She was so accustomed to the silence strangling her marriage that it took Alda several minutes to realize her husband had even spoken to her. They sat in the living room watching the news, her from the couch, him from the recliner — their new evening ritual, at least since their daughter’s disappearance. Alda sipped at the beer she’d had with dinner as Erlendur guzzled down his third. The news concerned protesters halting the construction of a highway shortening the distance between the towns of Álftanes and Garðabær, where Alda and Erlendur lived.
“Hmm?” Alda asked.
“Reyktek,” Erlendur said, motioning at the television, tongue thick with alcohol.
Alda squinted at the screen, at the construction worker being interviewed by a handsome young reporter in a blue windbreaker.
“… these activists will try anything,” the workman said. He was an older man; his white beard and bushy eyebrows wriggled in the breeze as he spoke.
It was Reyktek, her old work crew: She could make out the logo on the man’s dented hardhat. Memories and names she’d buried resurfaced through the fog of time. That old man was Olav Jónsson — he’d been her construction manager back when she’d been overseeing what, Alda now realized, was this very same highway project.
Erlendur grunted, pushing himself up from the recliner and loping into the kitchen. She heard the refrigerator open and shut, and he reappeared in the living room with a new can of Bríó. He popped the tab with his thumb as he slumped into his threadbare seat.
Alda grabbed the remote from his armrest and turned up the volume to drown him out.
“So you don’t believe their claims?” the reporter asked.
“Their claims Gálgahraun is home to elves?”
The reporter nodded.
Erlendur scoffed. Alda noted the popped blood vessels in his face, the gray salting his dirty blond hair. There’d been a time when her heart had stirred whenever he’d so much as look at her or brush her hand; now, a shadow lay over him.
“Not at all,” Olav said. “These people are upset we’re excavating a hundred-year-old stretch of land. And I understand. These lava fields are very beautiful. But the number of people in Álftanes and Garðabær has tripled the last few years. Traffic has increased. We need another road. Which means we have to come through here.”
Erlendur nodded to himself, then straightened when he caught Alda watching him. “What?”
“So you’re okay with this?”
“I haven’t changed my mind on it, if that’s what you’re asking. It’ll save me at least ten minutes getting to the docks in the mornings.”
Alda turned her attention back to the television.
“… the brainchild of Sigrid Kristjánsdóttir,” the reporter said, “a self-proclaimed seeress who can speak with the huldufólk. Here she is now.”
The camera panned to an older woman in a black dress. Her hair was silver, tied in a tail and thrown over her left shoulder. She wore several beaded necklaces, jeweled bracelets, and gaudy rings. A dark, crooked rock formation loomed behind her, towering over her by several meters.
“I speak for the hidden people, too,” Sigrid Kristjánsdóttir said, grabbing the microphone from the reporter. “They’ve asked me to intercede for them.”
“Why would they need an intercessor?” the reporter asked, leaning forward to speak into the microphone the old lady now held. He winked at the camera.
“This land,” Sigrid said, gesturing around her, “it’s theirs. This rock is their sacred church. Ófeigskirkja.”
“Can’t they just find a new one?”
Sigrid’s face scrunched up. “If someone came to your holy place or to your home and suggested you find a new one, would you be so quick and willing to relocate?”
“Depends how much they paid me,” the reporter said, smiling at the camera.
Sigrid crossed her arms.
The reporter cleared his throat. “But the townsfolk of Garðabær and Álftanes, they need — ”
“We have more than enough roads. By your thinking, soon there will be nothing but roads. Look around you: We’ve already eaten up kilometers and kilometers of sacred land. The huldufólk want this bit of land left alone. Respected. It’s really not so much to ask.”
“The new highway is backed by both the president and the Road and Coastal Administration — it seems unlikely construction will stop. What happens if construction continues as planned?”
The old lady smiled. “The huldufólk can be vengeful creatures.”
“Bah,” Erlendur said, dismissing the woman with a wave of his hand. He leaned over his armrest, snatched the remote from Alda, and changed the channel. A red-haired weatherwoman was finishing her report: Tomorrow would be a good fishing day for Erlendur and his crew.
“Switch it back,” Alda said.
He waved her away, too.
“I want to see what Reyktek — ”
“Should’ve kept your job, then.”
Her breath caught in her throat.
Erlendur sat silent, tense and unrepentant, even as guilt furrowed his face.
Alda took a deep breath and got to her feet, grabbing their plates as she moved into the kitchen. When had he become such an insufferable bastard?
Who was she kidding. She knew exactly when he had.
The old lady’s words echoed in Alda’s head as she ran the dishes under hot water and placed them in the dishwasher.
The huldufólk can be vengeful creatures …
Her mind wandered back in time. She remembered how fiercely she’d fought for the Gálgahraun contract, how proud she’d been when her bosses had accepted her proposal and chosen her as project manager.
Then they’d lost Jóhanna.
