It was May and almost windstill. The radio was on in the kitchen but neither Ragnar’s mother nor father seemed to be listening to it. His father was eating, the folded newspaper propped up in front of him, and his mother was turning the pieces of fish in the pan. Ragnar glanced at his hands involuntarily; they were almost clean.
‘My spanner’s gone,’ his father said, but Ragnar heard the accusing tone in the words. What he had really said was, ‘The spanner’s disappeared and I know it’s your fault.’
‘I haven’t seen it,’ Ragnar said, glancing at him in the hope he would look up.
His father made a noise in his nose and re-folded the paper vigorously.
‘I haven’t seen it,’ the boy said again.
‘Eat your fish,’ said his mother, and the crackling plate descended in front of him from her hand. He was still thinking and reached out for the salt in the middle of the table. The fish was good; he liked it so hot it tumbled about his mouth, breaking into flakes. There was nothing so good.
‘If prices don’t get better I might as well give up and go to Norway,’ said his father, scraping back his chair and tossing the paper onto the sideboard. He went out and closed the door behind him fiercely. The radio went on talking to itself.
Ragnar was thinking about ravens. He had heard they were very wise and could be trained. There were ravens close by them; sometimes they fluttered overhead like pieces of ash from the volcano. They had voices made out of coal.
His mother was staring straight ahead as she ate. She looked very white and her eyes glittered. She didn’t seem to see the pieces of fish she speared and stuck in her mouth. Ragnar thought about that and about the spanner and about what his father had said. Why on earth would they go and live in Norway? He would be starting in a new school after the summer.
Then he remembered something. Two years before he had put a message in a bottle and thrown it out into the sea. He’d thought about it every day for a while but nothing happened; no message came back. Then he forgot all about the bottle and the message and the postman gave him a letter from Norway. His name was on the envelope. It was from a girl. She said that if ever he was in Norway he should come and visit.
He finished the last piece of fish.
‘Can I go now?’ he asked.
She nodded and didn’t even look at him. She was still staring straight ahead, chewing on a last piece of fish. The radio was telling them something about England, but Ragnar had banged the door before the voice had finished talking.
All day it grew stiller. It was not just windstill; it was even less than windstill. The sky had strange clouds that were yellowy and orange; Ragnar watched them from his bedroom window. He could see the waterfall on the edge of the skyline too; it came over the black basalt cliffs like a horse’s tail and fell a whole forty or fifty feet. On the other side was the sea. It was like glass, smooth as though you could walk on it for miles, right across the sea to America. Ragnar wanted to see America; he had heard Americans in the village a summer ago and he had wanted to talk to them but had felt too shy.
That night he heard his mother crying. It was a long, slow sound that went on flowing in the darkness, a kind of strange song. He had heard his father’s voice downstairs in the kitchen; he had heard the sound of his words but nothing of what he had said. A door had banged. For a long time there was silence, and then his mother had started crying.
There was a flickering of light. At first Ragnar thought it must have been the headlights of a car, but then there was a low grumble on the edge of the sky and he understood. He sat up and held back the curtains. There must be a moon; everything was lit in a silvery-orange brilliance. He could still see the horse's tail of the waterfall; the sea was a silver sheet.
He got up without a sound and dressed, and opened the window so he could climb out onto the roof ledge. He had his own secret route down to the ground; he had used it many times. In a moment he had thudded onto the soft grass and was away.
He ran until he realised he didn’t need to run. Then he stopped and looked all around him and got back his breath. The cliffs and the ridges that ringed the valley; the horse’s tail, the sea. For a second he imagined the first people that had come to Iceland – not the Norse settlers, but before them, the hermits from Ireland. They had come and stayed and gone again. He imagined what it would be like to find one of their boats in a cave no-one had explored for a thousand years. He, Ragnar, would be a hero in Iceland. He imagined his father closing the newspaper at the table and smiling, looking up and smiling.
The sky flickered with lightning. He wanted to see the storm; he wanted to get up above and see the whole of it. He chased up the ridge until his side hurt with the steepness of it and he had to stop again. He looked back and saw there was a light on in the farmhouse. He thought of his mother and he heard that crying again in his mind; that muffled, slow song of crying. And once again he thought about what his father had said about going to Norway, and none of it made the least sense. He turned away, the stitch in his side gone.
