Test of Gold
At the Kex Hostel bar is where we met. I was only staying at Kex for a night. After that I was headed to Laugarvatn, to stay at Gullkistan for three weeks, an artist’s residency an hour east of Reykjavik. Gullkistan, in Icelandic, meant “test of gold.” My goal, for the residency, was to write poems that interpolated with the Icelandic sagas. I wanted to push up against the postmodern, post-narrative, post-truth idea that there was no longer a place in the world for grand narratives, epic in scope and devastating in accuracy. I wanted to reaffirm my love of grandeur.
He had the kind of face that made me check for a ring. Chiseled, roman, slightly hawkish. Cropped reddish blonde hair, neatly trimmed beard. We bonded over a cigarette outside, then agreed to go back inside for a drink. We did a shot of Iceland’s signature distilled beverage, Brennivín, an unsweetened schnapps made of fermented potato mash and flavored with caraway, then he told me to order our real drinks.
“I don’t know what you like,” I said. “I don’t even know your name.”
“Alex. And I like everything,” he said, then corrected himself. “Almost everything.”
“Two Corpse Revivers, please,” I said to the tattooed bartender. His body art began at the backs of his hands and stretched up all the way to the back of his neck, encircling it like an embrace. The bartender’s tattoos were like a clingy lover, smothering his last stretch of unoccupied skin. For some reason, they made me self-conscious about my own skin, which I covered, not with tattoos, but heavy foundation (liquid), pressed foundation (powder), and several other fillers (concealer, veil, highlighter). Despite my many makeup tutorials on UTube, however, my look was not subtle, but cakey, and while I knew that, I felt helpless to prevent it; I couldn’t feel or see anything that wasn’t done to an extreme. The path of excess may lead to the palace of wisdom, at least in William Blake’s configuration, but it hadn’t done much, looks-wise, for me; I painted my face as if it were only made to be seen in dim lighting, or on film. Luckily, the former prevailed, that night.
He had never had a Corpse Reviver, he said, neither one (made with cognac, calvados, and sweet vermouth) nor two (made with gin, lemon juice, Cointreau, Lillet, and absinthe). The bartender served us number one (the default), then there was a lull in the conversation.
“I turned 33 yesterday,” I said. I lie frequently, but that was the truth.
“Your Jesus year,” he said. “Cool.” Another pause. “I’m 29.”
29? Did this constitute cradle-robbing? Home-wrecking? Grave-digging?
Playing with my cocktail napkin, I began to fret. What had I accomplished by 33? On the surface, I had moved up the ranks at an advertising firm, Corsaro Group, from traffic and production intern five years ago to junior copywriter. I had managed to not just stay alive, but occasionally thrive in New York City, where I had a studio apartment in Bayside, Queens. But in the romance department, I was lost. I had broken up with my only long-term boyfriend, Evan, over a year ago, because I thought I was settling for mediocrity when the love of my life could be waiting right around the bend.
How wrong I was. After breaking up with Evan, I thought my dance card would fill immediately, with eligible bachelors clamoring to date the only slightly damaged girl-next-door, but no. Forgetting good-enough Evan, whom I ran into occasionally in New York, and who started dating a Croatian model who taught political science at Rutgers two mere months later, was a physical, almost violent act, like pulling out an arrow piercing my flesh. The matter was made worse by finding out through a mutual friend that Evan had been about to propose to me when I broke up with him. Now, I no longer believed in anything except forward motion, at the fastest pace possible: not love, not work, not the future, and only in moments of deep sentimentality, the past. It wasn’t a crisis of meaning, or even faith. I had good friends, good health, and was stable enough financially. I would never attempt to tempt fate or hasten my own end, but most days, I simply could not wait to get drunk, high, or go to sleep.
After months of unprofitable blind dates and the occasional (and usually regretful) Tinder hook-up, I had gone back to embracing my singleness—and my love of travel. Thus, I’d decided to spend three weeks in Iceland, alone, blowing my meager savings exploring craters and geothermal hot springs, and penetrating the heart of glaciers and inactive volcanos.
