Lately, Hitler followed the Felds everywhere. Not just in the biography Ben was reading, but in the news, the global refugee crisis, western elections, the endless discussion of The Wall. He had gone from being a general avatar of evil to Nancy’s personal enemy—the reason her husband was not fully present at the dinner table or in conversation—and a spectral national portent. Ben was obsessed; not as a right-wing lunatic or a neo-Nazi, but as an open-minded, liberal-hearted Jewish parent with actual members of his family who had perished in the Holocaust.
Why do you want to read about such a vile person? Nancy had asked at the beginning of this obsession. Can’t you just be glad that he’s dead?
But for Ben, that was not enough. He wanted to understand.
Understand what? Nancy asked.
How he persuaded a nation of civilized people to follow him into the abyss.
Ugh. Nancy shivered. Apparently, it wasn’t rocket science.
Now Hitler was following the Felds to Iceland. They were going to celebrate their twelfth anniversary. It was their first trip away from their sensitive, eight-year-old son, Quinn; their first trip out of the country since his birth, their first time anywhere alone together overnight in as long.
On the airplane, Ben sat in the window seat reading as the island’s ravaged surface appeared beneath the clouds.
“Time to put the book away,” Nancy said, “we’re about to touch down.”
“Uh hunh,” Ben nodded without lifting his eyes.
Nancy dug an elbow into his ribs. “Seriously. Look.”
Ben looked. “Iceland,” he pronounced, and continued reading.
It had been Nancy’s choice to go to Iceland. It seemed a fitting place to mark twelve years of marriage—a land crusted over with the lava of exploded volcanoes, dotted with warm, geothermal swimming holes, and cruel, impenetrable glaciers, all springing form the same mysterious source. It was Nancy’s habit to look for metaphors. Or not habit, really, which implied orderly impulse, but compulsion, a kind of nervous tic.
Ben on the other hand was a rose is a rose is a rose person. He dealt in observed realities rather than inferences and suppositions. He wore the weight of the world like a coat that fit. From the beginning, their love affair was a celebration of opposites. Nancy was from a large, Italian American family in Hartford, Connecticut. Ben was the only child of a single mother in a suburb of Dallas. “The only Jews in Spring County” was how he described his family. He had a teenage son from a marriage to his high school girlfriend, and at twenty-three he had gotten divorced. Nancy fell in love with him in part because he was so unclassifiable: a Jewish Texan who coded computer games and read Proust. He was six-foot-three, hawk-featured, rail-thin. Nancy was five-four and round, with a pretty, freckled face. Jack Spratt could eat no fat… Nancy liked to joke. She taught pre-school to “at risk” children, and before having Quinn, she had tap danced.
It was midnight once they were finally through customs and out under the brownish, eighteen-hours-of-daylight, May-in-Iceland sky, and the excitement of traveling without a child made Nancy giddy. Just beyond the tarmac, dark lumps of lava stretched toward the horizon like an army of crouching ewoks. Clouds of geothermal steam rose white against the sky.
At the car rental hut, Ben filled out the paperwork and the rental car clerk told Nancy about his psoriasis. He was glad he lived in Iceland, he explained: the government subsidized his weekends swimming in the soothing waters of the Blue Lagoon.
“TMI,” Nancy shuddered when they were settled in the snug European wagon they had rented.
“You encouraged him.”
Nancy knew that he was right. Ben could shoulder the weight of the world; Nancy would take on the rental car clerk’s skin problems.
The hotel was like a space station. Their room was not fancy but clean and comfortable, and the blueberry Skyr in the mini-fridge was delicious.
Hitler remained mercifully buried in Ben’s backpack.
And they made clumsy, almost shy love in the arctic quarter light.
In the morning, the world was more plebian. Outside the window stretched a drab, purplish-gray desert.
Nancy called home looking out over this.
They had left Quinn with Nancy’s mother, which suddenly, this morning, seemed irresponsible, even reckless. Quinn was a “quirky” child with incapacitating sensitivities to noise, to running, to other children, the sound of chewing, and the sight of violence. Nancy’s mother was a determinedly cheerful, can-do senior citizen who believed all ills could be treated with rest and Italian meatball soup.
Her mother answered in one ring: Quinn was not at school, she informed Nancy, sounding harried. In fact he was sitting right there beside her with a “sore throat.”
“Can I talk to him?” Nancy asked.
“Mom?” came Quinn’s voice. It sounded impossibly young, even toddlerish.
“Why aren’t you at school, sweetie?” Nancy asked. “It’s Friday. There’s ice cream for lunch on Fridays.”
