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A short story set in 2040, when due to global warming Iceland’s climate becomes vastly colder and ...
2020-12-17 11:00:00
short story

To Everything, Tern Tern Tern

“Summer Evening in Reykjavík” by Þórarinn B. Þorláksson, 1904.
To Everything, Tern Tern Tern
To Everything, Tern Tern Tern

A short story set in 2040, when due to global warming Iceland’s climate becomes vastly colder and harsher. A biology teacher disappears during a school trip and her daughter starts to search for her.

Read in 28 minutes

My mother disappeared on June 1, 2040, which happened to be my twenty-first birthday. She’d seemed in fine spirits a few days earlier when she left, with a group of students from the high school where she taught biology, for a study trip to the Faroe Islands, a trip she had taken a number of times before. The day after she went missing, I was contacted by her fellow teacher on the tour. He told me that on the previous day the two of them had taken the twenty or so students on one of the longer hikes on their itinerary, up to some of the more remote cliffs on the main island, where they had been able to observe seabirds such as fulmars, guillemots, and puffins hunting and tending to their young. It was a damp and foggy day but they had made some pretty impressive sightings and returned to their hostel in downtown Thorshofn feeling satisfyingly fatigued. After dinner the two teachers retired to bed and when her colleague knocked on my mother’s door the following morning she didn’t answer. He checked the breakfast hall and lobby area, and then asked the receptionist for a key to her room. When he opened the door he found it empty, save for a single piece of paper left on a table by the window. On it she had jotted notes about local birds, along with numbers and some clinical observations.

On June 9, I sat on a rock by the sea in my hometown of Seltjarnarnes, a neighboring town to Reykjavík, holding the note between my fingers. I wore fingerless mittens so I could touch the paper she had touched and trace the letters she had written for the gazillionth time. I’d been going to that same spot every day since I’d learned of my mother’s disappearance, to this area that used to be a golf course but was now too cold and windy for even the heartiest of my compatriots to tough it out. This had once been a fine place for golf during the summer season, one that was still very much in use the year I was born, but a few years ago people gave up trying. Right next to the golf course there had been an expansive nesting ground for the Arctic tern: kría in Icelandlic. My mother named me after that bird, her favorite. “No bird, pardon me, no creature, comes close to the kría, the most fascinating animal on the planet! The strongest, most precise, most determined, most graceful, and with grit and stamina rivaled by nothing!” This, or some version of this, she would declare regularly with dramatic flair, and it felt good, as a kid, to be named afer such a magnificent beast. Not a lot of people in Iceland had traditionally been given the name Kría. I’m one of only a handful of people with it my age and older, although it became increasingly popular after the kría stopped nesting here. When changes in the acidity of the ocean around Iceland decimated the population of the sand eel, the tern’s main source of sustenance, the bird was forced to shift its migration pattern, bypassing Iceland. Losing our beloved tern, a bird at once adored and taken for granted as part of what we knew as the landscape of home, seemed to bring on a wave of wistful, nostalgic namings of Icelandic baby girls, and sitting there then it stung to think about the pathetic human inability to properly celebrate what you have while you have it. I removed the note from my pocket once more, stroking it, gazing at my mother’s familiar handwriting, mining the piece of paper for clues I knew were not there.

My mother – mamma in Icelandic – had me at an “advanced maternal age,” I believe is the technical term. She was fourty-four, and although her unexpected pregnancy was big news to anyone to who knew her at the time, nobody was more surprised than she. Mamma had dedicated her life to science. She never made it through a PhD but had a basic degree in biology, and, after studying nature on her own throughout her life, eventually came to teach it. She had the introverted and slightly freewheeling personality of an autodidact. I think she was a bit too much of a rebel to work within the formal structure of the academic system, or, like many people of her generation, she might have been dealing with undiagnosed ADHD issues. I never really figured out which it was.

