He was fifty-two before a woman ever called him an idiot.
Not a bad track record.
The thing was, she had said it in Icelandic.
Þú ert hálfviti.
Assuming cultural differences between the U.S. and Iceland, he considered the possibility that this might be a profession of love. If so, then the following might have qualified as affirmations of that love:
Datt niður dauður (“Drop dead”)
Kyssa á mér rassinn (“Kiss my ass”)
Meiri bullið í þér (“Bullshit”)
Yes, she had said all of these things, Skype being the conduit for the sentiments. He had never met the woman—her name was Gróa—in person. He was matched to her through a language-learning website. He considered himself lucky to have found her. If he had been learning Spanish or Igbo, he would have been inundated with matches, all anxious to acquire or improve their English. But colloquial American English was a very common commodity among the tiny community of Icelanders—who would otherwise be imprisoned, linguistically speaking, in their antique language—so to find someone who “needed” to practice it was rare indeed.
Yes, he was lucky.
His several trips to Iceland had acquainted him with Icelandic reticence, so he was surprised when Gróa suggested that they dispense with the once-a-week regimen suggested by the website and pressed for more frequent contact. Before he knew it they were Skyping almost every other day.
The sessions were intense. Although he magnanimously suggested they divide the speaking time between English and Icelandic, Gróa was happy to stick with Icelandic, a language very similar to the Old Norse spoken by the Vikings and whose vocabulary seemed more akin to Martian than English.
Consider the Icelandic word for “rag:” afþurrkunarklútur.
He asked himself why, for it was just a snatch of fabric, right?
The question was, why had he decided to learn Icelandic in the first place? It began when he was seven. His father had taken him to the movie theater to see Journey to the Center of the Earth starring James Mason. Accompanying the hero on his trek down the gullet of a volcano was a professional Icelander—”Hans” (what else?)—who did the monkey work for the expedition. When Hans mumbled his first words of Icelandic, the little boy’s ears perked up. He was hooked. Later he would say that it was something like hearing Beethoven’s “Pastorale” for the first time—moving beyond explanation.
He eventually acquired dusty, outdated language materials from the public library and sat up nights reciting phrases, almost none of them useful (“I trust your seat isn’t too narrow”). But year in and year out, he stuck with it, until, in his twenties, he took his linguistic gleanings with him on his first trip to Iceland, where he had gotten a gig working on a farm. The only phrases he recalled from his book studies had been, Það er mikill ólán að vera blindur (“It is a great pity to be blind”), Það er ekki gott að dreypa marga menn (“It is not good to kill many men”), and Krówkan er að kroppa augu úr lambi (“The crow is pecking a lamb’s eye out”). But it was a start, and the family he lived with appreciated his efforts. The experience itself only whetted his appetite for the language and suggested how far he still had to go to arrive at a point where he could generate meaningful speech.
Then came Skype.
Several times a week.
By the end of the second month she had not yet made her euphemistic professions of love. In fact, he spent most of his time listening to Gróa and trying to excavate meaning out of her rolling Icelandic flutters and sing-song Scandinavian lilt. The bottlenecks came when she paused to ask, Og hvað heldur þú? (“And what do you think?”). Having been lulled into passive nodding mode during her soliloquies, the question always caught him off guard and he was forced to take the last refuge of the non-comprehending: Ég veit það ekki (“I don’t know”). Gróa, for her part, simply waved him off in gentle annoyance and continued her discourse. But there were indeed moments when he had a chance to shine, such as the time he was zesting a lemon while listening to her. A tiny piece shot into his eye and he reflexively exclaimed, Það er mikill ólán að vera blindur! to which Gróa, without missing a beat, replied, Já, einmitt (“Yes, it is”).
