Belly of the Whale

Öxnadal, Iceland

Chapter 23: Belly of the Whale

‘Well, Snorri, you old fox. Even you did not expect to see this! The Fimbul-Winter is truly here!’

Having lived alone for most of his adult life, Snorri was used to talking to himself. He did not see it as odd. ‘It’s the only way I can have an intelligent conversation around here!’ he would joke. In truth, he’d had plenty of company over the years – hundreds of Gimli’s brightest hopes, scratching out there sentences in his classroom while he tried to kindle in them a love of history and literature, geography and art; and then, after he retired, the various audiences he shared his considerable repertoire of tales with. He had been working on an oral history of Gimli for decades, painstakingly collecting family histories, anecdotes, songs, folk tales, jokes, folklore … anything. He took perfunctory notes, sometimes audio recordings, but most were stored in his carpet-bag of memory. He felt it his duty to keep the material alive, in circulation, fearing it would die out if it was locked in written form. Whenever he heard a tale, he would exchange it for one of his own. A joke for a joke, a song for a song, and so on. It seemed fair barter. The fact he was as good a listener as speaker, made him welcome around most people’s hearths. Many found themselves opening their hearts to him, and sharing things they hadn’t talked about in years. Secrets and ghosts, and tears of joy and sorrow.

Yes, he had plenty of company. Returning to his small place he would reflect upon what his snares and traps of smiles and handshakes had brought him. He never went hungry.

His bright, canny gaze swept over the flatland, scanning left until it alighted upon the cluster of buildings he knew as home – so frail and vulnerable looking against the might of this freak winter.

‘Ah, good citizens of Gimli. May Heimdal protect you!’

He replaced his goggles and hood, and, taking up his poles, skied along the lakeshore down towards the scattered homes on its fringes. 

As he skied, he sang a Dakota tune to himself about the return of the Thunder Bird, which heralded the Spring.

The first house he came to was the Redcrow’s place. He’d heard how they were fearing the worst for their son, young Eddy, and so Snorri decided to call in on them, to be neighbourly.

He placed his skis against the porch, and stamping his boots free of snow, he knocked on the door.

Sitting Cloud answered, looking flustered in an apron. Good smells were coming from inside, as well as cussing from her husband, yelling from her daughter, and snoring from her father.

‘Well, well, look who rolled down the hill!’

‘I was passing by. Thought I’d check in on you.’

‘What, are you the district nurse now?’ She laughed. ‘Better come inside then, dry your boots. Quick, before we lose the heat!’ Sitting Cloud bustled him inside. She noted the brace of conies. ‘Look at you, the great white hunter!’

Snorri carefully put down his rifle, and lifted the rabbits off. ‘Figured I needed something for my pot, but here – have one! A gift!’

‘Oh, Snorri…’

‘Go on. No point in being backwards in coming forwards. We all know how hard it is to keep bellies fed at the moment, with the roads blocked, and the stores running low.’

Sitting Cloud accepted it, giving him a peck on the cheek and a hug.

‘What’s this? I turn my back for five minutes and you’re having an affair with a senior citizen!’ It was Magnus, standing in the doorway, a bear of a man in an Icelandic sweater.

‘Well, he’s in good shape, husband – unlike you!’ Sitting Cloud laughed, slapping his sizeable belly.

‘Keep feeding us your infernal pulses and beans and we’ll all end up like him! A streak of piss in the snow!’ He roared, and gave their visitor a bear-hug. ‘How are you, you old fox!’

‘Trying to breathe!’ Snorri gasped.

‘Come in! Have a shot of something warming…’ Magnus started to clatter around the drinks cupboard and finally found two unused glasses, which he dusted with the bottom of his sweater.

‘Look! He’s brought us a rabbit!’

‘Then you are thrice-welcome, Snorri! Sit. Warm your bones. Tell us your news. We’re all in the dark here now the internet has gone down. According to my blessed daughter that really signifies the end of the world!’ he yelled across the room.

‘Keep it down, you oaf. Father is trying to sleep!’ said Sitting Cloud, clearing a chair for their guest.

‘That’s all he does these days!’ rumbled Magnus.

‘So would you, if you’d hunted down a mankiller!’ she hissed.