Austin, a friend of mine, had recently shared his theory with me, about soulmates: he was of the opinion that we only get one love. I found this thought deeply perturbing, fatalistic even. But I believed him. And there was a small part of my mind that wondered if Evan was my love of a lifetime, and if so, if I’d lost him—and said love—forever. If I had, what was there to live for? Adrenalin rushes? Scenic landscapes in faraway lands where I knew no one?
I glanced shyly over at Alex, the only other North American—he was Canadian—I’d met since arriving, while our bartender whizzed about in the background, adding gesticular flourishes to his mixology process (bending deeply from the waist; raising the cocktail shaker high in the air to the right of his head as if playing maracas or a tambourine).
“Why are you here?” I asked Alex.
“On vacation, meeting up with a few buddies.” I nodded, more sympathetic to the efforts of cis white men to not sound like bros in normal conversation than what he was actually saying.
“And what do you do for a living, back in Canada?”
“I’m an electrical engineer,” he said. “It’s pretty boring.” I wanted to say I would be the judge of that, but it occurred to me that he might then start describing his work which might in fact bore me to tears, thus fizzling any tentative attraction I was feeling.
“I’m sure it’s not that boring,” I said.
There was a sign above Alex’s head that read “In Vino Veritas,” with loopy purple script. I wonder if there was an equivalent for that, in Icelandic. Not that I’d be able to pronounce it, if there was—Icelandic, a North Germanic language almost exclusively spoken by the country’s population of 300,000, and distinguished by a wide assortment of irregular declensions—was mystifying to me. After one week I had only learned three words: yes (já); welcome (velkominn), and thank you (takk).
We chatted for about an hour, exchanging Icelandic trivia, such as the fact that one in ten Icelanders will publish in their lifetime. By international standards, Iceland was a hyper-literate and culturally sophisticated country, one that privileged literature and writing over visual art. “Have you read any of the sagas?” Alex asked.
“A few. I just finished Njála,” I said. Njála was the most revered of all the Icelandic sagas, and its main character, Gunnar of Hlíðarendi, an idealized hero. The handsome blond Gunnar only longs to live happily ever after on his farm, next door to his best friend Njáll, but familial obligations, honor, and love throw him into a maelstrom of theft and murder.
Alex nodded. “Gunnar’s wife is one of the best female characters in all of medieval literature.”
“What’s her name, Hallogen?” I asked.
“Hallgerður.” He stumbled over the pronunciation, and we laughed.
We discussed that saga and a few others, and I perked up immediately, explaining to him that writing about the Sagas was the real reason I was here. “The Sagas still influence the way we tell and read stories today, which is so cool. Homer’s tales may have pre-dated The Sagas, but his works concern mythical creatures, gods and the fantastic. Despite the appearance of trolls and ghosts, much of The Sagas remains grounded in reality.”
“Women play a strong role too,” Alex added. “Take Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir, believed to be the first person of European ancestry to be born in America. She—”
A guy to my right jostled me, hard, and my Whisky Sour sloshed over the rim of the glass.
“Hey,” I said, but the guy had already turned back around and didn’t hear me.
“Probably American,” I muttered.
“Hating on your own?” asked Alex, with a smirk.
“Já,“ I said. “Anyway, I love the sagas. The style is unpretentious; the narrators unemotional and impartial; people live and die without sentimentality. Everything I aspire to!”
“And character names are like something out of a death metal band: Audun The Uninspired, Sarcastic Halli.”
“Haha you’re right,” I said. “Hkraki Filth. And William The Bastard!” I bit my maraschino cherry off the stem, delicately, then asked him what he knew of Icelandic film. Turns out we’d both seen Children of Nature, and Rams.
“I can’t talk about Rams,” I said, eyeing the bottom of my third drink and debating a fourth. I wasn’t driving, after all. I was hardly even walking! “Can you imagine being asked to kill your entire flock of sheep due to a biohazard?”
“Scurvy, was it?”
“Scrapie, yeah.” The bar was filling up quickly, mostly young hipsters with backpacks. Kex had the best hostel rating in Iceland, but was ridiculously expensive, peak season or not, though from the look of the lobby scene—well-groomed 20-somethings appearing to be on a drink break from a North Face commercial shooting—money wasn’t much of an object.
