I dedicate this story to the wonderful people and puffins of Iceland.
From the island of the North, of ice and snow,
Of blossoming valleys and blue mountains,
Of the midnight sun and the dreamy mists,
The home of the goddess of northern lights.
-Icelandic verse inscribed on the shield of the Thorfinn Karlsefni statue, sculpted by Einar Jónsson.
Or, if you prefer:
We come from the land of the ice and snow,
From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow.
The hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands,
To fight the horde, singing and crying: Valhalla, I am coming.
-Immigrant Song, Led Zeppelin
Iceland, 1005 A.D.
The two had been walking all day. In the light of the midday sun Leif carried an iron axe, and his sidekick Thorvald carried a satchel containing their paltry foodstuff. Thick carpets of moss covered the vast expanse of volcanic rock that they walked across toward a smoldering mountain range on the horizon.
“By God,” said Leif, “There’s not a single tree in sight.”
“Yes,” replied Thorvald, “It’s certainly treeless, save for the occasional birch, which is a very small kind of tree.”
“Þingvöllr must lie within a day’s journey. By my estimation we’ve trekked fifty kilometers inland.” Leif looked to the sky, “I haven’t seen a puffin since the wreck.”
“Well, sir, they are birds.”
Leif stopped walking, assessed the wondrous terrain, and then shook his head toward Thorvald. “’They are birds…’” quoted Leif, “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Well, –” began Thorvald.
“Of course they’re birds!” yelled Leif, “They’re puffins! Have you ever seen a puffin that wasn’t a bird?”
“No, not in this place.”
“Oh? Then in another place perhaps?”
“Where?” demanded Leif.
“Oh, you know, it was just a place.”
“Thorvald,” asked Leif, “have you ever been to place that wasn’t a place?”
White clouds raced through the sky in wild, enigmatic formations, distant geysers erupted sporadically, sending towers of water into the air, and the steam from sulphur vents drifted along the base of olive green mountains. Leaning on the knob of his axe, Leif gazed upon the surreal dreamscape encompassing them. “Look at this place, it’s like a green moon,” he said.
Thorvald looked around and said, “What place?”
Leif shook his head. “I’m glad you’ve finally lost your mind. It’s about lunchtime wouldn’t you say?”
“I would say,” said Thorvald, opening the satchel, “It’s about lunchtime.”
“I could eat a whale.”
Thorvald removed a dried herring from the satchel and moved the fish through the air as though it were swimming. “This is like a small whale.”
Leif watched Thorvald playing around with the dried fish.
Thorvald continued, “It’s like a very small kind of whale.”
Leif’s stomach growled.
“Is your stomach auto-cannibalizing?” asked Thorvald as he placed the fish on a rock.
Leif sighed, “Damn you for conjuring up such a bloodthirsty image.”
“Cannibalization,” said Leif, “You shouldn’t mention such a dreadful thing in a bind like this.”
“Oh,” said Thorvald, poking his finger into Leif’s stomach, “touchy subject?”
Leif swiped Thorvald’s hand away and said, “Yes, as a matter of fact, it is.”
“You’re going to eat me aren’t you?”
“If you don’t slice up that fish I may.”
“Have you ever eaten anyone?”
“What?” exclaimed Thorvald, “I was only kidding, that’s crazy! You never told me about that.”
“I was starving, and it was in defense.”
“Defense is a place in Vinland?”
“No, it’s not a place –”
“Is it a place that’s not a place, is it a place that’s not a place?!”
“No,” yelled Leif, “I was defending my settlement in Greenland!” He stared at the clouds that mutated into the shapes of his memories as they churned above the mountains. “I ate the natives who attacked us.”
“That is insane,” Thorvald said, “How did they taste?”
“I don’t remember actually. I was hallucinating heavily on amanita muscaria and reindeer piss at the time.”
Thorvald handed Leif several slices of fish and said, “Here you go, don’t eat me, you big oaf.” But before Leif took a bite Thorvald interrupted, “Wait, not so fast.”
Leif paused with the herring in his mouth.
Thorvald said, “It’s 1005 A.D., and we’re in Iceland.”
“Sooo, Iceland’s converted to a Christian land since we last visited Þingvöllr five years ago. The General Assembly adopted Christianity during that big ceremony at Law Rock. Remember?”
“You were drunk, yelling at the goðar during the vote. Then afterward you stood on that waterfall and helped Þorgeir the Lögsögumaður toss statues of the gods into the Skjálfandafljót.”
“Oh yeah,” Leif smiled, “I forgot about that.”
“Well, in Christendom we should give thanks to God before eating,” said Thorvald.
“But what has he done for us?”
“I don’t know, but I think that we should at least pretend like we subscribe to the religious decrees of the Parliament. We don’t a want to show up looking like bunch of heathens, do we?”
