The steering wheel judders in my sunburned hands. Small rocks crunch under the hard rubber of our silver Suzuki jeep, on the isolated b-road. The plastic sound system does its best to play electronic music loudly— rhythmic, sparse and haunting.
It’s like the rough texture of the shifting landscape is triggering the composition for every beat; each melancholic chord.
Boulders of all shapes sit proudly in gently undulating terrain for miles in all directions. It’s like exploring an undiscovered planet. Smooth charcoal grey mountains hug the horizon. The sky is immense. A nourishing blue, framing long streaks of cloud.
Wing-Sie, a British Chinese friend from Uni days, is studying the map on her phone next to me, squinting through thick trendy glasses.
‘I think we’ve still got quite a bit more ground to cover.’ She says, turning down the volume.
I wanted to get to the guesthouse well before dusk. Though Iceland gets a lot of daylight in the summer, it is late, and we have only a couple of hours of proper light left.
‘We shouldn’t have spent so much time at the waterfall,’ I say, glancing at the rear-view mirror. ‘Don’t wanna still be out here when it gets dark.’
I press down on the gas with the clunky hiking boots I couldn’t be bothered to change. I flick on the windshield wiper to sweep off a fresh layer of insects. One fly sticks in place, not budging. Tiny drops of rain begin to collect on the glass.
Wing-Sie winds down her window. A rush of air fills the car. It’s cool. I smell the cracked rock awoken by the light rain, and volcanic sulphur.
‘Freedom!’ She roars out of the window, her long black hair flailing wildly.
The trip and open space are a relief for me too. It was only yesterday that I was in a cramped London Underground carriage.
There is a bang, and the jeep lurches downwards as we hit a crater on the road. It takes a couple of firm tugs on the steering wheel to straighten up.
‘Ah shit, sorry Wings! Just wanna get there now!’ I yell over the rushing wind, tapping my hand impatiently on the steering wheel.
‘It’s K. You’ve been driving for a long time. Shall we stop soon?’
‘Nah. Gotta keep moving!’
We surge ahead. My eyes strain to find each stray rock and hole in the road. I turn the volume back up, and we continue in a musically guided trance.
I think about whether we’ll have enough petrol to last until the next station.
The insect on the windscreen is still there, half its body obliterated. I close an eye, and it looks like it’s flying against the sky, now turning grey. A mutant brought back from the dead.
Twenty minutes pass.
I look at the clock on the dashboard and then over at Wing-Sie, who’s staring at her phone.
‘The blue dot’s barely moved.’
I exaggerate a look of disappointment. ‘Can you zoom in a bit?’
‘Yeah. It’s still gonna be another two hours at least I reckon.’
I blow air through puffed cheeks.
‘This country’s so damn huge!’
We are flying now. We brace the jarring bounces and jolting turns, part of an unspoken agreement that we’ll have to feel some pain if we’re to get to the guesthouse sooner. A thick cloud of dust obscures the view behind.
A moment later, wheels leave the ground as I hit a bump going too fast. A sharp turn looms into view ahead, and I barely have time to gasp.
‘Alex! Go right!’
I yank the steering wheel down hard and slam on the breaks. The mass of steel is unforgiving and smashes into a raised bank on the wrong side of the road. Pebbles spray out on impact. I shout, and Wing-Sie screams in a panicked musical harmony. Like the final chord at the climactic point in a film.
The jeep angles abruptly to the left, and for a nauseating second, it feels like we’re going to tip over.
‘Oh, shit!’ I wince, taking both feet off the pedals.
We drop flat, and slide a few feet down a slope, spinning to face where we came. Our dust cloud follows us, lightly speckling the jeep in beige powder.
We’re ok, but there’s no way we can drive back up over the bank.
‘Oh, Christ. We’re fucked.’ I hiss, through strained jaws.
Twenty-five minutes later, sitting on the side of the road, I throw a pebble, hitting Wing-Sie’s yellow puffer jacket with a ‘pap!’
The rain drizzles softly. The light is dimming.
‘Not one bloody car.’
‘There’s bound to be one soon,’ says Wing-Sie, her voice dry, but hopeful.
