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The base throbs like an infected wound. I can hear it through the east wall. That’s apartment three. I hammer the door and a boy-man answers. He’s wearing a baseball cap indoors. Behind him, the music is a living thing, tumorous and spreading. I ask him if he realizes he shares this building with others. I ask him if he’s an idiot or an asshole. He rolls his eyes and tells me not to “freak out,” that I’ll “get a stroke.”
Inane, insane lyrics bleed through the west wall and into our bedroom. Apartment six. My earplugs fail; the music soaks through them, drenching my brain. Lila sleeps on. She once slept through a parade. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks.
I pull on a pair of old jeans and a flannel shirt. I knock on the door and a young woman answers, laughing and cradling a wine glass. She wears pyjama pants and a tight t-shirt. No bra. I keep my eyes on her plump face and ask her if she realizes some people have to work in the morning. She asks me “Aren’t you retired?” and I tell her that’s not the point, not the point at all. She tells me “Fine” and laughter like breaking glass drifts out from deep within the apartment, mingling dissonantly with the music.
The cars are mobile carnivals. Only one, maybe two, passengers per vehicle. Young men wearing sunglasses at night. The back seats have been sacrificed to speakers the size of washer-dryer units. The cars vibrate sonorously with every beat and so do my windows. I shout at them, demand that they turn it down, but my voice is lost in the clamour, my breath wasted.
Do women find these men and their travelling noise pollution attractive? Do women mistake the biggest, loudest speakers for signs of genetic superiority? Stupid women drawn to stupid men, producing successive generations of wasted flesh.
I want to throw an empty wine bottle out my window and watch it explode across their windshield, punch a hole in their woofers, or shatter against their teeth.
Lila says we should go on vacation. She says we can afford it and that I can no longer afford not to. She may be right. She makes her suggestions—Hawaii, the French Riviera, London—and I hear only laughing, shouting, jostling tourists and loud, obnoxious, rude locals. Finally, she says “What about Iceland?” I stare at the Atlas page, at the tiny white island nestled between Greenland and mainland Europe, and I imagine the wind’s lonely voice, a desolate moonscape that stretches cleanly to the horizon, and void-like nights that last all day.
I realize I am nodding.
At the airport, a couple’s argument worries my nerves like fingernails at a scab. On the plane, an infant’s cries, whining and forced, wrap my brain in barbed wire, pull it taught, electrify it. On the shuttle to Reykjavik, an old woman clears her throat every thirteen seconds, producing a wet gobbet of phlegm upon which she chews before swallowing it back down again, only to repeat the process ad infinitum. And ad nauseum.
Lila rubs my back, caresses my cheek, and makes promises I fear Iceland cannot keep.
Our hotel is on Laugavegur. It is the busiest street in Reykjavik, covered in ridiculous SUVs driven by locals intent on seeing and being seen. The street is lined with shops and bars. The shops are filled to bursting with noisy tourists and the bars seem to be forever open, generating live music like a feverish heat.
There is no night. The long nights of Iceland are limited to the winter months. Lila has brought me here in July, during which the night dies after two hours of darkness and the Midnight Sun reigns.
The window shades are too thin, the sun too bright, and the music sweeps through the city like a plague.
The whale watchers press forth, pinning me to the railing and threatening to catapult me into the North Atlantic. They shout and laugh in a half-dozen languages, all of them guttural and implausible. Behind me, the guide fairly screams into her megaphone, ridiculously enthusiastic and thrown into orgasmic hysteria at the slightest hint of a nearby cetacean.
Above me, puffins swarm like locusts, gibbering madly.
Lila tells me we are going caving today. The bus, driven by our tour guide, a twenty-year old beach bum sans the beach, takes us to the middle of exactly nowhere. Between sips from an energy drink, he tells us Iceland is riddled with caves, that over six-hundred caves have been explored, and that scores more are discovered every year.
The tourists with whom we share the bus ooh and aah and nod and grin. The thin man and his fat wife are from Denmark. The young couple with the two kids, a boy and a girl, are from Scotland. The weightlifter with the broad shoulders is from Chicago. They are happy and well rested, smiling and excited.
I shut my eyes and try to tune out the guide’s incessant chatter.
We are fitted with helmets and headlights. The entrance to the cave is a horizontal gap in the stone, a snaggle-toothed maw. The guide leads the way, tells us to move slowly, to warn those following of any loose stones or sharp drops. Lila moves ahead and I bring up the rear. Within seconds, the others have faded to black-on-black silhouettes. Only their heads are visible, haloed by the helmet-mounted lamps. Their lights sweep left and right and up and down, not so much cutting through the darkness as pushing it gently aside.
Lila slips and pebbles skitter across the boulder-strewn floor. Aside from our shallow breathing, the echoing of the scattered stones is the only noise I hear.
A smile creeps across my lips.
Unlike the caves in most of North America, which have been formed over millennia by the flow of water and resultant erosion, the caves of Iceland, the guide explains, were carved by lava. They are, relatively speaking, very young. Only a few hundred years old.
