The Lighthouse at Dyrhólaey
Andrea & Paolo Milani
Some holidays are more successful than others. You can discover all sorts of new things on your vacation without it necessarily being a success.
There are times when our destinies change in unpredictable and irreversible ways. These changes may seem to occur randomly, but they're really the result of long sequences of related events. One such turn in my life occurred in late August at the Icelandair check-in desk at Keflavík airport. The attendant was telling me for the third time I couldn't further delay my return trip to Italy because my ticket would expire the next day. Something gave way inside me.
"I'll be right back," I told the woman behind the desk. I went to the bathroom, carefully tore my ticket into small bits, threw them in, and flushed. Then I went to catch the bus to Reykjavík.
When I arrived downtown, I went to the Salvation Army Guest House. The receptionist gave me the room I had had before; there were four beds in it, but now it was for me alone, since the tourists were beginning to go away. Along the city roads the last cyclists were coming back, dead tired, from their tours of the interior. The people from the package tours were long gone. In some way, Reykjavík was all mine, for my thirst of knowing everything about the Icelandic way of life.
September in Reykjavík has a heartbreaking beauty: the days quickly becomes shorter, but the sky is still bright and the clouds run over it just as in the summer. I knew if I wanted to become an Icelander, I needed to stop living like a tourist and find a job. The Reykjavík Employment Office was perfectly organized -- as are all Icelandic offices -- with kind clerks and large billboards with job notices. At first I had the impression that finding a job would be easy, but I soon realized I didn't have the qualifications. My Icelandic, still halting, wasn't good enough for a clerical job, and I couldn't be a fisherman since I get seasick easily. The job easiest to get in September -- being a shepherd on horseback in the deserts of the interior -- was out, because I can't ride a horse. The only job remaining was that of cod cleaner at a frozen fish factory on the outskirts of Reykjavík, and that was not why I'd decided to stay in Iceland.
At the end of September the first winter storms came, and I found walking along the streets of Reykjavík was much less attractive. Moreover, the Salvation Army began very kindly pointing out that if I wanted to stay, I should pay my bill. On the first day of October, I bottomed-out; I decided to visit the Employment Office one the last time. The job offers were scarce; the big billboards were nearly empty, and even the cod-cleaning job was gone. I stood for a moment, having no idea what I would do next. On the floor in a corner was a yellowish sheet of paper, which looked as if it had been there the entire summer, maybe even longer. I bent to pick it up.
Seeking a keeper for the Dyrhólaey Lighthouse. Good salary, lodging provided, bewitching surroundings, small workload.It was perfect -- just what I had been looking for. But when I took the notice to the woman at the counter, she stared at me a long time before answering. Given the cool attitude of most Icelandic people -- they do not allow their feelings to leak out -- this was surprising. She finally gave me the address of the Maritime Office of Southern Iceland, and I hurried there against the cold wind.
At the Maritime Office I was received politely, but clearly with surprise.
"You're really interested in being keeper at Dyrhólaey? The position has been vacant for a long time."
"Why? It looks like a good job."
"Well, the salary is good, but... the location is somewhat lonely."
I tried to understand how an Icelander could find any location lonely. Was Dyrhólaey in the asteroid belt? "Where is Dyrhólaey?"
"Eight kilometers from Vík í Myrdal, the largest town on the southern Icelandic coast."
I knew the Icelandic idea of a town was very different from mine; nevertheless, having a built-up area no more than two hours' walk away seemed comforting. So I told the clerk I wanted the job. There was daily bus service from Reykjavík to Vík, counter-clockwise along the Ring Road (essentially the only Icelandic highway fit for driving). The next day, having paid the hostel bill with part of the advance on my first paycheck, I got on the bus to Vík í Myrdal.
The bus left me in the center of Vík, in front of a gas station where the local young people met in the adjoining bar. It was afternoon and it was already cold, at least by Italian standards. I stepped inside and asked immediately how to find the substitute warden of the lighthouse, one Jonas Jonasson.
The owner of the bar looked at me for a long time, exactly like the clerk in Reykjavík. "Are you the new warden?" he asked.
"That's correct." A glacial silence fell in the bar. After a moment the owner gave me some directions, and I set off. The house of Jonas Jonasson was a small wooden cottage at the outskirts of the village; it was covered with sheet-iron but it was very clean, and it had a garden where the last flowers of the season were withering.
