The Spanish photographer only lasted three days.
His hands shook as he loaded up the rental car. We all came out to watch him leave, not quite believing he was serious. I pulled my red riding hood tight around my face, snowflakes clinging to my eyelashes.
His breath clouded in front of his face when he spoke.
‘It’s just so cold here. And so isolated! How can you stand it?’
I looked at the other artists. Cilla was stamping her feet to keep warm, heavy army boots crushing the snow. Oranje raised an eyebrow under her knitted cap. There was really only one way to answer his question.
‘It’s Iceland, honey,’ I told him. ‘What did you expect?’
We watched his tiny hatchback skitter off, ridiculously inappropriate for the seven hour drive along the coast back to Reykjavik. The weather, unpredictable at best, had welcomed November with snowdrifts so huge I’d stepped into one, and immediately sunk straight up to my waist. As I wrote in my studio I often found myself gazing out the window at the avalanche barriers high up on the mountain peak, holding back blankets of pure white.
The cold made it difficult to inhale properly. The snow flung itself horizontally into my face, my frozen fingers too numb to work a camera. On my daily walks the wind whipped along the fjord with such ferocity I almost felt my ribcage rattle.
It was everything I’d hoped for.
I’d researched several artists’ residencies in Iceland, but knew immediately this was the one for me. With the theme of isolation constant in my writing, I wanted the most remote place I could find. Ólafsfjörður was a tiny fishing village in the far north, up near the Arctic Circle.
From the minute the bus dropped me off near the one shop in town, I knew I’d made the right choice.
I didn’t want to be tempted by gigs, or friends, or the call of drinks down the pub. I wanted to write. This worked out perfectly, for in Ólafsfjörður what few distractions there would have been – the café, the restaurant – were already closed for winter. I had a post office where I’d practise my few words of Icelandic as I sent postcards home, and a tiny supermarket where the fruit and vegies, always imported, came sporadically and often with the bruises that heralded a long journey. Few things grew in Iceland, and what little that did was not near our village. After a month of frozen cod and potato whip from a packet, I still remember my glee when I spotted a shrivelled avocado. It cost thirteen dollars and tasted like sawdust, but my need for something green was intense. I ate it all, then gnawed the skin clean.
The residency house had four bedrooms and four studios. I shared it with artists from Sweden, Singapore and Indonesia. We came together when the coffee was bubbling or the mail arrived, but mostly we kept to ourselves. An unspoken agreement hovered between us not to intrude, but to allow each other the anonymity and isolation that had beckoned us here in the first place.
Occasionally I heard Etza’s guitar notes through our adjoining walls as I wrote. Once I bumped into Cilla leaving her studio. She was holding her hands out in front of her, smeared with a pale paste. ‘Papier maché’, she murmured, her gaze not quite meeting mine. I nodded shyly, feeling as though I’d caught her in some intimate act not meant for my eyes. I closed my studio door and listened. Not until I heard her footsteps fade away did I sit at my desk, and pick up a pen.
Isolation found its way into my stories frequently. Separation from others, both geographically and psychologically, had been a fascination for me ever since the two years in my early twenties when I became agoraphobic, locked within the walls of my inner Melbourne share house. I managed to step back into the world, but the characters in my stories still struggled for intimacy, and more often, against it.
This tiny village in the far north of such an inhospitable country, where volcanoes rent the earth and ice kept your door bound shut, was exactly what I needed.
The smell of the fish factory, nauseating to me when I first arrived, stopped bothering me after three weeks. I would stroll each day past fish bones being plucked clean by seagulls, to the ship wreck in the shallow waters of the fjord. I never quite learned the art of walking on ice. My boots always slid. I had a favourite horse among the herd on the hill; he had one odd blue eye below a snow dusted mane, and would churn up the wet earth with his hooves as he cantered towards me. No matter where I went, the cold was my constant companion, my breath ragged and toes numb.
I wrote every day. I worked on commissioned pieces, story submissions, diary entries and letters that tried to describe the sheer impact of the landscape, and the myriad shades of white outside my window. The novel I’d intended to focus on while up there kept getting taken out, read over, and tucked away again. It just wouldn’t come, though I couldn’t pinpoint why. When I needed to cough up the story bones I would wrap my coat around me and walk, little red riding hood hunting through the snow.
