BY: Jennifer Harvey
She heard them, before she saw them. Felt the tremor in the soles of her feet, as the energy shuddered through her. And when she turned around, there they were. Horses. Too many to count.
She watched them ford the river at a shallow point where the rocky bed was visible, their snorts as wild and free as the rush of the water, and the sight of them frightened her. Something about the movement—the ripple and flow of their manes, the sound of hooves on rock, the way the tension in the muscles was so visible, and the whites of their eyes so emphatic—seemed to slow time and silence everything. All she could do was stand there, in that improbable hush, unable to move.
Seeing her, one of the horses returned her gaze, as if all it needed to do to understand her was look her in the eye. They stared at one another for a moment, until the deep black of its eye made her shiver and turn away.
“What am I doing here?” she thought.
It was not her idea to travel north. She always preferred to follow the sun. But the land he described, sulphuric and vast, a place where people believed magic and myth lay burrowed in the mountains, she had been curious about that. Had wondered how she would feel, standing on some volcanic surface, staring at the sweep of a hillside as it plummeted toward something hidden, something beyond. Uneasy, she imagined. And she was right. This is how she has felt all week.
The day before, they had walked through an imposing valley. The ground was rust-red and black and had crunched underfoot, and the air was metallic and dry. She couldn’t decide if she found it beautiful. It reminded her of those photos they had beamed back from the surface of Mars. It had that emptiness to it, that stillness. Something alien.
Then the land, apparently so barren, threw up an unexpected surprise. Tiny flowers, magenta pink and bold against the arid surface.
She had crouched to the ground and allowed herself a little gasp of joy.
“Moss campion,” the guide had told her, though she wished he hadn’t. She didn’t want to categorize it or quantify the unexpected vibrancy. All she wanted was to feel the spark of joy course through her and allow herself to be happy. Because lately she had come to believe that such delight was impossible.
She took a photo but found the image on the screen disappointing. Its colors less alive, less striking in their contrast.
No photo could ever capture this place, she realized. And for a fleeting second, she felt she understood something inexplicable, something that could only be found here, and she gathered up a handful of lava rock and slipped it into her pocket. John watched her and smiled, then whispered in her ear a moment later, “You know that’s not allowed, don’t you?”
But she’d imagined the small pile sitting on the table beside her bed, and the thought of it there had created a strange need within her. She wanted it to be the last thing she saw each night, before she fell asleep. This molten rock now hardened and transformed. Not so much a souvenir as a charm. Something that might offer her a way into sleep, offer her a way into that hidden place they seemed to know so well here. A place where she could say his name again. Quietly. Barely a whisper. Almost an incantation.
And he would hear her voice traveling through the hollows in the rock, and he would answer, in that small, gentle voice of his.
“Was that a dangerous wish?” she wondered. “An impossible belief?”
The lightness of the rock in her pocket seemed to suggest an answer. Its contrast with the weight of all the things she left unsaid, a counterbalance, or so it seemed. As if this was all that was needed to set things right, to cancel out the grief.
At Goðafoss they stood at the edge of the falls and watched the water tumble, a cold mist spraying all around them.
It was beautiful, she couldn’t deny it, though she wondered what John would do if she were to say that name out loud. If she were to scream it into the tumult and have it silenced by the violent cascade. His name caught by the current, then trapped in a crevice, held underwater, never to resurface.
But neither of them moved. They simply stood in silence, watching the falls, until she felt a dizziness come over her, that hypnotic, gravitational pull they warn you of. The way swirling water, if you stare at it too long, can pull you toward it, pull you under. Standing there she could believe it, believe the unthinkable—that to jump was possible.
And if she had been alone, if she had not felt the squeeze of his hand at that moment, she thinks she might have stepped closer to the edge. Thinks she might have tumbled willingly into the whorls and the spray, the rocks in her pocket floating free to the surface while the water pinned her to the rocks below, her mouth caught in the shape of his name forever.
Back home, she couldn’t shake the feeling. She was falling still, hovering just above the falls and shrouded in a fine mist of spray, as the water thundered around her. At night, when she closed her eyes, she could hear it, the rush and roar of the water, and the sound was something she wanted to return to.
Come morning she was restless and agitated but unable to explain why.
“I think I might be coming down with something,” her reply, when John asked if she was okay. And if he meant something else by that, if what he meant to say was, “Talk to me, Eileen,” then she chose to ignore it.
But the next evening, she took the smuggled stones from her pocket and placed them on the bedside table, the little pile like a mountain cairn.
“I’m hoping they’ll show me the way,” she told him, when he saw them there.
He looked at her and waited for her to explain why it was she thought the answer to anything could be found in a pile of rocks.
“You’re going to have to explain that to me,” he said.
She picked up one of the rocks and rubbed it between her thumb and forefinger, hoping the explanation might lie there, but the lightness of it was at odds with the pumice roughness against her skin.