“It’s like some terrible Biblical twist on the story of Abraham and Issac, only he really does kill the sheep, rather than just threatening to—and not just one, but the whole flock,” I said.
“But he saves a few, right?”
“Yeah, a couple ewes and a ram. But they get discovered, so he sets them loose in a blizzard, and then he is found face-down in the snow by his estranged brother, an abusive alcoholic.” I ordered the fourth drink and looked down at my pale, limp hands. “Dark.”
“So dark,” he agreed. I brightened, slightly, at the note of concordance in the air.
“Children of Nature isn’t much better,” I said.
“The one about two old people who escape a nursing home and commit ritualistic suicide?”
“Yeah.” He shook his head, and also ordered a fourth drink. We were relishing this: the drinking, the hostel atmosphere, the moral exigency, the bleak art, the disgusting delicacies—all of it.
We concluded the night relatively early, with a briefet impassioned make-out session in one of the back booths. It was awkward at first, our tongues alternately lashing and retracting, but within a few minutes we’d found our rhythm and I’d grown attracted to his taste and scent—woodsy and smoky, with undertones of clove and something slightly alkaline, like cocaine. Turns out I wasn’t far from the mark, as before I left, he asked me if I wanted to do a few lines of coke with him. I declined, but was seriously tempted. Coke was my favorite drug in the world. Even though it had been two years since I’d done it on a regular basis, it still lured me on, with promises of endless energy and pizazz. So what if it made my lips numb and my legs shake uncontrollably? I could work on cocaine. I could sparkle. I could crank out advertising copy and poetry and not fall prey to hallucinations, like I did on mushrooms, or hazy drivel, like I did on pot. When I went through withdrawal from coke—when I realized I was turning into a coke vampire, that is—I saw my drug of choice everywhere. I saw it in spilled sugar, in powdered milk, in dishwasher soap granules. I dreamed of inhaling it deeply, like the most beautiful fragrance in the world, then sitting back to enjoy the fruits of the coca plant, the drug Sigmund Freud himself was the first to broadly promote as a tonic to cure depression and sexual impotence, publishing an article in 1884 entitled “Über Coca” (About Coke) which promoted the “benefits” of cocaine, calling it a magical substance.
And yet, despite my attraction to Alex, I couldn’t help but thinking of Evan, even comparing the way he kissed to Alex. Evan and I never lacked in the chemistry department—even in pajamas without makeup, even in the morning, even after an ugly fight, we lunged for each other with a passion that seemed both animalistic and pure. Evan’s kisses were long, sweet, and deep, compared to the rapid darting of Alex’s tongue and rough handling, however sexy, of my face, neck, and hair. When would I stop comparing new men to my ex, who was in other ways perfectly ordinary? When would I learn to live in the moment, in my senses, without my past constantly invading as either backdrop or contextual frame? I thought again, as I attempted to enter my hostel bed at 3am without disturbing the other travelers, of the sagas—when would I learn to live purposefully, as a creature not of habit but design?
The following morning, I took a bus to the rental car facility, where my 4×4 was waiting for me. I’d decided on an all-terrain vehicle so that I’d feel safe getting around (the optional “insurance” packages at the car rental facility, inauspiciously named SAD Car Rental, include gravel, sand and volcanic ash protection), as well as go off-roading should I so desire. Within two hours of renting the car, I understood the importance of their tutorial on Icelandic wind, when my driver’s side car door whipped open so quickly that it almost smashed into the parked car beside me. I gripped the interior side of the car door with all my might, trying, successfully, to avoid the worst-case scenario they described—when winds get so fierce that the car door flies off the hinges. Clearly, I was not in Kansas anymore.
