A woman, Laura, sixty-one, goes to Iceland, a decade old desire, with her thirty-six year old son, Adam. As they stay in a sparsely populated area with a population of just eighty-six, Laura appears childlike and innocent in her appreciation and discoveries in the natural world. Her son is perplexed. The volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupts and interrupts flights out of Iceland. Adam feels trapped and stranded; his mother does not. "She'd told him she'd been trying to discover something unearthly, being nearer death." I think once a person faces his/her mortality, they never live or think about life the same way again. That person realizes that every second is "nearer death." Sure we all know that but to feel it and remember it and face it and talk to it is different than just intellectually knowing it.
This is a beautifully written story about life and death and senility and childlike innocence in looking at the world. We're never sure that Laura is exactly experiencing a decline in her mental health or if she is appreciating and exploring the world in a way that we lose as we enter the adult world of deadlines and trappings of material success. She makes, sees, cajoles the world to conform to her needs and desires or she appreciates what's given and embraces it fully. Her son, Adam, is a data systems analyst with poor health and a sheep's mentality. Laura had hoped that her son would be "a wolf," unlike, his father who "was a sheep."
Clare, the author, does a great job of creating a liminal space in the Icelandic landscape. The setting feels otherworldly, heavenly, isolated and expansive. The story begins by altering the landscape, "White ash turned the lake's surface to desert and the tops of fjalls invisible."
"By the third morning, ash from Eyjafjallajökull coated the porch, the porch rail, the seats of the porch chairs, and the rented station wagon." By the fourth sentence, we know that porch is important, a liminal place. And more bleakness and emptiness sets in. The weathervanes do not make any more noise and the wading birds at the lake have disappeared. Then I have the sense that Laura is dying or losing her mind, "he watched her diminish." However, her green coat is in stark contrast to the setting with the ashes falling and covering everything. Laura is the green, life, in the desolation, but then she "shrank and went out." Is she dying? She seems more alive and vibrant and curious than Adam.
I highly encourage readers to obtain a copy of 2014 O'Henry Prize Stories which includes, "Pétur." The story was first published in Ecotone. "Pétur" is a wonderful short story and I've only touched on the specifics.
"They had seen almost no one...once or twice, until nine or ten at night, they'd heard shouting children. Icebabies, Laura called them. You can't ever see them, of course. They're made only of sound."
"When she was eleven, she'd told him, she had watched her brother die from a rare leukemia. She'd spent the rest of her life trying to strike lightning back."
"He wouldn't anymore, he said nothing, and she looked at him with disappointment, as if he'd played the wrong notes on the piano. But in fact he'd played nothing. For years, he'd only sat silently on the bench in front of the keys."
"It scared him to watch her that way. Scared him more to watch her watch him that way."