‘We may have to sleep in the car tonight.’
Wing-Sie shoots me a worried look. ‘Arrrgh, I can’t believe this.’ She forces a chuckle.
I laugh inwardly at the absurdity of the situation and survey the mountains on the horizon.
There’s a distant rumble, and my chest tightens. ‘Not thunder,’ I hope.
After a minute of anxiously watching the road, the clipped rumbles grow louder and more rhythmic. The ground starts to tremble. A few pebbles roll down the bank.
The shaking stops. Silence. The wind picks up, whistling through gaps in the rock.
The rumbling returns. More vigorously now. The rock I’m sitting on feels unstable, and I stand up. Wing-Sie is looking at me, wide-eyed. ‘What the…?’, she mouths to me.
Silence for a few seconds again.
There’s a vague smell of rancid cattle flesh.
I scrunch my face. ‘What’s that stink?’ I scan the landscape looking for a vent or a plume of geothermal gas.
Wing-Sie’s face blurs into focus. All the colour has drained from it. My left ear is twitching hard. My muscles are tense.
She’s looking upwards at something behind me.
‘Alex,’ she croaks.
I turn slowly. My vision suddenly sharper.
I see him.
A man, about the height of two buses stacked vertically.
He is stooping over something — his back towards us, maybe sixty feet away.
He’s looking at something on the ground, possibly some lichen, picking it up with huge knobby fingers, sniffing them. He casts a vast shadow that engulfs several boulders.
He’s oddly proportioned – like a man stretched tall and thin. Long, bony arms extend out of a patchwork poncho of what looks like mostly organic, earthen fabric. White, wispy hair covers his head and arms. A muddy crimson shawl covers his legs, and a long basket hangs over a shoulder.
We turn, scrambling stiffly over rocks to hide behind a bigger one. My heart is pounding.
‘Is that a bloody troll? ‘ I whisper in Wing-Sie’s direction. She has her hand over her mouth, looking down in disbelief.
I peer back, and the man starts to trudge towards us, still bent forward. The ground shakes with every stride. Then he straightens up, revealing his front. He’s looking at the road but then stops as he sees the jeep.
‘Oh God.’ Wing-Sie squeaks under her hand.
Despite having the frame of a man well into old-age, his face is oddly full of life. Clay red cheeks shine on either side of an enormous, slender nose.
In deep eye sockets the size of beach balls, emerald, watery pupils dart left to right, surveying the scene, and our car.
A bright pink tongue flicks out to lick fat, irregular lips.
The stench is thicker now. The man is twenty feet away.
My mouth is too dry to swallow properly. I stay frozen behind the rock.
He snorts in a loud sniff and wipes a hand clumsily across his face with a rough crackle against patchy chin hair. It looks like he’s about to turn, but he pauses a second and looks back at the car.
He takes one step towards us. There’s a moment of painful silence as his foot, wrapped in an enormous leather clog, hangs in the air. Then down with a deep crunching thud.
Wing-Sie is whimpering next to me in a heap, not daring to look.
He’s standing over us and the car. I have to look straight up to see his face. I can’t tell if he’s seen us.
There’s an odd, drawn out low moan from above, like a questioning call by a whale.
My whole body feels limp —like butter has replaced my muscles. I’m sure we’re about to die.
The smell, the sound, the vivid detail of everything is too real to be a dream.
I look down and can hear the man bending over. His bones creak like falling Norse trees. My vision flickers like an old zoetrope animation.
There is the sound, briefly, of scratching, grinding, bending steel. Then more ground-shaking thuds.
The thumps grow quieter.
A tiny black bug crawls across my quivering hand.
A minute later, there is silence. Just the wind in my ears, and a muted squawk of a high flying bird.
I look up, and he’s gone. I breathe a suppressed sigh and feel like crying.
Wing-Sie’s sobbing quietly.
I get up slowly and can see the jeep again. It’s still intact, but it’s been moved — sitting on the road like we’d just parked it there.
I walk up the bank and see there is a dent in the bonnet.
I step closer. Nestled in the impression is a clump of brown moss and several pink flowers.
An Icelandic gift.