“But we are!” said Leif, “And who’s going to see us anyway? We might as well be in the Ginnungagap. We’re like two amoebas in a floating through a giant petri dish, there’s no one’s here but us Vikings.”
“I don’t know what a petri dish is, but the Christian God is supposedly omnipresent.”
“Like an elf?”
“No, elves are just invisible,” said Thorvald. “The point is that if we go to the Alþingi beseeching the assembly for food and scarce wood to repair our ship, then we’d better pretend that we’re not the primitive barbarians that we are and act like we’re on board with the teachings of the Bible and all.”
“What in thunder is the Bible?”
“This is the Bible,” said Thorvald, pulling out a large, leather-bound book from the satchel.
Leif looked into the now empty satchel which contained no more dried fish. “Thorvald, you brought a book instead of food?”
“Well, yes,” replied Thorvald, now feeling a little silly. “What did you bring, an axe?”
“I always bring an axe!”
“Well then, I always bring a bible!”
“Oh, okay, I don’t suppose it’s made of out of fish, is it?” Leif joked.
“Actually it is.”
“No, but I have an idea,” said Thorvald, flipping through the bible. “If we pray, we may be able to turn the fish we have here into more fish.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Here it is.” Thorvald read aloud, “‘Jesus told the crowd to sit down on the grass. Then he took two fish, and when he had given thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples. And they that had eaten were about five four thousand men.’”
Leif was thoroughly confused.
“So,” said Thorvald, taking back Leif’s fish, “All we have to do is give thanks and then these fish will multiply into enough fish to fit into in the Eldhrímnir of Andhrímnir like Sæhrímnir to feed all the Einherjar in Valhalla!”
“Yeah, that’s not going to work,” said Leif.
“Get down on one knee like this.”
Leif looked around for anyone and then he began to kneel. “My left knee or right knee?”
“Your left…No wait, your right.”
Leif knelt down on his right knee.
“Close your eyes.”
“This is absolutely ludicrous,” said Leif, closing his eyes.
Thorvald said a grace: “Dearest Christian God, thank you for this little fish and for crashing our longship, and thank you for illustrating the value of a solid Viking crew by having ours be swept away to drown in freezing arctic seas. Thank you for bringing Leif back to us after his journey to Vinland, from where we thought he would never return and where he ate people for some reason…”
Leif was shaking his head.
Thorvald continued, “As you can see, we’re in somewhat of a sticky situation here. We’re headed to the Þingvöllr to attend the Alþingi, which declared Iceland a Christian land in your honor on our last visit five years ago, but instead of delicious fish I decided to fill our satchel with the bible, which is a great read but it is very large and also inedible. So, we’re taking a page out of the good book itself and are asking your highness to do us this one little favor of multiplying this single fish before us into many fish, just like you did for Jesus at that fish party, or simply to bestow upon us a plate of cooked horseflesh, although we would accept it even if it were raw, or maybe an ice bear instead, or perhaps a narwhal, or a maybe just a tiny minke whale, Leif said could eat a whale, or maybe –”
“Thorvald!” Leif yelled.
“Thank you, God, for listening to our prayer. I guess we’ll just wait right here until something different happens.”
Thorvald and Leif knelt in the moss beside the rock which held their meager fish. For a minute nothing happened, and then it started to rain. They opened their eyes and saw the fish getting rained on.
“Goddamnit,” said Leif.
“Hmm,” said Thorvald, “maybe you should switch knees and we should try this again.”
Leif stood up and sighed. “Fuck it,” he said, “let’s keep going.”
“Would you like to chew on this book cover?” asked Thorvald, holding up the Bible. “It’s made of leather.”
“Let me see that.” Leif took the Bible from Thorvald, took several steps back, and then threw it with all his might.
“Oh,” said Thorvald, watching the Bible soar through the air.
Leif turned and began walking away.
“Hey, you don’t want to eat your fish?”
“Suit yourself,” said Thorvald, who ate both shares of the soggy fish.
Through the rain they walked in silence, Leif with his axe, Thorvald with his now empty satchel, heading inland toward a chain of volcanic hills. As the hours passed the rain stopped. Rainbows beamed in the troposphere and then faded away as the clouds dispersed. Like a pendulous orb the sun swept low across the magenta sky in an inverted arch and kissed the horizon. The sun was going down when Thorvald spoke up.
“Are you mad at me?”
“Mad at you? Why would you say that?”
“Well, you threw the Bible pretty far.”
Leif stopped walking, caught his breath, and then turned toward Thorvald. “At first I was mad at you, and then I realized that in our circumstances dwelling on the past is unhelpful. And it could always be worse.”
“But it could always be better, too.”
“Thorvald, do you remember when we were teenagers and we razed York?”
“York? York…was that in France?”
“Oh yes. Drab scenery, mundane architecture, horrible food, funny looking people who couldn’t hold their drink. They didn’t put up much of a fight, did they?”
