eala upon shannon
By Victoria Miller
Like a falcon swooping in between towering mountains, we drifted aimlessly across the wide valleys of the great Icelandic wilderness. A single cumulus cloud hung sullenly, suspended in the pink light of the fading sun. The three-hour drive from Reykjavik was tinted by the blushing clouds above us, brimming with genuine laughter and the inexplicable tension that can only come with travel-induced anxiety. We suffered sweltering temperatures inside the safety of our grey rental car, but it was much preferred to the the negative-twelve-degree-Celsius winds that threatened to permeate our weak raincoats. The gusts that blew in from the East carried a remarkable chill, one that settled deep within our bones and turned our delicate skin the same shade as the sunrise.
We had flown into Keflavik from Dublin in November—separate seats on the sardine-can airplane. I could see Avery’s ponytail from over the top of the seat in front of me and counted the strays that danced around in the breeze from the overhead air conditioning, but I eventually lost interest and let the subtle turbulence lull me into a light doze. We touched down on a white tarmac, a “welcome home” present from Mother Nature herself. I’ll never forget the strain of my muscles as I walked down the slippery stairs to the airstrip, feeling light as a feather as I familiarized myself with yet another foreign climate. We couldn’t stop smiling for a second, that first day.
For those first few hours we lived the life we’d always wanted—one without worry, without stress. We took photos of the snow like we’d never seen a white blanket draped comfortingly over houses and front lawns and pastures in the country that we called our own. For a short time, we lived like we’d just been reborn.
The grey Volkswagen that we rented from the guy behind the counter at the Keflavik airport was small, but perfect for us. As soon as the ignition was switched on and the radio tuned to the nearest station, we started down the icy roads to Reykjavik. Avery knew all the songs on the radio, singing loudly and with a strong conviction to the lyrics that were popular back home about two years prior. She was driving, at first.
Avery always drove. She knew all the secret roads and shortcuts back home, constantly heading out the door with her keys in hand, shouting a passing excuse as she whips out the door—going for a drive, be back soon!—only to be seen three hours and half a tank of gas later. She’d shown me all the backroads our freshman year of college, and from then on, we’d been inseparable. It wasn’t a shock that we had now found ourselves hurtling down the Icelandic highway system side-by-side, a traveling tag-team.
With a ninety-six hour limit to our Icelandic escapades, Avery and I subconsciously counted the seconds that we had left. Our creased paper map served us well during our long drives, the sides ripped up and well-used. Circled four times in black ink was the product of our last minute, desperate search to soak up every last drop of everything that Iceland had to offer. The Háifoss waterfall seemed like a dream; full of rainbows that would shine roughly against the worn sediment and a soft mist that encased us in a gentle cloud. The further we got from Reykjavik, the less we saw snow settled on top of the blonde grass and the more the countryside looked like the photographs that sat stagnant on Avery's Pinterest board.
We sped around mountains and through deep valleys, making our way across the barren, frozen plains. The icy roads slowly turned to gravel, crunching deafeningly beneath the wheels of the Volkswagen and suddenly, the access road of the isolated waterfall was upon us. It was a bumpy ride and we faced pothole after pothole, the backroads obviously long abandoned by the Icelandic government. Avery was my voice of reason, always, and this instance was no different. When my excitement would get too unpredictable, Avery was a constant, ready to wrangle-in my adventurous and unpredictable plans—it shouldn’t have surprised me when, immediately after being rattled by an exceptionally large pothole, she turned and looked at me with concern lacing her voice as she pleaded, “We shouldn’t risk it, let’s turn around.” I wanted to put up a fight—it seemed a bit arbitrary, to travel so far just to give up at the very last second—but as we slid across the icy and gravelly road, the traction control of the rental failing miserably, I realized that I wouldn’t enjoy paying the damage fine after returning the car.
It can be hard to explain the fear that is born simply out of being alone. The second we turned left on the road that ran parallel to the River Pjorsárdalsvegur, we realized suddenly that we were the only souls to exist within seventy kilometers. The sky provided a rose-tinted lens to our adventure, the setting sun a beacon amidst the barren fields. As the sun continued its slow descent below the horizon, the illusion of safety and security lifted as it became abundantly clear that we were alone in the frozen desert of Iceland. Over the one-lane bridges and across the icy, western roads, we followed the perimeter of a towering mountain range to our immediate left. We drove against the current of the river, retracing our way out of the unknown.
The mountain to our left rose up out of the darkness like a creature that I had imagined under my bed as a child—one that waited until just the right moment to strike, to catch me with my guard down. With every kilometer marker on the side of the road, my heart-rate spiked higher and higher, like the shadows that rose up in the reflection of the rearview mirror. Avery didn’t say a word, and neither did I.
