By Karin Rumie
For the first time since leaving Reykjavik, I relaxed my grip on the wheel of the tiny Fiat. My tension faded like the heavy clouds that had hovered over me.
The agent had given me an umbrella with the car keys. “Iceland summers,” she’d said with a blinding smile. There’s that collective Icelandic cheer, I thought, recalling the term my mother coined last time we were here.
Thinking of my mother sent me into a panic. What if she died alone while I was on the other side of the world? That I was here at her request would be of no consequence. I pictured her, morphine slowly dripping into her, asking the hospice nurse where her children were. Going home without my twin brother was out of the question.
I had not seen or talked to Henry in almost twenty years. After his last release from the clinic, he vanished from our lives. When our mother got her diagnosis, I went to see his ex-girlfriend and found out he’d moved to Iceland.
Before I left, I took an old photo of us from Mom’s house. It was taken during Thanksgiving break our freshman year in college. I wondered whether I’d recognize Henry now. Last time I saw his face, it was covered by an unkempt beard. I would know his eyes, though. Those eyes, the color of a bottomless sea that had begged me to get him out. The same eyes that had stared through me after the medications had taken over.
The car’s navigation guided me onto a desolate road that divided a seemingly endless stretch of barren landscape. But only a few minutes later, my hotel, a gray stone and glass building, emerged in the distance.
The last time I’d been to Höfn was ‘94, the summer we turned eighteen. Henry had taken up photography and was obsessed with Iceland landscapes. So, while my friends celebrated high school graduation on Caribbean cruises, I got stuck with the land of volcanoes and Björk.
It was almost midnight by the time I settled in my room, but the sunlight on my eyes was blinding. As a teenager, I’d been fascinated by the endless summer days. Now, I drew the curtains together tightly, unnerved by this deviation from nature’s order.
Technically, there was a brief period of night, between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. On our last day of vacation, Henry and I huddled quietly in front of the bathroom window to take pictures of the event. As the sun neared its descent, a man dressed in the hotel uniform stepped into the frame. He lit a cigarette and stood there, like a dark spot on a movie screen.
I complained that he’d just ruined the perfect picture, but Henry was smiling. Perfect is dangerous.
I was older by almost a minute, but Henry often made me feel as if he were years ahead. I wanted to ask what he meant. Instead, I joked about staying in Iceland and becoming tour guides.
But for him, coming back had been serious. I’m going to die here. He’d written those words in his journal, which I’d shamelessly read after he stopped confiding in me.
I stopped at the same cafe where we’d once eaten hot dogs with mayonnaise. Back home, I’d been so confident about finding him. But now, the reality that he could be anywhere in this country settled on me like a brick.
I called home and spoke to Mom’s nurse. “She had a bad day today.” Adding, just before hanging up, “I hope you find him soon.”
I hoped so too.
My gaze fell on a wall of photographs. Instead of the usual, perfectly set up shots of waterfalls or aurora borealis, these were remarkable pictures of people doing unremarkable things. One featured an old woman kneading dough behind a glass counter filled with exquisitely ornamented cakes. Another featured a gap-toothed boy on a boat floating on a pristine lake spotted with chunks of glacier.
A sense of connection coursed through me. I thought about the hotel worker on his cigarette break that night.
I asked the waitress in my limited Icelandic if she knew the name of the photographer. She came back with a brochure for an art gallery that was here in town and said something that sounded important. But my heart was racing. Was I about to find Henry?
The moment I entered the gallery, I felt his presence. I scanned the names next to each collection, an eclectic mix from various photographers, until I found his.
I explained to the receptionist that I was Henry’s sister. He paused and asked me to wait. A moment later, he returned with a strikingly tall woman, her red hair cut in a sleek bob.
In a thick accent, she informed me that her husband, the man who took the photographs, had died a year ago in an ice fishing accident. She was very sorry for me to find out this way, but she had no idea Henry even had a sister.
I’d read somewhere that twins could sense one another’s death. I hadn’t sensed it when he’d nearly overdosed in college, and I sure as hell had not sensed his death a year ago.
She guided me gently into her office and offered a drink. “Perhaps some hot tea?” A framed wedding picture of them sat on her desk. Our eyes met one last time. My hands trembled, and I longed for something stronger.
“I finally got the courage to go through his things.” She pulled something from her desk drawer, her sharp eyes softening. “I could not bring myself to read this. I think you should keep it.”
The lump in my throat constricted. I held the battered journal in my hand, its tanned leather cover now soft as a new leaf.