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Authors: Audur Ava Olafsdottir

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BOOK: The Greenhouse
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I’m still in the forest, which seems endless and spans the entire spectrum of green. This gives me the seclusion I need to sort out my thoughts, as Dad would put it, not that I expect to have reached any concrete conclusions by the end of these one thousand twenty-seven miles. Most of my current thoughts—apart from sticking to the right side of the road—are on last night. What still bugs me and throws me and dominates all my thoughts for the first one hundred miles is the radical transformation of my childhood friend, to see her as a new person without glasses and with a woman’s body. I could actually ask myself the same question she asked me: whether I’m not particularly into women. I can easily put up with a woman for half a night, but I’m not sure I can protect one against anything she might be afraid of. Girls generally have a lot more to say than I have; they tell you stuff, like about their relationship with their granddad they grew up with, and how he taught them chess and took them to concerts before he got cancer of the bladder. Sometimes they tell you something sad that’s happened to the family, maybe even last century, if there haven’t been any other tragedies in recent years, other than maybe Granddad dying and then sometimes Granny dying shortly after that. Women have very long memories and are sensitive to the bizarre events that have colored their family histories over the past two hundred years. Then they even try to link me to their family trees. I find it difficult to open myself up like that to other people, although I’m perfectly willing to sleep with a girl.

I get the feeling there might be an extra sound coming from the car. If any mechanical problem were to come up, I wouldn’t have the required macho-ness to fix it. I’m just not that kind of guy. I could change a tire, but not a spark plug or a fan belt. I haven’t the faintest interest in engines. No one is expecting me for dinner, but I have to find some lodging for myself, and I better hurry before there’s total darkness and it’s impossible to find my way. Even though dark forests can give you the creeps, I reassure myself that there’s nothing to fear, because I know that somewhere within the darkness there’s some human settlement, some invisible village with a church and post office by a small paved square. I’m hungry, and beside the church there will probably be a restaurant with white lace curtains. Then, beside the restaurant, there might be a guesthouse. Because these are all roads that have been traveled on for thousands of years. Of course, it’s a completely different experience to take the pilgrim’s route instead of driving on brand-new asphalt roads that have been laid over rough, barren black lava.

I scan the horizon for a landmark, such as a church. There’s obviously a lot going on in the sky, a half-moon and constellations glistening like swarms of silver butterflies. I don’t notice the church until it suddenly pops up in my rearview mirror; I’ve missed the turn and have to reverse to find the side road through the forest. There isn’t a soul in sight, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be stranded here. Driving a short distance farther, however, I find a sign for a restaurant with an arrow pointing even deeper into the woods, with the distance written beside it: one mile. I follow the sign and drive down a faint trail through the dark forest. One side road leads into another; the signs are homemade, as if children had made them in some treasure hunt game. Although I only have a very basic grasp of the language, I notice there’s a letter missing in one word. I first spot the steeple of the church; then I make out a track, until the church shrinks and grows more distant and starts to look like a LEGO model in my rearview mirror. I’m in the middle of the woods, literally surrounded by trees on every side, and I haven’t the faintest idea of where I am. Can a person who has been brought up in the heart of a thick dark forest, where one has to beat a path through multiple layers of trees just to take a letter to the post office, have any conception of what it’s like to spend one’s entire childhood waiting for a single tree to grow?


Just when I think I have completely lost my bearings, an inn appears at the end of the side road. As expected, there are white lace curtains in the windows. There’s one car in the driveway. I walk past the front side of the house until I reach the kitchen. The skinned furs of forest animals adorn the walls in a row: hares, rabbits, and wild boar. The owner comes out the door to greet me and ushers me into a small dining room with a few tables. There are more furs on the walls and stuffed stag heads, along with a collection of guns. I’m clearly the only guest. The place gives off a pleasant odor of cleanliness and food. There are white tablecloths on the table and linen napkins, three glasses per plate, and three sets of knives and forks of different sizes.

I’m none the wiser after reading the menu, which the man tries to talk me through over my shoulder, but I can’t follow the thread.

—One moment, he says, to prevent me from immediately turning around, and he fetches a woman from the kitchen in a lily-white apron whom I imagine he must have lived with for several decades because he doesn’t even need to explain the problem to her. The woman presents me with my options:

—Would you like this or would you prefer this? asks the woman.