He had to admit that it was hard to keep up, not only with the demands of the language but with the very schedule he had been roped into. At the outset he was thrilled to have found a willing speaking partner, a professional Icelander, but by the end of the second month he realized that their Skype sessions had become the fulcrum upon which everything else in his life seemed to pivot. The five-hour time difference between the U.S. and Iceland meant that during the week he and Gróa were often speaking at inconvenient times for him, such as the dinner hour. Weekends offered no relief, because Gróa, who told him she worked as a cleaning lady at the National Museum of Iceland, had a tourist-dependent schedule and wanted him to “stand by” for her call. He found himself on edge, unable to invest himself very deeply in any of his own responsibilities for fear that the dancing Skype jingle would erupt and draw him to the computer. If he simply didn’t log on to Skype, Gróa sent mildly indignant emails, demanding to know if anything was wrong (Er eitthvað að hjá þér?). He was betwixt and between. He wanted to cut back on their sessions without risk of losing Gróa, for where would he ever find another linguistically willing Icelander? And so he started to concoct little lies. “I’m sorry. I simply forgot. Forgive me.” “Oh, I thought you said Saturday, not Sunday.” “My audio has a problem. Sorry. Let’s try again tomorrow.” It was a delicate dance. He could sense Gróa’s frustration, and so was always mildly surprised when she pressed for more contact.
He was not particularly struck by her appearance. She was reed-thin, with straight, salt-and-pepper hair nesting on her shoulders. Her expression was fixed and sullen, in what W.H. Auden, in his Letters From Iceland, had referred to as “the Arctic stare.” Her cheekbones were so high and pronounced that they looked like implants. It immediately occurred to him that this was the visage of a humorless person. But he didn’t care. He was in it for the language, not comic relief.
Not all of their Skype interactions ran smoothly, in a technological sense. One session was plagued by lack of synchronization: Gróa’s mouth moved, and then her words straggled along. He leaned into the computer and asked if she could hear him.
Heyrir þú í mér?
Já, Já, she moaned.
Through repetition he became acutely aware that the Icelandic word for “yes” was pronounced “yow.” So when Gróa said, “Yes, yes,” it sounded something like a cat moaning to be let out, the effect made more laconic by her frozen, and rather sad, mien. And then, one day, for the first time, she laughed. It wasn’t your run-of-the-mill, light-hearted titter, but rather an explosive braying that made him sit up and take notice. He recalled the writer Paul Theroux remarking that humorless people have startling laughs. My God, he thought, it’s true. Soon after her outburst, Gróa’s face resettled into its grim rictus.
The rest of that session was not without its successes. For instance, he learned how to say, “Your words are not synchronized.” Mercifully, Gróa did most of the talking, pausing occasionally to ask, Skilurðu mig? (“Do you understand me?”), to which he honestly replied, Dálítið (“A little”), which brought a sigh of resignation from Gróa, who nevertheless suggested that they Skype again in a couple of days. But before they disconnected she volunteered, “You would be better looking if you smiled more.”
It was at this point that Gróa began to make little presumptions upon their relationship. He also noted that she had begun to apply make-up. “So,” she intoned one day, “when are you coming to Iceland?” Followed by, “When you come, you can stay with me.”
He performed deft jiu-jitsus on these suggestions by treating them as grammar points. “Is there more than one way to say ‘stay’ in Icelandic?” he asked in Icelandic. Gróa reluctantly took the bait and gave cursory explanations, after which their conversation settled back into its traditional call-and-response format, with Gróa discoursing upon something or other and his punctuating her commentary with a well-placed Einmitt! (“That’s right!”)
But like an Icelandic glacier, Gróa was quietly, inexorably persistent and crept along in her probings for his soft spots. And like an Icelandic geyser she occasionally erupted in expletives in response to his evasiveness. “Tell me exactly when you will come to Iceland,” she demanded one day. When he threw one of his Ég veit það ekkis at her, she muttered, Meiri asninn (“What an ass”).
And she was right, of course. He was being an ass. But he was doing it for love (of language) and the fear that he would lose a precious Icelandic-learning asset if he told her the truth in stark terms: “Look, I’m not coming to Iceland any time soon and if I were, I certainly wouldn’t stay with you.”
And so they danced on.
Shortly thereafter, the lava hit the fan. It was like this. One day near the end of his Skype session with Gróa, it finally occurred to her to ask what he did for a living. When he told her he was a biologist her face actually brightened. Momentarily, at least. But the revelation of his profession had propelled her in a new direction. Rocks. Lots and lots of rocks. Which was the one thing, besides bubbling, scalding, sulfurous geothermal water, that Iceland had in abundance.