“Well, can you blame them? They had nothing to fight for.”
“I suppose not,” said Thorvald. “Come to think it, they should have thanked us for burning their homes to the ground.”
“Do you remember why we left? We were so bored with the porridge and the inferior women that we hastily took sail at night, but I read the star chart upside down and we ended up in Africa!” Leif chuckled.
Thorvald nodded and smiled, “Yes, I do remember that now.” He laughed, “We almost died of dehydration.”
“And when we finally made landfall the Maghreb, the Berber pirates tried to enslave us, so I had to open up a can of whoop ass on them?”
“Ha ha ha,” laughed Thorvald, “I don’t know what a can is, but, yes, I remember! Didn’t you make some remark to the Arab patriarch about him having intercourse with a camel?”
“Yes, I did, I did say that!”
They both rolled in laughter.
“Oh, good times, good times,” said Thorvald, wiping the tears from his eyes.
Leif placed his hand on Thorvald’s shoulder. “Thorvald, you are my greatest companion and without you I would not be here. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for being my friend.”
“And I thank you, Leif.” Thorvald looked up at Leif and then down at Leif’s hand on his shoulder. They looked at each other for a moment and then Thorvald said, “Umm, you’re not going to kiss me are you?”
Leif quickly removed his hand, “No, of course not. Jesus, why, what the…? Do you want me to kiss you?”
Thorvald thought and said, “Well, this may be a bit awkward, but perhaps just a little peck would be nice.”
Leif said flatly, “You’re fucking kidding me, right?”
Thorvald directed his eyes elsewhere and shrugged in an “I don’t know but yes” kind of way, he then shut his eyes.
Leif rubbed his hand against his face and said, “Alright. Fine.” He scanned the wasteland to confirm that no one else was there, and then he closed his eyes and leaned in to kiss Thorvald.
“Whoa!” said Thorvald, backing away.
“Jesus, I didn’t think you were actually going to do it!”
“But you asked me to!”
“Yeah, but it was a joke!”
“Goddamn you, Thorvald!”
Thorvald tossed his head in laughter. “Holy shit!” he said, backing away some more.
Leif turned red and raised his axe instinctively. “You fucking bastard! If you ever tell anyone about this I’ll smash in your head in!”
Thorvald crouched on the moss in a ball of laughter. He raised his arm and said, “Okay, okay, I’m sorry...I swear to Odin I will never tell anyone about this. I promise you, Leif, I promise. You are a good friend. You are my best friend.”
“Fucking-A,” said Leif, lowering his axe and shaking his head. “I should just kill you.”
Thorvald extended his arm for Leif to grab and Leif helped him up.
“I’m sorry,” said Thorvald, still grinning.
“You’re lucky you’re my friend, you piece of shit.”
They continued on to Þingvöllr. They trekked across the chartreuse earth toward the base of great hill. The sky grew darker, yet never dark, and in the crepuscular light of the midnight sun moths began to stir. Leif and Thorvald trudged up the ashen slope of the hill and they were very tired.
In the front and breathing hard, Leif said, “By my estimate, Þingvöllr should be visible just beyond this ridge. We shall be merrymaking and soliciting the assembly before you can say Eyjafjallajökull!”
From behind, Thorvald said, “Okay, but what if it’s not?” He was chewing on a moth. “What if it’s a place...”
They ascended the ridge and Leif’s heart sank when he saw what lay before them: an endless and unforgiving terrain of heathland plains, sulphuric slopes and primordial mountains, a vast and verdant hell of acidic mudpits, boiling geysers, and toxic gas vents, hot steam and whirling clouds that screamed across the crimson sky.
“Shit!” yelled Leif, “Where is Þingvöllr?! Where is the sea?! Are we not in Iceland? Have we entered Helheim?!”
Thorvald gulped the moth and assessed the desolate highland, “Oh wow,” he said, “we are way off.”
Leif erupted into a profane rampage and began smashing rocks with his axe. In his tirade he hollered, “Goddamn...Þingvöllr...stupid...fucking...hippies!”
Thorvald sat down on a mound of volcanic sand. He gazed upon the ever-changing landscape and then turned toward Leif and watched him smash rocks. Leif struck a pile of rocks and when they toppled over a peculiar, creamy-white object rolled out. Leif paused with his axe raised and watched the oval object roll to a halt beside Thorvald who picked it up. It was warm.
“What the hell is that?” ask Leif, walking toward Thorvald.
Thorvald held it up and turned it. “It’s a puffin egg.”
“How can that be? There’s no sea in sight, nor a bird of any kind.”
“Well, this technically isn’t a bird. It’s a puffin egg, which makes it a puffin that isn’t a bird.”
“Let’s eat it!” said Leif.
“Hold on, let’s think about this.”
