The waves rolled the boat to and fro in a constantly changing rhythm. The prow bobbed gently up and down as sharper movements shook the vessel, rocking it fiercely from side to side. The skipper struggled to fasten the little boat to a narrow steel post, but the weathered floating dock kept retreating, as if it were part of a game. He patiently repeated the same movements over and over, pulling the frayed rope in the direction of the post, but each time the coarse loop was about to fall into place, it seemed to be yanked away. It was as though the sea were playing with them, showing them who was in charge. In the end the man managed to secure the boat, but it was unclear whether the waves had grown bored of teasing him or whether the captain's experience and patience had got the better of them. He turned to the three passengers, his expression serious, and said: "There you go, but be careful stepping up." Then he jerked his chin at the boxes, bags and other things that they'd brought with them. "I'll help you move this off the boat, but I can't help you take it to the house, unfortunately." He squinted at the surface of the sea. "It looks like I'd better get back as quick as I can. You'll have time to sort all this stuff out once I'm gone. There should be a wheelbarrow around here somewhere."
"No problem." Garðar smiled faintly at the man but made no move to start unloading the boat. He shuffled his feet and exhaled loudly, then turned his gaze inland, where several houses were visible above the line of the beach. Further away several roofs glinted. Although it was early afternoon, the faint winter light was fading quickly. It wouldn't be long before it was completely dark. "This place isn't exactly buzzing with life," he said, with false cheer.
"Well, no. Were you expecting it to?" The skipper didn't hide his surprise. "I thought you'd been here before. You might want to reconsider your plan. You're welcome to come back with me; free of charge, of course."
Garðar shook his head, studiously avoiding looking at Katrín, who was trying to make eye contact with him so she could nod, or indicate in some other way that she really didn't mind going back. She'd never been as excited as him about this adventure, though neither had she opposed it outright. Instead she'd gone along with it, letting herself be carried along by his enthusiasm and his certainty that it would all go according to plan, but now that he seemed to be wavering, her own confidence in it had ebbed away. Suddenly she felt quite sure that total failure was the best they could hope for, but chose not to imagine the worst-case scenario. She glanced at Líf, who was supporting herself on the gunwale, trying to regain the balance she'd left behind on the pier in Ísafjörður. After battling seasickness for most of the voyage, Líf looked utterly wretched, bearing only a passing resemblance to the perky woman who'd been so keen to come with them that she'd ignored Katrín's words of caution. Even Garðar didn't seem himself; as they'd drawn closer to shore, the bravado he'd shown as they prepared for the trip had faded. Of course, Katrín could hardly talk; she was sitting on a sack of firewood, doggedly refusing to stand up. The only difference between her and the other two was that she'd never been looking forward to the trip. The only passenger who seemed excited to disembark was Putti, Líf's little dog, who — in defiance of all their assumptions to the contrary — had turned out to have excellent sea legs.
Apart from the lapping of the waves, the silence was absolute. How had she ever imagined this could work? The three of them, all alone in the dead of winter in a deserted village way up north in the middle of nowhere, without electricity or heat, and the only way back by sea. If something happened, they had no one to rely on but themselves. And now that Katrín was facing the facts she admitted to herself that their resourcefulness was decidedly limited. None of them was particularly outdoorsy, and almost any other task you could name would suit them better than renovating old houses. She opened her mouth to make the decision for them and accept the captain's offer, but then shut it without saying a word, sighing quietly to herself. The moment had passed, there was no going back, and it was far too late to protest now. She had no one to blame but herself for getting involved in this nonsense, because she'd let numerous opportunities to raise objections or change direction go by. At any point since the house project had first been raised she could have suggested that they decline the offer to buy a share in it, for example, or that the renovations could wait until summer, when there was a regular ferry schedule. Katrín suddenly felt a cold breeze and pulled the zip of her jacket higher. This whole thing was ridiculous.
