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from the April 2021 issue

The Sea Gives Us Children

On a strange island uninhabited by adults, danger lurks in this story by Thórdís Helgadóttir.
 

Words Without Borders · Thórdís Helgadóttir reads "Hafið Gefur Okkur Börn" ("The Sea Gives Us Children")

Listen to Thórdís Helgadóttir read "The Sea Gives Us Children" in the original Icelandic.


There are no boats on the island. Sometimes, Guðrún and I go down to the beach, just to let the wind beat our faces. We come home with salty lips and red ears. The wind whets our features until they become sharper, our similarities harder to discern. I always have a runny nose, but somehow Guðrún never does. She’s made from sterner stuff.

The beach is unsheltered. But even though I’m standing before the open sea with infinity all around me, I can’t shake my claustrophobia. The sky hangs low and vast, like a lid atop the island, matte and white. Milk, not water.

I ask Guðrún if she thinks other islands exist. She shakes her head.

The quiet hour begins at seven o’clock. No one’s allowed out later than that. I shore up my courage and complain. It isn’t fair. My bedtime’s not until nine—I’m quite capable of being careful while I play.

Guðrún looks at me severely. I should know better. We have this rule for the sake of the little ones, who grow so quickly and need to go to sleep early. As I well know. We can’t take any risks. Not with their souls.

Which is why, at seven on the dot, we nestle down under our quilts with ice water and books on our bedside tables. We flip through the pages carefully, as if they were butterfly wings. 

 

*

 

Our books are about other islands. Some are about boats. One of the girls I sometimes play with in the lava field says her brother has a telescope and has seen other islands. Her name is Karen and I’ve caught her lying more than once. She says we’re forbidden to take the telescope out into the lava field. And that her brother doesn’t want strangers using it either.

One morning, Karen doesn’t come out to play. I fool around on my own—climb, make mud pies, and decorate them with snapdragons and horsetails. Later that day, I find out that a new child has arrived at theirs. I remember how the sea was that morning, how choppy it was, how the surf had suddenly shrieked aloud. It must have been at that exact moment that the child was born.

A few days later, she comes out with Karen. A little sister, plumped up like a teddy bear and sturdy on short, fat legs. She stuffs her mouth with berries and pees into crannies. Karen says she’s called Angela.

If there aren’t any other islands, then where do the children come from? I ask Guðrún. Then where did Angela come from? Guðrún just shakes her head, disappointed with me. Do I really think infants swim over here from far-flung islands? It’s unlikely, I have to admit. Angela can’t even run. It’s hard for her to walk a few steps without falling on her butt. Her body’s so little I don’t get how a whole person can fit in there.

 

*

 

I’m sitting in bed reading during the quiet hour when all of a sudden I notice something moving atop my quilt. A tiny dot. I hold my breath and whisper for Guðrún, who hears me through the wall and glides into my room like the wind. She crouches silently by my bed.

We can’t take any risks.

For a long time, we say nothing, just watch the spider as it inches its way along the quilt. It disappears into a fold, reappears, and continues toward the footboard, along the side rail, onto the bed leg, and finally all the way down to the floor. It’s an itsy-bitsy dwarf spider—dark brown with a bulbous belly that looks soft to the touch. It traces its way along the floorboards and eventually disappears into a crack in the molding. For a long time after, I sit there frozen and don’t dare go to sleep, even though Guðrún’s being nice to me. She strokes my hair and says I’ll be safe while I sleep. But she doesn’t understand what it is that I’m afraid of.   

After this, I stop complaining about the quiet hour.

 

*

 

Karen says she’s seen it when the souls begin their perambulations. Everyone shares a single bedroom at her house. Her brother is always early to bed, she says. I have my doubts. Karen’s brother is a teenager, like Guðrún, and she always goes to sleep long after I do.

But then there’s Angela. She’s so little that she’s always having to lie down. Karen tucks her in, sings until she sees her little sister nod off. Once her eyelashes are resting on her cheek, says Karen, it’s only a few minutes before she sees the soul come crawling out of Angela’s left ear. It spins a delicate thread, tiptoes weightlessly up the wall, and finds its way out through an open window. I shudder. What color is it? I ask Karen. Black, she says. Tiny, furry, and black as coal.

 

*

 

Guðrún never has time to play in the lava field with me anymore. I try to get her to come down to the beach for a salt scrub from the wind, but she’s busy. She sits in the big easy chair in the living room and reads. Angela’s sick, so Karen doesn’t come out either. The streets are empty and bathed in harsh sunlight. The wind is biting. I forgot to bring mittens, so my hands turn red and stiff in the cold. I walk all around the village but don’t run into anyone. Snot leaks onto my upper lip and I feel sorry for myself. I come home very late.