She didn’t do well with relationships. I know she had a few boyfriends before I was born but I never knew of anyone after I came along. This is what I’ve been told: my father was a save-the-whales American who came to Iceland in the fall of 2018. He was trying to gather some steam for the whaling movement, but, as Mamma put it, he was a bit outdated in his subject matter – stagnated, really – and therefore not very effective. She said that all the successful and dynamic efforts of that time had a holistic outlook, taking into consideration the climate crisis as a whole and the unprecedented existential crisis threatening all species, while he was fixated only on the plight of the whales. But, he was devastatingly attractive and after a long night at a downtown bar arguing over the merits of tunnel vision versus an all-encompassing approach to environmentalism they had a brief fling. He left the country before she had a chance to tell him she was pregnant. She decided to leave it that way.

Mamma hadn’t thought it was possible to become a mother at her age. She had never been especially keen on having children, but after thinking long and hard about the environmental ethics of bringing another human being into the world, and factoring in the small miracle of becoming pregnant at this stage in her life, she decided to have me. I was born on June 1, 2019, and by then Mamma had moved in with my grandmother so that she could help her care for me in my infancy. Twenty-one years later we still lived there.

When my grandmother – amma – and I tried to make sense of Mamma’s disappearance, Amma remained her characteristically stoic self, reminding me how a rash, anxiety-driven restlessness had always been an integral part of Mamma’s personality and how she had learned, mostly, to manage these impulses so as to live a relatively unruffled life on the surface.

“It’s the climate,” I said, sobbing. “This climate stuff, it’s finally managed to push her over the edge.” Mamma had become an environmental activist in Iceland in the ’90s, long before it became mainstream. Around the time I was born people’s fears about the climate crisis had started to become pretty acute, and by then my mother had gotten practically militant. All of this seemed to have a progressively negative effect on her mental health as she became more and more consumed with impending disaster and simple everyday functions became increasingly fraught with doom. To her, things like the occasional non-vegan hotdog, an item of fast fashion, or a disposable bag that couldn’t be avoided on a spontaneous trip to the grocery store all marked the beginning of a slippery slope toward the planet’s ultimate downfall. When I’d share my concerns about her state of mind with Amma, she would tell me that Mamma had always had these tendencies. The climate crisis and the colossal-scale damage we’d seen to the environment in my lifetime, the melting of the ice caps making coastal areas in many places of the world largely uninhabitable, changes in the oceans’ acidity levels disrupting the ecosystems within and around them, the extinction of countless species of flora and fauna – all of this had, in my grandmother’s opinion, been an expedient vehicle for my mother’s innate tendencies to worry and catastrophize.

As a child in the 80’s, Mamma had agonized over what she thought was an impending nuclear annihilation. She was certain that a Soviet submarine spying on the U.S. naval base in Keflavik would either bomb the base, leaving us as collateral damage, or accidentally spill some of its nuclear materials in our oceans, giving us all cancer. After the Chernobyl disaster, Mamma didn’t get out of bed for a week. It seemed to confirm her wildest and most painful fears and she was certain that the same fate would meet us all, but on a more formidable scale. When Reagan and Gorbachev managed to make nice, here in Iceland of all places, Amma was thrilled. The de-escalation of the power play between Moscow and Washington was great, of course, but more importantly her anxious little girl would now have a chance to regain her equilibrium. Amma even took an eleven-year-old Mamma down to Hofdi, the leaders’ meeting place in Reykjavík, and stood with her at the side of the road to see the motorcades so that she could point and say, Look, these guys are going to make a deal to not bomb each other or any of us folks. What a great lesson for a little girl, I thought grimly in my current state of worry, to learn how two big men could be such bosses of the world.

Throughout her adolescence and young adulthood, Mamma always remained moderately tense about one thing or another, but it wasn’t until the climate crisis came along that her mind found something to grab onto with the same vigor as it had the Cold War.

“She was always afraid of something,” Amma explained. “For years it was nuclear winter. That never happened. Then it was the climate crisis.”

“But Amma, that did happen.”

“That’s not the point, sweetie.”