Jonas Jonasson was an elderly man, with a kind countenance; he made no silly remarks and took me to the lighthouse at once. To get to there, we followed the Ring Road back toward Reykjavík for five or six kilometers, then turned on a narrow road descending to the beach, then up again to the top of a rocky headland. The lighthouse is on a cliff which falls down vertically to the sea. On the left are rocky headlands and a few small islands inhabited by sea birds; on the right, a great beach tens of kilometers long. Bewitching surroundings, indeed.
The lighthouse has a wide base, with many rooms containing the kitchen, the machine room with the generator, some store rooms and a workshop. The tower has two more floors; on top is the light, and the middle floor has a single large room, were the warden lives. Jonas led me through the entire building, explaining with care how to start the generator, turn on the light, and the other necessary operations and maintenance. The workload could not be lighter; my job was only to turn on the light every evening, then turn it off again every morning.
"Please be careful," he said to me. "This does not look like a critical job, but it is. The reefs in front of Dyrhólaey are very dangerous for the ships. Never forget to turn on the light in the evening. If you need to go away for one day, I can take your place, but you have to let me know ahead of time."
I had the impression that the only problem with this job would be filling the immense leisure time. I soon understood this was precisely the purpose of the room on the second floor. One entire wall of the room was covered with deep bookshelves full of books, some with yellowed pages and somewhat moldy. There were all the classic Icelandic sagas, all the translations of the same sagas done by 19th-century writers, many Icelandic novels going back to the beginning of this century, and some foreign novels translated into Icelandic. I realized at once that improving my understanding of the language was going to be a matter of life or death.
Otherwise, my life at the lighthouse was pleasant enough. Twice a week I walked to the Ring Road, where I was almost always able to get a lift to Vík. There I did my shopping, and spent time at the bar in unsuccessful attempts to make some friends among the local people. Every evening -- that is, about four in the afternoon -- I'd turn on the light and chose a book from the shelves, then go to read in the bed on the opposite side of the big room. I would get up every hour or so to poke the fire in the stove in the middle of the room, and once in a while I'd take the stairs either to go up to check the light or to go down to check the generator. Very seldom were there any problems or any maintenance to perform: everything worked perfectly.
I had been at the lighthouse three weeks when, searching the bookshelves, I found a book very different from the others: it was hand-written. Thanks to the progress of my Icelandic, I understood at once that it was a diary, written by one Thorstein Thorwaldson, who had been warden of the lighthouse when it was built in 1927. Each evening, I read the daily entries in the diary of my predecessor for the years 1927 to 1932. I found them unbearably monotonous, to the point that I started wondering about my capacity to survive a life such as this. I skipped to the last pages of the diary, and found they dated from 1935, but I could not find any more diaries in the bookshelves, either from Thorstein or his successors. The comment of the clerk in the Maritime Office crossed my mind. Was it possible that nobody else had been here since 1935?
During one of my trips to Vík, I visited Jonas, and he received me with kindness.
"How long had you been substitute warden of the lighthouse?"
"More than twenty years. Since my uncle died."
"Then your uncle used to live at the lighthouse?"
"No. He went there every day, like myself."
"Why didn't you go and live at the lighthouse?" I pressed. "In winter, the road back and forth is difficult."
"Why?" Jonas looked at me strangely. "I have a lovely house in town. I did not want to live in such an isolated place."
For an Icelander this was really a strange explanation! None of the Icelandic sagas mention Icelanders suffering from loneliness. Was the race getting soft, or was I not being told the whole truth?
The following night, Thorstein's diary become more interesting. The lonesome warden of the lighthouse had set his eyes on a sweet girl named Kolfinna. Day after day, he told the steps of a complex courtship ritual, which seemed never to come to the point. Quite surprising, if you see what happens in the dance halls of Reykjavík today. I looked over the pages describing two years of courtship in infinite detail, eventually leading to a note from 1935: Kolfinna had agreed to visit Thorstein at the lighthouse. Given the meticulous detail of Thorstein's notes, I was set for reading matter that would, at last, be worthy of a solitary night on top of a cliff. But the next page of the diary wasn't at all what I expected.
