by Arielle Burgdorf
When Jean was younger, she took all the money she’d saved from waitressing and blew it on a plane ticket to Iceland. It was her first time traveling overseas, and from the plane, everything looked lush with possibility. Lush, until she realized Reykjavik was incredibly expensive. Even the most modest hotels and restaurants went far beyond her budget. Every golden, poster tourist fantasy she’d been promised–the Blue Lagoon, waterfalls, black lava, Aurora Borealis, the sturdy little ponies–out of reach.
Her first few days were miserable, trapped in the hostel where she’d agreed to work for free in exchange for a bed. She scooped bowls of granola, washed dishes, scrubbed toilets, and answered questions from violent couples arguing their way through backpacking trips.
In her spare time, she went to the library and read for hours because it was the only free place she could think of. The building was very modern, a Nordic paradise of slanted glass windows, clean lines, minimalist furniture. She felt as if she’d stepped inside a design catalog.
Alone for hours, Jean obsessed over the Icelandic language, Íslanka. She couldn’t cobble together much, but the characters alone were works of art. In English, she read about the history of the island. Íslanka was ancient; you could still hear traces of saltwater and arctic thyme in its rhythm. Young Icelanders could read texts from the very beginning of their country with little trouble. Íslanka transcended time, embracing past, present, future.
On the guest computers she read about how her favorite poet, Anne Carson, was the writer-in-residence at Vatnasafn in 2008. Vatnasafn was an art space created by the American artist Roni Horn. It housed a collection of melted glacier water contained in 24 slim glass tubes. The website described it as “The Library of Water,” which made Jean revisit her definition of the term library. Was a library simply an assembly of texts? A text being, in the academic sense, anything you could read (an outfit, a film, a book, a body). And in this case, didn’t these glaciers, like Íslanka, hold communal memory, the entire history of the island buried in their sediment? Was this enough to merit a library?
Jean clicked on the photos and zoomed in on the water. Gray pixels filled her screen. She imagined how the shape and color of the liquid would change based on the season and time of day, the light refracting, so that every visitor might experience it differently. But the more she looked, the stronger the urge came on to destroy the columns of water. She was surprised at this current of violence welling up in her. Images of broken glass flooded her thoughts. She wasn’t sure what this vision signified, but was confident it represented something anti-social.
A loudspeaker announced the library was closing in 30 minutes, first in Íslanka, then in English. Jean wanted to check out a book called The Blue Fox, but the librarian informed her that she would need to be a resident in order to do this.
“Please. I’ll bring it back in a few days, I promise,” Jean begged.
The librarian laughed.
“You know how many times I’ve heard that one?” she said. “We’re not a charity.”
Jean was about to put the book back, when a solution appeared behind her in line. His name was Jökull. Wordlessly, he took her book and added it to his own pile of DVDs.
Outside, she thanked him. He waved her off.
“It’s nothing,” he said. He started to ask questions, where was she from, what was she doing here, did she have a boyfriend. She felt obliged to answer, but eyed him warily. He was the kind of person many people found handsome, tall and thin like a Dane, with an asymmetrical haircut and green-edged glasses, very hip. But she did not find him handsome; his personality was too aggressive. When she mentioned the arrangement at the hostel, Jökull interrupted her.
“Fuck the hostel,” he said. “You’re staying with me.”
He started to walk and motioned for her to follow. Jean wasn’t sure she wanted to stay with him, but Jökull was right. The thought of going back to the hostel was unbearable.
Jökull lived near the center of the city in a compact but mostly clean flat. He had a TV, a small kitchen, a bookshelf, an expensive bike propped against one wall, and a fold-out couch where he hosted visitors from time to time. There was also, he offered, his bedroom. Jean shook her head.
“Couch is great,” she smiled.
There was a German girl staying there too, curvy and rosy-cheeked, with golden curls. Her name was Annaliese, but Jean kept almost calling her Heidi because she reminded her of the story. Annaliese had spent the wretched winter months working on various sheep farms. Now, she explained, “I want to fuck and party.” She was always drinking white wine and laughing, no matter the time of day. Jean liked her immediately, and because of her, decided to stay the night. They spent the evening warm and drunk, telling stories and teaching each other pop songs until Jökull pulled out an acoustic guitar and ruined everything.
In the morning, Jökull went off to his job at a coffee shop down the street. Jean was a little surprised he had a real job; everyone she’d met in Reykjavik so far had jobs like DJ and graffiti artist. At first, she wasn’t sure what to do with herself, but since Annaliese also had no money or plans, she convinced her they should hitchhike to Strokkur, the famous geyser. She had seen photos of Strokkur at the library, impressed by the immense, energetic spray arching up like a spire, reaching up to 130 feet high. She was dying to see it in real life. When she’d hitchhiked before it had been pretty dicey, but Iceland was supposedly a safe place for young women to do that sort of thing.
