Storytellers: Chapter one (excerpt)

The thud of the body landing on the good chair sent the dog into hysteria.

Gunnar’s gaze moved nervously between the usually calm dog and the unusually silent stranger, who just a few minutes ago had been screaming his lungs out as both men fought the ferociously whipping sleet and wind. The furious barking wasn’t helping Gunnar’s headache, and the blacksmith squatted with a little groan.

“Come here, Ragnar, good boy. Give me a hug. Now calm down. Sshh…” The dog, unused to visitors of any sort, didn’t seem placated. The blacksmith let go of him and stared at the man again. If someone really died here, there would be questions. The authorities might want to inspect the farm, the forge, they might want to look at the shed… Gunnar couldn’t think about all those horrible things now, he needed some medication first, to soothe his nerves and allow him to decide what to do next. “Stay alive,” he instructed the body. “Watch him for a moment,” he instructed Ragnar. The dog continued his furious yapping, paying no attention to the blacksmith slamming the door behind him.

Gunnar returned a minute later with the medication in hand, feeling a bit better already. He shook his head, scattering drops of water, then placed the medication on the kitchen table before entering the room again. Ragnar’s cries were hoarse now, but the dog wasn’t howling, which seemed to be a good thing. Gunnar carefully lifted one of the man’s eyelids with a blackened finger. The stranger’s wrinkled face contorted, lips opened in a soundless groan, and Gunnar let out a long breath. Alive. Good. Then he could wait.

The blacksmith knelt next to the dog again, gave him a cold, wet embrace, and stroked the mutt’s head. “Ssshhh. It’s alright, Ragnar, calm down, boy. We’ll get rid of him. Go back to the kitchen.” Gunnar lifted the rag dividing the living room – or, more precisely, the only room – from the kitchen, and pushed the dog out with the other hand, firmly, but gently. The muffled barking turned into quiet whimpers. The two men were now alone.

Slush started to melt in Gunnar’s bushy hair and beard, and little icy streams ran down his body. They felt like tiny knives, pressing just hard enough to leave marks on the skin, but not hard enough to cut through.
He shivered and looked at the stranger with a mixture of envy and contempt. Even with that pretty woollen coat, thick leather trousers, and the fur-lined boots he still needed someone to save his life, eh? Gunnar was clad in his working pants, shoes that constantly chafed even when they were dry, and two sweaters. No part of him was dry or warm. But he never needed any help.

“H-help,” said a weak voice, which Gunnar ignored. It occurred to him now that he had nothing to change into. Had he expected to be out in the storm for half an hour, he would have at least worn his coat. As things were, Gunnar’s best option seemed to be keeping his wet clothes on and sitting by the fire until everything was dry. He couldn’t afford to soil the nice clothes that he wore only for his weekly visits to Doctor Brynjólf.

“Help…?”

Gunnar ground his chattering teeth. “Do you ever think of other people?” he scolded the man. “I might get pneumonia and die now, and it will be your fault.” He demonstratively turned away and knelt by the fire, rubbing his stinging hands, slapping his arms, attempting to force some warmth back into his muscles. Drops of water kept falling from his hair and beard, and Gunnar shivered again. Medication, he remembered, and looked longingly towards the kitchen.

“My ank-kle hurts,” whined the man again. Gunnar cast him a disdainful look. The stranger’s eyes opened, and his hand wandered up to cover them from the light of a single light bulb dangling from the ceiling. He took in the ursine, dark figure by the fire. “It’s the devil,” he whispered.

“My name is Gunnar,” said the blacksmith, “and I saved your life. The hell are you? You’re not Uncle Theodór, are you?”

“I don’t know who that is…”

“Nay. You’re not fat enough. In any case, keep your hands off my farm.” Gunnar dropped to the other chair, which creaked in warning, and started untying his shoes.

“It hurts,” wailed the man. He was shivering, his words interrupted by groans. “If you could just p-please help…”

“I’ve already helped you.” Gunnar put the shoes by the fire to dry, then glared at the stranger’s boots again. They looked brand new and very comfortable. Gunnar’s shoes hadn’t been new even when he got them in the first place. “I had the worst day even before all this, let me tell you. What is it with your ankle?”