‘Yeah, yeah. How grandfather saved Gimli. We’ll never hear the end of that one!’

Snorri was already very familiar with how the Sheriff and Running Bear tackled the Wendigo. The details had been kept away from the press, but the ‘Gimli grapevine’ soon had worked it up into legend. He still needed to talk to Ava and the old man about it – but the heavy snow had caught them all off-guard, and most folk had been snowed in for days now.

‘Here!’ Magnus presented Snorri with a shot glass of vodka and clinked it with his own. ‘Skol!’

Snorri waited for his host to settle, sipping his vodka slowly. ‘Ah, how I’ve missed your antifreeze, Magnus!’ They watched the log-burner for a while, while Sitting Cloud fussed in the kitchen. Custom dictated they offered him chocolates and coffee, but they were running low. ‘How are you all … bearing up?’

Magnus downed his vodka, leaned in close and spoke low: ‘Siggy is taking it the worst. She won’t give up. Believes he’s still out there somewhere. Surviving – in this!’

‘What about …?’ Snorri nodded to the kitchen.

Magnus blew out his cheeks. ‘Well, a mother, y’know. He was the apple of her eye. She’s coping by going into overdrive. Says we need to keep his room ready, the place warm and broth on the go, as though he was going to walk through the door at any minute!’ He shook his head, staring at the empty glass.

‘Eddy is a chip off the old block. If he’s anything like you two stubborn old mules he’ll be out there somewhere, making a go of it. I just know it.’

‘See! See! What did I tell you!’ It was Siggy, standing in the door from the bedrooms, looking wild-haired and dressed in a Rocky and Bullwinkle onesy and dressing gown, with one slipper.

‘Siggy, please!’ groaned Magnus.

‘Sit down, love. Have something to eat…’ implored Sitting Cloud.

‘Hey, Siggy’s right. It’s a tough old world out there at the moment, but we can’t give up hope.’

‘I can hear a story coming on…’ Magnus smiled.

‘Only if you want one…?’

‘Please, go on.’ Sitting Cloud sat down and gestured to her daughter, who curled up onto her.

‘You may well know this tale but I find with the good ones you can tell them again and again – like drinking a glass of water. Always hits the spot when you’re thirsty!’

‘Get on with it then!’ said Magnus, pouring them both another shot.

‘Rabbit lived with his grandma in their snug old lodge. Every day he went a-hunting. But you know what? No matter how early he got up, someone always beat him too his traps, leaving them empty. “Darn it!” said Rabbit. The only clue who it was – a very long foot print. “I’m gonna get up super early tomorrow, and catch that varmint red-handed!” So, back he went to his lodge, and tried to get an early night’s sleep, but he could hardly settled in anticipation. By the time he finally fell asleep rooster woke him up. He sprang out of bed. ‘The traps! The snares!’ He scarpered to them, but it was already too late. The long-footed thief had already been and got his breakfast, courtesy of his efforts. Rabbit hopped about in vexation. He returned to his grandma empty-handed again. He complained about his rival to his grandmother, who wondered what he had against him. She was wiser and perhaps knew the truth of it, and smiled at her grandson’s plans to stay awake all night to catch the culprit. He went back to the snares and traps and hid among the undergrowth. Using a strong bowstring, he set a snare by the tell-tale tracks, hoping to catch the secret hunter. He was tired from all his hard-work and lack of sleep from the night before, so he nodded off. When he awoke it was day. He panicked, but to his surprise, he found his trap had worked. He had caught the thief who was the Sun itself! Rabbit ran home and told his grandmother in great excitement. “I’ve caught him! I’ve caught him!” “Who have you caught, grandson?” “A very bright fellow. So bright in fact, it hurts me to look directly at him!” “Hmm,” pondered grandmother, looking at the grey sky and shivering. “I think you should go back and let him go and quick!” So, Rabbit ran back at top speed and sure enough, he found Sun caught in his trap, all tangled up with the bow-string. “Get me out of this mess this instant! I’ve got a busy day and you’re making me late!” blazed the Sun in his fury.  Rabbit felt the heat of his wrath, but did as he bid. He ducked and dived and, finally, with his good hunting knife – snick – cut Sun free. Immediately, Sun soared up into the sky and returned light and heat to the world, which was starting to get dark and chilly. Rabbit breathed a sigh of relief, but winced – for a patch of fur between his shoulders had been scorched yellow by the sun and remains so to this day, a constant reminder of when Rabbit caught the Sun.’