But what if it wasn't really her passivity that was to blame, but the eagerness of Einar, now deceased, who'd been Garðar's best friend and Líf's husband? It was hard to be angry with him now, when he was six-feet under; nonetheless it seemed clear to Katrín that he bore the greatest responsibility for this absurd situation. Einar had hiked in Hornstrandir two summers ago and so was familiar with Hesteyri, where the house was located. He had spun them the story of a village at the end of the world, beauty and peace and endless hiking trails in an unforgettable setting. Garðar had been inspired — not by the lure of nature, but by the fact that Einar hadn't been able to rent a room in Hesteyri, since the only guesthouse there had been full. Katrín couldn't remember which of them had gone on to suggest they see if any of the other houses there were for sale and transform one into a guesthouse, but it didn't matter; once the idea had been mooted there was no going back. Garðar had been unemployed for eight months and he was completely gripped by the idea of finally doing something useful. It was hardly going to dampen his interest when Einar expressed a keen desire to take part, offering to contribute both labor and capital. Then Líf had stoked the fire with extravagant praise for the brilliance of the idea and characteristically effusive encouragement. Katrín remembered now how much Líf's eagerness had got on her nerves; she'd suspected it was partly motivated by the prospect of time apart from her husband, as the renovations would require him to spend long periods of time up north. At that time their marriage had appeared to be falling apart, but when Einar died, Líf's grief had seemed bottomless. An ugly thought stirred in Katrín's mind: it would have been better if Einar had died before the purchase of the house had been completed. But unfortunately that wasn't how it had happened: now they were stuck with the property, and only one man excited about the renovation project where there had been two. The fact that Líf was so keen to take on her husband's role and press on with the repairs probably had something to do with the grieving process; she had neither skill nor interest in that kind of work, that much was certain. If she'd wanted to pull out, the house would have gone back on the market and they'd probably be sitting at home watching TV now, in the comforting arms of the city where night was never as black as here in Hesteyri.
When it became clear that the project hadn't died with Einar, Líf and Garðar had gone west one weekend and sailed from Ísafjörður to Hesteyri to take a look at the house. It had certainly been in poor condition, but that did nothing to diminish Garðar and Líf's excitement. They returned with a pile of photographs of every nook and cranny of the house and Garðar went straight to work planning what needed to be done before the start of the tourist season. From the photos, Katrín would have said that the house was held together by its paint, despite Garðar's insistence that the previous owner had carried out all the major repairs needed. For her part, Líf added flowery descriptions of Hesteyri's incredible natural beauty. Before long, Garðar was making in-depth calculations, raising the price of an overnight stay and increasing the number of guests that could fit into the little two-story house every time he opened his Excel spreadsheet. At least it would be interesting to see the place with her own eyes and work out how exactly Garðar intended to accommodate all these people.
Katrín got to her feet, but couldn't see the house from where she stood on deck. From one of the panoramic shots that Garðar had taken of the area it had looked as if it was located at the edge of the settlement, but rather high up, so it should be visible. What if it had simply collapsed after Garðar and Líf had been on their reconnaissance trip? Nearly two months had passed since then, and the area was subject to no small amount of foul weather. She was about to suggest that they verify this before the boat sailed away when the skipper, doubtless starting to worry that he might have to carry them off the boat, said: "Well, at least you're lucky with the weather." He looked up at the sky. "It could still change despite the forecast, so you should be prepared for anything."
"We are. Just look at all this stuff." Garðar smiled, a trace of his previous conviction returning to his voice. "I think the only thing we have to fear is pulled muscles."
"If you say so." The captain didn't elaborate on this, and instead lifted a box onto the pier. "I hope you have fully charged phones; if you climb up to the top of that hill you can get a connection. There's no point trying down here."
Garðar and Katrín both looked toward the hill, which seemed more like a mountain to them. Líf was still staring back at the eddying black surface of the sea. "That's good to know." Garðar patted his coat pocket. "Hopefully we won't have any need for them. We should be able to make it through the week; we'll wait for you here at the pier, like we discussed."
"Bear in mind that I can't make it out here if the weather is bad. But if that's the case, I'll come as soon as it clears up. If it's a bit rough, obviously you don't need to stand here waiting on the pier; I'll come up to the house to get you. You can't hang around here in the cold and wind." The man turned and looked over the fjord. "The forecast is fair, but a lot can change in a week. It doesn't take much to make the boat bob like a cork, so we'll have to hope it's not too rough."
"How bad does the weather have to be to stop you from coming?" Katrín tried to hide her irritation at this pronouncement. Why hadn't he told them this before they made arrangements with him? Maybe they would have hired a bigger boat. But as soon as the thought entered her mind, she realized that they wouldn't; a bigger boat would have cost far more.