“I think it’s broken.”

“So now you want a doctor,” grunted the blacksmith, reaching for his shoes again with a groan. This day would never end.

“No, no,” said the stranger, attempting to lift himself on his elbow before falling back into the chair with a groan. “No… no doctor. This happened before. It just needs to be… eh…” He muttered something that Gunnar didn’t quite catch. “Ah! Stabilised. And iced…” His entire body shivered, and the man cried out in pain again. “Take my left boot off,” he whispered. “Cut it off.”

“Are you crazy? Those boots must be worth a fortune!” 

“I d-don’t care about money. For God’s sake, I need this boot to come off and you can not tug at it. Please cut it.”

“Perfectly good boots,” muttered Gunnar through clenched teeth as he stormed towards the forge. “Certain people can afford not to care about money,” he added, picking an enormous pair of shears. He returned to the room, feeling almost tearful. His own feet were cold and rubbed raw, and those were such beautiful boots, even if they would be too small for Gunnar…

“Please, just do it,” said the man. “Yes, I am sure,” he added, even though the blacksmith hadn’t asked. Gunnar knelt next to him, then started to cut through boot and sock, grimacing in pain himself. A grotesquely swollen, purple foot emerged, with toes sticking out like sickening growths. 

“I am not dealing with this,” said Gunnar, whose ankle immediately started hurting in sympathy. “I’ll go get Doctor Brynjólf. Won’t be longer than an hour.”

The stranger’s sobs stopped as though they had been clipped with the shears as well. “No need for a doctor. It’s just pain. It will be alright. I’ll tell you… what to do.” His breaths were quick and shallow, face a miserable mask. “Just get some pieces of wood… bandage…”

Gunnar shrugged, eager not to have to leave the house again. “Whatever. It’s your ankle. You better know what to do though, because I don’t. Can you wiggle your toes?”

The old man lifted his head a bit. His pale blue eyes squinted as he tried to focus on Gunnar’s hirsute face. “What about my toes?”

“It’s important for… feet. If you can’t, then Doctor Brynjólf might have to amputate it,” the blacksmith pointed out. “But it’s your gangrene. You’re out of here tomorrow. You can stay in town.”

“I don’t have gangrene. Can’t I stay here until I get better?”

“I’m no innkeeper and this is no inn. It’s a forge. I don’t like no guests.” Gunnar stopped, as a suspicion formed. “There’s nothing for you to find,” he added quickly, “nothing at all, especially nothing illegal…”

The man’s eyes closed again. He didn’t seem interested in Gunnar’s completely legal possessions, and the blacksmith’s shoulders relaxed. “Can you please bandage my ankle now? I will pay.”

“Oh? How much? For what?”

“For your discretion, and to stay here until I recover. I gather you have no wife and children?”

“Aye. How do you know that? Discretion? Who are you?”

“Good God gracious… Where is my backpack?”

“Under you.”

The man scowled. “There’s money in it. You can have it.”

“How much then?”

“I don’t know exactly. About five thousand.”

“Did you hit your head out there?” asked Gunnar when his ability to speak returned. “Five thousand kronur?”

“Give or take. I didn’t count it.” The man didn’t seem too fazed by the fortune. Gunnar, on the other hand, couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He didn’t count it? Five thousand would be enough to buy the blacksmith’s entire property and possibly some of the surrounding land…

“So, I cut that off too…? The coat, the–”

“Oh no,” exclaimed the old man. “Stabilise my ankle, take off my backpack… then my coat… in that order…” He ran out of breath again. “Carefully,” he added, his face contorting again.

Gunnar’s hands shook as he hurriedly wrapped the swollen ankle, then proceeded to handle the backpack, coat, and their owner in a way he considered incredibly gentle. The stranger in turns cried in pain and berated the blacksmith. When the coat hung from Gunnar’s own chair, backpack placed on the seat with great reverence, the blacksmith stood wordlessly next to the chair without touching anything. His wide eyes travelled between the backpack, and the stranger’s grey face.

