The odd thing about Katrin is that she can’t masturbate. She’ll push off the wheelchair onto her bed and furiously have at it, sure that if she just increases the pace of her activities that she will eventually explode with ecstasy. But at best, she just feels a turning in her stomach, as though she’s being invaded by a space alien.
At fourteen, Katrin has no expectations of childbearing, as she tells her friend Hekla on the phone. “I could always adopt, though.”
Hekla is quiet.
“Why are you so quiet?” asks Katrin.
“I don’t think you would be a good mother.”
“How could you say such a thing?”
“Maybe,” says Hekla, “you are meant for something else.”
“What?” barks Katrin. She is sitting at the window, looking down at the road where she will never drive a car or take a walk or hold the hands of a boy (or a girl). “Maybe I’m meant to change my name to some stupid thing like Hekla. Your name sounds like a boy’s name, a fisherman who keeps spearing his foot because he’s stupid. And… and, he has a very small penis! Hekla is a fisher boy with a small phallus, destined to be alone on his leaky fishing boat.”
“Katrin, I didn’t mean to offend, it’s just that…”
“You have hairy legs!” declares Katrin. Then she hangs up.
There is a couple on the road, but they are not holding hands, and for a moment, Katrin wonders how she knows that they’re a couple at all. But they are. There’s something about the distance between them that says it’s just a preamble, a moment in time that is destined to evaporate when they get inside a house, a bedroom. Or to the kitchen table. She goes to the bed and pushes off the wheelchair, wondering if the thought of that couple will give her the excitement she needs. But it doesn’t.
Later, she sits at the window again. The road cuts through Borgarnes over a land bridge to the east. At the end of the bridge is a large mound of dirt. Some call it a mountain, and have given it a name: Hafnarfjall. At the thought of the view from that mountain, Katrin feels a tendril of ice on her belly, snaking its way down her body, the broken instrument that was smashed apart by the moment of her birth, as though trying to access that moment, fourteen years ago, when this girl had come into the world – under the shadow of the mountain, in view of the ocean.
Rick sits next to the dumpster behind Café Brak. An hour ago, Ellis, the owner, had thrown out a basket of burnt muffins. Ellis had no doubt seen Rick huddled against the dumpster, but hadn’t said a word.
There are eleven burnt muffins in Rick’s bag. He puts them on the ground, unconcerned. Iceland has no ants. Even if ants were introduced to the country, they wouldn’t be able to survive the climate. It’s an ant-proof country, he thinks, as he chews on blackened pastry.
Later, he hangs out at The Settlement Center, waiting for the kitchen to discard its waste. Bollin, a table boy, comes out for a smoke. “Hi, Rick. Just be a bit patient today. You cold?”
“Freezing,” says Rick. “They say Iceland is the worst place to live on the street.”
“Worse than Canada?” asks Bollin.
“We’re hit and miss back home,” says Rick. “Got an extra cigarette?”
“No. Why don’t you go back? Or to a different country?”
There’s a reason, thinks Rick. It crawled into his bag as he ran away from home, seeking his fortune in the oil patch. Up in Wood Buffalo, he’d gotten work in the oil sands, all that money flowing in like an unfettered stream of gold. It’d been easy to get into drugs and drinking, because what else were you going to do with money in a godforsaken northern part of Alberta? When he’d been fired for being drunk on the job, he’d gone to his little apartment and packed. The radio had been playing, talking about Vikings, and the how they’d travelled the world, burying treasure wherever they went. As he went to the airport, he imagined gold in the Icelandic mountains, endless heat coming off the volcanoes, and people fair and beautiful, who would love you despite your flaws.
He looks at Bollin, who finishes his cigarette and goes back inside.
By the time Katrin gets to the end of her road, she’s already winded. Some people say that those in wheelchairs develop strong upper body muscles because they need them to get around, but it’s not like you become a superhero or something, she thinks.