Snorri finished his tale, and was glad to see Magnus, Sitting Bear and Siggy all sitting there, gazing into the flames of the burner.

‘Well,’ he stretched. ‘I best be on my way. Thanks for the drink. And don’t worry about a bite to eat. I’ve got plenty to keep me going!’

He got up and hugged them one by one.

Magnus handed him his rifle; Sitting Cloud the remaining rabbits.

Putting on his skis, he waved to them as they stood in the doorway. ‘Don’t give up hope, the sun will come back!’ 

Snorri carried on his way, his load slightly lighter – he had six rabbits left – but his heart fuller. He hoped his story helped in some way. On a practical level the rabbit certainly would – providing a meal for a day. Stories, he found, provided food that lasted longer. Despite all the sophistication of modern life, or perhaps because of it folks needed nourishing stories to live by. For too long they had lived off the fast food kind of stories pumped out by the mass media. A healthy mind was like a healthy body – and he prided himself in keeping in shape – you needed to feed it well. A good diet; regular exercise. If you eat junk, you feel like junk, and your dreams become filled with junk. Here he was, in his seventies, and still running marathons and using his extensive memory every day. Use it, or lose it, as they say. Most folks relied upon ‘the Cloud’ or an external hard-drive to save things and no longer try to remember anything. Passwords and pins that’s all people remember these days, thought Snorri, pushing on through the snow. Passwords and pins!

He waved to the Sheriff and one of her deputies, doing the rounds on their snow-mobiles. Ava Rivet was a good woman, thought Snorri. Gimli was lucky to have her. Unlike that waste-of-space Mayor. Even as a pupil, Sonny Thornson had been a selfish bully, always picking on the other kids, stealing their snacks. Now as Mayor of Gimli he was even worse, making sure him and his cronies lined their pockets with local contracts and benefited from his position. In some ways, he was like Snorri – but he used his silver tongue to get his way, making people laugh, playing the buffoon, while he worked his way up the ladder. He was gunning for State Governor – plain as day – but for now, Gimli was his personal fiefdom. Running the department store hadn’t been enough for him. He was always hungry for more. Snorri suspected many of his appetites were on the wrong side of the law, but he didn’t want to poke that hornet’s nest!

With the freak winter all bets were off. Everyone’s priorities shifted to core needs. Survival. Though it didn’t have to be just the fittest who survived. More than ever we need to look out for each other, Snorri thought.

He came to the house of the local priest and saw a lonely light burning in the front room. Reverend Viktor Olafsson was an old chess-playing friend of Snorri’s, and so he called by. His friend was clearly ‘well lubricated’, even though it was not even midday. ‘Snorri! Come in! Come in!’

Olafsson flopped down heavily in his armchair. ‘Help yourself, old friend…’ the priest waved to the drinks table. ‘I’m afraid I’m not really in a state to play a game today…’ He picked up his tumbler. ‘Here’s mud in your eye,’ he toasted, swooshing the contents round his mouth, before swallowing it. ‘Ahh.’

‘Are you eating anything, Viktor?’

`Oh, peanuts … pretzels … There’s stuff in the cupboards, but I really can’t find the time …’

‘You’ve got to eat well in this weather, friend. And you need something to soak up the drink…’

‘You sound like my housekeeper… Always nagging me. I’ve told her she needs to look after her own. The journey is worth it. Nobody is going anywhere. Certainly nobody is coming to church… You know how many people I’ve gave my sermon to on Sunday? Three! And one of those was the organist!’

‘Don’t take it personally. It’s hard to get anywhere at the moment. Unless you have skis or a snowmobile, well, forget it.’

‘Not everybody is as nimble as you! I don’t know how you manage it, doing your crazy running! Anybody think you sold your soul to the Devil for a good pair of legs.’

‘Not quite. But here … have one of my rabbits. Make some broth.’