In Amma’s view, Mamma had something broken inside her all along; her concern for the environment was secondary. All the changes and tragedies the world had seen in the past few years were secondary. I didn’t buy that. To me things were much more intertwined. They had to be.

 

The ruins of the golf course and nesting grounds seemed even more desolate than usual as I stood up and surveyed them before heading home. The sea levels around here had risen almost a meter in my lifetime, making this area that used to be solid dry ground now wet and swampy. Everything happened much faster than they had projected: half a meter in thirty years became a meter in only twenty. But this was the least of our problems. As I marched through the damp straw in my hiking boots, the mushy underlay made sounds that took me back to my early childhood, when I’d join Mamma on – in the jargon of that era – self-care retreats in the highlands of Iceland. They would set up sweat lodges, bring over some shamans, and drink psychedelic cocoa under the guise of some ambiguous spirituality. With the current state of things, such frivolity could no longer be afforded. But, characteristically, Mamma had been into all that stuff for a while. She was always searching; I see that now. I am much more like Amma. Or maybe my father, who knows.

On my way back to the main road, the limp yellow-grayish straws covered the marshy terrain as successfully as a bad toupee. This unsightliness was crowned by the enormous house on the edge of what used to be the golf course. It couldn’t have been more appropriately awful-looking, a cold concrete box with the only windows facing the sea, its grotesque largeness an embodiment of all it stood for.

The house belonged to a man named Arthur, a hedge-fund manager from New York who had made a small fortune betting on what would happen to us here in Iceland as a result of the climate crisis. Around the time I was born the accepted prediction said we would get a more pleasant climate. We were looped into what was thought of as the likeliest scenario for most of the Arctic region, that the most influential change to our day-to-day living conditions would be higher temperatures. People envisioned balmier summers and milder winters, coupled with profound changes in our icescapes, of course, causing a rise in sea levels that would encroach upon coastal areas. The higher temperatures were also supposed to cause changes in our flora and fauna, forcing some species to go elsewhere or to become extinct and introducing new ones to our region. The most dreaded of these would be pesky insects, the comforting refrain during eternally awful Icelandic weather having always been at least we don’t have mosquitoes.

This predicted warming did happen in most Arctic communities. Many of them had completely transformed – namely Greenland, which was now booming with new and growing towns on land that emerged from underneath glaciers in coastal areas high enough to remain above water. Greenland’s landmass, most of which had always been covered with ice, was large enough for multiple extremely livable areas to develop along its coastline. With its brand-new economic pillars – servicing the shipping routes between East Asia and North America made possible by the shrinking of the polar ice caps, and the influx of climate immigrants who gave up on the unbearable summer heats of mainland Europe – and its newly pleasant climate and living conditions, Greenland was on its way to becoming one of Europe’s most prosperous and desirable countries.

What happened here in Iceland, on the other hand, was something scientists had thought of as only a minor possibility, and this guy Arthur had found a way of tying this into a complicated financial instrument and placing a large bet on it. With the melting of the ice caps and rerouting of ocean currents, the Gulf Stream – an ocean current Iceland had forever relied on for its relatively temperate climate – had changed its course so that it now bypassed the country. This change had begun around ten years ago, and had since made Iceland’s climate vastly colder and harsher. What used to be an annoyingly cold and stormy but bearable winter was now a season where people went for days and sometimes weeks without leaving their houses. They stocked supplies, worked from home, and semi-homeschooled their kids, effectively hibernating for long stretches during the winter months – and these were people who for decades, for centuries, had claimed that there was no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. The summers now brought us what before would have been considered mild winter weather, and the big question looming was whether Iceland was, in fact, still habitable. A lot of people had left already, many to Greenland (oh, the irony that the names of our two countries finally made sense) and some to the Scandinavian countries. Those countries had plenty of problems of their own to deal with, by the way, with even their summers now becoming unbearably hot, and their space and resources running low from vast immigration from the south and now also the north.