Gróa told him that she had found an unusual rock. She held it up to the screen and rotated it. “What do you think?” she asked. “It’s a rock” was the first thing that came to mind as he stared at the jagged, oddly curved, brownish specimen, but he sensed this analysis wouldn’t satisfy her. So he hedged. “It’s very interesting,” he said.
“Yes!” she pounced. “I thought so too. Don’t you think it looks like a claw?”
Well, maybe yes, maybe no, but hey, what did he have to lose by agreeing with her? “Yes, it does,” he confirmed.
“I think it’s a fossil,” she said as she retracted the specimen and examined it herself.
“Very interesting,” he repeated, meaninglessly.
“I want to ask a favor of you,” she said. “You’re a scientist. If I send you this rock, can you have it analyzed?”
Já, he meowed, with nothing resembling enthusiasm. But her request had struck him as odd. Iceland was awash with first-rate geologists. It seemed redundant to send the specimen to him. He tried to beg off, but gently. “Maybe somebody at the University of Iceland would be a better authority.”
Nei, nei, said Gróa, chastising him for not owning up to his genius.
And so she sent him the rock.
The specimen reposed next to his computer for a couple of weeks, filling him with inertia every time he looked at it. As he Skyped with Gróa he couldn’t help glancing at it and feeling guilty about not doing anything with it. In the interim, Gróa, who was now wearing blood-red lipstick, rouge, and dark Bela Lugosi-like mascara, hectored him mercilessly about the specimen. “What about the rock?” she demanded. “My God, it’s been long enough!”
So he told another lie: “It’s at the university waiting to be analyzed.”
Why didn’t he just take it to the university then? He found this difficult to articulate, but he was sure it had something to do with some intangible fear that if he did bring the rock to an expert, it would set in play a series of events ending in nothing remotely resembling happiness.
The day finally came when, unable to endure Gróa’s hectoring any longer, he forced his hand to seize the rock and bring it to a geologist colleague at the University of Maine. Dr. Janet Sklar looked it over with passing interest. “It seems to be an ordinary piece of lava,” she concluded, indifferently, upon which he inquired, sheepishly, “Do you think it looks like a claw?”
She giggled and threw him an expression that said, “You must be kidding.” However, she offered to stick it in some sort of analyzer and give him a full report. He expressed his gratitude and headed for home.
“What about the rock?” skyped Gróa that evening.
“It’s still being analyzed.”
Guð minn góður!—”My God!”—How long does it take to analyze a rock in America?
Ég veit það ekki—”I don’t know”—which at long last was an honest and appropriate response.
In the meantime, the band played on. He was learning scads of Icelandic, but the price he was paying was two-pronged: Gróa continued to make arrangements for his stay with her in Iceland (“I have only one bed, though,” she teased) and she tenaciously pursued him about the rock (“What the hell is taking so long?”).
In an attempt to bring the chapter of the rock to a close, he began to press Janet Sklar. “Any word on the rock yet?” he asked her over the phone. Of course, the rock meant absolutely nothing to her, and she was not privy to the drama he was engaged in with Gróa, who was now suggesting they go camping together in a secluded spot near a glacier, known only to her. Each time he contacted Janet, she offhandedly told him that the rock was in some sort of specimen queue, awaiting its turn in the orgasmatron or whatever the device was called. What could he do? He had come to her with hat in hand, and he wasn’t paying for the service, so he sighed and went away.
When he related the continued delay to Gróa, she insisted that he give her the geologist’s contact information. Of course, he had no intention of doing any such thing. Instead, he mollified her with some well-timed neis and asked if it were true that Icelanders bathed naked in geothermal springs during blizzards. “Ah, so that’s what you’re interested in!” she said naughtily.
Gróa was still rather two-dimensional to him, and this, combined with the geographical distance between them, made her somewhat unreal. Perhaps this was another of the reasons that he never took her slights very seriously: they seemed little more than bad news from a fortune cookie (You will not be successful in romance today). But every so often he did glean an intriguing fragment, and by laying these fragments one upon the other he was able to construct a fairly legible palimpsest.
