Almost every day of her life, Petra went for a walk.
Walks up into the hills mostly, but also walks along the shore. Maybe walks along the relative flat of the unpaved road hemming the eastern fjords, but mostly walks with a vertical bent, a slope, walks with split and scrabble and crag. And on almost every walk, they say, she found a stone.
She didn’t keep the stones. Not at first. Not for a long time. She left them nestled in the hills or scattered among the shells and the rocks and the shorebirds, left them more or less alone right until she got married and had a place of her own. Then she began to bring them home. She ringed them around the flagpole and along the house wall. She lined them up on bookshelves. The bookshelves filled and the curio cabinets filled and Petra bought new bookshelves and those filled up, too.
And when the little family could spare no more room inside the little home, the stones spilled out again, filled up shelves erected outside and covered over benches and spread through the garden, stretching back up the hill: a reverse avalanche, unspooling in slow motion, rock by rock, as if gravity were calling these stones back up to the peaks like a tide.
Imagine collecting anything. Pennies or paper clips or blades of grass. Every gum wrapper, every bus ticket, whatever arbitrary thing as a marker of your days. Imagine collecting one almost every day. And imagine these tokens never broke or got lost or were thrown away. What a tremendous lot of things. It would be a lot of tally marks, and it’s certainly a lot of stones.
When I say stone, perhaps I should clarify that I do not mean some plain-Jane piece of rock. I mean eye-catching. I mean white whisker-width spines radiating out in clusters like so many cowlicks. I mean a green between celery and mustard, pocked with pinprick bubbles and skimming like a rind over a vein that’s crystal clear at the edges but clotting in the middle to the color of cream stirred into weak tea. I mean crystals like a jumble of molars and I mean jasper in oxblood and ocher and clover and sky, sometimes a hunk of one color but more likely a blend of two or three or five, maybe like ice creams melting together, or perhaps like cards stacked in a deck.
The eastern coast is the oldest part of Iceland, a crust of 14 volcanoes, not all of them dead. All of Iceland has geological intrigue, including some 150 varieties of minerals, but the east seems particularly rich in both the frequency and variety with which the raw elements of the earth have been heated and pressed into wonders of color and texture and shape. It renders mint green and rouge red, flat matte and crystal clear, all of it spun in spindles and spires and lumps and swirls and brittles and pastes and bubbles and smears.
Jasper is particularly common to the east, but also onyx and opal and agate and amethyst. Fossils, too, though they’re rarer. Up in Vopnafjörður they found the remains of a deer that arrived before the Ice Age. The fossilized deer is the only discovery of its kind, apparently from a place we would recognize now as Scotland, possibly crossed over on a land bridge long lost to us now.
In the beginning, they say, Petra was always alone on her walks. As a child she rambled with other children, but as a woman she walked alone. She spent hours in the hills instead of the home. People talked. It was not normal for a woman to be alone. They worried. It’s not healthy to take the big rocks, they scolded. “Your back!” the neighbors fretted. “Your legs!”
The point was not necessarily solitude. At least, she was not always alone. There are stories of Petra out with her husband when he wasn’t out on the boats, stories of the stones they left on the mountainside one day and found buried under an avalanche the next. There’s the cavernous geode Petra and a friend discovered on the beach when they pulled over along a cove to find a sheltered place to pee. Those who went out with her say that everyone in the party could step over a spot, and then Petra would come to it and turn over a gem.
As Petra had her children, four all together, they packed themselves lunches and set out. The children could choose whether to go along, and sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t. After a while there were grandchildren following Petra into the hills, and great-grandchildren after that. Once Petra and her namesake granddaughter rolled a stone, too big to be lifted, all the way home. Once Petra and a friend set a fraction of their quarry by the road and went back for the rest, but when they returned to the road, the first cache was gone.
Petra reworked some flour sacks from her kitchen into bags for carrying the stones, and perhaps she considered the millstones that ground the flour in the first place, or perhaps she never gave it a thought. She might go to the mountains
Her ethics of stone collecting held that you couldn’t damage anything to get at the piece you wanted, but you could go anywhere, and Petra might take you out to revisit a stone too big or too fragile or too stuck to take home. Even old paths reinvented themselves. Snow would fall or melt. Vegetation would bloom out or wither back. Things with claws or hooves would scratch or tunnel or kick up the dirt. The earth was certainly not creating new stones in a day, but in that same wink, erosion might reveal things differently than yesterday, a chance matter of water and wind and the persistent weak force pulling everything down.