Arthur had placed this enormous bet on the rerouting of the Gulf Stream a few decades back by creating a set of complicated bonds. And when this became our reality in the ’30s he made an obscene amount of money. To give back, as he put it, he decided to build a vacation home in Iceland, and also to dedicate a sum each year to supporting life-and earth-science education in local communities. He struck a deal with the town of Seltjarnarnes, which sold him this particular lot to build his house (the golf course was closing down anyway), and in return he committed to funding research and educational projects within the town. The annual trip Mamma took with her students to observe birds in the Faroe Islands was one of them.

As I approached the main road I heard the door of the house opening. I turned around and saw a guy my age walking out, presumably Arthur’s son – Arthur Jr., go figure. He saw me and jogged my way. I was in no mood to talk to a stranger so I pulled the hood on my jacket even tighter around my head as I marched on.

“”Wait,“” he called after me. Figuring there was no way out of this, I stopped. As I turned around he flashed a smile that was either confident or rehearsed, it was hard to tell, and reached out his right hand.

“Hi, I’m Arthur.“”

“I’m Kría,” I said without smiling back.

“Oh, I know who you are.” My quizzical expression encouraged him to keep talking.

“You’re that girl, the daughter of that teacher who went missing. I’ve seen you
sitting out here these past few days. I can only imagine what you must be going through.”

He seemed earnest enough in his concern. I didn’t quite know what to make of him, having never met the guy. I’d only heard that the owner of the house had a son my age. People in town had a mild interest in gossiping about these fellows but there didn’t seem to be much information on them beyond their matching names.

“Thanks,” I said, turning back toward home. I’d been so low-energy these past few days that just leaving the house to sit by the ocean was a huge effort, let alone partaking in conversation with anyone besides Amma. I started walking again and he gently took a few steps alongside me.

“I’d like to help you.”

The frigid June air had started to blow forcefully. I tried telling him that I had to get home, but he insisted on walking with me. I didn’t have the strength to argue. On the way he told me that he and his father felt partially responsible for what had happened to my mother, seeing as they had funded the trip, and that he would like to help me find her. I told him that was absurd, they bore no responsibility, the trip had gone the way it had gone, it didn’t matter who had funded it. But he insisted.

“She wouldn’t have been in the Faroes that day if it weren’t for us.” At this I couldn’t help myself.

“Calm down boy, you’re not that important.”

He laughed. “You’re funny,” he said.

Why do guys always say that? I thought.

On the walk I learned that he had just graduated from college in the U.S. and that his mission in life now was to make this fragile and suffering world a better place, his words. He didn’t need to work, again his words, and wanted to use his privilege (and ease his rich-kid conscience, my words) to help those in need. His long-term plan was to give away most of his wealth to benevolent organizations and charities and, of course, start up his own charitable fund, focusing on the environment and especially the Arctic areas, as they and their predicament happened to be the source of his family’s wealth.

“Why don’t you donate to an organization that works to dismantle the system that allows people like you to make and keep such a disproportionate amount of wealth in the first place?”

We stopped in front of my house, the house in which both Mamma and I had grown up. I saw Amma through the kitchen window, preparing our dinner of breaded fried cod and potatoes. He paused and for a moment I thought he was going to tell me I was funny again, but instead he said, “Wow. What a powerful idea.” As soon as he said this, he seemed to regret it, and, looking slightly embarrassed, he added: “I know, I have a lot to learn, I’m really trying. I’m trying to be different than, well, you know, trying to do things differently.”

Before he left he asked me to think about letting him take me to the Faroe Islands in his jet (“It runs on biofuels only, don’t worry”) so that I could take a look around, talk to some people, see if there might be any clues to my mother’s disappearance. I told him I would think about it. He hesitated before walking off and then turned again and said, “I can’t pretend to understand your situation, but still, I know a little bit what it’s like to feel like they’ve just checked out on you.”

