentified foreigner.
Unable to sleep, Gummi left The Hotel and, bundled in his winter parka, skated over the icy sidewalks down to this police station. Gummi grew up in this station. As his mother began working for Henrik, the job of looking after her son fell to Reynir, a 22-year-old deputy sheriff who continued patrolling Neskaupstadur long after Gummi moved to Reykjavik. Reynir finally quit the police, taking a job for double his old salary driving a bulldozer at Kárahnjúkar, burrowing each day deeper and deeper into the dam’s tunnels. The job eventually took his life when, climbing out of his bulldozer’s cab, loose concrete crumbled from the tunnel ceiling and crushed his skull.
In the 1980s, Neskaupstadur thrived. The herring, cod and haddock runs turned the local fishermen wealthy. They’d sail out in their 32-foot wooden boats, toss in their drift nets, and it was like pulling gold straight from the North Atlantic. Fish provided jobs for the many drifters arriving from towns all across Iceland. Sailors returning to land after many days at sea want one thing: sex. Like many countries across the world, sex is much easier to find with alcohol. So The Bar filled up whenever a fishing boat tied off in the harbor. Where drunk men compete for drunk women, trouble usually follows. Competition amongst the species breeds discontent. Drunken competition breeds violence.
Thus, aside from watching over Gummi, Reynir helped keep the peace.
Because Gummi was afraid to sleep at home, alone, he’d ride along with Reynir on the nights his mother was securing her secretarial job in late-night, forced romps with Henrik. While desperate for companionship, she abandoned Gummi at night because if she refused Henrik’s sexual advances he would find a younger secretary, one without a kid, with fewer miles on her. As sheriff of a secluded town cut off during winter from the rest of the country thanks to what were back then impassable mountain roads packed with snow, Henrik held sway over villagers, and there were plenty of female applicants for the sheriff’s secretarial position.
Reynir lost his only sibling when his younger brother Palmi caught his arm in the conveyor belt at the fish factory, and the poor child bled to death. Brother-less, Reynir took to fatherless Gummi quickly, and Gummi to Reynir, each one filling the void of loss for the other. Riding patrol in the front seat of Reynir’s old prowler, Gummi witnessed things a kid shouldn’t witness, but patrolling was better than staying home, tossing and turning, frightened by a life lived north of 66 degrees.
Thanks to Reynir, Gummi was destined to become a police officer. Meeting a woman like Telma, impregnated through violence, is an injustice destined to enrage him. Seeing a bright woman stuck waitressing in a dead-end village makes him think back to his mother, who became so depressed after Henrik dumped her for a younger secretary that she drank herself to death on December 25, the five-year anniversary of the day she found out her husband was lost at sea.
His father. His mother. These are the secrets as to why Gummi can only spit whenever he listens to people talking about Christmas miracles. It’s no accident, Gummi believes, that Christmas falls only four days after the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. It’s supposed to mark the upswing now that the dark days are ever so slowly becoming lighter. Gummi knows better. In Iceland, the day celebrating the birth of Jesus is a false dawn.
It’s noon, and already the daylight is starting to give way to darkness. But before night falls, more snow. Gummi sits in The Bar, alone, listening to the Christmas music piped through the speakers. To protect the villagers from themselves, the mayor of Neskaupstadur decreed that The Bar would remain closed until 2 pm. Telma is bent over a mop, trying to clean the sticky beer and vomit clinging to the wooden floorboards. She wears a Santa hat, desperate to bring some sort of festiveness to her drab life. Because she’s pregnant, and can’t smoke, an unlit cigarette dangles from her mouth.
“Any luck with your body?” she asks Gummi.
“Nobody saw nothin’,” Gummi says, between sips of his black coffee.
With her back hurting from mopping all morning, she takes a seat at Gummi’s table, adjusting her pregnant belly. “Told ya. Even if somebody did see somethin’ ain’t nobody gonna say nothin’.”
“Why is that, do you suppose?” Gummi asks, reaching his hand out and grabbing the cigarette from her mouth.
Telma smiles at the gesture, the generosity of a man showing her a modicum of concern, rather than the scorn she receives from her customers. “We all got our secrets. Ain’t that right, Gummi?”