The Ghost of Dyrhólaey
Thorstein's notes on the day after Kolfinna's visit expressed complete despair. Even the handwriting looked changed, as if the character of the warden had been overturned by something terrifying. Reading it over many times, I could not make out what had happened. It was clear Thorstein's despair was not the result of a refusal from Kolfinna; on the contrary -- Icelandic self-restraint notwithstanding -- I understood the two had had a good time that night. But from that point onward, the diary of the lighthouse warden did not contain a single consistent paragraph, only a hodge-podge of incoherent sentences.
Thorstein's state was getting worse and worse. The only thing I could understand clearly was that he was giving himself to remorse and superstition. At night, he believed, he was being awakened by inhuman screams coming from the cliff: a ghost was coming up from the sea, seeking vengeance. When I read that, I went out to the cliff; I was met by frozen wind and the raucous cries of the seagulls and puffins. The birds sometimes sounded almost human, but Thorstein had already lived here eight years. Surely he must have been accustomed to those sounds.
I went back to my reading, trying to understand what had happened. The only significant note was on the last written page of the diary. "Today Kolfinna came to see me. I told her we should not see each other any more, so as to expiate our guilt. She raged, saying I was trying to lay the blame on her. Later she was calm, and she was almost kind with me. She even made me tea." There was nothing more.
This ending left me restless for days, and I decided to find out what the real ending of the story had been. During my next visit to the bar in Vík, I tried to direct the discussion that way.
"Last night, near sunset, I was on the edge of the cliff looking out to sea, and I could swear I heard a scream..."
An old man rose to the bait, looking up from his magazine. "Ahh, you heard the ghost of Dyrhólaey still asking for his revenge!"
"A ghost?" I said, trying to look surprised.
"Yes, it would be poor Sigurdur, the fisherman who died on the reef right in front of Dyrhólaey."
I tried to guess. "He wasn't a good sailor?"
"Of course he was a good sailor! Among the best in Vík! But that was a moonless night and the lighthouse was out."
"Out?" I exclaimed. "Where was the warden?
"Oh, he was right there, but he had other things to do. Sigurdur came back for him a few weeks later, to take his revenge. Maybe he is not satisfied yet, since the gal escaped him."
So I had stumbled across the legend of the lighthouse at Dyrhólaey, and why the position had been vacant so long, waiting for an unwary former tourist. Once the discussion had begun, the local people filled in the details. That evening, Thorstein, betrayed by love, had neglected his duty as warden, and the lighthouse had been left out. In the night a small fishing boat had crashed on a reef right in front of the Dyrhólaey headland, and the fisherman's body was never found. Thorstein never admitted his responsibility, and he stayed on as keeper of the lighthouse. But from that day he was held in contempt by the people of Vík. After that, Thorstein almost never came to town, he refused to see Kolfinna, and he completely withdrew into the lighthouse. Until one night the ghost of Sigurdur came up from the sea and threw him down the cliff.
I didn't want to believe the ghost story they told me in Vík, so I asked Jonas to substitute me for a couple of days and I took the bus to Reykjavík. The Maritime Office didn't want to talk to me about Thorstein; only after some persistence was I told to check with the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Reykjavík.
The medical school is in a big building on Sudhurgata, but the Institute of Forensic Medicine is just one office, that of the only practitioner on the subject in Iceland. Professor Jón Einarsson was not only available to talk, he was actually enthusiastic to discuss Dyrhólaey.
"In the last 60 years," he said, "there have been three murders in Iceland, so there are few local cases to study. However, I do remember the lectures of my teacher, Halldor Sigurdursson, on Thorwaldson's death. His body was found on the beach, right below the lighthouse, and there wasn't a lot of work to do..."
"Was there a post-mortem?" I asked.
"Are you joking? It's a 120-meter vertical fall -- the cause of death wasn't a mystery."
"Then, was it a suicide?"
"If you believe the local legend, the ghost of the mariner who died due to Thorwaldson's irresponsibility came up from the sea and took his revenge. The inquiry concluded Thorwaldson committed suicide." Professor Einarsson shrugged. "Possibly he was stricken by remorse."
The investigation was long-since officially closed. I had nothing left to do but get on the bus and go back to Vík. But I wasn't satisfied; while I was waiting at the bus station, out of curiosity I went to a phone booth. I opened the telephone book (a single volume for all Iceland!), and began searching. The Iceland phone book is sorted by first name, not by surname.