The priest accepted the gift, stroking the limp body like it was a pet. ‘Thank you.’

Snorri tried to work out what the strange sound was a realised Olafsson was crying. He got up and, awkwardly, put his arms round his old friend.

‘It’s all so … fucking pointless,’ spat the priest, snot and tears running down his face.

‘Here,’ Snorri offered his friend a tissue. He waited for Olafsson to compose himself. ‘Don’t give up, my friend. You know I’ve never been one of the faithful, but I do believe we all need stories to get us through this. We need something to believe in.’

‘That’s the problem… I’m not sure if I do any more.’ Olafsson stared at the facets of his tumbler. ‘All the people suffering … dying … because of this infernal winter. How can a God justify that? How can I explain it to my flock, when I don’t have an explanation for it? It feels like the light of the Father has left us. His children so appalled Him, He has decided to forsake us. It’s no less then we deserve.’

Snorri gave him a hard look. ‘You’re just experiencing the belly of the whale, my friend.’

‘I’m not alone in there! Welcome to Leviathan! Population eight billion and counting!’

‘Here, let me share a story…’ offered Snorri.

The priest shrugged. ‘Why not? Got time to kill. S’plenty of time at the end of time,’ he slurred.

Snorri frowned with concern, but took a deep breath and plunged in. ‘Once they was a hill that ate people. That’s right, a hill with one hell of an appetite. Rabbit’s grandma told him to stay away from it! “Don’t go near that hill, grandson – it has a mean cussedness to it. Will eat you soon as look at you! Even when it’s not peckish!” But Rabbit had a contrary nature. The more he was warned not to do something, the more he wanted to. And so he found himself nibbling closer and closer to that mean old hill and its cave-like crack of its mouth. He knew the name of that hill and feeling mischievous Rabbit called out: “Hey! Pahe-Wathahuni, open that big flap of your’s and eat me if you dare!” But the hill knew Rabbit and his tricks and so ignored him, pretending to sleep. But when a hunting party of two-leggeds came close Pahe-Wathahuni opened his big wide maw and swallowed them whole. Acting fast, Rabbit dashed in behind them just before the mouth closed. Rabbit burrowed deep into the hill’s belly, but this tickled the monster mound, who coughed him up like a hairball. Finding himself back outside, Rabbit waited and another hunting party came along. The same thing happened – the hunters were gobbled up whole – but this time Rabbit, disguised as a two-legged, went in with them. He slid all the way down into the bowels of the hill. There, entangled in the monster’s guts, were the bones of those that had been devoured, and the bodies of those half-digested, and some that were still alive. And then there was a gigantic juicy heart. “What a juicy heart!” called out Rabbit to Pahe-Wathahuni, who was surprised and disconcerted to hear the voice within him! “Why don’t you eat it?” cried Rabbit. “It looks so tasty!” Rabbit took his good hunting knife and went as if to eat it himself. The hill, feeling ‘something that he ate’ was violently disagreeing with him, set to howling. This didn’t stop Rabbit slicing the heart in two – chop! The hill shuddered and split asunder. All the folk still alive within its belly were disgorged and, boy, were they glad to see the blue sky again! They hailed Rabbit as their deliverer, for he had cut Pahe-Wathahuni’s heart in two! The two-legged wanted to make Rabbit chief, but he declined, saying all he wanted was the big heap of blubber and guts left by the dead hill – this would feed him and his grandmother for a very long time. And so he carried the whole lot back to his lodge, and sure enough, they had good eating for many moons after. The end.’

The priest was snoring loudly by this point. Snorri sighed and gently took the tumbler from his hand and placed it on the table. Bidding his friend a quiet goodbye, he put his kit back on and set off, once more, into the snow.

He only had five rabbits left now. Snorri figured he probably wouldn’t have any left by the time he got home, but that would okay. He had plenty of dried and tinned food, and his neighbours mattered more. They were ravenous for story, even if they fell asleep at the first taste! Stories were the best rabbit broth. But as he pushed on through the frozen town, Snorri realised he had to come up with a new story for its population – one they were all writing day-by-day: How the town of Gimli survived the Great Winter.

***

Extract of Thunder Road by Kevan Manwaring

Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2020

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