Gummi knew Telma’s father. He was a few years ahead of him in school, but when they were both kids they spent summers working in the fish factory. So Gummi suspects Telma has heard the rumors about his mother, that she was stealing petty cash from the police department, that she was fired because she became jealous over Henrik’s new lover. Gummi loathes these rumors, but he understands that the truth dies a quick death in the East Fjords, idle gossip becoming gospel, because the men in these bucolic villages would rather believe rumors, because the truth would mean villagers would have to admit that there were monsters living amongst them.
“I left here a long time ago, Telma.”
“Don’t matter, none. This place sticks to you. No matter how far away you travel.”
“What makes you think that?”
“I can see it in your eyes. That hunch in your shoulders. You’re lonely.”
Gummi sits up straight in order to hide his past. He conceals his face by taking a long drink, rather than a sip, from his coffee cup, even though the liquid is burning hot; he’d rather feel the burn than reveal what’s causing the hole in his stomach to expand like an ulcer.
Telma grabs her mop and stands, but a rush of blood to the head makes her lose her balance, and she begins to stumble, only for Gummi to shuffle out of his chair and catch her before she falls. He props her up, careful of her belly. At these northern latitudes, loneliness grows disparate things together, like a middle-aged cop and a pregnant, teenage waitress. The two begin slowly swaying to the “Little Drummer Boy.” For Telma, it’s been a long time since a man held her gently, but firmly. For Gummi, his wife left years ago. She was an American, and he met her while studying criminology at the University of Chicago. He convinced her to move with him to Iceland. They got married, but his wife didn’t last the winter. Gummi’s a stubborn man, a character trait necessary to hunt clues and assemble evidence together piece-by-piece until he has enough to convict a killer. But it’s a horrible trait when trying to move on from divorce. Gummi hasn’t been this close to a woman’s scent since his wife fled the country, and Telma can feel his excitement as their bodies touch to the music. She pulls him closer.
“Look,” she says, glancing up at the ceiling.
Gummi spots the mistletoe hanging from the overhead beam.
The dead body lies face up on a hospital gurney. Its legs are splayed out like a grasshopper. The medical examiner spreads apart the body’s butt cheeks. He starts to Vaseline the anal cavity like a chef greasing a pan. He inserts a metal probe with a camera on the end. Gummi, Thordur and Skuli, who have been assisting the Reykjavik cop with his investigation, keep their eyes on the video monitor, which captures gooey images of the dead man’s colon as the medical examiner slowly snakes the probe further up the twisting intestine.
“I had one of these done last Christmas,” Thordur says.
“Ugh,” Skuli grunts, observing the medical examiner jamming the probe deeper up the body’s rectum, which causes the stomach to distend as air pushes through the colon. “Looks like he’s pregnant.”
“It sucked,” Thordur adds. “Had to drink a bunch of nasty liquid before my exam. Did nothing but shit diarrhea for two straight days.”
The medical examiner notices the monitor go blank, so he bangs on the top, and the picture of the body’s vesseled colon returns to the screen. “They find any polyps, Thordur?”
“I was clean. But that’s the thing, doc. Why look to see if a dead guy’s got colon cancer?”
“The autopsy revealed anal tears,” Gummi interrupts.
“You mean the dead guy was raped?” Thordur asks.
“Fuckin’ perverts,” Skuli gags.
“The tears weren’t deep enough to indicate rape,” the medical examiner replies.
Skuli, being young and dumb, grabs his crotch and says: “Unless the rapists had a small one, huh, Doc?”
“Shut up, you dip shit,” Gummi says. “We’re not looking to see if this guy was raped. We’re looking to see what mighta been shoved up his ass.”
“Oh, you mean we’re lookin’ for a clue.”
That’s when Gummi spots it. Christmas has infiltrated the examining room at the hospital morgue. He can only wonder why a medical examiner would decorate the morgue with one of those plastic, small, white-frosted Christmas trees, felted-gold bulbs hung as ornaments. Gummi supposes that even a medical examiner, who spends his days in the bowels of a hospital examining cold, pale, lifeless bodies, is desperate to believe in a Christmas miracle, something to help him make sense of his job—cutting open the dead.
Gummi spits on the floor while the medical examiner pushes the probe deeper and deeper, the body’s stomach beginning to balloon until the probe gets stuck. “Hmm. A blockage,” the medical examiner mumbles as he struggles to untangle the twisted intestine.
Thordur, remembering the unpleasantness of his colonoscopy, squirms. “If he wasn’t raped then whatchu lookin’ for?” Thordur asks.