I just nod. The woman suddenly bursts out laughing.

—Which do you want? she asks.

This is the worst question she could have asked me, and it throws me into a panic. I don’t know what I want; there’s still so much I’ve yet to try and understand.

—That’s the problem, I say to the woman, I don’t know what I want.

I imagine you can’t really sink much lower than this on the estimation scale of a restaurant in a forest, not even to know what you want to eat. The woman nods, full of understanding.

—I’ll just take what you recommend, I say to settle the matter. The woman seems pleased; this isn’t the first time I’ve asked a woman to make decisions for me.

—Trust me, she says in a manner that is both mysterious and trustworthy, you won’t be disappointed.

A short while later, as I sit alone in the room under the reindeer’s head, the woman returns with a dish and bottle of wine. It turns out to be the first of many dishes. She pours the wine into one of the glasses.

—I took the liberty of choosing the wine as well, she says, enjoy your meal. She recoils slightly and observes my reactions.

—How do you like it? she asks.

—Very good, I say, tasting a lukewarm pâté in a wild mushroom sauce.

—I thought as much.

She brings over a photograph of a porcupine to show me the source of the pâté. The porcupine pâté is followed by at least another three starters, pâté upon pâté, wild boar pâté, duck pâté, and goose pâté; then after that, three of the forest restaurant’s specialties: breast of fallow deer, moose fillets, shoulder of venison, one meat dish after another. According to the collection of photographs that the woman presents with each dish, everything that’s brought to me, literally everything comes from the forest. These are the creatures that I’ve been scared of running over all day, now cooked. There isn’t much along the lines of vegetables; instead there are sauces and bread. The woman insists on me drinking a glass of wine with each dish. The couple are very soft spoken and ask me a number of questions that I try to answer as much as my knowledge of the language will allow. Every time a new dish is carried in I think, that’s it, the meal’s over. The man asks where I’m headed and I tell him. At various intervals a girl around my age wanders into the room. She comes and goes and seems to acknowledge me; I notice she’s wearing a dotted skirt. I get the feeling that the whole family is observing me, that there’s some purpose behind all this.

But I can’t deny that the food is excellent and the bill ludicrously low. Since I’ve knocked back too many glasses to be able to carry on with my journey, I ask the woman about accommodation in the forest. It seems to be on the couple’s top floor, so I fetch my backpack and then my plants from the car. As the family watches me from the stairs, the man asks me if I’m a gardener, and I say you could say that. The woman tells me I can pay for the dinner tomorrow, and after drinking a cranberry liqueur on the house, I water the plants one last time, brush my teeth, undress, and dive under the lily-white sheets.


I’m still full when I come down the following morning: a breakfast table has nonetheless been set for me under the stag’s head, with some home-baked bread in a basket and three types of some kind of sweet pastry. There are also some homemade jams on the table, made with forest berries, the woman explains to me, two boiled eggs, several slices of meat, and the leftovers of the porcupine pâté from the night before, as far as I can make out. Once I’m seated, the woman approaches with fruit juice, coffee, and hot milk and asks if I might like a cup of hot chocolate after my coffee. The girl is sitting at a table at the opposite end of the room by the rifle collection and is drinking hot chocolate from a bowl. She’s wearing a red hairband, but I can’t see if she’s still wearing her spotted skirt. There are no other breakfast guests in the room.

Once I’ve loaded my stuff into the car, I go back in to pay for last night’s feast, the accommodation, and the breakfast. The total on the bill hasn’t changed since last night, and I don’t see any extra charge for the room. If I didn’t have any important tasks to attend to, I could live a good life here and spend long hours in the forest on just a few months of my sailor’s wages. When I’ve finished settling the bill and have just started the Opel and am about to turn it around in the cul-de-sac, I see the owner of the restaurant coming down the steps and waving at me. I wind the window down.

—The thing is, he says, I have someone here who needs a lift, as it were.

The request catches me off guard, and my mastery of the language is too poor to enable me to immediately find the right words to string a sentence together that politely says no and then apologize for and explain the reason for the no. It would have been too humiliating to pull out a dictionary.