She had never married. How did he learn this? She told him that her parents had sent her to a farm when she was thirteen, and she remained there until she was nearly thirty. Apparently the farm was run entirely by women, for she never mentioned a man or even a boy. And apparently there was no extended family, for she once said, in response to a comment he made about his sister, “It must be nice to have siblings.” And then there was, “If I had gone to university…” And like a lot of people who never married, she began to identify with the elderly early on, first as a volunteer for a senior service organization in Reykjavík, and then as a recipient of some of those same services, despite her relatively young age. And like a person who has long given up on finding a mate, she did little beyond basic hygiene to conserve or improve her appearance. The shocking red lipstick and broad mascara were nouveau developments, which he had clearly inspired.
Did all this make him feel sorry for her? His impulse was to say yes, yes it did. But the truth is that it didn’t. He asked himself how one could feel sorry for someone whom one does not really know, unless it were in an academic or dutiful way. And then there was Gróa’s waxing impatience and aggression, brought into sharp focus now by that goddamn rock. “What’s taking so long?” she demanded. “We don’t have forever.”
Once again, he wrung whatever Icelandic he could get out of the interaction and told Gróa he would have an answer by the next day.
The next morning he dropped in on Janet Sklar. “The rock’s still in line,” the geologist preempted as she fiddled with some electronic instrument that hummed and had a blinking blue light.
“Listen,” he said, “tell me something about the rock that sounds scientific. Anything. I don’t care what it is. You don’t know what I’m up against.”
Janet Sklar looked at him with something resembling wonder, the way a parent might regard a child who has just said something precocious.
“All right,” she said as she fetched the rock and eyeballed it. “It looks like a felsic rhyolite with a bit of feldspar.”
“Perfect!” he rejoiced as he seized the specimen, thanked her, and made for home.
That evening he marched onto Skype like a Viking coming ashore in Greenland. “I have good news,” he announced as Gróa’s image materialized on the screen. She had toned down the lipstick a bit—it was now a flatter, orange-red—but had bobbed her hair. Já, Já, she mused, expectantly. “Is it about the rock?”
“What else?” he gamely rejoined and went on to relate precisely what Janet had told him, expecting to wow Gróa with the sweet alliteration of “felsic feldspar.”
But his report was greeted with silence. “It’s late,” Gróa finally said. “Let’s talk tomorrow.” Over and out.
Hmm. What was that all about? he wondered as he tried to recall the Icelandic word for “anticlimax.”
He didn’t know whether to feel unburdened or disconsolate. But he did know one thing: he had been cheated out of his denouement.
Or so he thought.
The next few days were quiet. He made repeated attempts to reach Gróa both by Skype and email.
And so he waited, filling his days with all the chores and activities that he had put off in his attempts to speak Icelandic like his hero Hans from Journey to the Center of the Earth. On the other hand, he was soon learning to live without Gróa and rediscovering the joys of quiet evenings all to himself, curled up by the woodstove with a favorite book in hand. He did make one more fleeting attempt at Skype, but still there was no answer at the other end. And so he decided to close out the account on this particular investment.
But it turned out that what he decided to do was irrelevant. The next evening, his Skype came to life with an insistence that could mean only one thing—Gróa. He was unprepared for her onslaught.
He had embarrassed her among her friends. How dare he tell her that the rock was not the claw of some ancient reptile. How dare he report that the rock-claw did not contain DNA. Datt niður dauður! Kyssa á mér rassinn! Meiri bullið í þér!
While Gróa was venting he was scribbling furiously, trying to get it all down. It was a treasure trove of expressions he could never have learned from Rosetta Stone. He interrupted her. “How do you say ‘bullshit’ in Icelandic again?”
This was rich, rich stuff, driven by powerful emotions, clearly inspired by love. He was swimming in a lush, linguistic sea of Nordic expletives that rounded off the rough edges of his stiff and formal Icelandic. It was a singular experience, this flume of invective conveyed from Gróa to him through Skype. When it finally ebbed, all he could hear was harried breathing at her end, as if she were just plain spent.