Unfortunately, the morning was cloudy and gray, threatening a storm. They split a pack of chocolate-covered raisins stolen from a gas station and waited in the spitting rain for someone to take pity on them. After an hour, a man stopped, but didn’t take them very far. They had to find a few more rides, and Jean got to use the Íslanka phrases she remembered, but mostly the drivers wanted to talk to Annaliese about sheep farming. Eventually, they made it to Strokkur. The tourists who had taken the official bus stared at them in confusion, like they were wild elves that had appeared out of nowhere. In thick mud, they stood and watched the water bubble up. Nowhere near 130 feet, a comparatively weak spurt. Jean scolded herself for being disappointed in nature. Why did humans always need everything to be giant in order to be awed?
Another article she’d read at the Reykjavik library came to mind. In 2015, an artist called Marcus Evaristti dyed the geyser pink with fruit juice. Icelanders were furious. They arrested Evaristti and fined him for obstructing nature. Jean sympathized with their point of view. It reminded her of a quote from her favorite architect, Gianni Pettena. Concerning the Southwestern American land artists, he explained:
“The artist, in trying to escape the overwhelming ‘fullness’ of the city, is frightened by the overwhelming emptiness of the desert and feels the need to superimpose a sign on this void, to fill it with language, to impose his own alphabet on nature.”
She believed language was born from fear of the unknown. The human urge to use language (or bright colors) to fill the void of silence was overwhelming. Artists were always trying to impose their own alphabets in nature, especially in Iceland. They thought it did not belong to anyone, and therefore could belong to them. It was irresistible; a whole island of white noise, deep valleys, snowy tundras. They especially loved the whiteness. Artists praised Iceland’s purity and untouchedness as if those were neutral concepts.
“The nothingness of open space,” Roni Horn wrote in her notes on Iceland. “The emptiness. The possibility of infinity. The fool-me-endlessness.” Jean remembered the Library of Water. A way of bringing order to the overwhelming unknown. Was Horn preserving truth, or obscuring it with her own narrative? She wasn’t sure.
On the one hand, she saw Evaristti dyeing the geyser as just another typical masculine attempt at land domination, a territorial pissing. Secretly, a way of coping with his own fear at the immensity of nature. The ultimate hubris, to think one could “improve” the natural world. And yet.
And yet, the photos of his pink geyser installation were some of the most breath-taking things she’d ever seen, even with the shitty resolution. A burst of pink light exploding across a virgin blue sky. Pining for the heavens, a soft pink cloud returning home. To Jean, these were poetic images, strangely natural in their unnaturalness.
She had seen plenty of fountains dyed hot pink for Breast Cancer Awareness month or neon green on St. Patrick’s Day. This was different. A subtler shade of artificial. Evaristti’s geyser gestured towards nature, the pink hues of sunset. If not exactly in perfect harmony with nature, it was not in conflict with it, either. The pink geyser existed in its own space, alien yet legible. Fantasy masquerading as reality.
The geyser erupted again. The crowd applauded, but Jean found herself dismayed it wasn’t pink.
“I’m not sure what all the fuss is about,” Annaliese said. Jean shrugged. It was too hard to be impressed by the beauty of nature in wet socks and freezing rain. They posed for a few obligatory photos for friends back home and then left, anxious to be back on the road.
Hours later they arrived home soaked and cold, ready for sleep. But Jökull had other plans. First, he promised to make them a nice dinner, which they gladly accepted. This turned out to be spaghetti, which was not particularly exciting but they were both too famished and exhausted to complain. Too late, they realized he thought of this as an exchange and expected something in return. He put on a French arthouse film about a threesome Jean had already seen and shot them both hungry glances. When this didn’t work, he tried to play them against each other.
“First one to give me a little kiss gets a spot in my bed,” he said. She and Annaliese looked at each other and laughed, then changed the subject. They were not going to trade spaghetti and a comfortable bed for sex. Jean thought Annaliese was beautiful and would’ve slept with her in a second, but she gave off very straight energy. After the film ended, Jean tried to announce that she was going to sleep. But Jökull forbade it, insisting that it was Friday night, they must all go out to the clubs. She reluctantly agreed, not wanting to be an impolite guest.
The three of them hopped the drag of perhaps five main clubs in Reykjavik. The only differences Jean could discern were that some of them played techno, some played house, and some charged too much for drinks. Because it was summer, the midnight sun was out, giving everything a surreal touch. The silver light made for a grotesque spectacle, illuminating young people vomiting on the cobblestones, stripped of the secure cover of night.
Around 4 am, Jean announced she would return to the flat, assuming Annaliese would accompany her. Instead, she gave Jean an apologetic shrug and decided to stay out. Jean felt betrayed, a sudden gulf forming between them. She already sensed what would happen in the morning, Annaliese silently emerging from Jökull’s bedroom in only a slip. She walked back alone under the glaring sun, her feet blistered and sore.
When she returned, Jean collapsed on the pull-out couch. She dreamt about columns of water shattering in the air, sediment spilling over the tiles, searching for a way back to the sea.