“I don’t feel well,” Quinn said, just as he said every morning, though he had promised that he wouldn’t when his grandmother was in charge. In exchange, Nancy had promised him the Star Wars Death Star Lego set.
“Quinn-y,” Nancy said. But she knew it was too late. Nine thirty. Quinn shrank from the attention that attended tardiness. He shrank from school in general: the noisy, clamoring of the children and raucous display of emotion. The necessity of jockeying for a seat or a place in line or an intact crayon. He would do better as an adult, when civilization kicked in, Ben liked to joke.
“Alright,” Nancy said, stopping herself from senseless argument. “Let me talk to Grandma.”
“Just forget it,” she said when her mother was back on the phone. “He can watch TV or whatever. I’m sorry.”
“I can still take him,” was her mother’s truculent response.
“How? By dragging him out to the car? It’s not worth fighting.”
From the bed, Ben gave her a questioning look.
“Alright, well you two have fun,” her mother said, after a pause. “And don’t worry about us.”
Nancy imagined Quinn on his bed with his earphones on, caught in the grip of refusal, the most powerful tool of the powerless.
“Sick,” she told Ben when she had hung up, making quotation marks with her fingers.
“I’m not surprised,” Ben sighed.
Nancy sat down beside him. “Do you think he’ll be okay? Were we crazy to leave?”
“He’ll be fine,” Ben said. “It’s just how he is.”
Once Nancy had showered and dressed, they set off to see the Blue Lagoon, which proved just as Disneyland-meets-public-bathhouse as it was supposed to be. But it was also bizarre and beautiful and otherworldly to see everyone gliding through the steaming, waist-deep water holding cocktails, wearing white masks of silica. Life guards patrolled footbridges in Teva’s and black snow suits. Nancy tried not to let herself think about Quinn, or about the rental car clerk’s psoriasis.
She had reserved “in-water massages” in a side-eddy of the lagoon where people lay inert on plastic rafts steered by Icelandic masseuses in singlets. Ben was paired with a giant, red-bearded Viking and Nancy with a snaggle-toothed, Icelandic version of Brad Pitt. The experience was not relaxing, but it was memorable—a quality that had recently taken on reassuring importance in Nancy’s mind. It took the pressure off the elusive search for great or beautiful or anything specific, really; memorable was an inclusive target, a viable goal for middle age.
And so, back in the serene hotel lounge, satisfied by the day’s experiences, Nancy was inclined to be forgiving when Ben took out his book.
“You’re going to read that now?” She raised her eyebrows.
“You have your magazine,” Ben pointed out.
“You have Hitler, I have Oprah. Fair enough.”
“He was obsessed with Iceland,” Ben offered, apologetically.
“He tried to get them to join up.”
“And what did they say?”
“What was the point? They had no Jews or Foreigners to kick out.”
Ben tipped his head in ascent.
“Ben,” Nancy sat forward. “What exactly are you learning from all this?”
Ben was silent for an unusually long pause. “You really want to know?” He asked finally. Nancy nodded. “That I’m afraid he might have been right.”
The horror that flushed through Nancy radiated from her face.
“Not about the Jews or the Holocaust,” Ben said, hastily. “Or the war. Or anything he did. Just about the meaning of life.”
“The meaning of life?” Nancy repeated.
“The endless struggle. That there are too many people on earth, that we will run out of resources, that there will always be haves and have-nots. That there will always be some group, however you define it, that will be on top. And all we can do, in the end, is fight for that group to include us. That human beings are just stupid selfish animals like all the rest and to think otherwise is wishful.” He was flushed. “That’s why he started the whole war—why he invaded Poland: to grab more land, colonize resources, the same way the French and the English colonized Africa and Asia. He was worried that the Germans had missed out—that when the end came, the final battle for food and water, for survival really—they were going to have no chance.”
“And that was why he had to kill all the Jews?”
“No,” Ben shook his head. “That was something else.”
Nancy stared at him. “What?”
“That was about ideas. He thought Jews started the idea that human beings could be better than all that.”
“And so he killed them.”
“But you agree he was wrong about that.”
“I agree he was wrong about killing Jews. But I think he was right about humans.”
“Jesus!” Nancy said. “That’s dark.”
Nancy narrowed her eyes. “Don’t go off the deep end here,” she said.
Ben’s expression softened, and he looked almost sheepish. “I’m not,” he said. “I won’t.”
The next morning, Nancy’s call home was better.