Kolfinna Sturludottir, 23 Öldugata, Reykjavík, (91)23871That was the only listing: Kolfinna is a name from an ancient saga, but she is an ambiguous character, and not popular. I decided to take a different bus back to Vík.
The door was opened by a tall woman with a head of white hair; old but by no means frail. Night was falling; she looked at me dubiously in the light spilling from her doorway. "Who are you?"
"I am the keeper of the lighthouse at Dyrhólaey," I answered.
"Dyrhólaey... I once knew that place very well. But why are you here?
I paused. "I have read Thorstein's diary. It was in the bookshelves at the lighthouse."
Kolfinna was silent for a moment, looking past my shoulders. "Please come in."
We sat for a moment in her front room. "I didn't know Thorstein kept a diary," she finally said. "I don't like to think about those times. I was happy with Thorstein. We were engaged, and then I lost him."
"What happened to him?"
Kolfinna sighed. "He went mad. He wouldn't even see me, and he ended up throwing himself down the cliff."
"But you visited him at the lighthouse -- it's the only coherent note in the last part of the diary, and it is right in the last page."
Kolfinna seemed shaken, and was silent for a moment. "Yes," she said. "He had gone out of his head. He raved about ghosts coming to torment him."
"According to the stories they tell me in Vík, the ghost was looking for you as well. In fact, the ghost is still looking for you, screaming from the cliff, because you were also responsible for his death."
Kolfinna looked at me with contempt. "Are you afraid of ghosts?"
"Ghosts are less dangerous than men... and women."
"How dare you? To come here after sixty years and disturb my peace? Leave everyone alone with their ghosts!"
I knew I had gone too far; I had no evidence against this poor old woman. In a moment, Kolfinna calmed down and we spoke again peacefully, avoiding the subject entirely. She offered me some tea, and she slowly told me her memories of Thorstein, and what her life since then had been like. Everybody in the village blamed her and Thorstein for the shipwreck. Kolfinna was a woman abandoned and disgraced by her man; there was no place for her in the village. After Thorstein's death, she went north to Akureyri. In 1941 the Americans arrived and she married a pilot; after the war, she went to America. Twenty years later, she came back alone and settled in Reykjavík. I fell asleep listening to her story.
I woke up in the Poisoning Ward of the Reykjavík University Hospital. That day, I was visited by my friend Jón, the professor of forensic medicine.
"Well, professor," I said weakly. "Maybe there is some work for you here after all."
"I would be glad!" he said, smiling. "But they tell me it was poisoning from rotten fish."
"Not even in Iceland have I ever seen cod served in tea. And rotten fish is rare here because there are so few germs in the air." Professor Einarsson looked at me skeptically. "At least, according to the tourist guidebooks," I added.
"Many things happen in Iceland that aren't mentioned in the guidebooks."
I was convinced of that myself. But Thorstein's diary had disappeared from my bag, and I had no way to prove there had been four murders in Iceland in the last 60 years, not three. And now, that was four and a half, in a way.
The ambulance pulled up in front of the entrance to Keflavík airport, and the nurses unloaded the my stretcher and pushed it through the air terminal. We passed right by the Icelandair desk and the same clerk I had discussed my ticket with, such a long time ago. I would have said hello, but I couldn't. On the runway, the air ambulance was waiting for me. My insurance, with full coverage for illness and accident, was valid longer than my notorious air ticket.
Before closing the airplane door, the airport hostess smiled at me. "I hope you have a quick recovery, and see you in Iceland!"
Andrea & Paolo Milani (email@example.com) are a father and son team. Andrea teaches mathematics at the University of Pisa, and is involved in research in celestial mechanics and in the planning of future space missions of the European Space Agency. Paolo is in high school; recently he was a summer student at Cornell University.
The lighthouse in Dyrhólaey is as described in the story, except for the second-floor room, which is not accessible to the public. The authors would like to thank Deanna Swaney, author of a popular guide to Iceland which provided useful information, and Stefania Costantini, who assisted with the English translation.
Related images: You can also view GIF images of Dyrhólaey, the lighthouse at Dyrhólaey, and the reefs below the lighthouse.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 5, Number 5 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1995 Andrea & Paolo Milani.