The east is the side of the country with reindeer. It is home to a lake monster in Lagarfljót and the elf queen in Álfaborg and three percent of all Icelanders. There are fjords and a fog that erases them. There are many stretches of sheep and cliffs. Most of the eastern towns are attached to harbors and are the kind of towns where there is probably a restaurant to feed you, should you stop in, but probably not two to choose from.
In Petra’s town, Stöðvarfjörður, the café sells groceries, arranged in two aisles, each three strides long. In the refrigerator case you can buy a watermelon—not because Icelanders prize watermelons, but because importing the preponderance of your produce means apples are as exotic as mangoes, and why not have a star fruit if you can have a pear?
It is in Stöðvarfjörður that I learn you would never buy a fish. True, you have your fishmonger if you live in the capital, where the ships are too big and your time too precious to go stand on the dock and wait for the catch. But fish, substantially more than even wool sweaters, are a major industry in Iceland. And just as you would never buy a sweater—you know entirely too many knitters—you would never pay for a fish.
I learn this in a country church turned guesthouse where the red velvet pews now face each other in the breakfast nook, and where I’m sleeping on a futon next to the pulpit. The church is essentially a little box with a high steeple, white with blue trim. It sits higher up the hill than any other building in town, which affords it a view down to the harbor and across the fjord. The owner is explaining that if you want fish, you go down to the harbor where her son works on a fishing boat. He’ll set you up.
“How will I know which boat is his?” I ask.
“Doesn’t matter,” she says. Because you can ask any boat. Because a boat comes in with its catch and you wave to the fishermen and you shout that you want to buy a fish. Who knows if they even hear you? But they see you and they look around the decks and they pick a fish and they throw it into your arms.For 20 years Petra emptied her bags on the kitchen table, and her children asked if they were getting rocks for supper.
“How much?” you might call out, your hands full of scales. But they don’t want your money. They wave you off.
What, would you toss your kronur to them? Pay for your catch with silver lumpfish and shore crabs and capelins stamped on shining coins? It’s small change anyway, and they’ll give you only a small fish—a fish longer than any bone in your arm, to be sure, but those are the runts.
Stöðvarfjörður had 380 inhabitants when the fish factory was in full swing. For many years Petra was one of the workers cleaning and deboning the fish there, her husband one of the fishermen hauling them in. These days it’s a town of 200, struggling to keep a school closure at bay. The residents are enterprising and obliging and hoping someone, a few someones, will move in and have some kids.
In the beginning, it felt to Petra like a monopoly. She was born in 1922 and married in 1945 and the following year moved to a house called Sunnuhlíð, for its situation on a sunny slope. For the next 20 years, it seemed she had the hills more or less to herself. Her favorite mountains were Steðjinn and Ólukkan, the Anvil and Misfortune, though who could deny the charm of Sauðdalur, the Valley of the Sheep?
For 20 years she ranged between the shore and the slope and the mountains north of town. For 20 years she worked in the fish factory and raised her children and looked after her mother-in-law. Sunnuhlíð was filled and bordered and ringed with stones. It was filled with three children in one tiny room, Petra and her husband in another, and the mother-in-law alone in the last. For 20 years Petra emptied her bags on the kitchen table, and her children asked if they were getting rocks for supper.
There was one road then, as there is one road now, but the one road then stopped at the south edge of town. Just stopped. Fizzled out and kaput, nowhere left to go that a boat or a horse could not traverse better. In 1962 the road was extended and made sturdy enough for motor vehicles to travel south out of town. The road meant Petra began to stir farther afield, beyond the shore and the slope, beyond the Anvil and Misfortune. But the more profound effect was not of Petra going out, but of travelers coming in.
They say foreigners came to collect stones long before the Icelanders themselves took an interest. They came with marked-up maps and pneumatic drills and pressure cylinders and candy to give the kids. Germans, they say, came early and come still. Ferry passengers returned to mainland Europe, pockets full of obsidian, so smooth and so sharp.
From The Museum of Whales You Will Never See by A. Kendra Greene, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by A. Kendra Greene.