Quinn and her mother were going to the river to sail his homemade boat. It was Quinn’s obsession—constructing vessels out of found objects: recycled bottles and saran-wrapped cereal boxes; hollowed acorn squash, birch bark, pine cones, moss…Each one was more improbable and delicately constructed than the last. He would wade into the muck at the river’s edge to set them gently on the surface, facing the wind, and hold his breath. Invariably they wobbled and drifted in the side eddies until they capsized or sank. He did not seem to grasp that they couldn’t survive the river’s current, these doomed creations, each carrying his optimistic imprint.
“What’s this one made of?” Nancy asked.
Quinn hesitated. She could feel his excitement. “A tennis ball,” he said. “I cut it in half.”
“I filled it with string foam and attached Lincoln logs to steady it.”
“I think it’ll work.”
“Take a picture,” Nancy said. She was happy her son was in a good mood, relieved that his day was off to a good start.
But when she handed the phone to Ben, she felt an inexplicable lump in her throat. She could picture the contraption, raw edges of the sliced tennis ball threading, Lincoln Logs straining away from this awkward partnership. Obviously the boat would sink. Survival of the fittest and all that.
Afterwards, they went riding. Neither Nancy or Ben was a rider, but the guidebook, and Jacinda, the intrepid director of the preschool where Nancy worked, both insisted it would be memorable. The horses on the island were “special” and “beloved” and “vital to the culture,” according to the borrowed guidebook. They were direct descendants of the original Viking colonizers’ beasts. Their genes were vigilantly protected: if a horse left for the mainland, it was not allowed to come back. No wonder Hitler fell in love with it here, Nancy joked.
“Try new things—remember?” Nancy quoted the couples’ therapist they had seen after Quinn’s birth.
“Alright,” Ben nodded in the calm, open-minded way she had fallen in love with.
And so they drove fifteen miles to a scrappy and un-charming farm with a herd of shaggy ponies and several taciturn tour guides.
“Do you think maybe the horses are all brain-damaged?” Nancy asked Ben. “On account of the in-breeding? How would anyone know?”
Ben gave her a chastening look.
Nancy’s nose and eyes itched.
By Nancy’s estimation, Icelanders themselves all seemed to look alike: a certain L-shaped jut of the nose, pale hair, round face. Was a population of 350,000 really big enough to sustain itself? Nancy had her doubts. But it seemed to be going pretty well for them. No poverty, no utility costs, a startlingly quick recovery from a volcanic ash storm and an international financial debacle that Nancy could not muster enough interest in to grasp. Plus all those free swimming pools, open all year long, heated by the earth.
When finally their horses had been assigned and Ben sat astride a small brown and white pony, Nancy was taken by a kind of giddiness.
Ben was too tall for his Viking-sized mount; his feet grazed the earth.
“What’s so funny?” he asked, and Nancy could barely get the words out. Something about the cold and the novelty of sitting on an animal—she had been given a sweet-looking yellowish-gray pony—and the asthmatic fog in her lungs fed a pleasant feeling of hysteria.
The horse did not like her laughing, though. His ears twitched in annoyance. And once they had ambled single-file down to the chilly, windswept beach, he stopped short. The others in the group continued plodding along the coast, the distance growing between them until Nancy began, actually, to feel slightly scared. It was not, after all, a bicycle she was riding, but an animal, and one that did not seem to like her. Horses, it occurred to Nancy, had no sense of humor—they were all nerves, sorrows, and occasional spitefulness. And here in Iceland, maybe they had a right to be angry: for all their belovedness, “horse” was on every restaurant menu, along with whale and puffin, a cruel trifecta.
“I’m sorry,” Nancy, apologized to the horse, giving it an encouraging pat. It made no indication that it felt her touch.
The hassled tour guide circled back and pulled the horse forward with a yank. “You must kick him if you want him to go forward,” she scolded. “Harder. Harder! You must show him you are strongest.”
From afar, Ben laughed.
It was still bright as midday when Nancy woke from an exhausted nap. Ben was pulling on his running clothes.
“I’m coming,” Nancy said, sitting up.
“You’re coming?” Ben echoed in surprise.
“You run, I’ll walk.”
They drove to the head of a trail that the hotel clerk recommended, Ben clad in his tights and windbreaker and pointy hat; Nancy in her jeans and parka.
The view from the parking lot was wild—angry, crashing waves and black cliffs covered with improbably green grass.
“Shoo,” Nancy directed Ben.
Nancy bristled at his skepticism. But once he had sprinted off, she did feel a moment of panic. The path was narrow and sunken, moss growing in great puffy clumps on either side. It was hard to see around each bend.