I arrived at Gullkistan an hour later, and was amazed by the house and scenery—a little two-story cottage with twinkling lights tucked into a mountain range, with a separated building that served as work studios. After settling in, I wrote a postcard to my best friend of twenty years, Anna:
It’s amazingly beautiful here: the landscape is largely unpopulated, barren, desolate, yet also sublime, with huge rock formations, tundra-like fields, a huge, gaping sky, and the mist from volcanos rising in the distance. It’s also surprisingly flat, in the foreground—you can look out into the distance and see for hundreds of miles. The food was allegedly disgusting (fermented whale and shark, sour ram testicles) but as fish is their main export, there are tons of choices on the menus, albeit very pricy—a bowl of lobster bisque is $20 USD!
I spent the next few days acclimating to my new surroundings and getting to know the fellow residents, an Irish sculptor named Colin and two writers, Lisa and Joanna, from Spain and France, respectively. The days passed quickly, in the company of the other residents and alone, with horseback riding, hikes, and visits to The Blue Lagoon and other public hot springs. Joanna and I found several free hot springs on our excursions, and spent hours luxuriating in the steamy, salty pools, talking about literature and life. My favorite hot spring by far was Vígðalaug, or “Blessed Pool,” a pool blessed by Norwegian priests and used subsequently for christening, when Icelanders adopted Christianity in the year 1000. A short distance from the pool is a historic site called Líkasteinar (dead-body-stones), said to be the last resting place of Bishop Jón Arason and his sons, beheaded in 1550 when Iceland converted to Protestantism. Their bodies were washed in Vígðalaug before burial.
At night, we would write or read, carefully rationing wine or Icelandic liquor, as the prices were triple that of alcohol in the States, and the closest liquor store was an hour away. We also took turns burying our compost in the hard ground with a shovel, as was the Icelandic traditon. During the days, we would go on adventures, often concluding the evening with dinner out. At one restaurant, we ordered six different kinds of fish that sounded exotic and tasted delicious, all of which were accompanied by special sauces. Later that evening, out of curiosity, we googled the names of the fishes we ate (Blueling, Wolf fish, Monk fish), and were horrified: the fish, unlike an iridescent bass or sleek, silver salmon, were horrific looking—huge, lumpy, and with misshapen heads and protruding fangs. The Blueling looked like a Satanic eel.
We laughed until our stomachs hurt, and I realized I had forgotten how magical it was to have friends to share experiences with, rather than just men—during my years with Evan, we shared plenty of laughter, but I was always slightly conscious of performing around him, of performing femininity like I did around all men, never letting my defenses fully drop out of fear that I would be rejected, sexually or otherwise. I also realized that I was having not just oneut several nights in a row of great fun with only a minimum of alcohol and no drugs. Life was starting to overtake the fabrication or distortion thereof, and it felt, like everything else in Iceland, divine.
I began to draft poems about the sagas in quick succession. The preface to the project was Brecht’s quote, “Damned is the age that needs heroes,” because it seemed to encapsulate what I was striving against—the idea that a time of heroism was past, for both men and women. I had long grown sick of the kind of facile boosterism I saw on places like Facebook, as it was such an anemic way of suturing the wound that was the cultural vacuum of meaning. I didn’t want to strike out at random, in my poems or in my life, but I wanted to experience, if just once, a feeling of boldness and invincibility. I wanted to stand up for something, or someone, to reach beyond the pitiful attempts at self-comfort through self-delusion that plagued so many people, and live—and language was a way to do that, without fearing that working with language was a mere cloak for truth. Language, in the metaphysical sense, creates or at least, indelibly shapes cognition, emotion, and therefore reality.
When I wasn’t writing or adventuring, I was reeling from the sleeplessness I was starting to experience because of the lack of nighttime. I had started to refer to Iceland as The Land Without Darkness. By the end of the first week, I was starting to feel loopy. I didn’t mind it, however—insomnia was like a drug, and most of the activities I was doing, like writing poetry and foraging for mushrooms, could either be done in a trance state, or were so bizarre that the line between real life and dream was indelibly blurred. That week, out of the blue, I emailed Alex, and asked if he wanted to come by: he did. We walked out to the shore of the Laugarvatn Lake together to bury a loaf of thunder bread—an uncooked rye bread that is baked in the earth’s interior—in a geothermal spring. Steaming bubbles exploded in the black volcanic sand by the water’s edge, and the eggy smell of sulphur permeated the air. We returned to the cabin after the burial, and, after a couple drinks, decided we wanted to have sex. Like our encounter at the bar, it was brief but passionate, and ended with me resting naked beside him, trying desperately not to get emotional, which in my experience had always led to attachment, which then lead to disappointment and despair. To break up my reverie, I offered to make him a snack, and he agreed, so I then prepared smoked trout and crackers, as well as beet salad and sauerkraut with caraway seeds. I did little more than pick at the food, feeling as I usually didhat while I spent many of my waking hours fantasizing about past and current men, the actual reality of heterosexual coupling often paled, in terms of enjoyment, in contrast to my vivid imagination of romantic fulfillment and bliss. Alex ate hungerly, and said all the right things, but my heart was already downcast, elsewhere.