Time stood still in the silence. The tension, the push and pull of the brittle wilderness, was drawn taut against our swift movements, hanging heavily in the November air. We sat safely in the warmth of the car, but the bitterness of Iceland stung at our skin, prickled the backs of our necks. The Volkswagen seemed stationary, stuck between the translucent currents of the wide river and the overwhelming heights of the mountain range. We hurtled down the highway, the only pair of headlights for kilometers and kilometers, attempting to find any sign of humanity.
Like the moving eyes of an ancient painting, the mountain face followed our slow crawl across the wide valley—in my entire life, I had never felt fear like I had during those few moments. The darkness advanced on us like a hunter in the night, and like a deer in headlights, the only thing I could do was watch silently as we were swallowed whole by the rough and wild lands of Iceland.
In the deep blackness of the night sky, we witnessed the bright green strands of electricity dancing above our heads as we sped towards Reykjavik. These moments, I’ll never forget: the biting chill of the wind that flooded the small rental as we rolled down our windows, the unobstructed view of the columns of green lights that floated in the cloudless sky, the heavy realization of the frailty of this life. It all came crashing down at once, but I kept my head turned to the right and my eyes fixed on the exclusivity of the moment.
In one instant, we were the only people in the world, and in another, our reality bled away into the stark white of the heavy snowfall. We were swept away in the swirling snowflakes, our thoughts drifting like smoke into the night sky. Like a lost balloon, we wandered the western lands aimlessly, and—like a child running desperately in pursuit—our thoughts raced against the realization of our own natural deficiencies. In between the stranded settlings of Selfoss and Bláskógabyggo, the soft-spoken landscape of Iceland screamed our shortcomings, reminding me of the brevity of my actions, my words, my impact on the world.
The sun rose in the morning, as it always does. As the brightness of an Icelandic sunrise came forward with a gentle intensity, I was thrust backward, yanked out of the warmth and pulled into the relentless darkness.
I meant nothing.
The picture of Iceland that remains etched into my memory is yellowed and frayed around the edges—a curling photograph, a portrait of my greatest joy and my worst fear against a backdrop of the most beautiful place on Earth.
I led another life in London. Through Battersea and Chelsea and Victoria, we acted as if we owned it all. The white townhouses of Kensington gleamed in the English sun as we headed from one end of the city to the other. It was the life I’d always wanted, and the one that I knew I’d never have. We witnessed the city come alive under the bright sun—a rare occurrence—and found ourselves moving along with the distinct rhythm.
As the days carried on, a blur of shivers and rosy cheeks and bright smiles, we lived like we never had before. We got to know the city like the back of our hands. Olivia had been in London for an entire week before I had arrived, learning all the secret spots and the right shops to visit. Daily photos sent to my iPhone provided evidence of her love of the city—a place the two of us had always dreamed of visiting together.
Our time in England, after I touched down at London Stansted, was filled to the brim with tours and gallery visits and concerts and fine dining and lots of walking.
The three miles from Trafalgar Square to Battersea seemed like a punishment. The soles of my feet felt every crevice that etched the stones along the Chelsea Embankment, every pebble that had come loose throughout the day dug at my worn soles. Wincing with every step, we continued down the long road, eager to make it back before the sun set completely. We wandered in and out of streets, alleyways, and in between buildings that we had only ever read about.
Big Ben stood tall, and although covered in thick scaffolding, the symbol still towered proudly over some of the moments that would soon become the most memorable of our lives.
My sister drove me absolutely insane. We bickered constantly, but without any true malice. We argued over where we should eat for lunch, which tourist destination we should visit next, whether or not to call a cab instead of walking the rest of the way back. Like cats and dogs we fought, but at the end of the day, we stuck by each other’s side. We explored the ancient streets of London like our lives depended on it.
Along the River Thames, the street lamps guided us forward. For a Friday evening, the Embankment was unusually empty, but not maliciously so. The lights above us became brighter and brighter as the sun sank lower and lower below the horizon. As a parting gift, however, the deep blue of twilight was broken up abruptly by streaks of deep orange. The only audible sound, apart from our loud laughter echoing off the building faces, was a faint siren from across the city and the honking from cabbies getting impatient in the horrible London traffic.
No one else will ever know how it felt to dance wildly, back-and-forth across the wide sidewalk, to laugh with my head thrown all the way back, and to make up crazy stories with my best friend. But, underneath my skin, a constant feeling expanded widely in my veins, sparking my nerves into action.
London made me feel small. The hustle and bustle of the city washed over me in anxious waves—fear radiated off me like an aura. What if Olivia and I get separated? Please don’t touch me. Does anyone even see me walking here? They just don’t care. These people would just as soon run me over. What if we can’t find our way back to each other? What if I get lost?
My mind, foggy with apprehension, scrambled to grab the edge before sinking off the deep end. Looking back, no one would have ever known. No one could have seen the desperation that laced my thoughts and caused my hands to tremble. My own sister never suspected that this was one of those moments that changed my life. I was drowning in fear.