—Well, the person is my daughter. She’s studying drama in a town just a stone’s throw away from here and was just home for the weekend. I can’t drive her there myself; we’re expecting a guest this afternoon.

—How far is it from here?

—Two hundred and thirteen miles altogether, says the father, who is used to shuttling her.

He’s had enough time to observe me wrestling with the culinary specialties of the house and now deems me trustworthy enough to drive his daughter to her drama course. I probably look innocent enough with my ginger hair and pure boyish looks—those are the words Mom would have used. You can’t judge a book by its cover, though; my obsessive thoughts about the body remain invisible to the world. Two hundred and thirteen miles is a lot of time to be spending with an unknown drama student. But the family has meticulously planned the move, leaving me with no leeway to reject my traveling companion. While I’m still dumbstruck and trying to formulate a grammatically correct reply in my mind, the girl comes running out of the building with fluttering hair, and she has switched her red hairband with a black one. She’s wearing a short violet coat with a thick belt around her waist and carrying a bag, so she’s ready to go. On her way to the car, she somehow weaves her hair into a bun and ties it with an elastic. Then she kisses her father on both cheeks and they exchange a few words. I don’t know what they’re talking about, but the father vanishes into the house and she tells me to wait, signaling that there’s more to come. When he swiftly returns, he’s holding a box in his arms that looks quite heavy and signals me with his head to open the trunk so that he can fit it in there.

—For you, the daughter interprets.

He wants to show me the contents of the box first so he comes right up to me with it, tipping it slightly. I count twelve bottles of red wine.

—Our own production, says the girl.

The labels on the bottles carry a fine ink drawing of the parish church with the master’s family name under it. This is probably the wine I drank one or two bottles of last night.

—It’s the least I can do for the lift, says the father.

The favor for the daughter is valued at twelve bottles. He wants to put his wine into the car himself, but once I’ve made it clear to him that there’s no room in the trunk because of the plants and he has scanned the car, he decides to place the box on the floor in the back. Then he appears once more on the driver’s side and gently knocks on the glass with two fingers. I wind down the window again, and he stretches his arm into the car with something clasped in the palm of his hand that he squeezes into mine. Cash.

—The food and the lodging is on the house, and the rest is for the gas, he says with a chirpy air. I’ll just say safe journey then.

Some legs wriggle into the car and the daughter blows some more kisses to her father, having just said good-bye to her mother on the steps. Then they wave to each other and I see the man shrinking in the rearview mirror as I drive down the side road. The daughter kneels on the passenger seat with her back to the windshield and her hip up against my shoulder until her father fades from view. I instantly regret having agreed to take her with me in my moment of weakness.

—Put your belt on, I say, pointing at the seat belt and illustrating my simple sentence with an appropriate gesture. She looks at me with a reluctant air, but then breaks into a beaming smile, puts her leg down, and clicks on the seat belt. Now that I get a chance to take a better look at the girl I can see she really looks like a budding movie star.

—Just as you desire.

Just as you desire. I mull that line over in my head, wondering if there might be any hidden meaning in that “just as you desire.” Wondering if I can also apply that “just as you desire” to other things and what things those might be. And if I did apply it to other things would she then accept my desire? When I’m back on the pilgrim’s road I, nonetheless, take my right hand off the steering wheel to shake her hand and formally introduce myself.

—Arnljótur Thórir.

She smiles at me.

This dainty actress’s handshake is tight and firm. Before I manage to reach any conclusion, I wonder, as I shake her hand, whether I’m likely to sleep with her at any point over the next two hundred and thirteen miles.

I haven’t been driving for long along the highway when she bends over and pulls a red box out of her drama student bag, not unlike a kid’s school lunchbox. She opens it, takes out a sandwich, wraps it in a white napkin, and hands it to me. Then she takes out another one for herself, also wraps a napkin around it, and sinks back into her seat. Looking into the sandwich in my hand, I see it contains slices of meat, and this less than half an hour after I finished my three-course breakfast, and half a day since I completed the biggest meal I’ve ever eaten.

Then my twig-skinny co-passenger pulls a pile of papers out of her bag, tucks her legs under her on the front seat, and I see her memorizing a script. She’s silent for the first fifteen miles as she learns her part.

BOOK: The Greenhouse
8.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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