He lies and dreams. A great ash tree spreads out its crown and girls come with buckets and water its roots. He tosses and turns, then looks up. Beside him sits a gray-haired woman, stroking his hand. The veins stand out like those on a leaf.
“You’re as beautiful as ever, Dísa dear,” he says, closing his eyes. They always used to dance in the kitchen. His daughters wet a cloth and wash his feet. He lies still, thinking about Arctic terns.
I walk into the bedroom and see that he is toothless. I’ve never seen him without his teeth before. My great-aunt turns him over, making him more comfortable in bed. He’s wearing a diaper. Dad comes in and lays my brother in bed beside him. He’s toothless and wearing a diaper. Great-granddad has lived for eighty-seven years. He was born in autumn. If my brother gets to live as long, he’ll still be alive in . . .
It’s a hard sum to work out. 87 + 2006. Great-granddad opens his eyes and smiles at me.
“Hello, my boy,” he says.
“What’s 87 + 2006?”
Great-granddad thinks and swallows. He has difficulty swallowing.
“It’s 2093,” he says.
On my last visit he told me about the goddess of fate.
“She ordered me to marry your great-grandmother. I just did what I was told and have never regretted it.”
“Have you seen her?” I asked.
“No, no one can see her; she doesn’t have enough power to make herself visible.”
“Do they really exist?” I ask.
“Yes, and trolls exist too. They’re the cleverest creatures on earth.”
To be “as thick as a troll” is to be really clever. He made a hammer for me when I was born and wrote my name on it. Though it’s not my name. It says “Brimir Snjár” on the hammer. Mom thought the name was weird. But I think it’s really cool.
Great-granddad will eat anything. “Anything except people,” he used to say sometimes, with a grin. When he was nine he tricked his nanny into cooking a fox for him.
“Did it taste nice?”
“No, we ran out of the kitchen when she pulled it out of the pan,” he said with a laugh.
He’ll eat anything except people and foxes.
He was born up north, where there were no trees. He was nine when he saw a leafy tree for the first time. The beaches were covered in trunks of driftwood with great crooked roots like witches’ hands. He often whittled people and animals from bits of wood that washed ashore.
Once Great-granddad told me about the war. About the time he sailed on a fishing boat to Britain and saw people floating like matchwood on the sea.
“Were they dead?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Who did it?” I asked.
“Wicked witches,” he said.
“You mean bad men?”
“No, not bad men, wicked witches.”
Next time we met he was too tired to talk about the war. And the time after that I was playing a computer game, but Dad sat with him in the kitchen.
2093. I write the number on a piece of paper.
Once we were sitting by the spring below the deserted farm, looking out to sea.
“Shut your eyes and listen,” he said.
I shut my eyes.
He counted up the birds that piped and screeched around us.
“Arctic tern, eider duck . . . plover, whimbrel, sandpiper . . . snipe, great black-backed gull, Arctic skua . . . great northern diver, black-headed gull . . .”
We got up to ten birds right away.
“Can I open my eyes?” I asked.
“Be patient,” he said. Then we heard a raven and then a red-throated diver.
“Twelve,” I said.
“Just a little longer.” A male ptarmigan belched. I opened my eyes and three swans flew over the lagoon. “Do you know what the Arctic tern is called in Latin?” he asked.
“What?” I asked.
“Sterna paradisea. The bird of paradise. It can fly right round the globe but of all the places in the world it ends up right here: in paradise.”
“Twenty ninety-three.” Those were the last words Great-granddad ever said to me.
When I came home from school today Dad was waiting for me in the living room.
I knew something was up. He gave me a hug.
“Your great-grandfather is dead,” said Dad. “He died this morning.”
My sister is four. But she doesn’t understand anything.
“Is he dead?”
“Yes,” says Dad.
“Can I bury him?”
“No, he’s not going to be buried yet. We’re going to say good-bye to him.”
“Can’t he talk?”
“No, he can’t talk.”
“Not even if we tickle him?”
“No, no one’s allowed to tickle him. You must be a good girl,” says Dad.
She sings all the way: “Great-granddad’s dead, Great-granddad’s dead.”
The little red house is full of people. Mom and Dad embrace everyone and Great-grandma too. Granddad is there. Now his daddy is dead.
“Why’s everyone crying?” asks my sister.
I don’t want to cry in front of everyone.
“Do you want to see him?” asks Mom. I get a knot in my stomach.
“Can we see him?”
“Yes, he looks as if he’s sleeping. You don’t need to see him if you don’t want to.”
I give the matter careful thought.
“I want to see him,” I say.
Mom opens the door. Great-granddad is lying in bed as if he’s asleep. He’s got his teeth in again.
“He’s with God now,” says Mom.
“Let’s buy a real-life magic wand and make him stop being dead,” says my sister.
I expected to be afraid, but he was nothing like a ghost, he was just exactly like Great-granddad. I walked over to him and stroked his hands. They were soft but cold. I stroked his head; his forehead was cold but he was still my great-granddad. I bent down to him:
“Dear Great-granddad,” I whispered.
“Are you OK?” asked Mom.
I couldn’t really answer. I couldn’t say yes because I was sad that he was dead, but I couldn’t say I felt bad because he obviously didn’t feel bad.
“I can’t answer that,” I said.
Later I went back into his room and sat beside him. I felt as if he might wake up any minute and start counting birds.
Everything in the room was old; the pictures were old, his old pinstriped suit hung on a peg, and the wallpaper was silvery, with a strange pattern. There were pictures of children on the walls. Once this house was full of children. Now the children are grandfathers and grandmothers. There were Christmas decorations in the window still, though Christmas was over. I felt as if his things were dead too. A collage of angels and a forest hung above his bed.
“Sterna paradisea. He’s reached the north, then.”
2093. It would be a long lifeline.
Translation of “2093.” © Andri Magnason. By arrangement with the author. Translation ©2011 by Victoria Cribb. All rights reserved.