In the middle of the night, a crackling sound in the trees wakes them up. Katrin shines a flashlight into the forest. Leaves shake and twigs snap, as though an army is out there. Is it a search party from Borgarnes? Is it animals, looking for meat? Or is it an ancient tribe of Vikings, one that decided they would not go back to the ocean, not pursue the hardship of the open water again, instead favoring the heights and the seclusion of the mountain? Here they walk, with their axes and swords, checking on treasure they will not spend, gold they cannot use. They sing as they walk, old songs in strange languages, aching for Europe, for home. We all ache for home, the noises mutter, and all that remains is to discover where that home is, in all the world, amongst all these people. Clues lay strewn on the forest path, in the wind that chugs up the mountain, leaping off the snow into the crevasse.
“We’re out of food?” asks Rick. They are halfway up the mountain, and Borgarnes is beautiful in the morning light. From this viewpoint, it is exactly what he expected to find in Iceland: an ethereal place, a romantic notion that he had when he was a kid, and imagined what the world beyond Windsor must be like. All he had to do to find it was to climb a mountain. “We have to go back.”
“No, no,” says Katrin. “Look, see over there? Berries. Do you know that when the Vikings came to Iceland, they cut down most of the forests? We have very few, but on this mountain is one of them. And this mountain produces berries – see?”
“We can’t survive on those!”
She looks at him. “Were you surviving so well before?”
He shakes his head and gathers the berries, feeding her. They’re surprisingly good. Later, they find a stream of icy water, and drink like it’s alcohol. The sunlight streams through the trees, lighting up the water as though it’s a flow of diamonds, spat up by the volcano that gave rise to the mountain in the first place, taking all that brilliance to the ocean, to give the waters the sheen that glares upon the two travelers as they climb.
That evening, they look down on Borgarnes and see flashing lights at the bottom of the mountain. “Police,” says Rick. “They’re looking for us. Or you, anyway. Once they find us, I’m going to be in deep shit.”
“I will tell them that you didn’t rape me even once,” she smiles.
“Why are you doing this, really?” he asks. His body aches, and he’s hungry, but something about the berries and the water from the stream keeps him going. He’s had to turn the wheelchair around now, and pull it up the mountain rather than push it, constantly worrying that the girl will fall out and tumble down the trail.
“It’s nice to do something real. Something unexpected. When you are sitting in a wheelchair all day long, people do not expect much from you.” In the sunlight, her dark hair covers half her face, and one eye stares at Rick as though she is a ghost, and he a spirit that doesn’t yet know that he is one. “I want to ask a favor. Can you kiss me? I have never had a kiss. I asked my friend Hekla to kiss me once, but it wasn’t very good.”
“Hekla? Is that a boy or a girl?” She laughs. He is sitting on a rock. “I’m not kissing you, okay? You’re fourteen.”
“And unattractive, too,” she surmises. “And in a wheelchair, with a defective body. There is no upside for you.”
She is pretty, he thinks, in a wild way. What am I doing, he thinks to himself? Why am I on this mountain, putting my life at risk? Putting her life at risk? And why, he wonders, do I feel so good about it? “I’ll tell you what. When you turn twenty, if you still don’t have a boyfriend, we’ll get together.”
“Is that a promise?” she asks. She holds out her hand. “Shake on it.” He does, and she nods. “Don’t break this promise, okay? It’s the best offer I have ever had.”
Rick takes a breath. He looks at her, the part of her face that is visible, and sees how serious she is. He thinks about the days gone past, the number of promises he’s broken in his life. It was so easy. It was like nothing. But here, on this mountain, doing something stupid, the words spill from him as though they’re consecrated by the fading forest, put into firmament by the guts of the mountain, words that are held beneath the soil, where they are squeezed over time into gems, a treasure that lies buried as it overlooks nothing less than the ocean itself.
He’s struggling, Katrin thinks. Grunts with every step. He is sweating, and his jacket is ripped. The wheelchair is twisted, making the travel much harder. But he keeps going. He doesn’t stop, or talk about going back anymore. Maybe, she thinks, he is too used to being hungry for that to be an obstacle to him.
