Authors: Audur Ava Olafsdottir
When I come back from the greenhouse, Jósef is sitting totally upright at the table with his hands on his lap, wearing his red tie and violet shirt. My brother takes a lot of interest in clothes and colors and, like Dad, always wears a tie. Dad has two hot plates going at once, one for the pot of potatoes, the other for the frying pan. Not that he seems to be fully in control of the cooking; maybe he’s nervous because I’m leaving. I rummage around him and pour some oil into the pan.
—Your mother always used margarine, he says.
Neither of us is particularly apt at cooking. My role in the kitchen was mainly limited to loosening the lids of red cabbage jars and applying the can opener to cans of peas. Actually Mom used to make me wash up and Jósef dry. But he took ages on each plate so in the end I’d snatch the tea cloth off him and finish the drying myself.
—You’re not likely to be getting much haddock over the coming months, Lobbi lad, says Dad. I don’t want to hurt his feeling by telling him that, after my four-month stint of handling fish at sea, I don’t care if I never eat a single morsel of fish again.
Because Dad is determined to give his boys a treat, he surprises us with a curry sauce.
—I followed a recipe I got from Bogga, he says.
The sauce has a peculiar but beautiful green color, like shimmering grass after a spring shower. I ask him about the color.
—I used curry and some food coloring, he explains. I notice he’s taken a jar of rhubarb jam and placed it beside my plate.
—That’s the last jar of your mother’s jam, he says, and I watch his shoulders as he stirs the sauce in his brown diamond-patterned waistcoat.
—You’re not going to have rhubarb jam with the fish though?
—No, I just thought you might like to take the jar with you on your journey.
My brother Jósef is silent, and Dad doesn’t say much at the table either, so the three of us don’t make a very talkative bunch, really. I serve my brother and cut his two potatoes in two for him. He obviously doesn’t like the look of the green sauce and meticulously scrapes it off the fish, pushing it to one side of his plate. I look at my brown-eyed brother, who bears an eerie resemblance to a famous movie star. There’s no way of knowing what’s going through his head. To atone for his sins and strike some balance at the table, I take an ample helping of Dad’s sauce. It’s at around this time that I feel the pain in my stomach for the first time.
After dinner, while I’m washing up, Jósef makes some popcorn, as he normally does when he visits on weekends. He fetches the usual big pot in the cupboard, measures exactly three tablespoons of oil, and carefully sprinkles the contents of the packet into the pot until the yellow corn covers the bottom. Once that’s done, he places the lid on the pot and puts the plate on at full heat for four minutes. Then, when the oil begins to simmer, he lowers the heat down to two. He grabs the glass bowl and salt and doesn’t take his eyes off the pot for a single moment until the task has been completed. Then the three of us watch
. My brother holds my hand on the sofa; the glass bowl is on the table. An hour and a half into my twin brother’s weekend visit, he hands me the CD with the songs. It’s dancing time.
I’m taking very little with me, and Dad is surprised to see what little luggage I have. I wrap the rose cuttings in moist newspaper and place them in the front compartment of my backpack. We travel in the Saab that has been in Dad’s possession for about as long as I can remember. Jósef sits silently in the back. Dad is sporting the beret he always wears on his longer journeys out of town. He’s way below the legal speed limit and, since the accident, never goes over twenty-five miles an hour. He’s driving so slowly across the rugged lava field that I have time to contemplate the birds perched at regular intervals on the pointed violet crags of the crust of the breaking dawn, for about as far as the eye can see, one after another, like a melancholic musical score mounting in a crescendo. Dad is also unused to driving; Mom did most of that. There is a long trail of cars behind us that are constantly trying to overtake us. Not that my father allows this to distract him. I’m not worried about missing my flight either, because Dad always gets everywhere with plenty of time to spare.
—Would you like me to drive, Dad?
—Thanks for the offer, lad, but no. Just sit back there and take in that landscape you’re about to say good-bye to; you’re not likely to be driving through lava fields for a while.
We both remain silent for a moment while I take in the landscape I’m saying good-bye to. Later, once we’ve passed the side road that leads to the lighthouse, Dad wants to chat a little bit about my plans for the future and what I intend to do with my life. He isn’t satisfied by my interest in gardening.
—I hope you don’t mind your old man asking you a few questions about your plans for the future, Lobbi. I don’t mean to be nosy and you know I mean well.
—Have you made up your mind about what you’re going to study?
—I’ve got a gardening job.
—A man with your academic abilities…
—Don’t start, Dad.
—I think you’re squandering your talents, son.
