Gunnar scratched a toe into the turf as the first winds of winter howled through the nearby foothills. It was September; the tourists had faded away, taking with them the last vestiges of blue sky. The Atlantic Ocean, a thousand feet behind them, provided the crowd noise. It was never cold here on the southern end of the island, where they stood in a pasture on the outskirts of the village of Vik. But it was getting cold. Soon it would be cold and wet. Please, he prayed to no one, don’t let it rain.
Ninety feet away, Kristjan stood, smiling. “Are you ready, Gunnar?”
“I am ready, Kristjan,” he called back, and waved his bat in a lazy arc.
There were three of them, Kristjan, Gunnar, and their friend Kari, who served as catcher/umpire. Few people played Icelandic Baseball anymore; football had swept the country, but the few who played baseball in Reykjavik preferred the American version. Gunnar preferred the old ways. Well, not preferred, but. They were the old ways.
Still smiling, Kristjan slowly wound up and tossed a lazy curve that missed badly. Kari ran to retrieve it, then they tried again. “Sorry,” the pitcher called, still smiling, and threw another.
This time Gunnar swung, and connected with a satisfying crunch. Shell flew like shrapnel as the egg disintegrated against the heavy wood bat. A piece of paper drifted to the ground.
“Good one!” Kristjan hooted as he walked forward and retrieved the note, scanning it quickly. “Selfoss,” he whistled. Gunnar hid his elation: Selfoss was good. Twenty hours, at least, each way. That might do it.
Gunnar crouched down to put on the backpack nearby, and set the bat carefully on the ground. In it were a poncho, a flashlight, a small tent, and a depressingly heavy supply of water and dried food. It won’t be heavy for long, he thought. Too early for thoughts like these. He hadn’t even started yet. He must be getting old.
Kristjan grinned idiotically, and waved. “Well, good luck to you!” he chirped. Gunnar nodded. They’d known each other their whole lives, and Icelandic Baseball was a much more congenial sport than the others. Still, it did well to attempt at least a little gravity. They were competitors. He turned east, toward the ring road, and straightening the bill of his cap he began the long hike to Grafakirkja, and first base.
The hazy sun had already set over the glacier, Mýrdalsjökull, after Gunnar had left the highway and marched north toward first base. No shortcuts today, he told himself, no chats with the folk whose cottages he would stop at for water. They would understand, though Gunnar and Kristjan were the only two Baseball players in the past twenty years. Everything had gotten too relaxed. Gunnar picked up his pace, faintly, the only evidence a slightly louder crunch of his boots on the gravel.
The wind whipped shapes into the wild grass, and Gunnar allowed himself to remember his days in those fields, of talking to sheep and waiting for his own father to return. Of the toy bat his father had given him one Christmas, imported from the north; there were few trees in southern Iceland, no branches to fashion into makeshift tools. His own bat came from his father, who brought it back from overseas. Gunnar had spent lifetimes as a boy, waiting for his father to return from places. Maybe that was why he left them so easily.
Gunnar was losing 9-6, here in the bottom of the seventh inning. When they were younger, it was close, but lately the younger Kristjan had begun to pull away, despite seeming to play easier through the years. It only grew harder for Gunnar. The children, the wife who never understood but still accepted, the economic woes… everything was harder now. He needed this to stay the same.
He camped off of Ljótarstaðavegur, a road without automobiles, a piece of concrete string thrown on the ground. He’d gone farther than he usually went, and it was hard to see as he pitched the tent. As he settled to sleep he wished away the aching in his feet. Do not hurt, feet, he thought too tired to know how stupid the words would sound out loud. There are three more bases. There are three more innings. There are three more decades, at least.
Second base should have been the hardest, on the fork just after Maelifell, the green mountain jutting from the black sand of the road. It was empty here, no cars or birds or weeds, and the only life was in some rocks compared to others. Gunnar loved rounding second. The ache in his feet faded away, the weight of his pack lightened; he became part of the watercolor. Many people went on hikes; this, this was a place only baseball players knew. It was his.
His burden also felt light because he was running out of water. After twenty years he had learned exactly how to carry into the ashlands of the northern valley, where the creeks crossed the trail and how much as necessary between them. But he was also running low on rations, and it meant stopping at the Fljotsdalur Hostel, with its low ceilings, its unwashed German backpackers, and its owner, Hanna.
