Photo by Elliott Brandsma
We received several hundred entries for our second Iceland Writers Retreat writing competition. The winner is Alexander Weinstein of Ann Arbor, MI, United States, whose entry is called “Mountain Song.” Thanks to our competition sponsors, Iceland Travel. We look forward to meeting Alexander in Iceland next April!
Read his winning entry
In Ólafsvík the snows flutter down like the feathers of a million doves. The winds blow the drifts into great spires along the volcanic rocks which jut from the earth. Thermostats are raised, fires lit, and long hot showers are taken. The days have grown shorter and the light begins its hibernation for the winter, the sky above barely lit by the sun which keeps low behind the scattered clouds. When you tell the cab driver you’re a writer, he shares a secret with you: Nisses still live in these mountains. There are secret caves where they dwell, in the space between two looming cliffs, on the tip of a giant slumbering glacier. To one side of the highway, the sea crashes against the black sands of the coastline, on the other, the hills grow into towering mountains, casting shadows.
By the time you arrive to the fishing village, the sky will have darkened. The houses alight and the lampposts along the road glow against the cobalt sky, illuminating the snow piled along the frozen streets. The Atlantic swoops in along the bay, cold and stark, and down at the docks the fishing boats bob like resting seagulls. A couple active boats are docked and men in yellow rubber waders lift fish from the hold and pass them to the men who stand waiting on the docks.
Ice crystals skate along the frosted ground in quiet choreography as the driver lets you out. Down the road the bells ring from boats rocking on the waves. And over the mountain which rises high above the town, you hear a sound, the echoes of snow rolling down the cliffs, like quiet thunder rumbling or the distant guffaws of trolls.
Here is your guesthouse and here your room. It is warm and cozy, the hot water radiator hissing quietly, the small woven rugs on the pine floors, your bed with a heavy feather duvet; on the other side: a kitchen with a stovetop, a sink, and a mini-refrigerator. Everything you’ll need to learn the stories of this land. Settle in for the night and dream of creatures which once roamed this land, of one-eyed Kings and wolf-tongued beasts bound with ropes made from the sound of cat paws and the breath of ravens.
In the morning awake to the ocean, where far below, creatures glide though the depths: codfish and whales, seals and dolphins, while above, the moon and stars fade, planets and satellites become invisible once again, this Earth rotating, sun rising, sky changing from purple to blue, bellies of clouds blazing orange, the sun a molten gold as it rises. It’s here, in Iceland, where the day will remind you to breathe again for the first time in what feels like too long. So, sing now–the world is listening.
Second place: “Stories in Stone Along Iceland’s Ring Road” by Robin Chapman
We hike the north-Atlantic ridge,
filing through deepening volcanic cliffs,
North American tectonic plate on the left
pulling away from the Eurasian plate
on the right, rain running down our faces,
the rock, the path, past the Drowning Pool
where unfaithful women were put in sacks
and hauled to their deaths, drowned like cats,
where men were beheaded or hanged
for buying goods across their district line,
filing out to the green valley where new land
rises from deep within the earth, here
in the place of breaking apart, Thingvellir,
where Icelanders have gathered
for a thousand years to make the rule of law.
New land bubbles up in geyser spouts, mud pots,
lava flows churning magma to crust—
sulfurous steam heat for Reykjavik houses,
energy for smelting Brazil’s bauxite,
glacial meltwater to drink. Sod houses
for a thousand years banked on stone
that could shift and settle with the shaking
fractures of quake and volcanic cough;
and the land, cinder and rock, stripped
of birch for the hearth fires, stripped of soil
by sharp hooves and wind, coasts of basalt
pounded by surf. Host to centuries of fishermen
lost to sea, villages blanketed in volcanic fumes—
any wonder that ghosts drift in the mist,
elves live in the rock where fog rolls over the lava fields,
trolls lie in wait to tumble the unwary traveler crossing?
Past the Seal Museum we walk
the harbor waterfront, ducking
as Arctic terns hover above and dive
with rasping cries, peck our heads,
and the driver of the front loader
picking up weeds stops to instruct
us in several languages in what
his father showed him before:
how to deflect the birds
with a bit of camouflage, so now
stalks of angelica sprout from our necks
as we pace the dock, and the terns,
nesting there on bare gravel, protecting
their fuzzy gray chicks, cry aloud
and attack the umbels towering
like antlers above our heads: species
We travel the lava fields,
where Laki poured out its rivers
of flame, two years of molten flow
over two hundred years ago
that dimmed the sun and lit
the winter nights with poisonous
fumes—and though no Icelander
was caught and carried, cindered,
to the coast, the ashy, acid haze,
the dead beasts and famine after,
killed a fifth of the people, stripped
350 square miles of land,
altered the weather of the world.
Near trip’s end we pick our way through the lava field,
boulders and pumice tumbled along Lake Myvatn’s edge,
pass through the swarms of midges
dancing their brief lives, gain the closer view
of how soil is made over centuries—
small cinder pockets cumulating rain, the bodies
of midges, arctic thyme the first
to colonize, pink blossom smaller than a thumbnail,
holding fast, decomposing rock—
two hundred years to this nursery for moss,
sea thrift, Arctic willow, a drift
of Arctic thyme blooming against black rock.
Third place: “Into the West” by Sasha Johnson
The day after the Nørrona brought me from the Faroe Islands to Seyðisfjörður, I intended to cycle 29 kilometers to the airport in Egilsstaðir, pick up a rental car, and drive southwest towards Reykjavík. Soundlessly, I packed my bags in the gray morning light, protecting the dreams of the five sleeping Italians splayed out on bunk beds. Downstairs in the kitchen, barley groats, apples and a cup of skyr became breakfast. The hostel, a former medical ward, provided a full kitchen, spare aesthetics, natural light and fast internet connection. In this cozy and comfortable nook, I scribbled away the hours on a drizzly, foggy afternoon–my first day in Iceland.
Over a cup of coffee, I gazed out the window at the high green slopes across the valley streaming with waterfalls, and mused over the course of my route that morning to the nearest town. There was only one road. After spending so much time on the ferry and having little opportunity to cycle in the Faroes, I was eager to get back in gear. However, I failed to consider the effects of elevation change on travel time. I prepared. I left. Only after I began the slow, winding ascent towards the high pass between the towns did I realize this would be a long, bone-chilling ride. Of course a bus came by which would have taken bicycles on board, but I determined to cycle this last stretch of my journey. As the brittle breeze nipped my skin and my legs ached with the strain, I looked back at Seyðisfjörður, nestled in the fjord far below, the waterfalls, the road, and more up.
At the top of the pass, a biting wind whipped through my down vest and rain jacket. My hands, exposed in thin, fingerless cycling gloves, had stiffened into the shape of my handle grips, so when I tried to photograph the snowy tarn and icy meltwater, I found I could not bend my fingers. Finally, the road began its long descent, the valley opened up beneath me, and the houses of Egilsstaðir appeared as small dots on a swath of green.
Some hills leave you and your bicycle gliding so fast with the giddy wind that you have only to decide how much pressure to apply to the brakes. Down is the only road and down you go. You careen, you rush, wind fills your ears, eyes, nose and mouth and you hope you keep your balance. You breathe the wind. Thought focuses to a pinpoint of kinetic concentration as your body and the bicycle become one taut force. You suddenly know what word velocity means. This was one of those hills. All the embarrassment I had felt at having been seen walking my bike up the eastern side was nullified by the swift blur of landscape, the sheer hyperbolic pleasure, and the satisfying awareness I felt of the jealousy emanating from passing drivers, staring at me with wide, wide eyes as I flew into the west.
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