“Something like that,” the medical examiner says, pointing to the monitor.
A dark blob appears on the screen, looking like a tumor on a smoker’s lung.
“Found it.” He flips the probe to suction, and begins pulling on it as if the probe was a string, and after a few seconds a torn condom pops out of the body’s anus, falling to the floor. The medical examiner picks up the condom, and stares at it when suddenly:
The corpse lets out an enormous fart, having released the air trapped inside its colon; its stomach compresses like a flat tire.
Skuli laughs like a school child.
The medical examiner studies the condom, which oozes with blood. “Like you thought, Gummi. This guy was a drug mule.”
Christmas Eve. Despite the northern wind rolling off the fjord, gusting up to 45 mph, the townies have gathered for the traditional Christmas tree lighting ceremony. Each year, the owner of the fish factory pays for a small Christmas parade, and real reindeer are captured from the scarred, lava plains near Kárahnjúkar and harnessed to a sleigh to pull a local dressed up as Santa Claus through the center of town, up to the village tree. Santa then climbs a ladder and lights a three-foot star on top of the tree. The parade comes at quite a cost for the owner of the fish factory, but spreading Christmas cheer helps him assuage the guilt he feels for having raped Kola in the bathroom of The Bar.
Ivar never attends the ceremony, preferring to remain shuttered into his flat, two bottles of vodka by his side.
Because the insurance company deemed the avalanche an “Act of God,” the fish factory was rebuilt (out of the avalanche zone) and the only expense the owner had to incur was higher catastrophic insurance premiums, not to mention the loss of vision and hearing in his left eye and left ear.
The owner of the fish factory looks like a pirate with a patch over his eye. He holds the ladder with Thordur and Skuli, all of them desperate to keep the northern wind from knocking the ladder over, resulting in Santa tumbling 22 feet to the icy ground. The tree is bolted to the ground, and wire cable ensures the tree won’t be blown away.
About 350 townies have braved the rancid weather to watch the ceremony. Parents hold tight to their kids to make sure the northern wind doesn’t blow the children over. To stay warm, most of the locals huddle in one large group, looking like horses herding together to protect themselves from a storm. Telma stands off to the side, watching the town Santa climb up the ladder with slow, deliberate steps. Like a stalker, Benni lurks behind, just beyond her field of vision.
Gummi eschews holiday ceremonies. He has sent the heroin found inside the corpse to a lab where the purity of the drug will be tested, and compared to the heroin discovered in a major drug bust in Reykjavik. Chance are, he figures, the dealer caught with the heroin obtained it from the perp who killed the foreigner now wrapped in a black body bag, stored at the morgue. Gummi knows from experience that the dead foreigner most likely smuggled the drugs in on “The Ice Storm,” a Norwegian cruise ship that sails up the west coast of Norway and then over to Iceland, on its way to the Faroe Islands before returning to Oslo. It’s a common drug line. Narcotics officers from Reykjavik arrested the dealer, now jailed inside Litla-Hrauni, Iceland’s main prison. When Gummi returns to Reykjavik tomorrow, he’ll question the dealer, who he hopes will lead him to the killers.
Gummi was ticking away the remaining hours he needed to spend in his former hometown by hanging out in his hotel room, drinking alone, vodka the crutch he now uses to help him fall asleep when memories of how Henrik abused his mother haunt him awake. From his room, he watched the gusts of wind swirl the snow, making the flakes look as if they were falling up from the street rather than dropping from the nimbostratus clouds. He thought the town would call off the tree-lighting ceremony on account of the whiteout. How can kids be expected to fight the weather for a glimpse of Santa when the blizzard makes them snow-blind? But this is Iceland. Surrendering to winter would only further jade the townies, so the mayor and the owner of the fish factory went on with the ceremony.
Gummi admires this toughness. It’s the type of perseverance that Telma displays each day she clocks in at The Bar, knowing she’s going to have to serve her rapist beer, knowing the locals think she’s just another slut who got what she deserved. Gummi showed this same grit after his mother died. He regrets not returning to his hometown earlier to beat Henrik to death, but once Gummi became a cop he couldn’t dishonor his oath by seeking revenge. He’s comforted by the knowledge that Henrik, who died from cirrhosis, fell apart slowly, suffering as each bottle of vodka scarred his liver.