“Think about what? We’re starving! We’re going to die out here without sustenance.”
“Go eat a moth.”
“We’re not going to eat this little egg.”
“Because it’s not right. Had we not come along and disturbed it it would have hatched just fine.”
“And then what? It will die if it hatches in this hellhole.”
“Maybe. But we came along and can now help him.”
“Him? You’re not thinking straight, Thorvald. Give me the egg.” Leif held out his hand.
“Look at it this way,” Thorvald said, “We’re lost in a place that seems like a very bad place. There’s nothing of promise out here. Yet in all this chaos we find a beautiful egg that can flourish if we take care of it.”
“You have until the count of three to give me the egg. Or else I will be forced to hurt you and will take the egg all the same.”
“Leif, this egg is a survivor, it’s like you and me.”
“One...” said Leif.
“What are the chances of happening upon such a rare and elusive thing out here? It’s like Þingvöllr!”
Thorvald was afraid for the egg and held it close to him. The sun was rising and Lief appeared as a silhouette, his hilltop shadow stretching far across the world below in the bloodred dawn.
“This egg is like the Earth itself, Leif. It’s a miracle.”
“Three!” Leif dropped his axe and then lunged at Thorvald. Holding the egg to his chest, Thorvald rolled out of the way and leapt to his feet. Leif had landed on the ground.
Backing away and attempting to expostulate with Leif, Thorvald said, “We’re best friends, remember?! Didn’t we just talk about that?”
Leif stood up and roared, “Give me the egg!”
Thorvald started to run away but Leif dived and wrapped his his arms around Thorvald’s waist and rode him down. The egg was still cupped in Thorvald’s outstretched hands which slammed into the earth as they hit the ground. Thorvald uncupped his hands and saw that the egg had cracked. There was a little black beak protruding out through the shell and it was moving.
“Leif, it’s hatching!”
Leif rolled over on Thorvald’s back and looked at the egg. Furry feathers were emerging and the puffin began chirping. The newborn bird pushed apart the top of the shell and popped it’s head out. The tiny, dark-grey puffin looked at Thorvald and Leif and chirped.
“Oh my goodness,” said Leif, “Look how cute he is.”
“He’s hungry,” said Thorvald.
“Well then, don’t just lay there, go get him some food!”
“Well then get off of me!” yelled Thorvald.
Leif moved and sat cross-legged holding the bird that Thorvlad had handed him. Thorvald ran off and when he returned in a minute Leif was talking gibberish to the chirping puffin. Thorvald dropped to his knees, put his lips to the puffin’s beak, and then transfer a chewed-up moth to the mouth of the puffin.
“That’s disgusting,” said Leif.
After the puffin finished eating the moth it began chirping again. Thorvald ran off, found another moth to chew on and regurgitate, and then fed the puffin once more. This process was repeated three more times after which the puffin was so stuffed that it fell asleep in Leif’s hands.
Leif smiled, “Poor little porker, he stuffed himself full.”
“What should we name him?” asked Thorvald.
Leif thought for a moment and then said, “How about Muffin?”
“Muffin the puffin?”
The morning light washed across the valleys and illuminated the hills encompassing the smoldering land to the east. Above a distant plain on the horizon, wiry tendrils of black smoke could be seen rising faintly into the clouds.
“Leif, look,” said Thorvald.
Leif saw the smoke and squinted. He stood up to study the smoke and said, “Þingvöllr... Thorvald, it’s Þingvöllr!”
The motion and yelling woke the puffin up and it began to chirp.
“Can we bring Muffin?” asked Thorvald.
Leif considered the bird. “Þingvöllr is no place for a baby puffin. A puffin needs fresh fish to eat and sea cliffs to dwell in for protection. We cannot bring Muffin go to Þingvöllr.”
“But we can’t leave him here. He’ll die if we don’t take him with us.”
“What if one of us went to Þingvöllr and the other one goes back to the ship with Muffin?”
“Who will do which?”
“Well, since you don’t seem to mind eating soggy fish and insects and feeding Muffin with your mouth, you take him to the coast and wait for me. I’ll go to Þingvöllr to petition for wood and help.”
Leif kissed the puffin on the head and then handed it to Thorvald who place it in his satchel.
“Take care of our baby boy,” said Leif. “You will make a good mother.” He extended his arm and shook hands with Thorvald. The puffin was chirping in the satchel as Leif swung is axe over his shoulder and prepared to walk away.
“Leif,” asked Thorvald, “what if this plan doesn’t work and one of us gets lost or dies?”
“In that case, my friend, may we reunite in Valhalla.”
“Valhalla? Does that even exist?”
“It’s a place that’s not a place.”
Leif thought that his last remark was incredibly clever and hilarious and he roared in laughter. He turned around and walked down the hill, laughing the entire way.
Image from: http://www.puffinpalooza.com/