It’s difficult to explain this to Dad; the garden and roses in the greenhouse were an interest that I shared with Mom.
—Mom would have understood me.
—Yes, your mom pretty much approved of anything you put your mind to, he says. Still, though, she wouldn’t have minded if you’d gone to university.
When we first moved into the new neighborhood it was nothing but a flat stretch of barren land with rocks surrounded by wind-scattered pebbles. There were new buildings everywhere, or building sites, half saturated in puddles of yellow water. The low, scraggy bushes didn’t come until much later. The neighborhood was exposed to the sea and frequent blasts of wind from which it was impossible to create any shelter in the gardens. People had given up planting flowers in the soil. Mom was the first person who tried to plant trees in the area and, in the early years, was viewed as a bit of an eccentric for attempting the impossible. While others contented themselves with creating lawns or, at the very most, low hedges between the gardens, to be able to bask in the breeze for those three days in the summer, she was out there planting laburnum, maple, ash, and blossoming shrubs on the more shielded side of the house. She never gave up, though, even if she had to plant the scions straight into the rocks.
The second summer Dad built a greenhouse south of the house. We first placed the plants in the greenhouse and then took them out into the garden in the first or second week of June when there was no longer any frost at night. Initially we were only going to keep them outside for the summer and then move them back into the greenhouse, but eventually, if there was a mild autumn, we’d prolong their stay outside by another month or so. Then one winter we even let our plants rest under a six-and-a-half-foot-high blanket of snow. In the end there was nothing that wouldn’t grow in Mom’s garden; everything seemed to blossom in her hands. Bit by bit, the patch grew into a fairy-tale garden that attracted attention and wonderment. Since Mom’s death, the women in the neighborhood have sometimes asked me for advice. It just needs a little bit of care and, most of all, time, my mother would have said—that was pretty much her gardening philosophy in a nutshell.
—I admit you and your mother had your own world that Jósef and I weren’t a part of; maybe we didn’t understand it.
Lately Dad has been referring to himself and Jósef as a unit—Jósef and myself, he says.
Mom sometimes felt an urge to go out and work in the garden or greenhouse in the heart of midsummer nights. It was as if she didn’t need to sleep the way other people did, especially in the summer. When I’d come home in the early hours after a night out with my friends, there would be Mom on the flower bed with her red plastic bucket and pink floral gardening gloves while Dad was fast asleep inside. Naturally there wasn’t a soul in sight, and everything was so incredibly still. Mom would say hi and look at me as if she knew something about me that I didn’t. Then I would sit beside her in the grass for a few quarters of an hour and pull up some weeds as a token gesture, just to keep her company. I might have had half a bottle of beer in my hand, which I’d prop up in the flower bed while I lie down, rest my chin in the palms of my cupped hands and gaze at the drifting puffs of cloud. Whenever I wanted to be alone with Mom, I went out to her in the greenhouse or in the garden; that’s where we could talk together. Sometimes she’d seem distracted and I’d ask her what she was thinking and she’d just say, “Yeah, yeah, I like what you’re saying.” And then she’d give me an approving and encouraging smile.
—There’s no great future in gardening for a brilliant student like you.
—Since when am I a brilliant student?
—I might be old, lad, but I’m not senile. It so happens that I’ve kept all your exam results. Top of the class at the age of twelve. Top of your year at the age of sixteen, graduating with flying colors.
—I can’t believe you keep that stuff. It was on top of a box somewhere in the basement. Throw that garbage away, Dad.
—Too late, Lobbi, I’ve asked Thröstur to frame it for me.
—You’re not serious?
—So are you thinking of a university degree then?
—No, not at the moment.
—How about botany?
—Then how about plant physiology or plant genetics with an emphasis on plant biotechnology?
Dad has obviously been reading up on this stuff. He keeps both hands firmly gripped on the wheel with his eyes glued to the road.
—No, I’ve no interest in being a scientist or a university lecturer.
I’m much more in my element when I’m in wet soil. It’s so different to be able to touch living plants; lab flowers don’t give off any smell after a shower of rain. It’s difficult to put Mom’s and my world into words for Dad. My interest is in what grows out of fertile soil.
—Still, I want you to know that I’ve set up a little fund you can use if you want to continue your education and go to university. That’s apart from your mother’s inheritance money. Jósef is happy where he is, he adds. Of course, I’ll make sure he’s not short of anything.
I don’t discuss the gardening any further with Dad. How can I tell the electrician that I might not even know what I want? How difficult it can be to make a decision like that, once and for all, at a specific point in one’s life?
—You won’t get far on dreams, Lobbi, Dad would say.