“Just give it to me,” sighed the man. His hands moved slowly as he opened the backpack and fished out a black leather satchel. He handed it to Gunnar before closing his eyes again. The satchel was light, but the massive blacksmith slightly faltered. He opened it, looked inside, gasped, then clutched it to his wide chest as if it were an infant. “I don’t understand,” he whispered. “Why is this happening?”

“Let’s discuss things first,” said the old man. He tried to straighten himself in the armchair, then winced and returned to his previous position. “I need absolute… secrecy. Nobody can become aware of my…” His lips moved wordlessly again. “…presence here. Not a single person. I had a twisted ankle before–”

“Aye, but could you wiggle your toes…?”

“–And it took a few weeks to recover. It will be perfectly fine. I shall, however, require help, new clothes, food–” 

“Nay,” interrupted Gunnar again, “not feeding you. I am not a cook. I have a cleaning woman, she cooks too, but she cooks for one.”

“Oh? What cleaning woman? What’s her name and age?”

“The hell you care? Better tell me what your name is.”

“Sigurd,” said the man.

“See-ge… wt? That’s not an Icelandic name.”

“Everybody calls me Sigurd.”

“Everybody being?”

“Just everybody.” He hesitated briefly. “In America.”

Oh, breathed the blacksmith wordlessly. America – the escape for thousands of poor Icelanders, who only started returning when the Great War brought prosperity to their homeland. “Aye. See-gewt,” he said, tasting the word – so that was an American name. He wondered what Americans would turn Gunnar Karlsson into. “What are you doing here?” Gunnar’s forehead was wet – not from the rain anymore, but from cold sweat. The satchel seemed to be getting heavier. He needed his medication, this was way too much to take in, but maybe the day wasn’t so bad after all…

“Travelling,” said the old man. He glanced around – hardly anything to see in the undecorated, rock-and-turf room – then had to cover his eyes again. “Can you please switch this light off? It’s giving me a headache. Make some coffee, perhaps?”

Gunnar stared at Sigurd for another second or two and then bolted out of the room, nearly hitting his head on the doorframe before hurriedly returning to flip the switch. Once he was in the safety of his kitchen again, his movements slowed down. He cautiously placed the satchel on the table, shook his head in an attempt to clear his mind, and turned towards the stove. Both the kettle and the soup were still warm, they’d be hot in no time. In the meantime, he could finally shake out the contents of the satchel and messily scatter the banknotes all over the table. Colours and numbers danced in front of his eyes as he gently moved the notes around, hardly daring to touch them with his dirty fingers, wondering when he would wake up. A feverish realisation flashed in his head – Sigurd must have robbed a bank…

Gunnar’s nose wrinkled. Something was burning… He tore his gaze away from the treasure. It was the soup. It wasn’t his fault that he forgot to stir it, anyone would in these circumstances, what a day…

“Here,” he said a moment later, handing Sigurd a bowl and a chunk of bread. Gunnar’s body might have been in the room again, but in his mind he still couldn’t see anything but the money.

“Could you turn that chair? My ankle needs to be elevated.” Sigurd paused. “Meaning, it has to be higher than…”

“I know what ‘elevated’ means,” barked Gunnar. “I’ll bring you a stool. No wet feet on my chair.”

“This soup smells odd…”

“You’re welcome. Told you this is no inn. Eat in peace.” 

As Gunnar uttered those words, he was already on his way to the kitchen, taking Sigurd’s coat along, immediately forgetting about the promised stool. He silenced the whistling kettle, burned his fingers as he dropped the pot with the remains of the soup in the sink, then returned to staring at the money, entranced. A single blue 100 kronur note – he had never seen one before – stuck out between other, smaller notes, and the blacksmith had to sit down as his knees felt weak. Suddenly afraid, he jerked his head to look outside, but all he could see was darkness.