As she walked, she attempted to tone down her brain’s jabber—where they would eat dinner, how much money they had spent so far, whether her mother would remember Quinn’s inhaler…She tried to think of Iceland instead, weird island in the middle of the ocean, its people eking out an unlikely existence on its inhospitable surface…What did they think about here on these windswept, isolated farms? How had evolution, in this barren landscape, shaped their thoughts? Their Viking ancestors had lived in a constant struggle with the elements, in solitude and stillness. They had to be steady and tough. Surely this encouraged a calm, maybe plodding, mindset. Totally unlike the one she had inherited from her own forbears, who came from the bustling villages of Umbria, where the intricacies of social interaction were paramount…Maybe this was why her brain was so cluttered with thoughts about her fellow humans—Quinn and Ben and her mother, the families at her preschool, her friends, even the celebrities on the covers of supermarket junk. She was like an obsessive shepherd dog—driven by the slippery dynamics of group.
Rounding a bend in the path, a vast and curved cliff wall emerged before Nancy, on the other side of a cove. It was pocked with white and emanated an unearthly racket that took her a few moments to identify: the crying of thousands of gulls. The white was a combination of the birds and their droppings, which stained the cliff face and which they blended into, indistinguishable from their own shit. It was a kind of writhing, seagull hell: the birds squawked and darted and dove at the crashing sea below and at each other and each other’s nests. They seemed to be living in a state of total alarm and chaos.
She was transfixed.
And as she stood, she became aware of a movement at the foot of a steep crag on the inland side of the path: a baby bird on the grass. It stared up at her with beady, unblinking eyes and began to peep. For an awful moment, its ineffective, half-grown wings flapped. She cast her eyes upward and could see the ledge it had fallen from—a narrow shelf dotted with its own row of nests. Should she try to lift it back up? The idea was both hopeful and repulsive. But she couldn’t just leave it there and continue to walk!
The bird stopped its peeping, puffed up its feathers and hunkered down in defeat. She would have to pick it up. She took a breath and girded herself. But as she was about to step forward, a full-grown bird landed beside the fledgling with a thump. It waddled toward the baby and began to nudge it with its beak. For a brief moment, Nancy imagined it had come to help. But then the baby bird began to shriek. And as Nancy watched, the larger bird poked and prodded it to the edge of the cliff.
“Stop! Stop!!” Nancy found her voice. She lifted her arms and waved them. But the bird was undeterred. In one final jab it pushed the baby off.
Nancy put a hand to her mouth.
Satisfied, the big bird flapped its wings and rose, catching a current of air and hovering before settling back on the ledge the baby bird had fallen off. It folded its wings over the fuzzy heads that had emerged with its arrival, and regarded Nancy balefully.
The whole right side of Nancy’s body, the side closest the ledge, prickled with horror and disgust. The wind lifted and tugged at her hair, and her head echoed with her own ineffective shouts. She stood frozen by the ledge that the baby bird had just tumbled off.
Presently, Ben appeared from around the curve.
“Ben,” she said, throwing her arms around him.
“What?” He looked with concern into her face. “Are you okay?”
“No! I mean, yes. But it was horrible—I watched this baby bird get run off the cliff—pecked and poked and literally pushed off!”
“By who?” Ben frowned.
“That!” She pointed and felt cold rage toward the bird above, sitting smugly, guarding its young, head tucked against its chest.
“Why?” Ben asked.
“I don’t know! Because it could! Because the bird fell out, I guess!”
“Ugh,” Ben shook his head. “That’s rough.”
“Look at them!” Nancy gestured at the opposite cliff. “You can’t even tell them apart from their own shit! And they just squawk and fight and push their babies off! What kind of a life is that?”
“An ugly one.”
Nancy narrowed her eyes. “So this is what you think Hitler was right about? That this is the truth about human life? We’re no different from those gulls? I hate that!”
“Kind of,” Ben said. He looked genuinely sad. “But I don’t know. We’re more like the gulls on the Vineyard Ferry or something, stealing garbage, scaring kids. It’s not pretty, but there’s more to go around. For now at least.”
“Ugh,” Nancy said, and Ben pulled her against his chest. She could feel his warmth through the slippery fabric of the jacket, hear his heart beating in his chest.
“Dinner?” he said after a few moments.
Nancy nodded morosely, and then smiled. “I could eat a horse.”