In the basket under her chair, she has the following: a bottle of milk, a whole brick of cheese, a loaf of bread, a half a container of peanut butter, two popsicles, and a leftover piece of chicken breast. She’s already hungry, but she takes a right on Kveldulfsgata and keeps going. Just ahead is B59, a spa and dining spot that she went to once, but they didn’t have any ramps, so she had to eat on the patio.
“What are you doing and where are you going?” yells Hekla, running up. “Your mother just called me and said you’re going to the mountain.”
“Hafnarfjall,” said Katrin.
“You can’t go there!”
“Why?” asks Katrin. “Because I’m in a wheelchair?”
Hekla, despite her boy-name, is wonderfully thin and has astonishing breasts. Katrin often wonders about those breasts and what they would feel like, but every time she pictures such illicit sex, the lust vanishes before a constant stream of Hekla’s irritating voice. The tall girl crosses her arms. “Yes, because you’re in a wheelchair.”
“Push me,” says Katrin. “Help me. Take me to the mountain.”
“It’s only a road half the way! The rest is a trail! How do you expect to go up a trail?”
“In my wheelchair,” says Katrin. “I have food. I have all day. For God’s sake, Hekla, I have not only all day to do this, but all my life. What else am I supposed to do? I can’t fuck. I can’t make children. I’m lousy at school. The only thing they will hire me for in Borgarnes is to work in the exhibition space of The Settlement Center, and I am not too fond of museums. So this is what I have decided to do. And I will do it today.”
Hekla’s mouth opens. “I’m not pushing you. I’m not helping you in this. Go. And when you get tired, call your mother to come and get you. You will not even make it across the bridge.”
And, in part, Hekla is right. By the time Katrin gets to Route 1, she is weary. The land bridge to the mainland is long, and she just stares at it.
“Need help?” comes a voice. A man in a shabby coat and a funny hat is next to her. He is stubbly, and his lips are broken.
“You’re that homeless man,” says Katrin. “We’re not supposed to have homeless people in Borgarnes.”
“Well, you have one. I’m Rick. What are you doing out here?”
He might be in his twenties, maybe younger. “I’m going to the mountain. Do you have anything better to do today than help a girl in a wheelchair?”
“Well, I was going to shop for a new car. Plan my vacation. Seduce a model…” He winces. “No, I don’t have anything better to do.” He peers at the mountain. “That is a long way to go. And a bunch of it is straight up.”
“I have food,” says Katrin. She leans down and produces the brick of cheese, snaps off half of it and gives it to him. “If you eat this, you have to come.”
Rick stares at the cheese. Then he looks at the mountain.
The road, as it turns out, is not so hard. When are roads ever difficult? Imagine the circumstances and the difficulties of trudging over the land when there were no roads. Which way would you go? Find the river, follow the river. Track an animal on a trail it and its ancestors have left. Look for a glimmering through the trees as of an easy route, something you can make your way through. All of these difficulties are eradicated by the simple matter of asphalt, level and largely smooth, this material pulled from one part of the Earth’s bosom in order to flatten another.
The homeless Canadian pushes the teenaged Icelander. Almost as though this is what the road was meant to allow. Now and then, they stop and chew on food, the man grateful for sustenance, the girl staring at the mountain. On the bridge, there is water on both sides of them, long reaches that spread out and connect the world together, as though there is no difference between people, and never was.
When they get to the mainland and arc along Route 1 to a secondary road, it takes them to the base of the mountain. Soon, the road slopes upwards, and Rick has to help push the wheelchair. He’s taken his jacket off.
“Where from in Canada?” asks the girl.
“That’s not in Canada!”
“I thought you said you were a bad student. Didn’t know much.” He grins. “I’m from Windsor. It’s across the river from the United States. Detroit. Heard of it?”
“Yes. How did you get so poor?”
“Drugs, stupidity, at least two women who were bad for me, a bunch of friends who weren’t really friends, and bad connection with my family.”
“Do they know you are here?” asks Katrin.
“On this road, staring at a mountain? I could ask you the same question.”