The treasure needed to be hidden somewhere safe, and fast. Maybe in the coffee cans…no, that’s where thieves would check first. Maybe under the bed upstairs, no – that would be the first place… maybe in the chest in the corner, no, too simple, not in the larder, not in the stable… Gunnar’s nervous gaze landed on the black door leading to the forge. The heavier of his two anvils stood on a hardwood box, filled with ash and sand for stability. Once you removed the anvil, the lid could be lifted…

You’re rich, his brain said in disbelief as he put the lid back on, the satchel safely stored underneath. Gunnar stumbled a bit as he walked back into the kitchen. He locked the door, then rested his hot forehead against it, waiting for his rapid heartbeat to slow down. Medication! The situation was so exceptional he almost forgot to take care of his health! Gunnar’s hands shook as he made the coffee, adding a generous amount of clear liquid from a bottle to his mug. Some of it spilled as he clumsily re-entered the room.

“What is that smell? That’s not coffee.”

“None of your business,” snapped Gunnar. He held his mug tightly in his hands, both to warm them up more and to protect it from his irritating guest’s scrutiny.

“I believe there is prohibition in Iceland,” Sigurd said with an unpleasant smirk. “Since 1915, is that correct? Five years and counting. Didn’t you notice? Too drunk… perhaps?” 

“It’s medication. Doctor Brynjólf prescribes it for my nerves and back pain. And lung pain, too.” 

“You must be very ill. What exactly is it – wait, your doctor prescribes you moonshine?”

The blacksmith’s face flushed. “Better tell me who you are. I don’t want no bank robber here.”

“I paid for your discretion,” said Sigurd, “and a lot of money, too…”

“Accidents happen…”

“You would be required to answer a lot of questions…”

“Anybody could fall from such a cliff… how did you even get there…?”

“Stop!” shouted Sigurd. A pounding headache struck, and the tormenting pulse of heat rushed back to his ankle. “One thing at a time,” he said, much quieter, closing his eyes again. Everything seemed to be dancing in front of him.

Gunnar took a greedy swig, then tried to scratch his chin with the hand that held the mug. “I, well, uh… What were you doing at that cliff? You can’t get there without passing my house first.”

“I climbed it.”

“You climbed… from the shore to… How?”

“Oh, I’m good at climbing, as well as a few other things.”

“Like what?”

“Reading, for instance. Where do you keep your books and newspapers?”

The blacksmith looked around, as if expecting a bookshelf to appear out of thin air. “I don’t read no books or newspapers.”

In a society of readers, storytellers, and writers, where even the Old Testament was considered entertaining during the winter months – almost as good as The Sagas – this was absolutely unheard of. It had been many years since Sigurd left the country, but he couldn’t imagine winters being any different than they had been in his youth, when there was nothing else to do other than keep livestock alive, spin wool, and read or write. But, of course, blacksmiths stood by a fire all day… “What do you do then? You can read, I hope?”

“Aye. I just don’t like to. I work, eat, sleep, rest. The usual.”

“Yes, yes,” said Sigurd. “But what exactly do you do when you rest?”

Gunnar held on to his mug with both hands as though his life depended on it. He gently rocked it, admiring the light reflecting off the surface. His hands no longer shook, and he finally started to feel warm. The medication was working. Gunnar’s eyes closed, his stiff back relaxed, his nausea disappeared.

“Seriously? You live alone in the middle of nowhere and all you do
is work and drink? What sort of godforsaken life is that?”

“Mine. I’m kicking you out tomorrow if you don’t tell me what you’re up to. Which bank does this money come from?”

“It’s not from a bank.”

“Where is it from then?”

“It’s my inheritance,” said Sigurd.

Unnerved, Gunnar drank some more coffee, then wiped his mouth with his nearly dry sleeve. “Okay… then… what are you going to do with it?”

“I just gave it to you.”

“Oh,” the blacksmith scratched his head, then moved on to his chin. Lice, thought Sigurd and shuddered. “So… what were you…?”

“Are you suggesting that you spend every evening drinking by the fire?”

“Aye, it calms me down. I like fire and I like drinking. I don’t like strange people who ask me questions when they’re supposed to give answers!”

“No need to raise your voice,” muttered Sigurd, studying the contents of his own mug.

“I decided. I’m going to take you to town tomorrow. I’ll give you back the money…” – Gunnar’s voice wavered slightly – “and deliver you to the Sheriff. He’ll decide what to do with you. I don’t want you here.”

