© Mindcage Photography

© Mindcage Photography


N 63°31´22,899” W 19°34´30,323” 

Hrútafell, ICELAND

Rútshellir (Rútur’s Cave)



Stalling mid-bowline to slip knot and backflop with a dorsal arc, to breaststroke an updraft (in quarter-time cartwheels peeling off the wind’s front line thrush, banking on breeze-streamers spilling off the headwinds), to upsell the dead zones where zephyrs buttress columns of vapour rising off the green green hillocks, hummocks, cliff rocks, and plateau-seated grass-audiences, waving. Two ravens try to follow this, the falcon’s suit, for forty or more minutes before, like spun tops, all three begin to unwind. An off-leash dogfight of infolding kites. The cambered airfoils on each meat-eater are too elastic—the supple prey bird goes sloppy, her face lifted, falls a twitch. In a room full of birds, say a coop weighed on a precision scale, if every bird took flight at once, the coop would weigh the same as if they had stayed perched. The pounds per square inch displaced by their lift equals their own weight. If every capable bird took to the air this minute, the world would weigh no less for their efforts.



In the late eight hundreds, from the corner of Rútshellir’s mouth, Rútur said to the nine short-sworded men that came to slay him, “The only ground I’ll be giving you is a grave mound.” His white knuckles like quartz accruements on the shaft of his halberd. That first night I spent inside Rútshellir, some eight years ago, I rubbed my hand down the hand-hewn walls backwashed by a curtseying candle, had a brief meal of hardfiskur and a half-pint of vodka, laid my mat down and went quickly to sleep. I woke an hour later to sheep.



When the first footprint of a dinosaur was found on what used to be a prehistoric beach in America, a slight man in his frock coat said it was the vestige of Noah’s raven. Vespers spoken in the chryselectric green hills rarely come true. Rútur hated hearing the grunty bedwork of his slaves every night. He had a tiny falcon embroidered on his cloak. Falcons are not hysterical birds. The champing wind loves them. Awake in bed, Rútur thought of his hired hand on top of his wet nurse, the woman who had actually raised him, in the sheep pen. Nightly in these same said hills he’d hear them coo.



I thought of an undictionaried word all that night, eight years ago as the sheep slept on the cave’s lower lip, the cave called Rútshellir, its floor covered in their petrified and fresh shit. I was only a mat’s width above it. They had been using the cave as a shelter. In the late eight hundreds, settlers easily confused lost and found. New arrivals hewed the caves out by hand, hollowing them further to house their russet-clad children. Children who brought driftwood in for the hearth fires. The wetnurse in a boiled wool skirt. Rútur’s hired hand had overreached, touched too much. Rútur tied him to a rock at low tide. The wet nurses felt belt as a gag. By the next ebb, he was gone.


The falcon’s holybones wag, pulling out of a 2G downdart. The ravens rain-barrel-roll, their clapper tongues toll beak-bell caws. The falcon steps up her falsetto. Banks again on the breeze, pays out in screech, wingstands on a pommel-horse-northerly. Sprinters attempting to outpace distance runners often showboat to bait their pursuers into breaking stride. But the energy exuded can be uneconomical. This the ravens know and so cyclone over the falcon’s hingework, hoping she’ll lithe out from the outcrops, quick dip in the gulch and flat out on the salt marsh. After Rútur had packed his horses with pyramids of driftwood, he and his remaining slaves humped the singletrack from the sea to Rútshellir. One such slave sang that song we all know about the sea.



Getting back to Rútshellir this year, the sea was miles away, turning itself into the beach again and again only to be freed, not guilty of any charge the beach could bring to bear against it. In the nineteen hundreds, someone built a sheepshed—like cupped hands against the cave’s mouth—someone calling against the wind to bring their children in. There are so many stories about Rútshellir. This is the only one, I tell myself. A falcon stone-still is faster than a raven flying. My palms on the wall holding it up.



As Rútur’s left hand left his halberd—trying to hold his intestines in where a blade had opened him—the world was no lighter, even though every bird had lifted at the first whiff of a skirmish. Only two of his assailants were still standing when Rútur folded. The falcon dove to duck in the sheepshed, circle the cave belly, and exit through the annex in the north wall. The chamber where Rútur slept next to his forge. She went to shuck her pursuing ravens in Rútshellir, the oldest living-quarters in all of Iceland. Headstrong into the decrepit sheepshed, where a beam had fallen since last she’d hunted here, her breakaway was bared, and her skullcap caved from the collision.



I walk straight into the cave and stand where I had slept years ago. When Rútur fell you could only see the nub of the wet nurse’s sheep shears, neatly past their handles just off his spine. Meanwhile, Auntie Brenda finds the falcon lying in the broken-down doorway of the sheepshed. When I come to cradle the falcon in my hands, the ratio comes to me: the rock and soil displaced over Rútur for his burial mound is equal to forty-seven thousand, three hundred and eighty-two falcons asleep, or winding down a dust devil and cruising the sea-cliff’s face. I balance the falcon on the stretcher of a single tin shingle, tuck her in the trunk of the car and escort her to a taxidermist I’d recently met at a birthday party in Reykjavík.




First published in Grain Magazine 36.4