Gunnar walked into the house, which was nearly empty; a couple of piles of books and spare clothes signalled the end of the season. Hanna was in the kitchen, chopping potatoes into cubes, steady as a metronome. Her blonde hair was short; when they were younger, she had been pretty, but now the color had gone out of her. And me as well, he reminded himself “Hanna, hello.”
Hanna looked up, not with a smile, but with calmness. “Hello, Gunnar. More baseball? Isn’t it getting late?”
He shrugged. “Last one.” He hated these last visits of the year, because the time he stopped playing baseball was the time when Hanna most missed company. It was unfortunate.
“I suppose you won’t want to stay for stew,” she said, piling the potatoes and some carrots into a pot.
“Sorry. I think I can score this time.”
“Yes. I suppose you need some water? Let’s go to the well.”
“Thank you, Hanna.” Already he felt the itch to go. They walked behind the house, agonizingly slowly, and Gunnar filled his plastic bottles and returned them to his pack.
“Gunnar,” she said as he turned to leave. He turned back. “Gunnar, how are you?”
He considered how not to answer. “I think I’m doing well. I’m moving quickly this time.” Next time, when he was sure to be out, he’d have to actually answer, cover every day of the last twenty-five years. The baseball, yes – he longed to make someone understand that. But also the children, the fishing, the silence.
She nodded with a sort of smile. “All right. Take care, Gunnar. Do well.”
The weather had held, and Gunnar was almost sad to reach the crossroads and turn south, out of the blinding light of the late afternoon sun. Soon, he would reach the ring road again, begin the final turn, and he needed that sunlight. His legs ached, and a tiny protest from his ankle reminded him of the single rock he hadn’t seen. If Kristjan had found the ball, the ring road is where he’d be, waiting to tag him out. But he couldn’t be there. Kristjan’s walk was nearly as long as his, and even if his pace had slowed since the first day, his opponent would still have to find the ball hidden among the grasses of the village. If some young boy hadn’t found it first, and taken it away as a prize, as had happened to Gunnar himself years ago in the top of the fifth. It was all part of the game. But to walk so far, so alone, only to have the ball go missing… well. Icelandic Baseball is not an easy sport.
As the fateful moment approached, the play at third, Gunnar found himself brooding on Kristjan. How had he been eclipsed by the grinning idiot? How did he stay so thin, so strong, in his middle years? Why did Ingrid favor him, him and that straight-toothed, empty-eyed grin, that reedy laugh and that unblinking goddamn happiness?
The road appeared, and as it slowly drew closer, Gunnar spotted a tractor at the intersection. He felt his blood boil. Not that Kristjan might have driven it; why cheat, with something like this? But because it’d be a fine place to sit and wait. With agonizing slowness, he limped toward the machine, squinting at its shape. But the tractor was empty. Of course it was empty. He couldn’t have been there. He laid down in the grass by the road, not even bothering with the tent, staring up at the deepening twilight.
A freight truck roared by, picking up dust as Gunnar veered into the tall grass of the side of the road. It was late afternoon now, and Vik was not far ahead. There were days, when he was young, that he could round the bases in three days; there would be a day, maybe soon, when he wouldn’t make it in four. He tried to banish the thought as he climbed back onto the road, but there were no other thoughts.
Instead, he thought about Kristjan, the only other topic that came easily. He resisted the urge, for the thousandth time that day, to look over his shoulder. I will be there at home plate to meet him, and I will shake his hand. Only two runs down. I can make up two runs, easily. With the winter I can build up strength. The children are older, and can hike with me. Perhaps this year, if we have an early spring, I can run the bases with them once, show them the way.
Almost there. He didn’t need to, but he cut away from the ring road, down to Reynisdrangar, Black Sand Beach. It was a little quicker, with the road looping wide around the large inlet of the river, but it was mostly tradition. To fill the lungs with the salt of the sea air, climb the gentle slope of the hill west of Vik, and then drop back into the familiarity of his home like sinking into the Blue Lagoon. The best thing about baseball was the feeling of making it home.
All there was left was the formality, to return to the field and touch the stone that served as the plate. Then he would visit Kari, inform him of the run scored, and return to his —
Kari was at the field. No, not Kari. Kristjan.
His legs nearly buckled. How? How was it possible?
Gunnar walked forward, propelled by the four days, by the game itself. Kristjan stood there in front of the plate, his usual stupid grin, full blonde hair rustling in a sudden wind. The ball was in his right hand.
Ninety feet away, Gunnar began to jog. Halfway, he began to run. As he picked up speed, he braced himself for the collision.
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