A faceless, nameless body in a crowd of people.
Of all the pictures that my sister and I collected over those four days, I’ll never know the names of the people in the background. I’ll never know their greatest joys or their worst fears, and I’ll never get the privilege to understand their deepest thoughts. I’ll never know the story of how they ended up in the same place as us, at the exact same time.
Of all the photos that we took, there are thousands out in the world that feature my sister in I in the background. Do those photographers wonder about our lives? Do they see our faces and imagine what our names could be? Do they wonder what hardships we’ve been through or the overwhelming happiness that we felt during those pictures?
Forcing our way through the crowds at Trafalgar Square, beneath the golden sky and amongst the throngs of tourists and locals alike, I finally got the chance to appreciate all it had taken for my sister—my best friend—and I to end up in that exact spot. From birth to that moment, our history played out like a film in my mind. Set to the soundtrack of my own screaming, that night four January's ago taught me that even those you are closest to are never a constant, never guaranteed to be a permanent fixture. The future that I thought was certain suddenly seemed shaky, like a stool with only one leg. The person who I thought would always be with me, never changing, never moving from my side, made a decision that tilted my certainty of the future on its axis.
I had never truly made peace with my sister's attempts at her own life. I ignored it like a bad film I’d seen on a whim. It was too painful, too much a reminder of the failure that I was as a sister.
For a brief instant, walking along to the sounds of the city made the pain seem a little bit easier. I was someone else, someone new.
At several points over the past five years, I never thought that the two of us would find ourselves living to the fullest like we did in London. We walked from one end of Central London to the other, the whole time dreaming and talking, laughing and complaining, a new soundtrack coloring my life. This time, the score played a melody of hope and relief. We’re never out of the darkness completely, but sometimes the sun peeks through the clouds.
Through Kensington and Chelsea and Battersea, the great city of London raged around us—as the sun set low in the golden sky, the Battersea Bridge took its place as a beacon in our distance. We walked along the Embankment during rush hour, two matching spirits in a city of eight million opposing ones.
No one passed us as we weaved through the trees and lampposts that lined the road. Not another soul in that city knew who we were, who we were meant to be—we were solely reliant on one another.
We followed the flow of the river as the sun sank like a stone in the twilight sky. As sisters, two best friends who were opposite in nature but alike in character, we retold stories of our younger years, stories that were almost lost four years prior. As London swirled distinctly around us, we did not fear the darkness, the uncertainty of the situation, quite a feat for two vivid dreamers, one who was once eager to escape the mundane life of a small town, the other eager to escape life altogether.
I knew what it felt like to be lost. Whether it be in the isolation of a frozen desert or in the massive crowds of a supercity, the feeling of loneliness—of unworthiness—finds a way to creep in without permission. That feeling strips you bare, like the branches of a sapling in the deep heart of winter.
But we were not alone.
As we made our way into the setting sun, slowly but ever surely, the uncertainty of the darkness did not leave a stain on my heart as the isolation of Iceland.
After time, I got used to the feeling of a light mist on my face as I walked along the patchy gravel road. The telephone wires guided my way past detached houses and run down thatch-roof barns. The bleating of sheep could be heard from the road.
My muddy boots splashed in the puddles that littered the lane as I walked in silence. I didn’t know where I was going, or where I would end up. I was alright with that. Ireland had a distinct smell—it was more than just the scent of grass and sheep, but it was like I could smell the land itself, the ancient secrets that simmered just below the surface. The sun sank behind the line of trees on the horizon, forming an army of silhouettes against the deep sunset, leaving me wondering if it was time to return home. As I turned around, ready to head back, I subconsciously knew this would be the last time I would see the peacefulness of the Irish countryside. I drank it in with ferocity, soaking up every detail.
My boots kicked mud up, streaking my jeans.
The Shannon River cut distinctly through the western land, swallowing the green landscape with its wide mouth—wide enough to warrant the building of one of the longest bridges in Europe.
I hated that bridge.
That bridge meant my imminent return to a certainty that scared me, a life in which I was cemented neatly into.
Through the trees, I emerged, climbing the steps to the never-ending bridge. There was no one out that day—all the students had stayed home, stayed inside, away from the dreary weather. The occasional straggler strode quickly past me as they made their way home from the library, ready to see their friends and order takeout for dinner. I wasn’t in a hurry.
The metal of the bridge underfoot rattled and clanged deafeningly, swaying with the strong breeze as though it could stand up and follow the river downstream. Sometimes I feared it would—the river swallowing me whole and the bridge disappearing without a glance back. The benches along the bridge remained unoccupied, the surfaces of the metal seats slick with rainwater.