—You’ve got to follow your dreams, Mom would have said. And then she would have gazed out the kitchen window, as if she were surveying a vast dominion, and not just those few yards to the greenhouse and another few again to the fence. The entire garden was a single plot of swarming vegetation, and it was impossible to see beyond the fences through the rich tangle of plants, trees, and bushes; but it was almost as if she half expected guests from far away. Then she would empty the bag of prunes into a bowl, place it under the tap, and let water run over it.
—It certainly beats being seasick on a small boat for months on end, Dad finally says.
We continue to drive through the lava field in silence. I still feel the farewell dinner in my stomach and sense that the nausea that probably started with the green sauce is mutating into a persistent ache, right here in the middle of the lava field, not far from the spot where Mom capsized the car. I know the curve where the car lost control; there’s a small basin there overgrown with grass. I can picture the spot where she was cut out of the wreckage quite vividly.
—Your mom shouldn’t have gone before me, sixteen years younger, says Dad as we drive past the spot.
—No, she shouldn’t have gone before you.
Mom had whims like that, going off to pick blueberries on her birthday at the crack of dawn, to some obscure favorite spot she had; that’s why she had to drive across the lava field. Then she was going to offer us—her boys, as she liked to call Dad, Jósef, and me—waffles with freshly picked berries and whipped cream. I realize now that it must have been hard to only have men in the house, not to have had a daughter, I mean.
I give myself some time before I get to Mom in the car, capsized in the lava hollow. I give myself plenty of time to scrutinize the nature and glide around the spot a long moment, like a cameraman on a movie taking an aerial shot from a crane, before I zoom in on Mom herself, the leading lady this whole scene revolves around. It’s the seventh of August and I decide to make it an early autumn. That’s why I see so much red and glowing golden colors in the nature. I picture nothing but varieties of red at the scene of the accident: russet heather, a bloodred sky, violet red foliage on some small trees nearby, golden moss. Mom herself was in a burgundy cardigan, and the coagulated blood didn’t become visible until Dad rinsed it in the bathtub at home. By dwelling on the small details of the set design, like you might look at the backdrop of a painting before shifting your gaze to the main subject itself, I somehow manage to put Mom’s death on pause, and therefore postpone the moment of the inevitable farewell. The scene plays out either with Mom still inside the car wreckage, or she’s just been cut out and is lying on the ground. I decide that it’s on a level plain, the flat base of the lava hollow, as if the tops of two tussocks had been sliced off and grass had been sown on the wound; that’s where they very gently lay her down. In my mind she’s either still showing some sign of life or she’s dead. Dad is driving so slowly that I can check out the tree, which is still there where I planted it, a dwarf pine, my attempt to plant a wood in the middle of a rugged lava field, one isolated tree in the rocky barren landscape; that is how I sanctify Mom’s spot.
—Are you cold? Dad asks, turning the heater on full blast. The car’s roasting.
—No, I’m not cold.
I do have a pain in my stomach, though, but I don’t tell Dad about it. He’d smother me in worries. Mom used to worry in a different way; she understood me.
—Well then, Lobbi lad, we’re there now, see the planes?
As soon as we reach the airport, the black blanket begins to lift off the mountain range, uncovering the first rays of dawn below it, like light blue wisps of smoke. The horizontal February sun reveals the dirt on the smudged windshield.
My brother and Dad follow me into the terminal.
Dad hands me a wrapped package as we’re saying good-bye.
—You can open it when you land, he says. Just a little something that might remind you of your old man at bedtime.
When I say good-bye to Dad I give him a firm hug, but not a long one, just a brisk embrace and slap him on the back like a man. Then I do the same to my brother, Jósef, who immediately recoils toward Dad and takes his hand. Then Dad takes a fat envelope out of his back pocket and hands it to me.
—I went to the bank and got some cash out for you; you never know what can come up when you’re abroad.
I fleetingly glance over my shoulder and see Dad leading my twin brother out of the terminal, Dad’s wallet sticking halfway out of his back pocket. They’re both in the gray waistcoats that Dad recently bought; it’s impossible to say which of the two is the best dressed. Jósef is my total opposite in appearance, short, with brown eyes and dark skin, as if he’d just strolled off a beach. He’s so immaculately dressed that, if it weren’t for the color combinations of his clothes, my autistic twin brother could be mistaken for an air pilot. In the image I decide to store of him in my mind he is in a violet shirt with butterfly patterns. By the time it’s full daylight I will have left this brown slush behind me, and the salt of the earth will only survive in the form of white rings on the rims of my shoes.