 

*

 

Angela is dead. We wake to a dreadful, piercing sound. A throat choking on tears. Screams that seem like they’re ripping a teen boy’s vocal cords to shreds. Karen’s brother holds the body of his youngest sister and trembles like a skeleton. He tries to get some words out, but they’re drowned in the other sounds—the ones coming out of him that he’s not making himself.

It doesn’t take long to discover who’s responsible. I was hoping they’d say it had been an accident. But the guilty party’s been found. It’s a boy Guðrún’s age. He’s ugly, with heavy brown bags under his eyes. He doesn’t have any siblings and can often be seen down on the beach, throwing stones or burning driftwood. Karen says they saw him loitering around their house the night Angela died. He was waiting outside in the twilight, they say, just biding his time.

He denies all charges, which is why no one believes him. Maybe if he said it had been an accident, Guðrún says. People would trust that. But how could anyone be so certain?

 

*

 

We’re sent outside while the older kids have a meeting. Karen doesn’t want to go out in the lava field, so we go to the beach. We find two good sticks. I scrawl a hopscotch board in the sand. Karen beats her stick against the beach stones so that it gradually turns into a blizzard of angry little splinters.

             

*

           

Guðrún is cooking us porridge when I come home. We eat in silence and I try not to betray any emotion. Try not to let Guðrún see how I have to force the food down past my heart, which is lodged in my throat. After dinner, she lies on the sofa while I clean up. She looks older. With her eyes closed, she looks like a grown woman, and I think about the children in our books—children on big, faraway islands who all have mamas. But Guðrún isn’t sleeping. She opens her eyes when I sit down next to her. Looks up at the cupboard.

There’s a box.

Don’t, says Guðrún, when I start climbing. But I’m not going to touch it, I just want to see this new thing that’s appeared at the top of the cupboard. It’s a small box made of clear plastic. I don’t have to open it to see what’s inside.

A spider.

Brown with yellow streaks on its back. It doesn’t move at all. I look at the spider and hold my breath until I start getting woozy. Then, all of a sudden, it wiggles a leg.

 

*

 

The next time I look, the box is gone. Guðrún says she put it somewhere I won’t find it. She knows very well that I’m not a little kid. But we can’t take any risks. We have to look after the box for one week. After that, the next family will take over, keep it for a week, and so on and so forth, one after the other. When all the families in the village have done their shift, the boy will be released, on a trial basis.

It’s not as much work this way, says Guðrún. Not as much responsibility. If we all take turns.

It’s not until later that I dare ask. Guðrún confirms what I’ve heard. The plan had been to kill him. A life for a life. But everyone had to be in agreement. And they weren’t. Not Guðrún.

For the first time in a long while, I manage to expel all the air from my lungs. I want to fling myself around Guðrún’s neck. Instead, I nod calmly to show that I understand the seriousness of the matter.

Of course, I say. We can’t take any risks.

Guðrún gives me a strange look.

Risks? she says. What do you mean?

 

*

             

I go down to the beach and scream a little at the sea. The sky presses in on my head from all sides, and it aches. The wind fills my mouth. I imagine myself leaping off a cliff, but not seriously.

I go out into the lava field. Out where Karen and I built a fort. It’s well sheltered. Now that I think about it, it makes sense that Angela’s soul came here in its sleep. She’d seen so little––what else would she have dreamed about?

It wasn’t an accident. And yet, who would have expected to see a spider out in the lava? It hadn’t even gotten dark yet. I was looking for crowberries and then, without warning, it crawled out of the heather and up onto the back of my hand—long-legged and quick. I was so shocked I fell over. And then there was this feeling in my fingers, this kind of crushing feeling. They turned into crushyfingers. I was hurt and wanted to avenge myself, to hit back. I didn’t remember the little ones who needed to sleep so much. Didn’t remember that Angela even existed. Guðrún would have helped me remember. Karen, too. But I was all by myself.

Guðrún said something strange to me. We’re free, she said. The sea gives us children, but no explanations. No rules. It’s unbearable. Intolerable. We’re forced to make our own rules. But that means we can also decide what rules we have. We decide what kind of world this is.

I had to be careful not to laugh. If we’d decided on it ourselves, the world wouldn’t be this way: the cliffs, the sky, the smothering sea . . . Listen, said Guðrún. She’d worked herself up a bit. We can be the sea. If we decide to be. Because no one is saying anything else. If we say the rule is that we’re sacred, then we’re sacred!

The moss is soft. I can feel now how tired I am. My eyelids flutter closed once again, and I let my head loll. Half asleep, I feel a tickle in my ear. I think about the spider with the yellow streaks and its legs and how they’d moved. Then I give myself over to sleep.

 

“Hafið gefur okkur börn” © Thórdís Helgadóttir. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Larissa Kyzer. All rights reserved.

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