She crosses her arms. “If you are thinking about raping me, I warn you that my girl parts do not work. Also, I am fierce. See these fingernails? Very sharp. I may not be able to kick you, but people in wheelchairs have to build up much upper body strength to get around, so it would be a bad idea to fight with me.”
Rick smiles, but his broken lips hurt when he does. She reminds him of his sister, who would be about to graduate high school by now. Maddy had always been contrary to everything, even herself at times. Once, she’d disappeared in the minivan for two days, and when she’d come back, had said that she’d driven to Quebec. What’s in Quebec, he’d asked her? But she’d looked at him as though he had been a fool, and had thrown the keys on the kitchen table as though nothing had happened. Rick hasn’t heard from her in two years, doesn’t even know how to get a hold of her.
“No raping today,” he says.
“Good,” she nods. “Now. Tell me about this Windsor.”
At the end of the road, Katrin looks at the mountain. It’s all scree, little growth. It’s past noon, and the day is getting warm, but there is snow on the peak. Her phone rings, but she ignores it. Before them is a walking path, no more than a trail.
“I don’t think we can make it up this,” says the Canadian.
Back home, Hekla is likely sitting with Katrin’s parents, in the kitchen. They are talking about how headstrong and irascible Katrin has become, now that she’s a teenager – as though this hasn’t always been the way that she is. She thinks about Helga’s breasts, and how many children they will one day feed, and she wonders: I have breasts that are capable of feeding children too, if I could just have some! And somehow, she thinks, looking on the mountain, none of this is fair. No children, no real future, and… no way up the mountain.
“Were there mountains in Windsor?” she asks.
“Nope. All the real mountains are out west, Alberta and British Columbia. Bigger mountains than this, by a lot.”
“Bigger? So this is an easy mountain, in your opinion?”
“I wouldn’t say that…”
“It would be hard to push me on the trail, but it’s wide enough,” she interrupts. “I think the problem is when it becomes steep. When it becomes steep, we’ll have to think of something else. Did you ever climb those mountains of the west?”
“I wouldn’t call it climbing…”
“No one ever climbs Hafnarfjall. It’s not an interesting mountain. Plus there are legends about monsters up there, guarding Viking treasure.”
“Viking treasure?” he repeats.
“That is what I said. But I do not know what a Viking would have been doing up a mountain. Now, push!”
The phone rings again. Rick asks for more food, so Katrin cracks off a piece of bread, and lets him sip from the milk bottle. He upends it into his mouth, letting the liquid dribble over his cracked lips.
The wheelchair makes cracking noises on the trail debris. The work is hard, but Rick keeps going. The afternoon is hot, his legs ache. Around two o’clock, a man with a walking stick appears on the path ahead of them.
“What are you doing?” he asks. He has a beard, a pointed hat. “You cannot take a wheelchair up here.”
“Is that a rule?” asks Katrin. “Is it written somewhere?” The man blinks. “Because I’ve noted that there are a lot of rules that aren’t written down. People use them all the time, and tell me about them often. I can’t do this, I can’t do that, but it’s not real. It’s not written. No one agreed to it, other than in your own heads. What’s in your heads, huh?”
The old man shakes head. “No, you don’t understand. This pathway will become steep, and you will not be able to make this trek.” He looks at Rick. “You, I know you! You are that homeless man!”
“The only homeless person in Borgarnes!” says Katrin, as though the Canadian is a celebrity.
“This is improper!” spits the old guy.
“It’s just a mountain,” says Rick.
“I will report to the authorities,” says the man.
“Maybe when you get down,” returns Katrin. “Not much cell phone reception up here.”
The evening descends. Rick is grunting with effort when they find a shallow copse to the side of the trail. He parks Katrin against a tree and lies on the ground. “Somehow, I thought this was a better idea than it is…”
“The mountain cannot be climbed in one day,” says Katrin. She checks her cell phone. No signal. She gives him some bread. Through the trees, she can see the peak of the mountain, those bits of snow.