Thunder and Silence

Issue 8 Editor’s Prize for Fiction

I stood atop Goðafoss, a place of power and history, when I heard thunder for the first time in Iceland. The sky was painted grey, the color of a storm above a murky sea. I hadn’t bothered to check the forecast before I left. The trip had been impromptu. I just needed to escape the city, the streets that were becoming too familiar. On the drive, the rain came in bursts, lasting only a few minutes to an hour before clearing up, then hitting again a few hours later. Like the lapping waves of an ocean, the rain rolled in and receded almost rhythmically. This was the kind of weather that greeted me when I first landed in Iceland over a month ago. I had a feeling this was the weather that would follow me home—if I ever went home. I had one more week to decide. I was becoming used to the sudden showers. The wind-whipped downpours that would drench me, but only on one side. I started carrying my jacket with me everywhere. Umbrellas were useless things to be cruelly inverted, their spindly wire frames twisted and bent by near gale force winds. They would be ripped away from hands and tossed into the sky to become unnatural projectiles. Umbrellas were for fools and tourists.

In the time I’d been in Iceland, no matter how heavy the rain, or how strong the wind, I never heard any thunder. I remembered thinking that was strange for an island that had elevated Thor above Odin in deference and worship. This was meant to be the Thunderer’s land. The first settler called out to Thor when he threw his high pillars, the symbol of his status as a chieftain, over the side of his ship and declared he would settle where the pillars washed ashore. Still, others carried Thor with them when they arrived. I wondered if it thundered more for them.

The wind picked up, buffeting me, and drawing me back to the cliffside where I stood. I felt the wind tugging at my coat, pulling me further from the water’s edge, telling me to return home. The rocky ground was slick and uneven, and the water rose above the banks; river swollen by the heavy rainfall. Through the storm, the waterfall sounded like a deep sigh—not a roar, but a forceful exhalation, constant and loud. Goðafoss. The “waterfall of the gods.” So named because the story goes that it was here where the gods were at last abandoned; silently dragged out from their resting place and tossed over the edge. It was a quiet moment. Intimate. A kind of ritual. The man responsible had cast the deciding vote at the Alþingi after spending a day and a night in prayer. He had asked those same gods for guidance to make the right decision. I stood there, hammered by rain from above, shoes and pant legs soaked by the river spray, and I pictured him, Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði, as he might’ve stood when he said farewell. I wondered if he ever regretted his decision, or if he trusted the gods to guide him, even if it meant their disappearance.

I stood there in my own quiet moment and smiled. I was at Goðafoss, but not his Goðafoss. I heard another peal of thunder and the light rainfall transformed into a frozen downpour. The rain blinded me. Icy shards stabbed at my forehead, my cheeks, any places where I had left skin exposed. It pooled in the creases of my eyes, my nose, and gathered on my lips. I tasted traces of salt. Water began invading my boots. For a moment, I wondered if the river had gotten closer. I felt the gathering dampness in my socks, and with it, a spreading chill. More thunder, more rain, and my clothes and hair clung to me desperately while the wind thrashed at them, grasping, pulling, and tugging at whatever would come free. My coat was weighed down by the contents of my pockets, but the wind still coaxed it into wild movement, though slow. Through my glasses, the landscape blurred into patches of green and rust brown moss, vertical spears of grass, and smudges of gray and black stone. The water writhed like a clear serpent topped with white froth. I watched the scene before me through half-closed eyes and was reminded of what it used to be. Before it was Goðafoss, it was a hidden place. Unknown, untitled. A secret. Somewhere a man could bid farewell to his gods in relative privacy. It was a sanctuary now made public to the world through that quiet act. An unclaimed wild space.

My face stung, and my feet felt wooden. I resigned myself to leave. There was no way I would safely make it down to the base of the waterfall during a storm. I would have to return another time. I removed my useless glasses and took in what I could of the land a final time. Everything was a little blurry, and my eyes stung from the rain and salt. A fat raindrop hit me in the eye. With that, I turned to go. I lifted a heavy sodden boot, and the wind gave me a shove, causing me to slip and stumble. I caught myself, somehow managing to stay upright. Overhead, another peal of thunder echoed. I waited. And waited. Gradually, the wind died down, and I took a few tentative steps forward. I followed the path that would take me back to my little rental car. I heard thunder, this time much louder. I froze in place, and it echoed around me. The sound bounced off the stones, magnified. It reverberated through my body. I waited. A minute passed, and I started walking again, but the wind slammed into me, suddenly picking up. This time I fell. I threw my hands up to try and catch myself and felt sharp stones bite into my hand and pierce through. My cold wet pant legs pressed against my skin, and there was a dull throbbing in my knees. I knelt there, trying to catch my breath. The wind continued, unabated. It reached into my throat and stole every breath I tried to take. My ears were filled with wind and the sound of thunder.

I knelt there, eyes tightly closed against the wind and rain. I felt the grit between my fingers and the rising stinging sensation in my hands from hitting the ground. I tried to push myself up, to get my feet under me again, but my legs lacked strength, and the wind knocked me off balance. I felt it press down on me, forcing me to keep kneeling. I opened one eye and squinted through the storm. My knees were scraped and smeared with mud and rock fragments. Red beads of blood were beginning to form on some of the deeper gouges. My mouth was full of salt. The storm continued around me as I remained prostrate. I tried to stay low. There were no trees or rocky outcrops to dampen the wind’s full force. I watched it kick up small rocks and hurl them through the air. My hands grew numb, and my arms began to shake from the effort of holding me up. I resolved to crawl along the ground, feeling out my progress in inches. I silently hoped no one would see me, that everyone else had had the good sense to stay indoors. As the wind quieted, I rose on numb and shaky legs. It hurt to bend my knees. I had not heard any more thunder for some time. I hobbled down the hill, back towards my car, still pelted by frozen rain and strong gusts of wind.