The drive off the peninsula the next day was longer than expected. They stopped midway at a gas station/café with a sign proclaiming it “The World’s Smallest Whaling Museum,” and beneath this, “Hamburgers and Homemade Cake.” But in typically brutal Icelandic style, the “museum” consisted of a display of modern whaling harpoons and a giant flatscreen TV. On this, the body of a whale bobbed alongside a vessel as a layer of its blubber, hooked onto a winch, was slowly, bloodily, ripped off. As she watched, a man jumped onto the carcass and used a long spade-like tool to sever the stubbornest strands of flesh. It made Nancy feel sick.
She thought of Quinn and his aversion to all signs of internal working—blood and spit and muscle, and his over-active empathy. At ten he still struggled not to cry when he saw another child skin his knee.
She threw away the stale cake Ben brought her and glared at the people behind the counter: an impassive, elderly couple, grizzled and square-faced, happy to hawk their wares beside this footage of whale slaughter. What was it with these people who were so placid in the face of everything that was rough, ugly, and unfair? Had they never heard of animal rights? Had they never stopped to consider the whale’s point of view?
And for a moment she hated Ben for making her see Hitler, see the whole messy predicament of mankind, in all of this.
In Reykjavik, they checked into a glossy boutique hotel that Nancy had booked with credit card points.
The window looked out over the harbor full of giant, industrial ships. One of these was setting off to sea, loaded with containers full of God knows what—Nancy thought of the stories of human stowaways hunkered down in the airless darkness, willing to risk suffocation for the promise of a better life. The boat slid forward with surprising speed, a giant’s tray of colorful, Lego blocks.
Ben stretched out on the bed to nap.
In the shower, Nancy’s mind returned to the cliff. And to the particular nature of this island with its small, genetically indistinguishable population and the weird little horses that they loved and ate. A place historically outside the warp and weave of globalization. Was its apartness a blessing or a curse? It was protected against outsiders, but not from itself. All around it, the continents teemed with variety and nuance, the complicated, beautiful, mixed-up substance of life. Governments and institutions strived to create opportunities, democracy, an equitable way of life. Was that all just an alluring, impossible narrative? A distraction from the reality of the shit cliff?
Nancy turned off the shower and wrapped herself in a towel.
She stood before Ben with the water dripping onto the carpet.
“So if we’re just like those gulls, what does that mean? We’re supposed to stop trying to make things more fair? Stop trying to integrate and democratize? That we’re just supposed to join the oligarchs? Screw my job at Head Start? Push Quinn off the cliff?”
“No,” Ben sat forward with sudden intensity. “No, no. The opposite. It’s the trying that makes us different. Life is a struggle but what you struggle for is the point—if it’s just for resources, then you’re living on the shit cliff. But if you struggle for something better—for a better way, a fairer way, to pull your neighbors up with you and save your broken baby bird—that’s what makes the difference. That’s the end right there. Its not reaching it, but trying to get there it that’s the point.”
It was the most animated she had seen him since they had embarked on their trip. Here was the passionate, eccentric, thinker she had fallen in love with. And in his face she could see Quinn, the sweet, vulnerable chick who would certainly be eaten by his neighbors if he lived on the shit cliff.
Outside the window, another tanker slid along the ocean’s surface, closing in on the harbor with its cargo of goods from distant places, its integrative traffic of objects.
Nancy sank down onto the bed and lay on her back.
Despite the brightness, the clock above the television read six o’ clock.
Back at home, Quinn would be starting on his beloved hour of pre-dinner Minecraft. Nancy could picture his head bent in earnest concentration, his thin fingers tapping out a compulsive pattern on the iPad. And beneath its glossy surface, a new world spooled out under his direction, full of mountains and valleys and strange beautiful modular structures, roof gardens and wild horses and anonymous monsters who prowled at night.
Did those birds wind down for the day on the shit cliff? The shaggy, inbred horses were in their stables. Even here, in this odd corner of the world, the living creatures would need sleep.
Nancy reached her hand up over her head to grasp Ben’s hand, and he looked down at her, upside down faced.
From the edge of the bed her phone dinged. She glanced over and saw a photo had been texted: an expanse of water, choppy waves, and some buildings in the distance. Somewhere in the middle of this floated a small, grayish object: Quinn’s ship—this improbable, delicate construction of disparate objects fused together by his inscrutable desire and fierce effort. It wouldn’t make it to the other side, or anywhere far, but hopefully the construction had made him happy.
The phone dinged again. As if in answer to her thought, there was a photo of her son and mother, grinning, the wind blowing their hair, cheeks pressed together.
A word appeared below it: Success!