"If the waves are high on the open sea it's not likely I'd attempt it." He looked back over the fjord again and nodded at the water. "I won't sail if they're much worse than this." Then he turned to face them. "I need to get going." He went to the stack of supplies on deck and passed Garðar the mattress that was lying on top. They formed an assembly line to move the boxes, paint pots, firewood, tools, and black bin bags stuffed with non-breakable items onto the floating pier. While Katrín arranged the items along the pier to keep the end of it free, Líf was allowed to rest. She was in a bad way; it was all she could do just to hobble onto land and lie down near the top of the beach. Putti followed her, jumping about on the sand, obviously delighted to have solid ground under his feet and blind to the sorry condition of his owner. It took all Katrín's strength to keep up with the men, and sometimes they were forced to jump onto the pier to help her. Finally the cargo stood in a long line on the dock, a kind of guard of honor for the visitors. The skipper started shuffling his feet impatiently. He seemed more eager than them to part company. His presence provided a sense of security that would disappear with his little boat over the horizon; unlike them, he had dealt with the forces of nature before and would be prepared for whatever might befall him. Both Garðar and Katrín flirted with the idea of asking him to stay and give them a helping hand, but neither of them expressed it. Finally the man brought things to a close. "Well, all you need to do now is get ashore, and you're on your way." He directed his words at Garðar, who smiled half-heartedly, then clambered onto the floating pier. He and Katrín stood there, staring down at the man with bewildered expressions. He looked away, half embarrassed.
"You'll be fine. I just hope your friend feels better." He nodded toward Líf, who was now sitting up. Her white jacket stood out sharply, a reflection of how poorly the new visitors fitted into these surroundings. "See, the poor love seems to be feeling better already." His words failed to cheer them up — if that had been his intention — and Katrín wondered how they looked to him: a couple from Reykjavík, a teacher and a graduate in business administration, both barely over thirty and neither of them cut out for any great physical exertion; not to mention the third wheel, who could barely lift her head. "I'm sure everything will be all right," the captain repeated gruffly, but without much conviction. "But you shouldn't wait too long to get your gear up to the house; it'll be dark soon."
A heavy, tangled lock of hair blew across Katrín's eyes. In all the rush not to forget anything on the list of necessary building materials and supplies, she had forgotten to bring hair bands. Líf claimed she'd only brought one with her and had had to use it during the sea crossing to keep her hair out of her face as she vomited. Katrín tried to push the hair back with her fingers, but the wind immediately ruffled it again. Garðar's hair wasn't faring much better, though it was a lot shorter than hers. Their hiking shoes looked like they'd been bought specifically for this trip, and although their windproof trousers and jackets weren't brand new, they might just as well have been — they'd been given them as wedding presents by Garðar's siblings, but this was the first time they'd had a chance to use them. Líf had bought her white ski suit for a skiing trip to Italy and it was about as appropriate to their current environment as a bathrobe. It was also clear from their pale skin that they weren't big on outdoor pursuits. At least they were all in good shape from spending hours at the gym, although Katrín suspected that whatever strength they'd managed to build up was unlikely to be sufficient for the work they'd be doing here.
"Do you know if any other visitors are expected to come here this week?" Katrín crossed her fingers behind her back. If so, there would still be hope that they could get a ride home earlier if everything went badly for them.
The skipper shook his head. "You don't know much about this place, do you?" They hadn't been able to talk much on the way due to the noise of the engine.
"No. Not really."
"No one comes here except during the summer, since there's no real reason to be here in the dead of winter. People stay in one of the houses over the New Year, and one or two house owners pop over sometimes to make sure that everything's in order, but otherwise it's empty here during the winter months." The man stopped and looked over what was visible of the settlement. "Which house was it you bought?"
"The one furthest back. I think it must have been the priest's residence." Garðar's voice betrayed a hint of pride. "You actually can't see it from here in the dark, but otherwise it's quite prominent."
"What? Are you sure?" The skipper looked surprised. "No priest lived in this village. When there was still a church here, it was served from Aðalvík. I think you must have been given the wrong information." Garðar hesitated and various thoughts crossed Katrín's mind, among them the hopeful notion that this was all a misunderstanding: there was no house, and they could turn right round and go home.
No, I've had a look at it and it clearly used to be a priest's house. At least, there's a rather nice cross carved into the front door."