When we returned for the thunder bread, we found it gurgling in the sand, like a sea creature or newly hatched infant. Cradling it and carrying it home, like a bastard child from a love affair I now regretted, I thought of the importance of ritual, symbolism, and rites of passage, also underscored in the sagas. I could see myself living in Iceland, burying thunder bread weekly, bathing in the hot springs to relieve tension rather than doing a line or downing a drink. I could see myself writing a memoir, of eating consciously, of choosing to be alone if I so chose: I could see myself living in harmony with the world. When Alex and I said goodbye, shortly thereafter, I knew I would never see him again. So much is made of lovers, but what are lovers, except a temporary stay against loneliness, the body’s attempt to generate heat by proximity to another?
At museums, on outings, and in conversation with locals, I set about learning as much as I could. Like every nation, outside influences had deeply shaped Icelandic culture. Independent until 1000, when it was taken over by the King of Finland, it has been home to Irish monks and slaves. The punk scene came from England, as did British wives during colonialization. The political parties include Best, Independence, Green, Farmer’s, and Pirates. Icelanders serve peanuts on their pizza. Their culture, because of its history, is equally divided into heathen/pagan, and Christian-Lutheran influences. There are decorative boxes along the main roads to house fairies. The mountains are named after troll women, a fact I thought Evan would have appreciated, as he named his car, his kayak, and many of his appliances after women. My pining for Evan, while not lessening, was starting to gain texture and resonance—I was learning, with the help of the sagas and my experiences, to think of myself as a character, and to realize that maybe I too could avoid life’s tragedies and pratfalls: I, too, could invent a life.
I wrote my second and last one a few days before my departure, to Anna, again, this time a one-liner:
The ponies here have hair like Axl Rose, and the geothermal pools are the temperature of pee.
We were in Iceland in August; we knew the chances of getting to see Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, were extremely rare, as guaranteed darkness is the most important factor, and there are only full dark nights in Iceland from September to mid-April. Still, we hoped. Then, the second to last night I was there, Lisa came running into the kitchen while I was making macaroni and cheese. “Hurry! The Northern Lights!” We raced outside. It was dim at first, traces of light scoring the sky as if in the aftermath of a plane. Then within minutes the light began to broaden and quiver, and while the shades of green didn’t resemble what I’d seen online (the rainbow), the overall effect was so beautiful as to terrify. The lights canopied the open sky, dancing and falling and rising again. We screamed, leapt, and ran up the hill behind Gullkistan to see if the view was different there. I thought of the Norse legend which proposed the lights to be the glinting armour of the Valkyries, legendary female figures who took the dead to the afterlife. I thought of how, even if our age was incapable of heroic action, it could be capable of heroic witnessing: breaking through the wall of self-obsession, neuroses, and human fallibility to actually be present in life, to feel reverence and awe, if only for a moment.
I hadn’t done any drugs or drinking to feel those feelings, and I wasn’t at the side of a man, Evan or Alex, nor anyone else. It was just the sublimity of Nature. It was enough.
Author of two poetry collections, Any God Will Do (Carnegie Mellon, 2020) and The End of Spectacle (Carnegie Mellon, 2018), a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift (Noctuary Press, 2017), and three chapbooks, including The New Alphabets (Anstruther Press, 2019), Virginia Konchan’s poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Boston Review, and elsewhere.