I kicked a twig along the length of the bridge, until I kicked too hard and it fell over the side. I watched the limb tumble all the way down. I never disliked Ireland—I valued my time there. It was the loneliness that I hated; the isolation that I felt every time I closed my bedroom window and cut off the bird’s song in the tree outside. It was the suffocation of the heat from the radiator as I laid down for the night. It was sitting in the back of a two-hundred person lecture on Irish History from 1750 to 1850, feeling invisible. It was the lonely walk I had to make across the bridge every day on my way to class, books in hand, shielding the pages of my favorite notebook from being destroyed by the rain. It was the rain.
There were things I loved, though. I loved the willow trees that swept across the surface of the Shannon, the raven’s caw in the early evenings, the emerald hue that stuck permanently in my mind, long after I left the country.
I peered over the side of the bridge. The hanging branches of the thick willow trees caused the shallow waters to ripple in delight, streams dancing over rocks and weaving through the small islands down the center of the river. The sunset over the River Shannon reflected loosely in the water. The breeze off the water blew over my face, through my light raincoat, and I buried my head just a little bit more into the safety of my scarf. It was wrapped twice around my neck, in a desperate attempt for warmth. December in Ireland was unforgiving—the rain and the wind unrelenting.
Sometimes I can still feel the cold metal of the handrail against my palm; a metallic sound pinging against the side of my brain as I recall the noise of my raincoat buttons striking the rail.
Four months crossing the same bridge and I still felt a certain animosity towards it. From the second I stepped onto the metal, it felt like the distance was never closing, the end never getting closer. Like a fever dream, I pushed as hard as I could to make it across the empty bridge, but for however many steps I took towards the finish line, the same amount was added back. It felt a bit like a metaphor for my life, but I wasn’t in the position to be evaluating that. So I continued on, straight down the bridge, hoping that the rain wouldn’t bog me down anymore than it already had.
Not a soul in sight, there was a chill in the air that was a little too reminiscent of the lonely plains of Iceland.
Twenty feet below me, the natural grey water was disrupted with a bright speck of white—a ruffle of oily feathers and a graceful curve of a purposeful neck. I’d never seen a swan before and although Ireland was supposedly full of them, they had eluded me for an entire four months. Surrounded by the rippling current, the swan paced back and forth, searching for something that I couldn’t see from my position.
In between the grey rainclouds in the sky above me, the sunset peeked through, illuminating the world around me. The pinks and oranges and purples reflected off the water, colors dancing with each other perfectly, like a choreographed routine. The wild bird stayed to herself, searching the banks for something unseen. It was a quiet moment, one in which felt like I was the only person in the world.
The sun plunged itself behind the trees that lined the river, sinking lowly in the evening sky, turning the golden sunset into the brittle darkness of night. Like glass that could shatter at any moment, the quietness of the world felt fragile, breakable. I stood alone on the bridge, the darkness creeping up the sides of my vision. The mist set against my weak raincoat and I could feel the clamminess against my skin. The air chilled even further, but I had never felt so calm. As the River Shannon was thrust into the cold night, the swan that glided adroitly along the banks of the river changed directions.
I was alone, but I wasn’t lonely. I saw myself in the eyes of the swan that floated on the Shannon. The swan wasn’t accountable to the rest of the world in her actions—she simply existed only for herself. Unaware of the beauty that drew others to idea of her, the swan swam through life without the worry of being more or becoming less. Oblivious of my gaze, she tilted her head toward the rapidly setting sun and faced the darkness with a strong confidence and sailed gracefully—fearlessly—into the oncoming night.
Around the bend of the river in the distance, the swan disappeared into the dusk. That was the last time I saw a swan in Ireland. When it came to be my turn to exit the scene, I embraced the incoming darkness with a familiarity that calmed my soul, with a bold certainty that surprised me.
As the light swiftly faded from the wild Irish sky, I didn’t fear the uncertainty of the future. I didn’t fear the anonymity of being just another face in a crowd. I didn’t fear the isolation of the darkness. The world didn’t feel as empty as it did in the Icelandic landscape. The world didn’t spin like it did amongst the masses of London. Meaning bled back into the starkness of my thoughts as I took a step. Ireland was thrust into a cool night, and I was at peace.
I looked away from where the swan disappeared into the darkness, straight down the bridge. I counted the rest of my steps until I reached the end.
Two hundred steps until the end of the bridge, another three hundred steps until I was safe in the warmth of my apartment on the fourth floor of the Lavender House. One-hundred kilometers from the city I loved, another five-thousand miles from the city I dreaded returning to.
When morning came, I found myself in the city-centre, counting my steps once again. Thirty-one steps from Tesco, forty-six steps from Costa, seven steps from the bus stop. I counted my steps all the way to 44 Wickham Street. Thirty-three.
A deep buzz and a sharp sting that faded dully against my skin, and the wild spirit of Ireland etched itself deeply in my soul.