When Amma spotted us through the kitchen window and gestured for me to invite this new friend in for fish and potatoes, I immediately sent him on his way and dashed inside. Underneath Arthur Jr.’s insistence on helping me, it seemed there had to be a story about his own parents. I took a peek through the small glass window in the front door and watched him wrap his unzipped jacket tightly around himself as he walked away. Before stepping into the kitchen, I dialed Mamma’s number for what had to be the hundredth time since her disappearance. Like all those other times, it went straight to voicemail.

 

The following afternoon, on June 10, I gave Amma a tight and tearful hug as she told me to stay strong and ushered me along the tarmac at Reykjavík Airport toward the ten-seat jet decorated in shimmering white and icy blue, ARCTIC DREAM PURVEYOR written on it in a whimsical font. Arthur Jr. was standing by the mobile stairway leading up to the door of the jet, his smile from the day before intact. He greeted me cheerfully, though with appropriately somber undertones, as if to underscore his awareness that this trip was obviously not going to be easy for me.

“Does it run on olive oil?” I asked to keep the mood light as we walked up the stairs. He laughed. “No, canola.”

Gazing out the window as we took off, I saw Reykjavík and Seltjarnarnes receding in my view, the pond in the city center slowly becoming a coin and then a dot. Junior had considerately taken a seat a few rows behind me and was quaintly engaged in a book. I, on the other hand, was happy to doze off, given my unprecedented tiredness these past few days. As my thoughts started floating I recalled what my mother had taught me about my bird, her bird, the Arctic tern. I was so tiny when she first told me about the tern that I don’t remember ever not knowing about its unbelievable nature, and throughout my childhood and adolescence she would regularly recount its way of life to me, always with the same delight as if she were telling me all of it for the first time. Each year the tern migrates effectively from the South Pole to the North Pole and back. After spending the winter in Antarctica she sets out for her nesting grounds in the north, where she spends the summer, and then flies south again for winter. But our winter is of course summer in Antarctica, so the tern basically spends her life in perpetual summer. And with polar summers’ twenty-four hours of daylight, it’s only during her flights back and forth that she ever sees the dark. She always finds her way, she always finds her same nesting spot. She spends around sixty days on her journey north, soaring and gliding along with advantageous wind currents. It’s even said that she takes brief naps while flying (in Iceland we call a power nap a kría). The same journey south takes around ninety days. On that route the terns fly around the southern tip of Africa; birds leaning into beneficial wind flow have been tracked going all the way over to Australia and back en route to their feeding grounds in Antarctica. No other creature undertakes such a long annual migration journey. The Arctic tern weighs around one hundred eighty grams, less than half a pound, less than a small can of soda. A tern usually lives into her twenties with some becoming as old as thirty. By then, having flown anywhere from thirty to forty thousand miles a year, depending on where up north she nests, a tern will have flown a distance equivalent to flying to the moon back three times.

I stirred as the jet touched down at Thorshofn airport. Despite all of Mamma’s trips to the Faroes and her fascination with the place, I’d never been there. Upon disembarking I realized that I didn’t have much of a plan. I’d just thought we’d check into the same hostel Mamma had stayed at and take it from there. Arthur Jr. clearly had other ideas. It turned out that he had rented a house not too far from the airport, something of a palace by Faroese standards. As the car dropped him off there, I insisted upon going downtown.

“I’m good at the hostel,” I told him. “I need to be there.”

“Of course. I understand,” he said with appropriate solemnity. I promised to call him if I needed literally anything, as he put it. On the way downtown I called Mamma’s number, which went directly to voicemail. I called again. And then again.

At the hostel, I asked the receptionist if I could have the same room my mother had had. They immediately knew who I was and warmly accommodated me. Entering the room felt stranger than I was prepared for. She had been here a little over a week ago. She had slept on this bed. She had had all of her things here. Made decisions here. Or had she made them long before? I didn’t feel her presence, though, which, as someone who sort of believes in ghosts, I took as a good sign.

I started rummaging through drawers, cabinets, and wastebaskets. I even looked under the bedsheets. I found nothing. I went down to the lobby in the hopes of meeting more of the hotel staff. I was told that my mother had left nothing in her room besides that piece of paper with the bird notes, that nobody had seen her leave the hotel the night she disappeared. I was also told to keep in mind that no one had been manning the reception between midnight and 5:30 a.m.