Telma had asked Gummi to accompany her to the ceremony, and although he politely declined, he changed his mind, and after finishing his drink, buttoned tight his overcoat, left his room, and carefully treaded over the icy sidewalks just in time for Santa to reach the top of the ladder.
The town band, more like a quartet, plays “Silent Night,” but the northern wind drowns out the music. Instead of nudging up to Telma to comfort her, and let his body warm her, Gummi loiters in back, watching not the bright star atop the tree illuminating the town square but Benni tugging on Telma’s jacket. While the rest of the townies clap their mitted hands together in muted pitter patters, she swipes her arm at Benni, and because he’s drunk, and ice slicks the concrete, he slips to the ground. Before Gummi can call out to her, Telma hurries away, disappearing into the snowy whiteness.
Gummi spits and walks past the kids clamoring around Santa, who doles out candy canes and Hardfiskur, a dried, salted fish delicacy kids adore.
Benni was left for dead. This Christmas morning, after daybreak, Thordur and Skuli were called out to the gas station where they found Benni unconscious, his bloodied body not more than 25 yards from his burnt-out taxicab, parked near one of the gas pumps, the gauge indicating the cab was empty. The pumps remain open all night, and customers slide their debit cards to activate them, so nobody was around to witness the vicious assault that left Benni within an inch of death. If not for the owner of the gas station, who upon arriving to work discovered the mauled body, Benni would’ve frozen to death.
“Whoever kicked his ass didn’t wanna kill him,” Thordur told the owner of the gas station.
“How d’you figure?” the owner asked, as paramedics loaded Benni into the ambulance.
“Whoever it was left Benni here, knowing you’d find him.”
“Then Benni’s one lucky sonuvabitch,” he replied.
“Why’s that?” Thordur asked.
“’Cause I got wasted last night. After we all lit the tree, me and some friends went to The Bar and drunk us some Brennivín. I’s hung over big time. Nearly didn’t come to work this mornin’.”
Thordur and Skuli weren’t surprised to find a bloodied body. Villagers often settle grudges off the books. Sometimes, in the East Fjords, locals fight for no better reason than boredom.
Doctors treated Benni for three broken ribs, a concussion, a busted sternum, a broken jaw and a broken nose. The doctors wired Benni’s jaw together. When his jaw finally mends, and he’s off his liquid diet, Benni won’t dare open his mouth and tell anyone who assaulted him, because the assailant made it clear that if the police came knocking on his door, Telma’s father would learn that it wasn’t a German who knocked up his daughter. Benni knows that’s worse than if the cops found out, because the rule of law binds cops to protect and serve. He plans to keep this secret, because Telma’s father would extend Benni no such mercy.
Thordur figured Benni probably deserved the beating, but duty bound him to at least try and find out what happened. That’s why he and Skuli drove to the village airport, which looks more like a bus station built next to a single airstrip.
“You look tired,” Thordur tells Gummi, who has recently been told, not to his surprise, that due to inclement weather all flights in and out of Neskaupstadur have been delayed.
“Yeah, you get lucky?” Skuli asks. “I saw you looking over at Telma last night. People say she’s an easy screw.”
Gummi ignores the question. Instead, he occupies his time by pouring himself more coffee, and dumping packet after packet of sugar into the cup.
“I hear she’s a slut,” Skuli says.
“Don’t you got nothin’ better to do than gossip?”
“Hell, yeah, we do. This mornin’, me and Thordur, we found Benni curbside. He was beaten to the bone.”
Thordur’s a small town cop, but he’s no local yokel. He’s been on the force since the days of Henrik. He notices things, like Gummi’s hands shaking, and wonders if these tremors are nerves or too many cups of cheap, airport coffee. Like Gummi, Thordur’s also paid to compile evidence and put it together piece-by-piece until the puzzle tells a complete story. He hangs out at The Bar on his off-nights, and he’s noticed how Telma reacts when Benni walks inside. Thordur doesn’t believe for a second that a German tourist knocked her up. He also recognizes that a detective like Gummi might harbor resentment towards a drunkard who raped a woman, especially when that detective’s mother suffered the same indignities.
“At the bar the other night, what was you and Telma talkin’ ’bout?”
Gummi chuckles to himself.
“What’s so funny?” Thordur asks.
“That,” he says, pointing at the reindeer head mounted on the wall of the waiting room. He can’t help but snicker because a Santa hat dangles from the antlers. “I wonder if ’fore it was shot it pulled Santa’s sled at one of your Christmas ceremonies.”