There one minute, gone the next. In a park filled with other parents and children. Alda had turned away for a few moments to answer a work call; it couldn’t have taken more than two minutes, maybe less: a logistics question she’d been able to answer without hesitation. But that was all it took. No one had seen Jó disappear.
She’d vanished, a snowflake in a blizzard.
There’d been no leads in the case, only a hole left in the world where Jó used to be. In time, calls stopped, visits evaporated, conversations between her and Erlendur smoldered to nothing. She couldn’t focus on work, couldn’t focus on anything except Jó’s aching absence; her beautiful three-year-old daughter was just … gone. And in her place, a quiet house, an empty bedroom, a stagnant marriage.
The huldufólk can be vengeful creatures.
She shook the thought out of her head. It was ridiculous; she wouldn’t become that woman, that grieving mother.
Alda bent and opened the cupboard beneath the sink to grab the dishwasher detergent. After she’d poured some into the machine, started the wash cycle, and returned the detergent to the cupboard, she leaned back against the counter, crossed her arms over her chest, and sighed.
She didn’t believe in elves. Once, maybe, when she was a child, but not now. She had faint memories of visiting the miniature red-and-white elf houses built near the fields across from her grandparents’ house in Reykjavík; she remembered bringing cookies and milk to them as an offering of sorts, so the elves would “bless” them with good luck. But it’d all been child’s play, hadn’t it? Fairy tales and folklore. Her grandparents couldn’t have actually believed in all that, could they?
Now, she wasn’t so sure.
* * *
Alda awoke later that night in the cold, a light breeze blanketing her bare arms and legs with gooseflesh. She was outside, in the dirt, wearing nothing but her faded green nightshirt. A monstrous rock, somewhat familiar, towered over her.
She sat up to find herself surrounded by green and lightly browning grass rippling away in every direction. Clusters of dark, jutting rocks scarred the rolling hills and dipping hollows.
She gasped and jumped to her feet. The giant rock before her was a tower of black stone. Its rough and cragged surface was splotched with patches of white-green lichen. A small red door with runes carved around its edges — its top barely came up to her shins — leaned against the foot of the rock.
Ófeigskirkja. The elf church.
A din of whispers arose around her — whispers in a dead language swarming through the fields like a malevolent breeze. The whispering grew louder near Ófeigskirkja, as if the rock was a locus of some sort, and in the corners of her eyes Alda saw miniature shadow-shapes creeping toward her.
She whirled around to catch the shadow-shapes only to find rows of elf houses in ever-widening circles facing her, their unlit windows gaping hungrily.
The shadow-shapes continued crowding her, swarming her, and their whispering — hundreds upon hundreds of distinct, chittering voices — grew overwhelming.
She felt tiny fingers skittering up her legs and sides, winding between her fingers and around her hands and up her arms and over her shoulders, pulling her hair.
A weight on her chest woke her and she opened her eyes in the bluish twilight of her own bedroom. A horde of dark shadow-shapes crested the hills of her breasts as she gasped for air.
She screamed, flinging the bedsheet off herself and onto the floor, expecting to hear little bodies thumping against the far wall and thudding to the ground in a heap. Instead, all she heard was her own wild breathing and the panicked drumming of her heart.
Until a new sound, faint, as if from a distance, came to her —
Alda turned on the bed, saw the bedroom door was cracked open and realized the sound was coming from down the hall.
From Jó’s room.
She slid off the bed and opened the door wider, wincing as the hinges squeaked — they would need to be oiled; she couldn’t remember the last time her or Erlendur had done so. She held her breath and tip-toed down the hall.
Louder now as she stood outside Jó’s room. The door wasn’t shut completely, and through the sliver of open space she could make out the outline of a man sitting on the edge of Jó’s bed, silhouetted by twilight, hunched over an open book, his shoulders shaking as he wept.
Heavy, tired sobs.
Alda glanced back at her bedroom: Erlendur’s side of the bed was empty.
She moved to push open Jó’s door, then stopped herself.
What was there left to say? How could she possibly comfort him, when she was the one who’d lost their baby girl? She was sure he blamed her for it; his silence spoke volumes. They both knew it was her fault. None of this would’ve happened if she hadn’t been so focused on her work. What could she do to make up for losing a child? And what solace could she offer him? Solace was a thing shared; she’d found none for herself, and besides, they’d stopped sharing a long time ago. There was nothing to ease their mutual pain. Better to let the poor man mourn alone. God knew she did.
She turned to go, but hesitated.
One of them had to reach out, didn’t they? If they wanted to save what remained of their marriage? That was why they were still here, still together, wasn’t it? Or were they just ghosts haunting the house and the life they’d once shared?
Alda glanced back at Jó’s room.
There was nothing behind that door but another endless sea of sorrow. And she was already drowning.
It was too late, she realized. They’d let so much time pass without addressing any of it, and now, they were both drowning, alone, in their pain, in the abyss Jó had left behind.