“If you do that, the first thing I will tell the Sheriff is that you’re making moonshine here. I will also say that I had ten thousand kronur and you kept the rest. They’ll rip the place to shreds.” 

Gunnar gasped. “But I didn’t do anything! You stole the money!”

“Inherited,” corrected Sigurd with a weak smile. The coffee was surprisingly good and strong. Now that he no longer feared lonely death on the cliff, he was already planning what to do next. Gunnar wouldn’t be able to spend too much money before Sigurd was ready to steal it back and depart. The ankle still throbbed with dull pain, but his headache was subsiding.

The blacksmith ground his teeth. “Why does a rich man come to a place like this? To climb my cliff with a backpack full of money just for fun?”

“Stop asking questions,” reminded Sigurd. 

To his surprise, Gunnar did. Instead, he sat in front of his new lodger, not taking his eyes off Sigurd even for a moment, taking a sip of coffee every now and then. It took maybe two minutes for Sigurd to start feeling uncomfortable under the blacksmith’s heavy stare. Every now and then Gunnar’s face seemed to double in front of Sigurd’s eyes, which made him feel even worse. “Why don’t you go and do something?”

“I’ve got nothing to do today anymore,” said Gunnar. “I’ve had more than enough of today…”

“Yes,” said Sigurd, “so I heard.” He closed his eyes, but still felt the weight of Gunnar’s stare. “Can you stop watching me like that?”

“No. I don’t trust you and you don’t want to tell me anything. If you don’t like me staring, I can put you in the stable. My horse is very discreet.”

“I could tell you… something,” Sigurd offered, weakly.

“Like what?”

“Some sort of a story. Like in the good old days.”

“Your story?”

“Just a story. Let me see… Do you know The Sagas?”

“I know The Sagas back and forth, American. And I know the Holy Bible better than you do. If it got lost, I could write it down again. If you’re not going to talk about yourself, you can tell me some other story, but you better make it good.”

Sigurd hesitated for a moment. “Alright… There is a story you might enjoy. It’s a good one… I think.”

“Do people die in it?”

“Yes, they do.”

“Fire? Women? Drinking? Fights?”

“Plenty of everything,” said Sigurd, exasperated. “What time is it?”

“It’s dark outside, that’s what the time is. Then it’s time to sleep.
Then it’s time to work. Then it’s time to rest.”

“So, in other words, is it closer to eight or ten? I lost my watch
out there.”

“In other words, I don’t know nor care.”

“Is this some sort of nightmare? You have electricity, but you don’t own a single book? You know how to make moonshine, but you don’t know what time it is? How can you manage without a clock?” Maybe he had actually died on that cliff and this was purgatory, thought Sigurd, worriedly. From what he knew, forges were dark places filled with soot, smoke, and fire. That sounded a lot like hell.

“I don’t need no clock. Why would I need a clock? I go to sleep when I’m tired,” Gunnar said, then emptied the mug, smacking his lips. “I wake up when I wake up,” he continued, his voice a rumble. “I eat, take care of Ragnar – that’s my dog – feed Karl – that’s my horse – and then I work.”

“Surely not on Sundays?”

“Why the hell not? It’s a day like any other. I don’t let no calendar or clock tell me what to do. I can tell you today is a Monday, because the cleaning woman was here.”

“Oh yes, what did you say her name was?”

“I don’t know what her name is! The hell you care? She’s a mute and an idiot. You just say: woman, do this, do that, and she does. She brings groceries, does the washing, cooks, sweeps the house. Tell me your story, American.”

“Bring me a cup of coffee first,” sighed Sigurd. “Make it hot. No medicinal additions, please.

Gunnar walked out, muttering to himself. Sigurd’s feverish gaze followed. He was now warm, relaxed to the point of nearly falling asleep, his ankle pulsating with heat rather than pain. How traditional, he thought, accepting his coffee. A lot of things have changed in the last thirty years, but stories were still being told by the fire on the cold nights when there was nothing else to do…

He watched the blacksmith make himself comfortable, closed his eyes, and started.

Continue reading…

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