He stops and instructs us to do the same. He tells us to find a comfortable spot, a ridge or boulder to sit on. “Now,” he says, “turn off your headlights.”
The lamps wink off, one by one, until only mine remains lit. I reach up, turn it off. The darkness is total. The silence is unblemished. I had described the cave opening as a mouth but, in the lightless quiet, I realize I was wrong. It is an entirely different orifice, one of an ionic sort. Though cold and hard and lifeless, the cave is as comforting, nurturing and nourishing as a mother’s womb.
I shut my eyes and know that, at this moment, on this cold stone slab, in this perfect night, and in this deepest quiet, I could sleep. I could sleep for hours.
The Scottish woman says she doesn’t like the dark and her daughter mewls, whimpers, afraid. I would throttle them both, if only I could find them. The guide laughs, says there is nothing to fear, that he wanted us only to experience the cave’s sensory vacuum. He says we can switch our lights back on and, as the dirty blades slash through my gorgeous night, tears spill from my eyes and tumble down my cheeks.
I ask Lila for her camera and she tells me it will likely not take very good photos in such low light. The guide leads us deeper into the cave. Lila asks me if I’m alright, tells me to try and keep up. I fall further behind, letting the distance between me and the group grow.
When their headlamps resemble fireflies in the dark, I twist the dial and kill my own light.
I will miss Lila, in a way.
They call my name but I remain perfectly still. The cool rock wall hugs me from behind. I can see them by their pale lights, hear them by their clumsy movements, but I am invisible and produce no sound.
The cave has welcomed me home and its shadows have accepted me as one of their own.
Soon, only Lila and the guide remain; the others have abandoned me to what they must think a terrible fate.
I smile and, guided by the night-vision function on Lila’s camera, burrow deeper into the cave, through crannies and nooks, over boulders and under ledges. The darkness wraps me in its cloak. The silence caresses my brain.
Lila’s voice fades to an echo twice removed, to an errant vibration, to a memory.
Men and women arrive. They wear fluorescent jackets and white helmets. They are armed with high-powered headlamps and the odd flashlight, with first aid kits and climbing gear—just in case.
Lila is not among them but she likely waits outside the cave entrance. I watch them from the ledge upon which I perch, resting on my haunches like a gargoyle, my back and neck against the smooth stone ceiling.
They call my name and I press my palms to my lips to keep from laughing.
The search parties first swell in membership then dwindle. Eventually, they give up and the cave entrance is cordoned off with yellow tape and an orange sign written in Icelandic.
I am alone with my darkness, with my silence.
I shed my clothes, long ago reduced to dirty, tattered rags. I sleep in a nook the size of a steamer trunk. I only leave the cave at night, use those few precious hours to hunt. I feed on mice and the occasional bird. I drink fresh glacier water; it numbs my throat and quickens my heart.
The fat has evaporated from under my skin. My muscles are like steel cables, my bones like iron girders. My teeth and nails have turned to horn. My palms are leathered with calluses.
Every few days I lay a hard little bolus that bristles with scraps of fur and shards of bone and produces no smell. If ever they return, they will not track me by my spoor.
My eyes have adjusted to the dark. I spend what feels like hours—could be minutes, could be days—examining the cave’s architecture, memorizing every fissure, every protrusion. It is my place of worship, my subterranean cathedral.
They were all so, so wrong: Heaven is beneath, deep below ground.
There are more than six-hundred caves in Iceland. Far more. And I discover over the weeks or months that they are all connected, linked by an intricate network of tunnels and fissures and crevasses through which only the sleekest, nimblest of creatures can travel.
I am such a creature.
The tape and sign vanished days, maybe weeks ago, and the guided tours have resumed. They invade my home like cockroaches in a palace. Their helmeted heads fire blazing beams of light in every direction. Their voices, loud and stupid, bounce and rattle off the cave walls.
The guide, a young woman, tells tourists of the foreign man who vanished in these caves, tells them to be careful for, legend has it, he still resides within its deepest reaches. She calls me Troll.
The tourists invade my domain on a weekly or daily basis and I hate them all. I pull one of them, a squirming and screeching female, into a fissure and clamp my claws over her noisy, useless mouth. I tell her to be quiet and I am shocked to discover my voice has turned to a ragged whisper, the sound of lava-smoothed stones rubbing against each other. It is beautiful.
But the woman is stupid and ugly and makes tiny noises, as if a brain-damaged bird lives within her throat. I carve a shallow groove into her cheek with one of my claws and tell her never to return.
I fade into my darkness and laugh at her screams.
They come armed with rifles and night-vision goggles. They wear chitinous black body. I scurry around and above and below them. I slither through cracks in the walls, leap from ridge to ridge. They do not see me; they do not hear me.
Their eyes probe my darkness and their boots shatter my silence.
They wish to take both—to take everything—from me.
I am willing to do anything to protect my sanctuary. There are many sharp rocks here. There are many loose stones here. And, as the boulders roll and the blood is loosed, I realize I do not mind the sound of grown men screaming. In fact, I rather enjoy it.
This story is also available as a free eBook on Smashwords.