Katrin looks up. They will make it to the top today, if they are lucky. The air is cold. Her stomach rumbles. And she has to shit so badly, but she can’t bear the thought of asking him for help to do it. Peeing is fine, but shitting? She can’t do it.
“Your family may miss you,” she says.
“Why do you say that?”
He grunts. “They tried to help me get off my addictions. But I told them I was fine. That I could handle it. They tried anyway, and I told them that I didn’t need them. That they weren’t important. That I’d outgrown them. That they were failures, because they’d never made as much money as I had, working in the oil patch. The last time I saw my dad, he was crying. I’d never seen him cry before. It made me sick to my stomach, because I thought he was such a weakling.”
“You should go back. To Windsor.”
“And you should stop thinking you have no life ahead of you.”
She holds on to the arms of the chair, to prevent herself from tumbling out. Her teeth are rattling as he pulls her over the trail. I have no life ahead of me, she says to herself. She’s never said it in those terms before, perhaps never believed it to be real, but it’s true, she thinks. There is no life for me, nothing. There is growing old, a useless, unimportant person who is broken and unimpressive in all ways.
She swallows, and something wells up like it’s the volcano coming alive after all these years, anxious to be remembered for the power it once had. All that heat spewing from the insides, desperate for escape, to rage and throw fireballs at the world, making sure it remembers that the mountain is still here. It lives. And I live too, she thinks, although not like anyone else.
“I have our promise,” she mutters. “When I am twenty, I look for you. That is something.”
“You have more than that,” he says, “if you want it.”
And the volcano rumbles. The earth, it shakes. The trail splits asunder, a long crack on the way back down to the minor forest, the one the Vikings missed. A chasm widens, all the way to the ocean, where the waters roil and flood in, a spectacle for the inhabitants of Borgarnes. We are unforgotten, says the mountain!
“You should go back,” Katrin says to the Canadian. “To Windsor. And Alberta. To your parents and to your sister in her high school.”
“Maybe,” he grunts, “but not before I get you to the top of this damn mountain.”
“To the top?” she breathes, and now tears do come. She wants to strip off her clothes and run through the scree. She wants to slide down the side of the mountain, as fast as anything could be. She wants to feel her body, all of it, as it mingles with the mountain, coming alive, returning to a living place, as the ocean watches and the sky cheers her on. The mountain rumbles, and she wants to ask Rick if he can hear it too, that sound as of something deep coming back to greet her, to welcome her into some other stage of her life – the one that no longer accepts being forgotten, or lifeless, or without a prospect for the future.
Rick trips and falls. He loses his grip on the wheelchair. Somehow, Katrin doesn’t make a sound as the wheelchair slips down the path. He gets to his feet and runs after her, but she is picking up speed. She is trying to slow down the wheels by grabbing them, but they are spinning fast.
And he is running, the cold air in his lungs. He steps in a patch of snow, nearly slips. Ahead, Katrin is fighting hard, but he can’t catch her. And then she lurches to the side, throwing her weight over the arm of the chair, crashing. The wheelchair flips, and she tumbles several times before coming to a stop.
He runs to her. She is lying on her back, the chair a few feet away, its wheels spinning. There is blood at her nose. “Are you okay?” he asks.
She is breathing hard, but somehow a smile splits her lips. “I… I can’t feel my legs.”
“That’s not funny!”
“Help me sit up. Show me my chair.”
She is surprisingly light, he thinks. The real weight in bringing her up the mountain was in the chair, which she surveys. “It will be fine.”
“It’s getting steeper,” he says. “We’re out of berries. And water.”
“It’s worse than that,” she returns, looking at Borgarnes, a dimple on the face of the Earth, like a latent dream, a faraway place that can only be accessed by the most courageous seafaring journey. “I need to take a shit.”