The village was on the mouth of the fjord Eyjafjörður, accessed by a one lane tunnel cut through the rock. It was surrounded by mountains that were caked in snow for my entire residency. Each one of my visits to Iceland had been carefully chosen so as to avoid the lush greenery of its summer: I wanted the cold, and the darkness. I felt strong and sure as I walked each afternoon, waiting for the sun to peek its head above the mountain tops for the few hours a day it succeeded. There was a regenerative power in the Arctic light reflecting off the snow, and I breathed it in. The first night the aurora borealis flickered above my rooftop I knew I wouldn’t be able to find the words to describe it, no matter how many months I tried.
But then, I didn’t speak much. I didn’t feel the need. Takk takk meant thanks, and the beautiful bless meant goodbye, thrown over my red woollen shoulder as I took home another armful of mottled mandarins and the curdled yoghurt they called skyr. I grew addicted to the latter, reciting the names of berries in Icelandic as I dropped them, frozen, into the bowl. Bláber, brómber, hindberjum. Blueberries, blackberries, raspberries. Although I’d studied the language at university as part of my linguistic degree, it remained just out of reach in my month up north. My accent marked me out as Other, just as much as my wild red hair and the leopard print earmuffs that were clamped over my head every time I opened the front door.
So I walked, wrote and ate berries. I slept deeply; I spoke little. I thrived. All that white was soothing and sacred, until finally I realised that the reason I couldn’t work on my novel was that its centre was in the wrong place. It wasn’t in Iceland.
This knowledge was packed into my suitcase at the end of my month up north. It accompanied me back to Reykjavik, where the clash and clang of the city, tiny though it is, jarred me at first. I wandered the streets, taking photos of the beautiful primary coloured buildings, the comical puffin souvenirs and the sky that almost always shone blue, even when the sub-zero cold made my breath cloud in front of my face. I took notes in my rented attic apartment, drinking the toxic Icelandic spirit Brennivín, ‘burning wine’, and watching through the skylights for the aurora borealis.
On my return home to Australia, I knew what I needed to do. I started to rewrite the first draft of my novel to set it squarely up north, back in the land I love most.
When I work on it now, my cheeks remember the cold sting of the wind, and the creaking of ropes mooring boats to the harbour wall. I write of the prices so insanely high a single lunch could blow a day’s budget, and the stench of the hot tap water, bursting from sulphuric underground springs as though from hell itself. And it makes me so homesick for the north I cannot stand it.
I have a pack of fortune telling cards I bought at the Kolaportið flea market in Reykjavik. They are thick ivory cards embellished with bold black illustrations and font, spouting guidance in the language I love diving into. They sit on my antique station master’s desk, alongside dolphin bones and Viking sagas; all mementoes of my time in the Land of Ice and Fire.
I cradle the cards in my hands. I’m headed back to Iceland next month, ready to research the ending of my novel and even more ready to taste skyr and call out ‘bless’ to strangers. I think of the Icelandic word heimsku, ‘foolish,’ with its literal meaning of ‘one who stays at home’. And I draw a card, wondering if I’m ready to return, and whether Iceland’s hooks will dig a little deeper into me, and be even more painful to pull out.
Though I never have before, I ask the cards a question. I rest my hand on the back of one, and murmur ‘Am I ready to go back to Iceland?’ I turn it over.
Ja, núna strax, it says.
I run a finger down the font.
Yes, it tells me. Yes, right now.
‘Tunnel’ is a collaboration between South Korean visual artist Eom Yu Jeong and Australian sound artist Kate Carr. It offers another creative perspective inspired by the same artist residency Rijn attended in Ólafsfjörður, Iceland.
Rijn Collins is an award winning Australian writer with over 100 short stories published in anthologies and journals, performed at literary festivals, and broadcast on Australian and American radio. She is a freelance writer for ABC Radio National, and won the inaugural Sarah Awards for Audio Fiction in New York in 2016. More of her work can be found on her website.