“You don’t feel lost then?” she asked him.
He came over to the bed and sat beside her and she let him pull her toward him. Allowed her head to fall on his shoulder. Listened as they breathed together.
He took the rock from her hand and examined it, rolled it between his fingers just as she had.
“He would have liked these, don’t you think?”
It had been an unconscious act, was what she thought. She had taken those stones and secreted them away without thinking. Had simply responded to a need. But the intention was hidden in her actions just the same. How could she not have realized this?
“Oh,’” she said. “Oh, I . . .”
Days after the funeral, John had found her in Lucas’s bedroom. He had come home to find the place emptied of his son. Only the bare remnants remained. A bed, a wardrobe, curtains. Everything else was gone.
She had worked diligently at the task, the rage of grief energizing her to the point of recklessness. Books, clothes, games, toys, all of it thrown into bags without thought or care.
John had stood in the doorway and surveyed the damage.
“What have you done?” he said. “My God, what have you done?”
But she knew she could never explain it, even as the shock of her own actions began to filter through. The stupidity of it.
All those things, those precious, childish things of his, she couldn’t look at them anymore. Because to see them, was to see traces of him. He was in every little thing. And she needed to find a way to forget, because if the memories were to resurface, it would be the end of her.
She had thrown the bags in the boot of the car and driven to the dump with a clear purpose. Be done with it all. That was all she wanted.
John had walked around the emptied room, then asked her, “Even his collection?” She had needed to think. His collection?
“The rocks and stones we collected together.”
His geological treasures. That was what Lucas called them. Rocks and stones collected from every place they had ever visited.
And she recalled the silky feel of the polished wooden box. She had picked it up, thought to open it, then decided against it. Thrown it in the bag with the rest of his things.
“Yes, that too.”
And John had slumped when she told him, and she thought he would fall, and knew she had no energy to catch him.
“You know what I was thinking?” she asks him. “When we stood there at the waterfall. I kept thinking how easy it would be to walk to the edge and fall right in.”
She felt his chest expand and swell before he released a deep, heavy sigh.
“What stopped you?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she admitted. “I had to take a hold of your hand.”
He leaned over the bed and picked up all the rocks from the bedside table and held them in his open palm so he could look at them.
“They’re so light,” he said. “Just bubbles of air, really. Hardly rocks at all.”
And he rolled one between his fingers again and stared at the fine dust that covered his fingertips, then leaned over and placed them back on the bedside table, brushed his hands on the legs of his trousers, and said, “But there was something else, wasn’t there?”
She nodded and thought again of the rush and the roar of the water, the way she could recall that sound now at will. She remembered she had been aware of the rocks in her pocket. And that she had understood that they would not weigh her down. If she’d have jumped, she would have floated with them to the surface.
And buoyed and bobbing there, amid the foam and the fizz, she would have been carried downriver, to a calmer place where the water was still and cold and clear. To that stretch of the river where she had seen the horses cross.
“Do you remember the horses?” she asked him.
“A herd of them crossed the river. We watched them, remember?”
“Vaguely. What about them?”
“The weight of it all,” she said. “You think, in the beginning, it’s something you will never be able to withstand. The grief is insurmountable, it’s something you can’t move past. And it keeps you stuck there, on one side of the river, and makes it impossible to cross. For such a long time, that’s how it felt. Some days, it still does.”
He looked at her and waited for her to continue.
“One of those horses,” she said. “It looked straight at me. I mean, it paused for a moment and looked at me, as if it was searching for me. When I looked back at it, it snorted, and then it carried on. Sure-footed, and slower than the others. As if it was showing me something. As if it was telling me to look at him so I could see how it was done.”
It wasn’t his way, to find meaning in things like this. To find the measure of grief in the gaze of a horse. She knew that.
“I’m not saying this is how we both find our way through all this. A horse is just a horse, right?”
“And a rock is just a rock,” he said.
She nodded. “Yes. But sometimes, it’s also a bubble of air. You have to pick one up first, and hold it in the palm of your hand, to understand it.”
“Yeah,” he whispered. “Yeah.”
He pulled her closer then, and they fell back onto the bed. Together, they lay like that, side by side, as the day began to fade, and the room grew darker. They thought of Lucas and horses, and volcanic ash. They heard the rush and roar of Goðafoss. Until that, too, faded to silence and, hand in hand, they closed their eyes at last and let sleep take hold.
Jennifer Harvey is a Scottish writer now living in Amsterdam. Her short stories have appeared in various literary magazines in the US and the UK, including: Folio, Carve, Bare Fiction, and The Lonely Crowd. She is a Resident Reader for Carve magazine and a member of the editorial board for Ellipsis magazine. When not writing she can be found sauntering along the canals, dreaming up new stories. You can find out more over at her website: http://www.jenharvey.net or follow her on Twitter @JenAnneHarvey