“Hell no,” Skuli answers, not understanding the irony. “I shot me that one. They paid me to give it to ’em.”
“Who?” Gummi asks, returning his eyes towards Thordur, the two men locked in a staring contest.
“The mayor,” Skuli says. “He thought it’d look good out here. Spruce things up.”
Thordur’s gut tells him Gummi attacked Benni; however, Thordur stops pressing. He sympathizes with the Reykjavik detective because it was Thordur who so many years ago found Gummi’s mother in Henrik’s squad car, drowned in her own drunken vomit.
Townies thought Gummi’s mother took the easy way out, but Thordur thinks differently. He remembers how she endured months of abuse from the men of the village. She was harassed everywhere she went. He once heard her called a slut at the grocery store. No, Thordur doesn’t think she took the easy way out, because he knows sometimes suicide is the only option.
For the health of their patients, doctors implore loved ones to visit routinely. The number of visitors a patient receives correlates to how quickly they heal. Nurses assumed Christmas was the reason nobody had yet to visit Benni. They hoped, for Benni’s sake, that once all the Christmas lamb was consumed, his friends would eventually show up, but nobody came.
Not until Telma arrived just before midnight.
Telma smiled when she heard the news. While it wasn’t the Christmas miracle she had hoped for (her father sobering up) it was certainly a welcomed gift. However, she wasn’t surprised. She didn’t write out a Christmas wish list and sit on Santa’s lap, telling him she’d been very good this past year, and pleading with him to make sure he didn’t skip her chimney. She wasn’t surprised somebody attacked Benni, because ever since she began working at The Bar, she’s overheard the secrets dared whispered by the customers she serves only after these patrons have drank too much vodka. After Gummi came to town, she heard the drunken rumblings about him, too. Despite his efforts to remain inconspicuous, she learned Gummi grew up in Neskaupstadur. She heard the name Henrik floating around The Bar. What else did she discover? A child’s burning rage never disappears, and this type of hatred is often misplaced, especially when a secret is revealed. After making love to Gummi, the two remained in bed, and as he drew his fingers across her baby-bump, she shared her secret about the child’s real father, hopeful Gummi might take out his hatred for Henrik on Benni.
As Telma stands at Benni’s bedside, torturing him by tugging on his feeding tube, she admires her Christmas present, secure in the knowledge that at 66 degrees north justice eventually catches up to men like Benni.
* * *
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The idea for this piece came from a story I heard when I first moved to Iceland to work as a magazine journalist for Iceland Review and Atlantica. I drove to a small town in the East Fjords to write a piece about a country doctor who had to travel great distances in a four-wheel drive jeep to treat her patients because she was the only doctor around for miles. Trying to interview locals for the story, I meet up against great resistance. Upon returning to Reykjavik, a friend’s father told me that when he moved from Denmark to Iceland as a little boy the locals treated him like a pariah because he was seen as an outsider. My friend’s father remembered how when he and his mother would walk through town, the locals would stare at them through the windows of their homes. And when he and his mother would wave, the locals would shut their curtains. Witnessing locals wary of outsiders fascinated me. I always wondered why these locals were so reticent to talk to a stranger. I wondered what secrets they must be afraid of revealing. I find this behavior similar to what happens in this country to those considered outsiders, those the locals label as “other.” – EW
EDWARD WEINMAN spent nearly one fourth of his life as an expat on Iceland, enduring many long, dark, cold, windy, gray winters. But he made it out alive, without kids, and having suffered only one nervous breakdown. His debut thriller, The Ring Road, is born out of his life in Reykjavik where he worked as a travel writer. His journalism has been picked up byThe Associated Press and The Sunday Times of London, among others. Edward co-wrote the film A Little Trip to Heaven, a psychological thriller starring Forest Whitaker, Jeremy Renner and Julia Stiles, which screened at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. Edward earned his MFA in writing, literature and publishing from Emerson College in Boston.
COMING SOON: The Ring Road, the first novel in the 66° North Series, will be published in January 2013 by The Rogue Reader. Find an extended sample from the novel at the conclusion of this collection, sign up for weekly updates and exclusive content from Ed and The Rogue Reader here, and connect with Ed on Twitter @edwardweinman1 and Facebook.com/TheRogueReader