As he turned, something black rose into the sky in front of him and made a noise like a piece of coal. The thunder muttered in the skies, long and slow. Ragnar went forward, onto the top of the ridge. There was something there, a silver glimmering. A circle, shining in the midnight darkness. He was trembling as he put one foot after another over the thin grass, closer and closer. He bent down and saw a nest of metal. The whole nest was made of metal: barbed wire and pieces of metal washed in from the sea, polished by the sea. It was a metal nest. And there on one side was a spanner. Ragnar reached out and took it. He touched nothing else. He held it safe in his hands, then put it deep into a pocket where it wouldn’t be lost. He stood and looked all around him and the moon came out from the strange clouds and poured a silver brilliance over everything. He felt lit himself, from his hair to his feet. His face glowed in the fierce brightness of the moon and he looked out over the sea and it was transformed into metalwork – a single hammered piece of jewellery.
He went slowly back to the house but he didn’t want to go back. In truth he didn’t know what else he could do or where he could go, but he knew he didn’t want to go back and he was sure he wouldn’t sleep when he got there. He climbed up to his bedroom and closed the window and lay down once more in the darkness. The storm had passed and the moon rode in the sky. The moon was a single silver eye watching the world and Ragnar looked out one last time on the horse’s tail of the waterfall and the black shoreline and the valley. Then he fell asleep after all.
He dreamed something very strange. He dreamed that the raven came from the ridge and flew down to the farmhouse. It rested on the ledge of his parents’ bedroom window. The window was open and it hopped inside. His mother’s jewellery box was open. The raven saw her wedding ring and clasped it in its beak.
Ragnar felt there in the room, watching. But he seemed to see through a strange mist. It was as though everything he saw was real, but he himself was made of mist, was like a kind of ghost. He wanted to reach out to rescue the ring but it was impossible. He could not have moved through the deep water of the room; he would have waded through a deep and heavy water, and all he could do was watch. The bird hopped back to the ledge, the ring glittering in its beak, and in a blink it had flown, back to its ridge and the nest.
When he woke up he did not know if he felt a great sense of relief or a terrible sense of dread. It was still early in the morning; at seven o’clock he would have to get up and be ready for school, but there was still fifteen minutes to lie and wait. The first thing he saw on the dressing table beside him was the spanner, and the whole story of the night before rushed through him, strange and eerie.
Life did not make sense, he thought. For the first time ever it came to him that life did not make sense. He was not sure if that was a relief to him or the realisation of a strange fear. But life did not make sense. It was about finding a spanner in a raven’s nest. It was pieces of things tipped out of an old sack onto a floor. Everyone’s sack contained different pieces, and everyone went down onto their knees once the pieces had been poured, trying to sort them out. All they could do was to worry about the pieces from their sack.
When he got up to get dressed, he heard his mother washing her face. In the house’s stillness he heard her washing her face and he stopped, a sock held in his right hand. He remembered his dream and he wanted to go there and then to check her jewellery box, for the dream had felt so real. But he was afraid he might meet his father, that he would ask him what he was doing and that he would feel foolish. The song of the water next door stopped and he imagined his mother rubbing her face with the towel. He couldn’t hear it but he imagined it.
Suddenly he realised something and looked up; he looked at the window and made up his mind. He would do it; yes, he would do it. He dressed and put the spanner in his pocket. He went downstairs and began his breakfast in silence. His father was beside him, his newspaper folded over. His mother was at the stove. Everything was as it always was; everything was just the same as ever and Ragnar felt angry again. It rose up inside him like black water from a well and he finished his breakfast and said he was off. He put his bag over his shoulder, went out the back door and banged it behind him.
He ran all the way up the hill. The sun was glancing off wet things; it shone and glittered on stones, it lit the horse’s tail of the waterfall ahead of him. But he saw none of that. Only once did he look back at the house he had left behind, the house where he had been born twelve years before. It was silent; he could hear nothing from it. But he did not believe in the silence, the peace; he did not trust it. He was not sure of it any more.
He turned away and walked up the last of the hill. Black wings rose up into the sky that was sunlight and rain. A voice made of coal, made of ashes. He saw the shining ring of metal and he went forward, bent down on his knees. Very carefully he brought out the bright spanner from his pocket, and put it back where he had found it.