“A shit. You know what a shit is? I need to take one. I meant to tell you a while ago, but everything is shaken loose by the fall, and now I have to do it. Can you help me? I don’t want to get to the top of the mountain while needing to take a shit.”
Rick stares at her. Go home, go back, she has continually told him. Go home, Canadian boy, to a place where people care about you. He looks into her eyes – keep your promises, they say. Keep all of them – not just the ones you have made to me. And be careful, for the mountain itself has heard every word now, on this journey. Every word.
The top of the mountain is a flat patch of nothing. There is snow, but not much. The scree is made of chunks that part as they cross. Below is a long, brown slope – about halfway down, a minor forest, and then grass on the lowlands, tumbling into a shuddering road that seeks its path to the water, but first into a town. Beyond that, blue as far as they can see, and on the other side of that water, the place where everyone came from, them too.
“Take me out of the chair,” says Katrin. Rick puts her on the scree. Her breathing is hard, and she is starving. Every part of her is dirty, and there are aches from the fall. Nothing is working with me, she thinks. But today – now – the entire mountain is beneath her. Not one part of this old volcano is above, or can claim any dominion over her. “I didn’t think this was possible.”
“It was your idea,” says Rick, collapsing to the ground.
She looks at him. He’s removed his jacket. It’s cold at the top of the mountain, but he’s sweating. The last bits of the climb had been the hardest, and she’d thought he would lose her again, or that she would simply fall out of the chair. But they had made it. “I’m barren, you know. If you marry me later, I still won’t give you any children.”
“We can adopt.”
She nods. “You think I would be a good mother?”
He smiles. “Not really. I think you’re meant for something else.”
“Oh, and what is that?”
He is staring at the sky. His hands are opening and closing, as though he needs to stretch his fingers. “Any damn thing you want.”
They sit there and watch the morning come. It’s been days since they started the journey. No one has come after them. They haven’t seen a person. The chants of the mountain have continued, old rumblings of lava, misgivings of the Vikings who tore down the forests that once covered the land.
It is the most peaceful thing she has ever seen, thinks Katrin.
“Are you going to go home after this?” she asks him.
The breeze picks up, bringing a hint of salt water and smoke. Nearby is a patch of snow, clean and brilliant in the sunshine. On the ocean, boats are moving.
Katrin picks up her phone. This high up, it has a signal. She pushes a button.
“Where are you?” demands Hekla.
Katrin tells her, and Hekla descends into a fit of tears. Pretty girl with the nice breasts, thinks Katrin, she will do so well in life, but right now, all she cares about is her handicapped friend, the one that somehow made it to the top of the mountain. “I can see you down there,” Katrin says, as though this could be true. “You look good. Pretty.”
When she’s done, she sends a text message to her parents. She tells them that she loves them.
“Well,” she says to Rick. “Are you?”
“Am I what?” he breathes.
“Going back to your Windsor.”
“Yes,” he says. “But not right now. Right now, I’m staying up here.”
“For how long?” she asks.
He sits up and looks down the mountain. “You have to be the strangest person I’ve ever met.”
“I am your future bride,” she reminds him. “Unless, of course, I find someone better first. Which may well happen.”
He laughs. “Are you sure this was once a volcano?”
“Positive. A mountain that threw lava through the countryside, and built the land where Borgarnes sits. Enough ash came down to grow the thickest forests, but then the Vikings came and took them all down, because they wanted wood for their houses, and pasture for grazing. They undid the volcano. But maybe the forests can be brought back…” And suddenly, she has a vision of just that, roots growing in the latent soils, contesting with the barrenness of the world as it resets itself – and there she is, a mere girl, a tiny speck of nothing, building the world anew. There she is. “Can you put me on my wheelchair?”
He does it without asking why.
“How long do you need up here?” she asks.
As though that is answer enough, she wheels her chair to the edge of the mountain and the start of the trail. “Do you believe in me?”
“That is good,” she returns, staring at the ocean as she imagines a forest springing up to cover the mountain. “I will see you at the bottom, Canadian.” And with that, the whole world before her, she pushes herself over the edge.