I went upstairs to fetch my coat and headed out for a walk. During my aimless stroll through the city center that with all its newness bore an uncanny resemblance to home, I sifted through some of Mamma’s peculiarities. I remembered her quite frequently going away on her own on the weekends when I was a kid, on trips to the countryside, or abroad (she’d carbon-neutralize all of her flights, of course), and if that wasn’t possible she’d retreat to her room with the door closed for entire Sundays. I didn’t make much of it at the time, it was just my normal, but when I was a teenager I sometimes wondered whether Mamma might actually want to be someplace other than where she was. Stuck with me and Amma. I didn’t think too much about her possible fragility; frankly, I didn’t understand it. It just bothered me that she couldn’t be more normal, that she couldn’t be more like Amma.

The Arctic tern is what is referred to in biology as a K-selected breeder, a creature that spends considerable time raising relatively few offspring. The tern is an aggressive nester and a fierce defender of her young. When threatened she will attack humans and other large predators by striking them on the top of their head with her beak, and although she is too small to cause serious injury, she is capable of drawing blood and thus repelling her potential predators, which range from smaller mammals to polar bears.

The following morning I woke up early and called Arthur to ask if he could arrange a car to take me up to the nesting grounds where Mamma had gone with her students the day before she went missing. Arthur offered to come along, but I told him I’d rather go by myself. As I walked from the breakfast hall through the reception area toward the front door to check for the car, the receptionist told me that a letter had just arrived. I looked at the envelope and my heart stopped. I read my name above the hotel’s address in my mother’s handwriting. The postage stamp was dated June 4. I double- and triple-checked the date before noticing the postmark: SOUTH AFRICA.

I urgently tore open the envelope only to find another envelope inside it. It said: READ THIS WHEN YOU GET TO THE CLIFFS. I put both envelopes carefully in my coat pocket, zipped it closed, and walked straight to the car waiting for me outside. As I sat in the backseat and we drove through narrow, windy roads, my heart racing in step with my thoughts, I didn’t feel all that surprised. I had known she had to be somewhere. Just as she had known I would be here.

The driver stopped at the end of a gravel road and told me to follow the small river up into the valley and turn off to the right when the land began to steepen. From there I would get access to some of the lower sea cliffs, he said, and definitely see some puffins and guillemots. He told me he’d be waiting for me in the same spot. I started walking and made my way through the wet lowland area for a while, looking out for changes in the landscape, which remained flat and didn’t appear to heighten within my range of sight. And then suddenly I heard them, their warning sounds preceding my sightings. Though I hadn’t seen or heard any terns since they left Iceland, I recognized them immediately: the gray and white bodies and heads capped with black, their distinct sounds yanking me back to the ’20s, when I was a small child in Seltjarnarnes and spent what seemed like hours on end gazing at these birds and their swift, balletic movements. I remembered an old trick Mamma had taught me when walking through their nesting grounds: find a stick and hold it high over your head, as the terns always go for the highest spot. On the ground in front of me was a stick that looked like it had broken off of a larger piece of driftwood; the shape was a little awkward but it would do. I held it up high and trod carefully, my eyes glued to the ground so I wouldn’t accidentally step on any of the precious eggs. The terns’ cries intensified above me as I marched through their territory. I held the stick firmly in my hand, feeling a sharp tap or two on its tip as I neared what appeared to be the center of the birds’ domain. I tried to spot the shortest way out of this vast nesting area, to somewhere I could find the path to the cliffs, but it wasn’t obvious, and in my depleted state I was wary of a long and strenuous hike. I was tempted to just take a seat where I was. As desperate as I was to read the letter, she had told me to read it at the cliffs and it was in my nature to be obedient. I always followed instructions immaculately, especially from Mamma and Amma. But as I strode there wielding my stick, watching my step, aggressively deliberate, an unfamiliar feeling crept up on me. I was in charge.