She retreated to their bedroom; two drowning people couldn’t save each other.
The door clicked shut behind her.
* * *
The next day, Alda sat on Jó’s bed, sipping coffee from a mug decorated with a faded family picture they’d taken at the Skaftafell glacier a month before Jó vanished. Only vague outlines remained of Alda and Erlendur; Jó had been worn away completely.
On her lap, Alda paged through the book she’d seen her husband crying over the night before: a children’s reprint of Icelandic Folk and Fairy Tales by Jón Árnason. It was Jó’s favorite book; she used to beg them to read her a story from it every night before sleep. Erlendur had left the book on the bed, opened to a story of a baby kidnapped by huldufólk.
Alda shut the book and placed it back on the nightstand, setting her coffee on it and pulling her phone from her pocket. After a quick search online, she tapped in a number and brought the phone to her ear. She picked up her coffee and took a couple quick sips as the line rang.
A woman answered. “Hello?”
“Um, yes, is this Sigrid Kristjánsdóttir?”
“Yes, this is Sigrid.”
Alda placed her mug back on top of Icelandic Folk and Fairy Tales and leaned forward.
“How can I help you, dear?” Sigrid’s voice was kinder than it’d sounded on TV.
“I saw you on the news last night,” Alda said. “With the protestors. You were talking about the, um — ”
“The huldufólk?” Sigrid said.
“Um, yes,” Alda said. “The … elves. Um, do you … would they — ”
“Now, dear,” Sigrid said pleasantly, but with a firmness that reminded Alda of her grandmother, “this is going to be a rather fruitless conversation if you can’t even let yourself speak freely.”
Alda sighed. “Okay. All right.”
“Good. Now, what’s this about the elves?”
“Would they ever … take a child?” Alda’s chest loosened as the words left her mouth.
“Some of the old stories do mention it from time to time, yes.”
Alda couldn’t bring herself to respond.
“But it was only when they’d been provoked or threatened,” Sigrid added. “Usually.”
“Because they can be vengeful creatures …”
“What is this really about, dear?”
Alda chewed at a fingernail, fighting back the tears welling up in her eyes. “Would they take a child from someone involved with the highway project? The one they’re building through Gálgahraun. If this person had been … managing the project, back at the beginning of it all?”
“You know, that’s the second time today I’ve been asked that question.”
Alda stopped chewing her nail. “It is?”
“The wording was somewhat different, mind you, but the question was the same. A man called earlier.”
“Oh,” Alda said. Who would have called Sigrid about this? Olav? They’d been close, back in what might as well have been another life. Did he share her fear that the project was the reason for her daughter’s disappearance? “What did you tell him?”
“I told him it was certainly possible.”
“What if this person made some sort of amends?” Alda asked. “Do you think the elves would give my daughter back?”
“Oh, you poor thing,” Sigrid said. “I’m so sorry.”
Alda’s heart withered in her chest. “They wouldn’t, would they?”
“I didn’t say that. I think they might, if they were responsible for taking the child. And, if they weren’t, I think you’d have some powerful new friends on your side.”
“Oh, yes, I think so. The huldufólk can be very good to those who treat them well.”
Alda hesitated. This all felt so unbelievable. But if there was even the slightest chance …
She cleared her throat. “How can I make it right?”
* * *
Early the next morning, Alda drove out to Gálgahraun. Sigrid Kristjánsdóttir was waiting for her at the rock called Ófeigskirkja with 30 or 40 other protestors. The sun wasn’t up, and everyone warmed themselves with Styrofoam cups of hot coffee — courtesy of Sigrid herself.
As dawn broke, Alda, Sigrid, and the gathered protestors heard the bulldozers and cranes kept several hundred yards away at the construction entrance roar to life.
“It’s time,” Sigrid said.
Alda followed the others and dumped her coffee into a black trash bag passing around the group, then joined the circle forming around Ófeigskirkja, each person clasping hands with the people on their left and right.
They stood resolute as the bulldozers approached, a human wall set against the hungry machines chewing up the earth. A hundred or so workers in white hardhats bearing the Reyktek logo followed close behind.
Alda swallowed. She still wasn’t sure she believed in huldufólk; she still wasn’t sure she believed the land she stood on was sacred, or the rock behind her was some kind of holy place for elves. All she knew was her little girl was gone, and with her, any love that had once existed in her and Erlendur’s marriage.
If there were any chance this could help —
Someone forced their way between Alda and the person on her left, pulling their hands apart and taking hers in their own.
Even as she saw his face in the early morning light, she couldn’t believe it was him.
He said nothing, only gazed at her. She held his eyes for several moments.
The bulldozers pulled to a stop a few yards from the protestors. Alda couldn’t hear much over their engines, but she thought maybe, just maybe, she’d heard the little red door at the foot of Ófeigskirkja creaking open.
Featured image: Shutterstock
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