The interlude gave him a chance to think about the impetus for all of this. Claw? DNA? How could Gróa have believed that heated, boiled, melted, folded Iceland could have any extant fossils, much less intact reptilian DNA? He didn’t have the linguistic facility to make these queries on the fly, so he played the part of the tongue-tied and told her he had to go, suggesting they talk later. Her final comment: “I’m very disappointed in you.”
Well, he was disappointed in himself too. But not for failing to provide evidence for Godzilla. He was disappointed in himself for accepting the sinecure of the rock in the first place. If he’d ever harbored even a flicker of interest in geology, Gróa had managed to thoroughly extinguish it.
The next day he set aside some time to draft an email, in Icelandic, in which he carefully and clearly tried to explain to Gróa why her rock could not have been a fossil. After hitting “Send,” the only thought that occurred to him was, Well, that’s it. The only thing left to do was to carefully, and reverently, repackage the specimen and send it back to Iceland, where, after all, it belonged.
In all of his dealings with Gróa, it was his only moment of prescience, for he never heard from her again. At least not directly. After some weeks had passed, she sent him, without comment, a link that would allow him to view her photos on Shutterfly. He allowed the cursor to hover over the link as he considered what he might find there. Pictures of more cryptozoological fossils? A smiling photo of her holding up a hand-lettered poster reading, “Let’s be Friends Again?” Or perhaps a shocking image of her standing seductively in a doorway with martini in hand, wearing fishnet stockings and a G string.
He didn’t click. Instead, he deleted her email.
But he did return to Iceland.
Magnificent country, Iceland. The landscape was stripped to its bare bones, with the meerest green veneer of tender, dew-laden grass, lapped up by plump Icelandic sheep, their unshorn fleeces hanging from them like capes. It was a land sitting on tectonic dynamite, and there were moments when he swore he could sense asthenospheric warmth oozing up through the soles of his shoes.
More than half the population was shoe-horned into the capital, Reykjavík, which really was a busy little city in which, as a foreigner, it was possible to lose one’s way. But in a country of only 350,000 souls, where bloodlines ran close and the genome of every living inhabitant was encoded on a single CD, anonymity was almost impossible. And so it was, perhaps, inevitable, that as he rounded a corner onto Reykjavík’s main drag, Austurstræti, he saw her. She was standing quietly in line at a kiosk, waiting her turn to buy the Icelandic version of a hot dog. Slightly hunched, wearing a gray cloth coat, and with a pocketbook slung over her arm, she looked old. Achieving a spot at the front of the line, he watched as she placed her order. He didn’t know what forces were at work that made one look up into a sea of faces and connect with precisely the one that guaranteed an emotional return, but that’s what happened. Gróa glanced in his direction, their eyes met and—what else could he do?—he moved toward her with a hand raised in greeting.
Flustered, she quickly grabbed her hot dog, turned, and hurried off into the crowd, which subsumed her. He never saw her again.
He stayed on in Reykjavík a few more days—drizzly, cool, windy days, with low, roving clouds, despite its being the height of summer. He noticed the absence of umbrellas. But then again, what good would an umbrella do in a place where the rain blows sideways?
On one particularly miserable afternoon he decided to visit the National Museum of Iceland, a rich source of information from the country’s so-called “Settlement” by Norwegian sea-rovers over a thousand years ago. He enjoyed the Viking-era artifacts, the richly crafted ornaments, the models of long houses and the display of vestments of the last Catholic bishop of Iceland—decapitated in the sixteenth century in a fight over a printing press.
Moving on to yet more artifacts, he ran his eyes over broken buttons, half-rusted pieces of metal, hand-carved idols, and…he caught his breath. It was something he wouldn’t have even paused to examine if he had seen it in plain view on the ground. But there it was, lying in state on a small white pedestal. The claw. There was a caption: Ocepechelon, a rare turtle fossil that somehow escaped the tectonic and geomorphic forces that have re-worked Iceland over eons. Ocepechelon had a suction feeding apparatus unique among tetrapods. This specimen conveyed to the museum through the generosity of Gróa Pétursdóttir.
Well, he thought, I’ll be damned.
But then again, in Gróa’s eyes, he already was.