I sat down on a mound with dry straws on the surface and soft soil underneath. I kept the stick up high with one arm, the terns circling above my head, their cries approaching screams. I unzipped my pocket with my other hand, took out the envelope, and managed to open it with my teeth. It held a one-page handwritten letter from Mamma.

Dearest Kría,

I don’t have to tell you much, most of the things I could tell you you
already know. You are twenty-one now. My job is done and I have space
now to go and figure some things out, to see if I can fix myself a bit. How
middle-aged of me, but you know that clichés are clichés for a reason.
I ask you to forgive me. I had to do it this way, to go off the grid for a
while. I need this time and I ask you in the strongest possible way not to
worry about me. I may be delicate but I am not weak. Know that you are
loved, you always were, and you always will be. I know it’s a lot to ask
a daughter to show her flawed mother this type of understanding, but I
also know that you are mature beyond your years. You had to be.
As you might have noticed from the postmark, I’m writing this from
South Africa. And as you’ve likely figured out as well, being as intelligent
as you are, my darling, I have set out to trace and follow the migration
pattern of my bird, your bird, our kría.
I don’t know how long or far this will take me. Please fulfill your own
dreams and know that you could do nothing better for me.
To everything there is a season, my sweet Kria. A time to build up, a
time to break down, a time to dance, a time to mourn, a time to plant, a
time to reap.
Listen to that song every now and then.
Your mamma

I was so lost in reading and rereading the letter that I had unwittingly lowered my stick to the ground. I was forcefully jerked back to the present by a sharp pain on the top of my head. I wasn’t wearing a hat so the bird had full access to my scalp, which I realized it had managed to pierce when I touched my head and took it away to see a decent amount of blood in the palm of my hand. I instantly grabbed the stick and raised it again, tucking the letter into my pocket and zipping it up before making my way back to the car.

 

Over the next few weeks and months, the obnoxious yap of a common seagull, a non-vegan hamburger, driving past Hofdi in Reykjavík, a disposable candy wrapper – every minor detail of daily life led me back to Mamma and the burden of these unresolved circumstances. Everyone told me that time would heal me, make me feel better, but the more time passed the worse I seemed to feel. As much as I had at times taken Mamma for granted, dismissed her, relied first and foremost on Amma throughout my life, her absence left a void in me larger than her presence had ever felt. Having been cut loose in this way, I was left obsessive in my quest to become whole again. I knew I had to find a way to regain my sense of place in the world, or at least to readjust it.

On October 1, I went back to the Faroe Islands. I flew with Arthur Jr. in his jet from Reykjavík to Thorshofn again. Before we left for the Faroes I told him that from there I’d set off to go looking for Mamma. My plan was to take a boat to Denmark, make my way down through Europe and then West Africa, following the tern’s migration path as closely as possible. From South Africa I would go to Australia and from there to New Zealand, where I would take an excursion by sea to Antarctica.

I said goodbye to Arthur Jr. at the harbor and boarded the ship to Denmark. I made my way to the upper deck and took in the open sea as I inserted my earphones and turned on that seventy-five-year-old song by the Byrds that Mamma had referenced in her letter. Breathing in the cold salty air, I felt lighter than I had in months. A sense of knowing I was on the right path came over me with new certainty. Amma had been supportive of my plan, not because she thought I’d find her, I’m sure, but because she recognized how determined I was to try.

A time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together.

I didn’t know if I’d ever get her back. But I knew there were many ways for me to find her, or at least to reclaim parts of her. When the ship set out to sea and Thorshofn harbor got smaller and smaller, the sparkling waves crashing onto the boat’s keel, I noticed a small group of terns finding their groove in the wake of the ship, feeling out the gales conjured up by its speed, gauging whether these air currents might be of any use to them. And then, as one, the terns seemed to decide that these would not do, and they took to the higher skies in a sweeping, synchronized motion.

 

This short story was originally published in McSweeny’s.

 

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